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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.