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Affirming Sexual Freedom as a Fundamental Human Right

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Sex and Politics

“Liberate Your Ass: How Sexual Freedom is Key to Fighting the Right”

Last week, I was honored to participate in an event titled “Liberate Your Ass: How Sexual Freedom is Key to Fighting the Right” at Netroots Nation, the country’s largest progressive online activist convention. A long-overdue conversation on the politics of sexuality in America made all the more pressing by the advent of the 2012 War on Women, the panel discussion was the first-ever Netroots event on sexual freedom. This shows that the establishment progressive movement sees the need to embrace sexual freedom, in order to counter the conservative right’s ability to pit otherwise like-minded progressives against each other by demonizing any sexual practice that doesn’t involve one man, one woman, three minutes, the missionary position, and a potentially unwanted child.

In spite of the ironic fact that I was discouraged from doing so by one of the event organizers, I spoke about the women’s rights movement’s exclusion of sex-workers’ rights by defining all sex workers as victims, thereby denying them their sense of agency over their own bodies, lives, and livelihoods. Here is an emerging and ever more pervasive example of the ease with which the conservative movement’s divide-and-conquer strategies work. To fellow panelist Kierra Johnson of ChoiceUSA, the fact that the phrase “sluts vs. feminists” even exists is an absurd contradiction in terms; yet modern-day abolitionists are increasingly warping the national conversation on human trafficking by highlighting its most infrequent, yet more titillating exemplar, domestic sex trafficking – and are increasingly benefitting from well-meaning funders. This also illustrates a point panelist Charlie Glickman of Good Vibrations brings: even with the most well-intended actors, the problems many are trying to fix are worsened by their very efforts; and rather than attack issues directly or tangentially related to sex with education, what gets shunned instead is sex and those who practice and speak well of it.

Another prime example of good intentions gone bad is the continued practice of abstinence-only education in public schools. Charlie points out that if you have to tell lies, you cannot call it education; abstinence-only must be called out as the propaganda that it is. But American culture’s shame surrounding sex engenders problems that transcend even those who receive quality sex education. To illustrate this collective shame, Kierra shared an unsettling anecdote: during a sex-ed session she facilitated for inner-city Black and Latina girls, her students confessed to her that not only did they know how to use condoms during sex, they knew where to easily get condoms for free. The reason they have sex without condoms, they tell Ms. Johnson, is that if those condoms fall out of their purse, they will be labeled “the kind of girl that comes prepared for sex” – a label used against them not just by parents and peers, but by would-be sex partners alike. In these girls’ lives, it is a worse fate to be labeled a “slut” than it is to have safer sex and avoid an unwanted pregnancy or an STI.

Sometimes, those who do prefer safer sex to an STI are labeled not sluts but prostitutes and accordingly prosecuted or punished by law. In the District of Columbia, evidence of 3 or more condoms in one’s possession is used as evidence of prostitution-related activities if the possessor happens to be in a Prostitution-Free Zone (an enforcement mechanism that even the D.C. Attorney General’s office finds to be unconstitutional, and D.C. law enforcement officers attest to being ineffective). New York State is currently in a legislative tug of war on whether to codify or prohibit the “3-condom rule”. Even if you disagree with the practice of prostitution, isn’t it indisputably in the public interest not to discourage sex workers from protecting themselves against STIs, particularly if you live in the city with the highest rate of HIV infection in the nation? Whether it’s the condoms or one’s appearance getting the police’s attention, it sure ain’t easy being sexy if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Keeping quiet about one’s sexuality and private sexual practices seems like a proper thing to do – after all, it’s no one’s business what one does behind closed doors. But in a culture war, talking about your sex life is arguably the most radical direct action you can take. Favianna Rodriguez, an acclaimed artist and sex-positive Latina activist, intelligently points out that the conservative movement has a very well-defined sexual identity, making it difficult for progressives to attack them on that basis in advancing their political sexual agenda.     Conversely, the progressive movement has few shared values in this arena, making them vulnerable to attack on the basis of non-procreative, nonmonogamous, and otherwise nontraditional sexual practices and lifestyles. It is because of this that conservatives have a blank canvas on which they project their disfiguring fantasies, thereby playing on sexual shame at best and imputing grotesquery at worst on the Progressive movement’s sexual body. William Winters of Change.org calls for a continued effort on the part of sexual minorities to educate our fellow progressives on what it is to be a sexual minority, with the hope that we can call bullshit when conservatives attempt to argue the “slippery slope” American culture is sure to slide down if, for example, we allow gays to marry.

