The Science of Lady Parts and the GOP

Last Thursday, Republican Representative and Tea Party favorite, Joe Walsh (R-Ill), told reporters that when it comes to abortion, “there’s no such exception as life of the mother” because of “advances in science and technology.” This astounding claim was news to the medical community.

Walsh joins the ranks of some other prominent Republican men who don’t understand basic lady parts science: Representative Todd Akin (R-MO), who claimed that pregnancy from “legitimate rape” is “really rare” because “the female body has ways to shut the whole thing down,” and conservative comedian Rush Limbaugh, who doesn’t understand the basics of birth control pills. (He thinks you take a pill every time you have sex!)

These remarks would be humorous if it weren’t for the fact that these men are part of a broader effort by the extreme wing of the Republican Party to take aim at women’s reproductive health.

At the state level, Republican lawmakers enacted a record number of anti-abortion measures in 2011, four times as many as the previous year. A study from the Guttmacher Institute shows that legislators in 45 state capitals introduced 944 provisions to limit women’s reproductive health and rights in the first three months of 2012. These states are proposing/passing abortion ultrasound requirements, gestational limits, health insurance exemptions for contraception coverage, and stringent limitations on medical abortions.

The Guttmacher Institute, 2012

In the past two years, 19 states have introduced bills modeled on a Nebraska law that bans abortion 20 weeks after fertilization. The Oklahoma State Senate redefined “person” as starting at conception, while the Mississippi House approved a bill requiring women who want an abortion to undergo an examination to determine if there is a fetal heartbeat. Texas and Virginia require women to undergo an ultrasound prior to receiving an abortion, and many other states have similar proposals underway. Texas recently cut reproductive services for 130,000 poor women.  As this chart from NARAL indicates, twice as many states passed anti-choice laws in 2011 than in 2010.

NARAL, 2012

At the federal level, in 2010, the newly elected House Republican majority was quick to propose major cuts to reproductive health services. They made several attempts to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, the largest family planning provider in the U.S. that has been around for a century. They also tried to gut Title X, a program that funds family planning and preventive breast and cervical cancer screenings. Both proposals were stopped by Senate Democrats. Ironically, on the same day that House Republicans tried to eliminate Title X funding, Representative Dan Burton (R-IN) proposed contraceptive funding for wild horses (!)

Congressional Republicans also proposed an amendment to the health care bill that allows federally funded hospitals to turn away women in need of an abortion to save their lives. This is by far the most brazen attack on the “mother’s health” exception to restrictions on abortions. In May of 2012, Republicans proposed a veto on sex-selective abortions that failed to pass the House, despite broad Republican support for the bill. And in early 2012, Republicans in Congress held hearings on whether the new health care law should include contraception coverage. These hearings included virtually no female experts, so House Democrats held more inclusive hearings that (gasp) included women. Limbaugh assailed one hearing participant, Georgetown student Sandra Fluke, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

Prominent conservatives, including Republican Party leadership, have roundly dismissed the assertion that the party is engaged in a War on Women, but the recent flurry of legislation curbing reproductive freedoms tells a different story. Given baffling comments from the likes of Walsh, Akin, and Limbaugh, the generals in this War on Women obviously need to include lady parts science as part of basic training.

Sexual Objectification, Part 2: The Harm

This is the second part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. (Part 1).

After nearly three decades, the feminist “sex wars” are back.  This fiery debate from the 1980s pitted radical feminists who claimed that female sexual objectification is dehumanizing against feminists concerned about legal and social efforts to control female sexuality.  Over a decade of research now shows that radical feminists were right to be highly concerned.

The end of the “sex wars” gave rise to so-called third wave feminism that generally celebrates women’s sexual objectification as a form of female empowerment.  It also enabled a new era of sexual objectification, characterized by greater exposure to advertising in general, and increased sexual explicitness in advertising, magazines, television shows, movies, video games, music videos, television news, and “reality” television.

Getting back to the “sex wars” and how radical feminists were right, women who grow up in a culture with widespread sexual objectification tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health (e.g., clinical depression, “habitual body monitoring”), eating disorders, body shame, self-worth and life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, motor functioning, sexual dysfunction, access to leadership, and political efficacy.  Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a far lesser extent.

Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women.  Furthermore, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths.  Add to this the countless hours that most girls/women spend primping and competing with one another to garner heterosexual male attention, and the erasure of middle-aged and elderly women who have little value in a society that places women’s primary value on their sexualized bodies.

Theorists have also contributed to understanding the harm of objectification culture by pointing out the difference between sexy and sexual.  If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates thinking in Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon.  Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy.

