Oafish is as oafish does

The Oxford English Dictionary offered up oafdom on Twitter this week: "the state of being an oaf; loutishness, stupidity." Let me suggest that, in addition, many of us find ourselves living in Oafdom, the domain of oafishness.

Many of the manifestitations, however irritating, are relatively harmless or even amusing. Suburban adolescents affecting thugwear. The Hangover movies. But sometimes, as is its tendency, oafishness takes an uglier turn.

It did this week when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who had attempted to testify before a congressional committee on the benefits of contraception, a "slut," a "whore," a "round-heels" (the latter, along with the misapplied "co-ed," suggesting a certain remove from the twenty-first century). Publicly reproved, he subsequently suggested that if Ms. Fluke wanted subsidized sex, with men or women, she should make videos available, which I am apparently not alone in finding a little creepy.

But Mr. Limbaugh's swinishness, so long and so publicly on display, hardly requires commentary. I'm interested in some deeper cultural currents that surface in his lubricious buffoonery.

Suspicion of sexuality, and female sexuality in particular, has a long history in Christianity. Early on, New Testament writing in the name of Paul, subverted the apostle's egalitarianism with instructions to keep women silent in church. Celibacy was for a long time held to be superior to marriage. And the woman as temptress has a long history in Western literature.

It all, I suspect, has to do with male frailty. The whole structure of masculine authority had to be buttressed by law and theology and the cultural values of machismo and male-bonding and male-only societies because it was so easily threatened and shattered. (Real strength and authority don't require posturing.) The principal threat being women, who rebel or thwart or laugh at the wrong time.

Thus, oddly, we have debate over contraception breaking out in the middle of a presidential campaign. The country respects and accommodates religious traditions, and I don't think that that is the source of the emotional charge of the issue. I think that it rather reflects apprehension about female autonomy. Contraception gives women a measure of control and a power to make their own sexual choices. There are people who are not happy with women's autonomy, feel threatened by it, and that is why people like Mr. Limbaugh feel the impulse to degrade women who advocate it.

Boys, grow up.

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