Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Right to Abort: an argument for feminist evolutionary selection

In this course, we often discuss the toxic impact of sex-selective abortions (particularly the vastly disproportionate termination of female fetuses before term) in countries around the world. This practice stubbornly adheres to essentialism and sexual-difference models of the gender construct, and is often regarded as the Achilles Heel of third-wave feminism.

Unsurprisingly, in countries like China (with its notorious one-child policy) and India, widespread abortion of female fetuses will result in massive disproportionate populations of single adult men with nonexistent marriage prospects. Without historical marital abatement of male aggression and violence, scholars fear that these countries will become plagued by civil unrest and widespread chaos. Accordingly, research shows that recently-immigrated women whose countries of origin are hotspots for sex-selective abortions continue the sexist practice even after arriving in the Western world, although the practice tends to die within two to three generations.
In contrast, some feminist activists refuse to condemn sex-selective abortions, for reasons that educator/activist Jane Cawthorne effectively outlines here: 
"[T]here is no 'feminist dilemma' over it: Our bottom line has to be to let the woman decide. Always.
“The whole line of thinking that some abortions are done for reasons that are more valid than others, because someone was raped, for example, is problematic. Any woman can choose an abortion for any reason, and she doesn’t have to tell us what it is. It’s none of our business.”
This school of thought asserts that prohibiting sex-selective abortions would only address the symptoms of the larger disease of misogyny and female subjugation. Many activists believe that ending the practice requires not restricting the options available to pregnant women, but increasing educational and economic opportunities for women. Ms. Cawthorne’s stance is analogous to that of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, which in 2011 fought against a legislative Tory motion seeking to condemn sex-selective abortions.

Alas, this post goes beyond the existing third-wave feminist rhetoric that abortion is a fundamental human right –- because it is so inevitably tied to female autonomy and the right of self-determination. Access to affordable, legal, and safe abortion procedures is the keystone of feminist liberation. Additionally, it just may be the next phase of human evolution.

I posit that feminist selection is an emerging schema of human evolution, not only as a sociocultural paradigm, but also an example of human behavior shaping our genetic future. In the same way that maternal behavior during pregnancy (for instance, prolonged starvation and high stress) shapes a fetus’ genetic expression of traits (for proclivity to diabetes and heightened anxiety response, respectively), collective female choice in which men may become fathers shapes the future gene pool of humanity. If all rape and domestic violence survivors around the world had access to affordable and safe abortions, and social attitudes and stigma around termination became more compassionate, more women would terminate these unwanted fetuses. Men who forcibly induced intercourse and pregnancy would no longer easily enter the gene pool in each successive generation. To most, rape would no longer be acceptable “as a method of conception.” Even in a lesser extreme, abortion rights could hinder the reproductive success of future absentee fathers and Lothario heartbreakers. In effect, free and legal access to safe abortions is the ultimate tool against patriarchy and the masculine dominance structure.

Inevitably, this argument contradicts everything Darwinian natural selection has instilled in our brains since middle school: sexual selection is the name of the game, and the highest number of viable offspring makes you the champion. Under the traditional Darwinian paradigm, all males (regardless of species) are aggressive and spend their days sexually pursuing as many females as they can possibly impregnate. In turn, in Darwin’s world, females are coy and passive and carefully select only a few males (typically with the most ostentatious physical sexual characteristics and highest social standing) as mates. Thankfully, feminism gives humanity slightly more credit for our massive new brains than this reptilian-brain-driven malarkey. In fact, feminism has been the main antidote (other than, you know, science and data points) for refuting the severely detrimental effects of Darwinian theories. For one, Darwin wholly disregarded instances of homosexuality in the natural world and discounted these behaviors as “decoy” actions to distract other males from mating with a desirable female.

In contrast, in the dawn of this beautiful new fourteenth baktun where abortions may soon be free and safe and bountiful, we have arrived at the era of feminist selection. Instead of male gametes winning the evolutionary game by being the most aggressive, most violent, or by having the brightest chin feathers, women now calibrate male evolutionary success by choosing to procreate with men who are emotionally supportive, or intelligent, or who possess a host of desirable traits. Empowered with the ability to abort the offspring of sexually violent aggressors or men who cannot sustain lasting relationships, women will now cognitively decide the course of human history. Feminist selection protects women’s best interests, and, in turn, the best interests of their offspring -– at the expense of male sexual aggression.

For those of you who hesitate before discarding centuries of Darwinian status-quo, know that there is scientific basis in alternatives to Darwin’s sexual selection. In fact, some scholars assert that Darwin observed the world with his hand over one eye, and carried many of his era’s Victorian ideals of sexual roles into his observations in The Galapagos.

Joan Roughgarden, one of the most stunning and inspiring professors I encountered at Stanford, is such a scholar. Dr. Roughgarden, author of 8 books and almost 200 articles, is an iconoclast biologist who originally challenged sexual selection in her book titled Evolution’s Rainbow. She provided many examples in the animal world from her own fieldwork where animals do not follow traditional sex roles, and also documented the homosexual behaviors of many species –- including high-order primate species like bonobos. In her later title The Genial Gene, Dr. Roughgarden created the social-selection theory as an alternative to the disproven Darwinian paradigm. The book lists 26 phenomena unexplainable under current sexual-selection theories, and puts forth social selection as the real process by which animals pass on their genes in the world. According to Roughgarden, “sexual selection theory derives from a view of natural behavior predicated on the selfish-gene concept, competition, and deception, whereas the social-selection theory derives from teamwork, honesty, and genetic equality.”

