Thursday, May 12, 2016

#SilverRingThing: How “Radical” Christian Abstinence Movements Marginalize Women

My best friend Becka works as a DJ at a Christian radio station in rural Washington. The station often promotes events, and she recently forwarded me information on a concert to promote abstinence among teens. A little background – neither Becka or I  are religious, but we were both raised in conservative Christian families, and attended conservative Christians schools until we graduated from college.  My horror and disgust when I visited the #SilverRingThing’s website was immediately followed by the realization that I had been convinced by this very same “message” as a young adult.

Cool, energetic young youth pastors (usually men) persuasively talk to their youth groups about Christ’s desire for them to save sex for marriage. The agenda contains concern that “modern” relationships are based in physical attraction - #SilverRingThing (you guessed it – there’s a purity ring involved) advertises itself as an alternative to the “celebration of immorality all around us.” The heart of this message is usually purity – and it’s focus is usually on young girls. The general idea is that God calls us to live pure lives, and that his love will be most successfully manifested in our relationships if we can manage to follow his standards. Sure, sometimes people mess up (i.e., have sex before marriage), but God can help you get back on track. A few of my close friends were dumped right after sleeping with their boyfriends, because they were “leading them [the boyfriend] away from God.” Needless to say, this was a huge emotional hit for someone in a very vulnerable place.

As it has been historically, purity is still a mostly female issue in religious groups (see an example of it in the blogosphere here and here). While movements like #SilverRingThing target all young adults, growing up as a girl in that environment contains a special amount of pressure. The regular highschool nonsense, where boys who can “score” are cool and girls who sleep around are sluts, is covered with a layer of religiosity. I dated boys who admitted that while they weren’t virgins, they would only date a girl who was, because it was “really important” to them (no further explanation). This when I was 16, and also when I was 22. 

All this pressure leads to a suppression of dialogue about sex, healthy bodies and what sexuality means. My real concern for young girls in conservative communities is access to reproductive healthcare. The recent passage of the Affordable Care Act brought this to national attention, because manyCatholic colleges do not want to provide birth control. My college bookstore did not sell condoms, the campus distributed zero literature on sex, and girls who became sexually active had no one to talk to and no clue what they were doing. Because I was sexually active earlier than most of my friends, girls approached me with basic questions about where to find birth control, how it worked and whether they were pregnant.

I do not mean to belittle or criticize religion, or even some people’s choice to engage in abstinence. However, I strongly believe that the way Christian groups talk about sexuality is toxic for young girls. Pressure to be “pure” exists without any information on how the human body works, what is normal and what is safe. Shame – which I believe is almost never a useful emotion – is used as a tool to convince young girls to live their lives in a particular way. When we consider communities that desperately need the attention of women who are committed to empowering and educating, young girls in religious communities should be a part of our focus. 

Hillary’s Trump Card: The Woman’s Card

This was a few weeks ago, but it still makes me laugh. The presumptive Republican candidate for President (*shudders*), Donald Trump, recently made headlines when he stated that the only reason Hillary was succeeding was because she was playing the “woman’s card” and that if she were not a woman she would only be getting 5% of the vote.

The complete nonsense of the premise behind his statement has been broken down in many places, but I’d like to focus this piece on the power of humor.

One of my favorite WaPo bloggers, Alexandra Petri, won the internet in my opinion with her excellent piece Play the ‘woman card’ and reap these ‘rewards’!. I don’t even feel like I can quote from the article because every single line is so good. I’ll wait here while you go read it before continuing.

Within hours (minutes?) of Trump’s statement, #womancard was trending on Twitter:

And it still is, weeks later:
Women across the country have united against Trump’s outright sexism and misogyny and have proudly proclaimed their support for Hillary (see also #imwithher). A Kickstarter campaign for a deck of cards with famous women has raised almost $120,000. Hillary’s campaign is selling an “Official Woman Card.”

