Sexual revolutions have transformed American culture, society, and politics—not to mention individual lives—throughout the twentieth century. Sex radicals challenged Victorian restraint and championed sexual liberation. In the process, they confronted a tightly knit web of legal restrictions on sexual expression and conduct designed to keep sex out of the public realm and to allow public officials to police sex in private spaces. The American Civil Liberties Union has stood at the center of these battles, using the Constitution to create an expansive body of sexual rights that helped lay the old order to rest.
How Sex Became a Civil Liberty is the first book to show how ACLU leaders and attorneys forged legal principles that advanced the sexual revolution. It explains how, why, and to what effect ACLU activists developed and revised their own policies, adopted sexual expression and practice as civil liberties, persuaded courts to do the same, and joined with commercial media and others to promote these understandings of sexuality to a broader public.
Through its influence over public discourse as well as law, the ACLU helped to establish a liberal, rights-based sexual ethos in the United States. It played a prominent role in nearly every major court decision related to sexuality and also reached beyond the courtroom to promote its agenda through grassroots activism, political action, advertising campaigns, and public education. Thanks to its work, abortion and birth control are legal, coerced sterilization is rare, sexually explicit material is readily available, and gay rights are becoming a reality.
Using rich archival sources and interviews with major players, How Sex Became a Civil Liberty tells the story of the men and women who built the legal foundation for the sexual revolution. It explores how private lives shaped approaches to public policy and illuminates the importance of debates among activists-as well as between activists and their opponents-in shaping what we now consider to be our sexual rights.
A story of tragedy as well as of triumph, How Sex Became a Civil Liberty shows how the ACLU helped to create our polarized sexual culture by collapsing old distinctions between public and private and privileging access to sexual expression over protection from it. Realizing how the result-a culture saturated with sex and a citizenry armed with sexual rights-liberates and also limits our sexual choices could help to transform fights over rights into productive conversations about how to shape the public world we share.