Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Is chivalry dead?

My best friend recently went on a first date and immediately called me after. Her date seemingly met many of her “must-haves” in a man; he was attractive, funny, educated, tall, nice, etc. Yet, she made it clear she didn’t want to go out with him again. When I dramatically gasped and asked why, she said, “Well, he didn’t pay for me!” And apparently she isn’t the only one who feels this way. Recently, NerdWallet released a study finding that 77 percent of straight people believe men should pay on first dates. This immediately made me wonder -- in 2015, when women are finally gaining freedom educationally, professionally and personally, is this really something that should be a deal breaker?
Historically, chivalry referred to the medieval knightly system with its religious, moral, and social code. Today, Merriam-Webster defines chivalrous as “behaving in an honorable or polite way especially toward women.” While these definitions are helpful in obtaining a background of chivalry, a quick Google search of chivalry taught me much more about what some people really think today. The top definition of chivalry on Urban Dictionary is: “Something women complain is dead even though it cannot logically exist in an equal society, which is something women wanted. It’s one or the other.” Sigh.

The notion of disappearing chivalry is a question on society’s mind. But can feminism and chivalry really co-exist? Some explain that male manners have casually disappeared but that they shouldn’t just because women are gaining ground in their fight for equality. Others argue that chivalrous actions aren’t all rooted in sexism but are actually helpful social structures that make men more respectful of women and curb harassment. On the other hand, some contend that actions (like paying for the meal on a first date) are really about romantic chemistry and sex, not sexism.

While these views are somewhat helpful in explaining the coexistence of chivalry and feminism, none answer if they actually can or if I want them to. When I reflect on my first date with my significant other, he paid. I certainly offered but he quickly rejected. This was something I appreciated but would I have been disappointed had he actually let me pay? Probably. He also held open doors for me and offered me his coat when I was cold (and he still does). These are actions I genuinely appreciate and I sincerely hope that this doesn’t diminish my status as a feminist. For me, these gestures (whether defined as chivalrous or not) simply illustrate his respect for me and not just because I am a woman.

Reflecting on the issue, I truly believe (and hope) chivalry can co-exist with feminism. But, I also don’t think men should be the only ones to carry out chivalrous acts. Chivalry should no longer be a term for how men should act towards women. It should be about mutual respect and courtesy – not just between partners but human beings in general, regardless of gender. Anyone is capable of having absolute respect for others and showing that through a variety of well-mannered actions. After all, feminism is the equality for everyone. So, why shouldn’t we all just be chivalrous toward one another?

If a man doesn’t pay for you on the first date, should this really be a deal breaker? Well, that’s up to you and I don’t think anyone should judge you for it. But in short, chivalry needs to start encompassing everyone if it wants to co-exist with feminism and cannot continue to be a question of gender-based power struggle. I began with the question “Is chivalry dead?” but the more appropriate one is “should it be?” And I say no.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Feminist responses to the mainstream appropriation of BDSM: Part 1

Now that E.L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey has been released as a major motion picture, feminist perspectives on BDSM sexual practices have gained renewed attention. BDSM stands for bondage/discipline, domination/submission, and sadism/masochism. (For a general overview, visit this page.) The popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy is largely due to this type of sexual content. Recently, BDSM has been commercialized and appropriated by the mainstream culture more than ever before. The fact that Target and other national chain stores are selling Fifty Shades-branded products illustrates this. Obviously, feminists are concerned that any structural inequalities reproduced within BDSM relationships are being overlooked by the average American. The possible harm resulting from this is currently a point of debate among feminists and other voices in the media.

Sex-negative and anti-BDSM feminists posit that we cannot disregard the presence of inequality and the “false consciousness” described by Catherine MacKinnon, and BDSM encounters are often not any more consensual than regular ones. However, sex-positive feminists think that an awareness of BDSM aids in discussing consent, recognizing non-heteronormative lifestyles, and breaking rigid gender roles. Those who label themselves sex-critical attempt to reconcile both views within a nuanced framework, while accepting the idea that more research is needed. Although one can understand why individuals within the three theoretical camps choose to either protect or reject BDSM practices, it can be difficult to take a stance on the issue.

One of the difficulties in forming an opinion is predicting how BDSM will evolve. The entertainment industry has chosen to promote one of the more harmful variations of a BDSM lifestyle. Fifty Shades of Grey adheres to traditional, gendered constructions of sexuality. It shows only the submissive female/dominant male coupling. The male character has wealth, power, and experience, while the female character is a student and a virgin. At times, the plot points seem to involve stalking. In fact, the plot was originally a piece of Twilight fanfiction, and Twilight has been criticized for romanticizing a predatory relationship. Furthermore, a sex contract is used in Fifty Shades as a stand-in for consent. Some people seem content with this pop culture version of BDSM without further educating themselves on actual practices and domestic violence. However, several BDSM communities have denounced this inaccurate portrayal of BDSM and its careless treatment of consent. Some anti-pornography and domestic violence groups think that selective appropriation of BDSM practices and terminology can be used to conceal sexual and physical abuse.

