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Archive for February, 2008


For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about the objectification, sexualization, and commodification of women, and now my friend figleaf has brought the topic (inadvertently) to a boil by questioning the motives of men who pay for sex. I have a lot of sympathy for his perspective – not so much for people who immediately take umbrage at any discussion of the ethics of sex work, or for those who willfully misconstrue people’s arguments. Being “sex positive” doesn’t oblige anyone to gloss over ethical issues related to sexuality.

So, while I welcome comments on this topic, including from those who disagree, I’ll only entertain those that are civil. I see no point in engaging with people at either extreme of this issue who consider either sex work or any criticism of its structure as ipso facto offensive.

I say “its structure” because my intent here is to reflect on the structural relationships that sex work entails – specifically in prostitution since that’s what prompted the dust-up at figleaf’s and got me thinking. I won’t make any arguments about the experiential level of sex work because I’m simply not qualified to do that. Many sex workers say that they’re satisfied with their work on the whole, and I have no wish to call their feelings or experiences into question. I recognize that not all are coerced (though too many are), and that sex work may be the best-paying option for many women. (But this in itself says something damning about the choices society offers us: Something is seriously screwed up when women write to advice columnists asking why they shouldn’t finance their Ph.D. work by stripping. And getting that degree might not help. I suspect many sex workers make better money than I do as an adjunct college instructor, never mind my fancy-pants diploma.)

Anyway: A key structural feature of prostitution is that it commodifies sex workers’ bodies. This is one thing that sets it apart from most other occupations under capitalism. Instead of selling only one’s labor power that has been alienated from one’s body, one is selling one’s body itself. One’s body becomes a commodity.

The relationship between the buyer and the seller in prostitution is thus characterized by more intense exploitation than in most other sorts of occupations. This doesn’t deny the prostitute’s agency: nearly all humans take part in exploitative relationships of one sort or another, without totally giving up our own agency, intelligence, etc. It does mean that this particular relationship merits closer scrutiny.

I want to emphasize that exploitation entailing the body itself and not just labor power is not specific to sex work. Traditional marriage, in which women essentially cede unlimited access to their bodies in return for economic support and protection, is a more extreme form of such exploitation because it’s usually a life-long, irrevocable contract. Surrogate motherhood (for remuneration beyond medical expenses) is a similarly exploitative type of relationship because a woman’s body is rented out and sometimes her genetic material is sold outright. Most medical ethicists condemn the sale of human organs for analogous reasons.

As in any exploitative relationship, ethically the onus would rest on the buyer to put a stop to the exploitation. Practically and politically, it’s almost always the seller of labor power who throws a wrench into the gears of exploitation because they are the ones who stand to benefit. But that doesn’t neutralize the buyer/employer’s ethical obligation.

This is why it’s the client and not the prostitute who enters into an ethically problematic transaction.

Does this mean it’s always wrong to hire a prostitute? Maybe not. In some cases, where a person would truly have no other access to sexual activity over the long term, it might be the lesser harm. That’s a question for individual judgment. But I think such judgments can only be made fairly if one first acknowledges that buying a prostitute’s services isn’t just ethically neutral. I also suspect that such situations are quite rare, unless you accept the premise that people have a right to sexual gratification that requires little patience or effort on their own part.

So far, I’ve been writing as though this were a gender neutral problem. Of course, it’s not. Whether the prostitute is a man or a woman, the client is almost always a man.

And here’s where I think ethical reasoning alone is inadequate, because at a macro level, this is an issue of gender, class, and power, not just a matter of individual rights and choices. If you assume a right to sexual satisfaction not just through solo sex but through access to another warm body, why then has our society basically guaranteed that right to men but not to women? Yes, there are male prostitutes who cater to women, but they are very few. You sure don’t see them on street corners (or at least I never have).

The ethics of prostitution thus have a political dimension, and figleaf is absolutely right: As an institution, prostitution shores up masculine sexual entitlement. It also undergirds the idea that there’s one class of women willing to have sex with men for money but not so much for their own pleasure, while the majority of women are consigned to what figleaf calls the “no-sex class” – a scheme that envisions female sexual pleasure as largely irrelevant to both groups of women.

Photo by Flickr user Love_is, used under a Creative Commons license.

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The feminist blogosphere – Feministing.com, in particular – descended into nasty, holier-than-thou shitslinging today, mothers against non-mothers, all in reaction to an article published by Reason magazine defending from a libertarian perspective the decision to forgo childbearing.

