The Contraception “Debate”

I wasn’t surprised when I heard that Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for arguing that health insurance plans should cover birth control. I wish I could say I was, but unfortunately it’s the kind of crude, thoughtless misogyny we’ve come to expect from arguably the most influential conservative pundit in the country. What is surprising about his statements is how he and other conservatives have, for the moment, stopped trying to use arguments about religious freedom and started trying to present as a self-evident truth the idea that women should be prohibited from having sex. And that should drive home one message to virtually every American woman: that’s you he’s talking about.

Sandra Fluke was originally barred from testifying before Representative Darrell Issa’s birth control hearing (titled — and this is not a joke — “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State: Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”) because, as Issa said, “the hearing is not about reproductive rights but instead about the administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience.” But when she did testify before Congress later, saying essentially nothing more than “birth control is expensive without insurance, and women should be able to access it no matter who their employer is,” the religious freedom arguments vanished like smoke.

Instead, we got this from Limbaugh:

What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex…If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.

(He’s since apologized, but only for his choice of words, not for his sputtering outrage at the notion of birth control coverage.)

There’s a lot to unpack in that quote — the lie about taxpayers paying for healthcare covered by private insurance, the pleasure Limbaugh would apparently get watching the very act for which he’s excoriating Fluke, the hypocrisy of opposing birth control but using Viagra (possibly for sex tourism) — but the most striking part is that Limbaugh apparently defines “slut” as “using birth control.” Perhaps he’s trying to steer around that implication with the bit about “having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception,” but that’s not how birth control works. As everyone except small children and Rush Limbaugh knows, you take one pill a day (or have one IUD/implant/other device that’s always there), regardless of your level of sexual activity.

Having so much sex you can’t afford the contraception just means having any sex, at all, without enough money to afford contraception.

That’s you he’s talking about. If you, like the vast majority of women, including almost all mothers and wives, have used contraceptives, a man with millions of devoted listeners thinks you’re a slut. He also seems to think that being a slut inherently invalidates your political opinions, particularly opinions about how health care policies directly affect you. Remember that line Darrell Issa used when barring Fluke from his original hearing? Something about how conservatives weren’t against women’s rights, they just wanted to preserve religious freedoms? Yeah, neither does Limbaugh.

By the way, that’s me he’s talking about, too. I’ve gotten birth control (without a copay, even!) through my employer-provided insurance for years, just like I’ve gotten prescription-strength cough syrup, steroid cream for allergic reactions, and other medications I could technically survive without but which make my life much more comfortable. This isn’t something I’m embarrassed to say to thousands of people on the Internet, because to me, it’s thoroughly, wholly, utterly uncontroversial. It’s just modern medicine. To Limbaugh, however, I’m a slut and a prostitute, and being either is cause for ridicule and punishment.

My sister receives birth control through her health insurance, as well. Her doctor prescribed it for her primary dysmenorrhea, a condition marked by excessive menstrual pain. It first hit her in the middle of the SAT; the pain was so bad, she left in an ambulance and had to retake the test later. Maybe Limbaugh isn’t technically talking about her, but as Fluke’s testimony pointed out, women who need hormonal birth control for reasons other than contraception often have trouble obtaining it. When you give random bureaucrats the power to decide who deserves health care and who’s an unworthy slut, they’re bound to get it wrong sometimes. But who cares, as long as all the whores get what they so obviously deserve, right?

Limbaugh isn’t going down this road alone. Bill O’Reilly has echoed his sentiments, as have many prominent conservative blogs (sample Drudge Report tweet: “Student needs contraception for 5 sex encounters per day”). Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has distanced himself from Limbaugh’s comments because of their vulgarity, but he’s actually taken a stronger stance against contraception than a whole pile of Limbaughs. He doesn’t just want to force women to pay extra for birth control, he wants to give states the power to outlaw it.

Santorum is still doing his best to obscure his anti-woman beliefs behind that tattered veil of “religious freedom,” saying things like, “I’m reflecting the views of the church that I believe in. We used to be tolerant of those beliefs.” But Limbaugh has blown conservatives’ cover — and in some warped way, I’m grateful for it. Remember that as the contraception “debate” rages on (the abortion “debate,” too). It’s never religious liberty they’re talking about. It’s women. It’s you.

Lauren O’Neal lives in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Christy Thompson, via Shutterstock