“There is much to be undone”

President-elect Barack Obama has promised to seek Senate ratification of several “long-stalled” treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The treaty, which has never reached the Senate floor, received approval from the United Nations in 1979 and was signed by President Carter in 1980. Obama’s promise can be faced, at first sight, as a sign of changes in both domestic and international policy on issues related to sexual and reproductive rights in the USA. But does his victory really mean a fundamental change in the so-called “culture wars” around moral issues?

For anthropologist Richard Parker, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences in the Mailman School of Public Health (Columbia University), Obama’s election is a huge victory in relation to race, firstly. “But we will have to wait to see what its full implications are in relation to issues such as sexual and reproductive rights. We will need to continue to work to ensure that this the electoral victory translates into a new era capable of moving past the tragedy of eight years of government by the Bush administration”, he says.

In the following interview, Parker talks about what the electoral results represent, the long period of moral conservatism and religious extremism, the legacy of the Bush years and what has to be done now. He also analyses the fact that, despite Obama’s victory in California, many Obama voters voted for the proposition prohibiting gay marriage in that state.

What’s your analysis of Barack Obama’s victory and what does this result represent?

The victory of Obama was an incredibly important accomplishment – one that many of us thought would be extremely difficult and that helped to restore the confidence of many Americans in their own country. Indeed, it was truly a remarkable thing, and it will be some time before we fully understand the extent of what it means. But I also want to emphasize that it remains to be seen how it will impact on issues related to sexuality. It seems clear that the primary factor influencing President-elect Obama’s victory was the financial meltdown that occurred during late September and October. His victory was not, at least as far as we can see at this point, the result of a fundamental change in the so-called “culture wars” around moral issues. On the contrary, many cultural issues on the ballot in some states, such as the proposition prohibiting gay marriage in California, passed even within the context of a significant Obama victory. In light of this, I think that we would have to say that although Obama’s victory is a huge victory in relation to race, and signals, I hope, a major change in what we can expect in terms of both domestic and international policy on the part of the USA, we will have to wait to see what its full implications are in relation to issues such as sexual and reproductive rights. My own belief is that on most of these issues President-elect Obama is on the right side and the significant majority that his party holds in both houses of Congress bodes well for more progressive policies on the part of the United States in relation to these issues. But we will need to continue to work to ensure that this is truly the case and that the electoral victory translates into a new era capable of moving past the tragedy of eight years of government by the Bush administration.

After eight years of moral conservatism, how do you evaluate the current scenario and what are the implications of Obama’s election in this context?

The long period of moral conservatism and religious extremism has of course left a terrible legacy, and it will take time to overcome it. This is true of a number of levels. For example, inside the United States, my understanding is that we have never seen the political appointments made by an administration go so deeply down inside the machinery of government and the ranks of the civil service. Even in agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which play key roles in relation to sexual health and ultimately sexual rights as well, politically-motivated appointees with a conservative agenda in relation to issues of sexuality, sexual rights, and human rights more generally, were made at a level that long-time civil servants had never before seen. And internationally, we have seen the far-reaching impact of conservative US policies on a wider range of issues than ever before: HIV and AIDS, sex education, reproductive rights, sex trafficking, and a host of other issues. US diplomacy and development aid have been used to further conservative agendas in ways never before imagined, even in highly conservative times such as the Reagan era. There is much to be undone by the new incoming administration before it will be able to make positive new initiatives in these areas. Nonetheless I think that the Democratic-controlled Congress together with the leadership that Obama can give this president offers the possibility of a return to collaboration between the United States and more progressive governments that will be extremely helpful in this regard. I would hope that we will see an end to the kind of alliance that linked the US government to conservative Islamic states as well as the Vatican in opposing all progressive policies related to sexual and reproductive rights and furthering a reactionary, extremely conservative and damaging agenda across the board. It is still too early to fully predict what will happen, but there is considerable optimism that we may again return to moving forward rather than backward in this area – a new era of progress rather than one of backsliding and entrenchment in which the best we can do is to try to avoid losing the gains that we had made in earlier periods.

What are the expectations regarding sexual and reproductive rights?

