TCS Daily

Love, Lust and the Future of Politics and Culture

By James Pinkerton - December 13, 2004 12:00 AM

If you ban abortion, will you get less abortion? Or will you get more polymorphous sex? Maybe both. It was Isaiah Berlin who said, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." So maybe new laws governing the supply of heterosexual sex will increase the demand for homosexual-style sex. And then for non-human sex.

George W. Bush is the first pro-life president to be re-elected since 1984. But unlike Ronald Reagan two decades ago, Bush will be working with a strongly pro-life Senate. In fact, the Republicans, having netted four wins this year, now control more seats in the upper chamber than at any time since the 1920s. So while the minority Senate Democrats may try to block W's judicial nominees, including Supreme Court nominees, the chances are good that Bush and his anti-abortion allies will eventually get their way. The December 2 edition of The New York Times offered this gloomy (for pro-choicers) headline: "Changing Senate Looks Better to Abortion Foes"; the piece quoted pro-choice Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) saying, "I have a sense of deep foreboding."

So is that the last word? Will Red State America, having out-babied Blue State America, now move to secure the nation's demographic destiny by severely restricting abortion? And will the country baby-boom itself back to the fecund '50s?

Maybe. But as Lt. Columbo used to say, "Just one more thing." Actually, three more things -- three nits to pick about the solidity of the new anti-abortion, pro-natalist consensus.

First, it's important to remember what led to the liberalization of restrictive abortion laws in the first place, back in the 60s and 70s. To see a movie such as "Vera Drake" is to be reminded of the days of dangerous or even deadly back-alley abortions. The right-to-lifers respond, of course, that every abortion is guaranteed to create at least one victim. And they have a point. However, if and when a pro-life legal regime settles into place, girls and women might once again start dying in "coat hanger" abortions. At which point, opinion will start to backlash.

The reality of any kind of politics, including abortion politics, is that losers are more motivated than winners. For the past three decades, the pro-lifers have been on the losing side, because of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The anti-abortion folks have been mad, and marching, ever since. They embraced the old labor slogan," Don't get mad -- organize!" Yet during this same time, the pro-choice population, having won in '73, has been somewhat complacent, maybe even smug. And why not? They've had the courts on their side, doing the pro-choice political lifting for them.

But if the political status quo were to shift, the momentum of grievance might shift, too. At minimum, there'd be substantial conflict as the anti- and pro-choice forces confronted each other. We might consider, as one example, the commonwealth of Virginia. If Roe were reversed, the Republicans who control Richmond would surely pass a right-to-life law. In the short run, little might seem to have changed, because determined abortion-seeking females could get the procedure done in the District of Columbia or Maryland, pro-choice bastions just across the Potomac River.

Yet sooner or later, there'd be an observed illegal abortion in Virginia. What would happen then? Leaving the woman out of the equation for a moment, would prosecutors really start seeking convictions, and jail sentences, against doctors? At least one bold Republican Senator-elect, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, explicitly that he supports the death penalty for abortion doctors. But how many Americans share his view?

In addition, would juries in liberal jurisdictions within the Old Dominion, such as, say, Alexandria or Charlottesville, really agree to convict those taking part in an abortion, no matter what the law says? Would they, instead, "nullify"?

Ascendant right-to-lifers are already girding their loins to fight all these fights, but to the extent that anti-abortionites prevailed, they would be creating losers on the other side -- and those losers would be full of political fight.

Meanwhile, if pro-life statues were cemented into place, what about alternatives to surgical abortions? What of RU-486 and other versions of the morning-after pill? Fast-moving market forces, of course, would soon create still more legal, or quasi-legal, alternatives to abortion.

Confronted with such potential concerns, right-to-life advocates tend to fall back on larger, vaguer arguments about establishing a new "culture of life" for America, in which abortion-crises would be rare because the desire for abortion would be rare. And conservatives might well have a point there. Perhaps the culture will shift in ways that dramatically downscale the perceived need for pregnancy terminations. But of course, the best way to guarantee a cultural shift is to punish a few outlying miscreants. So, around the time of a hypothetical President Jeb Bush's second term, the message might be loud and clear: abortion is not an option, and we mean it.

If that message got across, then the culture might shift in ways that the culture-of-lifers would approve of, such as abstinence-until-marriage, followed by tons of kids after marriage. But it's also likely that unmarried people, all the more fearful of pregnancy as well as uninterested in children, would seek to continue to enjoy sex without risking pregnancy. And so all manner of flexibility and ingenuity would come to the fore -- and to the bedroom. Contraceptives of various kinds would be increasingly popular, especially those that offer a lead-pipe no-pregnancy guarantee. In a right-to-life America, would The Pill become more popular? How 'bout even more radical forms of contraception such as the tying of various tubes, for men and women?

