GOP Overreacts to Teenage Sexuality


Conservatives and anti-choice activists have been trying — and lately, succeeding — to whittle down abortion rights in this country for some time. But a recent effort is also underway to whittle down our definition of rape so that fewer and fewer victims are included.

The original language in HR3, an anti-choice Republican bill proposed in Congress, redefined rape for the purposes of determining which victims can have an abortion covered by Medicaid. Conservative lawmakers narrowed the standing broad definition to only “forcible rape,” begging the question as to how many bruises you have to incur in order to qualify as a rape victim. It created such an uproar that Republicans promised to get rid of it from the bill. But as Nick Baumann of Mother Jones reports, they’re not done trying.

As HR3 comes up for a vote today, the committee report for the bill says that it will “not allow the Federal Government to subsidize abortions in cases of statutory rape.” Congressional committees write these documents in order to outline their intent for the legislation in case there is ever a court fight. If such a fight comes up around this bill, the effect will be that victims of statutory rape will be denied Medicaid funds for an abortion.

Telling victims of sexual assault that their experiences don’t “count” is the lowest of the low. It also only serves to create an environment of more acceptance around these crimes. A 30 year old coercing a 13 year old into sex? Sorry, federal law doesn’t count that as rape. And if the government doesn’t think it’s rape, why should a perpetrator? Why would a victim realize that she should report a crime that is now not considered a crime? According to these lawmakers, she should be forced to bear any child that results if she can’t afford an abortion with her own money.

The reasons offered for this restriction echo fear of rampant teenage sexuality. Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said the original redefinition was in response to a “brazen effort” by abortion rights groups to “federally fund the abortion of tens of thousands of healthy babies of healthy moms, based solely on the age of their mothers.” Richard Doerflinger of the US Council of Catholic Bishops said it was “an effort on the part of the sponsors to prevent the opening of a very broad loophole for federally funded abortions for any teenager.” But teens only account for fewer than two out of 10 of all abortions, and of those most are 18-19; women in their twenties are the largest group, at 58%. There’s a difference between all teenagers and those who are victims of statutory rape. But in the minds of Republicans, no difference exists. All sexually active teenage girls deserve to be punished by bringing to term an unwanted baby, rape or no. The language is an overreaction to the imaginary problem of young girls wantonly sleeping around and then trying to abort their babies under false rape accusations.

Republicans at the same time try to claim they aren’t changing anything. But the bill’s language is absurd, as the Hyde Amendment has stood as law since 1976 and forbids federal funds from paying for abortions — except in the cases of rape and incest. In the words of a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman, “Hyde does not make a distinction between statutory rape and any other kind of rape and states are not free to make such distinctions.” This is merely an attempt to narrow a law that already shuts too many poor women out of access to abortion care.

Not to mention that a group claiming to be working against the stealth efforts of abortion rights groups is using some pretty stealth efforts of its own. If they’re really not changing anything, why jump through such complicated legislative hoops to pull it off? The answer is in how much they want to control young girls’ sexuality.

The Republican attempt to control women’s sexuality

Good news! Our government was able to get itself together just in time to avoid closing its doors. Literally at the 11th hour, minutes away from the first government shutdown in 15 years, what could have possibly been the sticking point keeping lawmakers from reaching a deal? Was it funding our 2.5 wars? Investments in education or infrastructure? What to do about our unemployment crisis?

Nope. It was whether or not to allow a rider (a.k.a. an attachment to the bill) that got rid of Title X funding for Planned Parenthood. But in a fight over the budget and trying to save the government from spending too much money, getting rid of this funding will do exactly the opposite. Planned Parenthood’s services help prevent unwanted pregnancies that are a cost to taxpayers, not to mention providing preventative care to millions of women and men, helping them root out cancer early and stay healthy. And Planned Parenthood is able to offer these services in a cost effective way; if the government has to provide them on its own, rather than contract with Planned Parenthood, it will simply have to spend more money.

