No Dancing: The Right Aims to Take Down Sexual Liberation
by Amanda Marcotte
There can be no doubt now: this is a war on sex.
More than most campaign seasons in the past couple of decades, this most recent election serves as a reminder that the gap between sexually progressive and reactionary pockets of America persists. If anything, it’s growing, with progressives forging ahead and reactionaries making increasingly stringent demands for laws and policies that punish and control sexuality, especially queer and female sexuality.
In these past two years, both the left and the right made bold moves that helped pull the issue of sexual liberation out of the margins and put the debate right into the mainstream.
Peek under the sheets of the specifics -- attacks on abortion, contraception, gay marriage, singles, women -- and what you see is an obsession with repressing sexual freedom.
That battle over who gets to define the sexual standards in America has been churning since the 60s, but it was usually fought through proxy battles, such as “choice vs. life” or “gay rights vs. traditional marriage.” The years 2011 and 2012 will end up going down in history as the years we stopped pretending this fight was about something else, and started to talk more boldly about whether or not we’re a nation that supports sexual liberation or opposes it.
Coming Out of the Anti-Sex Closet
While Republicans generally react to winning elections by passing anti-abortion legislation, the midterm sweeps of 2010 brought in a tidal wave of anti-woman, anti-sex legislation that really does deserve the label “unprecedented.” Halfway through 2011, Republicans in various states had managed to pass 80 new abortion restrictions, more than twice the record set in 2005, when there were 34 new restrictions.
In case Republicans hadn’t done enough to demonstrate that they had decided to ramp up the war on sex, they decided to make their intentions perfectly clear by opening up a new front in the war by attacking access to contraception, which had previously been considered non-controversial in the mainstream.
Various Republican-led states started passing laws and looking for other ways to cut off funding for contraception and other non-abortion services to Planned Parenthood. The usual ways were to terminate contraception subsidies and eliminate Medicaid funding for family planning for economically disadvantaged women.
These attacks couldn’t even really be rationalized under the traditional excuse that religious conservatives use to attack abortion rights -- the “life of the fetus” argument -- because the funds being cut had nothing to do with abortion or the life of the fetus. The right wing still used the argument that they were shutting down abortion by cutting off contraception services or subsidies because the money from contraception might go to clinics that also offer or support abortion.
But this excuse is paper-thin and doesn’t seem to convince anyone, for one very simple reason: The contraception subsidies they’re cutting actually prevent abortion. Anyone who takes seriously the notion that abortion takes a human life would rationally want to offer free contraception to all women on the grounds that preventing unplanned pregnancy prevents abortion. Since anti-choice politicians are doing the opposite and pushing more women towards abortion by taking away their contraception, there can be no question now -- sexual liberation is the target.
But these past two years haven’t just seen the right become bolder about its goal to punish women for being sexual. We’re seeing activists and politicians on the left make stronger moves towards expanding the right of every person to own their own sexuality.
Behind Closed Doors
In the past two years, support for gay rights finally reached a tipping point where it can be said to be the mainstream opinion, with homophobia swiftly becoming an embarrassing mark of the old-fashioned bigot. The Obama administration brought an end to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The sight of members of the military kissing same sex partners in public and even marrying them in uniform went from taboo to routine nearly overnight.
While the gay marriage fight has a long, uphill battle on the legal front, gay rights advocates are winning the war of public opinion. This last year is the first year that a majority of Americans polled started to favor same-sex marriage, while opposition continues to decline. In 2012, Obama became the first president to go on the record while in office as supportive of same-sex marriage rights.
And it was the Obama administration that decided to pick the fight that did the most to expose the increasing polarization on the issue of sexual liberation by mandating that contraception be offered without a co-pay to women through health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act. While hardly a radical policy -- contraception is just one of many preventive services and products offered without a co-pay to reduce long-term health care costs -- the administration baited the opposition by marketing the plan as “free birth control.”
For decades, leaders in the anti-choice movement have been able to keep a lid on their hostility to contraception. They know that sharing their anti-contraception beliefs would expose how little they care about “life” and how much they’re organized against women on the behalf of prudes.
But the phrase “free birth control” was as irresistible to reactionaries as an unattended package of ground beef to a dog. They had to go on the attack, even as they knew that they were going to pay for it down the road.
Rush Limbaugh led the charge, denouncing activist Sandra Fluke as a “slut” for using birth control and implying that she’s a prostitute because she believes insurance should pay for it. By doing so, he implicated all women who have ever used birth control, which is 99 percent of sexually active women. (And 99 cent of Americans also have sex by age 44, which means that for all intents and purposes, Limbaugh equated being an adult women with being a “slut.”)
Other conservative forces opposed the contraception mandate by trying to spin it as a matter of “religious liberty,” but that only serves as a reminder that they believe that contraception is a sin. Not only that, but they think it’s a sin that is so bad that it’s not enough for them, personally, to abstain. It’s such a bad sin that they have to try to force other people to stop using birth control by depriving them of earned insurance benefits. It’s the equivalent of docking your employee’s pay if you find out she’s on the pill.
Had you asked your average pro-choice activist in the middle of 2010 if we’d be having a debate in 2012 in which liberals are defending free birth control and conservatives are denouncing 99 percent of women as “sluts,” I’d imagine most of them would have scoffed at you. The left is too timid and the right too savvy, they would have said.
But that’s how swiftly both sides have moved into their respective camps in the past two years. Regardless of how the elections turn out in 2012, we have to go forward with the realization that we’re conducting the fight to define our nation’s sexual values out in public now.
The stalemate between the Puritans and the liberationists has ended, and the final phase, where one side really must triumph over the other, has begun.
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