Saturday, May 2, 2009

My thoughts on Manicure for the Cure

by Josh Franklin

On Thursday in the Daily Princetonian, Grace Remington and our own co-editor Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux wrote about important concerns about the "Gentlemen, Save Second Base" campaign for Manicure for the Cure in their opinion piece entitled "A conversation about more than just cancer." They argue that the ads, which appealed to men for their support for breast cancer research and treatment on the basis of the sexual importance of breasts, are "offensive" and "tasteless" because they objectify women. Many have reacted negatively towards these criticisms, saying that the slogan is merely a joke; notably, the event's organizers have made us aware that the "Save Second Base" campaign is appreciated by breast cancer survivors: "...the slogan was meant to be lighthearted and fun; in fact, many breast cancer survivors have advocated using this slogan as a way to humorously raise awareness and funds." I feel that we ought to discuss this state of affairs, one that seems far too common, where feminists' legitimate criticisms of gender phenomena are met with the frustrating evasion, "can't you take a joke?"

First of all, I think that the critique of this campaign that has been made is absolutely correct. By highlighting the sexual function of breasts (and especially by directing that sexual function exclusively towards men), the ads reinforce the sexualization and objectification of women. But what I want to disagree with is the assertion that the slogan is tasteless or offensive; the truth is that it is funny, and its power to offend is mild.

Not that this should be the case. However, if the posters were truly offensive, or not funny, then there would be no gender critique to speak of. I think that this is a point that the counter-campaign made especially well with their posters that said "Save the Male G-Spot". Nobody thinks that sexualizing prostate cancer is funny, or even mildly clever; however, we seem to find sexualizing women with breast cancer hillarious. When Amelia and Grace write that the ads are offensive, I think that it would be more accurate to write that they ought to be offensive. As feminists, we strive towards a common moral sense that is offended by the objectification of women. What's problematic here is that we (and by we, I'm making a generalization about the broad reaction on campus--clearly, it excludes many people) don't find it offensive.

I want to reiterate that I agree that these posters sexualize and objectify women, and that this is bad. What I want to advocate for here is a discourse on gender issues that moves beyond emotion-laden categories of "funny" and "offensive". These are categories that have been mobilized by conservative politics in a variety of situations: women's sexuality, homosexuality, pornography, and generally free expression about sexuality have all been decried as offensive and suppressed. I think the fact that the sexual humor of breast cancer is an important support mechanism for survivors is a fact that many who have criticized this campaign have been too ready to dismiss. Yes, the campaign appropriates ideas that are an integral part of a culture and world that oppresses women. Yet the symbols of this culture are the only way that we know how to live. I think it's important to become aware of this oppression and work to change it. Yet I feel uncomfortable using such emotionally charged (and analytically empty) language about offense. I don't know how, but I want to try to think about a way of speaking about gender and sexuality and oppression with more subtlety (because I love subtlety), but more importantly, with more compassion, especially for women like the beneficiaries of the Manicure for the Cure.

A letter to campus about "Manicure for the Cure"

Dear Princetonians,

Thank you for your support and concern regarding Manicure for the Cure and its advertising campaign. Liz Consky and Brooks Yang, co-chairs of Manicure for the Cure, and Brenda Jin and Russell O’Rourke, engineers of the counter-ads and slogans, would like to issue the following joint statement about our views:

We believe there are two different issues being debated, which recent coverage from the Princetonian has turned into a single issue. We publicly recognize that the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which advocates breast cancer research and awareness, is not a cause that should be overlooked. The counter-ad campaign calls into question the implications of the advertisement rather than condemning the event. Several of the counter-ads have been removed at the request of Manicure and with the consent of Brenda and Russell.

We maintain that it is okay to disagree and discuss differences of opinion, and we are delighted that the recent heightened activism in response to the ongoing debates has been one that has raised awareness for both breast cancer research and feminism.

We are very grateful for a variety of feedback and individual discussions that are taking place, and we urge you to attend a public forum next week for all who are interested in discussing the issues at hand. Please be on the lookout for information about this event and come to express your views. We hope that this discussion can be part of an ongoing one on the Princeton campus.

Sincerely,

Liz Consky, Manicure for the Cure
Brooks Yang, Manicure for the Cure
Brenda Jin, Class of 2010
Russell O’Rourke, Class of 2011

Friday, May 1, 2009

Perez Hilton forces NOM off Youtube

Things I never thought I'd say: I love Perez Hilton. I'm sure you all heard about the National Organization for Marriage forcing all of the hilarious parodies of its absurd ad (which we covered a couple of weeks ago) off Youtube because of copyright infringement. Well, there is such a thing as karma, and it's working through a very unexpected source. NOM's latest ad, which was released yesterday and reportedly cost $1.5 million, was forced off Youtube because it contains unauthorized clips from Perez Hilton's video blog.

Oh, the irony. What a great Friday surprise! But I have to say, I am curious to see what nonsense NOM is spewing now. It's like a terrible talk show - you just want to know what they're going to do next!

Via Jezebel - thanks to Gracie for the link!

Granite justice leaves the Court

by Laura Smith-Gary

Justice David H. Souter is retiring from the Supreme Court. He's one of my favorites, and I'm honestly getting a little teary. (Yes. I am a geek.) He's flinty, funny, independent, intelligent, valiant in his dissent, and willing to think and change his mind. (wikipedia bio here.) He came in under George H. Bush as a little-known Republican, a choice made because Bork was rejected and Clarence Thomas was considered too inexperienced. His appointment was protested by women's rights groups and the NAACP for his unclear stances on abortion, affirmative action, and pretty much everything else. Believed by conservatives and liberals alike to belong to the Scalia school of constitutional thought, Souter was feared (and celebrated) as a potential dire threat to reproductive rights in America. Quickly becoming a deep disappointment to conservatives, he considered cases -- including abortion -- seemingly without a predetermined position, and in 1992 became a crucial vote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which affirmed a woman's right to an abortion with "no undue burden." Throughout his career, he supported the rights of individuals, including women's rights, fought for the separation of church and state, and strove to interpret the Constitution based on the words and intent of the United States' founders.

