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Archive for March, 2008


One more time, the trolls and troglodytes are harassing women on the web. This time, sex columnist Violet Blue came in for a bunch of unwarranted crap. She fought back late last week with a column that’s worth reading in its entirety (so go check it out). The proximate cause of it was this chivalrous comment in an online chat about sex scandals:

“Sorry, but being an unattractive skank is not enough to make you an expert. Watching Violet is like watching the female version of Bill Gates expound on sex — something you just don’t want to see. Or hear (thank God we don’t have smell-o-vision!)”

Eew. Thank God we don’t have to see what this guy is insecure about! Does he look like the Geico caveman? Or is he just an ordinary guy who’d be lucky to get a date with a smart, witty, attractive woman like Violet Blue who knows way more about sex than he ever will?

See? I can play that game too. But mostly, when women attack men online, we go after the substance of what they’ve said. We do sometimes take aim at their personal qualities, especially when they’ve got a long track record of assholery and dipshittery. I’m speaking now mostly about liberal women, not wingnut women, who generally inhabit a different Internet than I do.

Women aren’t angels. Online, plenty of women indulge in ad hominem attacks, launched at each other as well as at men. That’s part of the general coarseness and incivility that online anonymity seems to breed in people. (For a particularly vile example of this, see this comment thread at Pandagon, which in general is one of my favorite-most blogs.)

But liberal women don’t generally attack people’s appearance as a first or even last resort, and I have yet to see a woman threaten another poster with physical and/or sexual violence. While men, too, can take the brunt of nasty and even bullying behavior online, I don’t know of any case involving a man that went as far as the death threats that dogged Kathy Sierra and forced her to quit tech blogging.

Violet Blue’s response to the targeting of women online was inspired – and inspiring:

I just write and talk about sex. But every woman on the Internet gets called slutty and ugly and fat (to put it lightly) no matter what; all we have to be is female. …

The problem is, with so many women I talk to, the trolling is effective. The number of times I’ve talked down a crying girlfriend after she’s been trolled in her comments about being fat, ugly, skanky, slutty or stupid is higher than I can count (no matter what she writes about). Trolls watch too much mainstream porn and TV, and believe stereotypes are real; they slap us with it and then we believe it, too. …

In Margaret Cho‘s “Beautiful” tour, she talks about recently being on a radio show and having the host ask her point-blank, live, on the air, “What if you woke up one day, and you were beautiful?” When asked, he defined beautiful as blonde, thin, large-breasted, a porno stereotype. Cho says, “Just think of what life is like for this poor guy. There’s beauty all around him in the world, and he can only see the most narrow definition of it.”

So maybe if you’re a woman, you’re just going to be fat and ugly on the Internet no matter what you look like, say or do. Of course, I could swap out my SFGate bio photo for Jenna Jameson’s. Then maybe we’d have some serious discourse about sex culture around here.

(I quoted at length because it’s all spot-on, but do read the rest here.)

Right. It’s a classic double bind. If you’re sexy, you can’t be smart and serious. If you’re smart and serious, you’d better not reveal your sexy side or you won’t be taken seriously. And yet, when women don’t combine all those things at once, we fall short of what Anna Quindlen called “effortless perfection.”

I’m not suggesting the guys need to shoot for perfection, too. But how about we all cut women a little slack, and let us be our imperfect, sexy, smart, silly, sassy selves – out loud, in public, without fearing attacks on our person or safety.

Photo by Flickr user Lady-bug, used under a Creative Commons license.

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The latest tactic out of the Clinton camp has got me laughing (not out loud – it’s more of an internal snicker). They’re questioning whether Obama has the right to say he’s been a “professor” at the University of Chicago. As summarized by Salon’s War Room, here’s the accusation on Clinton campaign’s website:

“Sen. Obama consistently and falsely claims that he was a law professor.” The item referenced a Chicago Sun-Times article that stated, “‘Several direct-mail pieces issued for Obama’s primary [Senate] campaign said he was a law professor at the University of Chicago. He is not. He is a senior lecturer (now on leave) at the school. In academia, there is a vast difference between the two titles. Details matter.’ In academia, there’s a significant difference: professors have tenure while lecturers do not.”

This is true up to a point. Beyond the assistant professor rank, professors have tenure. As a rule, professors are at least tenure-eligible, though my university also has a special category of non-tenure-line professors. University administrators like that, because they can be fired capriciously.

Personally, I can’t call myself a professor, because I’m a lowly instructor. This is a theoretically less secure spot than the non-tenurable professors, as I’m hired only on a quarterly basis, but practically speaking, I’m more secure since I’m the cheapest labor they’ve got. I’m a captive “trailing spouse” – an awful term that always evokes snail trails for me – but I keep adjuncting for the love of it, even though Wal-Mart, our only other large local employer, might well give me better benefits. Seriously. That’s assuming that Wal-Mart would even hire me, a dubious proposition since they’d smell subversion as soon as I walked in the door. Anyway, the administration really loves people like me, and they’d probably be happy if we had 95% of all teaching staff in my category, with the other 5% reserved as actual professorships for Famous People who teach only a reduced load anyway.

But that’s the true and ugly story of how the more academic branches of academia function. As War Room points out, in professional schools such as law and medicine, the titles get blurry and don’t map onto the rest of the professoriate.

It’s not too suprising, then, that the University of Chicago has issued a statement in full support of Obama calling himself a professor:

From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year. Senior Lecturers are considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors, although not full-time or tenure-track. The title of Senior Lecturer is distinct from the title of Lecturer, which signifies adjunct status. Like Obama, each of the Law School’s Senior Lecturers have high-demand careers in politics or public service, which prevent full-time teaching. Several times during his 12 years as a professor in the Law School, Obama was invited to join the faculty in a full-time tenure-track position, but he declined.
(I’m not sure how permanent this link will be; sorry if it’s not stable. For more detail on this, see also FactCheck.)

Pretty clear, huh?

So Clinton and her cronies are playing a game that I recall from my time hanging around German universities, where everyone is closely scrutinized to make sure they haven’t appropriated a title they don’t deserve. I remember early on during my research in Berlin, I referred to the director of an archive as “Herr Doktor So-und-so,” and his secretary – who was scandalized! – told me I’d better refer to him as “Herr Doktor Doktor So-und-so” because he had two doctorates. And as horrified as she was, I was grateful for the correction; the guy made me nervous as it was, with his waxed mustache and his grandson-of-Bismarck demeanor.

So that’s why I had to snicker at the absurdity of Clinton’s tactic. It reminds me of some of the pettiest jockeying for respect in academia. You wouldn’t think it could have legs in politics.

And yet, it’s not funny in the least if you recall how the Republicans and the media pigeonholed Al Gore as a serial exaggerator. The title of Clinton’s press release? “Just Embellished Words: Senator Obama’s Record of Exaggerations & Misstatements.” Eek. Wanna bet on whether the press is smart enough to sniff out the real exaggerators and mis-staters in this kerfuffle?

LOLcat by me, featuring my own dearly departed Grey Kitty, at I Can Has Cheezburger?

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Via Art Levine at the Huffington Post, I read today of a new Pew Foundation report that casts a disturbing light on the role of race in this presidential campaign:

In particular, white Democrats who hold unfavorable views of Obama are much more likely than those who have favorable opinions of him to say that equal rights for minorities have been pushed too far; they also are more likely to disapprove of interracial dating, and are more concerned about the threat that immigrants may pose to American values. In addition, nearly a quarter of white Democrats (23%) who hold a negative view of Obama believe he is a Muslim.
(quotation from the Pew Foundation)

So, this is pretty straightforward. Except I’m not sure how equal rights can be pushed too far; you’re either equal – or you’re not. (This is a corollary of: you’re either logical – or you’re not!)

