TIME Culture

Jim Norton: Trevor Noah Isn’t the Problem. You Are.

We're addicted to the rush of being offended

People say that Americans trends are transient, but the one activity we never seem to tire of is being outraged. Boy, do we love it! We simply can’t seem to get enough of that rush we feel when something offends us. It’s like the dopamine drip we get from that first drink or the first drag of a cigarette after getting off a cross-country flight. And what is our favorite thing to be outraged over? Well, it’s certainly nothing petty, like homelessness, or the fact that every single person we elect to public office is a manipulative, groveling, poll-obsessed liar. Nope. We’re not stupid enough to waste our energy on such nonsense. We save our collective outrage for the really important stuff, like things comedians say.

Which brings us, of course, to Trevor Noah, our guest star on this week’s edition of Manufactured Outrage. When Comedy Central named Trevor as Jon Stewart’s successor, our trusty, tireless brigade of social-justice warriors immediately went to work digging through his tweets and stand-up to find something, anything to be upset about. Much to their relief, Trevor didn’t disappoint. Being a working comedian, he’d made plenty of jokes over the years that a susceptible person could pick up, blow the dust off and aim at themselves to achieve martyrdom.

Trevor, while tweeting things with the intention of being funny, had gone … yes, you guessed it – over the line! (Click here for dramatic organ music.) In his rush to be funny, he had broken what has become the new golden rule in American public life, which is to never say anything (or, God forbid, joke about anything) that may be deemed even remotely offensive or upsetting by any segment of the population for any reason. Trevor forgot that in the new millennium, there is a seemingly endless checklist of subject matter that has been deemed inappropriate to address with humor. And by no means is that checklist final; it’s constantly changing and morphing and contradicting itself without warning.

He also neglected to take into account that Western culture as a whole has become an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand. A comedian is fine unless he crosses their particular line, which, of course, in the mind of a self-centered narcissist, is the only line that matters.

Being outraged and upset and feeling bullied or offended are not only things we enjoy, they’re also things we have become thoroughly addicted to. When we can’t purposefully get our feelings hurt by a comedian, we usually find another, albeit less satisfying, source of indignation. A few of the old stand-byes are sports announcers, radio hosts, Twittering athletes and paparazzi-hating actors. These are always great sources to look to when we need to purposefully upset ourselves. And make no mistake about it: Upsetting ourselves on purpose is exactly what we are doing. At least that’s what I hope we are doing. Because the other alternative is that Americans have collectively become the most hypersensitive group of whining milksops ever assembled under one flag. I find this second choice to be particularly humiliating, so I opt for the first. I choose to believe that we are addicted to the rush of being offended, the idea of it, rather than believing we have become a nation of emasculated children whose only defense against an abyss of emotional agony is a trigger warning.

The image people have of comedians staring defiantly over a stationary line of good taste is simply inaccurate. We don’t approach this line, put our toes over it arrogantly and then scamper back to safety. The line doesn’t exist. The correct image for people to have is one of a circle, with a comedian standing in the middle of it, surrounded by a myriad of races, religions, social beliefs, sacred cows and political ideologies. And in these groups are endless numbers of sub groups and personal boundaries. There is simply no way to consistently do the type of comedy that addresses these things without upsetting somebody. No matter which direction you turn to aim the joke, someone is getting hit. And while the person who has been hit jumps up and down and exaggerates their injuries, everyone else in the circle is telling them to shut up and learn to take a joke. Until they themselves get hit.

Trevor Noah is a great, relevant young comic, and Comedy Central is smart to stand by him. I read the tweets he was “under fire” for, and some were funny, some weren’t. The thread that connected them all for me is the embarrassment I feel for anyone claiming to be offended by them. They weren’t vicious or written to be harmful. And everyone reading them knows that. But knowing his tweets weren’t intended to be harmful isn’t important when people who list ‘victim’ as their occupation smell blood in the water. Because their outrage is a lie and their motives are transparent. They are simply using his tweets to get their dopamine drip.

