While in Washington last week, I was up late with one of my friends discussing criminal policy (hey, I never claimed to be cool or interesting . . .) – we were talking about criminalization of various sexual things, and I came up with the proposition that sexual activities that caused harm should be criminalized, and that those that didn’t cause harm shouldn’t. My friend challenged this notion, coming from the position that too many people justify doing morally questionable things by saying that they aren’t causing harm. The idea of harm as a grounding principle for criminalization is interesting – we were trying to think of crimes that were only against oneself, but had a hard time coming up with any – drug abuse could be seen as causing harm to society because of its drain on the health system and other social services; some people would argue that prostitution is a victimless crime, while others would say that the women themselves are all victims (or, by extension, women at large, who must deal with the consequences of a society in which sex and the female body are commoditized).
Whether you ascribe to the harm principle or not, criminalization is all about the social contract – what a given society has decided is prohibited, with the aim of enforcing desirable behaviour and interactions between individuals. Even with the most blatant examples of the harm principle, there is always a moral judgement implicit in criminalization – murder is only illegal because we have decided that life is worth protecting, and that people have a right to maintain their life (whereas if the same person is on the battlefield or attacked first, we have determined that they have forfeited their right to life, and can be killed without it being called murder).
Against the background of these percolating thoughts, I learned that France has criminalized pro-ana websitesthis week. For those of you who don’t know – pro-ana is a movement (I guess it’s a movement) of anorexics who want their condition to be recognized as a lifestyle choice rather than, well, a condition . . . pro-ana websites are forums for anorexics to encourage each other to continue to starve themselves, and to maintain solidarity against the people in their lives who are encouraging them to be healthy.
While I am sure I could write a post or 2 on the topic of pro-ana, what struck me, in light of the recent conversation on criminalization, was comments at the end of the article that some MPs in France were against the move because they didn’t think that criminalization should be used as a tool of health policy. As mentioned above, criminalization is always the tool of some kind of social policy, so this comment in and of itself seems almost naive. Yes, criminalization of pro-ana websites, on its own, will not solve the problem of social pressure on women to be thin. However, along with other moves, such as requiring fashion models to have a healthy weight, it might make a difference. Anorexia causes harm – to the individual who becomes physically ill as a result of this condition, and to society at large, which has to look after these sick women and girls (and, I know, some men and boys . . .). Promoting anorexia, it seems, could cause harm to girls who are battling against this condition, but could be swayed by the “normalizing” effects of pro-ana communities, which encourage them that it’s not a sickness and there’s no need to fight.
On the other hand, though, stigmatizing mental illness has never really done much good to society, and there is a danger that criminalizing pro-ana forums could do just that. France (and other countries that may choose to follow suit), should not refrain from criminalizing pro-ana because of a general notion that criminalization has no place in health policy, but they should make sure that they have conducted a sophisticated analysis to determine whether more harm will be caused by the permission or the prohibition of pro-ana websites.