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How the Religious Right Is Trying to Ruin Sex for Everyone

Whited Sepulchers

The religious has right co-opted the language of feminism and the sexual revolution to try and make you feel bad about sex.

By Dagmar Herzog

The Religious Right is a capacious tent in which many agendas and approaches have found a home. There are conservative evangelicals who promise worldly prosperity and success (if only you trust enough in God's plans).
There are others who gird themselves for Armageddon. There are the vehement defenders of "Merry Christmas" and school prayer and the enemies of evolution and intellectualism and "liberal elitism." There are highly intellectual (and themselves elite) members of the Religious Right. There are those who see the culture clash with neofundamentalist Islam as the current big threat, and those who work to justify the ongoing war in Iraq as a properly Christian cause. There are those who raise money for and organize tourism in Israel in the expectation that at the End of Days a majority of Jews will convert to Christ. But right-wing evangelicalism achieved power in American politics primarily through its sex activism. And in fifteen years of steady effort, it managed to undo the most important achievements of the sexual revolution of the 1960s-1970s.

This was accomplished through a selective appropriation and adaptation of key aspects of that old sexual revolution. Speaking in graphic detail both about sexual discontent and dysfunction and about the possibilities for ecstatically orgasmic and emotionally fulfilling bliss has been a core component. Without the promise of pleasure, the Religious Right would not have found nearly as many adherents as it has; repression alone is not sufficiently appealing.

Evangelical sexual conservatives took up some of the main concerns of the feminist women's movement of the 1970s-1980s. An interest in intensifying women's sexual pleasure has been a central focus of evangelical sex advice from the start. Many women's frustration at male fascination with pornography and emotional non-presence during sex -- another feminist theme -- and the need to help men get comfortable with physical and emotional mutuality, have also been taken up. So too have the classic women's movement themes of concern about domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and sexual exploitation of women. More recently, evangelicals have moved to adapt both feminist and mainstream advice about body image, in addition to generating a vast Christian dieting and addiction recovery industry. There is also an antiauthoritarian evangelical youth counterculture.

In its activism around issues of sexuality, the Religious Right has found ways as well to incorporate the insights of the New Age men's movement in its own program to transform an Internet-ogling insecure bumbler into a virile he-man who is competent at male-male friendship and rivalry as well as hot heterosexual romance. The movement has been wildly successful in part because of its extraordinary ability to present its own program as therapeutic. None of this, however, should distract from the fact that right-wing evangelicals have also been sadistic and punitive, eager to play to the most base human desires to feel superior to others who fail to live up to the expected norms.

While the roots of the Religious Right lie in anti-black racism (a history that has now been largely overcome but still goes woefully underacknowledged), it got its start in American national politics by organizing against abortion and homosexuality. In the wake of the legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973, and in response to the growing public visibility of gays and lesbians in the 1970s and 1980s and their demands for an end to discrimination, evangelical conservatives could count on these two issues, along with more general calls for restrictions on sex education and the restoration of "traditional family values," as their major fundraising and mobilizing tools. All through the 1990s, playing to homophobic reflexes was one of the Christian Right's most popular tactics. But nothing has been more successful in the early twenty-first century than its ability to hijack the national conversation about heterosexuality.

Initially, telling the heterosexual majority what to do was not even on the agenda. In the first half of the 1990s, the anti-abortion cause had been running into some difficulties. Americans had grown wary. They were beginning to harbor doubts about some of the movement's more extreme tactics -- like shooting doctors. Polls revealed that Americans of both genders remained by a slim but stubborn majority able to identify emotionally with the situation of women who sought to end their unwanted pregnancies. At the time, consensual heterosexual sex still seemed to most Americans like a pretty basic all-American right, and the assault on abortion felt like it could grow into an assault on whatever else anyone might want to do with their lives and bodies as well.

