Comes Naturally #124 (June 28, 2002):
It's the Sex, Stupid!

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Spectator Magazine -- June 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 David Steinberg


It should be no secret that sex is a big political issue these days. The list of political topics related to sex in one way or another goes on and on and on. Every day, it seems, sex appears on the front page of the newspaper, and not just the San Francisco Chronicle, either. Maybe it's a story about sex education in the schools -- about whether or not condoms should be distributed, or even mentioned, in high school or junior high school sex education classes. Maybe it's some item about pornography -- someone spouting about the negative effects of pornography, a story about the newest legislative attempt to regulate or control porn, about how many billions of dollars were spent on porn this year, about how porn-filtering software for the Internet does or does not work.

Maybe it's the latest findings about AIDS -- drugs that work or don't, how gay men aren't being so safe about sex any more, about the cost of AIDS drugs in Africa. Maybe it's the current sex scandal -- something outrageous about a public figure's sex life or, lately, of course, the never-ending stories about sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. Maybe it's a story about legalizing gay marriage or domestic partner registration. Maybe a Supreme Court case about sexual freedom of speech. Maybe it's the latest salvo about abortion.

And those are only the big ticket sex news stories. There's a long list of second-tier stories as well, not quite juicy enough for the front page or the evening news, but also very much about sex and politics, about the many places where sex and the state intersect -- police raids of s/m clubs, local battles about licensing and zoning of lap dancing and strip clubs, prostitution arrests and murders, hate crimes and court trials dealing with any number of different varieties of sexual otherness.

Sex is one of the most important, ongoing metapolitical issues of our time, right up there with the economy, the environment, foreign policy, race, or labor relations. But, even as the media names and sensationalizes each specific sex-related issue, there seems to be no interest in (or willingness to) identify sex itself as a political matter, no interest in connecting the dots (a popular term these days), in noticing there's a sex-political forest out there, not just a collection of sex-political trees.

This failure to pay attention to the political importance of sex itself, and to notice how discussion of each specific sex-related issue is colored by the peculiar hysteria that this culture brings to all sexual matters, leaves us confused and ill-equipped to deal with fundamental issues of sexual politics. This political sex-blindness is all the more bizarre, given how pre-occupied we are with all the issues that have sex at their core.

We certainly are all well-informed as to where each and every major political figures stands on abortion. We know how just about every politician -- local, state, and federal -- feels about attempts to regulate pornography, about whether children are helped or harmed by hearing the word "condom" at school. But we have no information whatsoever on how these same political leaders feel about sex itself, and about the more general question of what the state's role should be in regulating the sexual behavior of its citizens.

No one asks political leaders to issue position papers on how important they think meaningful sex is in people's lives, or about what role the government should play in influencing how people express themselves in the privacy of their bedrooms, or more publicly through art, theater, music, pornography, or lap dancing. No one ranks and rates the sexual voting records of Senators and Congressmen in the same way these legislators are rated as liberals, conservatives, as being soft on crime, environmental defenders, feminists, or supporters of foreign aid.

During the presidential debates, no distinguished journalist asks candidates to speak to tens of millions of curious voters about whether they think of sex primarily as a potential threat to national health and morality, or as an essential, wonderful part of being alive. No one asks them to make clear, once and for all, whether they feel that people's basic right to sexual self-determination is more or less important than having the government dictate what kind of sex people should or should not be allowed to have, and with whom.

These are fundamental attitudes and positions that we need to be informed about if we are to choose responsibly among political candidates, whether they be running for city council, school board, state assemblywoman, governor, Senator, Congressional Representative, or President. Since all these different levels of political figures are going to be voting on sex over and over again during their terms in office, we need to know where they stand, not only on specific issues like abortion or pornography, but also about sex itself. Because, in the end, although no one wants to admit this publicly, how lawmakers feel about sex, and the government's role in regulating sex, is going to powerfully influence where they stand on dozens of issues of public policy, many of which we have no way of anticipating before specific events throw them into local or national consciousness.

