Once there was The Scarlet Letter. Now, it seems, we have The Scarlet IUD.
If Rush Limbaugh had his way, every young woman who used birth control would be made to wear their devices or pills on a string around their neck, dyed to a shameful scarlet.
In his classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the tale of Hester Prynne, a woman in Puritan Boston who has had a daughter from an adulterous affair, and will not name her lover. She is forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her chest to proclaim her sin.
If you think shaming women for sex went out with the Puritans, you haven't been listening to talk radio. As much of America knows by now, Rush Limbaugh used the words
"slut "and "prostitute" to refer to a Georgetown law student, who testified before congress about the need to fund women's reproductive health.
It's an old, old story. How do you shut women up? Call them harlots. Hester Prynne, meet Sandra Fluke.
In the latter case, the shaming didn't work. Ms. Fluke, an attractive, well-spoken young woman, may have the last laugh. A few days ago I was walking near my office and a female student thrust a flyer into my hand, which announced a meeting to be held the next day on women's reproductive rights. This may be an Anita Hill moment. The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace became a big issue after Ms. Hill testified before a senate committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had made improper advances towards her. Thomas was confirmed and Anita Hill was slimed by conservatives, but her ordeal woke up many women to the fact that sexual harassment at work was alive and well and experienced by hundreds of thousands of women.
It does surprise me that in this day and age, some men seem to get really, really upset about women having sex. Especially when they use birth control and so can't be punished by pregnancy. Limbaugh worried that young Georgetown women were having lots and lots of sex -- so much so that he wanted them to make videos that he could watch. There's any woman's dream: having Rush Limbaugh panting over your lovemaking.
Much of this prurience comes from the right, but the left is not immune. Playboy online ran a story in 2009 which contained these words: "10 Conservative Women I'd Like to Hate F--k." The author wrote, "We may despise everything these women represent, but goddammit they're hot. Let the healing begin."
The post was pulled after a flood of complaints.
Men rarely seem to be silenced after having sex, even illicit sex. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana took the floor to complain about Ms. Fluke, despite the fact that he had earlier admitted to cavorting with prostitutes supplied by a D.C. madame.
What would happen, I wonder, if people got really upset about men having sex; especially getting covered for it by their health care plans. Most health insurance plans cover Viagra prescriptions. Do you see women taking to the battlements, shouting, "By God, I am not giving my hard-earned tax dollars to some codger who ought to be playing shuffleboard pretending he's Hugh Heffner! And what about those guys who get vasectomies so they can just have lots and lots and lots of irresponsible sex? Let them pay if they want to play."
That is a scene you will never see, because most women realize that the "H" letter doesn't stand for hedonism, but for health.
Which is good for everybody.
But there is an "H" word that Rush Limbaugh should wear around his neck. Hater. When you brand a law student who is talking reasonably about women's health needs as a harlot, and you say you want to watch sex tapes of her and her friends, that's about as vile as it gets. Oh sure, Rush says he was trying to be amusing. Nobody's laughing. It rather makes me long for the old-time bigots like Father Coughlin and George Lincoln Rockwell (head of the American Nazi party), who knew they were haters and didn't even try to be comedians.
All this may have a happy ending, though; maybe Rush has indeed supplied us with another Aha! moment like Anita Hill did. One in which millions of women wake up to the fact that their freedom of choice to control their sexual lives as they see fit, not according to the dictates of conservative men, is slipping away.
Time for another feminist wave, perhaps?
Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center of The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About our Children (Columbia University Press).