Features & Columns

war on sex SURFING IN BAD NEIGHBORHOODS: In the right-wing narrative, men who go looking for porn sites are deviants, just like Michael Fassbender's sex-addicted character in the movie 'Shame.'

Religious
Exceptionalism

One of the most troubling aspects of the Obama presidency and contemporary state and local politics, is the continued exceptionalism regarding religious belief in political life. Even more than under President Bush, religious sensitivities now have a special seat at virtually all public policy tables, from reproductive rights to tax codes to employment policies.

Obama has actually expanded the destructive Office of Faith-Based Funding begun by his predecessor. He started by naming Pentacostal pastor Joshua DuBois to lead the White House faith office (DuBois still holds this position). Obama then poured billions of dollars in federal money into social service programs that, because they are "faith-based," are exempt from the normal federal requirements of non-discrimination in hiring, firing and proselytizing. When campaigning in 2008, Obama promised he wouldn't tolerate such discrimination, but he has and he continues to do so.

Today's federal Department of Health and Human Services has reaffirmed that even health workers who are licensed to provide medical care are not required to perform their duties if their "conscience" instructs them not to. This is in clear contrast to anyone who declines to do their job if they believe Napoleon or Cleopatra instructs them not to. Favoring religious "instructions" over non-religious "instructions" is a clear violation of America's invaluable separation of Church and state.

Virtually all instances of these religious fits of "conscience" involve sexuality—often reproductive services such as filling prescriptions for contraception, performing abortions and so on. The door is wide open for taxi drivers, janitors, office workers and virtually any employee to claim a religious exemption from doing work that supports sexual expression with which a worker disagrees.

America's tax codes are quite clear in requiring that, in exchange for massive tax exemptions, religious institutions are barred from directly participating in election campaigns. Unfortunately, there are dramatic, ongoing violations of this regulation under the Obama administration. Thus, churches are now firmly part of the infrastructure that helps elect candidates who oppose reproductive choice and contraceptive access. Having been thus emboldened, the Alliance Defense Fund is actively campaigning to end this restriction on tax-supported Churches.

Damaged Lives

So why have sexual rights become increasingly tenuous during this nominally Democratic presidency?

Part of the reason is the lack of a coherent vision of either sexual rights or sexual health coming from the president. One is tempted to excuse this by noting the profound systemic challenges this president faces—global economic collapse, enormous unemployment, a Republican Party focused solely on destroying his ability to govern.

However, the criminalization and sanction of ordinary sexual behavior causes great suffering for millions of Americans. To a parent who loses custody of her child because she's into sadomasochism or a teen put on a life-long sex offender registry for texting nude photos of himself, the War on Sex is no abstraction that can be sacrificed to other issues. For people whose lives are damaged or ruined because of it, the War on Sex is real and current and profound.

Another reason the War on Sex has gotten worse is that the Religious Right has become stronger, smarter, richer and more aggressive with regard to sexuality. Having almost completed its planned criminalization of abortion, it is now going after contraception and other medical interventions. They have successfully marginalized the wonder drug Gardasil, which could have protected an entire generation from human papillomavirus (HPV)—on the grounds that it "might" lead to "promiscuity." Indeed, it became an issue in the recent Republican presidential nomination process, as Michele Bachmann and others went after Rick Perry, who as Texas governor required the inoculation of schoolgirls several years ago.

Finally, the Religious Right has created coalitions on zoning boards, city councils and state legislatures that have reduced or even eliminated adult entertainment in large parts of the country and have persuaded many major hotel chains to stop offering adult movies in guest rooms.

A Bright Spot

Ironically, it is the political will of one of American society's most marginalized groups that is not only gaining itself equal rights but is simultaneously keeping the door open for sexual rights for all people during an otherwise dark time. Here are some highlights—some victories in America's War on Sex:

• Americans are more supportive of gay people and issues than ever before. In 2011, 56Ępercent of Americans considered same-sex relations to be "morally acceptable"—up from only 40Ępercent a decade earlier.In 2010 and 2011, six national polls found majority support for marriage equality. Polls show continued increases in the support of gay families, and a majority of Americans now support equal job opportunities, benefits, and access to leave for gay men and lesbians in the workplace.

• In 2011, New York became the sixth state to legalize same-gender marriage (as does the District of Columbia); eight others offer civil unions to committed couples, conferring many spousal rights. The federal government announced it will no longer defend the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), enraging many who somehow fear the effect of same-gender marriage on mixed-gender marriage. At this time, there are still 12 U.S. states that have voted to prohibit same-gender marriage.

Religious denominations are increasingly welcoming gay Americans. In 2011, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved the ordination of homosexual clergy, joining Episcopalians, Unitarians, several other Christian denominations, and most Jewish denominations that also ordain gay and lesbian clergy.

The Gay-Straight Alliance movement—student-run clubs in high schools (and some colleges)—has evolved in 33 states, involving at least 40,000 students and dozens of high-profile celebrities. While these clubs raise consciousness about homophobia and bullying of gay kids, they simultaneously normalize and humanize homosexuality for straight kids. And they provide a place for all participants to talk about sexual feelings and questions without fear of judgment or punishment—something badly missing in many schools, homes, and churches.

In 2010, a new federal policy was announced allowing unmarried gay partners to visit their loved ones in the hospital.

For the first time, gay Americans can finally serve openly in the military. After almost two decades of hypocrisy and persecution, the shameful "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law was finally overturned in late 2011. Gay men and lesbians are now free to protect America alongside their straight countrymen and -women.

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