LGBT people are used to suffering from bad science. The versions are stale by now: the I-can-change-your-sexuality cliché, the you-can’t-raise-children chestnut, the majority-of-pedophiles delusion. A new kind of international bad science is afoot, though. It’s a Grand Theory that lets the right wing link many of its disparate but potent demons: its opposition to homosexuality and to women’s reproductive rights, its racism and its fears of immigration and Islam.
Myths about demography are the key. You can gauge something of what’s happening by the news that Paul Cameron, the lunatic American pseudo-scientist and favorite of the US religious right, will visit Russia this month. Cameron is famously extreme – so much so that even Russia Today, Putin’s pet TV channel, has made fun of him; he’s claimed that gay sex makes people “malevolent,” and urged quarantining practitioners, if not (well, maybe not) killing them. But his mad, bad rhetoric is taking a more mainstream direction, one specifically tied to what’s happening in Russia. There’s a story here.
I. Where the US religious right failed
The connecting flight from Vienna to Budapest lasts about an hour, but sometimes that’s enough to cross to a different hemisphere. I found myself on it back in 1994, when I lived in Eastern Europe—I was returning from Albania, where I’d documented the situation of LGBT people under one of Europe’s last sodomy laws. Sitting next to me was an 18-year-old boy from Texas, flying to Hungary to do missionary work for his church. For him, this was a passage to the legendary obverse of the Iron Curtain; for me, a foray into a geography I’d almost forgotten after I left Virginia at his age, the world of Christian fundamentalism. When I told him I’d inhabited Budapest, that satrapy of Satan, for years, he was full of questions: Do they still put Christians in concentration camps? Are there any church buildings left? He asked me to tell him when we crossed into Hungarian airspace, and when I surmised we had, somewhere above Visegrad, he leaned over to look down; “It’s so green,” he said. “I never knew a Communist country could be so green.” At the airport consternation seized him, and he grabbed my arm: “Do I need a passport to get in here?” Somehow he’d stowed his documents in his checked luggage back in the US, and now he had to go through passport control before he could reach the baggage claim. I’m afraid I left him in that Catch-22. Sometimes I dream he’s still there, almost 40 now, trapped forever in a stateless limbo like a Spielberg character or the Wandering Jew; except that Jesus is by his side as consolation.
There’s been huge attention in recent years to US evangelicals’ role in exporting homophobia to other countries. What we forget is how stupid and inept they’ve often been — and how much local conditions have determined their reception.
My poor Texan friend was part of a great explosion of evangelical energy in the 1990s. Two new fields for US conservative churches opened: the former Soviet bloc and Africa. Gorbachev and the 1989 revolutions pried the first ajar, of course. Paradoxically apartheid’s end made the second invasion possible. Most Christian fundamentalists in the US had supported the white South African regime, and were ideologically disinclined to visit its continent-wide opponents; many had telltale South African visa stamps in their passports, which made travel to much of independent Africa impossible. Now all that was out the window. They tackled the rest of Africa with a vengeance, as if inheriting the colonial mission that the white tribe at the continent’s tip had abandoned in surrender.
In Eastern Europe, missionaries were everywhere by the mid-‘90s. I ran into them in parks (which they didn’t know were cruising areas) passing out leaflets, in railway stations (ditto) singing hymns, sharing my train compartment from Baia-Mare to Bucharest (where a family from Alabama eyed me reading David Greenberg’s The Construction of Homosexuality, and rebuffed my attempts at conversation as if I planned to use that Jew perversion to drive nails in Christ’s cross). They didn’t seem to have prepared for the trip, beyond reading the Biblical passages about Gog and Magog. They always looked disappointed. Things were too green, the openings for martyrdom too limited, and despite what they assumed were decades of enforced atheism almost everybody already had a religious tradition, and felt no urgency to change. They longed to be triumphant emissaries of Cold War-winning America, but the America the locals wanted was Madonna and Melrose Place instead.
Only later, when I visited southern Africa, did I see the contrast. African Christianity had been a ferment of demotic, enthusiastic homegrown sects for decades. Locally powerful, they were still poor and isolated, looked down on by the mainline denominations, the Anglicans and Roman Catholics. They recognized American Pentecostals and other evangelicals as rich but sympathetic cousins, and potential sources of support. Your average missionary got treated like the hero he wanted to be in Zambia or Uganda. Moreover, these churches (far from being refuges for the down-and-out) were often vehicles for an ambitious, entrepreneurial middle class, lending evangelical outreach a dynamic social face.
In Romania or Hungary, however, the missionary was held at arm’s length. There were few upstart religious groups there to provide a base. The existing churches – Orthodox, Catholic, Uniate, and Calvinist – were centuries old, and believers rarely traded away loyalties they saw as key to communal identity. The prelates treated these Alabamans and Coloradans as competitors, not siblings.
Where the missionaries found a role in Eastern Europe, it was usually as supporting players in the older churches’ scripts. Homosexuality was a big issue in Romania; by 1994 pressure from the Council of Europe was forcing the government to consider repeal of its sodomy law. That year some minor American evangelical visited –unfortunately, I forget his name – to lend his hand in the Orthodox Church’s campaign to keep the law. He brought footage of the horrors of Gay Pride in the US, and Romanian TV played this for days, the lewd women in leather, the musclemen in skirts. My gay friends stayed glued to the news every evening in excitement, because nothing like had been broadcast before — by the chaste standards of local emissions it was State-sponsored porn. Such spectacles recurred, but they were hardly what what the missionaries dreamed of when they debouched from their planes, passports (I hope) in hand. Playing second fiddle in somebody else’s campaign was a poor substitute for the great revivals, the salvation tents, the millions won to Christ from devil faiths where priests wore dresses.
This note of unfulfilled aspirations and unwilling compromise has been consistent throughout the missionary experience in Eastern Europe. In Africa, a figure like Scott Lively, marginal at home, was catapulted to rock-star status, even helping to write homophobic legislation. In the old Soviet bloc, the US evangelicals have pretty much followed where others led. Contrary to their image as all-powerful manipulators, it’s taken them a long time to get the message right.
II. Putin as educator
Which doesn’t mean they haven’t learned things.
The US right wing and the evangelicals have been absorbing hard lessons from Eastern Europe — and especially from Vladimir Putin and his spiritual fathers, such as Nicolae Ceauşescu.
In 2006, in a famous “State of the Nation” address, Putin pointed to a “demographic crisis” as Russia’s gravest problem. Declining population posed an existential threat, he said, proposing measures to jack up the birth rate: higher benefits, better maternity-leave pay, an astonishing packet of rewards (including a gift of close to $US 10,000) for mothers who had a second child.
Russia’s birth rate had fallen precipitously since Communism collapsed, propelled downward by poverty and an uncertain future. Predictions of catastrophe were rife; Sergei Mironov, head of the Federation Council (and of a small political party focused on promoting “life”) warned the population could dwindle by almost two-thirds, to barely 50 million, within 75 years. Yet as the graph shows, the death rate was the other contributing factor. It had ticked up sharply since 1990, and stayed stubbornly high – up to 50% higher than Germany’s. Alcoholism, smoking, poor diet, and a miserable medical system were major causes. One lesson of demographics, though, is that while it may be easier to lower the death rate than raise the birth rate (people pretty uniformly don’t want to die, whereas they may or may not want to have children) governments like talking about the latter better. However pricey maternity benefits may be, they’re usually cheaper and more popular than health care for the unwanted old. Moreover, birth rates involve and invoke moral and political anxieties – about women’s freedoms and how sexualities are deployed – that call for State exhortation and intervention. Politicians who promote progeny both stand with tradition and expand their power. They like that.
Since Putin’s speech, the birth rate has spiked substantially, rising by about 10% after 2008 — though continued economic prosperity may rival his gift baskets as the reason. Indeed, Mark Adomanis , a regional analyst, suggests that the fears around population were always somewhat exaggerated. As the chart below shows, the vicissitudes of Russia’s birth rate differed very little from what happened in the onetime Soviet satellites, and over a thirty-year period settled around an average similar to Western Europe’s.
You could argue that Russia is experiencing its own crash version of the classic “demographic transition,” where both birth rates and death rates drop, usually as part of economic development; except the former is landing rather harder than the latter. Indeed, the genuine problem remains how often Russians die, not how seldom they reproduce. The death rate has inched down slightly, and now stands at 14.1 per thousand, against 11 in Germany. Yet this disguises the fact that Germany’s population is older, with lives prolonged by better health care –- but older people still die at higher rates, inflating the German figure. The truth is, German males live an average of 18 years longer than Russian males (the difference for women is around 9 years). An overall life expectancy of just 66 years, lower than India, Indonesia, Egypt: that’s Putin’s real crisis.
But Putin keeps talking about the birth rate; much nicer than discussing death, and more likely to rally the Orthodox to his side. “We need to continue to save the people of Russia,” he said in a pre-campaign speech in 2011, announcing some $50 billion in “demographic projects” to encourage childbearing. It’s a bonanza for PR and for his political machine. Kremlin-sponsored youth groups organize group weddings, and strut round in T-shirts reading “I want to have three children.” Last year, Putin personally urged moms to up the household numbers: “Demographers affirm that choosing to have a second child is already a potential choice in favor of a third … It’s important that families make that step.” This year, he summoned Boyz II Men to Moscow for a Valentine’s Day concert meant to set the mood for condom-free, procreative screwing. He isn’t just trying to seduce Russians into reproducing. There’s coercion behind the crooning. Putin is imitating Ceauşescu, who strove to make Romania great by making more Romanians. In the mid-1960s the dictator banned contraception and abortion and increased penalties for homosexual conduct, in a sweeping pro-natalist campaign. The longterm demographic impact was slight, but it massively strengthened the regime’s control over private life. This, too, may be Putin’s fantasy: State-sponsored horniness, a loudspeaker in every bedroom commanding heterosexual copulation, Barry White as Big Brother.
