Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sex as Civil Resistance

In Togo this week, the women's faction of a civil rights coalition is encouraging women to stage a week-long sex strike in order to demand political reforms.  According to leadership of the group, Let's Save Togo, the strike, which began yesterday, will place pressure on Togolese men to demand the resignation of President Gnassingbe and put an end to a political system which allows unlimited electoral terms.

​This campaign leaves me somewhat conflicted.

On the one hand, in an era which glorifies electoral politics at the expense of the wide spectrum of political activity, this example of civil disobedience is truly exciting.  It is made more remarkable by the fact that women are organizing as a political force on the basis of their sex, following in a grand tradition which spans from the March on Versailles during the French Revolution to the Chilean March of the Empty Pots in 1971 to the reproductive-rights protests currently occurring outside the Republican National Convention in Florida.

On the other hand, the sex strike is problematic for several reasons:

First, it assumes that in order for their concerns to be heard, women must pressure their men to pressure the government-- women's voices, in and of themselves, hold no value.  And the only way for women to exert such pressure on the men-folk is through their bodies, as opposed to intellect, reason, moral suasion, etc.  Even as they engage in serious political activity, women are once again reduced to their sexual and biological functions.

Secondly, any type of coercion, including sexual coercion, dilutes the moral force of the issue, itself.  Using gimmicks and tricks to gain support is ineffective and generally weakens the cause in the long run.  

Finally, using sex as a weapon is damaging to all individuals in society.   Withholding sex to gain something, commodifies sex, itself.  It engages all participants in a type of prostitution.  Furthermore, this type of action reinforces the antedeluvian notion that sex is some "gift" that women exclusively hold--- perpetuating damaging myths about girls, virginity, purity, and the mother-whore dichotomy--rather than a mutually-enjoyable activity between two (or three or four) individuals.

​For once, I don't intend to resolve this ambivalence.  But I do wonder what the consequences of this kind of political activity are, and am left pondering that age-old question, "Do the ends justify the means?"

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"Legitimate" Abortion: What We Should Be Talking About in the Akin Fiasco

Everyone is talking about the insensitive and ignorant remarks made last week by Missouri House Representative Todd Akin, who, when asked to defend his stance against abortion even in the case of rape, claimed that pregnancy as result of rape was practically impossible.  Supported by the latest research from Pseudoscience CrazyNutJob Weekly, Akin stated that "If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

I'm not going to delve into what a bonehead this guy is-- the 24 hours news circuit is covering that pretty well.  I do want to use this conversation to take a step back and examine the way we talk about abortion in this country.

​A very long-standing pro-choice response to anti-abortion arguments is "Well, what about abortion in cases of rape or incest?"  (This is where Akin got himself into hot water).  It's an easy talking point to invoke, because pretty much anyone with a heart will admit that a pregnancy under such horrifying instances, in which a woman had no choice to have sex in the first place, and therefore is in no way responsible for her pregnancy, is an exception to the "no abortions ever" rule.
I understand that the intention of asking  "What about cases of rape?"  may have initially been to expose a logical inconsistency* in the pro-life argument (which has been futile given how comfortable people are living with cognitive dissonance).   But this is not the way it's being used: pro-choice politicians regularly frame any argument for abortion rights in terms of victims of rape and incest.  It's a cheap way to draw sympathy to the cause, and it's insensitive to actual rape and incest survivors.

​Furthermore, the tactic is truly dangerous and disempowering for women, because the implication is that abortion needs to be available just in case.  All other reasons for abortion rights are considered secondary and illegitimate.  The voices of all women who choose abortion outside of rape or health concerns, or support the right to one, are silenced.  The discussion leaves out the myriad of reasons why abortion rights are essential: so that women can control their lives and bodies, so women can choose the number and spacing of their children, so that families can make responsible decisions, so that women for whom contraception and education are not readily available have some protection. 

Abortion is a sensitive issue, for sure, but until we start acknowledging the real needs of women regarding their reproductive health choices, women will never be able to lead free and self-fulfilled lives.  It starts when we agree on the basic principle, with no equivocation or euphemism, that women should be able to do whatever the hell they want with their bodies.  Period.

*If you truly believe in the personhood of a fetus, as many pro-lifers do, it really would not matter how the pregnancy was derived.  That pregnancy would still be perceived as a human child and to abort it would be murder.  I don't agree with this, obviously, but this is the logic of the argument.   If pro-lifers are willing to equivocate in the instances of rape, I believe, then their reason for being against abortion cannot be because they believe human life starts at conception, as is commonly argued.  Consequently, one can assume, that anti-abortion regulation is really intended to control women's behavior.  In other words, if you don't choose to have sex (in the case of rape), you can have an abortion, but if you did choose to have sex, that option is off limits because... how dare you be such a hussy!  Akin is actually one of the few who is logically consistent in his views.  He went onto say in his notorious interview that, for cases of pregnancy resulting from rape, " I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Breast Regards: The "I (heart) Boobies" Bracelet Ban

In 2010, Eastern Area Middle School in Pennsylvania suspended several middle school students for wearing the "I (heart) boobies" breast-cancer fundraising bracelets.  The students then did what any self-respecting tween with money will do-- took the school district to court, claiming the ban on the trendy wrist-wear violated their freedom of speech.  While the federal judge ruled in their favor last year, the school district appealed to the federal circuit court, which recently determined it will hear the case in front of the full 14-judge court.  

