Sexual Politics in the Age of Obama

Coming to the end of Year 1 of the Obama presidency, a growing number of Americans who voted for him and other Democrats feel deeply dispirited. Some feel betrayed, having drunk deeply from the hope cool-aid and now waking with a wicked sense that little promised will likely come to fruition; others feel profoundly disappointed, having invested much in the electoral process but now seeing clearly that power and wealth determine government policy. A growing number of those who believed in America’s “great black hope” feel burned by how the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats are dealing with the fiscal crisis of capital, health care reform and the nation’s imperialist wars.

Following Obama’s 2008 electoral victory, CounterPunch published my article, “A New Sexual Agenda: Nine Proposals for an End to the Culture Wars” [November 28-30, 2008] that observed: “The Democratic landslide provides a unique opportunity for Congress and the President-elect to quickly address at least one of the many profound failings of the Bush administration.” The “one” being the culture wars and Bush’s sexual agenda. The nine proposals are a useful touchstone to assess the sexual policies of the Obama administration.

Looking back over Year 1, sadly, the new administration and Congress have performed far less then stellar with regard to the worst of the “profound failings of the Bush administration.” They seem much in continuity with the Bush program. The tyranny of capital has been preserved, with the un/under-employed, foreclosures and bankruptcies at the highest levels since the Great Depression; heath care reform looks like a great pay-day rip-off by insurance companies, pharma and health companies, leaving Americas holding the proverbial bag, broke and worse off then if no “reform” had occurred; and the foreign wars of occupation drag on with no real ends in sight and, following Rumsfeld’s victory over Powell, with the military determining foreign policy.

How have the Obama administration and the Congressional Democrats fared in terms of the defining issues of the Bush administration’s cultural policy, especially sex policy? One important symbolic indicator of the change in culture policy took place in October at a White House evening reception when Obama and Congressional leaders joined with gay activists commemorating the extension of federal hate-crime legislation from race, religion and national origin to include sexual orientation, covering homosexual and transgendered crime victims. A reconsideration of the nine proposals mark U.S. sexual policy during Year 1 of the Obama presidency.

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Proposal #1: Safeguard Roe v Wade

President-elect Obama was a co-sponsor of the 2007 Senate version of the
Freedom of Choice Act (S. 1173) that would reaffirm Roe as a fundamental
right. As he stated: “Throughout my career, I’ve been a consistent and
strong supporter of reproductive justice, and have consistently had a
100% pro-choice rating with Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice
America.” Congress should pass and Obama should sign the Freedom on
Choice Act.

At a news conference in April marking his first 100 days in office, President Obama declared: “Now, the Freedom of Choice Act is not my highest legislative priority.” He added: “I believe that women should have the right to choose, but I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that’s where I’m going to focus.” According to, the bill is stalled, which is another way of saying dead.

While Roe remains the law of the land, a woman’s right to choose continues to erode. The apparent victory by anti-abortion forces in the House (i.e., Stupak) and the Senate (i.e., Nelson) as part of the insurance-reform tug-of-war reinforces Obama’s points that abortion rights is not a priority for him or the Democrats.

Proposal #2: End Abstinence Policies

The Bush administration’s abstinence-only crusade is a failure. Mounting
research data indicates an upswing in pregnancy among teen girls,
including Sarah Palin’s daughter, Bristol, and that the abstinence-only
policy must be replaced. Abstinence-only education contributes to
unwanted pregnancies, oftentimes leading to unwanted abortions.
According to the ACLU, the federal government has spent more than $700
million since 1997 on abstinence-only programs and, last year, allocated
approximately $170 million to such programs.

Obama once insisted: “As President, I will improve access to affordable health care and work to ensure that our teens are getting the information and services they need to stay safe and healthy.”

This is one promise Obama appears to be keeping. In his budget for FY 2010, he eliminated funding for the cornerstone of the Bush know-nothing policy, the Community-Based Abstinence Education and the mandatory Title V Abstinence Education program. The Obama administration committed $164 million for a new teen pregnancy prevention initiative. It also backed what it identified as “evidence-based programs” of sex ed and authorized $50 million in new mandatory teen pregnancy prevention grants.

