How Conservative Media's Slut-Shaming Helped Inspire A Scientific Study

Blog ››› ››› HANNAH GROCH-BEGLEY

Birth control pills, via Flickr Creative Commons

New research confirms that providing women access to free birth control does not result in women having sex with more partners -- a false claim that has been repeatedly pushed and promoted by conservative media, and which contributes to their efforts to stigmatize women's sexuality.

Providing women with no-cost contraception did not result in "riskier" sexual behavior (defined by the researchers as "sex with multiple partners") but did reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions, according to a comprehensive study from the Washington University School of Medicine.

As Amanda Duberman noted at the Huffington Post, having new empirical data to push back on the moralizing arguments against birth control is helpful, but raises the question: "why do we care?" The fact that researchers felt the need to study this particular claim about birth control at all reveals an "implicit stigmatization" of women's sexuality (emphasis added):

It is a small, pervasive set of voices that leads researchers to consider "multiple sexual partners" over the course of an entire year "risky sexual behavior."

[...]

The past decade of research has confirmed what women's health advocates already knew: the benefits of reducing barriers to birth control access far outweigh any subjectively determined adverse effects.

What's unfortunate is that making a case for something many women need relies on the implicit stigmatization of their sexuality. That researchers and health advocates need to presume harsh judgement of sexually active women to convince skeptics of birth control's utility just reminds us how far we have to go.

Duberman is right; it should not matter whether women have more or less sex when taking birth control pills. But it's not just a small set of conservative political voices pushing this offensive criticism of women's sexuality and inspiring scientific research. Conservative media have played a role in forcing this conversation, repeatedly slut-shaming women who use birth control and insisting that anyone who supports government funding for free contraceptives is equivalent to a prostitute.

The study's senior author, Dr. Jeffrey Peipert, told Media Matters that the researchers decided to examine the supposed link between birth control and sexual behavior in part because "Conservative critics, like Rush Limbaugh, argue that no-cost contraception will result in promiscuity and increased high-risk behavior ... The point of the analysis is to provide data and evidence, rather than to make claims based on opinion or personal points of view or BELIEFS. Our study provides evidence." 

Limbaugh famously distorted Sandra Fluke's congressional testimony on the benefits of safe and affordable contraceptive coverage to call Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute," claiming she was asking "to be paid to have sex." Limbaugh went on to demand that women with contraceptive coverage post sex videos online "so we can all watch."

But Limbaugh was hardly alone. A chorus of right-wing media figures repeated his attacks, including then-CNN contributor Erick Erickson and National Review's Mark Steyn, who agreed that Fluke was demanding someone "pay for her sex life." Then-CNN contributor Dana Loesch wrote that Fluke was acting like a "nympho" and that she "simply cannot stop getting it on and her inability to control her urges constitutes infringing upon everyone else for a bailout."

More recently, Fox host Sean Hannity said that a government website that gave girls health information, including details about access to birth control, was encouraging sex among teens, while multiple right-wing media figures -- including Fox News' Laura Ingraham, Fox News' Katie Pavlich, Washington Times' Emily Miller, and Fox News' Michelle Malkin -- jumped on provocative ads for Obamacare, which included an image of a woman holding birth control, to claim the ad depicted "cheap sluts," a "whore," a "prostitute," and encouraged "promiscuity."

And in January, Fox News host Mike Huckabee not only accused Democrats of telling women "they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government," but fundraised off of the comments.

Moreover, it's not just long-term contraceptives (such as intrauterine devices) or birth control pills, which were the focus of the Washington University study. Conservative media have also been active in spreading the baseless rumor that emergency contraceptives like Plan B encourage sex among teenagers -- a falsehood debunked by multiple peer-reviewed studies, which found that not only did access to emergency contraceptives not increase sexual activity, but they also had no effect on sexual risk-taking or the use of standard contraceptives.

As Duberman noted, 99.1 percent of sexually experienced American women ages 15 to 44 have used some form of contraception, with roughly four out of every five women using birth control pills. Conservatives claim they want to appeal to female voters -- they may want to start by asking their media figures to stop calling at least 80 percent of women sluts and whores.

The language in this post has been updated for clarity.

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