When feminists start applauding anything said or done by Hugh Hefner, we know we’ve come to an odd pass. But in the May issue of Playboy, Hefner blasts “repressed conservatives” who he says are “pounding on America’s bedroom door.” Citing Rick Santorum’s statement that contraception is “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be,” Hefner denounces the “ignorance espoused by a new crop of self-appointed arbiters who are determined to oversee our morality.” Amen.
But Hefner doesn’t go far enough. Because what we’ve been seeing – during a time of persistent economic hardship for so many, no less – has been a national obsession with uteruses. This comes from the repressed yet lecherous religious Right, of course, but it has also come to pervade its almost polar opposite: celebrity culture. From Capitol Hill to tabloid rags, surveillance of the uterus is, weirdly, everywhere. Our country has often been neurotic about sex – prudish yet pornographic – but now is an especially pathological time.
Having endured, at the state and national level, the year-and-a-half long Republican “war on women” (I highly recommend a Facebook page by that name), we’ve heard plenty about efforts to further criminalize abortion, water down and redefine rape laws, defund Planned Parenthood and, in a completely bizarre knuckle-dragging move, to attack contraception and access to it. But when you look at some of the laws proposed, there is something deeply perverted about them – sexually perverted. They have evidenced a keen desire to invade, monitor and manipulate women’s sex organs, and thus violate our privacy.
What drove Republican men in Virginia to want to force women to have a device inserted into their vaginas prior to being allowed to have an abortion? Their devotion to “the sanctity of life”? Until the national uproar labeling the proposed legislation “state rape,” Republican men in other states, like Alabama and Idaho, also wanted to mandate that a probe be inserted inside a woman’s body prior to an abortion. (Not surprisingly, this is already the law in Texas.) Cloaked in the guise of prudery, this is a sadistic, pornographic fantasy. When Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut for testifying in favor of insurance coverage for contraceptives and then suggested she make a sex tape, something perverted was going on.
But looking beyond reactionary Republicans, our media are increasingly obsessed with the uterus. You can hardly open a celebrity gossip magazine anymore (let alone scan its cover) without seeing various benighted women with a canary yellow circle drawn around their abdomens, and blaring text demanding to know what’s going on in there: Did she eat too much for lunch or is there a zygote taking form? (Of course it doesn’t help that some celebrities, typically on the D-list – think Tori Spelling – parade their “bump” to stay in the limelight and cash in on motherhood.)
The “bump patrol” is a relatively recent phenomenon in the celebrity rags. Think about the term’s connotations: A patrol, typically involving police officers or soldiers, is designed to look out for criminals, enemies and threats. Despite the somewhat jocular tone of the “bump patrol,” it has a militarized law enforcement valence and is of a piece with legislative efforts to keep the uterus under surveillance and render it a public space.
Why this obsession now? Is it that the more women become visible and active in the workplace and public life, the more they must be told that their lives are still determined by biological imperatives that are – or should be – out of their control? Is it that right-wing “religious” men, fearing their own lust, project it onto women so they think they have exorcised it? Or, in the case of the spate of vaginal probe ultrasound bills, is it just simple sexual sadism, masquerading as moral outrage?
Whatever the explanation, some politicians who excoriate the Taliban have attitudes toward women almost as warped and aggressive as members of the Islamist militant group. Girls and women everywhere should out these guys not only as reactionary misogynistic ideologues, but as deeply disturbed sexual perverts.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.