In other words, Obama’s Democratic foes are more likely than other Democrats to be racist, xenophobic, and religiously intolerant.

And would someone please explain to me: Why is it considered a smear to call someone a Muslim? I haven’t known that many Muslims well. But those I’ve known (I’m thinking particularly of a straight-A student from Indonesia whom I had the pleasure of teaching last spring) have tended to be a heck of a lot more reasonable and open-minded than many people who claim to be Christians.

Interestingly, gender is playing a more benign role in Democratic voters’ attitudes. Says the Pew Foundation:

Gender makes a significant difference in personal perceptions of Hillary Clinton. Democratic women voters are much more likely than their male counterparts to view Clinton as honest and down-to-earth, and they more often report that Clinton makes them feel proud and hopeful.

That is to say, gender is creating positive identifications. The reverse doesn’t seem to be a big factor. Pew notably does not report that Obama supporters tend to be more sexist than the average Dems. Instead, they found the reverse correlation:

Democrats with more liberal views on interracial dating, the country’s pursuit of equal rights, and even the question of whether men make better leaders, hold a more favorable opinion of Obama than do Democrats with conservative views on these questions. [My emphasis.]

By contrast, most of these values are only weakly related to favorability ratings of Clinton. Taken together, they give little indication of a Democratic voter’s impression of Clinton.

Given the relative youth of Obama supporters, this seems to reflect generational change, with young people rejecting their parents’ and grandparents’ tired old racism and sexism. I like to think that’s true, and this Pew survey happily bears it out. (Follow the links for the detailed data, which show a striking generational shift away from open prejudice.)

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Good news for mamas and babies who don’t want to live in seclusion until the kid is weaned. The AP reports:

The Vermont Human Rights Commission ruled there are grounds to believe Freedom Airlines discriminated against a woman ordered off a plane after refusing to cover up while breast-feeding her child. …

The panel found grounds to believe that Freedom Airlines, a subsidiary of Mesa Air Group, Inc., “violated Vermont’s prohibition against discrimination against women breast feeding in places of public accommodation,” said Commission Executive Director Robert Appel.

First off, how fucking cool is it that Vermont has a Human Rights Commission? A quick Google search on “Ohio” and “human rights” turned up a hit for Ken Blackwell (who served on the UN Human Rights Commission! WTF?) and a colleague of mine here at the university who’s got an intriguing project on human rights and feminist ethics. But no Ohio commission for human rights. Maybe one exists; but doesn’t the name matter? How can we get one of these?

And how ironic is it that the offending company is called Freedom Airlines?

Here’s the incident that sparked this case, again according to the AP:

On Oct. 13, 2006, Gillette, her husband and their then 22-month-old daughter, River, were headed to New York. While waiting at the gate to take off, Gillette, seated next to the window in the next to last row, began to breast feed her child.

She says a flight attendant handed her a blanket and told her to cover up. She refused. A short time later they were removed from the plane.

If you’re reading my blog, you probably already agree that this is just silly. America really stands alone in so thoroughly sexualizing women’s breasts that we’re scandalized when they’re used to give a child a healthy start.

What I want to add is how impractical a blanket usually is. Both my boys – but especially the Bear, who was born with his eyes wide open and pretty much hasn’t closed them since – would never settle for eating under a tent, at least not once they were able to lift their heads. I mean, try throwing a large beach towel over your head during dinner and see how much you enjoy your meal! Better yet, move your plate into the bathroom and then savor your towel-bedecked meal. That’s what babies and mamas are repeatedly demanded to do.

This kid was nearly two years old, so you can imagine how gladly she would’ve accepted a blanket over her face. Of course, if she’d thrown a tantrum as a result, that might’ve gotten her ejected, too. Then again, if your kid just repeatedly says “bye-bye” and you refuse to dope her with Benadryl, that alone can get you booted these days.

It doesn’t have to be like this for nursing mamas and babies. I did most of the early care and feeding of the Bear in Germany, where he was born, and you know what? Breastfeeding in public was just a non-issue. Like most civilized people, the Germans recognize that sometimes, a breast is just a breast. And that mother’s milk is a human right.

LOLmama and well-nursed LOLkitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

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Flying the Hostile Skies


I just heard the oddest, most infuriating air travel story of the year. And it happened to a dear friend of mine. In fact, she’s still grounded as I write this. But more on that in a moment.

You may have heard earlier this week that a federal appeals court struck down a New York state law that would have required airlines to provide food water, fresh air, and only slightly revolting toilets to any passengers trapped on the tarmac for over three hours. The judges’ reasoning was that only the federal government has the power to regulate air traffic, which I actually find persuasive, since most of us do cross state borders whenever we fly (California and Alaska being obvious exceptions).

Similar legislation has cleared the U.S. House of Representatives and is now awaiting Senate action, so there’s hope of redress. I can actually imagine Dubya slapping the bill with a veto, because the poor widdle incompetent airlines don’t like it. Of course, he’d face the wrath of millions – not that that’s ever stopped him.

But grounding is not just for delays anymore! My friend J. is stranded in Albuquerque this morning with her two young daughters, and it’s largely due to what you might call an anti-delay. They arrived more than an hour in advance, but the check-in lines made the terminal look more like a football stadium (as J.’s husband told me) and they missed their plane.

The kicker? The plane left ten minutes early.

Maybe the airlines have decided that on-time stats can be calculated as an average, and if enough flights leave ten minutes early, they’ll balance out those six- and ten-hour delays. This might also be a clever tactic for when they’ve overbooked, so they can avoid compensating bumped passengers. And of course, if you could leave all the passengers on the ground, just think of the fuel savings!

The culprit this time is United. If my friends don’t make it back in time for their scheduled playdate with my kids tomorrow, I’ll be tempted to tape my kids’ sad, whiny, complaining reaction and send it to United’s CEO.

Flying kittehs from I Can Has Cheezburger?

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I’m still fuzzy-headed from caffeine deprivation, so in lieu of clever thoughts, here’s a silly quiz. The great thing about online quizzes is that you get all the fun you’d get from an issue of Cosmo, but without 1) having to shell out money on dreck, 2) being spotted by your friends at the grocery store while you’re buying said dreck, or 3) having to first page through the stinky perfume ads and the more-they-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same sex tips.

Anyway, I’d have been bitterly disappointed if the quiz had come back much different than this. I think it overstates my greed slightly and definitely understates my sloth. The rest seems just about right. Then again, maybe greed has some overlap with lust. It should, logically, right?

Greed: Medium
Gluttony: Medium
Wrath: Low
Sloth: Medium
Envy: Medium
Lust: Very High
Pride: Low

Discover Your Sins – Click Here

And when/if you take the quiz, do share it in comments! Good thing for me that nosiness is evidently only a venial sin.

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Fur the Sake of Fashion

Via Benny Bleiman of Zooillogix at Science Blogs comes a real dog of a fashion news item:

A totally normal British couple has made headlines by wearing sweaters, knitted out of the hair of their deceased pet dogs. Beth and Brian Willis have made two sweaters, one out of Kara, a Samoyed, and the other from Penny, a Swedish Lapphund.

Hmm, totally normal? Well, I guess I’m always saying that normalcy – like gender and race and a whole bunch of other goodies – is a social construct. Some constructs have a useful and benign function, though, and “thou shalt not wear the fur of your deceased pets” seems like as a good a taboo as any.

