My heart broke over the weekend when I read, over at DailyKos, "I've spent the past 2 days trying to convince my 16 y/o she is not a 'slut.'" (Thanks to Garance Franke-Ruta for the pointer.) Until I read that article, I have been focusing my attention on the good news: The assault on reproductive rights, from Komen and Santorum on, has finally made clear that the attacks on abortion are really just the front line of a greater assault on contraception and women's health. I've been assuming that this shock wave will mobilize young women, showing them that they cannot take feminist gains for granted.
But the heartbreaking story told by "Beantown Mom"—in which a crew of mean girls viciously bullies a fellow high school student who's taking the Pill for health reasons—reminded me that there are real-life consequences to the vicious language used to describe those who use contraception. (Perhaps Rush Limbaugh can be persuaded to start a reparations fund to pay for the viciousness that he has spawned? Yeah, right.) "Beantown" is slang for Boston, so this is happening in a high school near me. You may remember that, two years ago, South Hadley, Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince committed suicide—and soon after, the local DA charged six of her fellow students for bullying her to death (the technical charges included statutory rape and civil rights violations) with accusations of sluttery and the like. Those prosecutions were, to put it mildly, controversial. But whatever did or didn't happen to Phoebe Prince, apparently there are plenty of folks in Massachusetts who still think it's okay to shame and torment girls about the possibility that their bodies might be sources of joy. That horrifies me.
Until I read Paul Waldman's piece here this morning, I had trouble understanding Rush Mr. Viagra-using Fourth Marriage Limbaugh's concept of female sexuality. I'd forgotten that someone like Limbaugh could believe women's bodies exist solely for male pleasure. (Yes, he "apologized.")
I've grown up in a world that takes for granted the fact that adults will have healthy, active sexual lives, and that they will behave responsibly about it. Honestly, the tremendous gains made in LGBT issues have led me to believe that Americans have gotten at least a little less crazy about sex. Silly me.
Last week, as you probably know, Rush Limbaugh dove into a startlingly personal attack on Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who had been refused a chance to testify in the infamous Issa panel on the mandate that, under the new health care law's mandate on preventive services, insurers must offer coverage with no co-pay for contraception. You'll note that the attack is dominated by Limbaugh's prurient imagination about Fluke's personal life, which she had not mentioned; she submitted testimony about fellow students whose health required the use of the Pill for such conditions as polycystic ovaries.
“What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her?” Limbaugh said on his radio show on Wednesday. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.”
The next day—before he started losing advertisers by the fistful—Rush added:
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.
His other comments included such lovely things as, she was taking so much contraception that she was having sex five times a day.
You know, dear reader, as well as I do that Rush's "facts" are simply wrong; he's confusing his own use of Viagra with women's use of the Pill. As others have pointed out, there is no 1:1 relationship between the number of times a woman takes the Pill and how often she has sex—that's the relationship between Viagra and sex. Nor, under the Obama administration's mandate, are taxpayers funding anyone's contraceptive use. Women themselves are funding it by paying their insurance premiums. It costs health insurers much less to pay for contraception than it does to pay for all the health costs associated with pregnancy, abortion, or delivery, even when the entire process is perfectly healthy. So when women take contraception, it's probably keeping that group's premiums lower.
But this discussion, obviously, isn't about facts or rationality. It's about id, libido, and ideology. And there's a longer history to this particular ideology than most of us know. Reading Waldman's post this morning, I remembered one other public luminary who linked contraception and pornography: Anthony Comstock. About a decade ago, I wrote about some of this social history in my book What Is Marriage For. I offer an excerpt, below,for your information and enjoyment.
We start in the mid-19th century, when a great deal of Western marriage ideology began to change dramatically. Our focus here is the crazy group called the "free-lovers," who believed that, as one wrote in 1885, "the only natural basis of sexual union is mutual affection. ... and that any other kind of union is naturally adulterous and immoral." In other words, this particular writer was saying, a woman should be able to refuse sex to her husband.
That's a big leap from the older idea that you owe your body to your spouse in order to prevent him from sinning elsewhere... The free-lovers saw several consequences to this demanding ideal that justified sex by affection, not by duty. They believed that if sex was for intimate union, for refreshing the spirit, then women should no longer be beasts of burden, constantly shoving forth progeny....
Perhaps the free-lovers and contraceptive activists would have been ignored if they'd been solitary wackhos to whom no one paid any attention.... B etween 1800 and 1900, children per U.S. white women (the race about which ruling- and middle-class demographers and policymakers cared most) dropped from 7.04 to 3.56--by one-half. Numbers kept falling precipitously until the birth rate threaten ed to dip below the "replacement rate," horrifying commentators who foresaw disaster (and not the demographic surprise of the 1950s). By 1940, the U.S. average was a terrifying 2.1 children per woman.