Proposal #3: Remove Religion from the Classroom

U.S. District Judge John Jones ruled in December 2005 that the board of
Dover, PA, school district had violated the Establishment Clause of the
First Amendment by requiring biology teachers to include “intelligent
design” in their curriculum.

In a year celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” the battle over intellectual design or creationism seems to have faded along with the electoral prospects of McCain and Palin. However, one need only recall the “tea baggers” campaign in September to upend Obama speech to students on the importance of education to appreciate that the conservative Christian right, while hobbled, awaits another day to try to impose its moralistic hokum on all Americas.

Proposal #4: Accept Civil Unions & Marriage among Same-Sex Couples

President-elect Obama has come out in favor of civil unions and in
opposition to marriage among same-sex couples.

The 2008 elections witnessed the victory of a series of referenda in Arizona, California and Florida barring gay marriage. However, subsequent decisions in Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont permitting same-sex marriage challenged the Christian right’s homophobic political campaign. Unfortunately, a referendum in Maine and New York state’s defeat of gay-marriage legislation blocked the further extension of same-sex marriage.

Washington, D.C., is poised to enact legislation legalizing such partnerships. In remains to seen what happens in New Jersey and, as the 2010 elections approach, in California. In the end, however, it will likely only be a Supreme Court decision, analogous to the 1967 Loving decision that ended state restrictions of interracial marriage, that will give full bourgeois property rights to same-sex couples.

Critical to on-going federal action on gay marriage is a Congressional repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. DoMA limits how a state, local and federal agency recognizes legal partnerships and determines benefits. Bill Clinton originally signed the Act in 1996 and Obama has called on Congress to repeal it. For all of Obama’s rhetoric, in June the Justice Department filed a motion in federal court supporting the Act. What comes next is anyone’s guess.

Proposal #5: End “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell”

President-elect Obama earlier this year announced his intention to end
the “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” [DA/DT] policy banning gay people from
military service. “There’s increasing recognition within the armed
forces that this is a counterproductive strategy,” he said, “ya know,
we’re spending large sums of money to kick highly qualified gays or
lesbians out of our military, some of whom possess specialties like Arab-
language capabilities that we desperately need. That doesn’t make us
more safe.” [NY Daily News, April 11, 2008]

At a keynote address before the gay-rights group, Human Rights Campaign, in October, Obama renewed his commitment to end DA/DT: “That is my commitment to you.”

In order to end DA/DT, the president needs to sign the Military Readiness Enhancement Act [MREA] that ends the discriminatory and unworkable policies inherent in DA/DT. While some within the Defense leaders, like Secretary Gates, appear to support an end to DA/DT, masculine heterosexual resistant will likely long persist. One sign of this resistance is the continuing dismissal of male and female soldiers for their attributed homosexuality. And this with an all-voluntary military serving a nation engaged in a never-ending war against “terrorism” and for spoils of empire.

Proposal #6: Adopt Enlightened Obscenity Standards

The ’08 presidential campaign was remarkable for the absence of any
discussion by the two leading candidates of obscenity or pornography,
decency. … The candidates’ shared silence on the issue of media
pornography speaks volumes as to the relative acceptance of “indecent”
materials among consenting adult Americans.

Since Obama took office, issues involving public morals or “decency,” most often framed in terms of pornography or obscenity, continue to be absent from the political debate. Sex scandals are cannon fodder for real-life Reality TV. Faced with economic catastrophe, the American public seems no longer terrorized by sex predators apparently prowling every neighborhood; nor so threatened by an alleged flood of child pornography on the Internet to require restricting free speech; nor has another Janet Jackson “accidentally” displaying her breast during the Super Bowl.

Nevertheless, a battle is slowly brewing over how federal prosecutors have systematically misused the Supreme Court’s Miller decision. This seminal 1973 decision established the concept of “contemporary community standards” to assess obscenity. As expected, over the past four decades, Republican-controlled Justice Departments have set the prosecution of obscenity cases in conservative venues like Tennessee, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The Obama Justice Department took the unusual step of supporting transferring the trial of a guy charged with selling obscene DVDs from Montana, where the purchaser resided, to New Jersey, where the seller resided. “Community” is everything and is a critical issue in an increasingly politically polarized and culturally segregated America.

