The speech about women you should have heard

President Barack Obama delivers remarks, Jan. 17, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama delivers remarks, Jan. 17, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Just one day before Mike Huckabee spun a tale of Uncle Sugar and women's out-of-control libidos, another politician was having a very different conversation.  

“I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women,” President Obama said Wednesday, unveiling the White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault.

The speech was about sexual violence. There was no talk of how some rapes could be chalked up to “hook-up culture,” as an Air Force general did while testifying on sexual assault in the military last year. There was no "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk".

It was about women -- but not exclusively. Obama mentioned violence against LGBT communities and men being victimized. He spoke of men’s responsibility as the primary perpetrators and as people who could get through to them. “We've got to keep teaching young men in particular to show women the respect they deserve and to recognize sexual violence and be outraged by it, and to do their part to stop it from happening in the first place,” he said.

The president did not talk at all about sex. Instead, he said, “No matter who you are or where you live, everybody in this country deserves security and justice and dignity.”

For anyone listening, this speech was profoundly radical. It accepted as a basic premise that freedom from sexual violation is a ground rule for equal participation in society. It lacked even a passing, prurient interest in drunk girls or in boys who would be boys. It proposed a higher form of masculinity that wasn’t about chivalrous deference to women as gentler creatures, but about seeing women as people deserving autonomy, people for whom violence could mean that “we’re all deprived of their full potential.”

The next day, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also gave a speech partly about women -- and he couldn’t stop himself from talking about sex.

Reading the remarks in full, you can see he meant it as a compliment. He was saying that Democrats “insult women” by tricking them into thinking that what they need from politicians are sex pills. Real women, who aren’t “victims of their gender,” he implied, don’t need such dirty things, because they can “control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”

One problem with this narrative -- there are many, including the fact that all the government is doing is regulating private insurance plans that are part of compensation and paid for with employee contributions -- is that it accuses women of being dupes, tricked by those wily Democrats into thinking themselves helplessly subsumed to their vaginas.

Women who want coverage for what is, in their actual lives, basic health care are just driven wild by sexual urges. Meanwhile, men -- their responsibilities, their libidos -- are nowhere in this equation. 

In denying the existence of the “war on women” – something Republicans have been compelled to do for two years -- Huckabee reinforced it. He did it by being the one who actually reduced women to victims -- this time, of a false narrative, and to their sexual functions. He failed to see women as people who want health care like anyone else.

You know, people who “deserve security and justice and dignity,” people who can run for office without being widely accused of being bad mothers for being ambitious, or who can hold office without being referred to dismissively as "lady mayors." People with varying ideals and circumstances of their own, absolutely, but who broadly share lived experiences of being reduced to a vessel for reproduction, to a sex object without consent, or to a hypervisible, special case whose basic benefits are greedy and lecherous.  

Obama's words this week recognized such personhood for women, too. Huckabee told us it was all in our head.