The Body Politic: This campaign needs more women and less gynecology

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

Actual women—instead of phony gynecological issues—pervaded the last election. Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Elizabeth Edwards, Michelle Obama, Katie Couric and even Tina Fey can each credibly be said to have changed the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, as Rebecca Traister documented in her rollicking chronicle of that race, Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women.

And those were just the women at the podiums. In Traister's account, each campaign hired women aplenty on the understanding that they could help their candidates, in one way or another, to attract voters. Got that? Women didn't come around to discuss obscure lady matters, but to help campaigns win votes.

Yet this time around, genuine women have disappeared, in favor of sex talk smuggled under the rubric of "values." The conversation recalls nothing so much as the days when the nightly news shows couldn't stop running pseudo-health segments that featured male reporters fondling silicon breast implants. They'd cluck over their hazards and fondle away at the translucent synthetic protoplasms. Today's fondlers of ultrasound wands seem no less prurient.

It's time we sidelined the fine points of obstetrics from public discourse in an election year. Just as girlie magazines are marketed to male readers, public discourse that features women's body parts should be clearly labeled—as Playboy used to be—"Entertainment for Men."

Transvaginal probes? Entertainment for Men. Interstate abortions? Entertainment for Men.

[Related: Obama rings up Limbaugh’s 'slut,' Georgetown's Sandra Fluke]

Single-sex entertainment is just fine, as far as it goes. But "transvaginal" anything and "interstate abortions"—no matter what side you're on—don't count as social issues. This stuff is arcana, and the rhetoric associated with these topics is third-order porn, and an occasion for (mostly) male commentators, politicians and satirists—and I mean you lefties too, Jon Stewart and Garry Trudeau!—to perseverate on gynecology in a weird O.C.D. way.

It's creepy.

Really, the zeal with which male politicians of all stripes make politics sexual is disconcerting. Last week Barack Obama placed a personal call to console Sandra Fluke, asking the law student and advocate of birth-control subsidies if she were "OK" in the days since Rush Limbaugh incoherently deemed her platform akin to sexual promiscuity. Limbaugh had likened Fluke to people who are paid for sex, and likened taxpayers to her pimps, or some bunk like that; Obama aimed to redeem a 30-year-old woman by comparing her to his daughters, ages 10 and 13, who evidently need his protection from bad men who use bad words.

Didn't this seem strange? It drove what should have been a non-erotic conversation—about health and money!—back into the key of sexual melodrama, with Dudley Do-Right Obama saving Maiden Fluke from Rake Rush.

The way Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney wax gynecological is weirder still. And, come on, Ron Paul is an actual gynecologist. They all get right into it, gunning to destroy Planned Parenthood and casually discussing "rape and incest"—limit-case exceptions to an abortion ban that doesn't exist—as if these far-fetched scenarios served any polemical purpose except to name-check sexual trauma.

Fortunately, women treat these fake-clinical spiels as neither appalling nor exciting, like Playboy itself. Maybe that's because those of us who have annual physicals don't relish the notion of rehearsing the particulars of the ultrasound—or the speculum, for that matter. The topic's cashed even for humor.

Nor do women seem to be engaged in the psychedelic philosophical seminar, led by master logician Limbaugh, of whether employer-provided birth control is tantamount to whoredom. Instead, according to a Bloomberg poll published Wednesday, some 77 percent of women don't believe that birth control is a fit subject for any kind of political debate. Is birth control a talking point for sluts and prostitutes? Or for good patriotic women in public life? Neither! As a political topic, it's a non-starter.

It's no surprise that Terry O'Neill, of the National Organization of Women, wants politicians to "get out and stay out of women's wombs," but she should retire her incendiary anatomical language, too. It's just not what voters care about. Exit polls in the primaries suggest that Republican women tune out when male candidates start yapping about uteruses and cervices. As Kate Phillips and Allison Kopicki put it Tuesday in the New York Times, "All of the talk about birth control and abortion laws seems to have had little effect on the ways women are voting for the two leading Republican candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum."

New idea: no more examining-table politics—not transvaginal, transtesticular, or any other kind. Four years ago, with the exception of a brief discussion of Sarah Palin's reproductive decisions, the campaigns steered clear of fake-clinical gibberish. Perhaps we're less eager to talk gynecological smack when there are real women around.

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