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Mapping The Future of Choice: Sex, Love and Birth Control in the 21st Century

“If silence on questions of values, or questions of sexual freedom, was necessary at one point or political expedient at another, let us be clear that in the next century it is not adaptive.

A version of this presentation was at the Planned Parenthood Conference called Mapping The Future of Choice on January 21, 1998. Copyright 1998 Urvashi Vaid

Inviting a lesbian activist to speak about Sex, Love and Birth Control is a bit like asking a Priest, both know more than you might think about the subject.

It is one of the ironies of history that the movement I come out ~ the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement ~ focuses far more on love and birth today than it does on sexual freedom. Indeed, some of the staunchest defenders of traditional idealized romantic love, marriage, commitment and monogamy today are gay men and lesbians; and a vast baby boom of childbearing, adoption and parenting is underway among gay and lesbian couples. Now, I am all for equality and to me that includes the right to marry for same-sex couples. But, I am also a feminist, deeply aware of the commodification, bias and prejudice towards women embedded in the institution of marriage. And, I am an Indian woman, deeply suspicious of cultural mandates that a marital relationship is superior to any other. Call me old fashioned — but I prefer to live in sin with my girlfriend.

Having established my qualifications to address the topics at hand, I want this afternoon to appropriate the prescriptive posture of the Cleric ~ and not the chic posture of the lesbian — to talk about the organizing we who are advocates for reproductive freedom must engage to advance the journey of women’s liberation that we celebrate today.

Specifically, the next century requires us to re-center our work for sexual and reproductive freedom around the fact that public policy related to sex, love and birth control is tied to economic decisions and to who has political power. I agree with Frances Kissling and Faye Wattleton — we need to revive a liberation-based movement in the next century if we want to defeat the threats to women’s equality and to sexual and reproductive freedom that we now face.

The second challenge of the future is more conceptual — it requires us to broaden our understanding of sex, love and birth control to see them as issues of sexual freedom, not just personal choice. To that end, in the next century, feminist organizations, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered groups, traditional reproductive service providers, faith based progressives and sex-educators must all forge a much closer link as a movement for sexual and reproductive freedom, because sexuality and gender, sexism and homophobia are inseparably linked. Let me elaborate on these two points.

Economic Realities, Political Power and A Reproductive Freedom Movement

In a recent review of Seymour Hersh’s dishy book about JFK, Gore Vidal suggested that our interest in the sex lives of famous people in many ways diverted us from really focusing on the issues of how money and power operate to allow some people the kind of privilege Hersh details. Gore Vidal is right – a sentence you don’t hear much. Economic realities more than sex defines the lives of most Americans. Indeed, while sex will always entrance and distract us, in many ways it is losing its potency: today money is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Mainstream America pants over the endless articles about the hves and tiny teeny thoughts of billionaires and millionaires, as palpably as it pants over pornography. The Wall Street Journal long ago displaced Playboy as the male fantasy ground. Greed has replaced lust, and the market (it’s down-it’s up! it’s up-it’s down) has displaced the site where sex occurs – the bedroom, the barroom, the back seat of a Volkswagen, and is the site that occupies more people’s daily attention. We live in interesting times.

In their critical book, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, historians John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman suggest that economic changes drive sexual changes far more than the other way around. D’Emilio has also shown how the combined impact of industrialization, the mobility of labor, the social dislocation of millions of men and women in the World War II era allowed for the emergence of a gay and lesbian subculture and identity (see, John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity: The Making of a Homosexual Minority”). In other words, while same-sex behavior may have always existed, capitalism helped create gay identity in the 20th century. Similarly, the technological advance of the Pill allowed women to control pregnancy, even as such advances created a whole new set of health hazards and problems.

Given this truth about history, do economic-based decisions shape public policy about sex and birth control today? Emphatically yes. Two examples illustrate this point. The first is historical, while access to contraception indeed liberated women from childbearing, we must remember that population control policy also had a more sinister dimension that today’s welfare reform recalls: a history of justification rooted in the idea of eugenics- that certain classes and races were fitter and as a matter of pubhc policy and ought to be encouraged to reproduce while others should not.

