Commentary Sexuality

Limbaugh is Sorry for Calling Fluke a “Slut,” But Why Were We ALL Sorry, Too?

This week’s back-and-forth over Rush Limbaugh’s use of the words “slut” and “prostitute” illustrates our deep discomfort with women’s sexuality.

This week’s back-and-forth over Rush Limbaugh’s use of the words “slut” and “prostitute” illustrates our deep discomfort with women’s sexuality.

And in saying this, I am not referring to the fact that Rush Limbaugh massively misstated, misunderstood, and misrepresented Sandra Fluke’s congressional testimony on the medical need for contraception. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of the subject matter will know that 1) private health insurance is not paid for with tax dollars; and 2) you have to take birth control pills with the same frequency (once a day) regardless of the amount of sex you have.

I am talking about the discomfort with women’s sexuality demonstrated in the outpouring of support for Sandra Fluke. Lawmakers, pundits and even the president have reached out, expressing sympathy for the pain it must have caused her to be called a slut. Advertisers have pulled support for Limbaugh’s program. And Limbaugh himself found it necessary to apologize for his use of words, all the while reiterating his absurd read of the content of Fluke’s original testimony.

Implicit in all of this is the notion that it is a very bad thing to be called a slut. But why? There is, as Yasmin Nair pointedly says, nothing wrong with women who like to have sex “with one person or with many, at the same time, or sequentially.” And if that is true, how is it that advertisers can be convinced to pull support for a highly profitable show solely on the premise that it is bad for business to be seen to support someone who calls a woman a slut?

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Part of the reason is historic. Perceived chastity has traditionally been linked to the legal definition of defamation and libel. In this way, English common law historically considered it libellous or defamatory “per se”—that is, without the need for further explanation—to insinuate that a woman is unchaste. Interestingly, some definitions of defamation per se considered impotence and a want of chastity to be equally damaging notions. Rush Limbaugh might agree with that, considering his run-in with prosecutors over carrying Viagra and his somewhat frequent use of the word “slut” as an insult.

What is disheartening is that some of the of sympathy for Fluke comes from a similar place of discomfort with and judgement of liberated female sexuality. If we say that slut is a bad word, we are implicitly saying it is bad for women to want to have sex. If we say that prostitute is a bad word, we are saying that taking money for sex is an insult. Neither is automatically true.

Limbaugh’s negative judgement of a woman having sex for anything other than procreative purposes is obvious and direct. After all, that is what his rant was about in the first place.

For many others the judgement is more insidious and in some cases directed at ourselves. Many of my most actively feminist friends have at some point or another expressed genuine concern that some man will think they are a slut because they had sex with him on a first, second, or third date. Apart from the obvious double-standard (the man had sex on a first, second or third date too—is he also a slut?), most people in the United States, at some point, have sex outside marriage and without a deep and lasting emotional connection. In other words, most people may be sluts, but only women pay a social price for it.

Limbaugh’s juvenile tirade illustrates the many levels on which women are held to different standards than men. A woman who speaks publicly about sex, even clinically, is automatically a slut, but no such term automatically attaches to men who routinely affirm their sexual needs and desires. Women who ask that the insurance they pay for cover contraception are not only freeloaders but are also prostitutes, while the men who rely on their female partners to take care of their contraception needs are presumably virile.

In addition, both Limbaugh’s carefully worded apology, and quite a lot of the anti-Limbaugh media flurry this week miss an essential point in Fluke’s testimony: women and men have different health care needs because of their different physiology, and those needs should be met equitably.

But more than that: until we stop assuming that women are bad if they have sex with someone they don’t know, don’t love, or aren’t married to, we will never be a modern democracy with equal protection under the law.

Commentary Politics

Sandra Fluke Running for Congress Is a Big Deal for Feminism (Updated)

Erin Matson

A Fluke candidacy sends a message that young women will not just serve supporting roles in the political process, but will help make the rules in the primary institutions of power themselves.

UPDATE, February 5, 9:35 a.m.: According to news reports, Sandra Fluke has announced she will not seek a congressional seat, but instead will run for state senate.

Editors’ note: Rewire does not support or endorse candidates for public office. The opinions expressed below belong to the author.

