Personal Health

Female Sexuality Still Terrifying to Conservative Lawmakers

The dusty old argument that female sexuality is a subversive force that needs to be strictly controlled is alive and well in the GOP.

The Republican attack on Planned Parenthood, in the form of the House zeroing out funding for the organization in the continuing resolution on the federal budget, seemingly came out of nowhere. For decades, the kinds of services provided with federal dollars by Planned Parenthood---contraception, STD testing and treatment, cancer screening---had been assumed non-controversial by the Beltway media. The reproductive rights debate was framed mainly as a fight over bodily autonomy versus fetal life, between secular humanists and religious folks who believed fertilized eggs had souls.

So why then an attack funding STD treatment and contraception? Why, all of a sudden, do you have politicians like Rep. Steve King railing against Planned Parenthood not because of fetal life---after all, depriving women of contraception access will likely increase the abortion rate---but because Planned Parenthood is “invested in promiscuity”? Why do you have a conservative figurehead like Sean Hannity arguing not that abortion is wrong because it’s taking a life, but because teenage girls shouldn't be making out in the back seats of cars in the first place? Why is Gov. Scott Walker not only attacking collective bargaining rights in the state of Wisconsin, but trying to eliminate contraception coverage (but not erectile dysfunction medication) on the grounds of “morality”?

The dusty old argument that female sexuality is a subversive force that needs to be strictly controlled isn’t as dead as we thought. The mainstream conservative movement is bringing it out of hibernation, and this time with a twist: now they’re arguing that women need to have their rights taken from them for their own good.

In the decades prior to Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade--the Supreme Court decisions that legalized contraception and abortion, respectively--the arguments for restrictions on women’s reproductive rights barely needed explanation. Millennia of male dominance, from the mythology of Eve to the The Seven Year Itch, held that female sexuality so threatened the bonds of society that controlling it took precedence over allowing women rights. But after these groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions established women’s right to privacy, opponents of reproductive rights were forced to switch gears.

Enter the fetus. Striking a pose of concern for “fetal rights” allowed the anti-choice movement to attack at least one tool women use to claim ownership over their own sexuality, and sadly, anti-choicers made dramatic inroads against abortion rights hiding behind the fetus. But claims about fetal life don’t produce a clear path to arguing against access to contraception and medical care for STDs. Not that conservatives haven’t tried. The fringe of the anti-choice movement has attacked (at times, with mild success) contraception access with claims that hormonal contraception is a form of abortion, but this kind of argument is stalled because of the scientific and common sense evidence against it.

Returning to arguments that paint female sexuality as a corrosive force that must be controlled by restricting women’s rights has been a steady desire in the anti-choice movement. But how, when the public sees the sadism in that argument for what it is?  The answer that conservatives have happened upon is to argue that women need to be denied their rights for their own good.

For years now, arguing against women’s rights for women’s supposed wellbeing has been worked with surprising success on the already contentious field of abortion. Arguments that women are victims of their own freedom have been successfully wielded to restrict women’s access to abortion. In various states, legislators have passed mandatory waiting periods and ultrasound laws by arguing that they need to protect women from their own rash decisions. Even the Supreme Court engaged with the paternalistic argument, banning a certain later-term abortion procedure because, as Justice Kennedy explained in the majority decision, women might later regret the decision.

After years of using paternalism against abortion rights, Republicans have taken twinning the majority in the House as the signal to expand the “restrict women’s rights for their own good” arguments to contraception. The initial target is Planned Parenthood, but it will likely not be the last.

Fringe anti-choicers have been trying out arguments that contraception is bad for women for years now in their own circles. The gist of it is that the widespread availability of contraception has lured naïve women into thinking they can have sex whenever they want, and the result has been nothing but misery for women: serial abortions, abandonment by men, depression and loneliness. Men, the argument goes, are no longer forced into marriage with women who withhold sex or get pregnant to trap men. And apparently women need begrudgingly formed marriages to be happy.

In support of defunding Planned Parenthood, you’re seeing this “contraception begets sex begets misery for women” argument repeated in far more mainstream channels than you would have even a few months ago. National Review editor Kathryn Lopez attacked Planned Parenthood on the grounds that access to contraception had killed romance and laid waste to women’s chances at marriage. (How she explains the profits of the wedding industry in an era when people have supposedly stopped marrying is beyond me.)

Ross Douthat took Lopez’s argument and gussied it up with tortured statistics, while making essentially the same argument in the New York Times. Male commitment is the necessary ingredient for female happiness, he argued, and Planned Parenthood inhibits women from this goal by allowing sexually active single women the same access as the monogamous. Women should want to lose their access to affordable contraception, he insinuated, as it would turn them from cat-owning spinsters into girlfriends and maybe even wives.

Most disturbingly, the supposed feminist Democrat of Fox News, Kirsten Powers, argued in the Daily Beast that contraception doesn’t even prevent abortion. Her unique twist on the argument that women’s rights hurt women was not that rights deprive women of husbands so much as depriving them of babies, by tricking them into not reproducing. The basic argument is the same: women are too stupid to know what they want, and so the government will have to take away contraception for their own good.

Even if Planned Parenthood survives this attempt to strip it of its federal subsidies, the anti-choice movement has gained a significant amount of rhetorical ground in the past few months. Arguments that women can’t be trusted with contraception were resigned to fringe blogs decorated with fetal guts in the past, but now the very same radical anti-sex arguments are being bandied around in the Daily Beast and the New York Times. The mainstream assumption that contraception isn’t controversial has been challenged. Next time contraception access gets threatened---likely when the HHS tries to make birth control mandatory coverage under health care reform---these arguments will be trotted out. Next time, they won’t seem quite as radical.