Good old Rush Limbaugh really stuck his stick in the hornet’s nest with his outrageous comments in February calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut”. If you are just returning from an extended research tour at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica and have not heard of the Limbaugh-Fluke controversy, you can get up to speed with the Wikipedia article about it here. (Yes, they have an article for that. And with over 3.9 million articles, why not?)
It all started when Rush asserted on his radio show that Fluke “essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”
There are so many things wrong with Rush’s statement that it is hard to know where to begin. For starters, it is rude, brash, and it reflects a surprising ignorance over how hormonal and female barrier contraception actually work.
But the real source of controversy was Rush’s unprovoked recourse to the use of those ferocious epithets “slut” and “prostitute”, apparently in an attempt to turn Fluke into a twenty-first century Hester Prynne. (In case you’re wondering, yes, there is a Wikipedia article on Hester as well.)
Rush is very familiar with controversy, but the blowback on this one has been F-5 tornado intensity. No doubt the most damaging reaction has come from the advertisers. But most interesting has probably been the reaction of “Sluts across America” who have sought to deconstruct Rush’s unprovoked use of the word “slut”. Basically, the website invites readers to share the arbitrary reasons they should be called a slut, as a way of deconstructing the fact that Rush associated the word with the use of contraception.
I don’t care for the “Sluts across America” strategy. Neither does L.V. Anderson (at Slate), though in her article “In defense of the original meaning of the word slut” she offers a truly atrocious ground for objection.
Anderson worries that following Rush’s lead and applying the word slut to persons for the most ridiculous reasons (e.g. just taking contraception) misses the main point because it still allows for women who are sexually promiscuous to be marginalized:
If our goal is to stand up for women’s control of their own bodies, let’s not stigmatize those who merely choose to use them differently than others do. The vast majority of Americans “use or support birth control”; that moral battle has been won. But plenty of those Americans still aren’t comfortable with the idea of a woman who wants to sleep around. Let’s fight that battle instead. (emphasis added)
So according to Anderson the problem is that sexual promiscuity is still stigmatized. Cue Salt ‘n’ Peppa singing their brash mid-nineties theme of hedonistic individualism, “It’s none of your business”:
“If I wanna take a guy home with me tonight IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!!!!!“
Yes, feminists fought to give women the right to own land and vote and achieve wage parity so that one day they could have sex with multiple partners without social stigma.
Sorry, that has to be about the most idiotic and misogynistic thing I’ve heard in quite a while.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. At the beginning of “You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train”, a documentary about the life of social activist and historian Howard Zinn, one commentator observes: “A life of political engagement is so much more interesting and so much more joyful and comradely than a life of private disengagement and private consumption.”
This commentator is advocating for a particular vision of the good life. According to that vision, it is more fulfilling to be politically and socially engaged for the betterment of society than to be concerned purely with private disengagement and consumption. Clearly the commentator would think that the life lived purely in pursuit of private satisfaction ought to be stigmatized in some way, to be seen as objectively inferior to the life of public political and social engagement.
Of course there is more to a meaningful life than mere engagement. Hitler was politically and socially engaged, but he was seeking to actualize a horrendous vision for society. We also assume that the vision you seek to implement for society is, broadly speaking, a good one. So we say that the person who decides “I am going to live for self-centered hedonism” chooses an inferior path to the person who vows to live for the betterment of society. And the person who finds more joy out of using things instead of engaging in meaningful social relations with people has chosen a lifestyle ripe for social marginalization.
Now consider two individuals, “Pat” and “Chris”. (Their gender is irrelevant; hence the SNL inspired gender-neutral names.) Pat and Chris both work in the same office in adjoining cubicles. But they have very different lifestyles outside of the office. Pat spends the evenings seeking out sexual encounters with nameles strangers while Chris spends the evenings volunteering at the local soup kitchen.
If we were to follow Anderson’s horrendous advice then we ought to refrain from any social stigmatization of Pat’s lifestyle. (I am assuming that Anderson would be advocating gender equal non-judgmentalism so that Pat ought not be judged whether Pat is female or male.)
I agree with Anderson that gender plays no part in the moral analysis of Pat’s lifestyle choice. But I disagree emphatically that we therefore ought to refrain from stigmatizing Pat’s choice of lifestyle. Whether Pat is male or female is irrelevant. The problem is that Pat has chosen to live as a hedonistic disengaged consumer where other people are reduced to objects for achieving self-satisfaction. That is a lifestyle choice that has rightly earned the stigma of social disapprobation.
But where do we go from there? How ought we to flag or mark our social disapprobation? And this brings us to the sting of a word like “slut”. If we are to use charged terms like slut, and whore and home-wrecker, we must do so with gender equality. But ought we to use such terms at all?
That’s difficult. You’re walking along with your twelve year old, anxious to guide him (or her) toward that life of political and social engagement rather than the self-centered disengaged consumer. You walk by a bleary-eyed homeless man sitting on a doorstep drinking out of a paper bag … and it’s only 9 AM. How do you stigmatize the lifestyle choices that led this man to the place where he gets drunk at 9 AM, and how do you do this without depersonalizing and dehumanizing him? Moreover, how do you do it without blinding yourself, and your child, to the particular sins you engage in on a regular basis?
Is it possible to label a person a “bum” or a “slut”, a “slob” or a “whore”, a “degenerate” or a “drunk”, in a way that marginalizes the behavior but not the person? Should we marginalize a “slut” (male or female) or only the “slutty lifestyle” in which the person engages? And can you do the latter without the former?
This remains a fine line to walk, particularly given our penchant to wield labels of social stigmatization in such a way to justify ourselves over-against those we label. But the answer is surely not to refrain from social stigmatization altogether.
This brings me to a final word on gender equality. I called Anderson’s refusal to stigmatize misogynistic. Given the absence of gender bias it is, in fact, misanthropic. But while Anderson’s argument may be misanthropic, and as such ripe for stigmatization, I will take the safer course and refrain from calling Anderson a misanthrope.