03/09/2012 11:37 am ET Updated May 09, 2012

Limbaugh Is Sorry for Calling Fluke a "Slut," But Why Were We ALL Sorry, Too?

This week's back-and-forth over Rush Limbaugh's use of the words "slut" and "prostitute" illustrates our deep discomfort with women's sexuality.

And in saying this, I am not referring to the fact that Rush Limbaugh massively misstated, misunderstood, and misrepresented Sandra Fluke's congressional testimony on the medical need for contraception. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of the subject matter will know that 1) private health insurance is not paid for with tax dollars; and 2) you have to take birth control pills with the same frequency (once a day) regardless of the amount of sex you have.

I am talking about the discomfort with women's sexuality demonstrated in the outpouring of support for Sandra Fluke. Lawmakers, pundits and even the president have reached out, expressing sympathy for the pain it must have caused her to be called a slut. Advertisers have pulled support for Limbaugh's program. And Limbaugh himself found it necessary to apologize for his use of words, all the while reiterating his absurd read of the content of Fluke's original testimony.

Implicit in all of this is the notion that it is a very bad thing to be called a slut. But why? There is, as Yasmin Nair pointedly says, nothing wrong with women who like to have sex "with one person or with many, at the same time, or sequentially." And if that is true, how is it that advertisers can be convinced to pull support for a highly profitable show solely on the premise that it is bad for business to be seen to support someone who calls a woman a slut?

Part of the reason is historic. Perceived chastity has traditionally been linked to the legal definition of defamation and libel. In this way, English common law historically considered it libellous or defamatory "per se" -- that is, without the need for further explanation -- to insinuate that a woman is unchaste. Interestingly, some definitions of defamation per se considered impotence and a want of chastity to be equally damaging notions. Rush Limbaugh might agree with that, considering his run-in with prosecutors over carrying Viagra and his somewhat frequent use of the word "slut" as an insult.

What is disheartening is that some of the of sympathy for Fluke comes from a similar place of discomfort with and judgement of liberated female sexuality. If we say that slut is a bad word, we are implicitly saying it is bad for women to want to have sex. If we say that prostitute is a bad word, we are saying that taking money for sex is an insult. Neither is automatically true.

Limbaugh's negative judgement of a woman having sex for anything other than procreative purposes is obvious and direct. After all, that is what his rant was about in the first place.

For many others the judgement is more insidious and in some cases directed at ourselves. Many of my most actively feminist friends have at some point or another expressed genuine concern that some man will think they are a slut because they had sex with him on a first, second or third date. Apart from the obvious double-standard (the man had sex on a first, second or third date too -- is he also a slut?), most people in the United States, at some point, have sex outside marriage and without a deep and lasting emotional connection. In other words, most people may be sluts, but only women pay a social price for it.

Limbaugh's juvenile tirade illustrates the many levels on which women are held to different standards than men. A woman who speaks publicly about sex, even clinically, is automatically a slut, but no such term automatically attaches to men who routinely affirm their sexual needs and desires. Women who ask that the insurance they pay for cover contraception are not only freeloaders but are also prostitutes, while the men who rely on their female partners to take care of their contraception needs are presumably virile.

In addition, both Limbaugh's carefully worded apology and quite a lot of the anti-Limbaugh media flurry this week miss an essential point in Fluke's testimony: women and men have different health care needs because of their different physiology, and those needs should be met equitably.

But more than that: until we stop assuming that women are bad if they have sex with someone they don't know, don't love, or aren't married to, we will never be a modern democracy with equal protection under the law.

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