Sexual Freedom and its Opposites

18 June 2018

This is the second of four reviews of Joan Wallach Scott’s Sex and Secularism. To see the other reviews as well as Scott’s reply, follow the link here.


Sex and Secularism is an intellectually erudite and politically powerful intervention into a contemporary Western common sense: with secularism comes gender equality (even if that promise is endlessly deferred), and secularism’s progressive gender politics stands as the antithesis of the anti-emancipatory essence of Islam. Scott argues instead that “gender inequality was fundamental to the articulation of the separation of church and state that inaugurated Western modernity” (2018: 3), and that the fundamental claim of the difference of sex on which that inequality rested could not be “extruded” from the “future of the nation” (ibid: 24).

In my comments, I focus on the latter part of the book, which recounts the peregrinations of sex and secularism from the Cold War through the present when Islam and “the woman question” intersect in Euro-American political imaginaries and projects with particular, pernicious effects. I reconsider the alliance of feminist and Christian activists that Scott traces in her account: How and why do left-leaning feminists and Christian activists, often evangelical, agree on the need to save Muslim women from Muslim men? Rather than reading this convergence as evidence, as Scott maintains, that “the right to sexual freedom” has become “a basic premise of secular democracy,” I suggest that their common ground may be founded not on sexual freedom per se, but on questions of freedom and choice as they relate to intimacy and the family more generally.


In Sex and Secularism Scott traces a re-articulation of the meaning of secularism that took form during the Cold War. In the fight against the Soviet Union’s “godless atheism,”  religious freedom was forged as a fundamental human right. In Samuel Moyn’s words, “freedom of religion [became] first among all other causes, as the foundation of all other rights, and the basic premise of the … early struggle against the Soviet Union” (2014: 68). With Franklin Delano Roosevelt and American mainline Protestantism at the forefront, Scott argues, the discourse of secularism increasingly embraced “the American version of it,” that is, “state neutrality defined as the protection of religion from state intervention” (ibid: 122). And as the Cold War unfolded, “Christianity became more explicitly tied to democracy than it had been earlier, preparing the way not only for the emergence of politicized Protestant evangelicalism but for the current arguments that locate the founding premises of secular democracy in Judeo-Christian values” (ibid: 125).


If Christianity as the “common ground of the (secular) Western power” formed one axis of the anti-Soviet alliance, “the difference between the Soviet and Western treatment of women” formed the other, according to Scott (ibid: 123). And those two axes were sutured together through the idiom of “choice.” Freedom of religion indexed the right to choose individual belief, or nonbelief. Freedom in the realm of “the woman question” meant that rather than being driven into the workforce, women in a free, democratic society chose “among a vast array of consumer goods as they opted to care for their husbands and children” (ibid). If the Soviet Union touted the non-distinction between women and men, the American response emphasized the virtue of a freely chosen female domesticity: “Free choice was now said to be the primary characteristic of democracy, and, however paradoxical, it inevitably confirmed the ‘universal’ truth that woman’s place was in the home” (ibid: 136).


Much was to change over the course of the Cold War, including what women would “choose.” A discourse about the importance of sexual satisfaction within marriage began in the 1950s, Scott notes. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s, however, that “birth control and sexual satisfaction were associated with widespread demands for women’s liberation in the West. Choice became the motto of abortion rights organizations in this period” (ibid: 140). Critical to Scott’s analysis of the contemporary moment is the emergence, in response to the liberation movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, of sexual freedom as “a new concept in the realm of rights” (ibid). There were arguments within feminist and gay liberation movements as to what, precisely, sexual freedom entailed. Nevertheless, the arguments themselves, Scott writes, are evidence for “a shared belief that there was something to aspire to that was called sexual freedom and that it was a universal human right” (ibid: 146). And as a universal human right, sexual freedomwas increasingly referred to as a founding premise of secular democracy” (ibid: 126, emphasis added).


That founding premise frames Scott’s analysis of the contemporary fixation in Europe and the US on the Muslim woman: on the “veil” and the legal battles against it in France and in other European nations; and in the US, on the “improbable alliances” between progressive feminists and Christian activists in their shared project to save Muslim women from their men, for the most part abroad. I want to think further about this unlikely alliance in order to question the ground on which it is built. Namely, is it evidence of a pervasive common sense that sexual freedom is a basic human right, one fundamental to secular democracy?


Sexual freedom—as a right—has never been uncontested in the US, as Scott notes. It is radically different from the right of “religious freedom,” a longtime pillar of American political common sense.  But I want to suggest that if we move the concept of sexual freedom off center stage, we will be better able to understand the common ground feminist and Christian activists share in their battle to save Muslim women.


As Lila Abu Lughod documents, “the question of Afghan women’s rights” was a pervasive polemic in justifying the US invasion of Afghanistan 2001, and it certainly has not gone away (2013: 28). In this imperial fantasy of liberating Muslim women, “The line between progressives and right-wingers has blurred” (ibid: 7). Christians and feminists joined forces in the 1990s to fight violence against women abroad, and after September 11, 2001 to save Afghan women from the Taliban (or perhaps Muslim men in general). But at the same time, Christian activists have battled to ban the very same technologies and rights that were fundamental to securing women’s sexual freedom in the first place: abortion and birth control. Christian conservative activists—together with their feminist counterparts—do identify “sexual slaveryas an evil to be fought against (in sex trafficking and forced marriage, for example), but they are not fighting for the same common world.


