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Sunday, March 18, 2012


I would like to spend a little time talking about the extraordinary and troubling Republican attacks on women's health and reproductive rights.  These attacks are, if anything, more deeply disturbing in their manifestations at the state legislative level than at the federal level.  I will leave it to others to address the legal and legislative dimensions of this phenomenon.  [My son, Tobias, has been doing a fair amount of press, radio, and TV on this issue, and he is far, far better equipped than I to address the legal aspects.]

The politically suicidal nature of these attacks is obvious to even the most casual observer of the political scene.  The Republicans wrote off the Black vote two generations ago when they adopted what came to be called the "Southern strategy," although it was somewhat more accurately characterizable as a Southern and Southwestern strategy.  Despite George W. Bush's efforts to reach out to the Hispanic-American community, the Republicans decided to write off that large and growing segment of the voting population with their hysterical and obsessive focus on illegal immigration from Latin America and their rejection of even so limited a legislative measure as the Dream Act.  They have done little or nothing to counteract Obama's success in appealing to young voters.  And now, bizarrely and unaccountably, they have decided to alienate the largest single block of voters in the entire electorate -- women.  I think it is reasonable to ask what on earth is going on.

What strikes me most forcefully about the metastasizing attacks on women's health and reproductive rights by male Republican legislators is the sheer mean-spirited hostility, not to say hatred, that it reveals.  Not only do these male legislators want to deny women health insurance coverage for protections and procedures previously widely accepted as a customary component of health insurance.  They want to shame women who seek such insurance protection, to humiliate them, literally to rub their faces in it by requiring that women undergo unnecessary medical procedures and then be forced to watch the results.  One recent bill [in Arizona, I believe], requires women requesting insurance coverage for birth control medications to present medical evidence that they are not using these medications for birth control!

Now, the men proposing these laws, and in many cases enacting them, are for the most part married.  They have wives, who are using birth control medications.  They have daughters who are using birth control medications.  They have sons whose wives and partners are using birth control medications.  And yet, like Rush Limbaugh, who once again performs the indispensable function of saying out loud what these men are thinking, they clearly consider women who seek insurance coverage for birth control medications to be sluts and whores.  That is their own wives and daughters whom they are describing in that manner. 

It is possible, I think, to figure out what is going on, but only if we look beneath the surface, and learn a lesson or two from Sigmund Freud.  [Those who are unfamiliar with his work may wish to consult my Tutorial on The Thought of Sigmund Freud, accessible at by clicking on the link at the top of this blog.]   A great many people [but here we are focusing on men] have deeply ambivalent feelings about all matters sexual.  They are powerfully drawn to sexual objects or potential partners, but feel deeply guilty about this attraction.  Many men are able to achieve a satisfying orgasm only with a woman whom they deem vile, or low, or unworthy -- a slut, a whore.  These men are often simultaneously attracted to and repelled by women who express sexual desire themselves.  In extreme cases, the feelings of guilt may be so crippling that they can only take pleasure in sex that is combined with punishment [the acting out of so-called bondage fantasies.]

For a very long time, the principal form of birth control was the condom, which is purchased by, brought to the sex act by, and worn by the man, who thus maintains control over the possibility of pregnancy and is able to perpetuate the fiction that the woman is a passive partner in the sex act.  But with the advent of the pill, women were finally able to take total control of their own sexuality.  By choosing to "go on the pill," a woman could decide for herself that she was ready for sex, and thus could determine, without the cooperation of the man, whether she would risk pregnancy.

This achievement by women of freedom and power terrifies some men.  It deprives them of control, it confronts them with the fact of open and acknowledged female sexuality, and it triggers in them fears and fantasies rooted in their own ambivalences and guilt about sexuality.  The emergence into the sunlight of female pornography has the same effect.  The very same men who consider women sluts and whores for wanting to purchase birth control medications themselves not only frequent prostitutes but also access readily available pornography on-line.  But they are horrified by the mere thought that there might be pornography deliberately aimed at women.

Now, all of this sounds pretty heavy and theoretical as an explanation for the fact that some idiotic politicians have chosen to introduced some punitive and destructive measures in their state legislatures.  But I really think one needs to learn something here from Freud [or from whatever other theorist of the human condition one finds insightful and helpful].  When someone does something manifestly self-defeating or self-destructive [like alienating the people whose votes one needs to get re-elected], and when this is done with an expression of feeling that seems inappropriate or out of proportion to the subject ostensibly under consideration, then an explanation is called for that goes beyond the explicit purposes that the person is overtly professing.