The current uncertain legal status of BDSM divides opinions as well. Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi attempted to diffuse accusations that he assaulted several women by framing the assaults as BDSM encounters. Most people did not buy this excuse, and he was forced to leave his show. Although some have taken this as evidence that BDSM will not suffice to cover sexual violence, the law rarely offers all women the protection they expect. Contrast the Ghomeshi scandal with Canada's treatment of a female judge whose nude photos were released without her permission. There have been many low-profile BDSM cases in which the woman was allegedly assaulted, but the courts chose to gloss over consent issues. In these cases, the women negotiated sex contracts or met someone through an S&M dating website. The courts interpreted the initial agreements of consent to excuse unwanted contact or injury that occurred during encounters. BDSM itself violates laws in several states, but participants and feminists could probably agree that many states complicate the matter by not updating their codes or protecting sexual expression enough. Some think that sex contracts will not be enforced by courts, and cannot be, due to inherent power imbalances that cannot be separated from them. For a recent Harvard Law Review article on sex contracts, visit their site.

Within BDSM communities, many individuals communicate requests clearly and obtain verbal or written consent for each act precisely because the law is unpredictable about sexual expression. Sex-positive feminists think BDSM is a good model for consent. Please see this earlier post in our blog. Many LGBT and gender queer groups support BDSM because it broadens views on gender. However, it does not eliminate them. In part two, I will discuss whether radical feminists are correct to be concerned about sexism and gender issues in BDSM communities.

Finally, here are two additional resources before I move onto part two: if you want to read several interesting studies on pornography, visit this site. To learn about individuals who do not experience sexual attraction, visit the Asexual Visibility and Education Network.

What is reasonable: current issues in campus sexual assault policy

In Jamil Smith’s piece in the New Republic, he discusses ways in which social figures are proposing we address sexual assault on campus. He highlights two different responses to combatting sexual assault: (1) enacting a “reasonable person” standard to determining whether an act should be considered sexual assault, and (2) enacting conceal-and-carry policies on college campuses as a reasonable way to prevent sexual assault. While both proposals are prone to their own dangers, Smith highlights a fundamental schism in the debate around sexual assault on college campuses: we have no idea what is reasonable.

For example, gun-rights advocates are pushing to legalize firearms on college campuses as a way to prevent sexual assault. Similar bills have been proposed in ten states, and as stated by Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, the logic goes as follows:
If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.
All this argument does is make the victim responsible for preventing their own assault, while refusing to address the patriarchal culture and underlying causes of sexual assault in the first place. Additionally, this argument completely overlooks the fact that if enacted assailants will also get guns, which would even further perpetrate a culture of violence, both sexual and otherwise, on campus.

Additionally, the New York Times piece that discusses these proposals in depth also points to the fact that proponents claim conceal-and-carry laws will prevent school shootings similar to that of Virginia Tech, because faculty and students will also be able to carry. This argument also does not sit well with me. If more people are carry guns, that seems to only lead to even more gun-related accidents, especially given the culture of excessive alcohol and substance consumption that leads to poor choices among many college kids.

How does arming the entire student body do anything to address endemic sexual assault apart from creating a culture of campus violence? How is this a reasonable response? 

Smith also discusses another proposal recently put forth by a New York Times op-ed – to use a “reasonable person” standard when determining whether one is culpable of rape. That is whether a “reasonable person” would consider the accused innocent or guilty.

Given the extreme differences in responses to sexual assault (see conceal-and-carry above), how would there be any consensus on what is a “reasonable person”? Katie Rose Pryal, an attorney interviewed by Smith, stated “The reasonable-person standard kept our legal system oblivious to women and people of color since at least the 1700s.” This captures the idea that there is no universal reasonable person, and the “reasonable person” standard used often comes from a place of power. The perspective of a reasonable person is going to be different from that of a reasonable woman; from that of reasonable male; from that of a reasonable firearm-carrying, white, college-aged student – and all these individual perspectives will further differ based on race and socio-economic status. As author Jessica Valenti stated in an interview with Smith,
We’re not very reasonable when it comes to rape. As a society, we don’t have a reasonable understanding of what rape is, we don’t have reasonable responses—we’re still a culture that overwhelmingly victim-blames. When Steubenville happened, the kid who walked in on the assault said he didn’t know that was rape. Teenagers have gotten the message that you shouldn’t drive drunk, but not that penetrating an unconscious girl is rape.

