Two interesting elisions seem to be occurring in mainstream progressive communities responding to Rush Limbaugh calling Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.” And later fauxpologising for his "insulting word choices"; in other words, he still thinks she's a slut, but gosh golly doughnuts, he didn't know people would be so upset about it. They both reflect troubling entrenched attitudes among some members of these communities, who are ostensibly fighting for equality, but sometimes seem to have rather selective views when it comes to who should be equal.
The first trend, which emerged almost immediately, was the defensive reaction; progressives stormed the Internet to say that there are lots of uses for birth control, which is true, and that they weren’t sluts just because they used contraception. They cited the use of hormonal birth control in the treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome, dysmenorrhea and a variety of other health conditions to illustrate that it is a medication which can be used in a number of different ways.
Birth control users proudly proclaimed that they were using it for “medical reasons” or that they were utilizing birth control as a family planning measure in long-term monogamous relationships, including married ones. On these grounds, they argued, birth control should be made readily available without question, just like any other routine medication should be.
I agree with this premise, but I also believe that the framing of this discussion has effectively shut out sluts and sex workers. Both of whom may also want to use birth control. And have a right to access it, just like anyone else.
In the reaction to Limbaugh’s comments, there has been a whiff of “Well, I’m not a slut, so birth control should be available.” The voices of sex workers have been largely absent entirely from the discussion, even though some of them may use birth control -- for work-related reasons, for medical reasons, or for contraception in their personal relationships – the reasons don’t really matter, because access to medical treatment should be a private matter, and people should be able to access treatments they want and need without judgment.
Emily’s a slut: She can access birth control if she wants to. Melissa was a sex worker, and she can access birth control if she wants to as well. In the haste to condemn Limbaugh’s comments, it’s important not to condemn sluts and sex workers at the same time; the problem here is that Limbaugh hates women, and thinks that sluts and sex workers are bad people. That doesn’t mean progressives have to reinforce his beliefs by leaving people out of the fight to defend birth control access.
The bottom line is that anyone who wants, or needs, birth control, for any reason, no matter what their profession, personal proclivities, or anything else, should be able to get it. And that is the right progressives should be defending; because there ain’t nothing wrong with being a slut or a sex worker.
Delving deeper into the mainstream reaction, there’s something else notable and troubling: The progressive community is up in arms about this particular attack from Rush Limbaugh, which begs the question: why? Limbaugh’s been offensive for decades, so what is it about this particular quote that has people enraged? One might charitably argue that it comes in the context of a mounting war on reproductive rights, but there’s more to it than that.
Limbaugh attacked a white woman. A law student. And that has a lot to do with why this incident is making people angry, when Limbaugh’s racism hasn’t sparked nearly the same level of outrage in the past.
A selection of quotes for your viewing displeasure:
Well, it -- what it's going to be here, it's actually a biracial cookie. You've got three of the chocolate wafers, and then you've got the white vanilla cream -- the cream -- and then there's a chocolate cream. So you've got, you've got three -- the stuff, the thing that says Oreo on it, the wafer. And then you've got the white cream, then you've got another chocolate wafer, then you've got the chocolate cream, and then you've got the bottom wafer.
The Triple Double Oreo. You wait, it isn't going to be long before it's called the Or-Bam-eo, or something like this. Well, it's a biracial cookie, here.
This charmer is from 2011, when Limbaugh described a new entry in Nabisco’s lineup. Hooray for racism! This is not, incidentally, the first slag Limbaugh has taken at the President; he’s made snide remarks about the Congressional black caucus and suggested that Colin Powell only endorsed Obama because of his race. The First Lady isn't exempt, by the way; she's "uppity."
They are 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?
Take that bone out of your nose and call me back.
It’s not just the Black community that has been the target of Limbaugh’s diatribes. Here he is in 1993, with thoughts on NAFTA:
If you are unskilled and uneducated, your job is going south. Skilled workers, educated people are going to do fine 'cause those are the kinds of jobs NAFTA is going to create. If we are going to start rewarding no skills and stupid people, I'm serious, let the unskilled jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do — let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.
‘Hu Jintao – He was speaking and they weren’t translating. They normally translate every couple of words. Hu Jintao was just going ching chong, ching chong cha,’ Limbaugh said, before launching into a 17-second imitation of the Chinese leader's dialect.
You get the point: Rush Limbaugh is racist.
Commenting on the Don Imus controversy, Limbaugh said: “[minorities] can get away with anything because they're disadvantaged and they've been discriminated against.” I would note that conservative commentators can apparently get away with anything, as long as they stick to being racist, but evidently attacking the honor of a white woman is potentially enough to sink your career; even the Republican party is starting to distance itself from Limbaugh, which it felt no need to do in the wake of his numerous racist tirades.
These issues intersect: There is a very long history of calling women of color and nonwhite women, particularly Black women, “sluts.” Or, in Don Imus’ case, “nappy-headed hos.” And there’s a long history of not resisting that, of letting these statements pass without comment, illustrating a double whammy of sexism and racism that pins women of color at its intersections.
And let me be clear, here: Some progressives ARE including sluts and sex workers in their pushback on Limbaugh’s comments, getting to the core of those statements. And many progressives HAVE been criticizing Limbaugh’s racism and attempting to publicize it to make people more aware. The fact that their efforts haven’t succeeded in creating the groundswell of support that’s arisen in the latest controversy says more about progressive communities as a whole than the individuals trying to integrate intersectionality into their activism.
I want to see white progressives going to the mat for the Latina housekeepers dismissed from their jobs for fighting sexual harassment; for the family of Troy Davis, struggling to pay funeral and medical expenses; for the victims of anti-Asian hate crimes; and, yes, for the sluts and sex workers of the world. Because we're all in this together.
For a start on more reading about race, media, pop culture, and progressivism, check out Esoterica, Racialicious, Colorlines, People Of Color Organize!, Indian Country Today Media Network, The Angry Black Woman, angry asian man, The Unapologetic Mexican, MySistahs, Racebending and Disgrasian™.