This story appears in the January 1996 issue of Playboy. Subscribe

This article originally appeared in the January 1996 issue of playboy magazine.

“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” —John F. Kennedy

They lie. When Jimmy Swaggart ranted at the cameras in his televangelical tent that sex education classes promoted incest, it was a lie. When Jerry Falwell told followers of his Good Time Gospel show that “homosexuals know they are going to die and they are going to take as many people with them as they can,” it was a lie.

Breaking the third and ninth commandments is business as usual for members of the religious right. On their television stations, in school curricula, through their think tanks and in our national newspapers they lie about sex. They lie so big and loud and so often that many people assume they must be telling the truth.

At every opportunity these liars construct a false and defamatory image of sexuality. Pat Robertson says “oral sex is against nature.” Anti–family-planning educator Father John McGoey tells a Human Life International Symposium that “there is absolutely nothing loving about sex. Lust is as destructive of love inside of marriage as it is outside.” James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, castigates “sex experts who say abstinence but mean anything goes.” The American Family Association charges that school systems are “reshaping children’s attitudes and behavior toward hedonism, heterosexual as well as homosexual.”

Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed can tell Ted Koppel on Nightline that “this is bestiality, pedophilia, child molestation. According to the Carnegie Mellon survey [of the Internet], one quarter of all the images involve the torture of women,” and go unquestioned. Michael McManus, a conservative columnist who wrote an introduction to the Meese Commission Report, can use the same media moment to claim that “aberrant sex predominates. Sex between husband and wife can be beautiful. But that is not the image being pulled down by cyberspace users. What’s sought are photos of deviant sex: women in bondage, being tortured. It is massively harmful.” Never mind that a swift cruise on the Internet will refute such claims; most people aren’t online. One has to ask: Whose sexual imagination is at work? What tortured thoughts go through their minds when they consider their own sex lives?

It’s easy to refute the sex lies of the right using data from biology, medicine, criminology and developmental psychology. But the right doesn’t use language to communicate facts about sex. Instead, it conveys emotions about sex—fear, hatred, self-disgust. Those emotions are far from what sex should and can be. Yet those emotions are shaping public policy.

Take Swaggart’s idea that sex education encourages incest. Listen to the emotion behind his message: I am afraid of my own sexuality and that of my children. It is blame-shifting: An outside force creates incest. If the schools didn’t do it, the devil will take the blame. Witness Bev Russell, a powerful member of the Christian Coalition, who began molesting his stepdaughter Susan Smith when she was 14 or 15. According to news reports, he would come home from putting up campaign posters for Pat Robertson to fondle her. Smith grew up with a warped set of sexual values—and drowned her two children in hope of keeping the love of a man.

Her stepfather continued to have sex with her just months prior to the murders. Incest is a powerful, corrupt form of sex education.

Images offer an easy way out. But it wasn’t an image that prompted Father Bruce Ritter (founder of Covenant House and a member of the Meese Commission) to reportedly fondle boys on couches, or that encouraged Jimmy Swaggart to hire prostitutes so he could look up their dresses. A sex expert discussing the birds and bees was not what drove Jim Bakker to climb on top of a young secretary in a hotel room at a religious conference. They do not explain the thousands of children who are molested by priests and pastors.

The religious right sees sexuality as an external force, a threat to rationality, authority, religion and marital fidelity. A devilishly clever energy, sex continually manifests itself in new ways. Fashion ads. Rap music. Sex education. Soft-core porn. Videos. Phone sex. Fully clothed cheerleaders at high school football games.

Once you believe sex is an outside force, you look for it everywhere—which is a textbook definition of paranoia. How else to explain the obsessive search for temptation that causes someone to find the letters Sex in a few frames of The Lion King, or the naked breast of a sunbather in a Where’s Waldo puzzle?

