Dr. Leigh Ann Wheeler

Dr. Leigh Ann Wheeler


Wheeler studies how ACLU shaped 20th-century sexual policy, culture

An eye-opening answer to an informal survey question was the genesis of a book project that has earned a BGSU historian two research fellowships, one of them from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in 1997, Dr. Leigh Ann Wheeler opened an honors seminar she was teaching, “Rethinking Pornography and Hate Speech,” by asking students how they would feel if their partner or spouse used pornography or brought it into their home.

Each female student replied that, while pornography made her personally uncomfortable, she would never request that her boyfriend or husband remove it from her home for fear of violating his “right to free speech.”

The response left Wheeler wondering why the students equated criticizing pornography with advocating censorship, even in their own homes. But after reading a book by the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, she had a possible answer—they were living in a civic and sexual culture “profoundly” shaped by the ACLU.

That hypothesis is at the core of Wheeler’s project, “Liberating Sex: How the American Civil Liberties Union Shaped Policy and Culture in the Twentieth-Century United States.” Her research will be aided next fall by a fellowship from BGSU’s Institute for the Study of Culture and Society and in 2007 by the NEH fellowship, which was among 155 granted nationwide recently.

Wheeler wrote a 2004 book that outlined how female reformers in the early 20th century worked to repress sexual content in new “amusements” such as burlesque and films, even as they developed explicit sex education materials for their curious children.

Eventually, she notes, those reformers butted heads with the ACLU. Founded to defend conscientious objectors in World War I, the organization moved on to supporters of organized labor and other “radicals”—communists and socialists, for instance—as well as causes related to sexuality, she says.

That wasn’t surprising, given that its founders included a “robust and eclectic group” of Bohemian leftists who practiced variations on nudism and “free love,” explains Wheeler, whose research has already taken her to the American Nudist Research Library in Kissimmee, Fla.

In addition to nudists, they defended birth control activists and playwrights among their own members, including Eugene O’Neill and H.L. Mencken, she says. And as proponents of sexual freedom who themselves explored unconventional sexual relationships, they opposed laws that criminalized consensual sexual activity and expression, she adds.

Over time, ACLU activists began to treat sexual expression and practice as civil liberties, promoting privacy rights and freedom of expression as the constitutional bases for them, according to Wheeler. The organization was central in getting courts to accept the consumption of pornography—and later, the sale of birth control and the right to abortion—on the basis of privacy, she maintains.

Where the legal concept of privacy originated, however, and how it became a court-sanctioned category for protecting sexual expression are among the questions she hopes to answer as her project progresses.

“I think the ACLU has played a huge role in shaping how we think about sexuality today,” which is essentially an “anything goes” attitude, she says. “The notion of what constitutes censorship is so broad” in part because of the organization’s efforts.

But the ACLU’s approach to sexuality has also created contradictory consequences, internally and otherwise, Wheeler suggests.

Issues of sexuality separate activists on the left when, for example, “feminists argue over whether to oppose pornography as oppressively sexist or defend it as a liberating form of free speech,” she points out, calling that debate still a “very divisive” one among feminists.

And generally, “even as the ACLU advanced sexual privacy through individuals’ right to engage in a variety of practices—including homosexual sex and non-reproductive heterosexual sex—it also eroded sexual privacy, in the minds of many,” she notes. “By using the First Amendment to unfetter sexual expression, the ACLU helped make way for a public realm saturated with sexual imagery.”

Her research, and eventual book, aims to resolve the resulting contradiction: “Has American liberalism erected a wall around sexual practice in the private sphere, insulating it from all government intrusion?” Wheeler asks. “Or has it instead erased borders between public and private with regard to sexual expression?”
February 27, 2006