On Birth Control and Sluts: The Problem is Bigger than Rush

by | March 20, 2012
filed under Feminism

Rush Limbaughby Jasmine Peterson

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which sometimes I think I do, yet I still managed to hear of this) you’ve likely heard about the reprehensible tirade Rush Limbaugh engaged in on air a couple of weeks ago. During his diatribe, he suggested that Sandra Fluke, a student of Georgetown University who cogently argued before Democratic members of the House of Representatives that contraceptives should be provided free of cost under university health plans was a “slut” or “prostitute” for asking to be “paid to have sex”.

As if that wasn’t derisive enough, he then went on to suggest that Ms. Fluke and other women who, you know, want to have control over their reproductive rights and their bodies (feminazis, according to Limbaugh – because how dare a woman demand autonomous control over her own body) ought to post videos of themselves having sex in payment for their publicly funded birth control.

Limbaugh’s apology following his offensive commentary, precipitated by the backlash and consequent loss of several corporate sponsors and advertisers and not any actual remorse, is specious at best. You can read a pretty adept critique of it here. In reaction to Limbaugh’s perpetual hate speech and his weak apology, VoteVets is demanding for Limbaugh to be pulled off the air.

VoteVets is a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are demanding the American Forces Network to remove Limbaugh from its programming, stating that “There simply can be no place on military airwaves for sentiments that would undermine respect.” It’s interesting that this position has been taken up only recently, given Rush’s long history of making denigrating, hateful, and misogynist remarks on air. I don’t see that this is anything worse than things he’s said in the past, to so suddenly garner such a reaction.

Now, I don’t much like Rush as an ‘entertainer’ or as a human being, even. However, I don’t think that censorship is the best reaction to this situation. This is only one (extreme and blatant) example of misogyny in media. Rush’s statements are only a symptom of a much larger problem of a culture steeped in misogyny. Taking him off the air doesn’t address the issue, and I don’t see it as any sort of solution.

Of course, leaving him on the air means he’s going to continue to engage in hateful rhetoric, but the things Rush says are reflective of a deeper cultural disdain of women, and particularly of autonomous female sexuality. As much as he may influence public discourse, he is also influenced by it. So while I don’t absolve Rush of responsibility for his offensive diatribe, taking him off the air is a futile exercise. In fact, leaving him on the air might actually be a good thing – the backlash he faced from his hateful attack on Sandra Fluke elicited a vociferous and vehement public response. If we continue to volubly resist this sort of sentiment, and corporate sponsors and advertisers continue to respond, perhaps this will shift what is acceptable in media and entertainment.

Although that’s a rather optimistic (and probably unrealistic) expectation, I do think the focus needs to be on addressing the culturally embedded misogyny, rather than on removing Limbaugh from the airwaves.

It’s a much larger task, but even if Limbaugh’s program no longer airs, it doesn’t effectually remove such sentiment from the media. It is everywhere. Its embededdness in our culture is evidenced in the fact that we even need to be having these conversations in the 21st century, and in the attacks we see on reproductive rights in the States. It is evidenced in the fact that those who are leading these conversations are predominantly wealthy middle-aged men. And it is evidenced in the fact that slut-shaming and victim-blaming are still effective tools in the silencing of women.

(photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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  • Jessica Critcher

    I’m not generally a fan of censorship either. But with the Armed Forces Network it’s a bit different. That is distributed to military families and service members, often overseas, as sort of a “taste of home.” Rush is protected by the first amendment. If he wants to say hateful things, he has every right to say them. But The AFN doesn’t have to air them. My husband is an active duty service member– my father and father-in-law are retired marines, and we have every branch of service represented in our families. My little brother is joining the Navy and I worry about the sexist environment he’s going to be in when he joins. I was distraught to learn that the AFN was one of Limbaugh’s supporters. I hope they do give him the boot.

  • Joyce Arthur

    I think it’s an example of harmful and inciting hate speech, and as such it should be stopped. Limbaugh contributes to the cultural disdain for women and even helps drive it. Free speech is overrated – since Limbaugh is s a public figure with a large audience, he has a special responsibility to not be hateful, because words and the ideas they communicate have consequences – including violence, harassment, and discrimination. I don’t believe it’s necessary for words to immediately or directly incite violence – repeated words of hate to a large audience over time should meet the test. We can’t charge everyone who spreads hate, so we have to pick the worst, high-profile cases and make examples of them. Taking Limbaugh off the airwaves and charging him with spreading hatred would send an important message to the rest of society. Letting him stay on means we accept that hatred against women is ok when it’s not, and allows the hatred to continue unabated.

    There’s other ways to fight hate speech and we should use them all, but the law is a crucial backstop and a key symbol of what society values and prioritizes, and it probably does affect social attitudes and practices over time. E.g, I don’t think American women would be in nearly as bad a position today if the Equal Rights Amendment had passed decades ago.

    (This piece I wrote last year goes into more detail on my position: “The Limits of Free Speech”, http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/reader-diaries/2011/09/21/limits-free-speech-5)

  • Lark Ryan

    We need a new word. Rush Limbaugh recently reminded us that the only words for sexually active women are pejorative: slut, whore, etc. What is the term for sex-positive woman? There isn’t one. Yet. A sex-positive man (which sounds almost redundant) is called a stud, a Don Juan, a Casanova, all with a wink and a smile. I’m calling for a new word. If I want to claim my sexuality and my right to enjoy it without fear of unwanted pregnancy and, yes, expect my health insurance to help me pay for birth control, what can you call me? We need a new word. Or perhaps we can rehabilitate an old word. I propose…the antiquated term doxy. Please spread the word. With apologies to Stephen Colbert, I say that’s the word. Got a better one?


    Lark Ryan, LCSW

  • Susan Dohnim

    There is a very simple answer for addressing the misogyny in this country: No sex for Republican men. If they think we’re sluts…well, then, I guess we should take their advice and use an aspirin between the knees as birth control…for Republicans. Democrats can enjoy healthy, satisfying, loving and passionate sex with us. Republicans men can spend their time alone, or with each other…or whatever, I really don’t care.

    This may sound dumb — after all, who wants to have sex with Republican men? But ladies — someone is doing it. These men are not celibate until marriage. When they were in college, they had sex with their girlfriends, confident in the fact that pregnancy was a slim chance because their girlfriends were on the pill. Now they are calling Planned Parenthood President, Cecile Richards, a slut for stating that, when she was in college, she used Planned Parenthood for birth control. On college campuses, as I type, there a young, budding Republican guys, dating and sleeping with women tonight who they will denigrate tomorrow.

    How do we deal with this misogyny? We take back the power we’ve always had – the power that is at the root of men’s hatred of us. We form the New Lysistrata Movement, and let men know that we will not, under any circumstances, date or sleep with men who are going to vote against our interests.