The Conservative War on Women’s Sexuality

The Conservative War on Women’s Sexuality

The Conservative War on Women’s Sexuality

Recent commentary demonstrates why Rick Santorum’s backward sexual politics are so appealing to Republicans.


Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign stop, Friday, Feb. 17, 2012, in Mason, Ohio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

If you have been surprised to see an uptight prig such as Rick Santorum leading the Republican primary field in national polls, you shouldn’t be. Recent events have demonstrated that conservative positions on social issues are as much about repressing women and reversing the gains of the women’s movement as they are about saving the lives of the unborn.

The young people I saw at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington the week before last looked to me exactly like what you would expect from a bunch of college Republicans. They were dorks. They wore suits. Maybe some of the women’s suit skirts were short, but I was hardly scandalized.

But we learned last week that much of the conservative movement is still living in a different century—and I don’t mean the twentieth—with regard to women’s sexuality. Conservative bloggers were horrified that some young women at CPAC were dressed provocatively and engaged in loose sexual behavior with the young men in attendance.

CPAC has a well deserved reputation for being the time of year when earnest young conservatives unbutton their Oxford shirts, crack open a few Busch Lights and let loose. I see nothing wrong with that. But Erick Erickson, who runs the popular blog Red State, does. He wrote a lament that CPAC has gotten too debauched: “Young men, regardless of political persuasion or ideology, are intent on having sex, being boys, getting drunk—doing what young men in college often do. All to [sic] often there are also a few young ladies willing to shame their parents if their parents only knew.”

Erickson’s commentary is such a caricature of an avuncular misogynist that it’s amazing his post isn’t actually a parody. He almost literally says, “Boys will be boys.” But girls, on the other hand, are responsible for warding off boys’ advances. They, and they alone, are charged with protecting the conservative movement’s morality. If they don’t, they are “shaming their parents.” The notion that there is nothing immoral with enjoying oneself, as long as you aren’t spreading disease, doesn’t even cross Erickson’s mind. Nor does he consider the possibility that women and men are equally responsible for restraining their sexual urges.

Erickson also linked approvingly to Melissa Clouthier, a conservative blogger who plaintively demanded, “Have women so internalized feminist dogma that they see themselves in only two ways? Butch, men-lite wannabes or 3rd wave sluts who empower themselves by screwing every available horndog man?”

These posts, and criticisms of them, inspired James Poulos of the Daily Caller to write a meditation on Thursday about “What are women for?” He fails to answer his own question. Here’s the closest he comes: “Much good would come from a broader recognition that women have a privileged relationship with the natural world. That’s a relationship which must receive its social due—if masculinity in its inherent and imitative varieties (including imitation by quasi-feminized males of quasi-masculinized females!) is not to conquer the world.”

The item is so garbled I can’t really critique it, except to note that posing the question itself is absurdly sexist. (Rich Yeselson valiantly attempts to wade through Poulos’s inscrutable prose and explains what’s wrong with Poulos’ “hoisting [women] onto a grand pedestal far above the barbarism of men.”)

Meanwhile, the far more legible Ross Douthat demonstrated in Sunday’s New York Times how even the most seemingly reasonable conservatives oppose gender equality. Douthat’s column argues that conservatives must recognize abstinence teaching alone often doesn’t prevent unwanted pregnancies, and liberals must admit that access to contraception doesn’t either. That’s true, but for those of us who think that women should be able to avail themselves of a certain safe and relatively affordable medical procedure when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, it’s not clear what the problem is. The problem, to Douthat, is that abortions are an inherent social ill.

(Unfortunately, far too many liberals, by saying that every abortion is a “tragedy” best avoided, have reinforced this widespread superstition. Hence, Douthat can pose as a moderate consensus-seeker by accurately noting, “Even the most pro-choice politicians, for instance, usually emphasize that they want to reduce the need for abortion, and make the practice rare as well as safe and legal.”)

Douthat claims that lack of access to contraception is not a significant problem and so liberals should stop pretending it’s an answer to our abortion scourge. He writes:

A lack of contraceptive access simply doesn’t seem to be a significant factor in unplanned pregnancy in the United States. When the Alan Guttmacher Institute surveyed more than 10,000 women who had procured abortions in 2000 and 2001, it found that only 12 percent cited problems obtaining birth control as a reason for their pregnancies. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of teenage mothers found similar results: Only 13 percent of the teens reported having had trouble getting contraception.

I disagree with Douthat. I think lack of access to contraception is a major problem. My evidence? The Guttmacher Institute found that fully 12 percent of women who had abortions cited problems obtaining birth control and the CDC found 13 percent of teenagers had problems getting contraception. Twelve or 13 percent! In a country as wealthy and socially advanced as the United States, it is remarkable that so many women would be unable to access one of the many contraceptive options that should be available to them. In the Guttmacher study alone there were 1,200 women who had to have an abortion because they could not get contraception. One would be too many.

How can Douthat see these statistics and reach such a different conclusion than I do? Because he doesn’t believe access to contraception is a good unto itself. If you believe, as liberals do, that women should control their reproductive organs and that all aspects of healthcare, including preventive measures such as contraception, should be available to all citizens of a civilized country, then lack of access to contraception is bad. Conservatives such as Douthat don’t share either of those premises. They believe healthcare is a privilege that should only be bestowed upon the wealthy, and sexual freedom is a social ill. If you think that, then access to contraception is a neutral or a negative. It is only valuable to Douthat as a means for reducing the number of abortions, which he considers an even greater social ill. Since he approaches the data on contraception from that perspective, then he finds that only a 12 percent reduction in abortion isn’t saving nearly enough souls, so who cares about the underlying problem of women being prevented from exercising their bodily autonomy?

Back in October Rick Santorum said, “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.” After reading what leading conservative pundits have to say on gender and sexuality this last week, it’s no surprise they would find Santorum appealing.

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