Anyone interested in the errors of Darwinian evolution models should watch the following TED talk by Dr. Roughgarden in 2011: 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Her standards, high standards: Reinforcement of negative stereotypes as a collective threat

Liz and Jenna share their mutual disgust of Abby Flynn.

Abby, I’m trying to help you.
Really? By judging me on my appearance and the way I talk? And what’s the difference between me using my sexuality and you using those glasses to look smart?
. . . .

God, Abby, you can’t be that desperate for male attention.
You know what, Liz? I don’t have to explain myself to you. My life is none of your business.
Except it is because you represent my show and you represent my gender in this business and you embarrass me.
Dude, I am sorry, but this is who I am. Deal with it.

30 Rock, Episode 516: “TGS Hates Women”

Women, some would say, are infinitely harsher on their own sex. That is, we are more critical of other women than we are of men, we hold them to higher standards, and impose upon them exacting expectations. Whether that’s universally true, I don’t know. But I do wonder whether it should be.

The phenomenon by which members of stereotyped groups dissociate themselves from fellow underperforming members is referred to in social psychology as a reaction to a “collective threat.” That is, where one group member believes his or her peer might reinforce a negative group stereotype, that member engages in various self-protective strategies. She might, for instance, denigrate her fellow member to distance the member from the group, physically distance herself from the member, or cognitively distinguish herself from the group by downplaying her own social identity… Each to the detriment of the defending member as well as the threat? Perhaps, but this is what we do. We associate or dissociate and include or exclude based on our assessment of the risk -- the collective threat to our group identity.

This problem is painfully evident with respect to female public figures. In terms of disappointment, the first who comes to my mind is Sarah Palin. Without rehashing many of the points previously made about Ms. Palin on this blog, and without delving into any sort of political discussion, I will say this: from 2007 to 2008, where I saw great potential, I felt even greater loss. When I first heard John McCain had selected a female running mate, I knew that so many of my conservative friends and relatives might have the chance to relate to a woman in power -- to understand that women could don suits and be likeable and strong and brilliant and carry integrity and reason into the White House. Such unadulterated hope developed in my mind for women on both sides of the aisle, but thence from the dark Mama Grizzly emerged and slowly tore my political feminine ideal to shreds. I, in turn, shifted further to the political left and further from my rural roots. She, I made clear to myself and to anyone who gave me an ear, did not represent me. Quite simply, she disappointed me.

But am I to blame for constructing and adhering to my own essentialist view and rejecting a nonconforming member of my ideal group? Might my conservative counterpart have precisely the same feelings toward Hillary Clinton and be equally [un]justified in her reaction? It certainly seems to me that when any group is underrepresented in a given field or faces any sort of social or economic obstacle to success, members of that group must necessarily work harder than members of, say, a more privileged class to achieve the same -- or at least a roughly equivalent -- prosperity. My question then, of course, is whether our reactions to collective threats are justified. That is, is it right for a woman to be disappointed in the “underperformance” of another woman because of the way the latter’s behavior reflects on the female sex, generally? If so, then at what point do heightened expectations become counterproductive to support systems that those same women ostensibly seek to provide? And how can any single woman rightfully say that her own essentialist view of her sex is superior to others and is the standard to which her peers should conform?

The struggle is ongoing. As we seek to achieve both individual success and group equality, it seems we must self-impose relatively high standards. The challenge, though, will be to prevent those standards from creating schisms within the group itself.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Have a (gender neutral) Christmas!

This holiday season many of us will be purchasing toys for children.  Boys like blue and girls like pink, right? GI Joes or Barbies? Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber? Wait, both of those cater to pre-teen girls.  Gift cards it is.

I am what some may consider a "girly" girl.  I like pink; I wear heels and dresses.  As a child I played "Pretty Pretty Princesses" and had an EZ Bake Oven.  I loved shopping and Barbies, especially shopping for Barbies.  Though my mother swears I always exhibited a clear, unequivocal preference for girly things, while my sister was much more of a tomboy, it is frustrating to think of the potential that was stifled because of the societal pressure to behave, dress, or play in a certain way.

Some gender stereotypes and perceptions have been embedded within American culture for decades. The continuation of these stereotypes and perceptions can be attributed to the media and pop culture, which utilize stereotypes for commercial purposes. As mentioned in a previous blogpost, genderizing products allows companies to charge more for one or the other (usually women's products), even though they are nearly identical.

One of the ways gender stereotypes have been implemented and maintained is through children's television commercials, in which advertisers develop marketing techniques that appeal to stereotypes of boys and girls in order to sell a product. Through the analysis of text and observation of linguistic features in Barbie Commercials and G.I. Joe commercials from several decades, it is evident that children's television commercials utilize gendered language and that these commercials have an effect on children's perceptions of gendered appropriateness.

All of this confusion could be avoided by gender neutral toys.  The pitfalls of sexism should not be ingrained and reinforced in childhood.  Gender neutral toys give every child the opportunity to explore their interests without the fear of being stigmatized or ostracized.  The culture perpetuated by gender neutral toys will be more apt to embrace a modern, more fluid perspective on gender roles.

The gender of other children in toy commercials has an impact on children's perceptions of what gender should play with the toy. Nontraditional images were more likely to allow children to perceive that the presented toys are for both boys and girls, a significant conclusion when considering the limited exposure children have to these nontraditional images.  The conclusion permeates to adults as well; non-traditional portrayals help foster less traditional and stereotypical gender role perceptions.

In Sweden the debate on gender neutral toys has gotten so strong that toy store chains have actually had to take notice (all you invisible hand nay-saying liberals cannot deny consumers are a guiding force in the economy).  The Toys 'R' Us catalog in Sweden is unlike the other catalogs circulating in Europe.   A comparison between this year's catalog in Sweden and Denmark, a boy wielding a toy machine gun in the Danish edition had been replaced by a girl in Sweden.  Elsewhere a girl is photoshopped out of the Hello Kitty page.  The chain is quoted as saying, "With the new gender thinking, there is nothing that is right or wrong. It's not a boy or a girl thing, it's a toy for children."  This will give children the freedom to play with what they want, rather than being limited by gender.  This is bound to foster creativity, tolerance, and over-all as they mature, well-adjusted adolescents who are not threatened by non-traditional gender roles.

Beyond the genderization of toys, even gender neutral toys can be sexist.  Recently a six year old wrote a letter to Hasbro regarding the game "Guess Who?" The text of which can be found here.  She complains there are only 5 female characters versus the 19 male characters in the game.  She feels the game fails to recognize that girls are just as important as boys.  I am sure this is not the only game this is true for.

Between this post and my last I am forced to say American feminism is bleak and depressing.  Countries around the world are making leaps and bounds towards gender neutrality.  I fail to recognize what specific to American culture is so resistant to change.

Walk a mile in her shoes

Violence against women is disturbingly prevalent globally.  Women and girls are the primary victims of sex trafficking, honor killings, rape, assault, and domestic violence. Men perpetrate the majority of the violence against women, but not all men are bad.

I have often heard a picture is worth a thousand words, but usually been quite satiated after a mere handful.  After seeing this picture, I was literally at a loss of words.

On September 27, 2012 at least 1,000 Toronto men took part in the annual "Walk A Mile In Her Shoes" march, bringing awareness to ending violence against women and girls.  Based on the idea that, "You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes". The event was organized by Canada's White Ribbon Campaign for the fourth year in a row.

The White Ribbon Campaign is the largest male effort to end violence against women.  Men wear white ribbons as a commitment to never commit or condone violence against women.  The organization was founded in 1991 and within six weeks over 100,000 men across Canada donned a white ribbon.  I am saddened that I found this statistic shocking, as it is a testament to my lack of faith in American men.

A statemement on the White Ribbon Campaign's site explains that "'Walk a Mile in Her Shoes' isn't simply a stunt — it's a statement about men's role in ending violence against women; an issue that is connected to strict gender roles and expectations of men. By wearing heels and acting in solidarity with women, we want to show that we'll do whatever it takes to make this a safer world for everyone."

This goal is achieved by creating and disseminating educational resources aimed towards boys and men  increasing awareness of sexual violence and harassment against women, as well as challenging the misogynistic norm of thoughts, actions, and even language.

This is a novel idea that in fact should be ingrained in every culture worldwide.  This picture should not blow my mind, or anyone else's.  Men have a responsibility to end violence against women.  Men should take an active role to understand the experiences a woman faces, and maybe then progress will be less inertial.  Every man should take this pledge.

Romance novels and women’s sexuality

On a previous post  by Heather she discussed romance novelists and their varied educational backgrounds. I am a big fan of women’s romance novels. I have read countless books and series of chick lit. If you ever are looking for a good recommendation, trust me I can point you in the right direction. In preparation for this weeks discussion on pornography I did some research into how pornography and the internet is now serving as a substitute sexual education for young adults. As pornography becomes the primary educator on sex it brings false expectations on what makes a healthy sexual relationship between adults especially for young boys.

For me romance novels were my first exposure to women’s sexuality. I specifically say women’s sexuality because romance novels are written by and for women. In a lot of ways these novels were my own first educators on what adult sexual relationships are. Just like pornography they set some unrealistic expectations about adult sexual relationships. I know that if you have a one-night stand with a man, he probably is not going to turn into the love of your life. You probably wont fall in love with a charming 28 year old millionaire with a host of emotional issue and a penchant for BDSM. Every relation doesn’t end with a HEA (Happily Ever After). However, these romance novels do feature some very good expectations to take into practice. Just about every sex scene includes a discussion regarding protection with condoms being the standard. Sex is about two adults and should include both giving and receiving. Women should be active and equal partners. These are just some of the healthy expectations that these novels have given me about sexual relationship.

Much like pornography technology is affecting and changing women’s erotic fiction. When I was in high school I never knew if a romance novel I was reading would somehow end up including a sex scene. It was always kind of the luck of the draw. Your best bet was if there was a pirate on the cover. Then you had to read somewhere where people wouldn’t stare at your book with the shirtless pirate on the cover. Now with e-readers offering privacy and anonymity as well as an easy searchable database all the guess work is gone.

