Distracting Vaginas and the Body Politic

October 7, 2012

The artist Suzanne Lacy examines the sexist language that shapes American politics, interpreting Missouri State Rep. Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” by way of the mythological and psychoanalytic literature on gender violence that has informed her renowned feminist art.

Toronto’s SlutWalk, 2012. Photo by Wheelock College.

It’s a pesky thing, how those troublesome women’s bodies just keep messing with electoral politics—from the definition of rape, to mandated vaginal ultrasounds, to the mysterious ways in which female hysterias (oops, I mean uteruses) can repel a rapist’s sperm.

Perhaps this is nothing new. As a young artist in the 70s, I explored psychoanalytic and mythological literature on gender violence and women’s sexuality. The stories—from many cultures—were compelling and, frankly, darkly humorous, although their real world implications were profound. Two myths particularly captured my attention. The medieval Frau Welt (Woman/World), a young, comely woman whose backside is infested with maggots, snakes, and decaying flesh, suggested the deceit of women’s bodies, the seductiveness of the flesh that ends in a man’s debasement and death. Another intriguing set of early mythologies around Vagina Dentata (teeth – you know where) is thought to represent fear of women’s sexuality and insatiability; later this emerged as men’s deep-seated (and to women somewhat incomprehensible) fear of castration.

A Mysterious Snapping of Teeth

Considering the emergence of the vagina in current politics, it will not be surprising to note that the mysterious female body has long been a site of fascination, desire, repugnance, fear, religious exhortation, moralizing…and politics. Recent remarks by Missouri State Representative and would-be senator Todd Akin on “legitimate rape” don’t represent new ideas in the Republican Party. They simply mark the moment that crackpot, fundamentalist ideas about women entered the mainstream. They have been festering for a few decades, as Anna North showed in a recent Buzzfeed article. In 1988, for example, Pennsylvania State Rep. Stephen Freind claimed that rape trauma causes women to “secrete a certain secretion” that kills sperm. In 1995, North Carolina State Rep. Henry Aldridge told the House Appropriations Committee, “The facts show that people who are raped—who are truly raped—the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work, and they don’t get pregnant. Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever.” Snap, snap, the sperm are killed.

Medical authorities have estimated that over 32,000 women a year get pregnant through rape.

Actually, medical authorities like the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology have estimated that over 32,000 women a year get pregnant through rape. While the Republican Party isn’t exactly known for its scientific enlightenment, Todd Akin’s statements did point to a pattern among Republicans during the last two years of enacting laws that impact women’s reproductive rights. In the aftermath of Akin’s remarks, Republican politicians were not able, or willing, to grapple with the consequences of their bizarre beliefs about rape. As Daily Beast contributing writer Michelle Goldberg puts it, “The fiction that real victims don’t get pregnant—a notion whose absurdity should be obvious to anyone who has ever read about Serbian rape camps or the epidemic of sexual violence in Congo—allows them to elide the entire issue. Otherwise, they would have to say forthrightly that they believe that the state should subject women who’ve been raped to forced pregnancy.”

Why do Republicans care so much about the definition of rape? Clearly a lot must ride on whether it is “forcibly,” “truly” or “legitimately” rape. These questions have legal as well as mythic dimensions, in a criminal-justice history that has mostly impugned women’s testimony. Until this January, it was not possible to rape a man or boy because the FBI definition of rape, written in 1929, excluded everything but vaginal penetration with force—leaving out oral rape or non-consensual sex with women under the influence of drugs where force was not necessary. Perhaps this national conversation on definitions under the law offers perspective on why women’s outrage was immediate and prolonged when Virginia legislators proposed a law to make abortion more difficult (one of 92 such laws passed by Republicans last year). What else were they to make of a medically unnecessary but government-forced ultrasound that included the “trans-vaginal” method, whereby a metal probe is inserted into a woman’s vagina for a better view of the fetus?

For Republicans bowing to the anti-abortion agenda of their fundamentalist base, any exceptions—even for rape—can be seen as a slide down the slippery slope towards dismantling the rationale against women’s reproductive rights: the fetus’s absolute right to life from the moment of conception. Better to question the definition of rape, the possibility of pregnancy from rape, or even—dare we bring up Frau Welt?—the promiscuity of women.

Her Corrupted Body

Calling women who dare to speak out sluts and deviants is nothing new.

