Monday, June 29, 2009

The Skin Won't Lie

I've been thinking a lot about authenticity lately, and for a number of reasons. Socially conservative politicians who defy the very heteronormative family framework that they so enjoy shoving down everyone else's throats make me think about authenticity. Watching a beautiful teenager, who grew into a man who could not stand his appearance or feel acceptable for even one day in his life, sing about not having to change at all makes me think about authenticity. And feminists who routinely fail to be inclusive make me think about authenticity.

But lately, it's my skin that really has me thinking about authenticity. I have very sensitive skin. People who don't know my skin and the shenanigans it can pull admire it. They think I'm lucky to have such a clear complexion and such delicate, young-looking skin. That's because they don't know how treacherous my skin can be. First of all, my skin is allergic to everything. Everything. Second, it doesn't make calluses. Think about that for a minute. The skin on my feet will blister and peel repeatedly rather than just making a callus already. The palms of my hands were reduced to a bloody pulp during three long seasons of crew rowing, and nary a callus in sight. And every few years my skin decides to follow up an allergy attack with a particularly bad case of eczema, which is practically incurable without resorting to the dangerous, toxic medical remedies available. So I've spent a lot of time resenting my skin.

But lately, in the middle of my current allergy/eczema attack in which the backs of my hands and my arms up to the elbow are covered in a fiery red rash with dry flaky patches and an incredible itch, I find myself gaining a new perspective on all of this. I think my skin is simply refusing to lie. There are things in my environment that are toxic, and my skin is not going to lie about it. Further, stress can cause eczema flare-ups and slow the healing process, and I'm under a lot of stress right now. So when you take the physical and social toxins in my environment into account, it would make less sense for my skin to be all healthy and clear right now. In fact, it would be a facade, a fake presentation, a lie. So as I continue to apply the natural remedies and gentle, toxin-free lotions and creams, and protect my skin from the mosquito repellant and chlorine that started this whole bout, I refuse to berate my skin the way I did when I was younger. It's authentic. It's telling the truth.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Video of the Day

The Social Repositioning of the "Stay at Home Dad"

From Daddy Dialectic:

Here's the important thing: During the Great Depression, unemployment would destroy men. They were told that money was all they had to contribute to their families; if employment vanished, they saw themselves as worthless. They couldn't become "stay-at-home dads" because that role did not exist. Few mothers worked and fewer earned enough to support families. Today, most moms work and we can say to unemployed fathers: you still have value to your family, they need for you to see to their well-being.

That's a message that a decade's worth of voluntary stay-at-home dads can send to today's laid-off dads. That's something men need to hear right now, that they can play caregiving as well as breadwinning roles in their families.


Ling and Lee

With all the other events filling the news cycle, it's easy to forget about stories like this. But the world needs more reporters who go off the beaten path and cover the lives of prisoners and refugees. So I'm doing my best to remember Laura Ling and Euna Lee every day that they're held.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

How It Happened

It all makes so much more sense now...

From Married to the Sea, the Champaign of Comics

Supreme Court: Strip Searching 13 y/o Girl Was Illegal

The Supreme Court has ruled 8-1 that the strip search of Savana Redding, which was motivated by rumors that she had two Ibuprofen pills in her possession, was illegal. The dissenting justice? Clarence Thomas, of course. However, the majority did rule that the vice principal who ordered the search could not be held liable for it, while Stevens and Ginsburg dissented from that opinion, noting that ordering the search was "abusive" and that he should have known it was not legally permissible.

Parenting and the Construction of Gender

Rebecca wrote about this story yesterday, and I must say I'm loving it, although it makes me sad that I don't have this degree of control over the gender influences in my own kids' lives. According to the article:

A couple of Swedish parents have stirred up debate in the country by refusing to reveal whether their two-and-a-half-year-old child is a boy or a girl.

Pop’s parents, both 24, made a decision when their baby was born to keep Pop’s sex a secret. Aside from a select few – those who have changed the child’s diaper – nobody knows Pop’s gender; if anyone enquires, Pop’s parents simply say they don’t disclose this information.

In an interview with newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in March, the parents were quoted saying their decision was rooted in the feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction.

“We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It's cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”

The child's parents said so long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.

Pop's wardrobe includes everything from dresses to trousers and Pop's hairstyle changes on a regular basis. And Pop usually decides how Pop is going to dress on a given morning.

Although Pop knows that there are physical differences between a boy and a girl, Pop's parents never use personal pronouns when referring to the child – they just say Pop.

"I believe that the self-confidence and personality that Pop has shaped will remain for a lifetime," said Pop's mother.

Of course, this kind of openness about gender just can't go on without invoking much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching.

“Ignoring children's natures simply doesn’t work,” says Susan Pinker, a psychologist and newspaper columnist from Toronto, Canada, who wrote the book The Sexual Paradox, which focuses on sex differences in the workplace.

“Child-rearing should not be about providing an opportunity to prove an ideological point, but about responding to each child’s needs as an individual,” Pinker tells The Local.

“It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to keep this a secret for long. Children are curious about their own identity, and are likely to gravitate towards others of the same sex during free play time in early childhood.”

Pinker says there are many ways that males and females differ from birth; even if gender is kept ‘secret,’ prenatal hormones developed in the second trimester of pregnancy already alter the way the child behaves and feels.

She says once children can speak, males tell aggressive stories 87 per cent of the time, while females only 17 per cent. In a study, children aged two to four were given a task to work together for a reward, and boys used physical tactics 50 times more than girls, she says.

