Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hard drives and hard core porn

by Chris Moses

Walking into the Frist Campus Center last week, I overheard this gem: “But without the porn, how much data do you have?”

The conversation between two male students had something to do with backing up or copying one of their computer hard drives.

“So you only have twenty gigs of real stuff,” the conversation continued. “No problem then.”

This casual exchange struck me on a number of levels, not least the very casualness of these two elite university attendees’ public porno problem solving. Endless interpretations could be given, but I find most interesting the specific fact of their conundrum: the computer-enabled ability to amass such an extensive collection of smut that it challenged their data management capabilities.

Gone are the worries of a magazine slipping out from under the mattress. In this brave new world consternation comes only from sensual bytes’ demand for space as insatiable as the biting (and clicking and cooing) demands they were downloaded to fulfill.

With due deference to the complex, important and politically charged debates that surround the nature of pornography, I want to consider instead more medium than message. Is there something to the twenty-first century’s digital explosion of sexually explicit material than just more and more of the same old thing?

On par with the unimpeachably criminal, abusive and exploitative underbelly of legal, ‘professional’ adult entertainment, the quickness and placelessness of cyberspace can make the horrendous far easier to access and much harder to prosecute and prevent. A few days in a room in an Eastern European city with a few thousand dollars of digital equipment can produce material that features the violation of children, sexual brutality or similarly hideous deviance—pictures and movies that will be available to the world with no expiration.

Ease of access can easily undercut many of the social cues that pique a person’s moral compass and sense of consequence in witnessing otherwise reprehensible images. No dark allies, no brown paper bags, no prurient, expectation-building search or scathing eyes from suspicious onlookers—nothing to force a person to recognize the human impact of something that appears so simple to access. Online crime can seem a mere representation like any of the other endless content in the internet universe. So too does that inhumanity stultify the emotional and sexual awareness of the viewer.

Against the dystopian current in which a great deal of technophobia flows along with a sense of moral declension and ethical debasement, an equally powerful interpretive tide rises with the assurance that the democratizing power, universal potential and near-limitless capability of the internet can bring revolutionary social change on par with the invention of printing.

If the sensible position tacks between salvation and damnation when it comes to our digital future, then where does porn—one of the driving forces and uniquely profitable parts of online commerce—fit within this transformative force?

There’s a certain surprise to the absence of things sexual when it comes to understanding the internet age, especially since someone like Robert Darnton, former Princeton history professor and now University Professor and head of the Libraries at Harvard, spent an important part of his scholarly career showing us the crucial importance of sultry stories and dirty-minded books in the age of Enlightenment before he began wondering about the impact of computers upon the world of print.

More than forbidden best sellers, the eighteenth century—the century ‘inventing human rights,’ as historian Lynn Hunt has recently argued—saw the rise of the novel more generally. In many ways this genre succeeded most powerfully with a soft-porn feel, be it the temptations experienced by Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, the ill fates of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, or the more explicitly racy adventures of Cleland’s Fanny Hill.

The ability to read oneself into the lives of others—especially their bedrooms—has been seen as an important step in a larger transformation of popular moral and political sentiment. Compassion for, and engagement with, the fullest sense of every-day lives (sex being as normal and mundane as it is fantastic and enviable) provides a popular notion of equality to be paired with the more erudite and intellectual visions of thinkers like John Locke. Scholars have pointed to empathy of this sort in explaining everything from consumer-capitalist driven causes of the American Revolution to the abolition of slavery.

Will anyone ever look back to a hard drive overloaded with hard core and see the origins of a new wave of human nature and human action?

More than anything I suspect it will be taken as a sign of missed opportunity. As with a print culture that moralizes in broad strokes and lumps together the viscerally stimulating and potentially emotionally and morally educative role of sexual material with the crass and exploitative, so too has our understanding of information technology left us separating the importance of imagination and imitation from the nature of experience.

Just like readers of steamy fiction centuries ago, computer users today feel all those complicated and consuming emotions when they post and read personal adds, enter a chat room—as themselves or in disguise—or explore healthy dimensions of sexuality otherwise viewed as taboo by dominant or conservative cultures. There’s a great distance and many dimensions between online versions of scholarly journals and the web’s red-light district. The elusively private side of this very public space adds to and complicates how we think about personal association, civic culture and collective action.

Rather than accept a harsh divide between ‘porn’ and ‘real stuff,’ it might be worth charting out the transformative potential—risks and rewards—that technology entails for sexual self-understanding, gender empathy and gender equity, and the nature of emotional connectivity between the most different sorts of people.

So before completely overloading on senseless sex, it’s worth seeing if computers can do more than store our desires. Beyond the problems of porn, we might just link up with love rather than continue the pixilation of passion.

A woman gets pregnant, so she needs a man? Maybe not.

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

We’ve all heard the arguments for and against biological determinism, or the scientifically dubious notion that women don’t want to sleep around because they need a man to take care of them. Is promiscuity really that unusual, or unnatural, in women? An article by Mairi Macleod in the New Scientist shows some much-needed efforts to tease out the actual biological basis for promiscuity in both men and women, while taking into account the social factors – little things like trust, which may not be written into our DNA.

The article opens with an interesting assertion: although you may not like to advertise your willingness for a hook-up or a one night stand, it may be written on your face. Earlier this year, a study conducted by researchers the University of Durham revealed that the majority of test subjects were able to accurately judge whether a person was looking for a committed relationship or a fling – just by looking at their photograph. The plot thickens: men who are more inclined toward casual sex are more likely to be described as “masculine”, while women, similarly defined, are “attractive”.

