Everyone has the right to have sex as they choose and we must make sure we protect that right
By Emily Witt
Sexual equality – the right for consenting adults to love who they want, the way they want it – is a human right. In 2017 the right to have the kind of sex we want is still under threat.
Once again gay people, single women, the non-monogamous, the kinky, and many other people whose sexuality does not conform to the heterosexual, child-producing marital bedroom, will be forced to articulate their right to sexual freedom. For many adults, merely having sex, and being sexual, will become a political act. Welcome to the year of assertive sexuality.
In the 21st century the state wields control over sexuality through access to healthcare. In the United States, Donald Trump has appointed an orthopaedic surgeon, Tom Price, as his secretary of health and human services. Price has a record of opposition to LGBTQ and abortion rights and has voted in the past to deprive non-profit organisation Planned Parenthood of taxpayer support.
Even if Trump chooses not to revoke the Affordable Care Act, it’s likely the mandate that covers contraception will be repealed. A woman’s sexual freedom depends on her ability to access affordable contraception, treatment for infections and abortion services. Trump, who has a lifetime of boasting about his sexual promiscuity (both consensual and not), wants to impose a paradigm of risk on women, who will lose autonomy and safety and will face unnecessary and prohibitive expense and inconvenience in their pursuit of sexual happiness.
The United Kingdom also saw an attempt to thwart sexual freedom by denying access to healthcare in 2016. It was only after a successful lawsuit filed by the National Aids Trust and persistent lobbying by activists that the NHS announced in December that it would fund a three-year clinical trial that will make pre-exposure prophylaxis available through the NHS to 10,000 people at risk of contracting HIV. This was a shift from earlier in the year, when the NHS had made it clear that it would limit availability of PrEP to 500 men “most at high risk”.
Denying healthcare to certain populations in a misguided attempt to influence their sexual behaviour is a form of social control and exclusion that arbitrarily codes certain sexual acts as good or bad and certain lives as more dispensable than others. The point of such efforts – and other forms of sexual censorship, like the attempts of the Conservative government to block pornographic websites that show female ejaculation or that break the “four finger rule” – is to assert a hierarchy of sexual cultures in which heteronormativity occupies a place at the top and alternative sexual preferences are maligned as risky or obscene.
Attempts to re-establish a notion of “normal”, “conventional” and “responsible” sexuality come at a time in which consensus about what an adult life should look like is rapidly dissolving. In the United States and the United Kingdom, adults are getting married later or not at all. In the years of their lives in which they are dating and having shorter-term sexual relationships, technology has offered new ways of meeting people, of fantasising and of finding sexual community.
A shift in cultural morals has opened space for the articulation of a broad spectrum of sexual identities, orientations and gender identifications. If the first decade of the new century was about broadening access to institutions such as marriage, the second might be about taking pride in sex as an end in itself.
The culture finds itself at a crossroads: either attempt to restore a false consensus about what constitutes a legitimate sexuality, an ideal of monogamous fidelity that always contained hypocrisy, that not even the president-elect of the United States can claim to have upheld; or embrace a more honest view of the contemporary way some people relate to each other.
For the growing population of adults who have failed in one way or another to live up to an ideal of what a “good heterosexual” looks like, either because they have never married, or have divorced, or because they are not heterosexual at all, attempts by politicians to marginalise their sex lives would be comical if they didn’t come at such a high cost.
The only response that feels right, at this juncture in history, is to dispense with euphemism. Don’t call contraception “family planning”. Don’t limit the idea of sexual freedom to the right to marry (although even that right remains threatened.)
Don’t let the enjoyment of pornography be pathologised. Don’t meekly try to make your sexuality palatable to the people who are determined to deny its legitimacy.
In 2016 cautious appeals for responsibility lost out to ostentation and lies; 2017 is not a time to be demure.
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