The Sex Obsession

Perversity and Possibility in American Politics

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Janet R. Jakobsen
  • New York: 
    New York University Press
    , August
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


American politics are obsessed with sex. Before the first televised presidential debate, John F. Kennedy trailed Richard Nixon in the polls. As Americans tuned in, however, they found Kennedy a younger, more vivacious, and more attractive choice than Nixon. Sexier. The political significance of Kennedy’s telegenic sex appeal is now widely accepted – but taking sexual politics seriously is not. Janet R. Jakobsen examines how, for the last several decades, gender and sexuality have reappeared time and again at the center of political life, marked by a series of widely recognized issues and movements – women’s liberation and gay liberation in the 1960s and ’70s, the AIDS crisis and ACT UP in the ‘80s and ’90s, welfare and immigration “reform” in the ‘90s, wars claiming to “save women” in the 2000s, and battles over health care in the 2010s, to recent demands for reproductive justice, trans liberation, and the explosive exposures of #MeToo.

Religion has been wound up in these political struggles, and blamed for not a little of the resistance to meaningful change in America political life. Jakobsen acknowledges that religion is a force to be reckoned with, but decisively breaks with the common sense that religion and sex are the fixed binary of American political life. She instead follows the kaleidoscopic ways in which sexual politics are embedded in social relations of all kinds – not only the intimate relations of love and family with which gender and sex are routinely associated, but also secularism, freedom, race, disability, capitalism, nation and state, housing and the environment.

In the midst of these obsessions, Jakobsen’s promiscuous ethical imagination guides us forward. Drawing on examples from collaborative projects among activists, academics and artists, Jakobsen shows that sexual politics can contribute to building justice from the ground up. Gender and sexual relations are practices through which values emerge and communities are made. Sex and desire, gender and embodiment emerge as bases of ethical possibility, breaking political stalemate and opening new possibility.

About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Janet R. Jakobsen is Claire Tow Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University where she has also served as Director of the Center for Research on Women and Dean for Faculty Diversity and Development. She is the author of Working Alliances and the Politics of Difference: Diversity and Feminist Ethics, and the co-author, with Ann Pellegrini, of Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance.


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