Sometimes the obsessive fears of the right are comic: The American Family Association in Florida forced the passage of an ordinance banning nude sunbathing on a beach near Cape Canaveral with the explanation, “It will allow you and your family to walk without fear of being offended, or worse, physically attacked by nude or partially nude persons.” Beware, beware of the naked man.

Clearly, the religious right and its cohorts are dreadfully frightened of their own eroticism. They struggle against their fleshly desires, but they cannot deny that their flesh desires. They may loathe their fantasies of legs, breasts and mouths, but they cannot banish the images. They preach that desire is weakness. And their own weakness terrifies them.

To overcome this emotional conflict they project their terror onto others: I’m not the bad one, you are. I’m not afraid of me, I’m afraid of you. Repelled by their own sexuality, they loathe and thus fear others’ sexuality. And as a misplaced attempt to control their own eroticism, they try to control others’. That’s how we get a Randall Terry telling Operation Rescue supporters, “I want you to let a wave of intolerance wash over you. We are called by God to conquer this nation.”

The key consequence of these lies is a personal and cultural environment of fear of sexuality, especially male sexuality. People learn to mistrust their eroticism, which leads to suffering, acting out, self-repression and the desire for salvation. Feeling the need to protect self, family and community, people turn to institutions (such as the church and conservative political organizations) that acknowledge this fear of sexuality. The resulting culture of fear and mistrust fits perfectly into the right’s political-moral worldview. Satan already exists, as do temptation, the battle for good and evil, a theory of human guilt, an infallible instruction book and an angry, asexual god. The right can integrate any new sexual phenomenon (phone sex, cyberporn, etc.) into its existing model (temptation, immorality) and proposed solution (repression).

Most recently we have the Reverend Donald E. Wildmon charging that Calvin Klein ads are “child porn,” and insisting that they be investigated by the Justice Department. Only a mind obsessed with sex could perceive child porn in images of fully clothed teenagers mostly doing nothing.

While the Calvin Klein ads may strike you as tasteless, creepy or simply hot, they are not sexual abuse or exploitation. Wildmon, however, demands that the Justice Department go through photographer Steven Meisel’s files to see what else happened at the shooting of the commercials. Calvin Klein is the best thing that ever happened to the zealous and priggish Wildmon. The reverend wants the feds to go after every magazine that ran the print ads and go after every city that had the images plastered on the sides of its buses. Are you now or have you ever been aroused by a Calvin Klein ad? In all of the coverage of this issue only a handful of columnists had the courage to describe the crusade as nonsense. Child porn is a new form of red-baiting. Since no one can seem to be for child porn, no one will rise to defend the accused.

Wildmon is outraged by images of underwear—because those images focus attention on sexual anatomy. That which underwear conceals, it reveals. At some point, underwear ceases to be a tool of personal hygiene and becomes part of our erotic vocabulary. Cotton briefs become lingerie in sexual awakenings. And that is exactly what upsets Wildmon: He thinks, I must draw the line here, or I will lose control. He cannot admire, fantasize, express awe or warm his soul over nature’s heat. If he had his way, Calvin Klein’s penance would be to design underwear that could not be removed until the wearer was 21 and married.

And so Wildmon sponsors clinics for porn addicts—devoted to the notion that even the briefest exposure to sex leads inexorably down the path to debauchery. What others call sexual growth, or discovery, Wildmon views as a force of satanic proportions.

Wildmon’s own approach to sex education is a comic book (distributed by the AFA) called God’s Quiet Voice. In it, a young boy wrestles with the choice of looking at a classmate’s collection of pinups. A pastor tells the boy, “Jesus would have been upset if you had looked at that magazine. We wouldn’t want that, would we?”

The boy answers, “No way! I don’t want to do anything to upset Jesus, ‘cause he died on the cross to forgive me of my sins!”