Many non-Russian journalists and LGBT activists simply don’t understand where the recent homophobic panic comes from. To hear them talk, you’d think that a bunch of minuscule gay pride marches over the years somehow sparked Putin’s sudden, irrational decision to ban everything related to gayness. This is nonsense. There was a long buildup to the current legal moves; they grew out of the debate over the “demographic crisis.” And the crackdown started with moves against reproductive rights.
In response to Putin’s 2011 call for “demographic projects,” the Duma that year passed the first major restriction on abortion rights since Stalin’s death. The new law barred abortion clinics from describing the procedure as safe, and required them to devote 10% of their advertising to detailing its dangers. The initial focus on advertising is suggestive: it prefigures the later “anti-propaganda” law which would prohibit LGBT rights advocates from publicizing their cause at all. MPs have pressed for even stronger restrictions, and anti-abortion propaganda spreads. Former First Lady (and now prime minister’s wife) Svetlana Medvedeva leads the movement in cooperation with the Orthodox Church, and her vanity “charitable foundation” spearheads campaigns with names like “Give me life!” Meanwhile, the government refuses to promote contraceptive use (never popular in Russia) as an alternative to abortion. Many family planning centers established in the 1990s have closed, stripped of funding.
Simultaneously, at the UN Human Rights Council, Russia sponsored and and passed a resolution subordinating human rights to “traditional values.” It was a way of taking their anti-reproductive rights agitation abroad. At home, Putin’s bill that stopped all adoptions to the US was a retaliatory diplomatic move, but had a ready demographic justification – rescuing Russia’s precious children from an alien culture. A Duma member warned that exported orphans might “be tortured, used for organ transplanting, or for sexual exploitation, given that there are 9 million same sex marriages in the United States.” From there it’s just a step to the bill banning any adoptions by foreign same-sex or unmarried couples. Then came the “anti-propaganda” law, protecting kids from all the blandishments of non-reproductive or “non-traditional” lifestyles. The explanatory note to that provision describes “Family, motherhood and childhood” as “the values which provide for the continual renewing of the generations” — as well as the way the “population of the Russian Federation is safeguarded and developed. For this reason they need the special protection of the State.” Amid a political and religious panic over reproduction, that’s all the rationale you need.
3. The new package
For some while, the US religious right has been flailing for arguments on social issues. It’s part of a broader syndrome across North America and Europe: for societies that are increasingly secular and increasingly diverse, pure appeals to religious opprobrium have lost their sway. Just repeating that homosexuality, abortion, contraception are wrong is not enough. They’ve tried grounding their case in scientific arguments, but these are sometimes hard to grasp and easy to discredit.
But when they look to Eastern Europe – a place where their conservatism should have fit but never quite did – they see something marvelous. There’s Putin, a powerful and successful leader, putting things together in a new package. He’s hit all the notes the US right has been straining for: morality, family, nationalism, cultural superiority, even economic independence. But he’s bolstered them with a demographic logic that‘s hard to argue down, and that links them all up in a new way. What an exciting model!
At least since the turn of the 21st century, arguments grounded in demography have been floating around on the right wing. The beauty of this science is that, unlike all those studies of child psychology or aversion therapy, it’s not technical or subjective. It seems mathematical, straightforward, and simple. The basic idea is this: societies that fall below a fertility rate of 2.1 – that is, 2.1 children born per woman – are doomed. This is called the replacement fertility rate, and the math is easy. To keep a society going at the same population numbers, every two parents must replace themselves with two kids. (The .1 is tacked on, more or less, to compensate for accidents of early mortality.) If you want population growth, you need an even higher rate, but 2.1 is the minimum for staying as you are.
Now, it’s actually more complicated. The replacement rate varies widely. Naturally it is higher in societies with high infant or adult mortality – 2.1 is usually accepted as a figure for developed countries, but in Nigeria or Swaziland, for instance, replacement fertility stands at over 3.0. On the other side, in developed countries, postponing childbearing reduces population size even if people dutifully reproduce at replacement levels. (It pushes the replacement effect into the future, so that at any given time there are still fewer people alive.) Immigration, of course, compensates for lack of population growth – the right-wing demographic argument against immigration treats it almost as an unnatural substitute for fertility, as creepily wrong as human cloning. The result is, though, that countries with fertility rates below 2.1 may not actually see substantial population loss.
Still, this doesn’t change the fact that in several developed European countries, fertility has fallen far below the replacement rate. Italy reposes at 1.4 children per woman, Germany, 1.41, Spain,1.48; Russia is better but still not growing, at 1.61. (The US is on the cusp of replacing itself, at 2.06.) It’s important to stress that this is not just a Western and Northern issue. In 2004, researchers found that half the world’s population now lived in below-replacement regions.
Below-replacement fertility is far from being restricted to the developed nations. Europe, North America and the other countries of the developed world make up less than half of the more than three billion people whose fertility is below 2.1.
Other areas included coastal China (1.5), Brazil (2.01), and Thailand (1.91). But it’s in Europe that the anxieties have been most acute. The BBC warned:
When the muscular superpower across the Atlantic continues to enjoy steady population growth [sic], old man Europe is in danger of becoming a shrivelled shadow of its former self. When will Europeans wake up to the implications of consistently low birth rates? Well, in the words of one European professor of population studies, probably not until they are all in their wheelchairs and they suddenly realize there is no one left to push.
Really? In what sense are below-replacement societies dying, “doomed”? You would think, from the apocalyptic rhetoric, that God or destiny dictated there be an ironclad minimum of 61.26 million Italians, and any falling-off triggers Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, there have been fewer Italians than that for all of history until today. So what’s the problem?
Contemporary right-wing analysis of demography has gone in two directions. There’s an economic approach, where below-replacement reproduction becomes a rationale for neoliberal austerity. And there’s a cultural analysis, where it justifies xenophobia and racism.
On the economic side, the major result of a below-replacement fertility rate is that a larger percent of the population is older. This clearly puts strains on pensions, health care, and intergenerational relations in general, as a shrinking group of young people must help support more and more elders. One writer in Forbes, looking at Spain’s troubles (“What’s really behind Europe’s decline? It’s the birth rates, stupid”), explains they’re caused by “a change in values.”
A generation ago Spain was just coming out of its Francoist era, a strongly Catholic country with among the highest birth rates in Europe, with the average woman producing almost four children in 1960 and nearly three as late as 1975-1976. There was … “no divorce, no contraception allowed.” By the 1980s many things changed much for the better … Yet modernization exacted its social cost. The institution of the family, once dominant in Spain, lost its primacy.
You can’t get that old-time religion back, or that old-time Fascist repression, and it’s even hard to recover that old-time economics.
Essentially, Spain and other Mediterranean countries bought into northern Europe’s liberal values, and low birthrates, but did so without the economic wherewithal to pay for it. … an aging electorate is likely to make it increasingly difficult for Spanish politicians to tamper with pensions, cut taxes and otherwise drive private sector growth. …
Without a major shift in policies that favor families in housing or tax policies, and an unexpected resurgence of interest in marriage and children, Spain and the rest of Mediterranean face prospects of a immediate decline every bit as profound as that experienced in the 17th and 18th Century when these great nations lost their status as global powers and instead devolved into quaint locales for vacationers, romantic poets and history buffs. [emphasis added]
How awful. It’s hard not to draw the inference that, given low birth rates, upping the death rate a little wouldn’t be a bad thing.
We don’t fully know what will happen as developed countries’ populations age. First, though, we must note that high-fertility, high-youth populations also strain economies intensely, but at the other end. They demand schools and jobs, and get angry if they don’t get them. (“Arab street” is one term for this, and means: Young Arabs scare me.) Second, while older people will at some point move out of waged, productive work, that doesn’t mean they will stop contributing to the economy — particularly if they’ve been paid enough in their lifetimes to invest, and continue investing. Meanwhile, an aging workforce will be less mobile, but more skilled – not necessarily a bad trade-off. Finally, the needs and dependency of growing numbers of the extremely old may actually strengthen intergenerational bonds of caring: a “conservative” effect that the conservatives neglect to mention. Society will change as it grows grayer, but that doesn’t point to breakdown.
On the cultural side, though, the doomsayers are even direr. Somebody has to replace all those missing Italians, and who will it be? Dark people. Aliens. Mordor. Fertility fears shade nicely into sheer racism.
The key article of faith is that declining population also means cultural decline and racial death. It’s “the end of the Italian race,” people proclaim, with pseudo-experts calculating the last Italian will be born in the year 3880. The immigrants will inherit the native earth. “If the Italian population declines quickly, the immigrants will arrive and Amen,” an Italian demographer said.
But we cannot stop at this. I study Mayan civilization and just as I regret their disappearance, I can regret it if the Italian or European culture were to disappear.
Immigration and the threat of more dynamic societies with the capacity to grow: these are both staple fears of the modern right-wingers. They came to a head after 9/11, when the West felt itself facing both an overpopulated Muslim world full of anger, and the agents of rage inside our borders. In succeeding years demographic discourse started to take off. Popular post-9/11 books warned that Muslims would take over the West, if not by aggression, then through infiltration. Politicians picked up the panic. Relentless breeding in the Muslim world propelled emigration to Europe, they contended. Once there, migrants kept spawning. The result was reproductive terrorism:
Britain and the rest of the European Union are ignoring a demographic time bomb: a recent rush into the EU by migrants, including millions of Muslims, will change the continent beyond recognition over the next two decades, … Europe’s low white birth rate, coupled with faster multiplying migrants, will change fundamentally what we take to mean by European culture and society.
