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“I was surrounded by nude people,” she laughs. “It’s clothing optional, so I got to stay dressed, but it was an interesting experience.”

History Associate Professor Leigh Ann Wheeler’s research into how sex became a civil liberty has led her to some unusual sources, like the American Nudist Research Library, located on the grounds of Cypress Cove Nudist Resort in Kissimmee, Florida.

She was looking at how the American Civil Liberties Union represented nudists in the 1920s and ’30s. She credits them with getting the ACLU past “we just do speech” and into behavioral freedoms like birth control rights, abortion rights and gay rights.

Wheeler started researching the ACLU because her previous project looked at women reformers concerned with the commercialization of sex in the early 20th century. The ACLU defended many of the people and businesses the reformers were trying to close down. Wheeler wanted to figure out how America went from that to treating sexual rights as constitutionally protected.

“People tend to tell the history of civil liberties generally, and the history of sexual expression more specifically, linearly, like it was just inevitable,” she says. In a mock-scholarly tone, she summarizes leading interpretations: “Until recently, we didn’t understand what the Constitution meant and now we do. Now the blinders are off and we see that of course the First Amendment covers birth control and abortion and of course privacy is in the Constitution. How could we not have seen it?”

She drops the pretense. “And of course that’s just nonsense. Civil libertarians and others made it up, and I want to know how and why they made it up the way they did. . . and how they persuaded the rest of us so thoroughly that we think that it was inevitable.”

Wheeler knows her findings are going to be controversial because they’ll go against deeply held dogma on the political left and right. But she’s ready.

“People on both ends of the spectrum will find it useful, and people on both ends will find it aggravating,” she said. “But that’s what I want. I don’t want to be easily categorized. I don’t want to be predictable. I want to find what I find. I don’t want to know what I’m going to find before going in. I want to be surprised and excited and figure things out that I always wanted to understand.”

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Last Updated: 12/20/10