Every week there’s another story demonstrating that the conservative hostility to abortion rights has way more to do with prudery than any attachment to “life.” Last week, for example, the Louisiana legislature overwhelmingly voted to uphold a law banning “crimes against nature,” which includes oral sex not just between same-sex couples, but heterosexual couples as well. Yes, the House of Representatives in Louisiana would like to front like oral sex is officially disavowed within its state borders—a stance that is so obviously hypocritical that we don’t even need to interview the current and former sex partners of the people voting in favor of the legislation to guess that most of them have broken their own damn law.
It’s tempting to speculate that this sort of bold stance against a behavior that even straight white men are known to fervently and unapologetically enjoy might be enough to convince the straight white men of the country to reconsider supporting conservative ideology. Sure, the long-standing hostility to abortion rights hasn’t caused most straight white men to stop being conservative, even though men also are affected when women decline to continue an unplanned pregnancy. Even the attacks from Republicans against contraception access didn’t move the needle on this, even though straight white men definitely benefit from women’s access to contraception. But maybe this direct attack on a sex act many men see as their birthright could shake them out of their complacency, right? Certainly when I tweeted the story, I got some people hopefully suggesting this might be the case.
You’d think. But sadly, that’s not how politics work. The reason that conservative politicians can keep launching one attack after another against sexual freedom and reproductive rights without worrying about losing their base of straight white male support is that straight white men know they will never have to obey these laws. So they can feel free to posture about how terrible all this sex is and how it’s supposedly ruining “the family,” all while knowing that they are safe to keep having all the sex they want, even the kinky sex, without any real fear of being punished for it in the way that other people have to fear they will be.
With this law, the reason is obvious: Because of Lawrence v. Texas, the ban on oral sex in Louisiana is unenforceable. So this is purely a symbolic move, meant to shore up a general social disapproval of non-procreative sex. But, let’s be clear that social disapproval will be selectively applied. Straight men will continue to enjoy social support for having sex while their female partners are shamed for it.
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If you have any doubts about that, look at the situation of Rep. Vance McAllister, who is from Louisiana, of course. McAllister, who is married, got caught on tape kissing one of his employees. Once the affair was revealed, he issued a perfunctory apology, complete with a request for forgiveness, written in such a way that it was clear that he thought such forgiveness was a foregone conclusion. It was the 21st century PR method of getting indulgences. Conservative men can do whatever
they want, as long as they pay for it by pulling a frowny face and spending a few minutes pretending they’re sorry.
McAllister went straight back to work, confident—with good reason—that he will never have to actually take responsibility for committing adultery. The woman in question, of course, was fired from her job.
This is why conservative men confidently endorse laws and social rules that are anti-sex, even when that makes them screamingly obvious hypocrites who feel zero desire to curtail their own sexual proclivities. They know, from long personal experience, that they will never have to live by the rules. Ban abortion? Well, luckily women will still get them. They will just have to work harder at it. Cut off insurance coverage for contraception? Good thing women are so desperate to use it that they’ll pay out of pocket anyway. Even if they somehow managed to overturn Lawrence v. Texas and the oral sex ban became enforceable, most straight white men can be pretty certain that the only people who will get in trouble for it are gay people and people of color—you know, people whose privacy the cops already feel empowered to intrude upon.
It’s the same thing with drug use. One reason it’s been historically so difficult to overturn bans on marijuana, even when most people have smoked marijuana, is that people in power know it’s always someone else and not they who pay the price for prohibition. David Brooks, for instance, wrote a column protesting the un-banning of marijuana by openly admitting that he’s smoked it, and then turning around and saying it should be banned anyway. That’s super easy for him to say, as a number of people pointed out, because he and his fellow white men have no chance of spending a single night in jail for indulging a pleasure that they wish to ban.
With sex, in a sense, it’s even worse, since sex isn’t simply a vice but can be an objectively good behavior that improves relationships and physical health. The main purpose of passing laws and upholding social taboos against healthy sexual appetites is to reinforce straight white male privilege. Implicit in most of the battles over sexual and reproductive rights is this assumption that straight white men get to be proud about their sexualities—they even get to brag about them in public!—while everyone else is supposed to feel too ashamed to speak openly about theirs.
That’s why conservatives have been opening up new attacks on contraception access. They know that it puts women in an uncomfortable position, because defending contraception is equated with “admitting” that you have sex, which is still considered a dirty thing for women to do in many quarters. Anyone who doubts that should go see what conservatives are screaming about Sandra Fluke these days. It’s hard to imagine any man becoming a household name because some people decided he must be sexually active. That’s the double standard that the Louisiana legislature is banking on, and that’s the double standard reproductive rights activists need to continue to push back against in every way.