Sexuality in the time of Trump
January 3, 2017
I celebrated my first Gay Pride Day in San Francisco on June 28, 2015. Two days earlier, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage with the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. I was a third-year doctoral student in political science at Stanford, and I had just begun a doctoral program in human sexuality to become trained as a sex educator.
Pride Day is always a big deal in San Francisco, but that day was special. There was a sense of optimism and joy that I felt in the air. As a gay man and a sexual rights activist, I thought the genie was out of the bottle, and there was no going back on LGBTQ+ rights. The highest court in the land had spoken on arguably the most important civil rights issue of my generation.
For many advocates of sexual and reproductive rights, though, the past year and a half has seen a scaling back of this optimism, culminating in the election of Donald Trump. What is concerning about Trump’s election is the lack of clarity of his positions on women and sexual minorities. While Trump has broken with other members of his party in saying that marriage equality is “settled law,” he has continued to argue that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Further, despite his comments about marriage equality, an overwhelming number of his appointees are known to be homophobic.
What exactly have Trump and members of his team said their positions are on sexual and reproductive rights? And how should we think about such policy questions in a balanced way?
From my perspective as a sexual educator, I see Trump’s positions as rooted in nonscientific understandings of sexual orientations and behaviors. In other words, accurate information is lacking. I suggest that in the Trump era, sexual rights activists should deemphasize political rhetoric in favor of facilitating bipartisan delivery of accurate information to encourage productive political debate.
As we look ahead to the coming year, these are some issues to pay attention to.
Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee and presumptive chief of staff in Trump’s administration, supports the Republican platform plank stating that marriage is only between one man and one woman.
The Republican Party opposes the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which the platform calls “lawless” and the product of an “activist” judiciary.
However, Trump has publicly shifted from this position, claiming post-election that marriage equality is decided law and he will not challenge the court’s ruling.
However, Vice President-elect Mike Pence has stated that federal funding for HIV/AIDS treatment would be better spent to “change their sexual behavior.”
This statement has been interpreted by many as Pence supporting gay conversion therapy, which has been condemned by both the American Psychiatric and the American Psychological associations. It has also been outlawed in several states.
It is difficult to find research on conversion therapy, but a 2001 study by Michael Schroeder and Ariel Shidlo found that of 150 former patients of conversion therapy, few reported having changed their orientations. Most reported negative side effects, such as low self-esteem, clinical depression and sexual dysfunction. It is hard to say what Pence actually meant by his comment, but given a recent report in New York Magazine claiming that all of Trump’s cabinet picks as of Nov. 30, 2016 “oppose LGBT rights,” the negative connotation appears correct.
The GOP platform clearly takes a stand against abortion rights. It also states public schools should abandon sex education that emphasizes family planning over abstinence-only programs. However, research suggests that abstinence-only programs are less effective in preventing unwanted teen pregnancy than more comprehensive approaches.
These positions, along with Congress’ repeated threats to withhold federal funding for Planned Parenthood, suggest that reproductive rights will soon have a tenuous status.
The common perspective among liberal political philosophers who emphasize important American values like freedom, justice and equality is that decisions made between consenting adults should be free from government interference.
Influential 19th-century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, for example, argues that government interference in the lives of individuals is justifiable only in terms of preventing harm. A Millian position on homosexual relations is straightforward. The state should not be involved in telling consenting individuals whom to have sex with and how, as long as no one is being harmed. Contemporary liberal philosophers such as John Rawls, Elizabeth Anderson and Martha Nussbaum take on similar perspectives. They advocate sexual regulation only as a means of promoting self-respect between individuals, arguing that laws prohibiting homosexual behavior need to be scrutinized as civil rights violations.
The notion of harm is a controversial one. For some nonliberal philosophers, notably natural law theorist John Finnis, homosexuality is considered harmful, as is any sexual act outside of heterosexual marriage.
However, the natural law tradition assumes that Judeo-Christian doctrine should be the starting point for moral and legal debates. This assumption is not well-suited for political debates in the United States. The liberal consensus on family planning policies and abortion is that, as difficult as these personal decisions are, government should allow women to make these decisions without interference. While issues of sexual politics are always controversial, Trump’s election calls into question the country’s commitment to the ideals of contemporary liberal philosophy.
In 1976, Jack Annon developed the PLISSIT model as an approach to sex therapy and education. It emphasizes four stages of providing these services:
Permission is given to individuals to engage in sexual explorations.
Limited information is provided to address someone’s specific concerns.
Specific suggestions are given that help the individual resolve concerns.
Intensive therapy is suggested and referral sources provided when people require outside counsel or advice.
Although this approach is usually limited to the therapeutic or educational context, it can also guide and reframe political debate on sexuality. Everyone in these debates should give their opponents permission to hold whatever beliefs they have about sex. It is possible to correct misinformation but difficult to change people’s moral values.
Further, activists should focus on facts and other relevant considerations so that decision-makers can make policy decisions based on suggestions from all sides. When activists, decision-makers and other stakeholders do not have relevant expertise, it is important that they call on those who are more knowledgeable to provide insight where there is misunderstanding.
If 2015 brought us joyful optimism, 2016 taught us to not take our gains for granted. The year 2017 should not be a time of fear, but of vigilance, mobilization and action.