Features & Columns

America's War on Sex

How government and moralists on both ends of the political spectrum
want to control what you do in bed
war on sex Palo Alto therapist Marty Klein, PhD

Palo Alto–based psychologist Marty Klein is the author of seven books and has practiced as a licensed marriage and family counselor in Silicon Valley for 27 years. His varied career includes teaching sexuality at Stanford University, serving as an expert witness in state and federal cases and speaking with parents at schools from San Jose to Mountain View about how to discuss sex with their kids.

His award-winning book, America's War on Sex: The Continuing Attack on Law, Lust, and Liberty, was first published six years ago during the George W. Bush presidency. Last week, the second edition was released with new material showing that progress toward tolerance of individual sexual behavior has been offset by new repression of sexual freedoms during the Obama presidency. Just this week, for instance, Vice President Joe Biden ventured his support of same-sex marriage, setting off some careful rhetorical sidestepping by the president's team.

Metro is pleased to be the first publication to publish selections from the newest edition of this important work.

Klein says he appreciates this area's progressive approach to gender equality and tolerance of alternative lifestyles but believes that Silicon Valley is subject to the same sex-negative government, media and religious influences as elsewhere. "California has very strict laws about pornography. Our local universities have some of the same unfortunate speech codes. And our local governments have the same misguided attitudes about sex work and sexual entertainment as elsewhere."

Filtering and managing access to digital sexual content is another facet to Silicon Valley's role in the sex war. "We are very aware of our responsibility to the rest of the country," Klein says. "We're certainly a key player in the national struggle to find a balance between giving parents options to control what their kids see while permitting adults access to sexually oriented material on the other hand." —Editor

The Sexual Disaster Industry involves federal and local government, conservative religion, so-called morality organizations, right-wing think tanks, victim-parade daytime talk shows and news programs looking for a bump ("Isn't it awful the way people go to topless coffee bars? Film at 11!"). Honorable mention goes to the psychotherapy profession (current motto: "You're sure you were never molested?") and nighttime adrenalin-rush crime shows like CSI.

Acting independently (while reacting to common cultural imperatives and personal anxieties), these institutions dramatically overstate the amount of sexual violence, sexual danger, sexual immorality and sexual freakiness around us. They've created the illusion of an enormous sexual "other" living in our midst—tens of millions of sexual predators, bisexual sadomasochist anarchists, satanic molesting sex educators, wanton husband-stealing strippers and malevolent pornographers.

Every industry promotes basic assumptions about the world in which its customers live and how its products improve lives. Despite a lack of evidence—despite contradictory evidence—the Sexual Disaster Industry has effectively persuaded Americans that the following (unproven) beliefs are principles of modern life (which, of course, justify the Industry's very existence):

1. Kids are damaged by exposure to sexual words, pictures and concepts.

2. America is full of sexual predators—and the situation is getting worse.

3. Ultimately, people can't explore sexuality safely.

4. People interested in sexual stimulation, exploration or unusual stuff are "them," not "us."

5. Eliminating venues for certain sexual experiences will eliminate certain sexual behavior.

6. Feeling scared about sexuality is responsible citizenship and common sense.

Together, these six assumptions create a landscape of danger and powerlessness, in which suspicion of one's own and others' sexuality is sensible. Surrounded by this much danger and potentially explosive eroticism, fear (and resentment) isn't just plausible, it seems responsible.

In October 2011, House Republicans released their 2012 spending bill. Among other devastating cuts to vital health and education programs, the bill slashed funding for medically accurate programs to reduce teen pregnancy, from $105 million to $20 million. In addition to cutting the funding, the legislation removed the requirement that funded programs be supported by research. As a sadistic bonus, the legislation completely eliminates funding for Title X, the nation's family planning program.

As the 2012 presidential campaign gets rolling, Republicans and "conservative" Democrats are polishing their anti-sex, anti-teen credentials promoting abstinence. Organizations like CharlestonTeaParty.org and the National Abstinence Education Association are circling the campaign like hyenas, just waiting to move in for the federal abstinence dollars they anticipate will be available after the election.

The Bush Legacy

The presidency of George W. Bush was a continual series of assaults and new restrictions on sexual rights. During this period America struggled through:

• The congressional pursuit of Internet censorship.

• The creation of the Department of Justice's Obscenity Prosecution Task Force.

• Massive funding of dangerous, inaccurate abstinence-only sex education, totaling more than $1 billion.

• A dramatic reduction in reproductive rights.

• Multiple lawsuits, punitive actions and regulations launched by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) against "indecency" on TV and radio.

• Fierce maintenance of laws excluding homosexual men and women from military service, adoption, marriage and other civil rights that the government routinely provides heterosexual Americans.

• Enhanced government cooperation with and financial support of, "decency" groups such as Morality in Media, Enough Is Enough, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and Focus on the Family.

• Increased state and municipal government interference with the rights of sexual privacy, assembly and commerce. Successful targets included sexually explicit magazines and videos, strip clubs, adult bookstores, revealing swimsuits, swing clubs, bathhouses and even adult sex education centers.

Enter Obama

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was supposed to change many things, including government intrusion into private life. In the area of sexual rights, unfortunately, the positive effects have been extremely limited. More than halfway through Obama's first term, we can see several clear trends, including:

• Abdication of federal leadership in maintaining or developing sexual rights.

• Continued legislative ignorance about how the First Amendment and other protections of free expression relate to sexuality.

• Continued legitimacy of scare tactics, inaccurate beliefs, ideological agendas and false assertions to justify virtually any legislative restriction on sexual rights.

• Continued expansion of government tools to undermine sexual rights, including zoning, eminent domain, police power, redevelopment, public health imperatives, exclusion zones, Sexually Oriented Business laws, bogus secondary effects doctrines and medical regulations.

• Use of the Patriot Act and "national security" considerations to undermine sexual rights.

Lacking a clear vision or mandate from Washington and with the president's bully pulpit disused and in tatters, individual states have aggressively led the way in increasing restrictions on sexual rights and sexual expression. Examples include restrictions on access to abortion, pointless expansion of sex offender registries with increasingly punitive conditions, restrictions on the availability of adult entertainment, protections for licensed medical personnel who reject their professional responsibilities and heightened entrapment programs (often motivated by federal grants) to pursue adults in adult chatrooms engaged in fantasy age-play.

In addition, many sex-negative narratives or beliefs—all demonstrably false—have become more popular in American society during the Obama administration. These myths include:

• Sex trafficking is an enormous problem in the United States and is getting worse.

• Adult use of legal, adult pornography is a public health menace.

• The Internet is increasingly full of predators preying on young people.

• Sex research is a waste of time and money.

• Adults should be allowed to opt out of virtually any contact with sexuality they find distasteful, whether in school (various sexual books, words and ideas), at work ("conscience clauses" for pharmacists and others), in professional training (most medical students are no longer required to learn a full range of gynecological procedures) or in public (public art is increasingly sanitized of sexual content, including classic Greek sculpture).

Such discourses continue to complicate progressive efforts to base public policy on fact and science rather than on emotion and opinion. As the media, Religious Right and conservative politicians continue to trivialize science as one perspective out of many—that is, just an opinion—it is increasingly difficult to find legitimate venues with which to counter baseless anti-sex rhetoric with fact.

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