Souter dissented in Bush v. Gore, asserting that the court was inappropriately inserting itself into politics. Now, he is stepping down at a time when he will be replaced by President Obama instead of the man who gave us Justice Samuel Alito in place of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. This appointment is important.

The Boston Globe mentions a few possible replacements. I wouldn't be surprised if President Obama makes an effort not to appoint a blatantly progressive judge, but instead chooses someone moderately liberal who can stand up to Scalia et. al. but who won't be easily labeled (gasp) an activist. While the nominee's Constitutional expertise, positions on the issues and on the role of the Court, and integrity -- their basic qualifications -- are most important to me, wouldn't it be nice to see someone appointed who wasn't a white man? A few years ago Justice Ginsburg heart-rendingly told Ohio State students that being the court's only woman was "lonely" and that she missed O'Connor. There are a few women on various lists of possible nominees (and a few other people who are not white men, like Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick) -- I would be happy to see another female Justice.

Thank you, Justice Souter, for your steadfast service. I hope you enjoy your retirement in New Hampshire, and I hope your replacement will be as strong a voice for women, for individual rights, and for an apolitical court as you are.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Quick hit: Maine Senate passes same-sex marriage bill

In the words of our co-editor emeritus, Chloe Angyal, the storm is coming, and I am elated. Today, the Maine Senate voted 20-15 in favor of a marriage equality bill; the bill now moves to the House of Representatives, where the measure seems to have even stronger support. The Senate also vetoed an amendment to the bill that would put the question before the voters.

According to most polls, Maine voters are fairly evenly split on the marriage equality question. The state currently provides limited benefits to same-sex partners through a domestic partnership registry, but this bill is just one part of a surge for equal marriage across the northeast (and Iowa) - New Jersey may be the next to go from civil unions to full marriage rights. But New England is way ahead of the curve here - if Maine grants marriage equality, the only remaining New England states without equal marriage laws will be New Hampshire, where marriage equality is making giant steps in its legislature, and Rhode Island, where the issue is expected to be taken up sometime this year.

This is fantastic news. Let's hope this trend starts sweeping south, and across the country - this has been another great week for supporters of equal marriage.

Why aren't we testing rape kits?

by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite

Rape itself is an indescribable offense; the process of producing a “rape kit” thereafter seems only to add to the violation. As Nicholas D. Kristof writes here, “When a woman reports a rape…[s]he is typically asked to undress over a large sheet of white paper to collect hair or fibers, and then her body is examined with an ultraviolet light, photographed and thoroughly swabbed for the rapist’s DNA.” To add insult to twofold injury, these rape kits, Kristof reports, are often checked belatedly or not at all.

Leaving the rape kits untested – there are 12,669 rape kits idling in police storage in LA alone, according to Sarah Tofte for the Human Rights Watch – means, of course, that rapists are going unpunished. It means that in the interim between raping someone and being identified, a criminal can rape more women (or men). It means that sometimes, by the time a kit is tested, the statue of limitations has expired and the egregious crime remains unpunished indefinitely.

The underlying message to the delayed testing of rape kits is that rape isn’t serious. As Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, states, “If you’ve got stacks of physical evidence of a crime, and you’re not doing everything you can with the evidence, then you must be making a decision that this isn’t a very serious crime.” Leaving the kits sitting on shelves frustratingly undermines the trauma that rape produces—what an insult to the victims!

Marriage equality in the Granite State

by Laura Smith-Gary

Look out, people who are afraid of marriage equality, the Gay Marriage Thunderstorm is now not only gathering but is starting to rain a little.

Yesterday, by a vote of 13-11, New Hampshire's Senate passed a bill that would allow same-sex marriage. Although the House has already passed the bill, it's going back to them for approval because the Senate added an amendment, distinguishing between "civil" and "religious" marriage licenses and emphasizing that religious leaders will not be obligated to perform any marriages that they don't want to. The governor, a moderate Democrat, has not yet said whether or not he will sign the bill. In 2007 he signed a bill legalizing same-sex civil unions, but he opposes the bill as he does not believe in applying the word "marriage" to same-sex couples.

If the bill is signed into law New Hampshire will become the fifth state to legalize same-sex marriage, and the second state to do so through its legislature. As the picture of activist judges ramming through a Gay Agenda against the will of the people erodes, and as legislators take steps to extra steps to ensure that even intolerant religious freedom is not threatened by this civil action, it seems that opponents of gay marriage are being forced back into a few tenuous arguments: children are better off being raised by a mother and a father (and that it's the state's responsibility to make that happen by outlawing gay marriage...but not, say, divorce), and the definition of marriage is sacred and cannot be abridged. It's interesting to me the official opposition in this case seem to be leaning pretty heavily on the "definition" argument -- perhaps they realize the number of terrible heterosexual parents in traditional marriages and the number of wonderful homosexual, single, or other "nontraditional" parents seriously undermines that argument. Or perhaps the "definition" argument is one you can whip out when you're trying to appease your constituents who favor marriage equality (because you do support civil unions!) and also those who favor inequality (because committed same-sex couples are still Different than opposite-sex couples!). Governor Lynch, President Obama and Vice President Biden all make this "I'm not prejudiced nor a radical liberal!" argument.

In any case, we'll see how this unfolds in the next couple of days. One final, lingering question that stands out at me... religious marriage licenses? What? I think the amendment was intended to solidify separation of church and state to assuage the fears of conservative religious folks, but isn't it strange that the state issues "religious marriage licenses" at all? Why do they do that? Shouldn't all state marriage licenses be strictly civil?

Thoughts from Anna Rose, Part 6

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

My boyfriend and I still try sex.

One time, when I think the lidocaine cream is really helping and it still hurts so bad, I ask him to stop, and then I cry and cry and cry, my whole body grieves for my dead sexuality, some part of me that feels ripped away, and I just curl away from him and can’t look at him, can’t let him touch me, and he lays helpless, defeated, for a half hour, while I am controlled by sobs. I feel cheated, and I feel I’ve cheated him. I want to give everything to him, and I barely have any for myself.

Finally, when it’s over, he just holds me, and we never talk about it again.

