This was a paper I wrote for my Sexuality and Social Conflict course at the University of Hartford in Fall 2011.
Imagine you are outside of a Planned Parenthood, walking towards the entrance on a casual afternoon. You are greeted first by a mob of angry people, yelling and chanting against the murdering of innocent children. A woman is holding a sign that reads “Abortion is murder!” Another contains a picture of a 2-week-old fetus. A girl calmly walks up to you and says politely, “did you know that a baby begins growing fingernails after only 4 weeks?” Trying your best to ignore this, you walk inside. The waiting room is just like any other waiting room at any other physician’s office, with an assortment of people: some of them looking anxious; others calm. On your left is a girl of only 18-years-old. She's a sex worker. She’s there because during one of her sessions with a regular client, the condom broke, and she was impregnated. Not being able to afford to have a child, and feeling hopeless, she’s deciding to get an abortion. On your right is a young, middle-class married couple. They have three kids and a beautiful home, but after an unintended pregnancy, they decide that they can’t financially support another child, so they too decide to have an abortion. You sit down next to a middle-aged woman, who after long thought decided it was a big health risk for her to have a baby at 48-years-old. Overwhelmed, you think to yourself, “who is right?” Is it the people outside telling you that abortion is murder? Is it the 18-year-old sex worker? Are the decisions made by the married couple and the middle-aged woman responsible ones? You realize that maybe this whole abortion debate isn't just about abortion itself. The debate over abortion is underlined by the very complex subject of sexuality in society, and is shaped by discourse and multiple power structures within our society.
When one thinks of the word sex, it is often that we conjure thoughts and images of the biological makeup of what makes a male or a female, or the sexual act of reproduction. However, when we think of sexuality, we’re often confronted with a myriad of thoughts, because although not everyone knows the actual depth and impact of the concept, most know that it’s a pretty heavy subject. What’s important to know is that sexuality is socially constructed, and as Jeffery Weekes describes it, sexuality is “a bundle of social phenomena that shape erotic life: laws, religion, norms and values, beliefs and ideologies, the social organization of reproduction, family life, identities, domestic arrangements, diseases, violence and love...” (Seidman 2011, p. 19). This social construction of reality creates a discourse about sexuality, which correlates with a number of different social issues on sexuality, shaping it and changing the discourse over time. Foucault explores how discourse about sexuality has changed throughout history and how it affects society as a whole and webs out to affect other aspects of a culture. One of the burning questions Foucault poses is “what led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide, to say it is something we silence?” (p. 9). This silence he is implying not only affects the way we think about sex as a society, but it also affects the way we express political and economic power–and as Karl Marx would explain, economics play a leading role in shaping the discourse on sexuality throughout history. What I’m going to explore in this paper is not just how sexual expression has changed over time, but how sexuality has forged a strong connection with power, economics, science, and other aspects of a society mainly through the regulation of reproduction, feeding into the long and heated debate over abortion.
To begin to understand how sexuality has made an impact on societal issues throughout the 20th century and today, we must first look at the regulation of sex in colonial times and how it connects sexuality with power. Protestant settlers in the U.S. had a very distinct image of the “family unit,” in which it was expected that sexual behavior only take place between a man and a woman that were married, and that sexual act had to be able to result in procreation. There were strict laws that made it illegal to engage in any sexual act outside of marriage and any sexual act that couldn’t ultimately lead to procreation even within marriage (D’Emilio 1988). In this time, economics and sexuality took were tied together, and D’Emilio writes “as in other preindustrial societies, the family both produced and consumed almost all goods and services. Reproduction and production went hand in hand, for family survival in an agricultural economy depended on the labor of the children…” (D’Emilio 1988, p. 16). This idea relates very strongly to Foucault’s analysis of webs of power and how they relate to sexuality. Puritans used the regulation of sex as a way to control the population and create wealth, and families were made as economic alliances. In a capitalist economy, sexuality is repressed in an attempt to “desexualize the work process and the body of laborers” (Seidman 2011, p. 5). According to Seidman, this is because “sexual impulses and desires are potentially disruptive of discipline [and] sexuality needs to be rigidly controlled” (p. 5). There was such a strong need to keep sexuality under wraps, that Foucault argues that it in turn increased the discourse on sexuality. The people were so concerned with maintaining power over sexual expression that the private was being urged to be made public through confessions. Puritans would easily talk about someone that they believed had broken the law, therefore making their sexuality public and demonizing them within the society. Foucault describes this phenomenon in The Repressive Hyopthesis when he explains that “sex was not something one simply judged; it was a thing one administered. It was in the nature of a public potential; it called for management procedures; it had to be taken charge of by analytical discourses” (Foucault 1978, p. 24).
