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On Rush Limbaugh, slut-shaming and whorephobia

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I imagine that most readers by now have heard of the latest outburst by the right-wing American egomaniac Rush Limbaugh. On his radio show he referred to a Georgetown University student who had testified before Congress on the need for contraception to be included in health care coverage. Misidentifying the woman (whose first name is Sandra), he said:

What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.

Limbaugh’s comments understandably (and correctly) led to outrage, and he was eventually forced to apologise after his advertisers started doing wobblies. It’s rare enough that he apologises for any of the garbage he spews, so it has to be seen as at least a small victory that sufficient pressure was brought to bear on him for this one.

Nonetheless, some of the reaction has made me a bit uneasy. Limbaugh is one of those people who can’t understand why a woman would want to be anything other than barefoot and pregnant, so his ignorance of the importance we place on access to contraception is hardly surprising. That’s not what prompted the almost unprecedented level of condemnation. Nor did the anger focus in on what I think is the real issue, namely, his attempt to silence her by making her into an object of sexual ridicule – with the implication that any other woman who dares speak her mind on this subject will meet the same fate.

While some of the criticism got this point, too much of it centred on the idea that Limbaugh had defamed Sandra Fluke by use of the terms “slut” and “prostitute”. A good example was this petition I was asked to sign:

Pull your advertising from Rush Limbaugh’s radio program immediately and permanently. He called a Georgetown Law School student testifying before Congress about women’s access to birth control a “slut” and a “prostitute.” His reprehensible remarks are an attack on all women, including women who are your customers.

The blurb accompanying the petition underscores the point by saying

We will not let Republicans brand women who assert their right to health care as “sluts” and “prostitutes.”

There’s a clear subtext here – and it’s a rather nasty one, reinforcing the same old good girl/bad girl dichotomy that I always thought feminism stood against. Sandra Fluke is just a woman who needs birth control (for her long-term monogamous relationship, no doubt), not because she sleeps around for fun or to earn her living. And how dare you “brand” her, Rush, by suggesting the latter?

The irony is that this has taken place after nearly a year of “slutwalks”, in which many women of the same demographic as Fluke appears to be – white, middle-class, educated, soft-left – have marched to “reclaim” the word “slut”, to work toward, according to the Slutwalk movement’s founders, “reappropriating the word ‘slut’ to mean someone who is confident in their sexuality…and not ashamed of enjoying consensual sex.” Does that petition sound like it was written by someone who thinks being a slut is nothing to be ashamed of?

Throw “prostitute” in with that and you get some good old-fashioned whorephobia which is, unfortunately, something white western feminism isn’t exactly unknown for. The bile that the likes of Melissa Farley has thrown at sex workers is out of fashion these days, with anti-sex-work feminists preferring a “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach. But it’s hard to see anything but a deep contempt for women who do sell sex, where the accusation of selling sex is deemed an unpardonable affront.

And lest anyone try to argue that those who have responded in this fashion are not offended by what Sandra Fluke was called, but merely by the fact that (seemingly) false and irrelevant allegations were made, let’s consider what would have happened if Limbaugh had used a different term. Say, “lesbian”. This is also a word that has been used to describe women who stand up for their rights, in a manner aimed at discrediting and silencing them. It is, however, a word that 21st century feminism would never consider an insult in its own right. If that was the word Limbaugh had used, I think it’s highly unlikely it would have aroused the same kind of outrage – and if it did, any petition would be very sensitively worded and would make absolutely clear that the objection was contextual and not to the suggestion of lesbianism per se. Because nowadays feminists (generally) don’t stigmatise women for the who of their sexuality – but some, it seems, are still happy to stigmatise women for the how many and the why. The women in question are stigmatised enough by society, sometimes with deadly consequences, without us adding to the hate.

Just as a postscript: I emailed the petition authors with my views on the matter, and received back a standard “thank you for your comments which we shall consider” reply. I then went ahead and signed the petition anyway because, as I said, there is a genuine issue around Limbaugh’s attempt to silence. But I added a comment to my signature stressing that that is the real issue – and that if Sandra Fluke did happen to be a slut or a prostitute, there would be nothing wrong with her anyway.

