The pleasure principle: How the left wins the abortion wars

The right wants to punish sex — so the only way to win the abortion wars is make sex fun again

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 4, 2022 1:27PM (EDT)

Friends enjoying music on speaker during rooftop party at terrace against sky (Getty Images)
Friends enjoying music on speaker during rooftop party at terrace against sky (Getty Images)

In response to the publication of the draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, Republicans have decided what they want to talk about: Leaks and the supposed evilness of them. The same people who support Donald Trump and his ongoing efforts to overthrow democracy are all gunning for Oscars for their feigned umbrage on behalf of the integrity of our governmental institutions.

It's not a huge mystery why Republicans want to talk about this non-issue instead of the actual matter at hand, which is the nationwide GOP effort to ban abortion. It's because Republicans know full well that their actual positions on the issue aren't just indefensible, but embarrassingly so. They definitely don't want to talk about the non-logic fueling Justice Samuel Alito's nasty, incel-esque "argument" against Roe. And they mostly don't want to talk about why they hate abortion so much. When they do, they end up sounding like snarling right-wing pundit Erick Erickson. 

RELATED: Samuel Alito's leaked anti-abortion decision: Supreme Court doesn't plan to stop at Roe

Notice that, even as he's raging about how God will rain down punishment, Erickson is coy about what, exactly, is causing that feeling of "dread" he's so excited about. It's easy to suss what he's talking about, however: That fornicators are scared right now because they are about to face the punishment of forced childbirth for their dirty sex-having ways. Coward that he is, Erickson argues through implication, instead of speaking plainly. Erickson knows, as do all Republicans, that fornication is incredibly popular among the American public. And so while punishing the sex-havers — at least the uterus-bearing sex-havers — is the whole purpose of abortion bans, Republicans would rather talk about anything else. 

Recent history shows how being proudly on the side of pleasure is a winning argument for the left.

One would think, seeing how frightened Republicans are, Democrats and the larger progressive community would press their advantage and make the discussion about the very thing Republicans don't want to talk about, which is sexual freedom. But nah, the focus on the left has been almost exclusively on the most dour subjects: Maternal mortality, economic privation, rape victims being forced to carry babies, and, of course, the ubiquitous coat hanger

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Very little is said about the reason why the vast majority of abortions happen, which is that someone had consensual sex but didn't want a baby. Republicans may be afraid to talk about sex, but in still-puritanical America, progressives aren't exactly excited to discuss the subject, either. We leave it to our British counterparts to broach the subject for us

It's easy to see why progressives want to focus on the most dire outcomes from abortion bans. Images of dead women and starving babies are believed to create moral urgency around the issue. The talk about the sexual desire that leads to most unwanted pregnancies feels frivolous. The problem is that it's too easy for Republicans to dismiss the dire outcomes as fringe cases that have no impact on most voters. Alito even does as much in his draft opinion, complaining that "mortality rates" shouldn't be "the only factor that a State could legitimately consider." Unfortunately, Republicans understand what Democrats struggle with: The focus on the worst outcomes allows the average voter to think, "Well, that's sad, but I don't see what it has to do with me." 

By reframing the issue around sexual freedom, however, progressives would have an opportunity to make the discussion salient to people's lives and identities, which has a much bigger impact on voting choices. It reframes the issue as a battle between sex-positive progressives who want people to enjoy their lives versus dour Bible-thumpers who want your life to be gray and sexless. As I've argued before, voters want to be on Team Fun People instead of Team Sanctimonious Scolds.

RELATED: Why the right-wing is having a complete meltdown over the Supreme Court's leaked anti-abortion draft

Republicans get this. That's why they rarely defend their rancid bigotry on its own terms, but instead try to pretend the debate is over fun-loving free speech jokesters versus the cancel-culturing "woke mob." It's why conservatives were so successful at convincing millions of Americans to forgo common sense COVID-19 prevention, even vaccination. From the get-go, the argument was that the sanctimonious left wants to destroy your fun, and the way to rebel is to take serious risks with COVID-19. People like being on the side that presents itself as "fun" and "freedom-loving." Republicans take full advantage, even though, in reality, they're the people trying to ban books and threaten you with hell for fornication. 