“Muslim Demographics,” seen over 14 million times on YouTube, epitomizes the Muslim-birthrate scare. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana caused an uproar in 2012 by showing it at a Vatican meeting.
In his excellent book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Islam, Immigration, and the West, Doug Saunders sums up the research that debunks these war-cries. Population growth is uneven across majority-Muslim countries, but generally it’s falling. Dreaded Iran lies under the thumb of Lord Sauron himself; but the fertility rate is 1.87, and it can’t replace its orcs. Muslim migrants in Europe often appear to have high fertility, because families tend to have children soon after arrival; but the overall fertility rate across a woman’s lifetime is closer to European averages, and declining. Reliable projections show Europe’s Muslim population rising from 7% of the total now, to 10% at most. Some time bomb.
For the first half of the last decade, the demographic discourse mainly drew in neoconservatives: authoritarian and interventionist, forgiving of racism and xenophobia but disposed to a limited social liberalism. Several gay political figures embraced it, believing those multiplying Muslims were their enemies too. Peter Tatchell warned the gay press in 1995 that “Muslim fundamentalists are a growing threat to gay human rights in Britain. …There is no room for complacency. … homophobic Muslim voters may be able to influence the outcome of elections in 20 or more marginal constituencies.” Bruce Bawer, an American gay now living in Norway (and an intellectual influence on the mass murderer Anders Breivik) has shouted jeremiads about the Muslim threat for years, decrying “a continent whose natives are increasingly being tormented by Koran-wielding tyrants, and increasingly in flight.”
The “demographic crisis” talk only fully merged with right-wing social issues around the time of Putin’s 2006 speech. That same year, Canadian conservative Mark Steyn published an influential essay, saying that “while Islamism is the enemy, it’s not what this thing’s about. Radical Islam is an opportunistic infection, like AIDS: It’s not the HIV that kills you, it’s the pneumonia you get when your body’s too weak to fight it off.”
The medicine was garbled, but the message was clear: Islam could only get you after the “progressive agenda — lavish social welfare, abortion, secularism, multiculturalism”— had done its work. That was “collectively the real suicide bomb.” Western politics lavished money on people’s selfish material needs, like food, but neglected “primary” concerns:
national defense, family, faith and, most basic of all, reproductive activity —‘Go forth and multiply,’ because if you don’t you won’t be able to afford all those secondary-impulse issues, like cradle-to-grave welfare…. The design flaw of the secular social-democratic state is that it requires a religious-society birthrate to sustain it. …
Europe by the end of this century will be a continent after the neutron bomb: The grand buildings will still be standing, but the people who built them will be gone.We are living through a remarkable period: the self-extinction of the races who, for good or ill, shaped the modern world.
Here was the culture war in demographic terms. Another prominent conservative (now close to the National Organization for Marriage) amplified his warning: her response was headed, “It’s the sex, stupid.”
But behind the problem of the West’s below replacement fertility levels, lies the problem of sex. Babies come from sex. The modern view of sex has created the demographic collapse of the West, and the human void into which Islamic fertility is rapidly flooding. … The natural purposes of sex, both procreation and spousal unity, have become strictly optional…. I submit that this view of sex is at the root of the West’s demographic death spiral.
You can see how this fed into what Putin was saying. The “demographic crisis” can’t be countered by salving its aftereffects — giving the elderly health care, or damming up immigration. You have to fight the permissive policies that make people want not to reproduce.
It’s now a steady theme of demographic alarmism that sexual permissiveness paves the away for Islamic supremacy. Steve Mosher, of the Catholic anti-abortion group Population Research International, predicted that by 2100 Europeans would serve either beneath sex-mad secular dictatorships, or shari’a-ruled ones. “Either way, believers in once-Christian Europe … will be living under regimes that punish, even persecute, them for their beliefs.” Another conservative lamented “lack of ideals, morality, and blatant debauchery among civilized society,” which meant that “Europe will eventually belong to Arabs and gypsies.” Philippe de Villiers, a right-wing French politician and sometime intimate of Nicolas Sarkozy, declared in 2009,
The reality is that we are headed for a crossover point [chassé-croisé] with, on one side, Europe and its mass abortions, its promotion of gay marriage, and on the other, immigration en masse … Europe refuses its own demographic future … In reality, there are two weapons being used by European leaders to kill Europe demographically: the promotion of gay marriage and mass abortions. And a third: the recourse to immigration that is 80% Islamic, in order to replace the people who are no longer there.
Farther east, Aleksei Ledyaev — who heads a Latvia-based Protestant church influential across the former Soviet Union, and who’s a close friend of Scott Lively –has written: “The first devastating wave of homosexuality prepares the way for the second and more dangerous wave of Islamization.”
Here’s where the World Congress of Families (WCF) started paying close attention to Russia.
The WCF is an offshoot of the caveman-conservative Rockford Institute, a think tank that achieved its greatest notoriety in 1989 when Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus broke relations, accusing it of anti-Semitism. Longtime Rockford president Allan Carlson left in 1997 to found the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society (these webs of interlocking groups remind one of Mafia fronts); the WCF was one of its first projects. On paper its main work is to hold irregular “World Congresses” assembling global “pro-family” advocates. In practice, as Kathryn Joyce wrote in 2008, it has been “a locus for heavyweight US conservative actors such as the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family — a Who’s Who of the American Christian right — to network with representatives from the Vatican, conservative Christians from developing nations and a smattering of Muslim groups seeking allies to fight gay and women’s rights at the United Nations.” As an anti-abortion organization with roots (through the parent Rockford Institute) in US nativist, anti-immigration, and racist tendencies, it found demographic thinking a natural match. It helped put together the 2008 documentary Demographic Winter, a horror film purporting to show humanity (with emphasis on nice white people) in numerical decline.
“Demographic Winter”: Be afraid, be very afraid
Like many other US right-wing groups, the WCF benefited from the door-opening, diplomatic support of the Bush administration. As that neared its expiration with no conservative renewal in sight, though, Carlson and his Congress began casting for other sponsors. They noticed, Joyce writes, potential new fields for “extremist patriarchal ideas to bloom: in Eastern European countries new to democracy and more accustomed to totalitarian traditions and an ultranationalism born of fear, poverty and porous borders.” She quotes Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice: “When you have someone powerful like Putin talking to people in these circumstances about the necessity of Russian women giving birth, then you have to worry about it — how that could be turned into policy.”
The WCF spent years courting Putin, but the climax was a 2011 conference they organized in Russia: the “Moscow Demographic Summit,” which brought together US, European and some global South right-wing and anti-reproductive rights activists to support Kremlin solutions. The spectacle of former American Cold Warriors praising a Soviet successor regime was not without irony, but “Russia is ground-zero for demographic winter,” explained WCF managing director Larry Jacobs. “If civilization is to survive, we must … devise family-centered solutions to this global crisis in the making.” Alan Keyes, a Reaganaut and former US presidential candidate, elaborated from his Moscow hotel:
When I left the U.S. on Monday, fresh in the headlines was the New York legislature’s vote to legitimize so called ‘homosexual marriage.” That event recurred to my mind again and again as I listened to speakers who impressed upon pro-life and natural-family representatives from 65 countries the sombre facts that document the enervation of natural family life in Russia … and the threat it poses to the very survival of the Russian people as such. … none of them failed to note that abortion and the breakdown of sexual mores were among the key factors contributing to the trend toward depopulation in their country.
With the US drifting into decadence while Putin purged his decks of perverts, Keyes wrote elegiacally that “America and Russia converge as ships passing in the night.”
Yelena Mizulina, chair of the Duma Committee on Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs, and later a key sponsor of anti-LGBT legislation, praised the conference’s support for “consolidation of the family, raising moral standards, and studying all the factors contributing to a higher birth rate.” Surely much of the excitement for US participants, after three years of drought under Obama, came from feeling the warm endorsement of a powerful country. But the demographic arguments also gave the happy sense of having Science on one’s side. As Keyes intoned, “some Russians have apparently learned how to distinguish between intellectual integrity and intellectual cowardice in the application of scientific methods.”
It’s worth quoting from the Summit’s closing Declaration in detail. Significantly, it’s translated from the Russian — the main audience was domestic; but it also tried to reach beyond European constituencies. Some passages mimicked Kremlin language, echoing the “Traditional Values” resolution Russia was simultaneously pressing at the UN, with its crocodile tears for indigenous cultures:
Within next three decades, the total fertility rate will go down below the population replacement level all over the world. In reality, it can happen much earlier, thus making the whole world community face the unprecedented social and historical problem of humankind survival.
We express our deep concern about the dangers of the approaching worldwide depopulation. …. In the nearest historical period, the negative demographic trends can bring about extinction of whole peoples, destruction of States, and disappearance of unique cultures and civilizations.
But mostly it catalogued “social deviations” (including the simple refusal to marry or have children) demanding militant State intervention:
We are alarmed by the fact that the family institution is in a state of grave social crisis which consists in the destruction of universal family, conjugal and parental roles based on traditional family values; in the disruption of the reproductive function of the family; in an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, caused by the imposition of contraceptive thinking (in terms of safe sex) and destructive premarital and extramarital sex patterns; in widespread divorce; in the spreading of cohabitation without marriage; in increasing numbers of single-parent families; a wave of social deviations (abortions, homosexuality, pedophilia, drug addiction, refusal of marriage and childbearing (the child-free phenomenon), prostitution, pornography, etc.); disruption of the process of socialization of young generations; cutting of ties among relatives and alienation of different generations within one family, etc.