Publisher’s who work exclusively with women’s erotic fiction have seen a huge jump in sales through e-readers. Nearly 40% of all romance novels sold are in electronic format. Just as pornography has become more acceptable, assessable, and affordable so has women’s erotica. Now sexual books like Fifty Shades of Grey are New York Times bestsellers. These are also not traditional romance novels although they still do all include a HEA (happily ever after), how they get there is vastly different. Fifty Shades of Grey has some pretty serious BDSM, a book like Tempted by Megan Hart is about the development of a polyamourous relationship between the protagonist’s husband and his best friend. These are not your typical “bodice rippers” and the kind of HEA they detail is not exactly what you would think soccer mom’s would be attracted to. They are much more open about the kind of sex they are going to be detailing. They aren’t even categorized as romance but as women’s erotica.

My take is that the rise of e-readers and women’s erotica reflects not only the anonymity of the internet age but maybe also the acceptance of women’s sexuality by women. All the authors of these romance erotica are women; some highly educated some stay at home moms who thanks to online publishing are able to find their audience.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Telemedicine increases access to abortion for rural women

Professor Lisa R. Pruitt in A Feminist Theory of the Rural, 2007 Utah L. Rev. 421, discusses the negative effects judicial decisions regarding abortion, including mandatory waiting periods, have on rural women. Many of these negative effects stem from the lack of abortion providers in rural communities. Rural women face many barriers to accessing abortion providers in distant metropolitan areas including limited or nonexistent transportation and burdensome distances that can entail hours or days of travel. With telemedicine, travel may no longer be a barrier for some rural women.

Telemedicine uses new technology like videoconferencing to provide rural communities greater access to medical services. More recently, clinics have utilized telemedicine for a controversial procedure- abortion. For the past four years, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland in Iowa has utilized telemedicine to increase access to abortions for rural women, and a new study of the program provides promising results.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland was the first clinic to use telemedicine abortions. The procedure begins with the woman receiving an ultrasound to determine how far along she is in her pregnancy. Then a nurse inspects the patient before she has an interview with a doctor via a webcam. If the doctor decides that the procedure is appropriate, the doctor pushes a computer button that opens a small drawer in front of the patient, which contains a pill, usually the drug RU-486. The patient takes the first abortion pill while the doctor observes her via webcam. The patient then takes the rest of the pills at home.

A study the American Journal of Public Health published last week relayed the effects the new program has on abortions in Iowa. The study's lead author was Dr. Daniel Grossman, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco and a senior associate with Ibis Reproductive Health, a research-based non-profit. The study tracked the number of abortions in Iowa for two years before the new telemedicine program began. According to USA Today, the results of the study showed that the rate of abortions declined in Iowa during the four-year period, while Planned Parenthood reported a slight increase in abortions. The study also found a slight decrease in the number of abortions in the second trimester, a time when the risk for complications is higher, but the decrease was so slight that it required further study. Finally, the study found that the telemedicine procedure provided more rural women access to abortion providers.

In another study that the journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published in 2011, Grossman followed 578 women who came to the Iowa Planned Parenthood clinic to use the drug RU-486. According to an MSNBC report, the women were able to choose telemedicine or face-to-face consultations, with 223 women signing up for telemedicine consultations and 226 women for face-to-face consultations. Termination of the pregnancy was successful in 99% of the telemedicine patients as opposed to 97% of the face-to-face patients, and there was no significant difference between the two when it came to medical complications. In addition, 94% of the women who used telemedicine were "very satisfied" with the procedure. In addition, telemedicine patients were more likely to report satisfaction with their care than those receiving face-to-face care. Even so, 25% of the telemedicine patients said they would have preferred to have their doctor in the room.

While the procedure purports many benefits, it is not without its critics. Cheryl Sullenger, a senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group, criticized the procedure because licensed physicians do not physically examine the women and the women undertake a multi-day abortion process at home without easy access to a physician. Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, says the decreases in abortions are part of a nation-wide trend and are the result of efforts of organizations like his who fight to curb the number of abortions. He also argued the pill used in the procedure has caused infections, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says is not true.

In addition, Dr. Morris Wortman, a professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and director of the Center for Menstrual Disorders and Reproductive Choice, said that telemedicine depersonalizes an emotional procedure. He believes it would be more difficult for a physician to console a patient who is not in the room.

Some states, including Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Tennessee, have passed laws limiting telemdicine abortions. If new legislation passes in Texas, it will require physicians to personally administer both of the abortion drugs and have a follow up visit with the patient within 14 days. These requirements are in addition to the current requirement of having a physician conduct a sonogram on the patient 24 hours in advance of the administration of the first pill. If the law passes, it will in effect eliminate telemedicine abortions in Texas.

Proponents of the procedure claim that it is perfectly safe and legal. In addition, they point out that it is just a part of a larger trend in the medical field toward telemedicine and remote care. Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist, also says the opposition to the procedure has little to do with the safety of women and more to do with an anti-abortion agenda. He argues that people should not attack a procedure that provides greater services to rural women and that we should celebrate telemedicine for its ability to help solve the problem of a dearth of primary care physicians in rural areas.

While there are disadvantages to not having a doctor in the room during a very emotional procedure, telemedicine is one way to give women in rural areas an opportunity to exercise their right to an abortion. The procedure may not be ideal; however, unless there is a way to attract more physicians to rural areas it is a better option than having the semblance of an option.

