The XX Factor

World Leaders Speak Out Against Sex Taboo

At the reception for the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health in the Millenium U.N. Plaza Hotel yesterday, a dazzling area of council members–current and former presidents of various nations, U.N. officials, and our surgeon general, to name just a few–stood up in rapid succession to explain their various reasons for fighting for the right of women everywhere to control their reproductive health and child-bearing. Environmental, economic, human rights, and health benefits were cited as a result of giving women this basic power. But regardless of their reasons for being there, one council member after another cited the exact same obstacle between humanity and these basic goals: the widespread taboo against speaking honestly about human, and especially female, sexuality.

Or, more to the point, how this all-too-common skittishness is exploited by right-wing forces that don’t want to see an end to millenia of female subjugation, even if that end means improved health and well-being for families, communities, and entire nations. Mary Robinson, the council chair and the former president of Ireland, explained the problem most bluntly, recalling her early experiences in the Irish Parliament, when she tried to pass a few common-sense measures liberalizing Ireland’s contraception laws and found herself facing a sea of right-wing opposition. The benefits of making family-planning services available to all who wish to use them are so tremendous that the right can’t argue on the merits. Instead, the tactic is to exploit people’s weirdness around sex and confuse the issues at hand.

It was interesting to hear these world leaders talk about how the sex taboo is employed by the right to preserve inequalities and stymie progress, as it all happened on the eve of the Senate finally tackling Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The entire argument against allowing gays to serve openly in the military is based around sex panic–the human rights of gays and lesbians are considered less important than the possibility that some homophobes in the military are made uncomfortable being near someone whose sexuality is different than theirs. Which is why, Lauren , I disagree that Lady Gaga’s comments didn’t make sense. The meat stuff was weird, but the main point she made–that in a conflict between a gay person and someone in a sex panic, the gay person’s rights should trump the homophobe’s childishness–was absolutely right and boldly stated.

It’s not every day that the former president of Ireland and Lady Gaga are out there making the same point about somewhat different issues. But that just goes to show what a great point it is, even in its simplicity: When it comes to sex, health and human rights should trump taboo and sex panic. It’s a shame if people are made uncomfortable by contraception education or gays openly serving in the military, but it’s time we looked the squirmy ones in the eye and said, “Grow up, already.”