Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Despite President Obama’s lifting of the ban on promoting abortion information and services for projects receiving US aid overseas, the issue is not settled. In the past 15 years, evangelical, right-wing groups have unleashed a vast, many-pronged ‘cultural war’ to manipulate sexual anxieties and dictate what goes on in Americans’ bedrooms.
To help roll back the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the Bush administration spent over $1 billion on abstinence-only programmes. In 2006 alone, it spent $200 million on domestic ‘abstinence-until-marriage’ programmes, in addition to funding various church groups for the same purpose. Thousands of sermons, workshops and other propaganda reinforced the message. Under the pithy slogan ABC (Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms), ultra-conservative religious groups, such as Focus on the Family, the American Family Association and Concerned Women for America, promote marriage as a solution to everything from suicide to poverty and lack of self-worth.
‘In the last three years, Bush pushed the most grotesque message of abstinence,’ says Dagmar Herzog, a professor of history at the City University of New York. ‘How could an aggressive minority successfully push this issue, and why are 95 per cent of Americans who claim to have had premarital sex unable to admit it publicly?’
Herzog became interested in the topic from her studies in European history that revealed that far from discouraging sex, the Nazis promoted it among both married and unmarried Aryans. At the same time, they targeted Jews, who supposedly engaged in ‘dirty sex’, and ‘immoral’ supporters of the Weimar Republic – enlisting German protestants and catholics to clean up the ‘sex mess’.
‘The conservative evangelical sexual politics of the 1990s and early 21st century were totally new,’ Herzog found. ‘Premarital sex was perfectly normal in the south when I grew up. It was a very sensual environment. The churches weren’t hung up on sex back then, so I knew that this sexual repression was recent.’
In Sex in Crisis, the New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics (Basic Books), Herzog illustrates how the origins of today’s anti-tax, anti-government movement began during the civil rights era, when the government revoked the tax-exempt status of the religious-oriented Bob Jones University, which first denied admission to African Americans and then banned interracial dating. The strategy to begin the ‘cultural wars’ also coincided with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and gays and lesbians coming out of the closet. Her findings surprised her.
Illegitimate child of the sexual revolution
Far from being anti-sexual, today’s evangelicals push a hyper-sexualised message, complete with Christian pornography and bragging about having better sex than non-believers. Evangelical sex advice books emphasise the dangers of sex outside marriage, but revel in titillating sexual details. Even if they aren’t interested, Christian wives are told to be ‘available’ to their husbands at all times, especially for ‘quickies’, to make them feel like ‘real men’.
‘Although the evangelical movement is contradictory and hypocritical, it’s important to understand that it’s pro-sex, a kind of illegitimate child of the sexual revolution,’ says Herzog. ‘The evangelicals promise physiological orgasms, called ‘soulgasms’, which combine psychological orgasms, a close emotional connection with the spouse and the blessing presence of god in the bedroom. At the same time, they’re homophobic and hostile to all sex outside marriage. They take up aspects of the old sexual revolution but twist them.’
In 1992, homosexual rights first became a major theme in a presidential election when Bush and the Republicans proposed rescinding gay rights and disparaged gays as potential sex offenders and child abusers. Pat Robertson’s and Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition distributed 40 million voter guides opposing abortion and homosexuality. In 1994, leaders of the most powerful Christian political groups met in Colorado to further develop a strategy with a focus on state and local legislation that targeted homosexuals and anyone who supported gay rights.
A meeting of the leaders of Focus on the Family, the Eagle Forum, the Traditional Values Coalition, the National Legal Foundation and others led to a shift in tactics away from strictly religious messages, such as ‘save your soul’, and ‘go to heaven’, to adopt the secular language of fermenting fear and disgust of disease. Subsequently, religious conservatives turned their attention to pushing abstinence. Their message would adapt to the ‘new age’ and human potential movements with talk of self-help, individual empowerment, self-improvement and perfection. Such tactics allowed them to redirect the national conversation about sexuality.
The Christian Sex Education Project, True Love Waits, Silver Ring Thing and others began teaching that promiscuity and abortion lead to drinking, disease, depression and suicide. Playing on increased primal sexual anxieties that include confusion about the relationship between sex and love, and doubts about one’s own attractiveness to one’s partner – doubts that increased with exposure to internet porn and Viagra – with adolescents and adults becoming targets of a relentless no-sex-outside-marriage programme.
Assault on sexuality
In 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services issued sex-education guidelines that mandate teaching about ‘the potential psychological side effects’ of adolescent sexual activity and teenage non-marital sex. Bush funded abstinence education to discourage sex among all unmarried Americans between the ages of 19 and 29. Moreover, Bush’s family planning appointee, Susan Orr, accused contraceptive users of supporting ‘a culture of death’.
The problem with this assault on sexuality is that it doesn’t work. According to surveys conducted by evangelicals, 95 per cent of adults admit to having premarital sex. Seventy per cent of Christian men ‘struggle with porn’ in their daily lives and 50 per cent of them claim to be addicted to it, along with 20 per cent of Christian women. Meanwhile, adolescents who take the abstinence pledge wait 18 months longer to have sex, but they are a third less likely to use contraception when they do. Only 12 per cent of those who promise to ‘wait until marriage’ keep their promise.
Compare our attitudes to those common in Europe, where teenage sex is seen as natural, healthy and pleasurable. Teenagers get free contraceptives, medical care and counselling. (One German billboard promotes condom use with a sign, ‘Having an affair? Take me with you.’) Despite what Americans would call a permissive, some claim sinful, society in Europe, American teenage girls are three times more likely to get pregnant than those in Sweden and four times more likely than those in Germany. American teens are 70 times more likely to get gonorrhoea than those in France or the Netherlands.
Threatening descriptions of premarital sex as ‘risky behaviour’ hide an intrusive and insidious attack on sexuality. Far healthier is recognition of human autonomy and self-determination of sexual expression. America needs comprehensive sex education, contraceptive distribution and counselling to overcome the destructive social and personal effects of ignorance and repressive religious sexual morality.
‘Reproductive rights and sexual self-determination are human rights,’ Herzog says. ‘We need to affirm humans’ rights to sexual expression, sexual pleasure, and the freely chosen formation of intimate relationships.’
Don Monkerud is an Aptos, California-based writer who follows cultural, social and political issues. You can reach him at dissent[at]rattlebrain.com
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya