It's rare that a political maneuver inspires a collective grin on the faces of women’s health advocates across the country these days. But that’s exactly what happened when Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, a state congresswoman in Kentucky, introduced a bill last week that would require men to get a permission slip from their wives before seeking medication for erectile dysfunction—and swear on a Bible that they would only use it to have sex with their current spouse.
HA. HA. HA. Truly.
Marzian was moved to introduce the proposal after Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin signed a bill that would require women seeking abortions to get counseling from a healthcare professional 24 hours before the procedure—just in case, you know, the weight of aborting a pregnancy had somehow passed them by.
"I started thinking, how would this body of men feel if the government was injecting into their private medical decisions?” the lawmaker and former nurse told Louisville news station WDRB, adding that over-regulating women’s health choices is "very serious to me."
While Marzian's bill has gotten buzz for taking such a dramatic stand, she isn't the first female politician to go after men's penises in an effort to protest lawmakers' invasive efforts to legislate women's bodies.
Over the past five years, pro-choice lawmakers have introduced at least seven similar bills. But the question is: Do these stunts have any real impact on policy?
In December 2015, State Rep. Mia McLeod, a Democratic congresswomen in South Carolina, introduced a bill that would require men to wait 24 hours between getting a prescription for erectile dysfunction and cashing in on it, plus acquire a signed letter from their partner confirming that they do, indeed, have an erectile problem plus see a sex therapist about their condition.
“I purposely tried to make it as invasive, as intrusive, as hypocritical, and unnecessary as possible to make the point,” McLeod told NBC affiliate News 2 at the time. “I don’t think it’ll pass,” she added, “I really just want to broaden the discussion and get people thinking about and talking about some of the issues that women face who are seeking legal abortion services in this state."
The men's health bill trend took off back in 2012, when in one year alone, fed-up lawmakers introduced six standalone bills and five amendments of a similar nature in eight different states, according to Elizabeth Nash, a senior analyst at the Guttmacher Institute who specializes in state policies. All intentionally outrageous, ranging from vasectomy bans to rectal exams, the proposals came in reaction to an uptick in anti-abortion proposals.
“These bills are often frustrated—if humorous—responses from legislators who are aware of the 288 abortion restrictions that states have quietly passed since 2010,” says Kelly Baden, the Center for Reproductive Rights Director of State Advocacy.
Take, for example, former Oklahoma state senator Constance Johnson, who in 2012 added a “spilled semen” amendment to her state's controversial Personhood bill, which aimed to define life as beginning at the moment of fertilization. “The Personhood bill would potentially allow governmental intrusion into families' personal lives by policing what happens to a woman's eggs without any similar thought to what happens to a man's sperm,” Johnson wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian.
Johnson's amendment was intended to balance the scales by dictating that "any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman's vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.” Meaning—you guessed it—masturbating to completion, pulling out, spitting, swallowing et cetera would all be illegal. Seems only logical, right?
Unsurprisingly, not a single one of the 2012 men's health bills passed. But that's not really the point, is it?
"What they are good at doing," Nash says, "is raising the awareness of abortion restrictions." People are busy, and sometimes they don't know what's happening in their own state. "We need to raise awareness. And if to do that, it’s by introducing a ludicrous bill around men’s health—that's fine."
These days, Nash says most lawmakers have changed tactics, forsaking the headline-grabbing men's health bills for more straightforward attacks—attempting to repeal abortion restrictions, promoting clinic accessibility, and trying to prevent government interference in doctor-patient relationships.
We’ll have to see what happens with Marzian’s bill, but McLeod’s bill is still in committee in South Carolina, waiting for a vote that may never happen. And Johnson ended up voluntarily withdrawing her amendment shortly after proposing it, saying she had just introduced it to make a point.
“When lawmakers restrict women's health, women are going to fight back," says Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood. "Whether it's activists organizing on the ground, or lawmakers introducing bills meant to point out exactly how ridiculous these attacks are."
And do men actually have to fear that their easy supply of Viagra will dry up?
I'm sorry, what was that, James?
Cleo Stiller is a digital producer covering the intersections of sex, tech and culture. Words to live by: get your money's worth.