What was very interesting about this connection between sexuality and economics was that changes in economics began to change discourse on sexuality. Many years later, the progression of the economy into a consumer economy had completely revamped the social expectations regarding sexuality, more specifically with the introduction of consumer advertising. It is known and studied now that there is a strong sexual presence in today’s advertising, and that highly reflects our view on sexuality. As Seidman (2011) writes, “sex is no longer just a procreative or loving act, but a form of pleasure and self-expression” (p. 6). This change in discourse on sexuality through economics had a ripple effect and effected many other power structures in society. “These two competing visions of sex—sex as pleasure versus sex as danger, sex as something that needs all the help it can get to keep from running amok—have long histories in American thinking” (Luker 2006, p. 9). This division of sex had created multiple discourses, separating people within society and giving rise to many of the debates over sexuality, especially abortion. The binary of pure vs. corrupt suddenly meant different things to different people, and values varied from person to person. The injection of morality certainly changed discourse in the sense that this binary was purely expressed through speech. In Fischer’s article, she writes “The speaker is trying to say something about themselves and their own sexual morality as much as they are saying something about someone else…and in this sense, sexual morality is not just about trying to control someone else’s sex life, it is about claiming a morally superior position for oneself through stigmatizing others” (Seidman 2011, p. 39). Think about that in the terms of the pro-life side of the abortion debate. Are they really only concerned with the lives of the children, or are they mainly trying to assert their own values by putting down those who differ in them?
In the abortion debate today, there is a bill that is designed to outlaw abortion with the idea that “life begins at conception.” What many people don’t realize it that this umbrella phrase covers many types of hormonal birth control, and would outlaw them due to the fact that those types of birth control are designed to separate the egg and the sperm, and make for an environment that is not conducive to conception inside the uterus. With regard to this, the question I would like to pose is why, after all these years of being legal and widely used, is hormonal birth control on par with abortion? To explore this, I’ll delve into the connection between sex and medicine, and the power struggles caused by the early debates of birth control.
In her article, Medicine and the Making of a Sexual Body, Celia Roberts claims that the “development of medical and scientific knowledge about sex has had profound global implications for how we experience our bodies and out sexual relationships, and indeed how many aspects of different societies operate” (Seidman 2011, p. 67). This medicalization of sex had a number of profound effects on the discourse of sexuality and its connections to power. Ultimately what the realm of science was trying to do was learn more about sexuality so they could better control it. In Sciencia Sexualis, Foucault elaborately describes how science had used confession as a way to gain unfiltered knowledge about sexuality. The idea of confession was brought into the act of medical examination, mainly through physicians and psychologists, and people were able to recreate sexual experiences and behavior through medical procedures that involved the recollection of memories, interrogation, hypnosis, etc (Foucault 1978). In this way, the realm of science and medicine merged with the realm of sexuality in order to better understand it and alter the power of the discourse. This ultimately led to the production and publication of knowledge regarding social hygiene and contraception, and it wasn’t long before there were certain medications that could alter a woman’s menstrual cycle and hormones. Although these medications were meant to be used to treat menstruation complications, there was one woman who brought it into light as one of the most widely distributed drugs today: hormonal birth control.
