It’s about the Sex, Stupid
I feel the need to reintroduce myself given a long absence from this blog that can only be explained by the strange temporalities of grad student life. Preparation for generals last year, stowed away in a library with too many books, led to my throwing a rope into the real world with posts on Octomom, jury duty, and the Cronon Affair (the latter also including an excellent review of German philosophy for anyone doing a Euro Intellectual History field…). Summer recovery in Germany led to posts like this and this. Then there was the long silence as I adjusted to a new audience–classrooms full of undergrads–last semester. I’m back and blogging again for various reasons but the immediate impetus is to say something that, as a 28-year-old overeducated unmarried heterosexual woman, should be fairly obvious: “I use contraception.”
I raise this point not because it will cause any major waves, but because I hope its dumb obviousness will raise a point that itself is so obvious that I think it has become something like a great grey elephant camouflaged against a great swath of grey newsprint. The recent contraception debates are about the Catholic Church, about the Republicans using any tactic they can to cripple the healthcare bill (see: Blunt amendment), and about a bozo conservative radio personality filled with hot wind. More specifically — and hard to miss in a country that has seen bills that on one hand insist a woman have an ultrasound before an abortion to ensure “informed consent,” and then take away a doctor’s duty to inform a woman of any fetal complications — an attack on women. But “women,” as we should know by now, encompasses an array of different identities, and the attempt to defund contraceptive coverage, and particularly Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and use of the term “recreational sex,” signals a construction of women as women-cum-college-girls-”gone-wild.”
At base, Rush Limbaugh argued that “personal sexual recreational activities” should not be subsidized. Adam Serwer over at Mother Jones has a good rundown of this argument, pointing out how it differs from the Catholic bishops’ protests. Media articles have trumpeted that Rush really put his foot in his mouth on this one, causing sponsors to flee, yet the media’s focus on Rush’s choice words, rather than the substance of his argument, has made Rush’s crime one of politesse rather than politics.
Yet what was interesting about this focus on semantics rather than substance is that it seemed like media outlets like Salon and NY Times thought it so obviously ludicrous to call an unmarried woman using contraception a slut, that they didn’t take up the heart of Rush’s claims that “recreational sex” should not be subsidized. Only Emily Bazelon at Slate focused on the slut-shaming in a substantive way, though she concluded that Fluke was revitalizing feminism through sex positivism. I’m not so sure this is what’s happening. I think Elizabeth Drew, in an essay in the New York Review of Books, rightly brought up a more pessimistic picture that Rush
touched a nerve by raising an issue on which many of his followers would agree with him: why should taxpayers pay for insurance (with no copay at that) to make unlimited sexual activity by students worry-free? Whatever people’s attitudes are about young people engaging in what used to be called “recreational sex,” Limbaugh had cleverly made the issue not really the sex but insurance coverage to protect against its possible consequences.
What I find interesting is this focus on “students” and the tight link between this imagined population and the idea of “recreational sex.” The strange thing is that poised, cool, and 30-year-old Sandra Fluke is hardly the image that springs to mind when someone says “college co-ed.” Instead, we think of the much ballyhooed hook-up culture that has resulted in many a wrung hand over the past decade.
Drew goes on to write, “In my view it would have been wiser for them to call as a witness a married woman with an unarguable medical reason for needing contraceptives and who worked for a Catholic institution that denied it.” Why this focus on “unarguable medical reason?” A concentration on defending contraception due to the Pill’s use for overt medical “diseases” (no one, of course, wants to call pregnancy a “disease”) boomerangs attention to the Pill as opposed to the wide array of recommended contraceptive devises, such as IUDs. It undermines the very reason why the EEOC ruled that health insurance companies had to cover prescription contraceptives in the early 2000s: because to not do so was a form of gender discrimination, unlawful under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which will soon celebrate its 50th birthday. And perhaps most importantly, it distracts from the bigger picture recognized by Planned Parenthood v. Casey 20 years ago, though in relation to abortion: “[t]he ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” [Here's a useful chart showing the related rise of female employment since the early 1970s].
The claim that people need to “take responsibility” for their recreational sexual activities is a form of gender discrimination because it is women who bear the costs of unintended pregnancy: financial, social, and, yes, health-related. And of course what is considered “recreational” and what medically-necessary is always in flux, just as what is considered a disability and a normality changes over time. As Georges Canguilhem argued in The Normal and the Pathological, disease and disability are constructed categories; there is no objective science to identifying them. Infertility treatments are today covered by insurance plans because the inability to have children is seen as a “lack,” a deficit that needs treatment. It’s worthwhile to note that while there are a plethora of laws regulating contraception and abortion in the United States, reproductive technologies like IVF go almost entirely unregulated. Viagra is covered by health insurance because erectile dysfunction has become identified as pathology, despite the fact that viagra may be the most recreational of the sex-related drugs. Then again, male sexual functioning is something society has never had trouble supporting, and in fact the 2000 EEOC decision ruled that insurance companies had to cover prescription contraception for women in part because they already covered viagra for men.
We now see the effect of cultural attacks against a female hook-up culture that began in the early 2000s: this portrayal (whose validity has been rightly contested) has bled out to encompass a much wider area of unmarried female sexuality. Sandra Fluke become a “student” not a 30-year-old adult woman. Her activity becomes “recreational,” not part and parcel of her adult well-being. And the contraception that prevents unintended pregnancy becomes unnecessary to her sexual, mental, and bodily health.
In April 1971, 343 French women signed “le manifeste des 343 salopes”–the Manifesto of the 343 Sluts, proclaiming that they had had abortions. That summer, 374 German women proclaimed the same on the cover of Stern. Sex today is accepted but it is painted in broad strokes and still separated along a marital/non-marital divide. Perhaps we do need to reclaim the name “slut” as the Slut Walks do, but more importantly we need to pluralize this binary and ensure that access to contraception does not become sidelined by a construction of medical necessity that excludes women’s everyday sexual activity.