Stone, Geoffrey R. “Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century”, Liveright, 2017.
The Legalization of Sex in America
Geoffrey R. Stone begins his book with a look at how the Founding Fathers who were deeply influenced by their philosophical ancestors, saw traditional Christianity as an impediment to the pursuit of happiness and to the quest for human progress. They were very aware of the need to separate politics from religion and its divisive forces and they crafted a constitution that expressed the fundamental values of the Enlightenment.
Even though the Second Great Awakening later came to define America through the lens of evangelical Christianity, nineteenth-century Americans continued to view sex as a matter of private concern, so much so that sexual expression and information about contraception circulated freely, abortions remained legal, and there was almost no prosecutions for sodomy.
This was all reversed in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as charismatic spiritual leaders and “hell and brimstone” politicians rejected the values of our nation’s founders. Anthony Comstock, America’s most feared enforcer of morality, spurred them onward and new laws were enacted banning pornography, contraception, and abortion. Comstock even proposing that the word “unclean” be branded on the foreheads of homosexuals. Women soon and quickly lost control of their bodies, and birth control advocates, like Margaret Sanger, were imprisoned for advocating their beliefs. It was then that abortions were for the first time took place in dangerous back rooms.
The twentieth century saw the emergence of bitter divisions over issues of sexual “morality” and sexual freedom. Organizations and individuals on both the right and the left entered and wrestled in the domains of politics, religion, public opinion, and the courts to win over the soul of the nation. “Sex and the Constitution” with the way it portrays Supreme Court justices, reads like a look the critical cases they decided from “Griswold v. Connecticut” (contraception), to “Roe v. Wade” (abortion), to “Obergefell v. Hodges” (gay marriage). Stone gives us the historical context to the decisions that have come to define America as a nation.
Today, after the 2016 presidential election, the country appears to have taken a tremendous step backward putting the progress of the last half-century in peril. We cannot predict the extent to which constitutional decisions that have safeguarded our personal freedoms might soon change making this volume very important.
It is hard for a work of nonfiction to be a book where pages are turned quickly so as to get a complete picture but this is one of those books. This is a book filled with wisdom and there are parts of it there indeed cause fear, especially as it looks to the future. But then, of course, the voters of America have allowed this to happen.
We become acutely aware of how sexual mores, religion, and law have intersected or collided throughout American history but there is something even more powerful here and is that this is really about the role of law in maintaining a civil society in this century and Stone’s book presents “a call to the Supreme Court to step up to the challenge.” In order to better understand the cultural transformations that continue to push society, this becomes both necessary and important reading and for those who think that the United States was born as a Christian nation will have to readjust that thinking.
We clearly see here how the law has regulated sexual behavior and sexual expression from ancient times to today and this is not a pretty picture. Sex regulation through the ages has been the focus of many constitutional controversies. Author Stone’s brilliant analysis is highly recommended for anyone who wants to know the history of American law and sexual expression and that should be every one of us.