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About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

22 responses »

  1. So, as well as supporting abortion, you also support the right of a person to be the town/college bike? Great, I can really see success coming you way. Why not start a more wider group calling for the abolition or reconfiguration of any traditional moral standpoint of society?

    Reply
  2. So more typical ill-advised social engineering is what you want? I think we’ve saw enough of the consequences of that approach throughout the liberalisation of certain sectors of society throughout the last 100 years, much of which has brought about a lowering of standards of education and morality in society, resulting increased crime, increased conflict and violence, clashes of culture, etc., etc., etc.

    Not least to mention the absolute abandonment of the concept of personal responsibility, which results in the constant passing of the buck whether in terms of responsibility for criminal action (“I was [insert excuse here], drunk, horny, off my head on coke”) or political accountability (“I don’t accept that the [insert agency here] is failing, or it’s not my job”).

    Reply
    • Nothing says “male privilege” quite like thinking women should be nostalgic for an era when we could be institutionalised for having non-marital sex, legally raped by our husbands, prohibited from using contraception and subjected to brutal procedures like symphysiotomy to force us to keep churning the kids out. Yeah, those were the days. I don’t buy the argument that the decline of “traditional morality” has anything to do with the social/political problems of today, but even if I did, I’d take today’s morality over yours any day.

      Reply
    • So Joe, how is men running around ‘sowing their wild oats’ without any kind of social censure (indeed, guys act like that, they get a pat on the back), ‘personal responsibility’?
      But no…let’s go back to conveniently forgetting that it takes two to ‘tango’, and just stick to blaming women ( while hoping we girls continue to put out and if we don’t …oh well, you can always call us frigid or ugly, right?)

      Oh and for the record…the pill, unlike viagra which none of the numbnuts seem to have a a problem with, has other medical uses and ISN’T A ONE PILL PER USE THING!

      Reply
    • Who are you? Rick Santorum’s political advisor?

      Reply
    • Joe, you idiot, having access to the Pill or other contraceptives IS acting responsibly. Believe it or not, when young women are given the tools and the proper information as to how their bodies work and how they can prevent diseases and unwanted pregnancy, etc, they actually will do these things. Duh.

      Part of the problem, at least here in the US, is the morality issue itself. Some people have gone so far overboard with the “morality” thing that they don’t want human sexuality taught to kids in school, as part of a normal health class. Instead, these uber-Christian people want our tax money to pay for what’s called “abstinence only sex education.” This simply says to kids, “wait until you get married before you have sex.”

      That’s it. It teaches NOTHING about things like:

      1: a woman’s menstrual cycle
      2: what your various body parts involved in reproduction are
      3: how the hormonal system comes into play
      4: what “ovum” and “sperm” are
      5: what “sex” even IS

      I mean the most basic health stuff you can possibly think of. And we wonder why kids over here are turning up with various STDs and whatnot. They think that activities like fellatio or cunnilingus or mutual masturbation aren’t really sex. They think you can’t get pregnant if you do it standing up, or if you douche with Coca-Cola after sex. My own mother, when she was a teenager in the 1950s, thought that a man’s fingers were the body part that got women pregnant. Thankfully she learned the truth pretty quickly!

      I had a very thorough sex education section in my 8th grade health class (I was about 12 or 13 when I went through this class, and I can’t remember if I had to get parental permission to do so or not; some schools do require it, and some parents will withhold permission, believe it or not). Armed with good information about human sexuality, I have had a very happy sexual life, no unwanted pregnancies, no abortions, no diseases, etc. IT DOES WORK!

      Reply
  3. I’ll admit I am slightly lost on this debate in america over healthcare and contraception
    Do health insurers pay for condoms in the US?

    Reply
    • No, but they pay for viagra, which unlike the pill, is a per fuck kind of deal.
      Unlike viagra, the pill is also used for medical issues that have nothing to do with going out and sleeping around. Not that it should matter if women do sleep around…well at least no more than for men…

      Reply
    • Condoms are not paid for by insurance, no. People have to purchase them from a drugstore/pharmacy.

      Some question the morality of paying for the Pill or Depo-Provera or the morning-after pill. President Obama wanted to make it law, that *all* American health insurers will cover contraception, but the Roman Catholic Church set up a mighty howl saying that Obama was trampling on their religious rights to refuse to pay for contraception, as contraception is against Catholic teaching.

      Obama backtracked, indicating he was willing to make a compromise to accommodate the Catholics, but then they said that wasn’t good enough, and now some Republican presidential candidates (remember, we’re in an election year here) began putting out the idea that *any* employer can deny health care coverage (we Americans are mostly dependent upon our employers for health insurance, as it’s so prohibitively expensive to buy it) for *anything* if said employer feels it is immoral. So that means if some employer thought that a blood transfusion was “immoral” then that employer can find an insurer who will not cover it, and that’s the insurance they’ll offer their employees.

      You can imagine what a nightmare this all is.

      Reply
      • OK
        But question
        What is the legal obligation to pay for the pill (used by women) and not condoms (used by men)
        Sounds like gender discrimination to me

        Reply
        • Condoms (by which I assume you mean the male condom) may be “used” by men but it’s not like they’re used solely for the benefit of men. Arguably women get more benefit from them than men do, since impregnation is a totally one-way street and some types of infection are more likely to be transmitted from male to female than the other way around.

          Personally I would make condoms free and don’t understand why they wouldn’t be included in health insurance alongside other forms of contraception, but it certainly doesn’t disproportionately affect men that they aren’t.

        • If you can afford to pay for your Pill or Depo-Provera, etc, out of your own pocket, you are certainly free to do so. Just go to your doctor, get a prescription, take it to your local pharmacy or have your doctor call them to have them fill it, and pick it up there and pay for it. That’s one option.

          Otherwise, many people depend upon a health insurance provider to shoulder at least some of the cost for things like office visits to the OB/GYN to even get the prescription written. Most Americans rely extremely heavily upon the health insurance provided by their employers – and don’t think this means it’s 100% paid for by the employer. It used to be, back in my dad’s day. Hell, it used to be even 15 years ago when I first started at my current job. But not any more. And health insurance is obscenely expensive if one just opts out of one’s employer’s health insurance and shops around for an insurance plan of one’s own.

          Today, I pay about $50/month out of my gross (pre-tax) income towards my health insurance. My employer picks up the remaining cost for my premiums. So far, it’s an ok health plan, but it’s not perfect. If you could see the employee handbook, with the charts and whatnot that shows how much of a deductible I have for visits to the emergency room, or for eye care, or for dental care, etc etc etc, let’s just say this is stuff that would constipate Albert Einstein himself. And I’m a single woman with no kids and no husband. It’s even crazier if you have kids, esp. if they are still school-age.

          Anyway, it mostly depends upon whether or not one’s employer and insurance provider have determined whether or not something like contraceptives are covered. American employers are interested in one thing only: maximizing profit, not taking care of the employees (although they’ll never ADMIT to that). So they will endeavor to shave out of an insurance plan anything they think is extraneous or unnecessary. This may include contraception. The employee often has no choice in this matter. He or she just takes what the employer provides, and even helps pay into it, because quite often health insurance really is just way too damn costly for any one person to just buy his or her own plan. When my father retired and thus was no longer covered by his employer’s plan, he looked into a group insurance plan that was supposed to help lower costs. It would still cost him over $700/month for his insurance – and he was diabetic. He couldn’t afford that.

          We do have Medicare and Medicaid for the elderly, BUT you have to be at least age 65 to have that. Dad died at age 65 because of his diabetes complications. He’d gone too long with poor care after he retired (because he couldn’t really afford better care) and his diabetes advanced enough to kill him before he could get started on Medicare.

