The Presidential Candidates and the Politics of Sex
The political shake-out is underway. The first presidential-candidate beauty contests of 2008 have take place and the big-game hunt of February 5th will likely anoint the next major-party candidates. The principle issues shaping the debate are the economy, occupation of Iraq, health care, immigration and, of course, one”s devotion to supernatural deities. Sex-related issues, what were the “hot-button issues” in the two previous presidential elections, have essentially disappeared from this year”s political shell game.
Sex-related issues, nevertheless, continue as unspoken litmus-tests of what”s been dubbed “electability.” Abortion rights remains the principal issue, while AIDS, adolescent sex, homosexuality, pornography, sex predators and even adultery hover over the primaries like unholy ghosts. Their effective disappearance from this year”s political discussions speaks more to the profound discrediting of the Bush administration”s and the Christian right”s moral credibility than the true significance of sex-related concerns in American life. This year, the right has replaced the call for sexual repression with good-old American nativism to deal with immigration as its red-meat cudgel to channel conservative mean-spiritedness.
Democratic and Republican candidates are fundamentally divided over sex-related issues and voters in the 2008 election will have a meaningful choice over these issues. While little will probably differ among the final candidates” stands on the Iraq occupation, voters will decide whether to continue or to reject the current draconian faith-based initiatives on sex pushed by Bush & company.
The Bush administration, backed by Republicans and a good number of Democratic congresspersons, promoted fundamentally failed domestic and international sex-related programs based on abstinence-only. It filled the federal bureaucracy with innumerable Christian true-believers who revised every program to restrict (and sometimes criminalize) sexual pleasure. If a Democrat, however moderate, wins the presidency, one can only wonder how long it will take a new administration to dislodge this cadre of regressives from their positions of influence.
The first choice voters will have is over a woman”s right to choose. Each of the Democratic candidates supports choice. With the exception of Rudy Guiliani, who supports (if on an increasingly slippery manner) maintaining Row v. Wade, the other Republican candidates try to outdo one another in their commitment to repealing the 1973 decision. Abortion will likely play an important get-out-the-vote role among Republicans, especially in Southern and other more conservative states.
Ironically, the traditional liberal vs. conservative argument over personal freedom and big government is reversed when it comes to a woman”s right to choose. Democrats argue classic conservative virtues; they champion a woman”s freedom of personal choice and good-old libertarianism to keep government out of the bedroom. The Republicans, in the name of a mean-spirited deity, deny personal freedom and replace moral suasion with the tyranny of a merciless state. For Christian Republicans, the holy mantra to end choice is to appoint “strict constructionists” to the Supreme Court; failure to adhere to this First Commandment of right-wing faith dooms one to the Democratic hell.
Other fundamental differences divide the two dinosaur parties as well as the individual candidates. Teen sex and homosexuality best capture these differences. They speak to fundamentally different notions of humans as living, sexual beings. While little might seemingly distinguish the leading candidates in terms of ending the occupation of Iraq, engaging Iran, genuine universal health care and the growing divide between poor and rich, the differences over sex are fundamental and profoundly consequential.
Adolescent sex is an often trivialized if not an overlooked issue. Adults, who determine the outcome of elections, often forget what it was like being a teenager. Along with infancy, it is the most profound period of erotic maturation in a person”s life. The flood of hormones and awakening consciousness, fused together in a growing sense of personal power, help transform a child into an adult. In this phase we become who we will be, in terms of consciousness or self-hood and as physical or sexual beings.
The issue of adolescent sex is often reduced to sex education (i.e., the biology of procreation) and AIDS awareness (i.e., safe sex). The Bush administration spends $176 million annually on faith-based programs promoting teen abstinence. These programs are utter failures.
The most recent data show that after seven years of Bush administration folly, the birth rate among girls 15 to 19 years increased in 2006, the first such increase since 1991. A growing number of states are opting out of federal grants to promote abstinence sex education, including California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.
The Republican candidates have lined up in support of Bush”s abstinence-only program. The six dwarfs, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, all favor abstinence-only; Giuliani remains mum on the issue.