Pop culture sells women and girls a hurtful lie: that their value lies in how sexy they appear to others, and they learn at a very young age that their sexuality is for others.  At the same time, being sexual, is stigmatized in women but encouraged in men. We learn that men want and women want-to-be-wanted. The yard stick for women’s value (sexiness) automatically puts them in a subordinate societal position, regardless of how well they measure up.  Perfectly sexy women are perfectly subordinate.

The documentary Miss Representation has received considerable mainstream attention, one indicator that many are now recognizing the damaging effects of female sexual objectification.

To sum up, widespread sexual objectification in U.S. popular culture creates a toxic environment for girls and women.  The following posts in this series provide ideas for navigating new objectification culture in personally and politically meaningful ways.

Magic Mike: Old Sexism in a New Package

Fireworks

Magic Mike is “wildly overperforming” because women and gay men are going to see it in droves.  Thank you Hollywood executives for finally noticing that there’s plenty of money to be made off of heterosexual female and gay male sexuality.  Magic Mike purports to be a movie that caters to het women, and while it does provide a highly unusual public space for women to objectify men, the movie in fact prioritizes male sexual pleasure in tired, sexist ways.

Watching Magic Mike was an experience.  Many of the female theater-goers around me were hollering demands (e.g., “take it all off, baby!”) and grunting approvingly during dance scenes.  The camera unabashedly focused tight on the dancer’s abs and buttocks, requiring viewers to objectify the male actors.  I’ve written elsewhere that living in a culture that objectifies girls/women is highly damaging, and emerging male objectification is a corporate wet dream to sell products by creating new body dissatisfactions/markets.

Make no bones about it, this movie is all about reinforcing the notion that men are in control and men’s sexuality matters more.  It baffles me that the filmmakers were so effective in conveying these themes in a movie about male strippers that a mostly female audience is eating up.  Have we learned to devalue our own sexual pleasure so thoroughly that the scraps of het female sexual pleasure provided by Magic Mike feel like a full meal?

On Fire

Aside from the questionably empowering viewer interaction with the film, the content of Magic Mike is old-school sexism wrapped in a new package.  It reinforces prevailing notions of masculinity where white men are in control, both economically and sexually, and women are secondary characters to be exploited for money and passed around for male sexual pleasure.

Most of the women in the film are audience members portrayed as easily manipulated cash cows to be exploited for money.  In one scene, the club boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) gets his dancers pumped up before a show by asking them, “Who’s got the cock?  You do.  They don’t.”  Dallas has a running commentary that forcefully rejects the idea that female audience members are sexual subjects in the exchange.

Beyond the foundational theme of male control, many (but not all) of the simulated sex acts the dancers perform in their interactions with female audience members service the male stripper’s pleasure, not hers.  Dancers shove women’s faces into their crotch to simulate fellatio, hump women’s faces, perform faux sex from behind without a nod to clitoral stimulation, etc.  As a culture, we have deprioritized female sexual pleasure to such a great extent that these acts seem normal in a setting where they don’t make sense.

Face Humping

While the men in Magic Mike strut their sexual stuff with a plot line that constantly reaffirms their sexual subjectivity, the few supporting female roles show women in surprisingly pornified, objectifying ways.  Magic Mike is pretty tame when it comes to male bodies.  Lots of floor and face humping and naked asses, but no penis or even close-up penis tease shots through banana hammocks.  In fact, viewers aren’t exposed to any male body part that they wouldn’t see at Venice Beach.  The same cannot be said for women.

The movie features gratuitous breast scenes galore (yes, the breasts are the scene) and full body (side and back) female nudity. One of the male stripper’s wives is reduced to a pair of breasts that are passed around when her husband encourages another male stripper to fondle them because “she loves it.”  The few recurring female roles in the cast are flat with no character development, including the romantic interest, while the white men in the film enjoy extensive character development.

Other disturbing moments are peppered throughout the movie.  Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) makes a thinly veiled rape innuendo when he’s “teaching” a younger guy how to approach a woman at a club: “Look what she’s wearing. She’s asking to be bothered.”  The movie also asks viewers to laugh at a larger woman who hurts a dancer’s back when he picks her up (see photo and trailer below).  And one of the main characters has a homophobic reaction when he’s grossed out that his sister thinks he’s gay.  Also, this is a story about white men where both women and men of color exist at the margins.  The Latino DJ is a drug dealer (how original), and the two Latino dancers barely talk.

Fat Joke

I was heartened and humored by grandmas and teenage girls asserting their sexual subjectivity in the theater by yelling at the screen.  It is wonderful to see so many women spending money for an experience that purports to cater to our sexual desires.  We want to feel powerful when it comes to our sexuality because we’re constantly robbed of sexual subjectivity through popular culture, pornography, the male gaze, and in the bedroom.  One Sexual Revolution later, men are still twice as likely to achieve orgasm than women during sex.