While the Bernie Bros’ #HillaryDropOut and #NeverHillary campaigns are a frustrating distraction (see here for an excellent take-down of the privilege inherent in the #NeverHillary camp), the overall tone on Twitter and elsewhere has made me proud and happy to be a part of the Internet generation. For once, a social media campaign by women, on behalf of women, has succeeded. The key, I think, has been humor. I hope that the success of the #womancard campaign inspires Hillary and Democrats to continue working the meme-scape into November. Because the only way to fight Trump (and win the youth vote) might just be to point and laugh at the absurdity.

Rural Oregon, Part III: Rape, DV, and Meth

In the final installment of my series on rural Oregon, I’d like to shift focus to an issue that is much harder to discuss in numbers: crime. The crimes to which rural women so often fall victim, like domestic violence and acquaintance rape, are the most difficult to gather statistics on because of pervasive underreporting. And in many rural areas, young women, especially poor young women, sometimes find themselves caught up in the manufacture and sale of street drugs. These themes are true in many rural communities across America, and they are no less true in big, blue, pine-tree laden, hippy infested Oregon.

As a general note, in my research for this post I found an interesting, though not surprising, correlation between the economic recession of the last decade and an increase in rural crime. This same pattern seems to be true in Oregon, as well as other states. When you think about it, it really makes sense: rural communities are often hit hardest by economic downturns, and the lack of public funds can result in reduced resources for law enforcement and general community policing. More specifically, in the context of intimate partner violence, studies have shown that a leading cause of violence in the home is financial stress.

Economic disadvantage is not the only risk factor that threatens rural women with violent crime. As discussed in Part I, rural communities, including many rural parts of Oregon, are appropriately characterized as “conservative.” Conservative and rural usually means “traditional,” especially when we’re talking about gender norms. Outdated stereotypes concerning gendered hierarchies are extremely dangerous, especially in communities that regard family issues as private (see Professor Pruitt’s pertinent article on this very topic). And though hard numbers are scarce on this topic, these are the very reasons why Oregon researchers presume that domestic violence and other forms of intimate assault are occurring in rural settings far more often than anyone knows.

Finally, when talking about women and crime in rural Oregon, I cannot conclude the conversation without mentioning the drug crisis in my home state. What I have to say is mostly anecdotal, but the numbers back it up. Oregon is in the midst of a serious methamphetamine and heroin epidemic. In a survey last summer, 62% of police departments around the state said that meth was their number one problem, and another 24% said that heroin was the number one threat. Not their number one drug problem, but their number one PROBLEM. Period.

I certainly can’t say that the drug crisis has affected rural women at a greater rate than rural men, but I can tell you from experience that I’ve seen way more women from my community struggle with addiction, and get caught up in the sale and manufacture of street drugs, than I ever expected. Just a few weeks ago, news broke of a major drug bust in Toledo, OR, the town that neighbors my small hometown on the Oregon Coast. This wasn’t particularly shocking; drug busts like this happen all the time in my county. But when I opened the link to the article, the first photo I saw was of a women that I went to elementary school with. I haven’t seen her in years, and I hardly recognized her (presumably from the heavy meth use), but when I read her name, I just shook my head in pity and continued to read on.

From time to time I will check the roster at the county jail, just to see which of my childhood friends are in on drug charges. There are always at least a handful of women that I know who are behind bars, their faces warped into unrecognizable mug shots, and all I can think is, “Thank god that’s not me.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Steak or salad: food is just another tool of the patriarchy

Growing up, whenever something delicious touched my mouth, my grandma would look at me and say “a minute on your lips, forever on your hips.”

Her message was clear: don’t get fat. Her words exemplified the message I internalized every time I fueled my body. Girls and women in America are subliminally, and sometimes openly encouraged to eat fewer calories, be dainty, and indulge sparingly (because life is hard).

A few weeks ago, while campaigning in New York, Hillary Clinton stopped for some ice cream. While chowing down on her sundae (Pictures seem to indicate she ordered both chocolate and vanilla. Undoubtedly, a politically calculated move), a male reporter asked her how many calories were in her ice cream. Clinton, along with the crowd, erupted in a chorus of boos. The Internet properly responded posing the question: If it had been a male candidate, would he have been asked that same question? Almost certainly not.