There are so many issues here it's difficult to decide which one to respond to first. So here goes.
  1. From the description in the article, it sounds like Pop's parents are doing the opposite of "ignoring Pop's nature." Allowing Pop to explore the world in Pop's own way and discover what Pop likes, what tendencies Pop has, etc. is simply allowing Pop's nature to flourish. In other words, they're responding to Pop's needs "as an individual," rather than as a gendered child. On the other hand, forcing a child into one box or the other does count as ignoring their nature. Telling a child that some behaviors are appropriate for them based on their genitalia, while other behaviors are off limits is ignoring their nature. And shaming them for having any characteristics or propensities or preferences that don't fit into the little box to which they've been assigned is "ignoring their nature." Got it lady? Moving on...
  2. As anyone who's read any Lacan or Irigaray or other reasonable thinkers in the psychoanalytic tradition knows, culture is acquired with language. And with culture comes gender. Yes, one acquires their niche in the patriarchy as they acquire language. By the time a child can speak well enough to tell aggressive or non-aggressive stories, they've been socialized into our compulsory system of binary gender. So that means they know good and well which kind of behavior (aggressive or passive) they're supposed to engage in and how competitive or empathetic they're supposed to be. It's already been communicated to them in a million little ways.
  3. By the time a kid is socially sophisticated enough to work with others for an award, they're profoundly socialized. So it's hard to make any sense of this whole "from birth" shtick. None of the gendered behaviors that the ironically named Ms. Pinker cites as evidence of our different natures "from birth" would actually qualify as evidence of difference in any study which controlled for things like, oh, say, socialization.
  4. Ms Pinker's expertise doesn't really seem relevant to very small children, as she writes on gendered workplace dynamics, and presumably anyone who's old enough to enter the workplace has been thoroughly socialized and gendered by their culture.

Beyond the annoying Ms. Pinkers of the world, I would suspect that the parents of Pop will continue to encounter confusion, disapproval, and hostility by the people they interact with every day. I've been asked before whether I'm afraid my daughter will grow up to be a lesbian because I often dress her in "boy" (i.e. not pink or ruffly) clothes and don't insist that she play with girl toys and act girly. My response is "why would not being forced to be girly make her a lesbian, and why would I be upset if she was a lesbian?" This just always serves as a conversation-stopper, since the other person is never willing to explicitly state the things they've just implied.

And this is all very ironic, because all of the gay and trans people I know were raised in a conventional way. My cousin and I were treated no differently where gender is concerned, but she decided at the age of 32 that she could no longer live as a man. In fact, she grew up in a more conservative part of the country than I did. So I don't get this fear that not strictly indoctrinating your kids into a rigid gender construct is going to lead to homosexuality or being transgendered. But it also seems like the people who believe this are so committed to it that pointing out this fact won't change their minds. In my experience, anyway.

On the other hand, I can understand how a parent could be accepting of gay people themselves, and trans people themselves, without wanting their children to grow up to be gay or trans. After all, that means a life of social stigma and physical risk, and nobody wants that for their kid. On the other hand, being stuffed into a box which doesn't fit you isn't the kind of life you would wish for your kids either. So I guess my future response to questions or comments that suggest I'm putting my kids at risk by allowing them the freedom to negotiate gender in their own way will be "I hope they will be happy, well-adjusted, autonomous adults, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity." And what more can you hope for?

Health Care Reform

If you have a minute, and feel so inclined, click here to sign a petition on health care reform. In this case the insurance lobby, and the medical-industrial-complex in general, seems so powerful that I have a hard time remaining optimistic about the end result of this legislative process. But I do think that the more signatures on these types of petitions, the more likely it is that the voters will be heard amongst the lobbying clamor. It's a long shot, but worth the 10 seconds it takes to sign.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Employment Non-Discrimination Act

Barney Frank has just introduced a new version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the House which seeks

    1. to provide a comprehensive Federal prohibition of employment discrimination
      on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity;
    2. to provide meaningful and effective remedies for employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity; and
    3. to invoke congressional powers, including the powers to enforce the 14th amendment to the Constitution, and to regulate interstate commerce and provide for the general welfare pursuant to section 8 of article I of the Constitution, in order to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The full text of the Act can be read here, and The National Center for Transgender Equality has more info and an action toolkit here. Also, if you wish to email your representatives directly, click here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Happy National Pollinator Week

"Declines in the health and population of pollinators in North America and globally pose what could be a significant threat to the integrity of biodiversity, to global food webs, and to human health. A number of pollinator species are at risk."
Read more here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Follow the Money

There's a fabulous piece on FiveThirtyEight right now illustrating the relationship between special interest money and legislative attitudes - regarding health care reform in this case. Check it:
And the very existence of such a powerful lobby reiniforces what we all already know - the medical industry exists first and foremost to make money. Big money. You health and well-being? Possibly a secondary concern. If you're lucky.

Privilege in Action

Many other bloggers have already posted on this story of an immigrant mother whose child was taken from her because
  • The "baby was born to an illegal [sic] immigrant;"
  • The "mother had not purchased a crib, clothes, food or formula." (Most Latina mothers breast feed their babies).
  • "She does not speak English which puts baby in danger."
These were the reasons cited by the social worker for removing the child for placement with a wealthy couple. So these reasons have been bumping around in my head and causing me to reflect on my own experience bringing a baby home. I had not purchased a crib, formula, or baby food either. I did have a sturdy little bassinet that fit right next to my bed for easy night feedings which I acquired from Freecycle, and which has now gone on its way to the next little one via Freecycle. I didn't have any baby food at home, since babies don't actually eat solid food until around 6 months, and when she did start on solids I simply made my own baby food. And I had no formula (except for the loads of free samples that were foisted on me at the hospital) because I was breastfeeding exclusively. But I took my baby home with me in spite of my epic failure to participate in the baby-industrial-complex. Because I'm white and speak English.