A woman by the name of Margaret Sanger worked as a nurse in 1912 in New York City, often working with very poor women who had health complications due to self-induced abortion and from becoming pregnant too many times (Wikipedia). Frustrated with the fact that these women had to deal with such issues, she became a very strong advocate for the development of the knowledge to control birth. Through her activism on birth control, she became increasingly interested in the idea of a hormonal birth control pill, and in the 1950’s, during the age of medicine, she decided that she was going to do everything she could to produce the pill and make it available to all women (The Pill). In order to do this, however, she needed to change the discourse on sexuality and take advantage of power structures in order to reach the State. In order to help her reach her goal, she enlisted the help of two people who became major players in the birth control movement: physiologist Gregory Pincus, and gynecologist John Rock. Both Pincus and Rock embodied the power of Science and served as Sanger’s connection to science in the ever-important webs of power. Not only did John Rock have a strong background in Science, but he also provided a powerful connection to the Church through his active involvement and high status within the Roman-catholic community. This was very important to the debate over birth control because he represented the women who were afraid to use birth control due to the Church’s strict views on the matter, and because the Church was the strongest power that needed to be persuaded at the time, John Rock became the face of the Pill throughout the 1960’s.
The different areas of power that the main advocates of the pill represented showed a very strategic use of power relations. Foucault (1978) makes an interesting point when he explains that “power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations (p. 94). What’s important about this aspect of power is realizing that anyone has the capacity to express power, and it can come from anywhere. More importantly, Foucault explains that power comes from below, while many believe that it comes from below and “trickles down.” Sanger, Rock, and Pincus expressed their power through discourse and through strategizing to work from the bottom to work their way up to reaching the State. This same idea of power relations is seen in the debate over abortion as well, as different sides battle to reach the state through their means of power.
It’s evident throughout history that discourse about sexuality was shaped by a number of factors, and by understanding it we can get down to the issue at hand: abortion. Ultimately, there are two sides to the abortion debate that create an important dichotomy: the pro-life side, and the pro-choice side. The pro-life side universally deems abortion as morally wrong and unnatural, while the pro-choice side supports the woman’s ability to make a decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. These two passionate sides to the argument were born out of a moral panic, as Professor Markson described as “occurring when something emerges that threatens societies views and customs.” When we look at both sides of the debate, we can see that this debate isn’t just about the fetuses, but about a number of different aspects to our culture that are being threatened; specifically: morality, gender roles, the binary of pure vs. corrupt, power relations, truth and knowledge, and private vs. public, etc. What’s important about these issues coming into play is that these same aspects of society have been turning up throughout history, as was mentioned throughout this essay. In this sense, the issue over abortion brings to light the components on the discourse of sexuality seen today and in recent history.
That group of protestors standing outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic—those people represented the pro-life side of the debate. The main drive behind this side of the debate seems to be the issue of morality and the binary of pure vs. corrupt. Nancy L. Fischer makes an interesting argument in her article Purity and Pollution: Sex as a Moral Discourse with the idea that “sexual acts have no meaning in and of themselves—it is only the surrounding culture which gives sexual practices or the people who engage in them particular meaning” (Seidman 2011, p. 38). For a lot of the people on the pro-life side, their social construction of reality and morality are largely affected by the Church, which very strongly deems abortion as murder. This presence of the church on this side of the debate largely affects the webs of power within the issue, and the church uses legitimate authority to express its power. Legitimate authority occurs when the Church expresses legitimate knowledge, and simply by claiming truth they are claiming power. The Church deems abortion as wrong, so followers of the church are usually not inclined to question it. The Church in turn uses this power through discourse to influence the State, which in turn attempts to regulate abortion. If we look back to the debate over Birth Control, we can see many parallels with respect to the discourse regarding the resistance to the pill. In both movements, the moral and religious values of many people are being deeply threatened, which is why we see so much passion in the people resisting abortion. The pro-choice movement also sees their values being threatened, mostly with regard to their freedom. Here we see another strong parallel between the debate over birth control and the debate over abortion, because Sanger stood by her belief that women should have the freedom and the necessary means to control pregnancy if they so choose. For the pro-choice side, another strong idea that is being threatened is a woman’s right to privacy, which is a strong aspect of many issues regarding health.
