The Republicans’ Unhealthy Sex Obsession
It has been erroneously stated for years that men think about sex every seven seconds. While this is untrue for the general population, when applied to the GOP, it is perhaps an understatement. The past few weeks have seen contraception come to the top of the agenda in the nomination race, Rick Santorum’s major donor Foster Friess arouse controversy by suggesting girls use aspirin ‘between their knees’ for contraception, and even the Girl Scouts coming under fire for promoting promiscuity and the ‘pro-abortion agenda’.
On Wednesday, radio host Rush Limbaugh, no stranger to causing offence, incited a furore by labelling Georgetown student Sarah Fluke, who was speaking in favour of the provision of birth control, a ‘slut’. Limbaugh said:
What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] 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. 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.
The next day he took this even further, by adding:
If we’re going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.
While the remarks are ignorant, disgusting, and intentionally cruel, there is a temptation to ignore them. Limbaugh is essentially a ‘shock jock’ – a right-wing firebrand who makes a living out of offending people. He thrives on the oxygen of publicity, whether he’s accusing Michael J. Fox of ‘exaggerating’ his disability, or telling a black caller to ‘take that bone out of your nose and call me back‘, and when his opponents erupt in righteous indignation against him, his profile only grows. But we should not ignore Limbaugh’s latest comments, as they highlight a problem that could devastate the Republicans’ independent vote: the GOP are fundamentally out of touch with the nation when it comes to sex.
While no politician aiming for high office would have spoken in the way Limbaugh did, the nature of the candidates’ responses to him was telling. Rick Santorum called his comments ‘absurd’, but qualified it by adding, ‘an entertainer can be absurd… He’s in a very different business than I am‘. Mitt Romney took a similar line, saying ‘it’s not the language I would have used‘. Neither man saw fit to criticise the sentiments he expressed, only lightly rebuking him for his choice of words; as if it would have been fine to insinuate that a woman in favour of the provision of contraception is a ‘slut’ as long as you use a different word. Even if they didn’t want to condemn Limbaugh’s offensive reasoning, they could have at least pointed out the factual, logical problems in his statements. Not only was Fluke’s argument based on medical necessity, arising from a friend’s need to treat her ovarian cysts with oral contraception not covered by the school’s insurance, but once a woman is on the contraceptive pill, the monthly cost is the same ‘whether or not they are having sex five times a day or five times a year‘. But they didn’t. Instead they spoke only of his phrasing, and in Santorum’s case, even sounded jealous that Limbaugh could speak so freely.
It occurs to me that the Republican Party are in a way quite like the MPAA, the American film ratings board. The board famously holds a double standard when it comes to violence and sexuality, encapsulated by the probably apocryphal comment from one Hollywood insider that ‘You can slice a breast off onscreen, but you can’t kiss it’. Emily Browning recently spoke of the MPAA forcing a sex scene to be cut from Sucker Punch because her character was deemed to be enjoying it too much; claiming, ‘They don’t think a girl should ever be in control of her own sexuality’. Browning went on to say that the only way they would have been able to keep the scene, yet still get a PG-13 rating would be to edit it so ‘it looked like he was taking advantage of her’. The MPAA’s views on sex and violence chime perfectly with the Republican mentality that a condom is more dangerous than a gun, and it is within their fear of female sexuality, shared with the GOP, that we find the basis of Limbaugh’s comments.
It is the fear of sex and the double standard that men alone are allowed to enjoy it that fuels Limbaugh’s hateful comments on birth control, when he himself was famously detained at an airport for possessing Viagra not prescribed to him. It is what is behind Rick Santorum saying that contraception leads to unwanted pregnancies, without appearing to see the illogicality in this statement. It is what is behind Virginian Republicans attempting to push through a bill that would require any woman seeking an abortion to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound, despite the process actually constituting rape according to Virginia statute – a measure that is difficult to regard as anything other than punishment for these ‘unchaste’ women. As Laurie Penny said, ‘one could be forgiven for thinking that American politics had temporarily been scripted by Margaret Atwood‘.
The problem for the Republicans is that while they are attempting to be the vanguard of a sexual counter-revolution, the public is not following them. They have tried to make contraception into an issue of religious freedom, despite polls showing that 98% of sexually active Catholic women have used birth control and that only 10% of that group believe the church should have the final say on reproductive rights. Polls have repeatedly shown both that voters support the Obama administration’s stand on birth control, and that they assign less importance to social issues than economic policies in an election year. Despite this, the candidates spent 15 minutes in their last debate agreeing with each other about the horrors of contraception, and delivering independents and moderate women to the Democrats. If the Republicans continue in this vein, echoing Rush Limbaugh in sentiments if not phrasing, they will essentially change the focus of the election from economic policies to a referendum on gender equality. If they do this, they may as well give up now and, as one journalist suggested, ‘put a banner over their heads reading, “Independents, please don’t consider voting for us“‘, for with every mention of reproductive rights, this is exactly what they are doing.