Analysis Sexuality

The Clitoris, the Vagina and Orgasm: Feelings and Frameworks

Heather Corinna

Knowing the issues with clitoral versus vaginal orgasms in terms of history and the politics around women and sexuality, how do you rectify when orgasm feels different based on those different kinds of stimulation?

Published in partnership with Scarleteen
lioness asks:

I’m a lesbian in my early twenties and I’ve heard the idea of the “vaginal orgasm” vs “clitoral orgasm” debunked here. But I’m feeling confused about how to reconcile that with my experience that orgasms when I’m stimulated in different ways feel different. Like, when just my clit is being stimulated, I come in one way, and when the walls of my vagina are being stroked, it’s like a different kind of orgasm builds up–from deeper inside. The second kind tends to go on for longer, and be less “piercing” than orgasms where it’s just my external clitoris being stimulated. Generally, those second ones feel more “complete” too. Both kinds feel good–I’m not knocking either one–but saying one feels more clitoral and one feels more vaginal feels like an accurate description. Do other people have this experience?

Also, I know Freud’s idea about “vaginal orgasms” being more “mature” than “clitoral orgasms” is all messed up. But I’ve heard some older women talking about orgasms coming “more from inside” as they got older. Is there any evidence or do you have any reason to believe that this is true for many women?

I guess part of what I’m asking is, “am I imagining this difference?” When I’ve read that the idea of “vaginal orgasms” and “clitoral orgasms” is BS, that’s seemed pretty cool and liberating. And yet, I do seem to experience these different kinds of orgasms. Can you help me understand all this? Thanks a lot.

Heather Corinna replies:

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These are excellent questions, and I don’t think it’s surprising at all that this all feels confusing. We unfortunately have a very, very long history of some profound misunderstandings of sexual anatomy and sexual response and a relatively short history of study and comprehensive education and information about them. You don’t need me to tell you that’s hardly a winning combination for an easy understanding.

I expect that we’re all going to be having conversations like this, and continued education about this for a long time still, which will probably involve a whole lot of saying, hearing, reading and writing the same kinds of things over and over again, as well as potentially revising all of that from time to time, since study about sexual pleasure regarding the vulva and vagina really is still in its infancy. It’s hardly an easy process to move out of the kind of history around all of this, nor an easy process to unlearn poor or inaccurate frameworks and learn and keep adapting new ones.

Before I say anything else, I want to make clear that how any of us experience sex (or heck, anything in life) is… well, how we experience it. We don’t imagine our experiences: what we feel is what we feel; how we feel something is how we feel something. Sometimes our experiences will match or be similar to those of other people. Sometimes they won’t. Sometimes our experiences are so varied all by themselves that one set of our own experiences won’t match another, either from one time of life to another, or even from day to day. But I’ve no doubt that what you are feeling and experiencing is what you are feeling and experiencing. These feelings and experiences are subjective — they’re about us, not other people, about our bodies, not everyone’s bodies — and they get to be that way.

I’d say that making more sense of this involves understanding and accepting three primary things:
1) Sexual response and orgasm is about much, much, much more than genitals. In fact, orgasm is, in a very core way, barely about genitals at all, and sexual response is usually only as much about genitals as any sex eliciting those responses is about genitals. Orgasm doesn’t happen in or on the genitals, even though its effects are often felt there in addition to other sites. By all means, orgasms “come from the inside” but not of our genitals. They come from the inside of our brains and central nervous systems, and all the parts of our bodies those things can impact, every time, for everyone.

2) Orgasm can feel all kinds of ways, based on many different variables, and usually quite a few at any given time. One of those variables is what kinds of physical stimulation are occurring and to what body parts. This isn’t about there being different “kinds” of orgasm, though. Orgasm is orgasm is orgasm. Orgasm can feel different ways for different people — or for any one person from one time to another — but that’s not about there being different “types” of orgasm based on body parts. Rather than thinking of orgasm as “vaginal” or “clitoral” it makes more sense — and doesn’t conflict with what we know to be true about orgasm and these parts — to think instead of orgasm as feeling, as you have experienced it, one way for you when it involves or centers on external clitoral stimulation, and feeling another way when it involves or centers around vaginal stimulation, to the degree that you do and can separate those things, which gets us to…

