Is the anti-choice movement giving up the pretense that it has no interest in policing women’s sexuality and only opposes abortion rights because of fetal life? While the rote use of the word “life” as a code word to describe a series of anti-woman and anti-sex beliefs is probably going nowhere, there does seem to be a bit more willingness among anti-choicers lately to admit that what really offends them is that women are having sex without their permission.
A report examining the demographics of women who have abortions, using self-reported numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics, was recently presented at a Family Research Council conference. Their conclusion? “OMG sluts!”
The researchers—a term that needs to be used somewhat loosely, due to the extensive statistical distortion employed in this paper—were incredibly intent on portraying abortion as a product of sexually loose women on the prowl. They mostly succeed in portraying themselves as remarkably prudish and out of step with mainstream realities. “Almost 90 percent of reported abortions are procured by women who have had three or more (male) sexual partners,” the researchers write, clearly expecting the audience to reel in terror at the idea that a woman might not marry the first boy she kisses. Which means that most women having abortions are … average. Women generally report having had about four male sexual partners, but social scientists are inclined to think the number is probably higher than that, because men report having a much higher average number of partners, and that discrepancy is mathematically impossible. Indeed, one study showed that by telling women that they’re hooked up to a lie detector, the number of sex partners they will cop to goes up. Slut-shaming, such as the kind produced by this report, causes women to round down.
“The fraction of women reporting abortions is far larger among women with multiple sexual partners than among monogamous women,” the study authors write. It’s a classic example of how this paper, which is supposed to be a study, is actually full of misrepresentations and dishonest number-massaging. After all, “monogamous” and “has had multiple partners” are not mutually exclusive groups. No doubt the study authors mean “has only had one partner ever” as their definition of monogamous, a strange and sloppy definition that would mean that a woman who lost her virginity during a one-night stand yesterday is more “monogamous” that a woman whose second marriage has lasted 30 years.
“Eighty-three percent of women who report having an abortion have cohabited at some time,” they write, clearly expecting the audience to find cohabitation to be a shockingly risqué behavior. Again, this makes women who have abortions average. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “[M]ost young couples live together first before entering marriage.” By the time they turn 30, three-quarters of women have cohabitated.
It’s almost comical how out-of-touch the authors are with their ready assumption that extremely normal and even boring sexual behavior is scandalous. But, more importantly, this report is indicative of a willingness on the part of anti-choice activists to be open about their hostility to female sexuality, an openness that was, just a few years ago, angrily denied.
Don’t get me wrong; some people are still devoted to the notion that the anti-choice movement has nothing to do with sex or gender. Recently, in Slate, Will Saletan insisted that being “pro-life” had nothing to do with negative attitudes about female sexuality, because the majority of people who tell a pollster that they’re “pro-life” also support legal contraception. What he neglected to mention is that the majority of people who say they’re “pro-life” also support legal abortion, suggesting that the label “pro-life” is a meaningless term that people just adopt because it sounds good.
To know what the actual anti-choice movement is about, you need to look at what
its members do, not what some random people say about how they label themselves. And, increasingly, anti-choice activists are free about their larger objections to women being able to choose non-procreative sex. Indeed, when I first started writing on the topic of reproductive health care, even the slightest intimation that anti-choicers have a problem with female sexuality was enough to cause conservatives to cry foul and howl about how they don’t care what you do in bed, it’s about “life,” and blah blah blah.
Now we have Mike Huckabee shamelessly ascribing the desire to have insurance cover birth control—something that it has always done, by the way—to women’s inability to “control our libido.” Now anti-contraception protesters are a major part of the March for Life, making it undeniable that “life” is just a code word for efforts to punish and control women by taking away their ability to manage their fertility. Far from denying the anti-sex motivations of their movement, anti-choicers are beginning to own it loudly and proudly.
Why now? Probably because they think they’re winning. The massive shutdown of abortion clinics across the country because of medically unnecessary red tape is a major victory. A big win like that will make anyone cocky, so they’re less afraid of losing ground by admitting that the real agenda is to attack women’s sexuality. But it’s also because the attacks on abortion rights have been so successful that the only way to build on them is to go after contraception. Unlike with abortion, however, attacks on contraception pretty much have to be framed in terms of restricting women’s sexual choices.
Sure, a lot of anti-choicers are still cautious and are looking for ways to attack contraception without coming right out and saying it’s about sex. “Religious freedom” is one gambit being toss around a lot. But honestly, the sense you get lately is that conservatives generally have decided to stop pretending and just come out with it. Rush Limbaugh’s throwing caution to the wind and using Sandra Fluke’s congressional testimony to characterize women who use contraception as sluts was clearly taken as a battle cry to stop self-censoring by the right. And, frankly, it doesn’t seem to have hurt them very much. The attacks on abortion and contraception seem to be getting more, not less, successful in the wake of conservatives gradually admitting that the anti-choice philosophy was about sex all along.