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1:00 pm
Tue March 6, 2012

Varied Takes On The Power Of The Word 'Slut'

Originally published on Tue March 6, 2012 2:53 pm

Transcript

JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

Radio host Rush Limbaugh ignited controversy when he called a Georgetown law student a slut and a prostitute after she testified before a congressional committee and called for federal health care coverage to include the cost of contraception. Now, several days have gone by since Limbaugh made those comments, but the debate seems to be getting only bigger. The blogosphere is ablaze with different opinions. The op-ed pages are still filling up with comments on this, on what Limbaugh said and on its social and political meaning.

And the arguments are going in a lot of different directions: free speech, contraception, language decency, media double standards. He touched a nerve, or several of them. But we'd like to hear your thoughts. What nerve actually did he touch? What is this controversy really about? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Limbaugh's comments, which he made over the course of three days, sparked outrage, and he eventually issued this apology. And I'll read it in its entirety. We do not have it in his own voice because he didn't say it. It was a written apology. But I want to give it in its completeness. He wrote this: For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress.

I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit? In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone's bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a presidential level. My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.

And Sandra Fluke later appeared on "The View" on ABC, and she - this is part of her response to that apology.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VIEW")

SANDRA FLUKE: I don't think that a statement like this, issued saying that his choice of words was not the best, changes anything, and - especially when that statement is issued when he's under significant pressure from his sponsors.

DONVAN: OK. That was Sandra Fluke responding to the apology and not expressing a great deal of satisfaction with that. And partly that, I think, explains why the controversy continues now into the fourth or fifth day. And we want to ask you: What do you think this is actually about? Why are we still talking about this? What is in play? And we find it interesting that the opinion pages are filled with all sorts of different reasons, including just simply a discussion of the word that he used, the word slut.

And we found that Laura Ashburn - Lauren Ashburn in the Huffington Post wrote this. She said: I was instantly transported to my eighth grade school cafeteria, where the heat from so many sweaty pre-teens steamed the glass doors to the playground. As I walked to the trash can to throw away what was left of my lunch, I watched as a classmate wrote with her finger in the fog: S - she spelled slowly — L-U-T. And then she mouthed it to me.

And we've already received an email along the same lines from Jezaniah(ph) , who writes: It wasn't so much the word itself but the coupling and direct link Rush Limbaugh drew between women on birth control and the worst derogatory term ever applied to women in one sentence. He alienated all women who are on birth control for many reasons from his show and some, like my girlfriend, from the Republican Party altogether.

So is it about the word? Is about this loaded word that generally speaking is a word that is used to describe women? Is it a word that describes certain kinds of behavior that both men and women engage in? But when it's engaged in by women, that is the word that is used to describe it? We want to hear from you. We're going to start right away with Morris in Little Rock, Arkansas. Hi, Morris. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MORRIS: Yes. I think the story is larger than the two words, slut and prostitute. This - it's outrageous, and it deserves the condemnation that it has received, because he fabricated an entire back story, a derogatory back story that did not exist. She was there to testify not about having sex but - and the need for contraception. She was there to testify about the utility of those pills for many medical reasons and how her dear friend, who was unable to get it because it wasn't covered by her insurance, or rather (unintelligible) school, she was unable to get needed medical attention and resulted in her having to have a very serious operation. So he, Rush Limbaugh, in his effort to paint her in the worse possible light...

DONVAN: You think?

MORRIS: ...created an entirely fabricated story.

DONVAN: All right, Morris. Thanks very much for your call. I want to go to Gilbert in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Gilbert. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

GILBERT: Hello. This is Gilbert.

DONVAN: Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION, Gilbert.

GILBERT: Yes, sir. I believe that this whole concept was blown way out of proportion. I see it as an attack on Rush. I don't see the government should have any business involved in these issues. I believe that women are strong in this country. Women can decide for themselves what they need, and all women should raise up and stand up and say enough. No more men are going to tell us what to do about our bodies. As far as I'm concerned, I don't believe that the public - our tax dollars should be paying for contraceptives. We have insurance. I don't believe the government has any business in that, and making this a political issue is way out of the line, by all the parties involved, that is everybody.

DONVAN: All right.

GILBERT: I believe Rush Limbaugh is being attacked unjustly on this matter.

DONVAN: Thank you, Gilbert, very much for your call. I want to go back to some of the op-ed pieces that are showing up around the nation. This one is from J. Bryan Lowder at Slate.com. And I'm not reading these entire op-eds because we don't have time, but I'm going to the points that illustrate most effectively the points they're making.

And J. Bryan Lowder writes: What's more interesting is Limbaugh's complete refusal to recognize that the uproar around his statements isn't really about name-calling, but rather his offensive misunderstanding of the importance and uses of birth control. Fluke's own testimony was not about her sex life, but rather the painful experience of watching a friend who was forced to have an ovary removed because she couldn't afford the pill, which, of course, has many medical uses aside from contraception. So that's a critique that this argument is not and should not necessarily be about the actual insult but that it's actually an argument about the role and the function and the usability of - and accessibility of birth control.

L. Brent Bozell is writing on the Fox News site: This scandal-ette should be over. So why are the left and the media still pushing and publicizing a campaign for advertisers to dump the Limbaugh show and end his career? Because it has little to do with his words. Again, this is an argument that has little to do with the words. He writes - Bozell writes: This is all about disingenuous politics. Liberals want this government-mandated controversy to be not about - government-mandate controversy to be not about religious liberty, which is devastating, but about contraceptives, which works in their favor. That is intellectually dishonest. Let's go to Hank in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Hank. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

HANK: Hi. How are you today?

DONVAN: Good. Thank you.

