Sex & Relationships

Anti-Sex League Favors "Purity" Over Women's Health

Hostility to women perceived as "sexually loose" cripples efforts to protect women's rights and health.

As the Obama administration takes power and begins a series of ambitious reforms, it's time to start assessing the damage done by the Bush administration and plotting ways to reverse it. In the field of sexual health, one of the most aggravating problems the Bush administration left for others to clean up is the insertion of right wing radicals into foreign aid programs, radicals who happily use the cover of doing good to unleash grievous harm, shoving their radical anti-sex and anti-contraception program onto a worldwide stage.  The real life Anti-Sex League has exploited the public's concerns over the spread of HIV to push a radical anti-contraception agenda dressed up as an HIV prevention program, even though the GAO indicates that anti-contraception attitudes cripple genuine efforts to stall the spread of the disease.

Denying people access to condoms in order to make sure they don't spread HIV works as well as denying people sneakers in order to encourage them to take up jogging.  

A recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU demonstrates that anti-contraception radicals are using government money to push outlandish views in more areas than just HIV relief. In the year 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a way to help anyone who's been trafficked -- which includes men, women, and children -- to regain their health and their lives. Naturally, the Anti-Sex League decided that since this issue involves sex and women (even though it's sexual behavior related to coercion, by virtue of the "trafficking" language) it presented a great opportunity to jump in and provide services that adhered only to its anti-contraception agenda.

According to the Boston Globe, the ACLU is taking the federal government to court over the funding given to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (U.S.CCB),money the U.S.CCB then sub-grants to organizations which help trafficking victims with health care, housing, and job training. U.S.CCB won't allow its sub-grantees to offer complete health care though, especially the kind likely to be mostimportant to vulnerable young women who have been exposed to sexual abuse - proper reproductive health care, including access to contraception and abortion. They won't even allow sub-grantees to provide information about the availability of comprehensive reproductive health care. Considering the hell these women have already suffered, adding more hell seems to be a perverse way of "helping" them.

Refusing to help trafficking victims regain control over their bodies through access to contraception should they want it also contradicts the anti-trafficking message. The legislation was passed, ostensibly, because as a society we decry the exploitation of women. Depriving women of contraception in hopes of forcing them to bear children against their will is just another flavor of exploitation of women. In the Daily Women's Health Policy Report, ACLU staff attorney Brigitte Amiri points out that traffickers manipulate trafficking victims into getting pregnant as a tool to dominate and control their victims. Forced abortions in unsafe settings are also common. So what kind of help could the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops really offer if their solution to the horror of rape and forced pregnancy is more forced pregnancy?

Indeed, the entire operation leaves one with the uneasy impression that for many right wingers getting involved in anti-trafficking activism, the sexual aspects of rape bother them as much or more than the human rights violations. For those truly concerned about saving women who've been hurt by trafficking and other forms of rape, adding more coercion to the pile by trying to force a pregnancy is simply kicking people while they're down. Your ability to help victims of patriarchal violence is severely limited if you agree with certain forms of patriarchal violence like forced pregnancy and using the threat of STDs to control women's sexual choices.

The anti-prostitution pledges tied to HIV relief and anti-trafficking funding only reinforce the sense that hostility to women perceived as "sexually loose" has taken priority over actually helping these women.  Functionally, anti-prostitution pledges set aside non-trafficked prostitutes as a class of women who don't deserve real health services. Service organizations are required to denounce the work these women do. Sex worker activists have (with good reason) repeatedly accused legislators of the deliberate conflation of trafficked persons with consenting sex workers.  All of this serves to place negative attitudes about women's sexuality and fantasies about sexual purity in the center of the debate when, really, its women's health and freedom that should be at the center. 

If we put the health of women's bodies and minds at the center of these discussions instead of an obsession with the state of women's sexual "purity," funding decisions would look very different indeed.  And it's not just because we'd have compassion for women who've already suffered from coercion, and therefore a desire to avoid adding more coercion to her life. The actual health results would improve.  Trying to push unwanted pregnancy on women who are already under the stress of attempting to recover from abuse cannot result in the same healthier pregnancy outcomes for both mother and baby as when the pregnancy is a free choice made at a time right for the mother.  More obviously, taking measures to reduce the spread of STDs means less STDs.  Our national discourse on this subject is so thwarted with sexual shame, just stating that taking effective steps to reduce the spread of STDs will result in less STDs is seen as a controversial statement.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.
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