Reproductive rights advocate Sandra Fluke has filed to run in the California Democratic primary to fill the seat that will be vacated by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). This is an important moment in women’s history.

Fluke came to national prominence in 2012 after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) denied her the opportunity to testify on a hearing he convened on the topic of contraception and religious liberty, claiming that Fluke was not a member of the clergy and therefore not qualified to speak on those topics. In response, women’s rights advocates widely circulated an image of five men sitting on the first panel during that hearing, along with a now-familiar question leveled against House Republicans: “Where are the women?”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Ultimately, House Democrats held an unofficial hearing where Fluke, at the time a Georgetown University law student, gave testimony discussing the difficulties encountered by students denied contraceptive coverage through the Catholic university’s health plan.

In response, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh went on multiple hate speech-filled tirades, calling Fluke a slut, a prostitute, and ultimately saying taxpayers were owed an online video of Fluke having sex: “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is: We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

In response, Fluke issued a classy statement naming the problem and refusing to back down from her advocacy on the issue of discrimination against reproductive health care for women. She said, in part:

This language is an attack on all women, and has been used throughout history to silence our voices. The millions of American women who have and will continue to speak out in support of women’s health care and access to contraception prove that we will not be silenced.

Since then, Fluke has graduated from law school, moved to California, and continued to advocate on a range of liberal issues, especially reproductive health. She gave a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention that highlighted the importance of that election to women’s rights and women’s history. In that speech, she cemented her role as not just an advocate, but a symbol for what other women’s rights advocates, and especially feminists of a new generation, can and must achieve.

The push-back against Fluke has been strong, and persistent, and it promises to grow only louder now that she is taking steps to run for Waxman’s seat.

One reason why the right wing hates her so much is that she is the person who is most strongly associated with providing an alternative voice to a backward, anti-modern, anti-woman—to say nothing of overwhelmingly old, white, and male—Republican party that truly can not handle a young, liberal woman taking up space in the public sphere on issues that directly affect her.

Right-wingers want to say things about young women and shame them out of the conversation. Fluke has taken that narrative and disrupted it, to the point of public advocacy and now taking the risks that come with what will surely be a contested political primary in a congressional district that overlaps with a highly competitive Los Angeles Democratic machine.

Fluke is 32 years old, and her potential candidacy sends a message that young women will not shut up and be cowed. Within the pro-choice movement, it sends a message that young women will not just serve supporting roles in the political process, but will help make the rules in the primary institutions of power themselves. Her actions are not limiting, and do not suggest that only one white, privileged young woman with a law degree should be eligible to serve as a voice for feminism in the most powerful corridors. A Fluke candidacy may urge other young women to respond to an endless barrage of attacks on our economic, human, and reproductive rights with the most direct possible attempt at seizing power: running for public office.

When men fill more than four out of five seats in Congress, it’s time for more left-leaning women, including young women, to follow Fluke’s lead and hop to it. Congress is not run by women, and it certainly will not be run by women who plan to wait patiently for their turns.

Commentary Sexuality

Anti-Choicers Drop the ‘Life’ Pretense, Increasingly Admit They’re Angry About Sex

Amanda Marcotte

The Family Research Council recently presented a paper positing that the problem with abortion is that women are just having too much sex. It's part of a trend: Increasingly, anti-choicers are dropping the pretense that they're motivated by "life" and admitting that their efforts are about controlling women's sexuality.

Is the anti-choice movement giving up the pretense that it has no interest in policing women’s sexuality and only opposes abortion rights because of fetal life? While the rote use of the word “life” as a code word to describe a series of anti-woman and anti-sex beliefs is probably going nowhere, there does seem to be a bit more willingness among anti-choicers lately to admit that what really offends them is that women are having sex without their permission.

A report examining the demographics of women who have abortions, using self-reported numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics, was recently presented at a Family Research Council conference. Their conclusion? “OMG sluts!”

