News & Politics

Hypocritical Sexual Society: Focused on the Petty Sex Scandals, Ignoring the Ones That Really Matter

Why isn't it a bigger scandal when politicians chip away at our rights to control our bodies and our sexuality?

In a year when America has been otherwise austerity-obsessed, we are still sex-scandal rich. But while we certainly flock like moths to the scandal flame when that flame is a photo of a Congressman's penis, isn't it just as much of a scandal when Congressmen (and women) want to redefine rape, criminalize abortion and sex work, and chip away at our rights to control our bodies and our sexuality? Why is the media so easily obsessed when casting aspersions on the real or imagined sex lives of the already powerful, but not when the powerful target the rest of us? Before we get all misty-eyed with nostalgia – or tear gas – let's look back on some of 2011's sex scandals, with attention to the ones that should have scandalized us all.

Cops Got Bailed Out, We Got...?

New York's infamous "rape cops," officersKenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, were acquitted by a jury this May of charges that they raped an incapacitated woman in her own apartment after escorting her home. The case was a rallying point for feminist and anti-violence activists, their outrage at police abuse carrying through to October's contentious New York debut of SlutWalk, itself inspired by the comment of a Toronto police officer that women would not be raped if they weren't “dressing like sluts.” There's a deep and troubling connection between the cops who claim we won't be raped if we follow their rules, and the cops to whom the rules rarely apply.

Anthony Weiner, Sext Addict?

Who was surprised when Democrats called for the resignation of New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, over his misguided yet not uncommon use of Twitter, Facebook, and SMS to swap sexy messages? (There was the questionable dick pic, too, made public by the Right's famed pornographer, Andrew Breitbart.) Yes, Weiner fantasized about being “behind” a Vegas woman as they watched, at her suggestion, “back to back episodes of the daily show and colbert.” But why did Weiner have to pack up to sex addiction recovery while, say, Republican Senator David Vitter can admit to hiring sex workers to stage his mommy/boy fantasies, and get re-elected? As former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer before him, Weiner harbored an unshocking amount of hubris. The digital paper trail generated by his sex-arranging was perfect political linkbait. Worse, enough people took it. This didn't just guarantee his resignation. It set a moral standard for policing how elected officials' communicate their sexual fantasies, a standard that -- given their track record -- only Republicans seem capable of skirting around and staying in office.

Trafficking in Lies

Remember Lila Rose? The right-wing indie media darling who helped send people posing as“child sex traffickers” into Planned Parenthood health centers in six states? The Breitbart-promoted joint Live Action claimed Rose's videos showed “explosive evidence” that Planned Parenthood staff were party to sexual exploitation by even speaking with the fake traffickers about how to get birth control for (again, fake) sex workers. Not shown on tape? Planned Parenthood staff had informed the FBI, US Attorney General Eric Holder, and local law enforcement about the suspicious visits and the suspected trafficking enterprise. Still, Breitbart featured the videos, deceptively edited to make it appear that answering questions about sex and health were somehow the same as promoting the rape and abduction of minors.

But this is what was almost impossible to suggest at the time: even people who are trafficked have real sexual health needs that need compassionate care. In particular, young people who are involved in the sex trade already face huge obstacles to disclosing that part of their lives with their healthcare workers, for fear of stigma or being sent to jail. In other words, at the same time as Planned Parenthood rushed to defend themselves, they should feel no need to shy from wanting to offer good care to people in the sex trade and to people who are survivors of trafficking. In the main, did the sting actually damage Planned Parenthood's reputation? Did it risk their Federal funding? Not as directly, perhaps, as earlier efforts by Breitbart affiliate James O'Keefe to take down ACORN. But the attempt to connect Planned Parenthood to an issue like trafficking, already a highly charged issue across the political spectrum, was a nasty tactical move.

