Commentary Law and Policy

The Personhood Ballot in Mississippi: “Sluts,” “Good Girls,” and the Increasingly Blurry Line Dividing Them

Amanda Marcotte

Mississippi voters will be determining more than the direct rights of women in Mississippi when they vote on a personhood amendment on Tuesday. The vote will also measure how far the Christian right's misogyny will go.

See all our coverage of Mississippi Initiative (Prop) 26 here.

The personhood amendment being voted on in Mississippi this week is important for two major reasons. The first has received lots of coverage here at Rewire and some liberal news sources: because it’s about criminalizing all women of reproductive age, and could do things like ban birth control and open criminal investigations on miscarriages.

The other reason that we should all be paying attention to Mississippi is the results of the election will be an excellent measure of how far right the Christian right has gone when it comes to sex.

The right has always approached the question of reproductive rights as an elaborate game of “Who’s the Slut?” Sure, they like to blather on about “life” and “personal responsibility,” but that’s because coming straight out and saying that they’d like to craft a law where good girls have rights but bad girls don’t isn’t politically popular. Too obvious: you have to wrap that agenda in sentimental talk about the sanctity of life, and hope no one notices that you have no regard for the sanctity of life if people are dying in wars or from lack of health insurance. But if you look past their rhetoric to the actual rules they try to make regarding who gets to have rights under what circumstances, it’s clear they’re trying to sort women into “sluts” and “non-slut” categories. The traditional exception for rape victims under abortion restrictions is the most commonly cited example, of course. I’d add that most conservatives—outside of those who make anti-choice activism their main priority—tend to support the use of contraception. In their minds, contraception is something that could be used by good girls. Married women with children use contraception, after all. But when it comes to abortion, most people imagine a young woman having sex outside of marriage with a man who isn’t going to marry her, which puts her in the “slut” category and means she should lose her reproductive rights.

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A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute demonstrates how much this is about perceived promiscuity and not “life.” Most poll respondents believed women should be allowed to have abortions if raped, or if their health was in danger, or the fetus had a major birth defect. Even if the reason was simply that the pregnant woman was still in high school, the poll respondents were about even in whether or not the abortion should be allowed. But if the reason for the abortion was that the pregnant woman simply didn’t want to marry her impregnator? Nearly 60 percent of people wanted to legally force her to have the child, with the implication being that she deserved what she got for having sex for any other reason but to get married. The issue is decided on the ambiguous grounds of trying to figure out who’s the slut, not on “life.”

But as any one who has ever been on a junior high school playground can tell you, the game of “Who’s the Slut?” is less like chess, where the rules are easy to learn and never change, and more like Calvinball, where the rules are constantly changing and no matter what you do, someone thinks you’re failing. If you really dig into what people think makes someone a slut, you’ll find that no two people tend to have the same definition. This person thinks that any woman who has sex with someone for the hell of it instead of as part of the getting-to-the-altar process is a slut, but that person thinks you get a couple of casual flings, so long as your total number of partners doesn’t exceed some arbitrary number they’ve set. This person thinks you’re dressed like a slut if you wear a miniskirt with a backless shirt, but that person thinks any woman who shows her shoulders in public is looking slutty. This person thinks that as long as you’re in love with your partner, you can do whatever you want in bed without being a slut, but that person thinks that good girls only like it in the missionary position with the lights out. And these are just the social definitions of sluttiness! What the anti-choice movement is trying to do is write slut codes into law, an impossible task. 

When being the vice police becomes so complicated, there’s basically two ways to approach it:

1) The mature route, where you decide to leave it alone and let people make their own damn decisions. This is the route taken on the porn question for liberals, for instance. Most of us can think of mean-spirited, hateful porn that makes us ill, but few of us think we’re up to the task of passing laws that definitively sort out the unacceptable from the acceptable stuff.

 2) The reactionary route, where you simply shoot ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out. This is the anti-choice approach. Defining all non-procreative sex as slutty, as the anti-choice movement has come to do, is harsh and has no relationship to reality. But it does have the advantage of being nice and simple, and since we’re not talking about a movement run by people who grasp moral nuance very well, “nice and simple” is a surprisingly strong selling point.

The question is, has Mississippi gone all in? Traditionally, the Protestants who run the religious right, especially in the South, have really tried to draw a thick line between bad girls and good girls at marriage, shunning more hardline Catholic teachings that any woman, married or not, who has sex for pleasure instead of procreation falls on the bad girl side of the line.  Evangelicals have even been known to be pushy about how you have to have sex for pleasure inside a relationship, a command which suggests that the conflict between their pro-marriage sentiments and unease with human sexuality causes no amount of internal grief for many believers.

What the “personhood” amendment does is bring an end to the traditional distinctions that the Christian right draws between good girls and bad girls. All woman are bad girls: married women who use contraception, virgins who get raped, married women who only have sex for procreation but still find they’re suffering an ectopic pregnancy. All these women are punished for their slatternly ways; having working Fallopian tubes was where you strayed off the path of righteousness. If Mississippi voters, who are largely in the thrall of the religious right, vote for this bill, they’re giving their blessing to the extremist view that all women are wrong no matter what sexual choices they make. The question is, are they willing to cross that line?

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.

Culture & Conversation Media

A Q&A With ‘Never Too Real’ Author Carmen Rita Wong on Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Ilana Masad

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Carmen Rita Wong says the characters in her new novel, Never Too Real, are largely invisible in media, which is why she chose to tell their stories. The fictional work is about Latina women who are both struggling and successful in their various fields. Wong says she’s treating this writing project as a mission, a way to tell the story of women like her: Latina women and other women of color who exist in ways other than the stereotypes so often portrayed on television and in films.

