Even though 95 percent of Americans have premarital sex, as anyone who advocates for women's reproductive rights on Twitter can tell you, there is still a shocking amount of anger, and many colorful epithets, aimed directly at women who indulge. Why is there so much angst over women's sexual choices? Jesse Singal at Science of Us looks at a recent study that suggests that a lot of the desire to control and punish female sexuality is rooted in the belief that women are, or should be, financially dependent on men. Singal writes:
In the paper, which consisted of two studies and was published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers from Brunel University asked a large group of Americans to rate their level of agreement with statements like “It is wrong for women to engage in promiscuous sex” and “It is fine for a woman to have sex with a man she has just met, if they both want to.” They also had them respond to statements gauging to what extent they viewed women as economically reliant on men — "Of the women I know who are in long-term heterosexual relationships, most do not depend very heavily on money contributed by their male partner," and so on.
Overall, the more likely a given respondent believed women were economically dependent on men, the more likely they were to view female promiscuity as immoral. These were modest to medium effects, but they were statistically significant, even controlling for factors like religiosity and political conservatism.
The researchers argue that this may stem from long-standing cultural concerns about "paternity certainty" that linger on in more conservative circles despite the advent of birth control. "Beliefs," they write, "may persist due to cultural evolutionary adaptive lag … that is, because the environment has changed faster than the moral system." This suggests, I'd argue, that the recent upswing in hostility to birth control is an attempt to preserve these cultural norms.
This study goes a long way toward explaining one of the more peculiar aspects of the contraception mandate debate: the stalwart conservative insistence that the mandate is some sort of employer or even government giveaway, as opposed to an earned health insurance benefit. Along with telling women to close their legs, the conservative complaint has been: "Why should 'we' have to pay for it?" This, of course, makes no sense, as the Department of Health and Human Services mandate is about women paying for their own contraception, using insurance benefits they earn by working.
But right-wing media knows exactly how to push its audience's buttons: By claiming women are getting something for "free," conservatives are reinforcing this myth that women can't actually be independent—they either need to rely on the government or a husband. That's what Jesse Watters was getting at on Fox News, talking about single female voters who want the contraceptive benefit, who he called "Beyoncé voters": "They depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands," he argued, ignoring that women are actually demanding the right to the health care they are paying for.
Rush Limbaugh sounded a similar note this week, denouncing men who support the contraceptive benefit by saying they are "Pajama Boy types having sex, sex, sex," and that "Today’s young men are totally supportive of somebody else buying women their birth control pills. Make sure the women are taking them, 'cause sex is what it’s all about." Yes, men support women's reproductive rights only so they can have lots of sex while foisting the responsibility of providing for women onto the government, which Limbaugh falsely claims is providing the contraceptive coverage.
This new research also explains why conservatives like Limbaugh and Watters ignore the fact that married women are more likely to need the benefit than single women. In the right-wing media narrative, only single women need the benefit because married women get their contraception through husbands. Whom they depend on. For everything.