Why don’t sexual rights defenders talk about sex anymore?
A year or so ago I went to a talk in New Haven by Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel, who had just edited a documentary history of part of women’s long struggle for reproductive rights in the US. Before Roe V Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling collects materials from the 1960s and before, a period when, as they write, “a conversation about the legitimate grounds for abortion” slowly turned into “an argument about the legitimacy of government control over abortion.” (They sum up some of the book’s key findings here.) One tool feminists used was women’s own testimony: women wrote their stories of how the laws against abortion had shaped and distorted their lives, particularly their sexual choices. These autobiographies of unfreedom reaffirm my own faith in narrative, as a way both of making injustice real and of repairing, in some measure, the breach it gores in the fabric of human living. At our best, as human rights activists, we’re storytellers, and our one shared belief is that stories still have power.
Still, what struck me most about Greenhouse and Siegel’s account was how these testimonies, voices from a not-too-distant history, have been forgotten. They mentioned how they went to the National Organization for Women, a custodian of much of the material, to ask if some of it could be useful in contemporary advocacy, at a time when abortion rights are under multiplying fire. The answer was no. Too many of the women argued against the old abortion laws because the lack of access undermined their sexual freedom. And discussing sexual freedom these days is doubleplusungood. You talk about equality, you talk about privacy, you talk about responsible motherhood and informed choice. But just wanting to have sex, shudder, is not a respectable goal.
I was reminded of this by Rush Limbaugh (thanks, Rush!) and his full-bore assault on Sandra Fluke. Fluke, if you’ve been too busy screwing to watch the news for a week, is a law student at Georgetown University, a Catholic institution; she testified to Congress on why the health insurance such schools offer should cover contraception. In response Limbaugh did the impossible, which was to outdo himself. In two successive broadcasts he went after her. First:
“Can you imagine if you were her parents how proud … you would be? Your daughter … testifies she’s having so much sex she can’t afford her own birth control pills and she wants President Obama to provide them, or the Pope. … What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”
This being insufficient, he followed with an offer:
“So Miss Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal: If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
There is so much to say about Rush that there’s really nothing to say; he exhausts indignation, and somewhere in the Library of Babel all the condemning has been done already. I particularly like the logic of implying that if the public –that is, the government — protects some aspect of your life, it has eminent domain over it in return; thus if the state defends your private life, in fact it owns your private life, meaning that the right to privacy eliminates privacy, very neatly. By the same reasoning, the fire truck that comes to save your house from burning down should also stay to claim possession. This vast extension of public interest and public ownership flies rather in the face of Limbaugh’s professed disdain for socialism. But I imagine strict ideological purity yields right-of-way to his desire to watch some sex tapes.
Still, Emily Bazelon on Slate sees in the furious reaction to Rush’s overreach a Zeitgeist Moment, an indication that talking about sexual freedom might suddenly, once again, be OK. “Sluts unite!” she writes, because “sex positivity is recharging feminism”:
Reclaiming the word slut is also the aim of the SlutWalks, the protest movement that started last spring in Canada and spread to more than 70 cities worldwide. Taking angry inspiration from a Toronto police officer who said the best way for women to prevent being raped is to “avoid dressing like sluts,” the women joining in SlutWalks have marched in all manner of bras, bodices, and other scanty dress. They won both enthusiastic applause and ambivalence from the feminist blogosphere. SlutWalks, and the broader reclamation projection they and Fluke stand for, represent a cultural shift that puts women’s sexual agency front and center rather than modestly cloaking it.
Bazelon points for support to an article, “Slutwalking in the Shadow of the Law,” by Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Depaul law professor who analyzes the SlutWalks’ potential impact on rape law. (I am not sure whether my affiliation with Harvard, that bastion of the 1%, gives me an invidious access to this article denied the needy 99%; if you can’t open it, let me know and I’ll send it to you.) Tuerkheimer argues that for women, “sexual agency (as opposed to sex itself) is integral to equality.” But she also contends that “sexual agency presents profound dilemmas, dilemmas yet to be adequately addressed in practice or in legal theory.”
