Punishing and Prescribing Sexuality

Cynthia Peters


practically cliché to say that the marketplace uses sex to sell. Not only do

the commercials feature attractive female hands caressing gear shifts, but the

shows themselves feature instant sexual gratification, without so much as a nod

toward responsibility. In the old days, the Brady Bunch mom and dad kept their

pajamas on and sedately read in bed. But these days, the stars of our situation

comedies are going at it like bunnies on prime time TV.


advertisers put sex in service of the marketplace, the corporate media create TV

shows (as well as other forms of media) that will service the advertisers. That

is, the media create content that reinforces the idea that gratification (sexual

and otherwise) is a simple purchasable commodity.


something funny is going on here. While the sex-fest happens on TV (see my

previous commentary, “Sex in Service of the Marketplace”), policymakers are

coming up with laws that punish women’s sexuality, and minutely prescribe the

parameters of when, where and how it can be expressed.


on the “success” of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity

Act (which already enforces marriage by only requiring single mothers to work),

conservatives and liberals are hoping to renew the law with an additional focus

on marriage. According to the Boston Globe (February, 12, 2000), there is

bi-partisan support for requiring states to spend part of their welfare money on

pro-marriage activities, encouraging caseworkers to talk to pregnant women about

marrying the baby’s father, judging state success based on reductions in

out-of-wedlock births, and teaching about the value of marriage in high school.

Oklahoma has designated May 5th as “Save Your Marriage” day; earmarked $10

million in welfare funds for marriage counseling; and hired two “marriage

ambassadors” to appear on talk shows and at schools.


addition to encouraging marriage, the 1996 welfare law allocated $250 million to

promote sexual abstinence among the young – an amount that far surpasses

spending on sex education (Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 2001). The

chastity movement tells (mostly) girls that their “virginity” is a gift they

should save for their future husbands. Their sexuality is not something they can

control in an affirmative way. In other words, we don’t help kids understand

the variety of ways they might experience sexuality, use precautions, be

generally self-determining about sexual expression. Instead, abstinence pledges

equate sex with intercourse and then forbid it.


Bush administration is further prescribing and punishing different kinds of

sexuality. In January, Bush signed an executive order ending federal aid to

overseas groups that provide abortion services, and conservatives are urging him

to deny funds to domestic groups such as Planned Parenthood that deliver

contraceptive counseling to poor women under Title X of the US Public Health

Service Act. Even the Pentagon’s “overly generous pregnancy policies” are

coming under conservative scrutiny (Boston Globe, February 11, 2001).


makers set out to control how poor women should be allowed to experience

intimate relationships – using welfare laws to reward and punish sexual

behavior and family choices in ways that enforce dependence on men, encourage

abstinence, punish single motherhood, and reward marriage. Progressives should

use the debate around welfare reform not only to fight for a stronger safety net

for poor people, but also to guarantee that all people (of whatever class,

gender and/or race) should be free to make choices about sexuality, reproduction

and intimate relationships. Making choices about how to be sexual and how to be

in a family are rights not privileges.


activists should be careful never to fall back into defending access to abortion

for only the extreme reasons. Even when we are at our most defensive, we support

choice not just for women whose health might be compromised by childbirth, or

for women who are victims of rape or incest. We also support choice because

being a heterosexually active woman means you run the risk of getting pregnant.

When we defend access to abortion, we should say loudly and clearly that we are

defending women’s right to be sexual and make choices about the consequences

of that.


way for progressives to enter the debate around how public policy regulates

intimacy and rewards certain kinds of sexuality is to address the question of

marriage and domestic partnership. To the mainstream gay and lesbian movement,

which wants to participate in the institution of marriage, I say, “Be careful

what you wish for.” While marriage has, at times, offered some economic

protections to women and children, especially when divorce occurs or in ensuring

access to the husband’s pension or other assets, it has also served as a way

for the state to determine who is deserving. We need to radically

reconceptualize the idea that benefits should be doled out according to how

people choose to be in intimate relationships. Liberal domestic partnership

benefits only extend benefits to people who show they live together in a

committed relationship.


marriage/domestic partnership debate is an arena that progressives could use to

pose an alternative vision of society – one that takes care of all its

members, whether they are heterosexual, monogamous, domestically inclined, or

not. In this society, we would ensure that everyone has health coverage, old age

pensions, and an adequate safety net – and we wouldn’t use public policy to

pinpoint the exact sexual behaviors that are deserving while we punish the

hordes of “others.” As one progressive gay and lesbian organization has

said, “Instead of a seat at the table as it is presently set, we will work

with others to transform the way the table is built, let alone who sits at



the commercial sex-fest and the punitive public policies that regulate and

prescribe sexuality are not so contradictory after all. Both negate human

sexuality, and remove it from its complex intersection in pleasure and

responsibility. Both use sex for other ends – the marketplace for upping sales

and reinforcing consumption, and public policy for creating classes of deserving

and undeserving. Both provide progressives with plenty of opportunities to

affirm alternative understandings of sexuality, and to contest its appropriation

by institutions that use it to reinforce elite privilege.



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