Archive for October, 2008

… but I think I’d better get this post up before the election’s over.

Joe Biden came to town two weeks ago, and I got to see him before I had to go teach. The timing was tight, so this involved a lot of high-speed bike riding to and from the local fairgrounds. Okay, my definition of “high-speed” is pretty laughable, and to be honest I rolled into class about a half minute late, but it was worth the fuss.

The speech Biden gave closely tracked the campaign’s themes in recent days. Support for the middle class. Energy independence. Health care reform. Prudence abroad. If you watched the debates, you know the spiel.

Which frees me to be totally silly and superficial. (Oops, I just typed “superstitious.” Talk about a Freudian slip – I am completely, foolishly superstitious about this election.)

Biden’s talk was preceded by the entire Democratic food chain. First up was our wonderful local candidate for the Ohio Statehouse, Debbie Phillips. I rode in too late to get a picture of her. Then again, I know what she looks like; she’s a friend, and her daughter’s a year ahead of my older son in the same school. She’d in a tough race against one of the very few local Republicans who is not a complete loser. (Their gene pool is small.)

Next up was Richard Cordray, who does not look anything like comedian Rob Corddry, formerly of the Daily Show, although I keep mixing them up – never mind that their names are even spelled differently.

He’s running to be Ohio’s next attorney general, after his predecessor disgraced himself. I liked him. And I thought he was rather cute, but the prize for “much cuter in person than I expected” went to Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s single Democratic Senator. (See, I warned you this was not going to be a deep analytical post.)

By contrast, our governor, Ted Strickland, is impossible to photograph except when he’s making some sort of funny snoot.

I got to shake Governor Strickland’s hand after the festivities. I didn’t get my paws on Joe Biden, though not for lack of hanging around and looking overeager. Even though it was a fairly intimate rally with a few hundred attendees, Biden was too swamped by the throngs of people for me to get very close. As budding political celebrity whore, I guess I have to work on my skills.

My favorite part of Biden’s talk was the anecdote he told early on. While a student at the University of Delaware, Biden visited Ohio University one weekend for a football game. The Athens News took better notes on this than I did:

“I made a little mistake here,” Biden told the crowd. That error, the vice-presidential candidate said, was going along with a group of young women he’d met to their dormitory. After walking in that night, Biden said he was immediately accosted by an officer, a quick reminder that men often weren’t allowed in the women’s dorms in those days.

“But I promise you I never breached the first floor,” he joked with the crowd, saying it was only a brief detention with the police. Referring to his experience at the dorm, Biden said, “That’s what I remember most about Athens.”

And you know, I believed him. It was a rehearsed story, sure, but also a glimpse of the young Biden, carefree and silly and not yet wed to rules of political propriety. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only person at the rally who felt like we knew Biden a little better afterward – and liked him better, too.

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From I Can Has Cheezburger?

Riffing off my last post: One of the crazy thing about straight people’s monopoly on marriage is how often we make a hash of it. Exhibit A: Tara Parker-Pope’s interesting article on infidelity in yesterday’s New York Times:

The most consistent data on infidelity come from the General Social Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and based at the University of Chicago, which has used a national representative sample to track the opinions and social behaviors of Americans since 1972. The survey data show that in any given year, about 10 percent of married people — 12 percent of men and 7 percent of women — say they have had sex outside their marriage.

But detailed analysis of the data from 1991 to 2006, to be presented next month by Dr. Atkins at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies conference in Orlando, show some surprising shifts. University of Washington researchers have found that the lifetime rate of infidelity for men over 60 increased to 28 percent in 2006, up from 20 percent in 1991. For women over 60, the increase is more striking: to 15 percent, up from 5 percent in 1991.

The researchers also see big changes in relatively new marriages. About 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women under 35 say they have ever been unfaithful, up from about 15 and 12 percent respectively.

Anyone still want to defend Prop 8 to me? Because I’m pretty sure that even Pat Robertson couldn’t pin straight people’s infidelity stats on gays and lesbians! (He might try, though.)

To my mind, the most puzzling finding that Parker-Pope reports is the discrepancy between men’s and women’s reported rates of infidelity:

It is not entirely clear if the historical gap between men and women is real or if women have just been more likely to lie about it.

“Is it that men are bragging about it and women are lying to everybody including themselves?” Dr. Fisher [Helen E. Fisher, research professor of anthropology at Rutgers] asked. “Men want to think women don’t cheat, and women want men to think they don’t cheat, and therefore the sexes have been playing a little psychological game with each other.”