The Scarlet Letter Lives On

New Orleans, once home to one of the most open red-light districts in the United States, now boasts some of the most blatant abuses of the criminal/legal system in order to crack down on prostitution. If you are convicted of soliciting oral or anal sex for cash or other compensation there, you could find yourself on Louisiana’s state sex offender registry, for violating a law against “soliciting a crime against nature.” Imagine all the times when you have to display your driver's license – at the bank, while registering yours kids for school, if stopped by the police – which will now be stamped with SEX OFFENDER in large block letters. Louisiana’s Scarlet Letter Law has had devastating consequences, particularly targeted at women and people of color. Of people placed on the state sex offender registry through this law, 75% are identified as female, and 80% are African American.

Through the advocacy of community activists like Women With a Vision, as well as a little pressure from a challenge to the law filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Louisiana’s Scarlet Letter law was repealed this June. Now activists are fighting to have those people added to the sex offender registry through a Scarlet Letter conviction removed retroactively. The win was an important step towards chipping away at the misogyny and racism at the heart of anti-prostitution policing, which continues to target low-income communities and communities of color. Activists will also have to contend with the notorious corruption within the New Orleans Police Department. Not two days after the Scarlet Letter law fell, New Orleans police arrested one of their own, Officer Marc Galbreth, for allegedly attempting to buy sex – from an undercover policewoman.

Trial By Post

When Nafissatou Diallo, a worker at a Manhattan luxury hotel, accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, with sexual assault this past May, she did so anonymously – and when the story made international headlines, almost immediately tabloids competed to out Diallo by name and smear her credibility. Most dogged in its attack was the New York Post, which used its front page to accuse Diallo of being HIV-positive and a prostitute. Diallo is a single mother, who migrated to the United States from Guinea and couldn't read and write English. Through the actions of the Post, it was Diallo's past put on trial – her immigration history and her boyfriends – even if it was Strauss-Kahn who was facing charges. Those charges against Strauss-Kahn were dismissed this past August, though he didn't contest that he'd had sexual contact with a woman he'd never met until seconds after emerging from his en suite bathroom in a towel. By then, Diallo had come forward and identified herself as Strauss-Kahn's accuser -- and to raise a libel suit against the Post.

When one of the most reliable ways to destroy a woman's reputation is to call her a prostitute, we know that any woman who accuses a man of rape (or otherwise threatens a powerful man's position) might be called a prostitute in order to discredit her. In addition to decrying this kind of misogynist attack, we should also question the premise that to be called a prostitute – or even to be one -- is the worst blow to a woman's dignity. The reason women are falsely called prostitutes when accusing men of rape isn't just because it calls their sexual purity into question (which is itself what's often on trial). It's because too many people still believe that a prostitute can never express consent – yes or no – to sex. It's that false claim that supports the idea that a prostitute is “unrapeable.” When marching to support Diallo, as American and French women did under the banner, “We Are All Chambermaids,” it's important to remember that if we call the powerful to account, we might also all be considered whores.

Blastocysts: Not People

Mississippi was the one to watch on Election Night this November, for not one but two rights-shredding ballot initiatives: our rights to parent and our right to vote. Amendment 26 aimed to redefine legal personhood to include a conjoined sperm-and-egg, the only purpose of which is to make all abortion and many assisted reproductive technologies – including those for getting pregnant – and some forms of contraception criminal. Meanwhile, Amendment 27 resurrected voter suppression tactics – mandating an ID to vote – that are used to intimated people away from the polls, which civil rights' activists had been fighting in the state for the last fifteen years. Mississippi voters did defeat the Fetal Personhood amendment – which is excellent, as anti-choice groups are attempting to push similar ballots across the country, and every state who pushes back on this as just too much chips away at the anti-choice strategy of characterizing anyone with a uterus – and people of color in particular – as literally genocidal. But the voter ID act, which was just as deliberate an attempt to codify racism into the law? It passed.

Loretta Ross, executive director of the group SisterSong, called Amendment 27 “a direct threat to the Voting Rights Act,” and reported that “even on November 7 [Election Day], some black voters were questioned about their ID and their right to vote.”What's telling about Mississippi, says Ross: the same voters who turned out to protect reproductive choice also passed a voter exclusion act targeting people of color.