I was dishearted by how quickly the thread at feministing crapped out into pure judgmentalism. The actual news item was perfectly reasonable, but the comments quickly degenerated into defensiveness about childfree lives and excoriation of women who opt to have children without first achieving perfect financial security. The mothers in the crowd then responded in kind. While I have more gut-level sympathy for the mothers’ arguments and thought they were generally more civil, in the end it was the sort of debate no one can ever win.

I fully agree that women who choose to have no children aren’t selfish, or at least no more so than the average human being. They contribute to society in a whole variety of ways – through work, activism, non-parental relationships to kids, etc. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon states this position well.

Those without kids do have an obligation not to whine about school levies and loud children in down-scale restaurants. We share our communities, we share our futures, and poorly educated, unsocialized kids who become equally rough-edged adults are in nobody’s interest. As a mother, I have a return obligation to honor their choices and to defend them particularly when they’re exposed to the sort of criticism that childfree men rarely face.

At the same time, I’m frustrated by purported feminists who imply that women who choose to become mothers are dupes. We can contribute through raising children who are feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and just plain kind and wise – who will leave the world a better place than they found it, or so I dearly hope. And mothers contribute in other ways, too, because raising children is rarely a whole life’s work. Bitch Ph.D. puts forth these arguments at eloquent length.

Mothers and fathers have an obligation not to whine about the alleged shallowness of the childfree, and to appreciate when those without kids pick up some of the loose ends that parents of young children can’t (and vice versa, of course – think of the SAHMs whose volunteer work is essential to many communities). We parents have an obligation to teach our kids to behave considerately in public. But we shouldn’t have to face opprobrium from people who’ve never had to manage a child’s sudden earache on an airplane (and yeah, we know about the drinking trick), nor should we have to apologize for our parenthood as a burden to the community or as an ostensibly anti-feminist choice. (Our kids will be bankrolling all of our Social Security, after all.)

But what I saw in the feministing thread is what I see in the culture at large: women eviscerating each other for the choices they’ve made. Welcome back to the Mommy Wars, now raging between the mothers and the non-mothers, instead of between mothers who work for pay and those who don’t.

And who wins? Neither group of women, you can be sure. The only true winners are the capitalists who want us all to believe that material values and performance as “ideal workers” ought to be our preeminent goal.

I’d have said all the above before kids, and I’ll maintain it even now that I have two lovable little stinkers who make my life both wonderful and sometimes nearly impossible. Kids change everything, yes. But that’s at the personal level. Politically, it sometimes feels like nothing has changed since the mid-1970s. Motherhood remains the great tangled conundrum of feminism.

Gustav Klimt’s Hope II at MoMA – image from Flickr user wallyg used under a Creative Commons license.

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A Test for Ovarian Cancer?

Researchers report that a new blood test combining six different biomarkers can detect early-stage ovarian cancer with 99.4% accuracy. (For the scientifically inclined, the six markers are leptin, prolactin, osteopontin, insulin-like growth factor II, macrophage inhibitory factor, and CA-125.)

This matters to me because I had a big ovarian cancer scare when I was 26. I’d been feeling fatigued and vaguely sick for months when an ultrasound picked up a mass on my right ovary. A subsequent CT scan indicated it was solid. Everyone got good and scared; my usually calm mom was so freaked, she ran a couple of red lights while driving me to the doctor. I confronted the possibility of never having kids even if I didn’t die from it.

I went into surgery, only to wake up with all my parts intact. The doctors were all so red-faced they wouldn’t say anything except that the laparoscopy showed no signs of a cyst, much less cancer. Another doctor who wasn’t involved in the snafu later theorized that I’d had a cyst that looked solid on the CT because it contained blood, and that had burst during a rough exam. That was a good enough answer for me. I was still left with the first real intimation of my own mortality.

The new test, if it pans out in the phase III clinical trials already underway, will be a huge blessing for a whole host of reasons.

1. The biggie: Ovarian cancer won’t so often amount to a death sentence. It might even do for ovarian cancer what the Pap smear did for cervical cancer: transform it into a scary but usually curable disease, instead of a major killer. Now, it’s the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among American women, accounting for an estimated 15,280 deaths in 2007 according to the American Cancer Society. When it’s found early, still confined to the ovaries, the five-year survival rate is 93%, as compared to 45% for all cases. But fewer than 20% of all ovarian cancers are caught that early, again according to the ACS. It’s hard to diagnose because its physical symptoms are quite unspecific: bloating and pelvic heaviness, indigestion, nausea, back or pelvic pain, vaginal bleeding or abnormal periods, and weight gain or loss.

