Today, I want to talk about the war that’s being waged in some parts of US society against contraception, sexual determinism, and women’s agency.
Before I get started, though, let me say this: I am a white, cisgendered heterosexual man. That puts me in a uniquely privileged position; since I will never be pregnant, the assault on women’s right to choose doesn’t affect me directly. Since I am straight, the assault on the rights of gays and lesbians doesn’t affect me directly. Since I am a man, I am almost never the target of slut-shaming. I am, in other words, not the target of the campaign against women and gays that’s playing out on the airwaves and in the ballot boxes all over the United States right now.
But in a way, that’s kind of the point, because even though I am not the target of the attacks on women and gays, they still very much affect me. The thing is, these are not assaults on women’s rights or gay and lesbian rights; they are assaults on human rights. I am not gay and I am not a woman, but I am a human being. It would be a mistake for me to think that these things don’t affect me directly.
Let’s look at contraception. The debate over whether or not women should have easy access to contraception has turned into one of the defining issues in the current political discussion. Last October, presidential candidate Rick Santorum said “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s OK; contraception is OK. It’s not OK. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” More recently, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh referred to Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “whore” and said that she should be made to post sex tapes of herself online for his viewing pleasure when she said that the insurance policy covering fellow students were wrong to deny coverage for drugs to treat ovarian cysts on the grounds that they could also be used for contraception.
Now, a lot of folks are rightly horrified that a presidential candidate who supposedly favors “small government” would advocate government control over contraception in order to make sure that citizens only do what he thinks they should do in the bedroom, and were rightly appalled at Limbaugh’s slut-shaming tirade against Ms. Fluke. But a lot of folks have cast these as being women’s issues, and described them as attacks on women’s rights, and I think that misses the point.
If a woman wants access to contraception as contraception, presumably it’s because somewhere along the line there’s a man involved. Parthenogenesis is rare in the extreme in human beings. When a woman chooses to use contraception, she’s not the only one affected; her partner is affected to. Restricting access to contraception is not a woman’s issue; it’s a human issue. It affects all of us.
I was married for eighteen years. For twelve of them, my wife used hormonal birth control. This wasn’t just about her; it was about both of us. Neither of us wanted children. Had Santorum been in the White House, and had he been successful in his crusade to prevent her from obtaining birth control because he wanted the government to have the final say in how our lives were “supposed to be,” it would not have affected her; it would have affected both of us. Attacks on contraception are not attacks on women, they are attacks on people.
The issue of gay rights is similar. The language being used today against gay marriage–that it violates the “sanctity” of marriage, that it goes against the “natural order”–are the same arguments, almost word for word, that were used against interracial marriage in the 60s. Many of the opponents of gay marriage, like the National Organization for Marriage, actively seek to use racial division to achieve their goals. Other opponents of equal rights for the LGBT community also oppose divorce even in cases of abuse; Republican state legislator Don Pridemore told a news station that abused women should not get a divorce, but should “get back to why they got married in the first place.”
Again, these are not LGBT issues or women’s issues, but human issues. The moment a person says that it’s acceptable to use manipulative, divisive strategies to achieve a political end, or that victims should not be permitted to leave abusive situations in order to satisfy some kind of abstract idea about the way people “should” be, that affects all of us. Domestic violence doesn’t just affect women; it affects everyone.
Even if these things did only affect women or gays and lesbians, I would still support them against the systematic attacks of the political right, because it’s simply the right thing to do. But by casting these things as women’s issues” or “gay and lesbian issues,” those who seek to control our sexual choices hope to divide us. This strategy only works until we see past the artificial divisions and realize that an attack on women or on gays and lesbians is an attack on all of us.