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 box.net 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.