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University of California Press
Talk About Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States / Edition 1

Talk About Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States / Edition 1

by Janice M. IrvineJanice M. Irvine
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In this lively book, Janice M. Irvine offers not only the first comprehensive history of the culture wars over sex education but also an important examination of the politics of sexual speech in the United States. Exploring the clash between professional sex education advocates on the one hand and the politicized Christian Right on the other, Irvine vividly demonstrates the crucial role that sexual speech plays in cultural politics. Examining a range of issues played out in living rooms and schools since the 1960s, she shows how a newly emerging Christian Right chose sex education as one of its first battlegrounds, then went on to dominate the public conversation on the subject. Talk about Sex is a rich and fascinating consideration of American sex education's strategic place in the long history of efforts to regulate sexual morality by controlling sexual speech.

Irvine's original argument shows how sex education served as a bridge issue between the Old Right and the New Right. Exploring the political uses of emotion as it relates to sexuality, Irvine demonstrates how this movement draws on the tenacious power of sexual shame and fear in order to galvanize opposition to sex education. This book skillfully demonstrates how—by framing sex education as radical, dangerous, and immoral—the Right has fostered a climate in which it is risky, as former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders found, to speak out in support of sexuality education.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520243293
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/02/2004
Edition description: First Edition, With a New Preface
Pages: 294
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

Janice M. Irvine is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Disorders of Desire: Sex and Gender in Modern American Sexology (1990).

Read an Excerpt

Talk about Sex

The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States
By Janice M. Irvine

University of California Press

Copyright © 2004 Janice M. Irvine
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0520243293

Chapter One


In the late seventies, the Christian Right burst onto the political landscape. Of the scores of both single-issue groups and expansive national organizations, none was more influential than Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. In 1980, Falwell repeatedly told a story about how he had been at the White House and asked the president, "Sir, why do you have homosexuals on your senior staff in the White House?" Jimmy Carter allegedly responded that he had had to hire some homosexuals to prove he would represent everyone. When the New York Times and other major news media revealed that the exchange had never happened, Falwell claimed he had been recounting a "parable" or "allegory." Hearing this, another minister dubbed Falwell's explanation "a new name for a lie." Was it an allegory or a lie? Scholars of political movements, and even some prominent leaders of the Christian Right itself, have claimed that the movement routinely distorts the truth and even fabricates many of its claims. However, in her study of Falwell, anthropologist Susan Harding argues that it is misguided to read narratives such as the Carter story literally, outside of the context of fundamentalist speech communities. Falwell's speech is not secular, Harding argues, and his followers read him figuratively, not literally. In a sense, both interpretations are crucial to understanding how the national rhetorics of sex education opposition evolved in the aftermath of the late sixties conflicts. Still, the disagreement over whether Falwell told a lie is emblematic of the polarizations that would arise from the Christian Right's fusion of religion and politics.

Christian Right activists have been more culturally powerful in sex education debates than have sex education advocates. To understand their ways of talking about sex education, we must examine several interrelated factors. Historical and political context shape a social movement's speech. Conservative Christian activists in the late sixties, allied with groups like the John Birch Society, had spoken out against sex education at a transitional moment in the American right wing. The Old Right was waning. Soon, however, they found themselves part of a reinvigorated national movement. It was a movement for which matters of sexuality and the family would figure prominently in building a sophisticated infrastructure of advocacy, research, and legal organizations. Moreover, the Christian Right's mass base is Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists. Fundamentalists constitute a "community of discourse" which interactively produces "truth" and religious and social identities through particular rhetorics, symbols, and ways of talking. Like all social movement activists, fundamentalists used language and images to foster an emotional climate that would capture the attention of diverse and often indifferent audiences, convince them that a problem exists, and mobilize them to action. Their ways of talking became political speech; traditional right-wing and fundamentalist strategies inflected the rhetorical style of sex education opponents. At a time of broad transformations in civic life and rapid changes in the sexual culture, their oppositional ways of speaking found a national audience and helped turn the late sixties controversies over sex education into widespread, unremitting opposition in later decades.