There is one more aspect of this curious and distressing phenomenon that ought to be mentioned.  Many, many people have thoughts and attitudes that they feel compelled by social pressure to keep to themselves.  The most obvious example is racist sentiments, which it was, not too long ago, perfectly acceptable to voice, but which these days have become quite unacceptable.  The sexual feelings and conflicts I have been discussing come under the same heading.  Now, it is psychologically difficult, indeed painful, to repress such thoughts and feelings, to maintain a public face that is so at odds with one's inner feelings.  This is by no means a psychologically cost free effort.  Sometimes, some utter reprobate just comes out and says what others are repressing.  This is met with whoops of laughter, with applause, with manifest relief that what has been bottled up has been given voice.  Suddenly, those repressed thoughts and feelings are given legitimacy, are admitted into the public space, and now there is an outpouring of very strong, hostile, angry expressions of a sort that one has not seen for a very long time.  Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum have performed this service for all the men with deeply conflicted hang-ups about sex who feel assaulted and abused by Women's Liberation and long to find a socially acceptable use for the words "slut" and "whore."

By the bye, you will notice that Santorum has moved on to a very high-profile attack on pornography.  Will it win him votes?  My guess is that deep down, he does not really care.  It must feel so good to him just to say the words.


John Gee said...

To be fair (and this is as far as fairness can go in this case), the Arizona bill would not require all women seeking contraceptives through their insurance to prove they needed it for reasons other than birth control. It would merely, and reprehensibly, allow private employers to impose that requirement on their employees. And more importantly, it would not extend that option only to religious organizations, but to all employers who felt they needed to impose such a requirement as a matter of conscience. A quibble, I know, but the reality is a bit less disheartening than your phrasing of it, which suggests that Arizona is more or less openly banning birth control outright. These details are worth getting right for the sake of arguing against such bills effectively: one can't expose spurious fictions without acknowledging their ostensible truth.

Superfluous Man said...

With all due respect, Mr. Freud did have some truly bizarre ideas about sexuality himself. The "penis envy" theory was something my wife and I were talking about the other night and we both agreed that it was a ridiculous theory. That's why I wish others would not use Freud as an example, although his model was intended to be a scientific one, his conclusions in many areas are rejected in the community of respectable psychiatry today. I don't have a problem with the theory of the subconscious mind, but Freud's views on sexual matters are outdated and it would be preferable, at least for me, if he were not held up as a model for admiration regarding sexual matters.

Superfluous Man said...

As an aside, I would also note the following as I placed it in my bookmarks under the title "Catholic Approved" even though I am not a Catholic and there is no chance of my becoming one since I am a confirmed agnostic: There does seem to be a slight bit of enlightenment within at least the Polish Catholic church, as reported here by the blog "Lawyers, Guns and Money:\

I do not know and do not care if Freud or God, assuming either ever existed (I won't go into alternate universes as the some scientists are wont to do) , would approve.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you for the correction. As for Freud: Let me ask you this: Suppose I had said exactly the same things, but omitted Freud's name. Would you then agree with my analysis? if so, then consider his name omitted. I have no ax to grind with regard to Freud's reputation or his theories. All I care about is understanding what makes people tick.

Note, by the way, that everything Santorum really cares about -- abortion, homosexuality, contraception, pornography -- has to do with sex.

Superfluous Man said...

I think that you would probably be correct. I did bring up Freud's name in another comment a while back if I remember correctly, comparing him to Mr. Santorum, which is certainly a stretch, although psychiatry at the time of Freud was a sea of non tranquility, with psychiatrists often serving their female clients in methods that today seem bizarre and abusive to me and anyone in the medical field today would likely be banished from their field if caught engaging in such activities. Psychiatry has certainly come a long way but we have to remember that it was during your and my lifetimes that the field considered homosexuals as deviant. We certainly know better today.

I have not studied Jung nor any of the other members of other fields of what is considered "respectable" psychiatry so I am not an expert, just pointing out what I saw as a flaw.

As to the current tirades going on by Rush Limbaugh and others, I can't understand them because I don't have that frame of mind, but your explanation seems reasonable to me but not being trained in the field and not understanding that frame of mind, it is hard to respond, although I think the fascination with Freud is something we as a society have held on to far too long and we need another representative of the field of psychiatry to take his place. I certainly understand that certain elements of our society often place great shame on people who buy and use such things as sex toys and the like and we are seeing that taking place now. I often attribute it to the mindset of "if anyone, anywhere is having a good time and enjoying life then they are to be condemned because I am not and they should not be either". But perhaps I am being simplistic about it. Having grown up in a society such as ours which can't transcend its Puritan, Victorian, and Evangelical past does cause one to wonder about what kind of society we truly live in.
As they said in the past, "make love not war".[Gershon Legman claims to have coined the phrase by the way] Perhaps we should add, "and leave out the shame and the violence". That makes a lot more sense to me.