Please call or write to the judge and/or the Department of Human Services that are involved in this case:
Honorable Judge Sharon Sigalas
Youth Justice Court of Jackson County
4903 Telephone Rd.
Pascagoula, MS 39567

Children's Justice Act Program
MS Dept. of Human Services
750 North State Street
Jackson, MS 39202
Call (601)359-4499 and ask for Barbara Proctor

Friday, June 19, 2009

Why I Wanna Be Like my Dad

First, I have to say that I'm really lucky to have really great (albeit flawed) parents. When you enter adulthood with a solid set of life skills, a sense of confidence based on a realistic view of your strengths and weaknesses, and a fairly healthy approach to life and relationships in general, I think you can count yourself among those who were privileged with great parents. That being said, my relationship with my mom wasn't always the greatest, and is still occasionally strained. She's very religious and committed to all the conventional gender mythology to the point where my views and choices tend to leave her absolutely baffled and speechless. And occasionally (especially when I was younger) this has led to some completely unproductive arguments between us. However, living halfway across the country has largely resolved the tension between us, and having a kid has been the best diversionary tactic I ever came up with. Really, I highly recommend it.

On a more serious note, I've always been closer to my dad, and some recent events in our extended family have highlighted to me some of the reasons I respect my dad so much. So just in time for Father's Day, here are some thoughts on why I wanna by like my dad.

My dad is well-educated and thoughtful. Moreover, he has an opinion on everything, and a story to go with it. Seriously, this guy can talk. On the other hand, he also knows when to keep his mouth shut and how to be very tactful. He refuses to burn bridges with those he loves, regardless of the nature or extent of the disagreement. I often wonder if he didn't internalize the advice my great grandmother gave when asked on her 90th birthday by a reporter from the local newspaper on what her secret was to having successfully survived the Depression with 13 children and a healthy intact marriage. She said "I've always found that the most important thing in a relationship is knowing when to keep your mouth shut." I've spent a bit of my feminist life pondering that advice, and I'm sure I'll have something to say on it in a later post. But in some regards, I do think my dad internalized this advice, although maybe he absorbed it directly from her throughout his childhood.

Recently my grandmother (the oldest of the 13) had to move into an assisted living facility, which caused a great deal of scrambling and stress. My dad, who lives in a different part of the country from her, spoke with her several times regarding what she wanted and then flew back for several weeks to help her investigate the options. She was leaning toward the small assisted living home in her old home town, where she lived for most of her life and still has many friends. But just as he started to make the arrangements, my aunt and cousins, who live in a nearby city and had not been particularly helpful up to that point, jumped in and moved her to a large facility in the city closer to them, claiming that my dad was trying to take control for some selfish motives. In fact, he was trying to take control, but only because nobody else was really doing anything. This isn't terribly surprising, since this part of my family has a penchant for manufacturing drama and getting into feuds with each other that sometimes result in a mutual silent treatment that can go on for years. So I wrote it off as some manufactured drama, and my dad sort of silently let it drop, refusing to take the bait and be drawn into the drama. Meanwhile my grandma seems to have adjusted to her current living situation just fine.

But now the issue of her house is becoming a problem, as it is badly in need of repair, and continues to drain her finances each month that it sits empty. Last week my dad went back again to begin making repairs and hire some local help. The locks had been changed by my cousin, and my aunt had told another relative that she wouldn't allow my dad to sell the house, even though everyone (except my aunt) agrees that this would preserve the most money for my grandma's care and a possible inheritance. If the house is rented, Medicare gets every penny and the family still has to pay the taxes and insurance, whereas if it's sold they can invest the money. It's a no-brainer, right? At any rate, my dad is the executor of the trust (or whatever you call it for a trust), so he lawfully broke into the house and commenced repairs. On the same visit he went out to breakfast with my aunt and her family to celebrate her birthday, but said nothing about the locks being changed or the work he was doing on the house. Somehow he managed to be loving and tactful in the face of the attempts to stir up drama and the aggression toward him while still trying to accomplish the work that needs to be done. And by all accounts, everyone had a pleasant visit.

And that's what I love about my dad. He won't compromise his values or goals, but still manages to maintain good relationships with those he loves in spite of petty baiting and fairly direct insults (on the part of my aunt and two cousins), or some very fundamental differences in worldview (between him and his kids, for example). And he's absolutely resolute and imperturbable in this. He simply will not engage in any exchange that damages relationships, even as he holds fast to his own views and quietly insists on maintaining a civil and warm connection. And this doesn't preclude the possibility of thoughtful conversation and vigorous debate on issues of disagreement, which most people in my family love to engage in. But he will not allow it to become personal or nasty. I've watched as this approach enables his relationships to weather all kinds of storms through the years, and to me, this is the embodiment of character and integrity. And this is how I wanna be like my dad.

What's In A Word?

The latest review of same-sex bonding behavior in the animal kingdom out of UC Riverside has produced a flurry of discussion on the topic. And in almost all of these stories, the animals in question are being referred to as "gay," "homosexual," "lesbian," and "bisexual." And this research is interesting and informative and helpful in breaking down the whole "alternative lifestyles are unnatural" shtick. But I have an issue with the phrasing. Referring to animals with this terminology is problematic in that it overlooks the ways in which being homosexual or bisexual is a socially constructed identity for humans. And in fact, this points to the way that the terminology is problematic as applied to humans as well.

If you trace a genealogy* of the term "homosexual," you'll discover that the terminology and the concept as a noun rather than a verb only came into existence in the late nineteenth century. Which isn't to say that same-sex sexual activity didn't meet with varying degrees of disapproval and social stigma prior to this time. The point is just that engaging in same-sex encounters was not thought to say anything about a person, to determine their character or nature in any way, to influence their propensities and tastes and political views and talents and personality and social status and career choice in any way. Because in this worldview, sexual activity was just that - one activity among many others - rather than a defining characteristic that made you into one of "those" kinds of people.

