Falling fertility rates + anti-immigrant rhetoric = Heterosexism + Homophobia – Contraception?

In conversation the other day, a colleague asked whether I thought that the frightening rise in anti-contraception, heterosexist, homophobic politics was connected to larger demographic shifts or some other very large scale change that was going on in the world. Social scientists often like to do that kind of thing – pointing out that you have to zoom way out to see the very big picture before you can understand changes that are occurring in a society. I’m a more micro-level social observer, typically, so I sometimes look at community dynamics and identity construction without thinking about “the big picture.”Taking his question seriously, though, led me through this series of observations:

1. Fertility rates (the number of children being born per woman in a society) have been falling. In Europe, according to yesterday’s New York Times, they’re well below the replacement rate for the population. (If a society is to replace its population by births alone, women must average 2.1 children each). While too much population growth is the thing people tend to fear, population shrinkage is scary too: it means not enough new workers being born to support aging populations and maintain economies.

2. Arlene Stein’s recent book, The Stranger Next Door, discussed in The Nation, here: points out that Americans tend to feel “colder” to gays and lesbians than to most other minority groups (including welfare recipients). The only group they feel “colder” toward on average is illegal immigrants. While most immigrants are not in the U.S. illegally, anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric often gets generalized into anti-immigrant, “us/them” rhetoric (after all, most of the time what one perceives is an accent or a foreign language, not an actual immigration status).

3. Thus, if we are experiencing falling birthrates, and are increasingly antagonistic toward immigrants does that help us understand the otherwise irrational growth of anti-birth control, anti-homosexual rhetoric and politics? After all, same-sex sex cannot produce births, nor can opposite-sex sex if contraception is used.

Will future historians look back on this period and note not the religious-conservative objection to homosexuality, birth control and abortion, but instead note the “population-saving” trend toward supporting reproduction?

Is an unconscious anxiety about population shrinkage combined with a very conscious anxiety about “national identity” part of what is fueling support of positions associated with religious conservatism?

What are the connections here? What do you think?


Filed under Homophobia, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sexual orientation

4 responses to “Falling fertility rates + anti-immigrant rhetoric = Heterosexism + Homophobia – Contraception?

  1. You ask an interesting question here, but is our period really unique in it’s religious conservatism? In it’s attitudes on homosexuality, immigration, birth control and abortion? Wasn’t public sentiment more hostile in the 40’s and 50’s? Or the 1800’s? Or even further back? I don’t claim to be a history buff, particularly about historical popular attitudes on these issues, but I wonder if the major difference is not in a change of attitude about homosexuality, immigration or abortion, but in the fact that we’re actually having a public dialogue about these issues. That public attitude has shifted enough that we can discuss these issues in the public forum – they are no longer taboo in that regard.

    I’m not sure if I’m making sense here, I haven’t thought through this fully, but I don’t really see a “population saving” trend here. I do see a very rapidly shifting culture that has made a generation of people very uncomfortable. I think much of the conservative backlash stems from gays and women finding their own voice and inserting themselves into the political process. Demanding rights and protections. The white, straight men are all riled up that their authority is being challenged. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have become much more adept at dividing and organizing communities that previously stayed out of the political and public realm.

    I kind of think this age ultimately will be defined as a very liberal period. Progress is being made in that we are having a public debate about homosexuality (that I believe will lead to full rights in most states in the next 10-20 years), that immigrants are developing a public voice in a way they have never really had anywhere in the world, and that backlash aside, there are more birth control options for women than ever before, and they are not likely to be banned anytime soon.

  2. “3. Thus, if we are experiencing falling birthrates, and are increasingly antagonistic toward immigrants does that help us understand the otherwise irrational growth of anti-birth control, anti-homosexual rhetoric and politics? After all, same-sex sex cannot produce births, nor can opposite-sex sex if contraception is used.”

    The fiery non-sex political blogger Matthew Yglesias (who may not yet be 25) believes there are two main reasons for the surge in phobic activity.

    First, and most important, he believes there’s a generational shift coming on where for say, the last 10 years, younger people are tending to be far less socially conservative overall than their elders. Specifically he believes conservatives are pushing so hard for a marriage amendment because they believe that if they don’t act very soon they’ll never pass it. He considers it an attempt to legislate from “beyond the grave” in the sense that only a constitutional definition of heterosexual marriage would be likely to survive. (He also opines that if it is passed what may happen instead is that fewer of the next generation will bother to get married at all, with a likely attending decline in tax and policy benefits for legally married couples.)

    He also notes that while Americans top the list in terms of citizen’s professions of a belief in a “higher being,” church attendance at all levels and in all but one or two states is in sharp decline. His take is that conservatives are becoming more shrill not because they’re winning but because they’re *losing,* feeling a (possibly generational, and so potentially permanent) pinch.

    I’m not going so far as to say he’s right, but I’d take his points into consideration if I was trying to find out what’s going on.

    Another point would be that in parts of the country where most people live the local populations are growing so I’m not sure most people are perceiving the population as slowing.

    It’s true that areas experiencing either a) dwindling populations (consider the Dakotas) or b) increases in immigrant populations (consider Mississippi or, I think, Wisconsin) and it’s possible that the (white) populations there are noticing the decline. Numerically they’re in the minority but since low-population states still have two Senators each some people believe they may have disproportionate influence at the national level.

    Also, for what it’s worth, Yglesias argues persuasively that the population overall is far more liberal than the ‘winger activists who, by and large, are able to win elections only by tarring their opponents and by claiming dishonestly that they’re more (often far more) moderate than they really are.

    It’s still possible they could stay in power in the next election and maybe two, and it’s *certainly* the case that they’ll continue trying to increase public misery and degrade progressive institutions every chance they get, but I suspect that when historians *do* look back they’re going to see the 90’s and 00’s (the “aught naughts” as one wag put it years ago) this era will be inked in as a baffling regurgitation of the McCarthy era.

    I certainly hope so anyway!


  3. Protagoras and Figleaf raise important considerations. I just came from a panel discussion on the current state of the “sex wars” at which Nan Hunter and Lisa Duggan (authors of a book by that name, now in its second edition) both spoke. One thing they both talked about was the way in which we’ve made progress but often at the expense of losing important ground. For example, Lawrence v. Texas overturned laws against sodomy thus giving people who engage in same-sex sex a partial foot in the door of sexual citizenship, and yet at the same time we see limitations of access to reproductive health care, limitations on marriage rights, and the rolling back of partnership recognitions outside of marriage. Even more troublesome, what kind of equality will we have achieved if we do expand access to marriage or recognition of non-marriage partnerships, but find ironically that access to health insurance and health care have been eroded for married people and unmarried people alike. As Lisa Duggan said, we’ll have achieved a certain kind of equality within the propertied class while the inequality between those with property and those without widens.

    I disagree that this will be seen as a liberal time. Perhaps it will be seen as a permissive time in certain respects, but only in the same way as a parent is seen as permissive when he or she allows certain behaviors to go on because he or she is too busy attending to other things.

  4. I have a slightly different take on the issue you raise.

    I DO think that what we are seeing is a backlash, but rather than a backlash against population decline, I think it is a reflection of ethnocentrism. As Americans, there is still a fair amount of racism in our communities. In those communities where this is the biggest problem, we also find the greatest proportion of ‘fundamentalist Christians’ and other extremely conservative voices. Whether they consciously relaize it, or not, I think they see the gradual ‘browning’ of the US. (In my mind, no bad thing at all!)

    So we have the coupled issues of anti-immigration anmd conservative sexuality, which on some level they see as ‘preserving’ the white ‘character’ of the US.

    For what its worth.