Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh acted out yet again last week, repeatedly calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “prostitute” and “slut” after she testified before Congress in favor of mandating that employers provide health insurance that covers contraception. After alleging that Fluke wanted to be paid for sex by “taxpayers,” Limbaugh went on to demand that she post pornographic videos on the internet for his pleasure. (Never mind that Fluke was speaking about a private insurance plan.)
Since then, Limbaugh has faced a storm of criticism. Though he attempted to stem the tide of anger with a disingenuous apology, the comments resulted in the loss of 22 advertisers on his show.
While it is true that Limbaugh is protected by the First Amendment, I believe we should all use our own free speech rights to condemn his comments as sexist, doltish and hateful. Limbaugh’s statements were clearly intended to marginalize and silence women.
As many have pointed out, Limbaugh doesn’t even seem to understand how women’s contraception works. “She’s having so much sex, she can’t afford the contraception,” Limbaugh claimed, implying that women take one birth control pill each time they have sex. (If you or your partner is popping a Yaz every time the mood strikes, please, please, please consult a doctor.)
Perhaps more to the point, his comments completely ignored the substance of Fluke’s testimony. Fluke said nothing about her own sex life and instead focused on the experiences of her friends and colleagues, including the case of a lesbian student who needed birth control pills to treat polycystic ovarian syndrome. When the student was denied coverage by her Catholic employer, her condition worsened, resulting in the loss of her ovary.
Limbaugh’s remarks ignored the content of Fluke’s statement, focusing instead on her purported moral character. This kind of rhetoric is part of a long patriarchal tradition of shaming women into silence by casting female public figures as promiscuous or whore-like. Underpinning this often untrue claim is the knuckle-dragging assumption that sexually active women can’t control themselves and are therefore incapable of entering into rational, civic discussion.
According to Limbaugh’s logic, it’s not what Fluke says, but instead her alleged position as “an immoral, baseless, no-purpose-to-her-life woman” that disqualifies her testimony. If a woman does not keep aspirin between her knees, as conservatives are fond of saying these days, Limbaugh believes she deserves social death — exclusion from political or communal life.
Limbaugh makes this last point explicit when he repeatedly reminds us of this 30-year-old woman’s parents and the embarrassment he imagines they must feel: A woman’s place is safe within the home, away from men and public scandal.
Limbaugh’s defenders might argue that his opponents on the left have called him all sorts of names. However, those insults were aimed at Limbaugh’s behavior or qualities — not his fundamental identity. (As comedian Louis C. K. once pointed out, there’s no genuinely hurtful slur for a white, straight man per se: “Boy, shouldn’t have called me a cracker, bringing me back to owning land and people, what a drag.”) There’s an asymmetry, then, between when Democrats portray Limbaugh as Dracula and what Limbaugh did to Fluke. By attacking Fluke’s gender and sexuality, Limbaugh implies that she is inherently worthless and vile as a woman.
It seems strange, though, that Limbaugh would spend so much time haranguing a woman he believed to be beneath his contempt. Limbaugh’s real motive becomes clearer when we realize that, as Allon White and Peter Stallybrass famously argued, “Disgust always bears the imprint of desire.”
Limbaugh’s sweaty, obsessive diatribes against Fluke reveal the obscene dimension of the new Puritanism. Limbaugh lingers over the testimony of the “college co-ed” because he clearly derives prurient enjoyment from the thought of her disgrace. Limbaugh and others like him claim to be responsible, continent and upright, but their rectitude is predicated upon violent ambivalence — hidden lust for the object of loathing. Hellfire sermons slip over into sadomasochistic reverie.
Don’t get me wrong — if Limbaugh wants to play out his porcine sex fantasies on his show, that’s his prerogative. But when Limbaugh projects those fantasies onto unwilling participants like Fluke or prevents women from having access to reproductive medical care in order to punish them for being “sluts,” he has clearly crossed the line.
JORDAN S. CARROLL is a Ph.D. student in English who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.