Identifying and paying attention to sex as an over-arching political reality is important beyond the realm of electoral politics as well. If we look at specific issues like AIDS, pornography, and abortion as expressions of underlying positive or negative feelings about sex, as issues that pit sexual self-determination against governmental sex regulation, we gain new understanding of the political dynamics that influence these issues, and we can begin to think, educate, and organize about them in new and more effective ways.

In the early days of the civil rights movement, it took analysis and understanding of the general issues of race and racism to provide perspective on why and how people of color were being denied many of the rights that white people had long taken for granted. As thinking grew more sophisticated about how racial bias was deeply institutionalized in just about every aspect of society -- in economics, in politics, in culture, in language -- new strategies for how to work effectively for fundamental social change around race and racism became clear. What also became clear was the need for alliances between people who had radically different views about social change, but who understood that they were all fighting the same issue. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference rarely saw eye-to-eye with Huey Newton and the Blank Panthers, with Stokeley Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with Roy Wilkins and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. But because racism had been identified as the fundamental issue they were working against -- not just voting rights, not just desegregation of schools -- all of these leaders and groups knew that they were part of a larger movement and devised their political strategies accordingly.

If we are interested in promoting sex-positivism, sexual self-determination, and equal rights for people of all sexual proclivities, we need an analysis of generalized antisexualism that helps us understand the politics of sex separate from the politics of individual sex-related issues. Just as understanding the dynamics of racism enabled the civil rights movement to see itself more clearly and become politically effective, just as understanding basic issues of feminism enabled the women's movement to change the political landscape with regard to issues of gender equality, understanding how antisexual attitudes color and influence public policy is essential if we are to work best to change the dominant sexual paradigm as a precursor to making specific changes in sexual public policy or law. Civil rights legislation could not be enacted until underlying attitudes about race had been identified and challenged. Laws supporting equal rights for women could not be passed until the dominant notion of women as homemakers and child-raisers was overthrown. Similarly, far-reaching changes in sexual policymaking are not going to happen until underlying attitudes about sex, sexual self-determination, and sexual diversity are scrutinized carefully.

We need to understand and point out to others that when people talk about making abortion illegal, when people talk about abstinence-only sex education in the schools, they are, not insignificantly, also talking about their fear of sex. We need to understand and emphasize that when people talk about shutting down strip clubs or restricting pornography on the Internet, they are, not insignificantly, also talking about encouraging governmental interference with basic sexual self-determination. We need to understand and show others that opposition to gay marriage, police raids of s/m clubs, and attempts by alcohol and beverage control boards to shut down swingers conventions are all, not insignificantly, attacks on various forms of sexual diversity.

Perhaps most importantly of all, we need to begin to develop the sense that all of us who favor full and free sexual expression share a common cause and a common identity, separate from, and compatible with, our identification with specific sexual orientations and interest groups -- that we are part of a general movement that goes beyond single issues to challenge the underlying antisexual paradigm that has long been the root of the sexual confusion and harmful public policy that we know so well.

Word has it that John Ashcroft's Justice Department has, since immediately after confirmation, been gearing up for a major new antisexual campaign, using the hot-button issue of child pornography as its entry issue. The events of September 11 interrupted the activation of that campaign, but plans for a major new FBI effort to combat what right-wing conservatives view as deviant and harmful sex have only been delayed, not abandoned. The current push for new latitudes in FBI surveillance of individuals was described by Ashcroft himself as a tool, not only to combat terrorism, but to fight what he called child pornography as well. Of course, everyone is opposed to child pornography. That's why the Ashcroft antisexual campaign has chosen to begin there. But we should be clear that, in the case of Ashcroft's Justice Department, the campaign against child pornography is really a media-wise cover for new attacks on "deviant" sex more generally. Remember, this is a man who thinks dancing is sinful.

Unless there is a political turnaround in the Congressional elections this November, we can expect increased sexual repression to take of many forms, and for many groups of sexual outsiders to find themselves under increasing political and legal attack. As the campaign against diverse sex touches the lives of more and more people in increasingly significant ways, it becomes more important than ever that we realize that sex and sexual diversity are the real targets of this political move, and that, however different we may be from each other in how we like our sex, we recognize our common interest in defending our right to be the sexual people we most want to be.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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