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Rush Limbaugh 'slut' comment reveals a double standard on sex

Rush Limbaugh apologized for calling student Sandra Fluke a 'slut' for her views on contraception. His offensive remarks revealed an old double standard on sex: Only a 'coed' – that is, a female – can be promiscuous. The rest of us males are just taking what’s rightfully ours.

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By the late 1940s, as sex researcher Alfred Kinsey confirmed, about half of white American women had intercourse before they married. But when future Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown wrote her 1962 best-seller “Sex and the Single Girl,” which encouraged women to seek and enjoy sexual pleasure, her publishers made her delete a long section about birth control.

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Three years later, in its Griswold v. Connecticut decision, the Supreme Court invalidated state anti-contraception laws. Yet the social taboo against birth control remained, especially for single women. Just a few months after Griswold, Brown University was embarrassed by news reports that a campus physician had prescribed the Pill to two unmarried female students.

Other colleges were quick to deny that they provided such services. Everyone knew that college women – like other American single females – were having sex. But giving them contraceptives would be “putting the stamp of approval on promiscuity,” as a doctor at American University explained.

And female promiscuity was always worse than the male kind, as explained by a psychiatrist in Harvard’s student health service, Graham Blaine Jr. “From an emotional, physiological, and psychological view there are many reasons why the double standard makes sense,” he wrote, “and in time, we may well see a natural swing back towards it.”

We’re seeing it right now. Like Sandra Fluke, tens of millions of single American women use contraceptives. But to Rush Limbaugh – and, we can presume, to a good swath of his listeners – that marks her with the modern-day equivalent of the Scarlet A. You might even call it the Scarlet C, for “Contraception.”

Faced with a media firestorm – and the withdrawal of several advertisers from his radio show – Limbaugh issued a brief apology over the weekend on his website. "I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke,” Limbaugh wrote. And I believe him. Limbaugh didn’t have any particular animus against Fluke; she was just a convenient stand-in for any female who wants to exert her sexual autonomy.

And that’s an important and overlooked front in this battle: whether the two sexes have equal rights to determine their own sex lives. Nearly a half-century after Ashley Montagu compared the Pill to the invention of fire, a single woman who admits to using contraceptives is still playing with fire. I’d challenge you to find a single man who has been burned for the same.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is writing a history of sex education around the world.

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