As a former teacher of young teens (which Science has proven to be the most annoying age EVER), I empathize with the teachers and administrators at this school.  There is nothing like delivering a beautifully poetic and painstakingly-rehearsed lesson on the pythagorean theorem, only to be interrupted by a cacophony of giggles and snorts of "haha BOOBS!"  Yet, at the same time, it is difficult to tell a teenager who is supporting their mother, sister, aunt, etc. who has battled cancer that their particular form of support may be inappropriate for the classroom.  

Regardless of this quandary, which will soon be settled in the federal courts, the situation gives us an opportunity to examine a very problematic media campaign.

The Keep A Breast Foundation, a breast cancer awareness nonprofit in California, introduced the "I (heart) boobies" rubber bracelets in 2004 as part of a strategy to involve younger generations in the fight against breast cancer.  With their bright colors and semi-risque phraseology, the bracelets made breast cancer fun and sexy (because what's sexier than a debilitating disease?). Since then, the bracelets have become a fashion craze among teens and tweens across the country.  

But at what cost?

While the campaign has successfully reached a previously untapped demographic, it is popular only because it sexualizes a very serious disease and objectifies women’s bodies.

Think of it this way: the bracelets do not say “I (heart) women.”  The message is not that women are awesome, that we should concern ourselves with saving women's lives.  No, the message is that boobs are awesome, that we should worry about saving boobs.   It reduces women's complex lives down to a highly sexualized body part.  Consequently, the breast-cancer-battleground shifts from promoting women's health to protecting men's desire to look at, play with, and otherwise enjoy breasts.

If the end goal of breast cancer awareness, education, and research is to improve the health and well-being of women, then this type of outreach is counterintuitive.  Sex may sell, but the cost-- reinforcing a system of male gaze and privilege-- is simply too high.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Does Ryan Bring Substance to the 2012 Election?

The country is abuzz about Romney's choice of Wisconsin Congressman, Paul Ryan, as the vice presidential nominee.

Many have criticized the so-called "risky" choice, arguing that Ryan fails the simple two-pronged criterion for nominees: (1) Does the candidate enlarge the political base, and (2) does (s)he do nothing to alienate the existing political base?

​Regarding the first issue, presidential nominees often choose a running mate who is from a swing-state or has slightly different political viewpoints, with the hope that they will garner new votes.  Ryan offers neither of these benefits.  It is uncertain, at best, that he would carry his home-state of Wisconsin-- a state which, although "moderate,"  swung Blue for the last six elections.  Furthermore, as Ryan and Romney belong to the same ideological camp on most major issues, Ryan offers no advantage in capturing votes that would not have already been cast for Romney.

​Not only is Ryan not likely to bring in new Republican votes, his policies have alienated certain members of the national Republican constituency.  Recipients of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, for which Ryan has notoriously attempted to cut and privatize, are especially likely to view Ryan disfavorably.  This could be disastrous for Romney in Retirement Mecca, otherwise known as the Great (Swing) State of Florida.

​So that leaves us to wonder: Why Ryan?  Aside from a charming smile and genuinely nice attitude (yeah, that's how we do in Wisconsin), Ryan is most known for his federal budget proposals, which emphasize slashing federal entitlement programs to offset huge tax cuts.  While Ryan has been lambasted as an ideologue (it is well-known that Ryan made everyone on his staff read Ayn Rand) and an extremist, one cannot deny that he is consistent, articulate, and well-informed about his particular vision for the economy, however much you might disagree with it.

​By choosing Ryan as the VP nominee, then, Romney explicitly makes this election about the economy.  Each party now represents very different, and, yes, very thoroughly reasoned approaches to the economy and the federal deficit.  This will, as it stands now, not be an election about personalities, flip-flopping, bridges to nowhere, and other red herrings, but actual (economic) policies.  Every political scientist in the country should be falling over dead from shock right about now.

​Of course, things may change.  Scandals may arise, gaffaws may be made (I'm looking at you, Vice President Biden).  Or maybe someone will remember that there is still a war in Afghanistan, a raging domestic battle over women's reproductive health, and an educational crisis that also could use some attention.  Regardless, as it stands now, the election is shaping up to be a contest of substance over spectacle. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Gross Domestic Happiness?

In a speech to Cambridge economists and statisticians on Monday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke suggested that we radically alter the way we evaluate economic recovery.  Instead of focusing on traditional indicators like the unemployment rate, consumer spending, and inflation, Bernanke argued that we need to expand our definitions and measure people's happiness.

Bernanke stated that by looking only to financial and other traditional metrics, we take a myopic view on “economy,” which really should be a measure of well-being amongst a society.  Money, especially on an aggregate level, does not accurately reflect people’s satisfaction in life.  And a decreasing unemployment rate does not automatically correspond with an increase in quality-of-life.  

Consequently, Bernanke insisted, policy-makers need to expand their scope and make decisions with the end goal of increasing people’s happiness, rather than just their pocketbooks.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Framing the Issue: The Impact of the Affordable Care Act on Domestic Violence Discourse and Services

Finally acknowledging the causal links between lack of preventative care, poor health outcomes, and soaring healthcare costs, the Women’s Preventative Care Amendment of the Affordable Care Act went into effect last week.  As of August 1st, 2012 insurance companies must provide for several essential women’s services free of charge, including annual woman-care visits, gestational diabetes screenings, STI and HIV counseling, breastfeeding support, HPV DNA testing, and, that holy grail, contraception.  

As we joyously bid adieu to copays, we cannot underestimate the revolutionary significance of these provisions.  For the first time in this country, women’s mental, reproductive, and sexual health are being recognized as essential components of the overall health and well-being of women and their families.  

One among the mandated services has especially caught my attention for this reason: screening and counseling for domestic violence.