As I already mentioned, the legacy of the Bush years is a tragic one, and there is much to be done in order to overturn it. At the same time, I’m generally an optimist in relation to these things, and I believe that the possibility for moving forward in the future in a more positive way is good. The Bush administration did much to undo gains that had been made in earlier periods, and because of this we will have to spend more time than we would like in undoing some of the things that the administration implemented in order to get back to the business of trying to move forward in the future. But I think that the chances are good and that the far-reaching nature of the Democratic victory not only President-elect Obama, but also in the Senate and the House of Representatives, bodes well for our chances. Easily overlooked, but especially important, is the question of the Supreme Court, where additional years of Republican administration could have been tragic and allowing the appointment of more conservative Supreme Court justices. Thankfully, I think that it is now likely that at least some new appointments with more progressive views will be made during the Obama administration, especially if the administration stretches out from its first four-year term with second, for a full eight years. Time will tell and there is no crystal ball, but I certainly hope that we will be able to influence this agenda positively in a progressive direction, just as the Bush administration and its allies were able to influence negatively in a reactionary direction through their eight years in office.

At the same time Obama was elected, gay marriage was rejected in California. Should we understand this as a result of Bush administration?

As I mentioned previously, this was a telling result. It shows how much the election was about everyday economic issues and fear of the financial meltdown that seems to have taken place in the United States and across the world. That Obama could win so easily in California, at the same time that many Obama voters also voted for the proposition prohibiting gay marriage is a sign that something strange was going on in relation to more cultural or moral issues. At least one analysis suggests that many ethnic minority voters, such as African-Americans (and particularly African-American women who vote in much higher percentages in African-American men) and perhaps Latinos as well, voted for Obama because of issues, perhaps in part because of race and ethnicity, but especially because of their concern about economic issues, but that conservative cultural values led them to vote against gay marriage, abortion, and other social and moral issues. The involvement of ethnic minority populations – again especially women – in conservative religious organizations appears to have had an important role in relation to this, although the analyses are still early and on-going. There have been a number of recent editorials in leading media venues such as the New York Times suggesting that the gay and lesbian movement needs to seriously rethink its strategies to be able to reach out on the basis of the different kind of approach to these blocs of voters. I think that carefully analyzing the election results on the part of movements linked to the defense of sexual rights and reproductive rights will be important as part of the broader strategy of how best to move forward in the future, after the incredibly difficult years that we have suffered through during the Bush administration.

How do you define the American’s position regarding issues such as abortion and gay marriage?

It seems clear that the United States continues to be a deeply divided country when it comes to such issues. It is also clear that conservative forces will use the federal system and the claim to states rights to further its agenda. But this is legitimate – there have been other times when progressive forces have done the same. My own feeling is that it continues to be an urgent challenge to try to build bridges between fragmented social movements, such as the feminist movement and the lesbian and gay rights movement, in order to create coalitions and alliances capable of truly confronting the political machine that conservative right-wing groups have put together over the course of the past decade. Conservative forces have been so much more effective at focusing in on narrow issues and getting their constituencies all on board in terms of an all-out campaign to successfully further their cause — and they have worked together equally effectively against reproductive rights and abortion as against gay rights and gay marriage. The same is not true, I’m sad to say, on the part of more progressive movements. Identity politics, together with fragmentary coalitions between identity-based social movements, has meant that we have been far less effective than the opposition. This election highlights the need for building alliances within the United States and trans-nationally with like-minded groups around the world in favor of reproductive and sexual rights. The ball is in our court, and we will have to see how successful history will prove us to be.

Pedophilia in the USA, in Brazil or in any other country is also among the most highly polemical issues nowadays.

There is simply no issue related to sexuality which seems to engender such strong feelings and such universal condemnation, and to even begin to question this reaction is considered controversial. But one of the things that we’ve learned in the field of sexuality more broadly is that moral panics are always dangerous and typically lead to more suffering rather than protecting the rights of those who are defenseless. I think that we need to take a deep breath, a careful pause to think how to proceed, and to open a concerned public debate with a fuller discussion of what is at issue, a far-reaching attempt to collect better data about actual practices, and careful consideration of how best to protect the rights of young people and children who may be vulnerable in so many ways. Sadly, the normal response is to jump to conclusions, to look for villains, and to seek to create a festival of accusations in the media to show our moral indignation — yet as in all moral panics that have come before, this rush to judgment may do more damage than good, and the time is now to really think about these issues in ways that may lead to more informed policy decisions and fuller protection for those who are most vulnerable.