The (Non-)Right to Sex
63 Pages Posted: 15 Nov 2014
Date Written: November 13, 2014
What is the relationship between the battle for marriage equality and the expansion of sexual liberty? Some see access to marriage as a quintessentially progressive project — the recognition of the equality and dignity of gay and lesbian couples. For others, promoting marriage or marital-like relationships reinforces bias against individuals making alternative intimate decisions. With powerful policy arguments on either side, there appears to be no clear way to advance the discussion.
By telling the lost story of efforts to expand sexual liberty in the 1960s and 1970s, the Article offers a new way into the debate. The marriage equality struggle figures centrally in a longer narrative about the omission of sex — rather than committed relationships or marriage — from the constitutional canon. By recapturing this narrative, we can identify powerful doctrinal constraints confronting the contemporary marriage equality movement. As importantly, the story of the non-right to sex provides a compelling historical parallel to the contemporary marriage equality movement. The mistakes of past decades illuminate the dangers inherent in contemporary marriage-equality tactics.
The Article begins the story of the non-right to sex in the 1960s and 1970s, when groups like the ACLU and NAACP confronted a backlash against a perceived increase in illegitimacy rates. Some attorneys and activists viewed the illegitimacy backlash as evidence of the intersectionality of race discrimination, sex discrimination, and the denial of sexual freedom. Often, however, feminists and civil rights attorneys presented themselves as defenders of conventional sexual morality, arguing that the reform of laws on illegitimacy, contraception, and abortion would strengthen or leave intact traditional sexual norms. These arguments helped progressives achieve incremental progress. At the same time, progressives inadvertantly reinforced the State’s ability to regulate sexual behavior.
For the marriage equality movement, this history offers a cautionary tale. Efforts to achieve incremental social and legal change have obvious advantages: these strategies appeal to cautious courts and reduce the odds of backlash. At the same time, as the materials considered here make plain, incremental strategies can strengthen the status quo. In the 1960s and 1970s, progressives paid lip service to the evils of illicit sex in an effort to chip away gradually at discrimination against minorities, sexual dissenters, and women. This tactic had unexpected consequences, since cause attorneys helped to entrench an existing intimate hierarchy. As this history counsels, incremental litigation strategies adopted by the marriage equality movement may have a profound cost of their own.
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