Bernie's Blind Side

Senator Sanders' call for equality for all doesn't extend to "whores."
By Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua

For months, Bernie Sanders has waged a war of innuendo intended to demean and discredit his Democrat rival, former New York senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What began as a whimper -his attempt to shush her at the Democratic presidential debate last month--has escalated into an all-out scream.

At a rally in Washington Square Park in New York last night, Bernie Sanders crossed a line for many of us. It's not so much what he said, as what he didn't. Omission, more than comission.

The word in question came from Paul Song, the physician husband of broadcast news personality Lisa Ling and the latest Bernie Bros. to enter the ring. Warming up a crowd of 27,000 New York University students, downtowners and activists, he tore into Clinton for her health-care reform approach, which he deemed incremental and not revolutionary enough.

"Medicare-for-all will never happen if we continue to elect corporate Democratic whores who are beholden to big pharma and the private insurance industry instead of us," Song said.

Apparently slut shaming your Democratic rival is par of the course of the Sanders campaign. The crowd roared in approval. When the Vermont senator appeared minutes later, he made no attempt to apologize or retract, but rather thanked Song for his words, placing him in the same sexist league as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Though Sanders issued an apology this morning, his disavowal is too little, too late. "Dr. Song's comment was inappropriate and insensitive. There's no room for language like that in our political discourse" he tweeted. Inappropriate and insensitiive don't even begin to describe the harm he's done.

The context of Song's remarks - uttered on a college campus known for its Jewish liberal values in reference to health care, commerce and a woman -- makes them and Senator Sanders' response of "thank you" utterly vile and pernicious, not to mention ill-timed considering the upcoming holiday of Passover {more on that later]. In a country where women still earn 79 cents to a man's dollar, that's ranked 72nd in the world in terms of women assuming leadership roles, where earlier in the week President Obama pledged to narrow the gender pay equity gap, how tone deaf and sexist can a candidate who claims to care for equality for all be?

Furthermore, let's look at the term "corporate whore." Is any woman who has been gainfully employed or worked in some capacity for a company a corporate whore? What does that say about his great defender Susan Sarandon, a woman who has netted $50 million from Hollywood studios and global conglomerates like cosmetic company L'Oreal, which just signed her up for a new campaign? Or does that rule not apply if you shill for Sanders?

And if a woman can't work in corporate America (to me that includes Hollywood) without being labelled a "corporate whore," where can she work, Senator Sanders? That's where the word "whore" comes in, as well as the university setting of his speech.

It's no secret that one of the biggest epidemics sweeping the college circuit has been rape. It's estimated that one in four women will endure sexual assault during her undergraduate years, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Association of American Universities, involving 150,000 students at 27 universities.

Some states have moved to pass legislation that focus on the language used on campus, since a word like "yes" vs. "no" can spell the difference between consensual sex and criminal behavior. Similarly, a word like "whore" can mean the difference between treating a woman with respect or like an object worthy of scorn and violence.

Slut shaming is deeply imbedded in our collegiate culture, which prizes male sexual prowess over menschliness, and in a system that depends on the big corporate sponsorship of male athletes. It's pervasive in a judicial system where victims are vilified and bear the burden of evidence, while predators are protected. It's the hallmark of the GOP's war on women, which threatens to strip women of their rights to their own bodies and would even punish those who choose to terminate pregnancy even if said woman has been raped. It's a culture in which women are perpetually put down and consequently held down. And that culture, which now applies to the America Senator Sanders envisions, starts with one word: whore.

A few nights ago, I took part in a women's Seder whose theme was sex trafficking. As a troupe of high school students performed monologues plucked from real experiences of young New York City teens forced into the sex trade, I was shocked at what I saw and heard. There are high school parties that are themed "pimp and ho''" that are far from innocent dress-up affairs. As the guys, clad in fur coats and gold chains, strut about full of swagger, they choose their "ho'" of the night, rape them, sell them to their fellow pimps and discard them once the "transaction" is complete.

In another skit, a girl talked about coming from a wealthy Upper West Side liberal Jewish family and being raped by her brother repeatedly to her parents' blind eyes. She was 11 when it began and too young, scared and humiliated to speak up. It continued for years, her mother branding her a "moody teenager." She developed a habit of stalling after school, trying to postpone the inevitable rape that would occur once she returned home. One day as she walked by Central Park, she fell prey to a group of pimps who followed her, raped her and forced her into daily sex work or else they threatened to kill her entire family. She led a double life, telling her parents she was studying with friends, when in reality she was in a hotel downtown, a slave to the whims of the pimps and johns who abused her. When one school administrator noticed her entering a strange car one day and called her parents, the girl dismissed it as: "I was just giving someone directions." Her parents never asked her about it again.

The one thread that ran through all the various monologues was the word "whore," used by the predators. But that's not the term the organizers of the Seder used.

"They're not whores," explained Micol Reiger, a social worker and coordinator of the Sex Trafficking Prevention Initiative for the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. "It's sex trafficking. Whore is a demeaning term that shames women."

That Sanders' thanked his surrogate for slut shaming his rival and only thought of retracting it the next day proved to me that this so-called progressive who wants a revolution for all will do nothing to emancipate women from their uphill battles and in fact will do as this girl's parents did--look the other way and thereby sanction it. Sanders' misogyny is no longer thinly veiled, but out and proud. His America is not one where women have a future because as his obliviousness to his surrogate's remarks showed, women have no place in it right now. {No comment on the few women in leadership roles in his campaign, except for his wife and daughter. Gender stereotyping anyone, not to mention nepotism?]

Sanders could have used Song's slut-shaming as an opportunity to teach his legions of Bernie Bros. about how true women's liberation will only be achieved when men stop referring to women as the sum of shameful body parts. In the spirit of Passover, I hope Sanders, who claims he's proud of his New York Jewish roots, learns that "Let my people go," means all people, women included, and that some words can only mean one thing--oppression.