Saturday, April 11, 2009

President Obama declares April Sexual Assault Awareness Month

On April 8th, President Obama declared April to be Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In his statement, Obama said that "Sexual assault scars the lives of millions in the United States." He made special mention of violence on college campuses, noting, "Unlike victims of sexual assault in the larger community, students victimized by other students often face additional challenges in a "closed" campus environment." In conclusion, he urged Americans "respond to sexual assault by creating policies at work and school, by engaging in discussions with family and friends, and by making the prevention of sexual assault a priority in their communities."

I think this is very exciting; it's wonderful that President Obama is helping add legitimacy to the knowledge that sexual violence is unacceptably prevalent both on college campuses and throughout the nation. In his announcement, he mentioned some statistics, which are familiar and tragic: 18 percent of American women have been raped, 10.8 percent of girls and 4.2 percent of boys in high school have been forced to have intercourse, and 13.7 percent of college women have been the victims of at least one completed sexual assault since entering college. Although studies vary in the exact numbers, what's clear is that sexual violence should be an urgent concern. I hope that we can accept the responsibility to work against sexual violence, and join President Obama in working to "
reduce the incidence of sexual assault and help all who have experienced this heinous crime"

This week in modern medicine

by Christina DiGasbarro

It goes without saying that modern medicine is a wonderful thing—life expectancy wouldn’t have risen by 20 or 30 years in places like the U.S. over the past century without improvements in medicine. There have been several interesting stories this past week attesting to the scientific advances of our time. Still, we need to assess the state and use of modern medicine from time to time, assuming we don’t want to get carried away by our medical prowess.

This week the Washington Post profiled women who choose to undergo double mastectomies. These women, however, have not been diagnosed with breast cancer: they are having these surgeries in order to avoid ever getting breast cancer, and that’s why the story seems unusual, because the double mastectomy is not strictly necessary. These women, though, have seen their loved ones suffer and die from breast cancer, or have found that they carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes that predispose them to breast cancer, so any way to avoid getting breast cancer seems like an attractive option, and rightly so. Still, it takes an enormous amount of courage for a woman to decide to get both her breasts removed, even if she already has breast cancer. It’s an emotionally fraught decision for two reasons: in the first place, no one wants to lose part of their body because our bodies are extremely important to us; in the second place—and this is unique to these cases—our culture’s standard of beauty places a premium on a woman’s breasts. While reconstructive surgery is an option after a double mastectomy, and women are taking advantage of that, the fact remains that silicone implants are not the same as one’s own breasts. Women who undergo double mastectomies to avoid getting cancer deserve a great deal of respect for their willingness to put aside conventional beauty norms (at least temporarily) for the sake of something vastly more important: their health.

CNN also reports the completion of a second partial face transplant in the U.S. Since 2005, when Frenchwoman Isabelle Dinoire received the first successful face transplant, there have been a few stories of other face transplants. Each time a team of doctors completes a face transplant successfully, they learn to improve the procedure and develop their skills, which they can share with others through teaching. For victims of maulings, freak accidents, burns, birth defects, tumors, etc., the prospect of a face transplant is surely heartening and offers the chance at an easier or more satisfactory life. Not to be alarmist, but I do think it’s important, as face transplants become easier and safer to perform, that we not allow people to elect unnecessary face transplants, and such limitations need to be considered now, pre-emptively. The fact that faces would have to come from cadavers or brain-dead people is reason enough to limit face transplants only to those who need a new face in order to properly eat, drink, speak, breathe, etc.—waiting for an organ is bad enough when you know that the people ahead of you on the list need the organ just as much as you do; imagine how much worse it would be if someone got a face transplant ahead of you simply because he or she wanted to, while you are missing half your own face and unable to communicate verbally. Furthermore, we would not want face transplants to become another option in the array of voluntary cosmetic procedures available to men and women with excess vanity and money (as for those lacking vanity and money, psychological counseling would probably be more productive than cosmetic surgery). There is something very important about faces and identity—for one thing, faces are important tools for recognition—and we ought to consider that very carefully when contemplating the prospects of face transplants.

Lastly, a Texas woman has harvested the sperm of her dead son, intending to save the sperm and find an egg donor and surrogate mother so that her son may posthumously father children. She plans to do this because, while her son lived, he expressed a strong desire to have children. While it is a tragedy that this woman has lost her son (he was only 21 and was killed in a fight), seeking to replace him, or replace the children he might have had, offers many ethical problems. In the first place, the effects on the resulting child need to be considered. Sooner or later, it would come out that the child’s biological father died before the child’s conception, and the child would presumably not know his or her biological mother, as the would-be grandmother plans to raise the child(ren) potentially conceived from her dead son’s sperm; there are bound to be psychological ramifications from learning this. The situation also brings up the same old questions about egg donation and surrogacy and the reduction of women merely to their reproductive organs and roles.

