What's Behind the Slut-Shaming
As leading Republicans have been asked about Rush Limbaugh's typically despicable attacks on Sandra Fluke—the law student who testified before congressional Democrats about the importance of health insurance coverage for contraception—they've offered some pretty weak responses. Mitt Romney said that when Limbaugh called Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute," "it's not the language I would have used." Perhaps he meant that he would have called her a "harlot" or a "trollop." Rick Santorum, whose opposition to contraception is well-established, said that Limbaugh was "being absurd, but that's, you know—an entertainer can be absurd." Before we move on to this week's controversy, it's important to note just what kind of venomous beliefs this episode has brought to the fore. Republicans are insisting that this isn't really about contraception, it's about religious freedom. But for some people, it's about something much more fundamental: the dire threat of uncontrolled female sexuality.
Limbaugh is indeed an entertainer, and he's an entertainer who understands his audience very well. Does anyone think that when he called Fluke a "slut" that millions of his listeners didn't nod in agreement? The real threat, as Limbaugh sees it, the thing that must be shamed and ridiculed, is the idea that a woman might be in control of her own sexuality. As Limbaugh said, "So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here's the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex. We want something for it. We want you post the videos online so we can all watch." In other words, her sexuality is only acceptable if it can be placed in a context where it exists for his pleasure and not hers.
In rushing to Limbaugh's defense, Bill O'Reilly offered only a slightly different take. "Let me get this straight, Ms. Fluke, and I'm asking this with all due respect," he said. "You want me to give you my hard-earned money so you can have sex?" Displaying his typical ignorance, O'Reilly, like Limbaugh, is under the impression that this issue is about taxpayer money and not what is being covered by the private insurance that women themselves are paying for. It's convenient, because that way he can still consider himself involved, and claim the right to withhold his payment. And that way, the decision about whether a woman will have sex, and what will happen to her if she does, still lies in some measure with him.
It's no wonder that even when a group of conservative state legislators passes a law requiring any woman who wants an abortion to get it only if she'll submit to a series of humiliations, they usually insert exceptions for rape and incest. If it were about the fetus, it wouldn't matter how a woman became pregnant. But if she was raped, then she wasn't committing the violation of willingly having sex, so she need not be punished. So long as her sexuality doesn't belong to her, she hasn't fallen.
This is an old story, of course, going all the way back to Eve, through Hester Prynne, and going strong in 2012. So if you thought there weren't still people, lots of them, who view the idea of a woman controlling her own sexuality with horror and rage, then the last week was a helpful reminder.
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