Conservative sexual politics
Radically social models of sex as promoted by queer theorists and embodied by pomosexuals have competed with a major revival of both religious and biological models of sexuality over the past two decades. The Catholic Church, for example,
still officially defines homosexuality as a ‘moral evil’. The rise of Christian and other religious fundamentalisms throughout the West from the 1980s has reinvigorated traditional moral condemnations of sexual deviancy. In the political arena, the activism of the Christian Right has generally been the source of the most vehement opposition to gay rights campaigns, especially in America. As a social movement, the Christian Right draws primarily from Evangelical Protestant groups which aim to defend and restore ‘traditional values’ against the ‘moral decay’ of the rise in sexual permissiveness, and perceived threats to the patriarchal, heterosexual family resulting from feminism and gay rights campaigns.
Political strategies differ within the movement, however. Mass movements such as the Promise Keepers, an American Christian men’s movement, focus on a commitment to ‘spiritual, moral ethical, and sexual purity’ (promise 3) and to ‘building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values’ (promise 4), but prioritize a focus on masculinity rather than on sexual orientation – which is indirectly present in their primary aim of restoring the traditional gender role of men within the heterosexual family. In contrast, American organizations such as the Traditional Values Coalition tend to see gays not only as immoral, but also as out to undermine society and ‘recruit’ the young, and they consequently specialize in the fight against gay rights. The notorious Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas welcomes various ills that befall America, including Aids, 9/11, and the death of US soldiers in Iraq, as well-deserved punishments from God for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. On its website ‘God Hates Fags’ (opening words: ‘welcome, depraved sons and daughters of Adam’), it argues that ‘God Hates America’ (as well as Sweden, Canada, Ireland, and Mexico) for its ‘Godless sodomite culture’.
Many Western countries have Christian support groups for gay men and women that depict homosexuality as a misguided
lifestyle choice, and undertake to ‘help’ those who wish to lead a ‘proper’ heterosexual lifestyle. Among the largest of these, EXODUS International, for example, promises ‘freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ’, offering ‘reparative therapy’ to ‘men and women who struggle with unwanted homosexual attractions’ and who want to ‘grow into heterosexuality’, as well as annual international ‘freedom conferences’ (the 2007 conference was titled ‘Revolution’).
Although religious and conservative groups that reject sexual diversity in the name of ‘family values’ have largely monopolized moral models of sexuality, alternatives founded on respect for sexual pluralism are, of course, implicit in equal rights campaigns. Faced with recurring moral fundamentalisms and sexual conservatisms, authors such as Jeffrey Weeks and various queer theorists have attempted to elaborate alternative, ‘progressive’ value models for sexuality. Furthermore, liberal theologians from various religious affiliations have vocally supported gay rights claims, drawing on different versions of Christian ethics, while neo-conservative redefinitions of sexual identity promote equality from a political standpoint which is both conservative and libertarian in contrast to the Left-activist position that forms the basis for queer politics. This type of counter-queer gay politics is personified by Andrew Sullivan, the British author of The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back (2006) who lives in America, or by the Log Cabin Republicans (the gay wing of the Republican Party); while on the cultural plain, the ‘Bears’ movement, which celebrates conventionally masculine-looking gay or bisexual men with hairy bodies and facial hair, and rejects what it perceives as ‘effeminate’ styles and mannerisms, has been gathering steam in recent years.
Biological models of sexuality have been reinvigorated by the recent expansion of evolutionary and genetic science, as exemplified in the ambitious Human Genome Project which has undertaken to map the entire sequence of human DNA.
Developments in genetic research have repopularized biological and hereditary understandings of sexual practices and identities. For example, beliefs that homosexuality could be explained by a ‘gay gene’ were triggered by a study by Hamer and others on fruit flies, published in Science in 1993, which claimed a link between genetic make-up and sexual orientation – a finding that has since been heavily contested. Various 1990s studies have attempted to identify specific biological characteristics such as more frequent left-handedness in gays, while other studies continue to argue that homosexuality is caused by a disorder in sex hormones. Institutions such as the American Department of Defense continue to define homosexuality in biological, medicalized terms, as a mental disorder. Finally, the pharmaceutic development of potency products such as Viagra further involves the profound medicalization of sexuality.