Here are the originals:


And here’s the fashion statement/canine tribute:


I actually knew a couple who did something similar. I hadn’t thought of them in years until this news item popped up. They were my landlords in Palo Alto the summer after I graduated from college in 1986, a young couple in the thirties with no kids and, from what I gathered, some fertility issues. They kept a couple of long-hard dogs (the breed is lost to history) who seemed to function as an ersatz. I was occupying my then-boyfriend’s rented room for the summer while he was in Germany. They were very kind when Grey Kitty broke her jaw, driving us to the emergency vet at 10 p.m., well past their usual bedtime. I imagine Kitty saw this as minor compensation for all the times those critters put the fear of Dog into her.

They also evicted my boyfriend a few weeks into the fall – after he’d already lived there a year – when they figured out that he and I had been coupling in said rented room. Why it took them so long, I don’t know. They were extremely Christian, so that may explain both their naiveté and their swift, draconian reaction. (And yes, I’m pretty sure the sex was worth it.)

Anyway, a couple of years later they moved out, and somehow I heard through the grapevine that they’d been collecting dog hair in order to knit with it. I couldn’t picture it. Now I can – a bit too clearly.

Both photos from the Daily Mail (UK), which was Benny’s source, too.

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Most folks go in for bunnies and chicks on Easter, and my kids like them just fine too. But this year, once the kids had hunted down all the hidden eggs, we went a bit wilder and celebrated with bonobos and leopards at the Columbus Zoo. I guess it’s kind of a goofy way to spend the day, and judging from the crowds (or lack thereof) most people would seem to agree. But although temperatures weren’t that much above freezing and the zoo was running sort of a minimalist program (no boat rides, no train rides, no ponies), the sun shone blindingly upon us and made me think this day has something to do with renewal after all, even for a hopeful agnostic like me.


The leopard was more wakeful than I’ve seen her in past visits. She performed a series of supple stretches that made me think it’s not just domestic cats who are natural yogis. (Those shots got blurred, of course.)


The remarkable thing about this lovely leopard was how trustfully she appeared to look at me. Granted, our noisy kids had moseyed down the path, and she may have just been grateful for the quiet. But as you can see, she was looking straight at me, just a foot or two behind the glass, me with my camera pressed right up against it. I was talking to her, making those little psss-psss noises that Grey Kitty used to love, and giving her sympathetic looks. And so I convinced myself she recognized a cat lover. Either that, or she thought I might make a tasty Easter dinner.


With the bonobos, I was sure I wasn’t just imagining that they wanted to communicate with us clunky homo sapiens. This one appears to be beckoning us to come closer, and while it might be partly an illusion that the camera caught, it also sums up the way they were interacting with us.


Here you can see how the bonobos’ play wasn’t just for its own sake; they were putting on a show, constantly aware of audience reaction. We watched, we laughed, they loved it.

Maybe someday I’ll find a pretext to write more about bonobos, as a total non-expert who just admires them like crazy. They share more with us, genetically, than with gorillas. They’re our next closest relatives. They have a sense of self, as evidenced by recognizing their own image in a mirror. (We saw a gorilla doing that today, using the powder compact of a young woman who said, slightly eccentrically, that she comes often to the zoo just so that the gorillas can use her mirror.) Bonobos form strong social communities and mother-child bonds. And as my two photos show, they have an awesome sense of humor.

But in some major ways, the bonobos have us beat. The males don’t dominate the females; the bonobo gals stick together and just won’t let the guys lord it over them. They play nicely: conflict and violence are rare. And they have oodles of sex – as you probably knew. They’re the original “make love not war” species. Could it be they’ve got something to teach us war-plagued homo sapiens?

See, I said this zoo trip was somehow about renewal. Happy Easter!

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I’m over my head in end-of-quarter madness, so no time to write anything thoughtful. I’m nearly done grading, but I promised to hand in a long-overdue book review on Monday. I have no idea how I’ll do that and spend all day tomorrow at the Columbus Zoo.

So here’s a very amusing video rebutting the loathesome “It’s 3 a.m., let’s scare the shit out of you” Clinton ad. It’s short. It’s smart. It’s funny. It also answers the question, “Who are all those people in stock footage?” Watch it

(Update April 6, 2009: Too late! The video is no longer publicly available. Maybe the bad guys won, after all?)

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On the five-year anniversary of the start of this stupid, immoral war, Alternet reported that an estimated 50,000 Iraqi women and girls in Syria have been forced into prostitution because as refugees they had no other means of sustenance. As the shock and snickers fade from the Spitzer affair, this comes as a harsh reminder that many, if not most, prostitutes either have no meaningful choice in entering sex work or “choose” it under tightly constrained circumstances.

According to Alternet’s source on this, The Independent, many of the clients are Saudis seeking pleasures they can’t find at home. A prostitute can earn $60 per evening – equivalent to a month’s pay in a factory. As a refugee, she’d be barred from working legally in a factory anyway. Family members not uncommonly pressure or force women and girls – some as young as 13 – to sell their bodies:

Bassam al-Kadi of Syrian Women Observatory says: “Some have been sexually abused in Iraq, but others are being prostituted by fathers and uncles who bring them here under the pretext of protecting them. They are virgins, and they are brought here like an investment and exploited in a very ugly way.”
(Source: The Independent)

The girls enter the clubs where they work fully covered, as modest as any other devout Muslim, and tart themselves up once inside, sometimes aping Girls Gone Wild moves to entice potential customers.

But the majority of prostituted Iraqis are forced into it not by family but by the threat of starvation, according to a New York Times report published last year. Part of the problem is that a sizable fraction of the 1.2 million Iraqi refuges in Syria have no man in the household; women with no work permit and no work experience thus have no other choice.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security requires all branches of the UN to considered the gendered impacts of war. Prostitution and human trafficking are among the biggest of these (along with rape as a weapon of war). But precisely because the scope of the problem is so huge, the UN’s resources are vastly inadequate to addressing the problem. To make things worse, in a number of other war zones UN peacekeepers have themselves become involved in the prostitution trade, as Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf found in the their 2002 UNIFEM report, “Women, War, Peace.”

Of course, one could also demand accountability from the entity that created the Iraqi refugee crisis in the first place. But that’d first require … regime change.

Photo of Damascus Old Town by Flickr user Richard Messenger, used under a Creative Commons license.

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Today we had the cheap thrill of being disaster tourists here in my little town in Southeast Ohio, which like much of the state is watching the water rise. Our local flooding has been pretty harmless thus far. So my family and I are enjoying the excitement of watching a slow-mo disaster that – fortunately – isn’t one.

Here’s where the bike path merges with the Hocking River. A developer, National Church Residences, wants to build a retirement center just a few feet away from here. We hope they’re prepared to supply a fleet of lifeboats for the residents.

This is the bike path diving into the Hocking again, here right next to the sewage treatment plant. (Too bad there’s no scratch-and-sniff feature on the Web.)


The marker shows the water level next to the sewage plant at 11 a.m. …


… and again at 7 p.m. Note that the volleyball net is now low enough even for a klutz like me.


That’s not a puddle, folks. That’s the Hocking River. When our Wal-Mart moved in a few years ago, part of the local opposition centered on its location in the floodplain. And now, here’s what happens when you pave over the area where nature intended the river to naturally escape its banks. If you drive through this little tributary fast enough, you provide fabulous entertainment for the children in the backseat. As a bonus you get what a friend of mine called an “Appalachian car wash.” Which in our case actually left the car cleaner.


The Tiger likes to play here when it’s not threatening to become a new water park. (The city pool is conveniently located just a few feet to the right of the photo.)


Here’s why one of the elementary schools closed down yesterday and today.


This is actually not a lake, no matter what your eyes tell you. It’s not even a river. It’s just a creek. Or it was, anyway.


And here’s how you get to work if you live next to that creek, assuming you’re prepared for this sort of thing, as these folks evidently did.

