The social conservatives in the Republican Party have a problem with sex and it is going to cost the party dearly in November.
I don’t mean they have a problem with contraception, although many do (conservative men, anyway). Nor am I saying that opposition to pornography is politically problematic, or the criticism of using sex in marketing will lose them votes, or denouncing the prevalence of sex and sexual imagery in music, TV, film, and art is necessarily wrong.
All of the above are used by social conservatives to mask the real problem: their outdated, even primitive, critique of human sexuality that denies both the science and the cultural importance of sex and the sex act. Their main target appears to be women, and women’s sex lives, although the act of love itself is also to be placed in a strait jacket. No doubt the right will argue that their criticisms are only meant to help women, and nurture “healthy” attitudes toward sex. Nonsense. First of all, women don’t need that kind of help. They are capable of making their own choices without a bunch of ignorant busybodies telling them how to govern the most intimate and personal aspects of their lives.
Secondly, there is inherent in this critique a 19th century — or earlier — view of sex that seeks to keep the act of love within the confines of the marriage bed, and believes that physical intimacy should be primarily for one reason, and one reason only: procreation. At the very least, sex outside of marriage should be severely proscribed and limited to those who plan a long term relationship or eventual matrimony. Having sex because it’s fun, or because you’re bored, or because you crave physical intimacy, or for any other reason beyond traditional notions of “love” is grounds for disapprobation.
Certainly religion has much to do with this assault on sex. And if the extent of their critique stayed in the pews and pulpits of conservative churches, there would be no problem whatsoever. Christian denominations can tell their adherents how to live their lives, citing chapter and verse from the Bible, and nobody would care.
But when Republican politicians, and others associated with conservatism or the Republican Party, start echoing the various criticisms of contraception, of casual sex, of sex outside of marriage, the perception cannot be dismissed that the imprimatur of the entire party — and consequently, the government if they ever came to power — has been granted and that somebody, somewhere, might want to do something about it. As a voter making a political calculus on how to mark one’s ballot, the GOP is kidding itself if they don’t think this affects the decisions of millions of citizens.
This is especially true of women, although there are plenty of younger Americans who are watching this debate on contraception unfold and no doubt wondering what all the hub-bub is about. According to a CDC study released in 2010, of 89 million American women between the ages of 15-44, 99% had used some form of contraception. That figure includes 82% of American women who used some form of oral contraceptive, Depo-Provera, injections, or the “ring” or the “patch” at some time in their lives.
That’s an awful lot of voters to offend by hinting, as Rick Santorum did, that states should have the right to ban contraceptives. Or that oral contraceptives are more dangerous or harmful than most other drugs on the market. Trying to attach a stigmata to women who use birth control pills — implying that being sexually active is the same as acting licentiously — may fulfill some atavistic desire to apply an outdated code of conduct to women, but it is hardly good politics.
This is not a safety issue, or even a women’s health issue. The issue is sex and the evolving cultural mandate that women should be able to enjoy the sex act as much as men without the fear of pregnancy. This is the real beef that the social conservatives have with the pill. It has revolutionized bedrooms in the U.S., while setting off a a massive change in the mores and morals of men and women.
No doubt some of this change has been harmful, even frightening. The sexualization of children is certainly one of those harmful consequences of freeing sex from the purely procreative. The explosion of teenage pregnancies, and teen sexual activity, is another untoward consequence of the pill. But change is the way of the human animal, and the technological revolution that created the pill 50 years ago couldn’t have been stopped anymore than we could have halted the splitting of the atom, the invention of the integrated circuit, or the spread of the internet. In each case, technology answered a need in society, and if those wonders hadn’t been invented then, they certainly would have been at some point shortly afterward.
But why bring what by any definition is a personal moral judgment into the political arena? Why insist that our politicians address what can only be described as an issue for which government is not equipped to deal, let alone has any business discussing in the context of a presidential campaign?
To be sure, the cry will go up among social conservatives that they personally enjoy sex as much as the next person and that all they are concerned about is mitigating the supposed detrimental effects of having sex occupy such a prevalent and dominant place in our culture. But it is not their personal theology or beliefs that are at issue; it is that Republican politicians deliberately pander to the social conservative worldview by bringing this critique into the political arena as if it is just one more problem to be addressed like the economy or the debt. Is it any wonder that many Americans get the idea that Republicans are stiff-necked, blue-nosed, anti-sex bigots?
Sex has always been the transcendent preoccupation of the vast majority of the human species — at least among most males. For women, until quite recently, most cultures tried to suppress female sexuality as a means of control and to ensure fidelity. Many still do. This effort has met with varying degrees of success because many women eschewed the “traditional” view of their sexuality and had as much fun and received as much fulfillment — both in and out of the marriage bed — as their male paramours. But simply because sex as a cultural phenomenon was hidden from view does not mean it was any less important, or had less impact on society than it does today. The sexual images flooding our living spaces were glimpsed in the imaginations of men and women at the time the first hominids became self-aware. One can guarantee that there is very little sexual imagery we are exposed to today that our primitive ancestors didn’t daydream about in between hunting and gathering forays.
Yes, children should be protected from what are clearly messages and images meant for adults. The fact that government should have a role in safekeeping the innocence of kids isn’t even an argument. But government also has a primary concern to protect free speech, and regardless of one’s views on porn, or sexually suggestive commercials and TV shows, the fact remains that until the Supreme Court rules otherwise, such images should be as fiercely protected as any political speech.
For Republican politicians to suggest that we should “do something” about sex on the internet, or anywhere else, is ridiculous. The technology already exists to protect children from much of the imagery that streams on computers or is broadcast over television. Filters, “V-Chips,” parental settings on televisions, and monitoring what children are up to on the internet and what they are watching on TV are all a good parent needs. What they don’t need are politicians assuring them that they can meet their concerns by getting government involved.
It seems that most of the right is oblivious to the perception that some of their candidates would involve government in the most intimate reaches of Americans’ lives. It is probably not true. It is doubtful that any GOP candidate if elected president could follow through and have contraception banned by the states, or pornography outlawed, or gay sex criminalized again, or racy women’s clothing taken off the racks.
But for something so individualized and personal to be discussed so publicly only feeds the notion that Republican presidential candidates want to regulate what shouldn’t be regulated and proscribe behavior based on nothing more than their own moral preferences.
Also read Dr. Helen: “‘It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal.'”