This is, of course, because women’s experience of that agency is “imperfect,” marred by systemic inequalities in law and society alike. (Skip this paragraph if you have an aversion to the turgid.) However, Tuerkheimer suggests, this inadequate experience of agency has led observers systematically to assume that sexual agency — women’s attempt both to enjoy and control sexuality — itself produces and reinforces inequality, instead of being flawed by it. Asserting your sexual autonomy sexualizes you, so the story goes; it’s not, then, that being sexualized by consumer culture trivializes and constrains your sexual autonomy. The fact that various engines of culture objectify and then repress women, for example, is treated as the result of women’s claim to sexual agency, a claim that intrinsically endangers them. This assumption is as infectious within feminism as within patriarchal thought. Tuerkheimer instead argues for a vision of women’s sexual agency as a positive good, with objectification and sexualization as unjust restraints upon it, rather than consequences. She laments only the fact that the SlutWalk movement has preferred engaging with how police, politics, and culture treat rape, and neglected the letter of the law — because she sees rape law as an urgent area of contest. The law assumes women behaving sexually (especially in “deviant” ways) are laying themselves open to rape, and for Tuerkheimer this is fundamentally a threat to their sexual agency.
The legal treatment of female sexual subjectivity has consequences that are real and unexamined. By advancing a non-agentic view of women’s sexuality, the law constrains agency, both by limiting protection from non-stranger rape, and by placing certain consensual behaviors off limits to “normal” women. …
First, the law defines rape in a manner that is decidedly not in keeping with a sexually agentic view of women. Most glaringly, non-consent is dispossessed of meaning as a marker of rape; force assumes this role. Moreover, the presence of consent is imagined in the strangest of circumstances, including a woman’s total passivity. In short, by equating non-action with consent, the substantive law of rape effectively turns women into sexual objects. Second, what I call the law of sexual patterns defines certain sexual behaviors on the part of women as deviant, establishing what amount to presumptions of unrapeability.
In other words, for both Bazelon and Tuerkheimer, the SlutWalks’ loud shout that sexual freedom is good can reinvigorate feminist advocacy in an arena where patriarchy still chokes progressive thought.
Is there “a cultural shift that puts women’s sexual agency front and center”? As Gandhi said of Western civilization: It would be a nice idea. But I’m not sure the Zeitgeist is fertile ground for this just yet. Consider, for a starting point, the photo Slate chose to illustrate Bazelon’s blog post:
That’s Sandra Fluke, and what is she doing with that button? It’s a weird picture to accompany the article, and one can only assume it’s meant either subtly or subconsciously to ironize the claim that sluthood — the deliberate embrace of sexuality — is a credible political position. Either she’s buttoning the thing demurely, in which case Rush is ridiculous mainly because he’s wrong –how could such a respectable, black-jacketed young lady, a law student after all, be sex-mad? Or she’s unbuttoning it for somebody’s intrusive gaze, suggesting that sluttiness isn’t about enjoying sex for one’s own sake, but staging a stripshow for an overlord onlooker’s domineering imagination: a highly old-style, patriarchal interpretation. The first trope largely dominated how Fluke was seen in the days after her unwilling pop-culture coronation. Of course she doesn’t want contraceptives just to have sex! She’s going to use them to decorate the Baby Jesus in her church crèche. Much as Republicans assure us that the war on contraception isn’t about contraception, it’s about Religious Freedom, so right-thinking progressives promise that sexual rights aren’t about sex at all, they’re about Responsibility. In the same online magazine with Bazelon, William Saletan argued that Fluke is really a paragon of rational restraint when it comes to sexuality:
Referring to a woman who sought contraception, Limbaugh scoffed, “Here’s a woman exercising no self-control. “ Is that what contraception is? Or is it, as many users and proponents see it, a way of taking responsibility for sex? … When people use birth control, are they doing so to indulge their desires, or to exercise a kind of self-control?
