Costly Expedience: Reproductive Rights and Responses to Slut Shaming
In 2012, law student Sandra Fluke argued for contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act while sidestepping discussions of sex. Rush Limbaugh dismissed her argument by slut shaming Fluke; he subsequently faced extensive backlash and apologized. While this moment seems positive, supportive responses to Fluke capitalized on her status as an educated white woman, and widespread narratives associating reproductive rights with sexually immoral behavior were not fully confronted. Three such responses are analyzed here to show that supporting women’s reproductive health must involve not only short-term advocacy but also ongoing challenges to problematic narratives about sexual behavior.
At the end of February 2012, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke testified before Congress on behalf of women’s right to free contraceptives under the ACA. Over the course of a few days, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh responded on his show by labeling Fluke a “slut” who wanted taxpayers to pay for her to engage in unlimited sex (Wemple, 2012). Negative publicity ensued in reaction to Limbaugh, and approximately 40 of his sponsors withdrew their support. Although his network reiterated its support of him, Limbaugh chose to issue an apology.
This series of exchanges provides a lens into the ways rhetorics of slut-shaming and reproductive rights often intersect. “Slut-shaming” refers to the use of the label “slut” to marginalize a girl or woman by damaging her reputation with implications of overly sexual behavior (Bazelon, 2013, p. 95); such name-calling may be leveraged against women who have expressed sexual desire or against women who have not been sexually active but rather have challenged prescribed feminine norms (Duncan, 1999, p. 14). While Fluke’s testimony largely sidesteps arguments about women’s sexual behavior, Limbaugh draws on traditions of using slut-shaming to discredit women (in this case, Sandra Fluke) and to argue against reproductive rights (in this case, access to contraception). However, because his diatribe is leveled against a white law student at Georgetown University who does not fit typical stereotypes associated with the word “slut,” Limbaugh faced extensive backlash.
I consider three public challenges to Limbaugh’s comments to show why and how his narrative was ultimately rejected; after all, often slut-shaming narratives are not widely rejected. The responses to Limbaugh include a public statement from former Limbaugh sponsor David Friend, CEO of Carbonite; a satirical flowchart titled “Are You a Slut?” from the Mother Jones website (Murphy and Breedlove, 2012); and a YouTube video of the song “I’m a Slut” from the comedy duo the Reformed Whores. The responses argue that access to contraceptives affects so many women for such a variety of reasons that the word “slut” is inappropriate and unfair. However, because these responses reflect Fluke’s social status and her minimal attention to women’s sexual activity in her testimony, they may be limited in their ability to change long-term views about reproductive rights and women’s sexuality. Looking closely at the rhetorics of the Fluke-Limbaugh controversy thus shows how short-term advocacy for reproductive rights may unintentionally compromise long-term progressive goals.
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Bazelon, E. (2014). Sticks and stones: Defeating the culture of bullying and rediscovering the power of character and empathy. New York, NY: Random House.
Duncan, N. (2012). Sexual bullying: Gender conflict and pupil culture in secondary schools. New York, NY: Routledge.
Murphy, T. & Breedlove, B. (2012). Flowchart: Are You a Slut? Retrieved from https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/03/flow-chart-are-you-slut/
Wemple, E. (2012, March 5). Rush Limbaugh’s ‘personal attack’ on Sandra Fluke? More like 20 attacks. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/post/rush-limbaughs-personal-attack-on-sandra-fluke-more-like-20-attacks/2012/03/04/gIQA1OkHtR_blog.html?utm_term=.9171feeb4aff
This work is copyrighted and may not be used without citation.
McMillan, L. (2019). “Costly Expedience: Reproductive Rights and Responses to Slut Shaming.” In White-Farnham, J., Siegel Finer, B., & Molloy, C. (Eds). Women’s Health Advocacy: Rhetorical Ingenuity for the Twenty-first Century. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from https://womenshealthadvocacybook.com/2019/02/08/sneak-peek-3-rhetorics-of-slut-shaming/
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