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.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Two books by David Steinberg -- "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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) is a national organization committed to altering the political, legal, and social environment in the United States in order to guarantee equal rights for consenting adults who practice forms of alternative sexual expression.
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