Much has been made of Rush Limbaugh’s use of the terms “slut’ and “prostitute” to degrade Ms. Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who testified in favor of affordable contraception for all women. I too, felt outrage at his remarks. What he said next, however, reached even deeper than anger or outrage to me. He suggested that women who support Ms. Fluke make videos of their sexual relations and post them so that “we can all watch.” I wondered about an audience that would want to do this, would chuckle and think this was a fine idea.
I grew up at a time and in a household where women who had more than one drink at a party were considered “loose.” I was told that I should not have sex before I was married because people could tell by the way I walked that I had had it and I would not get a husband. I will grant you that much has improved for women since my 1950-1960s upbringing, thanks in big part to affirmative action legislation which has benefited white women more than any of the groups it was created to help.
Yet, despite all this progress, hearing Limbaugh’s desire to be the spectator of a sex video of this young woman brought me back to the writer John Berger’s work on art and media. The following was published in 1977.
Yet the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men—not because the feminine is different from the masculine—but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. (Berger, Ways of Seeing, p.64.)
Berger’s work resonated with me when I tried to picture those in Limbaugh’s audience who would want to view what he suggested. The image he conjured up, one specifically designed to degrade and belittle Ms. Fluke, was frightening to me because it captured the power of a certain brutal male consciousness. Limbaugh’s sneering tone combined with his words implied an acceptance of subjugation and shaming, a throwback to the times when women were more often seen and objectified as appendages or trophies of men. This crude suggestion combined with the large audience of millions that Limbaugh attracts made it clear that there may be many who feel this way.
Perhaps it is only women in my generation that still feel a visceral threat in the words of Limbaugh. Perhaps his words echo a time we felt shamed by our bodies, our desires and how these feelings conflicted with our bringing up. I believe, however, that performing for male spectators is still embedded in the way we view ourselves and the way our children and even grandchildren view themselves.
I know that my friends are stunned at how early their young girls begin to move, dance, dress and behave in sexually explicit ways. I know that women are not well represented in the upper echelons of universities or corporate America, even if they have identical qualifications to men. I know that women are still asked whether they plan to have children when interviewing for jobs, something that is not legal any longer but is done all the time. I have heard that many young women either shrug or actively object to the term feminism. I also know that we never did pass the equal rights amendment giving women full parity with men.
I am convinced that, like racism, sexism is alive and well in our deepest consciousness. In some of the surface inequities we are making progress: pay imbalance has gone from women making 69 cents for every dollar men make, to women making 80 cents to the dollar; in law schools women often make up over half their student bodies; women fly airplanes, fight in wars, work in mines and drive trucks. Women’s work has been redefined and broadened. Yet it feels to me still, that there is a murkier relationship with women under the surface of our vaunted progress and that denying women the right to control our bodies is still one way to keep powerful men, who have an inexplicable anger at women as a group, in control.
Rush Limbaugh is not speaking in a vacuum. He is applauded by too many who listen to his show. His spectator sport suggestion taps into many of these listeners’ subconscious desires to return to a time when I was brought up: when birth control for women was illegal, when women died from back alley abortions, when the only jobs available for women were teaching or nursing. It is a primitive and bullying view, one built on domination of a whole sex. His snide rant serves to remind us of the tenuous hold we have on what we have fought so hard to win: our ability to plan our lives, our work, our loving. And for all those women who consider feminism long gone and unnecessary, it behooves them to look at new laws proposed and even passed in Texas, Virginia and other states that limit women’s basic right to make life decisions regarding their physical health.
Berger pointed out to us over thirty years ago that the power of public female images seen in a way to flatter men gives us a distorted lens from which to view women’s humanity. Paying heed to his words now, feminists—both male and female–can fend off the startling reversion to medieval times we are seeing in some of the rhetoric from politicians and radio commentators today. But it takes vigilance. It takes wondering who would watch the video Limbaugh asks for and how to reach them, male and female, to change the way they “see” the world.