Vegan, Menstruating, and Hairy: Feminist Pornography as a Response to the Sexual Status Quo

a real iPhone game in which players furtively
lift a woman's skirt to discover the color
of her underwear:

Most of you reading would agree that pornography, for the most part, degrades, objectifies, disrespects, abuses, and generally harms women. You may be right. But a subversive, pro-woman underbelly is slowly brooding to erupt into a refreshing alternative to mainstream man-made sexuality. I present to you a mind-expanding collection of such pro-woman internet pornography, courtesy of

thankfully, NOT the type of "porn for women" I subscribe to
  • Erotic Red (feminist menstruation porn by women of all sizes and shapes who are authentically and naturally on their period). The site creator posits that "In an industry where photos of women being throat-fucked and pissed on are commonplace portrayals of human sexuality, women enjoying themselves on their periods are viewed by most pornographers as horrifyingly obscene.” Erotic Red is out to change that.
  • VegPorn (a woman-owned enterprise featuring only vegetarian and vegan models, and seeking to include all gender and sexual diversity - such as hiring queer and transgender models)
  • No Fauxxx (fascinating site with self-proclaimed "radical porn" with a politicized sexual message, and is inclusive of all natural body types - especially queer and transgender people): "Porn that doesn't fake it!"
  • Good Dyke Porn (somewhat self-explanatory site with an all-lesbian/bisexual/queer women/transpeople performers): also remarkable because of the site's deep commitment to eroticizing safer sex. Videos and images often depict gloves, dental dams, condoms, lube, and consensual kink. 
  • Furry Girl: founded by an all-natural, hairy feminist, this site really underscores the differences between the mainstream male-operated sex industry and the budding sex-positive world of feminist pornography.
Feminist pornography refers to a "genre of sex films designed to appeal to people who feel put off by mainstream porn." In the world of feminist porn, women come in all shapes, sizes, and sexual orientations - these actresses “don’t necessarily conform to the typical big-boobed, tiny-waisted ideal; some sport armpit hair.” Alas, women in feminist porn look more like the average woman walking down the street or standing in line at Whole Foods than adult film stars. Feminist porn first surfaced in the 1980s with pioneers such a Annie Sprinkle and Nina Hartley - women who had both worked in the sex industry before becoming stars in the adult film industry. As Sprinkle puts it, “I was tired of simply exploring other people’s fantasies, or performing other people’s fantasies, and wanted to explore my own.”

These films also tend to be more plot-driven and are designed to appeal to straight women and couples. Specifically, films that qualify for the Annual Feminist Porn Awards (seven years running as of 2011) must have: 1) a woman in a significant production/writing/directing role, and must 2) challenge stereotypes about beauty and sex appeal in mainstream pornography, and must 3) depict women or transgender/transsexual/intersex individuals experiencing genuine sexual pleasure. 
Interestingly, while the internet has hindered the profit margins of the mainstream porn industry because there is so much free porn everywhere, the internet has helped feminist pornographers. Because feminist porn is the work of small, specialized companies that focus on quality, casting, and storytelling, they use the internet to reach viewers through personal computers than having to distribute large quantities of their films to compete with major mainstream producers.
a still-shot of  "Anal Agony," a movie made by porn director and
distributor Max Hardcore, aka Paul F. Little, who was recently sentenced
to four years in prison over obscenity charges
Decades after the feminist sex wars of the 1980s, the dichotomous battle at the core of the conflict survives to the current day. Anti-pornography feminists continue to denounce pornography, including feminist pornography, which includes scenes depicting "women hog-tied while having sex that looks painful, or women suspended from the ceiling while men penetrate them.” Indeed, some feminists feel that “anyone willing to feed off women’s bodies and use them as raw materials to make a profit has no right to call themselves feminists.” (Gail Dines, an anti-porn activist and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality). “Even porn without overt violence is a form of exploitation since it reduces women to a series of body parts.”
On the other hand, sex-positive feminists today rely on the assertion that feminist pornography liberates female sexuality by showing the diversity of kinks and sexual scenarios that appeal to female viewers. Proponents laud these films for featuring performers who are more diverse in shape, size, sexual orientation, age, and race than in mainstream pornographic movies. One pornographer explains that "some women are turned on by being submissive, [and]  we need to respect that their choice for themselves is not degrading or sexist.” This sentiment echoes the main message of sex-positive feminism,  that shaming female sexuality in its genuine manifestations is a patriarchal tool of oppression. True liberation emerges when real women and real people feel positive about their true desires. Annie Sprinkle notes, "sex doesn't always look politically correct." Sex may not always look feminist, either. 
Additionally, feminist pornographers make an effort to have their performers engage in sexual behaviors that they personally enjoy. Directors and producers often ask the actors what they like to do - a freedom unheard of in the mainstream porn world. 

I close with the following questions: 

  • Can mainstream pornography ever become a space where women's bodies, identities, turn-ons, authentic experiences, and sexualities are treated with respect and legitimacy?
  • Is there an argument to be made for women who may legitimately enjoy pornography in which women are degraded, kicked, beaten, and disrespected - and that in the spirit of artistic freedom, these depictions don't necessarily impact real life? 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why all feminists should be atheists

For me, feminism and atheism have always been inextricably connected. They both came from a rejection of non-evidence-based reasoning, a rejection of the fallacies of tradition and faith. For my last post, I want to briefly try and make a more controversial argument: all feminists should be atheists.