Sometimes it’s so bad that within a minute, I push him out of me, literally, with my hands against his chest, arms locking. He has so much pain in his expressive eyes each time. Sometimes I resent him that he doesn’t have it in the rest of his body. I feel ashamed and ungrateful, but there are moments I just hate him when he can get off and I don’t even feel good. But he tries so hard.

But once a relationship is established as sexual, the lack of sex can destroy it. When people tell me sex doesn't actually matter, I laugh. Freedom makes them foolish. Sex may be the oldest way in which we show we've chosen to love someone, and being forced to give it up is traumatic.

In fact, I just read about a young woman in Medieval Europe, where they were giving up sex all the time for the sake of Jesus, or so they said. This woman convinced her husband to make their marriage chaste to secure heaven. After a few months, he asked her if someone held a sword to his neck and said they must have sex, would she let him die before making love like they used to? I believe he actually used those words (in Old English): Make love like they used to. She said that she would rather him go to heaven (heofonum, as they said back then) clean than live in sin.

He tells her she is "no good wife," and honestly, I have to agree. I'm not here to knock anybody's faith, but she would rather let him die than ever have sex with him? That's extreme. And yet, maybe there's something about this woman we don't know. Maybe she and her sisters used religious fanaticism as an acceptable excuse to not have sex, when their actual reasons may not have been respected.

But...Here's her husband, bound to a woman he loves having sex with, and who has condemned him to a life of celibacy. And he respects it. It obviously hurts him and their marriage, but at least up till the conversation, he respects her wishes. Regardless of how difficult it is.

Many of my fellow feminists will stand up and say, "Of course he should respect it! It's her prerogative! He doesn't have a right to tell her to have sex!" They're right. No individual should ever force or coerce or guilt or obligate another person into sex.

But if you've ever told a man that he can no longer express his emotions for his woman in the deepest physical way, that he must stop giving her what he believes she deserves, and seen the pain on his face, you would understand that there is more going on than horniness.

When a man loves a woman, the desire for sex is not selfish. It's an expression of exactly how wonderful he thinks she is. That's why men care so much about performing well and often, and why a lack of prowess or size or ability is such a source of shame for so many. It has nothing to do with other men, or their own sense of manliness. They just want to pleasure their woman. It's almost an act of service. My first lover told me that the first time he made me orgasm was the single most rewarding experience of his life. It is a huge point of ego for a man to be able to please a woman. They love watching women they love experience pleasure.

Abstaining in general is fine, if that's what's understood from the beginning. People seem to have an easy enough time with it, and there are good reasons to do so. To take sex out of a previously sexual relationship is torture. It cuts off a route to expression, creates a boundary that wasn't there before. I've done it several times, both with my ex- and my current boyfriend, and as hard as it is for me, I think it's harder on them. I may be in pain, but at least I hold the cards. But these poor guys just have to sit there and watch me suffer. I've never seen anyone look as helpless or desperate as my lovers have looked when I'm hurting. Men love solutions, they love to help, but here, there's nothing they can do.

There are times when I'm extremely resentful; there are times when I don't care, or when I'm glad at least they're in some pain too. But I've been going through this long enough to realize that it can't be easy to have a girlfriend like me. So I have some sympathy. I've gotten lucky. There are some women in my situation who lose their men, or whose lovers turn violent in an attempt to satisfy their own urges. But I believe that most guys are basically good people who want their lovers to have happy, healthy, sexy sex. I give my lovers lots of credit.

That being said, my first sexual relationship completely fell apart, partially because of that very issue. Yes, we were becoming very different people who weren't destined to be together anyway, but the more difficult sex became for me, the more we fought--about stupid stuff, too. There came a point when I began to associate any physical attention with the eventuality of sex, and became afraid of, and turned off by, every kiss. I asked him not to initiate intimacy anymore. He was completely respectful, but it was rough. There were times when I was angry at the world and took it out on him. He started accusing me of crap instead of trusting me, and wouldn't believe my apologies were sincere.

It's worth mentioning that this guy was a total rock star: His girlfriend before me suffered from female sexual dysfunction, a psychological syndrome caused by trauma. She couldn't have sex with him either. When we broke up, I joked that he deserved a girl he could have healthy sex with. He said, "The thought has crossed my mind."

It's tough to love a man, and to know that sex is part of that equation, and not be able to provide it for him in the normal methods or quantities, let alone enjoy it myself. Even in my current, wonderful relationship, I feel like I'm cutting my boyfriend off from something he deserves, that he would be getting from most any other woman. He walked into my situation knowingly, too. He says he did it because I'm worth the wait. We plan to be together in the long run, so he figures this will eventually be a short phase at the beginning of our relationship. Despite very real challenges, and very hard times, he's optimistic.

But I think to myself: What if I knew I was going to be like this forever? Would he stay? Would it be right of me to expect him to? And he can say now that he would, but if the situation became a reality, would his answer change? The impossibility of answering these questions is almost as frustrating as the questions themselves. I've wondered if I might even leave him, so that he can feel free to find someone healthy to have sex with. I'd feel like I was imprisoning him otherwise. And everyone deserves good sex.

Everyone deserves good sex.

Love,
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.

To read the whole story, take a look at the whole "Thoughts from Anna Rose" series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A response from Professors George and Londregan

Earlier this month, Josh and I sent an open letter to Princeton professors Robert George and John Londregan, responding to their March 17 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, titled "Princeton and the hookup culture." We had questions and concerns which we wished to air in the spirit of academic discussion, particularly with regard to the creation of a "Love and Fidelity Center." We posted our letter on this blog, which can be read here. This response from Professors George and Londregan is the first in a series, all of which will be posted on Equal Writes, in an attempt to involve other students in this important dialogue. Please comment and participate - this is your discussion too. Their response, in full, is below.

Dear Amelia and Joshua:

Thanks for inviting us into a conversation with you about the hook up culture at Princeton. We are encouraged that you perceive the same problems and challenges we perceive. Working together across traditional lines of ideological division, perhaps we can find ways to improve the social life of our community in ways that make it more decent and humane for everyone.

