Floozy. Strumpet. Slut.
When attacking a woman by questioning her sexual mores, there’s a smorgasbord of slurs, and you can take your rancid pick. Help me out here: where are the comparable nouns for men? What’s a male slut?
A role model, in some cases. In others, a presidential candidate.
“Gigolo” doesn’t have the acid or currency of “whore,” and the man with bedpost notches gets compliments. He’s a Casanova, a conquistador.
The lady is a tramp.
Nearly two weeks since Rush Limbaugh let loose on Sandra Fluke, equating her desire for insurance-covered birth control with a prostitute’s demand for a fee, the wrangling over how awful that really was and whether it will truly haunt him continues.
Advertisers bolted in protest; advertisers come and go all the time. It was the beginning of his end; it was ratings chum. He lost his way; he was Rush in Excelsis.
One especially robust strand of commentary has focused on whether Limbaugh, a god of the far right, was smacked down for the kind of thing that less conservative men routinely get away with.
In a spirited essay on The Daily Beast this past weekend, the novelist Paul Theroux joined many commentators in alleging liberal hypocrisy, of which there has indeed been some.
And he said that provocative language is an essential part of public dialogue, arguing that you can’t recoil from its deployment against Fluke unless you want to forfeit its use elsewhere.
“You have to give Limbaugh a pass,” he maintained, in order to preserve the right to call Newt Gingrich and Eric Cantor “pimps for Israel, and Rick Santorum a mental midget.”
It’s an interesting point, but it ignores the precise type of language Limbaugh turned to and assumes an even playing field where one doesn’t exist.
While both men and women are called idiots and puppets and frauds, only women are attacked in terms of suspected (or flat-out hallucinated) licentiousness. And only for women is there such a brimming, insidious thesaurus of accordant pejoratives.
Decades after the dawn of feminism, despite the best efforts of everyone from Erica Jong to Kim Cattrall, women are still seen through an erotically censorious prism, and promiscuity is still the ultimate putdown.
It’s antediluvian, and it’s astonishing. You’d think our imaginations would have evolved, even if our humanity hasn’t.
Anthony Weiner may have been felled by his libido, but the weirdness of its expression and his recklessness were what people mainly balked at. Ditto for John Edwards. No one called them gigolos.
You could argue that Limbaugh chose the slurs he did for Fluke simply because the context, a debate over contraception, was in part sexual.
But there are examples aplenty of women being derided as sluts and prostitutes — two of his descriptions of Fluke — when sex is nowhere in the preamble, nowhere in the picture.
Some involve Limbaugh himself. As Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan noted in a recent editorial for CNN.com, he has referred to female cabinet members as “sex-retaries.”
But look as well to Columbia University and what happened last week after President Obama, an alumnus, announced that he would give a commencement address at its all-women’s sister school, Barnard College, instead. A Columbia blog lit up with anti-Barnard rants, several stressing crude, tired sexual stereotypes. A few were apparently written by women.
Last year the TV and radio host Ed Schultz hurled “slut” as an all-purpose insult at the right-wing commentator Laura Ingraham. He got a week’s suspension.
Another radio host, John “Sly” Sylvester, used his Wisconsin talk show to savage the state’s lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, as someone given to oral and group sex. This was just random invective, his special way of saying “I hate you.” He went unpunished.
The impulse toward gross sexual caricatures of women is a sick tic without end.
In 1992 the threat to Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid was a “bimbo eruption.” Note how the slur was assigned to the lubricious co-conspirator, not the lustful (and philandering) candidate.
Two decades later, Amanda Knox wasn’t just an alleged killer but an alleged killer with supposedly kinky sexual habits, the latter presumably shedding light on the former.
Just before the Hollywood producer and director Brett Ratner was dropped from taking charge of this year’s Oscars telecast, he went on a revoltingly sexist tear, saying that he insists that the women he becomes physically intimate with are examined first for transmissible diseases. He separately used an anti-gay epithet. His misogyny struck me as more florid than his homophobia, but if you followed the events closely, you sensed that the homophobia did him in. Only because his victim pool included men as well as women did the water get really hot.
Back to Limbaugh: the lawyer Gloria Allred has called for his criminal prosecution, citing an obscure Florida statute. (Limbaugh does his radio show from West Palm Beach.) The statute says anyone who “speaks of and concerning any woman, married or unmarried, falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity” is committing a misdemeanor.
Good thing it’s not a felony. The prisons might fill to bursting.
Women have made great strides this past century, but it’s clearly going to take even longer for them to achieve true parity with men. That won’t start until we – including many women themselves – actually change the underlying attitudes we have towards them.