We call on the governments of all nations and on international institutions to develop immediately a pro-family demographic policy and to adopt a special international pro-family strategy and action plan aimed at consolidating family and marriage, protecting human life from conception to natural death, increasing birth rates, and averting the menace of depopulation.
The WCF followed up in 2012 by formally establishing a Russian affiliate, its only branch outside the US. “FamilyPolicy.ru,” an “advocacy group,” lists the WCF as its main founder (one of the two others, the “Family and Demography Foundation,” is a Russian group also nebulously affiliated with the WCF) – though I see no evidence that it’s been forced to register as a “foreign agent” under Putin’s repressive anti-NGO law. Its President, Aleksei Komov, is a former management consultant with his finger in many blinis. Late the same year, the Population Research Institute wrote that — after Putin’s administration held “discussions with pro-life and pro-family groups” — Komov had assembled “hundreds of pro-life and pro-family organizations, together with large families and activists from all over the Russian Federation” into a “National Parents Association (NPA)” with him as CEO. These weird pro-Putin front groups keep multiplying. Meanwhile, in Slavic solidarity, the WCF trotted the super-busy Komov off to Belgrade last month, to drive protests against a planned Serbian gay pride march. (”Russians also represent WCF as goodwill ambassadors to the UN and European structures,” the organization writes.)
But most of what the WCF’s Moscow affiliate does is political organizing for Putin. And here’s a big time irony: a US extreme right-wing group is busily doing its bit to build a Russian strongman’s political machine.
The WCF’s Russia arm is all over the place. They organize spinoffs of their Moscow triumph: an “Ulyanovsk Demographic Summit,” “also a WCF regional event,” at which “the World Congress of Families and the Ministry of Labor and Social Development of the Russian Region of Ulyanovsk signed a historic Protocol of Intent pledging to work together to support the family and provide solutions to Russia’s well below replacement fertility rate.” These help motivate cadres of conservative Putin backers in the provinces: and almost certainly they’re a cover for Russian government money to fund the WCF. The hard-working minions also support the Kremlin’s international agenda in the near-abroad, drumming up “civil society” support in neighboring countries. Even before its incorporation, the FamilyPolicy.ru boys engineered a “Saint Petersburg Resolution on the anti-family trends in the United Nations,” with 126 pet NGOS from Russia and Ukraine condemning the “destructive aims” of “authoritative international organizations.” This June, they helped steer an “International Parents Forum” in Yalta, for groups from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova. The closing declaration took up Putin’s concern with defanging rights-based criticism: “We feel anger and indignation at the fact that the most fundamental and genuine human rights, the rights of family and parents, are being destroyed under the pretext of the protection of ‘human rights’” – adding, in a dig at Western kibitzers, “We are also concerned to see that freedom of believers is infringed in some countries of Europe.”
It’s a sign of how intimately they shelter under the Kremlin’s wing that the “World Congress of Families VIII,” the next big international confab, will be held in Moscow in September 2014. It’s like a cat proudly carrying a collection of international mice to its owner Putin. Larry Jacobs of WCF central says, “We’re convinced that Russia does and should play a very significant role in defense of the family and moral values worldwide, Russia has become a leader of promoting these values in the international arena.”
4. Putin as patron of the Right Wing 2.0
Americans are taking guided tours of Moscow all the time now. Brian Brown of the US’s “National Organization for Marriage,” it’s just been revealed, travelled there in June along with French right-wingers, to meet Duma members and express support for homophobic legislation. Scott Lively, of Uganda fame, was loping across Red Square last week. The lunatic preacher and Holocaust revisionist has longstanding ties to Russia — he serves a predominantly Slavic congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts. But what’s he doing there now? From his blog:
I participated in the planning meeting for the World Congress of Families VIII, which will take place September 2014 here in Moscow. There were representatives from several countries, all there to help the Russian planning group to ensure their conference is a success. About half the group was from the U.S., but Mexico, Spain, Italy, Serbia, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela and France were also represented.
It’s convenient for Americans to imagine that their right-wing compatriots are somehow running the show in Russia, as they may have in Uganda — laying out the basics of hate and telling Putin what to do. It’s a version that satisfies our narcissism.
But it’s not true.
Putin’s the patron here. He’s helped bring the demographic argument to the frontlines of right-wing thought. He shows how to mesh campaigns against feminism and sexual rights with xenophobia, racism, and anti-immigrant hysteria. He’s stepping in to provide State patronage that US social conservatives lost when Bush stepped down. He has money and power, and he doesn’t take directions.
I mentioned Paul Cameron at the outset. Cameron is crazed — but his rhetoric for decades was largely driven by wild theories about the individual homosexual. In recent years, though, he’s shifted. His discourse draws more and more on demographic fears. This was clear during a Moldova lecture tour in 2008. An Orthodox priest quoted him later:
It is necessary for every woman of a nation to give birth to 2.1 children, so that that nation may perpetuate, while in the Republic of Moldova, every woman gives birth to 1.3 children. In this way, the population of Moldova will be halved in 35 years. Among the factors that have brought us to this demographic disaster, it is so-called “woman’s emancipation” …
… and so on. Some time later he produced an extended tract, “Saving Society from Demographic Suicide.” It had his characteristic, charming overreach (“Does this mean that the voluntarily childless are stealing from their neighbors? Absolutely”) but otherwise it was indistinguishable from the Russian line: birth rates, fertile women, bad abortion, bad gay marriage, and all that. This language will meet a warm reception when the man makes it to Moscow at the end of this month, at the behest of a Russian Pentecostal group. (“How to Escape Demographic Murder?” Moskovskij Komsomolets headlines his junket.) If this synthetic rhetoric can penetrate a concrete bunker of a mind like Cameron’s, it can go anywhere.
I predict these arguments from demography will spread, and that women’s movements and LGBT movements everywhere will face them. It’s bad science, but — even more than conversion therapy and they-want-your-children — it’s seductive. And it lends itself to fertile new coalitions with other fear-based movements.
True, the approach, with its Islamophobic implications, may endanger the alliances with majority-Muslim governments that US conservatives painstakingly forged against sexual rights over 15 years. But Putin’s regime is far more powerful as a patron than Pakistan or Egypt. Seen from Rockford, Illinois, losing the latter to win the former isn’t a bad bargain. True, too, the origins of the argument are Eurocentric, and may prove off-putting in Africa or Asia. But Russia, with its “traditional values” rhetoric at the UN, is already trying to position itself to lead a socially conservative bloc of States in international venues. If you were Scott Mosher or Allan Carlson or Austin Ruse, you’d trust Putin with the hard work of getting Southern countries on board. Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin has already suggested this is a global duty for Russian diplomacy: “Recent events abroad have shown us the acute nature of the issue concerning the defense of traditional values. We must assert our point of view in international discussions. After all, we’re speaking on behalf of the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens.”
In the New Right 2.0 that has Putin as patron, groups like the WCF are loud — but subordinate. They’ll make their noises, but they’ll do what they’re told. When Brian Brown or Scott Lively trek to Moscow, they more and more resemble minor Soviet-era satellite dictators, a Husák or Rákosi or Gomułka come to fawn over the top dog and do obeisance. They can strut and posture and piss over the territory back in their own back yards, but they know who leads the pack.
The population panic and the argument that demography-is-destiny aren’t new. We’ve seen them before — not least as a large component of Fascist ideologies in the ’20s and ’30s. Again these anxieties are stirring in a time of economic misery, social unrest, and fear. Again they have a Great Power propagandizing for them. And again they’ve collected a motley crew of fellow travellers, not in brown shirts but in black cassocks or suits and ties. It’s a dangerous time: not because humanity is dying out, as the woman-hating doomsayers claim, but because human values of diversity, cooperation, and understanding are yet again under threat.
Time to fight back.
In Geneva, lobbying the UN largely means sitting at a round glass table in an enormous coffee bar called the Serpent. The name always gives conservative Christians the willies; they think they’re in the guts of Satan anyway. The bar lies in the imperial sprawl of the Palais des Nations. Through windows on the one side, blue Lac Leman unfurls, with the alabaster Alps beyond; on the other, government delegates lumber by, and you try to nab them on their way to cappuccinos. I slumped there one afternoon in 2004, just after Brazil, which had introduced the first-ever resolution on sexual orientation at the Commission on Human Rights, had withdrawn its efforts, partly under pressure from the Islamic bloc. For all of us who’d sustained hope for weeks, a gloom settled thick as Gauloise smoke. Three diehard resolution opponents plumped themselves down deliberately at my table. I knew them well. Two were American: Blond, taut-smiled Lynn Allred, with a perpetual whiff of hairspray, represented a shifting range of Mormon organizations; Jeanne Head, stern and square-jawed, was designated driver for several Roman Catholic anti-abortion groups. Between them sat Amr Roshdy, a strutting mass of machismo from the Egyptian mission, who had led the fight against Brazil’s resolution on the Commission floor.
A promiscuously ecumenical crew, as always: in other eras or gatherings, they might have burned each other at the stake. Only the strange power of sex brought them together — not, of course, to have sex with each other, but to dissuade anybody from having sex they didn’t like. Their alliance across deep confessional divides embodied the peculiar conjunctions that fear of feminism, and hatred of human rights, can bring about. Allred, in her organization’s newsletters, used to ladle praise on Roshdy, whose work as spokesman for the UN’s Islamic bloc surely placed him high in right-wing nightmares about the coming Caliphate. “During our time in Geneva,” she wrote, “I began to suspect that beneath Roshdy’s shirt and tie there was very likely a big red ‘S’–of the variety that Superman wore.” Was she sure it didn’t stand for “Saracen”?