Surely these judgments are more than biological. We need to question why people have such a widely varying approach to sex, one which actually fluctuates more within the sexes than between them.

Possible factors: men who are more likely to have affairs are also more likely to score in extroversion tests, indicating that they’re more open to new experiences. And apparently Freud comes into it as well: women who grew up in stressful conditions, especially with an absent, unfaithful or abusive father, are more likely to have sex earlier and more often, because there seems to be no incentive to wait for a stable, nurturing relationship. Men seemed to have similar tendencies. Although across the board they seemed more likely to more capable of dismissing attachment, this was more related to social factors. Men who grew up with stable, nurturing parents – and are thus described as “secure” – were more likely to be monogamous. So the issue, once again, is trust.

The article did acknowledge some biological issues. But they showed, once again, more variance within genders than between them. And although willingness to engage in casual sex does seem in some way to be tied to testosterone levels, we need to remember that this is a hormone which is present in both men and women. The problem of what makes people promiscuous is far more complex than the traditional biological determinist argument would have us believe. Some women, yes, are looking for committed relationships – but so are some men. And although the fact that women, and not men, get pregnant will always throw a wrench into the equation, there are significant reasons to believe that women are as sexually unrestrained as men, and that their behavior in the past has not been regulated by biology, but by cultural strictures. For example, in Scandinavia, where women are given access to daycare, maternity leave, and other resources which relieve social stress surrounding sex and childbearing, women are also considerably more sexually liberated.

Food for thought? I think so. And this Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for articles like this, which show up the ridiculousness of biological determinism.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

by Chloe Angyal

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! There are a lot of things I’m thankful for this year, like my health, my family, and the opportunities I have as a woman in this world. This has been a great year for women, in some respects (and in other respects, there remains a lot of work to be done). So I wanted to take a moment to express my thanks for a few of the landmark moments we’ve seen for women this year.

Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention
For Clinton, the official end to a long and bitter primary campaign came not with her concession speech in June, but with the unconditional support she expressed for Barack Obama in her speech in Denver, and with her call for her former rival to be approved by acclamation. Despite the obvious and understandable tensions between the two candidates' camps, when Clinton took the stage in Denver, she was gracious and unwavering in her support for Obama. She was also sharp, bold and never let us forget for a moment how powerful she is, and how far she got.

This year, along with Michelle Obama, Sen. Clinton re-wrote the book on Washington wives. While Mrs. Obama had been viewed as a liability for her husband's campaign, her performance in Denver demonstrated quite clearly that Sen. Clinton was not the only two-for-one deal on offer this primary season. Mrs. Obama was eloquent, funny, and outspoken; perfect for young women who need their role models to be something more substantial than socialites or singers.

The UN recognizes rape as a weapon of war
In a long-awaited move, the UN adopted a US-backed resolution that defines rape as a weapon of war. The resolution recognizes that in many of today's conflicts—in Darfur, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo—rape is deliberately and strategically used to "humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group."

Criticizing the current atmosphere of acceptance and impunity for sexual violence in many war-torn communities, the Former Division Commander of the United Nations Organization Mission in the DRC speculated that, "it is probably more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict."

America's sexual violence policies and statistics leave a lot to be desired, and under no circumstances should we allow ourselves to grow complacent in our fight against rape here in the US. But American women are lucky enough not to live in fear of strategic and mass rape of the kind seen abroad, and many are privileged to live in communities that actively condemn sexual violence, rather than passively or blatantly condoning it. The UN has taken an important step to ensure that one day—maybe soon—living without fear of sexual violence is not a privilege, but a right, enjoyed by American women, and women everywhere.

Bahrain's Roqaya Al-Gassra wins her 200m track heat in Beijing in a hijab
This one didn't happen in the US, but it was broadcast around the world, and I think it's important for American women to think about what feminism and choice look like in other, non-Western cultures. Al-Gassra calls wearing the hijab when she's racing (and presumably when she's not) a personal choice, though she admits that "custom weighs heavily." Still, she considers the specially designed headscarf, which like the rest of her uniform is form-fitting by traditional standards, an aid rather than an obstacle, and has recorded her best times while wearing it.

As Western and Eastern cultures have come into contact and begun to blend, innovations similar to Al-Gassra's racing suit have become essential to Muslim women. In Australia, the "burqini" (a suit similar to the one Al-Gassra runs in, designed for the beach) has been a popular way for Muslim-Australian women to adhere to religious custom without being excluded from the beach culture of Australia. In other words, these outfits allow women to feel comfortable, obey tradition and join in activities in which non-Muslim women are allowed to participate. And, judging by Al-Gassra's example, they're pretty good at them.

Rachel Maddow gets her own show on MSNBC
Rachel Maddow, formerly of Countdown with Keith Olbermann, started hosting her own show starting this September. Maddow is everything the modern woman should be: smart, funny, tough, well-spoken, well-informed, and charmingly self-deprecating.

Already a presence on Air America, with her own radio show on that channel, the unapologetic feminist and gay rights activist is slowly but steadily building herself a media empire. She's also one of the few women on TV who looks like a normal woman, and not like a beauty pageant contestant. Moreover, Maddow, as a political pundit and the host of her own TV show, joins ranks mostly filled with men—she's playing with the establishment now, and she's giving them a run for their money.