Read next: Abe Foxman: Let’s Not Prejudge Trevor Noah

TIME Media

Charlie Hebdo Afflicted Us With Free-Speech Hindsight

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - JANUARY 11: Jerusalem Municipality hold an organization to protest against gun attack to Charlie Hebdo in Paris, on January 11, 2014, in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Anadolu Agency—2015 Anadolu Agency Jerusalem Municipality hold an organization to protest against gun attack to Charlie Hebdo in Paris, on January 11, 2014, in Jerusalem, Israel.

Jim Norton is a comedian and New York Times bestselling author.

We need to end the embarrassing trend of recognizing courageous speech only when it’s safe

If one more public figure feels the need to clear his throat on television and self-importantly remind me of how Islam is a religion of peace, I think I’m going to scream. And not because I disagree with that sentiment or because I don’t realize the vast majority of Muslims find the massacre at Charlie Hebdo unjustified and abhorrent. I’m sure they do.

I simply don’t need to be reminded of that every time there is an act of Islamic extremist violence any more than I need to be reminded that all Catholic priests aren’t pedophiles. What I find so offensive about this redundant “gentle reminder” is knowing that it’s not done for the benefit of Muslims; it’s done for the benefit of the person about to tentatively make a statement against radical Muslims. It’s done because the person about to make the statement is in such terror of saying something that may be misinterpreted as remotely critical of Islam. So in order to cover their bases, they plaster a solemn look on their faces and robotically deliver their disclaimer.

Apparently, the only thing that scares people more than Islamic extremist violence is being improperly accused of Islamophobia.

That’s not to say there isn’t a myriad of bigoted dumbbells who will call for Korans to be burned and demand that Islam be outlawed, but I resent that the rest of us are perpetually subjected to these pre-emptive admonitions.

Another question I dread having to read ad nauseam is “What can we learn from this?” I’ve grown tired over the years of people attempting to classify senseless murders as “something we can learn and grow from,” particularly when the end result is steeped in disingenuous moralizing and smug intellectualism.

It’s a fairly futile practice and only serves to help us convince ourselves that the deaths weren’t completely for nothing. In a civilized world, there is little to be learned when people are slaughtered for printing what others deem offensive in a magazine. It is simply a lewd act of barbarism, and no amount of searching for root causes will bring us to a place where we can finally make sense of it.

Threats of violence do have to be taken seriously, which is why I understood Sony’s decision to reluctantly pull The Interview despite all the Monday-morning quarterbacking about how “shameful” it was that the studio had initially done so.

I believe Sony was genuinely afraid of a violent response (and a subsequent landslide of lawsuits). It’s easy for the rest of us to sit around and gun-sling words like cowards while pretending we would react differently, but let’s not kid ourselves. If a third-grader in any school in America glues a banana to an apple and yells “POW!” he is expelled immediately, destined for counseling until his mid-40s.

In the coming months, we will be inundated with blogs, speeches and articles honoring those who died at Charlie Hebdo. Many of these will be heartfelt and sincere; others will be hollow and their motivation in self-interest painfully obvious. People who had previously criticized the magazine’s covers as tasteless and insensitive will now be tripping over themselves to praise its courage.

Is anyone still looking for a “lesson to be learned”? Fine. Here’s your lesson:

Let’s look at how poorly we have been doing lately at recognizing the value of subversive and unpopular speech as we are witnessing it. We need to definitively end the embarrassing trend of recognizing courageous speech only in hindsight, when it’s safe. And perhaps we will finally see the ugliness in our cultural attempts to shame and penalize, on any scale, people for making statements, or art, or films that we find objectionable.

The best way to universally honor the victims of Charlie Hebdo will be to revere and embrace what they stood for. What they died for. Which is the freedom and ability to speak unreservedly and without repercussions, violent or otherwise.

I am in awe of the bravery of the people who worked, and who continue to work, for this magazine. We all should be. But being celebrated as courageous doesn’t do people a whole lot of good after they’re dead. It is a distinction much more appropriately applied to the living.

Absolute free speech and expression aren’t principles we should collectively espouse only as a result of seeing the victims of a massacre on the evening news. They are principles we should actively speak up for every day in our personal and professional lives. They are principles we should cite when we hear things we ourselves find personally offensive and upsetting. What they shouldn’t be are principles we appreciate only when we see people murdered for exercising them.