Indeed, being Team People Who F*ck is such a better position that GOP troll Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida incoherently tried to argue feminists want abortion access because they can't get laid. 

"You need abortion because you don't know the touch of a man" is an argument that obviously makes no sense. Somehow, however, it worked well enough as a troll, because few people were willing to point out that sitting at home with your cats is not how you get pregnant on accident. Instead, Gaetz got lots of sanctimonious replies. If more folks had been willing to point out that it's the sex-having ladies — who mostly don't have to pay for it! — who get abortions, then he might have hesitated. 

Even recent history shows how being proudly on the side of pleasure is a winning argument for the left. During the George W. Bush administration, the right got really bold about their anti-sex views. While the laughably flimsy pretext that they're "pro-life" was still bandied about, Republicans — emboldened by having a fundamentalist Christian in the White House — started openly arguing for a national sexual standard that expects all Americans to abstain from sex until marriage. (And for all LGBTQ people to embrace lifelong chastity, as well.) The Bush administration imposed "abstinence-only" education on schools. Republican politicians aggressively argued against contraception use in public, insisting, as then-Indiana governor Mike Pence told CNN in 2002 "the only true safe sex is no sex." Republicans would sometimes even argue that married couples should only have sex for procreation

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Forced by this aggressive prudery to actually talk about sex, progressives started, in many cases reluctantly, making the positive argument for consensual sex. With sex-positive feminists leading the way, there was robust public discussion about everything from porn to kink to issues of consent. There were even Slutwalks, as feminists stood up for their right to get laid without getting raped. Sex got so normal that it kind of got a little less sexy. Republicans flat-out lost on the abstinence issue, so much that they basically never talk about it anymore. But, as Erickson's tweet and Alito's opinion — which hints at future fights over birth control access and reinstating sodomy laws — shows, conservatives still aren't keen on the freedom to screw, even as they want to talk about anything else. 

Republicans get this. That's why they rarely defend their rancid bigotry on its own terms, but instead try to pretend the debate is over fun-loving free speech jokesters versus the cancel-culturing "woke mob."

Unfortunately, in recent years, the left has largely abandoned the role of being the fun ones. Instead, we all too often lean directly into the worst stereotypes of progressives as dour scolds who can't even take a joke. Part of the problem is the stress of the Donald Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic left a lot of people in a humorless mood. But I also blame social media, especially Twitter, which creates an atmosphere of competitive sanctimony. Self-righteous preenings gets shares and retweets. Shaming people for having fun or making jokes is an easy way to score points in the endless, pointless competition of social media. For understandable reasons, activists and thought leaders on the left spend a lot of time on social media. But you become what you pretend to be, and spending so much time performing the role of wet blankets is starting to sour the entire movement — and make it very difficult to convince anyone that being a progressive is a party they want to be invited to.

RELATED: Stop feeding Joe Rogan's trolls: Progressives must reclaim the politics of pleasure

There's been a lot of talk about how, even though Roe is toast, Democrats might be able to bank on the backlash to win seats and protect reproductive rights legislatively. Certainly, the unwillingness of Republicans — even a motormouth like Donald Trump — to talk about this issue suggests that there's weight to this political strategy. But there's also a danger. All the talk about coathangers and rape victims really brings people down. Yes, it's important, but it's depressing. Depressing is demoralizing. It can cause people to check out of politics entirely, rather than listen to yet another lecture on why it's super bad to make 13-year-old rape victims have babies. Believe me, they know

So, as difficult as it may be to overcome the puritanical impulse baked into the American psyche, the left needs to talk about sex again. Not just the bad parts, but why sex is good and why people should be free to pursue their happiness. A fight between the fun-loving freedom people versus sanctimonious prudes like Erick Erickson and Sam Alito is a fight that Democrats can win. We need to argue not just about people surviving, but people thriving. Freedom and pleasure arguments may not score points on Twitter, but they win people over in the real world. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Abortin Abortion Rights Abstinence-only Commentary Reproductive Rights Roe V. Wade Sex