On this day in 1789, Congress approved the Bill of Rights. We’re also in the middle of America’s annual Banned Books Week.
Which makes this a good time to think about how we express—or don’t express—ourselves. Especially our sexuality.
For the length of the 20th century, restrictions on our sexual expression came from every level of government. The feds censored movies, you couldn’t mail contraceptives (or buy them if you were single), local sheriffs busted strip clubs and adult bookstores, and bureaucratic Alcohol Beverage Control commissions had enormous power over the hospitality industry. Police busted gay hangouts and entrapped prostitutes. Police busted Lenny Bruce so many times it eventually killed him.
Organized religion—primarily Christianity—also drove a cruel anti-sex agenda throughout the century. The most harmless, normal sexual behaviors and thoughts were crushed in Catholics, Mormons, and other believers. Masturbation was out, oral sex was sick, fantasizing was infidelity, and same-gender sex put you on the VIP line for the fires of hell.
Media companies were complicit. Television refused to use words like “pregnant” and even “sex.” Women’s magazines wouldn’t use words like “orgasm” and “clitoris;” no one (including Ms.) would take ads for vibrator shops like Good Vibrations.
Government, religion, and the media are still major obstacles to healthy sexual expression. But now social media and an extraordinary meanness in public discourse has led to a dangerous self-censorship. People loudly criticize things they haven’t actually read, lying about them across cyberspace. The words “I disagree” have been replaced with forceful insults (“misogynist,” “rape apologist”), attempts to get people censured or fired (Laura Kipnis, John McAdams, Trent Bertrand), and violent action to prevent people from speaking in public.
As a lifelong “liberal” it breaks my heart to say this, but more of us need to: “liberals” and “progressives” are making it harder and harder to write about things that matter. While I want my writing and speaking to have an impact, I don’t want to risk aggressive pickets and physical threats just for the privilege of expressing myself. I’ve (warily) lectured in Communist Vietnam, mainland China, and the old Soviet Union; it shouldn’t be scary like that here in the U.S.
Here are examples of what I (and many other progressives) hesitate to write about, for fear of dangerous repercussions:
* Why the statistic that “1 in 5 (or 1 in 4) college women are sexually assaulted” is (fortunately!) an enormous exaggeration, exclusively a result of obvious junk science;
* Why discouraging college women from getting blackout drunk is NOT “blaming the victim”—but since it would absolutely reduce sexual assault, why is it not being tried?
* How most sex offenders are at very LOW risk of re-offending—and how sex offender registries do NOTHING to reduce sexual violence or child molestation;
* How many post-operative transsexuals are dissatisfied with transitioning their gender, and how this fact is being withheld from the public by trans activists afraid that the truth will undermine their rights;
* How the federal program to reduce sexual violence on campus is actually designed to dramatically favor those claiming to be victims, rather than mandating neutral investigations—an exception to the American legal assumption of innocent-until-proven-guilty that protects every person and community off campus;
* How training programs in psychotherapy now focus disproportionately on non-traditional sexuality when most professionals don’t know how to deal with the traditional sexuality of a majority of their clients.
In 2006 I wrote America’s War On Sex, which showed how the Religious Right has effectively undermined secular democracy by criminalizing a broad range of sexual expression.
Today, writers, speakers, and professors are choosing to self-censor—not so much because of bluenoses or religious zealots, but because of “liberals” and “progressives” who are ready to ban ideas they hate, rather than challenge them. And who are ready to silence—and even harm—the writers and speakers behind those ideas.
This methodology doesn’t promote truth—it bullies people into silence. That’s bad no matter who the bullies are.