There’s a predictable pattern to the story of a public outrage: A public person or an institution does something offensive or wrong, large numbers of people rise up in anger, the financial and social support structures of the person/institution are threatened, the person/institution apologizes for their mistake, and the entire thing basically goes away. There may be some lingering doubts, but the bleeding out of support and money for the offender usually does stop, along with the outrage, after the apology is issued. So why did this not work for Rush Limbaugh, who took back the words “slut” and “prostitute” when talking about Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who testified about the importance of contraception coverage through insurance? Limbaugh apologized on Saturday, but here it is Tuesday, and sponsors are still dropping him and the outrage continues.
Part of the reason is that Limbaugh didn’t actually apologize. As Fluke herself noted on The View, he only regretted the words he used, not the concepts that those words conveyed, namely that she and every other woman in the country (roughly 99 percent of American women) who has used contraception are immoral, irresponsible people who need to learn to practice celibacy if we don’t want to get pregnant and/or be obliged to give Rush Limbaugh sex tapes to masturbate to. The question isn’t what word you use when you call someone a “slut.” Using softer words like “hussy” or “strumpet” doesn’t change the content of the claim, which is that women who engage the medical system to have happier, healthier sex lives—again, that’s basically all women—are bad people. Limbaugh tried, a little, to hedge his bets by making this about the insurance coverage, but unless there’s some group of women out there who refuse to allow their insurance to cover their gynecological care on the grounds that it’s related to “social” activities, there is 99 percent overlap between Limbaugh’s definition of a “slut” and all American women.
Another problem for Limbaugh is he has no credibility. Even Don Imus—Don Imus!—denounced Limbaugh specifically by calling him an “insincere pig.” Even if Limbaugh had put an apology in his “apology,” no one would believe it, but as it is, Limbaugh is going out of his way to signal that he didn’t mean it. Limbaugh even tried to put the blame on liberals for his three day rampage against Fluke and all women who use sexual health services by saying, “I descended to their level when I used those two words to describe Sandra Fluke, I descended to their level and I feel very badly about that.” Insofar as liberals are less likely to use euphemisms, he’s probably right, but that doesn’t mean that he “descended” to their level. Saying what you mean should be a point of honor. Since Limbaugh’s continued argument is that he was right that women who use contraception are bad people, and that the only question here is “two words,” this really just makes it all worse. Cowards hide behind euphemism, Rush. Why not just say it if you mean it?
The final reason the outrage won’t die down is that this is about more than Limbaugh. As Roy Edroso chronicled at the Village Voice, the right wing media has largely picked up Limbaugh’s claims about Fluke and therefore about all women who use sexual health services: that there’s a correlation between using the pill and having “too much” sex, that the only legitimate form of pregnancy prevention is abstinence, and that wanting your own health insurance that you pay for with labor and cash to offer full health care benefits makes you a “moocher.” (Women apparently should just hand the money over so that men can use it for Viagra, and never expect to see any return on it for ourselves.) Even Mitt Romney backed up Limbaugh’s new argument that the larger denunciations of the moral worth of 99 percent of American women aren’t objectionable, as long as you couch them in the proper euphemisms. Of course most people are still angry! Until the argument that women who use health insurance for sexual health services are bad people is retracted, anyone who has a scrap of common sense left is going to be furious.