Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wheeler's "How Sex Became a Civil Liberty"

Out this month from the Oxford University Press is How Sex Became a Civil Liberty by Leigh Ann Wheeler, an Associate Professor of History at Binghamton University.  According to the Press:
How Sex Became a Civil Liberty is the first book to show how and why we have come to see sexual expression, sexual practice, and sexual privacy as fundamental rights. Using rich archival sources and oral interviews, historian Leigh Ann Wheeler shows how the private lives of women and men in the American Civil Liberties Union shaped their understanding of sexual rights as they built the constitutional foundation for the twentieth-century's sexual revolutions.

Wheeler introduces readers to a number of fascinating figures, including ACLU founders Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin; nudists, victims of involuntary sterilization, and others who appealed to the organization for help; as well as attorneys like Dorothy Kenyon, Harriet Pilpel, and Melvin Wulf, who pushed the ACLU to tackle such controversial issues as abortion and homosexuality. It demonstrates how their work with the American Birth Control League, Planned Parenthood Federation, Kinsey Institute, Playboy magazine, and other organizations influenced the ACLU's agenda.

Wheeler explores the ACLU's prominent role in nearly every major court decision related to sexuality while examining how the ACLU also promoted its agenda through grassroots activism, political action, and public education. She shows how the ACLU helped to collapse distinctions between public and private in ways that privileged access to sexual expression over protection from it. Thanks largely to the organization's work, abortion and birth control are legal, coerced sterilization is rare, sexually explicit material is readily available, and gay rights are becoming a reality. But this book does not simply applaud the creation of a sex-saturated culture and the arming of citizens with sexual rights; it shows how hard-won rights for some often impinged upon freedoms held dear by others.
Wheeler's lecture, "Why Women's History Matters," is here.

Blurbs after the jump.
"In a landmark treatise, Leigh Ann Wheeler traces the path of America's premier constitutional defender of free speech as it faced successive decades of new issues and equality movements: birth control; civil rights; feminist campaigns against sexual violence and harassment; gay rights; hate speech. Her meticulous account of the ACLU's internal struggles as it tried to embrace new approaches in law while remaining faithful to its original mission illuminates a host of sticky, ambivalent arguments and amicus briefs in which the right of privacy that the ACLU had championed appeared malleable while hardcore pornography in the workplace and online was protected with vigor. This is a thoughtful book for thoughtful people in a democracy where rights and liberties often collide."
--Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape

"In this thorough and compelling study, Leigh Ann Wheeler shows how men and women who themselves struggled to balance sexual freedom and sexual equality profoundly shaped our understandings of the Constitution, including the right to privacy. Paying close attention to conflicts among civil libertarians, she traces the evolution of the concept of sexual rights over the twentieth century, as the ACLU tackled subjects ranging from birth control to pornography, from gay rights to rape and sexual harassment. Clearly written and persuasively argued, this book makes a major contribution to the history of sexuality as well as to the history of law and society." --Estelle B. Freedman, co-author of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America
"From campaigns to legalize birth control to debates over nudism, erotica, gay rights, and women's equality, Wheeler tracks the internal workings of the American Civil Liberties Union and shows us how sexuality came to serve as a critical test case for free speech, consumer rights, and the right to privacy. A deeply researched, lucidly argued, and wholly engaging history of how modern Americans defined and defended freedom of sexual expression."--Joanne Meyerowitz, author of How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States

"Sex became a civil liberty in this country between the 1920s and today. This development transformed the law and enormously expanded our choices in how we lead our private and public lives. Leigh Ann Wheeler's fascinating and richly detailed account explores the contingencies of people and organizations, of debates, and of roads not taken in favor of those that were chosen. This book is a major contribution to our understanding of the social history of sexuality in America." --Samuel Walker, author of Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians