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Attacks on Contraception, HIV Stigma, and Undercover With the Antis

Editor’s note: We apologize for the audio issues during the Madeline Burrows interview. It was due to an unforeseen technology glitch. Burrows is an excellent interviewee, and we promise you’ll still find the segment highly enjoyable. 

Related Links

Later abortion in Texas

Tony Perkins claims condoms lead to tyranny

Sean Hannity is attacking contraception again


Donald Sterling v. Magic Johnson

Josh Barro pushes back

Keith Ablow substituting his sex fantasies for reality again


On this episode of Reality Cast, I’ll be talking to a playwright who went undercover in the anti-choice movement. Conservatives continue to audition new attacks on contraception access, and the Donald Sterling drama reminds us that HIV stigma is still a very real problem.

Nicole Stewart is a storyteller. She told a story of her pregnancy turning tragic the same week as Wendy Davis filibustered to protect abortions like hers, that turn out very wrong after 20 weeks.

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Sadly, she ended up having to abort the pregnancy, since the fetus had so many abnormalities. Since then, abortions like hers have become illegal in Texas. Warning if you watch the video: It’s one that will definitely make you cry.


The anti-choice movement dearly, dearly wants to attack contraception, but they have a problem. Unlike abortion, which most women don’t talk about and isn’t really a day to day issue, contraception is everywhere. You probably know the stats: More than 99 percent of women who’ve ever had sexual intercourse have used it. Sixty-two percent of women of reproductive age are currently using it. Nearly 90 percent of women who don’t want to get pregnant right now are using contraception. It’s advertised on TV. Condoms are given away by charities and governments. Contraception is mainstream. Most anti-contraception conservatives probably use contraception themselves!

So, the key to attacking contraception is to do it in such a way that your audiences think that you’re trying to take it away from other people but not from them. That’s the strategy that Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council president, seemed to be taking on the program “Washington Watch.” He blamed the problem of sexual assault on the proliferation of condoms on campus.

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You heard right. Perkins is arguing that giving away condoms on campus is to blame for rape. He literally is arguing that young men see, say, a bowlful of condoms and think, “Gosh, what to do with these things? I guess I need to go out there and violently force myself on an unwilling woman!” It’s incredibly disturbing to me, every time I hear a conservative say that the social acceptance of consensual sex somehow leads to rape. It suggests an inability to tell the difference. It’s hard not to conclude that Perkins thinks the problem with rape on campus is not that women are being violently assaulted, but that penis in vagina contact is happening. And what if you’re in a situation where even Perkins has to admit you have “permission” to have sex, say because you’re married and not using contraception? Does that somehow mean it’s no big deal for a man to force himself on a woman?

It gets worse, if such a thing is possible.

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So let’s follow the logic: The claim is by making condoms available, campuses are basically prompting male students to rape. And then there’s “tyranny” because if they do rape someone, they might get in legal trouble for it. It would seem that they’ve floated the idea that it’s more tyrannical to hold rapists accountable for rape, which is an actual crime, than to accept that grown adults in college have consensual sex with each other and that’s okay.

I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn’t mean to imply that consensual sex is worse than rape. Not that what they’re setting out to do is much better. Basically, they saw there’s a bunch of rape on campus and started looking for a way to use that fact to demonize contraception. The point here is to demonize contraception, and by doing so, they tied themselves into a knot where they’re basically implying consensual sex is a bigger issue than rapists running free.

Of course, Perkins is a little bit more out there than a lot of right wingers, though not so much so that he’s not always on Fox News. But the attacks on contraception are coming from more mainstream conservative sources now. Like Sean Hannity. After he went on a rant where he implied that anyone who has had sex should be ashamed and that it should be a luxury only for women who have enough money to raise a child, he went off like this.

