Commentary Race

Limbaugh, Fluke, and Feminism: Did We “Rush” to Conclusions About Privilege, Sex, Race, and Class?

Maria Charter

Amidst the controversy around Rush Limbaugh and birth control coverage, there have been some missed opportunities to dive deeper into the underlying issues. What I had hoped (and continue to hope) for is space for a more nuanced discussion about privilege, sex and sexuality, and feminism.

I watched Rush Limbaugh’s asinine comments, Sandra Fluke’s subsequent responses, and the ensuing mainstream media shit storm with a whole host of mixed emotions.

At the heart of it is this: we’ve got a long way to go when discussing these issues. To put it mildly.

To recap briefly… Rush Limbaugh, in his infinite wisdom and intelligence, felt it appropriate (or knew it wasn’t appropriate but didn’t care anyway) to tell Ms. Fluke to stop having sex because he didn’t want to pay for her birth control. He then called her a slut and a prostitute. I’m not linking to the stories because you’ve all read them and we don’t need to give him any more Google hits. There are so many holes in this argument that they aren’t even worth taking down one by one. Suffice to say, Rush should (a) learn how contraceptives work, (b) get educated on insurance plans, and (c) shut his damn mouth. Ms. Fluke certainly had the media’s attention prior to Rush’s idiotic remarks, but he catapulted her even further into the spotlight. Oops, your bad, Rush.

In the aftermath we saw Ms. Fluke’s face everywhere, and let me be very clear, she did a remarkable job in the face of some pretty awful personal attacks. That said, there have been some missed opportunities to dive deeper into the underlying issues. What I had hoped (and continue to hope) for is space for a more nuanced discussion about privilege, sex and sexuality, and feminism.

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First, I wanted Ms. Fluke to own her privilege on the air. I wanted her to say, facing the camera on any one of her many appearances, that she has been able to capitalize on the attention she’s been given in large part because she is white, straight, and well-educated. Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that I, too, am white, straight, and well-educated. However, it is not up to women of color to always call privilege out. For those of us who purport to engage in anti-racism and anti-oppression work, it is not enough to sit by and think smugly to ourselves, “I wouldn’t have done that.” Simply put, if Ms. Fluke weren’t white, the media’s infatuation with her would have flamed out in a few short days, if not hours. No doubt in my mind. I don’t mean to suggest that Ms. Fluke’s feelings aren’t real, that she didn’t and isn’t experiencing some serious shit right now, but she can experience it AND shed light on the fact that she is able to tell the stories of her colleagues again and again because, in large part, of what she looks like and the opportunities she has been given.

The mainstream media doesn’t get a pass regarding privilege either. It sucked all the air out of the room and vaulted Ms. Fluke into a spotlight built for one. In the testimony that Ms. Fluke wasn’t allowed to give at the House Committee on Oversight Government Reform, she noted that contraception can cost upwards of $3,000.00 during three years in law school. That is a lot of money, I’m not here to state otherwise. It’s especially a lot of money to public interest and social justice-minded law students who get paid a fraction of what their colleagues at big firms do. That said, I want the mainstream media to point out that coming up with an extra $1,000.00 in one year is a hell of a lot more burdensome on a working mother of two making minimum wage without insurance coverage; or on an undocumented worker who, under the Affordable Care Act, can’t even partake in the new HHS regulations requiring that birth control be provided at no cost under insurance because they can’t purchase said insurance even with her own money. There are other voices and stories that need to be lifted up, and having Ms. Fluke tell her story over and over again silences those incredibly important voices.

Second, why is it that men (and let’s face it, many women) feel that the worst thing they can call someone is a prostitute? As soon as Rush opened his mouth, there were cries of “defamation!” and “sue his ass!” and while I certainly understand the sentiment of wanting to punish Rush for being his general awful self, the legal definition of defamation requires (1) a false statement of fact, (2) about the plaintiff, (3) that harms the plaintiff’s reputation. I won’t get into the problems inherent with suing someone for being called a slut while simultaneously attempting to reclaim the word and shift cultural attitudes around women having sex.

The conversations had around what Rush called Ms. Fluke are leaving out an entire population of individuals who engage in sex work. When we get offended by being called a prostitute, we are not so tacitly implying that being a prostitute (or engaging in alternative or street economies, as some reproductive justice organizations frame the work) is the Worst! Thing! Ever! That’s bullshit, if I may be so blunt. How can we, as feminists, as reproductive rights and justice advocates, purport to combat reproductive oppression and the type of misogyny spewed by Rush on an almost daily basis, while at the same time stigmatizing and further marginalizing an entire population of individuals based upon their work?

And third, we need to learn from previous missteps that we can’t paint all feminists with the same brush stroke. Emily Bazelon recently wrote that Ms. Fluke “represents a cultural shift that puts women’s sexual agency front and center rather than modestly cloaking it.” Whose cultural shift? As we learned during SlutWalks, there are entire communities of folks who have zero desire to reclaim the word slut. Why? Because, as the amazing Crunk Feminist Collective put it:

“Black women have always been understood to be lascivious, hypersexed, and always ready and willing… Black female sexuality has always been understood from without to be deviant, hyper, and excessive. Therefore, the word slut has not been used to discipline (shame) us into chaste moral categories, as we have largely been understood to be unable to practice ‘normal’ and ‘chaste’ sexuality anyway.”

And, as Harsha Walia writes, “while I appreciate that others feel differently and there is an argument to be made about transgressing the social boundaries defined by the term ‘slut,’ I personally don’t feel the whole ‘reclaim slut’ thing. I find that the term disproportionately impacts women of colour and poor women to reinforce their status as inherently dirty and second-class, and hence more rape-able.” It’s irresponsible to leave voices like these out of the discussion on more mainstream sites.

Further, Ms. Fluke never stated her interest in putting sexual agency (hers or anyone else’s) “front and center” and reclaiming the word slut. She never talked about her sex life, RUSH did. Time and again, she focuses her remarks on the medical consequences of inaccessible birth control, not on the need to de-stigmatize women’s sexuality. I think she should be talking about that as well, but one woman can only do so much. Again, I do not want to take away from the incredible work that Ms. Fluke has been doing… she is likely inundated on a daily basis by right-wing folks calling her horrible names, spreading lies about her, and questioning her integrity.

But I do think this is an incredible opportunity to continue the conversation, and ask ourselves where the other stories are, how we talk about sex and sexual agency, and why these comments, out of all offensive things Limbaugh has said (and there are plenty to choose from), may be the straw that breaks Rush’s back.

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