2. The best test currently available gives 1 in 20 women a false positive result indicating cancer where none is present. The new test will mess with people’s minds only 4 times out of 1000. If you’re one of those women faced with fear of impending death, that’s a huge difference – as I learned the hard way.

3. This improved accuracy will avoid unnecessary CT scans (which are costly and expose the patient to considerable radiation).

4. Better accuracy will avoid unnecessary surgeries – again, I can testify what a boon this will be.

5. Women who carry one of the BRCA genetic mutations, which predispose them to both breast and ovarian cancer, may be able to choose watchful waiting without quite so much worry. Currently, many women with the BRCA mutation choose elective removal of their ovaries, but that plunges them into instant menopause at a young age.

The big open question – assuming that the test proves itself in its final trials – is whether insurance companies will cover it, and if so, for whom.

To learn more about ovarian cancer, visit the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition or the National Cancer Institute. For the original study, go to the abstract; you can download the full article for free from there.

Photo by Flickr user herby fr used under a Creative Commons license.

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And by “apocalypse,” I mean for the other candidate.

I’ve been informally tallying the signs around town. I’ve now seen several dozen for Obama, including in neighborhoods populated by older folks where people tend to be more conservative, though still Democrats. (My little town seems to aspire to an East Bloc-style single-party system.)

I’ve seen one brave and lonely sign for McCain.

I’ve seen none for Clinton. But I know for a fact that at least one friend of mine (and occasional partner in political mischief) would love to put up a Clinton sign, if she could only get her hands on one. (We’ve agreed to disagree on this, though it feels strange; we’re almost always in sync politically.) Rumor has it that Clinton’s people – and signs – were supposed to arrive toward the end of this week.

So why does this admittedly unscientific survey of signs and portents matter? Frank Rich had a marvelous New York Times column this weekend in which he assailed Clinton’s campaign for its poor ground game. Rich suggests that if Clinton can’t run a competent campaign, it’s not a great recommendation for putting her in charge of the United States government:

In the last battleground, Wisconsin, the Clinton campaign was six days behind Mr. Obama in putting up ads and had only four campaign offices to his 11. Even as Mrs. Clinton clings to her latest firewall — the March 4 contests — she is still being outhustled. Last week she told reporters that she “had no idea” that the Texas primary system was “so bizarre” (it’s a primary-caucus hybrid), adding that she had “people trying to understand it as we speak.” Perhaps her people can borrow the road map from Obama’s people. In Vermont, another March 4 contest, The Burlington Free Press reported that there were four Obama offices and no Clinton offices as of five days ago. For what will no doubt be the next firewall after March 4, Pennsylvania on April 22, the Clinton campaign is sufficiently disorganized that it couldn’t file a complete slate of delegates by even an extended ballot deadline.
(Original is in the New York Times, but the version at Alternet won’t require you to register. The whole article is well worth reading.)

Clinton’s Ohio operation seems to be equally lagging, if my town is representative. And even if it’s not, she’s missing an opportunity here. Though my town itself is rife with students and the over-educated (core Obama constituencies), its poor Appalachian environs are populated mostly by people who demographically belong to her base.

To be fair, Bill Clinton did come here to speak (as will Michelle Obama tomorrow). But a single star-powered appearance can’t fully substitute for a tight, enthusiastic get-out-the-vote effort. Obama’s crew hopes to knock on 3000 doors here over the weekend, and with the hordes of students lining up to help, I bet they’ll come close to their goal. His staffers opened an office here a couple of weeks ago already.

[Correction: It’s 30,000, according to my source, Rence, whom I thank for setting me straight. Gotta love those order of magnitude errors. Now you know why I’m not a chemist or physicist.]

Obama’s campaign is only words? You be the judge.

Photo of the Obama sign by me, in front of my house. I swapped an old vacuum cleaner (on loan) for it so the poor staffers hopefully won’t have to continue working in the midst of dreck. It was a small price, even if the vacuum meets its demise.

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Grief, Interrupted

I’m not sure I know how to write about this. It’s the kind of event where we inevitably seek meaning, and where the meaning just as surely eludes us.