Even if Christian and feminist activists alike deploy the term sexual slavery—sexual freedom, even—they may not be indexing the same thing. The convergence between these two radically different groups of activists suggests that the opposite of sexual slavery is not necessarily sexual freedom. Writing about what she names “pulp nonfiction,” Abu Lughod explains, “marital rape epitomizes the absence of consent, just as does forced marriage, the fate of daughters” (ibid: 92). Consent is key to the alliance among conservative Christian activists, progressive feminists, and their realpolitik US government allies—some religious Christians, some not—who have waged wars across an increasing expanse of the Muslim world over the past 17 years. The distinctions between “us” and “them,” between Christians (or “Judeo-Christians”) and Muslims, liberals and anti-liberals, “turns on simple oppositions between choice and bondage, force and consent” (ibid: 109).


Let me propose a slightly different grid of intelligibility: In The Empire of Love, Elizabeth Povinelli explores the distribution of “the liberal, binary concepts of individual freedom and social constraint” across the globe, drawing a distinction between “the autological” and “the genealogical” subject. The former is organized around “discourse, practices and fantasies about self-making, self-sovereignty and the value of individual freedom;” the latter is governed by the social constraint of “various kinds of inheritances,” of tribe, race, religion, or kinship (2006: 4). The choice of whom to love, the ability to self-determine with whom one will have one’s most intimate relationships, is key to differentiating these two kinds of subjects, Povinelli argues. If kinship is determined by genealogy for the “primitive” subject, it is made and chosen in and through whom to love—through the “intimate event”—for her modern counterpart. One can shift from Povinelli’s emphasis on love and still recognize a basic binary operating here: For the modern subject, “’I’ must be the citation and the site of enunciation and address. What do I want, desire, and aspire to? With whom do I wish to share, not merely the materials and rights that I have accumulated as I have passed through the world, but the narratives of who I think I am, what I discover that I am, that I am desiring to be” (ibid: 183). And that modern Self constitutes itself by refusing the very premise of the genealogical subject—she or he whose life is “determined…from his placement before his birth in a genealogical, or any other socially determined, grid” (ibid: 185).


Perhaps it is that liberal sensibility that unites Christian activists and feminists and that enables them to agree—despite so much else on which they passionately disagree—that they must “save” Muslim women from their lot in life. The choice of intimacy can rest on a belief in sexual freedom as a constitutive right. But, it might not. What if the Christian activist investment in fighting “sexual slavery” signals an effort to constitute for Muslim women a domestic romantic ideal in which the nuclear family is the one freely chosen? Maybe the opposite of sexual slavery is not always sexual “freedom.” Perhaps it is the freedom to choose whom one marries, whom one loves, and quite crucially, the freedom to choose to believe in (a Christian) God, the proper form of religion in a secular world, as Asad (1993) and Taylor (2007) have argued.  


The need to emancipate women, and increasingly sexual minorities, has been a principal ground on which the battle against (radical) Islam has been articulated (Scott 2018; see also Abu Lughod 2013; Sabsay 2012). But there is a second, and ever more powerful premise on which this war is being fought, and it has little to do with either “sexual freedom” or “the woman question.” Rather, it harkens back to an earlier secular polemic that Scott has tracked: the anti-Soviet struggle in which religious freedom had to be protected against a godless atheism. In its recent configuration, “religious freedom” requires protection from another religion. And with Sam Brownback recently named as Religious Freedom Ambassador, the character of the mission is clear: to protect local Christian communities from a virulent and excessive religion—that is, from Islam.


The state of Israel embraces both of these strategies. As Scott writes, “In Israel, a public relations campaign to promote Tel Aviv as a gay tourist destination—‘pink washing,’ its critics call it—seeks to identify Israel as a modern (Western) tolerant nation … in contrast to the rest of the Middle East, which Benjamin Netanyahu told the US congress was ‘a region where women are stoned, gays are hanged, and Christians are persecuted’” (2018: 163, emphasis added). The defense of sexual freedom and the defense of Christianity can work in tandem. At times, they may appeal to overlapping publics; at other moments, to distinct publics. But they are not tugging at the same secular threads. The political brilliance of the improbable alliances forged among progressive feminists, Christian activists, and—I might add—conservative and neoconservative hawks is precisely that it has generated a “trading zone” (Galison 1997) within which divergent political constituents can operate together, a space and a language within which actors with only partially shared understandings of what they value—of what they are fighting against, and for—have been able to come together to act. In so doing, the image of the oppressed, veiled Muslim woman is iterated over and over again as she continues to take form as the necessary Other for the self-fashioning of a secular-liberal, if certainly not a godless West (Scott 2018: 181).



  • Abu Lughod, Lila. 2013. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Galison, Peter. 1997. Image and Logic. The Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2006. The Empire of Love. Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Scott, Joan Wallach. 2018. Sex and Secularism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Sabsay, L. 2012. “The Emergence of the Other Sexual Citizen,” Citizenship Studies, 16 (5-6): 605-23.
  • Moyn, Samuel. 2014. “From Communist to Muslim: European Human Rights, the Cold War, and Religious Liberty. The South Atlantic Quarterly 113 (1): 63-86.
  • Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


Photo Credit: Sex and Secularism Book Cover, via Princeton Press, Fair Use.


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