Culture Warriors vs. Sex for Pleasure: Why the Right Wing is Wrong When it Comes to Sex
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From the beginning I knew I was being bad. Between mooning over Aquaman and fantasizing about stealing Speed Racer away from Trixie, new ways of coupling danced warm and fuzzy in my childhood head. When my dad would tuck me into the bunk bed I shared with my brother, he’d wish me sweet dreams of ice cream and Disneyland. I’d close my 7-year-old eyes, nod, and picture yummier treats of my latest crush. One high-mileage scenario involved me as the sexy space alien who Captain Kirk ultimately conquered. I’d vary skin colors, adornments of allure and spirited resistance, but always end up in the sweaty brutish embrace of the manliest man in the universe.
One night when a senior in high school, washing dishes with my mom, I asked her when it was okay to have sex. I had decided to never be a wife or mother, since from what I could see both meant the death of who you are and whatever dreams of becoming more. But the push and pull I played with boys at school had become more urgent, so I tried for parental guidance.
“When you get married,” said Mom, who had three kids by the age of 20. A virgin from a Mexican Catholic family, she fell for a cat whistle on a California beach by my Dad, a high school dropout who grew up in orphanages and reform school, and sported tattoos, such as skull and cross bones, and an electric chair.
“But what if I never get married?”
“Then you never have sex.”
We continued washing and drying in silence. End of conversation.
Like most Americans from strict traditional homes, I’d learn the hard way that having no framework other than “death do you part” for deciding when, how, if, and with whom to express your sexuality offers more pitfalls than protection.
The stories I’ve told myself about sex and self have shifted dramatically since I was kicked out of my house at 17. From being a born-again Christian taught that man was made for God and woman for man, Barbie the cheerleader whose primary survival tool was flirting, and Sergeant Riscol the tank mechanic who voted for President Reagan—to now feminist mom and sex journalist—I’ve traveled Star Trek planets to know the danger of absolutes, and the pleasure of moral agency and self-determination.
“The world is a different place now,” sighed my staunch Republican Christian mom over the phone recently after I hesitated to accept her Facebook friend request, knowing my daily riffs on sex and gender controversies counter her beliefs. Yes, times have changed! Turns out the sexiest man on the Enterprise isn’t Captain Kirk, but equality activist, Mr. Sulu, who married his boyfriend of 21 years and wields searing humor against institutionalized homophobia, including posting a YouTube “It Gets Better” video telling young queers, real or perceived, ignore the loser bullies and don’t kill yourself.
New media is revolutionizing the stories our nation tells itself about sex. The biggest difference since the Internet’s information explosion is we can see that there’s not just one way to love, desire or bond. Alas, it’s not just white men who can fuck for fun as in the Victorian era when horny women were diagnosed as hysterical and men brought home syphilis to their wives during prostitution’s heyday. And today’s tabloid microscope reveals how grim heteronormative fairy tales can be whether following America’s sweetheart Sandra Bullock, champion Tiger Woods, or Disney’s latest Princess Lolita pop star.
Now we see Doogie Howser’s studly Neil Patrick Harris all grown up and posing in bed with his jammy-clad husband and co-daddy, exploding the myth that only lipstick lesbians and the child-free are sexy. We see La Vida Loca’s Ricky Martin, come out not just as the hot hip swiveling gay everyone rumored him to be, but a Puerto Rican who defied his church and macho culture to give his twin boys the hope of a more authentic future. We see Sex in the City’s Cynthia Nixon, who fell in love with a woman after a lifetime of loving men, reluctantly come out as bisexual to push against labels and the premise that “born this way” alone determines sexual rights. We see Sonny and Cher’s baby doll, Chastity, costumed in blond curls and frilly dresses, now more happy and whole as a burly suited Chaz.
This is just a drip of change’s color into nostalgia’s black-and-white bucket of yearning for the way we never were, starring the fifties’ Father Knows Best and Sandra Dee’s virginity. No matter that beneath Dee’s “good girl” gloss was an incest survivor, divorced at 22, and a lonely life of anorexia, alcoholism and depression. Times were simpler back in the good ol’ days of sexual purity when guys were predators, girls were gatekeepers, and anyone in between stayed in the closet.
