After hearing Nancy L. Cohen interviewed by Amanda Marcotte recently on the RhRealityCheck podcast, I requested her most recent book, Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America (Counterpoint, 2012), from our local library and spent a day reading through it. Cohen is an historian and journalist whose previous research also took as its topic political history in the twentieth century. Delirium looks at what are popularly termed “the culture wars,” beginning with the advent of the birth control pill and rolling up to the current election cycle — with a particular focus on the politicization of sexuality — both behavior and identity — and gender roles. You can read an excerpt of the opening chapter over at AlterNet.
Cohen’s narrative of sexual politics from 1960 to the present seeks, in some measure, to revise our understanding of the conservative revolution of the late 1970s as one led by white male reactionaries like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Instead, she argues, some of the first — and most successful — sexual counterrevolutionaries were women like Phyllis Schlafly, Lottie Beth Hobbs, and Anita Bryant. These women, like their male counterparts, were opposed to the advancements in gender equality, the changes in (hetero)sexual mores, and the growing visibility of human sexual variety that the feminist and gay liberation movements of the 60s and 70s fought for. In sometimes overwhelming detail, Cohen recounts how political activists and career politicians successfully stopped the Equal Rights Amendment, pushed back advancements made in civil rights for queer citizens, generated moral panics around sexual variation, and stymied the post-Roe landscape of women’s access to sexual health services, especially abortion.
Overall, I felt like Delirium bogged in a blow-by-blow recounting and analysis of presidential campaigns and administrations, from the fall of President Nixon to Barack Obama’s first term. Cohen draws much of her evidence from quantitative polling data and political commentary, which left me wondering how much the understanding of individual Americans support her thesis about who sexual conservatives are and why they support the policies they do. To her credit, Cohen does acknowledge that sexual conservatism, as sociologist Kristin Luker has shown, appears on both sides of the aisle. Moral panic over teenage sexuality and concern-trolling about women’s ability to meaningfully consent to an abortion are equal-opportunity topics for Democrats and Republicans alike. Her narrative, however, mostly charts the sexual conservatism and politicking of Republicans. I waited in vain, for example, for her to talk about feminist anti-porn activism, which often paralleled and intersected with — at least on a policy level — with the work of people with otherwise diametrically opposing political views.
Cohen’s work will be particularly interesting to those who enjoy thinking about strategy of electoral politics and policy negotiations, as well as those who may want a better grip on the broad sweep of sexual politics since the 1960s. However, for scholars and activists well-versed in much of this history, Cohen’s narrative fails to add much of significance to what we already know about our sexual selves in relation to formal politics. That is, that our sex, sexuality, and gender identities and experiences are presently over-determined, or constrained, by the decisions of our elected representatives at the local, state, and federal level.