All of these stories raise questions about ethics, beauty standards, and the proper use of our bodies. It’s important to remember all of these things as medicine continues to advance. Whenever we come to a point where we know we can do a thing, it is vital to ask whether we should do that thing. Where should the line of permissibility be drawn?

Friday, April 10, 2009

A textbook case: sex education in the Lone Star State

by Chloe Angyal

Last week, the Texas Freedom Network released the findings its in-depth study of sex education in the Lone Star State.

As it turns out, sex “education” in Texas in anything but.

Did you know that fewer than 4% of Texas school districts teach medically accurate information on contraception and STI prevention? That’s more than 3.7 million American teenagers being denied life-saving information about how to protect themselves.

Did you know that 94% of schools are teaching abstinence-only education, wherein teenagers aren’t considered trustworthy enough to make smart, informed sexual decisions, and where women especially are taught that sex will make them unloveable “used goods”?

Did you know that Texan teens are being taught half-truths, kinda-truths and flat-out lies about contraception, like that the HIV virus is small enough to “get through” condoms? For those of us who were lucky enough to received comprehensive sex education, this last one sounds laughable, but the state of sex-ed in Texas is a very serious matter.

As the findings show, an overwhelming majority of Texan teenagers aren’t lucky enough to receive comprehensive sex education. And, as textbook battles in that state have shown us time and again, as goes Texas, so goes America. When it comes to textbooks and school curricula, Texas, due to the enormous size of its public school system, is seen as something of a testing ground for how other states might proceed. As far as sex education goes, Texas is setting dangerous precedents for the rest of the country.

It’s bad enough that schools, which are supposed to be teaching kids facts, are instead deliberately teaching them scientifically unsound information, like that the HIV virus can “get through” condoms or the unpardonable lie, told to students in the Baird Independent School District that “at least one of every fifty condoms does not meet leakage standards.”

But then there’s the danger of what happens when teenagers put those lessons in to practice. Telling students lies like these ones means that, when those teenagers break their forced abstinence pledges (and chances are, they will), they’re at an even greater risk of pregnancy and infection.

Finally, there are the outdated, regressive gender lessons that come with abstinence-only sex-ed, lessons that teach young people to fear and disdain female sexuality, while letting boys – those uncontrollable sexual beasts – off the hook. In the world of Texas sex “education,” girls are the gatekeepers, responsible not only for controlling their own sexual urges, because, as teachers following the “WAIT Training” curricula proclaim, having sex leaves women dirty and unmarriageable, but also because, as one curriculum claims, “if a guy is breathing, then he’s probably turned on.” In this world, women aren’t supposed to want sex, and shame on them if they do, and men are sex-crazed animals, aroused by the mere act of respiration.

As Texas goes, so goes America. Surely we, as Texans, as Americans, as human beings, can do better than this. Surely we can teach young people about the dangers and pleasures of sex without resorting to lying, shaming or scaring them. We can do better, and we must. Teen pregnancy rates are on the rise, and around 13% of the HIV diagnoses that happen every year are in people aged 13-24. This isn’t just about helping teenagers get good grades in Health class: their lives depend on it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Fun things you could do this weekend!

Looking for something to do this weekend? The weather is gorgeous now, but I hear that it's going to get rainy and cold again, so maybe you could hunker down for a day and see Angels in America, Tony Kushner's fantastic play about a diverse group of people in 1980s New York. This particular production is the collective senior thesis of three very talented students - director Sara-Ashley Bischoff '09 and actors Lovell Holder '09 and (Equal Writes' very own) Jordan Kisner '09. Millennium Approaches (Part One) and Perestroika (Part Two), the two halves of the famously massive play, will perform in rotating repertory at the Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio at 185 Nassau Street to combine for a six-hour theatrical experience. This weekend, Millennium Approaches will be shown on Thursday night at 8 and Saturday afternoon at 2, and Perestroika will be on Friday and Saturday night at 8. So if you're very brave, you could see the whole thing in one day!

Focusing on the AIDS crisis, Kushner uses the health epidemic as a lens through which he explores both literal and figurative diseases which plague American culture – strict definitions of sexuality, race, religion, politics, and family which threaten to destroy the body politic. Angels in America centers on two couples desperately trying to preserve their relationships as the world collapses around them. Amidst the crushing realities these couples encounter in 1980s Manhattan, Kushner weaves their lives together through a series of magical encounters in which ghosts appear in bedrooms, Valium-induced delusions transport characters to Antarctica, and angels come crashing through ceilings. When Angels in America opened in 1993, Newsweek proclaimed the work the “most ambitious American play of our time.” I saw the first part last weekend and it was wonderful - you should definitely check it out. Tickets are at Frist, and I believe they're student events eligible.