The more things change, the more the fearful need to make things stay the same, to harness humanity’s most unpredictable, transformative force, sex—seemingly the only reachable target on modernity’s super highway. So as the speed of technological breakthroughs, globalization and pornification of America escalates, traditionalists pick their fight with envelope-pushing Cher’s kid, and campaign to kick earnest Chaz off of Dancing with the Stars. Because what do we tell our children?
Just as corporations market sexual fear and insecurity to sell products, religious and political alliances package moral panics to fundraise and secure alliances, and traditional media plays off of both for ratings. Smut and Sanctimony pushes out all other sexual stories in the land of unfettered capitalism, Citizen United, tabloid media and celebrity fetish.
Pop culture competes by pumping out ever more shocking sleaze to even younger demos until you’re looking at toy stripper poles and pimp squad tees for the toddler set. The reactionary right points to commodified sexual sludge that oozes from their sacred free market and wails how liberals, feminists and homosexuals are the source of our toxic culture. And our infotainment media, driven by the fortune formula of conflict-generating cable news and character-assassinating talk radio, ramps up the binary between Republican righteousness and Democratic deviance.
No wonder Fox News, hatched by Nixon propagandist turned GOP kingmaker Roger Ailes, shot to multibillion-dollar stardom as America’s number one cable news network for the past ten years. It perfected a smut and sanctimony narrative as the soul of a team-building, policy-changing culture war. No news network played more slo-mo shots of Janet Jackson’s nipple shield ripped bare at the 2004 Super Bowl to expose how scary the liberal threat to real America, though an appeals court overturned the FCC indecency fine in Fall 2011. Or looped more outraged close-ups of Madonna kissing Britney Spears at MTV’s 2003 Video Music Awards to decry Hollywood’s assault on American values.
One needs only to view the NSFW FoxNewPorn.com of actual Fox News footage featuring young, pulsating female flesh—including a split screen shot of Spring Break tits and ass next to a Florida policeman talking about a serial rapist—to see how scary sex is today. Just what do we tell our children?
Well, Fox News’ biggest star and scandalous b-roller, Bill O’Reilly—who published a children’s book at the same time he settled a multimillion-dollar sexual harassment suit—is “looking out for you.” The self-promoted Culture Warrior makes mega millions through his bloviating show and bestselling books pitting traditionalists against secular progressives out to destroy America by squashing Judeo-Christian values. Amplifying the terroristic climate of “pro-life” radicals stalking abortion providers, a rabid O’Reilly repeatedly called Dr. George Tiller a baby killer until the beloved grandfather—whose credo was “trust women”—was gunned down when serving as an usher in his church.
During several earlier shows O’Bully attacked as pervert and pedophile Kansas University professor Dennis Daily—a highly respected, award winning sex educator, who developed the foundational Circles of Sexuality model used by educators to teach sex beyond the genitals—until Daily was exonerated of the politically motivated charges by a “family values” state senator.
Over 10 years of covering America’s sexual schizophrenia, I’ve noted how purity pundits, preachers and politicos sell a retro feel-good salve of simplicity for society's complex modern ills. Like tax cuts for the economy and bombing for security, abstinence-only-unless-married is the conservative movement’s magic potion for social stability, the silver bullet to slay the sexual dragon we call freedom. We’re all casualties in a culture war that reduces our basest, most transcendent drive to extremes. Youth, women, queers, the poor, and ethnic minorities are left to flounder under the intensified hypocrisy and mixed messages of a nation that can't move beyond sexuality's marital ideal or commodified reality.
If prescribing to dogmatic absolutes worked, then the most conservative Christian red states wouldn’t have the highest rates of teen pregnancy, divorce and porn consumption. The fallen Colorado megachurch Pastor Ted Haggard, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, weekly confidant to chastity-in-chief George W. Bush and fierce opponent of same sex marriage, wouldn’t have betrayed his family by sharing three years with a male prostitute and crystal meth. And 2012 GOP presidential candidate and family values warrior Newt Gingrich wouldn’t have been cheating on his second wife (who he cheated with on his first) while impeaching President Clinton for lying about a blowjob.
Yet sexual debates—reduced to purity vs. perversion, abstinence vs. condoms, monogamy vs. infidelity, good vs. evil—remain reliable fodder to divide and conquer. Advocates of sexual sanity working to shift the story from rhetoric to reality are scapegoated, demonized and marginalized. Really, America, whose side do you want to be on: the “Kinsey child rapist, Margaret Sanger eugenicist, Planned Parenthood Holocaust” Left or God and Country’s Right? Despite talk of jobs, smaller government, and freedom, today’s Republican party is all bedroom politics to squash sexual freedom, with theoconservative culture warriors marching us back to greatness by dismantling modern gains in sexual health education and services, civil rights and science.