Last week my former sister-in-law had a massive stroke. She is 43 years old. (I just caught myself writing that in the past tense, even though she’s still alive.) Initially, the prognosis was horrible. The doctors were sure she would never walk or talk again. They thought she might be unable to hear.

She’d been very health conscious until she and my brother split up two and a half years ago. After that, she was depressed, so I don’t know if she continued exercising as regularly as before. In any event, she was fitter than most people her age and certainly not overweight. She had no glaring risk factors except possibly the recurrent migraines she’d suffered for years.

Here’s where the story, and my feelings, get more complicated. I haven’t talked to her since they separated. I was never terribly close to her, just fond in the way people sometimes are when they’ve got little in common except for a shared loved one.

The divorce was about as ugly as they come, especially for a couple with no children. This was her stated reason for leaving my brother: He still didn’t want kids, but she changed her mind about them once she hit 40. Within weeks of leaving him, she changed her mind about the divorce, too. She eventually begged my brother to take her back. He’d been too deeply hurt, and he adamantly refused. She responded by dragging out the proceedings and driving attorney costs toward infinity. He took out a restraining order after the night she and her mother tried to break into his house. Another night, someone broke into his truck, leaving the stereo but stealing the one item – his piano-tuning toolbox – whose worth only an insider could know. We never found out who did that, but the family couldn’t help speculating.

And now, in the wake of all that spitefulness, just weeks after the final divorce decree was finally, mercifully signed, she ought to be able to start making a new life for herself. Maybe that’s one reason why grief has ambushed me. Another obvious reason is her youth. She’s just a year younger than me. This sort of disability is an outrage of nature when it happens to an 80-year-old. In a person her age, it’s unfathomably cruel.

And then I imagine what it must be like, trapped in a body unable to move, unable to communicate. While the doctors are now cautiously hoping for more progress than they originally indicated, it’s still unclear if she’ll recover her ability to speak. She can definitely hear. All of this must be impossibly hard – and all the more so if you’re simmering in bitter recent memories.

Even her mother – who helped make my brother’s life miserable in many ways other than the break-in attempt – has my compassion. Whatever her failings (which frequently crossed the line to criminal behavior), she’s still feeling the anguish of a mother watching her child suffer.

Having said all this, I don’t feel any wiser. I don’t know if there’s any lesson to learn beyond the usual one of not wasting the precious time we have. That’s a cliché, sure, but it’s also something I forget over and over again.

I just know that I’m surprised by my grief, even though I know this is not my story. I’m not even sure it was mine to tell.

Maybe I felt compelled to tell it anyway because the solace of words is reliable, as solid to me as our fragile and suffering flesh – the words pouring out of me, each of them declaring I am, I am, I am.

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Ralph’s Nadir

Via ROTUS, a precious LOLralph:


It’s a darn shame that he’s not an actual cat, or we could keep him off the ballot for being insufficiently human.

Then again, an actual cat would be less narcissistic than Nader. That’s a scary thought.

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Patriot Games

The AP committed an astonishing act of fake journalism this weekend. It’s a topsy-turvy world when the self-proclaimed “fake journalists” of the Daily Show are among our best truth-tellers, while a “serious” institution like the AP hawks innuendoes and just plain bullshit.

AP “journalist” Nedra Pickler made herself a tool of the right-wing machine that’s ramping up to smear Obama every which way. She quotes Republican consultant Roger Stone:

“Many Americans will find the three things offensive. Barack Obama is out of the McGovern wing of the party, and he is part of the blame America first crowd.”
[If you’re having trouble counting past two, apparently so did Pickler, because the third “offensive” thing never appears in her article.]

She quotes Steve Doocy of Fox News:

“First he kicked his American flag pin to the curb. Now Barack Obama has a new round of patriotism problems. Wait until you hear what the White House hopeful didn’t do during the singing of the national anthem.”

She quotes former radio host Mark Williams, who was also speaking on Fox:

“He felt it OK to come out of the closet as the domestic insurgent he is.”

Pickler does debunk the rumor

based on the Internet that falsely suggests he’s a Muslim intent on destroying the United States. Obama is a Christian and has been fighting the e-mail hoax, which also claims he doesn’t put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, and he’s been trying to correct the misinformation.

If asked to defend herself, Pickler would probably point out that she devoted more lines to responses from Obama and his surrogates than to his attackers. It’s a classic example of he-said, she-said journalism that Jon Swift has skewered just beautifully.