And if that's not enough, the Student Global AIDS Campaign and the Africa Development Initiative are hosting a dance-a-thon fundraiser this Saturday! The event is only three hours, from 9pm-12am in the Frist MPR. It'll be a fun a dance party complete with DJ, dance floor, neon gangster party hats, inflatable guitars, prizes, and snacks. Tickets are $7 each and student events/tiger tickets eligible. 100% of the proceeds will benefit the pediatric ward of Kamuzu Central Hospital in Malawi, where Mike Honigberg `08, is currently working. It's a good cause, and dancing's always great - what more could you ask?

Reasons we shouldn't believe cyberpolls (and other breaking news)

We're all sick of hearing about "sexting" at this point, so I'll keep this short and sweet. The Wall Street Journal has an article today about the so-called "sexting epidemic" - and how it may not be an epidemic at all. This isn't surprising, but it's satisfying to see a major news outlet counter the statistic - which apparently was gathered through online polls. So it turns out that the kids who were asked may be self-selecting - the WSJ writes that "the same teenagers who have engaged in [sexting] could be the ones most likely to say they have done so in an online poll." So let's hope this teaches us a lesson about calling anything an "epidemic" and throwing eighth-graders in jail.

More news:

iPhone apps have gone too far. Now they're providing exoticized women for your viewing pleasure - through the Cute Asian Girls iPhone app. There are posts at Racialicious and The Harpyness if you want to read more - this is really appalling.

Tourists have been asked not to harass Kyoto's geishas. The NYT reports that geishas are often ambushed and surrounded for close-up pictures. "Sometimes, they say, the tourists block their way, pull their sleeves, and at times have even caused them to trip over." Apparently the tourists have even pulled geishas' hair. This is yet another example of the total inability of American tourists to behave themselves abroad - geishas seem foreign, so we don't have to treat them like people - they're just exotic prostitutes, right? Wrong. Geishas don't engage in sex with their clients, and even if they did, that doesn't excuse constant harassment.

The pap smear may soon be no more. A new DNA test for HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer, has proved to be much more effective than the traditional pap smear. The experts say that if this DNA test takes off, "women over 30 could drop annual Pap smears and instead have the DNA test just once every 3, 5 or even 10 years." Pap smears have been very effective in the past, so people may be reluctant to completely abandon them - but these DNA tests could be a great alternative in third-world countries, where pap smears are often ineffective.

Thoughts from Anna Rose, Part 3: "The Reactions I Get"

This is the third in a series of posts about my experiences with a sexual pain disorder, and my journey toward a cure.*

Since I try to be an activist about my disorder, I end up talking to a lot of people about it. I once called in to a radio morning show doing a segment on weird disorders. And no matter where I go, without fail, no matter who I talk to--everyone from that radio DJ to my grandmother--I always get the same five reactions:

1) Are you a virgin? No, I'm not a virgin. If I were a virgin, how the hell would I know I have such a disorder?

2) Am I just too tight? No, I'm not. Vaginal muscles are made to stretch. It would be some bizarre trick of nature if muscles that can get to the size of a lemon, and are made to squeeze out a baby the size of a melon, somehow couldn't accommodate an ordinary tampon. Although I suppose that it's a bizarre enough trick that sex hurts.

3) Well, maybe my boyfriend's just too big. That might be it. After all, my boyfriend, who is otherwise the size and shape of an ordinary human male, has a penis like a medieval battering ram--sorry, I'm getting snarky. It just gets old that men are constantly assuming that their organs, which are tailor made to fit into my organs, are just too impressive for my fair little body. Wanna talk about frailty? Ever kick a woman in the crotch? No? That's because it won't make her crumple.

4) Perhaps it's that I don't get wet enough. I should use some lube. You're a freaking genius. You're absolutely right, I should have gone out and bought myself a bottle of AstroGlide before subjecting myself to five years of poking and prodding by a dozen different doctors. Lube must be the answer, and after all this time, you're the first great mind to suggest it.

5) Wrong hole. Anyone who tells me this is a fucking moron, or probably covering up their nervousness and confusion.

I'm not being fair. It's not anyone's fault. No one is ever told these disorders exist, even medical students. People are just trying to figure out what's going on, somehow rectify such a thing with their own experience of sex. They're asking themselves these questions as much as they're asking me. So I'm patient, and I answer. Over and over.

And during my times as a wild college student, I had to explain to men--over and over--that, though I was perfectly willing to get into bed with them, I couldn't actually have sex with them. And in these instances, the reactions could not have differed more. I've had a large variety of encounters with a huge variety of men, across two continents. In my experience, there is no such thing as a typical encounter. And those encounters and reactions have taught me so much.

