A grizzled, middle-aged man protests across the street from Mississippi's only abortion clinic, shouting horribly offensive language—racial epithets, misogynistic slurs, religious condemnation—at women as they go in. I don't pretend to know whether he really believes that abortion is murder, but the joy in his eyes as he verbally abuses these women is disconcerting. I can't escape the feeling that somebody who honestly believed that he was witnessing a series of murders wouldn't look so happy to be there. You certainly don't see that kind of joy on the face of somebody protesting against war or the death penalty, and you don't see it on the faces of the priests, nuns, and other gentle souls who once formed the rank-and-file of the anti-abortion movement.
The look in his eyes is the same look I see in Rush Limbaugh's eyes when I look at video footage of his attacks on Sandra Fluke. Fluke was to speak before Rep. Darrell Issa's congressional panel on birth control, but was excluded at the last minute—leaving an all-male slate of speakers.
When Fluke told her story on YouTube, Limbaugh called her a "slut" and a "prostitute," demanded video evidence of her sexual history, and—over a series of days—essentially used his radio show as a vehicle for sexual harassment.
Audio clips from his Fluke segments sound immature, less like the work of a radio commentator and more like overheard snippets from a very longwinded obscene phone call. And video clips reveal shifty eyes, a puerile grin—an expression that indicates he has just surprised somebody with a dirty joke he knows they didn't want to hear. You can see the same expression, at times, on the faces of Bill Maher and Howard Stern.
In Virginia, lawmakers made an unsuccessful attempt to require women who have an abortion to first face a mandatory transvaginal probe—an invasive and medically unnecessary procedure performed against the woman's will as a punishment for considering abortion. In Mississippi, some lawmakers gloated as the state seemed poised to ban birth control and in-vitro fertilization last November with the broadly worded Personhood Initiative. Voters defeated the initiative in Mississippi, and Virginia lawmakers rethought their stance after a huge nationwide outcry, but both measures still have their advocates. And some of the advocates seem to be disturbingly happy about that.
I'm writing this column on International Women's Day, and with the conviction that—despite a series of bizarre policy initiatives targeting women's rights, despite the coarsening of public rhetoric surrounding women's bodies, despite all of these things—the women's movement in America has never been stronger.
I am finding it increasingly difficult, however, to see these recent controversies as a series of policy differences. I think they represent something more fundamental, more disturbing, about the way many men feel about the prospect of women as equal partners. As somebody who really prefers to believe that most people are good hearted, who likes to believe that everyone has valid reasons for holding the beliefs that they do, I find this upsetting. But I am increasingly coming to believe that the most vocal among these men can't be reasoned with, that they can only be avoided and, when they attempt to channel their impulses into bad policy, challenged.
Most of the time, these successful challenges will not, and should not, be led by men. The defeat of the Personhood Initiative last November can be directly traced to the work of women like Cristen Hemmins and Atlee Breland, women who were directly targeted by the language of Initiative 26.
But I think we men, myself included, have not done enough to confront other men. We have let too much slide. We have ignored sexist remarks, failed to speak out against misogynistic policies, undervalued women who have been mentors in our lives, read too few female authors, paid too little attention to the realities of women's lives—and this needs to change. As critical race scholar Aaron Bady writes: "The fact that Limbaugh doesn't even understand how female contraception works doesn't diminish his rhetorical position a whit. On the contrary, he is defending precisely his right not to know how it works."
Men ridicule each other's ignorance on many topics, but seem to give each other a pass on women's health issues—even if they're voting on policies that directly affect women's lives. We have a responsibility to call out men like Rush Limbaugh and help create a culture where this sort of behavior is recognized as creepy, where it finally becomes more embarrassing to the men who perpetrate it than it is to the women who have to endure it.
Freelance writer Tom Head is a lifelong Jacksonian. He has authored or co-authored 24 nonfiction books on a wide range of topics, is a civil liberties writer for About.com, and volunteers as a grassroots progressive activist.