New Books in History APRIL 6, 2015
Leigh Ann Wheeler is professor of history at Binghamton University. Her book How Sex Became a Civil Liberty (Oxford University Press, 2013), examines the role of the American Civil Liberties Union in establishing sexual rights as grounded in the U.S. constitution. Wheeler begins in the bohemian New York with the personal biographies of individuals who established the ACLU for the protection of anti-government speech. Early ACLU leaders displayed sexualproclivities and outlooks outside the mainstream. Beginning with obscenity laws that hampered the distribution of contraceptives and birth control information, the ACLU legally pursued sexual practice, expression, and the right to privacy as civil liberties. Presenting their own clients, building collisions with advocacy groups, providing legal briefs to decision makers, directing activism, and influencing public opinion, the ACLU brought about change in a wide array of laws that restrained and criminalized sexual behavior and expression. This was not a smooth process of advancement. The implications of class, race, and gender created conflicts, contradictions, and ironies in establishing the sexual rights of individuals against the contrary rights of others and communities to unwanted sex and sexual content. As blacks and women entered the ranks of the ACLU in the 1960s and 70s they brought new conflicts within the sexual rights agenda. Reproductive freedom, rape shield laws, homosexual rights, and the rights of profit-seeking pornographers are some of the many issues of ACLU advocacy. While seeking to build a privacy wall around sexual expression and practice, sexual rights advocacy contributed to the current cultural saturation with sexual images and messages blurring the lines between public and private. Wheeler has provided a thoroughly researched, complex, and compelling history of how issues surrounding sexuality became recognized as civil liberties guaranteed by the constitution.