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Conservatives: Sex Is Bad Unless We're the Ones Having It

Sex is wrong and dirty for poor people. Everyone else, carry on.

Conservative leaders know they have a sex problem. On one hand, they know that raising the alarm about how the sex-havers are out of control is a time-tested way to rally the troops by creating fear and resentment of other people’s sex lives. Witness any hand-wringing story about “hook-up culture,” if you have any doubt. On the other hand, sex is, well, popular, and not just among the liberals and young feminists conservatives like to demonize. Pretty much everyone has it and wants to have it, even people who are easily angered and agitated at the idea of other people having it.

Taking a blanket view against non-procreative sex or premarital sex, while popular with a handful of hardline social conservatives, is politically toxic, and not just in the mainstream. So conservative leaders have come to realize that they need to have it both ways: An ability to demagogue about the supposed sexual evil that is dragging the country down into the gutter while allowing their audiences to make an exception for themselves and their own sex lives.

In other words, conservatives need to believe that their own sex lives are wholesome while maintaining the belief that everyone else is going to hell. And their leaders are continuously trying to find new ways to encourage that hypocrisy.

The most in-your-face example from CPAC of a conservative trying to let an audience know that sex is okay for them but not for other people came from the mouth of the ever-blunt Ann Coulter. She lamented what she perceived as a paucity of lectures aimed at lower-income people for having sex.

“Shaming is good, this is how, I mean it’s almost a cruel and selfish thing, for lack of a better term, for the upper classes, the educated, for the college graduates to refuse to tell the poor people, keep your knees together before you’re married,” she complained, even though anyone who is interested in those lectures can tune into Fox News on any given night and hear wealthy conservatives opine on the sex lives of everyone else. But the message to the people in the audience couldn’t be clearer: Sex is wrong and dirty for those people, the poor people. For you, carry on.

The attacks on contraception on display at CPAC played this same game with the audience, where the speakers tried to convince the crowd that yeah, they think sex is generally dirty and wrong, but not, of course, when the people in the audience do it. There was little doubt that Sarah Palin’s speech at the conference was working negative stereotypes about female sexuality. She didn’t go as far as Rush Limbaugh in outright using the word “slut” to describe any woman who supported insurance coverage of contraception, but she did basically go there anyway. “They seem to think that the women of America are cheap dates,” she said of the Democrats. “Feed ‘em a few lines about that free birth control, throw in some scary quotes about the war on women, and they will be yours.”

For all that Palin is routinely assumed be a bit half-witted, the metaphor was a masterful method of appealing to her audience’s contradictory desires to shame other people for having sex while retaining the ability to feel good about their own sex lives. It has plausible deniability in it, since she never technically says that sex is wrong. It’s tempting to write it off as a folksy metaphor—that’s certainly Palin’s cover story if she’s called out on it!—but nevertheless, she managed to tie “free birth control” to the phrase “cheap dates,” invoking the idea of sluttiness to discredit Democratic voters without saying anything specific that might implicate the sexual choices of the audience.

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