Last fall in Washington, D.C, at the Values Voters Summit—hosted by designated hate-group and influential Beltway insider Family Research Council—I sat in at one breakout session moderated by young undercover media activist Lila Rose, infamous for her sketchily edited “sex slavery” video stinging Planned Parenthood. A rapt audience fumed as a repentant former Planned Parenthood employee talked of aborted baby parts being sold to soup and cosmetics companies for research. In another session, The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector—author of Welfare Reform’s abstinence-only-unless-married provision—blamed college coeds on contraception having babies out of wedlock for the decline of the American family.
On the big stage, I watched seven GOP presidential candidates trip over themselves to prove who was the most anti-gay and anti-choice. Bowing to America’s Constitutional rights “endowed by our Creator,” all pledged to reinstate Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, defund Planned Parenthood and Title X Family Planning, enshrine “One Man, One Woman” marriage, and overturn Obamacare—Christian warrior dog whistle for free on-demand, if not forced, abortion.
Favored son and leading GOP contender Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum— whose motto mirrors FRC’s Faith, Family and Freedom—boldly stands against sexual freedom and the “dangers of contraception in this country.” Campaigning last fall, he made clear that contraception is “not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be…. And all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure.” He explained that his anti-sex for pleasure stance translates into important public policy issues with a “profound impact on the health of our society.”
Yes, in a Republican America, sex is supposed to be only one way and that’s procreative. As the rest of the developed world—which by all societal indicators enjoys far greater sexual health—embraces sexual pleasure as a human right, as does the United Nations and World Health Organization, the United States legislates against it. One must wonder both what century it is, and if America is a democracy or theocracy.
Though 99% of U.S. women use birth control, all four GOP presidential finalists flashed their conservative anti-pleasure cred by siding with Catholic bishops against contraception. Opponents actually scored points by slamming frontrunner Mitt Romney for not, when governor of Massachusetts, exempting Catholic-affiliated hospitals from making rape victims aware of emergency contraception, which prevents ovulation, thus pregnancy. Compassionate conservatism is so yesteryear.
Absurd media coverage of whose rights trumps whose in controlling women’s sexual and reproductive health, includes MSNBC’s Morning Joe featuring an all-male panel debating about the all-male panel testifying before Congress against President’s Obama’s insurance mandate for contraception coverage. Republicans refused to allow the one female witness for preventative healthcare equality. So Democrats convened a separate panel, where Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke testified on behalf of the many women who suffer humiliation and unconscionable consequences from moral-conscience blocked access to prescribed birth control. One such story involved Fluke’s friend, a 32-year-old lesbian who had to have her ovary surgically removed after a ruptured cyst, and is headed for early menopause and infertility.
Fluke was thanked for speaking out by the moral voice of the conservative movement and GOP leader, Rush Limbaugh, who called her a “slut” and “prostitute” for wanting to have “sexy, sexy time on my dime,” as Daily Show’s Jon Stewart puts it. The multimillionaire media mogul spent 53 hours over three days on his national radio show hammering away on private citizen Fluke for having SO much sex. Working himself up into a lurid frenzy, he wondered who bought her condoms in sixth grade and how she could even walk from so much sex, suggesting her parents should be ashamed, and demanding she and the rest of the feminazis post their gang bang on video so he and his millions of dittoheads could watch. Fox News’ equally indignant O’Reilly whined for days how he shouldn’t have to pay his hard earned money for Fluke’s recreational sex.
Besides, as Santorum’s billionaire benefactor pointed out, the best contraception is an aspirin between your knees, and how costly is that? Goes to show the retro right’s fixation on the womb isn’t about the fetus, but about making sure sluts are punished for enjoying sex. Making sure there’s no such thing as consequence-free sex is what unites theocons against both gay and reproductive rights, even masturbation, which the anti-choice American Life League calls the “gateway drug.” Must oppose any public health, education and rights policy that strengthens healthy sexuality for all in our free society—just too many other people having sex for fun.