Had married couples massively converted to continence? Certainly not. Everyone realized that contraceptive attempts--or to sample contemporary language, "voluntary control of the maternal function," "methodizing conjugal relations," "marital masturbation," "conjugal frauds," and of course the horrible "crime against nature" [which mean any sex in which conception was blocked, such as coitus interruptus or the use of pennywort tea]--had invaded just about every nuptial bed. Pre-Pill contraception may have been faillible but it was still an incredible relief to women and their families: the difference between one child a year and one child every two years was enormous....
It wasn't especially hard in the early nineteenth century to get information about contraception. [Contraception, whose use was also known as] the sin that "is so foule and so hidous that [it] scholde not be nampned" was widely advertised. That included the rubber condom--although Charles Goodyear, who made his fortune when he vulcanized rubber in 1837 and "rubbers" quickly replaced sheepskin condoms, found the source of his wealth "so notorious in reputation that the inventor never dared take any credit." American women's magazines included advertisements that called attention to Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound and Uterine Tonic or announced that "Carter's Relief for Women is safe and reliable; better than ergot, oxide, tansy, or pennyroyal pills"--herbal contraceptives all. The Colgate Company advertised Vaseline with a physician's statement advising that Vaseline "with four or five grains of salicylic acid, will destroy spermatazoa, without injury to the uterus or vagina." Lysol--unbelievably, the very same chemical you use today to clean your toilet--was the biggest selling contraceptive douche in the early twentieth century.
Those who saw contraception as a disgusting attempt to have your cake and eat it too looked at this demographic evidence of moral decay and brought forth cannons of outrage. The 1876 book Conjugal Sins insisted that contraceptive attempts "degrades to bestiality the true feelings of manhood and the holy state of matrimony." ...
One failed dry-goods salesman decided to take action.
Frustrated by how little he could do under existing laws, in the late nineteenth century Anthony Comstock brought his bag of pornographic postcards and contraceptive devices--two sides of the same sin--to the halls of Congress and demanded a law protecting the nation's youth. He declaimed against the terrible spread of "rubber articles for masturbation or the professed prevention of conception." Congress passed an 1873 law that barred use of the U.S. mails for distributiom of "obscene materials or articles for the prevention of conception" and gave Comstock a job as postal inspector.....He entrapped, arrest, prosecuted, and imprisoned dozens of pornographers; physicians who published pahmplets about sexual physiology and diseases; abortionists; and drugstore owners who mailed out pessaries, condoms, "female syringes" (or contraceptive douches) and "uterine tonics" that could have been sold over the counter without prosecution.... Dirty pictures or pennyroyal, racy playing cards or pessaries--they were all the same... since they either aroused lust or prevented its "natural" consequences.
The Atlantic Monthly joined the campaign when it took aim at folks who distorted their spiritual lives and shirked their responsibilities to the nation. Teddy Roosevelt decried white people who were committing "race suicide," limiting their families while dirty and dark immigrants (Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, Slavs) and emancipated blacks were proliferating, adding:
"Willful sterility inevitably produces and accentuates every hideous form of vice. ... I rank celibate profligacy as not one whit better than polygamy."
How are contraception and polygamy linked? In Teddy's eyes, and the eyes of many, either was an attempt to have as much sex as possible, merely for pleasure. Meanwhile, as the "sterile period" for women was discovered, one priest suggested a new idea: the "rhythm method." The book was ordered out of circulation because, as one of its critics wrote, "This pernicious sensualism is entirely contrary to the laws of God ... It constitutes the horrible crime against nature." Which, of course, since Rush is on his fourth marriage and has no children, one suspects Mr. Limbaugh just might be guilty of.
Comstock's laws weren't entirely gotten rid of until Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 and Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972. But both Rush and Santorum are telling us that women's bodies are not our own, each in his different way. Rush wants our bodies to belong to him. Santorum wants to assign our bodies to his vision of God. These are flip sides of the same vision. Are these 19th century laws and attitudes—and the shame imposed on women for having, occasionally, having the temerity to consider ourselves autonomous—coming back to haunt us?
Here's what gives me hope that they are not: I've seen many, many men writing and tweeting about their outrage about this last month's wave of misogyny, from Adam Serwer to Nicholas Kristof to Paul Waldman. Oh, and so far, no one is asking to repeal the 19th Amendment—and I'm guessing that women are planning to make use of that amendment this coming fall. It's horrifying that "Beantown girl"—and, presumably, many other young women whose moms don't post at DailyKos—has to suffer the hatred and misunderstand it as personal. But she, too, will eventually vote. Equality may have a future, after all.