All told this past year, the anti-choice movement has pushed over 900 bills targeting reproductive and sexual rights, from increasing mandatory waiting periods for an abortion to banning discussion of contraception in public schools. On the state level, 162 of these measures have passed, in the first half of the year alone. So far the anti-choice movement hasn't attempted to lower the legal voting age to conception. Strap in for 2012.

Ashton Gets “Real”

Ashton Kutcher managed to painfully insert himself into two stories much bigger than himself this year. First, riding the coattails of global campaigns led by evangelicals and anti-prostitution feminists to criminalize commercial sex, Kutcher launched a series of PSAs on YouTube, “Real Men Don't Buy Girls.” The spots featured industry bros like Justin Timberlake and Piers Morgan (who later featured Kutcher's Twitter activism in a CNN special). Even Sean “heaven is two hookers and an eight ball” Penn was pressed into Kutcher's service. The ads were part of a Kutcher philanthropic gambit, the DNA Foundation, so named for him and his then-wife. Their goal, they say, is “forcing sex slavery out of the shadows and into the spotlight.”

But as Gawker's Adrien Chen has wondered, “Maybe the only thing Ashton is more passionate about than fighting child sexual abuse is college football?” This November, when Penn State fired football coach Joe Patermo for his role in covering up for assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of at least eight boys, Kutcher appeared to champion the disgraced coach, pounding out the tweet:“How do you fire Joe Pa? #insult #noclass” The misfire was enough to drive the prolific tweeter to hand over his @aplusk account – and his 8.5 million followers – to his PR team. Though one week later (unrelated!) Moore announced she was divorcing Kutcher, remains operational. Its current campaign is called “Football For Good.”

Pro-Choice Movements: We Need a Plan B

Let 2011 be the nail in the coffin of the notion that we could ensure reproductive rights by putting more Democrats, and Democratic women in particular, in national office. In January, 10 Democrats jumped aboard the first bill out of the new Republican Congress -- H.R. 3, which aimed to create yet more obstacles to getting a legal abortion. H.R. 3 originally proposed to require that if sexual assault survivors needed already scant and highly regulated federal assistance for an abortion, they had to prove that their rape was “forcible.” As Sarah Jaffe pointed out, the Democrats should have seen this coming: the DCCC had thrown in $231,112.63 to re-elect one of the bill's co-sponsors, Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler from North Carolina. Instead, when the DCCC decried the bill as a Republican attack on women and choice in its fundraising emails, Shuler and the other Democratic co-sponsors were not included as targets.

At the same time as Democrats were ignoring their own, anti-choicers took their quiet war on contraception much more public, targeting Planned Parenthood's family planning funding, and what had looked like a sure thing earlier this year: the FDA's decision to make Plan B, the morning-after pill, available over-the-counter regardless of the patient's age. Why would the anti-choice movement amp up the rhetoric against contraception, which typically has such a broad base of support, not to mention a broad base of users? Why, especially, if preventing pregnancy can also prevent abortion?

“The anti-choice movement doesn’t care about preventing a single abortion,” wrote Amanda Marcotte, “if doing so would get in the way of punishing women for having sex.” Anti-choicers may also have sensed a shift at the top in their favor: in December, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, an Obama appointee, blocked the FDA's decision to open up Plan B access, bucking science and claiming that making Plan B available to minors was too risky. Days later, Obama backed up her decision. Framing his objection to women's bodily autonomy as the concern of a father of two daughters, Obama suggested that Sebelius was only trying to prevent “a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drugstore” and buying Plan B “alongside bubble gum or batteries,” not to mention Lysol and hangers.

Unoccupy My Body

With that, let's send off 2011 the right way. Pop that cork on the pepper spray. Careful. That guy in the cop outfit is actually a cop. Hey, look who turned up late! It's the Occupiers! Condoms and Maalox are on the bar if you need them. “Whose systematic loss of reproductive choice, sexual rights and bodily autonomy? Our systematic loss of reproductive choice, sexual rights and bodily autonomy!” Hooray. For 2012, let's get all that to fit better on a placard.

Melissa Gira Grant has written for Slate, the Guardian (UK), the New York Observer and Jezebel, among others. Follow her on Twitter: @melissagira.
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