As we monitored the negotiations of numerous resolutions with other pro-family non-governmental organizations, we would often pass by them in the hall, frantically looking for him. “Where’s Amr?” “Go find Amr!” “We need Amr!” He raced from room to room whenever a problem arose that required pro-family input. He saved the day on many occasions.
This day, the trio staged a little conversation for my benefit, since they knew me as chief UN representative for Satan’s sexual wiles. I remember Jeanne Head asking Roshdy theatrically, “What if the homosexuals bring this resolution back next year?” The Egyptian, loudly: “We’ll kill it.”
It’s nine years later, and a similar resolution long since passed in Geneva, and LGBT people’s rights as human rights are more safely ensconced in the UN than ever. Yet defeat for these folks is only an aphrodisiac. Their capacity to set principle aside in their political copulations is still going strong.
Consider Austin Ruse.
Ruse heads the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, better known as C-FAM, one of the most powerful anti-choice, anti-sexuality groups lobbying at the UN. I remember his dour presence from many a Geneva and New York meeting. This Friday, he published an article at Breitbart.com, the huge US right-wing website, defending Russia’s new anti-homosexual law, which he claims “human rights groups” actually support. Ruse’s intervention reveals the alliances these campaigners are trying to build.
It’s an astonishing article. Consummately smarmy, Ruse cites news reports on the anguish of queer Russian kids growing up surrounded by homophobia. And he claims he wants to help them:
[The Washington Post] tells the story of 16-year-old Maxim of Moscow who came out publically [sic] as gay at 13-years-old. He says his classmates called him names and that a teacher tried to cut his “longish hair.” …
So, who is supposed to be talking to Maxim about such a complicated and thorny issue? Should it be gay advocates who have an ax to grind? Certainly, they would like to increase their tribe … The Russian people, supported by 100 human rights and other groups from around the world, have determined that such unscientific ideologues should be kept out of schools and out of sight of school children …
Like all young people, Maxim deserves space to grow and learn and change and to be free from ideologies that may not have his best interests in mind.
There’s a Dickensian hypocrisy to Ruse’s woozy New-Ageism, his tender concern that Maxim “grow and learn and change” while kept far away from any facts that might help him feel slightly better about himself. Mind you, the “ideology” that Ruse thinks does have Maxim’s “best interests in mind” is not some spongy-soft, vodka-soaked version of family values. It’s the authoritarian State ideology of Vladimir Putin.
Ruse is on a regular campaign to prop up Putin. In another recent op-ed, he turned on gay right-wing journalist Jamie Kirchick (an ambitious, long-time brownnoser to the Breitbart empire, by the way, who must be hurt that his flattery has gone unrequited). Ruse called Kirchick “hysterical” for opposing the anti-“propaganda” legislation. He applauds the fact that Jamie and his ilk “cannot have their way with those in other countries and certainly not with the Russians who overwhelmingly support the reasonable new law.” Meanwhile, C-FAM, Ruse’s organization, has come up with the most inventive defense yet of the odious provision. By their lights, its stiff fine on anyone who produces positive information about homosexuality merely “acts as a tax on public displays of affection by homosexuals”! After all, “$155 is hardly unmanageable for homosexuals who want to kiss in public.” Taxing kisses! You’d have to admit those smooches come kind of pricy.
Finally, C-FAM helped organize a letter by 102 “pro-family” organizations (mostly European Catholic and Orthodox circles, with a few American exemplars like Linda Harvey’s weird and militant US cult) in support of the Russian law. These are the “human rights groups” Ruse refers to. The letter waxes piously indignant over the “heavy attacks” that Russia endures over its actions — though in fact, as with Syria, oil-fed nationalism seems to cushion Putin against any vestigial sensitivity to criticism he might feel.
What is up with Ruse, and his passion for Putin?
Probably most Americans reading Ruse’s recent drivel know little about him or his organization. C-FAM has a relatively small budget – $1.2 million in 2012, according to its tax filings – but outsized influence. It is the not-exactly-legitimate offspring of an anti-abortion group called Human Life International (HLI), founded in 1981. HLI’s creator, Father Paul Marx, a DC-based Catholic priest, exploited two networks to build his brainchild: Reagan-era US conservatives, and the Vatican. The former provided funding, the latter global connections. HLI grew quickly, establishing outposts across Latin America, Africa, and Europe. An odor of disreputability hung about it, though, partly from its ties to violence-inciting anti-abortion fanatics such as Randall Terry. Several times in the 1990s, Jewish leaders in the US and Canada condemned Paul Marx for a trail of anti-Semitic statements. Marx had tried to win favor with the French, for instance, by claiming:
A famous genetics professor in Paris told me that the leaders of the abortion movement in France were Jewish. I saw one, a Jewish female liar, do her thing on behalf of abortion at the World Population Conference in Bucharest.
HLI proved too controversial for the UN, which denied it consultative status in 1993. In response, its leaders set up C-FAM in 1997, as a more respectable and NGO-like front for its lobbying at the world institution. Minutes from C-FAM’s first internal meeting, obtained by the progressive group Catholics for Choice, say:
Not public knowledge that HLI is funding office. Use discretion. Initially state that we are supported by multitudes of individuals/organizations. Don’t hide the fact that HLI is funder — just don’t volunteer that fact to uncertain/non-friendly persons.
Austin Ruse, an unknown who had worked on the financial end of various magazines from Fortune to Rolling Stone, rose to be its head – perhaps because he had no spoor of embarrassing political comments behind him.
This was in the aftermath of two landmark UN meetings, which produced unprecedented affirmations of women’s sexual rights; The 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, and the 1995 Fifth World Conference on Women held in Beijing. Women’s rights opponents were on the defensive at the UN. One thing they’d learned, though, was that a critical mass of conservative States rejected reproductive freedoms, and reacted against homosexuality as a classic wedge issue. Yet many of these countries — in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — didn’t take well to HLI’s highly religious, Catholic-specific message. HLI, after all, had held panels on topics like “The Muslim Threat to the World.” This didn’t exactly go down easily with Egypt’s or Pakistan’s UN delegations.
Austin Ruse and C-FAM helped perfect a strategy of reaching out to those States. He switched rhetoric, no longer focusing exclusively on religion but on vague and elastic “traditional values,” and –- most importantly — on respect for “sovereignty,” supposedly threatened by outside forces and by international norms. I’ve written elsewhere how the latter language proved especially seductive, for repressive governments resisting human rights scrutiny. C-FAM helped them figure out how to fight back against intrusive rights advocates. Ruse talked in terms of power, not principles. He warned sympathetic countries that “UN radicals in alliance with radical lawyers and judges and other advocates around the world are attempting the greatest power grab the world has even known.”
His tactics included packing UN meetings with supporters – sometimes priests and nuns — who intimidated women’s and progressive groups, and in some cases virtually staged putsches in NGO spaces. “We attended all of the women’s meetings and essentially took them over,” he boasted. “Memos were going back from [conferences] in New York to governments in the European Union that radical fundamentalists had taken over the meeting, and that was us.”
He built close relationships with other US conservative forces, including Mormon and evangelical Protestant campaigners. After the century’s turn, he nuzzled up to the Bush White House, even moving his own office from UN Plaza to Washington in 2006. Ruse’s greatest victory, though, was in making improbable buddies out of some of the Bush administration’s international enemies. Sudan, Libya, and Iran all became his allies in fighting sexual and reproductive rights, along with China, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. C-FAM turned into one of the best friends of brutal dictatorships ever to lobby the UN.
And that tells you what’s behind Ruse’s pandering to Putin. His history of fraternal intimacy with repressive States has served him in good stead. Austin Ruse owes one to Russia’s authoritarian government, and he pays his debts.
At the UN Human Rights Council in recent years, Russia has pushed for, and passed, a resolution on “traditional values” and human rights. The initial Russian draft, Austin Ruse has written approvingly, “could easily have come from the pen of Tony Perkins at the Family Research Council” — one of America’s most far-right advocacy groups. The resolution was concocted with clever ambiguity; its passage owed partly to several Latin American states who believed, wrongly, that it might bolster indigenous people’s cultural claims. In fact, the text aims implicitly at the rights of women and minorities, shunting them into second priority behind protecting undefined customs and traditions.
Most likely, Russia’s initial motive was to strike at reproductive rights — its action in Geneva coincided with a move in Moscow to restrict abortion severely, for the first time since the fall of Communism. Ruse, however, quickly saw that the resolution, if successful, could become a tool for conservatives worldwide to roll back an array of freedoms — and crack down on LGBT people. At a time when LGBT rights seemed ascendant at the UN, Russia handed Ruse a gift. “What we are witnessing,” he declared,
is an awakening of the Russian social policy bear. Many governments have grown weary of the aggressiveness of the sexual left, now firmly ensconced in the U. N. bureaucracy and human rights machinery. … Russia seems happy to join this fight with her geopolitical competitors.
Ruse’s gratitude to the Russians makes him a reliable defender of almost any excess of Putin’s regime. He’ll go to rhetorical extremes to repay them. He added:
Some will say, that’s all well and good, but should social conservatives make common cause with a geopolitical competitor of the United States? Some will ask if we’re concerned about Russia’s domestic crackdown?
Yes on one, no on two. “Russia is far from perfect, but on social policy she is a good deal better than we are at the moment.”
There’s one small kink, but it’s unlikely to bother Ruse. It does, however, expose the lie that lingers in C-FAM’s very name: the Catholic Family Institute. The day before Austin Ruse’s Breitbart piece appeared, a new law came before the Russian Duma. It would let the State take children away from lesbian or gay parents, adding homosexuality to a list of conditions (including drug and child abuse) that give legal cause for loss of custody. “In cases when a parent has sexual contact with people of their own gender, the damage that can be inflicted on the psyche of a child is enormous,” said the bill’s sponsor, Alexei Zhuravlyov.
