Girls Don’t Just Want to Have Fun

As state legislatures attack women’s reproductive rights, the media focus elsewhere.

Susan J. Douglas

On July 11 in Washington, D.C., Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) speaks during a pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The past two years have seen a con­cert­ed and inten­sive assault on women’s repro­duc­tive rights. Accord­ing to the Guttmach­er Insti­tute, Repub­li­can-con­trolled state leg­is­la­tures around the coun­try passed 43 dif­fer­ent restric­tions on abor­tion in 2012 and more than twice that num­ber, 92, in 2011. More recent­ly, we read that Repub­li­can sen­a­tors, des­per­ate to ener­gize their base, hope to mim­ic Texas and plan to intro­duce a bill that would pro­hib­it abor­tions after 20 weeks, like the one that passed the House in June. The goal is clear: to whit­tle away at Roe v. Wade until it’s almost mean­ing­less, or to pass laws that will make it to the Supreme Court, which would then over­turn Roe.

Leave it to the Times to celebrate the unconstrained sexcapades of Ivy League women at a time when legislatures are competing mightily to see which one can pass the most reactionary abortion laws.

But the larg­er objec­tive, as we know, is to humil­i­ate and police women, to place their bod­ies and sex­u­al­i­ties under sur­veil­lance, and to elim­i­nate any agency they have over their repro­duc­tive health.

In the media cov­er­age of this onslaught of anti-choice bills — laws that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect low­er income and poor women, rur­al women and women of col­or — we’ve heard men like Mar­co Rubio and Rick Per­ry insist that a 20-week restric­tion is just good com­mon sense. Less cov­er­age has been giv­en to the fact that, accord­ing to Planned Par­ent­hood Pres­i­dent Cecile Richards, near­ly 99 per­cent of abor­tions already occur before 21 weeks; those sought after that time are often due to severe fetal abnor­mal­i­ties or real threats to the woman’s health.

Indeed, just as state and fed­er­al most­ly-white-male law­mak­ers have sought to silence women’s voic­es on abor­tion and con­tra­cep­tion, so too have the nation­al media mas­sive­ly under­re­port­ed women’s respons­es to this misog­y­nis­tic jug­ger­naut. Yes, Wendy Davis became a hero for her fil­i­buster of the Texas abor­tion bill, but where were the inter­views of all those pro-choice demon­stra­tors who ral­lied with her? Bare­ly cov­ered at all have been the Moral Mon­day protests by a coali­tion of activist and reli­gious groups, staged out­side the North Car­oli­na Gen­er­al Assem­bly, ral­ly­ing against restric­tive abor­tion bills, assaults on vot­ing rights and oth­er extreme pro­pos­als. Near­ly 1,000 peo­ple have been arrest­ed in these ongo­ing protests, many of them women. Where are their stories?

Women fight­ing for their repro­duc­tive rights isn’t news­wor­thy. But when the sub­ject is female sex­u­al­i­ty, stop the press­es: Ivy League women are hook­ing up! In July, the New York Times pub­lished its instant­ly buzz-wor­thy piece, She Can Play That Game, Too,” about hookup cul­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia; it may not be entire­ly dri­ven by guys after all. Most of the young women inter­viewed by reporter Kate Tay­lor said they were too busy for — or unin­ter­est­ed in — a rela­tion­ship, but still sought out drunk­en sex. For many,” read the cap­tion, build­ing a resume, not find­ing a boyfriend (nev­er mind a hus­band), is their main job on cam­pus.” Pos­si­bly to counter the Times’ noto­ri­ous habit of focus­ing on elite women as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of some hot new trend, Tay­lor did inter­view a stu­dent from a less priv­i­leged back­ground who has not par­tic­i­pat­ed in hookup cul­ture. Nonethe­less, the image com­ing from much of the arti­cle was one of over­achieve­ment in the class­room and extracur­ric­u­lars, and sex­u­al agency in leisure time.

Leave it to the Times to cel­e­brate the uncon­strained sex­ca­pades of Ivy League women at a time when leg­is­la­tures are com­pet­ing might­i­ly to see which one can pass the most reac­tionary abor­tion laws. The Times arti­cle includ­ed zero ref­er­ences to con­tra­cep­tion, access to abor­tions or STDs. With the fear of unwant­ed preg­nan­cy or inabil­i­ty to access birth con­trol nev­er men­tioned, the impli­ca­tion is that these are prob­lems of the ancient past, and so the need for access to safe abor­tions is now irrelevant.

The alleged sex­u­al agency of col­lege women is deemed news­wor­thy; so is the pas­sage of dra­con­ian anti-abor­tion bills. But women’s polit­i­cal defi­ance? Bare­ly cov­ered. So the com­mon sense” that emerges is one of anti-abor­tion forces as unas­sail­able, the pro-choice move­ment as los­ing steam and priv­i­leged women as not car­ing any­way, because this won’t affect them. That media frame fur­ther enables the agen­da of the most extreme anti-choice forces in our coun­try who, while tar­get­ing poor women, have their sights on us all.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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