The researchers—a term that needs to be used somewhat loosely, due to the extensive statistical distortion employed in this paper—were incredibly intent on portraying abortion as a product of sexually loose women on the prowl. They mostly succeed in portraying themselves as remarkably prudish and out of step with mainstream realities. “Almost 90 percent of reported abortions are procured by women who have had three or more (male) sexual partners,” the researchers write, clearly expecting the audience to reel in terror at the idea that a woman might not marry the first boy she kisses. Which means that most women having abortions are … average. Women generally report having had about four male sexual partners, but social scientists are inclined to think the number is probably higher than that, because men report having a much higher average number of partners, and that discrepancy is mathematically impossible. Indeed, one study showed that by telling women that they’re hooked up to a lie detector, the number of sex partners they will cop to goes up. Slut-shaming, such as the kind produced by this report, causes women to round down.

“The fraction of women reporting abortions is far larger among women with multiple sexual partners than among monogamous women,” the study authors write. It’s a classic example of how this paper, which is supposed to be a study, is actually full of misrepresentations and dishonest number-massaging. After all, “monogamous” and “has had multiple partners” are not mutually exclusive groups. No doubt the study authors mean “has only had one partner ever” as their definition of monogamous, a strange and sloppy definition that would mean that a woman who lost her virginity during a one-night stand yesterday is more “monogamous” that a woman whose second marriage has lasted 30 years.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“Eighty-three percent of women who report having an abortion have cohabited at some time,” they write, clearly expecting the audience to find cohabitation to be a shockingly risqué behavior. Again, this makes women who have abortions average. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “[M]ost young couples live together first before entering marriage.” By the time they turn 30, three-quarters of women have cohabitated.

It’s almost comical how out-of-touch the authors are with their ready assumption that extremely normal and even boring sexual behavior is scandalous. But, more importantly, this report is indicative of a willingness on the part of anti-choice activists to be open about their hostility to female sexuality, an openness that was, just a few years ago, angrily denied.

Don’t get me wrong; some people are still devoted to the notion that the anti-choice movement has nothing to do with sex or gender. Recently, in Slate, Will Saletan insisted that being “pro-life” had nothing to do with negative attitudes about female sexuality, because the majority of people who tell a pollster that they’re “pro-life” also support legal contraception. What he neglected to mention is that the majority of people who say they’re “pro-life” also support legal abortion, suggesting that the label “pro-life” is a meaningless term that people just adopt because it sounds good.

To know what the actual anti-choice movement is about, you need to look at what its members do, not what some random people say about how they label themselves. And, increasingly, anti-choice activists are free about their larger objections to women being able to choose non-procreative sex. Indeed, when I first started writing on the topic of reproductive health care, even the slightest intimation that anti-choicers have a problem with female sexuality was enough to cause conservatives to cry foul and howl about how they don’t care what you do in bed, it’s about “life,” and blah blah blah.

Now we have Mike Huckabee shamelessly ascribing the desire to have insurance cover birth controlsomething that it has always done, by the way—to women’s inability to “control our libido.” Now anti-contraception protesters are a major part of the March for Life, making it undeniable that “life” is just a code word for efforts to punish and control women by taking away their ability to manage their fertility. Far from denying the anti-sex motivations of their movement, anti-choicers are beginning to own it loudly and proudly.

Why now? Probably because they think they’re winning. The massive shutdown of abortion clinics across the country because of medically unnecessary red tape is a major victory. A big win like that will make anyone cocky, so they’re less afraid of losing ground by admitting that the real agenda is to attack women’s sexuality. But it’s also because the attacks on abortion rights have been so successful that the only way to build on them is to go after contraception. Unlike with abortion, however, attacks on contraception pretty much have to be framed in terms of restricting women’s sexual choices.

Sure, a lot of anti-choicers are still cautious and are looking for ways to attack contraception without coming right out and saying it’s about sex. “Religious freedom” is one gambit being toss around a lot. But honestly, the sense you get lately is that conservatives generally have decided to stop pretending and just come out with it. Rush Limbaugh’s throwing caution to the wind and using Sandra Fluke’s congressional testimony to characterize women who use contraception as sluts was clearly taken as a battle cry to stop self-censoring by the right. And, frankly, it doesn’t seem to have hurt them very much. The attacks on abortion and contraception seem to be getting more, not less, successful in the wake of conservatives gradually admitting that the anti-choice philosophy was about sex all along.