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault notes that in ancient Greece and Rome, people were not divided up by whom they were sexually attracted to/active with, leaving them free to love beautiful people, regardless of which type of body they inhabited. This view of Foucault's seems a bit overly idealized, given the fact that the sexuality of women and slaves wasn't even factored in, and for men there was a great deal of policing in terms of whether one preferred to be the active (penetrating) or passive (penetrated) partner. And in fact, preferring to be the passive partner was thought to indicate some degree of moral degradation and lack of character on the part of mature males, but not anywhere near the kind of defining characteristic sexual preference is thought to be in our culture. And of course, Foucault's point remains that the gender of the bodies you were attracted to was thought to be utterly irrelevant to any other facts about you.

Contrast this worldview with our current view that homosexuality is a state of being, an identity that one inhabits, a lifestyle that one lives, etc. And when you start to think about it this way, it seems really odd. Out of all the activities we engage in every day, why is this particular activity supposed to generate so much of your character and personality? Out of all the preferences and physical and psychological features of a person, why is this one thought to be so central and so influential on one's nature? And once you become aware of the sort of randomness of this method of dividing up the population, and the historical contingency of the category, it becomes pretty clear that homosexuality, as an identity and a character type, is a social construction. That's not to say that people aren't born with varying sexual preferences, or that homosexual people as a social and political group don't exist. The point is that without this particular social construction and the biological essentialism and political oppression and social stigma that accompanies it, "homosexual," as a distinct type of person and a distinct class with their own political and social concerns, would not exist. It's a social construct.

Sometimes it's helpful to state it like this. There are two possible ways we could approach the issue of homosexuality in our culture. The most common liberal approach is to try to debunk the stereotypes of homosexuals and ensure their equal treatment. So the claim here is

not all homosexuals have characteristics x, y, and z, and it's discriminatory to believe that and treat them differently on the basis of this belief.
In contrast, the social constructionist says

there are no homosexuals, only people who have all different kinds of sexual preferences, and these same people all have their own unique combination of propensities, characteristics, talents, political views, social tendencies, etc.
See the difference? The second view automatically leads to equal treatment, because it insists that we're all just people, and our sexual preferences are not relevant to anything other than our own relationships.

From this view it's indeed very odd to refer to animals as being gay or lesbian or bisexual. As creatures who are not embedded in a cultural framework like we are, they technically cannot be gay or lesbian or bisexual. They can engage in same-sex mating and pair-bonding. But they can't be gay. On the other hand, if we were thinking clearly about this, neither could humans.

* In the Foucauldian (Nietzschean) sense of investigating a concept or cultural attitude in order to show "that a given system of thought [...] [is] the result of contingent turns of history, not the outcome of rationally inevitable trends."

Video of the Day: Comedy Edition
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Happy Juneteenth!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Quote of the Day

For every dollar owned by the median white family in the United States, the typical Latino family has twelve cents, and the typical African American family has a dime.

Now that puts things in perspective, doesn't it.

Quoted by Ludovic Blain in Laying the Foundation for National Prosperity: The Imperative of Closing the Racial Wealth Gap from the Federal Reserve Board, 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, "Full Public Data Set" (Washington: The Federal Reserve Board, 2009), (accessed March 4, 2009).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Either/Or or Both/And?

As Father's Day approaches, it raises a perennial dilemma for feminists. All too often the rhetoric concerning fatherhood has been subtly anti-woman, or at least anti-single-moms. And it's definitely anti-nontraditional-family, generally speaking.

The fact that this topic is framed in an either/or sort of way -- either you believe wholeheartedly in the unique and vital impact a father has on his children and reject all non-heteronormative family models or you denigrate the contributions of fathers and believe that a mother and child are better off without a troublesome man around -- makes it very difficult to have really helpful and constructive dialogue on the topic. This is another situation where those who dictate the terms of the debate control the debate. By forcing us into a false dilemma, they silence us. But of course, the best way to deal with a false dilemma is to reject it by either embracing both options and showing how they're compatible, or by pointing to a viable third option. And this is what I think we should do with the fatherhood debate.

Rather than merely focusing on the importance of parental involvement for both parents, we should move past this to look at a plethora of other issues concerning parenting. Some factors that play a prominent role in the way kids grow and develop are:
  • Having a loving network of family and friends who are engaged with the child. This family may or may not be the traditional nuclear family. In fact, kids whose grandparents and extended families are involved often experience a more rich environment than those who are isolated in the conventional nuclear family.
  • The resources that are available to the family. Families headed by a single parents tend to live on much lower incomes and have fewer educational and other resources that enrich a child's experience available to them.
  • An increase in the number of elderly people who are impoverished and lack good housing options also means a lower number of grandparents who can provide much-needed help with childcare and support for single parents.
  • Excluding gay and lesbian parents from the network of protections and assistance available to heterosexual married parents puts their children at a disadvantage.

But loosening societal norms concerning what counts as a family and providing better support for single parents and impoverished families and supporting the elderly so that they can contribute to the extended family and have a more meaningful connection with the younger generation etc. does not preclude a commitment to fatherhood and an acknowledgement of the important parenting contributions men have to offer. Fathers can be equally valued as parents even as we make the changes needed to support families in which a father is not actively involved. So I think it's important that feminists call out the implicit condemnation of single mothers and non-traditional families that often accompanies the moralizing concerning fatherhood. I think it's time we point out that it's not an either/or situation, that the conventional nuclear family is not the only option, and that we need to support and celebrate our families wherever and however we find them.

Say What?

My partner and I are endlessly amused by this ad. Our first thought was "well here's a perfect example of how not to use Babblefish." Our second thought was "what does any of this imagery have to do with airline flight?"