Norton is a comedian, New York Times best-selling author and host of The Jim Norton Show on Vice.com

Read next: The Irreplaceable Staff of Charlie Hebdo

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TIME Television

Jay Leno Deserves His Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Comedian Jim Norton during an interview with host Jay Leno on June 27, 2012.
NBC/NBCU/Photo Bank/Getty Images Comedian Jim Norton during an interview with host Jay Leno on June 27, 2012.

As a friend and mentor, Jay Leno helped me countless times

“I was with the same girl for three years and I started to have erection difficulties. We had different ideas as to what the problem was. She bought me Viagra — I bought her a treadmill.” This was the first joke I ever told on The Tonight Show. My second joke dealt with hating my man breasts and wanting to fall on a knife (not to be confused with the reference to shooting myself because I hated the rest of my torso two jokes later). This was September 9, 2004, and it marked the beginning of my 10-year relationship with Jay Leno and The Tonight Show.

Being a harsh, dirty comic, the last person on earth I ever expected to help my career was Jay Leno. I had always thought of performing on The Tonight Show as an unachievable goal, because I bought into the myth that only squeaky clean, family-friendly material would be welcome there. In the years that followed, I can’t remember one instance where I felt like I couldn’t do the material I wanted to do.

I arrived at the studio the day of that first appearance around 3:00pm for a 4:00pm taping. One of the producers brought me onto the set to show me where I’d be entering and walked me out on the masking tape X I was expected to stand on and do my set. I was grateful to be physically walking through the process: I was so nervous that if he hadn’t showed me, I probably would have walked straight off the stage and plowed into the audience.

As I was dutifully standing on the X and confirming (“Here, right? This X right here?”), I glanced over and saw Jay at his desk going over a piece with his executive producer. My nervousness (mortal terror) must have shown, because he stopped the rehearsal and walked over to introduce himself to me. He asked how I was doing and I blurted out, “Fine, just fine!” nodding my head like John Candy in Stripes.

I’m sure he could sense the impending disaster on hand, and immediately launched into calm-this-nervous-idiot-down mode. “You’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said. “The crowds are here to laugh and they’re gonna love you. There’s no pressure. If it goes great, you come back. If it doesn’t go great, you’ll have a cool story. And then you can come back and try it again anyway.”

Obviously I knew that if I was awful I wouldn’t be asked back, but I also understood what he was doing and it meant a lot to me. Jay was notorious for loving comics and treating us well, and his taking that minute to help me is something I never forgot. Unfortunately, that type of altruism isn’t as common as you’d think. There are some hosts who are legendary for the immeasurable apathy they manage to show every comedian with whom they come in contact.

The better I got to know him, the more I began to use him as a sounding board whenever I was stuck at a crossroads in my career. I spent the majority of our dressing room chats picking his brain for solutions. He was such a great person for me to talk to because of his level-headedness and ability to think before reacting. When things go wrong, my first instinct is to strap on a bomb belt and run through the front door screaming. Jay’s advice was always smart and well thought-out, and he saved me on more than one occasion from making a total ass out of myself.

He stressed to me to never make it all about the money — that if you do the right thing, the money will eventually come. He also tried to drill into my head not to feed into the negativity in the business. He meant it. In all the talks we had, even when the country was preparing itself for civil war over the Conan O’Brien situation, he never once came from a place of bitterness or cynicism.

I have so many great memories of Jay and The Tonight Show, but that first moment together is still my favorite. He did so much not only for me, but for countless other comedians. I don’t know one comic who did the show and wasn’t blown away by how Jay treated them.

Congratulations, Jay, on receiving the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. You were one of the most respected headliners in the country and then went on to dominate late night television for almost 20 years. You deserve it. And thank you for taking such good care of me for so long. I will never be able to repay the debt.

TIME Media

We’re All Hypocrites About Online Privacy

Internet Addiction Computer Hacker
Getty Images

Our tolerance for privacy infringement is based on the likability of the targeted celebrity

Why are conversations Donald Sterling had in the sanctuary of his home fair game to pick through and ridicule, but if someone steals nude celebrity photos and posts them on the Internet, a crime has been committed against humanity?

The recent photo hacking scandal involving Jennifer Lawrence and a hundred other celebrities has put America at great odds with itself. It has pitted our feeling of overwhelming entitlement to other people’s private information in direct contrast with our mortal terror that any of our own private information may somehow be made public.

