If you thought Geoffrey Stone’s Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (W.W. Norton, 2005) was an incredible book, hold on: the University of Chicago law professor has outdone himself with his latest book — Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century (Liveright, March 21, 2017).
I know of what I speak: I’ve read both books (the latest in advance galleys). With a discerning sense of the currents of history combined with a masterful grasp of the undercurrents of law, Stone provides his readers with a wide-lens view of how sex and the law have interacted in the span of time dating back to ancient Athens. At once fascinating and disturbing, this book reveals how law works — both as a suppressor and liberator. Witness, for example, the nightmarish world of Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) in which countless lives were sacrificed on the altar of Victorian values. Contrast that with the emergence of a new day brought about by Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which thanks to the lawyer Paul M. Smith and the jurist Anthony M. Kennedy helped to free us from the shackles of sexual bigotry. It’s all there, and more, is this superbly crafted book.
That “more” includes everything from the rigid righteousness of St. Augustine (who was a lustful sinner before he became a revered saint), to those ever-so-pious Puritans who loved to lash the impure, to the Temperance Movement crowd and their campaign to ferret out lust in books (and in loins, too, by way of “anti-masterbation devices”), to those entrusted with enforcing Comstock morality and who felt it their God-given duty to persecute the likes of Margaret Sanger (the birth-control activist) and Ira Craddock (author of Right Marital Living), to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who with zealous conviction launched the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, to the Moral Majority’s Grand Poobah, Jerry Falwell, and his insistence that the government not spend any money to combat AIDS because this “plague” was the “judgment of God,” to all those who so vigorously opposed gay marriage because it threatened the continued viability of traditional marriages. Oh, the price we have paid for those virtues bequeathed to us by St. Augustine!
As one turns the pages of this book, something of the marvelous freedom-affirming spirit of When we Rise leaps from the pages of Sex and the Constitution. Still, this is not a work that takes liberties with facts; rather, it is a needs-to-be told story presented with legal acumen and a sophisticated sense of history. The scholar in Stone presents his case with nuanced precision, while the humanitarian in him presents his narrative with a gripping sensitivity to those subjected to the whip of sexual morality.
Have I overstated the importance of Sex and the Constitution? Have I exaggerated its worth? No, not at all; truth is my defense. If you doubt that, read the book. If you accept that, buy the book. If you disagree with that, challenge the book. But of this there can be no doubt: Sex and the Constitution is destined to be the defining work of its genre for a long, long time to come.
The epigraph quote for the prologue to Sex and the Constitution is the same one used as the quote for epilogue. And it is a fine line, one from Justice William Brennan’s opinion in Roth v. United States (1957):
Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages.
And it is also a fitting tribute to the memory of the Justice for whom Geoffrey Stone once clerked.
__________What Others Are Saying ___________
“No one should miss out on Stone’s spectacular tour through more than 2,000 years of sex, religion, culture, and law. A treasure-house of philosophical brilliance and legal and historical insight—not to mention erotic delights!—this masterpiece is the rarest of combinations: a page-turner that is also a magisterial font of erudite wisdom.”
—Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor, Harvard University
“A vivid, sweeping, and compellingly readable account of the history of sex, religion, and the law by one of our most prominent legal scholars. This monumental study illuminates the origins and stakes of some of the most heated contemporary debates in constitutional law.”
—George Chauncey, Samuel Knight Professor of History, Yale University
“Few, if any, legal scholars possess the capacious intellect and encyclopedic command of constitutional law and American history to make us see in an entirely new light what is perhaps society’s most commonly discussed subject. In devoting his unique talents to Sex and the Constitution, Geoffrey Stone has created a volume of lasting significance that quickly will become essential reading for all who want to better understand sweeping cultural transformations that continue to roil society.”
—Lee C. Bollinger, President, Columbia University
Sex, which has simultaneously inspired and eluded regulation through the ages, has been the focus of many of our greatest constitutional controversies. No one is better suited than the always erudite and lucid Geoffrey Stone to provide the panoramic treatment that the subject deserves. Unless you are the rare person who has no interest in either the Constitution or sex, you will want to read this book.”
—David Cole, LegalDirector, American Civil Liberties Union
“This fascinating account of how sexual mores, religion, and law have intersected or—more often—collided throughout American history is really about even more than that. It’s about the role of law in maintaining a civil society in a diverse 21st century America, and a call to the Supreme Court to step up to the challenge.”
—Linda Greenhouse, Pulitzer Prize winner & Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence, Yale Law School
“Magnificent and monumental—a stunning blend of dispassionate analysis and deep moral conviction. Think that the United States was born as a Christian nation? Think again.”
—Cass R. Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University
“A superb examination of the history of how the law has regulated sexual behavior and sexual expression from the ancient world to today. This is a brilliant book that offers a balanced and nuanced treatment of controversial topics such as obscenity, abortion, and same sex marriage.”
—Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Raymond Pryke Professor, University of California, Irvine School of Law