When sex enters America’s national politics, it’s almost always the result of assault or scandal. The current president is a self-avowed perpetrator who defended the alleged pedophile Roy Moore and was buddies with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Bill Clinton faced a scandal over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and was accused of sexual assault by several women. The former New York congressman Anthony Weiner was convicted of sending dick pics to a minor.
More often, though, sex isn’t allowed to enter our politics at all. In a small but revealing moment last month, Pete Buttigieg’s campaign canceled a fundraiser at an iconic gay bar because the owner refused to remove a dance pole from the premises. The campaign’s demurral captured a criticism that many people in the queer community have made of the first viable out-of-the-closet candidate for the US presidency: he’s just not queer enough. But the reality is it would be hard to imagine any candidate holding a fundraiser at a strip club. No matter what their positions were on living wage laws, parental leave, abortion access, or any other policies that could improve women’s lives, they would be pundited right out of the polls.
That’s because there’s a bigger issue at play here and in American politics writ large: our corrosive sexual shame. So many of us believe that the work of our genitals is far less noble than the work of our minds; that our desires make us bad, or lesser, or unclean. This shame not only diminishes us as individuals, it also works to undermine the collective political power of those who want a freer and more equal America – one that’s not dominated by those (primarily men) who use sex as a weapon.
You might be wondering why sex even matters in a campaign season loaded with such urgent issues as income inequality, universal healthcare and the climate emergency. Everyone understands that we are a deeply divided nation, yet no one understands what we can do about it. But this is precisely where sexual desire can be one of our most revolutionary political tools. Acknowledging each other’s desires is more radical and more democratizing than almost anything else candidates are doing on the campaign trail.
The revolutionary power of sex is something the queer community has tried to teach America. Sex brought us queers together in alleyways and underground toilets, where we found we weren’t alone. Then it brought us together in bars and bathhouses, where our numbers grew. Then it took us “out of the closet and into the streets”, where we won elected positions. The battles we fought for the right to love and have sex with whoever we want however we want gave this country one of its most significant civil rights victories.
Desire’s apolitical nature is oddly its political asset. Sex brings people together regardless of race, class and even politics. Love can do this too, but sex – and especially queer sex – accomplishes it in a way that is more transformative because queers recognize that no one’s desire is more or less shameful than another’s. As Michael Warner writes in The Trouble with Normal:
In those circles where queerness has been most cultivated, the ground rule is that one doesn’t pretend to be above the indignity of sex…. Sex is understood to be as various as the people who have it. It is not required to be tidy, normal, uniform, or authorized by the government.
In contrast, sexual shame attempts to police that variety and assign value to some forms over others. In the political realm, it inevitably favors the cis-gendered, heterosexual patriarchy under which we all live, with the accompanying cruelties of capitalism under which most of us labor. In addition to homophobia, think of the ways slut-shaming has been used as an effective weapon in excluding women from political and economic power.
Business and politics as usual promote networking, which is exclusionary and consolidates power within groups, whereas sex and the places we have it – not just bedrooms and sofas, but porn theaters, public toilets, cruising areas – promote contact, which fosters encounters across classes and groups, the writer Samuel R Delany points out. “Given the mode of capitalism under which we live,” Delaney writes, “life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of goodwill.”
Of course, the act of sex isn’t always about contact, and shaming isn’t always a bad thing. Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape didn’t show us his sexuality, it showed his belief in men’s domination over women. Sexual assault, in all its forms, is one way men have asserted this dominance, and this is what the #MeToo movement has insisted we talk about. We will no longer excuse or ignore these abuses. Anyone whose sexuality disregards consent should be shamed and punished, because shame corrects behavior that violates our values.
“A democratic morality should judge sexual acts by the way partners treat one another,” the anthropologist Gayle Rubin wrote in her pathbreaking essay, Thinking Sex:
… the presence or absence of coercion, and the quantity and quality of the pleasures they provide. Whether sex acts are gay or straight, coupled or in groups, naked or in underwear, commercial or free, with or without video should not be the ethical concerns.
If the people united will not be divided, then shaming our consensual forms of sex and sexuality is the best way to prevent this most poignant form of union. We don’t have to buy into it, however, and one way to fight this trickle-down sexual shame is by insisting our politicians talk frankly and positively about sex. A tall order, I know – some of us may recall how long it took Ronald Reagan to even say the word “Aids” in public – so in the meantime, we need to lead the conversations ourselves. Call out your politicians when they reproduce attitudes of sexual shame. Ask them potentially uncomfortable questions about birth control, comprehensive sex education and decriminalizing sex work.
The point isn’t to invade anybody’s privacy. I don’t need to know which sexual positions the presidential candidates prefer. The sex that politicians have is their business. But that politicians have sex, and that they overcome their shame or neuroses about it, is all of our business, because it can do so much to move our unhealthy culture toward the future we want for it.
Dave Madden is the author of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There and The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy; he’s currently writing a book on sex and shame.