Respond to this Article December 2002

Talk Dirty

A review of Janice M. Irvine's Talk About Sex Buy the book

By Christina Larson

Ralph Reed must be riding high. Most political strategists credit the Georgia Republican state chair and former Christian Coalition chairman with engineering Saxby Chambliss's upset of Max Cleland that gave the GOP control of the Senate. In addition to his well-publicized attacks against Cleland for blocking a proposed homeland security agency, Reed's team employed a classic scare tactic to swing the critical bloc of white women voters who were the election's deciding factor: stirring fears about what information and access to contraception their children could obtain at school.

Two weeks before the election, Chambliss's campaign began airing ads attacking Cleland's vote to purportedly allow school nurses to dispense the morning-after "abortion drug." In reality, Cleland had supported legislation to allow states, rather than Washington, to determine how federal aid to schools would be spent. But Reed's ploy worked. By painting Cleland as a liberal, especially on matters related to sex and children, Chambliss won the socially conservative state.

This strategy of campaigning to "recapture the culture" from corrupting modern influences is a time-tested tradition for conservative strategists. Flagship groups like the Moral Majority in the 1980s and the Christian Coalition in the 1990s attacked sex education and family planning initiatives, polished tactics to mobilize their base, and discovered that sex sells.

Janice Irvine, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, contends that campaigning against sex education has been "central in the rise to political power" of the New Right. In her new book, Talk About Sex, she traces the Right's history of exploiting societal fears about sexual promiscuity and moral decline.

In 1964, a Quaker reformer and onetime Planned Parenthood medical director named Mary Calderone founded the Sex Education and Information Council of the United States (SEICUS), a private group dedicated to promoting sex education. That same year, Barry Goldwater declared his candidacy for president and set about channeling grassroots conservative anxiety about the "sexual revolution" and social change into a national movement.

Few issues galvanize conservatives as much as those concerning sex--from feminism, abortion, and gay rights to pornography and sex education. Early opponents of classroom instruction about contraception in the 1970s included the John Birch Society, best known for its Cold War-era conspiracy theories. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority adopted the cause in the 1980s, perfecting shock tactics that made sex ed seem X-rated, and fanning conservatives' fears about moral upheaval and societal decline. By the 1990s, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson was accusing sex education of "teaching kids to fornicate, teaching people to have adultery, teaching people to get involved in every kind of bestiality, homosexuality, lesbianism--everything the Bible condemns."

As Irvine explains, sex became the organizing bridge between the Old Right that opposed communism and anti-American activities, and the New Right, which focused on social themes and family values. Grassroots activists mastered this inflammatory rhetoric, likening sex education to pornography, arguing that lessons about contraception would encourage kids to be sexually active, and vilifying instructors as pedophiles.

Conservatives extended their influence through painstaking organization and an emphasis on local politics. While most liberal groups like SEICUS focused on advocacy and public health, the Christian Coalition established thousands of local chapters nationwide, where activists endorsed school board candidates who opposed sex education, distributed voter guides, and even provided legal advice for pastors who wished to stump for candidates without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. Conservative investors funded media outlets, including evangelical radio shows, and think tanks, like the Family Research Council, to crank out statistics aimed at discrediting the effectiveness of contraception.

But despite their success in attracting members and direct-mail donations, the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition had difficulty overcoming public support for sex education, intensified by rising teen pregnancy rates and the onset of the AIDS crisis. Conservatives developed the idea of "chastity" education and lobbied for federal support to devise curricula that would encourage abstinence until marriage. Ronald Reagan's administration first financed pilot programs for such just-say-no classes; congressional Republicans engineered further funding through the welfare reform bill in 1996. And George W. Bush is moving to fulfill his campaign promise of raising abstinence funding to $137 million annually.

Though it has generated less public outcry than their campaign against sex education, conservatives' efforts to promote abstinence classes have been more successful. Irvine cites one study which found that the percent of public school instructors who taught abstinence as "the sole means of pregnancy and disease prevention" rose from 2 percent to 23 percent between 1988 and 1999.

Conservative commentators like Paul Weyrich bemoaned the death of collective moral outrage when Bill Clinton's popularity ratings remained sky-high despite the Lewinsky scandal and his subsequent impeachment. Irvine suggests this verdict was premature--conservative outrage hasn't died, but shifted focus. Today, it can be seen in the proliferation of abstinence classes, often with state support. For example, in North Carolina, passage of a recent state law mandating abstinence-until-marriage curriculum has prompted school administrators to remove pages about contraception and abortion from high school biology textbooks.

Irvine predicts that with federal support from Bush, the movement will continue to grow. The results of the midterm elections support this. Georgia Republican governor-elect Sonny Perdue, whom Reed also helped to elect, is already talking about a $10 million state abstinence program--suggesting, as Irvine argues, that the conservative movement is alive and well.

Christina Larson is the associate publisher of The Washington Monthly.


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