I had one man look at me like I'd just told him someone close to me died, then bundle me up in his arms and comfort me till he went home and did all the research he could. I didn't actually need comforting, as it happened, but I think he did.

I had another guy come half a centimeter away from raping me (I told him about the pain disorder but not the black belt). The thing is, I don't think he meant to do it. The realization of what could have happened shook me, but it terrified him. I think he just really didn't know how to process the information. He was different, gentler, much more tentative, for the rest of the night. This guy wanted sex really, really badly--but he wouldn't be a rapist.

My most educational encounter was with a friendly acquaintance--a classmate--who I'd been doing the we're-after-each-other dance with for a while. It was finals time of our juniors years of college, and we were both going abroad the following semester. We liked and respected each other, and were hot for each other. We had a fun night. But when I told him about my disorder, his shoulders relaxed, and he said, "Wow, that's a relief," and smiled a nervous version of his awesome smile. He'd been feeling the same pressure to perform as I had, and didn't actually want to--this attractive, charismatic, confident guy. Totally contrary to male stereotype, he didn't want to have sex, perhaps for all the reasons that women stereotypically don't want to have sex.

And I, who had a totally abnormal sex life, began to wonder: What is normal? Is there such a thing? What do normal college students do when they're alone in a room on a Saturday night in spring? And what did my friend think was normal? I'd assumed that there was some very general trend that I just wasn't privy to, and that night was the beginning of my discovery that I was wrong. Just like there's no typical reaction to my weirdness, maybe everyone has their own weirdness that everyone else reacts to in different ways. And when you look at it like that, if you think that every person is so different, and every combination of two different people just doubles the potential for quirkiness, how could there ever be such a thing as "normal?" I wonder if our expectations of a "normal" hookup come from Hollywood, just like so many other expectations.

If sex is so varied, and a combination of such personal expressions and explorations, how could those expectations, how could stereotypes, have ever developed in the first place? Victorian values, maybe, or some famous sex scene in the past. And I wonder if other people think they're weird for not fitting into those stereotypes--whether it be because they don't want them, don't like them, aren't good at them, feel nervous about them, or just aren't sure if they're part of the norm or not, and they're trying, to please their partner, who is of course definitely part of the norm.

Well, I know: I am not normal. I can't do what's normal. So I've had to work around that, I've had to create new expectations. It's taught me more about myself, and about sex, than I think I would have known otherwise. It's made me more open-minded, I think.

My favorite "I can't" conversation, and that dearest to my heart, was with a friend who said, "Okay," and smiled, and kept kissing me. I rode those endorphins for an entire day.

Anna Rose

*If you have chronic pain during intercourse and you know you have no history of sexual violence, you may have a pain disorder, and you should see a doctor. Get opinions from several different kinds of doctors, especially non-conventional if possible.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Antifeminism 101 with Phyllis Schlafly and Gwyneth Paltrow

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I can't believe we're still listening to this woman. Phyllis Schlafly, who was at the forefront of the campaign to stop the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (which was intended to ensconce gender equality in our constitution - what a crazy idea!) in the early 1980s, was interviewed in Time yesterday and is still spouting views that are breathtakingly wrong and intolerant. According to Schlafly, "[Feminists] have given us divorce, millions of fatherless children and the idea that it's O.K. to be a single mom." She goes on to say that had the ERA been passed, gay marriage would have been legal 25 years ago, directly causing the collapse of the American family, despite the fact that she has a gay son (the gay community tried to make a "thing" about this at one point, she says, but her son understands that keeping marriage rights from people of his sexual orientation is part of the "need for a stable society", so it's ok). But really, the problem isn't with those scary gays - it's with feminists. "The feminist movement," says Schlafly, "is not about success for women. Feminists don't honor successful women. You never hear them talking about Margaret Thatcher. Take Condoleezza Rice."

Right. So wanting women to be paid equally - not about success for women. Wanting women to have control over their own bodies - definitely not about women's independence. Wanting women to have sexual autonomy - really about wanting women to be victims. Let's just venerate Condoleezza Rice because she is a woman (not because we agree with her policies) and forget that women routinely face job discrimination, our reproductive rights are constantly under attack, we are essentialized in motherhood and racialized and sexualized because of our gender.