Marketing manipulates our eating habits, and our eating expectations. Foods marketed towards women generally have low-calorie or low-fat labels (which are usually pink or purple). Advertisements encourage the female consumers to “indulge.” Where marketing suggests that men loveburgers and steak, it tells us women favor yogurt and quiche

In a recent episode of Modern Family,  a female character, Claire, struggled to adjust to her new business position as a company executive. In an effort to prove she was just as powerful as her manly predecessor, she ordered steak and scotch at lunch. After a summer of associate lunches, and then this episode of Modern Family, I started wondering if “manly” food is associated with power?

Men can fire up the grill and indulge in steak anytime they want. Yet women have strict societal limits on when it’s okay to indulge. Women can indulge when they need to. And even when women are permitted to indulge, we must indulge in certain foods: most notably chocolate. Chocolate is society’s treat of choice for women.

Women are expected to eat chocolate and pints of ice cream as a coping mechanism formenstruation, stress and break ups. And even women indulging, we must be careful not to overindulge. Cadbury recently released a new chocolate bar for women, Crispello. The chocolate comes packaged in three re-sealable sections so women can eat part of the bar in one sitting, and save the rest for later. 

Women eat less in the company of men. Studies tell us this isn’t just about our physiques, but also how we are perceived when we indulge.

Women worry about that they eat, how much they eat, and what people think of them while they’re eating. When Hillary Clinton defiantly stuck her spoon in that sundae, she was defying billions of marketing dollars telling her she should resist.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Rural Oregon, Part II: Abortion Access

In Part I of this series, I made a sincere attempt to illustrate the true political makeup of Oregon. That is, the rural, redneck, conservative, tractor-driving Oregon that exists beyond the boutique coffee roasters of Portland. Now I want to shift to rural women in Oregon. Growing up in rural Oregon, I want to talk about the lived experience of Oregon natives. Those who live two, or three, or seven hours from a metropolitan center. And specifically, in Part II of this discussion, I want to talk about abortion access.

Oregon is the only state in the country with no major abortion restriction on the books: There are no mandatory waiting periods, no minor consent requirements, and no limits on public funding for abortion services. In fact, the only restriction listed under the Public Health and Safety code, is a clause allowing individual physicians or private hospitals to refuse providing abortion services. Additionally, Oregon passed a law last year allowing pharmacists to prescribe and distribute contraceptives.

Of course, these extremely liberal policies do not please the many anti-choice organizations in Oregon. Just take a look at this cheeky, if not offensively sarcastic, article from a pro-life publication, titled, “Oregon ‘best state to have sex in’ because of easy abortions.” Further, Oregon Right to Life strategically smears Oregon’s abortion laws by stating that, “Oregon is the only state in America with NO protective pro-life laws.” [Emphasis added]

Yes, Oregon has exceptional protection for reproductive rights. And yes, Oregonians have virtually no legal barriers to abortion access. So at this point you’re probably thinking: what’s the problem? Well, let me tell you what the problem is…spatial privilege! The most pro-choice abortion laws in America do little to nothing for you if you can’t get to a clinic. And thus access can’t just mean legal accessibility; it has to mean physical accessibility as well.

There are currently twelve abortion clinics in the state of Oregon. Of these twelve, half are located in the Portland Metro Area. Five of the remaining six clinics are in smaller cities up and down Interstate-5, along the western portion of the state, leaving just one clinic east of the Cascades. According to the latest report from Pro-Choice America, 78% of Oregon counties have no abortion clinics. It is certainly true that many (if not most) Oregonians live near one of these cities with an abortion clinic, but not all Oregonians. Oregon is a large state. So for those women who reside on the coast or in the far eastern portion of the state, the road to an abortion clinic is likely long.

These facts and figures are probably quite abstract for anyone who is not intimately familiar with Oregon geography, so I will give you a couple hypotheticals. First, let’s consider a young woman who needs an abortion, but lives in my coastal hometown of Newport, OR. The closest clinic is located in Corvallis, about an hour and fifteen minutes away, but they only offer abortions up to nine weeks. If this woman were farther along, she’d have to get to Eugene, about two hours away, where there are two clinics that provide abortions up to 14 weeks. If she needed an abortion at any time after 14 weeks, she would have to travel all the way to Portland, nearly three hours away. And if she doesn’t have a car? There are only two buses that leave Newport each day to get to Corvallis. To Portland, she’d have to transfer to a train, and then do it all over again to get home. This is all under the assumption that she has the money and time to make this trip.