Despite drama by hyperventilating traditionalists—like the sex-obsessed American Family Association’s media blitz for JC Penny to fire “open homosexual” Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson—the root of societal breakdown has more to do with unfettered capitalism and unfinished revolutions than two grooms in a tux, friends with benefits, condoms on a banana, or Monica Lewinsky’s cigar. Although the “anything-goes, if it feels good do it” sixties is a tattered punching bag, liberalism not only ushered in free-love rebels, but also groundbreaking equality for women, queers, and ethnic minorities.
Gender and sexuality has evolved along with technologies like automobiles and the Internet, economic shifts, and social justice. America, grounded in equality and plurality, rises from the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How can you have freedom without sexual freedom? Our national stability and family honor doesn’t rest on hypocritical sexual traditions like enforcing a genital view of female virtue, or whose peg goes in which hole. And increasingly the civilized world is recognizing the right to pleasure for youth, elderly, the disabled, and transgendered. To reach humanity’s highest ideals, permission trumps repression.
When my mind pushes the replay button, I see that all my best sex has been for pleasure. Not sex for power or longing or need or hope. Not to be loved or wanted or desired. Not in exchange for commitment, security or promises. Not for duty. Or to make a wanted baby. But sex for pleasure. Raw, sweet, sad. Powerful, fun, intimate. Transcendent. Tender. Mind-blowing. Exquisite, loving pleasure.
Sex for pleasure breeds honesty, respect, and responsibility. Otherwise the ultimate fallout is simply not pleasurable. Culture warriors don’t stop sex, though they can make pleasure less attainable. America’s war on sex is really a war on conversation.
When President Clinton’s U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders answered a reporter’s question on HIV prevention that, yes, maybe masturbation should be taught as a healthy part of sexuality, she was forced to resign. Her successor Dr. David Satcher—also a pioneering African American physician from the south—released under President Bush the first-ever Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior to begin a national dialogue “with respect for diversity” and “for what science shows is effective.” Outraged chastity crusaders pounced. End of conversation.
Letting politics and commercialism define our sexual narrative—continues our nation’s sexual schizophrenia with obscene rates of teen and unplanned pregnancy, abortion, HIV and STDs, sexual “addiction,” alienation and desire discrepancies, divorce, sexual violence and exploitation. Shutting down sexual conversation guarantees job security for porn as America’s closet sex educator. More silence and shame means more Penn State and Catholic Church sexual abuse atrocities because our kids don’t have the language to talk about what’s good and right, while adults rather look away.
Because my young son is so precious, I protect him by talking about sexuality, foundational to who and what we are, how we relate. He’s known since he was six years old about the clitoris being the only human body part purely for pleasure, about the normalcy of gay and transgender people he sees, and he’s still just as innocent. I won’t spew traditional “do as I say, not as I do” crap, but will teach awareness and moral reasoning over absolutes. I’m teaching him to value himself and others, the consequences of decisions, to choose pleasure over purity-promiscuity extremes. He’ll know that this is the United States of America and his sex does not belong to church or state, or Madison Avenue. And in time, away from schoolyard bullies, he can contrast the courage and empathy of Sandra Fluke vs. the bitchy fragility of Limbaugh and O’Reilly for examples of what it means to be a real man.
It’s morning in America, and she has a hard on. Waking up to a new breed of pleasure revolutionaries sick of gagging on the foie gras of smut and sanctimony being packaged and preached as the one and only true sex. Social media has opened the first ever intersection of sexuality scientists, educators, therapists, entrepreneurs; cross generational feminists, sex and gender queers, communities of color, sex workers, kinksters, faith leaders; youth, aging, disability, masculinity, reproductive health and human rights advocates to fight culture warriors against sexual pleasure for all.
Time to tell our own stories. We will not be silenced.
Though not a fan of evolutionary psychology that clings to sexual stereotypes— like men want sex and women want shoes, you know, hardwired from caveman days—I embrace the words of Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
Lara Riscol is a Sex writer and cultural critic.
The above article was published in the new anthology, MOMENTUM: Making Waves in Sexuality, Feminism and Relationships, Selected Essays by 2012 Speakers Advocating Change in Current Sexual Dialogues with a foreword by former US Surgeon General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. Author Lara Riscol will present from her article on "theclosing panel with Dr. Elders and renowned sex therapist Esther Perel at MOMENTUM's annual conference in Washington, D.C., next weekend.