And while I'm angry: let me just say, Gwyneth Paltrow's blog, Goop, makes me want to tear my hair out and claw the walls. Here's a choice sample from Paltrow's January newsletter:

"It is that time of year, folks. I need to lose a few pounds of holiday excess. Anyone else? I like to do fasts and detoxes a couple of times during the year, the most hardcore one being the Master Cleanse I did last spring. It was not what you would characterize as pretty. Or easy. It did work, however. As I do not wish to subsist on lemon water in the middle of winter, I asked my doctor, a detox diet specialist, for the guidelines he uses to achieve a good detox that is not as hallucinogenic (in a bad way) as the Master Cleanse. He actually thinks that the Master Cleanse can be dangerous because the liver is not supported by the nutrients it needs."

Really? Only drinking lemon water can be dangerous for your body? And are there diets that can be hallucinogenic in a "good way"? Paltrow claims that her blog is there to help us "nourish the inner aspect" but it sounds more like she wants us to "nourish the inner eating disorder." I never thought I would say this, but I wish that Gwyneth Paltrow would start making movies again.

Thanks to Aku for the tips!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


by Jordan Bubin

There are very few things about which Robbie George and I agree. One of them is that it’s factually impossible for the government to be neutral on marriage. It’s amusing—in a sad way—to hear politicians claim to be neutral on the issue; you’re either for, or against. The issue gets all sorts of pretend-complicated when the principles of federalism and constitutional interpretation get worked in there, but not really: the state is either protecting you, or its not. It either grants you rights, or it denies them. In the last week, two more states have recognized this, and decided to get on the list of states which have removed their heads from their rectums.

Last week, as Laura Smith-Gary already mentioned, Iowa’s Supreme Court declared that laws prohibiting marriage based on the gender of the parties involved violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa State Constitution. It seems (to me, anyway) to be frequently argued that a same-sex marriage ban is not discriminatory, for it doesn’t in fact prohibit anyone from getting married. The argument sucks pretty hardcore, but I feel that gay marriage efforts, in response, shy away from the idea of equal protection. Here’s the Iowa court’s thoughts, when I’m stuck reading some cramped argument for class about how same-sex marriage bans are in no way discriminatory,

“It is true the marriage statute does not expressly prohibit gay and lesbian persons from marrying; it does, however, require that if they marry, it must be to someone of the opposite sex. Viewed in the complete context of marriage, including intimacy, civil marriage with a person of the opposite sex is as unappealing to a gay or lesbian person as civil marriage with a person of the same sex is to a heterosexual. Thus, the right of a gay or lesbian person under the marriage statute to enter into a civil marriage only with a person of the opposite sex is no right at all.”

Judicial decision are frequently full of cramped reasoning due to the constructed categories of the cases that came before it, and this one is no different, but it got it right above. Props to the salt-of-the-earth in the Midwest, and hopefully neighboring states will get jealous of the tourism dollars about to pour into Iowa and emerge from their rectums as well.

Then today, Vermont’s legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to legalize gay marriage. What is awesome about this is that, though Vermont is now the fourth state to do so, it is the first where common sense arose in the legislature rather than through the court system. Don’t get me wrong; it’s great when the courts step in and patch things up. But I do think that, at times, doing so advances a cause by only a few years, and costs it many more by solidifying the opposition. There’s plenty of evidence to show that Roe v. Wade was what truly ignited the pro-lifers. Similarly, it seems to me that were Cali’s court to overturn Prop 8, it would merely serve to give fundies a springboard from which to win resoundingly in the next go-round. Courts are cool—but they do come off as the unelected bastards thwarting the will of the people in such situations. Sure, it seems like the right thing to do, but it gives demagogues a great tool to whip up anger.

Hence, it’s great that Vermont stepped up, ignored Jim Douglas, and made good things happen. Maybe Iowa’s decision influenced their ability to listen to their consciences. Perfect. Hopefully, Vermont’s legislators, by showing that it’s possible, will pave the way for other states to do the same, and we won’t have to wait for courts to figure out the longest logical route to approving what’s morally right.

For fun, a brief history of marriage in America, look above (or follow this link). Ignore Dubya; he’s thankfully gone. But the other panels ring painfully funny to me.

Drunk sex or date rape: can you tell the difference?

I just wanted to let everyone know about an event on campus from 8-9pm tomorrow (Wednesday April 8th) in McCosh 10:

In today’s “hook-up culture” sexual encounters are too often fueled by alcohol. But, just because some students are getting drunk and hooking-up doesn't make it right…or legal. When does a hook-up cross the line? What do the terms “consent” “incapacitated” or “blackout” actually mean? The audience “hears” a trial based on the real-life sexual assault case of Todd and Amy, two college students involved in a drunken sexual interaction after a party. After learning the facts of the case, the audience votes as to whether or not Todd is guilty of sexually assaulting Amy. Brett Sokolow, a higher education attorney who specializes in sexual misconduct, will present this case. Sokolow is currently the President of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. Cosponsored with SHARE, SpeakOut, Office of Religious Life, Women & Gender Studies, Inter-Club Council, University Health Services, Women's Center.

