Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

The Politics of Sacred Sex

I’m pretty sure this is the first presidential debate in which the sentence “sexuality is sacred” has been uttered. It came during the abortion discussion, when Barack Obama said, “We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity.” I actually think it was one of the most important lines of the evening.
Before I unpack why, I must start with a word of thanks to Obama for not feeling the need to illustrate this point via one of those anecdotes about a Real American. I’m not sure our fragile financial system could have withstood discussion of the sacredness of Joe the Plumber’s piping.
Here’s why it’s important. Obama showed himself to have a culturally conservative streak. The classic conservative wrap on liberalism is that sexual permissiveness led to numerous social problems including teen pregnancy and abortion. Obama declared, in effect, that he agreed with that critique. “Cavalier” sex, he said, cost society.
He appealed to pro-lifers, suspicious that liberal drives toward expanding birth control would increase premarital sex and further destigmatize teen promiscuity. He indicated that he’d be sensitive to that risk.
He appealed to parents, and showed himself to be a conscientious one. Every parent struggles with how to describe sex as being beautiful yet discouraged. (If it’s so beautiful why not do it all the time, as early in life as you can? Well, because its beauty is enhanced when it’s part of a deep connection between people and maybe even fits some greater purpose.)
He appealed to traditional religious believers who have been trying for years to convey the idea that free love is destructive and who more recently have argued that sex in the context of marriage or committed relationships can be Godly. One book promoted -Christ-like Sex; while a Jewish one advocated Kosher Adultery. (in Jewish tradition, sex as part of marriage is a mitzvah, a good deed.) Obama’s comments might even earn Obama friends in the chastity movement.
Remarkably, while appealing to the traditionally religious, Obama’s phrasing also may appeal to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. These voters are likely more in synch with the idea that sex can actually be a sort of spiritual experience, or a pathway to the divine. I’m not saying Obama was subliminally promising them an increase in Tantric sex It’s just that by using the word “sexuality” — the preferred terminology of the left — rather than “sex,” he signals that he’s spiritual without being prudish.

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posted October 16, 2008 at 6:38 pm

Thoughtful points here, Steve. Thanks for sharing them.
The more I reflect on it, it WAS one of the more uniting lines of the evening.
Personally, I’m tired of being told America is this percentage red and that percentage blue and I feel that the Obama campaign is talking the talk of unification whereas the piercing, nose-speaking, gerund-clippin’ rhetoric of the McCain campaign feels like it’s meant to appeal to some core ‘us vs. them’ mentality.
I don’t deny politics being played on both sides, but at the end of the day, one campaign leaves me tense and fearful of “the hidden truth” of…well, everything…while another leaves me optimistic that collectively we can get through any obstacle that lies ahead.
It’s mentally fatiguing to keep coming up with ways that we are better than each other…can’t we try looking for the similarities for awhile? Say…for four years, at least?
Re: your post here, everyone in America is uptight about discussing sex with their children…why there’s our first point of common ground right there! :)

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posted October 16, 2008 at 7:00 pm

Obama said sexuality should be sacred, and not taken cavalierlly, it was so like him to say. It was what I was taught in my pre-teen yrs., it was what I taught our children who would have been in his age group. It was what my friends were taught in the 40’s. His mother and his grandmother must have been like mine and myself. Thanks for pulling that sentence out and discussing it Steve. Obama wants to pull all people together and close the spaces between them. He could do it, that’s the kind of person he is.

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Charles Cosimano

posted October 16, 2008 at 7:54 pm

I wonder if Obama also thinks that people should pray to their toasters for if sex is somehow sacred, then breakfast is the most holy meal of the day.

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posted October 16, 2008 at 8:45 pm

Yes,I agree that Obama handled the abortion question quite well. He came across as the caring person he is about a tough situation that some women have to deal with. He has 2 little girls, so this is an important topic to him.

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posted October 16, 2008 at 9:35 pm

“I wonder if Obama also thinks that people should pray to their toasters for if sex is somehow sacred, then breakfast is the most holy meal of the day.”
Only if you have eggs for breakfast, Charles. Eggs get laid daily.

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posted October 17, 2008 at 1:08 am

I would say I agree with Obama that sexuality is sacred. What I mean is that I don’t think that all sex outside of marriage is sinful, but that the act of sex should be approached with caution and respect, and not taken lightly. I also believe that sex is best when done in the context of a committed relationship between two people who deeply care for each other. I also do not think promiscuity is a good idea.
And RJohnson and Charles, I think that eating can be sacred. When we eat, we nourish our bodies and the food provides us with life. Many religions have prayers before eating (Judaism even has a prayer before drinking a glass of water).

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posted October 17, 2008 at 4:06 pm

I’m not sure that “sexuality” was used for the reason you suggest. There is a big difference between “sexuality” and the act of sex and most of my slightly leaning “left” friends would agree. I wonder if Obama had a deeper point or whether he was talking about a traditional conservative message.
To me sexuality is something that shouldn’t be taken cavalierly but that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to have lots of sex and/or sexual partners. The problem with both the “free love” movement and the traditional religious movement is that they are obsessed with the act, like it determines who you are. I think it’s more important for people to act in a way that is healthy for them.
I know several people that are promiscuous and are generally well adjusted and mature…they just like lots of sex and people. They almost uniformly have never had any problems with disease or unwanted pregnancies or even emotional damage because they are very honest and serious about protection (both physical and emotional).
By contrast I’m a 25 year old virgin because I realize I would only appreciate sex with someone that I care about enough to get married to. If I tried to be promiscuous then I would be unhappy and unfulfilled.
The people that I know that have had unwanted pregnancies or emotional problems from sex almost uniformly have not matured to the point where they accept who they are and don’t have the discipline to live up to their own ideals. They have sex out of loneliness and/or to feel powerful and feel guilty or lost.
I am representative of a lot of my generation who is socially conservative in that we think that “traditional values” are appropriate for most people, but also socially liberal in that we believe the prime goal is for people to live in a way that is healthiest for them even if it is different. I think that the stereotypical liberal/conservative dichotomy does a disservice by focusing on the acts instead of valuing moral development (either religious or not) and self respect. I also wonder how much of a difference there really is between the two sides or whether it’s just political caricature.

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posted October 17, 2008 at 7:06 pm

I hate to tell you this but believing people should not be “cavalier” about sex is not a “conservative streak.” Believe it or not but the liberal movement has come a long way since the free love 70s and I would suggest that it meant taking control of one’s sexuality rather than being reckless and carefree about it. Straw Man Debunked.

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posted October 28, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Christian churches such as the one I got married in tell people that marriage is about having children. This insulted my wife and my gnostic notions that marriage is about love, aka Divine zysogy. The materialism of the orthodox goes further than sanctifying procreative sex over intimacy, by praying over dead meat. The traditional offering to a god who savors burnt flesh. Stranglely the orthodox christ is supposed to the be the final human sacrifice to Jehovah to atone for all our frivalous transgressions against the Demiurge.

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