The landmark confrontation between Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke came wrapped in irresistible media tropes. There was, first off, the reliably charged set of associations that come with pinning words like “slut” or “prostitute” on a heretofore unknown woman, for the trespass of speaking out on a public health question that might conceivably also touch on matters of sex and reproductive rights. There was also the David-and-Goliath symbolism of a media titan such as Mr. Limbaugh brought low by a composed and articulate college student: We were seeing not just the weary politics of “slut-shaming” backfiring at last, but also an overdue and refreshing real-time crash course in debate. After no end of jowly posturing over Ms. Fluke’s alleged sexual license and the aloof cultural mores of liberal elites burrowed into institutions such Georgetown Law, Mr. Limbaugh came off to any fair-minded listener as the terminally louche and untrustworthy figure here—and not just because of his own flagrantly hypocritical record as a Viagra enthusiast and reputed sex tourist. No, Limbaugh was seeking to exercise the crass historic prerogative of the powerful male to smear his antagonist (be it Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, or the numerous accusers of Dominique Strauss-Kahn) as a sexualized nonentity—another soon-to-be-forgotten casualty in the culture war.
But here’s the thing about Ms. Fluke: When it comes to the standard rules of media engagement, she’s something of a conscientious objector.
Speaking with The Observer by phone over Georgetown’s spring break, she waved aside any invitation to return Mr. Limbaugh’s ad hominem fire, with a certain Terminator-like efficiency. Bashing the personal excesses of El Rushbo may have cleared Al Franken’s path to the U.S. Senate, but Ms. Fluke has evidently elected to foil Mr. Limbaugh’s slut-shaming efforts with something long absent from our culture war donnybrooks: a firm refusal to play.
Wasn’t it rewarding, we asked, to see a serial impresario of verbal abuse like Limbaugh wilt under pressure, like any browbeaten schoolyard bully? “Well, I just really hope that we don’t have to watch this again,” Ms. Fluke replied evenly. “I hope it’s the last time.” Likewise, when we queried her about her own family and religious background, and whether anything in her past might have primed her to do battle with the Jesuit administration at Georgetown, she announced, “I’d rather not discuss that.” OK, then, but what’s it like to be thrust into the center of a national media firestorm when you’ve mainly just been trying to wrap up law school and land a job? Has anyone recognized you on the street, or bought you a drink? “I have been recognized in public a few times,” she conceded, almost grudgingly. “I did have some people offer me to buy me a drink. It’s hard to get used to the impact of all this on my private life, on my daily functioning.”
Imagine, say, the motivational speaker and freshly minted Tea Party congressional candidate Samuel Wurzelbacher (aka “Joe the Plumber”) waving off questions about his life story—let alone the scores of curiously quasi-public figures who have nothing but their personal sagas to retail before the press (cf. the Kardashian of the moment). Even a sober policy-minded media campaign like the viral Kony 2012 video, pushing for the apprehension and trial of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, has overtaken public debate thanks largely to sensationalized narrative tricks and the recruitment of big-ticket celebrity backers such as Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie. By contrast, Ms. Fluke bristles noticeably at the idea that any of the controversy surrounding her should somehow translate into any sort of conversation about her.
So resolutely does Ms. Fluke focus on the core policy questions obscured by the Limbaugh kerfuffle—“focus,” like “policy,” is one of the words she leans on most heavily in conversation—that the president himself was hard-pressed to get her to talk about anything else. Mr. Obama had called Ms. Fluke to thank her for her support—but also to stress that her parents should be proud of her.
He was barely able to get the point across. “When the president called me it was sort of funny,” she said. “I guess I’m just a consummate activist and policy person. And I just wanted to talk to him about the policy. I kept saying, ‘Thank you for your work on this, Mr. President—you know, this is an incredibly important issue.’ And he had to interrupt me—he said, ‘Yes, yes, I know that. But I just want to make sure that you’re okay personally.’ ”
That, indeed, is the singularly un-mediagenic message of this latest media celebrity: It’s not about me. “The fact that it was not personal—that this really was about the effort to silence women in general—allowed me to keep from responding personally,” Ms. Fluke explained.
“I wish that this would be a lot less about me and my identity,” she added of the Slur Heard Round the World. “I wasn’t testifying about me so much as about a lot of other women.”
By not allowing herself to become the framing device for a proxy debate over contraception funding, Mr. Fluke has also let the larger dynamics of opinion on the issue take their own course. The emergence of Rick Santorum, an ardent patriarchal policer of sexual mores in the Comstock vein, as a top-tier GOP candidate had already raised the specter of a significant gender gap between the two major parties, as did this winter’s controversy over the Susan J. Komen Foundation’s withdrawal of support for Planned Parenthood. With the Fluke-Limbaugh showdown storming center stage, women voters—who broke for Republican candidates in the 2010 midterms by a small margin—are proving very leery of a party that suddenly looks keen to roll back basic protections of their reproductive rights. The Washington Post reports that a new survey from independent pollsters Peter Hart and Bill McInturff finds that 51 percent of women now want a Democratic majority returned to Congress, with just 36 percent of female respondents backing the GOP.
And the Obama campaign has already moved to capitalize on the gender divisions dramatized in Limbaugh-gate, sending out one million direct-mail pitches to female voters in a dozen battleground states this week.
Not surprisingly, the ever-cautious Ms. Fluke has also been careful not to depict the issue as election-year fodder: “I’ve not been getting into anything partisan,” she said. “But I am totally confident that American women will pay attention to which candidate talks about these issues knowledgeably, and to the kind of language that they’re using.”
She also noted that in her own work seeking to rally her male law-school peers behind expanded contraception coverage, she encountered very little of the sex-driven outlook that Mr. Limbaugh revels in. “I’m not sure if it’s generational, but young people live in reality; they believe as I do that these are serious issues—and that their health needs have to be addressed in terms of reality, and not ideology.”
Still, she was asked, wasn’t Mr. Limbaugh perhaps owed a certain paradoxical debt of gratitude for rallying fresh support behind a feminist movement that has at times struggled for a surer footing in the political mainstream?
For a moment, Ms. Fluke seemed about to let her guard down, but not quite. “I’m definitely never going to say anything like that,” she said with a laugh.