We’re grateful that everyone’s safe here, so far. Any basement flooding is coming from our oversaturated soil, not from the river. The Hocking River was expected to crest this evening, though more rain is in the forecast; we’re hoping it passes us by. At the risk of sounding preachy: I hope developers might take this as a reminder that we need to preserve the precious remnants of our floodplain, and not just pave paradise, put up a parking lot.

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If you’ve been reading this blog even semi-regularly, you know that I teach women’s studies. But my actual degree is in German history with a minor field in women’s studies. So today I’m donning my historian’s cap to say a few words about the Iraq war as I think it might be viewed in history books 50 or 100 years from now.

It’s not the case that every last historian opposed the war from the get-go. But it’s also not an accident that most of them did. Some of the leading luminaries of the profession are involved in Historians against the War, as are lots of us humbler practitioners. Thousands more who haven’t signed the HAW petition still ardently opposed Bush’s war of aggression.

Yeah, we’re a bunch of liberals and pinko lefties, but by golly, those of us who earned a Ph.D. have spent a decade or so being formally trained to do something most Americans, left or right, never do: to take the long view.

Now, a good historian always relies on evidence to back up her assertions. We fetishize footnotes. Most of us are pretty fixated on archival research, too. With regard to the Iraq war, all of our usual goodies will be classified for decades to come, so we can’t yet draw historical conclusions that would satisfy any historian’s standard of evidence. And yet I think it’s possible – by taking the long view – to advance a few educated guesses about how future historians will view this debacle.

First, the evidence for prosecuting a war of aggression was self-evidently weak to non-existent in the summer of 2002. This was obvious to any thoughtful, critical observer outside the Beltway even at the time, not just in retrospect. It was also glaringly obvious that this war was being marketed to us. This came out in Andy Card’s famous statement about August being a bad month to sell a war: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” Dick Cheney’s blatantly overblown insinuations of a connection between Saddam and Al Qaida also ought to have been a dead giveaway that none of the “evidence” for war was trustworthy. Even Colin Powell’s famous speech to the UN – which postdated the Senate resolution authorizing war, let’s not forget – should have been no more than a call for the UN inspectors to step up their search for weapons of mass destruction on the basis of the intelligence Powell cited. Future historians will likely judge all of the actors – from the Senate to the Pentagon, from the New York Times to the White House – quite harshly for their blindness, stupidity, and mendacity.

And speaking of mendacity, I think it’s likely that only the declassified archival material will show just how many lies we’ve been fed. We all know by now (or we should, if we don’t watch too much Fox News) that there were no WMD, that George Tenet spun the “slam-dunk” evidence to support the administrations case for war, that Saddam and Al Qaida were sworn enemies, that Rumsfeld and Cheney were pushing an Iraq invasion just days after 9/11 following the agenda of the Project for the New American Century. We’re going to have to wait at least a couple more decades to discover just how very intricate a web of lies Bush and his cronies spun; this assumes that they haven’t been massively destroying documents as they’ve already been busted doing with emails. In that case, historians will view the administration even more balefully, because we really don’t like it if you fuck with our source base.

Finally, I’m pretty sure that the Iraq war will mark the end of American hegemony as we’ve known it. The war has bankrupted us for a generation to come, financially and morally. It’s undermined our military readiness; troops are burned out, and understandably so, as they spend months in the desert hoping and praying they won’t be blown up, only to return to a homeland where the V.A. lacks necessary services and no one else is being asked to make sacrifices – and where they face redeployment mere months later, never mind that many of them only signed up for the Reserves or the Guard. We’re stretched so thin in Iraq that we don’t have the strength to respond to crises elsewhere, as Katrina proved. Add to this skyrocketing oil prices, a tanking dollar, a historically unfavorable balance of payments, strained relations with our long-time allies, the inexorable rise of China – and we can only conclude that the long American party is over.

The New American Century is stillborn, thanks to our friends at the PNAC, and the old one is dead. Historians 50 or 100 years hence will almost certainly pinpoint March 19, 2003, as the date when the American hegemon went on life support.

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Obama Breaks the Race Taboo

We live in a country where race is omnipresent but, as I’ve argued before, we rarely talk about it in constructive ways.

Yesterday Obama broke that taboo. If you still haven’t seen his wonderful, not-digestible-in-sound-bites speech, here it is. You’ll find links to the transcript below the video player.

You can read the full text of Obama’s remarks at the Huffington Post or at his campaign’s website.

Rence pointed me to reports at the Daily Kos that Obama wrote the speech himself, the first time a national politician did this for a major address since Nixon. I find it alarming that we have to hark back to Nixon as a sort of role model, albeit an evil one.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a nuanced political speech – and I’ve only rarely read such an eloquent and precise analysis of the convoluted politics of race in America. I could easily assign it for one of my classes. His speech reflects the concerns of an intellectual deeply committed to public service, and not the pandering impulses of political consultants and speechwriters. I do recognize that speechwriters play a vital role, but this speech is wonderful precisely because it was shaped by Obama’s principles and biography, not by focus groups.

My favorite parts are his analysis of white working-class and black resentment. He acknowledges both, which is exactly what has to happen if we’re ever to move beyond it, and he also explains where they come from, historically. His point about the lack of opportunities for black families to accumulate wealth is one I make whenever I teach about race, though I use the example of my grandpa who bought Standard Oil stock around 1900, when most black Americans hadn’t a penny to invest anywhere.

And boy – don’t all of us have someone in the family tree who’s prone to making impolitic and even offensive statements? (Venting is permitted on this in comments!)

Finally, I hope this speech lays to rest the pernicious idea that Obama believes that America is the Evil Empire. At times we’ve behaved like one; yet his candidacy expresses America’s most generous impulses and reminds us that we all have better angels, individually and collectively.

In light of yesterday’s speech, it’s no longer possible to claim that Obama’s call for unity is empty. It’s not just acquiescence to mealy-mouthed bipartisanship in the style of Joe Lieberman. On the contrary, Obama calls us to work through some of the hardest elements in American history. As Jim Wallis wrote in the Huffington Post, he challenges us to bridge the gulf of ugly mistrust between blacks and whites that the fracas over his minister exposed again this week. That’s not what I’d call capitulating to the Republicans. That’s what I’d call transcending them.

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Okay, you can’t really fault a businessman for trying to save a buck – or a million of ‘em. And while Joe Francis is many things other than a businessman (ex-con, exploiter of naive girls, and all-round creeper), he is also a businessman.

Francis had offered a million dollars to Ashley Alexander Dupre, aka “Kristen” the call girl in the Eliot Spitzer scandal, to appear in one of his “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Then someone found old footage of Dupre in his vault. Francis may be a sleaze to the very depths of his oily soul, but he’s not stupid. He promptly rescinded the offer.

“It’ll save me a million bucks,” Francis told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “It’s kind of like finding a winning lottery ticket in the cushions of your couch.”
(Source: AP)

Um, yeah. If your lottery ticket usually comes in the form of a naked human being.

Dupre did the tape while she was celebrating her 18th birthday in Miami. According to a press release from Francis:

“After fighting with a friend and getting thrown out of her hotel, Ms. Dupré sought out a nearby Girls Gone Wild bus, signed her paperwork and immediately began filming,” the news release stated. “Ms. Dupré spent a full week on the GGW bus and shot seven full length tapes that included nudity and same sex contact. Dupré later took a Greyhound Bus home.”
(Source: Los Angeles Times)

Now, this post is supposed to be about Francis, so that last quotation is completely gratuitous. But really. I can’t imagine getting my butt thrown out of a hotel, although I’ve been on a few trips with people whose behavior was neither polite, quiet, sensible, nor entirely legal. (Obligatory disclaimer: Of course I personally would never behave like that, and the statute of limitations has expired anyway.) None of my co-conspirators ever got thrown out, though I have vague recollections of college marching band trips where we were told we wouldn’t be welcome again. But even if I got thrown out of my hotel, would my first recourse be to seek out a nearby Girls Gone Wild bus? Would yours??