As a wide-array of campus sexual assault solutions and responses gain media attention, it is even more crucial that a feminist lens is used to analyze sexual violence that disproportionately and endemically affects women nationwide. And considering one in five women are on college campuses are either sexually assaulted or experience an attempted sexual assault, this is first and foremost a women’s issue.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Feminist writers and the cruel internet

A few weeks ago, Professor Lisa Pruitt mentioned that the comments section on this blog is open only to those with an invitation to contribute to the blog. This restriction on comments was placed for good reason. Many feminist activists and bloggers receive backlash and abuse from internet commenters, causing many of them to pull back from writing about feminism online.

For example, Jessica Valenti is a columnist for the Guardian, author of four books on feminism, and founder of the blog Her feminist writing exposes her to constant harassment from internet users. In 2014, she asked a seemingly harmless question on Twitter about women's health: "Twitter friends: Anyone know a country where tampons are free or somehow subsidized?" This question was met with a barrage of abusive answers from Twitter users, such as:
@JessicaValenti here's a thought: get married. Then your husband can pay for it. As long as your putting out.... 
@chelsea_elisa @lizzyf620 @JessicaValenti Yeah, it's called the Middle East where they sew your vagina shut for being a loud mouth.
Valenti admits that if she had the chance to start over, she might prefer to write anonymously, not only because of the "physical safety concerns, but [also] the emotional ramifications" of the non-stop abuse from anti-feminist internet users.

Lindy West, another feminist and a former writer for Jezebel, wrote an article asserting that many male comedians are "careless" with the subject of rape. She too received ample backlash from an internet community that left several obscene and sexually violent comments on her article, punishing her for daring to criticize males and announcing that West deserves to be raped for publishing the article. West stated, "[b]eing insulted and threatened online is part of my job, which is not to say it doesn't hurt. It does. It feels -- well, exactly like you would imagine it would feel to have someone call you a fat cunt every day of your life."

Jaclyn Munson and Lauren Rankin, both pro-choice activists and writers, have stopped writing online altogether, each stating that she feels exhausted from the constant, vicious internet abuse.  Lauren Bruce -- creator of the blog -- is another feminist blogger that has completely pulled back from sharing her feminist ideas on the web, leaving others to run the feminist blog she created.

Although the internet and social media have given feminists new forums in which to discuss such issues as gender and sex equality and female advancement, the internet is also a means by which feminist bloggers are publicly abused, humiliated, and targeted, and their ideas are shot down and demonized.  Because commenting on the internet is often a collaborative effort (in that people can comment on each others' comments) and because comments are posted instantaneously, feminist writers today are more exposed and likely burn out more quickly.  In the past, people needed to send hate-mail through the post -- a slower, less public process.  Feminist writers were not met with multitudes of hateful and abusive messages in a matter of seconds when snail-mail was the only form of communication with the author of the offending article.  Moreover, there was not a gold-mine of personal information available through social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, all of which may include the author's picture and other identifying information.  The internet also potentially allows stalkers and hackers to access writers' more sensitive personal information -- such as banking and social security information, telephone numbers, and addresses.

In an age where men and women alike pay lip-service to gender and sex equality, why does feminist blogging spark such hateful responses among internet users?  Does the anonymity provided by communicating online simply allow people to voice what they're "really" thinking?  Or does the collaborative environment of internet commenting result in internet users "egging" each other on to see who can make the most inflammatory comment?  Do internet users really hate feminists this much, or do they simply make these offensive comments for shock value?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I am curious to see your thoughts.  While it kills me to see these feminist writers backing down in response to internet harassment, I understand the emotional vulnerability that results from nonstop internet abuse, and I can't blame them for protecting themselves by disengaging.  This appears to reinforce the wisdom behind restricting comments on feminist blogs, and/or encouraging feminist writers to write anonymously.  That way, feminists can keep writing without fear of being personally targeted and without exposing their articles, ideas, and selves to endless internet harassment.

For further perspectives on "hate speech" against feminist writers online, read this post.  For a discussion of the potential benefits feminist blogging has on our culture, read this post

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Feminism, memes and Ryan Gosling

-->Although I have identified as a feminist throughout my entire adult life, I had balked at studying feminist theory in depth. Sadly enough, the extent of my exposure to feminist theorists had primarily been the occasional stumbling upon the viral “Feminist Ryan Gosling” memes of years past.
Feminist Ryan Gosling was a satirical blog created and managed by then-gender studies graduate student Danielle Henderson in 2011. Each blog post consisted of (1) a photo of actor Ryan Gosling paired with (2) text that jokingly attributes a quote to the actor. Invariably, the quote would begin with the greeting “Hey girl…” followed by a short message implicating that Gosling was gender equality advocate… as well as perhaps romantically interested in the viewer. Henderson ultimately published a book of such memes with Running Press in 2012 before moving on to other projects.
(Clickable image link to

Surprisingly, last month, there was a resurgence of interest in the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme following the emergence a summer 2014 conference paper by three University of Saskatchewan psychology students (1 PhD student, 1 master's student, and 1 undergraduate student). Their research (albeit on an extremely small sample) linked these memes with a higher endorsement of “socialist” and “radical” feminist principles among men. Their study was more concerned with the power of memes than it was with feminism, or any other type of –ism, but the viral nature of the memes represent educational moments for countless people who may have not otherwise sought out philosophical feminist statements or read feminist theorists.