I've seen Brett Sokolow's presentation before, and it's really worth attending!

Vermont is for lovers!

Vermont just became the 4th state to legalize gay marriage, after the legislature voted to override the governor's veto. The vote was 23-5 to override in the state Senate and 100-49 in the House. This vote came nine years after Vermont adopted the first civil unions law in the nation. Vermont now joins Iowa, Massachusetts, and Connecticut as one of the few states in the union with equal marriage laws. Vermont is now the first state to legislate gay marriage into existence.

Now 2/25ths of the country has equal marriage laws! 4 down, 46 to go. Way to go, Vermont state legislature. You rock my socks.

Sex-positive porn! Feminist porn?

by Josh Franklin

Okay. I did promise myself I wouldn't write about this anymore, but I saw this and I couldn't resist. It's a Feministe interview with Shine Louise Houston, the creator of the pornography producer Pink and White Inc. As the article describes it: an industry dominated by degradation and objectification, PW Inc is actively working to reclaim real eroticism in a healthy and sex positive way. Allowing the models to essentially script their own scenes, PW Inc’s model-empowerment strategy is revolutionary in its approach to porn. And revolution is damn sexy.

This is a very appealing idea. There is an understanding of pornography, often integral to feminist critiques, which sees the whole enterprise in terms of men objectifying and exploiting women for their own sexual pleasure. I believe in a feminism that makes visible possibilities for living lives without gender violence and exploitation, and pornography and sex in general are certainly legitimate objects for creating those possibilities. That's why I was very interested to read how the creator of PW Inc. felt about her endeavor, and the ethical ideas that guide her:

The core values are to stay true to my ideals of sex-positivity, so both on screen and off screen we are extremely respectful of the models. We really work with them to make them feel comfortable, we don’t ask anybody to do anything they wouldn’t otherwise do in their normal sex life. We have a mission to show different types of bodies: queer bodies, natural bodies.

But more than a guiding feminist ethic, Houston views the films she produces with PW Inc. as works of art, saying, "...I’m coming back to that idea that I’m an independent filmmaker and the films that I make happen to have a lot of sex in them because that’s also an aspect of humanity that really interests me." This is exciting, as is the fact that she describes her audience as fairly diverse. I understand that there are many problems with pornography, but work like Houston's at PW Inc. seems very promising to me. I think that this is the essence of sex-positivity: rather than essentializing and moralizing about various activities, we ought to think critically and honestly about how we can make sex--and porn, and all of the other countless aspects of our sexuality--good. I think the relative obscurity of institutions like PW Inc. is just one more reason why we need an open discussion of sex on campus and in general; it's a discussion that I hope can take us one step away from exploitation and objectification and one step towards good sexual lives for everyone, whatever that happens to be.

More on the topic of pornography from the University of Maryland, where students' public screening of Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge has sparked a controversial debate about free speech and open discussion of pornography.

Thanks to Chloe and Kalila for the tips!

Guys' biological clocks are ticking too?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

One of the running jokes in my favorite TV show, 30 Rock, has to do with Liz Lemon's "Big Ben-size biological clock." Liz (a professionally successful, usually single, somewhat neurotic late-30-something) is various episodes, she steals babies' shoes, accidentally walks home with a makeup artist's newborn, and picks up a (very short) guy on the street because she thinks that he's a small child and wants to ruffle his hair. Women's biological clocks are a staple of comedy - according to American culture, we're just ticking time bombs, "trolling for seed" (as Jack Donaghy puts it). Men are decidedly not - there are single men of the same age on 30 Rock, but they're mostly interested in porn. But the New York Times had a very interesting article a couple of days ago about a new study out of Australia - with the unexpected proposal that men's junk might go bad too.

We've known for a while that when the father is over the age of 40, the chances of autism skyrocket. But try throwing increased risk of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and lowered I.Q. into the mix, and you can see that even though men might be physically capable of having children later than women (and even this is questionable - older men have more trouble conceiving, just like older women), it's not always a good idea. The scientists come to a somewhat shocking conclusion - that "the optimal age for being a mother is the same as the optimal age for being a father."

This is very foreign to our cultural rhetoric. For years, women have been encouraged to have tests after the age of 35, to make sure that their child does not have Down's Syndrome. The "when" of having a baby is, for a woman, a nearly impossible scheduling challenge - too soon means no career, too late means lower odds of having a healthy baby. Liz Lemon is just one example of women in American culture: we need to beat the clock. But men - they've got all the time in the world. And so this is why women are baby-crazy and men are reluctant to settle down, why men can't commit and women need that ring immediately! But what if men were hearing that ticking just as clearly? The NYT writes:

"What if 30-year-old women started looking at 50-year-old men as damaged goods, what with their washed-up sperm, meaning those 50-year-olds might actually have to date (gasp!) women their own age? What if men, as the years passed, began to look with new eyes at Ms. Almost Right? Would men of all ages come to understand — firsthand, not just from the sidelines — the fear that the very passage of time will put your not-yet-conceived baby at risk?"

