Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Sex, Politics, and Morality

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Sex, Politics, and Morality

Article excerpt

    A. Politics and Morality (Lakoff)
    B. Sex and Politics (Elias, Foucault, and Giddens)
    C. Sex and Morality (Higher Purposes
       and Self-Fulfillment)
       1. The Morality of Higher Purposes
       2. The Morality of Self-Fulfillment
    D. Morality and Politics (Giddens, Foucault, and Elias)
    A. Morality and Sex
    B. Morality and Politics
    C. Law
       1. The Establishment Clause
       2. The Morality of Higher Purposes


Exit polls conducted after the 2004 election revealed that "moral values" was the single most important issue that determined people's votes. (1) The country was still recovering from the most deadly foreign attack it had ever sustained and fighting a war that had already claimed over a thousand lives and cost over one hundred billion dollars; the economy was faltering; the national debt skyrocketing; public education in disarray; Social Security heading toward collapse and health care in a widely acknowledged state of crisis. But something called "moral values" managed to trump all these issues as the leading source of concern. In the survey, 22% of respondents listed it as their leading issue, compared with 20% for the economy, 19% for terrorism, and 15% for Iraq. (2) As commentators quickly pointed out, much depends on the way polls' questions and answers are framed, (3) but the result is still striking enough to merit serious consideration.

What exactly are moral values, or, more precisely, what did the people who declared it to be their leading issue mean? Morality is a rather general term, after all, and it is not difficult to characterize people's concerns about the economy, education, health care, and Iraq as essentially moral in nature. (4) But the people whose votes were determined by "moral values" certainly knew what they meant, and everybody else does too. They meant gay marriage and abortion, (5) and perhaps birth control methods, stem cell research, and sex education. The theme that unifies all these various issues and, more significantly, distinguishes them from other issues that might lay claim to the mantle of morality, is that they involve sex--not sex in some general sense that includes gender, modes of thought, and all the Mars and Venus stuff that has become popular of late (6)--but sex itself: sexual intercourse and sexual reproduction. (7)

Sexual reproduction, of course, has been around for a long time--several billion years, according to most scientists. It is found among simple, one-celled organisms, including bacteria, and it is the exclusive mode of reproduction for chordates like ourselves. But it has not been a particular source of political controversy until a period that can be characterized as very recent, on a historical as well as geological scale. If one thinks back to the issues that animated political debate over the course of American history, sexual reproduction does not play much of a role. It is hard to bring to mind any definitive position that George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Woodrow Wilson espoused about this subject. To be sure, there have been a reasonable number of sex scandals in American history. Grover Cleveland's illegitimate child was a major issue in the rancorous campaign of 1884, (8) and the marital infidelities of John F. Kennedy and many other presidents were known, at least among insiders. (9) But only in the past thirty years or so has sex moved to the forefront of political debate. Bill Clinton's escapade with Monica Lewinsky was probably transformed from an excusable peccadillo to the mother of all American sex scandals by the increased political valence of the subject. (10) And the 2004 elections seem to suggest that, to quote Cole Porter, "sex is here to stay"(11) as a political issue, at least for the foreseeable future.

This Essay has two principal goals. …

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