In the late sixties, Mary Calderone and other SIECUS advocates had encountered passionate opponents of sex education. By the mid-seventies, these episodic moral protests had evolved into a cohesive political movement. Billy James Hargis was in many ways a transitional figure from an older right wing to a refurbished seventies New Right and its submovement, the Christian Right. The New Right was a face-lift for an Old Right in need of a fresh image and some distance from its explicit racism and the conspiracist thinking of organizations such as the John Birch Society. The New Right coalition of corporate sponsors, cohorts of Republicans, and a grassroots, largely religious base backed familiar right-wing projects such as aggressively anti-communist foreign policy, increased military spending, and an economic agenda of corporate tax cuts and expansive capitalism. Like the Old Right, the New Right pushed for the dismantling of social welfare programs and government regulation. However, it downplayed the anti-communism of yore to foreground social issues. The "red menace" was displaced by a campaign against godless secular humanism. This emphasis allowed it not only to attract kindred born-again spirits, but also to draw more widespread support from those who might be indifferent to right-wing foreign policy and conspiracy theories but were worried about social chaos and moral decline. This emphasis on social issues, particularly sexuality, marked the coherence of a strategy that had already begun to emerge. The sex education controversies of 1968 and 1969 had been a profound lesson in the opportunities for mass political mobilization available through organizing around sex.

As schools developed and revitalized sex education programs during the seventies, so too the Christian Right was gaining power. Honed by the Goldwater campaign and strengthened by decades of institution building, evangelicals and other conservatives displayed remarkable organizational acuity. By the decade's end, they not only had spawned numerous groups-such as the Religious Roundtable, the Christian Voice, and the widely discussed Moral Majority-but also had developed sophisticated networks for political mobilization. Throughout the seventies, the Christian Right would more successfully forge ties among those with whom it might otherwise disagree theologically. This strategy, called cobelligerency, allied former antipathetic groups. In historically unprecedented coalitions, conservative Catholics, conservative Jews, along with Christian evangelicals, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and even some Muslim allies abrogated denominational loyalties to fight for "traditional values"-a move which united opponents of sex education. Several studies between 1976 and 1981 showed that, compared with other religious individuals, evangelicals were the most politically involved. And by 1988, regular church-attending evangelicals constituted a larger voting bloc than mainline Protestants.

The late seventies marked the clear articulation of pro-family politics, a development that would prove vital to the success of the New Right and the Christian Right. Activists condensed opposition to a series of social issues, including abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, pornography, sex education, and homosexuality, under a "pro-family" rubric. The family represents the "seedbed of virtue" for neoconservatives, while for evangelicals, pro-family politics expressed a concept of gender relations in which a male-headed family structure replicates God's authority over the churches, as expressed in Ephesians 5:22: "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church." In fact, the "traditional family" that is so celebrated by conservatives and fundamentalists is less than historically accurate. It is, for one thing, a nostalgic and idealized late nineteenth-century middle-class family in which men and women operated in "separate spheres." And as theologian Rosemary Ruether argues, the Bible, including the New Testament, articulates no single model of the family and, at times, is even anti-family. Nevertheless, the pro-family moniker proved to be politically astute, since it helped swell the ranks of New Right groups. It was rhetorically powerful in that it linked opposition to a range of social justice issues and couched them as a defense of the American family against the incursions of feminism, gay rights, and sex education.

Two public events helped launch the pro-family movement: the 1977 International Women's Year (IWY) Conference and the 1980 White House Conference on Families. Their significance is largely symbolic, since neither event broke new public policy ground. They were, however, moments of galvanizing rage for a range of conservatives who viewed each conference as government legitimation of what they considered destructive social trends. The broad constituencies mobilized by the Christian Right demonstrated the widespread political appeal of social, and particularly sexual, issues. These rancorous debates over a social vision for America forecast the divisive culture wars that would unfold in the eighties and nineties.

The IWY Conference, held in Houston in November 1977, showed that the path to women's equality was strewn with obstacles. The national conference was the capstone event in the United States of the United Nations International Women's Decade, which had begun in 1975. Congress had appropriated $5 million for the conference to develop a National Plan of Action to identify and eliminate "barriers that prevent women from participating fully and equally in all aspects of national life." The plan that eventually passed, which had largely been crafted beforehand at regional conferences, was a sweeping endorsement of goals compatible with feminism, such as the extension of Social Security benefits to housewives, funding for rape prevention and battered women's shelters, federally funded child care, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and an end to discrimination against lesbians. While some of these resolutions were not controversial, the endorsement of the ERA, abortion rights, and lesbian rights triggered vehement criticism. Internal battles over endorsement of the platform helped consolidate local right-wing networks in particular states, and ultimately Christian opponents organized a national counter-rally. Over ten thousand people attended the gathering, most bused in from church groups (including a vast Mormon contingent) as well as antiabortion and StopERA organizations. Some journalists reported a discernible John Birch Society and Ku Klux Klan presence. In her analysis of IWY, sociologist Alice Rossi showed that the anti-plan delegates left the conference more unified in vision and strategy than ever. As national activist Jo Ann Gasper told me, "The extremely liberal women's movement had been chugging along pretty much unchallenged, and conservative women who are primarily concerned with hearth and kin, family and their home and their local community had no grandiose idea about remaking the world in a feminist kind of mind-set. The International Women's Year movement and the state meetings gave conservative women, for the first time, an opportunity to see in the flesh what the liberal feminist movement meant." This crystallization of an oppositional ideology in Houston marks IWY as a "cohering moment" of the national pro-family movement and led to the establishment of many right-wing local networks.