Dr. Fisher notes that infidelity is common across cultures, and that in hunting and gathering societies, there is no evidence that women are any less adulterous than men. The fidelity gap may be explained more by cultural pressures than any real difference in sex drives between men and women. Men with multiple partners typically are viewed as virile, while women are considered promiscuous. And historically, women have been isolated on farms or at home with children, giving them fewer opportunities to be unfaithful.

But today, married women are more likely to spend late hours at the office and travel on business. And even for women who stay home, cellphones, e-mail and instant messaging appear to be allowing them to form more intimate relationships, marriage therapists say. Dr. Frank Pittman, an Atlanta psychiatrist who specializes in family crisis and couples therapy, says he has noticed more women talking about affairs centered on “electronic” contact.

I vote for the theory that women have been more apt to lie about it. And here’s why: All those married men have to be cheating with someone.

Who are these men’s extramarital partners? Let’s say that sex with prostitutes accounts for some of men’s infidelity. Let’s posit that some of it comes from affairs with single women. I’m skeptical that women in these two categories account for the entire 15 percentage point difference in the early nineties or the 13 point difference today. Logically, some of that difference must be due to their having married female partners who lied to the researchers.

Why would women be more likely to lie? It’s not just that they’re branded as promiscuous more readily than men. They’ve also traditionally been more economically dependent on their spouses, which means they had more to lose if word of an affair got out. This gave them a stronger incentive to cover their tracks – including on research questionnaires. Conversely, a woman who could support herself in a pinch might be more likely to reveal her secrets to a researcher. And there are more women in that position today than a generation ago.

Of course, economic power also correlates with likelihood to stray, period. Note that the anthropological data cited in the NYT suggest this, as well, since gathering is at least as crucial as hunting in susbsistence societies. For those of us here in the wealthy West, the narrowing of the gendered pay gap likely means that some of the increase in women’s infidelity is real and not just a reflection of greater truth-telling.

The generational data lend further support to the hypothesis that more women than men have lied to the researchers. Young women trail young men in the infidelity sweepstakes by only five percentage points. The gap for the over-60 crowd is thirteen points. This discrepancy can be explained by women’s relative chastity only if you assume that men of the older generation were much more likely than younger men to hire prostitutes or preferentially seek out affairs with single women. I can’t see any reason why that would be true.

As Dr. Gregory House says: Everyone lies.

I’d add: Everyone lies about sex. Everyone lies even more about illicit sex. And “everyone” will tilt female as long as women still face greater social stigma and economic penalties than men who make similar sexual choices.

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A Wedding Blessing

Blue Gal alerted me to today’s blogswarm against California’s Prop 8.

As you know, here in Ohio we have worries of our own. (Please oh please let us not be the state that throws the election to the Republicans again!) But I have lots of family and friends in California. For some of them, their current right to get married hangs in the balance.

I mentioned a couple weeks ago how the supporters of this proposition are making fools of themselves trying to stir up people’s fears. So I won’t go there again today.

Instead, I’ll just say that the wedding I mentioned in that previous post – between two women who’ve been together thirty-five years – is going forward this weekend at my mom’s church. She’s working the wedding, so she’ll be the person who deals with the florist and helps the brides find anything they need and cleans up afterward. (Hey, it’s not all glamour.)

For years, some of her church’s neighbors have demonized it – quite literally – for its support of the town’s small gay community. One person dubbed it “the devil church” in the local newspaper’s letters section. Hateful graffiti was aimed against it. I’m so pleased and proud that her congregation didn’t cave in to intimidation. (I also totally don’t get how people who claim to worship a God of love and forgiveness express it through rage and hate.)

While not everyone in her church is supportive of same-sex marriage, my mom feels tickled and honored to be playing a role as her congregation blesses a same-sex union for the first time ever. My mom is seventy-four. She wouldn’t have gotten behind even the idea of this twenty years ago. Now she’s thrilled for the brides. How did she evolve? Mostly just by getting to know actual gays and lesbians and becoming friends with them.

If Prop 8 passes, this will be both the first and the last same-sex wedding performed in her church. If Prop 8 goes down, it will be the most wonderful honeymoon present possible. As I said, they’ve been together 35 years. They don’t need crystal or china. Just this: Your no vote on Prop 8 (if you live in California) or your reminder to friends who live out there (if you don’t).

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Song of Three Concerts

However superstitious your mood this close to Halloween: It’s not just bad things that come in threes. I got to hear three concerts this weekend – a triplet, a triad, a trio, so to speak.