And while the GOP and the media talked about this as a fight over abortion, it wasn’t about that at all. After all, the Hyde Amendment prohibits Planned Parenthood from using any federal money it receives to pay for its abortion services. Not to mention that such services makes up for a mere 3% of what it does. What’s the rest of it, you ask? Four million STD tests, one million pap smears, 830,000 breast exams, and providing 83% of all clients with things that prevent unwanted pregnancy in the first place. The rider also stripped funding from UNFPA, which isn’t allowed to use federal funds for abortion either. Rather, its mission is to avert maternal and infant mortality in developing countries.

So this wasn’t about money and it wasn’t about abortion. Why exactly has the GOP targeted Planned Parenthood so heavily? Author Ellen Chesler points out that part of it is political: get rid of Planned Parenthood and you eliminate an organization that effectively mobilizes women who vote against Republicans. Amanda Marcotte explains that it’s also about Republicans deciding that poor women who have sex don’t deserve government money.

It’s also about controlling women’s sexuality. Any woman can get it on without severe consequences because she’s empowered with contraception and sex education and, good heavens, the choice to terminate and unwanted pregnancy. By denying women the tools to have safe sex when and with whom they choose, the GOP is looking to put up limits. The idea that a woman could have sex for pleasure, do it out of wedlock, and not suffer the wrath of God in the form of an STD or an unwanted pregnancy clearly irks them.

The GOP’s bait and switch on abortion was also evident in HR3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which was from the start redundant, as the Hyde Amendment already takes care of this. But beyond that, Republicans managed to include a provision that changed the definition of rape to only that which is “forcible.” This has nothing to do with abortion, but everything to do with attacking women and their sexuality. It put the blame on the woman who “asks for it” or is “too drunk” or “too flirtatious” rather than on the rapist where it belongs. It’s one more way of punishing women who don’t wear iron clad chastity belts. They may claim that this is about saving the lives of fetuses, but when it’s clearly not about abortion and rather about sex and rape, it’s hard to take them at their word.

And even though the facts are clear these fights aren’t really about abortion, the GOP drums up the perception that they are. Anti-abortion fever is also about controlling women who have sex. As Ann Pellegrini puts it: “Abortion conjures raced and classed images of an out of control female sexuality. An unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, which can happen for so many reasons—including failed contraception or a failure to educate young people about contraception at all (hello, abstinence-only sex education)—is instead recast as a woman’s failure in self-discipline and sexual morality.”

When girls and women are denied the tools to make healthy choices about sex, no one wins. But the point for Republicans is to attempt to put walls around women and their sexuality, denying them the ability make their own choices and casting them as immoral.

#Mooreandme Worked. So What’s Next?


While we’ve come a long way (baby), all it takes are a few offhand remarks about rape to make it clear how far women still have to go. It can seem obvious to us activists that blaming victims for rape is wrong, that it can take many different forms, that a culture that goes easy on perpetrators makes it more likely for rape to take place. But these are foreign ideas for many people, even staunch progressives. Ignorance, indifference and outright malice about sex crimes still pervade our culture.

So when Michael Moore appeared on Keith Olbermann’s show and called the rape charges against Julian Assage “hooey,” women were outraged. This led to a veritable revolution, orchestrated by blogger Sady Doyle. Doyle used Twitter as a weapon in her fight to make these men open their eyes a fraction about rape. It took an enormous toll on her and dedicated activists, but in the end it got results – Olbermann apologized and Moore, in a televised interview by Rachel Maddow, was able to discuss the rape charges with the nuance he should have used in the first place.