But maybe there's a relevant cultural commentary here too. My coworker suggests that this could be a reflection of how our culture - its values and turn-ons - is perceived by others via the American media items they're exposed to. Either way, it's pretty amusing:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Things That Piss Me Right the Fuck Off

I realize I rant about the western medical industry a lot - about how it's profit-driven and averse to evidence-based practice, about its profound and subtle patriarchal values and views, etc. But since the assassination of Dr. Tiller I've been slowly cooking up a new beef with western medicine.

It seems to me that much of the stigma and violence surrounding abortion would be impossible if abortion was simply integrated into normal medical practice. Any ob-gyn can perform an abortion. In fact, in the case of medical abortions (the pill), all it takes is a nurse practitioner, or anyone who's qualified to administer a pregnancy test and write a prescription. And if you don't believe that OBs perform the exact same procedures as surgical abortions all the time, ask most women who have had a miscarriage - it's common for a procedure very similar to the most common methods of surgical abortion to be performed on women who have miscarried but whose uterus doesn't seem to have discharged all the tissue. So it's not as if performing abortions is some mysterious thing that requires a whole other set of skills. Of course, some medical professionals may not feel comfortable providing abortion services, but for the majority of medical professionals, this doesn't seem to be the case, as is evidenced by the plethora of tests they push on you during pregnancy, which often result in a recommendation to abort if the results are positive.

By refusing to perform abortions in OB clinics and hospitals, the practice of abortion becomes segregated and ghettoized to clinics that are highly visible and easy targets. The patients who visit these clinics are much more likely to be seeking an abortion, so they're vulnerable to the hateful harassment of anti-choice protesters. And the medical professionals who work there are vulnerable to violence. Much of this would be resolved if abortion services were seamlessly integrated into other women's health services at clinics and hospitals. Nobody would know who to harass or target with violence if the same clinic served women who were carrying pregnancies to term and those who were just there for a pap smear and those who were there for a new BC prescription or IUD and those who had chosen to terminate a pregnancy... So maybe some doctors and nurses would opt out of providing abortion services, but most clinics have more than one doctor and more than one nurse, so this should be a relatively minor issue.

A few months ago I had an unplanned pregnancy at a very inconvenient time. Although we're technically open to the idea of having another baby (sort of), we simply couldn't handle it (in a number of ways) at the time. I was irritated with myself for allowing it to happen, and a little sad that the timing was so bad. After gliding through my twenties and early thirties with nary a single birth control slip-up, I find myself experiencing two unplanned pregnancies in my mid-thirties. Whatever happened to the biological clock and the it's-so-darn-hard-to-conceive-after-the-age-of-35 shtick so often used to scare women into early marriage and motherhood?

As I investigated my options (it was very early, so a medical abortion was an option for me), I discovered that in my state, there were none. And for no apparent reason. Abortion is not illegal here, but there are no providers. And there are no women's clinics here that will even prescribe the pills for a medical abortion, which requires no work on the part of the physician to bring about the abortion. And nobody seems to have a good explanation for this. Nobody knows why there's no access to abortion here, there just isn't. And if you ask your primary provider if they couldn't just prescribe the pills for you, you are met with a polite but conversation-stopping offer to write a referral to the Planned Parenthood clinic in a neighboring state for you.

So this wasn't a big problem for me - I'm privileged with a car and money for gas and the $400 cash upfront. But what happens to all the women who don't have access to transportation, or can't take the time off work to drive to a clinic in another state twice in a two-week period, and can't find child care for the kids they may already have (no kids allowed at the clinic), etc. etc.? If they could just go to their local women's health clinic and access abortion services from the same provider who is more than happy to take their money and give them pregnancy or preventative care, so many steps and so much stress and trouble would be cut out of the process.

And this is another case where I really feel that if this was a health issue that impacted men, these services would be locally and easily available, in a much less visible and stigmatized way. But once again women's health in general, and abortion services in particular, are ghettoized and undervalued. And this enables the hatred and violence that surrounds abortion in our country. By separating out and clearly marking abortion from other women's health services, we create an environment that enables the hatred and violence to continue. But why isn't anyone talking about this factor? And why aren't we exploring this option for reducing the hatred and violence?

Monday, June 15, 2009

News from Iran

Fabulous photos here.

Princesses Again

I'm currently lovin' on the Fallen Princesses photo series by Dina Goldstein. Some samples:

Obama on Healthcare

The full text of his speech is here. Your thoughts?

That Brown Girl Needs to Check her Tone

It's probably clear by now that I'm a total NPR junkie, so I'll just admit up front that I love Nina Totenberg. And today on Morning Edition, she hit another one out of the park concerning Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

The latest Republican tactic has been questioning Sotomayor's "character" and "temperament" based on her verbal interactions in court. Although Sotomayor is generally praised in anonymous comments from lawyers in her evaluations as being "tough and unwilling to put up with guff," recent comments have also referred to her as "a terror on the bench," "nasty," "overly aggressive," and "a bit of a bully." So Totenberg decided to compare Sotomayor's "tough and nasty" questions with those asked by her male colleagues, and with those asked by male Supreme Court Justices in similar cases. It comes as no surprise that Sotomayor's questions, her verbal aggressiveness, and her tone were no more tough, nasty, or bullying than her male counterparts. The conclusion by some experts was simply that lawyers, both male and female, resent tough questioning more when it comes from a woman than from a man. Apparently white conservative politicians resent (fear?) verbal assertiveness from female judges more than from male judges as well. But I would add that this is a prime example of a WoC being reprimanded for her "tone," when being feisty and assertive, for insisting that her voice has a place in public and legal discourse. Same old whine, different context and phrasing...

A "Soft" Revolution

I've been trying to become more informed on the political situation in Iran, because current events there seem to have a significant impact on Iranian women, and to be impacted by women, or at least by the specter of female power in the minds of conservative politicians.

