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  • The War on Sex ed. by David Halperin and Trevor Hoppe
  • Whitney Strub
The War on Sex. Edited by David Halperin and Trevor Hoppe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. Pp. 512. $119.95 (cloth); $32.95 (paper).

Michel Foucault undid the repressive hypothesis and then some. While Foucault reimagined sexuality as a site of perverse implantations, as biopolitical administration, and through such striking images as the "perpetual [End Page 112] spirals of power and pleasure" at play in the various regulatory technologies of sex and its confessions, the generations of historians of sexuality inspired by Foucault's work may also have overemphasized some of the productive aspects of repression at the expense of attending to crude old methods like incarcerating people in cages as punishment for their sins.

Or at least, such is the tacit gambit of David Halperin and Trevor Hoppe's War on Sex, whose blunt title is elaborated on in Halperin's powerful polemical introduction, which begins by declaring that "the world is waging a war on sex," one that "in recent years has intensified in scope and cruelty" (1, 9). Listing HIV criminalization, the proliferation of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) ostensibly dedicated to fighting sex trafficking but in reality just as often criminalizing sex workers themselves, and the staggering expansion of sex-offender registries in the United States, which by the end of 2015 included over 840,000 people, greater than the populations of several states, Halperin presents a somewhat nightmarish but well-evidenced case for a repressive regime playing out in plain sight whose cruelty and viciousness cannot be hidden behind theoretical sophistication. Even measures that seem at first glance unambiguously positive, such as the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, ultimately reinforce the war on sex by criminalizing consensual same-sex behavior in punitive fashion.

The essays Halperin and Hoppe selected for inclusion extend each point of that framework, and while there are some gaps in coverage, the chapters are routinely excellent, varying between lengthier research pieces and shorter editorial-like ones. If there is a central through-line to the book, it is this: while conservatives, with their rank bigotry and open support for punishment-driven governmentality, are the driving force of the war on sex, still underrecognized are the complicity and often active support of two groups generally perceived as being at odds with the right: LGBTQ rights organizations and contemporary feminism. The War on Sex is clearly intended as a damning accounting of their roles.

In two centerpiece essays, Judith Levine and Elizabeth Bernstein lay out the main critiques. Levine begins with the release of the "San Antonio Four" from prison in 2013. Queer Latina women convicted of transparently ludicrous child sexual abuse charges at the tail end of a national Satanic ritual abuse panic in 1997–98, their case was largely ignored at the time by mainstream LGBTQ rights organizations. Indeed, Levine charts a history of gay and lesbian assimilation achieved in part by disregarding the plight of such perceived deviants as Bernard Bayan, a gay man arrested in 1984 at age eighteen on flimsy charges at the daycare where he worked and convicted, again without support from LGBTQ groups, before spending two decades incarcerated. When he was finally recognized as innocent and released, he died before reaching the age of fifty. As Levine shows, this pattern has held from the 1970s into the twenty-first century. [End Page 113]

If that queer passivity reflected a grim recognition of the price of admission to "normalcy," Bernstein accuses mainstream feminism of a more active role in building the carceral state, since "contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns can be viewed as an effective, feminist embodiment of neoliberalism's joint carceral and sexual projects, ushering in agendas of family values and crime control" (312). She notes that as US campaigns against pornography and sex work lost favor among feminists, leaders of those movements shifted to international mobilizations, with a conception of "human rights" that dovetailed nicely with neoliberalism and reduced rights claims "exclusively to questions of sexual violence and to bodily integrity." This elided political economic factors and larger claims to socioeconomic rights, all while building expansive NGO infrastructures...


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pp. 112-115
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