The welfare reform bill passed by Congress and endorsed by the Administration contains embedded in it age-old population control measures designed to control the sexual lives of poor or low income women: the bill provides greater funds to those states which reduce “out of wedlock” births. Control women’s bodies, the federal government has said, and we will reward you, all while we cut programs for the poor while we cut taxes for the upper middle class. In fact, the agenda of corporate capitalism — lower taxes and privatized public services — is being achieved through the demonization and targeting of poor and politically disempowered women of all colors. And the targeting of women has an explicitly sexual and reproductive component.

A second example is evident in the growing backlash to women’s work outside the home. Anxiety about the domestic economy’s ability to sustain job growth underlies this backlash. Today, right wing pundits and think tanks openly question whether having women in the work force in large numbers is good for families ~ women’s entry into the job market is being blamed for everything from men’s low wages to the rise in teenage pregnancy to the decline of moral values. Whom does it benefit to have a public policy that women should stay home and raise the children? Women at home, men at work, means that companies don’t have to worry about messy policy issues like child care, equal pay for equal work, sexual harassment in the workplace, job training and more.

Economic policy choices, or, to use an old-fashioned term, ideology –guide public policy decisions about sex, love and birth control all the time. Given this truth, we need a sexual and reproductive freedom movement that first of all has its own economic policies and platform that it is seeking to enact; and second has the clout —politically — to guide public policy from a pro-woman, pro-human rights perspective.

Unfortunately, such a movement does not yet exist.

We face a different landscape than our predecessors did in the 1800’s or the 1920’s or the 1950’s or 1960’s or even the 1980’s. Today, more American women have individual autonomy than ever before. We won the right to vote, and our vote matters. Lots of smart women are in political office or leadership positions in social justice organizations. More men identify with feminism than ever before. Feminists have created a whole body of history, analysis and theory. We boast a broad, national, state and local organizational infrastructure of women’s organizations. We have won many elements of legal equality and the right to redress. We have a large and growing pool of young women, men, trans, straight and LGB, not invested in the old sexist double standards, or the old gender order, for that matter. We have taken on the racism inside our organizations and in our society, and we have at least a rhetorical understanding that economic policy affects women’s lives. There is a broad infrastructure of social justice groups working on the full spectrum of issues — in other words, we are not all alone in our work for women’s equahty.

That is the good news.

On the other hand, in the US, we have a political movement that is not cohesive, or powerful, that still does not tap the full potential of feminist political power. Violence against women is incredibly pervasive and intolerable. We have a domestic women’s movement that is far too timid to make an economic critique of the destructive market driven policies that most threaten women. The voice of our movement’s organizations is not reaching out to broader classes and kinds of people, and as a result fewer and fewer women and men identify as feminist even as they identify with the goals of equality for women. Support for reproductive choice remains strong but susceptible to the manipulative politics of the Right. Racially and class-wise, we operate in virtually segregated organizations — where our clients and constituents are a different race and class than our organizers, staffers, funders or leaders.

We find feminist organizations that are insular and isolated from fresh ideas, and from the energies of younger women, low-income women, or the women of color whose lives so much of their policy work is about. We do not have powerful legislative lobbies in every state or even at the national level. Instead of seeing ourselves and each other as part of a broad-based feminist movement for economic and social change, we are so specialized that our work seems to be a series of narrow, single issue problems ~ abortion and reproductive choice, violence, domestic violence, sexual harassment and so on.

Don’t misunderstand me — these are all issues critical to the health and lives of women, but our lack of a broad-grassroots, militant feminist movement hurts us at the very instant that we need to link women’s problems to broader policy solutions.

Major, mainstream groups like Planned Parenthood must play a renewed and fearless leadership role in the revitalization of such a grassroots, multi-racial, co-gender feminist movement. Imagine if Planned Parenthood prioritized the rebirth of such a grassroots women’s liberation movement and brought to it the same resources, skill and imagination that you have brought to planning this day long conference!