First let us take stock of our points of agreement with you; then we’ll turn to our disagreement about whether establishing a Love and Fidelity Center on campus would benefit at least some students. You expressed more articulately and powerfully than we did in our article a central fact giving rise to our concerns: “There is a damaging tendency for students to feel socially compelled to make themselves sexually available, because of widely held campus assumptions about what other students want, and what other students expect. “ You are on to an important insight here. Yet people are not (or at least need not be) slaves to culture and its norms. People can make themselves agents of cultural change. That is what partisans of “sexual freedom,” such as Hugh Hefner, set out to do when they emerged as a force a little more than fifty years ago. That is also what critics of the hook up culture they bequeathed to us are trying to do today. “A sexual culture that benefits no one,” as you rightly put it, needs to be challenged and reformed by agents of cultural change.

We agree with you that students who believe in traditional norms of sexual morality are marginalized in the sense that the campus culture and many of the University’s policies and practices tend to undermine their values and make them seem and even feel like “outsiders.” There is no doubt that in a thousand subtle and some not-so-subtle ways, students who dissent from campus orthodoxies on sexual matters are pressured to conform or else keep their mouths shut. Moreover, students with genuine needs for support find themselves without assistance from the university and its culture. For example, same-sex attracted students who believe that homosexual conduct is morally unacceptable and wish to lead chaste lives are offered no support; indeed, they are treated as if they do not exist. They regard LGBT institutions on campus as hostile to their beliefs and values, rather than supportive; and some wish for non-sectarian counselors and for solidarity with like-minded peers across religious divides. What they and other students of a traditional mind on sexual morality need, it seems to us, is access to the support that would be available if there were a Love and Fidelity Center on Campus. And they are far from alone. Students of many other descriptions would benefit from access to such support.

But now we have wandered into that area of disagreement with you. So let us, in a spirit of willingness to learn and not merely to instruct, engage your arguments. First, we agree with you that there is a danger of, as you say, “creat[ing] more islands of difference.” But it strikes us as odd to call for a moratorium on creating such “islands” just at the point at which students whose beliefs and values run contrary to politically correct sensibilities begin asking for a center that will support their particular needs. After all, those needs are in part the result of a campus culture that is shaped to some extent by the University’s establishment and maintenance of a large number of centers and institutions perceived, not unreasonably, as promoting beliefs and values that are sharply at variance with their own. Many of these have to do with sexuality. Beyond various student groups that span the moral and political spectrum, the University’s thumb on the scales contributes to the marginalization of students who believe in chastity, modesty, and related virtues. The need for a Love and Fidelity Center is in part a need created by official support for other centers and groups. There is a fairness issue here, but please note that we are not focused on that right now. Rather, our focus is on the importance of meeting the concrete needs of students whose particular needs arise to no small extent as a result of the culture that exists on our campus, and whose needs appear to be invisible to the University.

You propose that instead of a Love and Fidelity Center, what is needed is “to open the conversation to all Princeton students, so that people who fall on all sides of the sexual spectrum feel comfortable speaking openly about their desires, confusions, and fears when it comes to sex.” We’re not sure what to make of your proposal. First, we do not believe that providing the support that would be offered by a Love and Fidelity Center to students who need that support and are currently being denied it impedes anyone, including those students, from having a conversation about sexual morality or anything else with anybody else. So it appears to us that we are not dealing with mutually exclusive options. We are certainly all in favor of conversation, though we recognize that some people need counseling, encouragement, and other forms of support that are not what discussion groups are typically designed to provide. When it comes to such groups, we believe they make a real contribution when they are forums for the engagement of ideas and the consideration of rational arguments. We are less confident of their desirability if they are efforts at group therapy or mere opportunities for the public or quasi-public expression of emotions. Speaking for ourselves, we would not support the idea of discussions designed to encourage people to “speak openly about their desires, confusions, and fears when it comes to sex.” (Though again, the establishment of a Love and Fidelity Center would in no way hinder such discussions.) By contrast, we would enthusiastically support discussions of sexual morality in which people of differing beliefs shared their reasons and arguments, and engaged in civil discussion and debate with a view to getting at the truth of things and more fully understanding each other’s perspectives. And that is a cause that a Love and a Fidelity Center would positively help.

If we have understood your argument correctly, and we apologize if we have not, you seem to suggest at one point that a Love and Fidelity Center would somehow be exclusionary. You ask: “Could a Love and Fidelity Center serve all students as they come to terms with the role that sex will play in their lives?” As we have said from the beginning, a primary purpose of the Center would be to meet the concrete needs of students who have needs for support as a result of a campus culture that they did not create and for which they are not responsible. This culture is what it is, in part as a result of policies and practices of the University itself. The University, to its credit, takes steps to try to meet what it regards as the needs of other students. No one accuses it of being “exclusionary” for doing that. It should do the same with regard to the needs of students who are struggling to lead lives of integrity in the face of the pressures and challenges of the hook up culture. Indeed, we would argue that the refusal to do so is exclusionary. The stark reality at the moment is that the University is simply ignoring students whose needs are not of the type that registers on the radar screens of people who hold “progressive” as opposed to “traditional” views about sexual morality. If there were people holding positions of authority and power in the University’s administration whose views were on the “traditional” rather than “progressive” side when it came to sexuality, perhaps these students would not be treated as if they were invisible or as if their need for support did not matter. The double standard that currently exists might then disappear.

An important point you make in your letter is that many students come to Princeton with largely unformed views about sexuality. You ask how we “envision the services of the proposed Love and Fidelity Center in terms of all of the students who are coping with the negative effects of the hook up culture.” The answer is that the Center would make an important contribution to meeting the problem, though not all by itself. It would play a role alongside other campus institutions, some of which represent perspectives different from that of the Center, in helping to ensure that there is a lively and balanced discussion on campus of the meaning and significance of human sexuality and the ethical principles and moral virtues by which we should conduct our relationships and lead our lives. We believe that the existence of the Center would expand discussion and ensure a fuller representation of points of view. Students who feel institutionally supported are naturally more confident and more comfortable with participating in discussions. With respect to many potentially valuable intellectual events, the Love and Fidelity Center could cooperate as a co-sponsor with other campus centers and programs, profoundly enriching the quality of the reflection and discussion. In this way, an effort to meet the needs of a significant segment of the student body would also enhance the academic culture for the whole Princeton community.