If you look back again to the waiting room inside the Planned Parenthood Clinic, you’ll notice that each woman I described was different, and I did this to note a very important aspect of the abortion debate: that it’s not only one type of women who get abortions. In her article Mis-conceptions About Unintended Pregnancy, Jennifer Reich explains that “about half of all pregnancies are unintended and 40 percent of these (or 22 percent of all pregnancies) end in abortion” (Seidman 2011, p. 187). She goes on to give many statistics that prove that there are many, many different types of women from different demographic and moral backgrounds that see abortion as a necessary option. “Of women who choose to terminate pregnancies, 56 percent are in their twenties; 61 percent already have one or more children; 67 percent have never married; 57 percent are economically disadvantaged; and 78 percent report a religious affiliation” (Seidman 2011, p. 187). Even if we look back to abortions performed when it was first beginning to be legalized, we see the same types of surprising results. An article published in a 1978 issue of the New York Times claimed that “In 1976…sixty five percent [of women obtaining abortions] were under 25 years old; 67 percent were white; 75 percent were unmarried and 48 percent had no other living children” (Brody, p. 1). While these statistics prove to be interesting and prove that abortion is not everything it’s stigmatized to be, it also holds a connection to socio-economic class. I look again to a different article published in 1978 in the New York Times entitled “Abortion and the Middle Class.” The author reports, “To the middle class, hence, abortion remains largely an abstraction, not a real, costly and personal tragedy. As a result, the weaker segments of society are left without allies or defense. The middle class has a responsibility to its conscience and to its own future free choice in the personal matter of abortion” (p. A22). That last sentence really caught my eye, in the sense that this article is implying that the middle class is really the only group of people that have a free choice when it comes to abortion, and that it is considered a personal matter.
So you’re sitting in the waiting room of Planned Parenthood, recounting the history of sexuality and thinking about social construction of reality and how it relates to terminated pregnancies and graphic pictures of bloody fetuses. You finally realize that this debate is so much bigger than the definition of murder and whether it applies to abortion. CNN recently published an article titled “What if Abortion Was a Non-Issue?” It says, “I think it’s a good guess that if we come to a new consensus about the status of women—absorbing and digesting the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the feminist revolution of the 1970s into a new dispensation more comfortable with both women’s equality to men and their differences from men—disagreements over abortion will come to matter less” (Frum 2011, p. 3). While this may be true, the issue of abortion goes way beyond the feminist movement and lands directly into discourse on sexuality as a whole. Foucault (1978) states, “what sustains our eagerness to speak of sex in terms of repression is doubtless this opportunity to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and manifold pleasures; to pronounce a discourse that combines the fervor of knowledge, the determination to change the laws, and the longing for the garden of early delights” (p. 7). When we have so many people offering so many different discourses, we have many chains of power that are batting between multiple points of resistance. Each side of the abortion debate is essentially using rhetoric to push their discourse into the main power, the State. This constant changing of discourse over time has shaped the way society thinks about sexuality as it relates to science, economics, values, and so on. What we in turn end up doing throughout history is placing a current issue as the poster-child for the much larger debate on sexuality, which is largely what the debate over abortion represents. What many people wonder is if we will be able to free ourselves sexually and end the ever-present debate over sexuality, and Foucault offers an interesting interpretation of that question: “…we will not be able to free ourselves from it except at a considerable cost: nothing less than a transgression of laws, a lifting of prohibitions, an irruption of speech, a reinstating of pleasure within reality, and a whole new economy in the mechanisms of power will be required. For the least glimmer of truth is conditioned by politics” (Foucault 1978, p. 5).