Sneak Peek 2: Rhetorics of Slut-Shaming

Costly Expedience: Reproductive Rights and Responses to Slut Shaming

by Laurie McMillan 

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

Wemple, E. (2012, March 5). Rush Limbaugh’s ‘personal attack’ on Sandra Fluke? More like 20 attacks. Retrieved from




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

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Sneak Peek 1: TOC

Jamie White-Farnham and Cathryn Molloy

Section 1: Rhetorics of Self
With a focus on individual rhetorical action, this section includes chapters that report on women’s self-sponsored writing, such as expressivist writing, writing-to-heal, or self-sponsored and educative practices. Generally speaking, this section is devoted to the creativity of women responding to the circumstances of their health.

Donna Laux

Chapter 1
Writing My Body, Writing My Health: A Rhetorical Autoethnography
Kim Hensley Owens

Chapter 2
Temporal Disruptions: Illness Narratives Before and After Web 2.0
Ann Wallace

Chapter 3
Analyzing PCOS Discourses: Strategies for Unpacking Chronic Illness and Taking Action
Marissa McKinley

Chapter 4
Rhetorics of Empowerment for Managing Lupus Pain: Patient-to-Patient Knowledge Sharing in Online Health Forums
Cynthia Pengilly

Chapter 5
Rhetorics of Self-Disclosure: A Feminist Framework for Infertility Activism
Maria Novotny
Lori Beth De Hertogh

Section 2: Rhetorics of/and the Patient
The following chapters explain the rhetorical, legal, corporate, and activist systems in which patients participate or struggle in terms of their health.

Bridging the Gap in Care for Women
Janeen Qadri

Chapter 6
Making Bodies Matter: Norms and Excesses in the Well-Woman Visit
Kelly Whitney

Chapter 7
Doula Advocacy: Strategies for Consent in Labor and Delivery
Sheri Rysdam

Chapter 8
Gendered Responsibility: A Critique of HPV Vaccine Ads, 2006-2016
Erin Fitzgerald

Chapter 9
“Pregnant?” You Need a Flu Shot!”: Safety and Danger in Medical Discourses of Maternal Immunization
Lisa M. DeTora
Jennifer A. Malkowski

Chapter 10
“Most Doctors Will Just Say ‘Stop running’”: Women Runners’ Narratives, Agency, and Identity
Billie Tadros

Chapter 11
Reframing Efficiency through Usability: The Code and Baby-Friendly USA
Oriana Gilson

Section 3: Rhetorics of Advocacy
Focusing on public writing and rhetoric, this section includes chapters about the rhetorical strategies and arguments made by and on behalf of women in terms of their own and others’ health and health care.

Fighting Cancer from Every Angle
April Cabral

Chapter 12
“You Have to Be Your Own Advocate”: Patient Self-advocacy as a Coping Mechanism for Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk
Marleah Dean

Chapter 13
Activism by Accuracy: Women’s Health and Hormonal Birth Control
Kristin Marie Bivens
Kirsti Cole
Amy Koerber

Chapter 14
Altering Imaginaries and Demanding Treatment: Women’s AIDS Activism in Toronto, 1980s-1990s
Janna Klostermann

Chapter 15
Costly Expedience: Reproductive Rights and Responses to Slut-Shaming
Laurie McMillan

“The Rhetorician [of Health and Medicine] as Agent of Social Change”: Activism for the Whole Woman’s Body
Bryna Siegel Finer