Best wishes,
Robert P. George and John B. Londregan

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Quick hit: Kathleen Sebelius confirmed!

Earlier today, the U.S. Senate confirmed Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Pro-life groups were very active in opposing her confirmation, but she was voted in 65-31 (including new Democrat Arlen Specter). This is great, because not only does Sebelius have a wonderful record on "women's issues" (if I must use the term), she had a very bipartisan government as leader of Kansas - which is a significant plus, given the controversy surrounding healthcare issues. This has been a good day in Washington!

Women, microfinance, and empowerment

by Malavika Balachandran

In developing countries, where society is predominantly patriarchal, women are more likely to live in poverty. In fact, according to the International Labor Office, 70% of the world’s poor are women. Yet women make up a large portion of the informal economy. Traditional banking systems often target men in the formal economy, and thus neglect a large number of women in developing countries. Microfinance enables women to gain access to credit, savings, insurance, and other financial services generally unavailable to the poor. Through microfinance, women can not only establish their own small business ventures, but develop fiscal responsibility and pull themselves out of poverty. Further, the women generally put their income towards saving and making sure children, especially female children, gain access to food, health care services, and education.

Microfinance has led to the gradual restructuring of the roles of women in developing countries. Through this access to financial services, these women are empowered and play a much larger role in managing their families’ finances. Microfinance has also led to the increased literacy of women in developed countries. Yet, the inequality between men and women is far from eradicated; in many cases, husbands have forbidden their wives from participating in microfinance projects. But microfinance has also enabled poor women to leave abusive marital situations through financial empowerment.

The success of women in microfinance illustrates the importance of women to economic development as well as the importance of microfinance to empowerment of poor women. If you wish to learn more about microfinance, this upcoming Friday, the Princeton Microfinance Organization is hosting a colloquium on microfinance, economic development, and global health, featuring many industry leaders, most of whom are accomplished women. For more information and to register, go here.

Manicure for second base?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I've always thought that the "Manicure for the Cure" campaign was a little bizarre, if well-intentioned. I've never expected much from activism at Princeton, but the idea that we need to be bribed with manicures before we'll support a cure for breast cancer (which, let's face it, is a great cause, but totally uncontroversial - find me just one person who doesn't want to support a cure for cancer) has always troubled me. The slogan, "Indulge yourself for a cause," seems particularly problematic - why can't we just support a cause because we care about it? This is taking Princeton privilege to new heights.

That said, I have never felt compelled to criticize the event openly - until I saw this year's advertising. The signs, plastered around campus, are confusing at best and at worst, horribly misogynistic. They come in two varieties: the generic kind, which entreats the student body to "Save Second Base," and the heteronormative kind, which focuses this plea at the campus "gentlemen." What makes these ads confusing is that nowhere do they actually mention breast cancer - they simply reference the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Houseparties, manicures, and of course, second base. I've had to explain the real meaning behind the ads to countless people over the past couple of days - that "second base," to quote Wikipedia, refers to "groping or feeling up underneath [a woman's] shirt."

Terrible baseball metaphor aside (and seriously, does anyone use those anymore? Are we still in 1963?), these ads are in very poor taste. Without even going into the heternormativity of the suggestion that only men care if breasts as sexual objects fall victim to cancer, is this really the argument we want to use to convince Princeton students that they should support breast cancer research? Women's breasts are not just about sex. This is a disease. Women die from breast cancer every day, and the loss of breasts to mastectomies is tragic, but not because they're suddenly unavailable for men to grope. I'm pretty sure that the ads were unintentionally offensive (at least, I hope so), but I hope that this campus community realizes that this is blatant objectification, and that it's not ok.

Amusingly, I think there's at least one other person on campus who agrees with me - whoever put up the parody posters outside Frist, good for you! The posters range from the over-the-top "Gentlemen, save titty f**king," and "Ladies, save the male g-spot" to a very heartfelt "SERVICE TO HUMANITY OR DISSERVICE TO WOMEN?" "SECOND BASE NOT THE GOAL; WOMEN, LOVE YOUR BODY, MIND, & SOUL," and "I DON'T NEED YOUR MANICURE TO SAVE MY MOTHER'S KNOCKERS. (Neither does her partner)." As explained by one of the posters:

What is service? "Manicure for the Cure" posters miss the point with their offensive and misogynistic campaign: "GENTLEMEN, SAVE SECOND BASE". The catch phrase objectifies women suffering from cancer. "Second Base" denotes "breasts" but connotes objects of sexual attraction meant to be grabbed. In case you missed the infantile reference, "Second Base" is second in the order of: french, feel, finger, fuck. Do you know anyone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer? Are you more concerned about their physical, mental, and spiritual health or their gropables? We are not against service for a cause. We only ask that you keep those you are helping in mind, and not at the expense of your fellow woman.

Personally, I like the last one best. What do you think of the original posters, and the parodies? Are they misogynistic, tasteless, or amusing?

Feminism: substance vs. semantics

by Thomas Dollar

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine last month, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was asked if she considered herself a feminist. She responded, “I never did. I care very much about women and their progress. I didn’t go march in the streets, but when I was in the Arizona Legislature, one of the things that I did was to examine every single statute in the state of Arizona to pick out the ones that discriminated against women and get them changed.”

This response says as much about the state of contemporary feminism as it does about Justice O’Connor. While one may disagree with her jurisprudence (Bush v. Gore and Boy Scouts v. Dale spring to mind as bad decisions), O’Connor has been a trailblazer for women in government. And by her own description above, she has spent decades fighting for women’s rights. So why not call herself a feminist?

If you believe the feminist blogosphere, it’s not just septuagenarian jurists who are wary about calling themselves feminists, but young women too. Indeed, many feminist blogs (and I include this one among them) were born out of an urgent need to demonstrate to people—young women especially—that "feminism" is not a dirty word.” From the sound of things, reclaiming the “feminism” moniker from the Rush Limbaughs and Ali G’s out there is a matter of the utmost priority.

