You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Under His Eye

The Far Right’s Dangerous Fertility Myths

Conservatives such as Candace Owens pitch “trad life” as the only safe harbor for women who fear abusive men. The truth is anything but.

Jason Davis/Getty Images
Candace Owens on the set of “Candace” on May 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tennessee

These days, it takes a lot for a right-wing influencer to break the internet with his misogyny. But podcaster Steven Crowder has pulled it off, dominating social media for over a week. The storm was provoked by Crowder’s announcement that his wife, Hilary, is divorcing him against his will. “In the state of Texas, that is completely permitted,” he vented on his Louder With Crowder channel, which boasts nearly six million subscribers. “She simply wanted out, and the law says that that’s how it works.” Not long after a clip of these words gained traction, “no-fault divorce” began trending on Twitter, with many users circulating a 2022 Jezebel story predicting the return of laws requiring divorce applicants to prove wrongdoing, such as infidelity or desertion.

Then came the footage of Crowder threatening his wife. Captured in 2021 by a home surveillance camera and published by journalist Yashar Ali, it shows a cigar-smoking, patio-lounging Crowder forbidding his visibly pregnant wife from using their car because she has failed to do “wifely things.” After some protests, Hilary says, “I love you, but, Steven, your abuse is sick.” “Watch it,” he retorts. “Fucking watch it.” According to Ali, by his own admission, Crowder then followed her off-camera into the house, saying, “I will fuck you up.” The New York Post is now reporting that Crowder also has a history of workplace abuse, which includes exposing his genitals and making employees wash his dirty laundry.

While Crowder has no shortage of defenders on social media—including some who tried to redirect attention to years-old, unsubstantiated reports of ex-spousal abuse by Georgia’s Black senator, the Reverend Raphael Warnock—high-profile conservatives were swift to rebuke him last week in an attempt to put some distance between his repellent behavior and the cultural agenda they share with him.

After playing the clip for her podcast viewers, The Daily Wire’s Candace Owens asked, “How can you look at that video and not roundly condemn this and say this is not something that actually represents the things that we believe?” While not mentioning Crowder by name, anti-abortion activist and Live Action founder Lila Rose advised her Twitter followers to “stay far away” from men “obsessed with the submission of a woman,” then later added, “‘Traditional’ doesn’t always mean ‘good.’ Follow good traditions, not bad ones.” Fellow “pro-life” activist Abby Johnson, a past guest on Crowder’s show, pleaded, “Just as God calls for wives to submit to their husbands, He calls for husbands to love their wives. Don’t ever purposely leave one part out. He has instructions for both parties.”

It seems that the likes of Owens, Rose, and Johnson are on the defensive because they’ve been caught in a lie. Along with many other conservatives, they have relentlessly pushed the narrative that only the so-called traditionalist (“trad”) daughter and wife are protected from male brutality—and it’s women of the infertile, unyoked, and unsubordinated variety who are prone to beating, rape, and other torments. In fact, Owens nodded to this very narrative when she claimed disbelief that a man could “speak to a woman like that, least of all when she is eight months pregnant.” Much like the sex abuse scandals dogging Josh Duggar, Doug Phillips, Bill Gothard, and other devotees of the “Quiverfull” movement, which mandates supersize families, the Crowder affair exposes that the pronatalist patriarchal milieu is not a refuge from violence but a primary site of it.

Many of us raised in traditionalist homes, including Catholic ones, vividly remember the exhortations to marry and have a bajillion babies, “or else.” Parents, pastors, and other moral leaders were sickly invested in feminist misery. They reported that women who used birth control were treated like sexual objects, as their partners did not have to worry about committing to them. They peddled literature on Natural Family Planning, which threatened sexual slavery if anyone so much as looked at a condom. They hailed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which warned of decreased respect for women following the advent of the pill and otherwise predicted the “new world order” we now inhabit, in the recent words of Catholic theologian Christopher West. (See West’s dialogue with pastor Joshua Ryan Butler for an idea of how conventionally Catholic thinking on birth control has saturated Protestantism.)

Even with endless revelations of abuse by priests and other Christian patriarchs, the eminently rape-able feminist looms large in the trad mind. “Sick modern men want women rendered infertile so they can be sex playthings,” a woman recently tweeted in my mentions. A high school lesson plan by Ave Maria Press claims, without any citation, that the abuse of women now occurs “at unprecedented levels” and then asks students to “write a position paper on the ‘contraceptive mentality’ explaining its [e]ffects on women.” Rose’s Live Action has produced a satirical video of men expressing alarm over imperiled reproductive rights, saying, “I deserve not to be shackled,” and “Women need to submit to a pro-choice man’s view of sex.”