For a woman in an even more distant and rural area of Oregon, the logistics of obtaining an abortion are further complicated. If a woman in Baker City, a town in eastern Oregon, needs an abortion she’ll have to travel nearly five hours to Bend (services up to 9 weeks), or about the same distance to Portland (up to 24 weeks). And if she doesn’t have a car, a round-trip Greyhound ticket to either location will run her anywhere from $120-$180.

In sum, my point is this: when it comes to reproductive rights generally, and abortion access in particular, place matters. You can live in a state with NO major restrictions on abortion services, and still be extremely limited in your options because of spatial disadvantage. The right to family planning and to have an abortion should be unqualified. “Access” cannot simply mean legality. Women should not be limited in their reproductive choices simply because they live in a rural area.

Monday, April 25, 2016

"Chatty Cathy" and ADD: How Gender Expectations Influence the Diagnosis and Treatment of American Girls

We’ve spent a lot of time this semester teasing out the differences between how men and women are understood, and how that relates to the legal profession and society at large. A theme that keeps re-emerging is objectivity – whether it exists, how it is used by the patriarchy, and whether it is simply an idea that is used to silence “emotional women.” The subtle and persistent idea that women’s intelligence is suspect because it will be side-tracked by their unpredictable emotions plays out in the workplace and in interpersonal relationships. Recently, I was surprised to see it also crop up in another area – identification, diagnosis and treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Could the fact that men are expected to be objective, focused and level-headed lead to a more quick diagnosis of a man who does not conform to that expectation? Can we expect that women who are disorganized and inattentive are more likely to be shrugged off as emotional, hormonal or sensitive? Is it possible that our societal expectations of women’s emotional instability leads to less empathy for women who struggle, and less narrative directed towards legitimate psychological conditions shared by both genders? There is evidence that suggests the answer to all of these questions, currently, is yes.

A few months ago, a friend sent me an article about under-diagnosis of ADD in women.While women are just as likely to suffer from ADD as men, they are much less likely to be diagnosed and receive treatment. Instead, women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety, psychiatric illnesses that can result from untreated ADD. The article explained part of the reason for the under-diagnosis:

Girls with ADD tend to try harder than their male counterparts to compensate for and cover up symptoms. To keep up their grades, girls are often more willing to put in extra hours of studying and to ask their parents for help. In addition, girls are more likely to be “people pleasers” doing all they can to fit in – even when they know they are ‘different.’

When ADHD was first identified, researchers focused on young, white, hyperactive boys. Guidelines for identifying ADD and ADHD were geared towards these boys, leaving girls overlooked. Because teachers are often asked to identify children with ADD or ADHD, the common perception that it is a young boy’s problem leads to under-diagnosis in girls. In her book Understanding Girls with AD/HD, Dr. Ellen Littman explains that theillness can display much differently in girls and women: carelessness, disorganization and difficulty following instructions are more likely indicators than hyperactivity. 

Dr. Littman believes that girls with undiagnosed ADD/ADHD may “internalize their symptoms – disorganization or carelessness - as personal flaws rather than medical issues.” Self-esteem and even academic challenge brought on by struggling with undiagnosed ADD can often lead to anxiety and depression. Studies show that these are more frequently diagnosed in women, and it could be because they are more stereotypically “women’s issues.” However, the research that Dr. Littman and others have done suggest that anxiety and depression may be masking a deeper struggle in girls. (In fact, women are twice as likely asmen to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder).
Situations like this gender difference in diagnosis of ADD illustrate the subtlety of the patriarchy, which impacts women in unexpected ways. Sure, it could be easier to diagnose a hyperactive boy than a “chatty” girl, but could that partially be attributed to our gender expectations? If we expect women to struggle with emotions more than men, we are less likely to legitimize symptoms that fit gender stereotypes. Perhaps increasing education about psychology, mental illness and the human brain can ultimately impact society’s expectations for women in all aspects of their lives.