And so we come to the second manifestation of a right-to-life America: if the new laws are truly enforced, then the sexual marketplace will work itself around the risk of pregnancy altogether.

Just as there's more than one way to skin a cat, so there's more than one way to have sex. On college campuses, there's a jokey acronym: LUG -- Lesbian Until Graduation. Today, LUGs seem to be found mostly in all-girl enclaves. But if a deep legal-cultural taboo against pregnancy were to be established, might not LUGs be joined by GUGs -- Gay Until Graduation? And what about after graduation? What would happen if the taboo against "repro-sex" were so strong that young men and women never got into the straight-groove? That could happen if they were imprinted, during puberty or even before, with a fearful perspective on spontaneous heterosexing.

There's some evidence that an abortion-conscious sex-shift has already been occurring. Since 1990, the number of abortions performed in the US has percent. And yet does anybody seriously argue that the amount of sex has declined during that time, when the culture has been overrun by low-cut jeans, BET videos and Viagra ads? Of course not. Instead, as puberty comes earlier and drugs preserve sexual potency longer, more Americans are doing more of it more often.

But they aren't doing it as much in the familiar "missionary position." Exhibit A for this assertion is the 42nd President, Bill Clinton, who enjoyed oral sex with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office -- no pregnancy risk there. In 1999, the year after these revelations, er, spilled out, an article in The Washington Post, headlined "Parents Are Alarmed by an Unsettling New Fad in Middle Schools: Oral Sex," heralded a new era in young sexuality. Detailing the new-wave sexual activities of kids as young as 11, the piece quoted one girl defending her actions: "What's the big deal? President Clinton did it." Touché.

What's been happening for a long time -- accelerating in the last five years -- is that all manner of non-procreative sex acts are on the increase. Don't make me spell this out, as I am trying to write a serious article here. Perhaps a new term will be needed to describe this phenomenon: it might be called the homosexualization of heterosexuality. Or more precisely, perhaps, the gay-ification of straightness, defined here as more rampant sexuality, more variety of sexuality -- and no possible link to natality.

Tom Wolfe's new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons has gotten mostly bad reviews, but if it's at all accurate, then there's a lot of "safe sex," pregnancy-wise, on college campuses already. Such alternatives to coitus have always existed, but leave it to American culture, amped up by the marketplace, to fully explore all possibilities -- and to get rich from describing them.

Such changing sexual patterns might prove to be a pyrrhic victory for the right-to-lifers. Yes, a proliferation of "non-proc" sex would eliminate the need for abortions, but it might also eliminate part of the pipeline for children, by diminishing the impulse toward heterosexuality. But one might protest: isn't heterosexuality hardwired into people? Well, tell that to the ancient Greeks, who idealized male-male love. Tell that to the Arabs and others in deeply tabooed, even misogynistic cultures. On the other side of the equation, tell that to the Sapphic -- oops, Seven -- Sisters. Straight-sex is the natural norm, but culture matters, too. Imposed or learned deviations from the norm can cause people to, well, deviate.

But maybe there's a limit to what consenting people are willing to do with each other. We haven't seen that limit yet, but maybe it exists.

If and when that limit is reached -- if the human sexual envelope can't be opened any further -- then we come to the third possible manifestation of a restrictive new regimen. Humans will do what they always do: augment their biology with technology. Anyone who saw the 2001 Steven Spielberg movie "AI" remembers Jude Law playing "Gigolo Joe." In a world in which people-poor Japan is already hard at work on humanoid robots, how long will it be before there's a Gigolo Jane, too?

The British writer J.G. Ballard was overstating when he declared, "Sooner or later all science fiction comes true." But history shows that most considerations of techno-possibility morph into some sort of techno-inevitability. And so get ready for not only sexbots, but also, sexborgs and sexdroids. And oh yes: 3-D presentations, virtual realities, and direct cortical stimulations.

Whew. Is that really what the right-to-lifers will reap if/when they win their political crusade against abortion? First, a legal-cultural civil war over enforcement? Second, an era of radical sexual experimentation? Third, an even more radical era of human-machine interfacing -- or is it intersexing?

The right-to-lifers hope to make sex more conservative again, to link it more closely to tradition and to procreation. It would be paradoxical, in the extreme, if an anti-abortion government accelerated the flight away from those values.

But then, love and lust are extremely paradoxical. Like life itself.


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