Rights to Privacy and Sexuality

The word “privacy” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution.

But the United States Supreme Court has found that privacy is a fundamental right implied by several constitutional amendments. The boundaries of the right to privacy, however, frequently shift and have proven difficult to define. Privacy rights involving marriage, reproduction, and sexuality are further complicated by their controversial nature.

  • Wiretapping and government surveillance
  • Roe v. Wade and reproductive rights
  • Interracial marriage
  • Gay rights and sexual freedom

Chapter one

A Man’s House is His Castle
A Man’s House is His Castle 1790–1899
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The Founders believed that “a man’s house is his castle,” and should be free from the arbitrary government intrusion that frequently occurred under kings and queens. Not all private activity during the 19th century, however, was free from government intrusion. Although privacy of the mails was protected, many states prohibited interracial marriage.

Chapter two

Big Brother
Big Brother 1900–1939
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A rapidly industrializing world transformed ideas about privacy. As more Americans left their families to work in cities, they enjoyed greater sexual freedom. However, new technologies, such as the telephone and camera, expanded surveillance techniques. Several Federal agencies increasingly used state power to investigate suspected criminals and to discourage “deviant” sexual activity.

Progressive-Era Reform 1900–1920

In the face of economic upheavals and growing industrialization, Progressive-Era reformers promoted their beliefs about the ideal social and moral order. They called for an unprecedented use of state power to implement their goals and regulate sexual relations.

World War I 1917–1919

Fearing enemy aliens and disloyal citizens during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson’s administration increased surveillance efforts. The Justice Department conducted covert investigations of suspected individuals and groups. The Government’s intrusion into personal lives during the war period laid the groundwork for future surveillance of those it considered radicals.

Prohibition 1920–1933

Prohibition greatly expanded the Federal anticrime effort, and law enforcement agencies took advantage of new surveillance techniques such as wiretapping. Cases involving the smuggling and sale of liquor filled the courts. Consequently, significant constitutional decisions regarding privacy rights originated in this era, including rulings on illegal searches and seizures.

Chapter three

Uncovering Subversive Activities
Uncovering Subversive Activities 1940–1959
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World War II and Cold War anxieties altered the boundaries of privacy rights. In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt issued a secret directive authorizing the FBI to wiretap persons suspected of “subversive activities.” Counterintelligence efforts intensified in the name of national security. Federal agencies sought to eradicate groups they believed were security threats, including homosexuals.

The Cold War 1945–1960

During the Cold War, many Federal agencies became preoccupied with subversive threats, real and imagined, and intensified surveillance efforts. The FBI increasingly gathered intelligence, with the help of wiretaps and bugs, on groups considered radical. Cold War anxieties also heightened fears of the decline of American family values, and reinvigorated calls for sexual repression.

Chapter four

Creating the Zone of Privacy
Creating the Zone of Privacy 1960–2003
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As the century progressed, more Americans called for a constitutional right to privacy. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down several landmark decisions that created a “zone of privacy” under the Constitution, and firmly established the concept of privacy in American law. However, as the Right to Life movement and disputes over the PATRIOT Act reveal, privacy remains a contested right.

The Sexual Revolution 1960–1980

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s challenged public opinion about appropriate sexual activity. Youth culture, radical feminism, and gay liberation called for greater sexual freedom. Those movements changed how Americans viewed sex and broadened acceptable sexual behavior.

What about contemporary Issues?

Most of the records in "Records of Rights" were created before 1980 because the National Archives generally receives permanent records when they are 30 years old or older. Prior to that, they are maintained by the federal agency that created them.