But back to our friend Jerkoff Joe. The really prime material comes at the end of the L.A. Times piece. It reads like the CV of a serial statutory rapist with a subspecialty in petty crime:

Francis, who served 11 months in a Nevada prison for two counts of tax evasion, was released a week ago from Nevada custody so he could face charges in Florida related to filming 17-year-old girls in a shower. A day later, he pleaded no contest in Florida to child abuse and prostitution charges and the judge released him on time served and fines. … Francis still faces charges in L.A. of misdemeanor sexual battery for allegedly touching a woman inappropriately at a party.

This – and not his attempted deal with Dupre, who will never be poor again if she plays her cards right – is why Joe Francies makes the average garden slug look positively cuddly.

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

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Getting Shotted


Today the Tiger “got shotted.” By this he means he got four shots that will let him fulfill his dream and go to kindergarten in the fall. The only way I could make the experience remotely palatable was to ramble on about kindergarten and ply him with lollipops.

As we drove to the clinic, I tried to evade his questions about why we were there. (“Am I going to get doctored, Mama?” “Not exactly. We won’t see a doctor today, only a nurse.” “Are you going to get doctored, Mama?” “Not today.”) Once inside, though, some sixth sense kicked in, like it does for dogs and cats at the vet’s when they smell animal fear, and he promptly asked, “Am I going to get shotted, Mama?” To which I had to reply “yes,” because I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a white lie in that situation. The next time we go to the doctor’s, he needs to be able to believe my reassurance that he won’t, in fact, get shotted again.

The total number of diseases against which he was immunized is eight, which seems like a heck of a lot. I’d have gladly broken them up into two rounds, but I knew I wasn’t going to get him into the dreaded basement of the clinic a second time once he learned what subterranean hell lurks there.

I have mixed feelings about the whole enterprise of immunization. On the one hand, I don’t want us to be free riders on everyone else’s herd immunity. That’s not entirely ethical. I also don’t want to go back to the pre-vaccination era. While it’s not my research specialty, I know just enough about the history of infectious diseases to be, well, immunized against false nostalgia.

On the other hand, I think it’s reasonable to wonder about the wisdom of bombarding a child’s immune system with that many shots at once. The shot schedule is tailored toward compliance, the idea being that if you minimize clinic visits, you’ll maximize the number of kids who get all their shots. The Tiger could’ve had his MMR next year just as well (the schedule says ages 4 to 6), but the schools want it all done before kindergarten.

I guess I could’ve claimed a religious or philosophical objection. I don’t suppose the form for that has a box labeled “hopeful agnostic,” so I might’ve had a small credibility problem.

In the Tiger’s case, there are a few extra reasons for me to fret. He talked late, and though he’s definitely not autistic, and though I’m pretty well convinced by the science clearing vaccines as a possible cause of autism, there’s still that flicker of doubt when it comes to your own kid. If you assume there’s a real connection, thimerosol (the mercury-containing preservative) always seemed the likely culprit, and pediatric vaccines no longer include it. (I still wonder why the fuck anyone ever thought putting mercury – a neurotoxin! – into a kid’s system was a good idea, never mind the few bucks it saved.)

The Tiger also gets these strange, unexplained fevers once a month. This is a long and complicated story for another day, but for now I’ll just say we have reason to think they’re basically harmless. We actually thought they were gone, but he’s had them again the past few months, and I’m worried he’ll have one early next week, right about the time the MMR vaccine might cause a fever.

Then there’s family history. A few years back, a study suggested a possible link between the measles virus and inflammatory bowel disease. The evidence for this is only slightly stronger than for the MMR-autism connection, which is to say pretty weak. Still, my dad has lived with Crohn’s disease for over 50 years, and that can run in families. Also, any immunization carries some slight risk of setting off Guillain-Barré. The Tiger’s dad had a similar syndrome a few years ago, and he still has some lingering paralysis, mostly in his left hand.

All parents worry, and I may be a bigger worrywart than most. Tonight the Tiger only complained about how sore the DTaP shot left his chubby thigh. He was equally pissed about how the Band-aids he got from the nurse didn’t stick worth a darn. If that’s as bad as it gets, I’ll be grateful.

Photo by Flicker user Olivander, used under a Creative Commons license.

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I really, really love to sleep. Sure, there are more thrilling things you can do in bed – and in general, they’re worth losing sleep over – but in an ideal world that’d still leave plenty of time for eight hours of nightly sleep. Or nine! I haven’t regularly snoozed that much since the last millennium, which coincides with when I was expecting my first-born.

At a recent meeting with my women’s studies colleagues, I mentioned to a couple of them who also have young kids that one of the hidden costs of breastfeeding – which I was grateful to be able to do, don’t get me wrong – is that it sets you up for many years of sleep deprivation. All of them nodded vigorously. (N=3, so take this as the anecdote that it is.)

Sure, you can do things to mitigate this. Co-sleeping while my babies were really young helped; so did moving them to a bed of their own when they didn’t need such frequent feedings. Their father willingly sat up with our restless first-born in the wee hours during those first crazy weeks. But if you’re the milk source, even preparing some bottles for your partner to give isn’t going to help, because you still need to pump or you won’t sleep.

Most of all, though, you become so attuned to that baby’s cry that you just can’t sleep through it, no matter how helpful your partner. In the meantime, your partner is practicing ignoring the racket as much as possible. Because there’s no sense in everyone being trashed come morning. And then your baby grows, but the toddler who takes his place through some strange process of alien child-swapping has bad dreams; the preschooler wets the bed; the grader-schooler has more bad dreams; the teenager stumbles in long after midnight. And though the dairy truck drove away years ago, the mother is still usually the first one woken.

This turns out to be a nasty irony of nature. Women are more likely to be sleep deprived due to their biological and social roles. At the same time, we’re more likely to suffer ill health than men at equal levels of deprivation.

Carly Weeks of the Toronto Globe and Mail (via Broadsheet) reports on a host of ills that preferentially hit sleep-deprived women:

Researchers from the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., compared sleep patterns in a group of men and women and found that women who slept poorly had significantly higher levels of biomarkers that are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Women who slept poorly were also much more likely to experience hostility, distress, depression and anger, according to the study.

The study, conducted by Edward Suarez, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke, was just published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, in case you wish to track down the original article.

The women most at risk were those who typically took a half-hour or longer to fall asleep. According to the summary of Suarez’s study in Science Daily:

For women, poor sleep was associated with higher levels of C-reactive protein and interleukin-6, measures of inflammation that have been associated with increased risk of heart disease, and higher levels of insulin. The results were so dramatic that of those women considered poor sleepers, 33 per cent had C-reactive protein levels associated with high risk of heart disease, says Suarez.

Why haven’t we heard more about such risks? Gender and sleep is a relatively new field of study:

Suarez says that while women are twice as likely as men to report problems with sleep, most sleep studies in the past have focused on men, a phenomenon that has been slowly changing in recent years.

But other recent studies have produced similar findings. According to another Science Daily article, a study released last fall by researchers at the University of Warwick also found women to be at elevated risk of heart disease due to sleep problems.

The researchers found that the those women in the study group who slept less than or equal to 5 hours a night were twice as likely to suffer from hypertension than women who slept for the more recommended seven hours or more a night. The researchers found no difference between men sleeping less than 5 hours and those sleeping 7 hours or more.

