“Morality By Proxy” Is The Key To Conservative Self-Justification
I was around 17 years-old, and living in Switzerland, when three friends of mine and I decided we wanted to go to Southern France for a one-week vacation over Summer Break. I went home and asked my parents if I could go. Their answer was that as long every other person on the trip was attending with their own parents’ permission, I was free to go. The very next day, I ecstatically told my three guy friends and would-be travel companions that I had the green light and all they had to do was get their own parents’ approval. This is when things started getting weird.
Over the next couple of weeks, my father received phone with ever-increasingly anxious phone calls from the other three kids’ parents. At first, the other parents voiced concerns about the four of us traveling at all, being alone for a week, not having a car (driving is for 18 and up in Europe), and general misgivings about the feasibility of the whole trip. As time went on, though, and as my father kept repeating to them that as far as he as concerned, I could handle it, things became clearer. What the other parents were trying to do was convince my father that I—the girl—couldn’t go. They had no intention of preventing their sons from traveling, they were just trying to have my father stop me and stop me. Why? Well, plainly, they were afraid I was going to f**k their boys. The fear itself was equally nauseating as it was baffling. I was dating one of the three guys and it was no secret he and I were sexually active. We regularly slept at each other’s homes and what we did was no secret to anyone. The parents of the other two boys, however, were still under the impression that if I were left alone with their precious little men, I wouldn’t be able to control myself. Most concerning, however, was that they thought the best way to address this was to remove me from the equation rather than address this with their sons. (And let’s be clear, all four of us were very clear about who was going to sleep with who and nothing happened on the trip to alter that understanding). As time went on, their approach changed. They tried to shame my father into keeping me home. They tried to slut shame him for my presumed future imagined behavior. In other words, he was the immoral one for refusing to control me based on what they thought I would be doing with their sons.
The paradigm eventually because inescapably clear: in their view, it was my father’s job, as the father of the girl, to ensure the morality and chastity of the trip by removing me from the trip rather than their job, as the boys’ parents, to hold their sons accountable for their own actions. If we had sex, it was because I was there—not because their sons wanted to. One evening, during the umpteenth phone call on the subject, my father exasperatedly exclaimed, “My daughter fucks who she wants, where she wants, when she wants, and how she wants. It is not her job to uphold your son's morality. If you need to talk about sex with your little boy, you do that. My daughter can handle herself.” My father doesn’t remember that exchange, but I do. To date, I am grateful to him for taking that position and I am grateful to him for standing up not for me, per se, but for my right to make autonomous decisions. In that moment, he validated my right to make my own decisions about sex and he empowered me, more than he will ever understand, to give or withhold consent. From a sex positive perspective, I couldn't have wished for more. The reason that I include this story in this article, however, is not because of his response. The reason I include it is because it illustrates the way conservative policies continue to justify themselves despite their disastrous economic effects on this country and its vulnerable populations. It is an example of the boys’ parents seeking to impose “morality by proxy.” They were acting righteously by controlling the female person’s body rather than by demanding certain behavior from the boys.
As far as they were concerned, their boys were well-behaved boys as long as I wasn't around. They were being good parents as long as they were asking for my freedom to be curtailed. They were chastising my father and they were slut-shaming him by proxy, for allowing me to go on that trip. They were telling him that he was a bad father, and an immoral man, because he was letting a girl go on a trip with boys. They certainly did not view themselves as immoral or bad parents for allowing their sons to go on that same trip. What we see in modern day politics, is the same thing. Politicians themselves don't have to be moral. Legislators themselves don't have to be moral. They, their family members, and their paramours can have access to contraception. They, their family members, and their paramours can have access to abortions. (See, as one of many examples, Rep. DeJarlais of Tennessee, who had his partners have at least three abortions, one of them by a mistress and then voted to restrict abortion access). They, their family members, and their paramours are entitled to maternity healthcare coverage. However, by depriving others of those same benefits, they prove themselves to be moral. Morality by proxy requires depriving an “unworthy” or “immoral” population of autonomy. It is as though morality, itself, rather than being defined by self-control over personal choices (notable examples of such self-control are fasting, frugality, chastity and humility) is now defined by how much control is exercised on other people’s personal choices.
In this vein, conservative lawmakers continue their claims of being the party of “Family Values” because they legislate everyone else’s morality. Most importantly, they legislate women’s morality by depriving them of the one thing that in traditional circles makes a woman immoral: sexual autonomy. Because of this, as long as they tell everybody else that they can't have access to contraception, that they can't have access to abortion, and that they cannot have access to healthcare during pregnancy, then they are being moral. While my little anecdote is just that, an anecdote, it encapsulates the same concept. As long as those parents were trying to restrict my autonomy, they were being moral parents.
There has perhaps been no more stark illustration of this principle than today’s administration. President Trump has had five children by three women. He had affairs with his second and third wives while married to his first and second. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, has two children and presumably continues to have sexual relations with her husband. Undoubtedly, his wives all received adequate—I would venture to say superior—care during their pregnancies. Yet, the first thing Trumpcare 2.0 seeks to do is deprive pregnant women of healthcare coverage and contraception continues to be placed on the collective chopping block. The defunding of Planned Parenthood is yet another manifestation of the same phenomenon. To understand what is going on, let’s first state the obvious. Women’s access to contraception, abortion, and healthcare during pregnancy facilitates women’s sexual autonomy. It allows them to make decisions for their families and over their own bodies, without the fear of financial disaster. In other words, plainly, reproductive freedom gives women the freedom to have sex, much like my jaunt in Southern France was going to give me the freedom to have sex. By limiting women’s access to contraception, abortion, and healthcare during pregnancy, conservative legislators are chastising us for being sexually autonomous and getting in the way of that autonomy. The finger wagging, much like the phone calls to my father, allow them to feel and claim moral superiority. In the world of politics, that’s enough to make them the “good guys,” regardless of what they actually do behind closed doors.
I have no doubt that legislators voting for and pushing for Trump Care 2.0 believe themselves and their families entitled to coverage during pregnancy and to coverage for access to contraception. Many of them may also believe themselves entitled to access to abortion services. But that is no longer relevant. Their own self-control or the self-control of their loved ones is not the measure of their morality. Rather, their ability to punish women for purportedly lacking self-control renders them moral. As long as they're telling all of us that we are not entitled to make our own sexual decisions, and therefore not entitled to access basic healthcare related to those sexual decisions, they are doing the right thing. This is why when Trumpcare 2.0 proposes to strip pregnant women, most importantly, poor pregnant women, of access to coverage during their pregnancies, nobody bats an eyelid. This is the modern conservatives’ version of self-flagellation: to flagellate others in the name of the greater good and thereby, to achieve morality the easy way—by proxy.