Forgive me for not rushing to the barricades. There are crises of substance and there are crises of semantics, and this one is the latter. Define “feminism” in simple terms—the belief in equal rights and opportunities for women and men—and feminism is winning in the United States, regardless of what people might want to call themselves. People of differing political inclinations can have an honest debate over what policies best contribute to this ideal, and they will likely come to different conclusions. I believe that gender equality is contingent upon the availability of legal abortion, for example, while others on this blog likely disagree with me. Still, I don’t question these people’s genuine commitment to the shared principles of gender equality.

The trouble is, though, lies with the labeling. Conservatives have largely abandoned any claim they once had to the feminist label, and have chosen instead to caricature its most radical elements. (And these elements are not difficult to caricature.) The best response to the puerile name-calling of the right would be for liberal feminists to engage it with ideas and rigorous debate. Hell, we may even persuade some people. This, however, is not what we’ve been doing. Instead, feminism has caught itself up in identity politics, where the label does not follow the belief set; the label is the belief set. This might be comforting for people who already call themselves feminists, but it is bad for political discourse and it is bad for feminism.

Feminism is not Freemasonry; it is a set of related social values, not a fraternity or a religion to which one can belong. People are feminists because they hold certain principles; they do not hold these principles because they are feminists. There is no entrance exam to feminism, no initiation, and no Nicene Creed.

Alas, we see some people treating feminism like a club with a set of club rules. I’ve heard people ask in all earnestness if Good Feminists can laugh at Seth Rogen movies, or enjoy Kiss Me, Kate, or shave their legs—just like my great-grandparents, as Good Catholics of the 1930s, wouldn’t dream of doing anything that wasn’t sanctioned by the Pope. But who decides what’s feminist and what’s not? Gloria Steinem? Jessica Valenti? Me? (Doctrinal rigidity isn’t even working so well for the Catholic Church these days, even with a Pope.)

Crazy as it may sound, it’s probably a good thing that people are shunning labels, feminist or other. No two thinking people ever agreed 100% on all political issues, and our obsession with identities obscures this fact. People are defined by what they believe, and how they turn those beliefs into action—not what they call themselves. So if you meet someone who can’t stand those feminists, yet is working to combat sex trafficking or gender-pay discrepancies, you’ve found someone you should work with. And if you meet a white-haired grandmother from Arizona who never marched in the streets, you might just thank her for marching to 1 First St., NE.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Misery in Manolos

by Emily Sullivan

I had two hours to wait in Penn Station for the earliest train on Saturday night. It being New York, 3-5 a.m. happened to be prime time for people-watching. I watched woman after woman stumble past - tripping, grimacing, and generally having a tough time. My rough estimate is that 95% of the women in the station were wearing stiletto heels. Many of those women had bleeding feet.

Now, I know tons of women - even my most radical feminist friends (Amelia) - who will defend heels ‘til they’re blue in the face. But let’s get real here. It makes zero sense to be a feminist and wear heels. I agree - they’re sexy. But so is being rail thin. The fact that they look good does not make them any less damaging to women. As feminists, we fight against those fashion trends that stem from a patriarchal perception of beauty. Skimpy clothes—while sexy—promote the objectification of women. Bleached blonde hair reveals conformity to the narrow and repressive ideals of feminine beauty set forth by society. Why do we ignore high heels? They are damaging to women’s bodies! We got rid of corsets (thank god) and now’s the time to get rid of heels.

Here’s what we don’t tell young girls as Cinderella trades her pretty blue flats for a glass high heel: high heels cause corns, bunions, and calluses, but so do most ill-fitting shoes. The real risk comes from the effects heels have on women’s knees and backs. Hammertoes (misshapen, curled-up toes) are the effect of toes being scrunched into a tight-fitting shoe and the subsequent force while walking. Knee osteoarthritis—the painful breakdown of the cartilage surrounding the knee—has been linked to heels, even thicker ones. The Achilles tendon, which tightens when wearing heels, can lose its flexibility and become shorter, which in turn makes wearing flat shoes or being barefoot painful. Being in heels changes your center of gravity, and your body compensates in a way that misaligns your spine. This causes back injury and bad posture.

You don’t need to know all the specific anatomical effects to know that heels suck. Just spend an hour in them! Eventually - I hope - high heels will go the way of the corset - a fashion memory that makes our granddaughters say, “I can’t believe they’d do that to themselves!”

The freedom to...exercise?

by Gracie Remington

As written up in yesterday’s issue of The Guardian, Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its less-than-progressive policies towards women, is considering legally restricting gym licensing to men-only facilities, effectively shutting down all of the women-only gyms across the country. The current gyms, currently unlicensed and therefore illegal, would be forced to close under this new measure, leaving Saudi women without the option to go to a gym facility to exercise.

While this issue certainly seems ridiculous from a Western perspective, especially given the ubiquitous gym facilities catering to members of both sexes in both the United States and elsewhere, this ban not only emphasizes the lack of rights given to women in Saudi Arabia, but also highlights tensions that have arisen as the nation has attempted to increase women’s rights and their participation in the public sphere. This announcement about the closing of said illegal, female-only gym facilities comes soon after a government official mentioned the possibility of expanding the right to vote in municipal elections to cover women and after Saudi Arabia appointed its first female deputy minister. While the deputy minister may oversee a department for female students, and while Saudi women may not be allowed to drive or go anywhere without the company of a male family member, these changes seemed to reflect at least the possibility of future reforms in regards to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

As the current gym crisis shows, however, the systems necessary to implement and expand upon these initial innovations have yet to be established. Bader Al-Shibani, a businessman who had attempted to legally open and operate a female-only gym, was quoted in The Guardian’s article and described his attempts to secure governmental permission as “running into a brick wall.” No department claimed authority over the licensing of gyms for women; ultimately, Al-Shibani abandoned his project. As leading Saudi clerics have decried female-only gyms as promoting “shamelessness” and claimed that such facilities would prompt women to leave their homes and abandon their families, only two gyms have been legally taken to task. Paradoxically, there exists neither a system to establish these gyms nor a system to abolish them, evidently. While women’s suffrage is gaining ground in Saudi Arabia, it’s clear that the infrastructure needed to promote women’s rights is not there; however, the apparent decay of the system needed to keep these liberties in check at least promises potential future freedom for the women of Saudi Arabia.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Drinking for two?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Browsing the New York Times' website, I found a column I've never seen before - "Social Q's," by Philip Galanes. Apparently, people can write in to the Style department with awkward situations, and Galanes will respond with snarky quips. Usually, I look at advice columns and wonder why people can't figure out these problems by themselves (or why they think a random stranger can tell them what's socially appropriate). But at the top of this week's column, there was a situation that I think would present a real quandary for most people. "Anonymous" wrote:

"At a family gathering, I got up to get myself a drink and asked if anyone wanted anything. My boyfriend’s visibly pregnant cousin asked me for a vodka tonic. I was so uncomfortable. Was I really supposed to make the pregnant woman a drink?"

