Female Freedom Drives Right Crazy


For all their expressed concern about joblessness and the state of the economy, the GOP rightwing appears more interested in female sexuality. Their target is mostly abortion rights, of course, but we’re also increasingly seeing attempts to limit access to contraception. After years of forward strides for women, it’s as though Pentheus has come back from his voyage and is trying to reassert control.

Pentheus is the Theban king in Euripides’ The Bacchae who returns to discover that the women of the city have abandoned their looms to go worship Dionysus in the woods. I’ve applied the play to reproductive rights in the past, but I’m taking it up again because of how successful rightwing legislators are proving to be. As Euripides would point out, it appears that certain men become unhinged when women assert control over their own bodies.

Literally millions of women would be affected if zealous abortion opponents entirely got their way and banned all abortion. Here are a few useful figures from the Guttmacher Institute:

–half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and about four in 10 of these end in abortion;
–about half of American women will have an unintended pregnancy, and nearly 3 in 10 will have an abortion, by age 45;
–9 in 10 abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy;
–Some 1.06 million abortions were performed in 2011, down from 1.21 million abortions in 2008, a decline of 13%.

The decline is interesting and the figure may drop further, given that  Obamacare requires health plans to offer women free contraception and contraception counseling. Yet many on the right are fighting this requirement. Oh, and many are against sex education as well (although they do support the practically useless “abstinence education”). And while we’re making a list, many are also against food stamps and other assistance to the poor families into which unintended babies are born.

Thanks to our modern Pentheuses (this according to the National Women’s Law Center ), in 2013 “22 states enacted a total of 70 abortion restrictions – the second highest number of abortion restrictions to become law in a single year.”

Here are some of the legislative developments.

–28 states regulate abortion providers beyond what is necessary to ensure patient safety. These so-called “trap laws” are “meant to drive abortion providers out of practice, and are a back door ban on abortion.” A third of Texas’ abortion clinics have been forced to close as a result.
–9 states (including North Dakota, Arkansas, and Texas) have been trying to roll back abortion to 20 weeks or even earlier, which is to say before women may even know they’re pregnant or whether their fetuses have severe problems. Texas and North Dakota do not allow exceptions for rape or incest.
–10 states, most recently Wisconsin and Indiana, require medically unnecessary ultrasounds;
— 24 states now prevent women from obtaining a comprehensive health plan that includes coverage of abortion services. Most recently, Michigan passed a law that refuses to allow employer insurance plans to cover a woman’s abortion, even in the case of rape or medical necessity.

What is striking about these efforts is the zealotry with which they’re carried out. Legislators who deviate even slightly from Right to Life orthodoxy are punished. These people do not acknowledges the struggles that pregnant women often go through as they make difficult choices. No wavering, even in the difficult cases of rape, incest, and severe fetal abnormality, is tolerated.

As I noted, it is not only abortion that is under attack. The owners of Hobby Lobby currently have a case before the Supreme Court arguing that they should be able to refuse women contraception coverage, and even preventative counseling, because it violates their consciences. As though they and not their employees own the insurance.

It’s interesting that people who generally think that the government is too intrusive—say, in monitoring gun purchases—should be so ready to intrude into women’s lives. But maybe that particular pairing is significant. Maybe this is a gendered drama, with men using guns to prop up a masculinity that feels threatened by sexually active women. Throw a sluggish economy into the mix—nothing undermines a man’s dignity more than not being able to find good work—and perhaps that accounts for the Right’s desperation. One grabs control wherever one can.

A desperate striving for control certainly drives Pentheus. Here he is freaking out that women aren’t behaving as women should. I quote from Michael Cacoyannis’s wonderful translation.

No sooner does one venture on a journey
than rumor plagues the town and things get out of hand.
Our women, I am told, have left their homes,
in a religious trance—what travesty!–
and scamper up and down the wooded mountains, dancing…

[Their] performance reeks more of Aphrodite than of Bacchus…

I’ll put a stop this orgiastic filth!

Later on there’s a passage that always gets a laugh out of my students but that reminds me of Susan Patton’s argument that women are responsible for alcohol-fueled date rapes:

Take my word
when women are allowed to feast on wine, there is no telling
to what lengths their filthy minds will go!

I note in passing that many who see filth in women’s sexuality also see it in same sex partnerships. At an anti-gun control conference Rep. Louis Gohmert of Texas equated same sex marriage with bestiality, while Rick Santorum said that it would lead to polygamy.

Where Pentheus sees only filth, the wise seer Teiresias sees a holy ritual where one honors Dionysus, without and within. “No amount of Bacchic revels,” he tells Dionysus, “can corrupt an honest woman.” Think of this as permission for women to honor their sexual feelings.

Such freedom, however, drives Pentheus off the deep end, prompting a lecture from Teiresias that could also be directed at some of our abortion-obsessed legislators:

Do not mistake the rule of force
for true power. Men [and women, he could add] are not shaped by force.
Nor should you boast of wisdom, when everyone but you
can see how sick your thoughts are.


For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure,
no madness can undo

Later the Bacchae make a similar observation about Pentheus:

What fury, what venomous fury
rages in Pentheus,
the earthborn and earthbound,
spawned by the sperm of the snake!
No man,
but a monster caged up in a man,
leaping through eyes of blood
to strike at the kill,
a vicious dwarf with giant dreams
pitting his strength against the Gods.

I don’t want to sentimentalize sexuality in this post. It has always been an explosive force–Dionysus is not a tame god–and societies have always had to engage in a complicated dance with it, regulating but not overregulating. Dionysus must be balanced with Apollo, with each god receiving due observance, and the Bacchic rituals were one attempt to put a framework around this inescapable fact of human nature. The problem with fundamentalists like Pentheus is that they think that can enchain the god, and they invariably learn that no prison can hold him. Regardless of what legislation is passed, women will have sex and women will find ways to deal with the consequences of sex.

I want to leave ideologues behind for a moment, however, and end this post on a more positive note. Here are the Bacchae telling us what women really want: not orgiastic filth, as the Rush Limbaughs of the world contend, but sweet freedom to honor their sexuality as they see fit. Bromius is another name for Dionysus:

Oh, to be in Cyprus,
the island-home of Aphrodite,
where the spirits of love
thrill the blood of men with magic breezes.
Or in that mythical land of the many-mouthed river
whose floods make deserts bloom.
Or where the muses play, Pieria,
whose peerless beauty
lovingly hugs the slopes of Olympus.
Oh, Bromius, my Bromius take me there!
Pave the way with romp and with prayer,
to the land of the Graces,
the land of Desire!
Where freedom is law
and women can revel with Bacchus.

Do I hear an amen?

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