3) A total separation between the vagina and clitoris is mostly artificial, often based on a misunderstanding or an incomplete understanding of what, where and how big the clitoris really is. In a word, that separation is often largely based on thinking the clitoris to be only the clitoral glands and hood — the external portions — when, in fact, those are only two parts of the whole clitoris, and that no part of the clitoris has anything to do with the vagina, and vice-versa, when none of those things are true. We can’t really separate the vagina from that and other anatomy because the internal portions of the clitoris surround the vaginal opening and canal, and most of the vaginal canal has few sensory nerve endings, so a person wouldn’t feel much without those internal portions of the clitoris, as well as the muscles, organs and nerve endings also surrounding the vagina outside of it.

I’ll walk you through more of the details about those core issues now, and how they apply to you and what you’re saying.

The way many people understand sex and think they experience it is about genitals. More people than not define sex as being genital — though that probably has a lot to do with having it defined that way for them — and if genitals aren’t involved (even if sexual feelings and drives and aims are) often don’t consider something to be sex.

I say “think they experience” because it’s actually very, very difficult — if not impossible — if we’re just talking about body parts, to engage in sex that ONLY involves genital stimulation. Think about it: even if you’re masturbating alone, using your fingers to stimulate your genitals, your fingers are at least being stimulated (and fingers have a ton of sensory nerve endings). You might also be touching other parts of your body, too. With a partner, it’s pretty hard not to have contact with anything but genitals when we’re touching each other. Again, hands and fingers are often involved in touch at some point, as often are our mouths, hips, torsos, thighs, buttocks, the works.

Just like genitals, all of those body parts have sensory nerve endings: they feel things, which transmit signals to our central nervous system, which processes and then returns signals to the rest of our bodies, like to our endocrine and cardiovascular system, and then they keep going back and forth in their game of sexual and sensory ping-pong that both responds to and co-authors what we feel physically and emotionally and intellectually.

What orgasm is mostly about and mostly involves are our brains and central nervous systems. If it wasn’t, every time someone touched our bodies in the same place or a similar way, it’d feel the same. A visit to your OB/GYN may involve some of the same things a girlfriend does, but it usually feels very different. Our response to sexual assault — not just emotionally, but physically — is often (not always, but most typically) very different. We respond differently to sexual stimulation when we’re rested than when we’re not, when we’re more or less emotionally open, when we have different feelings about what’s going on or with whom it’s going on. And sometimes we may have a bigger sexual response to a kiss or being stroked on the neck than we do to any kind of genital touching. All of this is because our sexual response is about so much more than just genitals or about having a given part of our genitals touched.

A young sex educator I like a lot simplifies all of this very well by simply saying that orgasm is about brains and skin.

When I present sex ed lectures, my favorite question to ask participants is: “What are the two largest sexual organs?”

The answer? Brain and Skin. Stimulating skin sends signals to the brain, which processes the sensations and releases the appropriate neurotransmitters. That’s an orgasm. No clits, vaginas or G-spots to define it.

In other words, orgasm is about our brains and central nervous systems, and then about all the ways those things can be triggered by and respond (or not) to any and all of our body parts where gazillions of nerve endings are. This gets a little trickier when we’re talking about sex where there is no physical touch at all, mind, so for now, let’s just stick to sex where some kind of touching is happening.

Orgasm is an autonomic physiologic response to various kinds of stimulation; often that stimulation is a kind which someone experiences or perceives as sexual, but not always. To translate that for you, that means it’s an event mostly about our autonomic nervous system, a system which engages SO much of our bodies, including the organs in and on our pelvises. It’s also not a system we can really control. Most typically, orgasm is recognized as happening in a medical sense when a series of contractions occur in and around the pelvis and some of its organs, like the uterus and testes, but that’s only one thing that tends to happen with orgasm, not the only thing (and that also has a good deal to do with the way people define and study sex as being about genitals).

When people orgasm and respond sexually otherwise (like by getting more and more aroused), it’s something happening throughout the whole body, usually because of things that have been happening throughout the whole body, often including the genitals, and which also has genital effects, as well as other effects to our brains and other body parts, like increased sensitivity or hypersensitivity and often a flood of neurochemicals that make us feel temporarily different during and after orgasm than we did before. To boot, it’s pretty common that the more of our bodies and minds we engage consciously in sex, the more we’re going to feel those whole-body effects. If we focus mostly or solely on genitals, we can be prone to experience orgasm as feeling more specifically genital.

