Slut-Shaming: How Framing Matters

As almost anyone with television, radio, or Internet access is no doubt aware by now, a woman named Sandra Fluke was recently attacked for three continuous days by right-wing radio commentator Rush Limbaugh for her testimony in front of Congress regarding women’s health care.

Limbaugh referred to Ms. Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute,” and ridiculed her for trying to get free contraception from the American taxpayer to fund her “recreational sex life.” In a particularly odious statement, he proposed that any woman who receives taxpayer-funded contraception be forced to have sex on camera for his entertainment.

His tirades provoked an enormous backlash, as a result of which many sponsors have ceased advertising on his show.

There are a lot of things that can be said about this entire embarrassing debacle. Mr. Limbaugh has had four wives and has been known to have multiple affairs and also to frequent sex workers, so the notion that he should resort to slut-shaming when he is promiscuous himself is a bit baffling, and points to an appalling double standard held by many social conservatives.

Additionally, the fact that female health care is still, even now, so fraught with controversy in an age where male health care is routinely covered by insurance, and insurance companies pay for Mr. Limbaugh’s Viagra, indicates that in many ways, women still aren’t quite considered equal members of society, equally deserving of the same medical treatment.

But rather than talk about either of those things, I’d rather talk about something else: the power of framing.

This is Ms. Fluke’s testimony. If you watch it (you can also read a transcript here, if you’d prefer), you will probably notice something interesting: At no point does she ask for free contraception.

Instead, her testimony is centered around other issues, such as insurance companies which refuse to cover medically necessary treatment for women if the treatment can also be used as a form of birth control. Here’s an excerpt:

A friend of mine, for example, has polycystic ovarian syndrome and has to take prescription birth control to stop cysts from growing on her ovaries. Her prescription is technically covered by Georgetown insurance because it’s not intended to prevent pregnancy. Under many religious institutions’ insurance plans, it wouldn’t be, and under Senator Blunt’s amendment, Senator Rubio’s bill, or Representative Fortenberry’s bill, there’s no requirement that an exception be made for such medical needs. When they do exist, these exceptions don’t accomplish their well-intended goals because when you let university administrators or other employers, rather than women and their doctors, dictate whose medical needs are legitimate and whose aren’t, a woman’s health takes a back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body.

In sixty-five percent of cases, our female students were interrogated by insurance representatives and university medical staff about why they needed these prescriptions and whether they were lying about their symptoms. For my friend, and 20% of women in her situation, she never got the insurance company to cover her prescription, despite verification of her illness from her doctor. Her claim was denied repeatedly on the assumption that she really wanted the birth control to prevent pregnancy. She’s gay, so clearly polycystic ovarian syndrome was a much more urgent concern than accidental pregnancy. […] Without her taking the birth control, a massive cyst the size of a tennis ball had grown on her ovary. She had to have surgery to remove her entire ovary.

I have written in my personal blog about the power of framing. By taking testimony about discrepancies in health care coverage between men and women in the guise of religious morality, and re-framing it as “women want free birth control so they can have recreational sex with someone else’s money,” Rush attempted to manipulate people’s opinions toward those he preferred.

And, sadly, to a large extent he succeeded. The ensuing discourse about this issue has tended to center around subsidized contraception–which is definitely a worthwhile topic for discussion in its own right–in spite of the fact that that isn’t what Ms. Fluke’s testimony was about. He spent three days referring to her as a “slut” and a “prostitute” despite the fact that she was not talking about her own sex life at all, nor even about insurance coverage for her own contraceptives!

One of the more insidious problems with slut-shaming is that it is such an entrenched part of many societies, including US society, that public debate about important topics can be stifled by careful framing of the debate in terms of female promiscuity.

In this particular case, Mr. Limbaugh’s attempts at using slut-shaming to derail conversation about health insurance have backfired, but it remains a powerful tool for manipulating public discourse, even on topics not directly related to sexuality.

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