Tags

, ,

I became completely unhinged at a stranger the other day. I won’t say I felt remorse afterward, because I didn’t really. What I did feel was a violent, almost intestinal, need to be understood. It was on a Facebook thread about–try to act surprised when you read this part–Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke. I realize that this all sounds terribly predictable; it’s hardly the first time a “feminazi” has gotten irate about a public misogynist and gone hysterical. Plato popularized the idea of the wandering uterus, the trouble-making organ that was believed to travel around inside a woman’s body causing all manner of emotional problems, circa 360 BCE, and the theory had existed for at least a couple of centuries before that. So it’s not like I’m the first woman to go cuckoo on a guy. It’s because of my uterus, see?

Neither is Limbaugh the first, nor necessarily even the worst, male public figure to issue an offense against women. Kirsten Powers noted in a column in the Daily Beast (March 4, 2012) how common it is for male media commentators, including Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, and, most egregiously according to Powers, Bill Maher, to make misogynist remarks about political women. And do I have to bring up the abyssmally sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton when she ran for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States?

Yet I think there is something fundamentally different in Bill Maher referring to Sarah Palin as a “cocktail waitress” and Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut.” First of all, there’s nothing inherently shameful about being a cocktail waitress. It’s not an easy job, and many women work hard at it. Second, Maher was speaking primarily about Palin’s demeanor, which, if we are going to be honest at all with ourselves, is, in fact, unpresidential. With her obvious people skills and natural flirtatiousness, Palin probably would make a pretty good cocktail waitress. The case of Ed Schultz calling Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut” is different, and he was rightly suspended from the air and ordered to apologize to Ingraham.

So what is it about the word “slut” that crosses the line? Most women are used to being called “bitches,” and some of us have reclaimed and remodeled the word into a metaphor for power and strength. “Psychotic bitch” is a special usage that typically comes from a boyfriend when we are in our twenties and begin to realize that the relationship actually is making us psychotic. We’ve all heard cat-calls. They stopped being an issue when Coca-Cola aired a commercial showing a lineup of women oogling a handsome construction worker back in the late 1980s-early 1990s. And every one of us has at one time or another had our physical appearance deconstructed, sometimes by men and sometimes by other women and usually unkindly.

Germaine Greer reminds us (London Telegraph, May 12, 2011) that the word “slut” traces its origins to class, not sexual, status: “A now obsolete meaning connects it with a kitchen maid, whose life was lived in soot and grease. She was too dirty to be allowed above stairs, but drudged out her painful life scraping pans and riddling ash, for 16 hours a day, and then retreated to her squalid lodging where hot water could not be had. The corner she left unswept was the slut corner; the fluff that collected under the furniture was a slut ball. People who thought of sex as dirt suspected the lazy kitchen maid of being unclean in that way as well.”

Contemporary usage, though, associates “slut” not just with sex but also with prostitution, and ultimately conflates it with “whore.” Limbaugh said of Fluke: “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?” Then, to clarify what he meant, in case you misunderstood, he continued: “It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.” Now, the relatively new movement to dignify prostitution by calling it “sex work” and unionize it notwithstanding, there really is nothing worse you can call a woman, and this transcends time and place. Jesus hung out with whores–the lowest of the low.

What we mean when we say a woman is a “slut” isn’t so much that she’s selling her body; it’s that she’s selling her soul. There is no equivalent word for men in English, no word with an equally heavy weight of insult. You can call a man a “cocksucker,” and he may be offended, but only if he is anxious about being perceived as “gay.” Of course, there are and always have been male prostitutes. But that fact is only problematic for men in general when it means men are having sex with men, not because men are getting paid to have sex. “Gigolos” are portrayed as a sexy and fun way for an older woman of means to spice up her life.

The standard response to the Limbaugh episode from conservative men (including the one at whom I lost my mind) is that they disagree with the way he said it, but they agree with what he said. I am trying to exercise my brain in such a way that this makes sense, without success. You wouldn’t have called a woman who would like her birth control pills to be covered by the health insurance company to which she pays premiums a slut but you still think she’s a slut? “I don’t think the government [my emphasis] should pay for it.” The government? She’s not on Medicaid or public assistance, is she? Do you understand how insurance works? At this point I was called an “inarticulate” and “hysterical” “liberal.” Well, I did sputter some prime curses and call him an asshole, but the key word here is “hysterical.” As in, I am controlled by my scary, cavernous uterus and cannot help but be insane. Silly girl!

I heard another guy elsewhere proclaim that “taxpayers” shouldn’t have to foot the bill for “risky behavior.” Sex is “risky”? Yes. We know sex is risky. The female of the species discovered this shortly after she climbed out of the primordial ooze, stopped laying eggs, and started having live babies. This amazing factor of risk has been reinforced continually throughout human history, most notably during every single pregnancy and the outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis in the late Middle Ages and early-Modern period. Do we really have to go over the history of HIV/AIDS and talk about the millions of women who’ve been infected by their husbands and then given birth to HIV-positive babies? Believe me, my dear man, we understand the risks of sex. Do you understand the risks of beer and doughnuts and smoking and driving a car and getting out of bed? In 2007 the University of California-Davis compiled a list of known and suspected human carcinogens from information supplied by the Occupational and Safety Health Administration, the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, the National Institutes of Health National Toxicology Program, and the State of California. There are 1,188 substances on that list. Not including formaldehyde, which was added in 2011.

So the next time you find yourself complaining about having to “pay” for some “slut’s” birth control pills, I’m going to have to ask you to provide me a list of all the carcinogens and possible carcinogens you’ve exposed yourself to over the course of your lifetime so that I can make a note to bill you for the tiny percentage of my cumulative monthly insurance premiums that might possibly go toward your cancer treatments. (Not that I’m wishing cancer on you.) Oh, and I’m also going to need backpay for that time you fell off a ladder and needed stitches, all the antibiotics you’ve taken throughout your life, your dental work if you’ve ever eaten candy, your blood pressure pills, that case of “urinary burning” you had in college, and also your circumcision, since being born male statistically puts you at risk of risky behavior.

Who’s the slut now, bitches?

Advertisements