The XX Factor

The Return of 1951 in 2011

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Protesters rally for HIV/AIDS funding outside a United Nations meeting.

Reading this story about the University of Northern Iowa’s attempts to exploit misogynist stereotypes about women being “nutty and slutty” caused me to wonder sadly if we, as a nation, are still living in 1951 instead of 2011. The woman is suing the school, claiming it mishandled the situation when she successfully pressed charges against two football players for raping her. In response to the lawsuit, the school’s defense is collecting information to show that the student worked as a stripper, that she’s had mental health problems, and that she’s had a generally hard life. I’m sure they can prove all these things–I’m often surprised if they don’t turn up during a rape case, because rapists love a vulnerable woman like muggers love a dark alleyway–but I have to ask, “So what?” Do any of these things, separately or taken together, make it OK for a football player to rape a woman and then pass her off to his friend? No, they do not. That someone has mental health issues and turned to sex work to pay for college should make her sympathetic in a sane world, and therefore make us all the more disgusted that two men saw her and thought, “Easy to victimize.”  

The other news story that made me check the calendar upon hearing it this morning was this report on NPR about Rick Perry and the Texas legislature’s war on contraception funding. Granted, the strained attempts from the reporter to tie the deep cuts to family planning to abortion is a very 21st century thing. In the 1950s, opposition to contraception was accepted for what it is, and no one was interested in pretending the Junior Anti-Sex League just really loves fetuses so much that they confuse condoms for abortions. Other than that, this report was a marvelous window into how much some folks are stuck in the 1950s. Rep. Wayne Christian cheerfully admits that the state funding cuts for family planning are part of the war on birth control, which he rolls up with abortion as a great evil, because at the end of the day this is about sex and has nothing to do with “life.” (For an entertaining glimpse of the ongoing war on sex in Texas, I recommend this clip from a documentary about the war on sex toys that was conducted in Texas until a court order brought it to an end. Bonus clip of a state representative suggesting that the folks in his district would lynch you if you had heterosexual butt sex.)

But it’s more than the “only perverts use condoms” mentality on full display that was highly suggestive of a time 60 years ago in this NPR report. You also have an interview with Caroline Cline, a Baptist who runs an anti-contraception crisis pregnancy center in Dallas that is now eligible for state funds to propagandize against condom use with factually incorrect claims that they don’t prevent STDs. Cline reports that only 1-2 percent of young women that come into the anti-sex center who are pregnant and willing to go forward with the pregnancy are ready to give babies up for adoption. The adverb “heartbreakingly” is brought up, and Cline adds, “It’s disappointing, it’s very disappointing.” To which I say, hey lady, hands off! This mercenary approach toward pregnant women is incredibly creepy. While a willful adoption is a marvelous (and, as Cline notes, rare) thing, the high pressure tactics suggest a view of unmarried pregnant women as nothing but baby factories for “proper” married couples who want a baby. It reminds me of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when unmarried pregnant women were packed up and shipped against their will to maternity homes, where they were often not even given the choice of keeping their babies.

Here’s hoping that this recent spate of 1950s-type beliefs–that certain women are “asking” to be raped, that women with mental  illness can be written off, that sex is so dirty that you shouldn’t even be able to use contraception, and that unmarried women who are pregnant are obligated to give their babies away–is just a temporary national psychosis. I’m all for rockabilly and full skirts, but 1950s attitudes about sex and women’s rights can stay firmly in the past.