Drawing on her experience as an “itinerant feminist organizer,” WMC Progressive Women’s Voices alumna Shelby Knox explains why the seemingly fringe views of Delaware’s GOP Senate candidate are no laughing matter.
Delaware’s Republican nominee for the Senate, Christine O’Donnell, would like to get one thing straight this election season: “I am not a witch.”
Well, she’s not a witch. And neither am I, but I’d be far less terrified of the Tea Party’s new starlet if she were lighting power candles and addressing her daily devotionals to female deities. Alas, she’s eager to distance herself from the much-maligned label because ancient witches’ refusal to renounce female spirituality and sexuality sparked a centuries long campaign by the Christian church to put rebellious women in bed with Satan, metaphorically and actually.
Not ironically, O’Donnell is a loyal disciple to the religious agenda that equates sexuality, especially female sexuality, with evil and the decline of humanity. Hours after her surprising primary win over moderate Republican Representative Mike Castle—putting her within reach of Joe Biden’s former Senate seat—the blogosphere was abuzz with a seemingly endless stream of O’Donnell quotes. Culled from her days as a self-styled Catholic ‘purity’ advocate, she proclaimed on everything from the ills of masturbation to drag balls as a direct cause of AIDS to co-ed dorms on college campuses leading to “orgy rooms.” We quickly found out O’Donnell once helmed an organization called Savior’s Alliance for Lifting Truth (SALT), that doubled as an ex-gay ministry and an anti-masturbation advocacy group.
To most mainstream Americans, O’Donnell’s concerted battle against solo sexual pleasure in particular is so fringe, so bizarre, it’s laughable. Yet, those of us deeply familiar with the ideology of the extremist right wing have long understood the condemnation of sex and sexual pleasure for anything other than the purpose of conception within marriage to be the underpinning of public policies that invite (Christian) God and (big, big) government into our bedrooms.
One of the purest and most destructive manifestations of this sexual repression written into law is America’s shameful 30-year stint of federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. These programs—many of which were inflicted upon young people as old as 29 after the taxpayer-funded free for all expanded to include religious ‘young adult’ organizations similar to O’Donnell’s SALT—existed to promote “mutually monogamous relationships within the context of marriage as the expected standard of sexual activity.”
Gay sex, because it can induce sexual pleasure but not conception, was strongly condemned, along with oral and anal sex for the same reason. Abstinence-only advocates were also loose with the facts surrounding contraception, especially condoms, as evidenced by O’Donnell’s insistence in a 1997 CSPAN interview that condoms don’t prevent AIDS.
That falsehood was such a common line from the abstinence-only playbook that during my eight years of advocating for comprehensive sex education, I’ve heard kids all across the country wonder ‘if condoms don’t work, why use one?’ It’s most certainly one of the contributing factors behind the high rates of sexually transmitted infections among young people and the fact that in my home state of Texas, a 17 year old gets pregnant every 52 minutes. That abstinence-only advocates continued to condemn condoms and extol the virtues of “just say no” long after science proved that message ineffectual at best suggests the campaign they insisted was to promote sexual health was about anything but.
And in fact the most disturbing quote from Christine O’Donnell’s past life in purity punditry lays bare the true driving force behind the extremist, anti-sex platform. Speaking about masturbation and a prospective male partner, O’Donnell asked, “If he already knows what pleases him, and he can please himself, why am I in the picture?” Since there is no disease or pregnancy risk associated with self love, the implications of that statement are crystal clear, especially when set side by side with the insistence that sex be solely for procreation. According to this logic, a woman’s main purpose is to please a man and have his babies. Seen in such a light, the conservative crusades against abortion, safer sex, women in the military, and even a National Women’s History Museum, start to make a twisted kind of sense.
Plagued by accusations that she can’t keep a handle on her finances, her staff, or even remember where she went to school, many see Christine O’Donnell as a dirty (and sometimes, incredibly sexist) joke with little chance of making it to the Senate. But more accurately she’s the poster girl for more than 78 candidates running this election season who share her anti-sex, anti-woman views.
These candidates believe abortion should be illegal in all cases, without exception for rape and incest. Some have promised a GOP majority would signal a return to funding failed abstinence-only policies. Ken Buck, the GOP Senate candidate in Colorado, even went so far as to refuse to prosecute a rape because the accuser had “buyer’s remorse” over an abortion he alleged she’d had a year before the assault.
I don’t care what faith my elected officials practice privately, whether it be Catholicism or Wicca, or even if they have a faith. But imposing those religious views about gender roles or sex or anything else on others is simply un-American. And frankly, I’d take a coven of witches any day over Christine O’Donnell and her gang of Christian extremists who want to make our right to real sexual health and reproductive freedom go “poof.”
The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making women visible and powerful in the media.