Sex and Civil Liberties

Leigh Ann Wheeler, How Sex Became a Civil Liberty (2012).

Multiple paradoxes lie at the heart of Leigh Ann Wheeler’s How Sex Became a Civil Liberty: a constitutional doctrine of sexual privacy exists alongside a public culture saturated by sex; women and sexual minorities enjoy unprecedented rights and freedoms while pornography proliferates in plain sight and civil libertarian principles underwrite opposition to rape shield laws and hate speech codes. Meanwhile, liberals and conservatives alike speak in a common civil liberties idiom that embraces the individual’s right to access sexual material once considered an obvious and proper target of state regulation. As Wheeler’s engaging history of how the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) helped make sex a civil liberty reveals, commitments to sexual freedom and consumer rights grew out of the changing political and cultural milieu from which the organization emerged and drew its leaders.

Wheeler’s story begins in the early twentieth century with portraits of individual ACLU founders and leaders including Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, and Madeleine Zabriskie Doty. She highlights how their sexual lives—more adventurous and avant-garde than previously understood—shaped their thinking and spawned a civil liberties vanguard. Wheeler’s account intriguingly suggests that men’s and women’s differing experiences of the “first sexual revolution”—relatively unmitigated liberation for men, a much more ambivalent legacy for women who continued to value fidelity and lived in fear of unwanted pregnancy—may have led them to see birth control as an essential liberty that could also help to bridge this gender gap. Continue reading "Sex and Civil Liberties"