And just as ugly as the scandal itself is the unquestionable revelation that Americans have become increasingly comfortable drowning in double standards and hypocrisy.

Don’t get me wrong. The national disgust over these hacked photos is completely appropriate. I guess I’m just not used to us actually caring.

Whoever is responsible for this hacking crime robbed these actresses of a lot more than a few pictures; they were robbed of the very basic ability to control what confidential and personal information was shared publicly. It’s a right most of us undoubtedly don’t appreciate until someone removes it by correctly guessing one of our passwords.

The only problem I have with this perfectly appropriate outrage is how it unintentionally holds up a mirror to the completely inappropriate lack of outrage to an infinite number of other privacy violations.

Is our tolerance for privacy infringement based solely on likability?

Donald Sterling’s plight was easy to ignore because he’s not a particularly likeable guy. Okay, fine, he’s reprehensible. He’s an entitled old billionaire racist who sounds like a parrot when he speaks. But it’s situations like his that show exactly how wavering we are with regards to our principles. Our lack of tolerance for these intrusions should not be based on ideological agreements or popularity.

It’s easy to defend the people we like.

What makes us truly great is to stand up for people we find fairly repulsive. We cannot continue to randomly decide whose secrets deserve to be kept and whose don’t.

If we truly intend to stop this invasive, creepy voyeurism, the first important step we need to take is to finally admit to ourselves how much we all enjoy it. Admit that we are addicted to seeing into other people’s living rooms, and admit we are comfortable judging them based on what we see.

We must also make the embarrassing and completely hypocritical admission that if we catch them looking into our living rooms, not only do we expect not to be judged by what they find, we expect them to be punished for looking in the first place.

Until we at least attempt to protect and value the privacy of each of our fellow citizens, each and every one of us will continue to feel vulnerable and exposed. And until that day, it’s exactly how we deserve to feel.

We have created quite a dilemma for ourselves.

I don’t remember any national outcry about the obscenity of personal information being leaked while we were all enjoying the clumsy, embarrassing text messages sent by Tiger Woods. Or the overtly humiliating – albeit hilarious – phone calls made by Mel Gibson, or the delightful answering machine messages left by Pat O’Brien or Alec Baldwin.

At times I’ve been indifferent to it as well. When my SiriusXM cohosts Opie and Anthony effectively put the final nail in Anthony Weiner’s coffin by tweeting out the photo of his erection, the only outrage I felt was a self-centered fear we were going to get fired.

I was as big a hypocrite as anybody reading this.

Some people will respond to the argument I’m making in grouping all these celebrities privacy invasions together by insisting that, ‘These women did nothing wrong at all, while Donald Sterling, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin were doing something wrong, so they deserved what they got.”

Making a point like that is a great way of convincing yourself that certain privacy violations are acceptable, simply because doing so exonerates us of any wrongdoing as we greedily gobble up the salacious information.

Keeping the onus on the likability of the victim allows us to convince ourselves that our collective snooping is at times justified. This need for self-convincing is easy to understand. No society wants to be confronted with the idea that one of its most guarded principles is very possibly nothing more than a transient façade.

For far too long, we have been saying that some forms of privacy transgression will be tolerated while other forms will not. We have also conveniently avoided writing down the rules as to which ones we will or will not stand for. There is no set of guidelines.

Depends on our mood that day, I guess.

Hopefully, the amoral pigs who stole these actresses’ photos will be caught and given at least 10 years in prison, like Christopher Chaney got for hacking into the email of Scarlett Johansson and others.

With the growing fears of electronic government intrusion into our lives, the last thing any of us needs is a constant reminder that our personal stock of intimate photos has the potential to be distributed as masturbation fodder to anyone with access to Wi-Fi.

And it’s not going to change anytime soon. The next step I’m sure will be to hack into celebrity Apple Watches and post their heart rates online.

But let’s not be so naïve as to alleviate ourselves of all guilt simply by blaming anonymous hackers. That’s too easy. The true culprit has been our collective silent complicity. We have not, as a group, stood up and said, “This will not be tolerated.” We have allowed it to exist on a “want-to-know” basis.

