News & Politics

Why Is Rick Santorum Obsessed With Your Sex Life?

Most Republicans like to talk about contraception and sexuality without actually talking about sex. Santorum seems to revel in it--and it freaks the GOP out.

Photo Credit: C-SPAN

 Instead of writing this column, I should just be able to turn in a picture of the witness table at Thursday's congressional hearing (convened by showy California Republican Representative Darrell Issa) on Obama's birth control policy: five middle-aged men. When Democrats tried to put a female college student on the witness list, Issa rejected the appeal, saying:

"As the hearing is not about reproductive rights and contraception, but instead about the administration's actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience, he believes that Ms Fluke is not an appropriate witness."


I watched an hour or so of the hearing and I'll give Issa partial credit: the hearing was definitely about the administration, and it was definitely not about reproductive rights. It was about the opposite of reproductive rights.

Republican congressmen used their time on the C-Span stage to rail against the administration supposedly overstepping its bounds, a weird formulation when you consider that providing birth control is a way of offering people more choices, more freedom. There was a lot of hand-wringing about Obama's lack of respect for the first amendment, a topic guaranteed to generate so much echo-chamber energy that it propelled some representatives to eyebrow-raising rhetorical excess. Rep Trey Gowdy (Republican, South Carolina), veering off the whole "religious freedom" script, questioned government involvement in birth control access on any level: "What," he sputtered, "is the compelling state interest in providing free contraception?"

Gowdy's opposition to abortion suggests a starting point! He's actually on record advocating how "we" should "educate women on preventing pregnancies", but I guess he hasn't considered that there are options on that score beyond not having sex.

Which brings us to sex. Observing the debate (generously defined) over Obama's proposed policy – which, at this point, doesn't require religious institutions to pay for birth control, but apparently, the argument rages on! – one gets the sense that the men talking about the ideals of religious freedom, and supposed anti-religious bias, want to stick to that topic because to engage with the real-world facts about birth control would mean talking about, you know, down there. This is uncomfortable-making for politicians and voters alike.

Aside from Fox News anchors, politics is a weirdly desexualized sphere; in the public imagination, Mitt Romney's resemblance to a Ken doll probably extends further than his bland good looks. We would just as soon not think about politicians having sex. And we'd prefer that they not think about us having sex either.

Here is where I have to give Rick Santorum a perverse (indeed) sort of credit. Unlike a vast majority of those running for office, he is totally OK with going there, penis-in-various-holes-wise. I suspect that it's his apparent comfort with explicitly raising the idea of sex, as much as his out-of-kilter views on it, that rankles all but the most extreme social conservatives. To go from the hypothetical legalization of homosexual marriage to bestiality, you have to have at least given passing thought to the physical act of gay sex.

Santorum's more recent comments relating to birth control specifically betray a similar kink. Last October, he explained why he thinks contraception is "not OK" in terms far removed from the lofty constitutional arguments of the Issa panel. Birth control, Santorum argued, is "a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be". To even have that opinion, Santorum has to have given thought to which sex acts are outside "how things are supposed to be". I dare say Rick Santorum has a richer fantasy life than most.

And right on cue, here is a message about goings-on involving aspirindown there from Santorum's sponsor, Foster Friess:

Visit for breaking newsworld news, and news about the economy

Santorum supporter and donor Foster Friess talking with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC, 16 February 2012

It's Santorum's internal Penthouse Forum that skeeves people out; even Newt Gingrich, who is the only candidate who has admitted to have done sex that's "not supposed to be", seems to regard Santorum's views on gender issues as inappropriately focused on physical differences. This week, responding to Santorum's insistence that, "naturally", women would be a distraction in combat, Gingrich said, "I just think that Rick completely misunderstands the nature of modern warfare."

But the discomfort about sexuality shared by politicians and their constituents has radically different implications for government policies having to do with sex – at least, when it comes to conservatives. Liberal politicians who believe in the right to gay marriage and free access to birth control are in the mainstream (since 2010, polls have repeatedly shown a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage; while a poll this week showed that very nearly two thirds of people support health insurance coverage of birth control).

When a conservative politician decides he doesn't want to think about people having sex, he (and it is usually "he") lends support to policies that suggest you shouldn't have it.

But when a typical American decides he doesn't want to think about people having sex, he or she just doesn't want to watch.

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Ana Marie Cox is political columnist for the Guardian US. The founding editor of the blog Wonkette, she has written about Washington and national politics for a variety of outlets, including Playboy, GQ, Time, the New York Times and the Washington Post.