C. S. Lewis had his own restrictive views of what Christianity had to say about morality, but he objected to those Christians who thought that the chief sphere governed by morality was sexuality, and he objected to the prejudice that anything having to do with sex was automatically wrong. “I know some muddle-headed Christians have talked as if Christianity thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure, were bad in themselves,” he wrote in Mere Christianity. He could not have predicted that in the richest and most powerful country in the world, members of that camp should have become so influential, and are condemning anything but a narrow range of sexual activity within marriage. This sexual tyranny is the subject of America’s War on Sex: The Attack on Law, Lust, and Liberty(Praeger) by Marty Klein. The author is a marital and sex therapist, and anyone who knows his fine blog Sexual Intelligence will be familiar with his themes in this book, but the ideas here are forceful, broad, and referenced, with various battlefields summarized. Though Klein’s writing is often amused and upbeat, much of what he has to report is dismal, a slope sliding into sexual ignorance and intolerance. Religious conservatives may be rejoicing, but as sexual pluralism is rejected in favor of a single morality and reduction of anxiety, we risk what we value most about democracy.
Klein frames the battle between “erotophiles” who value or tolerate sexuality and “erotophobes” who are made anxious by it. In America, the erotophobes not only are gaining political and social power, they are able to portray themselves as victims, captives who cannot get away from sexual imposition, and they feel that it is the responsibility of government to help them out. It does not matter that our founding documents do not mention a government formed to regulate activities that some citizens might find distasteful or sinful. In fact, a key American ideal is that people can do what they want based on their own personal choices, limited only by harm done to others. The religious call for American laws to regulate bedroom activity (and, Klein shows, even between married people), entertainment, information access, or medical treatment is little different from the law imposed by the Taliban elsewhere. An example Klein returns to is the vaccine that would block girls from getting the human papillomavirus. It’s a good medical treatment for a medical problem, but it has a drawback as far as some religious conservatives are concerned: it would remove one more fear about sexual activity. If the vaccine is widely used, they say, it would be yet another encouragement to promiscuity. It doesn’t matter that there are no studies to show this would be the result; it doesn’t matter that the number of girls avoiding sex because of fear of this particular virus must be small indeed. (Laws promoting seat belt use do not thereby encourage reckless driving.) But Klein makes the point that even if such a vaccine were to encourage more sexual activity, the proper response in a society where people have maximum individual choice is, “So what?”
Such a response can only make erotophobes uncomfortable, but that discomfort is translating into public policy. As a product of what Klein calls the “Sexual Disaster Industry”, the U.S. Senate has held hearings with titles like “The Science behind Pornography Addiction”. There is, of course, no such science. Mainstream sexologists, sociologists, or psychologists are not called to such hearings, which are convened to get the outcome the conveners want: “The basic qualification of many who get to testify is that they are really upset.” Among the assumptions for such panels, and the laws that grow out of them, are that people cannot explore sexuality safely, that kids are damaged when they are exposed to sexual words or pictures, that sexual predation is on the rise, or that being scared about sexuality will produce good behavior. There are no studies to show that these core beliefs are true; rather, they are based on emotion and anxiety, not rationality. Even if scientific studies showed, for instance, that emergency contraception promoted promiscuity, Klein writes, “It wouldn’t matter if they did, because this government and its religious allies don’t trust science. They don’t trust sex, and they don’t trust you.”
Other countries are different. The teens of Europe or Canada are about as sexually active as those in America, but they have grown up in nations which think that young people have a right to factual sexual information; as a result, they have much fewer teen pregnancies, abortions, or sexually transmitted diseases. In America, the purpose of sex education for kids is to decrease adult anxiety; those in power feel better if teens are instructed that the only good sex is no sex until they get married (at which point all gears are to shift and sex is supposed to change into something delightful from something shameful or scary). Advocates of Abstinence Only (which rarely allows even for discussion of non-coital sex or masturbation) always say that refraining from sex is the only way, for instance, to be 100% sure of avoiding sexual diseases or pregnancy, but they never admit that abstinence is not abstinence. 88% of teens pledging abstinence go ahead and have premarital sex anyway. Pills, condoms, and any other contraceptive plan have better success rates than that. And this majority of teens who go on to have premarital sex will have been short-changed on knowledge about how to do it enjoyably and safely. In fact, purity proponents want such activity to be risky. The founder of the abstinence program “Silver Ring Thing” says if “my own 16-year-old daughter tells me she’s going to be sexually active, I would not tell her to use a condom.” Hostility to sexually active teens (whether they are one’s own children or not) is not a sound public policy.
A common misconception is that religious conservatives are happy with any mutually pleasant sexual activity between marriage partners. Let alone that they do not wish to consider marriage for homosexuals (an arena of public policy that is of course discussed here). There are millions of marital couples, for instance, who enjoy the use of sexual toys like vibrators and dildos. Such things are illegal in many states, states which have not allowed even married couples to buy them. Joanne Webb was selling sexual toys among friends at a neighbor’s home in the suburbs of Dallas in 2003, and undercover narcotics (!) officers detained her for doing so; she was arrested for obscenity. Alabama has been trying to make vibrators criminal devices for a decade, with no allowance that married people might enjoy playing with them. Even in more liberal states, if you have a stable domestic relationship, but it can be shown to include kinks like S/M play, you are liable to risk, say, loss of child custody rights. If you and your spouse mutually enjoy being with others who like having sex in a group, you risk being arrested and sent into the street under the glare of television camera lights. If you and your spouse enjoy watching pornographic films, those who don’t think you should are trying to make it harder for you to do so even in the privacy of a hotel room. Klein has documentation of all these policy mistakes.
Much has been made of the “pornography” forced on an unwilling public in the case of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”, and indeed the incident has resulted in a public policy of stiffer fines for any broadcast of sexual material (unthreatening Garrison Keillor has had his program censored because of poems that contained the word “breast”). Conservative erotophobes who generally love a free market do not do so when it comes to sexual matters, but the truth is that Americans love such sexual fun: Jackson’s moment is one of the most recorded and downloaded bits of video in the history of the internet. (As someone said of a similar incident, “People were so outraged they had to see it 10 times.” ) Of course, that’s not really pornography; real video pornography is popular and fun because it consists of “consenting, enthusiastic people doing things they enjoy.” that’s not scary enough; count on erotophobes to exaggerate the prevalence of unrepresentative violent or child pornography as a way to get all pornography banned.
Klein isn’t optimistic: “Those who war on sex mistrust my vision of individual autonomy, sexual integrity, faith in pluralism, and tolerance of differences.” Theocracy or totalitarianism promise less sexual anxiety, but at a cost. There are millions who insist that sexual activity is so anxiety-provoking that government must regulate it and thereby make others conform to a single vision of morality and decency. Right now they have the power, but they are costing the nation in tolerance, in pluralism, and (though they would not like to admit that it is important) in sexual fun.
© 2006 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.