What an opportune time to talk about sex…and anthropology. Anthropologists have a lot to say about sex, in all its manifestations, as this issue of AN demonstrates. Sex as a noun (do you want to have sex?), sex as a biomarker (what was their sex at birth?), sex as an adjective (wow, that is sexy!), sex as a tool of control (reproductive violence, trafficking, exploitation), and of course sex as one of the most regulated, restricted, debated, political, and adversarial topics across time.
Margaret Mead was not the first anthropologist to challenge contemporary understandings of sex as a natural phenomenon of pleasure and reproduction, but she was instrumental in putting anthropology into the mix of scientists who could talk about it with expertise. Mead opened the door of public engagement to questions over what was natural and what was socially constructed as early as 1928 and became an icon and a figure of public anthropology. While we may not agree with Mead’s position on many things, her push against restrictive stances on sex was as important then as it is today. Of equal importance was her movement of research beyond the academy and into the fray of public conversations. Mead was joined by many other anthropologists in challenging the status quo both in anthropology and public opinion. Writing in Savage Minds, Alex Golub provides some insight into disciplinary shifts and developments in the 1970s, a key moment in revolutionary thinking in the United States and in anthropology.
Many of us who were just beginning our journeys into adolescence or early adulthood in the 1970s watched in awe as activists brought the issue of reproductive freedom to fruition through Roe v. Wade in 1973. We may have been too young to fully participate but we understood the struggle. When we became mentors to subsequent generations, many of us cautioned that this ruling was fragile and needed to be protected, especially as the 1980s brought a conservatism linked to HIV/AIDS that rapidly fell into the arena of sex and sexuality. The 1990s and early 2000s saw the growth of pro-choice organizations and demonstrations. The latest public opinion statistics indicate that eight out of ten people in the United States believe that reproductive freedom should be a woman’s choice. Yet these progressive trends in public opinion could not stop a conservative trend in government. The overturning of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court in 2022 has had enormous impact on not only reproductive freedom but on the rights of care linked to many elements of sex and sexuality.
On January 29, 2023, Utah voted to prevent gender-affirming health care for transgender youths. They join Arkansas, Tennessee, Arizona, and Alabama in this harm and 11 other states have legislation pending. Discrimination against our LGBTQI communities remains high, despite decades of legislation and education. Maternal mortality in the United States is three times the rate of most other high-income countries and is highest among Black women. The United States is not alone in these trends, and it was Latin American activists who coined the term obstetric violence to capture the many forms of reproductive violence against women that are deeply situated in institutional and social structures. Mexico has one of the highest rates of cesarean section globally at 45 percent and the rapid increase has been linked to these structures of obstetric violence.
As anthropologists, we understand (and many times predict) the cyclical nature of public opinion. What today may seem like an inevitable and unrelenting position will change—and in the era of social media, change can happen quickly. There is still hope for that pendulum of public opinion to swing toward sexual justice. I see it in the recent decision by Kansas voters, who joined 17 other states in protecting reproductive freedom for women at the state level. At the same time, 17 states have laws in place that restrict a woman’s right to choose. We are well placed to use our knowledge and expertise to push an agenda of care, of sexual and reproductive justice, and the right to health through many forums.
We also are in a good position to step onto the public stage with our research. The public needs your voice. I encourage us all, new anthropologists and established anthropologists, to write op-eds, to take advantage of the AAA’s workshops organized by The OpEd Project, to participate with SAPIENS and The Conversation as well as through social media, podcasts, and anywhere else you find a home for your voice.