The House of Representatives hears testimony on military sexual assault
Reports of sexual assault in the military have been on the rise for the last few years, so much so that the Veterans' Affairs office even has an acronym for it: MST, or military sexual trauma. Christine Hanson, an advocate for rape survivors, says that sexual violence is so common in the armed forces culture that it's "considered a rite of passage in the service." Additionally, procedural barriers, social and professional consequences and concerns about privacy often deter survivors from reporting a sexual assault and from demanding justice. As a result, those suffering from MST go without the psychological treatment they need. Moreover, sexual violence in the civilian world is always underreported, and it's likely that within the armed forces culture, an even lower percentage of assault survivors speak up.

The House heard testimony in July that included chilling stories from former servicewomen of the sexual violence they had experienced at the hands of their fellow soldiers while serving overseas. During those hearings, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter proposed the Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act, which would set up an Office of Victims Advocate within the Department of Defense, and would "strengthen policies for reporting, prosecuting and treating perpetrators."

The government's recognition that the armed forces are failing to properly protect the women who serve our country is an important step forward toward a goal that cannot be achieved without changing the culture of the military.

This list isn't exhaustive, of course, and obviously they're my own personal favourites. So I want to hear from you - what did I miss? And what are you thankful for this year?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Strong women who make me weak at the knees: Amanda Marcotte

by Chloe Angyal

I've written a lot about my love for feminists like Sarah Haskins, Rachel Maddow and Courtney Martin, all of whom are out in the public eye, using their intelligence and humour and being open and unapologetic feminists. These women rock my world.
And now Sarah, Rachel and Courtney are joined by one more badass feminist girl-crush: Amanda Marcotte.
Marcotte is the host of RH Reality Check's videos and podcasts. The videos are short point-counterpoint summaries of the major issues in the reproductive health debate: should health insurance plans cover birth control if they cover erectile dysfunction medication? Is abstinence-only sex education effective? And so on. They're short and to the point, and Marcotte manages to restrain herself on the eye-rolling and and eyebrow-raising in a way that I just can't manage.
The podcast is also great, and is a really good way to spend a commute or a workout - Marcotte interviews experts in the reproductive health field, as well as cultural commentators and authors. She asks tough questions and isn't afraid to call an interviewee out if she thinks they're skirting the question or glossing over the facts.
And if that's still not enough Amanda Marcotte for you, you can read her blog. I'm also putting her book It's a Jungle Out There on my "to read when my thesis is finished" list.

Like a fish...

by Laura Pedersen

The fish poster hangs just to the left of my bedroom door. It lurks surreptitiously, waiting to reel oblivious visitors into a discussion. 2’ by 1’, it features a block-print goldfish astride a bicycle, pedaling beneath the caption, “A WOMAN WITHOUT A MAN IS LIKE A FISH WITHOUT A BICYCLE.”

I encountered the poster my first week of classes, and in a burst of feminist boldness slapped it onto the wall above my dresser. It was an apt location, I decided, since any male who ever entered by room would have to pass under its threatening, marine glare. It would be a testosterone test, weeding out those unwilling to be associated with a feminist.

I had not considered that one of those subjected to its accusatory gaze would be its new owner.

After a few days of staring at the pouting profile of this goldfish, its marine stare began to make me nervous. Doubts multiplied. Could I myself stand by the exclusively independent feminism my fish was advocating? I believe in equality, not an inverse gender imbalance, yet the poster suggested otherwise.

The poster had always given me a giddy feeling of uncertainty that now made me wonder exactly whose feminist mettle the poster would be testing.

I considered pulling the poster down. Too much, perhaps?

I am still challenged by the female-only feminism my for which my fish advocates. But I’ll keep it where it is.

What the F?!

by Peale Iglehart

Hey girls! Stumped about what to get your flat-chested friends for Christmas? Try the F-cup cookie!These chocolate treats (low-fat of course!) will make your breast size skyrocket to an F in no time at all!

Don’t believe it? Check out a video here! Snack on the “Big Booby Cookie” for a week and you, too, could end up flaunting your newly-perky breasts on national television! Joy to the world!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

TODAY, November 25th is
International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Students Against Domestic Violence is asking that you please show your support by wearing JEANS a WHITE SHIRT and an ORANGE RIBBON.

We will be distributing these ribbons and cards explaining the ribbons in Frist in the afternoon and by officers throughout the day.

Finally, if you wish to take a day of silence to represent the silence many heterosexual and homosexual women experience due to pressures from family, friends, their abusers, or institutions designed t
o help that work against them, please carry the card we will be distributing with ribbons (a printable version of these words are attached):

For the ribbons:
I wear this ribbon today to observe the International Day for the elimination of violence against all women. It represents my vow to end violence towards women and my refusal to be a bystander.

For those who wish to take a vow of silence:
Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I wear this ribbon and take a vow of silence this day to observe the International Day for the elimination of Violence against ALL women. My silence represents the silence that heterosexual and homosexual women are compelled to take- by their communities, abusers, loved ones, and even the institutions put in place to help. It also represents my refusal to be a bystander.

Ground Abuse. Raise Awareness.
If you're interested in joining Students Against Domestic Violence, contact them at

Playgirls "always came first." Feminism didn't.

by Jordan Bubin

The Times recently ran an article about the collapse of Playgirl. The magazine, which “was started 35 years ago as a feminist response to Playboy and Penthouse,” will no longer be published in print format, though it will continue to run on-line. The editor-in-chief, Pamela Caldwell, called the magazine’s collapse a “real blow for feminism.”

She’s wrong. For a couple of reasons.