Exposure to the meme didn’t, however, significantly affect self-identification as a feminist, nor did it significantly increase female endorsement of feminist beliefs. Furthermore, the male subjects were not significantly more supportive of Conservatism, Liberal Feminism, Cultural Feminism and Women of Color Feminism. Nevertheless, the paper concluded that the results “provide initial support for [the] notion that popular Internet memes may also serve as [a] persuasive device for relaying ideological information.”

The study’s methodology certainly doesn’t meet the most rigorous scientific standards, but the findings are interesting nonetheless. Many online reports were relatively conservative (e.g., Pacific Standard’s “Can Feminist Ryan Gosling really make men more Feminist?”), but others opted for a more sensationalist approach (e.g., Glamour Magazine’s “Ryan Gosling is officially good for feminism.”) What does Henderson – Feminist Ryan Gosling’s creator – think?

I don't know if these memes make people more feminist, but at least they're getting a dose of feminism whether they realize it or not.
And, for many, that is good enough. However, it hasn’t escaped notice that the “dose” of feminism is being paired with a young, attractive, white, male romantic lead actor who – as far as I know – hasn’t endorsed any of the feminist beliefs associated with the meme. On her blog’s FAQ page, Henderson explains:
As a black woman who has lived every moment of my black life as a black person in a country that never lets me forget that I’m black (and who has an academic focus on intersectionality, representations of race, and examining the feminist relationship to racism), this is not lost on me. It’s actually quite intentional. That. Is. ALSO. Part. Of. The. Joke.
And the memes clearly are jokes that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Originally, they were little more than humorous derivatives of the Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling Tumblr page. The study by the three Saskatchewan students was similarly begun in jest. So why do the memes seem to be effective in making men more accepting of feminist ideas?

One possible answer is that memes are inherently persuasive tools for indoctrination or education. If so, why are these memes effective on men, but not women? One explanation is that men are simply more receptive to feminism when it comes from other men. That doesn’t sound particularly feminist, but it may be true. The study’s authors have hypothesized that Ryan Gosling may be a particularly effective spokesperson primarily because men tend to perceive him as being successful with women. This perception thereby creates incentives for other heterosexual men to emulate him. Which, to be fair, has already been going on ever since the film The Notebook was released.

So is the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme good for feminism? Is it bad for feminism? The conclusions from the study may offer a mixed bag. To some extent, the memes seem to help “authorize” the female perspective. Furthermore, the memes have certainly increased exposure to feminist beliefs through social media channels. On the other hand, the implicit source of authorization is a man’s endorsement. A pragmatist may not care about the means necessary to the ends she desires, but its unclear to what extent the male test subjects truly internalized the beliefs they claim to accept.

Lastly, though somewhat off-topic, the meme reminded me of a recent CollegeHumor YouTube sketch: "Hate cat calling? Try Blow Up Boyfriend!" The joke commercial advertises a "Blow Up Boyfriend" product with which a woman would receive guaranteed respectful treatment... so long as she carries around an inflatable "man." Cat callers are deterred from harassing women out of their respect for the fake man, as opposed to the real woman. The sketch is embedded above for your enjoyment. Or displeasure.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Are you a feminist? Pop culture’s infatuation with the question (Part II)

In my last post, I discussed my frustration with the “Are you a feminist” question. I noted that the question might add some value, at least in our academic setting, by getting at the individual conceptions of feminism. By identifying and acknowledging our differing perspectives, we can have more fruitful discussions and put ourselves in the best position to tackle the tough questions.

But this question isn’t just asked in the classroom. “Are you a feminist?” has become the go-to interview question for female celebrities. And the value we might see in the classroom doesn’t seem to be as present on the red carpet or the sound stage.

Of course, “feminism” is a complicated term, consisting not only of the differing theories or strands of feminism that technically define it, but also of social connotations and misconceptions. Jessica Contrera, of the Washington Post, notes the complexity of our pop culture discussion:

The question — why it’s being asked and how stars are answering it — is deeply complicated by a seemingly large divide between the label of “feminism” and the ideals that feminists say they represent.
In this sense, “Are you a feminist?” has become a kind of litmus test for female celebrities, where their answer justifies social reverence or criticism. Much like the self-definitional problem we saw in the classroom, the perceived definition of feminism plays a critical role. Many celebrity answers feed popular misconceptions about feminism: Lady Gaga and Shailene Woodley, for example, say that they are not feminists because they love men. These kinds of answers focus on the social connotation and serve to reinforce the notion that feminism is about hating men. Unfortunately, given the strength of social connotation, these answers can resonate with women.

