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Professor examines changing sex discourse

While free speech fanatics argue that the Constitution guarantees people the right to watch porn until they go blind, research by Leigh Ann Wheeler, a professor in the history department and the author of “How Sex Became A Civil Liberty,” suggests that this attitude does not predate the 20th century, let alone the Constitution.

Photo Provided Wheeler is the author of "How Sex Became A Civil Liberty" and a professor in the history department.

According to Wheeler, society’s relationship to pornography has evolved in the past 100 years, which she credits in part to the work of the American Civil Liberties Union. Current attitudes about porn suggest that society views the consumption of sexually explicit material as a constitutionally mandated right, protected under the First Amendment.

However, Wheeler’s research indicates that society has not only changed by acknowledging a right to porn — one that did not exist 100 years ago — but that the interpretation of the First Amendment has also changed. Traditionally, freedom of speech focused on those who were creating and producing questionable material, not those who wished to consume it.

“One of the most interesting things I found was that the ACLU helped to broaden the ways that judges, legislators and also the general population, think about the First Amendment,” Wheeler said. “Most people today talk about their First Amendment rights in terms of consumers’ rights — their rights to read, their right to see, their right to buy. But originally the First Amendment was not about consumers at all; it was framed to protect the rights of producers, not consumers, of speech.”

The right to porn is part of a broader collection of what Wheeler terms “sexual rights.”

“I wanted to understand why Americans think about issues of sexuality the way they do today, and I was particularly interested in why people think about sexuality in terms of rights,” Wheeler said. “People will say, or think, or behave as if: ‘I have the right to do whatever I want sexually; I have the right to read whatever sexual material I want.’ So I wanted to look at why people treat issues of sexuality in terms of rights. That’s actually a fairly new phenomenon.”

These rights may be as new as the early 1910s, and were also fought for by the ACLU, according to Wheeler.

“So what I ended up doing was going back to the early 20th century, a time when people still did not think or talk about sexual issues in terms of rights,” Wheeler said. “The American Civil Liberties Union — which was founded in 1920 — was one of the first organizations to defend sexual expression as a right. ACLU leaders did this in the 1920s by defending advocates of birth control, including Margaret Sanger.”

Chelsea Desruisseaux, an undeclared freshman, said she thinks that society has become more liberal with what is accepted in the discussion of sexuality.

“I think we’ve become more open with what we can talk about,” Desruisseaux said. “I was at a retreat in high school, and in the cabin one night, we all shared our favorite porn sites and it was totally fine. I think its a good thing that we’ve become more open about this stuff.”

However, Wheeler said there is a downside to creating a society that has become permeated with sexual messages.

“A civil liberties approach to sexuality has been quite effective at creating opportunities for people to express themselves sexually,” Wheeler wrote in an email. “At the same time, though, this approach has made it more difficult for people to escape unwanted sexual expression.”