Sandra Fluke has pointed out that Rush Limbaugh tried to silence her when he called her a slut and a prostitute last week. But the oldest, hoariest trick for shutting women up didn’t work this time. Bolstered by her experience as an activist and a pitch-perfect call of support from President Obama, Fluke soldiered on in her efforts to persuade Georgetown University to include contraception in its package of health care coverage. She’s 30, not 14, and in her sober and smart TV appearances, Fluke is doing more than most of us ever will to take the sting out of slut shaming. Her forceful presence is the reason for Limbaugh’s apology over the weekend, utterly lame and inadequate as it was. How can he possibly claim that he didn’t mean to attack Fluke personally after hammering away at her for three days, even crazily suggesting that women who use birth control should post sex tapes online “so we can all watch.” May the advertisers who are running from Limbaugh, today joined by AOL, stay far far away.
In the protest movement of my own college days, Take Back the Night, women marched to make it safe to walk alone in the dark. The primary concern was stranger rape and physical safety. The SlutWalks conception is about acquaintance rape or date rape—the category of sexual assault that accounts for 90 percent of the whole. When women (or men) accuse people they know of rape, it’s far trickier for police and prosecutors to address, because the legality of the encounter turns on consent rather than force. Traditionally, rape law focuses on the latter. It sounds retrograde, I know, but as Tuerkheimer reminds us, in a majority of states, “a woman’s non-consent alone is thus insufficient to establish rape.” This makes it very hard to win convictions in the he said/she said realm of date rape. And it also means that a judge or jury can deem a woman who is totally passive—because she is asleep or drugged, for example—to not have been raped, even if she said she was.
Rape law also still treats certain kinds of sexual conduct as unacceptable for women, by exempting it from the rule that places a woman’s sexual history outside the bounds of evidence that can be admitted at a rape trial. Rape shield laws prevent defendants accused of sexual assault from putting a woman’s entire past on trial to discredit her. But courts still allow in this evidence if the judge thinks it shows a pattern of behavior that’s in some way distinctive. In many cases, it’s deviance that’s deemed to make a woman’s history distinctive, allowing the court to give the jury the chance to conclude that a particular’s woman’s claim of rape is less legitimate. “Women whose pasts involve consensual sex of a disapproved kind are presumed to be unrapeable,” Tuerkheimer writes. “Most vexing are acts of prostitution, group sex, and sadomasochism.”
Sandra Fluke plays a role here, too. By making the case that women need insurance coverage that includes birth control—to protect their health in some cases, and in others, yes, —she is reminding us that of course this is part of who we are. We don’t have to modestly avert our eyes from that reality or keep quiet about it, either. That’s what President Obama understood when he told Fluke her parents should be proud of her. Feminists have plenty to be proud of Fluke for, too. For standing up to Limbaugh, for sure, but also for helping to make the revolt against slut shaming as mainstream as she is.