Wong herself is a master of media: She’s written for countless outlets, been the host of her own TV show, written books on finance, and now, she’s turned to fiction.

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Rewire: How did this novel come about?

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Carmen Rita Wong: My a-ha! moment came with my daughter; we were walking together and passed a bus stop with [a poster for] a show and she said, “Mom, that poster, all those women look like you. But why are they maids?”

My daughter’s frame of reference is very different from mine: She’s growing up more privileged and with a Black president, surrounded by family where she happens to be a blonde Latina while her cousins are Black Latinas. I waited tables alongside my mom to put myself through college, so I have a deep respect for every form of work. But it was definitely one of those things where you only see yourself reflected in one way—and that’s how I grew up, seeing Latinas being shown in one way; but this is not how I live, and not how my daughter lives, now.

That same month I was having a party, celebrating my wonderful, successful girlfriends. We all came up together, we’ve all supported each other, and we’re all women of color, mostly Latina. I looked around and wondered, how come nobody knows we exist?

So I thought, all right, you know what? Now’s the time. This has just got to get done. I’m in a position to do this, I need to do it. It was very much a mission; I didn’t approach it as a side project.

Rewire: Kirkus Reviews, a book review site, called Never Too Real a “multicultural edition of Sex and the City.” How would you characterize the book? Would you call it that?

CRW: I think that superficially that’s a nice, easy elevator pitch because there are four of these women, they’re glamorous, and they’re in New York City. I think that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The book goes a lot deeper than that. If you had to categorize it TV-wise, it’s a “dramedy”: There’s some lightheartedness, there’s some playfulness, some glamor, but it is really about real issues in your life as you try to do well, if you try to be the first generation to do better than the previous. I think that’s one of the uniting factors of these four women—they’re all … first [in their families] to be born in the United States, and grow up and finish college. And that’s an important bonding issue that makes it very different [from] Sex in the City.

Rewire: Diversity in literature is a widely-discussed issue in the literary community these days, with hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Was it hard for you to find a place for your book, to publish it?

CRW: I don’t know—hard for some people is not hard for others. Let’s just say—my agent’s probably going to kill me—but my favorite rejection from a major publisher, which actually confirmed to me that I was on the right track, was (and I have it memorized): “We are not looking for aspirational in this market at this time.”

Rewire: They called it aspirational?

CRW: Exactly. So it was mildly crushing, and then I realized—I’m on it, I am so on it. Because these publishers, who are they, and what have they published? Books by white men. Yes, those publishers are powerful, and yes, they’re rich, but they don’t get it. They don’t see it. They don’t know we exist. What is “this market,” and what is “aspirational?”

When I was coming up in media, in publishing and magazines, I would hear from people, “Carmen, we know you want to get ahead, but we just don’t know what to do with you.” And that’s code. What it really means is, “Carmen, you’re a brown girl, and we can promote this white guy or girl, but we can’t promote you. We just don’t know what to do with you.” But they would never say that to a white male. They would never say, “You know what, Bob? We just don’t know what to do with you.” So to me that rejection letter was just like that.

I remember back in the ’90s, there was a really great push of [books] like Waiting to Exhale or Joy Luck Club. There was just a lot more in fiction about successful, multigenerational, multicultural families. It just was normal and it was not considered crazy. I think there was a trend, and it just became a different trend. And then there was a push for powerful stories, but stories of only one note, for a long time in Latino fiction. I can’t read that stuff, because I lived it already. I want to read stories that make me escape or make me inspired or make me feel heard.

Rewire: In the book, you introduce women who come from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, but they’re all upper-middle-class at the time of the narrative. Going back to your daughter seeing the poster of Latina women portrayed as maids, do you find that economic diversity is what’s often missing in popular and literary culture?

CRW: My book wasn’t as calculated as that, because this is my life, and these are my friends and the people I surround myself with. I think what I saw missing in these cultures was that niche [of successful Latina women].

Latinos in popular culture … I’ve watched it be a very hard process. For example, when I was in magazines, they tried to push me to the Spanish-language property, and I’d say that I don’t primarily speak in Spanish. Why can’t I be used in the English-dominant space? Why? Give me a reason why! And they’d have to say, “Well, because you’re Latina.” So? Latinos speak English! We’re Americans! If you were Black or Latina you’d have to be in that particular space and you weren’t allowed to exist in the general market. And as we’ve seen, and as we see now, that has changed a lot.

Rewire: How so?

CRW: We have huge growth in numbers, but also too, if you look at, for example, ShondaLand, [the production company] on ABC—it’s an example of an openness to seeing and consuming media from all cultures, whether it’s music or TV. I definitely feel that things have changed, there’s a big shift and a huge push now toward inclusion.

I think with social media too, you see the pressure of people saying, for example, #OscarsSoWhite. I grew up in a time when media was controlled by a small group of people and I’ve watched it change, morph, and transform. Fifteen years ago, when I was co-chair of the Hispanic Affinity Group at Time Inc., I was saying we’re here, we consume stuff in English, and you need to pay attention to us. When the census came out [proving what I had been saying], I said, the census, look at the census!

And still the dollars didn’t come in; but when social media happened, that’s when the money started coming in. And finally people started saying, “Oh, they’re, they’re quite vocal, they exist.” [Laughs.] But our ethnicity or color shouldn’t be our only draw. We’re here and have been here. What they’re seeing shouldn’t come as such a shock.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.