The future may require some women’s groups to merge with others, for new ones to be formed, for think tanks to really focus on the platform and specifics of how we implement reproductive choice for all women and teach sex education and responsibility to all boys and girls. We may need to create state-by-state political constituencies for women’s equality, sex education, birth control, and health care. It will require the emergence of candidates – men and women — who see that this is not a single issue vote, not all about abortion or not, but a multi-faceted movement that cares profoundly about the quality of the culture in which we raise our children, that has values of responsibility and love, of tolerance and honesty, that values the lives of poor and working class women as much as it values the lives of the middle class and the wealthy. An explicitly electoral or political role is perhaps one that some in this organization will argue about — but I think it is imperative — for without such a presence ~ every one of the gains we have won thus far remains vulnerable and reversible.

A final aspect of this revitalized women’s movement has to involve the very women and girls, boys and men that your clinics and counseling programs serve — the 70,803 clients who visited Planned Parenthood of NY City in 1996 alone. The notion of social service agencies as social workers must be replaced by the vision of service providers as participants in a movement for social transformation. Are we willing to be fierce advocates for young girls, for young women with limited incomes of all colors, for black women, Puerto Rican women, or immigrant girls and women who do not speak English well? What if in the next century, Planned Parenthood chose to focus 50% of its resources to the education, organizing, training and advocacy of poor and limited income women? How would that change our movement? How would it affect your funding base? The kind of positions you take?

In a sense to do so would require Planned Parenthood to make the implicit more explicit ~ to transform itself organizationally to better reflect and to organize the constituencies it serves today. I want to urge you to make this explicit transformation because I see this as more than a rhetorical shift: we need strong, loud lobbies for girls and women who are poor — of whatever color; who are working class, who are middle class; who are currently voiceless in the political process. Choice for young girls needs to mean more than the ability to delay pregnancy ~ it ought to mean the ability to have a sense of self big enough to allow for all sorts of life choices.

Reproductive Freedom and Sexual Freedom

My second hope for the future is that Planned Parenthood will ally itself far more closely with the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement; and that it will speak out more forcefully on all matters of sexual freedom, sexual expression and sexuality.

Four links bind the movement for GLBT liberation with women’s liberation: (1) there is an intimate connection between homophobia and sexism; (2) there is an intimate connection between sexism and gender rigidity, and between the gay and lesbian liberation movement and gender non-conformity; (3) there has long been among feminists a critique of the limitations and pathologies of the traditional, patriarchal, nuclear family and a commitment to its reconstruction into a more egalitarian unit; and (4) both movements have worked hard to achieve and protect full sexual, reproductive and personal autonomy and choice for all women. Not all who identify as feminists agree with what I am saying and you should know that not all gay people agree that we should be closely linked to the reproductive freedom movement. But the progressive wings of feminism and gay and lesbian liberation, have however, long articulated these four connections

In a succinct book titled Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, the organizer Suzanne Pharr makes the point that in a culture in which women and men have unequal power and unequal freedom, sexism is enforced through homophopbia. Men and women are required to prove their heterosexuality again and again or risk the stigma of being labelled homos. Proving you are not a gay man requires men to prove they are heterosexual, as efficiently as they can ~ which is by following convention and objectifiying and conquering women sexually, and boasting about it afterwards. Proving you are a real woman ~ in the military ~ requires you to put up with unwanted sexual advances by men or run the risk of being “reported” to investigators as gay. Sexism is enforced through homophobia.

Another set of issues connect feminism to lesbian and gay liberation: a critique of gender roles as we currently know them. The work feminist academics have done explains that gender roles are as much a cultural construction, as they are rooted in biology. We have worked hard as feminists to try to define the ways our biology as women does not limit us to perform gender-specific roles. Issues of gender are very important to gay people as well. For one, a central key to homophobia is persecution of all those who are gender non-conformists — the sissy the tomboy, the butch — whether you are gay or straight, if your are any of these types, you have a school=playground story of teasing and ridicule to tell.

