Conservative leaders know they have a sex problem. On one hand, they know that raising the alarm about how the sex-havers are out of control is a time-tested way to rally the troops by creating fear and resentment of other people’s sex lives. Witness any hand-wringing story about “hook-up culture,” if you have any doubt. On the other hand, sex is, well, popular, and not just among the liberals and young feminists conservatives like to demonize. Pretty much everyone has it and wants to have it, even people who are easily angered and agitated at the idea of other people having it.
Taking a blanket view against non-procreative sex or premarital sex, while popular with a handful of hardline social conservatives, is politically toxic, and not just in the mainstream. So conservative leaders have come to realize that they need to have it both ways: An ability to demagogue about the supposed sexual evil that is dragging the country down into the gutter while allowing their audiences to make an exception for themselves and their own sex lives.
In other words, conservatives need to believe that their own sex lives are wholesome while maintaining the belief that everyone else is going to hell. And their leaders are continuously trying to find new ways to encourage that hypocrisy.
The most in-your-face example from CPAC of a conservative trying to let an audience know that sex is okay for them but not for other people came from the mouth of the ever-blunt Ann Coulter. She lamented what she perceived as a paucity of lectures aimed at lower-income people for having sex.
“Shaming is good, this is how, I mean it’s almost a cruel and selfish thing, for lack of a better term, for the upper classes, the educated, for the college graduates to refuse to tell the poor people, keep your knees together before you’re married,” she complained, even though anyone who is interested in those lectures can tune into Fox News on any given night and hear wealthy conservatives opine on the sex lives of everyone else. But the message to the people in the audience couldn’t be clearer: Sex is wrong and dirty for those people, the poor people. For you, carry on.
The attacks on contraception on display at CPAC played this same game with the audience, where the speakers tried to convince the crowd that yeah, they think sex is generally dirty and wrong, but not, of course, when the people in the audience do it. There was little doubt that Sarah Palin’s speech at the conference was working negative stereotypes about female sexuality. She didn’t go as far as Rush Limbaugh in outright using the word “slut” to describe any woman who supported insurance coverage of contraception, but she did basically go there anyway. “They seem to think that the women of America are cheap dates,” she said of the Democrats. “Feed ‘em a few lines about that free birth control, throw in some scary quotes about the war on women, and they will be yours.”
For all that Palin is routinely assumed be a bit half-witted, the metaphor was a masterful method of appealing to her audience’s contradictory desires to shame other people for having sex while retaining the ability to feel good about their own sex lives. It has plausible deniability in it, since she never technically says that sex is wrong. It’s tempting to write it off as a folksy metaphor—that’s certainly Palin’s cover story if she’s called out on it!—but nevertheless, she managed to tie “free birth control” to the phrase “cheap dates,” invoking the idea of sluttiness to discredit Democratic voters without saying anything specific that might implicate the sexual choices of the audience.
Never mind that the birth control is not free, but is in fact paid for by the women with their health insurance that they earn by working, and therefore is no different than any other health service people use insurance to pay for. The only thing that makes birth control different is that it’s used for sex, and invoking it allows the audience to shame others for having sex while maintaining a cover story—they’re not against sex, just against paying for it—to push back if the prudishness of these attacks on contraception is called out.
Carly Fiorina took a less colorful but not less hypocritical approach during her CPAC speech. After repeating the claim that using your insurance to pay for birth control makes it “free,” she went on to say that Republicans don’t “insult” women by “thinking all they are is about reproductive rights.” It’s a transparent lie, since not only have Democrats addressed a multitude of issues that affect both genders, they’re also taken the lead on women’s issues like fighting violence against women and equal pay. The only way this line makes sense is if you think merely mentioning reproductive healthcare at all is an insult to women, presumably because there are just some topics nice ladies don’t talk about.
Fiorina just put a more genteel gloss on the narrative invoked more viciously by Mike Huckabee earlier in a speech before the RNC where he directly linked the use of insurance-covered contraception with sluttiness, saying, “the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”
Though his comments were transparently anti-sex, he immediately denied that was his point, going onto Fox News and saying, “This was an affirmation of the intelligence, of the capability of women. Like my wife, my daughter, my daughter-in-law, I’m insulted for them, and they are insulted, when the Democrats portray them as victims of their gender.”
The argument, then, seems to be that it’s okay for women to have a gender and even a sexuality, but if they talk about it—or worse, if they advocate openly for policies to make sex safer and healthier—then they are “victims of their gender” and cannot be regarded as intelligent or capable. The message is clear: Keep your sexuality hidden and shameful, or else you will be treated like garbage. This also allows conservative women a way to rationalize supporting a party that undermines their sexual health, by convincing themselves the attacks aren’t on them, but on those other women. You know, the liberal women. The ones who admit they have sex instead of just hiding it in the closet.
Of course, in the political realm, the attacks on abortion and contraception are rooted in the anti-choice movement’s hostility to all non-procreative sex. (If you doubt this, read some of the choice quotes from conservative briefs in the Hobby Lobby contraception case.) But admitting that out loud would not only make the conservative case hard to sell to the public at large, but might also alienate your average conservative follower, who would like to pretend it’s only the sexuality of others under attack and not their own. So the leaders spin these little tales for them, about how it’s only those other people—the poor, the liberals, the “cheap dates”—whose sexuality is deviant, but no, they’re not talking about your wholesome conservative sex life. Sadly, this kind of parsing appears to be working, as conservative women don’t seem to be jumping ship as Republicans escalate the war on women.