This article seems to explore the topic in an informative yet accessible way. According to William Beeman, an anthropology prof who has published books on Iran, Iranian leaders "really believe that the United States and Israel are trying very hard to undermine their governmental structure and trying to foment a revolution, a soft revolution." This comes in the form of a push for more freedom for women, as well as more openness to and dialogue with the West. And this push is largely supported by Iranian youth. Of course, electing a more progressive president wouldn't necessarily have much of an impact on these social issues, at least not right away, as the power of the president is very limited by the complex web of power relations in the Iranian government. But the fact that even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ordered an investigation into the election, shows that those who are pushing for change and reform are having a significant impact, in spite of state attempts to shut them down. And that's very encouraging.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Video of the Day

Because "Healthy" means "Thin"

Notice that the portion of the measuring tape that encircles the burger shows numbers that might correspond to your waist size, and the metric numbers on the reverse side of the measuring tape where it hangs down might correspond to your weight...

Childbirth, yet again

Apparently next week is Birth Week on Discovery Health. Forgive me for being underwhelmed. Yippeekifuckingyay and all that. This kind of shit always really irritates me, and I don't think I'm just being a wet blanket here. First, there's the list of shows lined up: Little Parents Big Pregnancy, Births Beyond Belief, and Obese and Pregnant. For real? Why don't we just call it Further Othering through Pregnancy week?

But beyond that there's the whole attitude toward birth that surrounds these kinds of shows that is deeply fucked, in my view. The explicit message is allegedly woman-centric and empowering and shit like that. Isn't birth a miracle? It's the most magical day in a woman's life (except for her wedding, of course). But the implicit messages totally and completely contradict these explicit messages. The implicit messages are that birth is a mysterious and dangerous thing, that it's scary and out of control, a medical disaster waiting to happen, that women can't do it on their own, which is why they need medical professionals to deliver the baby for them while they try to be good little girls and behave. It's portrayed as an inherently medicalized thing, in which all kinds of disorders occur within the woman's body. She's a patient, not an agent. Birth happens to her, rather than being something she actively does. And she should never, ever question the medical professionals or act like a mature, rational adult who can understand and take some control of the experience, lest she endanger the baby. If she dares to conceptualize childbirth as anything other than terrifying, horribly painful, and out of control, she'll experience a kind of eyerolling and naked contempt she's never before encountered. Because that is how patriarchy steps in and manhandles you at the moment when you're in the most need of support and encouragement. Fuck that.

Super Martian Robot Girl

...kicks all kinds of ass.

Another Kind of Entitlement

This post may be a bit rambly. It’s also based on our heteronormative cultural views, so it won’t necessarily be terribly inclusive, although many of these reflections could apply to gay and trans partnered relationships as well. So bear with me.

As the dreaded wedding season approaches, and as our group of friends matures and settles into relationships that are evolving from the this-is-so-exciting-and-thrilling-and-romantic phase into a more calm, deep, and often more rewarding partnership (or not), I’ve been thinking about the way our culture constructs romantic relationships. As others have said before, the way romantic relationships are portrayed in movies and TV shows, and the way a relationship is thought to be so central to a woman’s life (but not a man’s) is deeply problematic. Similarly, the way that landing the right man is supposed to solve all your problems (think romantic comedy here) is a huge issue. And finally, the ridiculous idea that a soul mate exists for each and every person, and all you have to do is find that person and the rest is cake and rainbows is unspeakably absurd.

For one thing, all this “soul mate” ideology puts an incredible amount of pressure on the person who’s allegedly your soul mate, and dooms your relationship with them to be plagued by endless disappointment. After all, a soul mate is supposed to meet your every need, and be your perfect companion. Who, I ask you, can possibly match those criteria? Second, if there’s only one perfect soul mate for you, what are the chances you’ll ever meet? What are the chances you’ll even live on the same continent and speak the same language? If it really were the case that there was one perfect soul mate for every person, and we all held out to find that perfect someone, then the vast majority of people would end up single while their “soul mate” lived a similarly isolated existence somewhere on the other side of the planet. On the upside, maybe that would bring the birth rate down and help the environment a bit.

But beyond these things, it seems to me like we grow up in a culture that instills us with a profound sense of entitlement when it comes to relationships. We’re taught to expect that our partner will meet all of our sexual, social, intellectual, and companionship needs, and if s/he doesn’t, then we’re “not compatible.” This ideology seems to go hand-in-hand with the completely-self-sufficient-nuclear-family-as-the-basic-social-unit mindset which really became dominant during the Victorian era and hasn’t truly lost its grip on us yet. I suspect it has a lot to do with capitalism, but that’s a topic for another post. Sometimes I wonder if people would be happier in their relationships if they had a more reasonable attitude and set of expectations. I think we can all agree that it’s simply not going to happen that one person is going to meet all your needs, and yet when we find ourselves in a less-than-completely-fulfilling situation, we feel like fate has dealt us a poor hand. And maybe that’s just us being privileged and pouty and entitled.

I’m not saying that personal fulfillment isn’t a worthy goal, or that we shouldn’t strive to develop relationships that are meaningful and allow us to flourish. What I am saying is that maybe we shouldn’t expect so much from one relationship and preference it so far above all others. Maybe we should be open to the idea that we get/give different things from/to different people, and if some of our needs are met by people outside of our primary romantic relationship, that’s probably OK. And maybe, as is the case in so many other aspects of our culture, we should let go of the consumer mindset we’ve been trained to have and stop judging relationships solely on the basis of what we get from them. I realize that this could sound dangerously similar to the old women-should-seek-their-fulfillment-through-serving-the-needs-of-others shtick, and that’s not my intention at all. What I am suggesting is that if we view our demand that our primary romantic relationship will fulfill us in every way as an entitled and consumerist mindset, we’ll be more likely to strike a healthy balance and develop workable, fulfilling-for-the-most-part relationships rather than relentlessly searching for that perfect Mr./Ms. Right who will meet our every need and solve all our problems. Or maybe this is just another way for me to vent my irritation and contempt for chick flicks…

Feminist Icons

No matter what the results of the Iranian election today, it's clear that Zahra Rahnavard is something of a feminist icon. Read more about her here and here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Murderers and Rapists and Single Mothers, Oh My!

