Do you believe that the government should stay out of your private sex life? Let me guess… What I love about How Sex Became a Civil Liberty, by Leigh Ann Wheeler, is how she forces us to reexamine our assumptions.
Wheeler, a historian at Binghamton University and the co-editor of the Journal of Women’s History, sets out to unearth the history of a phenomenon most of us probably see as natural—that we possess, in Wheeler’s apt phrase, “sexual civil liberties.”
All the hot-button issues are here—birth control, abortion, gay civil rights, and pornography. Wheeler gives us a complex, contingent, often fascinating history of how a right we cherish—privacy in matters of sex—came to be. After our recent political battles in the war on women, Wheeler’s book is also incredibly timely.
Wheeler goes looking for her particular answer to “how we got from there to here” in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). ACLU lawyers and activists, she argues, not only played pivotal roles in the landmark cases on birth control, abortion, gay rights, pornography, rape, and sexual harassment. More importantly, they invented and made “hegemonic” our very notion of “sexual civil liberties.” The book, in Wheeler’s words:
“shows how, why, and with what results ACLU activists gradually adopted sexual expression, practice, and privacy as civil liberties; persuaded courts to do the same; and joined with . . . commercial media, and other advocacy groups to promote to the broader public a civil liberties perspective on sexuality. By influencing public discourse as well as law, the ACLU helped to shape a distinctive and also polarized American sexual culture even as it contributed to the emergence of a broad consensus on the sanctity of freedom of speech and sexual privacy.”
You begin to get a sense of just how contingent our sense of our sexual rights is from Wheeler’s stories about the eccentric and out-of-the-mainstream men and women who first identified access to birth control and the right to read pornography as rights beyond the purview of government regulation. There’s the free love set, anarchists, and nudists before World War II. Wheeler’s discussion of how the personal experiences of these activists in America’s ‘first sexual revolution’ shaped our current understanding of sexual rights is one of the most fascinating parts of the book, and reminds us how politically influential radical activists can be. Do look at the photo on page 45 if you think it was just the sixties that set us free.
Readers interested in relationship between law and politics, the perennial progressive dilemma of how to balance equality with liberty, and how social movements evolve, compromise and succeed will enjoy this book.
There’s much food for thought in How Sex Became a Civil Liberty. Among Wheeler’s discoveries and arguments are:
How the understanding and eventual protection of gay and reproductive rights were intertwined, a result that wasn’t preordained. Of particular note, considering how America has recently moved so far so fast, is how difficult it was to win privacy rights, or sexual civil liberties, for gay Americans.
How the interests of different historically oppressed groups can sometimes be in conflict when it comes to the real world business of changing policy. Wheeler has a wonderful section about the tensions between feminists and African Americans over the reform of rape law, given the terrible history of how rape accusations had been used as tool of racial control.
How the ACLU interpreted the First Amendment to protect the right to read, see, and hear, articulating a case for protection of what Wheeler terms “consumer rights.”
Throughout the book, Wheeler suggests that there is a dark side to this sanctification of sexual civil liberties under the constitutional rubrics of free speech and privacy, specifically that it has “privileged sexual expression over freedom from unwanted sex.” Count me a skeptic. Join in if you want to see some sparks fly on this issue. But tune in, because Wheeler has written a provocative book about sex, women’s rights, race, law, and the victories and limits of political activism.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]