Another week, another offensive comment about women, sex, consent and abortion. We’re getting numb to it by now; a candidate or public figure says something alarming that shows a basic misunderstanding of female anatomy, the nature of rape or the realities of abortion. Everyone gets upset, the person in question semi-backtracks, we realize how awful his policy agenda is, and then the next comment comes down the pipeline.
This has been the year of “aspirin between the knees” and “legitimate rape,” the month of “some girls rape easy” and the awful, false claims that pregnancies are never life-threatening from Rep. Joe Walsh (even after his colleague testified about her own life-threatening pregnancy on the House floor last year). This is the year that women in the military "should expect to be raped," the year of “abortions on women who aren’t pregnant” zombie myth, the year of maybe we should reconsider incest exceptions to abortion bans . And now we have Richard Mourdock saying pregnancy by rape is "God’s will. ”So here’s the question: why do they keep saying these things? It’s 2012, and these statements about rape, abortion and sex are actually really energizing for their opposition--they pull middle-of-the road voters away from the group they see as “extreme” and toward Democrats, who seem more reasonable, understandable and moderate on social issues. So why does ill-advised stream-of-consciousness ranting continue?
1. They really and truly believe this stuff . (They also don’t believe in the considerable evidence that refutes it.) For years, many vocal pro-choicers have been saying that the bulk of contemporary anti-choice ideology is more motivated by misogyny and the desire to shame and punish sexually active women than by concern for the potential life of an embryo or fetus--thus the lack of interest from this faction in childcare, education, maternal health, maternal leave policy, etc.
That sturdy link between anti-choice advocacy and misogyny also explains why so many casual, women-hating comments come out of the mouths of these guys. This is their doctrine, their bread and butter. Also, these are the same people who don’t trust things like facts and figures. They deny the realities of climate change and fight the teaching of evolution--so the science on women’s health is hardly going to convince them.
Even more insidious than these casual connections is the fact that many of those making offensive comments are hardline movement anti-choicers. Just this week Todd Akin’s ties to an anti-abortion militia were revealed , along with his history of multiple arrests protesting clinics.
2. They’re emboldened by the Tea Party and the war on women. This is a story we at AlterNet, particularly Adele Stan, have been telling for a long time. The extreme, socially conservative, right-wing faction of the GOP used to be kept somewhat at bay by the Washington insider, fiscally conservative faction. Not so anymore. The Tea Party has allowed all of the uglier ideas that used to be swept aside, from racist birther conspiracy theories to those other theories about legitimate rape into the light. And it isn’t pretty.
3. They’re in denial about the dangers women--and all of us--face . It’s no coincidence that Akin's “legitimate rape” comment and Joe Walsh’s absurd claim that no pregnancies can be medically life-threatening are classic examples of making up facts to suit a preexisting argument. Mourdock’s comments, on the other hand, are another kind of denial, a paper-thin religious assurance that the bad things that happen are part of a plan. The reality is twofold: first, issues like rape, incest and life-threatening pregnancies are the kinds of complexities that make the case for legalized abortion for all women, because each person’s case and situation is different, because we can’t stand in each other's shoes.
Second, however, mainstream liberals have been too quick to turn to these examples of dire situations to justify abortion. "But rape and incest and life of the mother!" we cry. When we move into that territory, they do not cede it to us--they attack us on it. So now rape victims are being targeted. We shouldn't be surprised. Instead of acknowledging the real dangers and complications in our lives, right-wingers invent made-up terrors that rob women of agency, like abortion providers who operate on women who aren’t even pregnant, a particularly bizarre myth.
4. They haven’t been punished by voters yet. The Tea Party swept in in 2010. The war on women began in January 2011. There has been no ballot-box pushback against this ideology yet, and it’s unclear whether there will be a strong enough effort to send a message that such statements, and the policy that goes with it, is not okay. But what we’ve witnessed is two years of an assumed mandate, in which extremists with little regard for women’s social equality have felt empowered to say whatever comes to their minds.