It's not healthy for any of us to think of our bodies as having "sell-by" dates. But it does recast these unfair images of modern motherhood, if the timing for fatherhood is seen as equally challenging.

Abstinence-first education: truth, choice, and a responsible alternative

by Kelly Roache

On the modern political spectrum, social conservatism is all too often automatically equated with a pro abstinence-only stance. However, the complexity of this issue demands a more nuanced view of the question at hand; for instance, Princeton’s own Anscombe Society has no position on the topic. If the ultimate aim of sex education is to protect both the physical and emotional wellbeing of the students it serves, perhaps a “middle ground” is the most suitable solution: that of abstinence-first education.

Abstinence-first shatters the arguments of its would-be critics by teaching about safe-sex (and even sex in general, nullifying a major criticism of abstinence-only), but being expressly clear that abstinence is the only 100% effective method for preventing the transmission of STDs, accidental pregnancy, and emotional consequences. Even initially, this approach may seem more agreeable to students while providing them with accurate information, something often lacking in sexual education programs around the country, but still expressing a clear preference for abstinence in light of these facts.

Critics of abstinence-only like to point to misinformation preached in a few notably exceptional districts as evidence that such programs support an underlying religious or ideological agenda. Not only is there a strong secular argument for abstinence, but I think most reasonable people, conservative and liberal alike, can agree that this should be the basis of an abstinence-first program, one founded in truth. And it follows that while neither religion nor fear of sex should be invoked as an agenda, neither should more liberal doctrines, such as the argument that students should be exploring their sexual freedom an identities at age 13.

Rather, when the goal is safety and happiness for our little sisters and cousins and nieces and – someday – daughters, the most effective tool is truth. Too many sex ed programs tout condoms as a magical solution preventing disease and pregnancy when used properly. However, condoms are almost completely ineffective when it comes to some lifelong STDs like herpes and HPV, whose implications range from lifelong outbreaks to an increased risk of cervical cancer. Spread by skin-to-skin contact, these viruses cannot be prevented through condom usage, but only by abstinence, giving schools a responsibility to endorse this method. Moreover, there has been an ongoing debate on this blog about abortion, and while we may disagree as to whether it is bad for women, I think there is little question that it is devastating for young girls. Nor is it desirable for a 16-year-old to raise a child either on her own or in a hasty marriage. By not clearly delineating sex, even with birth control, as potentially having the consequence of pregnancy, we fail in our responsibility to provide the most accurate information, thus protecting our girls’ agency.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for abstinence-first education is that it presents a choice, which is ultimately left up to the student; this is preferable to hearing only the abstinence argument or having it omitted all together in curricula that assume teenagers will have sex regardless. As feminists, we should laud abstinence-first programs as offering an alternative that protects girls and young women from the emotional damage that often stems from sex or even the pressure to have sex itself, while still providing them with information to keep them safe should they choose to be sexually active. By preserving this choice, but being honest about the risks and rewards involved, we can empower our girls by freeing them from the mold of a sexual object and allowing the facts to speak for themselves.

Waiting for sex? Fine. Waiting to teach? Not so much.

by Angelina Caruso

I’m not anti-abstinence, personally or politically (though it blows my mind that its an issue that’s becoming increasingly politicized.) Therefore, I think it’s fairer to say that I’m pro-sex education, not anti-abstinence only education. Language is of particular importance here when dealing with such touchy issues as morality and judgment. In regards to the argument for abstinence only education, I understand the anxieties about exposing young students to the dirty world of sex, but, in reality, they know about it already. Many of them have even been there. An outstanding number of high school students and even middle school students are sexually active. I have trouble finding the moral merit in a supposedly morally based argument for a singular focus on abstinence, when there are eighth graders having unprotected and potentially life-threatening sex.