It’s not clear whether the bill will pass. Zhuravlyov is a member of Putin’s ruling party. More importantly, he’s a leader of Rodina (“Motherland”) a populist, neo-fascist faction sometimes called ‘Putin’s special force.” Racist and nationalist, Rodina speaks for just the right-wing constituencies that Putin is trying to peel away from the divided political opposition. There’s a good chance that, expedient as always, he’ll give them exactly what they want.
Ruse might just possibly claim he didn’t know about the anti-family bill before he mounted his latest defense of Putin. If so, Ruse is lying. Rumors of the legislation have circulated — in the Western press, too — for months. Lesbian journalist and activist Masha Gessen warned weeks ago, in the Guardian, that lawmakers had “pledged to create a mechanism for removing children from same-sex families.” She added:
In March, the St Petersburg legislator who had become a spokesman for the law started mentioning me and my “perverted family” in his interviews. I contacted an adoption lawyer asking whether I had reason to worry that social services would go after my family and attempt to remove my oldest son, whom I adopted in 2000. The lawyer wrote back telling me to instruct my son to run if he is approached by strangers and concluding: “The answer to your question is at the airport.”
So much for Austin Ruse and his hypocritical group’s “family values.” Ruse and C-FAM will watch and cheer a monstrous State tearing children from their families, if it advances their own political power.
Ruse has never cared about human rights. Ten years ago, after all, he palled around with Amr Roshdy and the Egyptian UN delegations at the very same time their government was torturing men accused of homosexual conduct in Cairo. Ruse didn’t give a damn about the blood and agony. He couldn’t give a damn about dissent, or murders, or free speech, or anybody’s rights in Russia now.
Still, Ruse’s assault on Russian families — the families his group claims to value — is a new low. “Defending families” is supposed to be his group’s reason for being, not exposing them to State annihilation. Ruse has been willing to use his own family in the past, to promote himself and his political agenda. He’s been featured on “Fathers for Good: Newsworthy Dads,” holding his children up to view. He’s exploited his daughter as example and argument, claiming the Food Network exposed her to the sight of a “lesbian chef’s” wrongful relationship:
My eight-year-old Lucy, sweet Lucy, turned to me and said: ‘Did she say wife?’ And I said, ‘No, I think she meant girlfriend.’ And Lucy said, ‘I think she said life.’ God bless the innocence of this child. But they will not let us off the mat, the ideologies who want to cram this thing down our throats no matter where we go.
But Ruse is the one who won’t let go, of the beliefs that put other parents and other kids in danger. Ruse’s own ideology matters more to him than any family. Even, I suspect, his own.
“It is true,” he said, “that you cannot commit a crime and that the right arm of the law cannot lay its finger on you irrespective of the degree of your criminality. Anything you do is a lie and nothing that happens to you is true.”
I nodded my agreement comfortably.
“For that reason alone,’ said the Sergeant, “we can take you and hang the life out of you and you are not hanged at all and there is no entry to be made in the death papers. The particular death you die is not even a death (which is an inferior phenomenon at the best) only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard, a piece of negative nullity neutralised and rendered void by asphyxiation and the fracture of the spinal string. If it is not a lie to say that you have been given the final hammer behind the barrack, equally it is true to say that nothing has happened to you.”
“You mean that because I have no name I cannot die and that you cannot be held answerable for death even if you kill me?”
“That is about the size of it,” said the Sergeant.
–Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
“A priest-ridden Godforsaken race,” James Joyce called his fellow Irish. Till about twenty years ago this was true. Ireland now is a society (Quebec in the 60s was another) that’s whirled through an extremely swift process of secularization. Damped down in part by the church-abuse scandals, weekly attendance at Mass has dropped precipitately (from close to 90% of professing Catholics twenty years ago to barely 20% now). That’s only the tip of the altar — even if many of the signs of this seismic shift might be taken for granted elsewhere in Europe. Divorce, long banned in the Constitution, became legal in 1995. You can now buy condoms without a prescription. Even the Archbishop of Dublin grudgingly acknowledges that the country’s secularization turned out to be “in great part” a benefit, like the earth revolving around the sun, which was a risky thing when first tried but seems not to have done too much damage.
As with Quebec, the status of homosexuality has served as bellwether of these changes. The State decriminalized same-sex sex in 1993, outlawed discrimination in 1998, and, three years ago, permitted civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples. Dublin is now a gay tourist destination.
Militant secularists tend to see superstition’s recession and liberty’s advance as simultaneous and inseparable. Indeed, when the patriarchal conception of personhood that dominated Irish politics for decades gave way to a modern ideal of equal citizenship, it was (to paraphrase the Archbishop) in great part good. You couldn’t ask for a worse symbol of the old, medieval-minded Ireland than the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Perhaps the non-Irish don’t know much about these; they were an appalling survival of slavery into modern times. From the 1920s on, the Church imprisoned thousands of “fallen” women — women who had sex outside marriage, or even their young children — forcing them to labor unpaid, as penance, in profit-making laundries. Many were stripped even of their identities, given a new name when they arrived at their religious jails. Many spent their lives in confinement. The government was complicit in the horrors (police often dragged girls back if they managed to escape); it allowed them in subservience to a Church that claimed large elements of State-like power. The public remained largely unaware till 1993, when one convent sold land on which a disbanded laundry had stood. 155 unmarked graves of women were discovered on the grounds.
All that is over, surely — the last laundry closed in 1996. The secular State assures that no woman or man will go nameless, that equality brings freedom. True? The gays are doing great in Ireland, after all. And yet … other kinds of sex are less lucky.
What happens during secularization? The truth is: Parts of paternalism always survive. Power is polymorphously perverse and adaptable. The secular State can all too readily assume a pastoral mantle, in the presumption that some people are unready for citizenship and need surveillance and protection.
I sometimes call this the ideology of damaged citizenship — or better, perhaps, since not all the victims are citizens, “damaged belonging.” Elements of it underlie citizenship discourses almost everywhere, since equality is always partly fictive. But I believe they’re particularly insidious where rapid changes in belief give politics a new foundation that’s insecure, untrusted, wobbly. Identifying some members of the community as damaged serves a dual purpose. It justifies the State’s power to control and intervene. And it defines certain people who resist that power as not fully members of the polity, not qualified to speak at all. It also allows religious claims and repressions to renew themselves in sheep’s clothing, in a safely secular guise. The new regime draws on the old one for support.
“Damaged belonging” is the model whenever politics starts to revolve around, not people’s claims for participation, but the State’s claims on their behalf. Sometimes these are people who genuinely need protection, like kids, though (since they aren’t allowed to speak for themselves or describe the hazards they face) the threats conjured against them often run from exaggerated to imaginary: pedophiles rather than poverty, prostitution rather than family violence. Sometimes the furor demands the State defend a purely theoretical person, the fetus. (Barney Frank’s line remains the best ever on abortion politics in the United States: “Republicans believe that life begins at conception, and ends at birth.”) Only a month ago did Ireland — extraordinarily regressive on abortion for all its liberalism in some other areas — pass a law saying that saving a mother’s life could be prioritized over preserving a fetus’s viability.
Sometimes, on the other hand, real citizens need protection from damaged citizens, or people altogether outside the citizenship pale. The poor or, that reliable staple of current European rhetoric, the migrant become the terrors.
So many of these stories come together in … the sex worker. Sex workers number among the demanding, undeserving poor. They’re migrants not neighbors, people from Out There coming to claim our benefits and corrupt our shores. On the other hand, they recruit our children into prostitution. And of course, having done that, they want the State to kill their fetuses for them. (A UK abolitionist site, despite couching itself as feminist, condemns “risk of pregnancy [and] high abortion rate” among the “hazards of prostitution.”)
Last November, Ireland’s government, under pressure from anti-prostitution campaigners, announced a review of the country’s laws on sex work. (Ireland effectively decriminalized buying and selling sex in the 1980s, but soliciting and brothel-keeping remain illegal, accompanied by the usual sweeping laws against loitering.) The ultimate aim was to impose the so-called “Swedish model,” which criminalizes the purchaser of sex. The campaign to put the screws on the government offers interesting insight into how religious forces ensure their influence in the supposedly secular State. Ruhama was one of the main players. What a nice womany group, down to its ecumenical-lefty name (Hebrew for “renewing life”)! It says on its website that it
regards prostitution as violence against women and violations of women’s human rights. ‘Prostitution and the accompanying evil of trafficking for prostitution, is incompatible with the dignity and worth of every human being’ – UN Convention 1949. We see prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it as being deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation.
This defense of “gender equality” is nice. But coming from Ruhama? Weird.
In fact, Ruhama is a project of the Catholic Church, not previously noted for its attachment to the idea. When it was founded in 1993, its registered office (legal headquarters, that is) was the Provincialate of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Dublin. In 1995, it changed digs (moving as often as Simon Dedalus!) to the Dublin address of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. In 1998 it moved again, relocating with the Sisters of Mercy. And in 2002 it found its final resting place, at least till today, at All Hallows College, a private Catholic school (directed by the Vincentians, a collection of orders that counts the Sisters of Charity in its family). They must feel nervous, typing UN language into their computers in these sacral locations; isn’t there some anti-Antichrist software on hand? But “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” That’s Luke 10:19.