At the five-hours or less mark, women are also more likely than men to gain weight irrespective of diet and exercise. Women whose sleep is broken are more likely to suffer from spontaneous pain. This last study didn’t compare women to men, but its findings may be pertinent to those with fibromyalgia and other pain syndromes, who are disproportionately women. And broken sleep is exactly what new – and not-so-new – mothers commonly report, as do many women undergoing menopause.

I’m sure I could find more examples, but I’m tired, thanks partly to my ongoing caffeine deficit. I might just watch an old episode of Monk and turn in early, for once. Or I would, if only my son the Tiger would finally go to sleep …

Sleep-deprived kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

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I’m actually spring cleaning and starting tomato seeds this weekend, but in the midst of all this wholesome activity, my thoughts keep circling around the Eliot Spitzer scandal. Why did he do it? Why does any man patronize prostitutes, especially when he could easily have sex with any number of willing women for free? A few days ago, I ruminated on the ethical problems of buying sex. Since the Spitzer scandal broke, I’ve been wondering how the motives for doing it are tangled up with gender and power.

I’ll admit we’ll never truly know another person’s motivations. We’ll never know what drove Spitzer to book repeated rendezvous with “Kristen” and presumably others, too. (This post is not about Kristen, but since I’m as interested in the prurient details as anyone, here’s her MySpace music page. Turns out she may be making more off her music in the wake of the scandal than she earned entertaining clients.)

Anyone who buys sex from another person can do so only because they’re coming from a position of relative power and privilege. If we question why it’s “normal” for men but not women to buy sex in our culture, I don’t think we need to look much further than male privilege and masculine sexual entitlement. Those relatively few examples of women buying sex also reflect privilege. Last fall there were reports of growing sex tourism in Kenya, with rich white women purchasing the services of young African men, though this has likely diminished due to the post-election violence.

At least some of the johns must be getting off on the power itself. It seems to me that Spitzer’s apparent predilection for going bareback might fall in that category. Yeah, I’m sure it does feel better without a condom, but he’s being heedless of his own health, not just the sex worker’s, so you’d think he’d want to play by the rules. But maybe setting his own rules is the whole point of hiring a woman.

On a less speculative note, Pajamas Media carried an article a few days ago by a pseudonymous former booker for an escort service. She’s worth quoting at length:

But why would a rich, powerful and handsome man pay for extra-marital sex? Aren’t there tons of women waiting to throw themselves at him for free? Yes, there are. But those women always want something: they want attention, intimacy and romance. They want to enjoy the high of sleeping with a powerful man. Escorts don’t want or care about any of those things. …

One high-powered New York attorney explained it to me like this: “Of course I love my wife. Escorts have nothing to do with that. She comes to my hotel room and I don’t have to know her name, because they all use fake names like Amber and Kimberly. I don’t have to worry about how she feels or what she wants. It’s a simple exchange: I give her a thousand bucks, we have a good time for a couple of hours, she goes away and we never have to see each other again.”

… And if you are about to say that for a thousand bucks those girls must supply the best sex in history, then you really do not understand this world. Because it is not about sex; it is about power. And the simple act of ordering up an anonymously pretty 22 year-old girl to do your bidding in the salubrious confines of a luxury hotel suite is an act of power.
(“Ruth Henderson,” on Pajamas Media, via the Huffington Post)

To my mind, the really telling comment is the attorney saying: “I don’t have to worry about how she feels or what she wants.” Plenty of pundits have commented in the past few days that what guys want from an escort is no-strings-attached sex, but this goes further than that. This is sex that’s all about the man’s pleasure – where the woman is really just reduced to an object of his pleasure.

This isn’t always the case. Journalist Susannah Breslin has started a fascinating project of compiling “Letters from Johns.” These letters reveal a more nuanced picture. One of her correspondents writes that giving pleasure is a big part of what turns him on:

The thing is, I like going down on women. I like it a lot. The last time I made a visit, I chose this tall, thin brunette with nipple piercings topping her small breasts and a few tasteful tattoos adorning her lean frame. Her eyes smiled as she was introduced to me, and more than anything else that’s why I picked her. I went down on her for a full half hour, and after she came (or expertly faked it) she panted that this didn’t happen often to her.

His story makes me curious about how many customers engage in foreplay, and how many expect the woman to be ready for intercourse at the drop of a hat – or other garments. Still, I can’t help but think clients like this are the exception, not the rule, based on the content of the other letters.

The johns who wrote Breslin commonly remark on the thrill they got from selecting “their” girl. They get off on being able to choose anyone, knowing she won’t say no unless they don’t have enough cash in their pocket. At least two of them mention that they’re aware of their privilege and the exploitation of the women, but they vary in their response to uncomfortable facts. One young man who traveled to Colombia with a group of buddies for an elaborate, coke-fueled bachelor party says:

We discovered that all the girls had admitted that they where mothers and that they lived in the brothel while making money to support their kids who I imagined lived somewhere else. I can’t speak for the rest, but the guilt of my total lack of self-control on the trip hits me in the gut every time I think of it. I know I can’t change the economic situation for these girls, but I’m morally disgusted by how much I enjoyed sex with the most sensual women I’ve ever met while at the same time she has no choice in the matter.

But another man who’d been a sex tourist in Thailand expressed no remorse. This is another guy who mentions that he likes to perform cunnilingus, though he’d only done it once with a prostitute. He says he likes to give as much as he gets, so he’s not a power freak. But he’s blind to the likelihood that his “Czech beauty” in Amsterdam was probably trafficked. To the extent that he does recognize his own complicity, he’s remarkably able to reconcile it with a clear conscience:

One can try to hang a sign on us, the collective john, as perpetuating the global conspiracy of sex/slave traffic, and I’ll grant that my Thailand trip may have/probably did contribute to some sort of thuggery. But in the end, I am ashamed of nothing I have done.

This is raw privilege speaking. White privilege. Male privilege. First-world privilege.

I’m not suggesting that privilege and power are the main motives for all men, though they’re enabling factors in virtually every case. Breslin’s Newsweek article on Spitzer’s folly paints a fairly sympathetic portrait of johns and their reasons for buying sex. She says some get turned on simply by the fact of paying for it. Others get off on its illegality; she suspects Spitzer falls into this group. Many are sex-starved and lonely:

In many cases, like Spitzer, they’re married. Many report they are in relationships with women who are no longer interested in sex. …

Often these guys aren’t just looking for sex. Many are depressed or stressed, lonely or bored, looking for intimacy or a connection, no matter how transient, no matter the cost. One john who was rejected on a regular basis in the dating scene wrote that, in contrast to the women he met at bars, prostitutes saw him as “a normal and charming guy.”

I’m not at all unsympathetic to lonely people. But the fact remains that lonely women don’t normally have the same recourse. Even if a woman did hire a male escort, it’s be more stigmatized because people would assume she must be a real dog if she can’t even give it away.

I’m also not unsympathetic to married people who aren’t getting any. In an ideal world, people would communicate – and even confront each other – when their marriage suffered bed death. I’m not so naive to think that this will always result in revived passion. I suspect, though, that an awful lot of people just accept the situation without fighting hard to change it. I also wonder how many of these men whose wives lose interest have really focused on her pleasure and not just on their own – given the existence of guys like the attorney quoted above, willing to pay for sex that’s all about them, where they don’t have to worry about their partner’s pleasure.

But even assuming that a man (or woman!) has tried, and tried, and finally failed to revive a sex life with their spouse – and assuming further that they’re otherwise reasonably compatible – and that divorce would be hideous (especially if there are children involved) – I still don’t get why one’s first recourse would be to go out and pay for sex.