Even if your man doesn’t rape you when you’re on birth control, he will find you repulsive and be disinclined to defend your honor—or so blogger Kathleen Taylor suggests. Writing for Natural Womanhood, Taylor tells “a cautionary tale” involving an experimental male monkey who preferred females not injected with Depo-Provera over females who’d been given the shot. While admitting that humans are not lesser primates, she insists, “That doesn’t mean the findings aren’t relevant.”

Taylor also cites a 2017 study finding that men whose wives are on birth control are less likely to show “mate guarding” behaviors than those whose spouses go au naturel. In case readers remain unpersuaded, she adds that contracepting women disproportionately choose partners with less masculine features and similar immunity genes, basically leading to a nation of weaklings. In much the same vein, Celeste McGovern of the National Catholic Register wonders if trace amounts of birth control in the water supply are behind the soaring incidence of testicular cancer, infertility, and “gender dysphoria” (scare quotes hers).*

This being a land haunted by slavery and Jim Crow, fantasies of gallant men and the enemies they must fend off are thoroughly racialized, as religion scholars like Sara Moslener and Megan Goodwin have shown. Interviewed last year about rampant sexual and spiritual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention—which formally adopted a doctrine of female submission in response to second-wave feminism—Moslener, who directs the After Purity Project at Central Michigan University, told The New Republic that white evangelical girls are early “inducted into the logics of lynching.” That is, they are conditioned to fear Black men and to believe they need the guardianship of their fathers, brothers, and church peers—the very people who are most likely to harm them. (One cannot help but think here of Johnson, who has stated that police would be “smart” to racially profile her adopted Black son.) Goodwin, the founding program director of Sacred Writes, has scrutinized Christian America’s unquenchable thirst for pulp memoirs like Betty Mahmoody’s Not Without My Daughter, which portrays a foreign Muslim brutalizing his American wife. (Somewhere in my childhood home, there is a well-worn copy of Jean Sasson’s The Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, another potboiler about brown-man depravity.)

Cat Tebaldi, a fellow at the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Luxembourg Culture and Computation Lab, agrees that a rape myth pervades trad circles, writing, “It’s Leave It to Beaver or death.” She further stresses that, in some of the circles she studies, it is impregnation by white men—not simply submission to them—that putatively offers security. In a forthcoming paper, Tebaldi, who’s been called a “haggard academic,” considers how white nationalists like Becky Dillingham (“Dissident Mama”) and Lacey Lauren Clark (“Lacey Lynn”) mobilize idioms of nonprocreative sex to portray pluralism and progressivism as forms of ravishment. She notes, for instance, how Dillingham uses the term “society sodomizing” to describe the way Americans are being “castrated” by the forces of “Big Gay,” “Rainbow Mafia,” and “Globohomo”—the last doubling as an antisemitic dog whistle. (In recent months, Rose has also ratcheted up the groomer rhetoric, further going to show the increasingly pornographic imagination of the right.)

“One major role of the woman in this movement is to give white men back their sense of great importance,” argues Tebaldi. “Society no longer worships your man, so you should.” But because worship is a hard sell, the trad wife is obliged to conjure endless horror shows and style herself, the procreative homemaker, as society’s true dissident—as the real feminist.

If there is one thing to take from the conservative backlash to Crowder, it is that it’s probably all too sincere. The jock beloved for his racist tirades and his impersonations of abuser Bill Cosby has let the mask slip, provoking dialogue about “headship,” “complementarianism,” and other tenets of the Christian right’s gender ideology. In recent days, people have shared studies, anecdotes, and books linking patriarchal theology with abuse. One brave man has even confessed to having been a monster to his wife while under the influence of that theology. This left trads scrambling to save the brand.

It is hardly the case that abuse is the exclusive problem of the Christian right, and anyone who pretends otherwise grossly fails women. Kathryn Joyce makes this point well in Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, when she describes a woman forced, in the name of Scripture, to have sex with her husband and otherwise bend to his every whim. When she is finally free of him and excited to “have rights again,” she seeks help from a psychologist, who suggests the two of them sleep together as a cure for her depression.

It is also hardly the case that progressives wholly value single, childless, and postreproductive women. How many left-wingers, like Owens, emphasized the fact that Hilary Crowder was an expectant mother? How many agree, either consciously or unconsciously, with ex-CNN anchor Don Lemon that Republican presidential nominee Nikki Haley is “past her prime”? At a time when many lawmakers are trying to normalize maternal death, it matters the way we all talk about women. Hilary Crowder and Nikki Haley deserve to be seen as human beings, not solely as wives, mothers, or objects of male fascination. To build a world in which they are is to actually build a “culture of life.”

* This article originally misidentified the publication.