If we wanted to attach one body part to orgasm as is often done with terms like “vaginal orgasm” and be accurate, the only way we could would be to call all orgasms “brain orgasms.”

So, no matter how you slice it, it’s just not very accurate to term orgasm as vaginal or clitoral. Personally, I think that kind of shorthand (which we usually only hear around those body parts, by the way: ever hear someone talk about a penis orgasm?) is one common cultural barrier to orgasm for people and also to holistic sex lives where people can really learn — or rather, not unlearn — how to enjoy their whole bodies and see all body parts as well as feelings as sites of and potential team players in, pleasure. There are so many reasons thinking more along those lines would potentially benefit people. I know as a queer person you can probably appreciate how that could be a support for not conceptualizing queer sex that doesn’t include intercourse as “not real.” Think, too, about how that could impact people with disabilities, especially those which take genital sex off the table, or even helping people to understand the differences between sex that’s about mutual pleasure and abuse or assault.

That said, I think it’s important to recognize that choosing what language to use is a lot more important when you’re working as a sex educator than it is when you’re in your bedroom, in your personal sex life, in your own head or talking to lovers. I don’t want you to get the idea that I think some kind of sexual apocalypse will happen if you choose to call your different experiences with orgasm what you do, or that you’ll somehow be responsible for sexuality going retrograde on us. In our personal sexual lives, we get to choose whatever language feels most true, comfortable (and exciting!) for us, and which hopefully also communicates what we want and enjoy well with any partners. What someone like me says in the context of my work about things like this ideally should apply to as many people as possible: what you or I say in the context of our bedrooms only has to apply to us and anyone we’re sharing them with.

Let’s check in with that anatomy stuff, too. You’ve probably already seen the following articles that explain the accurate anatomy of the clitoris and the vagina, and then how sexual anatomy looks when we’re talking about pleasure, rather than reproduction, but if you haven’t, let me hook you up:

When what you’re experiencing with vaginal stimulation is going to be about the vagina but also, especially when you’re talking about more than the front 1/3rd of it — the internal portions of the clitoris and everything else that can put pressure on the vaginal canal from both inside the body and whatever it is that is inside the vagina at a given time. That not only includes the internal portions of the clitoris, but also a bunch of nerve bundles not part of the vagina, but awfully nearby, and other muscles and organs around it.

It’s likely feeling more “complete” to you and others who voice that because you’re getting stimulus to more than once place, engaging BOTH your vagina and your clitoris, as well as other parts, rather than mostly or only one part of the clitoris.

At the same time, that might maks you then stop and wonder, then, why a majority of women don’t reach orgasm from intercourse alone than from external clitoral stimulus.

When we’re just talking physics, that has to do with the fact that there are WAY more sensory nerve endings in the much-smaller space of the external clitoris than there are in that bigger picture of the whole clitoris and the vagina. That’s also a big part of why most people with this anatomy who can experience orgasm usually won’t reach orgasm as quickly if the external clitoris doesn’t get at least some quality time, either on its own, or in conjunction to vaginal and internal clitoral stimulation. That also can perhaps help you make sense of the difference you feel between “piercing” sensations and feelings that might feel fuller, but less distinct or intense in some ways.

Think about it like wasabi, or something else super-spicy. If you take a dab and mix it in a big pot of something, that dish will probably taste a little spicy, but it’ll be subtle. But if you put the same sized dab directly into your mouth, undiluted, you can burn your freaking mouth off. The whole of the clitoris — and what it surrounds, namely, the vaginal canal — are like the whole pot, whereas the glans is like that undiluted dab.

Of course, it’s probably obvious when you revisit what we were talking about in terms of our brains that we also can’t separate how people feel, emotionally, about what’s happening physically. For example, a lot of people put a very high value on vaginal intercourse, and even if they don’t feel a lot physically from it, might deeply enjoy it, want to engage in it and reach orgasm that way because it is emotionally, spiritually or interpersonally meaningful for them.

