The war against sexual pleasure:
“Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign… [T]he only purpose for which government may rightfully exercise power… over anyone is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”- John Stuart Mill, 1859 essay On Liberty
“Puritanism - the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”- H.L. Mencken
Do you have or want to have sex? If so, are you willing to limit your sexual expression to the missionary position within the confines of state-sanctioned marriage? If your answer to the first question is “yes,” and the second “no,” you ought to read Marty Klein’s book America’s War on Sex as soon as possible.
Since the onset of the second Bush presidency, we’ve all become familiar with the term “culture war.” (Although its roots go back as far as the Reagan era and the Moral Majority. Someone, I forget who, once said, “The Moral Majority is neither moral nor a majority.“) I’d always thought of this “war” in terms of free speech, prayer in the schools, displaying the Ten Commandments in government buildings or nativity scenes in public places, the separation of church and state, and abortion, contraception and family planning controversy.
The culture war has always been framed as the Right vs. the Left, Republicans vs. Democrats, Conservatives vs. Liberals, theocracy vs. democracy, and science vs. faith. It seems that over the last seven years, the conservatives led by George W. Bush and his faith-based initiatives appear to be winning.
It never occurred to me that President Bush wanted to eliminate the right of the American people to acquire dildos. That’s right. Dildos.
According to Klein, “The state of Alabama has been in and out of court, trying to criminalize the sale of vibrators for a decade. When a U.S. district judge ruled against the state ban on sex-toy sales - twice - the state appealed - twice. Finally, a federal court actually ruled that the government has a compelling interest in keeping ‘orgasm stimulating paraphernalia’ out of our hands. Were they concerned that women would stop having sex with their husbands if they could buzz off with a vibrator?”
Klein goes on to write in depth on the various “battlegrounds” the Right has chosen to fight:
1. Sex EducationAbstinence-only programs. Do they work? No.
2. Reproductive Rights
Klein wants to know why the right to get pregnant, give birth, or not should be a major concern of the Right, both political and religious, though they don’t always overlap. “Other than your partner - and possibly your mother,” Klein asks, “why would anyone - especially a stranger - care about whether or not you use a condom…?”
The belief underlying the move to limit everyone’s access to contraceptives is that the only legitimate purpose of sex is procreation and marital intimacy. Contraception means that sex can be used for other reasons, that is, pleasure. That is what the battle over reproductive rights ultimately is: limiting sex for pleasure.
If you think it’s really about the right of the fetus to come to term, or the “every sperm is sacred” argument (see song by Monty Python’s Flying Circus), then look at this quote by Joseph Scheidler, national director of the Pro-Life action league. He said, “I would like to outlaw contraception. It is disgusting - people using each other for pleasure.” He really said that. It isn’t often the power brokers of the Religious Right admit the truth behind their political maneuvering.
As a result of this political activity on the part of what Klein calls “erotophobes” (people who hate anything sexy), most states now allow pharmacists to refuse to fill any legal prescription, though they usually refuse to fill RU-486 (the morning-after pill). New laws are being enacted to protect pharmacists who then refuse to refer patients to other pharmacies that will help them.
Klein writes, “Pharmacists do not have this right. Your Aunt Mabel does - in private. Indeed, pharmacists have the same rights as your Aunt Mabel to withhold, cajole, persuade, and bully in order to shape your behavior - in private.” Is refusing to sell medicine to help someone have responsible sex any different than refusing to sell a black family a house in a white neighborhood? No. It’s discrimination, pure and simple.
Klein goes on to ask if there is a limit on people’s right to enforce their morality on others? Could a department store clerk refuse to sell you clothing made in China? Could a physician refuse to give you a blood transfusion because it’s against God’s will? Can a guidance counselor refuse to help a girl get into MIT because girls can’t be scientists?
3. Broadcast “Indecency”
Remember the furor caused by the “accidental” exposure of Janet Jackson’s nipple during the Superbowl halftime show? Organizations like Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Kevin Martin at the Federal Communications Commission have banded together to restrict content they have labeled “indecent” (not allowed on the air from 6 a.m. to midnight) or “obscene” (not allowed ever).
