Let me tell you a story….
There once was a time when women knew their place. Back in those halcyon days, young women accepted that sex was a dirty thing they should go out of their way to avoid, lest the taint of it made them unmarriageable. Girls married young and dreamed of staying at home with children, far away from the dirty worlds of men and power. Of course, slipping up did happen, and girls got pregnant outisde of wedlock but since there was no birth control or abortion, those girls had to get married straightaway, so either way, women ended up where they belonged, in the home, while men went out and did all that working.
Then the birth control pill was invented and abortion was legalized. All of a sudden, women started screwing who they liked without any consequences. They didn’t get married young anymore, instead choosing to do things like have careers and demand power. This meant the end of cherished gender roles, which in turn meant gay marriage, men losing their rightful place as leaders of nuclear families, single motherhood, and anarchy in the streets. Clearly, women’s abortion rights need to be taken away and access to contraception curtailed, and then perhaps we can return to the bliss of “Leave It To Beaver.”
This is a story is one we all know, and it is the singular fable that drives the anti-choice movement. It is a story that is actually not true, of course. In the reality, many mothers worked outside of the home, premarital sex was surprisingly common, men abandoned women they got pregnant routinely, and abortion was common even as it was illegal. And yet this fantasy lives on, a fantasy of returning America—at least middle-class America—to a strong patriarchy where women’s talents and ambitions are all aimed at supporting men and where sex is irrevocably tied to procreation. It’s the fantasy that motivates the anti-choice movement. It’s the fantasy that leads to abortion restrictions, the building of Crisis Pregnancy Centers, the shooting of abortion doctors, usually by men who will never be Ward Cleaver and have grown bitter.
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But admitting this out loud is difficult for conservatives, because stripping women’s human rights to create a patriarchal fantasy world flies directly into the face of their claims to be about “liberty.” Instead, a thicket of lies has grown up to rationalize their preferred policy options: Claims about concern for fetal life, concerns that mysteriously never extend to actual children. Claims about concerns for women’s mental health, even though science has refuted any connection between abortion and poor mental health outcomes; instead the notion that abortion hurts it is rooted in the belief that women’s purpose is birthing, and that deviations from it mean women are somehow broken. Claims that abstinence-only programs are about health, when they are clearly about promoting a paranoid view of sex as inherently dirty and sinful. Claims now that denying women insurance coverage of contraception is a matter of “religious liberty,” even though docking a woman’s benefits because she disagrees on matters of dogma with her employer is a pretty straightforward assault on that woman’s religious liberty.
But as we learned at the DNC this week, the Democrats have come up with a secret weapon that causes the entire wall of lies to come crashing down, revealing the sniveling, misogynist prude that is actually behind all these assaults on women’s reproductive rights.
That weapon’s name is Sandra Fluke.
As many people, including myself at Slate, noticed, right-wing commentators went absolutely nuts when Fluke spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Pretty much none of their responses actually addressed the policy for which Fluke is an advocate, the birth control benefit, ensuring that all insurance plans offer coverage of contraception without a co-pay. This requirement simply means that all insurance plans paid for or earned by a woman have this coverage, as part of an array of preventive care services also to be covered without a copay. Some misrepresented her position, either claiming she wants the “government” to pay or “her boss,” even though the policy references benefits already earned and passed over to the employee–meaning that one’s boss is no more buying your birth control for you if you use your insurance to pay for it than if your boss is buying it for you if you use your paycheck to pay for it.
But mostly they didn’t even address that, but instead made jokes about how Fluke’s supposed sluttiness and gasping in horror at her boldness. If I were to grab one tweet that sums up the right wing reaction, it would be Dennis Miller’s Twitter response: “DNC just announced Sandra Fluke, or ‘Moan of Arc,’ has demanded her speech be Pay-Per-View.”
What makes this sort of reaction stunning is that not only did Fluke decline to discuss her own sex life when she testified in front of congressional Democrats, but, to be frank, she seems so ordinary. She’s engaged to be married; she’s an ambitious law student. She’s not a sex worker or a nude model. She didn’t write a book about swinging. She’s never mentioned her own sex life in public! If conservatives consider her the height of sluttiness, quite literally every single woman who has ever had sex without being married to her partner at the time counts.
Which is something that feminists pointed out with Slut Walk, and conservatives denied at the time. Turns out, of course, feminists were right: If one of us is a “slut,” we all are.
But why Fluke? Why does a modest, ordinary law student draw so much vicious, over-the-top, sex-phobic and misogynist reactions? Well, it goes back to the narrative that I laid out above. Women like Fluke–white, middle class, intelligent–are the women that get married young and devote their lives to housekeeping in the fantasy “Leave It to Beaver” world for which conservatives long. When they imagine how contraception and abortion freed women to delay marriage and have careers, they aren’t imagining the whole of womanhood, but specifically the Sandra Flukes of the world. When they imagine that these rights sexually liberated women, and allowed them to define their sexuality for themselves, instead of as an extension of men’s, these are the women that come to mind. Fluke is the living embodiment of the woman that’s imagined “getting back to the kitchen.”
Instead, she’s standing up at the DNC, making a speech in prime time. No wonder conservatives lost their minds.