Since the turn of the millennium, the right-wing evangelicals have become emboldened in new ways. A big boost came through the election in 2000 of George W. Bush, the first conservative evangelical Republican president. Putting individuals sympathetic to the Religious Right agenda into key positions in the federal government, and pouring federal funds into projects developed by Christian conservatives, inevitably transformed the power dynamics. Yet just as important were the advent of Viagra and the explosive growth of Internet porn, and the ensuing anxiety about the relationships between desire, performance, satisfaction, and intimacy.

In all of its culture war campaigns, the Religious Right was most effective where it was able to formulate its arguments in secular terms. While Christian conservatives made use of pseudoscientific arguments about physical health in its battles for sexual conservatism, nothing has been as useful as the adaptation of the language of psychological health, and particularly the endlessly inventive invocation of the ideal of self-esteem.

None of us is immune to injunctions to accept yourself but also improve yourself, no matter how contradictory these are. The incessant talk about sex and self-esteem hooks into much wider therapeutic aspects of our culture: like a pendulum that constantly swings from telling us to make peace with ourselves and our situations as they are, in all their imperfect ordinariness, to telling us that we really must do battle with ourselves and our situations, that self-improvement is essential, and greater happiness is always just around the corner. The Religious Right managed to redirect much of the national conversation about sex -- with lasting consequences that go way beyond biannual national election rituals -- not least because it merged so thoroughly with the popular culture it claims to combat and despise. Moreover, the refurbished focus on psychological damage in sexually conservative arguments manages to lend to the current state of conversation a sense that it is both pro-woman and pro-equality -- even when it is neither.

The abstinence campaigns are the most obvious example of the psychologizing strategy. Whether religious or secular in orientation, Web sites and books that plead for premarital chastity invariably contend that delaying the onset of sexual intercourse is a sign of heightened self-respect. Over and over, young people are told that self-restraint is self-empowerment. Scholastic or athletic achievement is presented as mutually exclusive with sexual activity; the prospects for a strong and happy future marriage are said to be in inverse relationship to premarital experience. Secular conservatives also use the language of self-esteem to make their case for a return to restraint.

The success of the Religious Right is most evident in the way many self-defined sexual liberals now rush to concede that a delay in sexual debut is desirable, and that keeping the number of sexual partners in a lifetime to a minimum is an important sign of psychological health and self-valuing. Experience is no longer seen as a resource. Even those who advocate for comprehensive sex education feel the need to insist that "abstinence is a laudable goal" (Deborah Arindell of the STD-awareness group, the American Social Health Association, in 2006), or that all they are asking for is "abstinence-plus" education (as in Representatives Barbara Lee and Christopher Shays and Senator Frank Lautenberg's bipartisan Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, introduced in March 2007), or that abstinence is what they have been advocating all along, but, alas, one must be realistic and include information about condoms and contraceptives (as in the arguments of the coordinator of sex education in the Baltimore school system interviewed on NPR in October 2007).

Even more momentous is the way the language of psychology has infused the discussion of abortion. Although the antiabortion movement had seemed stalled in the 1990s, it has returned in new forms, and found new adherents across party lines. It has also succeeded in putting in place numerous restrictions at the state level to limit women's, especially young women's, access to abortion. A third of all women between the ages of 15 and 45 now live in counties in which abortions are not even available; a quarter of women has to travel 50 miles and, in some parts of the U.S., it is hundreds of miles. Yet one in every two pregnancies in the U.S. is unplanned, and one in three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime; a significant percentage of these are women over age 25 who are already mothers. In few areas of sexual politics is there so wide a gap between the lived experience of ordinary people and what can be discussed in the public domain.

In the year 2007, in Gonzales v. Carhart, the Supreme Court upheld the Partial Birth Abortion Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2003. This act criminalized certain methods of abortion which are used in less than one percent of all abortions performed (0.17 percent, for instance, in the year 2000) -- and then only in order to preserve the health of the woman. But doctors now have good reason to fear that all second-trimester abortions could be interpreted as criminal. The language of the majority opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy has even more significant implications for that vast majority of abortions that take place in the first trimester. The decision is likely to serve as the basis for state legislators' efforts to introduce information into mandatory preabortion counseling sessions about the potential psychological damage having an abortion could supposedly do to a woman. The decision marks a key moment in the efforts of the Religious Right to portray restrictions on abortion not as limiting women's fundamental right to control their reproductive capacities but rather as somehow beneficial to women. As Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee, likes to say: "We think of ourselves as very pro-woman. We believe that when you help the woman, you help the baby."