This is an agonizingly simplistic view. Phyllis Schlafly, head of the Eagle Forum, says, “The facts of life can be told in 15 minutes.” She also says, “Sex education is robbing children of their childhood.” But the sex lies of the religious right are sex education. Imagine the brainwashing that led three 12-year-olds to write a letter to the Chicago Tribune that reads, “We watched The Lion King and unfortunately, we saw Sex spelled out in a cloud of dust. We can’t believe Disney would do such a thing! Little kids watch this movie. Now you can’t even watch a movie without being faced with pornography!” A spelling bee becomes pornography? No doubt these kids will grow up to be sexually healthy adults.

The right’s picture of pure, nonerotic humans is a fantasy, a yearning for a simple, guilt-free existence without ambiguity or moral conflict. It idealizes this imaginary state and urges us to protect ourselves from any lust that might crawl across our virtue.

Having scared people about others’ sexuality, the right promises to rectify the situation. It will take your fear seriously and tell you exactly what to do, feel and believe. It will press legislators to limit the sexual choices you can make. It will continue to find new instances of sexual danger and keep you informed of the ever-growing scourge. It will seek and destroy all temptation. This last is the most dangerous lie of all.

If the members of the religious right are unable to control themselves, should we let them control America?


SEX LIES REFUTED

LIE: “Condoms do not protect you from AIDS."—Michael Schwartz, Free Congress Foundation

FACT: Even the worst-quality condom is "10,000 times better in terms of reducing exposure to HIV” than un-protected sex.—Dr. Ronald Carey, FDA

LIE: “At first the girl (and guy) [who choose abortion] may feel relieved that they no longer have to worry about the responsibilities of parenthood. But in the long run, they will feel guilt, depression and anxiety … making it nearly impossible for her ever to forget the abortion."—Sex Respect high school curriculum

FACT: "A review of more than 250 studies of possible psychological effects of abortion by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association found that abortion does not cause short-term or long-term negative effects for the majority of women undergoing the Procedure."—Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex

LIE: "How do people become pedophiles? Usually, pornography walks you down that path until you get to the place where you’ve seen everything that a man and a woman can do together, and then you make that little jump over to perversions."—James Dobson, Focus on the Family

FACT: "The FBI has no evidence that pornography causes crimes. Pedophilia has absolutely nothing to do with adult pornography."—FBI Agent Ken Lanning

LIE: "Too much sex education too soon causes undue curiosity and obsession with sex."—Beverly Lahaye, Concerned Women for America

FACT: After taking a Planned Parenthood–approved course, "teens were more likely to delay initiation of sexual intercourse; and when they did initiate it, they decreased their levels of unprotected sex by 40 percent."—Family Planning Perspectives

LIE: "Gays and lesbians live perverted, twisted lives that feed upon the unsuspecting and the innocent, like our children."—The Reverend Lou SHeldon, Traditional Values Coalition (Sheldon produced a video, Gay Rights/Special Rights, that claims gays are 18 times more likely than straight people to be child molesters.)

FACT: "In this sample [of 352 evaluated children], a child’s risk of being molested by his or her relative’s heterosexual partner is more than 100 times greater than by someone who might be identified as being homosexual, lesbian or bisexual."—C. Jenny Et Al., Pediatrics

LIE: "Sex education classes are like in-home sales parties for abortion."—Phyllis Schlafly

FACT: "Most sex education classes in the U.S. do not discuss abortion. In fact, in many states such discussion is prohibited."—Leslie Kantor, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States

LIE: "Cyberporn is pervasive. Half of 8.5 million downloads involved child pornography and 83.5 percent of the images seen on Usenet, a part of the Internet, were pornographic."—Michael McManus, columnist

FACT: According to the Carnegie Mellon study, pornographic image files represent three percent of all messages on the Usenet news-groups. As for kid porn, the research found no images depicting hard-core sex acts with children.

LIE: "There is no way to have premarital sex without hurting someone."—Sex Respect curriculum

FACT: "The vast majority of Americans have intercourse before marriage. There is no evidence that this damages individuals or marriages."—Leslie Kantor, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States

LIE: "Feminism encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."—Pat Robertson

FACT: Try consulting your nearest reality.