Conversely, when we talk about the fact that the majority of people with vaginas don’t experience orgasm from intercourse alone (we might see the same stats with other kinds of vaginal entry, but I’d guess the rate is higher for other sorts), that really is what that means: from intercourse alone, without any, or with very little of, other kinds of stimulation, physical and interpersonal. While some of that issue is going to be about anatomy, some of it is going to be about emotions, conceptualizations of sex and oneself as sexual and what’s going on with partners. If someone is just sticking one body part into another and scooting around for a few minutes, with little to any other kinds of touch, or little to any interpersonal interaction, it’s not going to feel very exciting for most people on the receiving end most of the time. And that is, unfortunately, a reality for plenty of receptive partners.

I linked you up there to a piece where we talk about the bigger picture of someone entering someone else’s body, or people even entering their own, and I don’t think we can dismiss that or discount it’s potential weight. Having a partner be inside our bodies, or exploring inside our bodies is — I’m not sure if I intend a pun here or not — deep stuff. That doesn’t mean external stimulation isn’t, but. The point is that some of those deeper feelings are often, literally and symbolically, deeper feelings, when we’re talking about sex that involves being inside people’s bodies or having someone or something inside our bodies.

You bring up older women talking about this differently. Women outside their teens and twenties often do report different experiences with sex and orgasm compared to when they were younger, and will often say that things like reaching orgasm became easier, orgasm or arousal feel like a deeper or richer experience, or the things that get them to orgasm are less limited than they used to be. But what we know that to often be about isn’t just things like hormones or body parts, but things like improved body image and comfort with — including knowledge of — one’s body, better communication skills and assertiveness with partners, and doing better at choosing partners who are really seeking out mutual pleasure. So, this issue is, yet again, about more than genitals or parts.

So. Where does that leave you?

I think it might leave you pretty much where you started, because I think you had more of a hold on all this than you thought. It leaves you knowing that in a broad way, politically, and when it comes to the accuracy of discussion about orgasm and sexual response, terms like “vaginal orgasm” and “clitoral orgasm” aren’t sound. But it also leaves you understanding — hopefully — that orgasm can feel any number of ways, and one of the variables in the different ways it can feel is often about different kinds of stimulus, but also how we feel about that stimulus, and how we, uniquely, experience that stimulus. The way people experience orgasm is diverse, about way more than just genitals or having a given set of them. Whatever you experience is what you experience, and others may also share similar experiences, while some other folks don’t, and whether what we experience is similar or dissimilar to what others do doesn’t make anyone’s experiences any more or less real.

Commentary Contraception

The Promotion of Long-Acting Contraceptives Must Confront History and Center Patient Autonomy

Jamila Taylor

While some long-acting reversible contraceptive methods were used to undermine women of color's reproductive freedom, those methods still hold the promise of reducing unintended pregnancy among those most at risk.

Since long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), including intrauterine devices and hormonal contraceptive implants, are among the most effective means of pregnancy prevention, many family planning and reproductive health providers are increasingly promoting them, especially among low-income populations.

But the promotion of LARCs must come with an acknowledgment of historical discriminatory practices and public policy related to birth control. To improve contraceptive access for low-income women and girls of color—who bear the disproportionate effects of unplanned pregnancy—providers and advocates must work to ensure that the reproductive autonomy of this population is respected now, precisely because it hasn’t been in the past.

For Black women particularly, the reproductive coercion that began during slavery took a different form with the development of modern contraceptive methods. According to Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, “The movement to expand women’s reproductive options was marked with racism from its very inception in the early part of [the 20th] century.” Decades later, government-funded family planning programs encouraged Black women to use birth control; in some cases, Black women were coerced into being sterilized.

In the 1990s, the contraceptive implant Norplant was marketed specifically to low-income women, especially Black adults and teenage girls. After a series of public statements about the benefits of Norplant in reducing pregnancy among this population, policy proposals soon focused on ensuring usage of the contraceptive method. Federal and state governments began paying for Norplant and incentivizing its use among low-income women while budgets for social support programs were cut. Without assistance, Norplant was not an affordable option, with the capsules costing more than $300 and separate, expensive costs for implantation and removal.

