The ‘Penis Game’ in Politics

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Photo: Gluekit

I apologize to you. This is not a compendium of outrageous things said by Republican elected officials. It does not contain a new quote from the convention floor from some conservative politician who believes uteruses are magical and can repel rapists’ sperm. It does not contain a history of radical GOP-sponsored legislation on rape and abortion. It features no Paul Ryan memes.

Until this week, I was right there with you in sharing, with equal parts glee and horror, this unending stream of anti-woman bile. (Okay, fine. The latest? Tom Smith, GOP senatorial candidate from Pennsylvania, implored us to “put yourself in the father’s situation,” even when the father is a rapist.) But I think I’ve finally gotten tired of watching Republican politicians play their own weird version of the “penis game” — shouting the naughty words they aren’t supposed say in public, louder and louder, while onlookers giggle and gasp. The game is appealing to pubescent boys because it’s about shouting something that’s constantly on their minds that’s still a little taboo. The GOP version can be explained much the same way: These politicians are vocalizing offensive, deeply held beliefs at ever-increasing volumes, bystanders be damned!

Mitt Romney, playing the role of the nervous kid who chuckles along but is too scared to participate, has tried to put a damper on the game. In an interview with CBS News in Tampa yesterday, Romney insisted that abortion rights are “not on the ballot,” explaining that the president makes very few decisions about reproductive rights. He’s half right.

When it comes time to step into the voting booth, traditionally even abortion has not been a "voting issue" among pro-choice Americans. (It’s more of a voting issue for the antis.) Less than half of women said a candidate’s views on abortion would be a “very important” factor in their voting decision. The reason Democrats have been so quick to seize on these GOP quotes, other than the fact that they make these old white guys look straight-up crazy, is that they play right into the polling on abortion. Voters who think abortion should be legal in all circumstances only slightly outnumber voters who think it should be illegal in all circumstances. It’s basically neck and neck. But when you apply some value judgment and ask voters how they feel about abortion rights under "certain circumstances" — like rape, incest, medical necessity — they are overwhelmingly in favor.

In the mainstream, classic feminist demands like “abortion on demand without apology,” have gone the way of the pubic topiary. It resonates with those of us who are already deeply pro-choice, but is off-putting to women who don’t count politics or feminism among their core interests. Democrats know this, which explains why they are very quick to latch onto the abortion-after-rape debate. It is offensive to even the apolitical, making Republicans seem out of step with the mainstream. It plays well with the “certain circumstances” voters. But the fact is that “abortion’s okay under certain circumstances” voters, just like hard-line Republicans, are essentially saying they want the law, not individual women, to define which abortions are morally acceptable.

The long game on this is pretty bleak. Once the election is over, no matter who wins the presidency, reproductive rights battles will be fought over a couple of paragraphs affixed to a budget bill and other arcane legislative tidbits. Or in state-level legislation in places like North Dakota or Mississippi, which makes it hard to convince all women, nationwide, that their rights are at risk. It’s then that truly pro-choice Americans — those of us who’d rather let individual women decide which circumstances necessitate abortion — will cry foul. We’ll feel sold out. This isn’t why we voted for Democrats, we'll protest. But we will have helped set the stage for this, each time we shared a crazy GOP abortion quote without trying to broaden the conversation beyond unwanted pregnancies that result from rape. Each time we shouted these men's words back at them, instead of amplifying information on policies that directly affect women.

In the interview about abortion yesterday Romney continued, “The Democrats try and make this a political issue every four years, but this is a matter in the courts. It’s been settled for some time in the courts.” It’s hardly settled. As long as abortion’s been legal, courts and legislatures have been fighting over the circumstances. Roe v. Wade, in fact, restricts the circumstances in which women can access abortion (until fetal viability, or about 28 weeks in). When Democrats settle for galvanizing the “some circumstances” pro-choice voters who want to go above and beyond the baseline defined by Roe, they open the door for not just the courts, but also Congress and state legislatures to define the circumstances in which women can get an abortion. And define them they have, from mandatory ultrasound bills to waiting periods, parental notification laws, and restricted access for military women. (The GOP platform “salutes” the states that have whittled down the definition of acceptable abortion.) The two circumstances in which most Americans agree that safe and legal abortion is necessary are when the health of the mother is at risk, and when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. But a small percentage of abortions meet this criteria for moral acceptability. The defensive GOP participants in the penis game have a point: This isn’t where the real abortion debate lies. 

We’re cross-eyed with rage now, and with each crazy quote we share, we implore our red-state relatives and politically moderate Facebook friends not to vote Republican. But the GOP platform won’t have the most impact in the voting booth. These talking points will start to get real after the election, when many “special circumstances” pro-choicers have stopped paying attention and GOP-dominated state legislatures are discussing exactly how to “assist” women looking to make decisions about their own bodies. I can only hope that each of those legislative battles features a conservative politician or two who want to play the penis game, because that’s when we’re really going to need a pro-choice meme.