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This is a classic example of how conservatives are now demonizing contraception. They can’t claim outright to be against it, because they are using it and many of their followers are. So instead they cast aspersions on it, associating it with “too much” sex or implying that it’s too easy for supposedly bad people to get. Or, in this case, Hannity also is trying to argue that it’s a minor issue compared to sex trafficking, and therefore anyone who cares about it is morally bankrupt. As if it’s impossible to care about both things at the same time, or as if women who are being sex trafficked have no need for contraception. The implication, especially if you pair it up with his insinuation that women who use contraception have too much sex, is that “feminists” are a bunch of sluts who are so busy slutting it up we don’t care about quote-unquote real issues. It’s a way to marginalize contraception and imply that it’s only something for “bad girls” without coming right out and saying it. And this sort of rhetoric is escalating on the right. Make no mistake: No matter what Sean Hannity says, these attacks are about conservatives like him coming for your birth control.




I should have known that somehow, some way, this crazy Donald Sterling story would get wide-ranging enough to require some attention from my little old podcast. Now that day has come. After Sterling, who is a slum lord and the owner of the L.A. Clippers, was exposed on tape for a racist rant scolding his mistress for being seen in public with Black people like Magic Johnson, Sterling went on Anderson Cooper’s show to try to somehow fix his public image. Not surprisingly, he failed miserably, coming across as even  more mean and hateful, if such a thing was even possible. He was particularly aggressive to Magic Johnson, who I must reiterate has done nothing wrong and, as far as I know, hasn’t really had anything to do with Sterling before this.

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Where to begin? First of all, it’s really rich having Sterling judge anyone else’s sex life, when the reason this mess all started is because he has a mistress he literally has given millions of dollars in gifts to in order to get her to have sex with him. Second of all, Johnson has done a ton for all sorts of people, and is well-known for investing in businesses specifically to revitalize Black-majority neighborhoods. But all that, I think, is so obvious that it hardly bears mention. What is more troubling is that Sterling is perpetuating an attitude that sadly hasn’t gone away, even though it really should: the belief that people with HIV should be ashamed of themselves. Luckily, Johnson has done a lot of work raising awareness of HIV and destigmatizing it, and he was unafraid to hit right back, going on Anderson Cooper’s show to do so.

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Look, famous athletes, rock musicians, and all sorts of people who aren’t famous at all might have a lot of sex partners. Or not many at all. Obviously, it’s better if it’s protected sex, but it’s also not like people were as aware of that issue when Johnson got sick as they are now. Ever since Johnson contracted the virus, he’s been a stalwart advocate for the rights of HIV-positive people. He has also done something else that’s just as important: He’s signaled that just because you make what some people consider a mistake, such as having unprotected sex, doesn’t mean that you are a bad person or that your life should be over.

Josh Barro of MSNBC also pushed back against HIV stigma and explained how nonsense of the sort that Sterling was spouting is actually killing people.

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I’ll add one more thing to that: Those anti-viral medications don’t just keep people alive. By reducing the viral load in your system, those medications make it far less likely that you will transmit the disease. HIV stigma harms people who are already positive. But it makes it more likely that negative people will become positive. There’s nothing wrong with you if you are HIV positive. But there’s something deeply wrong with people who would shame you for it.


And now for the Wisdom of Wingnuts. Man, y’all, that new Fox News show Outnumbered is just a gold mine of misogynist, sex-phoic nuttery. Keith Ablow was on, and he’s always good for some completely off the hook weirdness. They were talking about a book called It’s Perfectly Normal, a very basic sex ed book that offends a lot of conservatives because it a) admits genitals are a thing people have and b) tells kids that having sex is a thing adults do. That’s it, and yet, here’s Ablow’s reaction.

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The book is not education in the various ways you have sex, but about the basic biology, and the fact that it’s normal to feel desire. But he blows right through that to imply, utterly falsely, that it’s like a chap book for sexual fantasies. The myth that you can keep kids from ever feeling sexual desire by simply pretending sex doesn’t exist was dumb in the era before the Internet, but this nonsense sounds even stupider when every kid in a classroom can conjure an entire world of pornography up on their phones. Kids can see threesomes anytime they want. What they need is education in how to play safe and to distinguish between the fantasies you see in porn and what to expect, realistically, from their own sex lives as adults.