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Soon, Norplant was available through the Medicaid program. Some states introduced (ultimately unsuccessful) bills that would give cash rewards to entice low-income women on public assistance into using it; a few, such as Tennessee and Washington state, required that women receiving various forms of public assistance get information about Norplant. After proposing a bill to promote the use of Norplant in his state in 1994, a Connecticut legislator made the comment, “It’s far cheaper to give you money not to have kids than to give you money to have kids.” By that year, as Roberts writes, states had spent $34 million on Norplant-related care, much of it for women on Medicaid. Policymakers thought it was completely legitimate and cost-effective to control the reproduction of low-income women.

However, promoting this method among low-income Black women and adolescents was problematic. Racist, classist ideology dictating that this particular population of women shouldn’t have children became the basis for public policy. Even though coercive practices in reproductive health were later condemned, these practices still went on to shape cultural norms around race and gender, as well as medical practice.

This history has made it difficult to move beyond negative perceptions, and even fear, of LARCs, health care, and the medical establishment among some women of color. And that’s why it’s so important to ensure informed consent when advocating for effective contraceptive methods, with choice always at the center.

But how can policies and health-care facilities promote reproductive autonomy?

Health-care providers must deal head on with the fact that many contemporary women have concerns about LARCs being recommended specifically to low-income women and women of color. And while this is part of the broader effort to make LARCs more affordable and increasingly available to communities that don’t have access to them, mechanisms should be put in place to address this underlying issue. Requiring cultural competency training that includes information on the history of coercive practices affecting women of color could help family planning providers understand this concern for their patients.

Then, providers and health systems must address other barriers that make it difficult for women to access LARCs in particular. LARCs can be expensive in the short term, and complicated billing and reimbursement practices in both public and private insurance confuse women and providers. Also, the full cost associated with LARC usage isn’t always covered by insurance.

But the process shouldn’t end at eliminating barriers. Low-income Black women and teens must receive comprehensive counseling for contraception to ensure informed choice—meaning they should be given information on the full array of methods. This will help them choose the method that best meets their needs, while also promoting reproductive autonomy—not a specific contraceptive method.

Clinical guidelines for contraception must include detailed information on informed consent, and choice and reproductive autonomy should be clearly outlined when family planning providers are trained.

It’s crucial we implement these changes now because recent investments and advocacy are expanding access to LARCs. States are thinking creatively about how to reduce unintended pregnancy and in turn reduce Medicaid costs through use of LARCs. The Colorado Family Planning Initiative has been heralded as one of the most effective in helping women access LARCs. Since 2008, more than 30,000 women in Colorado have chosen LARCs as the result of the program. Provider education, training, and contraceptive counseling have also been increased, and women can access LARCs at reduced costs.

The commitment to LARCs has apparently yielded major returns for Colorado. Between 2009 and 2013, the abortion rate among teenagers older than 15 in Colorado dropped by 42 percent. Additionally, the birth rate for young women eligible for Medicaid dropped—resulting in cost savings of up to an estimated $111 million in Medicaid-covered births. LARCs have been critical to these successes. Public-private partnerships have helped keep the program going since 2015, and states including Delaware and Iowa have followed suit in efforts to experience the same outcomes.

Recognizing that prevention is a key component to any strategy addressing a public health concern, those strategies must be rooted in ensuring access to education and comprehensive counseling so that women and teens can make the informed choices that are best for them. When women and girls are given the tools to empower themselves in decision making, the results are positive—not just for what the government spends or does not spend on social programs, but also for the greater good of all of us.

The history of coercion undermining reproductive freedom among women and girls of color in this country is an ugly one. But this certainly doesn’t have to dictate how we move forward.

Commentary Politics

It’s Not Just Trump: The Right Wing’s Increasing Reliance on Violence and Intimidation as a Path to Power

Jodi Jacobson

Republicans have tried to pass Trump's most recent comments off as a joke because to accept the reality of that rhetoric would mean going to the core of their entire party platform and their strategies. The GOP would have to come to terms with the toll its power plays are taking on the country writ large.

This week, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump stated that, if Hillary Clinton were elected and able to nominate justices to the Supreme Court, “Second Amendment people” might be able to do something about it. After blaming the media for “being dishonest” in reporting his statement, the Trump campaign has since tried to pass the comment off as a joke. However characterized, Trump’s statement is not only part of his own election strategy, but also a strategy that has become synonymous with those of candidates, legislators, and groups affiliated with the positions of the GOP.