Figleaf points out the array of legal, free options for married people looking for an affair, a friend with benefits, or just a brief fling. (He’s not endorsing them, just noting them.) There are online and offline dating services that specialize in setting up discreet matches, sex-oriented community centers (well, he’s in Seattle, not southeast Ohio!), and even sex clubs. Figleaf writes:

The point being, one again, not so much that (prosecutorial hypocrisy notwithstanding) Eliot Spitzer shouldn’t have hired escorts. It’s that even he probably really didn’t *need* to. And I bring this up because there’s so much fuss about prostitution on the one hand, and yet so little effort to develop frameworks more sophisticated… and less covert… and more egalitarian… when it’s already surprisingly legal.

Well, what did Spitzer get out of the deal by paying for it? One reason I’ve often heard cited is discretion, but that’s a crock. Yeah, you’re paying for the woman to disappear at the end of the evening. That’s only good until you get caught – and as call girl Tracy Quan writes in the New York Times (free registration required), the sort of Internet agency Spitzer patronized is at high risk of being busted. If he’d had an affair with someone like himself – married, smart, high-profile – she’d have kept mum for free, and eventual discovery wouldn’t have cost him his career.

I wonder if the real value-added for men with other options is that they get to pick and pay for a woman who might otherwise be “out of their league.” “Ruth Henderson,” the pseudonymous booker I quoted above, says that youth is at a great premium:

And then one day, usually between the ages of 25 and 28, once [the girls] developed that knowing, experienced look that clients instinctively disliked, they found that themselves in a classic bind: they were addicted to high living but could no longer pay for it; they had no marketable skills; and years of late nights and lazy days had left them with no self-discipline. …

So the value of the escorts declined rapidly as they aged. Meanwhile, the value of the clients increased because they accumulated more money and more power. …

Breslin’s letter-writers also frequently mention youth and beauty as the main allure of the prostitutes they patronized. The ability to acquire beauty by the hour, for a price, is again the spawn of privilege.

But I have to wonder if this fixation on extreme youth – which you also see in men’s personal ads (online and elsewhere), in porn, even in the Clinton-Lewinsky saga – is in many ways a futile attempt to fight their own aging, their own mortality. If so, that’s even sadder than the loneliness that Breslin says drives many men – although maybe the fear of mortality is also a fear of existential aloneness. And that’s where privilege ceases to matter, where no one is exempt.

I could end on that somber note, but instead, since I’m sure you were wondering what your own value might be in the sex-for-pay marketplace, here’s a silly quiz that purports to tell you. I’m skeptical, partly because there’s no over-40 category, partly because their average per-hour figure has some sort of bug, but mostly because I can’t quite imagine that the average client would pay more for me than the $1000 per hour that “Kristen” allegedly got – no matter how lonely, horny, or mortality-stricken they might be.

bedroom toys

Privileged kitteh captioned by me at I Can Has Cheezburger?

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Most Americans probably know that the women among them face a 1 in 6 lifetime risk for breast cancer. What’s less well-known is that men’s corresponding risk for prostate cancer is 1 in 5. Even as awareness and funding have risen for breast cancer, prostate cancer languishes somewhere between Viagra jokes and vague memories of Bob Dole going public.

The reasons for this have a lot to do with masculinity. Both of these cancers affect people’s sexuality profoundly and irrevocably. Since the 1970s, women have become adept at body talk, even on such uncomfortable issues, while the rules of masculinity demand men maintain a tough front and keep silent, especially when it comes to sexual performance.

I’ve heard prostate cancer patients grouse about how much better-funded breast cancer is, as if funding was showered upon them because everyone wants to protect the ladies. Truth is, that funding materialized only after breast cancer survivors cast off the taboos around the disease, went public, got organized, and lobbied stubbornly until it was easier for lawmakers to say yes than no. Prostate cancer survivors will have to do something similar. Both diseases need and deserve more funding, and it ought not to be a zero-sum game where the two causes get played against each other.

Now there’s a petition circulating that aims to put the issue on our next administration’s policy agenda. The nonprofit group behind it, Malecare, hopes to gather over 100,000 signatures and present it to our next president the day after inauguration. Among other things, it states:

Breast and Prostate Cancer scientists should not be made to compete for limited research funding. Scientists must feel encouraged to develop prostate cancer research. Both Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer research funding must continue to grow. Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer patients, equal in number, should receive equal and adequate funding and promotion for research.

If you’re moved to sign, the petition is here. Yeah, it’s just a petition. But it’s a start.

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Dr. Caffeine

Meet Dr. Caffeine. He’s a fuzzy little bird who emits coarse, cackling chirps and lives with my younger son, the Tiger. When I asked the Tiger how Dr. Caffeine got his name, both my husband and the Bear broke into gales of laughter. My addiction is not a closely guarded secret.

But today, I’m not laughing. I’ve had to quit my vices, though only temporarily. A couple weeks ago I came down with a ferocious UTI. (I refrained from posting on this, though I was smitten with the title “TMI about a UTI.” Count yourself lucky, dear reader.) Ten days of double-strength Bactrim killed the bacteria, but I still had enough pain that after a nearly sleepless night, I decided Wednesday morning that I’d better google “bladder diet” and do whatever it took to heal.

It turns out that the bladder diet involves siphoning most of the sensual pleasure out of your life. (Please bear in mind that the experts don’t even mention sex, since you’d have to be both masochistic and foolish to try it under these circumstances.) It forbids, in roughly this order:

caffeine
chocolate
alcohol
most fruit (including pretty much anything acidic)

Cigarettes are on the hit list too; lucky I don’t smoke, or I’d really be pissed. (Pardon the really bad pun.) Otherwise, my vices are an almost-perfect match:

caffeine
alcohol
chocolate

How am I doing? I gave up alcohol without a blink. It helps that the kids have been unnaturally easy the past few days, or I might be craving a nice glass of wine. Chocolate – well, maybe it should rank before alcohol on my vice list, because I did cheat last night, but only for fear that the dark chocolate Toblerone my husband brought back from Germany would disappear before I even tried it. I’m drinking lots of water and taking cranberry capsules and an acid neutralizer called Prelief.

But oh, the caffeine. I’d intended to go cold turkey, from two cups of coffee and a Diet Pepsi down to zero. I haven’t quite managed. The first day, I ordered a crushed-ice drink at a coffee shop, virtuously going for the white chocolate since it’s actually not chocolate, only to realize after the fact that I was feeling much better. Suspiciously better. Yesterday I had part of a Mountain Dew; today I finished it off (but only about 4 ounces – does that count)?

It’s a blessing I never tried heroin.

I’ve never understood why doctors seem to feel it’s no big deal to cut out caffeine. I was told to do this years ago when I was handed a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. But it’s a major quality of life and performance issue for me. I’m sluggish and stupid without caffeine, I was then at the start of graduate school, and it was the one thing that seemed to give me any oomph while I was sick. So I reduced but didn’t eliminate it. During pregnancy, I cut way back, partly because coffee repulsed me, but the only thing that seemed to help all-day morning sickness was saltines and a few slurps of regular Coke.

Contrary to public misperceptions, there’s mounting evidence that caffeine is actually good for you. At Science Blogs, Chris Chatham of Developing Intelligence recently wrote that caffeine (in the form of coffee, which is also rich in antioxidants) may protect against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and type 2 diabetes. Possible adverse cardiovascular effects can be balanced out, in his estimation, by a diet rich in flavonoids, which seem to be protective. In other words, since I eat my fruits, veggies, and soy, and I’m not at elevated risk for CVD, I see no reason to drink my coffee with a shot of guilt. I much prefer milk and sugar. (Flavonoids are also found in red wine, tea, and chocolate, which are momentarily verboten but otherwise count as health foods in my book.)

Of course, any addiction still comes with a price. I haven’t had the typical caffeine-withdrawal headache. I haven’t been more or less bitchy than usual. But I admit I’m feeling moronic. Cut out caffeine, and you chop about 10 points off my IQ. Maybe 30.