Superfluous Man said...

Incidentally, Gershon Legman would and although deceased does have something to say regarding these kinds of matters and I am including a link to his Wikipedia page. Mr. Legman was a particularly peculiar fellow according to the "standard" mores of America, and considered the crime fiction novel a particularly nauseating part of American culture. And he was serious about it. Hopefully he can be forgiven for that transgression, although I'm not sure he wasn't on to something in that line of thinking. I have no problem with anyone disagreeing with him though. He seems to have dwelled on that subject perhaps as much as Mr. Santorum dwells on things like beastiality and the like.

Superfluous Man said...

I've thought about this and slept over it and I don't agree with your analysis. Most reasonable people do not find the positions that the Republicans are hewing as normal or reasonable. Some do but the majority of people don't. I think there is something that is just as deep as what you have asserted that is going on in the subconcious minds of the Republicans. However my anlysis differs significantly from yours. (I'll leave Santorum out of this group because he is basically insane).

I think they *know* what their moneyed base wants and subconsciously that goes against everything that America has been during their lifetimes. So they are taking extreme positions that most people find repulsive because they subscionsciously don't *want* to win. They subconciously don't want to adopt the extreme economic measures their true constituency (the extremely wealthy) wants. But if they win their base will "make them do it".

Now I don't think that applies to people like Santorum, he dreams of a theocracy, but look at the unreasonable people who are running. No reasonable person would want to run under the Republican banner and that is why there is no reasonable candidate running, except for perhaps Romney, who is betraying everything he has stood for in the past.

Unfortunately I don't trust the American people to make the right decision. But I do think these extreme positions are not just about sex, they are about self loathing. And I would say this analysis takes into its ambit Freud's theories. So that's my last word on this subject, but I'm analyzing this differently than you are although I couldn't find the words to express what I now am now asserting previously because I hadn't given it enough thought, but now I have. Previously I was asserting a position that a flumoxed unprepared lawyer might when he faces a situation when he is not prepared to argue his case, mumbling and stumbling. But I have boiled my argument down to one that should be clear I hope. Can you convince me I'm wrong?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

First of all, I certainly cannot convince you that you are wrong, nor would I try. I am speculating about people I have never even seen in person, let along talked to, and my speculations are unavoidably hypothetical. My reason for focusing on the sexual content of the spiteful behavior is simply that that is what Santorum and the others I was talking about focus on. Think about it. What are Santorum's signature issues, the ones he clearly cares about most deeply? Abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and now pornography. All of them have to do with sex. By contrast, although he talks about jobs and taxes and the deficit, those do not seem to have the same emotional grip on him [by contrast, say, with Paul Ryan.] You may well be right about a component of self-loathing, although whether they actually want to lose is another matter. I do think they are not genuinely interesting in governing, which is to say making decisions, making compromises, administering programs, and doing all the other things that are involved in holding office.

formerly a wage slave said...

You might enjoy knowing about this song (even if you don't like it quae piece of music)... which I gather was controversial when first released..... It's a song by Loretta Lynn about how her life got better once she had the pill:

But, really, it is amazing the extent to which things are actually going backwards.......When I lived in Slovakia, I heard remarks about "Puritan America" so many times that it stopped being interesting, but now those remarks keep re-playing in my head. It's almost as bad (I guess) as if I had been a smoker who ignored warnings and was amazed when he got Cancer...

(Yes I know it's more complicated than just "Puritanism", but think of it like this: my European friends were indicating or pointing out a phenomenon that was obvious to them at first glance, obvious and for them obviously primitive...... and they were right...)

By the way, I can't help mentioning that when I talk about "going backwards" (as we seem to be doing all over the world) I keep remembering something I learned from reading Wally Secombes, "Weathering the Storm; Working Class Families from the Industrial Revolution to the Fertility Decline": in the nineteenth century, doctors and other professionals had smaller families than working people, and they wanted to monopolize any information about birth control methods. Working class people knew that something was going on because the doctors' families were smaller.......But talk about meanness: doctors and other professionals did not want working class people to find out.....(There are more details to this story which Secombe provides, but it continues to be amazing for the nastiness of it......)