opinion & features
How the counter sexual revolution threatens all of us
It used to be said there was very little difference between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Despite their very different public personas, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy held similar beliefs about most things. Politicians of different stripes could compromise and find common ground for the common good. That has changed dramatically. Today, it’s all-out war between Democrats and Republicans.
American historian Nancy Cohen explores this issue in her new book Delirium: How The Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America. She argues one of the forces fueling America's political wars has been the reaction against the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and the progressive movements that emerged from it. Cohen says the sexual counterrevolution and conflicts about sex, women's rights and women's roles, gay civil rights, and family values drove Americans into irreconcilable warring camps and polarized national politics.
So, while on the surface much of the political battle in Washington seems to be about the economy and the deficit, at its core it is really about sex. According to Cohen, the Republican party has been hijacked by a small group who believe that America's problems are all connected to issues around sex. Republican obstructionism can be traced to the fundamentalists' demands for orthodoxy on gays, abortion, sex and birth control.
Outwords asked Cohen about the sexual backlash and how it could play out in the States and other countries.
1. Do you see the same kind of sexual counter-revolution in other Western countries?
Every nation has experienced some sort of backlash against women’s and gay rights. But no, the conditions for a full-blown sexual counterrevolution don’t really exist in other Western countries.
The sexual counterrevolution arose in the U.S. from a unique convergence. The U.S. is the most religious of all, advanced nations, and the most religious Americans are traditionalists and fundamentalists on sex and gender issues. The U.S. also had the first and most broad-based post-sexual revolution women’s and gay rights movements. The sexual and cultural revolution triggered the counterrevolution among America’s millions of sexual fundamentalists.
2. Why does the U.S. seem to be more susceptible to sexual politics than other nations?
Because the Republican party has been hijacked by a small group of religious zealots who believe that American's problems all stem from sex. Consider what America was like just 50 years ago. Birth control was illegal, gay sex in the privacy of one’s own home was a criminal offence, abortion was illegal, and discrimination against women was legal and accepted. America’s religious zealots want to go back to that.
3. Do you see the counter-revolution spreading to other nations?
Fundamentalist Protestant missionaries and the Vatican are exporting the sexual counterrevolution to some parts of Latin America and Africa. But it can only flourish where there’s mass religious fundamentalism on the grassroots level. So nations as diverse as China, Germany, Canada, even Brazil are I think immune, because their citizens aren’t particularly religious.
4. How do you see this polarization playing out in the 2012 election?
The GOP has two modes of operation. One is ideological extremism and overreach. That mode has been on display through the opening year of the 2012 race. All of the year’s Anyone-But-Romney contenders were homegrown products of the sexual counterrevolution. Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, Santorum, and Cain all met the extremism test, but they had fatal weaknesses as presidential candidates.
(The) 2012 (election) calls for the other mode: stealth. Someone who appears sane and competent to the rest of the nation, but who has promised the sexual fundamentalists in the Republican base that he will make gay marriage, abortion, and birth control illegal. Bush’s 2000 campaign is the gold standard here.
The GOP establishment drafted Perry as this year’s stealth candidate. So much for that. They’ll have to make do with Romney — who is widely portrayed by the Beltway media as serious. The rest of us should not be fooled. Romney has promised the sexual fundamentalists that he will roll back gay civil rights and make abortion and even birth control illegal. No candidate in history has ever been as beholden to the delirious rightwing fringe as Romney will be.
5. Is there a danger of the sexual counter-revolution turning back the clock on women's reproductive rights, gay rights and civil rights?
If you want to understand what’s in store for women and gays should the sexual fundamentalists gain control of the presidency, take a look at what the Republican House did this past year. They came in promising to create jobs; they spent the year cutting funding for birth control and eroding access to abortion. As the U.S. began its mission in Libya, the GOP Congress called Pentagon leaders in to be rebuked — for repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Every Republican presidential candidate has promised to deliver on the wish-list of the antiabortion, antigay, antifeminist voters in their base.
6. What other minorities would suffer if the counter-revolution continues?
The sexual counterrevolution, for political expediency, has recently allied itself with anti-immigrant nativists. The majority of Americans favor comprehensive immigration reform, but the Republican minority will block it.
Non-Christians I fear will also suffer. The GOP is really pushing to impose Christianity as the nation’s official religion in the public schools and government. As a secular Jew, this makes me deeply uncomfortable. But I really fear for our Muslim fellow-citizens, who are in real and immediate danger of being deprived of their fundamental rights by the anti-Muslim bigotry and hysteria on the Right.
7. What would be the long-term impact on the U.S. if the counter-revolution continues to gain strength?
Americans would experience a reversal of a half century of progress in the realm of personal freedom and human rights. Abortion will be criminalized again; gays will be expelled from the military. Forget gay marriage, of course. Add to that new laws that will render civil unions null and void.
That’s not all. The sexual counterrevolutionaries are the voters who keep the other factions of the Right in power. So we’d see no action on climate change. The men who brought us the Iraq War will be returning for a showdown with Iran. The one per cent will preserve their low taxes, preventing the U.S. from dealing honestly with our structural economic problems — unemployment and the longterm deficit — and potentially dragging our neighbors and trading partners down with us.
8. What can centre-left, women's rights groups and GLBT groups in the U.S. do to fight the counter-revolution?
Sexual fundamentalists are outnumbered three to one — even though you wouldn't know that by watching FOX News. The fact is, progressive views about sex, gay rights, family, and gender are the mainstream in America today.
The sexual counterrevolution can be defeated if we all vote and stay tuned in. This year, with the presidential election, GLBT, women’s, and centre-left groups need to devote themselves to electoral mobilization to defeat the Republican candidate.
If all Americans vote, the delirium will end.
(Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution Is Polarizing America is available from
Publisher: Counterpoint Press for $29.50 Cdn.)
- Rachel Morgan is editor of OutWords.