As the saying goes, unless you've been living under a rock in the US, you know by now that Rush Limbaugh recently did what he does best: malign, defame, eviscerate, and demonstrate that he is the king of douchebaggery.
On March 1, perhaps filled with rage at the advent of Women's History Month, the popular talk-show host ripped into Sandra Fluke, a third-year Georgetown University law student who had testified before Congress about the need for birth control coverage. Limbaugh berated Fluke, calling her a "slut" who wanted the government to pay for her promiscuous lifestyle, making the inference that her need for birth control signaled an active sex life, presumably with many people. This is vintage Limbaugh, and it's fairly typical of a man who has made derogatory comments about nearly all groups, including undocumented immigrants, African-Americans, and women.
The recent incident has prompted a cultural backlash on both sides, with liberals decrying his words and conservatives rushing to his defense. To those who declare that Limbaugh has put his foot in his mouth, I would caution that he is one of the most dexterous in manipulating media attention. I would also caution that such manipulation does not imply a lack of belief in the ideology he professes or that, somehow, that belief could be changed-progressives, liberals and lefties love to imagine that arch-conservatives are people like them who've just lost their way. There is nothing to indicate that Limbaugh does not act and think in racist and misogynistic ways, and the sooner we come to terms with the existence of more people like him in many parts of our world-and the fact that their beliefs demonstrate a position, just as much as ours do, the better we will be equipped to deal with them.
But to return to Fluke: the law student is a demure-looking and eloquent woman who can hold her own and has, to her credit, handled the issue with dignity. Making the media rounds, she has managed to keep a level head and tone, and has consistently battered home the same message, that "women need access to basic health care that's important to prevent medical disasters and to prevent pregnancy." I suspect she also has at least one really good media trainer. That's not a criticism-everyone who wants to establish a public message needs one. I raise this point because it's important not to think of Fluke as an unwitting pawn in this game: she is an astute spokesperson and, like Limbaugh, she is advocating for a position.
That brings me to an aspect of this case which leaves me, at best, deeply uneasy and, at worst, terrified for the future of women's sexual lives in this country: the fact that the media coverage and responses of feminists so far have been to first criticise Limbaugh's "slut-shaming" and then to insist that Fluke is no slut. They go on to demonstrate that her testimony included her pain at watching a friend "be forced to have an ovary removed due to ovarian cysts,"which birth control could have prevented. On Chicago Now, Janet Dahl writes that, "[t]he imputation that anyone using contraception is promiscuous is beyond ridiculous." Only good, monogamous, non-slutty women need contraception!
Fluke's demeanour and political messaging have won her a groundswell of support. Georgetown University's President, John J. DeGioia criticised Limbaugh's comments as "misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student." On March 2, the unthinkable happened: President Barack Obama called Fluke, minutes before she was due to appear on MSNBC with Andrea Mitchell, to indicate his support of her.
While it is heartening to see an American President come even close to expressing what could effectively be translated as support for abortion rights, I have to wonder: What, pray tell, if Fluke is indeed a slut?
The widespread support for Fluke is built entirely on the idea that she is not a slut and that she has been, as Andrea Mitchell put it, "victimised." Fluke, we are constantly being assured, does not have promiscuous sex and Limbaugh is entirely wrong because his "slur" is based on a misrepresentation not only of her position but of her very character. Recently, Fluke has been reported to be toying with the idea of suing Limbaugh. But what would she sue him for? Being an asshole? That's protected, rightly so, under all kinds of amendments. Slander is the only charge she could bring against him, something to the effect that Limbaugh's calling her a slut caused some sort of great harm and, more importantly, that she is not a slut. I imagine that testimony will be collected from friends, family, and perhaps a long-standing significant other of some sort with whom she has monogamous sex with an aim to building a family in the future. She will never, of course, be proven to have sex for the sake of having sex.
Can we please remember that it's also perfectly fine that women need access to birth control because they really do like having lots of sex and being, generally, you know, sluts? For fuck's sake, we fought for the Pill and access to contraception because we once thought that boundless sex without consequences-whether with one person or with many, at the same time or sequentially, either way-is a pretty good thing.*
This business of a lawsuit worries me because it seems to further erase the reality of what birth control means for many-sex, and lots of it, thank you-and fosters the idea that sluts don't deserve our support, or the Pill.
In the first episode of Mad Men, set in the 1960s, Peggy Olson finds a gynaecologist willing to prescribe birth control, but she has to first listen to him lecture her. As he snaps on rubber gloves and orders her to spread her knees for a preliminary exam, he says, "I'm not here to judge you... although as a doctor, I'd like to think that [prescribing the pill for a woman] is not going to turn her into some kind of strumpet. I warn you now: I will take you off this medicine if you abuse it. It's for your own good, really. The fact is, even in our modern times, easy women don't find husbands."
We might want to think of this as moment in our distant past, but have we really progressed that far?
Would Fluke have received that phone call from Obama or a letter of support from the President of her Catholic university if there had been any hint of promiscuity? I suspect she was chosen as a spokesperson precisely because of an unimpeachable sex life (or perhaps, better still, none at all). But what of the sluts left behind?
The feminist movement, such as it is, is tattered and torn amidst a rapidly failing battle for abortion rights. So terrified is this movement of actually taking a stand that it will not even use the "a-word" without gulping and apologising, dumping it periodically through a continuous rebranding every few years: "reproductive choice" and then, "reproductive justice." Today, the phrase in favour is "reproductive health," as if abortion should only be seen as desirable or necessary if the woman is in imminent danger of death or has a medical condition. In all this, feminists have acceded so much that they no longer possess the strength to state, simply, what we need: Abortion on demand, now.
A similar weakening and kowtowing is evident in the battle for contraception. Women like Fluke are persuaded to emphasise health and negate sex as a primary reason for contraception, and so-called feminists are ramping up the demand for the same by insisting that they don't fuck and if they do, it would never be wantonly or like "sluts." Rather than insist that Fluke is not a slut, feminists ought to state, loudly and clearly, that contraception should be provided regardless of a woman's sex life. The fight for contraception is currently based on arguments about women's health or, as Fluke delicately puts it, the prevention of pregnancy. It's time we began acknowledging that women need contraception because they like to fuck. Perhaps if we were more willing to talk about ourselves as sexual beings, right-wing hypocrites would have much less ammunition against us. After all, if a slut is not afraid of openly being one, who can possibly shame her into silence?
If we choose instead to go down the path of denying our sexuality and the reality of our sex lives, it will only be a matter of time till the rest of us sluts have to endure the same indignity as Peggy Olson.
*Let us, for now, put aside the important fact that no health care policy will cover condoms, or that they are more effective than the Pill in preventing STDs. Let us also put aside, for now, the very real and underfunded issues of sex education for queer youth. But let us not forget any of this.
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