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We Need to Talk About the New War on Sex

Feminists, evangelicals, intellectuals and populists have all found common ground: Sexual puritanism

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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An archive photo of a SlutWalk in Boston.
An archive photo of a SlutWalk in Boston. Credit: AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

“The world is waging a war on sex. It is a quiet war. It is often an undercover war. It has gone unnoticed, for the most part, except by those who have been affected by it, directly or indirectly. And yet it is hardly an unpopular war. Many people, when asked to endorse it, do so enthusiastically. It has aroused little indignation, opposition, or resistance. It is painfully difficult to contest. It relies on a mainstream consensus – if not exactly in its favor, at least in support of the general principles in whose name it is fought.”

These are the opening words of “The War on Sex,” a recently published book of essays. The introduction was written by David M. Halperin, who, together with Trevor Hoppe, co-edited the book. Halperin is one of the originators of queer theory – involving the study of sexuality and gender. Many view him as the most authoritative commentator on the sexual theories of philosopher Michel Foucault. In this book, Halperin addresses a phenomenon that people did not dare to speak about until recently: the fact that sexual freedom is being increasingly eroded in our time.

A widespread view holds that contemporary society is sexually permissive. But according to Halperin, that image is far from reality.

“The familiar stories we have been telling ourselves about the sexual revolution, the rise of sexual permissiveness, the collapse of old-fashioned sexual morality, the change in sexual attitudes, the progress of women’s rights and gay rights, the decriminalization of sodomy, and the legalization of gay marriage have all diverted attention from a less familiar but equally important story about the new war on sex, a war that in recent years has intensified in scope and cruelty,” he writes.

In his view, a war is being waged against types of sex that are considered morally opprobrious, even when these are victimless crimes, as it were. These include: “commercial sex and sexual services, public sexual expression and publicly visible sexual representation, sex in publicly accessible venues, nonmarital sex and sex outside the context of the couple, sex online, sex in the workplace, HIV positive sex, pornography, gay sex, sex in schools and prisons, sex between adults and minors, and sex among minors.”

It’s a war that has destroyed the lives of many, particularly in marginalized groups. In some cases, Halperin notes, the war hides behind justified “legal and moral pressure to reduce the incidence of sexual assault, forced prostitution and child pornography.” However, the war on sex “cannot be reduced to an enlightened effort to prevent and punish sexual harm, though it often camouflages itself as such. It is rather a war against sex itself – in many cases, against sex that does no harm but that arouses disapproval on moral, aesthetic, political, or religious grounds.” The proof of this, according to Halperin, is that many forms of exploitation, oppression and violence draw the attention of the authorities only when they involve sex.

The anti-sex war is being waged by politicians, academics, journalists, judges and police officers, who are riding waves of moral panic. In the United States it’s supported by a vast incarceration industry, which is thirsting to take in more and more people convicted of sexual offenses. As of 2015, there were 843,680 people registered as sex offenders in the United States, and the number continues to grow. At the same time, innumerable manifestations of the war on sex come to mind, even if we leave out instances that lead to legal proceedings. True, there are closed, secure realms, akin to nature reserves, where wild sex is performed and shown, such as in HBO television series (“Game of Thrones” comes to mind) or in orgies of gays ostensibly using date-rape drug GHB, or PrEP, which helps prevent HIV infection. But outside these enclaves, artistic or literary expressions of sexuality are few and far between.

In particular, any mention of sexuality among juveniles and children is considered scandalous. The panic generated recently by Israeli author Alona Frankel’s children’s book, “A Book Full of Love: How Naftali Came into the World” (Hebrew), is an example of another aspect of the war on sex. The Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child met to discuss the book, which contains, heaven help us, descriptions like, “We embraced, we caressed, we kissed, and it was sweet and pleasant. We were wrapped around each other and very close, when the penis on the body of Naftali’s father slipped into the vagina on my body.”

What outraged Dr. Ayelet Giladi, who heads the Israeli organization Voice of the Child, which works to prevent sexual harassment of children? The fact that Frankel’s book depicts sexual relations as something pleasant. But there are even more absurd phenomena. Last week, on the Channel 10 program “A Family Like This,” one of the participants observed that sex during pregnancy harms the sensibilities of the fetus and constitutes a type of incest.

It’s with phenomena like this that Halperin deals with in “The War on Sex” – one of a number of works published in the past year by researchers in the fields of feminism and queer theory, about the diminishment of the sexual space and its various manifestations. Particularly notable is Laura Kipnis’ “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus” (Harper). She assails the witch hunts taking place in academia under the guise of a battle against sexual harassment, and likens the situation to the procedures of the Inquisition. Another recent book, Sara Schulman’s “Conflict Is Not Abuse” (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016) also addresses the issue of the criminalization of sexual desire.

‘Liberal inquisition’

At last, then, the new sexual puritanism is becoming a subject that’s talked about openly. The problem is that this discussion is emerging precisely at a time when there is a massive backlash against feminism, which is resorting to similar arguments. The populist right in America, Europe and elsewhere is mobilizing support by means of attacks on political correctness and on “the liberal inquisition.” It’s not surprising, then, that the right-wing Israeli current-affairs site mida.org.il has dealt extensively and favorably with Kipnis’ book. However, the fact that such arguments are employed by the right need not preclude a proper discussion about the war on sex and its implications. As with many cases in the past, the fact that certain arguments also serve the forces of darkness does not make them illegitimate.

All in all, Halperin notes with justification that one of the features of the war on sex is the fact that it cuts across the entire political spectrum. “It unites feminists and evangelicals, liberals and radicals, politicians and activists, intellectuals and populists, Left and Right. That is what makes it so hard to critique and to challenge. But that is also what makes it so important to address,” he writes.

President Donald Trump’s administration is the handmaid of the American incarceration system and is mobilizing the panic in the face of sex offenders to further many of its goals – from stopping migration from Mexico, to opposing unisex public toilets. In all these campaigns, the enemy being fought against is marked as a lascivious sex offender.

For all these reasons, we need to salute the people who are adamantly continuing to fight the good fight for sex, even after the sexual revolution has vanished from the horizon and become untrendy. Writers like Frankel, artists who insist on exhibiting works that are considered provocative and revealing, or Speedo-clad gays who dance on trucks during pride parades are only three examples of such people. It is they who are carrying the banner of resistance to respectable, hypocritical, mainstream sexual morality and blocking the erosion of sexual freedoms that were won with great effort.



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