An overly serious analysis of gallows humor deployed by pro-choice Michigan legislators
So Michigan is gearing up to pass a ridiculous anti-choice mega-bill, complete with an anti-coercion item that’s defined so broadly it’s feared it could be used to prosecute anyone who speaks of abortion in non-shaming terms. It passed Michigan’s House with huge numbers and only 20 minutes of debate. That didn’t leave much time for pro-choice legislators to get their arguments in, so they were basically reduced to cracking jokes. Which hey, I like jokes, so good for them.
While passage was widely expected, the vote was preceded by an hour of heated debate, which included Democratic Rep. Lisa Brown uttering the words, “I’m flattered that you’re all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no.”
This is a good joke and it makes a salient point: These kind of restrictions on reproductive rights are an attempt to control a woman’s sexuality without her consent. God knows that anti-choice legislators generally come off as the kind of guys that, if they tried to talk to you at a party, you’d immediately signal a friend to rescue you. Their extreme interest in taking charge of a woman’s vagina without her consent only makes that impression worse. Abortion and contraception restrictions have a lot in common with rape apologies, especiallly when it comes back to the notion that a woman who voluntarily had sex with a man thereby loses her right forever to say no to what others would do with her body, including forced penetration and forced childbirth. Pointing this out in the super-serious way I just did often causes people to recoil—we’re all aware how getting people to accept female autonomy is like pulling teeth—but a joke can drive home the point.
Flattery will get you nowhere with Democrat Rashida Tlaib, who suggested that women stop having sex with their partners until the legislation was stopped. She said, “We’re launching a war on women. Stop having sex with us, gentlemen, and I ask women to boycott men until they stop moving this through the House.”
This joke, alas, draws my disapproval. I appreciate Rep. Tlaib’s point, I really do. Anti-choicers are surprisingly consistent hypocrites, especially the men, who feel utterly entitled to have sex with women even as they make ick faces and run around trying to craft more laws to punish women for having sex with men. The double standard is the beating heart of the anti-choice movement, which is why pretty much every anti-choicer who opposes birth control funding is quick to defend funding for Viagra. Unfortunately, jokes like this obscure two other salient points in the debate over Ladies Who Fuck (aka, the vast majority of ladies). Sex strikes, or even jokes about them, tend to reinforce the false narrative that sex is a service women perform for men in exchange for compensation. You go on strike because the working conditions aren’t up to par, and in this case, I suppose you’re equating abortion access with worker’s compensation. But that model of sexuality is why we have so much interest in restricting women’s sexual rights in the first place, because it’s assumed that Ladies Who Fuck And Like It are subversive perverts who need to be stopped for the good of society. Starting from the presumption that women have sex for fun, like men, and that there’s nothing wrong with it is the only place where you can make a consistent pro-choice argument.
Also, this kind of joke tends to make this a men vs. women thing. From a legislative standpoint, that narrative makes a lot more sense, because you often have mostly male legislators passing these bills and the opposition leaders tend to be mostly female. The gendered nature of the public fight over this might even make you believe that it’s a men vs. women thing. But if you actually look around at ordinary people, it turns out that there’s no meaningful gap between men and women on this issue. Acknowledging and dealing with female misogyny is an important part of the pro-choice strategy, and really, trying to explain why women can be so fiercely angry at other women for being sexual shouldn’t be that hard. We’re all well-acquainted with images like the Church Lady or the Evil Stepmother, and their real life analogues like Jill Stanek. We also know the women who bash other women in order to score accolades from male misogynists. On the flip side, a lot of men really don’t have a problem with female sexual autonomy, and of course, they are capable of seeing that more sex for women means more sex for men. The double standard violates a lot of men’s basic sense of fairness, and just sheer logic has to intervene at some point, as well.