Kentucky men will have a harder time getting medically assisted erections if state Rep. Mary Lou Marzian gets her way. A new bill Marzian filed in the Kentucky House of Representatives last week would install several barriers to accessing erectile-dysfunction medication, mirroring the restrictions women face when they pursue abortion services in the state. Marzian’s proposed law would require a Viagra-seeking man to visit his doctor on two different days, prove he is married, get a signed letter of consent from his spouse, and swear on the Bible that he will only use the medication in the context of marital relations. The legislation is a response to recent moves by the Kentucky state Legislature and Gov. Matt Bevin to make it even harder for women to terminate pregnancies. One requires that doctors inform women of the medical risks of abortions by face-to-face meeting or video chat 24 hours before the procedure; another requires a mandatory ultrasound before an abortion, wherein doctors must describe the on-screen image if a woman chooses to avert her eyes.
Marzian’s brand of bill—which, as it’s extraordinarily unlikely to pass, amounts to an acute act of progressive trolling—gained popularity in 2012, when at least six states considered bills and amendments pushing toward a country that regulated men’s sexuality and reproduction as meticulously as it did women’s. None of them stood a chance at passing a vote, but their appeal as stunts drew attention in the media to radical anti-choice bills that might have otherwise passed unnoticed. Still, the analogies the snarky lawmakers have drawn between abortion rights and boner assistance are imperfect—and here, imperfection is a big problem. Because they’re easy to dismiss by any onlooker with an elementary understanding of human sexuality, the satirical comparison risks diminishing the imminent harm abortion restrictions actually cause. Once feminists have had their laughs and Republicans have spit out their coffee, can a stunt bill actually affect any observable changes on anti-choice legislation?
This history of the tactic is relatively brief. Erection pills have long been the preferred arena for tongue-in-cheek reproductive health bills from the left. In March 2012, Illinois state Rep. Kelly Cassidy introduced an amendment to the “Ultrasound Opportunity Act,” which would have forced women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion. Cassidy proposed a related “gender equity” stipulation that would require men to view a graphic video about the potential side effects of erectile-dysfunction medication—a painful four-hour boner, for example, and other undesirable penile afflictions. “If [right-wing legislators] are serious about us not being able to make our own health care decisions, then I’m just as serious about them not being able to make theirs,” Cassidy said at the time. Virginia state Sen. Janet Howell introduced an amendment to a similar 2013 ultrasound bill that would have obligated doctors to perform a just-for-hoots rectal exam on all men seeking Viagra and similar meds. In Ohio, state Sen. Nina Turner protested a bill restricting abortions to the weeks before a fetal heartbeat with her own bill, which demanded that men undergo cardiac testing, side-effect counseling, and sex therapy with their partners before receiving a Viagra prescription. Turner told MSNBC that she wanted to show “men as much love in the reproductive health arena as they have shown us over the years.”
Vasectomies are another favorite target for feminist trolls in state legislatures. Georgia state Rep. Yasmin Neal and Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman both filed bills in 2012 that would limit vasectomy procedures to men who would otherwise be at risk of dire injury or death. Neal wrote hers in response to a proposed 20-week abortion ban; Newman included a provision that would require all vasectomy providers to meet the onerous and unnecessary standards of an ambulatory surgical center. The men must be protected, they argued—it’s for their own good!
In its 2016 playbook for abortion rights, the Public Leadership Institute proposes the Medical Equity Now Act, a litany of tongue-in-cheek proposals that takes cues from previous proposed regulations on men’s health. It nods to the laws about Viagra and vasectomies, plus Oklahoma state Sen. Constance Johnson’s 2012 amendment to a personhood bill, suggesting that the state limit how, when, and where a man can ejaculate, to preserve the sanctity of each precious, God-given batch of sperm. (“Any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child,” the amendment read.) PLI argues that these kinds of laws are valuable tools in the movement for reproductive justice:
Satire, irony and sarcasm have played a role in debates over public policy for at least 2,500 years—since the age of Aristophanes. Today’s ideological debates are so intense that sometimes a small quiet farce can be more effective than yelling louder. Humor can grab the public’s attention and get people to stop and think for once. … Satirical legislation can attract press attention, educate voters about what’s really going on at the State House, and provide a creative way to deal with a serious problem.
There’s no question that these bills are handy rhetorical tricks that expose the hypocrisy and one-sidedness of right-wing overreach. In 2014, state lawmakers introduced 468 bills legislating reproductive health for women, and zero for men; the farcicality of a proposed rectal exam for a Viagra prescription drives home how intrusive an uncalled-for ultrasound would be. But, as right-wing legislators have argued, erectile-dysfunction medication bears little connection to abortion. When progressive legislators link the two, they minimize the urgency of the need for safe, affordable abortion access. Oral medication for erectile dysfunction isn’t invasive or particularly imperative; if men don’t get it, their sex lives and relationships may suffer, but denying them access to boner pills through restrictive legislation is not the same sort of imposition on their bodies and lives as forcing them to carry an unwanted fetus to term and give birth to a child. Advocates on both sides of the abortion issue know that abortion is a more significant medical task than a vasectomy or a Cialis prescription: It is an often-invasive medical procedure that involves the potential for a new human life. That’s why reproductive rights advocates believe in the importance of keeping it accessible and affordable. But it’s also why anti-choice politicians believe women’s bodies are specifically eligible for government intervention—and these stunt bills only add fuel to that point of view.
Satirical, turn-the-tables reproductive health laws are funny, but their impact as a form of protest is limited. These doomed attempts at legislation are unlikely to turn any staunch anti-choice believer or misogynist bully, the likes of which are limiting abortion access in the first place. They believe that abortion is different from all other medical procedures, that a woman’s reproductive capacity is of public interest, and that they’re doing the Lord’s work by legislating it. Trolling anti-choice bills with restrictions on men’s sexuality might be a way to reach middle-of-the-road voters or legislators who object to some kinds of abortion on moral grounds but still respect it as a private medical decision. But the “a-ha!” moment, when the narrative shifts and the hypocrisy is exposed, only happens once. When the shock factor wears off, it becomes a simplistic joke with a limited shelf life. If they want to effect real change, pro-choice politicians should consider messaging tactics that outlast the duration of a pharmaceutically enhanced hard-on.