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