“Sex is always political”, and its politicization involves the continual attempt to draw boundaries between “good” and “bad” sex, based on “hierarchies of sexual value” in religion, medicine, public policies and popular culture. These hierarchies “function in much the same ways as do ideological systems of racism, ethnocentrism, and religious chauvinism. They rationalize the well-being of the sexually privileged and the adversity of the sexual rabble.” But in some historical periods, negotiations over sexual “goodness” and “badness” become “more sharply contested and more overtly politicized.” We are living in one of those periods.
These were the insights of US feminist and sexual rights activist, Gayle Rubin, in an article written nearly two decades ago. (1) But clearly, the ethical and political conflicts Rubin warned us about, far from being resolved, are more prevalent today than ever—on a global scale. In the current context—with the revival of religious extremisms of all kinds, backlashes against women’s and LGBT movements, the “war on terror” and its rationalization of unrelenting militarism and torture (including sexual torture), US economic and military hegemony (especially with a Christian fundamentalist at the helm), and an atmosphere of unbridled power—the victims are peacefulness, human rights, and environments where people can live full and pleasurable lives.
This is an unusually dangerous time for sexual and gender outlaws, whether they be gays and lesbians, transgenders, intersexed people, unmarried youth, commercial sex workers, or heterosexual women trying to live a “non-traditional” social and erotic existence. It’s especially dangerous for women and girls caught in the crossfire of armed and ethnic conflict situations, subjected to rape and assault in refugee camps or to HIV infection by predatory or heedless men. As Rubin suggested, popular anxieties (of straight men, majority or warring ethnic groups, the economically displaced) often take the form of “moral panics” that target sexually vulnerable and marginalized groups. Under these conditions, we believe that everyone whose rights to bodily integrity are under attack must come together in strong alliances and with strong resolve to defend social, gender and erotic justice.
(1) Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance (London: Pandora, 1989)