(WOMENSENEWS)–Recent news reports about the organized campaign to lay legal traps for reproductive health clinics and then alarm school boards about supposed liabilities call to mind the portrayal of a world in which the forces wishing to suppress sexual autonomy prevailed.
In her 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood depicts the chilling aftermath of a conservative coup in which sexuality, gender and reproduction are under complete control by religious extremists.
Atwood’s fictional theocracy, where fertile women are breeders for the state and abortionists are publicly hung, forced us to think about what was possible given the political goals of the right. Almost 20 years later, the topics of recent Women’s Enews stories about the unremitting attacks on reproductive rights and comprehensive sexuality education show that we do indeed contend with the forces about which Atwood darkly warned.
Conservative and right-wing religious organizations are waging a systematic campaign to regulate everyone’s sexual morality in accordance with their own vision of a “traditional,” heterosexual, nuclear family. There is much in this campaign that is profoundly, even dangerously misleading, as proponents manipulate people’s concern for the health and well-being of their children. Their attacks on comprehensive sex education represent a significant front in this culture war. By portraying sex education as dangerous and immoral, conservatives have successfully curtailed such programs nationwide.
Right-Wingers Spreading Sexual Disinformation since the 1960s
The politics of sexual fear and shame which unite the campaigns against abortion and sex education have a long history in America. Sexuality has been central to the reinvigoration of the right, starting in the late 1960s. Through a series of single-issue campaigns, such as those against sex education and pornography in 1968-69, right-wing activists learned that sex had the power to stir up communities and help them recruit followers. In their fight against sex education, groups such as The John Birch Society and the Christian Crusade found that inflammatory sexual rhetoric would fuel broad cultural anxieties. They called sex educators communists and perverts, and insisted that the programs were pornography. Sometimes they doctored documents to bolster their arguments, such as one San Diego curriculum for 6-year-olds into which they spliced a photograph of Michelangelo’s David.
Their fictitious narratives spread from town to town like urban legends, scaring parents and school boards. The most popular of these stories recounted that a sex educator had sex in front of the class; in another story a teacher took her clothes off in front of the class in order to teach anatomy. By the end of 1969, controversies had divided communities in close to 40 states, exercising a chilling effect on the development of sexuality education in this country.
Conservative tactics in recent years include both medical misinformation and legal intimidation. These strategies share a common theme: They use language, images, and symbols that are designed to play on broad public anxieties about sexuality. Much of this rhetoric is inflammatory and misleading, as is the case in Life Dynamics’ and Priests for Life’s current anti-abortion campaign, the Child Predators Project, which threatens schools with lawsuits based on distorted legal claims and provocative language such as “child abuse” and “pedophile.” Their rhetoric draws on our broader sexual culture of fear and shame–especially in relation to childhood sexuality–giving this language a great deal of emotional power. Simply put, they frighten and intimidate people.
Bush Administration and Congress Pulling Farther to the Right
Conservatives now dominate our national conversations on sexuality by using this provocative rhetoric. Opponents of comprehensive sex education frequently allege that such programs are “mental molestation,” “raping our children” and “child abuse in the classroom.” The ultra-conservative organizations The Heritage Foundation and the Physicians Consortium are currently claiming that comprehensive sex education programs encourage “sexual torture” and “promote all kinds of deviant sexuality–bondage and all types of bizarre sexual behavior.”
In 1996, Concerned Women for America generated 30,000 letters to Congress claiming that comprehensive sexuality education programs “blatantly promote promiscuity, homosexuality, masturbation, abortion, pedophilia and incest.” Critics of a New York curriculum that mentioned gay families dubbed it “the sodomy curriculum.” These loaded phrases are used to level charges that capture headlines and are hard to refute, let alone rationally discuss.
The result of all of this over the past few decades is that the establishment of comprehensive sex education in public schools has not only been extremely limited, but is being rolled back. For example, while in 1988 only 2 percent of teachers taught abstinence as the sole means of pregnancy and disease prevention, 23 percent did so in 1999. This comes despite overwhelming evidence showing that comprehensive sexuality education is much more effective at reducing sexual risks for young people than abstinence-only programs.
The Bush administration has redoubled its efforts to increase the already hefty federal funding for abstinence-only education, realizing that it can deliver on this issue for its right-wing constituency.
If we continue to lose this battle, we will have lost far more than quality education for youth. As conservatives well know, comprehensive sexuality education is a cornerstone of true reproductive freedom. Attacks on these rights will, without question, top the agenda of the new conservative-controlled Congress. Sen. Trent Lott’s post-election battle cry to fellow conservatives, “Let’s roll!” should likewise serve to mobilize those of us committed to sexual and reproductive freedom.
Unless we recapture the terms of debate and challenge the many conservative initiatives to restrict the sexual and reproductive rights of women, young people and sexual minorities, we risk moving incrementally closer to right-wing religious control over sexual morality. Demanding ethical public debate about sexuality education is one place to start.
Janice M. Irvine is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of the new book, “Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States.”
For more information:
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.:
Concerned Women for America:
Traditional Values Coalition: