It’s incredibly simple. At a national level, conservatives are doing everything they can to whip up fear of sex to drive voters to the polls this year. Utah’s unbelievably bad sex ed bill is a reflection of that drive.
Venal political motives aren’t the only thing at work, however. These conservative politicians and activists are genuinely afraid of the consequences should they fail to act. I know it sounds nutty, but when Utah’s troglodyte Rep. Ed Wright had a hissy fit about the materials, he was being entirely genuine. He was probably shocked at medically accurate no nonsense information about sexuality.
Wright said he began looking into changing the law after he saw materials developed by Planned Parenthood being used as part of maturation programs at some schools in the state. He also disagreed with a slideshow that the State Office of Education developed about contraception because it showed pictures and brands of condoms.
I know people who – faithful Mormons and otherwise – who are in their sixties who have never purchased, owned, touched or used condoms. Even seeing them for sale in stores makes these individuals very uncomfortable, as if something that should remain private has been turned into a commodity and slapped a price tag on it. Wright was probably shocked at the sight of pictures of condoms in the materials. Wright’s shock, however genuine, was less about condoms than about something else entirely and it is the same thing driving the sudden interest conservatives have in attacking contraception. And no, it’s not ignorance of sexuality and biology.
Every once in a while, however, the subordinates of this world contest their fates. They protest their conditions, write letters and petitions, join movements, and make demands. Their goals may be minimal and discrete—better safety guards on factory machines, an end to marital rape—but in voicing them, they raise the specter of a more fundamental change in power. They cease to be servants or supplicants and become agents, speaking and acting on their own behalf. More than the reforms themselves, it is this assertion of agency by the subject class—the appearance of an insistent and independent voice of demand—that vexes their superiors. (The Reactionary Mind : Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palinby Corey Robin)
The shock is not that these social inferior exist, it is that they have their own ideas, drives, desires and rights. Whether it’s teens discovering sexuality outside the limits their parents want to place on them or women deciding when to have babies without just trusting to biology, the issue is people who should be of lower social status asserting their right to be independent. When the Vice President of the Utah Eagle Forum addressed the issue, she gave away the game:
Dalane England, a vice president of the Utah Eagle Forum, which has endorsed Wright’s HB363, said earlier this month that these “very private, sacred issues” are best handled in the “sanctity of the family and the home.”
IOW, kids are only entitled to the information parents want them to have, whether kids need additional information, different information or information the parents don’t have is irrelevant. Young people have rights of their own, needs of their own and as a society we have a duty to help teens get complete and medically accurate information about sexuality. England’s framing of the issue of sexuality as sacred and the family and the home as sanctified reveals more than you might expect. England’s argument is simply that these topics are so special they cannot possibly be spoken about in public and that the job of the public square is to treat them as taboo. It’s a means of approaching sexuality that is riddled with anxiety and fear. We must declare discussion of sexuality off limits in the hopes that teens will then regard sexuality as off limits. In a very real way, when conservatives nationally are leading the charge against contraception, they are responding to the very real change contraception introduces, namely it transforms sexuality from a sacred issue to a medical one. Rather than conception being a mystery outside of one’s control, it becomes something planned, intentional, perhaps even banal.
In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin observed:
. . . conservatism is a deliberate, conscious effort to preserve or recall “those forms of experience which can no longer be had in an authentic way.” . . . He seeks to enjoy them precisely as they are being—or have been—taken away. If he hopes to enjoy them again, he must contest their divestment
When Dalane England frames the issue as one which is sacred and should be discussed in the sanctity of family and home, she is making a very different argument than it first appears. England is objecting that sex education is happening in the schools, period. Even abstinence only education is a bitter compromise since it happens outside the home. If sexuality is no longer a mystery, no longer sacred, then conservatives become revanchist, trying frantically to reclaim something that was long ago lost. The old joke is that a Puritan is someone who is deathly afraid that someone somewhere is having a good time. Today’s conservatives are stricter and less fun than the Puritan of the joke. It’s not that someone, somewhere is having a good time, it’s that everyone everywhere has lost their way. Sex education is problematic because it treats sexuality as a topic to be learned, not a sacred mystery to be lived. Contraception is problematic because it seeks to treat conception and child-bearing as medical issues which can be planned, managed and controlled rather than mysteries of God.
America’s conservatives waging an explicit war against contraception signals the move of the culture wars into a new and alarming phase. Despite forty years of organizing and working, of giving time and money, conservatives see a culture which finds their values less and less relevant. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that very few parents are opting their children out of sex education classes. To almost everyone, that looks like a good argument for keeping sexuality education, perhaps even expanding it. That few parents are opting out is proof that the culture has gone crazy if even conservative Utah parents are letting their kids have sex education. To the revanchist right it is a sign that they must redouble their efforts, they must take even harder stances on the issues.
Americans remain prochoice despite almost 40 years of conservative activism. The obvious next target has been readily availably contraception and conservatives have moved to it precisely because they can claim it is a root issue. Contraception “gives” permission to be promiscuous. Promiscuity is a violation of the rules conservatives hold dear. Making contraception harder to get, more expensive, less available, is a way of controlling sexuality. When Rush Limbaugh and hordes of other Republicans demonstrated publicly that they didn’t actually understand how hormonal contraception works (i.e. Limbaugh remarks showing that he thinks the cost of contraception is directly tied to the frequency with which one has sex), they betrayed both their actual ignorance about sexuality but also their real agenda – controlling sex and sexuality.
Abstinence only sex education is intended to limit the amount of sex young people have by scaring them into not having sex. Most abstinence only programs are riddled with medical errors, sexism, heterosexism and fear mongering. Making sex scary is about convincing people to not have it. Removing access to contraception is about convincing people to not have sex by making the consequences as complex and difficult and overwhelming as possible.
Utah’s benighted state legislature taking up a proposal to go backwards with regard to sex education in the state is about trying to restore a mythical past in which people didn’t have sex outside of marriage. Clinging to the myth of abstinence only education gives these conservatives hope that somehow they can put the genie back in the bottle. Sex should be a mystery. Knowing too much, being able to manage it, treating it as a health issue is an affront to that perspective. So in Utah, legislators try to roll back our already inadequate sex education. Nationally, conservatives declare war on contraception. It’s all part of the same way of seeing the world and of seeing sexuality.