Commentary Contraception

Phase III of the War on Contraception: Pretend It Was All A Dream

Amanda Marcotte

Unable to hide behind "religious liberty" and called out for using words like "slut" and "prostitute", anti-choicers are trying a third defense in the War on Contraception: Deny that it ever happened. 

We’ve now reached phase three of the conservative war on contraception. (I don’t like the phrasing “war on women,” which makes it sound like this is something new, when conservatives have been waging war on women through attacking abortion rights for decades now.)

Phase one was expanding the long-standing war on women to include attacks on contraception, first by attacking government subsidies for family planning and then by trying to keep the Obama administration from including contraception in the list of preventive services that private insurance must cover with no co-pay. Phase two was abandoning all pretense for waging this war—be it “life” or “religious liberty”—and simply screaming loudly that women who have sex for pleasure are two-bit sluts looking for a handout, instead of upstanding citizens who want to share in the benefits of a society to which they contribute.

Now we have phase three: Playing the victim.

I won’t even bother you with Rush Limbaugh’s victim-posturing, since that’s basically the point of his whole life, much less his whole show. The claim that it’s not fair to criticize conservatives for supporting anti-woman policies because they aren’t the ones who “started” this has reached the mainstream of the Republican Party. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers from Washington trotted out the most recent talking point, arguing that it’s not that there’s a war on women, but Democrats are just making  it all up to “scare” women into voting for them.

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Of course, she’s creating a false dichotomy. Are Democrats trying to scare women? Sure. But sometimes scaring someone is what you have to do in order to make them realize they’re in danger. If I see someone about to step in front of a moving vehicle, and I yell, “Watch out! That car is about to hit you!,” you could argue correctly that I’m trying to scare them. But I’m also trying to save them from being hit by a car. When something is scary, you should be scared. And the attacks on women’s rights are scary.

McMorris Rodgers is trying to use her status as a woman as cover, but this claim that Democrats are trying to “scare” women by pointing out actual, real world attacks on women is not just a false dichotomy, but also a blatantly sexist attack. It works in part because it feeds off hundreds, probably thousands of years of minimizing women’s real concerns by accusing them of being hysterical, or of making mountains out of molehills. Women have been told that we’re hysterical if we say that rape is traumatizing even when the rapist is an acquaintance. Even today, as Jodi Jacobson’s reporting on a Wisconsin lawmaker’s domestic violence apologies demonstrates, women are told that they’re blowing it out of proportion even when suffering violence at the hands of a spouse.  Women are told we’re just imagining the wage gap or the pressure to support men’s ambitions over our own, and told that actually these inequities are a result of our own “choices.” Every step of the way, we’re told that our reactions to injustice are more about our inferiority as women, that women have an inability to perceive reality, and that things aren’t what they seem.

Interestingly, telling a woman that her concerns are due to her inability to perceive reality and not because the situation is messed up is a common tactic of wife-beaters and other abusers. It’s so common, in fact, that psychology has a term for it: gaslighting. The Urban Dictionary has a good definition:

A form of intimidation or psychological abuse, sometimes called Ambient Abuse where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity. The classic example of gaslighting is to switch something around on someone that you know they’re sure to notice, but then deny knowing anything about it, and to explain that they “must be imagining things” when they challenge these changes.

In an intimate relationship, a gaslighter might tell the victim something and then deliberately (deliberately, not just forgetting) deny it later. Or they may rearrange things and deny that they were ever different. Or they may do something strange and then deny it ever happened.

Republicans are gaslighting female voters in the same way. Ever since the electoral gains of November 2010, Republicans have waged an all-out war on reproductive rights. They’ve introduced around 1,000 bills at the state level to restrict abortion. They tried repeatedly to strip family planning clinics of their funding, and then introduced a broad amendment called the Blunt amendment for the sole purpose of giving women’s employers a say in their employee’s contraception decisions. And now conservative legislators in Arizona are playing footsie with a law that would allow employers to fire women for using contraception.

When called on this behavior, however, anti-choice Republicans are playing dumb, and suggesting that it’s all in the heads of those hysterical women, who you know are prone to making stuff up. This is beyond garden variety lying in politics. The accusation that the attacks on Planned Parenthood, abortion access, and insurance coverage are a bunch of fantasies can only work by relying on an ugly stereotype about women. Without the belief that women are prone to fantasies, hysterical, and easy to rile up over nonsense, this claim that it’s all in our heads wouldn’t have any traction at all.

In the past, the argument that feminists are just hysterical when it comes to reproductive rights is one that comes from some liberal men who are eager to minimize the importance of the issue so they can talk about something else. Now those liberal men are unable to deny the evidence that anti-choicers really do mean to attack women’s basic rights.

Now the argument that it’s all in our heads is coming directly from anti-choicers themselves. Hopefully, the overwhelming facts to prove that it’s not in our heads will cut this one off at the pass. 

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