Sex, politics, and morality.

Author:Rubin, Edward L.

INTRODUCTION I. SEX AND MORALITY A. Politics and Morality (Lakoff) B. Sex and Politics (Elias, Foucault, and Giddens) C. Sex and Morality (Higher Purposes and Self-Fulfillment) 1. The Morality of Higher Purposes 2. The Morality of Self-Fulfillment D. Morality and Politics (Giddens, Foucault, and Elias) II. SEX AND POLITICS A. Morality and Sex B. Morality and Politics C. Law 1. The Establishment Clause 2. The Morality of Higher Purposes CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION

Exit polls conducted after the 2004 election revealed that "moral values" was the single most important issue that determined people's votes. (1) The country was still recovering from the most deadly foreign attack it had ever sustained and fighting a war that had already claimed over a thousand lives and cost over one hundred billion dollars; the economy was faltering; the national debt skyrocketing; public education in disarray; Social Security heading toward collapse and health care in a widely acknowledged state of crisis. But something called "moral values" managed to trump all these issues as the leading source of concern. In the survey, 22% of respondents listed it as their leading issue, compared with 20% for the economy, 19% for terrorism, and 15% for Iraq. (2) As commentators quickly pointed out, much depends on the way polls' questions and answers are framed, (3) but the result is still striking enough to merit serious consideration.

What exactly are moral values, or, more precisely, what did the people who declared it to be their leading issue mean? Morality is a rather general term, after all, and it is not difficult to characterize people's concerns about the economy, education, health care, and Iraq as essentially moral in nature. (4) But the people whose votes were determined by "moral values" certainly knew what they meant, and everybody else does too. They meant gay marriage and abortion, (5) and perhaps birth control methods, stem cell research, and sex education. The theme that unifies all these various issues and, more significantly, distinguishes them from other issues that might lay claim to the mantle of morality, is that they involve sex--not sex in some general sense that includes gender, modes of thought, and all the Mars and Venus stuff that has become popular of late (6)--but sex itself: sexual intercourse and sexual reproduction. (7)

Sexual reproduction, of course, has been around for a long time--several billion years, according to most scientists. It is found among simple, one-celled organisms, including bacteria, and it is the exclusive mode of reproduction for chordates like ourselves. But it has not been a particular source of political controversy until a period that can be characterized as very recent, on a historical as well as geological scale. If one thinks back to the issues that animated political debate over the course of American history, sexual reproduction does not play much of a role. It is hard to bring to mind any definitive position that George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Woodrow Wilson espoused about this subject. To be sure, there have been a reasonable number of sex scandals in American history. Grover Cleveland's illegitimate child was a major issue in the rancorous campaign of 1884, (8) and the marital infidelities of John F. Kennedy and many other presidents were known, at least among insiders. (9) But only in the past thirty years or so has sex moved to the forefront of political debate. Bill Clinton's escapade with Monica Lewinsky was probably transformed from an excusable peccadillo to the mother of all American sex scandals by the increased political valence of the subject. (10) And the 2004 elections seem to suggest that, to quote Cole Porter, "sex is here to stay"(11) as a political issue, at least for the foreseeable future.

This Essay has two principal goals. The first is to explain the newfound political significance of this age-old issue by placing current attitudes toward sex in historical perspective. The argument is that a major shift in morality has occurred in the Western world during the past two hundred years, and that the political mobilization around moral values represents a last-ditch resistance to this change as its full implications become apparent. The second goal is to use this historical perspective to provide guidance to constitutional courts when confronted with cases involving sexual intercourse. History suggests that opposition to gay marriage, abortion, birth control, sex education, and stem cell research is based on Christian doctrine, more specifically, on one contestable interpretation of Christian doctrine. It follows that legislation effectuating such opposition should be invalidated under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.


    1. Politics and Morality (Lakoff)

      American political attitudes fall into some odd but distinctive patterns. If a person strongly opposes gay marriage, one can be fairly certain that the person also favors using just deserts or retribution as the basis for criminal punishments, and rejects rehabilitation. If a person strongly favors abortion rights for women, that person is probably opposed to the war in Iraq. There is no logical connection between these pairs of positions, but the correlations are apparent to any observer, and shape the topography of our current political scene.

      Professor George Lakoff argues that these connections, and the general clusters of attitudes that characterize American politics, are determined by two conceptual metaphors, rather than by logic. (12) The organizing principle for both metaphors is the nation as a family, and specifically, that relations between parents and children are reiterated in the relationship of government and society. (13) Conservatives, Lakoff argues, adopt a Strict Father model, where the world is regarded as a threatening, dangerous place, and the parent, typically but not necessarily the father, prepares children for this world, and teaches them "right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment." (14) Liberals adopt a Nurturant Parent model, viewing the world as capable of growth toward compassion and equality, and encouraging their children to "become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being cared for and respected, and through caring for others." (15)

      Lakoff argues that these conceptual metaphors account for the particular cluster of beliefs that conservatives and liberals maintain. (16) Those motivated by Strict Father morality oppose gay marriage because it conflicts with their model of the family; (17) they oppose abortion because they believe that people should be responsible for the consequences of their actions. (18) They support just deserts in punishment for exactly the same reason, (19) and they would likely support the war in Iraq because it adopts a punitive stance to those who make the world dangerous for us. (20) In contrast, people motivated by Nurturant Parent morality adopt a caring, empathetic attitude toward others, whether they are gays, pregnant women who do not want a child, criminals, or citizens of Iraq. (21) Their attitude is based on either acceptance of the other's differences or on a desire to correct wrongful conduct through respectful assistance. (22) Lakoff points out that these conceptual metaphors possess greater explanatory power than traditional explanations. (23) For example, it is often said that conservatives oppose big government and extensive government expenditures. (24) Yet they favor the war in Iraq, increased incarceration of criminals, and various other policies that involve extensive expenditures and a large governmental apparatus. (25) What they really oppose is expenditures on social programs, that is, government initiatives designed to nurture people rather than to make them responsible for the consequences of their actions. (26) Liberals, on the other hand, favor big government for social programs, but express horror about state deficits incurred to build more prisons, or federal deficits incurred to fight wars of aggression. (27)

      Lakoffs theory is insightful and illuminating, and it represents an important advance in thinking about social attitudes. It displays some deficiencies for present purposes, however. First, it does not use sexual intercourse as a conceptual category. In fact, Lakoffs idea that the state's relationship to citizens reiterates models of child-rearing breaks down with respect to sex, because virtually all parents, whether strict or nurturing, will want to restrict their children from engaging in sexual intercourse, a policy that is not really reflected in the state's attitude toward its adult citizens. In addition, the theory is ahistorical; Lakoff presents his two models of child-rearing as static conceptions, existing at present without having evolved over time. These models have no obvious relationship to the course of Western history. As recently as the early twentieth century, all parents probably fit the Strict Father model by contemporary standards, but this observation provides little insight into the interplay of liberal and conservative, or Whig and Tory sentiment, in this earlier period. (28)

    2. Sex and Politics (Elias, Foucault, and Giddens)

      In order to apply Lakoffs very promising conceptual analysis to the subject of sexual intercourse, and to do so in a historically contextual manner, it is necessary to combine it with more specific theories of sexuality, particularly those that describe changes in attitudes about sex over time. Such theories are numerous and varied; three well-known ones considered here, as exemplary but far from comprehensive, are those of Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, and Anthony Giddens.

      Elias regards sexuality, together with eating, excreting, and the slaughter of animals, as one of those earthy, visceral aspects of life that...

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