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In How Sex Became a Civil Liberty, Leigh Ann Wheeler focuses on how the organization ACLU employ the notion of constitutional rights (particularly the first amendment) to influence and impact issues of sexual liberty, freedom and sexual rights. In doing so, the ACLU have managed to span many issues relating to sexuality, while constantly pushing the envelope on matters relating to civil liberty.
Wheeler takes us on a journey of the history of ACLU from its conception in 1920 to current time. Throughout this journey, Wheeler discusses the various issues of sexual liberty that arise, the historical context in which they are debated, as well as various attitudes and internal conflicts and disagreements of the ACLU. For example, in the 1920s and 1930s, ACLU members focused much attention on defending sexual expression as it related to sexual education, nudism and theatre featuring sexuality. The ACLU did also focus much on the issues of consumerism and civil liberty and sexual expression in the public versus the private sphere. As such they stated that sexual expression should not only be limited to the private sphere, and believed that adult consumers had the right to read, see and hear what they wished to. But it was not only sexual expression that the ACLU was concerned about. For various reasons, the ACLU stood behind the birth control movement, abortion and homosexuality, thereby casting a wide net regarding matters of sexuality.
At the same time, it is painstakingly clear that gender becomes an important and dividing factor among ACLU members. Wheeler describes how, since its conception, many of the more influential and higher positions were occupied by men, and the focus on certain aspects of sexual liberties and sexual expression mirrors the notion that ACLU was male dominated. For example, issues concerning nudism, sexual material (such as books, magazines and movies), pornography, sexual conduct and sexual privacy were highly valued and fought ferociously for in many ways. But the influx of feminists and women into the ACLU proved to cause rifts among members both in terms of unearthing attitudes towards women, as well as attitudes towards the types of sexual liberties and sexual expression to be fought for. As mentioned, the ACLU long fought for women's reproductive rights, including birth control and abortion, but other gendered issues were not met with the same enthusiasm. For example, the ACLU were divided on issues of rape and sexual harassment as they pertained in large to women. Many women and ACLU members were upset that as an organization, the ACLU failed to find equal ground and promote policies that were more pro-woman. In discussions concerning rape shield laws and rape overall, the ACLU focused increasingly on the defendant's right to a fair trial, more often so than on the complainant's right to privacy, often endorsing the notion that the victim's rights were less important than the defendant's. At the same time, other ACLU members claimed that rape was not a woman's issue (since men can be raped as well – a very common statement from those who wish to ignore gendered violence and abuse), and that women often make false rape statements. Such statements display biased assumptions and indeed discriminatory beliefs about the “nature of women” and caused as noticed a rift among ACLU members. The focus on and the intensity by which some civil liberty issues were pursued by ACLU members and some were given less attention clearly display that gender did significantly impact the work and direction of the ACLU.
Wheeler is very efficient at tying the historical background in which the ACLU operates, with civil liberty issues that were being pursued at that time. For example, Wheeler discusses how the issues of women's reproductive rights (birth control, abortion and also sterilization) were tied to the historical events of the time, such as the cold war and increasing focus on the issues of overpopulation and communism. It is also interesting to read about the prominent people featured throughout the history of ACLU, including feminists and activists such as Margaret Sanger, Evelyn Hooker, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon and Gloria Steinem. Wheeler writes in a way that is entertaining and fairly easy to understand as we move through the decades of ACLU history. At times, it can be difficult to follow along with the various people and ACLU members featured in the book, but the historical, contextual and cultural tie-ins gives the reader a solid platform to stand on. The book is valuable to students and teachers in the fields of history, sociology, women's studies, gender studies and more. A knowledge of the ACLU is beneficial to readers, but is not necessary in order to enjoy the book.
© 2013 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.