To me, the phrase “Second Amendment people” translates to those reflexively opposed to any regulation of gun sales and ownership and who feel they need guns to arm themselves against the government. I’m not alone: The comment was widely perceived as an implicit threat of violence against the Democratic presidential nominee. Yet, GOP party leaders have failed to condemn his comment, with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) agreeing with the Trump campaign that it was “a joke gone bad.”

Republicans have tried to pass it off as a joke because to accept the reality of their rhetoric would mean going to the core of their entire party platform and their strategies. The GOP would have to come to terms with the toll its power plays are taking on the country writ large. The rhetoric is part of a longer and increasingly dangerous effort by the GOP, aided by corporate-funded right-wing organizations and talk show hosts, to de-legitimize the federal government, undermine confidence in our voting system, play on the fears held by a segment of the population about tyranny and the loss of liberty, and intimidate people Republican leaders see as political enemies.

Ironically, while GOP candidates and leaders decry the random violence of terrorist groups like Daeshitself an outgrowth of desperate circumstances, failed states, and a perceived or real loss of powerthey are perpetuating the idea of loss and desperation in the United States and inciting others to random violence against political opponents.

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Trump’s “Second Amendment” comment came after a week of efforts by the Trump campaign to de-legitimize the 2016 presidential election well before a single vote has been cast. On Monday, August 1, after polls showed Trump losing ground, he asserted in an Ohio campaign speech that “I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest.”

Manufactured claims of widespread voter fraud—a problem that does not exist, as several analyses have shown—have nonetheless been repeatedly pushed by the GOP since the 2008 election. Using these disproven claims as support, GOP legislatures in 20 states have passed new voter restrictions since 2010, and still the GOP claims elections are suspect, stoking the fears of average voters seeking easy answers to complex problems and feeding the paranoia of separatist and white nationalist groups. Taking up arms against an illegitimate government is, after all, exactly what “Second Amendment remedies” are for.

Several days before Trump’s Ohio speech, Trump adviser Roger Stone suggested that the result of the election might be “illegitimate,” leading to “widespread civil disobedience” and a “bloodbath,” a term I personally find chilling.

Well before these comments were made, there was the hate-fest otherwise known as the Republican National Convention (RNC), during which both speakers and supporters variously called for Clinton to be imprisoned or shot, and during which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a man not widely known for his high ethical standards or sense of accountability, led a mock trial of Hillary Clinton to chants from the crowd of “lock her up.” And that was the tame part.

The number of times Trump has called for or supported violence at his rallies is too long to catalogue here. His speeches are rife with threats to punch opponents; after the Democratic National Convention, he threatened to hit speakers who critiqued his policies “so hard their heads would spin.” He also famously promised to pay the legal fees of anyone who hurt protesters at his rallies and defended former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski after allegations surfaced that Lewandowski had assaulted a female Breitbart reporter.

A recent New York Times video compiled over a year of reporting at Trump rallies revealed the degree to which many of Trump’s supporters unapologetically express violence and hatred—for women, immigrants, and people of color. And Trump eschews any responsibility for what has transpired, repeatedly claiming he does not condone violence—his own rhetoric, that of his associates, and other evidence notwithstanding.

Still, to focus only on Trump is to ignore a broader and deeper acceptance, even encouragement of, incitement to violence by the GOP that began long before the 2016 campaign.

In 2008, in what may appear to be a now forgotten but eerily prescient peek at the 2016 RNC, then-GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and his running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, used race-baiting and hints at violence to gin up their crowds. First, Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” a claim that became part of her stump speech. As a result, Frank Rich then wrote in the New York Times:

At McCain-Palin rallies, the raucous and insistent cries of “Treason!” and “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” as well as the uninhibited slinging of racial epithets, are actually something new in a campaign that has seen almost every conceivable twist. They are alarms. Doing nothing is not an option.

Nothing was in fact done. No price was paid by GOP candidates encouraging this kind of behavior.

