Book Review – The War on Sex

Review of The War on Sex by David M. Halperin and Trevor Hoppe, eds. Duke University Press. 2017. (HB/PB). 497pp.

Review by Martin Fradley, University of Brighton, UK.

‘The world is waging a war on sex,’ begins David M. Halperin’s rabble-rousing introduction to this new anthology (1). This is a consensual war on sexual freedom, he argues, carried out by legislative stealth within a culture that congratulates itself on its would-be sexual liberalism. Fundamental to the ideological power of this ‘quiet war’ (1) is its enthusiastic endorsement by leftists and conservatives alike. This is, Halperin contends, a regulative war on nonstandard sexual practices such as gay sex, commercial sex work and pornographic sex; that is, ‘sex that does no harm but that arouses disapproval on moral aesthetic, political, or religious grounds’ (3-4).  

Published in early 2017, The War on Sex arrives after the election of Donald J. Trump — who, even allowing for the notorious torpor of the academic publishing process, is surprisingly absent from the book — but before the Weinstein scandal and the subsequent deluge of moral outrage, polarising digital activism and unabating media debate. Despite its fashionably combative title and partisan rhetoric, then, this book sometimes feels curiously out of time. That ‘sex’ has become a legal and discursive battleground will come as little surprise to most readers in 2019 but not, perhaps, in the way(s) the assembled contributors to The War on Sex might have imagined. 

Since the publication of The War on Sex, of course, a polarised sexual lexicon has gained popular currency. This fractious discursive terrain is often unhelpfully binarised, with #MeToo and condemnations of ‘rape culture’ on one side and counter-accusations of sex-negative ‘New Puritanism’ and ‘Sexual McCarthyism’ on the other. Even during the short time I have been writing this review, for example, a swathe of highly politicised debates over sex have circulated in the public sphere. These include: an FBI investigation into sexual assault claims against Judge Brett Kavanaugh following globally televised testimony by Professor Christine Blasey Ford; an unedifying spat featuring high-profile figures in the Weinstein sexual abuse case concerning sexual interactions with minors; historical allegations of rape against footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and indie rock drummer Orri Pál Dýrason; and a minor furore over the appearance of a  pro-sex work stall at the University of Brighton in the UK. 

This uneasy sexual foment has inadvertently created some unlikely (and often unwitting) ideological bedfellows. The War on Sex offers a libertarian pushback against (what the contributors perceive to be) draconian penalties for sex crimes — an activist rallying cry that uncannily mirrors Germaine Greer’s recent argument in favour of lightening the tariff in rape cases. [1] When Toby Young controversially complained about ‘sexual McCarthyism’ it seems unlikely that he was advocating — as Halperin does — for greater leniency vis-à-vis the possession of child pornography, yet these very different writers are united by a deep political dissatisfaction with the judgmental hostility of ‘woke’ sexual mores. Similarly, The War on Sex’s concerns about legislative over-regulation of the sexual agency of minors and young adults inadvertently echo the dubious rhetoric espoused by prominent members of the so-called Alt-Right. 

This is not to diminish the quality of the scholarship on offer. Indeed, the standard of the essays gathered here is uniformly excellent, with detailed contributions containing unfailingly rigorous levels of research. For example, Roger Lancaster’s Foucauldian essay perceptively points to contemporary trends in the surveillance of sex offenders and their sinister implications for ever-widening methods of social control. In separate essays, both Judith Levine and Elizabeth Bernstein demonstrate how latent authoritarian tendencies in ‘progressive’ social and political movements have often led to the reproduction of hegemonic sexual norms. Elsewhere, Sean Strub outlines the case of Iowan Nick Rhoades who was sent to prison for not disclosing his HIV-positive status to a sexual partner. That Rhoades took numerous precautions and did not ultimately transmit the virus failed to prevent him being sentenced to 25-year in prison. [2] Finally, in a searingly personal essay, Melissa Petro recounts how she lost her job as a professional educator for the simple act of writing about her earlier work in the sex industry. Like the rest of the book, these measured and intelligent contributions are unfailingly thoughtful, politically incisive and often profoundly sobering. 

To this end, it is difficult to argue with much of the material in The War on Sex. What kind of legal absurdism, for example, places two teenagers on the sex register for consensually sharing explicit photos of themselves with each other? The book raises many difficult questions that urgently need asking, even if — or, more likely, because — the answers are far from straightforward. And yet there are undoubtedly problems with this libertarian outlook, as when The War on Sex turns to the so-called ‘crisis of consent’ on U.S. college campuses. Approvingly citing Laura Kipnis – whose 2017 book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus is something of a touchstone — Halperin barely restrains from dismissing students’ concerns about ‘hostile environments’ as the over-sensitive delusions of mollycoddled snowflakes (34). As a counterpoint, Halperin points to the worrying implications of university policies that forcibly ban all sexual/romantic relationships between professors and undergraduates. In a boldly disingenuous move, Halperin defends the imperilled sexual agency of undergraduates by asserting their sacrosanct right to have sex with university teaching staff. Moreover, the book’s symptomatic anti-feminism often becomes wearing. ‘[F]eminism is not the enemy’, Halperin avows, but only with the strategic caveat that ‘some feminists’ most definitely are the adversary (48). As one of the more insidious additions to 21st century demotic warfare — TERFs — floats ominously between the lines, Halperin deliberately evokes another — ‘virtue signalling’ — when arguing that the law should place emphasis ‘on reducing harm rather than inculcating virtue – or someone’s idea of it’ (48). 

To summarise the broad political thrust of The War on Sex, Halperin offers a modest proposal. ‘It ought to be possible,’ he posits, ‘to detect, deter, prevent, and punish sexual misconduct while maximizing sexual freedom and the sexual agency of individuals’ (48). As unarguable as this sounds, individual readers will have to decide for themselves exactly what terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘agency’ mean in this context and, indeed, which side(s) they choose in the ongoing war on sex.

[Notes]

  1. Germaine Greer. 2018. On Rape. Bloomsbury.
  2. Convicted in 2009, Rhoades’ sentence was later overturned on appeal in 2014.

Contributor

Martin Fradley is Lecturer at the University of Brighton and has taught widely across the UK university sector. His most recent work appears in the anthologies Tainted Love: Screening Sexual Perversion (2017), The Politics of Twin Peaks (2019) and Make America Hate Again: Trump-Era Horror and the Politics of Fear (2019). He is co-editor of Shane Meadows: Critical Essays (2013) and the author of Straight Outta Uttoxeter! The Films of Shane Meadows (forthcoming, 2019).

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