          Anyway…is it discrimination? Well, we women are the ones that have a reproductive cycle that can be tampered with chemically (men have it easier – just wrap that banana and generally speaking, you’re good to go). So we kinda *have to* see a doctor, have an internal examination (not a bad thing really – it’s good to maintain regular doctor’s appointments, and I love my OB/GYN – he’s a wonderful doctor who really cares about the overall health of his patients), and determine with him/her if chemical contraception is the right thing for you.

          Since condoms do not need a prescription or a doctor’s appointment, you just walk into the pharmacy, choose what you need (you don’t need to see a pharmacist for this) and take it to the counter and pay for it. No different than paying for a bar of chocolate, or a packet of ballpoint pens, or a bottle of aspirin.

          This goes much, much, much further than just women’s contraception issues. It affects so many things. Some of us, people like me, are screaming and begging for some kind of national health plan, similar to England’s NHS (not sure if you have it where you are, or something like it) but there are so many Americans who are afraid that having such a thing will mean SOCIALISM, and that word is one of the most evil words you can utter around an American. Lots of people still remember the McCarthy era, the Communist witch-hunts, WWII, and such things, and they think things like national health care will take us right back to those years. Not only that, but lots of Americans are VERY selfish and they say, “Why should my money go towards helping someone who is too lazy to work? Let him get his own job and pay for his own health care!”

          Oy vey. God help us.

        • Oh, and if men want a vasectomy…sometimes an insurer will cover that, sometimes they won’t. Depends on your health insurance provider.

          Again, if you’re rich enough to pay for it yourself, go for it.

          Most Americans aren’t THAT wealthy, however.

  4. “[I]t’s hard to see anything but a deep contempt for women who do sell sex, where the accusation of selling sex is deemed an unpardonable affront.”

    Thank you! That is exactly what bugged me and I have yet to read anything from Ms Fluke on the matter..

    What she did say, however, was that “[u]nfortunately, numerous commentators have gone far beyond the acceptable bounds of civil discourse. No woman deserves to be disrespected in this manner. This language is an attack on all women, and has been used throughout history to silence our voices.”

    So being called a slut or a prostitute is unacceptable and uncivil; no woman (incl. those who sell sex?) deserve to be disrespected in this manner, and these words are an attack on all women, no exceptions.

    There it is again, just like in the petition you mentioned above: “all women”. Although it shouldn’t anymore, it still strikes me with disbelief every time I see someone trying to summarise diverse experiences of an even more diverse group as one single experience.

    Reply
  5. I would ask Wendy about use of the word “cunt” as well. Is this problematic too? We Americans have a left-wing comedian named Bill Mahr who called Sarah Palin (herself very conservative) a “cunt.”

    He did not do so over several days, as Rush did with his insults of Fluke, and he didn’t use the word 70 times in ONE BROADCAST, as Rush did with Fluke. But he did say that Palin was a “cunt.”

    Many folks here seem willing to let Bill Mahr off the hook because he’s a comedian. Everyone knows he’s doing satire, he’s cracking jokes. Rush is not a comedian, so there is that difference. People do respond to Rush’s show very differently than they do to Bill’s show.

    But it seems to me again, this is a *denigrating* use of a word that describes a female body part. Not an edifying use of that word. And even when such language comes from so-called “liberals” it should not be accepted.

    Your two cents?

    Reply
    • “Cunt” doesn’t have the same connotations over here; it’s more likely to be used simply as a generalised epithet than as a misogynistic attack on women. Obviously we all know what it literally refers to, but the way that it’s used here, I don’t think it’s necessarily any more problematic than “prick”.

      Reply
  6. I love Wendy’s entry here! I have been playing this short clip on my head ever since the incident, upset, as many other sex worker activists, that there seemed to be little room in the public square for a discussion of ‘why it is problematic to use the term slut, prostitute, etc, as a slur.’ Anyway, I kept recalling with words of with Margo St James and Gail Pheterson from the 80s so i put this together from some old footage.

    Reply
    • That’s great Carol, thanks for posting it! The link between stigmatisation and violence against sex workers is something that urgently needs more attention paid to it – particularly within the broad feminist movement.

      Reply

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