The more people come out to their peers and communities about existing as sexual beings, minority or otherwise, the less likely people will be frightened by that which they have only heard about. Maybe we, as a society, are closer than we think to a day where we hear about a polyamorous family raising children and react without wincing at the thought. Perhaps one day, rather than thinking – or pretending! – we don’t have sex workers, polyamorous unions, or sexually active teenagers in our lives, we can instead speak up for our peers and defend them against the harm caused by the right wing’s efforts to make all our sex lives as miserable as theirs.

As an aspiring member of a bar association, I am sensitive to the perils of having the details of an officer of the court’s sex life made public. Those of us who are held to a higher standard of conduct, including teachers, military personnel, and people whose jobs require security clearances, stand to lose livelihoods and worse – one’s children, for example – and are not in the best position to “let their freak flag fly” as part of building a sexually progressive narrative. This doesn’t mean that there are no alternatives; a simple act like sharing or “liking” an edgy piece of activist art like Favianna’s on a social media site is rarely used successfully against someone in a legal proceeding (beware; that seems to be changing rapidly). The counterculture war has art in its arsenal; good art is, by definition, thought-provoking and political. As Favianna points out, culture provides fertile ground on which to build a political movement, and art is a versatile medium with which to create political memes.

Sexual freedom is a human right; it does not fit comfortably in the context of a civil right around which progressives of all stripes, sexually conventional and otherwise, can rally around. Sex-negativity is a form of culture war, fought by curbing access to knowledge and the means to exercise autonomy over one’s body. It is so pervasive in America today that we, as activists and agents of change, are still fleshing out what a larger strategy, if any, might look like.

On this broad scale, progressives of all stripes must begin to mobilize with the understanding that to use anyone’s sexuality against them (with the exception of those who publicly work to suppress or oppress sexual identity or gender expression) is to allow the far right a basis on which to attack non-procreative sex. For this reason, it will probably take longer than progressives would prefer to see the fruits of our labor at the polls – after all, the generation raised on abstinence-only propaganda takes those values to the polls, thinking that they are doing the right, moral thing with their vote in order not to acknowledge the shame they have unwittingly validated against them.

The panel discussion was fun, fast-paced, limited in time, and tremendously ambitious in scope. It is a momentous first step to include sexual minorities in the broader mobilization against the right wing’s increasingly effective efforts to curb the rights of women and sexual minorities. It is almost a foregone conclusion that Netroots Nation 2013 will feature more than one event focused on sexual freedom as a facet of the progressive agenda.

Would Netroots organizers host a sexual freedom caucus for the women’s movement, the LGBT activists, the education advocates, the immigration policy wonks, the newly emerging ecosexual movement, and any other group or individual within a movement that understands how curbing sexual freedom affects American society on a multitude of levels, to get an honest-to-god campaign going? We won’t know until next year. Regardless, for having hosted this fascinating panel, the progressive activist establishment has more fully embraced sexual minorities and acknowledged that we need to center our narrative on shared values, in order for conservatives to have one less arrow in their quiver with which to attack us.

  • Excellent piece.  To your statement “as activists and agents of change, are still fleshing out what a larger strategy, if any, might look like.”  I have made it my goal to demonstrate with living out as a Kinky-American that the larger strategy is to live with my spirit, intellect, emotions, instinct and sexuality are in alignment and agreement.   

    Serene
    Southern California Leather Woman 2010
    Author of “All My Heroes Were Ho’s”
    Serenesin.com

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