Ironically, it is the Right that understands the importance of gender to both feminism and the GLBT movement, often more than many of us do. For example, in the months leading up to the U.N’s Fourth International Conference on Women held in Beijing in September of 1995, the anti-feminist Right made a concerted effort to remove the term “gender” from all UN documents and policy statements. They wanted sought to replace the term gender with the term “sex”. Why? Because they argued that the term gender was a “radical feminist” plot to impose acceptance on all societies of five genders: male, female, gay, lesbian and transgendered. As if! I mean as if we even had that level of sophistication to have that as an agenda. Luckily for us, because of the hard work of the International women’s human rights movement, the Right failed in Beijing and the term gender —with its broader meanings for women’s freedom —stayed in the document.

But my question is if the Right can see that there are profound practical implications to feminism’s argument that what it means to be female and male is as much a product of culture as it is of biology — then why don’t we?

Another interesting way that the GLBT movement and at least the radical wings of feminism have been linked is in arguing that nuclear families are not necessarily the sole, or the best forms for human relationship or child rearing. This remains a brave assertion to make in the face of two decades of family values rhetoric. Indeed, few gay leaders or feminist leaders take on the old notions of family and say we don’t think it works: we don’t defend single parent families, few feminist or mainstream leaders oppose the homophobic anti-adoption or anti-foster policies that more and more state legislatures are enacting.

With our uneasy silence, we allow a public discourse on family that is full of misinterpreted data — blaming women for leaving the home to take jobs, when they have no other economic choice; blaming the entry of women in the labor force for the decline in men’s wages, rather than seeing the fault lying with a corporate production system that is willing to uproot companies and level towns in order to boost the profits of its managers; blaming single parent families for the poverty of children in them, rather than faulting the economic system; seeing divorce as the problem rather than a symptom of the deeper problem; attacking the idea that child sexual abuse in the family exists, by attacking repressed memory syndrome, as the Right does).

The final link I want to raise is the question of sexual and reproductive freedom. Framing the issue as freedom rather than choice broadens the set of issues a feminist and reproductive health movement concerns itself with. I think Planned Parenthood and all reproductive freedom activists have a vital stake in issues of sexual freedom. We are witness today to pitched battles in schools over sex education and the content of those curricula; over what books should be in school libraries; over whether sexually explicit images can hang in public spaces; over whether music and popular culture should be censored, over whether arts institutions should receive funding to support plays like Angels In America. We are seeing the de-funding of scores of organizations whose only misstep was to champion an artist who did sexually explicit work. The statistics on the rise of HIV infection among young people cry out for stronger sex education programs aimed at high school, college age and sexually active youth. Debates about promiscuity and disease, moral corruption and sexual freedom rage as vigorously today as they did at the turn of the last century.

The calm and experienced voice of Planned Parenthood needs to forcefully engage in these debates from your unique vantage point of counseling and serving hundreds of thousands of women and men who are sexually active. We need public leadership that is not hysterical, not puritanical, but frank and pro-sexual freedom.

The Planned Parenthood of the future ought to be an organization that is actively engaged in these arguments and questions. It should be a partner with the gay rights movement on many things. And it should be a leader in the articulation of policies, educational strategies and practical outreach programs aimed at achieving a world in which women are truly free to be sexual agents.

The poet Audre Lorde wrote words that can serve as a motto for us into the next century — she said, “Our labor has become more important than our silence.”

If silence on questions of values, or questions of sexual freedom, was necessary at one point or political expedient at another, let us be clear that in the next century — it is not adaptive. Our labor for sexual freedom and reproductive freedom has become more important than our silence. Let our labor in the future be for a creative feminist movement that defends and expands freedom, love and choice for all. Let our labor in the 21st century boldly counter the narrow and fear-based sexual policy proposals of the Right, let it teach young people to respect and cherish their sexuality and their bodies, let it organize a wide circle of men and women, boys and girls with a hopeful, positive, inclusive and loving sexual politics of liberation.

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