Sr. Angela Fahy (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 1993-2000
Sr. Evelyn Fergus (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1996
Sr. Jennifer McAleer (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1995
Sr. Noreen O’Shea (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1998, 2003-2008
Sr. Helena Farrell (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 1995-2000
Sr. Johanna Horgan (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1995-2005
Sr. Aileen D’Alton (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1996-2000
Sr. Margaret Burke (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity) 1996-2006
Sr. Ann Marie Ryan (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 2000-2004
Sr. Clare Kenny (Good Shepherd Sisters), 2008-2009
It’s like Sister Act! Ruhama, as a service organization, also gets tons of Irish government money, some of which it then uses to lobby the Irish government for anti-prostitution laws. The whole thing illustrates the easy way that religious mandates can be repackaged, to mesh with and support State power.
But it’s more than that. Both of these religious orders ran Magdalene Laundries for decades. Their hands are stained with the sweat of the women who worked there, and the blood of the women who died there. These God-fearing enforcers are the “fallen” people, and not even their own slave laundries could wash them clean. The orders’ offers of compensation to the survivors of abuse have been risibly inadequate, and they’ve continued to rake in money from the properties where the horrors happened. (In land sales in 2006 alone, the Sisters of Mercy “received €32m for a 16-acre tract in Killarney. And the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold the site adjoining its Magdalene Laundry in High Park Dublin for €55m.”) Now, with consummate sliminess, they are using a feminist-sounding front to campaign against sex work, on the grounds that it’s — get this — “slavery.” Or as they put it: Ruhama’s “view is that trafficking for sexual exploitation,” into which they lump all prostitution, “is a contemporary form of slavery, with a distinctly gendered bias.” Really! (On its off days when it’s not oppressing sex workers, the Holy See doesn’t even like the word “gender.”) Ambrose Bierce called hypocrisy “prejudice with a halo,” and you can see why.
The Joint Oireachtas (Parliament) Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality held hearings on the prostitution laws in early 2013. These were a stacked, tilted joke. The official record shows that only one speaker from the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland was allowed to testify. There were twenty-three witnesses from member groups in the Ruhama- inspired, anti-sex-work Turn Off the Red Light campaign, including two from Ruhama alone. That isn’t democracy, it’s a sing-along; you might as well listen to the Vienna Boys’ Choir. But then, as Flann O’Brien told his readers years ago, ““The majority of the members of the Irish parliament are professional politicians, in the sense that otherwise they would not be given jobs minding mice at crossroads.”
One academic delicately complimented Turn Off the Red Light for “a brilliantly run campaign” which “rested on a shaky foundation, that of limited comprehensive knowledge about the actual nature … of prostitution in Ireland.” No surprises, then: in June, the legislators recommended the Swedish model, criminalizing all purchase of sexual services. They unanimously added other, still more draconian proposals. People who provide accommodation to sex workers would be criminalized — meaning that indoor sex work (by far the safest kind) will be illegal, and sex workers can be driven from their homes. The Gardaí (police) would be able to disconnect any phone suspected of being used by a sex worker: an effort, as activists note, to
cut off sex workers’ access to communication by phone – which would affect them in all aspects of their life, not merely their sex work activity…. Denying sex workers the right to use telephones could also have adverse effects for their safety, by making it impossible for them to use “ugly mugs” schemes that alert them to dangerous clients, or preventing them calling for help if attacked.
And, incredibly, “the accessing of web sites – whether located in the State or abroad – that advertise prostitution in the State should be treated in the same way as accessing sites that advertise or distribute child pornography.” This is absurd on innumerable grounds, but it’s also horrible. Even a sex worker who checks ads (say, to see what the competition are doing) could be arrested.
Outreach health and social service workers who engage with sex workers through these sites, as well as sex industry researchers, would also be affected. It goes without saying that this proposal would require a significant expansion of the apparatus already in place to monitor Irish internet usage.
This is damaged belonging with a vengeance. In the name of protecting sex workers, they’re cut off from phones and from the Internet; not just buying their services but contacting them virtually becomes criminal; the law treats and insults them as exploited children, “fallen” and powerless, and all in the name of protection. Down that road lie the Magdalene Laundries that Ruhama’s founders used to run.
Already, even before a law’s been passed, the deprivation of basic rights is starting. As I noted in a previous post, police in Ireland have rarely if ever used the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order), a tool of repression common in the UK, one that allows jailing suspects even for acts that are not illegal. But not long after the Oireachtas report, the Gardaí in Limerick sought ASBOs against eight alleged sex workers, mostly Romanian, to strip them of freedom of movement in the city’s center. Years in prison just for showing their faces on certain streets! Once you’ve become a non-person, as Flann O’Brien’s policeman explained, the law’s letter doesn’t matter because you have no name. Anything can be done to you.
The great blog on sex workers’ rights El estante de la Citi has recently posted an analysis of Ireland’s anti-sex-work panic that appeared in the underground magazine Rabble. I recommend the blog. It’s in Spanish, and in fact also offers a Spanish translation of the same piece, and as soon as I opened it Google Translate kicked in on my browser, to turn it back into English — this is globalization in action. Thus I discovered that Google translates “las Lavanderías de las Magdalenas” (Magdalene Laundries) as “Cupcake Scrub.” (It’s probably a tribute to the Spanish-speaking world’s own secularization process that “Magdalenas” first reminds an electronic brain of not the saint, but the sweet.) But this made me remember some of the awful names of anti-sex work purges that police have mounted in the past. New York had “Operation Flush the Johns” this year. Rio de Janeiro, where police crack down lethally on sex workers all the time, has seen Operation Shame, Operation Sodom, Operation Princess, and Operation Come Here Dollbaby. Who is to say that Operation Cupcake Scrub isn’t part of Ireland’s repressive future?
I want to close simply by quoting some of the Rabble article:
The Magdalene Laundries existed to control women’s lives, and made money, but rescuing modern Ireland’s fallen women is worth quite a bit too. You could never be certain of their motivations but you can certainly speculate as to why some organisations are involved in this. Laura Lee [a sex worker activist] says of the motivations: “Their agenda seems to be nothing more than continued funding. Government funding and salaries. It suits them to portray the sex industry in a very bad light. The rescue industry is worth big money. They’re all saying we’re pimped and trafficked —even if we’re jumping up and down saying no we’re not.” When actual sex workers are telling a different story to TORL [Turn Off the Red Light], you could be forgiven for asking the awkward question, ‘Who might know the most about being a sex worker?’ …
Rachel, a Romanian escort working in Dublin for the past number of years questioned [the claims that Ruhama and TORL make], and the absence of sex workers own voices in the debate. … “They say they want to fight against human trafficking but all the escorts I know work of their own free will. I remember the raid last year, 200-ish accommodations were searched by the police and they didn’t find one single escort who was trafficked or working against her will.”
But despite the good intentions of those who are genuinely behind TORL it doesn’t take away from the fact that criminalising buyers makes things more dangerous for sex workers. The fear of the potential consequences of criminalisation are pretty evident for Rachel: “If condoms will be used as a proof of sex with a client (if it is criminalised) then sex workers might stop using them.” The repercussions of this type of fear for the health of the women and their clients is obvious.
Criminalisation pushes the industry further underground and creates more pimps. It also gives the Gardai more control over these women’s lives. And it means that two women who are both sex workers and share an apartment for safety and security might be convicted of brothel-keeping. … Sure, just bring back the Good Shepherd Sisters, Ireland still needs to be saved. You can’t be having filthy, dirty, sinful, sex for money. No, you should be out cleaning jaxes for minimum wage. If you can’t pay your ESB bill or put food on the table for your kids? Well so be it. Better than being a whore and all that.
Correction: The first version of this blog post incorrectly attributed the Rabble article to activist anthropologist Laura Agustin — mainly because the post that followed it in El estante de la Citi actually was an article by Agustin, and my eyes blurred from having too many browser windows open. My apologies. Be sure, though, to check out Agustin’s blog at The Naked Anthropologist, for plenty of excellent insights on trafficking, sex work, and morality policing that are indisputably hers.
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?
“Republicans believe,” said Barney Frank, “that life begins at conception and ends at birth.” The US right wing’s obsession with the fertilized ovum, and indifference to human welfare once the human departs the womb, has dominated politics for forty years. Now, a bit of Scroogeish, misogynistic, anti-abortion nastiness by the Republican Congress has prompted the Obama administration to do something good for men as well as women, lesbians and gays and trans people alike. Here’s how.
a) Modelling Rape
Where to start talking about US law? 52 criminal codes are in force within its borders, an overall Federal code and one for each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. One launching point might be the Model Penal Code (MPC) — particularly because its most influential iteration, launched in 1962, is 50 years old this year.
The MPC was a reform proposal put forward by progressive attorneys, academics, and judges. Criminal laws five decades ago were a mess. One study says lawbooks typically offered “less a code and more a collection of ad hoc statutory enactments, each triggered by a crime or a crime problem that gained public interest for a time.” They were so contradictory that a versatile reprobate who committed a serious offense while straddling an interstate border might have to be cut in half before the disparate definitions and penalties could be applied. The Model Penal Code became a template for reforms in the 60s and 70s, and helped bring unprecedented regularity and predictability to the jungle of statutes. It was one of the most influential documents in modern US history, rivaling the writings of Dr. Seuss, James Patterson, and Ronald Reagan.
Yet to understand US law today you also have to look at ways the MPC was ahead of its, and our, time –and some of the ways it fell short. On the former note: in the US today just over 50% of inmates in federal prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses, along with around 20% of those in state prisons; the number imprisoned under drug laws has multiplied twelvefold since 1980; as a result the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. It brings heartbreaking reflections on the police state we live in now to read that in the innocence of half a century ago,
the Model Code included no drug offenses. In an appendix to the Code’s special part, the drafters merely remarked that “a State enacting a new Penal Code may insert additional Articles dealing with special topics such as narcotics, alcoholic beverages, gambling and offenses against tax and trade laws.”