We've all seen the warnings on the backs of the wine bottles telling pregnant women that the surgeon general would really like it if they wouldn't drink. And if you live in New Jersey, you see a sign in every restaurant bathroom (it's actually a law) with the helpful reminder that pregnant women "never drink alone." The implication is plain: if you drink during pregnancy, you're going to hurt your baby (other ads show silhouettes of pregnant women with a long tube stretching from mouth to baby - which is not quite the way it works). It's often couched in terms of a necessary maternal sacrifice (there are even books that tell pregnant women how to "survive" the 9 months without alcohol), but there is a lot of moralizing around pregnancy and alcohol. Only a bad mother would drink during pregnancy.

Galanes responded to the question with a somewhat confusing answer - he said that he probably would have given her a drink (oh so cleverly remarking that pregnant women are not "vestal virgins"). But he goes on to tell "Anonymous" that he or she should not have to do anything that makes them uncomfortable (which is true) and suggests that she or he present the mother-to-be with a weak drink, on a tray, with a pack of Marlboro Lights. Classy. There's nothing like a good dose of shame.

The fact is, and I know that this defies many of our cultural conventions, drinking during pregnancy is not the worst of all sins. I'm taking a class on reproduction in America this semester, and my professor, Elizabeth Armstrong, has actually written about the "moral entrepreneurship" that caused fetal alcohol syndrome (what the surgeon general is worried about) to loom so large in American consciousness. Moral entrepreneurship occurs when someone, usually a person in an elite position, decides that a practice or situation is wrong, and works to correct it. Prohibitionists are often cited as examples of moral entrepreneurs, but doctors are also in a position of unique power when it comes to moral entrepreneurship, because they hold an unusual amount of authority. When a doctor tells you that drinking or smoking during pregnancy is bad for your baby, you are in no position to argue. And that pronouncement carries a lot of moral weight.

The studies that were conducted in the 1970s, when fetal alcohol syndrome was first being diagnosed, focused on birth defects in children who were born to alcoholic women - women whose alcoholism was significantly threatening their own health. But there is a large difference between drinking lightly and alcoholism, one which was not really interrogated by the researchers. And many other causes of birth defects remained unexamined. Not all women who were chronic alcoholics were having babies with FAS; this difference actually had more to do with socioeconomic status. In some cases, the gap was due to nutrition, not alcohol consumption.

In Europe, people approach this issue with much less moralizing, and more acknowledgement of the gradation involved. There is a difference between a pregnant woman who gets delirium tremens when she doesn't drink every day and a pregnant woman who has the occasional cocktail at a family gathering. It's certainly not advisable to consume large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy, but this is really more about moral control than concern for the fetus, as evidenced by the treatment of women who use drugs during pregnancy - instead of getting help for the addicted women, our government penalizes them. Instead of discouraging alcohol consumption during pregnancy (as they do in Europe), we downright prohibit it. And this is obviously because women secretly want to hurt their fetuses (the famed maternal-fetal conflict), and really, they don't know what's best for their babies or their bodies.

So "Anonymous," give your boyfriend's "visibly pregnant" cousin the drink. Don't sermonize - she's a grown woman, and probably knows more about pregnancy than you do, given the volume of literature shoved at pregnant women these days. And if you're really concerned (or care about her), for God's sake, don't shame her - it's rude, and it's sure as hell not going to endear you to your boyfriend's family.

A most sinister toll

by Christina DiGasbarro

I don’t think there’s much doubt about it: the kind of news we hear most often—on evening broadcasts, on the radio, online—is the bad kind. Maybe that’s inherent to the business: lots of terrible things happen, but even if they didn’t, news sources would have to keep finding stories of catastrophe and tragedy, or people would stop paying attention (and paying for those services). It’s only when things are going wrong that we have a true need to be informed.

So even though it’s probably fair to say we’ve been desensitized, over the years, to the horror, tragedy, etc., of many news stories, every so often we hit a week where the worst kinds of stories seem to cluster. Two separate familicides occurred in Maryland earlier this week, just days apart, and the horror of these cases has garnered a great deal of attention. In both cases, the father killed his wife and children before committing suicide.

In the first case, the family was $450,000 in debt, and the father, who apparently suffered from depression, left notes which suggest that the extreme financial stress was his motive for the killings. The police aren’t yet entirely sure of the motive for the second father, but it appears that he was having financial troubles as well, and the FBI is investigating his business. Nor have these been the only familicides in recent months, even though, on average, familicides occur very infrequently. The increased prevalence of familicide also suggests that domestic violence of all kinds has probably increased as well, again due to the financial stress of the recession.

As the two Maryland cases suggest, the reason for familicides is often financial stress, and, in a recession, there’s certainly plenty of that stress going around. And, most often, it’s the father who kills his wife and children in cases like these. Why, though? Both men and women suffer from financial stress; both men and women can become depressed or unhinged by stupefying amounts of debt or the prospect of utter failure. Are men simply more violent than women? Do they somehow value their families less?

The answer to those questions is a resounding no. By all accounts, the two families killed in Maryland seemed happy and loving to outsiders; the killings came completely out of nowhere. There are cases of women killing their families too—remember Andrea Yates?—albeit usually for different reasons.

