You Can Learn From Everyone, But Should You?

I grew up a Seventh-Day Adventist preacher’s kid at SDA college campuses. Until ninth grade, I had no non-Adventist friends. I learned to see the world the way my father preached even though I felt little connection with his preaching. I guess it was more his example and daily wisdom that formed my worldview. One of his key teachings was to stay away from wicked people. Deal with them warily when you must, but when you can, stay far away.

I grew up loathing drugs and alcohol and until tenth grade I stayed far away from those who indulged. They frightened me. In tenth grade, however, I went to public school for the first time and my classmate who lived up the road, Kevin McKee, was secular and his dad, Bob, liked to drink beer while watching sports on TV. I spent many a Sunday at the McKees and I learned to get over my fear of drinkers and smokers.

In 12th grade, I went occasionally to discos or dance halls. I’m not sure of the right term but there were high school kids there dancing. Dancing was a big sin in Adventism but I was drifting out of the church.

After graduating from high school, I went to live with my brother for a year in Tannum Sands, Australia. My brother was secular and I soon stopped going to church. On Friday nights, I often went to discos and bars. For the first time, I was regularly among drinkers and occasionally marijuana smokers. While drunks continued to frighten me, reasonable drinkers did not.

Tannum Sands was a blue collar community. Many people worked at the aluminum smelter. Unlike the first 14 years of my life on college campuses, I rarely met a PhD. I met some blokes who seemed a bit rough. Some were looking for fights. I stayed as far away as possible from them. People who used excessive profanity jarred me.

I came back to America, and from 1986-1988, I worked in landscaping. This was a rough crowd similar to the smelter folks I knew in Australia. We didn’t socialize much. We just worked together. I started using more profanity as I became desensitized by those around me. Part of me enjoyed slumming it with folks who didn’t graduate high school. I felt tough swinging a pick and shovel in the 100 degree Sacramento sunshine.

In the fall of 1995, I decided to write a book on the history of sex in film, specializing in the pornography industry centered in the San Fernando Valley. I was viscerally compelled to explore the world of illicit sex and wanted to understand its moral effects. I hoped that having a lot of sex partners did not morally desensitize you. That you could otherwise be an upright person. I was disappointed to find the brutal effects of sex work. People became hard. Porn was as bad for you as the squares said.

I wrote on this industry until 2007, regularly mixing with people I was raised to run from. Many of them abused drugs, alcohol, themselves and others. I saw that it all ran together even while many porners maintained righteous standards in some areas, desisting from lying, theft and criminality while engaging in charitable works and advocating for the same libertarian views I believed in.

I ran into some scary folks. Many were addicts who would use anyone to meet their addictive needs. Others were steroid freaks and violent. Many felt outside of polite society and therefore the normal rules did not apply to them. Growing up with a step-mother who was insanely angry half the month because of what was later diagnosed as PMS equipped me to walk through this minefield.

What surprised me was that these people who I was raised to regard as scum often had as much or more wisdom about life than I did. One guy, talent agent Regan Senter, set me straight one day, letting me know that I could not expect to find a decent wife while I focused my writing on this industry.

My subjects frequently led sex lives that most guys dream about and so they had fewer illusions about sex. They didn’t romanticize it. They had a sharp clarity about this basic human motivation. All around them were civilians trying to sniff the erotic fumes of the industry but the industry folks knew the real deal of promiscuity. They knew the upside and the downside of treating sex as a sport. I never ceased to be entertained and intrigued by their insights. (For examples, see my three books on the industry, including Lives on the Edge: Profiles in Sex, Love and Death.)

Much of the population appears primarily motivated by the thirst for sex, money and power. My subjects in some respects were way ahead in this game.

On the one hand, this world was the flip side of Orthodox Judaism. Here was darkness from a religious perspective, and yet its population tended to have fewer illusions and far more honesty about themselves than my co-religionists. In Orthodox Judaism, people try to hide their shortcomings and pretend to be far more righteous than they are. In XXX, most people don’t hide that they are messed up. They’ll embrace you as family. They won’t judge you for your kinks. They yearn for acceptance from mainstream society. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, don’t yearn for such acceptance. They want to keep up walls.

Both Orthodox Jews and the denizens of XXX are prone to thinking that the outside world is out to get them. Both are insular worlds. Both draw big distinctions between their in-group and everyone outside. Both can’t be understood by those not in the dance.

I learned from my years in XXX that just because someone is an addict or a rapist or a felon, doesn’t mean he is any less likely to have keen insights into life and morality. They’re like the marriage counselor who’s been divorced three times. Or are they more like priests who give marriage counseling even though they’ve never been married?

Some pros I knew were proficient at turning girls out. They knew just the type of girl who could become a hooker and within a few minutes of conversation, they’d arranged her first trick. The pimps I knew were masters of the psychology of damaged women, never giving them too much attention so as to keep them under control.

Though you can learn from everyone, some things you’re better off not knowing. Some people you are better off not meeting. Some wisdom comes with too much downside and too much risk.

Most people have stunning clarity and wisdom about certain parts of life and are blind to other parts. They act sane in some areas of their life, such as work or love or sex, and act insane in other areas (most people tend to become unhinged in their search for love).

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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