Sex, Public Policy and Humanism

I’m in New Orleans speaking at the annual conference of the American Humanist Association. AHA is a distinguished organization founded during WWII, affiliated through the years with heroes such as Linus Pauling and Margaret Sanger, Buckminster Fuller, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Joyce Carol Oates. At the banquet last night, I met Gloria Steinem.

I spoke to a crowded room on “Sex, Porn, Public Policy, Humanism—and Sex.” Here are a few of my points:

* The Religious Right is the ONLY political movement that is addressing the anguish that people feel about a world that appears to be spinning out of control; while Humanism talks about science and rationality, the Religious Right talks about anger, fear, loneliness, danger, grief, and powerlessness.

* Sexuality is a public policy issue that the Humanist movement is not sufficiently addressing. The Religious Right is. Constantly.

* Since religious “morality” about sex is typically defined as restricting choices (rather than ethical decision-making), “moral” public policy means restricting sexual rights. And so the Religious Right demands laws to limit sexual health care, sex education, sexual entertainment, sexual commerce, sex research, and sexual privacy.

* Because today’s Humanism doesn’t talk explicitly about sexual issues, it hasn’t yet applied its own vocabulary to everyday sexual issues. But people are hungry for an alternative approach to the sexual issues with which they’re struggling, such as:
• Pornography
• Monogamy/infidelity
• New singlehood
• Internet
• Birth control & abortion
• Sex and aging
• Accepting loved ones’ lifestyles
• Religious Right’s SexPanic
• Reproductive technologies
• “Sex addiction,” “porn addiction”
• Access to sexual health care & information
• Kids’ sexuality, safety, & beliefs

* Humanism can provide a reassuring, practical set of values to help people with these everyday struggles. Today’s Humanism should be discussing its vision of sexuality, which would be based on the same principles that Humanism applies to the rest of life:
• Science & information
• Consent
• Honesty
• Responsibility
• Communication
• Diversity

* The Religious Right has hijacked public policy, as it uses the machinery of government to pursue its agenda. The Sexual Disaster Industry (“decency” groups, elected politicians, a complicit mass media, and right-wing “feminists”) scares the hell out of the public, driving the public’s demand for laws that protect it from phony or overstated dangers—laws based on religious beliefs.

* The Religious Right is demanding solutions to problems that don’t exist. Instead, Humanism should be defining the problems that America needs to address. For example, America doesn’t have a “porn problem,” we have a censorship problem. It doesn’t have a “gay problem,” we have an intolerance problem. It doesn’t have a “immorality” or a “promiscuity problem,” we have an intolerance and rigid moralism problem.

* Sexuality is not dangerous—bad sexual decision-making is dangerous.

* Sexuality is traditional religion’s worst nightmare—because it is the place in which people have maximum personal autonomy. Rich or poor, smart or dull, young or old, everyone can craft a sex life in which they can explore the mysteries of the universe and create uniquely meaningful experiences. And they can do it WITHOUT institutionalized religion providing a moral framework.

* And so we want to defend the rights of ALL people to experience and express their sexuality in any (consensual) way they want—even in ways that we find pointless or scary. Because when the government can regulate some aspects of our sexual expression, they can regulate any aspect of it. The right to watch South Park depends on someone else’s right to watch ButtBusters III. And the right to buy a vibrator depends on someone else’s right to buy a lapdance.

* Sexuality is among the last human activities to enjoy the revolutionary promise of American pluralism. The Religious Right’s War On Sex is committed to keeping it that way. Humanism is uniquely position—with its history, its secular values, and its broad acceptance among Americans—to challenge that War.

Tomorrow I’ll summarize my remarks about a Humanist position on pornography.

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