Get Real. The “War on Women” is not a War, It’s an Assault

Rape - WarSexual assault and forced pregnancy have always been instruments of war; but the “war on women” is not a war. It’s just assault, straight up.    

The so-called ‘war on women’ is not a war; it’s a one-sided assault. It is conservative men, drunk on power, calling women sluts and then rolling up their sleeves and knocking us back into place. It is conservative men letting us know that they own our bodies and reproductive capacity, which according to the Bible have been theirs since the Iron Age. It is conservative men making damned sure that women get punished for failing to keep our legs together—for daring to pursue intimacy and sexual pleasure on our own terms and without their permission. It is conservative men ignoring our pleas that we don’t want to be pregnant and denying us the ability to resist impregnation as deliberately and aggressively as if they had our arms pinned. If that’s not an assault, I don’t know what is.

We need to get our language straight because words we use carry associations and implications that change the way we think. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff (Moral Politics, Don’t Think of an Elephant) popularized the term “framing” among progressive activists. He explained why the metaphors we use can be more powerful than any amount of rational argumentation or evidence—undermining or supporting our position by activating a whole neural network of ideas and images that may operate below the level of consciousness. Consider the implications of calling the Right wing assault on reproductive rights a “war”:

Men, at least many men, aspire to be warriors. They play with toy guns as children and get addicted to fast-twitch war games as adolescents. They drive Humvees and pose in high fashion camouflage as adults. They watch movies about the wars of the past–Troy–and the future–Iron Man–and fantasy worlds–Lord of the Rings–putting themselves in the hero role. They liken the winner-takes-all competition of capitalism or elections or football to combat. They go out for drinks and tell “war stories”.

In wars, both sides are armed. Soldiers are comrades whose loyalty to each other trumps all else. They are taught to dehumanize their enemies. They come home heroes. They get medals.

Politicians use war to arouse nationalistic pride. Philosophy teaches us that war can be just or noble or an art form. Religion teaches that it can be righteous or even commanded by God. Onward Christian soldiers.  In the quest to win a war, lives and families destroyed are mere collateral damage. Economic devastation is a means to a higher end. Any man fighting in a war thinks he is one of the good guys. To paraphrase author Chris Hedges, war is a force that gives men meaning.

Assault, by contrast, is unequal and often unprovoked. One side is the clear aggressor. There’s nothing glorious about assault.  In fact, perpetrators are widely reviled. Nobody organizes a victory or veterans’ parade to celebrate assailants. A man who forces his will on a child or who forces pregnancy on a woman is a repulsive villain, a perpetrator, not a hero.

Republican lawmakers and candidates who spend their days toying with women in front of the C-SPAN cameras in order to excite men who get off on female disempowerment may think of themselves as “culture warriors.” But let’s call them what they are.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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23 Responses to Get Real. The “War on Women” is not a War, It’s an Assault

  1. Reblogged this on Life Weavings and commented:
    The incessant assault upon a woman’s ability to choose what to do with her body and the vilification of any woman’s desire for empowerment is an unconscionable stain upon the conservative movement and those who support it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. carmen says:

    Thank you, Valerie.

    Powerful words and the absolute truth.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As a big fan of Lakoff, this is a great reframing of what is truly going on. The war isn’t a war of heroes, it is a thousand times a thousand assaults upon a woman’s inherent right to be treated as a full human being.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. kittynh says:

    having two daughters, I really thought their experiences would be so different than mine. I am horrified that they are not. Being asked outright at jobs “so you thinking of having children anytime soon?”

    Liked by 2 people

    • metalnun says:

      Yes. Here I am peri-menopausal and I have a 22-year-old goddaughter and an 18-year-old step-daughter and I am concerned for their freedom. I thought our reproductive rights had been won and firmly established back in the 1970s. I never imagined that we’d still be fighting, and losing ground, in 2015!


  5. schweig001 says:

    Have you considered that the metaphor “assault on women” is more accurate than “war” but still not strong enough? I believe that this assault should be labeled as it actually plays out: rape….physical, psychological, emotional, financial, social, political, religious, philosophical, and ways I have yet to think about. If the institutions and individuals (not always men) could propagate the race without us, they would eliminate us in a flash.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lowell Bushey says:

    Hi, Valerie,

    You made a point that, up to now, I hadn’t realized. The word “war” implies that each side believes their cause to be noble, and subliminally implies a fair fight. (In another context, Republicans are always accusing Democrats of inciting “class warfare”, subliminally implying that rich people and poor people are on equal footing.) Assault, on the contrary, implies a power asymmetry, with one side effectively bullying the other to get its way. Obviously, assault is a far more accurate description of what’s going on with respect to women’s reproductive rights.

