Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

Since this year is the 50th anniversary of the pill, there are lots of interesting retrospectives on its history and significance.  TIME has a cover article with some really interesting tidbits.

In 1873 Congress passed a law banning birth control information as obscene. So women seeking ways to limit the number of children they bore had to know how to read the papers. Through the turn of the century, advertisements for potions to treat “female disorders” or menstrual irregularities carried a bold, bright warning: “Portuguese Female Pills, not to be used during pregnancy for they will cause miscarriage.”

The warning, of course, was the ad.

One of the researchers instrumental in developing the pill was a conservative  Catholic who was certain that the  Church would approve it:

Rock thought the Pill provided an exquisite chemical escape hatch. With the Pill, there was no barrier preventing the union of sperm and egg; all the Pill did, Rock argued, was mimic naturally occurring hormones to extend the safe period, so that sex was safe all month long. The church wouldn’t need to change its historic teaching, he suggested; the Pill just fell outside its definition of contraception.

Yeah, well, if he only knew how many single celled babies he was about to kill, he’d be sorry.

As I read the TIME article, I was reminded of something I found a few days ago in the bowels of the internet somewhere.  It’s an excerpt from a book  called Eco-Sex (seriously!) by some greener-than-thou woman who thinks the pill is going to kill us all:

. . .a woman’s cycle should not be trifled with. We ovulate, and then we menstruate in order to cleanse our bodies of eggs that haven’t been fertilized. This natural process is inhibited by the Pill, which serves to trick the body into thinking that it is pregnant all the time. It shuts off ovulation. Many women, after years of being on the Pill, find that they can’t get pregnant for months or years later—their fertility can be impaired over the long term.

Misinformation and outright lies aside: what the fuck,  lady?  The pill gets enough flak from social conservatives already.  Why are you lying and using science and environmentalism as cover?  Also, why are you writing in italics?


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But he was just being nice!

A woman in a New York bar declined to dance with a guy, and then this happened:

After a while, she went to the ladies’ room in the basement, and the man followed her, the police said. (The police  initially said she was attacked in a second-floor bathroom but updated their account.)

The nurse was in a stall when her attacker barged in and began assaulting her, Mr. Browne said.

“She starts pulling up her pants and fights him off,” Mr. Browne said.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said the woman was “seriously beaten,” and he added: “Her eye socket was broken.” He said a friend went to find the woman and discovered her sprawled on the floor.

My mom has a similar (though thankfully less violent) story from when she was in her twenties.  She avoided some guy on a dance floor who then followed her away and grabbed and twisted her arm because he was so enraged that she had ignored him.  I’ve never been physically assaulted, but one time a guy thought it would be fun to follow me in his car (I was not in a car) because I did not want to stop and talk to him.  Also, when I had a job as a cashier, a guy told me in a quietly threatening way that he knew what route I took to walk home.  Etc., etc.

It always amazes me when people–usually men–wonder why being hit on by strangers makes women uneasy.  Being hit on is obviously a compliment, so it should make you happy, right?  Except that it’s pretty easy to tell when it’s not a compliment.  Usually, when a strange guy hits on me, it’s threatening.  Especially if he is a lot older than me, or if I’m physically stuck with him, or if I can’t avoid him because I’m at work, and I’m being paid to be nice to him, or if he’s driving and I’m walking on the sidewalk.  I’ve concluded that there are a lot of men whose consummate skill at sexual harassment stems from their ability to seek out women whose freedom to ignore  them is compromised.

I don’t get this sort of attention as much as I did when I was 15, which is pretty disturbing, since I wasn’t more attractive then, just younger.  It still happens fairly often if I’m in a public place, though.  I have yet to come up with an effective response that doesn’t involve stammering and getting away as quickly as possible.*

The funny part of all this is that women are supposed to be nice to men, to humor them and play along with their entitlement, but at the same time, it’s up to women to sense who is and is not a rapist.  If this woman who was beaten had danced with that guy, and he’d date raped her later, whose fault would that be?  Hers, of course, for failing to use her mind reading powers to determine that he was a rapist.

*Except in my head, where I’m free to act like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. As if!

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Someday soon, when I’m not engulfed by other responsibilities, I want to write something thoughtful and interesting about porn.  For now, all I can do is seethe at this comment on Jezebel from one of the Fleshbot editors:

So basically, I’m going to issue the challenge I issue everyone: if you want to see better porn, make it yourself–and then send me links so I can write about it.
(Seriously, if you’re not willing to do that, then I can’t take your complaints seriously. When I had problems with porn, you can better believe I pulled up my bootstraps and used my brains and body to create my very own altporn site that featured the kind of porn I wanted to see in the world.)