And Janet Dahl lists all the non-sex-related reasons why birth control is a good thing:
The fact is, many women DO use contraception for hormonal balance, relief from estrogen based cysts and acne, endometriosis pain. Or to regulate the timing and duration of cycles to prevent anemia. … The imputation that anyone using contraception is promiscuous is beyond ridiculous.
But don’t some women use them to have more sex? And what’s wrong with that? You would think that these medicines had nothing to do with the reproductive system at all, and the reproductive system had nothing to do with sex: that we multiply with spores, and that those pills are CNS depressants so powerful that just one will turn you into a morose, pompous moralist with whom no sensible person would sleep or even converse, somewhere between Roger Scruton and Prince Charles.
If that’s the way we defend contraception, contraception is in trouble. Praising it on grounds remote from the actual uses people put it to, and the actual pleasure they derive from it, leaves a defense aridly distant from real experiences and lives. Yasmin Nair wonders, sensibly, “What, pray tell, if Fluke is indeed a slut?” Who would still come to her aid? Not many. But fewer, I’d think, than would want to but not dare.
The widespread support for Fluke is built entirely on the idea that she is not a slut and that she has been, as Andrea Mitchell put it, “victimised.” Fluke, we are constantly being assured, does not have promiscuous sex and Limbaugh is entirely wrong because his “slur” is based on a misrepresentation not only of her position but of her very character … Can we please remember that it’s also perfectly fine that women need access to birth control because they really do like having lots of sex and being, generally, you know, sluts? For fuck’s sake, we fought for the Pill and access to contraception because we once thought that boundless sex without consequences—whether with one person or with many, at the same time or sequentially, either way—is a pretty good thing.
It seems to me, in fact, that in learning to speak of sexuality as an area of rights, we have gained a great deal but lost other discursive possibilities; and one loss has been the fluency to define sexuality (as we once did) as an arena of human liberation. Think the ’60s! Where did all that dreaming go? The ecstatic and utopian sides of sex, the moments of jouissance and transcendence of the normal self, lie shed by the wayside like spun-off, stripped tires. In the process, we’ve also abandoned the ability to speak comprehensibly to other movements for whom “liberation” is still a meaningful language. From the revolutionary aspirations of the wretched of the earth to the land claims of indigenous peoples, there persists an automatic presumption that sexual rights are either faintly irrelevant to the cause, or a rich person’s luxury. My belief is this is not because we talk about sex too much. I believe it’s because we don’t talk about it enough — truthfully, realistically, grittily, and materially enough, so that it takes its place with other material realities and the oppressors stand with the other oppressors of human possibility on the tangible and daily plane.
In particular, the idea of “pleasure” (without which it’s impossible to talk about the obstructions to experiencing pleasure) seems wrongly suspect. I’m convinced rather a lot of Western feminists have persuaded themselves, with a mixture of arrogance and shame, that pleasure is a Western invention and cannot be spread or spoken abroad. An American working in Uganda once said to me, guiltily, “You can’t talk with women here about pleasure, because they’ve never felt it.” This is astonishing, but not an uncommon notion. Beyond the circumstance of female genital mutilation –which I think was at least in the back of the speaker’s mind, a thing sometimes accurately documented but a rich field for fantasy as well — it reflects a direr, deeper prejudice. Unlike Sandra Fluke, who at least knows where her button is, Third World women don’t know enough about their own machinery to tell what to press. It’s certainly true that the flow of pleasure through the body is culturally constrained and partly constructed; we learn to eroticize as we learn to read or walk. But no culture has an authoritative instruction manual, and the idea of an alienation from one’s own physicality so complete as to define femininity outside North America and Europe — where the onslaught of psychiatry, self-help books, and cheap electricity apparently overcame it — is not just absurd but, well, missionary in its implications. There’s no universal language of pleasure, but languages to talk about different pleasures are, for people trying to be political about sex, a pressing need.