First, Ms. Caldwell bemoans the fact that “[Playgirl was] the only magazine that offered naked men to women.” If one is coming from the view that porn objectifies or degrades women, then making porn which objectifies the opposite sex seems like fighting fire with fire—it makes for great rhetoric, but in the end, firefighters use water to put a fire out, not more of the same. On the other hand, if you think that porn doesn’t inherently objectify women, but only that some kinds of pornography are degrading, then Playgirl still seems like a failure.

Now, I must confess that I am not an avid reader of Playgirl, and never picked up a copy of it at the local gas station. I always had the understanding that Playgirl was a magazine for gay men, and the article says as much, pointing out that the graphic content is now geared more towards gay men. That said, consider the website for a second. It’s a bunch of stacked guys masturbating (not together, although I didn’t check out the entire site, I’ll admit). If feminist editors were trying to make porn that wasn’t the kind which objectified people, then why not have models which exhibited more than one body type? Models that weren’t uniformly well-muscled, and tanned? Heterosexual porn for men tends to be plastic, augmented women; why should porn for women ignore the basic problem that pornography portrays a facsimile of real people? Even if the website is “geared more towards gay men,” I hope that Ms. Caldwell wasn’t producing similar porn for women and calling it a feminist response to Playboy.

Perhaps she wasn’t. Judging from the article, Playgirl seems to have belittled women in a different way, by assuming that their sexual fantasies are less than, well, sexual. The Times states that a common Playgirl theme was “a naked man doing chores for the fully dressed lady of the house.” I can see how this might be sort of funny, in a hey-let’s-forward-this-to-my-friends kind of way, but if women exploring their sexual desires means naked housework, then I’m a bit disappointed. One of my friends found a book called “Porn for Women,” featuring the same sort of thing—well-built guys mopping and doing the dishes in their underwear. It wasn’t sold behind the counter; it was a joke. It seems sort of insulting to think that female sexual fantasies don’t involve some sort of sex; last I checked, my female friends have actual libidos.

Ms. Caldwell claimed that she and the Playgirl editors were selling a kind of porn that “was about what women wanted”; I think the fact that Playgirl failed would sort of disprove that. If women are interested in porn, then presumably, they’d like some porn, thank you very much. And while Playgirl may have been the only magazine which offered naked men to women, the internet seems more than up to the task.

Second, whatever the bulk of the photo shoots were, Playgirl was porn. According to the Times, “the editors strove to publish articles that were saucy but relevant.” Why? What exactly is that doing to feminize porn? I’ve heard more than one old man (and a few creepy high school classmates of mine) claim they read Penthouse for the articles. Usually, it was a joke. And the times that it wasn’t didn’t seem to warrant a response. If I think of good journalistic reporting, I don’t typically think of a porno mag. Nor do I think there is much reason to try to mix good journalistic reporting with naked photos.

At bottom, if I want to read something decent, I’ll read something decent. Porn seems more suited to telling me about how Bunny gratefully thanked the man who fixed her car. If porn were full of intelligent articles, would we want it left on coffee tables to stimulate discussion, or would we still want to keep it on the top shelf? I can see how someone could argue that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies, and that perhaps Playgirl’s blend of stories by Joyce Carol Oates with photos of erect penises was a way to legitimize the latter, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If I think bodies are nothing to be ashamed of, you’re preaching to the choir—in a way that barely makes sense—and if I think pornography is disgusting and bodies something to be ashamed of, then I will go buy Oates’ book, and you can keep your porn.

Finally, I have to turn to the whole underlying idea of porn being capable of providing any kind of feminist response to degrading porn. It won’t, and it can’t. Even if you think that fire can be fought with fire, you missed the point. Providing more feminine porn, at most, will allow anyone who wants to see such porn to get it, but it won’t change anyone’s attitudes.

It makes sense to me that advertising influences attitudes; when I walk through the checkout aisle in a store, I have two emotions. First, I’m jealous. Every woman’s magazine seems to feature at least one cover article on how to sexually please a man, and that makes me jealous, because guys are just out of luck in that regard. I’m of the opinion that girls are much complicated in that regard, and when you’re 15, there is nothing in the check-out aisle telling you what to do with your high school girlfriend. Second, I realize how overbearing it is—aside from the implication that women need to please their guy to keep him around (and had better read the magazine to learn how, rather than learn to communicate; which, after all, is about the only way most guys have a chance of figuring it out), the entire magazine seems devoted to explaining how to be aesthetically pleasing to men. The same goes for commercials, billboards, and everything else.

But here’s the fundamental difference between advertising and pornography. The former has the chance to affect your attitudes from, essentially, birth. You can’t choose to ignore it; it’s everywhere. The latter, on the other hand, must for the most part be sought out. The fact that gonzo porn, or gangbang porn, or bukkake, or other ridiculous stuff exists is not influencing people to objectify women more so than they already are. Think about it this way: If a man actually pays attention to what porn stars are in a given film, or if he is someone who is actually influenced by pornography advertising, then it seems a pretty safe bet to guess that he (a) already has a pretty sad view of women, (b) is probably not a fine specimen himself, and (c) is not at risk to have a worse view of women due to the pornography he is watching.