Contrera suggests that our focus on this question could be seen a positive step toward a key social shift as we define “yes” as the default answer. She asserts that the publicity around the ever important “because…” statement explaining why female celebrities identify as feminists will shift focus to an equality definition, which combats misconceptions and encourages others to the question in the affirmative.

Amanda Hess, writing for Slate, in a piece describing the varied history this question has had, however criticizes this shift in focus. According to Hess, as more celebrities shift to a default yes, proclaiming oneself to be a feminist loses some of its meaning and significance – “the word has now been flattened into a press tour sound bite.”

From my perspective, the danger of the question is that it creates yet another catch-22 for female celebrities. With any answer she risks alienating fans that do not agree and, no matter what she says, her answer is bound to make headlines. Simply consider the media coverage around answers from Kelly Clarkson, Meagan Trainor, Amy Poehler, and Ellen Page, to name only a few.

It seems that asking “Are you a feminist?” has become a way to laud celebrities that have the right reason for being a feminist, where “right” is defined as the most socially acceptable or palatable form of feminism. In distilling feminism to, as Hess states, “its most benign interpretation,” we may devalue the movement and rob female celebrities of the value we find when we ask that question in the classroom. These celebrities miss the opportunity to explore differing approaches to feminism and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to get at the deeper issues.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Is the freezer really women’s liberator? Part II: The cold truth: Egg freezing may not be all it is cracked up to be.

In my last post I talked about the buzz that egg freezing is getting lately. Part of the reason for the press attention is that in January 2013 the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART) lifted the experimental label they had placed on egg freezing (oocyte cryopreservation) just five years earlier. While sperm and embryos (fertilized eggs) have been successfully frozen for decades, egg freezing has long been problematic. Using the traditional slow freezing technique, ice crystals form during the freezing process which can rupture the cell membrane and cause cellular destruction. However, the development of vitrification, a flash-freezing process using cyroprotectants, has significantly improved survival rates for frozen eggs.

While science has advanced the ability to preserve an egg, the process of extracting them from a women’s body is still difficult. The process of egg-freezing requires women to go through the same initial procedures used to harvest eggs for IVF. A woman must inject herself with follicle stimulating hormones (FSH) on a daily basis for a period of approximately two to three weeks to hyperstimulate her ovaries to produce multiple ova. Then the woman is placed under IV sedation, and a reproductive endocrinologist uses a needle to extract the eggs from the ovaries.

This is an invasive process. The side effects of the drugs administered during the egg retrieval process include headache, fatigue and bloating. They are also associated with a serious, although rare, condition called ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS). Many of these medications have never been tested and approved by the FDA for this type of fertility use, leading many critics of IVF to argue that more research is needed to determine whether such hormones injections are safe for women.

Egg freezing was originally developed to preserve fertility in cancer patients. For women of reproductive age facing cancer treatment who do not have the option of freezing embryos, egg freezing can preserve their ability to carry a genetically related child in the future. The type of egg freezing is done out of medical necessity and is referred to as medical egg freezing. 

Egg freezing has become more widely used though. The potential for deferred child-bearing is alluring and women without medical need are now using it to avoid future infertility at a later age, a term called “social egg freezing.” Crucially though, the newly released ASRM and SART guidelines explicitly state that while the technology may appear to be an attract strategy for women to have biologic children later in life, 
Marketing [egg-freezing] technology for the purpose of deferring childbearing may give women false hope. There are not yet sufficient data to recommend oocyte cryopreservation for the sole purpose of circumventing reproductive aging in healthy women because there is no data to support the safety, efficacy, ethics, emotional risks, and cost-effectiveness of oocyte cryopreservation for this indication. In addition, while the data are reassuring at this point, it is too soon to conclude that the incidence of anomalies and developmental abnormalities of children born from cryopreserved oocytes is similar to those born from cryopreserved embryos… More data are needed before this technology should be used routinely.
There are multiple reasons why egg-freezing for social reasons is problematic. First off, the statistics are not promising. According to author Miriam Zoll,
The most comprehensive data available reveals a 77 percent failure rate of frozen eggs resulting in a live birth in women aged 30, and a 91 percent failure rate in women aged 40. For a 38 year old woman, the chance of one frozen egg leading to a live birth is only 2 to 12 percent.
Another major concern with egg freezing is that the Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) field, of which egg freezing is a part of, is not well regulated. The Centers of Disease Control (CDC) publish statistics that ART clinics voluntary provide, but otherwise the industry is self-policed. As a result of this lax regulatory structure, there can be considerable variance in the type and extent of information given to patients when they go an ART clinic. As Seema Mohapatra points out in her article for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, this creates a problem with informed consent for patients seeking social egg freezing. When a woman undergoes egg freezing she may be giving up her opportunity to have a child without medical intervention. Therefore, it is crucial that she be made aware of the risks and likelihood of success. The problem with egg freezing is that much of this information is unknown. Thus, to ensure true informed consent is given, a comprehensive list of the unknowns should be provided to women undergoing social egg freezing. Currently there is no such policy.