There have been numerous studies that point to the ineffectiveness of abstinence only education. There is little to no evidence that they decrease the likelihood of premarital sex, STD rates in young people, or teen pregnancies. Preaching moral imperatives without explaining or recognizing other options is not an effective teaching tool for teenagers in any department, let along sex- a topic that, by its very nature, often ignites a desire to rebel or experiment

I’m all for including abstinence as a central part of sex education; there’s no denying that kids would be safer if they weren’t having sex. But there’s no question in my mind that the curriculum should cover safe sex, condom demonstrations, information about pregnancy and abortion (beyond it being what can happen because of “immoral choices”) and the realities of STDS, especially HIV/AIDS. As a society, we have the moral responsibility to help protect young people, not shelter them from a world that they’re absolutely guaranteed to come in contact with, contact that can be devastating if they’re not informed. I believe that teaching the basics should be mandated, while being mindful of appropriateness, accessibility and respect for those who are uncomfortable. I completely agree that abstinence is the safest form of protection and that casual, unprotected sex, especially at a young age, can be physically and emotionally destructive. Those who lobby for sex education aren’t calling for school sponsored orgies or lessons about the best sexual positions, but are instead recognizing the need that’s presented and dealing with it in the most safe and responsible way possible.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Photoshop: protecting women's modesty?

Israeli cabinet ministers Limor Livnat and Sofa Landver were in the photo taken of the Israeli cabinet last week, along with their 28 male colleagues. But you wouldn't have been able to spot them in the photos that were printed in Yated Neeman or Shaa Tova, two conservative Israeli newspapers, because they were either photoshopped or just blacked out. This is because in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, publishing pictures of women is considered a violation of female modesty.

The ultra-orthodox community distinguishes itself from mainstream society through traditional religious practices, including distinctive (and proscriptive) attire for men and women. Their lifestyle is certainly different, and I want to support their desire to live outside a society which they believe to violate their religious beliefs - but removing cabinet ministers from a photo just because it's a violation of their "modesty"? This seems to me to be both offensive to the female ministers and really, a case of burying your head in the sand - there are women in the cabinet (although not enough), and they get their pictures taken - and whether or not you think that's a violation of their modesty, removing them from the photos yourself will not change anything.

Thanks to Flora for the tip!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Japan... they're crazy over there!

by Josh Franklin

Over on Feministing I found this, about a bizarre Japanese breast vending machine. I think that we're somewhat used to seeing these kinds of sexual objectification from Japan, which invite responses varying from outrage to puzzled amusement. But what's interesting is the fact that we are so aware of this bit of sexism as uniquely Japanese.

At Feministing one commenter, selidor, brought this point up:

I'm really tired of the way every time someone posts an example of sexism in Japan, somebody comments on how sexist Japan is, or 'only in Japan' or something. There's sexism in every country - just because it comes in a slightly different package in Japan doesn't make it inherently worse or more perverted than the rest of the world. This is no different to all the American disembodied boob products, and Japan has vending machines for many things, so it's no surprise that sexism would be found in that area as well.

This was challenged on the grounds that Japanese culture is unique, and it's important to think about cultural idiosyncrasy when we examine sexism. It was pointed out that sexism manifests in different forms in different places: a breast vending machine is it's form in Japan, whereas the burqa can be it's form in the Middle East. Another commenter, nightingale, responded:

The fact that we go, "Only in Japan" when this kind of sexism pops up is racist. We don't do it for anything else. Imagine if we went, "Only in the Middle East" every time a burkah issue came up. It's not that it's not accurate (although this stuff does happen in America and Europe, even if we don't have vending machines we've still got plenty of disembodied female body parts), it's that it's racist to see sexism in Japan and immediately other Japanese people by elevating their sexism above everyone else's.

And, note, I'm not talking about this one case, but the fact that it's *every* time. The only time anyone mentions Japan on this blog is to imply that it's the most sexist place you can find.

I don't know if 'racist' is the appropriate term for these kinds of comments, but I think that there is clear evidence that Japan is constituted as the Other in terms of it's apparently incomprehensible culture of sexual objectification. The truth is that, although I am very aware of Japan's 'absurd' culture, I can't really explain in clear terms why Japan deserves its unique reputation. As far as I can tell, the ubiquitous understanding of Japan as the home of sexual oddity is merely an internet meme, a discursively produced truth, rather than a reasoned analysis of sexism in Japan.

But if our ideas about Japan are really more perception than reality, who is served by them? Or to put it differently, how does interpreting Japanese phenomena as bizarre affect our analysis of sexism in general? What I think is clear is that criticism of objects like the breast vending machine is invaded by our conception of what is 'normal' sexism. If we think of Japanese gender relations as especially crazy, which I take to be a pejorative interpretation, then I think it makes non-Japanese objectification seem normal or milder in comparison. By identifying Japanese sexism as absurd or bizarre, we invite a complacency about all other sexualization and gender discrimination. It seems to me that what's bizarre is not a breast vending machine in Japan, but that we've allowed ourselves to no longer speak of the sexism that surrounds us as bizarre or absurd. Singling out Japan isn't so much racist, as it is laziness; we focus on a legitimate, though superficial, cultural observation, to the exclusion of a strong and coherent analysis of sexism.