For the sake of this blog post, I will define feminism as any system of thought wherein women are not considered inferior to men, and the fulfillment of women’s desires is not subordinated to men’s. I will define atheism as either lacking a belief in any god or higher power, or believing that no god or higher power exists.

First and foremost, feminists should be atheists because religion harms women. Elizabeth’s account of Irish abortion laws and Symphysiotomy provides an excellent contemporary example of this. However, Christianity has always been this way.

Consider the view of women outlined in both the Old and the New Testament. In the very beginning, in Genesis 3:16, God says to Eve:
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
In the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments list wives as their husband’s property. (Exodus 20:17.) Women who do not cry out when raped in cities are to be stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 22:22-24.) Women who are raped in the countryside are required to marry their rapists. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29.) And let’s not forget the story of Sodom and Gomorra, where Lot gives up his virgin daughters to be raped by a mob of men. (Genesis 19:8.)

In the New Testament, women are not permitted to either speak or teach in church. (1 Corinthians 14:34; 1 Timothy 2:12.) Women are not allowed to hold authority over men. (1 Timothy 2:12.) And women are required to submit to their husbands in the same way Christians submit to God. (Ephesians 5:22-24.)

But Christianity is not the only religion that harms women. They all do. Both the Quran and the Book of Mormon perpetuate very negative views of women. Even Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have similar track records with women’s rights.

In response, one might point out the benefits of religion. One might argue that the Bible isn’t really misogynistic. Or one might point out ways in which a particular religion is slowly showing signs of reform.

However, all of these suffer from the same fatal flaw: they maintain the concept of “faith.” Now, defining “faith,” and debating which definition is the best, could take up an entire Ph.D thesis, but for the sake of symplicty, I will use the definition in Hebrews 11:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
After giving this definition, Hebrews 11 gives various biblical examples of people trusting in God no matter the absurdity of the situation. If one requires evidence before one believes in something, such as Thomas requiring that he physically see Jesus before he believed that he had been resurrected (John 20:24-29), one does not have faith. Therefore, faith is supporting a proposition without requiring sufficient evidence and with minimal critical thinking.

Faith is the enemy feminism. It is only through faith one can continually harm and subordinate half the human population. It is only through blind acceptance that anti-feminism can flourish. When subject to thorough criticism and evidence-based reasoning, anti-feminism always loses.

And without faith, you are left with atheism.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Mothers as martyrs: a Catholic theocracy in practice

The tragic recent death of an Indian woman in Ireland resulting from the denial of an abortion has brought Irish abortion law to the forefront of world news. Savita Halappanavar was a dentist living in Galway with her husband Praveen Halappanavar. On October 21, 2012, she entered the University Hospital Galway in extreme pain and clearly miscarrying her 17 week old fetus. The doctor told Ms. Halappanavar and her husband that the amniotic fluid was leaking and the baby would not survive.

The couple requested that the pregnancy be terminated several times over the 3-day hospital stay. A nurse told them that there was no way they could do anything to end the pregnancy while there was a fetal heartbeat present. The doctors refused to perform an abortion, stating “this is a Catholic country.” Ms. Halappanavar responded that she was "neither Irish nor Catholic," but the hospital staff still refused to act. On the third day, the fetal heartbeat stopped. They tried to treat her, but it was too late. Ms. Halappanavar passed away that evening of septicaemia, a severe infection of the bloodstream. Dr. Kimberly Gecsi, an obstetrician at University Hospital in Cleveland, said "when an infection occurs in a pregnant woman's uterus, the only way to treat it is to terminate the pregnancy." Mr. Halappanavar sadly stated, "[i]t is hard to believe that religion can mean somebody's life."

Abortion is still illegal in Ireland, effectively under all circumstances. It was officially outlawed in 1861. In 1983 voters backed proposals to recognise that a mother and unborn child have equal right to life. In 1992, in a case involving a 14-year-old rape victim referred to as the "X-case", the Irish Supreme Court ruled that abortions would be allowed when there was a "real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother." However, in the subsequent 20 years, the Irish Parliament has yet to create legislation to transform this holding into law. To mark the 20th anniversary, left-wing members introduced a bill in the Dáil Parliament to put the holding into action, but it was soundly defeated 109 votes to 20The Sinn Féin party will introduce another such motion in the Parliament demanding the legislation be written and enacted.

However, the senior partner in Ireland's ruling coalition, Fine Gael, told supporters that the coalition would not introduce new laws allowing abortion during its five-year term, despite pressure from its junior partner Labour to act. 4 out of 5 Irish voters support allowing abortion where the mother's life is at risk. But, much like in the United States, there is a very vocal anti-abortion contingency which supports the prohibition of abortion under all circumstances.

Ireland's abortion prohibition does not stop Irish women from ending their pregnancies. An estimated 4,200 women travel from the Republic to Britain and other European countries each year to end a pregnancy. Irish women have had the right to travel outside the country for an abortion only since 2002. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland violated C, a cancer survivor's, human rights when she was forced to travel to England to get an abortion. The court condemned the failure of Irish leaders to legislate, and said the lack of legislative action has resulted in a "striking discordance between the theoretical right to a lawful abortion in Ireland on grounds of a relevant risk to a woman's life and the reality of its practical implementation."