Finally, there is the issue of cost. The costs involved with social egg freezing makes the procedure unobtainable for most women. The initial egg retrieval procedure itself can cost between $5,000 and $20,000 per cycle. It is recommended that a woman freeze between ten and twenty-five eggs to provide a chance at pregnancy later. Therefore, depending on the women’s situation, she may need or wish to repeat the procedure multiple times. On top of this cost, there is a fee for yearly storage of the eggs. Currently the fee is approximately $500 - $800 per year. Finally, once the woman is ready to thaw and use the frozen eggs, there are additional costs associated with the IVF procedure required to have the eggs implanted. Altogether, it is estimated to cost an average of $40,000 to have your eggs frozen, stored, and then later implanted.

As June Carbone & Naomi Cahn explain in their article, The Gender/Class Divide: Reproduction, Privilege, and the Workplace, the high costs associated with social egg freezing leads to a troubling class divide and a shift in workplace equality. In my final post in this series, I will discuss how egg freezing as an employer benefit fits into this discussion.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The deinstitutionalization of marriage

In response to this recent blog post’s critical look at the purpose of marriage, and many in class discussions regarding women’s role as caregiver in heterosexual relationships (and subsequent blog posts on related topics here, here, and here), it might be useful to highlight another approach to addressing women’s role as caregiver -- an approach that abandons the traditional, antiquated concept of marriage.

In Martha Fineman’s The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies, she discusses the role of dominant institutions, such as marriage, as being to blame for gender subordination. Fineman says marriage, as a dominant social institution, fails to support caregiving activities historically associated with women. Instead, caregiving has been privatized to culturally normalize the nuclear family, so that the predominant patterns of gender subordination, such as caregiving, become the responsibility of women. 

Fineman’s solutions to these problems include both re-educating public institutions so they acknowledge the burden of caregiving, and also restructuring the family dyad through the deinstitutionalization of marriage. In terms of restructuring the family dyad, she argues family, through marriage, is structured around the sexual dyad, so that a sexual union between two adult individuals is used to define the family. She instead argues to conceptualize the family unit by restructuring it around a caregiver-dependent dyad—for example, mother-child dyad or any other caregiver-dependent dyad. Fineman claims marriage should be eliminated as a state institution, and the state’s interest should be in the unit of social work that most needs supporting – giving state benefits to caregiving relationships rather than sexual relationships.

This type of deinstitutionalization of marriage is not unfamiliar to political theorists or feminist scholars. Tamara Metz, citing Fineman, succinctly describes a model for the deinstitutionalization of marriage in which the state would neither confer marital status, nor use 'marriage' as a category for dispensing benefits. Legitimate public welfare goals currently addressed through marriage would be addressed through an intimate caregiving union status.

Additionally, abandoning the state’s role in regulating marriage and dispersing benefits to caregiving dyads would also prove beneficial in “queering” the concept of family
Queering the family refers to giving more legitimacy to unconventional, non-nuclear families common among the LGBT community who had been previously excluded from traditional family structures. This includes questioning how institutionalized heterosexuality, through marriage, ensures that some people will have more power, privilege, status, and resources than others. Queering the family would also protect other types of unconventional family bonds in which members of extended family, as well as non-blood kin, participate in childcare and family responsibilities. Currently, the institution of marriage does not value this kind of non-marital parenting, but rather protects the integrity of heterosexual marriage, by disregarding unconventional family bonds.

Child Cost (Part 2): Parental Leave

As great as I think the system of maternity leave is, it is not yet fully satisfying and it could be improved by a parental leave system.

A paid parental leave is a set amount of time that two parents can allocate between themselves after the birth of a child. One of the downsides, but also one of the strengths of the parental leave, is precisely that it will be based on the choice of the parents. The mother, the father, or both, can take the leave, simultaneously or not. For instance, if there is a parental leave of 6 months, the mother and the father can take 3 months each. They also can decide that the mother will take 5 months and the father one month or that only one of them will stay with the baby during the entire leave.

Single mothers can take the whole leave. And families that want to live in a traditional way where the woman take all of the leave can still do it.

There are two principal reasons why I advocate establishing such a parental leave.

First, women are still doing much more than men in the matter of household chores in the family. However, young couples seem to have a more egalitarian distribution of the tasks; a lot of things change at the arrival of a baby. By establishing a link between father and children as soon as possible, the father should naturally become more involved in child care going forward.

As women carry all the burden of child caring, we could find some more radical means to make men involved in it (for instance, a mandatory paternity leave). Parental leave is actually not one of these radical means, because it is a soft measure. More and more men nowadays want to be involved in the care and education of their children. Parental leave that is not mandatory for men, will simply let the possibility for some fathers to access that.

