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The War on Sex: The Contraception Controversy's Hidden Agenda

The Republicans and other social conservatives arguing for contraception and abortion restrictions may reject Limbaugh's phrasing, but they are nevertheless supporting policies that, as one Alabama legislator put it, are "designed to humiliate women."
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The many condemnations of Rush Limbaugh's remarks about law student Sandra Fluke are appropriate, but they have thus far ignored the important subtext of his comments -- specifically, a contradiction so powerful that it is changing laws across the country to the detriment of both men and women.

Some of Limbaugh's less incendiary (and thus less discussed) assertions merit further scrutiny. For example, Limbaugh expresses outrage at the idea that female contraception should be provided by medical insurance, claiming at one point that it is unnecessary because "the Washington, D.C., Department of Health will send you free condoms." This makes it clear that contraception -- even taxpayer-subsidized contraception -- is not really the source of his outrage. But then, what is?

It is instructive to consider his description of his fantasy that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich will "spy on Sandra Fluke and interrupt her in mid-coitus, and then they'll make 'em [sexually active female Georgetown law students] get married. They'll make 'em get married and then make 'em have those babies and make 'em have 10,000 babies and then stay home..." Here Limbaugh both luridly depicts male politicians as peeping toms and passes judgment on the imaginary subjects of this salacious interest -- indeed, even sentences them for their crimes. Their punishment, naturally, is to have more sex and bear the reproductive burdens thereof -- but only under the control of husbands who keep them locked away at home (where, presumably, they can find no other outlets for their insatiable lust).

In even plainer terms he first called Ms. Fluke "a slut, a prostitute," and then the next day demanded that she arrange to have "the videos of all this sex posted online so we can see what we are getting for our money." These statements give away the profound, secret paradox in his condemnation of Ms. Fluke and outrage at her presumed (though not fact-based) promiscuity. Mr. Limbaugh wants to punish and castigate women who fail to practice sufficiently puritanical morality, while also unashamedly proclaiming his lascivious interest in watching the 'slutty' uninhibited sex he imagines them having.

This contradictory set of demands -- that women should be ashamed of their sexuality but nevertheless behave shamelessly for men's pleasure -- is neither insignificant nor his alone. Although his statements are widely being denigrated, the issues at stake retain their political traction. The Republicans and other social conservatives arguing for contraception and abortion restrictions may reject Limbaugh's phrasing, but they are nevertheless supporting policies that, as one Alabama legislator put it, are "designed to humiliate women." Over twenty states already have legislation subjecting women to unnecessary medical procedures, a practice that was notoriously employed by the Soviet Union to coerce compliance. Several more states are currently debating requiring women seeking abortions to undergo ultrasounds.

This controversy has been described as a war on women. It may be that, but it is also, and perhaps more effectively, a war against sexuality itself. To the degree that social denigration and government-imposed restrictions are successful in inculcating shame and fear, they foster sexual inhibition both in the marital bed and outside it. People who are ashamed of their bodies and sexuality, or fearful of the potentially dire consequences of sex, are not likely to be relaxed, uninhibited, or enthusiastic in the bedroom.

The proliferation of media discussions, books, articles, and blogs about sexual difficulties - not to mention the popularity of sex therapists - is a testament to how uncomfortable and dissatisfied couples are with sex, no matter their political orientation or marital status. Unfortunately, no quantity of therapy, books or articles can repair damage that is done on a widespread social scale by a combination of private disgust and public policy.

Until we recognize that the true victims of this crusade include not only women but also sexuality itself, we are unlikely to end it. Both sexes suffer when women are subjected to puritanical standards, public humiliation, and the private belief that the very sexuality they desire is "slutty" and shameful. If we are to overcome what ails us in the bedroom, we will have to address what happens in the public arena and end sanctions on female sexuality.

Dr. Ruth Bettelheim is a writer, lecturer, and executive/life coach specializing in the development of human potential. She is based in New York and Los Angeles and can be found at