Take that, Ann Coulter.

I'm Back

After a "vacation" of sorts, I'm back. And here are some of the things I would have posted had I not been vacationing with my very-religious parents, a cranky 18 m/o, and a 5 y/o who needed a nap most of the time. OK, it wasn't actually that bad, and we did have a lot of fun in between the meltdowns, poorly-disguised religious lectures, and rain and hail storms right when picnicking and hiking were on the agenda:

The death of a legend

Laura Ling and Euna Lee are sentenced...

Joy Behar gets her own show (yay!)...

Senate Republicans claim that Sotomayor's confirmation hearings shouldn't start until January 20, 2011 so that they can read through all of her cases before the hearings start.

What else did I miss?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Gender Differences and Math

First, I'd like to apologize up front if this post gets too math-geeky for y'all. I realize that not everyone's interest is piqued when they hear a reference to the methodology used to calculate the distance between the male and female means in mathematical testing measured in units of standard deviation... However, the topic of gender and performance in math is a really interesting one, and some recent studies have been done that suggest that gendered differences in performance in math are rapidly changing and equalizing in our culture, and in other cultures these differences never really existed. So the idea espoused by various members of the old boys club (I'm talking about you, Larry Summers) that these differences are innate are turning out to be completely unfounded.

One interesting thing about current studies on this topic, is that due to the increase in standardized testing in the U.S., there's a plethora of test result available at many different levels (elementary through high school) that are easily accessible to researchers. Another factor is the type of meta-analysis that has become popular that allows you to incorporate a large number of study results and test them for various things like weighted average effect size. Doing meta-analyses helps to eliminate (or at least reduce) errors that result from small sample sizes, regional differences, etc. so this kind of analysis is particularly useful on issues of innate vs. environmental factors.

One recent review of current research is Gender, culture, and mathematics performance by Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz. Two of the questions considered by Hyde and Mertz are:
Do gender differences in mathematics performance exist in the general population? Do gender differences exist among the mathematically talented?
Regarding the first question, meta-analysis on standardized mathematical testing in 1990 and 1995 showed that the mathematical performance for girls and boys tracked closely until they reached high school, at which point boys began outperforming girls by a small margin. But similar analysis done about 13 years later show that this performance gap has basically been eliminated. The authors note that this is most likely due to the increased number of female students taking the more challenging math and science courses.

But the second question that Hyde and Mertz raise are of special interest to me. I've been told, both by fellow engineering students back in the day, and by commenters on this blog, that my math teachers were justified in overlooking my mathematical ability because it's so terribly unusual for girls to be mathematically gifted. As if some statistical fact justifies silencing a particular, real-life student in your care and forcing them to assimilate, only to express great shock and wonder when they crank out a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT... but I digress. The idea is that, although it is the case that on average, girls' and boys' performance is very comparable, if you look at both ends of the spectrum (those who performs extremely well and extremely poorly) there are more boys than girls. But since the girls tend to cluster around the mean (at the middle in a normal table) and the boys tend to have roughly equal numbers at both extremes, they average out to be approximately the same. In case this is making no sense to you, refer to the handy visual aid below:

If you assume that the scores are normally distributed, you get this distribution, in which the brown area contains the majority of male and female students, while the green area shows the larger number of female students who tend to be closer to the mean, and the orange area shows that more male students will lurk around out toward the tails.

When meta-analyses of testing results are done on gendered variability, results vary depending on the countries that are included. In fact, in some countries there was no significant difference, while in others there was actually more variability among the females being tested. In addition, striking changes in the M:F ratio of mathematically gifted children in the U.S. correspond to the enactment of Title IX policies. All of this suggests that the differences are cultural rather than biological.

Hyde and Mertz conclude:

Current research provides abundant evidence for the impact of sociocultural and other environmental factors on the development and nurturing of mathematical skills and talent and the size, if any, of math gender gaps.


the U.S. also needs to do a better job of identifying and nurturing its mathematically talented youth, regardless of their gender, race, or national origin.

Big surprise, right? But it is nice to have statistical support for what some of us have been saying all along. Very nice.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Dr. Summers.

*Full text of the article, for those without institutional access.

Who Counts as a Terrorist?

Last night as we watched the news there were two stories that were similar in some ways, but dealt with very differently. The first one covered the the murder of Dr. Tiller, and the question was raised of whether this counted as terrorism. The legal expert who was being consulted said that the nature of these kinds of murders (one person operating alone, with a specific target in mind...) places these kinds of murders outside of the justice department's definition of terrorist acts.

A few minutes after this story was covered, the story of Abdulhakim Bledsoe was covered. Bledsoe has been charged with murder and with engaging in a terrorist act, ostensibly because he fired shots in an occupied building. Of course, Scott Roeder also fired shots in an occupied building. Lots of people were attending church that morning. But Roeder is being charged with murder and aggravated assault. So what are the relevant differences between these two cases? Roeder's skin is white while Bledsoe's skin is brown. Roeder professes to be a Christian while Bledsoe is Muslim. And Bledsoe killed a member of the military, while Roeder killed a "controversial late-term abortion doctor." As if Ritter only performed late-term abortions, and as if he wasn't in fact a gynecologist, not just "an abortion doctor."

So there you have it. The intersection of three aspects of the identities of the perpetrators and victims which make all the difference in who is labeled as a terrorist and who isn't. Because everyone knows that terrorists have brown skin, are Muslim, and want to kill American soldiers. Right?

