Sex and power in the age of Obama

Katha Pollitt and a panel of experts discuss the changing landscape of reproductive freedom, LGBT rights and the discourse of desire. But where are all the young women?

Published November 20, 2008 7:47PM (EST)

"Girls around here don't have abortions." That's what a health teacher in New Jersey -- a state that allows comprehensive sex education -- told Michelle Fine, distinguished professor of psychology at the City University of New York, when she tried to broach the subject with a class of high-school seniors.

Fine's unsettling anecdote opened an evening of discussion about sexual rights in America -- especially those of women and queers -- both as they are now and as they might be once Barack Obama takes office. Amid the flurry of post-election chatter about the economy, the Iraq war and our first black president, there has been a great deal of talk about the future of the LGBT rights movement in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8, as well as some initial speculation about what Obama's presidency and a Democratic majority in Congress will mean for women.

Monday evening's event, held at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, was billed "Power and Sex: America's War on Sexual Rights." Fine moderated the panel discussion, which included the Nation stalwart Katha Pollitt; Faye Wattleton, director of the Center for the Advancement of Women and former president of Planned Parenthood; Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women; Dagmar Herzog, professor of history at the Graduate Center and author of "Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics"; and Rosalind Petchesky, distinguished professor of political science at CUNY and Hunter College and co-author of "Sexuality, Health and Human Rights." Though the event's title sounded like a real downer -- participants wringing their hands over the various wrongs committed by our government -- the impending Obama administration inspired some cautiously optimistic discussion.

"I feel pretty good looking towards the future," said Pollitt, recounting pro-choice victories in Colorado, South Dakota and California. She made the point that, while most Americans may believe abortion is immoral in most cases, when they enter the voting booth, they often realize "the difference between what they think is moral and what they think the law should be." Pollitt also predicted that Obama will force notoriously circumspect anti-choice organizations to either work with the government in promoting birth control or publicly admit that they don't support it. Wattleton added further context to the abortion discussion, reminding us that women have been "the focus of power politics for over three decades" and that we can't rely solely on our newly elected president to fix problems with such a long history.

Petchesky spoke on the perhaps more complicated state of LGBT rights. Though, as Petchesky mentioned, all four state-level measures prohibiting same-sex marriage and adoption passed, decisions like Lawrence v. Texas and the election of a liberal president may push the country toward progress. Petchesky cautioned us against what Judith Butler calls "uncritical exuberance" and dismissed the notion that the battle for LGBT rights can be reduced to "the religious right versus all us good guys." She added that she still has problems with the same-sex marriage movement's heteronormative goals and exclusion of trans people, asexuals and "non-conforming households."

But for my money (although, actually, it was a free event), Lynn Paltrow and Dagmar Herzog were the most exciting speakers of the night. While underscoring the importance of Pollitt and Wattleton's remarks, Paltrow emphasized that "reproductive rights" also means the rights of pregnant women. The panel's most impassioned and energetic member, she made a connection between women who have abortions and are demonized as "baby killers" and expectant mothers who are forced against their will to undergo C sections, arrested for succumbing to drug addictions and generally disempowered to make decisions about their own, pregnant bodies.

Herzog was the only speaker to take up Fine's challenge, at the beginning of the evening, to talk about the way "the language of desire" appears (or, in many cases, remains absent from) American conversations about sex and power. Our society, said Herzog, "is titillating and repressive at the same time." She pointed out how damaging it can be for us to lump together conversations about date rape with conversations about promiscuity, conflate voluntary sex work with sex trafficking, and confuse homosexuality with child abuse. "The religious right succeeded in secularizing," Herzog said, going on to explore the ways in which these groups have appropriated the language of physical and mental health, promising that remaining abstinent until marriage will result in "spectacular marital orgasms" (aka "soulgasms") and capitalizing on our fears about "the death of postmarital desire." Her recommendations for the new, Democratic regime were clear. Most Americans have sex outside of marriage, she reminded us. With that in mind, progressive politicians need to "get more comfortable saying that sex is OK."

There did seem to be something vital missing from the event, however: young women. All five speakers and the moderator represented the baby boomer generation. And while I understand the people who lead organizations and hold distinguished professorships tend to be older, I'm disappointed that CUNY didn't look for a young lawyer, journalist, activist or graduate student doing provocative, new research on LGBT or women's issues to fill out the panel.

To me, the evening seemed a perfect illustration of the intergenerational conflict that pitted second-wave moms against their third-wave daughters on the question of whether good feminists could support Obama over Clinton in the Democratic primary. By refusing to allow identity politics to dictate our candidate of choice, younger women brought feminist politics into the 21st century. Can we really talk about what the next eight years will bring for women's and queer sexual rights without including voices from the generation that first supported Obama?

When Fine opened the floor to questions, it made sense to me that the two 20-something women who stepped up to the microphone wanted to talk about issues of specific interest to our generation. One asked about the global gag rule and international women's rights, while the other wanted Herzog to elaborate on how we should respond to conservative groups' appropriation of the desire dialectic. As a generation of feminists, while we continue to worry about (but, yes, sometimes take for granted) abortion rights and advocate for same-sex marriage, we also want to expand the movement to include women around the world. And though we're just as passionate as ever about sexual freedom and equality, we want to talk about sexual pleasure, too.

I would never want to deny that young women owe a great deal to second-wave feminists. But the ladies who helped usher in the age of Obama deserve a seat at the table, too.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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