Clearly the country's Roman Catholic faith still dictates reproductive health policy. Ireland's history of controlling women's reproductive health is disturbing to say the least. But beyond abortion denial lies an even scarier practice of Ireland's recent past: symphysiotomy.

Symphysiotomy involves breaking the pelvic bone to allow a woman to give birth in a difficult pregnancy, for example when the baby is breach. It is the barbaric alternative to a cesarean section. To put it more bluntly, Irish women experienced a doctor PULLING OUT A HACKSAW AND SAWING INTO THEIR PELVIC BONES while they were only under local anesthesia. Then the women, who were still in labor, would have to push the baby out with an unhinged pelvis. A survivor put it this way: “I saw the hacksaw, I know what hacksaws are. [The doctor] started cutting my bone and my blood spurted up like a fountain.” Some of the nurses around her were physically ill. The doctor just looked annoyed that she had gotten blood on his glasses.

Doctors performed symphysiotomies without consent of the women. The women did not know what was happening to them. Until she spoke to her son many years later, one woman who had a symphysiotomy thought she had actually had a cesarean section. The doctors kept women in the dark about the procedure, fueled by motivation from the Catholic Church. As one midwife who worked in the 1950s and 1960s put it, "the big thing was to have children even if you dropped dead." In 1931, the Vatican issued an encyclical which in essence said "Mothers who die in childbirth are martyrs...and should be happy to serve as such." The Catholic Church valued the life of the child over the life of the mother, and Irish doctors followed suit.

Symphysiotomy occurred in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, “in the age of the Beatles” as the Lawyer for the Survivors of Symphysiotomy group puts it. The practice had ceased to be used in France in the late-Eighteenth Century. However, the practice continued in Ireland until 1984, which happens to be the year of my birth. It is absolutely shocking and reprehensible that the general public has not heard of this practice! Marie O’Connor, chairperson of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy, describes symphysiotomy as "arguably the biggest human rights scandal in Ireland since the foundation of the State."

Fortunately, a recently released documentary entitled Mothers Against All Odds details this horrible practice and compares it to the awful treatment of mothers in Kenya today. Over 100 members of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy group gathered to watch the documentary in Dublin.  They could recognize each other by the limp that resulted from the symphysiotomy. This barbaric procedure mutilated and disabled these women for life, all without their consent. Hopefully, the publicity around the documentary and advocacy by the Survivors of Symphysiotomy group will garner more attention to this atrocious episode in history. You can watch the trailer for the documentary below:

Ireland is a prime example of the dangers of a theocracy in practice. When religion dictates health policy, women are hurt and even killed. The Catholic Church continues to laud women who sacrifice themselves for their unborn child, as evidenced by an article published this year called Emotional goodbye for young Italian mother who died for unborn child published by the Catholic News Agency. This sentiment is dangerous to women everywhere. Savita Halappanavar is not a martyr, but at least her death will not be completely in vain if it results in actual legislation in Ireland to allow abortions where the mother's life in danger. This is not a women's issue or an Irish issue, this is a human rights issue.

Paupers, Brokers & Buyers: can women hang in the competitive marketplace of legislation?

At the time, the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, acting under pressure, had called Professor Anita Hill to testify about the nomination of Clarence Thomas for Supreme Court Justice. The radio was turned up loud, and Anita Hill's voice was riveting. The calm, steady sound of her speaking flowed through everyone's life like a river. And then her voice was filtered through the responses of the senators and their expert witnesses. I remembered the two-step process of listening to Anita Hill -- hearing her, and then hearing her not being heard.

 — Carol Gilligan, Getting Civilized, Fordham Law Review (Special Issue on Women and the Law, 1994).

The economic theory of regulation, or Public Choice theory, asserts that Congress uses legislation to broker wealth transfers from the unorganized public to discrete and organized interest groups. Jonathan R. Macey, Some Causes and Consequences of the Bifurcated Treatment of Economic Rights and “Other” Rights Under the United States Constitution, in Economic Rights 141 (Ellen Frankel Paul, et al. eds. 1992). Under this theory, laws are commodities that Congress “sells” to private interest groups. The “currencies” paid to politicians for those laws are “political support, promises of future favors, outright bribes, and whatever else politicians value”. Id. at 155-157. For such wealth transfers, politicians endure low costs: the poorly informed public is unlikely to withdraw their political support, especially if politicians suggest harmful legislation actually advances the public’s interest. Since politicians stand to gain a great deal without enduring great costs, they have an enormous incentive to broker wealth transfers for the benefit of organized private interest groups.

Here is the feminist question: what does the economic theory of regulation suggest about the welfare of women in our political system?

Many feminist legal theorists have argued that women have a different voice than men. See e.g., Elizabeth M. Schneider, Hearing Women Not Being Heard: On Carol Gilligan’s Getting Civilized and the Complexity of Voice, Fordham Law Review (Special Issue on Women and the Law, 1994). Assuming women share an overarching voice, women’s interests and concerns sometimes will overlap with those of men, and sometimes will not. For those different issues that are of particular concern to women, men are not the best advocates. The problem is, however, that men dominate positions of power in the public sphere.