Why was this campaign so effective? Millicent of Millicent and Carla Fran looked at the medium used, Twitter, and concluded that it “has a number of features that level a playing field that tends to push women into the outfield.” The advantages: no audio component, so women’s voices are harder to dismiss and men’s carry less assumed authority; an absence of physical visibility that makes it harder for opponents to attack women’s images over their substance; both the trolls and activists are seen side-by-side, exposing trolls’ abuse of specific women as well as the hollowness of their arguments; and a fluidity that lets many people into the conversation (although also means that certain arguments have to be repeated over and over). It’s a medium that amplifies all voices equally, lending itself well to a David vs. Goliath-esque movement.

Beyond the benefits of Twitter itself, there’s another reason that this worked. Rape culture is a huge problem. It’s insidious, it’s complicated, it’s widespread. Some examples are obvious but they’re often subtle. That’s why it’s called “culture.” Doyle saw one particular instance and decided it was time to make an example, to take a stand, to teach people – particularly our allies on the left – about the harm they cause when they don’t put victims first. Instead of getting bogged down in all the ways that sexism and rape apologism manifest, Doyle and her supporters honed in on a high profile case and directed all of their energy toward it. And it worked. Moore’s ideas about rape clearly evolved. I’m sure many more minds were reached. And I’d bet Keith Olbermann (wherever his next gig may be) will now think carefully when discussing these issues.

And this format is easily repeated. Merritt Martin of Hay Ladies decided to use this tactic against a comedian on MTV, Daniel Tosh of Tosh.o. Tosh devoted a whole episode to rape humor in which victims were the brunt of the jokes. According to Martin’s tally, he was able to cram 30 offensive jokes into a half-hour segment. So up started the hashtag #toshpointno and Tweets directed at his account. The message? Joking about victims diminishes their experiences and adds to a culture that doesn’t always treat rape seriously. Tosh’s jokes were “aggressive, unnecessary and belittling humor that essentially robs the victims (in general as well as those specified) of the fact that they. were. victimized,” wrote Martin. And it’s not that there can never be jokes about rape – just watch Wanda Sykes’ bit about detachable pussies. It’s hilarious! But it doesn’t direct humor AT victims.

Doyle also has a new campaign, this time to reach across the aisle and slap some sense into our new Republican Speaker of the House. He just introduced a new bill, HR3, that is not only dangerous in its desire to restrict access to abortion, but goes even further – it redefines rape exceptions to only include instances of “forcible rape.” Not only does this exclude many kinds of rape – “in which the woman was drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol, rapes of women with limited mental capacity, and many date rapes,” according to a Mother Jones article – but the term “forcible rape” hasn’t even been defined by the federal criminal code. In a word: this bill is dangerous. It threatens to make life even more difficult for rape victims. So Doyle is at it again. As she says, “It’s time to make the Internet a big, scary problem for some sexists, once again.” She created a new hashtag for the movement, #DearJohn, and is directing Tweets to Boehner’s account and all Congressmen who support the bill. “They told us we didn’t count. Imagine their surprise when we all speak up, all at once, to tell them that we do.” Hell yes. The attention on this new definition is already causing some to squirm: the Democrat who co-sponsored HR3 is trying to distance himself from it.

There are plenty of other places we can go. Meredith at The Daily Femme is fed up with prison rape jokes on SVU. Lynn Harris at Salon points out the stigma that still hangs around women with STDs. I’d bet my next five paychecks that this is not the last offensive bill the GOP will dream up. Next time you see something outrageous, consider this: maybe it’s time to wake up some minds. Maybe it’s time to shout down rape apologists. Maybe it deserves its own hashtag.

Not all of these campaigns will necessarily have the same effect as #Mooreandme. We may not be able to get each offender to go on TV and change their story. Daniel Tosh may still choose to make disgusting rape jokes. I doubt a teary-eyed Boehner will apologize for anything. But this is a new model for successful activism against very specific cases of rape apology and rape culture. Instead of a big messy problem that’s hard to wrap our heads around, we can attack something specific and concrete and chip away at the larger problem. We can inform some people and alert others that they’re anti-woman policies are not going unnoticed. We can let them know that this matters. In any way that it manifests.

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