Apr 1 2012

Women’s Bodies, Men’s Voices

All-male contraception debates signal rollback of reproductive rights

Photo Credit: L.A. Times

Photo Credit: L.A. Times

In mid-February, Congress convened an all-male panel to discuss “religious freedom” (read: birth control), and rejected a woman who attempted to testify. The next day, a gaggle of only men appeared on the MSNBC talkshow Morning Joe (2/17/12) to consider the atrocity of an all-male panel weighing women’s reproductive rights.

The irony was lost on the fellas, but not on this broad, though I did consider asking four celibate men to write this column for me while I blushed demurely in the corner every time the word “contraception” was mentioned. Then I remembered it’s not 1950.

Here’s what’s really got my pantaloons in a bunch: The all-out assault on women’s health and reproductive rights is happening in the corporate media, not just in Congress and the GOP primaries. Media routinely report on women’s issues without a female in sight, minimize reproductive rights as a mere phenomenon of a “cultural war,” and promote a tenuous role for women wherein the other sex should be desired by men, but not express (or even have) her own desires, lest she become a slutty, fetus-aborting, moral-debasing heathen.

This assault on women was never more evident than in the days after President Barack Obama proposed a rule to mandate health insurance coverage for contraception—first extending the rule to Catholic-run hospitals and charities, and then exempting them from it in a compromise deal. Instead, insurance companies would cover contraception for female employees of Catholic-run institutions.

“Contraception Controversy” led the headlines, though media primarily couched the debate as a religious freedom issue, rather than a reproductive rights issue. Over a five-day period when the “controversy” reached its height, cable news networks interviewed only one public health expert out of 301 guests, setting the frame that access to contraception isn’t a healthcare issue (Media Matters, 2/16/12).

Morning Joe wasn’t the only program to poll primarily male guests. A Think Progress study (2/10/12) found that in a four-day period (2/6-9/12), men constituted 62 percent of the guests on cable networks who commented on birth control. The February 12 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press, for example, included only one female remarking on the contraception story, out of six total guests and the male host.

And media certainly haven’t covered this story from a race or economic justice lens, either; black women, for example, have a higher rate of unintended pregnancies—and, not coincidentally, have less access to affordable birth control (Guttmacher Policy Review, Summer/08). But with all the white male blather, voices of women of color were hard to find.

These cues from the media bleed into our national psyche about how we interpret women’s health, race and sexuality, and affect how women internalize their own importance. Media that exclude women from the discussions about reproductive health don’t value women—and subtly teach women not to value themselves. Media that portray sexualized images of women in advertisements, but then paternalistically shelter and scold women about sex, create societal tension about gender roles and identity. Media that scoff at the price of birth control deny the economic realities in our country, and shift the blame to struggling women who can’t afford it (one in three—NARAL, 7/19/11). And media that can barely utter the word “sex” without stigmatizing and vilifying women for having it instill a deep-seated notion that both sex and reproductive health are shameful.

Oh dear, I’ve almost worked myself up into a tizzy. But there’s more. When media push the needle so far back that we’re suddenly debating access to basic birth control for women, it makes it that much harder to have real dialogue about other distressing issues related to women’s health—like the future of Planned Parenthood, which continues to be threatened by Congress. And every time we have to drudge up a report detailing how women also use birth control for preventative health as a way to justify it, we take away from what should be a solid argument: Women also enjoy sex. Lordy!

But our media would have us think it’s nothing to get alarmed about—even some progressive outlets. The day after the infamous “where are the women” hearing, I couldn’t find a story about birth control in the Huffington Post’s “Women” section. I did find articles headlined “How Germy Is Your Makeup?” (2/17/12) and “Breakup Songs: What Are Your ‘It’s Over’ Anthems?” (2/15/12).

What that says to me: Don’t overexert, ladies. So I’ll just fan myself with the February 20 issue of Newsweek, which featured a benign cover image of red and blue birth control pills. Good thing the editors opted against the other cover ideas, including images of condoms, a vibrator and a woman with her hands over her vagina (Newsweek Tumblr, 2/14/12); we wouldn’t want to get the idea that they’re all related.