In other words: if you have problems with the misogyny and banality endemic in mainstream porn, your options are a) become a super sexy cool alt porn star like me! or, b) shut the fuck up.

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For the past month, I’ve had a seasonal job selling jewelry in a large department store.  Most of the merchandise is expensive and, in my opinion, ugly.  But, as retail jobs go, it really hasn’t been so bad.  And now that I’ve sufficiently damned it with faint praise, I’ll even go so far as to say it’s been interesting–and fun, sometimes–to help confused but well meaning men buy gifts for the various women in their lives. Mostly, though, it’s made me think about what a strange and fraught role gift-giving plays in heterosexual relationships.*

Here’s an example.  One day I was helping a guy who’d bought a diamond pendant for his fiancée.  Since he was also in the market for an engagement ring, I was showing him diamond solitaires and asking about his girlfriend’s tastes and what he thought she’d like.  And he replied, “Oh, she never wears jewelry.  She’s really outdoorsy, and she likes camping and hiking, and whenever I ask her about what ring she wants, she shows me something really simple.”  He then proceeded to tell me that he only liked the bigger, more expensive settings, and that that was what he was going to buy for her.

Obviously, this guy is a clueless boyfriend and a bad gift-giver.  He was very resistant to my suggestion that he look at the simpler settings we had, or that–God forbid!–he go ring shipping with his fiancée so she could give more direct input.  Now, on some level, I can understand the pressure to buy a fancy engagement ring, since the whole practice is historically predicated on the man proving his worthiness as a husband/provider.  But why would anyone buy a diamond pendant as a Christmas present for someone who doesn’t like jewelry and probably won’t wear it?

I think it’s because (in addition to this particular guy being thoughtless) gift giving is supposed to be one of the sacred duties men perform in romantic relationships.  Sure, women are supposed to buy things for men, too–because everyone is supposed to buy everything all the time–but I think it’s fair to say that there’s much more cultural pressure for men to prove their love and commitment to women by giving them presents than the other way around.  Men want to be with women because they want sex, and women will have sex as long as they get DIAMONDS, or so the narrative goes.  And so jewelry and flowers and candy become shorthand for a man’s love and fidelity.  That he is only obligated to buy these gifts about four times a year–Holidays, birthday, anniversary, and Valentine’s Day–heightens their symbolic importance.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “that’s just what Jared wants you to think!”  And it is.  But Jared and Kay and Weisfield aren’t pulling these mores out of thin air; they’re merely using them to their advantage.  I also have to think that part of the appeal of the diamonds-and-flowers brand of romancing stems from the fact that heterosexual relationships are still mostly unequal.  Women are expected to put up with a lot from their male partners, and they’re also conditioned to believe they’re so undesirable that few men would willingly be with them.  So overt displays like diamonds become both a consolation prize and a necessary assurance that your boyfriend thinks you are, in fact, valuable.  And a guy who is trying to be a good boyfriend will probably pick up on all of this and consider something like a diamond pendant the best proof of his affection.

It’s a pretty fucked up, insidious dynamic.  I don’t really give a shit about marriage or diamonds or engagement rings, yet I’ve still found myself wanting similar kinds of validation.  In fairness, though, I only felt that way when I wasn’t getting much respect and emotional validation to begin with.  It’s much easier to feel secure in a relationship when things actually are secure.  But that knowledge didn’t stop me from beating myself up for being silly enough to want to go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day.

*I have no idea whether it’s like this for gays.  I can only call out the craziness I know.

UPDATE:  This old post on Pandagon is very apropos.

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The New York Times has a fascinating piece on the woolly legal issues surrounding surrogacy, highlighted by a sad, complicated case in Michigan.  The short version of the story: an infertile couple, the Kehoes, created embryos with donor eggs and sperm.  They then selected a surrogate, Laschell Baker, to carry the pregnancy to term.  The Kehoes reimbursed Baker for her medical expenses, and expected to gain guardianship of the babies after they were born.  Things got dicey, however, when Baker learned of Amy Kehoe’s psychiatric history during the guardianship hearing.  (Kehoe had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had been arrested years earlier for cocaine use and driving under the influence.)  Despite the fact that she was on anti-psychotics and, according to her psychiatrist, had had no symptoms of mental illness for nine years, Baker argued that Kehoe was an unfit mother.  Since Michigan law regards surrogacy contracts as void and unenforceable, she successfully disputed the Kehoe’s guardianship and the twins are now in the Baker’s custody.