Consuming porn means googling your preferred sexual act. The failure of Playgirl ought to serve as proof that offering a “better” brand of porn isn’t going to change your sexual preferences, or your view of sex. Your sexual preferences might change when you get your driver’s permit and actually have it for the first time, and they’re certainly going to change over the course of your life. It seems sort of strange to think that the images you see on a screen are going to make you crave new things to do with your plumbing. And the way porn is advertised and marketed isn’t affecting those who are just entering the market for porn, either—14- and 15-year old kids are not checking out porn marketing, they’re still swiping their older brother’s friend’s old magazines. Or, to be more truthful, they’re googling sex in the family room late at night. The way that women and men are advertised in Tommy Hilfiger ads and portrayed in popular culture is going to influence people’s attitudes—the way women and men are advertised in porn is meeting something that’s already there. If I have to ask for something wrapped in brown paper behind the counter; if I have to go to the sketchy store on the outskirts of town; then it’s not influencing me until I’m already going to get it.

There’s perhaps a middle ground, that poses a problem—the ads for strip clubs which seem to be on top of every other taxicab, whether you’re in New York or Nashville. Those half-naked, fake breasted women are out in the middle of the day, and perhaps that is causing some Robbie George-esque degradation of the moral ecology, but they tend to seem far less risqué than the ads for perfume or cologne that are plastered all over the bus stop.

If you’re against porn, producing porn of really, any kind is not the way to go about it. Neither, of course, is banning it; if you believe that, we need to have a little chat about that whole War on Drugs thing. If you’re a feminist opposed to porn, the response ought to be aimed at changing the socially acceptable view of women, not producing more of the former.

A special message to the drunk guys walking past my window

by Chloe Angyal

For future reference, please be aware that drunkenly shouting any of the following things at your friends while walking past my window as you return from the Street makes you sound like a misogynist and a homophobe:

"You cocksucker!"
"You are such a pussy!"
"Man, that girl is such a slut"
"Dude, you're such a lame cocksucker"*

Is that really the best you can do, guys? Bambi would say, "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." I say, if you're going to drunkenly spew hatred, at least be original about it. And try not to wake us up with it.

*Extra congratulations to the subject of this last epithet, who has apparently managed to perform fellatio despite having use of only one of his legs.

A woman is not an ovary

by Christina DiGasbarro

In this past Friday’s Daily Princetonian, columnist Michael Collins argued for increased regulation of egg donations, and he posed the question: “Did early feminists fight to keep the government out of their ovaries just so the free market could invade?” I think the answer to this question is a resounding “no.” While increased regulation is perhaps the best place to start an attempt to remove the free market from women’s ovaries, regulation is not the final solution. We should also be discouraging egg donations and hopefully, someday, do away with egg donation altogether

There are certainly risks inherent to the procedures necessary to collect a woman’s eggs, as there are risks inherent to any and all medical procedures, but I find egg donation troubling for reasons to go beyond the physical and psychological risks. Recruiting certain types of women for egg donation seems suspect from the first because such a process implies that some women—and therefore some eggs and the children produced from those eggs—are better or more valuable than others. However, as humans, don’t we all have inherent equal worth?

I think, though, that the deepest root of my trouble with egg donation is the fact that it’s not really donation: egg donors are paid for their eggs. I’ve often wondered why egg ‘donors’ can be paid but not organ donors; why, when it is illegal to sell one’s organs and body parts, is it legal to sell one’s eggs, which are not only products of one’s body but also one-half of a potential child?

The reason we do not sell our organs is partly because it would create unfairness in the recipient pool: the wealthy, who could more easily afford the organ or other body part they needed, would end up receiving treatment first, while the poorer would have much less than a fair chance of receiving what they need. First and foremost, however, I think we dislike the idea of selling organs because attaching monetary value to body parts turns the body—the person—into a commodity. And a commodity is an object, something that can be bought and sold and used, and then discarded when it has outlasted its usefulness.

This logic applies equally to egg donation. Paying a woman for her eggs reduces her to her minimal reproductive function; she becomes a mere egg-maker. Making eggs a commodity turns children into commodities as well. This objectification of women and children is not something we ought to encourage in a society where we profess the equality of all human beings.

I have nothing but sympathy for couples struggling with infertility, but I cannot agree that seeking the eggs of another woman is the best way to address the problem of childlessness. Regardless of intentions, turning eggs and the women who provide them into commodities reduces the full humanity of the donors. Regulation of egg donation is necessary for now, to protect and inform the women who do donate their eggs. It would also make sense to prohibit paying a woman for her eggs, just as paying a person for his or her kidney is prohibited; if egg donation is no longer a business transaction, it is less objectionable, but still ought to be discouraged. Regardless of compensation, selecting women for their eggs reduces a full woman to a simple organ: her ovary. And I think we can all agree that women are more than their reproductive organs.

In response to "On hooking up and hormones"

by Eva Wash

In his recent piece “On hooking up and hormones,” Equal Writes contributor argued that we ought to focus less on the differential hormonal effects of hook ups on women and men, and more on the culture part of the “hook up culture.” To this, I would say that of course no one talks about oxytocin when they are discussing (either ambivalently, proudly, or regretfully) their hook ups. It’s like how one rarely mentions the physiological details of alcohol’s effects when reminiscing about nights on the Street—but it’s important information to know regardless. I appreciate Josh’s stance about looking at the bigger picture and recognizing individuals’ experiences, but I’d like to clarify that in my previous post, “A feminist, scientific perspective on the hook-up culture” I was not trying to argue that hook up behavior is purely determined by our biology. Nor was I trying to say that men are emotionally numb when it comes to sexuality, for I know of copious and salient exceptions.