According to Public Choice theory, the main players of law making are politicians and private interest groups. It is therefore imperative that women are represented in Congress and among lobbyists. Sadly, that is not the case. Today, women hold 16.8 percent of the seats in Congress. Women’s representation is even worse among private interest groups: top lobbying firms that “actually control the show” on Capitol Hill are still run by men. Of the top 30 trade associations that lobbied during the Obama administration, only four were led by female CEOs. Even more gloomy is that fact that lobbying groups literally value women less than men in their leadership: top male CEOs of lobbying firms in 2010 were paid $1 million dollars more than their female counterparts. The fear that women’s voices are being crowded out by the voice of men in politics is neither delusion nor paranoia.

The first type of “currency” paid to politicians for legislative wealth transfers is political support from financial contributors. The federal political campaigns of 2011-2012 generated over $2.5 billion in contributions from interest groups. These included the campaigns of presidential and congressional candidates. Different sectors of political interest groups did not contribute equally. Of those $2.5 billion in contributions, over half came from five industries: financial, insurance, real estate, lawyers, lobbyists, construction, energy and natural resources, agribusiness, and other miscellaneous business sectors. These are market sectors that are typically dominated by men, and therefore are void of the “woman’s voice.” These masculine “buyers” of laws are less likely to consider the concerns of women as they try to influence legislation. At the same time, sectors that have greater representation of women made fewer contributions. Less than 30 per cent of contributions were made by the education, health and labor sectors. Moreover, even within sectors, the power of political influence was unevenly distributed among sector members. Large contributions were made by very discrete organized private interest groups. Goldman Sachs contributed an astonishing $7 million. The City of New York alone contributed $3.4 million.

The only people who spends more money than campaign contributors to influence politics are lobbyists. Spending over $30 billion in the last decade, lobbyists offer the second type of currency paid to politicians: information and technical support, in addition to campaign contributions of their own. Today, there are over 12,000 lobbyists in the United States. The biggest spender is the US Chamber of Commerce, having already spent a total of $95.7 million so far this year, and representing the interests of over three million businesses.

The Chamber is a powerful lobbying group that was established in the 1910s. Their mission is to advance enterprise in America. While a healthy economy is certainly in the best interest of all Americans, it cannot be the greatest or sole interest of Americans. Since the biggest spender on Capitol Hill can “purchase” more wealth transfers than anyone else, the interest of the Chamber will likely have huge political influence – even if such a transfer would harm many Americans.

A brief historical review of some of the Chamber’s activities demonstrates how the advancement of enterprise sometimes requires wealth transfers to be made from the poor and the marginalized to the rich and the powerful. In 1934, the Chamber “strongly opposed legislation…that would strengthen the ability of labor unions to organize workers.” Four years later, “over President Roosevelt’s veto” the Chamber provided “strong support” when Congress “reduced corporate income taxes.” Most recently, in 2010, the Chamber “oppose[d] the overall legislation” of the health care reform act. The Chamber has worked hard to divest Americans of their economic rights in the pursuit of enterprise.

If we, as women, want a say in politics, we better have pockets as deep as the Chamber does. But since no one has pockets as deep as the Chamber does, our best bet is to ensure that the voice of women is integrated into the Chamber’s leadership and the Chamber’s beneficiaries (that is, American businesses). As it stands, however, woman’s voice has been astonishingly absent.

Women are severely underrepresented in the US Chamber of Commerce. It wasn’t until 1944 that women were appointed to chamber committees. But who is running the show today over at the US Chamber of Commerce? Among the 134 members of the board of directors, only 11 are women (most of whom are white women). That’s only eight percent. None were executive board members.

Women are also underrepresented in businesses nationwide. In 2007, women owned 7.8 million nonfarm businesses in the United States (compared to the 13.9 million owned by men). Relegated to feminine spaces, women are most competitive in the more feminine service sectors. Women-owned firms made up 45 percent of the “repair, maintenance, personal, and laundry services” industries. Even when women are in business, they face difficulty making it into positions of power. A recent study concluded that women are offered fewer career advancing “hot jobs” than men; this could be “an underlying cause of the senior-level gender gap in business.” The results of another study put the sad truth about the political influence of women-in-business more clearly: “women and women-owned businesses…are excluded in Congressional Committees and committee hearings.” While the US Chamber of Commerce appears to have a gender neutral aim (pursuit of enterprise), women do not make the decisions about their lobbying strategies, women are not their major beneficiaries, and women are not their feared competitors on Capitol Hill.

Today, the chamber continues to lobby on behalf of (male) business interests. Such private business interests are so strictly prioritized that the Chamber “oppose[d] the overall legislation” of the health care reform in 2010. (Emphasis added). The Chamber managed to “eliminate key items that would have negatively impacted the business community including the public option.” Of course, that “business community” overwhelmingly excludes women. Worse, women would have been harmed if the health care law were defeated by the Chambers’ lobbying efforts. Health care reform is in the interest of most women because women make “80 percent of health care decisions for their families,” use “more medical services than men,” and suffer “greater disability from chronic disease.” The Chamber of Commerce places its private interests before those of half the population of this country, and actively seeks to promote male dominated business interests at the cost of women’s health.

Should the largest lobbying group be allowed to wage a “decade-long advocacy effort for private market-based approaches to health care reform”? If so, then how can dispersed and unorganized groups of women, women-business owners or medical patients generally, compete on the political market? When laws are traded as commodities that transfer wealth from the general public to discrete private interest groups, the politically marginalized (women and others) become the proverbial lowly paupers whom the brokers of wealth transfers ignore and from whom they steal.