Whether the information we’ve learned has served to titillate or disgust us is irrelevant. It wasn’t ours to have in the first place.

TIME public apologies

It’s Time for Celebrities To Apologize—For All Their Apologizing

Henry Rollins
Ben Horton—WireImage Henry Rollins

Can we please stop embarrassing ourselves by pretending these apologies mean anything and admit they are simply a bloodless way to satisfy our bloodlust?

I am disgusted with Henry Rollins. How could he be so insensitive? What he said about Robin Williams was extraordinarily offensive and hurtful. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in free speech, but the things he said were way over the line. He definitely owed everyone an apology.

Okay. Thanks for indulging me. I just wanted to see what it felt like to actually write those things: fairly shallow and ridiculous, as I expected. But it seems like if you want attention in 2014, all you need to do is demand an apology from someone, for something.

The predictable cycle of outrage and apology is Western Civilization’s newest craze. Since Robin Williams’ suicide, Todd Bridges has apologized for calling it “a very selfish act”; Shepard Smith has apologized for having the nerve to question whether it made Williams a coward; Rollins apologized for his opinions on suicide in general; Gene Simmons has gone back and apologized for things he said about depression and suicide in an interview that had nothing to do with Robin Williams whatsoever.

All four of these men made the critical error of giving opinions on suicide that didn’t fit a polite narrative. Which in 2014 means each of them must bow their heads and apologize—or suffer the witch-hunt consequences of having an unpopular opinion. Questioning or criticizing someone’s decision to commit suicide is not insensitive or unfeeling. It’s a part of the open and honest and difficult conversation we claim to want.

We cannot continue to delude ourselves into thinking we value such conversations when what we really value is publicly flogging anyone who contributes something to the conversation that we find disagreeable. Or—brace yourselves—offensive. For a country that claims to want an open dialogue, and to treasure free speech, we sure seem to enjoy mob justice against people who give an opinion contrary to the one we are comfortable hearing. Instead of physically beating someone to death, we feign shock, outrage and emotional anguish, until the person (or more likely the publicist) breaks down and begs our forgiveness.

Can we please stop embarrassing ourselves by pretending these apologies mean anything to anybody and own up to the fact they are simply a bloodless way to satisfy our bloodlust? Why exactly is it such a social crime to talk about the selfish nature of committing suicide? Why do people respond to such points by angrily stating how much pain the individual was in? Can’t both opinions be valid? Being in pain and behaving selfishly are not mutually exclusive.

I am not an expert in depression or suicide. What I know about suicidal feelings comes only from what I’ve experienced, not case studies or statistics. But I can tell you what it’s like to look over the edge of a cliff and convince yourself that jumping is the only option. In those moments, I saw only my own pain and was convinced that I would be doing nothing more than wiping a valueless person off the face of the earth.

Just because I was in pain doesn’t mean I wasn’t also thinking selfishly. That’s not to say that anyone who commits suicide is selfish, but it’s an observation one shouldn’t be crucified for making.

Which brings me back to apologies. Our cultural obsession with them isn’t about actually being offended, or simply needing to hear, “I’m sorry.” It’s not really about right or wrong. It’s about wanting to throw a rock in the dark and hear something break.

In the increasingly deafening and constantly morphing conversations on social media, it becomes more and more impossible for an individual and his or her opinions to stand out or to be heard. Going on Twitter or Facebook to gently voice dissatisfaction about something that someone said garners the same results as walking into a New Year’s Eve party and muttering to yourself in the corner. No one hears you or cares; it’s the ultimate form of social emasculation. It feels small and helpless.

But if you can get a few people at the party to scream with you at the same time, the rest of the people, who are enjoying themselves, will be forced to stop their revelry and take notice. And if, God forbid, you loudly announce you’ve been wounded, not only will everyone forget what they were saying and focus all of their attention on you; they will rally around you. They’ll listen to you. And most importantly, they’ll want to punish whoever hurt you.

No longer will you be the quiet person in the corner who has to live with the fact you heard something you didn’t like, you’ll be the one everyone is listening to and responding to and paying attention to.