    Still, there’s one thing that bugs me “bigtime”. I avoid statistical or economic arguments, so people don’t stop reading my posts. :) However, this one involves simple arithmetic. Given that (1) women outnumber men, and (2) women are more likely to vote than men, why does this sort of thing persist?

    I can think of a couple of possibilities. (1) Many women haven’t overcome their religious brainwashing regarding their “proper role” in society. (2) Bigotry against Blacks, gays, etc. outweighs even their own interests. (That most assuredly is the case with white working class males!) (3) Ignorance and/or ambivalence. For example, I periodically get mail from my local Congresswoman saying that she will protect Social Security and Medicare, even though her votes say the exact opposite!

    I’m interested to learn how others (especially women!) regard this issue, so please feel free to speak up.

    Liked by 2 people

    • metalnun says:

      I have the same question. I’m going with your #1, brainwashing, as clearly evidenced by the fact that some women (e.g. Carly Fiorina) inexplicably side with our oppressors, but also #2, especially in so far as the Right tries to turn us against each other (“divide and conquer”), for example, getting middle-class people riled up about SNAP, poor people supposedly enjoying a steak on their tax $$ while ignoring the millions of $$ going to corporate welfare. #3 can be explained by #1.


  7. I think it’s hugely your #1.


    • Lowell Bushey says:

      Hi, Valerie,

      I tend to agree with you, although not to the extent that you suggest. For example, my local Congresswoman voted against both the Violence Against Women Act and equal pay legislation. Her rationale for doing so was that both would have applied to gay and “trans” people. I find it hard to believe that even conservative women would be opposed to such legislation, but I can’t make up my mind whether ignorance or bigotry was a larger factor. Of course, this district is so overwhelmingly Republican that the Democrats didn’t spend much money here. :)

      I do think that bigotry plays a huge role in the South. IMO, no matter how much Republicans strive to deprive women of their rights, it ends up being subverted to their fear of what will happen if Blacks, Hispanics, etc. gain any significant amount of political power.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lowell Bushey says:

        Hi, Valerie,

        Unfortunately, I left something out here. I’ve noticed that members of a demographic group refrain from criticizing others in that group. For example, although Blacks may despise conservatives such as Ben Carson or Herman Cain, and refer to them privately as “Uncle Toms” or “Oreos”, they’re usually reluctant to criticize them publicly. The same holds true for conservative women, thus giving the anti-woman assault of Republicans false legitimacy. (Interestingly enough, this doesn’t seem to apply to Planned Parenthood, where the staff is almost 100% female.)

        White males get nowhere criticizing anti-Black Blacks or anti-woman women. Since women and Blacks apparently are reluctant to criticize their own, this allows the Republican Party to nominate them, and often to win elections. My observation is especially cogent, since the next incarnation of the Planned Parenthood “witch hunt” is going to be chaired by a woman.


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  9. richardzanesmith says:

    Valerie, thoughtful and excellent insight shared here into whats going on when false dichotomies are set up to make it appear as if there is somehow this level battleground. I agree that abuse is the right word when women are forced to submit and restricted from making their own choices…. abuse it is, even misogynous abuse in the case of blaming the victim.


    • allanmerry says:

      Valerie, Re your reply to Mr. L Bushey’s post: Yes, “Hugely.” (And I can’t think of any better term to characterize it, as the most fundamentally all encompassing of, and to the exclusive of none of the myriad of its other tightly interrelated components.


  10. Charlie says:

    This leaves us men in a pretty harsh light. Mostly though it is accurate.


  11. Hazumu Osaragi says:

    As George Lackoff notes, metaphors and framing are important. Another thing that’s important, though, is to keep in mind that – generally speaking – conservatives are very adept at co-opting new metaphors and framings, and turning them to their advantage. Consider that the metaphor/framing of ‘victim’ was twisted to ‘playing the victim card.’ In the struggle against conservative ideology, metaphors and framings must be very agile and new ones must be brought into play as conservatives work to neutralize the current ones.

    Liked by 2 people

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