The second point I want to talk about is linked to a characteristic of women. But before I go on, let me say that “Cultural Feminism” does not convince me, simply because most of the time, as I am reading characteristics that women are supposed to have, I do not see them in my own personality. Furthermore, I find them in a lot of my male friends’ personalities. Neither I think that biology has such still a huge impact in every aspects of life. However, some biological characteristics should be taken into account, and the recovering need of the body after delivery is one of them.

A friend of mine, a medical school graduate, told me about his experience as a volunteer in Guinea. After giving birth, women there must rest. They focus in feeding the baby and resting in order for their body to recover. Other members of the family (generally mother, grandmother, sisters) assume most part of the care given to the children, except feeding. In our occidental society, the presence of other members of the family is rarer nowadays. But physical tiredness still exists. In this sense, and in order to compensate the absence of other members of the family, the involvement of the father could really help during the first days following birth, a stressful and difficult period even when there is no post partum depression.

I also found a significant number of articles mentioning researches that demonstrate the benefits of the mother-newborn relationship at the beginning of their lives. I am pretty sure that the father-child relationship has some great benefits, too, at least the one to build a strong link between them that will lead to more implication of fathers in matters of child caring.

However the support of the father could be important in the first days after birth, most of the couples will try to optimize their leave. They will generally not take the leave in the same time, in order for the child to spend longer time with one of the parent.

Moreover, the choice of the parents will actually not be a true one, because it is linked with other aspects. Indeed, money will be most of the time a decisive factor. As women’s salaries are still not equal to men’s salaries everything else being equal, neither the assessment of “typically” feminine jobs, the decision will probably be made by the couple relatively to the higher salary. So it may not help as well as a more coercive measure, but it will at least let men who consider paternity as something important and valuable to be a part of child care and rearing.

Parental paid leave may be considered as a feature of formal equality, in the sense that the law will show that there is no reason to treat men and women in a different way. As a measure that can be considered as tending to formal equality, it could be addressed the same reproach than previously, namely that women are fighting for men to benefit from some advantages which only women had. But from my point of view, it will benefit women and children, also, even if it’s in an indirect way.

Moreover, I find it deeply fair that men have the same right as women to take care of their children, because as most of the feminists, my goal is to reach equality among human beings. At the end, everybody wins from this improvement, children, men and women. And I hope that at the time of a pregnancy, my family could benefit from such a system.

What is marriage?

What is marriage? I think it appropriate to attempt to answer this question, especially within the context of a forum that seeks to dissect gender inequality and sexism. Is marriage a necessary feature of human existence? Or, is it the product of a particular set of historical conditions? In what way does marriage relate to the subordination of women? Is it related to this subordination?

I pose these questions because they are really the only questions worth answering for those who are concerned with attaining gender equality. So, I must say that in answering this question and the others throughout this post, I am grappling with theoretical concepts. In doing so, I am attempting to spark a dialectic between myself and the reader; perhaps in the process we can enlighten each other and strengthen our conceptions of that which is taken for granted.

Marriage is not an essential feature of the human condition. I believe that its existence is entirely socially and historically contingent. That is to say that it came into existence at a particular juncture in human history. It is quite possible that at some other juncture marriage will disappear altogether. Indeed, nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, which were grounded upon sharing and equal distribution, were bereft of any concept of gender hierarchy, monogamy, or marriage. I posit that it was only at that mysterious period in human history when private property came into being that marriage became a seemingly essential facet of the human experience. Because marriage is, at its core, a property relationship, I believe that marriage is inextricably related to the subordination of women.

I could attempt to provide an exhaustive depiction of the origins of marriage, but that would prove to be impossible and impractical. What I can say is that marriage is surely the product of a point in history that was unabashedly patriarchal and sexist. A brief glance at historical texts will reveal that marriage was simply a contractual relationship wherein a particular male owned a particular female. This brings up an interesting question. Are contemporary marriages still of that same nature? Have they changed in any way?

I posit that contemporary marriage, at its essence, remains the same as marriage from the past. At least, this is the case for the vast majority of woman. Obviously, the world is populated with billions of people. I often feel that when we discuss issues such as this one, we often forget to maintain a sense of perspective concerning the immensity of the human populace. People in Sub-Saharan Africa, or South East Asia, or South Central Los Angeles, or South Dakota, are compelled to live in social conditions vastly different from our middle-of-the-road, middle class ones. They live under conditions of almost unimaginable poverty. For them, the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population, today’s marriage is no different in nature than marriage at the beginning of the twentieth century. A man, on account of barbaric constructs of patriarchy, is purchasing a woman. With that come the incidental features of these marriages: domestic violence, rape, psychological abuse, and economic inequality. I believe Obama’s recorded message at last night’s Grammys substantiates this fact.