Yet your offense at someone’s opinion should not be a precursor to further action. “I don’t like what you just said,” should end with a period, not a semicolon. When a celebrity offers a prescribed public apology, I feel nothing for them, and strangely embarrassed for the rest of us for requiring it. Even those of us who didn’t encourage the groveling are at best complicit because we watched the vultures circle instead of making some sort of effort to shoo them away.

We have become a country of voyeurs and rubberneckers who love nothing more than provoking a situation solely for the gratification of eliciting a response, then we convince ourselves we’re outraged so we can stand and watch the fire burn. A mouth full of broken teeth has been replaced with a tearful mea culpa in front of a bank of microphones.

The onslaught of fake outrage and insincere apologies is doing nothing to make our society a more compassionate, forgiving or understanding place. We are simply being trained to doubletalk and lie to avoid trouble. If we can’t think of a good lie or acceptable middle ground, we are taught to play it safe or say nothing at all.

And that makes me truly sorry. For all of us.

TIME Culture

Why the Funniest People Are Sometimes the Saddest

Robin Williams
Reed Saxon—AP

Robin Williams seemed to struggle with demons, as do so many other comedians

I always feel a more intense sense of loss when a fellow alcoholic or addict commits suicide. Possibly because I have thought about it obsessively for years, and slit my wrists on multiple occasions until being forced into rehab and getting sober a year later at the age of 18.

No one will ever know exactly what Robin Williams was thinking and feeling when he made the decision to end his pain the way he did. But I do know he wasn’t seeing himself the way the rest of us saw him.

I first met Robin in 1998 when he came to the Comedy Cellar in New York City to do a guest spot. Comedians tend to be impossible to impress and love to stress how they’re impossible to impress when bigger, far more famous comedians perform sets.

But on this particular night, I noticed that none of the regular comedians were leaving when they were done. We were all finding excuses to hang around. None of us wanted to admit it, but Robin Williams was performing, and we were genuinely excited.

Now, any other group of performers would have proudly stood outside with streamers and a welcome banner, but comedians are jaded asses who would rather sit in the back of the room with their hearts pounding while folding their arms and feigning disinterest.

What struck me the most about Robin was how important it was to him that the other comedians liked him. He was always gracious to the performer he had bumped off the lineup. That first night, and during his many returns over the years, he would always come upstairs and sit with us at the “comedy table” (made famous on Louie).

He could have easily dominated the conversation; we all knew the difference between who he was and who we were. Robin was one of the few larger-than-life comedians who could have actually gotten a table full of other comics to shut up and listen. But he didn’t. He joked and laughed with us and went out of his way to not tower above us. He probably never knew how much we loved him for that.

By all accounts, Robin struggled with depression and addiction over the years. So many comics I know seem to struggle with the demons of self-hatred and self-destruction. While my physically self-destructive days ended when I got sober, the thought of suicide was always there, an option behind glass that I could break in case of an emergency. I glamorized the idea of constructing my own exit.

And yet on a day like Monday, that idea seemed terrible and unnecessary. Not triumphant or glamorous but sad and empty and incomplete.

The funniest people I know seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it.

Over the years, comedy has gone from happy-go-lucky pie-in-the-face jesters to the stuff of the deeply personal and honest with the coming of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. The public began to see, through brilliant material and public battles with personal demons, that the people who made them laugh the hardest seemed to be enjoying life the least. Maybe all those jokes were hiding something much darker. The cracks in the exterior began to show.

On Jan. 28, 1977, Freddie Prinze ripped the facade down for good when he shot himself.

In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide.

Years ago, I was told that one of the most important attributes humans don’t have is the ability to see themselves the way others do. This is normally what I think of when people behave like an ass and don’t realize it, or think they’re smarter than they actually are. It’s rare that I think of it in the terms I have been after hearing about Robin.

Robin and I had the same managers for the past decade, and one brought him and Billy Crystal in to watch as a surprise on the night I was doing a Jimmy Kimmel warm-up set at the Comedy Cellar. I was nervous and my set was mediocre, but Robin treated me as if I’d just blown away his Live at the Met special.

When my mother and father met him after an Atlantic City show, Robin made a point to spend a few minutes with them and say great things about me. My ego would love to believe it’s because I’m so terrific, but the reality is that Robin was smart enough to know how much it would mean to my parents to hear him saying such nice things about their son.