However, in writing about the role of oxytocin in hooking up, I was using a very specific, biological example to demonstrate what very few can deny: that by our very physical and psychological differences (yes, even hormones!), women are often more vulnerable in hook ups. To name some obvious examples, women are at risk for pregnancy and for HPV, which men can carry, but which is only symptomatic in women. Moreover, we not only have to worry about pregnancy as a possible result of our behavior, but possible infertility later.

Finally, there are the emotional consequences. So many women I know, when told that we have a tendency to become more easily attached in sexual relationships and suffer feelings of confusion and hurt, say something to the effect of “duh!” The possible causes for this are myriad, and it’s most likely a variety of aspects acting in conjunction that result in an individual woman’s response. As Josh effectively asserts, the emotional motivations and reactions to hooking up are often deeper than just biology, and he is right in saying that these should not be ignored in an evaluation of the hook up culture. Yet, having some concrete and universal evidence, such as the activity of oxytocin, is significant, if at least because it helps a woman who has been scarred by casual sexual activity to understand that it’s not because of some personal defect or flaw but because we may have such innate predispositions. Also, it’s just another factor that women (and men) should be cognizant of when considering a casual hook-up.

Anyway, I’m glad to have sparked a broader discussion of the hook-up culture and invite further perspectives, from men and women, on the issue. Thanks to Josh for his insight and perceptiveness.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Women in the sciences

Prince columnist Ben Chen has a great column today on women in Princeton's B.S.E program:

"Those in the more male-dominated disciplines, however, felt more discriminated against and felt they were taken less seriously as students than males in their field. A common complaint was that they had to prove their intelligence. They said people assumed they were dumb until proven intelligent, while most people naturally assumed the males were already intelligent unless proven dumb."

Bad news, people. That's not just a science thing, and it's certainly not just a Princeton thing: studies show that women in business, especially those in positions of leadership, experience this phenomenon all the time. Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, backwards and in heels, and he was still the star.

That said, props to Ben for a great column.

Calling all modern art fans... a round-table with ROSEMARIE TROCKEL at 4:30 in the James Stewart Theater at 185 Nassau.

by Molly Borowitz
Rosemarie Trockel is a professor of sculpture at the Academy of Dusseldorf, a Fellow on Princeton's Humanities Council, and—most relevant to our purposes here—a German feminist artist specializing in sculpture, computer-drawing, and video. Her recent series of video works, Manus Spleen, focus on reinterpretation of Bertholt Brecht's troubling play Mother Courage and Her Children (1938/9). Brecht's work throws maternal love into relief against war profiteering; Courage, a travelling saleswoman during the Thirty Years' War, ends up sacrificing all three of her children to her business. Brecht's intention was not to create an unflattering portrait of woman—he explains in the play's Notes and Variants that he wanted to highlight war's ability to pervert our virtues and emphasize our fears, thus demonstrating that war must be avoided at all costs—but Courage's unwitting sacrifices call the role of woman-as-mother into question. Once a mother, do her children's needs take center stage? Or does her responsibility to put food on the table (ostensibly Courage's goal in clinging desperately and stubbornly to the wagon that contains all her merchandise) trump her provision of constant maternal attention and supervision? One by one, Courage's children disappear while her back is turned; her mind occupied by business, she loses them all to violence.

Trockel is similarly preoccupied with the womanhood/motherhood dilemma; in the past twenty years, the EGG has been one of her most frequently recurring motifs. We see it in computer drawings of women lying with their stomachs on the floor, looking down at scattered collections of photographs; in installations with curtains of blown eggs collected from hens living inside a perfectly-engineered chicken coop; in her short video Out of the Kitchen into the Fire (1993), wherein a naked woman "lays" an egg that drops onto the floor beneath and shatters, leaving an ink stain in the shape of a human form. With this symbol of fertility, Trockel proudly asserts her womanhood—its significance was even more potent twenty and thirty years ago, when debates raged over whether women were truly capable of producing art. As if in reply, Trockel's works often incorporate wool or other knitted materials, clothing, and kitchen tools—art critics Ingvid Goetz and Rainald Schumacher praise the subtle feminism with which she transposes "woman's handicrafts and the kitchen as the woman's traditional place, into the realms of high doing so, she enhanced the cultural and ideological value of these traditional activities and role distributions" (p. 11 of Rosemarie Trockel: Sammlung Goetz, an exhibition catalog from her 2002 exhibition in Munich). Rather than asserting her ability to create "like a man" or producing "men's" art, Trockel finds a new synthesis between modern aesthetic and social tradition, effectively carving a space for women in the modern art world.

To my mind, Trockel's attempt to fuse high culture with traditional gender roles is a powerful statement—one worthy of a full house of feminists this afternoon. 4:30 pm, James Stewart Theater, 185 Nassau Street. I hope to see you there!

Keep Facebook from subliminally eroding your self-esteem!

by Amelia Thomson-Deveaux

If you, like me, are sick of being constantly bombarded by crazy diet ads, here is an excellent suggestion from Cruella_blog of the Feministing community: take your gender off your Facebook. As I learned this summer while investigating Facebook for the National Organization for Women, the site has a very elaborate targeting system which allows advertisers to direct ads toward a particular age & gender. Hence the ads which threaten: "Overweight at 19?" or "Want to lose 15 pounds by Christmas? Try the diet everyone's talking about!" Women seem to be particularly targeted by these ads (although men, I would love to hear what's being advertised in your Facebook sidebar), but there's an easy fix - stop letting Facebook advertisers profile you just because you have a vagina!

