Maria Soledad Vela, a member of Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly, a
committee tasked with the job of rewriting the nation’s constitution, made international news
recently by proposing that a woman’s right to sexual happiness be written into
the constitution. To the surprise of
exactly no one, this suggestion caused some humorous overreactions from fellow
Ecuadorian politicians, mostly
male. One suggested the law was a
mandate that women have orgasms, supposedly a physical impossibility,
though I’m sure Betty Dodson would
disagree. Another, according
to Salon, likened the law to life in prison. Protests like these caused folks the world
over to speculate about the psychology of a straight man who would advertise
his indifference, even hostility, to women’s opinions of what happens in the
Vela denied that she intended to trap unwilling men into a
hellish land of mandatory
pleasure provision. Her
explanation–that this was about redefining women as sexual agents instead of
just sex objects and baby-makers–fit neatly into a long-standing feminist
paradigm, and really shouldn’t have caused the alarm that it did. Lindsay
Beyerstein, in the comments at my place, likened it to the "pursuit of
happiness" clause in the Declaration of Independence. One would assume that the right to sexual
autonomy simply went understood as a component of the right to pursue happiness,
but in the atmosphere of sexual repression caused by the anti-choice rightwing in
this country, one can’t assume too much.
What would life be like if sexual autonomy were written into our
Constitution, a right much like the freedom of speech or freedom of religion?
A lot of contentious issues would become a lot less
controversial right away. The right to
birth control and abortion–critical to almost all heterosexual women’s sexual
agency–could hardly be debated.
Right now, anti-choicers can exploit people’s ignorance of legal matters
and hint that the right to privacy found in the Constitution by the Supreme
Court in the decision Griswold v.
Connecticut, which legalized contraception and led to Roe v. Wade, was somehow illegitimate
because the Constitution doesn’t explicitly use the word "privacy" and because
the word "penumbra"
is multi-syllabic and confusing.
Penumbras are the cause of many rights that go unchallenged, but
anti-choicers won’t tell you this, pretending that sexual rights are unique in
this respect. But if sexual autonomy were spelled out
as a right, then they couldn’t really argue against it. Most people aren’t going to buy the idea that contraception is
irrelevant to a woman’s sexual autonomy, unless of course she’s a lesbian, and
I don’t see the fundies pushing widespread lesbianism as an alternative any
It would be much easier to make the argument for
government-subsidized contraception, as well.
Right now, we can argue for it as a public health measure, but with a
right to pursue sexual happiness, we could also argue that those who can’t
afford their own contraception should have their rights subsidized by the
government. For those who wish to clutch
their pearls in shock, realize that the only downside to such a program
would be reduced public health expenditures for treating people after they
catch STDs or become pregnant unintentionally. The Hyde Amendment, of course, wouldn’t stand
a chance against the right to sexual pleasure.
Abstinence-only "education" would be a non-starter of an
issue, as well. The idea that the
government should dictate to you a moralized agenda contrary to your own
autonomous desires–and to withhold crucial information you need to enact your
rights in the healthiest manner–would make as much sense as giving the
government the right to pick your religion for you. The idea that there’s a virtue in depriving
yourself of the pursuit of sexual happiness would start to look like
arguing that not voting or speaking up is somehow virtuous. Trying to secularize for the classroom what
religious dogma would be a much harder task, nearly impossible.
Why rape is wrong would become much clearer. Right now, the law has to function
(for good reason) by distinguishing between consensual and non-consensual sex. So
far too many people think there’s no moral difference between getting consent
that sounds like, "Oh god, do it now!" and "Fine, if it’s the only way I can
get you to leave me alone." But if we
had the right to sexual autonomy enshrined in the Constitution, then perhaps
people would see more value in women’s sexual pleasure, just as we value free speech, freedom of
religion, and privacy. And a lot fewer
men would push their luck by pretending that "no" was really "yes" by
exploiting the gray areas.
Same-sex marriage rights would be an easier sell, as well,
if everyone had a right to sexual autonomy and the pursuit of happiness. After all, isn’t the debate over marriage
basically about whether or not the institution exists to make people happy
(same-sex marriage advocates’ argument) or for people to submit to in order to
uphold the hegemony of heterosexism (an argument made by right wingers, though of
course without the big words that come from the "elitism" of literacy)? Such an amendment would wrap that debate up
altogether, making it clear that in America, institutions–even ones
with a sexual component like marriage–exist for the people, not the other way
around. And if the people are better
served by same sex marriage — as they are — then there are no good arguments
Needless to say, there’s no court in the land that could
justify a ban on selling
sex toys or even a need for the euphemism "marital aids". Saving the country the expense of prosecuting
dildo dealers alone would justify such an amendment.