Saturday evening, friends took me to hear David Bromberg play with Jorma Kaukonen at Jorma’s Fur Peace Ranch. The Fur Peace is a haven of latter-day hippiedom in Appalachia (we knew we’d found the turnoff when we saw the Obama/Biden sign) and a guitar camp for musicians who are already pretty darn good. Oh, and luckily for me, it’s only about a 15 minute drive from my house.

The Fur Peace has a small, rustic performance hall that seats maybe a couple hundred guests. I’d heard Jorma play a Hot Tuna set out there with Jack Casady. But I’d never heard David Bromberg play before now, and boy was that an oversight. He was wonderful! He wasn’t just a guitar virtuoso; he was also a rousing blues singer with a wry sense of humor. Somehow he managed to play the blues seriously and yet poke fond fun at their woman-done-me-wrong clichés. He and Jorma played for nearly three hours – all acoustic, often half-improvised – and at the end no one was ready to go home.

But don’t just take my word. Listen to his sly self-deprecation on “This Month,” which I heard on Saturday (this clip comes from a 2007 show in Philadelphia, with his band rather than with Jorma). The lyrics made me laugh. They also made me wince at the times when I’ve been as much a fool in love (or lust) as the poor fellow in the song.

David and Jorma also played a treat for me and all the other Deadheads in the audience: “I Know You Rider.” This clip of a similar version from the mid-1980s features David with Hot Tuna:

And no, none of us looks quite the same as we did half a lifetime ago. Jorma is downright unrecognizable – except for his voice and his playing.

I don’t have any cool video for the other two concerts, and they weren’t quite as professional, but each was a pleasure in its own way.

Saturday afternoon was my little Bear’s debut performance with the Athens Children’s Chorus. They sang outdoors, which is never easy when it’s gusty and the music tends to be borne away on the breeze. They did a nice job anyway. I got a little misty-eyed but am saving my serious sentimentality for when the acoustics are good.

The last concert (actually the first, chronologically) was Octubafest at the university. You haven’t experienced real absurdity until you’ve heard both Tchaikovsky and “The Wabash Cannonball” played by a dozen tubas and six euphoniums. As my husband said afterwards, violins and other treble instruments were invented for a very good reason.

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

But tuba players do need to go wild once a year. If you always have to play the “oom” part in oom-pah music, a complex melody involving sixteenth notes is pretty sexy. I used to play French horn, and we got stuck playing “pah” to the tubas’ “oom.” So I can totally relate.

The great thing about hearing all this music is that even though a performance is transient and ephemeral, it sticks with me for a while afterward. It’s like someone has pressed the reset button. It’s as though I got a little taste of equanimity, and the memory of that is helping keep stress at bay. With the election looming a scant week away, the economy collapsing like elephantine dominoes, and my back trouble migrating southward, a whiff of equanimity is no small gift.

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I’m due to lighten up after the last couple of posts. On top of that, I got my eyes dilated at the ophthalmologist today, so I spent much of the day with lots of trippy visual disturbances. This is not at all the same trippy fun. I had a close encounter with a University Administrator of the most hidebound variety this afternoon, and it was very hard to take her seriously while my pupils kept trying to focus somewhere between the office window and, oh, Jupiter.

(This is probably why the most hallucinogenic thing I do these days is overdose on coffee. Hmm. Did that today, too, in a totally ill-advised effort to still my pupils.)

Anyway, since I still can’t clearly focus on the screen, here’s a video clip that one of my husband’s grad students passed on to him. It’s tasteless and funny (in a sort of PG-rated Borat vein).

Can anyone tell me where Vlad and Boris really filmed this? I don’t think it was either Russia or America. Any theories?

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Ever since I finished yesterday’s post, which is sort of a smorgasbord of weird medical news, I’ve been mulling over how those three news items are related on a deeper level than their oddness and/or inexplicability.

I do think they’ve got a real common denoninator. The American culture, birthplace of the “pro-life” movement, is indeed anti-life in a host of ways – though not for the reasons that the anti-abortion leadership adduces. I’m not referring to their overt hypocrisy – their support of war and the death penalty, just for example – though of course that’s part of it, and one that plenty of “pro-life” Catholics would condemn just as much as I do.