Hillary Clinton's new hairstyle and other matters crucial to the future of America

by Chloe Angyal

The top story on New York Magazine's website is that future Secretary of State Clinton has debuted a new hairstyle. Also, come January she will be the face of President Obama's foreign policy. But let's talk about what really matters: hair.
The face of American foreign policy? Yawn. We've already spent an entire primary campaign discussing that face and whether or not it's had Botox - clearly, it's time to move upward from the epidermis and on to the hair.
Seriously, New York Magazine? This is why people think that fashion blogs are frivolous.

Thanks to Lizzie for the tip!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Avatars, arm-wrestling and washboard abs

by Roscoe Cafaro

I have been reading Equal Writes for a while now and multiple times there have been posts about how women should appreciate their bodies more. That’s sweet, no doubt, though I must say, as a guy there is just as much pressure, if not more, too not only look strong, but be strong so you can defend yourself or assert your manliness or whatever, God only knows why. Obviously this is inherently tied with how men view women, seeing as the most common insult on a weak-perceived male is the term “pussy;” honestly the effeminacy speaks for itself.

I was originally going to post about how X-Box has recently come out with an update that allows you to create your own avatar [an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user (as in a computer game) for those who don’t know what an avatar is]. This avatar can be completely customized and can actually look remarkably like you (If anyone wants to come and see mine, it’s pretty awesome, not gonna lie).

But earlier today, I changed my mind, because earlier today I was at Breaking Down Barriers, a Down syndrome conference that brings some two to three hundred children with down syndrome and pairs them with student volunteers for a day of fun and revelry (and exhaustion!). One of the most interesting aspects of the syndrome, particularly for those who have a very mild form of it, is the fact that they find it very hard to pick up on social cues as they grow up. In fact, many customs we take for granted, such as anything to do with sexuality and defecation, for them, have to be taught in a classroom.

I preface with this because it was not that surprising that some of the teenagers in the group were well aware of their budding hormones (“I like girls!” they would say). All kids that age are bound to be awkward and are no doubt in the process of building their self-esteem. However, my buddy, a 16 year-old named Max, met me in the Friend Center around 12:30 this afternoon, and by 12:45 he was arm-wrestling just about anything that had arms. The guy lifts weights and was actually stronger, while not bigger looking, than me. He would roll up his sleeves to show off his muscles, and soon, boys started flexing at each other and arm-wrestling each other. As they do wherever there are teenage boys and anything with boobs, things started to escalate; not to the point of fights but certainly to the point of accusing cheaters, trying to intentionally hurt the person who had beaten them and getting angry and agitated all around. It was such a clear alpha-male-type situation that it resembled a pride of lions fighting for that coveted spot.

It had been such a long time since I interacted with teenagers that I had almost forgotten whether this was the type of situation kids without Down syndrome face, or whether this was unique to the syndrome. When I spoke with one of the professors there that specialized in abnormal psychology, he shattered what I thought to be a clear win for biological aggression and survival of the fittest. Apparently, kids with Down syndrome are especially susceptible to media, particularly normative media such as advertisements and movies, and they are very much influenced by what society prescribes (for example, he explained that kids with Down syndrome do not judge the beauty of models; rather they take it as an authoritative claim about beauty).

One has to wonder how much society is pressuring men to go to the gym for that cut muscle, to strive for expensive signaling goods, and to feel like they have to dominate all other men around them physically for fear of losing their “mate.” A lot of people come out of an experience with Down syndrome “learning a lot” and “with more open eyes,” mostly because they realize that those kids are people too and they are really not that different from us. It was a bit more unsettling for me to realize that what I’ve learned is only that we are not so different from them. By the way, I hate using an “us and them” mentality - we are all people after all, no matter how disabled. Nonetheless, it allows me to make the point that we are just as susceptible to societal pressures, if not more so, than people with Down syndrome.

Old-Fashioned Much?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

The gossip from the Capitol today: Representative Linda Sanchez (D-California) is pregnant. This would not be terribly remarkable (eight congresswomen have become pregnant while in office since 1973), except for the fact that (gasp!) she's not married.

Is it still 1960? Are we really going to be shocked by the fact that Rep. Sanchez (who is "unofficially engaged" to her boyfriend of a year and a half, the father of the baby) got pregnant out of wedlock? The L.A. Times columnist, Patt Morrison, who "broke" the story, tried to be positive, writing that "Twenty years ago, it simply wouldn't have been possible -- pregnant, single and a member of Congress? Oh, the scandal! But Hester Prynne has morphed into Juno MacGuff, the culture wars have been fought to a truce of exhaustion, and 'unwed mother' has been recast as 'single mom.'"

However, even she had to admit that, for Rep. Sanchez (and Bristol Palin), single motherhood is a temporary condition. What about a congresswoman who chose to have a baby outside of a heterosexual relationship? It's nice that a woman who seems to be months away from marrying her partner can announce her pregnancy with only a ripple of astonishment, but really, why should we even be talking about her baby, regardless of its legal status? I'm going to have to disagree with Ms. Morrison - this isn't really a sign of progress.

On hooking up and hormones

by Josh Franklin

Following the discussions about hooking up on campus, I've become bothered by the way that this issue is typically framed. If what concerns us is a hookup culture, then why do we seem so keen to avoid talking about culture?