The darker side of proposals to protect innocent fetuses is the assault on not-so-innocent women of childbearing age. Frau Welt, with her virginal beauty and whorish decay, was recently updated when Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke inadvertently stepped into a political maelstrom by attempting to testify to a House subcommittee hearing on birth control at college health centers. No women were needed, thank you very much, but that didn’t stop Rush Limbaugh from blasting away at her for three days on his radio program, even suggesting, in an astonishingly vicious attack, that college women provided with birth control at taxpayers’ expense should post sex videos online for taxpayers’ pleasure.

Calling women who dare to speak out sluts and deviants is nothing new. They look good on the front but their backstory, the one Rush Limbaugh imagines, is decayed and corrupt. Remember the days when a rape accuser was the one on trial? After years of feminist lobbying, policemen taking a rape report know better (usually) than to ask what she was wearing and courts hearing rape trials now protect a woman’s sexual history—except when a judge believes it is “distinctive” (read: deviant). Women with “distinctive” sexual histories, such as prostitutes, cannot be raped.

Imagine that: rape is defined as when she does not consent? Whatever will fundamentalists make of that?

In an era when the majority of rapes of young women are by acquaintances, aggressive claims for women’s sexual rights, like the SlutWalks initiated last year in Toronto, position consent, rather than force, as the operative determinant in whether a rape has occurred. Imagine that: rape is defined as when she does not consent? Whatever will fundamentalists make of that? Unfortunately, Rush Limbaugh is merely the dubious spokesperson for the still widespread notion that unmarried women using birth control are sluts who could rightly be expected to perform for our pornographic pleasure and, it goes without saying, cannot be raped.

Vaginas and the Social Contract

If the ideas of the fundamentalist Right sound archaic (and possibly unconscious), they are just that and more. In this election season, the “more” is important: The claims of women’s bodies on the social contract are the most obvious reasons that female sexuality must be divided into the good kind (motherhood in marriage, with no need of state protection) and the bad kind (independent, promiscuous and, well, toothy). Although they have alienated themselves from many women voters, Republicans have managed, through a series of inane public gaffes, to manipulate the national conversation, sending “code” to fundamentalist supporters while pushing the national abortion debate rightward. We find ourselves defending the right to abortion in the case of rape, the most extreme example, as opposed to making the more fulsome argument for women’s right to choose.

Uteruses have been political footballs since our country’s founding, when the state encouraged childbearing among the “fit” (the upper classes), and discouraged it among the “unfit” (the working poor). Economics have been a constant of debates on reproductive rights, even when the unintended consequences of withholding birth control and abortion from poor women distorted political goals (see Kristin Luker’s Dubious Conceptions). The role of birth control in poverty politics is surfacing again, as it did in the 1930s, in the context of a deep economic recession.

If a woman does not have access to contraception, she is unable to participate as an equal in society . As Brown University history professor Robert O. Self pointed out in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “treating the economy, on one hand, and women and family, on the other, as if they are mutually exclusive is a fallacy. When Americans argue about gender, sex and family, they are arguing about equality, power and money – in essence, about the nature and role of government.”

The recent actions of the Republican Congress assure us that these assaults on women will continue.

Why are Republicans focusing on vaginas when their stated goal is to provide jobs? From Welfare Queens to Soccer Moms and from Hookers to Coeds, women’s vaginas remain central to a politics built on centuries of mythology. Poor and working women who bear and raise children need the supports we fought for in the 70s—equal pay, child care, paid maternity leave, freedom from workplace harassment and control over reproduction—all of which represent a social contract that directly challenges the Republican austerity agenda. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act committed the national government to a vast array of women’s rights. A smaller government, Republican-style, would mean fewer benefits for women and their families, backed by archaic standards, and besides, stay-at-home moms wouldn’t count in unemployment statistics.

The Republican agenda this season is to rewrite the narrative on rape, reproduction and abortion, using women’s bodies to challenge the relationship between government, its citizens and business interests. If Romney is elected, we will need to return to the hard-fought battles of the 70s, and worse, because his pledge to install conservative judges on the bench of the Supreme Court suggests that Roe v. Wade would not last beyond a couple of new appointments. But even if Obama wins, the recent actions of the Republican Congress assure us that these assaults on women will continue. You’ve come a long way, girlfriend, and it seems there is a long way to go. This time we need the men marching along with us, because the assault on women’s reproductive rights has deep economic repercussions for all and is absolutely critical to the national conversation.