Obama, Romney, And Sex, Sex, Sex

A thought experiment: if Zorban from the planet Juteriope landed in Loudoun County today and was provided with biographical sketches of the three leading candidates from each party, which party would he think was more conservative about sex?

During a campaign stop in Colorado last night, Ex-MA Gov. Mitt Romney said he was "shocked' to hear that Sen. Barack Obama told a liberal pressure group that sex education ought to be taught in kindergarten.

"I heard a quote today from Sen. Barack Obama which puzzled me. He said that we should have sex education in kindergarten. I'm not kidding you. And I scratched my head when I heard that," said Romney, his face locking in a grimace. "How much sex education ought to be age appropriate for a five year old? In my view, zero."

Let the sex wars continue. (To skip ahead to the ending, click here.)

At the broadest level of public opinion, there are unmistakable signs that conservatives are losing; there is a growing, though circumscribed tolerance for homosexuality; pornography is ubiquitous and impervious to attacks; abortion rights (again, circumscribed) are fairly well ingrained in the culture; the percentage of self-identified atheists in the public square is Babel-towering; sex is inevitable and amoral.

But primary politics remains largely an exercise in irritating the triggering points within the musculature of the political parties. It’s in the self-interest of conservatives to exploit the sex wars; it’s in the interest of liberals to flee the battles.

Since the 70s, when confronted with the public policy dimensions of sex, Democrats have tended towards a defensive crouch. Those voters most concerned with sex -- evangelical protestants and conservative Catholics -- have found refuge in a Republican Party that pays lip service to their concerns and occasionally acts on them. The modern Republican Party mastered the political language of sex while Democrats were still prattling on about economic redistribution.

Romney has always been a sexual conservative, even as his political views shift from the center to the right. One of his closest friends told me last year that Romney believes that homosexuality is probably more chosen than innate; that he was never one to banter about sex; that he views it more as a sacred communion of souls than an instrumental expression of pleasure. Romney reflects the general disposition of about half the Republican base. That they tend to be the voting half is important.

Sexual conservatives blame the bad trends on the spread of procedural liberalism, which has empowered "judicial activists." In their view, elite Democrats are sexual modernists. The party's secular (or non-evangelical) ideological base has an instrumental, liberationist view of sex; in the realm of public policy, it is legal formalism -- private relations governed by consent, with no single arrangement privileged. When it comes to , moral regulation, government quite literally abstains from judgment.

I'm not so sure if this portrayal is accurate.

For one thing, peers influence attitudes on sex as much as culture or government does, maybe more. (There is probably bidirectional causality between culture and peer attitudes, of course). And compared to European countries, Americans are more conservative about three foundational ideas: about the desirability of marriage, about the stigma attached to fornication, and even about gender roles. This traditionalism has obvious roots in evangelical Christianity and conservative religious movements (like the LDS church).

Americans are growing less conservative, it seems to me, about the telos of sex. As one conservative legal commentator writes to me with respect to HIV/AIDS prevention, "Sex is inevitable as far as liberals are concerned and therefore it is a medical issue. Sex is a "choice" for conservatives and therefore AIDS is an ethical, behavioral issue which should aim at stopping promiscuity."

A Republican correspondents writes to me:

I have long argued -- and a number of evangelical leaders have privately agreed with me -- that the problem with gay marriage, for them, is that it validates a view of marriage that is centered on sexual monogamy rather than procreation. It is no longer weird to have a long-married straight couple without children. And that is really what is so shocking to the sexual conservatives. Allowing gay marriage is just a public execution of procreative marriage.

For some reason, sexual liberals have less of a voice in the Democratic Party than sexual conservatives have in the Republican Party.

None of the three Democratic candidates who occupy the top tier -- Obama, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards -- are sexual modernists. They brook distinctions between gay and straight couples; Hillary Clinton in particular has railed against a pornofied culture; Obama “honors and respects” abstinent teens; Howard Dean, having studied polling data, has concluded that the Democratic Party must adopt a language of "protection" -- giving the parents tools to "protect" them from the cesspool of modern culture.

Point of conjecture: Romney and Obama may be closer on sex than appearances suggest. The keyed-up ABC News headline aside, it turns out that Obama wants to make sure young kids know that they're supposed to tell trusted adults if someone tries to touch them inappropriately, Obama believes in a parental opt-out mechanism, would give school boards (responsive to the values of the local community) say in determining the cirrcula, and generally agrees with the notion that it's OK to tell a five year old that, yes, the stork brings the baby.

The Democrats make three concessions to sexual modernism. One is in the language they use to talk about sex. It’s more frank, more clinical and technical, than Republicans. Another is in the promotion of “comprehensive” sex education. Democrats are also more likely to sanction government research into the outer fringes of sexuality.