On the other hand, a small minority of women have made a great deal of progress. Upper class women, after a century-long political struggle, have attained for themselves a level of relative parity. Of course, complete parity has not been attained, but upper class women have come a long way in terms of attaining the hot commodities of bargaining power and economic maneuverability. For them, marriage may live up more to the fancifully romantic, albeit hypocritical, illustrations of Hollywood and other media. For the most part, marriage for them is simply a means to avoid complete loneliness at old age by permanently aligning with one particular individual. And/or, it is a wise business decision.

In writing all this, I am not attempting to target marriage as the fundamental culprit behind woman’s subordination. I am not attempting to paint a picture wherein women should abandon marriage, or sex, or heterosexuality, altogether in order to liberate themselves from patriarchy. I think that is an idealistic way—as opposed to a way that focuses on the material basis of things—of dealing with the issues I have broached. Marriage is a necessary product of patriarchy, which is a necessary product of private ownership. As such, it follows that in order for women to be liberated from patriarchy and its features, disenfranchised peoples should aim at deconstructing the economic substructure of things. One can definitely choose not to marry, or abstain from sex, or become a political lesbian, but those are ultimately personal decisions of identity, which ultimately have no affect on the broader state of affairs. I only entreat that we do not lose sight of the forest on account of being fixated on the trees.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Pretty vs. power: how the sexualization of female athletes is twirling out of control

Recently, after a big win at the Australian Open (one of the four most important tournaments in professional tennis), a rising star was asked to twirl. Eugenie Bouchard, who is ranked number seven in the world for women’s professional tennis, was asked by a male reporter to “Give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit.” When she questionably responded “a twirl?”, the male interviewer replied, “A twirl, like a pirouette, here you go.Sigh. While she did it rather uncomfortably – awkwardly laughing and burying her face – she still agreed. Mind you, this incredible player had just handily won her match to advance to the next round of a world renowned tournament. I guess the reporter thought that was unimportant compared to her neon pink Nike dress, right?

I wish I could say tennis was the only sport where this happens and that the sexualization of female athletes was not a growing problem. Sadly, that’s not the case. I recently asked a male colleague to name women in various professional sports. Tennis? Anna Kournikova. Softball? Jenny Finch. Soccer? Hope Solo. Skiing? Jenny Vonn. Volleyball? “The two pretty girls who won the Olympics.” When I asked what stood out about these athletes, it was not their fierce competitive natures or incredible athletic skills. Nope, not at all. Rather, he only knew of them because of their physical attractiveness and social activities covered by the media.

For the most part, boys grow up observing male athletes who are presented as skillful, confident, and successful. These children then have someone to look up to and something to aspire to. Unfortunately, the media does not present young girls with the same idols. While male athletes most often receive attention regarding their skilled performances, female athletes are often mentioned for their beauty or non-athletic activities. General research shows that media often focuses on female athletes as sexual beings, instead of heroic athletes like their male counterparts. Further, this focus on athletes’ attractiveness ultimately robs these females of athletic legitimacy.

Anna Kournikova is one of the best examples of this depressing phenomenon. During her career, she never won a major professional tennis tournament but was well known in the athletic world because of her beauty. However, without any major wins under her belt, she was still one of (only) six women ranked among the most important people in sports. Maria Sharapova, another tennis player, also has received more media attention regarding her attractiveness rather than her skills on the court. While Maria (unlike Anna) was once the number one female player in the world, research shows that commentators almost always comment on her appearance when reporting on her athletic endeavors. As I mentioned earlier, tennis isn’t the only sport where this happens. Marion Jones’s Olympic fame took the opposite road – the media portrayed her as assertive, muscular, and often “unfeminine.” Because of this, the most photographed female that during the Sydney Olympics was instead a part-time model and high jumper, Amy Acuff, despite Jones's incredible victories.

While it may be difficult (and even impossible) to restrict how the media portrays women athletes, these individuals need take control when possible. When Eugenie was asked to twirl, she did it – albeit awkwardly and embarrassed, she still complied. Several days earlier, tennis powerhouse Serena Williams had also been requested to twirl. Instead of complying, she simply noted life was too short and that she just didn’t really want to twirl. She further stated she did not want to comment on whether this was sexist and then went on to say she always twirls anyway after her matches while she thanks the crowd. Sigh. What will it take for a female athlete to deny the request and also say how inappropriate it is? While individuals are outraged and saying that no one would ask the same question to male counterparts, why don't the players feel the same?

At the end of the day, I don’t care what Eugenie (or any competitor) is wearing on the court -- and let’s be honest, if I really did, I would google it. When it comes down to it, I don’t want an athlete spinning around on the court at the request of a reporter to see how her dress flares and how cute she looks. I don’t want athletes like Marion Jones to be punished by the media for being strong and “unfeminine”. I don’t want players, like Anna Kournikova, to become outrageously popular only because they are “sexy.” And I certainly don’t want females like Serena to casually avoid the issues of sexism they face both on the court and by the media. What I do want and what we need is for society to start demanding that athletic ability trump attractiveness and for females to gain actual legitimacy as professional athletes.