Purity, Pollution, and TRAP Laws

Morality: the principles discerning good behavior from bad, from what is right and wrong. For many, morality is centered around discourses in the church, within the family unit, or within other social institutions. Typically seen as a positive thing, shared moral values helps create a norm among a community, and allows it to run more efficiently (socially, at least). However, what happens when morality from individual to individual differs? When it comes to morality, particularly sexual morality, some groups of people get put on a pedestal, while others are shamed and humiliated for their sexual “deviances”. Recently, discourses of sexual morality have made their way into legislation and, subsequently, into the courtroom where debates over abortion and contraception, among other topics, have erupted.

Nancy Fischer’s article “Purity and Pollution” discusses the “arbitrariness of sexual immorality” and how these culturally specific values are projected onto bodies who are labeled as “morally corrupt” because their sexual behaviors and/or practices do not fit within the boundaries of morality of the time. Fischer makes the important point that there is no “universal agreement as to what constitutes sexually immoral behavior.” Not only have definitions of sexually immoral behaviors shifted over time, but they differ greatly among individual communities as well. Fischer gives the example of a woman showing skin in certain cultures.


Regardless of the shifting definition of sexual morality in our own culture, the fact that sexual morality even exists allows for the subset of individuals who follows the norms of what is sexually moral to condemn and even legislate the bodies that they deem “polluted.” As Fischer points out, sexual immorality ignites a discussion of who is pure, and who is polluted. Like we have seen in so many other contexts, a binary has been created that, often arbitrarily, lumps people into one category or another, without any middle ground. Often without recognizing it, people use language that feeds into this binary. For example, calling someone a “pervert” makes the assumption that the accused has deviant sexual preferences and, at the same time, removes the accuser from the word that is used. In short, by calling someone a pervert the accuser is also trying to say that they themselves are not a pervert. The same logic can be applied to those who call others “sluts”, and then follow the insult by saying they are “dirty” or “nasty”. In this scenario, the accuser is not only telling the accused that engaging in sex with multiple partners is removed from the boundaries of sexual morality, but they also lump the label “slut” into the category of “polluted”.

This seemingly harmless and often normalized discourse of creating boundaries for the “pure” and “polluted” has created dangerous legal ramifications. I believe the most recent examples of this can been seen in the creation of laws that specifically apply to abortion clinics over the last five to ten years. These laws are often called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws and many are closely tied to the norms of sexual morality and the binary of purity and pollution.

TRAP laws can exist in a number of ways, claiming that their goal is to protect the health of women. However, opponents of these laws maintain that the ultimate purpose of TRAP laws is to restrict a woman’s access to an abortion. (Note: Yes, I am Pro-Choice, but this is not a discussion on the legality of the procedure. Under no TRAP law does it state that abortion is illegal. ) These laws are executed in a number of ways. A common form of the law requires abortion clinics to meet the same facility standards ambulatory surgical centers. For many clinics, this would require extreme renovations that include the widening of doors and hallways, amongst other things. If the funding could not be found, the clinic would have to simply shut down. Other laws require hospital-admitting privileges for physicians performing an abortion. While this does not sound like an inherently bad thing, some hospitals have refused such privileges, citing their religious affiliation. Not meeting this standard has also led to the closure of a number of clinics across the country. Opponents of these laws have been quick to point out that these regulations are completely unnecessary, as abortions are already a relatively safe procedure. They often cite the statistic that the mortality rate for medical abortions is 44x less than that of a colonoscopy, a procedure that has far fewer regulations that abortion.


If abortions are already a strictly regulated medical procedure, why are new laws going into effect requiring even more rigorous standards for clinics? This is where the argument ties back to discourses of sexual immorality and unfortunately, the discourse has made it all the way to state legislative chambers. Historically, conservative populations, who often have a very strong sense of sexual morality thrust among them from a young age, have supported movements to end the practice of legal abortion. Placing women who want to terminate a pregnancy, regardless of their reasons, in the category of “polluted” is commonplace among many communities in America. Since there has already been a ruling on the legality of the procedure (Roe v. Wade), they must use other avenues, such as enacting TRAP laws, to impose their sexual morality on the population.

Do you agree with the enactment of TRAP laws? Do you think they are actually about protecting women’s health, or are they burdening it? Where else are discourses of sexual morality manifested in American law?

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