Why are laws relating to sexual behaviour attacked as ‘invasions of privacy’ rather than ‘making no sense’?

Alabama recently upheld a law by which “one could stroll down Alabama’s southern streets selling semiautomatic rifles and dildos, and be arrested for the dildos”. Obviously I’m with everybody sane in finding this unbelievably stupid, but I’m intrigued by the arguments that call it a matter of privacy.

I’m revealing my lack of political knowledge here, but presumably there’s a well-formulated basic principle of liberty stating that people get to do what they want unless there’s a reason not to, right? This reason usually being ‘if it harms anyone else’. When two (or one) consenting adults do something in private, then surely it’s ‘consenting’ that’s important, not that it’s private? ‘Privacy’ presumably here means ‘something with which the state has no right to interfere’. But that’s an odd formulation – why not just say “we’re not doing anything wrong”?

I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but I think the formulation muddies the waters such that the statement becomes unworthy of the principle. It feels like a technicality, an excuse – anybody who considers dildos immoral only hears that you think you should be allowed to do something ‘wrong’ because nobody’s around to see you do it, when in fact it’s the baseless ‘immoral’ viewpoint that should be nuked from orbit1.

Could it be historical, or tactical? Maybe saying “you’re wrong” in sexual behaviour arguments opens up a religious can of worms and detracts from the point. But using ‘privacy’ in this regard also links it to other connotations I consider debatable, if not outright dubious. Another definition could easily be ‘something which nobody else has the right to know about’, but do we really have a right to demand certain things remain private? Maybe the media should have to respect privacy laws, but individuals? It might be impolite, but I’m unconvinced there’s any reason anybody shouldn’t be able to find out anything they want. It’s part of the give and take of freedom, as there’s no reasonable line that could be drawn between private and public knowledge.

I think people get to enjoy themselves any way they like because nobody else is harmed, and that they don’t want anyone else to know is irrelevant. And the latter is what ‘privacy’ is commonly accepted to mean, isn’t it? When I think of the concept of an ‘invasion of privacy’ it’s the embarrassment at something becoming public knowledge that’s the undesirable quality, and I don’t think feeling embarrassed justifies reaching above politeness to that of a human right. I’m happy with anti-discrimination laws if an ‘invasion of privacy’ goes beyond embarrassment, but going back a step to protect people from discrimination occurring seems to breach principles of freedom. Even if I could be convinced otherwise, I don’t think it’s firm enough to merge with an independently justifiable argument.

‘Privacy’ is more frequently used in relation to the storage of data and surveillance etc.. I have issues with these arguments too (although I’m certainly in the minority there) but the word is increasingly emotive. I wonder whether saying ‘privacy’ is like saying ‘freedom’ in that it immediately makes people sympathetic to your cause.

Using the concept of ‘privacy’ in this kind of case seems murky to me, and I can’t get a grip on the rationale. I’m just thinking via the keyboard, mind, and have a suspicion there’s a contradiction somewhere. Feel free to kick my ass if I’m talking nonsense.

  1. incidentally, what the hell is the opposing argument here? []