It’s a heartbreaking story, and I’m pretty disturbed by the fact that Amy Kehoe was determined an unfit mother not because she was currently displaying erratic or abusive behavior, but because she had a medical history of mental illness.  I don’t think that Laschell Baker was right to withhold the babies for that reason.  But!  The article really drove home the idea that in surrogate situations, children (or potential children) are being treated as commodities—straight up, I-paid-money-for-it-so-it’s-mine commodities.  The basis for the Kehoe’s legal claim to parenthood was that they commissioned and paid for the babies’ creation.  To wit:

“We paid for the egg, the sperm, the in vitro fertilization,” Ms. Kehoe said as she showed off baby pictures at her home near Grand Rapids, Mich. “They wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for us.”

While I’m not discounting the importance of either this or the obvious emotional investment they had, the idea that parenthood in these situations must necessarily be awarded to whomever paid for the conception and gestation of the fetuses, as opposed to whomever did the gestating, is not immediately obvious to me.  One of the commenters on Jezebel, purpleshoes,  summed it up really well:

To me, there are two different questions here: whether a woman gains the legal right to decide what happens to other people’s genetic material once it’s in her uterus, and whether women can sign ultimately binding legal contracts dealing with the disposition of a fetus that is not yet born. I say the precedent for the first is clearly sperm – in that a woman has a right to continue or discontinue a pregnancy even though some portion of the genetic material involved is not hers, because the major requirement to continue the pregnancy is not the existence of the initial cells but rather the major involvement of her internal organs – and the precedent for the second is clearly adoption, in which women can’t sign away rights to children that legally don’t exist yet, so any decision made before birth can only be considered provisional.

In other words, carrying a pregnancy to term is A Big Deal, both ethically and biologically.  It’s not like watering someone else’s house plant for nine months.  There are good reasons why most states have been reluctant to recognize surrogacy contracts.  Parental rights and obligations cannot usually be contracted away, and like that last quote mentions, it’s legally impossible to opt out of one’s parental responsibilities to a child who doesn’t exist yet. Birth mothers considering adoption cannot relinquish custody while they’re still pregnant, and a lot of states allow a grace period of a few days after giving birth before they have to make a final decision.


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When I read a post on a feminist blog about sexism or masculinity or some such, and instead of having a discussion, a bunch of the commenters write REALLY LONG comments about how this  makes them so glad to have such awesome boyfriends!  My boyfriend thinks women’s bodies are beautiful, and he has never once called me fat!  Also, one time, he told me how turned off he was by the idea of non-consensual sex–I mean, really, he would NEVER rape anyone, for serious.   And he thinks fake boobs are ugly!  Isn’t that so amazing and feminist?!!!111!! I am just so lucky to be dating this gem!  What’s that?  You were talking about pervasive cultural sexism?  Sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of my boyfriend not raping people!

It happens more often than you think.

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I recently dug up my old copy of The Second Sex, and because I feel guilty for never having read it all the way through, I started reading at the beginning a few days ago.  I’m so glad I did; I’d forgotten what an amazing tour de force it is.  Not only is De Beauvoir obviously brilliant–she references everyone from Aristotle to Merleau-Ponty with ease–she’s able to lead the reader coherently through the disparate fields of biology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and history without ever getting muddled or losing sight of her topic.  Of course, she’s not without philosophical biases, and some aspects of the book, particularly the sections dealing with female hysteria and mental illness, are dated.  Overall, though, it’s incomparably good.

I was really struck by the first chapter on biology.  It seems especially relevant now, when religious creation myths have largely been discarded in favor of evolutionary just-so stories that conveniently justify rigid gender roles in the name of science.  De Beauvoir has little patience for scientific reductionism.

Once we adopt the human perspective, interpreting the body on a basis of existence, biology becomes an abstract science; whenever the physiological fact (for instance, muscular inferiority) takes on meaning, this meaning is at once seen as dependent on a whole context; the “weakness” is revealed as such only in the light of the ends man proposes, the instruments he has available, and the laws he establishes.  If he does not wish to seize the world, then the idea of a grasp on things has no sense; when in this seizure the full employment of bodily power is not required, above the available minimum, then differences in strength are annulled; wherever violence is contrary to custom, muscular force cannot be a basis for domination.  In brief, the concept of weakness can be defined only with reference to existentialist, economic, and moral considerations.

The chapter on psychoanalysis articulates my problems with Freud better than I ever could:

Not being a philosopher, Freud has refused to justify his system philosophically; and his disciples maintain that on this account he is exempt from all metaphysical attack.  There are metaphysical assumptions behind all his dicta, however, and to use his language is to adopt a philosophy.

More to come as I continue reading!

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