The egalitarian vision of the International Women's Year Conference provoked the emerging pro-family movement. Conservatives saw key features of IWY goals-specifically the endorsement of abortion rights, lesbian rights, and the widespread sentiment against rigid gender roles-as antithetical to the survival of what they deemed traditional morality and family values. Phyllis Schlafly, then of StopERA, captured these fears in her charge that there was "the use of tax funds to promote ERA, lesbian privileges, government-funded abortions, witchcraft, Marxism, obscene performances, and Marxist literature." This acute sense of danger was amplified by Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, who reportedly announced that the KKK would be present at IWY, asserting that "our men will be there to protect our women from all the militant lesbians." Although perhaps cartoonish, this rhetoric of risk concerning homosexuality at IWY foreshadowed later debates over the White House Conference on Families.

Called by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 as a national forum on family policy, the White House Conference on Families was an obvious target for the emerging pro-family movement. Planning broke down over irreconcilable differences among disparate constituencies regarding the meaning of "family." When an announcement of the conference changed the title from "family" to "families," right-wing activists seasoned by IWY were alerted to what they saw as code for "gay rights." They were poised to strike. Schlafly told a New York Times reporter that the rules were "rigged" against them at IWY but "now we know what to look for, and we're prepared." Prepared they were indeed. They fought over the definition of family, constituted a considerable presence at the conference, and ultimately organized a counterconference of over three hundred pro-family groups called the American Family Forum. By the end of the White House Conference on Families, the pro-family movement had shown its muscle.

Anti-homosexuality was the nucleus of opposition to an expansive definition of family. This was political appeal to religious conviction, since the movement was an emerging coalition of evangelicals, fundamentalists, and conservative Catholics. As the New York Times conference coverage concluded about them, "The 'pro-family' forces ... describe themselves as 'grass roots,' and as religious." And so the conservative activists pushed a definition that stressed "a family consists of persons who are related by blood, marriage, or adoption." Single mothers were barely tolerable, as were children raised by grandparents but not homosexuals. Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America said, "Early in 1980, we saw that homosexuals were driving in, because they wanted to be part of the whole definition of the family. And we objected to that." Although the pro-family movement did not prevail at the White House Conference on Families, that failure pales next to its blossoming political and organizational strength. The explosive events of IWY and the White House Conference on Families demonstrated to the New Right the potential political power of pro-family politics. And sexual issues would form the nucleus of these politics. Sex education, abortion, pornography, gay rights, AIDS, feminism, sexually explicit art, and popular culture all eventually became targets.

The movement grew exponentially over the decades. Like other social movements, the pro-family movement exaggerates its strength. Still, its infrastructural expansion on the national, state, and local levels was enormous. In 1997, the Christian Values in Action Coalition produced a compendium of 1,450 organizations solely dedicated to promoting family, marriage, and home schooling. This was not the entire Christian Right-a hefty companion encyclopedia listed 7,400 hundred organizations with varied goals-it is merely a subsection of groups "to help individuals put into practice family building and marriage enrichment principles."



Excerpted from Talk about Sex by Janice M. Irvine Copyright © 2004 by Janice M. Irvine. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Redefining Sex, 1964: A Prologue
Chapter 2. Days of Rage
Chapter 3. Born-Again Sexual Politics
Chapter 4. The New Sexual Revolution
Chapter 5. Victims, Villains, ... and Neighbors
Chapter 6. Doing It with Words
Chapter 7. The Passions of Culture Wars
Chapter 8. The Politics of Aversion
Chapter 9. If Asked, Don't Tell: A Final Comment
On Methods and Terminology

Appendix: Opponents of Comprehensive Sex Education

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