Biological models of sexuality have been adopted to legitimize opposing positions within the politics of sexuality. For example, on the one hand, the claimed discovery of a ‘gay gene’ has led to calls for genetic ‘correction’ of sexual deviancy. On the other hand, a representative of Lambda welcomed the ‘discovery’ of the gay gene in Time Magazine in 1993 on the grounds that such a finding meant that homosexuals ‘can’t help the way they are’ and should therefore not be discriminated against. Just like religious models, biological understandings of sexuality have served both to pathologize sexual deviancy and to sustain equal rights claims.
Recent developments in the area of genetics have also revived collective preoccupations with heredity, reproductive control, and the future of welfare systems, and returned such issues to the political agenda. New practices such as genetic counselling during pregnancies have led to misgivings based upon past eugenic experiences for some, and triggered new hopes for improvement of the collective genetic stock of the nation for others. For example, the genetic scientist Herman Muller set up a ‘sperm bank’ in the US which operated until 1999 and was intended to
raise the genetic ‘quality’ of America by providing sperm from Nobel prize laureates, an aim that failed miserably due both to the reluctance of the intended donors to get involved and the low quality of the sperm of those few (elderly) scientists who did.
More generally, concerns with higher levels of reproduction from what are regarded as ‘undesirable’ categories of citizens, such as Muslim immigrants, were publicly articulated by politicians in countries such as France in the 1990s, echoing older Western worries about fertility levels in non-Western countries such as India and China. Female reproductive sexuality continues to constitute a particular policy concern of the state. For example, in America in the early 1970s, an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 women on low incomes were sterilized annually under federally funded programmes, frequently under the threat of withdrawal of welfare benefits. Following action from the US Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, a federal judge put an end to the legality of such practices in a 1974 ruling, but it is generally recognized that this failed to put a halt to coerced sterilization. By the early 1980s, an estimated 24% of African-American women,
35% of Puerto-Rican women, and 42% of American-Indian women (compared to 15% of white women) had been sterilized, many of them without their consent or full understanding of the consequences. Current organizations such as Project Prevention/CRACK (‘Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity’) offer cash incentives to male and female drug addicts who accept sterilization or vasectomy, and Republican politicians have triggered accusations of ‘neo-eugenics’ by calling for forced sterilization of ‘disorderly’ categories of the population, including crack-addicted mothers and other welfare recipients, since the 1990s.
In European countries, recent cultural battles around immigration have centred on controversies around sexual ethics. Muslim immigrants, in particular, are accused of rejecting both Western sexual liberation and women’s liberation, and of lack of tolerance
towards sexual diversity. The portrayal of cultural ‘outsiders’ as more sexually repressed than the native population is an interesting reversal of earlier historical depictions of non-Western sexuality. Indeed, ‘Oriental’ cultures have traditionally been the repository of Western sexual fantasy. Exotic representations of ‘the Orient’ which conjured up images of Eastern unlimited sensuality and guilt-free licentiousness have been a persistent theme among Western intellectuals, including the 18th-century French political theorist Montesquieu in his Persian Letters (1721), 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert, or the 19th-century British explorer Sir Richard Burton (translator of Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra). In a similar vein, early Western anthropologists such as Margaret Mead in Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization
(1928) , or Bronislaw Malinowski in The Sexual Life of Savages
(1929) , have routinely portrayed non-white races as closer to nature and therefore much freer sexually, in contrast to the more civilized, and therefore sexually more restrained, West. Cultural stereotypes of black men as sexually potent and better-endowed than white men further reflect the projection of Western sexual as well as racial fantasies and anxieties.