The original purpose of the FCC when it was created in the 1940’s was to 1) encourage diversity of programming, 2) make sure there was programming specifically for children, and 3) assign unique frequencies to radio and television broadcasters from the usable spectrum that was limited by the technology available at that time.
The FCC no longer bothers with its first two mandates, and, with the invention of satellite, cable and broadband, the public airwaves are not the same kind of resource that they once were, thus eliminating the third reason for the FCC.
Perhaps in an effort to justify its ongoing existence and budget, the FCC has assumed the role of government watchdog, policing the content of airwaves. It justified its intrusion because “TV and radio come into the privacy of people’s homes.” According to Klein, “It was a ridiculous argument, but the courts agreed. The rise of satellite radio, cable TV and pay-per-view TV has demolished that audience-as-passive-victim argument,” but the government intrusion continues. Fines imposed by the FCC have risen from $48,000 in 2000 to $7.9 million in 2004.
An example of how far the culture of censorship has taken us is Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. A Kentucky public radio station refused to air an episode in August 2005 because of the word “breast,” meaning “heart,” “soul,” or “conscience.” Klein quotes WUKY station manager Tom Godell as saying, “I don’t question the artistic merit, but I have to question the language. The FCC has been so inconsistent, we don’t know where we stand. We could no longer risk a fine.”
I haven’t got the time or space to describe in detail Klein’s other “battlegrounds”: Adult Entertainment (bookstores and strip clubs closed to expensive court battles over misuse of zoning laws), the Internet (public libraries forced to use filtering software or lose federal funding, software that indiscriminately shuts down sexual health sites and sites that use the name “Dick” for example along with porn sites), the War on Pornography (“In West Germany, rape rates declined once bans on pornography were lifted in 1973 - Philip D. Harvey, The Government vs. Erotica: The Siege of Adam and Eve.), and Sexual Privacy and Sexual Minorities (“It is heartbreakingly ironic that, although victims of domestic violence rarely have their children taken from them, the court’s insistence on treating [practitioners of sadomasochism as victims of domestic violence] provided the rationale limiting [parents contact with their own children].” Klein, p. 168).
The most thought provoking idea in Klein’s book, however, can be found in chapter three “The Most Powerful ‘Minority’ in the United States.” He writes, “I’m confused. Exactly who is this ‘they’ that the Religious Right keep saying has hijacked the country?… And who are the consumers of the cultural products the Religious Right constantly criticizes? Who do they think is watching Desperate Housewives, going to see Maid in Manhattan, buying Cosmopolitan, and downloading Janet Jackson’s half-second nipple?…They have gotten the government and media to support them as defenders of America’s wholesomeness against some mythical, incredibly powerful ’them’… But the Right is like the kid who kills his parents and asks for mercy because he’s an orphan. Somehow, they neglect to mention that it’s the consumer choices and other preferences of their own constituents that are the so-called problem.”
In other words, it is the average, working- and middle-class, Republican voters that are watching porn in private and crying out (and voting) against it in public. The most visible leaders of the Right, including Jimmy Swaggart, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Guiliani and Strom Thurmond had extramarital affairs, visited prostitutes and participated in sexual harassment.
Are they included in the “them” that is hijacking the country from decent folk like you and me?
The central trouble with this war on sex is that early on in the history of Western civilization, sex has been demonized by religious leaders until today it is the norm to be ashamed of any sexual impulse whatsoever.
Who in their right mind is going to stand up for the rights of Americans to get a lap dance? Which of us will be strong enough to battle our own guilt and throw off the oppressive shackles of shame to stand up to these hypocrites? I hope that I can when the time comes, and I’m grateful that Marty Klein and the American Civil Liberties Union does.
h/t Andrew Sullivan
Maybe one or more of our criticism-sensitive candidates could address this concern.