But that defense would be missing the point: This slime should never have become news in the first place. The conventional media still has the power to set the agenda for politicians and journalists alike. Those who propagate innuendo and lies are almost as blameworthy as those who invent the lies in the first place. Folks, this is not journalism; it’s propaganda.

Glenn Greenwald describes how the process works:

This is a “news article.” And Pickler and AP wrote it by sitting in front of Fox News, writing down the most baseless and reckless accusations from the worst morons, and then turning it into a “news story” along the lines of: “Conservatives accuse Obama of X.” That’s how Drudge rules their world. He posts some completely irresponsible and scurrilous rumor; they then write a news story about how the rumors are circulating, and it then becomes mainstreamed.
(Read his whole post here.)

Greenwald is surprisingly sanguine about the effects of this, mostly because Obama is going on the offense – not just rebutting the lies but actively redefining patriotism. He thinks this robust offense might just redefine the terms of the debate. He contrasts Obama’s reaction to the standard Democratic backbone-of-cooked-spaghetti approach:

* Even though I am kind of against the war and a little bit against the new FISA bill for now, I love my country and want to protect Americans, too, just like the Republicans do — honest (the standard Democratic response); and,

* If anyone’s patriotism should be considered suspect, it’s those who want to send Americans off to die in a worthless and destructive war and those who want to eviscerate our basic political values by torturing, detaining people with no rights, and spying on American citizens with no warrants (the gist of Obama’s response here).
(Read his whole analysis here.)
I’m not quite as sanguine as Greenwald about this. The reeking garbage that Pickler circulated is only the beginning, of course, and we can expect it’ll get a lot more odious if (when!) Obama wins the nomination. Then again, maybe the Republicans will be flummoxed by someone who stands up to bullies.

We could sorely use a redefinition of patriotism – one that sees human worth, and not militarism, as its raison d’etre. The costs of equating militarism with strength have been astronomical, and they keep rising.

The Political Cat reported last week on one case of truly horrific fallout from the Iraq War: A 27-year-old veteran returned from Iraq, only to physically and sexually assault his very own three-month-old daughter. TPC writes:

This is the end of his life, which is sad enough. Because he will be proved to be a sex offender, regardless of whether he is convicted of this particular crime. Sadder still, it is the end of the life of a three-month-old girl, who suffered bleeding on the brain because her own father assaulted her. Her mental capacity will always be affected. Who knows what these assaults have done to her emotional development. That her physical well-being is no more is a given.
(More details are included in TPC’s post. Fair warning: The whole story is deeply disturbing.)

We don’t know what problems he may have had prior to deployment. But he clearly returned to civilian life in a profoundly fucked-up state. Statistically, we know that PTSD is widespread among returning veterans. And we know that the military’s mental health services have been woefully inadequate.

I’m reminded of the first student I ever taught who was a Iraq veteran. Reynolds (obviously not his real name) was a few years older than my other students, affable and active in class discussion. He was also a bit of a fuck-up, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. (I have a soft spot for students who are interesting and original but don’t quite have their act together. Note to any of my current who may be reading this: I am so not giving you license to screw up.)

Reynolds got in trouble for DUI and I found out because he had to go to court during my class. But that’s one of the reasons I liked him; it wouldn’t have occurred to him to lie to me or give me a snow job. He missed one day due to a hangover. He skipped class on the day we were scheduled to discuss gender and militarism and later apologized, saying he just couldn’t handle the memories. That’s when he told me he still couldn’t sleep for fear the air might explode around him at any moment.

The quarter after that, I happened across a brief story in the online version of one of the local papers about a fight that had broken out at a bar, not in itself an unusual event in this town. A patron and a bouncer had mixed it up, and the bouncer literally tossed the patron out of the bar and onto the sidewalk. The story made the paper because the patron had to be transported to Columbus with head injuries.

The patron was my sweet, funny former student, Reynolds.

Will he ever show up in the official casualty stats? Not bloody likely. I tried emailing him, with no response. Since I was in Germany at the time I never did find out what happened next. He doesn’t seem to be enrolled anymore.

I want a patriotism that doesn’t wantonly squander young lives; that respects the Constitution; that embraces constructive dissent; and that isn’t afraid to admit mistakes and make amends. That’s worth more to me than any number of flag pins. Although it’d be nice if the flag could stand for my flavor of patriotism once again.

“High-Flying Flag” by Flickr user GeneC55, used under a Creative Commons license.

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