Chatham agrees that caffeine can enhance intelligence, but he might dispute my experience that it enhances higher-order reasoning:

Caffeine may increase the speed with which you work, may decrease attentional lapses, and may even benefit recall – but is less likely to benefit more complex cognitive functions, and may even hurt others. Plan accordingly (and preferably prior to consuming caffeine!)

In the rest of his post, which is pretty technical but worth the effort, Chatham lays out guidelines for getting the biggest cognitive buzz from your coffee buzz. The main trick is to consume it slowly but steadily. Sipping about 20 mg an hour is more effective than gulping down a large latte first thing in the morning. Adding a little sugar may further amplify caffeine’s cognitive benefits.

(This has been a public service announcement dedicated to my students who are lurching into finals week.)

Apart from my stupidity, I’m grateful that this wretched diet seems to work. My pain is receding. I suppose I’ll have to stick with this regimen for at least another week, cheating or not. But I just opened the coffee cabinet in the kitchen to get a cup for the Tiger, and out wafted the rich scent of seduction, awaiting that glorious day when Dr. Caffeine and I will resume our friendship as if we’d never had a falling out.

Disclaimer: This entire post was written in an undercaffeinated state. Be alert for errors, distortion, and muddled thinking. The author claims to be not fully accountable.

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Viagra turns ten this month. The Washington Post is commemorating it with an article on “Viagra for women.” The whole article is interesting (though problematic in some ways), so you may want to check it out here.

Viagra for women is being defined quite differently than the little blue pills. When it works as intended, Viagra helps men with erectile dysfunction. But “female sexual dysfunction,” or FSD, refers to a lack of desire – not problems with arousal. Any drug to treat a flagging libido would have to work on hormones, the brain or both. That’s apparently more complicated than strategically increasing blood flow.

But isn’t it simplistic to frame sexual issue so dichotomously? Is it really true that women’s problem is lack of desire, while men only suffer from hydraulic malfunctions? The Post reports:

With men, all a medication needs to produce is arousal, a.k.a. an erection. A guy will conjure lust on his own. A woman, on the other hand, can get aroused — or have the physical signs of arousal — and remain uninterested in sex. That’s why Viagra doesn’t work for the ladies, even though it produces roughly the same physical effect on them as on men. (In simplest terms, the drug rushes blood to the nether regions and creates the symptoms known as “hot and bothered.”)

I’m skeptical that a guy can always “conjure lust on his own.” David Schnarch, author of Passionate Marriage, states on his website:

In half the couples who come to the Marriage and Family Health Center for sexual desire problems, the man is the low desire partner.

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound to me as if all men are simply simmering with lust. In fact, if Viagra were a magic lust wand, you’d see a lot more of those four-hour-plus, welcome-to-the-emergency-room erections. The makers of Cialis claim it can be effective for up to 36 hours, yet I haven’t read about men being plagued by 36-hour hard-ons. That’s just not how these pills work. Sorry to burst your bubble, WaPo, but men’s arousal still requires lust.

But what about women? According to the WaPo:

“What we know is that very little of what’s going on with women and sex is below the waist,” says Anita Clayton, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Psychiatric Clinical Research and co-author of “Satisfaction: Women, Sex and the Quest for Intimacy.” “Almost all of it is above the neck.”

Maybe for some women. But can I just vouch for the rest of us whose experience says that while our imagination, thoughts, and emotions matter – a lot – the sensations below our neck are equally important. (For that matter, the neck itself is a wonderfully erogenous area.) If you really think that the yummy tactile stuff doesn’t matter, you’re either lucky or inexperienced and never had a truly clueless lover.

Isn’t it just an updated version of “good girls don’t” to believe all women want from sex is intimacy? Sure, most of us want that too – but not necessarily every time, nor with every partner. Many or most of us also want pleasure.

But what’s a gal to do if her libido is flagging? So far, there aren’t any great solutions. A handful of promising drugs have either failed to help women (like Viagra itself) or failed to clear the FDA. Women sometimes get prescribed testosterone; sometimes it helps. The WaPo story says a couple of new drugs are in the pipeline. Let’s see if they make it past the FDA.

Not everyone regards low desire as a problem. Some women and (news flash!) some men may be perfectly content with little or no desire. And if so, they won’t be intrinsically motivated to take a pill to increase it. They’d first have to want to change the situation: they’d need to desire desire in the first place. And they don’t. If they don’t miss it, why bother?

Of course, the partners of low-desire men and women commonly see this quite differently. That’s how Dr. Schnarch stays in business. Low libido can become a major stressor on a relationship. Conversely, a bad relationship will also depress desire. But the causes of low desire are chemical and hormonal, and they can’t all be chalked up to relationship failures.

But does that make low desire a medical condition? And why is there a diagnosis called “female sexual dysfunction” that measures women’s libido but no corresponding one for men?

The obvious sexism in this makes me agree with Leonore Tiefer, a psychologist the WaPo quotes on how the search for a female Viagra is medicalizing women’s sexuality:

“Drug companies want to say to women, ‘You don’t need to know anything; you can have the satisfying sex life that you seek — people dancing on TV, the whole bit — without knowing anything. Just ask your doctor,’ ” she says. “I resent that, because there are specific harms that come from being ignorant and dependent in the world we live in. There may be lots of people who aren’t interested in sex, but is there a medical reason for that, and do we diagnose that?”

The problem here is not merely that women’s sexuality is being medicalized – that is, being brought under the umbrella of medical authority, which holds the danger that “experts” will define our desires for us. Even more, women’s desires are being outright pathologized. So now we’re abnormal if our desire ebbs – but we’re still prone to slut-shaming if we enjoy and own up to a strong libido. Smells like another double bind to me.

But again, not everything is reducible to ideology. Millions of women are deeply unhappy about their low libido, and it’s not always just due to a mismatch with their partner’s libido. Often desire does a slow diminuendo over time, leaving women grieving their losses, as the WaPo story captures poignantly:

Women like Virginia, a 60-year-old native of Britain and an artist who, for privacy reasons, asked that her last name be omitted. She’d spent years asking doctors for medical help to boost her sex drive, which had once been voracious. All of them, she says, “rolled their eyes and harrumphed and tried to change the subject.”

“But when I was younger, a really strong libido was just part of who I was,” she goes on. “Losing that was like losing a good friend.”

One of my basic principles is that we all need to take people’s experiences seriously. We need to listen to what they say about their own lives, their own bodies. If we don’t, we not only invite personal unhappiness (our and others’), we also risk creating social institutions that are blind to people’s needs. Tiefer’s critique is right, as far as it goes, but it fails to note that the issue of low desire is not just an offshoot of medicalization, it’s a painful loss for many women.

If life after menopause feels anything like the months after childbirth, when hormones dampen most new mothers’ desires, I can see how this would be distressing. If I’d been Catholic, I could’ve joined a convent during those months and not missed a thing. But it was a temporary phase, whereas Virginia can only expect desire to decline. I think women deserve a chance to get back in touch with that old lost “friend.” If that comes in the form of a pill, maybe accepting further medicalization is a reasonable trade-off, just as I believe it was for oral contraceptives.

Perhaps what critics of medicalization like Tiefer and me need to focus on is not the mere fact of medicalization but the broader relationships between medicine and society, doctors and patients. If we cease to see doctors as über-experts and instead expect them to be partners in an expansive, holistic approach to health, I don’t think we need to sacrifice our autonomy and authority when it comes to our bodies, our experiences. We can reject ignorance and dependence, as Tiefer urges, without being a Luddite about new medical technologies. I know, I know – that’s easier said than done.

High libido kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

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