In her recent post "A feminist, scientific perspective on the hook-up culture", Equal Writes contributor Eva Wash discussed scientific findings revealing a gender disparity in the release of the attachment-producing hormone oxytocin in response to physical intimacy. Commenting on the article, readers were interested in debating the significance and legitimacy of this claim. How should we react to learning that women are biologically predisposed to developing emotional attachments from physical encounters? How significant is this knowledge? The answer is: not very significant at all.

Even accepting the legitimacy of this research, knowing that women are more likely to develop problematic attachments is fairly insignificant. Feminists have worked against the common error of equating the statistical predispositions of a particular group with the character of individual group members. That is, there are many men who feel the repercussions of the emotional side of the hookup culture, and there are many women who can hook up frequently without those repercussions. I don't have any evidence to substantiate this claim, but I certainly know people who fit into both categories. I also think that it's odd for a feminist perspective to rely so strongly on biological determinism.

The point that I want to make is that biology doesn't give us a particularly insightful way of looking at the emotional ramifications of the hookup culture. The ways in which the hookup culture affects those who participate in it is not defined by some essential experience of physical intimacy that is constituted entirely in biology; rather, the emotions that we have after a hookup depend heavily on what a hookup has come to mean to us on campus. Why do people hook up? How do they view themselves, and how do their peers view them, after a hookup? I think it is these considerations that ought to shape our evaluation of the hookup culture.

Why do people hook up? It's certainly true that hooking up can be physically pleasurable. However, people also want to hook up because it gives them self-confidence, because it gives them a certain recognition in the eyes of their peers, because it gains them acceptance in a certain group or cultivates favor with a particular individual, because they believe that it's normal or that it's normative, because they need to confront their sexual insecurities, and so on. Participants in the hookup culture will necessarily react emotionally by referring their experience to the emotional needs -- the motivations -- that made them want to hook up in the first place. I'm not denying that the biological reality of sexual pleasure lies at the core of hooking up.

Rather, I want to call attention to the fact that the emotional response of someone who hooks up because he/she feels that all of her friends are doing it and that she needs to to fit in is going to exceed the issues caused by emotional attachment to a physical partner. Do we really need to measure levels of oxytocin to figure out that people want other people, that we want to have intimate relationships? It's sad that our dialogue on the hookup culture has replaced a deep window into the intersection of human intimacy, sexuality, and a culture of post-feminist promiscuity with a discourse dominated by biological statistics and moralizing language of propriety and freedom.

Findings about oxytocin and attachment are certainly interesting and probably valuable in some respect. However, the way in which they have been inserted into the debate on the hookup culture reflects the unfounded assumption that hooking up can be characterized merely as casual sexual encounters or the search for pure physical pleasure. Certainly those descriptions are salient in the explicit characterizations of what a hookup is. However, I want to call attention to the fact that on this campus hooking up follows a script of sorts, although it is an unwritten and only vaguely consistent script.

There are certain behaviors that are visible as 'normal hooking up'; they involve the street, alcohol, and a variety of other subtle performances between the two partners. I think that in order to understand how people react to their hookups, it's necessary for us to understand this script and how hooking up has come to signify for us more than just pure, casual pleasure. The way that we experience hookups is very interesting; much more interesting than a insight-less study claiming merely that women have more of a certain attachment-producing hormone following hooking up.

I've talked to a lot of people about their experiences with hookups, and they've said a lot of fascinating things, but nobody has ever mentioned oxytocin. Even if we take the oxytocin study seriously -- and we really ought to -- we are doing the discourse on the hookup culture a disservice by ignoring the experiences of those who participate in that culture.

What a drag

by Angie D

On Friday night, amid streamers, strobe lights, and syncopated techno beats, Princeton’s prettiest men and most handsome women strutted their stuff down a catwalk of glitz and parody at Terrace Club’s annual drag ball. The competition among the drag queens was fierce, as were the fake lashes, feather boas, and plunging necklines. The drag kings were no less impressive; Joe the Plumber and suit-clad Sean caused quite the stir – among male and female audience members alike.

Yet, while the spirit of the drag ball was certainly subversive (“gender bending” seems to liberate both men and women from the constraints of socially constructed identities), I couldn’t help but feel as though most costumes were simply affirming narrow and even misogynistic definitions of femininity and masculinity.

All but a handful of the drag queens were clad in highly sexualized costumes, many of which probably would have been recognized as demeaning to women in any other context. While the costumes varied – a scantily clad school girl, a police officer in an impossibly short skirt, and the night’s big winner, a sexy nurse with breasts as big and fake as his/her wig – the key elements of the most popular contestants’ get-ups did not; the audience went wild for men dressed as over-sexed, over-exposed women who flaunted their bodies for the enjoyment of those around them. The finalists, no coincidence, were not the drag queens dressed as grannies, but those that grinded on the judges waiting for lap dances during the final walk-off. If men dressed as women are supposed to challenge gender stereotypes, why were the women portrayed such stereotypical, objectified representations of femininity? Are gender expectations so strong that they cannot be overturned even by the ultimate celebration of gender subversion, a drag ball?

Lest I be accused of bias, let me not neglect the drag kings, who depicted their own host of stereotypes. This year’s winning drag king was dressed as (drumroll, please) a pimp. I wouldn’t want to belittle the king’s excellently crafted costume, nor his/her carefully executed demeanor on stage, but I worry that his/her victory confirms a further disturbing gender construct: the ultimate expression of masculinity is power over women and control of female sexuality. While I doubt that many women in the audience felt exploited or objectified in the atmosphere of revelry, we owe it to ourselves to question whether a drag ball might actually reinforce the gender constructs it purports to undermine.