Gonzales v. Carhart is the first Supreme Court ruling to reverse the decriminalization of abortion guaranteed since Roe v. Wade. As Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York observed in the wake of the decision:

The Supreme Court has declared open season on women's lives and on the right of women to control their own bodies, their health and their destinies. Overturning a decision only a few years old, the Court has, for the first time since Roe v. Wade, allowed an abortion procedure to be criminalized. What has changed since the Court last considered nearly identical legislation? The facts haven't changed. The widely held opinion in the medical profession that this ban would endanger women hasn't changed. The Constitution hasn't changed. Only one thing has changed: Justice O'Connor retired and President Bush and a Republican Senate replaced her with a reliably anti-choice vote on the Supreme Court. It is clear today that the far-right's campaign to pack the Supreme Court has succeeded and that women and their families will be the losers.

Justice Kennedy had himself in the past been a supporter of women's right to choose. In this new decision, however, his word choices were especially telling:

Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child. The Act recognizes this reality as well. Whether to have an abortion requires a difficult and painful moral decision ... While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained ... Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow.

Despite the admission that there was "no reliable data," and despite the concession that negative emotional consequences for the woman were not inevitable but rather "can" follow, the ideas of diminished female esteem and the prospect of post-abortion depression have, in this precedent-setting case, been elevated into judicial concepts.

Justice Kennedy's words were largely based on a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Justice Foundation, a conservative nonprofit litigation firm. The Justice Foundation brief included statements from 180 women who declared that their abortions had caused them feelings of despair and lasting regret. A typical statement is from Tina Brock of Nicholson, Georgia:

Little did I know when I made that choice to abort my baby 21 years ago that it would affect the rest of my life. Supposing to be [sic] a legal, simple procedure, my abortion sent me down a long road of severe depression. People need to know abortion hurts women!

For several years, abortion opponents have been floating this idea that abortion is psychologically damaging. The office of Representative Henry Waxman of California conducted a survey of "crisis pregnancy centers" in which callers posing as 17-year-old pregnant girls encountered a range of fraudulent information, including the false advice that abortion raises the risk of breast cancer as well as negatively affects future fertility, and that it causes severe psychological distress. Waxman's report noted that "significant psychological stress after an abortion is no more common than after birth." But at one center a caller was told that in the year after an abortion the suicide rate "goes up by seven times," while another center informed a caller that post-abortion stress was "much like" that seen in Vietnam veterans and "is something that anyone who's had an abortion is sure to suffer from."

Antiabortion activism has profoundly reshaped the national conversation and deeply affected also supporters of legal abortion. Despite the gap between lived reality and rhetoric, and while a (slim) majority of Americans still support the retention of Roe v. Wade, a majority within that pro-choice group call for more restrictions on access to abortion, especially for teens. For many, abortion is only understandable in dire circumstances; the mere desire to terminate an unwanted pregnancy does sound like an acceptable reason to seek an abortion.

Antiabortion activists worked long and hard to present abortion not as a last-resort method of fertility control when other forms of contraception have failed or not been used, but rather as a horrific form of murder. It has become clear in the last several years that the aim is not just to stop abortion. If that were the aim, then antiabortion activists would do much better if they vigorously promoted contraceptives, handed out sex toys, and recommended a variety of imaginative noncoital "outercourse" practices that produce glorious sensations, but do not result in pregnancies. Instead the aim is to infuse with shame all sexual expression and experience outside of heterosexual marriage. Neither of these campaigns would be nearly as effective if they were presented solely in religious terms.

From the book Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics by Dagmar Herzog. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008

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