But, in our society, men are still looked to as the providers for the family; they are still expected to be the breadwinners. They are judged by their economic success or failure much more harshly than women are; they are judged by their career arcs much more harshly than women are. A dad who’s lost his job seems to shock us more than a mom who’s lost hers; stay-at-home dads are rare while stay-at-home moms are ubiquitous. A man is expected to have a job, plain and simple, in a much stronger way than a woman. Considering this conception of the male gender role, and the simple fact that expectations and the prospect of judgment can create huge pressure, it seems entirely possible that some men could view financial distress as a true disaster from which there is no recovery. If strong enough, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to guess that the results of financial or career trouble or failure—shame, loss of self-worth or self-respect, feelings of inadequacy, the perception of a dead end—could derange a person to the point at which death seems like the best option. I’ll be honest: I don’t know why death would seem the best option. Perhaps to release the family from the burden of crushing debt? Perhaps to bring an end to shame? Perhaps because the world has seemed to deteriorate so far that escape seems the only plausible way forward?

I’m not trying to offer an apology or rationalization or excuse for the people who commit such awful crimes against those closest to them. I just know that, as feminists, we tend to focus on expectations and gender roles in the context of women, and we talk about expectations and gender roles in the context of men far less often. But the expectations and gender roles assigned to men in our culture can clearly have devastating consequences for everyone, not just for men.

The question then becomes: are men open to revision of their traditional gender roles? How can we make the changes that will benefit everyone? And in the meantime, how do we keep families safe as they continue to struggle through this economy?

Should we trust studies about breastfeeding?

by Nick Cox

A new scientific study has suggested that women who breast-feed may be in less danger of developing a whole litany of health conditions, says a recent New York Times article. The article lists these conditions at great lengths and cites statistics, before reminding us that correlation does not imply causation—that is, breast-feeding is not necessarily directly beneficial to your health. It's possible that women who breast-feed just take better care of themselves. If there is a direct link between breast-feeding and better health, though, the scientists hypothesize it may involve oxytocin, a hormone released during breast-feeding as well as sex. The article mentions that breast-feeding is also known to help the uterus recover more quickly from pregnancy and childbirth; and, most importantly, it notes that breast-feeding burns calories, helping new mothers shed those extra pounds more quickly.

The Greeks had the Oracle of Delphi, Catholics have the Pope, and we have our scientific studies. We all know that, since the decline of God, science has taken His place as the sole authoritative source of objective truth, and most of us are probably glad. We may be less aware, though, of the extent to which the oracular ritual has remained the same. The soothsayer's interpretive art was an esoteric knowledge incomprehensible to ordinary people; he could read meanings where they could only see a mess of animal viscera. And the Papacy, consolidating the previously unorganized oracular authority into one person—the Pope—offered people messages delivered directly from God, without even the mediation of an interpreter. Both of these are early examples of purveyors of expert information, a class of people that since then has ballooned enormously.

It's true that the merchants of specialized knowledge in our time are of an appreciably different nature. Their industry has, like many things in our society, become heavily democratized. Soothsayers kept their secrets within their guilds, and only one person was ever invested with papal authority, but science is, at least in theory, just as democratic as capitalism. If you have a Ph.D. and claim to have performed a properly controlled experiment, the authority is yours for the taking. Of course, unlike the Pope, you must acknowledge that your experiment was fallible, that it shows a correlation but does not necessarily prove anything. But that doesn't matter—if your experiment suggests something that people like, they will believe you just as faithfully as they believed the soothsayers.

If we treat the breast-feeding experiment like the insides of a fish carcass and examine it for hidden messages, it tells us some interesting things. It is, first and foremost, yet another example of the fetishization of health that has increasingly come to overshadow morality as the scale according to which people judge one another. People nowadays, especially New York Times readers, probably care much less about social mores than their parents did. Immorality for them is the realm of factory farming and the Taliban; in light of the horrendous evil they see in the newspaper, they are more than willing to forgive an out of wedlock pregnancy or two. But, in the absence of traditional morality, health is quietly turning into an indicator of character.

I say "quietly" because this shift is not overt. No one is saying that unhealthy people are "bad" in the same way that child molesters and third-world dictators are; that would be politically incorrect. In contemporary popular discourse these "evildoers" are hardly even afforded the status of human beings; conventional morality barely applies to them. Rather, health has become moralized in the same sort of way that capitalism, according to Max Weber, resulted from a moralizing of wealth accumulation—that is, health today signifies strength of character. Poor health, which nowadays seems often to be accompanied by visible chubbiness, is a sign that you lack the discipline to avoid unhealthy foods and go to the gym. Regardless of how nice you are to other people, if you show signs of not taking care of yourself you will be viewed with suspicion.

The breast-feeding study has clear moral implications regardless of which interpretation of the data you accept. If you believe that there is indeed a direct causal link between breast-feeding and "health benefits," then to nonetheless continue to rely on baby formula would amount to a moral failure, a betrayal of self. And even if you believe it, you are still left with the judgment that women who nurse tend to take better care of themselves. In other words, that nursing is the sort of thing that a responsible, self-caring woman does. And if you do not nurse, then in all likelihood you are not this sort of woman. This interpretation seems almost Calvinist in the way it separates the way the world into two groups, the healthy wheat and the unhealthy chaff.

The outcome is the same for either interpretation: breast-feeding is the way to go, and if you don't do it then there's something wrong with you. By this I do not mean to imply that the study's conclusions are false; the idea that breast-feeding has health benefits is quite plausible. I just find it interesting that the conclusions just so happen, by means of scientific evidence, to re-enforce a traditional gender role. As a feminist it's hard to know how to take something like this. It would seem to threaten women's freedom by transposing an element of traditional femininity into nature. But I'm sure if you confronted the scientists with this troubling problem they would probably say that all they did was analyze the data. And I'm sure that's all they did. There's no reason to think they had any sort of antifeminist agenda regardless of what their experiment showed.

I take all this only as a reminder that the patriarchy is much more insidious and subtle than some feminists might like to admit. It is not, as we sometimes like to imagine, a cabal of men in suits who smoke cigars in the basement of the Pentagon. The patriarchy is bigger than all of us, and it expresses itself in places where we don't even recognize it. Now that we have stripped away many of its more obvious layers, it is becoming increasingly clear how thoroughly it is still burrowed into the consciousness of even the most "open-minded" feminist. The moralization of both breast-feeding and women's health in general are signs that the patriarchy must be fought in the domain of individual consciousness as well as the public sphere.