The phenomenon of nostalgia in the face of rapid change is well established. We sometimes cope with unfathomable progress by turning our sights backwards to seemingly more comforting and stable times and perspectives; it is a reactionary impulse designed to allow for changes in one arena while stabilizing others. It has been posited that this is why in 2012 -- despite humans sending a car-sized rover to Mars and discovering the Higgs Boson – people often dress not like Star Trek characters but like 1950s dandies.
In culinary pursuits, we value not gastronomically futuristic endeavors – foams and new edible hybrids and the possibilities for genetically modified foods – but hand cut, artisanal pickles. A culture cannot, it seems, penetrate the vastness of space while also eating space ice cream.
When we gaze so longingly at the past, our reactions to current issues can take the form of radical dissent – not designed to keep policies from changing, but designed to move them far backwards in time. Sexual politics in 2012 seemed to have approached a sort of powder keg – the feminist movement has broadened the scope of women’s lives exponentially since the ‘60s, the LBGQT rights movement has found a foothold in television and popular culture and legislation, the sex positive movement has succeeded in bringing attention to nontraditional relationship types and broadening the scope of “acceptable” sexual behaviors.
But those who disagreed with these changes disagreed in big, fundamental ways. Rather than take issue with certain elements of political issues, there were many who seemed to want to turn the clock back, way back. In short, 2012 was a big year for those who wanted to fight the future.
At first, the politicized “War Against Women” seemed baffling. In 2012, nearly 40 years after the abortion rights movement and Roe V. Wade decision, why had political discourse moved so far back, almost 100 years back, to the issues of the birth control movement? What began as a political debate around whether the government could compel private, religious institutions to provide their employees with birth control coverage spiraled into a cultural debate on the morality of women’s sexual behavior. Why was Rush Limbaugh ranting about what a slut Sandra Fluke must be, implying that the more often she had sex the more often she would need her government-sanctioned birth control pills?
In the realm of sexual assault we again found a retreat to antiquated and pseudoscientific viewpoints. Senator Akin’s famous assertion that women who are truly raped have bodily mechanisms in place to “shut the whole thing down” is as biologically sound as the medieval witchcraft tests where men and women were thrown into bodies of water to see if they floated. Advocacy organizations working on behalf of sexual assault survivors have made tremendous progress since the 70s. They operate on a foundation of decades worth of work around legislation, definitions, and cultural understandings of rape. They are now moving forward to advocate for marginalized populations, such as sex workers and male victims of sexual assault. But instead of cultural debate surrounding new definitions and new work, we were instead discussing the very definitions of rape and the very ease with which some girls “rape.”
And what of Hunter Moore and his slut-shaming shenanigans? His site relied on the premise of sexuality, particularly feminine sexuality, being shameful. This is nothing new, and punishing women for being sexual humans is nothing if not old fashioned. The sex positive movement has already made huge progress in destigmatizing sex, and I believe they will continue to do so, until tactics like Moore’s lose their power.
For better or for worse, there will always be protesters decrying moral and cultural shifts, but what was surprising about 2012’s lot of sexual protesters is that some fairly mainstream individuals and media outlets were saying some frighteningly antiquated things. And despite how fringe their positions were, some found ample traction with the public. To me, rekindling a fight around the moral rightness of women taking birth control is akin to rekindling a fight around the moral rightness of women’s suffrage. But not everyone felt that way.
Despite how troubling 2012 was at times, despite how discouraging it was to read the increasingly bizarre headlines each morning, I think that those who value progress won big this year. Gay marriage ballot initiatives passed; hell, the president finally said he was in favor of marriage equality. And a lot of the Limbaugh-esque reactions were just that, reactions. They came and went and we were really mad about them, but they didn't, for the most part, change policy.
With any fundamental cultural change, there’s a cultural evolutionary jump when the new generation brings a radically different viewpoint. Our futures are open to us. Science, technology, and evolving cultural mores have never more changed and benefited personal and intimate relationships of all forms. The price of any progress is backlash; the price of any leap forward is someone's possibly misplaced nostalgia for a simpler time. But if progress can be approximated by the absolute extent of the controversy it elicits, then I'd say 2012 was a pretty good year.
It's 2013. Here's hoping that this year is again filled with progress and newness, and that our detractors have realized they can't undo the work we've done. Here's to love and sex and tech and eating space ice cream in bed. Happy New Year, everybody. May your lives be futuristic.