The Democrats have a more nuanced stand. Hillary Clinton supports abstinence-plus, an approach that tries to square the circle by advocating abstinence while provide more scientifically-base sex information. The other Democratic candidates, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich and Barack Obama, support the more progressive program, comprehensive sex education, which openly incorporates condom use.
The issue of teen pregnancy has become tabloid cannon-fodder with the recent revelation that 16-year-old teen idol, Jamie Lynn Spears, Brittany”s sister and star of Nickelodeon”s “Zoey 101,” is pregnant. Most disturbing, the show doesn”t discuss sex education, let alone condom use. For the pop culture distraction industry, like the Bush administration, ignorance is bliss.
Homosexuality is a complex phenomenon of human life. It speaks to the nature of human identify, the intermixing of the feminine and the masculine in each person. How each individual balances this intermixing, the combination of genetic factors, psychological formation and personal maturation, contributes significantly to the development of self-identify, let alone sexual orientation. Failure to successfully resolve this developmental process can lead to the scandalous behavior of Mark Foley, Ted Haggard and Larry Craig that plagues the Republican and Christian righteous-right.
As can be expected, candidates from the two parties differ fundamentally on homosexuality. The Democrats embrace gay voters as one more constituency, with Constitutionally-guaranteed civil rights. The Republicans are far more squeamish.
Huckabee, thumping his Bible, rants that homosexuality is “an aberrant, unnatural and sinful lifestyle.” Romney, as Massachusetts governor and when he ran for the Senate in 1994, favored a federal nondiscrimination law for gays and lesbians, but during the primary has moved to the right to appeal to Christian conservatives and no longer favors nondiscrimination laws. Guiliani continues to waffle. He recently got caught in a hair-splitting gaff. Responding to Huckabee”s sermonizing, he sputtered:
“No, I don”t believe it”s sinful.
“My moral views on this come from the, you know, from the Catholic Church, and I believe that homosexuality, heterosexuality, as a way that somebody leads their life is not, isn”t sinful.
“It”s the acts — it”s the various acts that people perform that are sinful, not the orientation that they have.
“I”ve had my own sins that I”ve had to confess.”
Homosexuality as a political issue takes many forms. The “hot button” issue of the last two elections was same-sex marriage, but it also involves “out” gay women and men serving in the military, the right for same-sex couples to adopt, protection against employment discrimination, and AIDS and HIV prevention and treatment. Looking only at the issues of same-sex marriage and military service reveals how the two parties and the candidates address the larger issue of homosexuality.
Only two candidates, Democrats Gravel and Kucinich, have come out unequivocally for same-sex marriage. The other candidates from both parties are opposed to such marriage. One can only wonder whether, a half-century ago and before the Supreme Count”s Loving decision, they would have taken the same stand about interracial marriage.
The other Democratic candidates, Clinton, Edwards and Obama, support civil unions as a half-way measure toward legal marriage. Only Guiliani among the Republicans support civil unions.
However, the other Republicans get ugly over official recognition of same-sex unions. Huckabee, McCain, Paul and Romney have declared their opposition to civil unions; Hunter and Thompson have not come out on the subject.
The Republican candidates are split over promoting a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. Huckabee, Hunter, Romney and Thompson are in favor of the amendment; Guiliani, McCain and Paul oppose it. All Democrats oppose it.
The Democrat and Republican candidates are also split over homosexual men and women serving openly in the military. Falling clearly along party lines, the Democratic candidates support repeal of “Don”t Ask, Don”t Tell” and open military service. The Republicans are opposed to gays and lesbians serving openly in the military; Guiliani and Thompson apparently have not taken a position on the issue.
Sexual politics matters. Issues like the economy, Iraq and health care are at the top of the voting public”s laundry list of concerns. However, sex-related issues set the moral agenda of each presidential administration. The moral hypocrisy that defines the Bush administration is expressed not only in the innumerable sex-related scandals that have taken place, but the repressive domestic and international policies it has pursued. Voters need to remember this as they go to the poles during the primary season.
David Rosen can be reached at[email protected].