HANK: Just like a brief comment, as I think Rush's comments were reprehensible. There's no justification. My issue is similar to the last one. It's being used in a political context. There is a legitimate issue. Should contraceptions be - contraceptives be paid for with public funds with no co-pay? There's a question of equality within, you know, and rights. You know, it's - you know, the same thing could apply to men. Then if we're going to pay for women's contraceptives, pay for condoms.

DONVAN: So you would have supported everything he said except for the use of that terminology?

HANK: No, I would not. I would never state it the way he stated it.

DONVAN: That's what I'm asking. Yeah.

HANK: I think that's a political comment that (unintelligible) to make it sound like someone that might be Republican would support this.

DONVAN: No, no. No, no. I was just trying to understand what your point was, and I think that I do get it. And I thank you very much for calling TALK OF THE NATION. Again, we have emails coming in and a lot on this one. Why is slut so powerful, writes Melanie. Because it demonizes normal sexual behavior. What is acceptable behavior for a man having sex becomes shameful when a woman chooses to do so. Slut is just another way to marginalize and control women.

Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast writes a very, very powerful critique of the left on this in - she finds a number of examples where comments were made by liberals about women, and firestorms did not erupt, and not necessarily liberals as well but also media figures. So she writes that during the 2008 election, Ed Schultz said on his radio show that Sarah Palin set off a bimbo alert. He called Laura Ingraham a right-wing slut. He did apologize for that later. He once even took to his blog to call Kirsten Powers herself a bimbo.

She writes that Keith Olbermann had said conservative commentator S.E. Cupp should have been aborted by her parents and that he also referred to Michelle Malkin as a mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick. He finds - she writes that Chris Matthews has many, many times used offensive language about the first lady - then First Lady Hillary Clinton, referring to her as a she-devil and Nurse Ratched and Madame Defarge, and has also called Mrs. Clinton witchy, anti-male and uppity.

And so Kirsten Powers' point is, where was the firestorm? Where was the firestorm when the targets of these - when the proponents or the users of this language were not conservatives, were not Rush Limbaugh? Where were they? You know, also interesting thing, President Obama was asked about this today. He actually placed a phone to call Sandra Fluke after this thing blew up and voiced his support for her. Today he explained why.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The reason I called Ms. Fluke is because I thought about Malia and Sasha, and one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on. I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way, and I don't want them attacked or called horrible names because they're being good citizens.

DONVAN: President Obama today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. We're going to bring Rich in Minneapolis into the conversation. Hi, Rich. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. Rich, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

RICH: Hi. How are you, sir?

DONVAN: Good, thank you. You're on the air. What's your view?

RICH: Well, I'm just very curious here. Everybody keeps talking about contraception being recreational sex and so and so forth, but I can get erectile dysfunction medications with my health insurance, so we've got a double standard here. And the other thing is Rush Limbaugh took statements out of context to create a controversy to attract attention to himself and then chose to use some really derogatory, unnecessary language against the woman who is not a public figure by any stretch of the imagination. It's totally undeserved, and he's demonstrated his ignorance as to birth control and his ignorance as to how to talk to people. And my question is, since he was caught with an unprescribed 57 Viagras, what kind of slut does that make him?

DONVAN: All right. Thanks, Rich, very much. I want to go to Annie in Eugene, Oregon. Hi, Annie. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ANNIE CALLER: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi.

CALLER: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi.

CALLER: I guess I've just been thinking about the fact that, you know, Margaret Sanger brought in birth control as something that women should have access to universally and that when we stopped letting women be in control of their reproductive options, the end result is, you know, our society ends up paying for unwanted pregnancies that end up, you know, the kids are sick, the mom is sick, and it takes a lot of personal responsibility away from women, in taking away something like our ability to choose whether or not to have a child right now.

DONVAN: So in a sense he really was getting - I mean, when we were asking in the beginning of the program what nerve did he touch, and we've talked about whether it's freedom speech or the meaning of the word slut, you're saying there's actually an issue here; he really was discussing a serious issue. And I think a number of our callers have said the same thing.

CALLER: Unfortunately, I have to say that Rush may have actually had an issue at hand. He (unintelligible) off of the table by calling people names. I mean...

DONVAN: All right.

CALLER: ...that's childish. But I really think that, you know, women's reproductive rights are a big issue. And if we start taking away women's ability to handle their own health issues, we're going to end up paying more as a society.

DONVAN: Thanks, Annie. And we also appreciate that our listeners are attempting to stay away from also joining in the name-calling here and to not make personal attacks on anybody in this, including Rush Limbaugh. Our next call is John from Howe, Indiana. John, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOHN: Yeah, thank you. The one thing that really struck me is not only was it an awful offense on his part to do that, but also I agree with so many of the previous speakers there on just different things. It's just like, you know, people getting obese by eating, you know, garbage food, and then that's saying then we shouldn't cover some of their medical coverage to help them get well. But the biggest problem I had with this whole thing is he's a well-known national speaker, and I'm sure he was sitting there with chortles while he was writing out an apology. I would have rather heard a real voice making the apology, so you could really feel if it was heartfelt or just another audacious statement like he likes to make.

DONVAN: I think you're saying, actually, we don't know one way or the other how he felt about it.

JOHN: Right. But I think, you know, if he would have manned up, he would have said something on the air, you know, made a very real apology instead of just a written one.

DONVAN: Well, I have to tell you, because we're out of time, and thanks very much for your call, John, and for your comments, that there are a lot of you who would still like to be able to speak on this, and they're already joining on our website. And so I want to encourage you to go to our website. It's talk@npr.org and join this conversation as the program wraps up for today. But I want to thank all of our listeners for joining in this conversation and helping shed light on why we're talking about it and why we care about it. Thank you to all of you, and thanks to all of you who are still waiting and who will go to the website. That's it for today.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.