"Men and women at a base level still aren’t viewed as being the same." Photo: Getty
Three weeks ago, conservative US shock jock/hell demon Rush Limbaugh took to his radio show to launch a sustained three day attack on one Sandra Fluke, a 30 year old Georgetown University law student and reproductive rights activist. Fluke had recently given testimony at an unofficial Democratic Congressional hearing on whether or not employers with religious affiliations should be forced to provide health insurance covering birth control.
It was an unremarkable enough topic, and would probably have gone unnoticed except were it not for a) the current war being waged on women’s reproductive rights in the US and b) the unleashing of ignorant, vitriolic bile that consumed Limbaugh’s daily radio show over the following week. For the singular crime of advocating access to insurance provided birth control, Limbaugh labeled Fluke a ‘slut’ and a ‘prostitute’. Gobsmackingly, he later demanded that if Fluke and her friends (or ‘slut of whores’, as is the preferred collective term) wanted to be subsidized for having sex, the least they could do is film themselves and post it on the internet for everyone to enjoy. O_o
Both the ferocity of Limbaugh’s attacks on Fluke and the ignorance with which they were issued have yet again revealed the depths of loathing particular pockets of society still hold towards particular kinds of women. Perhaps more worryingly, they reveal how people like Limbaugh (as I pointed out recently in the example of sportsmen and former IMF heads) make clear delineations between moral women deserving of care and respect…and sluts.
Slut. I used to fixate on the unfairness of the accusation, particularly given that it seemed to be issued with no particular rhyme or reason other than the accuser’s desire to be hurtful. But recent events (including Limbaugh’s outburst) have made me realize that this isn’t about the kind of sex women are having or even the amount. It’s about the fundamental view that women should have only a peripheral relationship to sex and certainly no active engagement with it – and that these two things will determine if she’s a Lady worthy of respect or a Slut deserving of contempt.
In the subconscious social view, Ladies are naturally disengaged from their sexuality in any kind of human way at all. They view their sexuality peripherally through the gauzy veil of fluttering, dreamlike vistas and romantic fantasies and never, ever as a visceral event involving sweat, dirt and animalistic howls. Those who seek to take charge of their sexuality by, say, accessing birth control aren’t responsible adults making responsible decisions about their future – rather, they’re bitches on heat planning (planning!) grunting sexual encounters to satisfy their craven, unladylike lust for dick. And they pose a threat to masculinity because, given their addiction to birth control, they might now sleep with someone who’s not you.
You can screw these Sluts – but how can you respect them when they have no respect for themselves?
But it’s not just extreme conservatives who diminish women this way. Discomfit around women and sex permeates our culture, and the act itself has become a darkly comic battleground. Otherwise fair-minded women perpetuate the idea of Woman as Gatekeeper, warding off the advances of men and only buckling out of necessity – or worse, pity. This has less to do with women’s natural disdain for sex and more to do with a cultural expectation of how women should participate sexually.
Rather than a fulfilling pursuit in and of itself, Ladies should view sex as a gift to be bestowed upon a worthy suitor. It’s something that should vaguely interest them because it feels good (particularly under the masterful hand that guides them) but its role pales in comparison to the ultimate objective.
On the fraught path to love, sex is something ladies agree to, not something they do, and those of us who engage too excessively with the latter are pityingly accused of demeaning ourselves in order to find affection, or satisfy our own tragic lack of self esteem.
The conversation is lost in the problematic discussions of double standards. Women become Sluts when they engage in the same kind of behaviour as men, who are apparently called ‘studs’ although I haven’t heard that used since about 1983. But a double standard implies two different treatments of the same thing, and the core issue is that men and women at a base level still aren’t viewed as being the same. Worse, women are just as guilty (if not more so, on occasion) of depicting other women as Sluts in order to leverage themselves into the role of Ladies.
And so the accusation of ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ or ‘prostitute’ is less about how much sex women are supposedly having and how we judge it differently to men, and more to do with how much we demonise women’s enjoyment of sex in general. Think about that for a moment. In order to diminish women in our culture, we accuse them of enjoying sex. Worse, we accuse them of wanting it. We talk about them as looking ‘used’, or having ‘done the rounds’, or needing a ‘solid pounding’. It’s no coincidence that the majority of criticisms made towards Yumi Stynes had to do with how much sex she’s supposedly given away for free.
In the year of 2012, we still find ourselves gazing between a woman’s legs to see if she’s a Slut or a Lady. In a culture that presumes even the occasional use of a vagina lowers the value of its postcode, we collectively assess such use as a willingness to be defiled, and we judge accordingly.
I’ve never been all that interested in reclaiming the word ‘slut’, because I’m not all that fond of behavioural definitions. But women have for too long allowed the virgin/whore dichotomy to dictate their own progression in society. We cannot gain ground by requesting permission to walk there, nor can we gain it by trampling on the bodies of other women.
With all this in mind, perhaps we shouldn’t be struggling not to be thought of as Sluts. Perhaps we should instead be resisting the urge to be defined as Ladies.