The Personhood Ballot in Mississippi: “Sluts,” “Good Girls,” and the Increasingly Blurry Line Dividing Them

Mississippi voters will be determining more than the direct rights of women in Mississippi when they vote on a personhood amendment on Tuesday. The vote will also measure how far the Christian right's misogyny will go.

See all our coverage of Mississippi Initiative (Prop) 26 here.

The personhood amendment being voted on in Mississippi this week is important for two major reasons. The first has received lots of coverage here at Rewire and some liberal news sources: because it’s about criminalizing all women of reproductive age, and could do things like ban birth control and open criminal investigations on miscarriages.

The other reason that we should all be paying attention to Mississippi is the results of the election will be an excellent measure of how far right the Christian right has gone when it comes to sex.

The right has always approached the question of reproductive rights as an elaborate game of “Who’s the Slut?” Sure, they like to blather on about “life” and “personal responsibility,” but that’s because coming straight out and saying that they’d like to craft a law where good girls have rights but bad girls don’t isn’t politically popular. Too obvious: you have to wrap that agenda in sentimental talk about the sanctity of life, and hope no one notices that you have no regard for the sanctity of life if people are dying in wars or from lack of health insurance. But if you look past their rhetoric to the actual rules they try to make regarding who gets to have rights under what circumstances, it’s clear they’re trying to sort women into “sluts” and “non-slut” categories. The traditional exception for rape victims under abortion restrictions is the most commonly cited example, of course. I’d add that most conservatives—outside of those who make anti-choice activism their main priority—tend to support the use of contraception. In their minds, contraception is something that could be used by good girls. Married women with children use contraception, after all. But when it comes to abortion, most people imagine a young woman having sex outside of marriage with a man who isn’t going to marry her, which puts her in the “slut” category and means she should lose her reproductive rights.

A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute demonstrates how much this is about perceived promiscuity and not “life.” Most poll respondents believed women should be allowed to have abortions if raped, or if their health was in danger, or the fetus had a major birth defect. Even if the reason was simply that the pregnant woman was still in high school, the poll respondents were about even in whether or not the abortion should be allowed. But if the reason for the abortion was that the pregnant woman simply didn’t want to marry her impregnator? Nearly 60 percent of people wanted to legally force her to have the child, with the implication being that she deserved what she got for having sex for any other reason but to get married. The issue is decided on the ambiguous grounds of trying to figure out who’s the slut, not on “life.”

But as any one who has ever been on a junior high school playground can tell you, the game of “Who’s the Slut?” is less like chess, where the rules are easy to learn and never change, and more like Calvinball, where the rules are constantly changing and no matter what you do, someone thinks you’re failing. If you really dig into what people think makes someone a slut, you’ll find that no two people tend to have the same definition. This person thinks that any woman who has sex with someone for the hell of it instead of as part of the getting-to-the-altar process is a slut, but that person thinks you get a couple of casual flings, so long as your total number of partners doesn’t exceed some arbitrary number they’ve set. This person thinks you’re dressed like a slut if you wear a miniskirt with a backless shirt, but that person thinks any woman who shows her shoulders in public is looking slutty. This person thinks that as long as you’re in love with your partner, you can do whatever you want in bed without being a slut, but that person thinks that good girls only like it in the missionary position with the lights out. And these are just the social definitions of sluttiness! What the anti-choice movement is trying to do is write slut codes into law, an impossible task. 

When being the vice police becomes so complicated, there’s basically two ways to approach it:

1) The mature route, where you decide to leave it alone and let people make their own damn decisions. This is the route taken on the porn question for liberals, for instance. Most of us can think of mean-spirited, hateful porn that makes us ill, but few of us think we’re up to the task of passing laws that definitively sort out the unacceptable from the acceptable stuff.

 2) The reactionary route, where you simply shoot ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out. This is the anti-choice approach. Defining all non-procreative sex as slutty, as the anti-choice movement has come to do, is harsh and has no relationship to reality. But it does have the advantage of being nice and simple, and since we’re not talking about a movement run by people who grasp moral nuance very well, “nice and simple” is a surprisingly strong selling point.

The question is, has Mississippi gone all in? Traditionally, the Protestants who run the religious right, especially in the South, have really tried to draw a thick line between bad girls and good girls at marriage, shunning more hardline Catholic teachings that any woman, married or not, who has sex for pleasure instead of procreation falls on the bad girl side of the line.  Evangelicals have even been known to be pushy about how you have to have sex for pleasure inside a relationship, a command which suggests that the conflict between their pro-marriage sentiments and unease with human sexuality causes no amount of internal grief for many believers.

What the “personhood” amendment does is bring an end to the traditional distinctions that the Christian right draws between good girls and bad girls. All woman are bad girls: married women who use contraception, virgins who get raped, married women who only have sex for procreation but still find they’re suffering an ectopic pregnancy. All these women are punished for their slatternly ways; having working Fallopian tubes was where you strayed off the path of righteousness. If Mississippi voters, who are largely in the thrall of the religious right, vote for this bill, they’re giving their blessing to the extremist view that all women are wrong no matter what sexual choices they make. The question is, are they willing to cross that line?