In 2009, during congressional debates on the Affordable Care Act, opponents of the health-care law, who’d been fed a steady diet of misleading and sensationalist information, were encouraged by conservative groups like FreedomWorks and Right Principles, as well as talk show hosts such as Sean Hannity, to disrupt town hall meetings on the legislation held throughout the country. Protesters turned up at some town hall meetings armed with rifles with the apparent intention of intimidating those who, in supporting health reform, disagreed with them. In some cases, what began as nasty verbal attacks turned violent. As the New York Times then reported: “[M]embers of Congress have been shouted down, hanged in effigy and taunted by crowds. In several cities, noisy demonstrations have led to fistfights, arrests and hospitalizations.”

In 2010, as first reported by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle, in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), suggested that armed insurrection would be the answer if “this Congress keeps going the way it is.” In response to a request for clarification by the host of the radio show on which she made her comments, Angle said:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.

I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

Also in 2010, Palin, by then a failed vice-presidential candidate, created a map “targeting” congressional Democrats up for re-election, complete with crosshairs. Palin announced the map to her supporters with this exhortation: “Don’t retreat. Instead, reload!”

One of the congresspeople on that map was Arizona Democrat Gabby Giffords, who in the 2010 Congressional race was challenged by Jesse Kelly, a Palin-backed Tea Party candidate. Kelly’s campaign described an event this way:

Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.

Someone took this literally. In January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting rampage in a Tuscon grocery store at which Giffords was meeting with constituents. Loughner killed six people and injured 13 others, including Giffords who, as a result of permanent disability resulting from the shooting, resigned from Congress. Investigators later found that Loughner had for months become obsessed with government conspiracy theories such as those spread by GOP and Tea Party candidates.

These events didn’t stop GOP candidates from fear-mongering and suggesting “remedies.”  To the contrary, the goading continued. As the Huffington Post‘s Sam Stein wrote in 2011:

Florida Senate candidate Mike McCalister, who is running against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), offered a variation of the much-lampooned line during a speech before the Palms West Republican Club earlier this week.

“I get asked sometimes where do I stand on the Second and 10th Amendment, and I have a little saying,” he declared. “We need a sign at every harbor, every airport and every road entering our state: ‘You’re entering a 10th Amendment-owned and -operated state, and justice will be served with the Second Amendment.’” [Emphasis added.]

These kinds of threats by the GOP against other legislators and even the president have gone unpunished by the leadership of the party. Not a word has come from either House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decrying these statements, and the hyperbole and threats have only continued. Recently, for example, former Illinois GOP Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted and then deleted this threat to the president after the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Texas:

“3 Dallas cops killed, 7 wounded,” former congressman Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican, wrote just before midnight in a tweet that is no longer on his profile. “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
Even after the outcry over his recent remarks, Trump has escalated the rhetoric against both President Obama and against Clinton, calling them the “founders of ISIS.” And again no word from the GOP leadership.
This rhetoric is part of a pattern used by the right wing within and outside elections. Anti-choice groups, for example, consistently misrepresent reproductive health care writ large, and abortion specifically. They “target” providers with public lists of names, addresses, and other personal information. They lie, intimidate, and make efforts to both vilify and stigmatize doctors. When this leads to violence, as David Cohen wrote in Rolling Stone this week, the anti-choice groups—and their GOP supporters—shrug off any responsibility.
Some gun rights groups also use this tactic of intimidation and targeting to silence critique. In 2011, for example, 40 men armed with semi-automatic weapons and other guns surrounded a restaurant in Arlington, Texas, in which a mothers’ group had gathered to discuss gun regulations. “Second Amendment people” have spit upon women arguing for gun regulation and threatened them with rape. In one case, a member of these groups waited in the dark at the home of an advocate and then sought to intimidate her as she approached in her wheelchair.
The growing resort to violence and intimidation in our country is a product of an environment in which leading politicians not only look the other way as their constituents and affiliated groups use such tactics to press a political point, but in which the leaders themselves are complicit.
These are dangerous games being played by a major political party in its own quest for power. Whether or not Donald Trump is the most recent and most bombastic evidence of what has become of the GOP, it is the leadership and the elected officials of the party who are condoning and perpetuating an environment in which insinuations of violence will increasingly lead to acts of violence. The more that the right uses and suggests violence as a method of capturing, consolidating, and holding power, the more they become like the very terrorists they claim to be against.

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