And it meant a lot.

There is simply no way Robin could have understood the way the rest of us saw him. And there is simply no way he could have understood how much respect and adoration other performers had for him.

At least I hope he couldn’t have understood.

Because it’s too sad to think that maybe he did understand, and it just wasn’t enough anymore.

Norton is a comedian and New York Times best-selling author and the host of The Jim Norton Show on Vice.com.

TIME politics

In Defense of Johns

Christopher Lovenguth Jim Norton

I'm not ashamed to pay for sex—and other men shouldn't be either

As a man who has spent an embarrassing amount of money on prostitutes and various other sexual encounters, I was excited when I heard about a “National Day of Johns,” because I thought I was being honored.

I envisioned myself being carted down New York City’s Fifth Avenue on the back of a flatbed truck, waving to cheering fans as confetti rained down on me and my disappointed parents hid behind a mailbox. A silly (yet understandable) mistake on my part, as the National Day of Johns was a celebration of the arrests of hundreds of men in a series of sex stings in 15 states. The fact that I’ve never been arrested in one of these stings should convince even the most ardent of atheists that miracles are indeed possible.

I suppose you could say I am the consummate john. I’m loyal, I’m dedicated, and I will always come back — even as it seems as though efforts to shame johns are on a national upswing throughout the country.

I cannot even fathom a guess as to how much money — let alone time — I’ve spent on paid sex in the past 25 years. Although I can tell you that when Charlie Sheen confessed he’d spent $50,000 in one year, I nodded my head and saw it as an achievable goal. Because I’ve never actually tallied the dollar amount of my sex addiction, my therapist tells me I should — her logic being that a concrete cost would make it more definitive and its consequences more tangible.

But really, perhaps the most shameful thing I can admit is this: I’m not really ashamed. And neither should any of these other (unmarried) johns who have been arrested.

If these men are anything like me, they might simply feel more comfortable with prostitutes. I never pick them up to be abusive. I always feel extraordinarily loving and close to them. When I first began soliciting sex for money, it never occurred to me that some of them are possibly forced into prostitution or have abusive pimps. I must have known it deep down on an intellectual level but hadn’t witnessed anything to confirm it.

Until I did.

The only experience I’ve had where an element of violence was present was driving on 48th Street in New York and talking to a girl through my passenger window. (A big part of my addiction is the ritualistic aspect, and for some reason I only liked to pick up prostitutes who talked to me through the passenger window.) As we were speaking, a van full of girls stopped, and a guy I assume was her pimp bounced her across the hood of my car and threw her in the van.

This is why I’m a firm believer that prostitution should be legalized and pimps should be thrown down an elevator shaft.

Law-enforcement stings designed to shame men who pay for sex are nothing more than the state blowing its own morality horn. Being a comedian who is single allows me a luxury most johns don’t have, which is the freedom to discuss the topic openly. And not from a case-study point of view but from the honest point of view of someone who has spent the equivalent of a Harvard Law School education on purchasing sex.

By keeping prostitution illegal because we find it morally objectionable, we allow (or, more accurately, you allow) sex workers to constantly be put into dangerous situations. Studies have shown that rapes and STDs dropped drastically from 2003 to 2009 in Rhode Island after the state accidentally legalized it. The American Journal of Epidemiology showed that the homicide rate for prostitutes is 50 times that for those in the next most dangerous job for a woman, working in a liquor store. You don’t need a master’s in sociology to understand it would be much safer for sex workers if they were permitted to work in places that provided adequate security. Legalizing prostitution would also alleviate the fear a sex worker may have about reporting a john’s abusive behavior because of the risk of arrest.

The illegal aspect of prostitution has never deterred me, nor would legalizing it cause me to engage in it more.

The decision people make to have sex for a living would undoubtedly confuse and repulse a large part of the population. But in a free society, people must be allowed to make choices for themselves that are incomprehensible to others. By keeping prostitution illegal and demonizing all of its parties, we (you) are empowering pimps and human traffickers and anyone else who wants to victimize sex workers because they feel helpless under the law.

Give sex workers rights. Give johns a break.

Norton is a comedian, New York Times best-selling author and host of The Jim Norton Show on Vice.com

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