The youthful practice of sexting, the sending and/or receiving personal sexual images over one’s mobile phone or wireless device, is widespread and growing throughout America. Many young people are being arrested and prosecuted for all manner of illicit depictions associated with today’s new mobile and social networking culture. The fault lines of acceptable flirting, let alone pornography, are being challenged.

Proposal #7: Decriminalize & Regulate Commercial Sex

President-elect Obama must have met one or more commercial sex workers
during his days organizing on the streets of Chicago’s South Side. Our
next president knows something about American urban life. He must know,
like most Americans, that, like the “war on drugs,” every attempt to halt
this illegal activity has failed.

In early December, President Obama spoke at Lehigh Carbon Community College, in Schnecksville, PA, on his green economy program. In a Q&A session, a student asked an unexpected question: Had the President ever considered legalizing drugs, prostitution and other so-called victimless crimes as a way of improving the economy? “I appreciate the boldness of your question,” Obama said after the laughter stopped. “But that will not be my jobs strategy.” He went on to praise the questioner “for doing what a student should do … think in new and different ways.”

Obama’s dismissal of the student’s provocative proposal speaks to his administration’s apparent failure to deal with the likely increase in sexual commerce that normally occurs economic downturns. In hard times, many women feel they have little but their bodies to sell. The Obama administration has offered no new programs to deal with the likely increase in the arrest of female sex workers. Nothing will likely change in terms of the arrest of hookers, especially down-market streetwalkers, massage-parlor workers and craigs-list courtesans.

However, more attention might be given to combating domestic sex trafficking and sex slavery as a consequence of tougher boarder patrol efforts. According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, since 2003, the FBI has rescued 886 child victims of sex traffickers and secured 510 convictions.

Proposal #8: Develop Better Diagnostic, Treatment & Incarceration Methods for Sex Offenders

The President-elect and the Congress have a unique opportunity to address
one of America’s oldest and thorniest questions: How to deal with sex

Perhaps smelling a change in the political culture taking place in the wake of Obama’s victory, NBC cancelled its “Dateline” series, “To Catch a Predator,” in December ‘08.

Unfortunately, the federal government seems as confused as ever as to how to deal with men convicted for “sex crimes.” In April, Chief Justice John Roberts granted an Obama Justice Department request to block the release of up to 77 sex offenders who had completed their federal prison sentences but were still being held under indefinite incarceration for being perceived as “sexually dangerous.”

Its time for the American judicial and medical systems to address not only the real treat posed by (mostly male) sex offenders, but to develop a rational and nonpunitive means of dealing with such offenders. Otherwise, we will end up with yet another population, like many held in Guantánamo, lost in a growing America gulag.

Proposal #9: Reform, Extend & Strengthen PEPFAR

President-elect Obama should move quickly to adopt Congress’ revision of
the Bush-administration’s PEPFAR programs (for President’s Emergency Plan
for AIDS Relief).

Bush first promulgated PEPFAR in his 2003 State of the Union address and his administration initially committed $15 billion to fighting AIDS. In ’08, Congressed passed legislation reauthorizing the program and allocated $50 billion for the next five years. It also removed a requirement that at least one-third of HIV prevention funds went to abstinence-until-marriage programs.

One bright spot in the Obama anti-AIDS policy is that the Justice Department dropped the “anti-prostitution pledge” which restricted PEPFAR support from prostitutes.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has taken a more cautious approach to PEPFAR. A 74-page plan, “Five Year Strategy,” released on Dec. 1st, lays out its strategy to shift from fighting AIDS to a disease-prevention approach targeting pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and fatal birth complications as well as AIDS. In addition, it sets a goal to have four million people on antiretroviral drugs by 2014. According to an analysis in the New York Times, “the program has put 2.4 million on the drugs since 2004, or almost 500,000 a year on average. Adding only 1.6 million over the next five years means adding only 320,000 each year.” One step forward, two steps back.


David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out