If Magic Mike is our sexual outlet, we deserve something better.  When women turn around and engage in the same objectification that harms us, is that empowering?  When the men we’re objectifying on the screen are degrading women and prioritizing their own sexual pleasure, and we eroticize this behavior, is that empowering?  And when women eroticize sexual acts that don’t involve the clitoris/orgasm, is that empowering?  I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I do know that Magic Mike would have been a radically different film had it truly been about female sexual pleasure.  It’s high time more women were calling the shots in Hollywood and making mainstream movies that feature female sexual pleasure.

Magic Mike trailer.  To see the sexual double standard, note how the trailer frames male stripping as a “fantasy” life, and imagine this term being applied to female strippers in a Hollywood trailer.

Rush Limbaugh’s 20 Year War on Women

After Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law school student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for believing that insurance should cover the cost of birth control, pundits on the right and left quickly pointed out that liberal media figures have also used sexist slurs.

I have perhaps written more than anyone about the use of sexist slurs by prominent men on the left lobbed at Sarah Palin, Laura Ingraham, Hillary Clinton, and Michele Bachmann. But to lump Chris Matthews, Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, or Ed Schultz in with the likes of Limbaugh downplays the veracity of Limbaugh’s very long and very public hatred of women.

Limbaugh has spent two decades attacking feminists, female political leaders, professional women, women who speak out, and women’s gains more generally. This formula makes his almost exclusively older, white, male audience feel more powerful in a world where changing gender roles have challenged non-meritorious power structures that benefit them.

Bashing Feminists

Limbaugh popularized the term “feminazi,” which aligns feminists – those who believe in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, and who started the anti-domestic violence and anti-child sexual abuse movements – with the most notoriously violent regime of the last century. Back in 1992, Limbaugh appeared on the Phil Donohue Show to discuss feminazi trading cards.

Limbaugh has repeatedly said that feminism “was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream.” His favorite pastime is to attack the National Organization For Women, and in October of 2010, he called them “a bunch of whores to liberalism.”

In 2010, Limbaugh defended his decision to judge the Miss American Pageant, claiming that he loves women and is a huge supporter of the women’s movement, “especially when walking behind it.”

Bashing Female Political Leaders

Limbaugh regularly attacks Hillary Clinton in sexist ways, referring to her “testicle lockbox,” calling her a “lyin ass bitch,” questioning whether Americans want an older female president, and saying she “reminds men of the worst characteristics of women they’ve encountered over their life: totally controlling, not soft and cuddly.”  Limbaugh also referred to 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton as a “dog.”

Limbaugh often makes derisive comments about Michelle Obama’s weight and said the presidential limo “weights eight tons” without the First Lady in it.  In October of 2011, Limbaugh said that “there are plenty of lard-ass women in politics” who “get a pass on every aspect of their appearance.” But they don’t get a pass from Limbaugh who makes his living insulting the physical appearance of women in power.

In this segment, Limbaugh rants against Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, claiming that they’re unqualified and essentially stupid.

Bashing Professional Women

In Limbaugh’s teenage fantasy world, female journalists are “info babes” and “anchorettes.” He even suggested that many women would be “flattered to be hired as eye candy.” Limbaugh believes the media, politics, and unions are under the constant threat of “chickification” from which “nothing good can come.”

Bashing Women who Speak Out

In line with the Fluke fiasco, Limbaugh seems particularly keen on attacking women who speak out. In 2011, he joked that the women who accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment appeared together because “they want to synchronize their menstrual periods.”

Just last week, when race car driver Danica Patrick told a reporter that the government should make decisions concerning contraception coverage, Limbaugh used an ad hominem attack to berate her: “What do you expect from a woman driver?”

Bashing Women’s Progress

Limbaugh is highly critical of the gains women have made in American society in recent decades. In 2009, he stated that “everybody knows it was the vacuum cleaner that liberated women more than the pill.” In his defense, Limbaugh may have said this because he doesn’t understand how the pill works.

In Limbaugh’s mind, women live longer lives because they have it easier than men. In 2006, Limbaugh compared his cat to women: “Once I feed her, guess what? She’s off until the next time she gets hungry. And she doesn’t have to do anything for it, which is why I say this cat has taught me more about women than anything in my whole life.”

In Limbaugh’s world, women are conniving bimbos. He told Sandra Fluke, “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex…we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

For Rush Limbaugh, then, women in positions of power or those who speak out on behalf of themselves or other women are to be ridiculed and derided. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, he was identified as the most trusted news personality in the nation in a 2008 Zogby poll.

Given his 20 year war on women, it’s not at all shocking that Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke these sexist slurs. What is shocking is that the American public has finally taken notice.