History’s most famous Google prank just received the sincerest form of flattery. A new website, “Spreading Romney,” is now one of the GOP frontrunner’s top online search results. The new site defines “Romney” as “to defecate in terror,” commemorating the miserable 12 hours the Romney family dog spent riding on top of the car during a family trip to Canada. “Spreading Romney's” emergence is the latest tribute to the success of sex columnist Dan Savage’s “Spreading Santorum” site, whose profile has risen with each Santorum victory. Savage created the website in 2003, when Santorum was a right-wing senator and culture warrior who distinguished himself by comparing homosexuality to “man on boy, man on dog” sex before suffering a humiliating election defeat in 2006. But even as Santorum has risen from obscurity to presidential contention, he still can’t shake “Santorum.”
The day after (what turned out to be) Santorum’s victory in the Iowa caucuses, The New York Times ran a piece on the prank. After initially saying Savage pulled the prank because Santorum opposed same-sex marriage (which most Republicans do) the Times corrected the post to note that what set Santorum apart from the pack was comparing “homosexuality to ‘man on dog’ sex” (which most Republicans don’t). The vice president of the conservative Media Research Center complained following Iowa that the issue had received coverage on CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, and CBS. Two days before Santorum swept last Tuesday’s contests, a major North Texas newspaper ran a profile of Savage that opened with the story of his “Spreading Santorum” site and the pedophilia/bestiality comments that inspired it. Such coverage reinforces his image as a single-issue obsessive and a throwback who, rather than couching his anti-gay animus in dog whistles, has long reveled in it.
That’s on top of the effect on voters who Google Santorum and find Savage’s site rather than Santorum’s plan for reviving manufacturing. More people than ever are looking: Google reports that Santorum “saw a surge in Google search traffic in all three states in the 24 hours leading up to” last week’s voting.
For progressives, the clear downside to “Spreading Santorum” is its potential to reinforce stereotypes: that sexual identity is just sex, that the LGBT community is just gay men, and that the gay bedroom is like the straight bathroom. Savage’s work is frequently marked by a strain of sexual essentialism—for example his refusal to believe men who say they’re bisexual—that was on full display this campaign season in his promotion of the meme that Michele Bachmann’s anti-gay husband Marcus must himself be gay because of his voice. That criticism just reinforced the stereotype that talking in a way that isn’t macho means that you’re gay.
Spreading Santorum,” despite its downsides, has more progressive potential. Rather than accusing Santorum of being a closeted gay man, Savage’s Google prank associates the former senator’s name with gay sex. In so doing, the re-definition illustrates both the reality of gay sex and the perversity of Santorum’s obsession with it. It dramatizes the centrality of queer people in Santorum’s political career, but on our terms, conjured as subjects—having sex despite his scorn - rather than as objects he deploys to scare up support. Instead of mocking Santorum for matching a gay stereotype, it tweaks him for indulging in gay panic.
As a joke and as a tactic, it only works because Santorum’s stance towards gay people, despite his past love of talking about them, is a form of denialism: denial that gay people will always exist, that their affections and urges are American and ubiquitous. Asked to defend his stance on marriage in Iowa in December, Santorum became visibly flustered and told the 23 year-old asking the question, “In fact you have to know you’re wrong.” Letting gay people marry, he warned, would mean “same sex couples being the same and their sexual activity being seen as equal.” It would change what “little children” learn in school about “what families look like in America.” In other words, though he says he wouldn’t stop loving a son who said he was gay, Santorum believes everyone deserves a gay-free childhood. A series of similar confrontations played out in New Hampshire, reinforcing the sense that Santorum still yearns for a world where gay people show up in right-wing campaign ads but go unacknowledged in our schools and our culture. Thus tying Santorum’s name to same-sex anal sex—rather than to “judicial activism” or other euphemisms he would choose himself to describe his homophobia—becomes a small act of defiance. It’s his “ick” factor and clear disgust with gay sex, not just his outrage, that make Santorum’s view of homosexuality so ripe for Savage-ing.
What Savage did to Santorum evokes a newer phenomenon: the “Slut Walks” organized by feminists in response to a Canadian police officer’s comment that women who don’t want to be raped should “avoid dressing like sluts.” In actions that have spread from Toronto to dozens of cities, women responded by marching through the streets in all kinds of outfits with signs like “My dress is not a yes.” There’s always been a tension in left activism over poster child politics: Must the clean-shaven occupier be the one to talk to TV cameras? Need it be a grandmother who first challenges racial segregation of buses? Sometimes the answer is yes. But there is power in approaches that take the opposite tack and force confrontations with uncomfortable images: the woman walking on the street in her underwear who shouldn’t be raped, the man who has butt sex who shouldn’t be discriminated against. Like same-sex “kiss-ins” or boisterous picket lines, they defy the expectation of shame. That’s the point too: Rick Santorum is still embarrassed about gay sex, but gay people increasingly aren’t.
That’s why, caveats aside, it’s been so satisfying to watch Santorum trailed by “Santorum” on the trail. In the five years he’s been out of office, legislative gay-bashing has been losing its power, and in the next five years, let alone 15, that process will only continue (if only the same were true of Santorum’s right-wing economics.) Conjuring gay demons helped Santorum become a national figure. Now “Santorum” haunts his bid to broaden his appeal. The punishment fits the crime.