Talk about laws “triggered by a crime or a crime problem that gained public interest for a time.” When will the time stop?
One way in which US law has moved forward rather than back, though, is in gender. It’s not just Title VII and protection of women from job discrimination: the law has at least partly discarded notions of men as engorged agency, and women as protected victims. The Model Penal Code defined sexual offenses in patriarchal style, drawn from English common law. While the Code did favor scrapping sodomy statutes — and gave impetus to a movement that culminated in Lawrence v Texas forty years later — it defined rape as a male having forced “sexual intercourse with a female not his wife.” Use of force was especially important to the Code’s definition. The commentaries attached to the Code made clear that prosecutions should require “objective manifestations of aggression by the actor” — in effect, proof of injury, and, implicitly, concomitant evidence of the victim’s physical resistance. It reflected a belief both that women were prone to inventing rape stories, and that refusing consent didn’t just mean saying “no,” but fighting back. (Undoubtedly, though, the 1962 Code’s drafters took into account how black men accused of raping white women — with well-publicized cases staining the early Civil Rights era — faced travesty trials and penalties including death.)
As one scholar says,
relatively soon after the Code’s 1962 publication, the Code’s sexual offense provisions … were already considered outdated. The rapid onslaught of the sexual and feminist revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s brought an intense momentum to change rape laws that the Code had, in part, either mirrored or inspired.
Over the next decades, most states moved beyond the Model Code, criminalizing marital rape and defining rape and sexual assault in gender-neutral fashion — so that rape of men, or of women by women, could be recognized as such. Bizarre provisions remain (Mississippi has a steeper sentence for “assault with intent to ravish” if the victim was “chaste” beforehand) but the crazy-quilt is measurably less mad. Congress made the definition of rape in federal law (mainly covering military personnel) gender-neutral in 1996.
b) Damned lies and statistics
When conservatives won the 2010 elections, among their prime targets, predictably, was abortion. “Republicans ran in 2010 on job creation and deficit reduction,” one critic says, “but have used many of their newfound majorities across the country to attack women’s reproductive rights.” In state legislatures, they introduced almost 400 anti-choice bills by April 2011 — nearly twice as many as in the previous year. At the national level, they went after federal funding for abortions.
The 1976 Hyde Amendment prohibited such funding except in case of rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life. Congressional Republicans now tried tightening restrictions with the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which the new House Speaker deemed a high priority. It proposed to eliminate federal funding except in the event of what it called “forcible rape.” While the bill didn’t define the term, it clearly looked over its shoulder at the Model Penal Code’s stipulations. It would have ruled out Federal assistance for statutory rape or date rape, or in situations where the victim was drugged, unconscious or mentally incompetent. In all these cases, Republicans would offer the fetus inflicted by sexual violence new rights, stripping the irrelevant woman of her old ones. “This bill takes us back to a time when just saying ‘no’ wasn’t enough to qualify as rape,” a feminist lawyer explained. (The act also aimed to ban funding for abortions by incest victims, except for women under the age of 18.)
The stealth attempt to sneak a redefinition of rape into Federal law failed — under furious pressure, House Republicans dropped the idea. But the conservatives had one argument in their favor. The “forcible rape” language existed elsewhere in Federal policy, if not in Federal law. Specifically, the FBI had long used the definition in its Uniform Crime Report (UCR) Summary Reporting System (SRS). Yearly, the FBI collects statistics on law enforcement around the country, and with these produces what the Justice Department calls “the national ‘report card’ on serious crime; what gets reported through the UCR is how we, collectively, view crime in this country.” Its information-gathering guidelines still referred to “forcible rape,” identifying it as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” The terms hadn’t changed since the salad days of J. Edgar’s FBI: they dated from 1927.
Feminist advocates had pushed to change the language for years, but it was probably the Republican revival of “forcible rape” that focused the Obama administration’s attention. By mid-2011, an FBI committee endorsed replacing the Uniform Crime Report terminology. On January 6, 2012, Obama’s Justice Department announced, with some fanfare, that Summary Crime Reporting would use new guidelines in defining rape.
The new definition is:
The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.
The Justice Department says,
For the first time ever, the new definition includes any gender of victim and perpetrator, not just women being raped by men. It also recognizes that rape with an object can be as traumatic as penile/vaginal rape. This definition also includes instances in which the victim is unable to give consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity. Furthermore … the new definition recognizes that a victim can be incapacitated and thus unable to consent because of ingestion of drugs or alcohol. Similarly, a victim may be legally incapable of consent because of age. … Physical resistance is not required on the part of the victim to demonstrate lack of consent.
This does not change the laws that govern prosecutions — though the move, and the resulting statistics, may pressure jurisdictions that don’t define rape in gender-neutral terms, or persist with a definition based on force, to jumpstart legal reform. But, as the director of the Women’s Law Project says, the new policy means “properly measuring the extent of rape in America.” The New York Times pointed out,
Many states have long since adopted a more expansive definition of rapes in their criminal laws, and officials said that local police departments had been breaking down their numbers and sending only a fraction of the reported rapes to the F.B.I. to comply with outdated federal standards. For example, the New York Police Department reported 1,369 rapes in 2010, but only 1,036 were entered in the federal figures. However, the police department in Chicago, which had nearly 1,400 reported sexual assaults in 2010, refused to discard cases that did not fit the narrower federal definition when reporting its crime statistics; as a result, the F.B.I.’s uniform crime report — which reported 84,767 forcible rapes that year — did not include any rapes from that city.
Now it will be important to see whether acknowledging diverse victims of rape, including men as well as women, leads to disaggregated reporting of their identities in future Uniform Crime Reports. Who suffers sexual violence in the US? We have a chance to find out.
Brazil has its first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, as you may be aware. Why, then, is a Brazilian feminist complaining that “The government wants to send Dilma into our bodies? I’m feeling stabbed anyway. And what is worse: in the back!”
Because Rousseff’s administration is cooperating with those black-and-blue forces, the Church and the Law, that want to find out exactly what is happening inside women’s organs. The day after Christmas, the President, along with the Ministry of Health, promulgated a new decree that creates –what should one call it?– a state-sponsored speculum, ready to inspect women’s reproductive systems willy-nilly.
Provisional Measure 557 (MP 557) creates a “National System of Registration, Tracking and Follow-up of Pregnant and Puerperal Women for the Prevention of Maternal Mortality.” It aims, so it says, “to ensure better access, coverage and quality of maternal health care, notably for pregnant women at risk.” And it mandates “universal registration of pregnant women and mothers, to enable identifying pregnant and postpartum women at risk, and assessment and monitoring of health care they received during prenatal care, childbirth and postpartum care.” Registered pregnant women will be eligible for up to R$50 (around $27 USD) in assistance. The measure states, in Article 19-J, that “public and private health services are required to ensure pregnant women and the unborn the right to safe and humane pre-natal care, delivery, birth, and postpartum care.”
It is, as Brazil’s authorities surely know, hard to criticize measures couched in the admirable goal of preventing material mortality. But the scary thing for women about this huge new surveillance mechanism is that the decree explicitly elevates “the unborn” as rights-bearers to the same status as the mothers. Brazil, which many calculate is the largest Catholic nation in the world, bans abortion except in the case of rape, severe genetic abnormalities, or danger to the mother’s life. Women face prosecution and prison if they terminate a pregnancy. Yet a 2010 study showed that one in five Brazilian women has had an abortion, and the Health Ministry estimates that 200,000 are hospitalized each year as a result of unsafe, clandestine procedures.
As opposed to its neighbors, Uruguay (which is on the verge of decriminalizing abortion) and Argentina (which saw a first-ever parliamentary debate on the subject last year), Brazil seems determined to reinforce its draconian restrictions. According to Maria José Rosado, of Catholics for Free Choice in Brazil, a member of Congress has previously proposed a similar pregnancy registry, “declaring his objective loud and clear: to fight abortion.” The Chamber of Deputies is now considering a bill to pay a pregnant rape victim who does not have an abortion a minimum wage until the child reaches 18 — creating what activists call a “rape pension.”
Brazilian feminists show little doubt that MP 557, which was launched without any consultation with women’s movements, can and will be used to control reproductive freedom.The clear parallel to the new database in the land of “order and progress” is the practice of Romania’s defunct Communist dictatorship. Nicolae Ceaușescu, obsessed with raising his country’s birth rate, banned both abortion and birth control. He required all women of childbearing age to undergo regular, six-month gynecological exams. Someone who proved pregnant at one examination had to come back in half a year with a child, a bigger fetus, or a good explanation. So unpopular was the regime of pro-natal surveillance that the abortion and contraception bans were the first measures scrapped by Romania’s post-revolutionary government in 1989.
What Ceaușescu did in the name of nationalism, Rousseff pursues as part of a prolonged political flirtation with Catholic and evangelical forces. Feminist activist Fátima Oliveira says:
Unfortunately … Dilma, who is our first female president, is throwing in the trash all the commitments made by Brazil in the arenas of the United Nations in the area of women’s health. Together with Brazilian women’s struggle for full health care and sexual and reproductive rights, which began in the military dictatorship. A setback of 30 years, unprecedented. …
I have the moral authority to say what I say now, because at the time of the Constituent Assembly [the 1988 convention that wrote Brazil’s democratic constitution], I have collected many signatures for freedom of religion in Brazil. I defend the right of everyone in authority to have the religion they want. Only that religion is a thing of personal intimacy, for domestic consumption. The religions of the rulers can not be the rule for the exercise of public power. In public office, religious issues cannot be conducting public policy. …
It’s time to say to the government that our bodies belong to us and cannot be a bargaining chip with anyone.