Choking Over the "Feminist" Label

Maybe it's just me, but this interview with Katty Kay of the BBC left a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth.

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Katty Kay
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First of all, why is it so hard for her to own the "feminist" label? Maybe she's afraid her work will be pigeonholed and dismissed if she does? I don't know, but when the message you're conveying is clearly feminist, it seems odd to be so reluctant to accept the label.

Second, what's with all the pandering and assuring teh menz that we really do love them and value them and intend to keep them around? If nothing else, it strikes me as a bit overdone. Why isn't the message that women are valuable in the workplace sufficient to stand on its own without all the pandering? And would it kill us to acknowledge that, while women are very well educated and competent, they still earn less than teh menz? I mean, Colbert got it right when he suggested that women save corporations a lot of money by earning less.

Finally, this still amounts to mommy-tracking, from an economic perspective. Arguing that women should be allowed flexibility in their career paths in order to fulfill parenting and family obligations still amounts to leaving women at a lower-paid and less-valued status. And it ignores the fact that many fathers would like to be really engaged parents as well, but don't see that as an option, given our cultural attitudes. And arguing that women "have different priorities" than men while not questioning why we have different priorities (we were socialized to have different priorities, we're shamed if we're not visibly self-sacrificing mothers and wives...) suggests that the ol' biological differences are at play here. And maybe it's not her job to differentiate these two causes, but given the fact that biological essentialism is the default explanation, I think we should all be very clear about this distinction when we're publicly discussing traits that are socialized into women.

Your thoughts on this?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Can. Not. Wait. get my hands on this book.

And excerpt from the review by Brittany Shoot at WireTap:

Norlock argues that despite what many philosophers have ignored in the relationship between gender and forgiveness, the act of forgiving is very much a gendered act. Women are overwhelmingly expected to forgive—not necessarily because they are more wronged, though that argument could certainly be made—and often, forgiveness is associated with a particular type of femininity, though Norlock is clear to separate “femininity,” “forgiveness,” and “weakness.” To deal with the blatant sex bias in forgiveness studies, Norlock debunks the historically gender-neutral approach to understanding the moral power, compassionate communication, and radical activism of forgiving.

Now that I think about it, I suspect that forgiving belongs in the same category as yielding your space to men, and apologizing excessively. As subtle markers of hierarchy, this kind of social behavior that is so deeply gendered merits special feminist attention, in my view. And I intend to give the topic of forgiveness some very special attention, just the minute I can get this book into my grubby little hands.

Feminist Icons

Last week my parents told me via email that one of their friends Mohini Hameed, had died. My parents have been friends with Mohini and her husband for years, ever since they immigrated from Pakistan. So I've been thinking about Mohini, and it occurs to me that she's something of a feminist icon, although she herself would never claim that title. As the first female broadcaster in Pakistan, and a well-loved staple of Radio Pakistan for years, she had quite the career. However, after converting to Christianity, they left Pakistan for the US, and I always got the impression that Mohini's life was never the same. In her later years she lost her sight and became rather reclusive. Here's her story as it's been covered in the news:

ISLAMABAD (Online) - The country’s first woman broadcaster “Aapa Shamim” of Radio Pakistan, Mohini Hameed, passed away in Seattle, Washington, after a brief illness. The most popular and distinguished voice of Radio Pakistan for more than three decades, she became a legend in her lifetime. Titled the “Nightingale of Broadcasting,” she was especially known for children’s morning shows, and musical rendering of famous Urdu poets for children, besides being the most popular drama voice of her time. She was the recipient of numerous national awards including the lifetime achievement award. Her most famous rendering was “suno pyaari bacho idhar ao tum, batayen jo tumko wo sun jao tum”.

She leaves behind her husband Hameed Ahmed, a daughter Kanwal Naseer and son Ize Hameed. A wide cross section of television and radio artists, producers and media personalities visited the house of her daughter to condole the death of the broadcasting legend. The country has lost an icon in the field of broadcasting whose services to Radio Pakistan shall be remembered forever, the mourners said as they paid glowing tributes to late Mohini.

Monday, June 1, 2009


This PostSecret is incredibly depressing...

...but predictable. I often wonder why in a culture where beauty standard are so rigid and so central, we don't give more thought to the wreckage that's churned out by the system. In this case, because a single, relatively small body part doesn't conform to the rigid standard, this person deprives herself of sexual contact and intimacy. Of course, rather then work to change the standard and the imagery that reinforces it, we simply offer new medicalized ways to "fix" the problem, and bring in a new source of income for one sector of the industry, thus enforcing the idea that it is a problem. Over the last few years, the rates at which patients are pursuing labiaplasty surgery has been increasing exponentially. According to one website
Women get labiaplasty for different reasons. In my experience, the number one reason for a labiaplasty is the desire to reduce pain or discomfort experienced while wearing tight clothing (such as jeans or yoga pants) or playing sports (especially bike riding or horseback riding) or engaging in other physical activities. The second most common reason for labiaplasty is shame or embarrassment about the way their genitals look and the desire to change their appearance. Other times, women want to increase sexual function-- a reduction of the labia or clitoral hood can provide greater exposure of the clitoris, allowing for increased stimulation. Occasionally, a woman's labia are damaged during childbirth, and the procedure is restorative.

I don't doubt for a minute that many women with larger labia do experience discomfort. But from what I've seen in internet discussions of the procedure, I would bet that many women pursue the surgery because of the terribly negative body image that accompanies large labia, while reporting that they want the surgery to reduce discomfort, as this is the more socially acceptable explanation. It's depressingly ironic that they live in a culture that both shames them for not conforming to a random and harsh body ideal while also shaming them for pursuing surgery for aesthetic reasons.