“Pleasure” is always a fraught concept; and despite the efforts of some sexual rights advocates to argue for it, I don’t think a “right to pleasure” exists as a tenable idea. Still, there are plenty of other rights we urge and value mainly because they please us. In fact, most of them are like that. We don’t just envision them as legally obligatory goods. They make our lives happier and deeper; they open new vistas to our galloping desires; and the intellectual satisfaction of, say, freely mounting the speaker’s rostrum to exercise our liberty of expression doesn’t exclude from time to time a more tactile frisson. What’s better as a release from stress or anger than the happy relief of letting the syllable fuck roll like one of Demosthenes‘ pebbles off the public tongue?
But we don’t talk about that. Of course, in the modern world we talk about sex all the time — but when it comes to its intersection with rights, exactitude melts like butter and we get all tongue-tied. Here in the US, as I’ve noted, the rhetoric of the “right to choose” is the dominant way of defending abortion and reproductive rights in general. It conveniently elides what you’re choosing. It asserts the right but eviscerates it of substantive content. And this is not just because we’re diffident in speaking about abortion, but also because we feel a comprehensive timorousness in talking about sex. Greenhouse and Siegel investigated where this rhetoric came from, and found an early memorandum “framing the issue of how the pro-repeal position should be described”:
“Right to life is short, catchy, composed of monosyllabic words — an important consideration in English. We need something comparable. Right to choose would seem to do the job. And … choice has to do with action, and it’s action that we’re concerned with.”
But what kind of action? On that, we’re silent. A veil of discretion settles over what, in specificity and practice, the right means.
The US Supreme Court has, in a number of decisions with impressively sweeping language, outlined the idea of an intimate sphere of decision-making where liberty ought to prevail. They run from Griswold v Connecticut, which established a right to contraception (and a right to privacy into the bargain) to Lawrence v Texas, which overturned sodomy laws. (Oddly enough, Roe v Wade itself does not stand firmly in this tradition. It turned less on a woman’s “right to choose” than on the authority of doctors to make decisions unhampered by a moralizing law. 1992’s Planned Parenthood v Casey, written by the reliably rhetorical Justice Kennedy, outlines a much broader basis for the right to abortion in personal decision-making, a woman’s ability to shape her “destiny” based on “her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.” At the same time, paradoxically, it narrowed the right to abortion itself considerably.) Yet what’s conspicuous about these decisions is that, while most of them are about sex in one way or another, few say so. The exact content of privacy, of the intimate realm of decisions self-shaking in their importance, goes undescribed. Privacy is a “penumbra,” a zone of shadow. Sex is unspeakable.
In this light, a tellingly ironic revelation emerged this week about the Lawrence case. The lawsuit, remember, started when Texas cops broke in on a gay pair allegedly having forbidden relations. In the New Yorker, Dahlia Lithwick reviews Dale Carpenter’s new book on the decision, and I can’t resist quoting her analysis:
The malleability of anti-gay laws is in part a function of failed legal language. “Sodomy” was, for centuries, a crime defined by its unspeakable nature. The eighteenth-century British legal commentator William Blackstone called it a crime “not fit to be named,” which takes you only so far when it comes to drafting a ban. Sodomy was codified thereafter as a “crime against nature,” without much clarity about what unspoken horrors were not to be spoken of. …
That same unspoken horror of unnamed “unnatural” deviant conduct leads to Carpenter’s most fascinating revelation: the arresting officers in the Lawrence case never agreed on what they saw that night, and, in fact, reported seeing completely different conduct at the time. Two of the four officers who entered the apartment reported seeing two men having sex. Yet one officer reported seeing anal sex and the other remembered seeing oral sex. The other two saw no sex at all.
In fact, the two men weren’t lovers (as their defenders had claimed) and weren’t having sex. They were clothed, and sitting in separate rooms.
A law against “unspeakable” acts overturned because of an act that wasn’t described and didn’t happen; an historic advance for sexual rights, with no sex. Isn’t that a metaphor for where we stand?