No, I think what’s at stake here in the anti-life position is bigger yet: a kind of gendered denial of our very embodied humanity, which grossly distorts our views on sexuality, pleasure, and generativity. While I’m sure this has its roots in the medieval Christian church’s condemnation of sexual pleasure, by now it has assumed distinctly modern forms. It’s a stubborn insistence – even in the midst of the richest, most consumption-oriented society the world has ever known – on hating and mortifying our own flesh. This hating-on is bigger than sex and sexuality; bigger than gender and genitals; but it routinely zeroes in on our human capacity for engendering pleasure and indeed life itself.

And so (to hark back to yesterday’s themes) too many women remain impervious to reassurances (from partners, the women’s health movement, or even doctors) that our bodies are okay just as they are. Powdering one’s otherwise healthy, moist ladyparts thus remains an imperative for some women even though it can make them sick. Even though it can kill them.

And so some men prize a rock-hard erection not primarily for the pleasure it can give two partners but because it stands as evidence of manliness, power, autonomy. Not because it lets them merge with another person but because it’s a badge of virile individualism and self-sufficiency. Not because it affirms life and joy but (as Susan Bordo suggested a decade ago in her article “Pills and Power Tools”) because it’s an inert symbol of a drill or missile. Drill baby drill, indeed.

And so the vulnerable bodies of babies aren’t worth the public dollars it would take to protect them, even though we creatively finance the Iraqi occupation and air raids on Afghan weddings.

Eros and thanatos may be forever at odds. At the moment, though, I’d say thanatos is winning.

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I don’t set out to collect this stuff, but because I track gender-related health news for my work, medical weirdness tends to come my way.

One recent headline: “Talc Use in Genital Area Linked to Increased Risk for Ovarian Cancer” (via Medscape, free registration). The latest studies are actually just confirming a whole body of prior research, but it was still news to me.

The latest findings come from an analysis of data from 2 separate study populations. Researchers obtained records for 1231 epithelial ovarian cancer cases and 1244 controls from the New England Case Control (NECC) Study, and on 210 cases and 600 controls from the prospective Nurses’ Health Study (NHS). In the questionnaire about talc use, “regular” use was defined as the application of powder to the genital/perineal region at least once a week.

Genital talc use was associated with an increased risk for ovarian cancer in both study populations, although the 95% confidence intervals were wide in the NHS because of the limited sample size, the researchers comment. In the pooled analysis, the relative risk for the association with regular talc use was 1.36 for total ovarian cancer and 1.60 for the serous invasive subtype.

This is broadly similar to the findings from the meta-analysis of 16 previous studies, which reported an approximately 30% increase in the risk for total epithelial ovarian cancer with regular genital exposure to talc (Anticancer Res. 2003;23:1955-1960).

Talc use elsewhere on the body was not associated with an increase in ovarian cancer risk, the researchers point out.

“It is unclear whether talc applied to the perineum can reach the ovaries, although some studies have shown that inert particles can travel through the female genital tract to the fallopian tubes and ovaries, and others have found talc particles in ovarian tissue,” the researchers write. They also note that some studies have shown that talc particles can induce an inflammatory response in vivo, whereas others have suggested an immune-mediated mechanism.

Okey dokey. So you can use cornstarch instead, the researchers suggest. Talc is probably harmless elsewhere on the body, but it’s still strongly suspected of being a carcinogen.

But for the love of Georgia O’Keeffe, why is anyone powdering themselves down there in the first place? This is not a region that was intended to have a desert climate! If it’s meant to have a rainforest ecosystem, why do women feel compelled to muck with it? Thirty-five years after the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves, why don’t women feel comfortable just leaving it alone? (And while I’m on a rant: Why are scented douches still on the market?)

Of course, it’s not just women who have a fraught relationship with our genitals. The next oddity comes from a study examining the satisfaction of 1,567 men taking tadalafil (Cialis) over the course of a year. Note what mattered most to them:

Treatment expectations identified as important included: erection hardness and ability to maintain erection through intercourse completion (>92% of patients); confidence, partner satisfaction, and naturalness (>84% of patients); rapid effect and long duration of treatment (>75% of patients).

It’s a cliche, but that doesn’t make it less true: Men put more stock in being hard than in satisfying a partner. Now, I’m not suggesting the two things are unrelated. For many couples – for many heterosexual women – they correlate pretty darn strongly. What’s fascinating, though, is that hardness is so important in its own right.

Now that we’ve covered men and women, let’s not forget about the children. And here the news is just shitty. Via Medscape again:

The U.S. ranks 29th worldwide in infant mortality, tying Slovakia and Poland but lagging behind Cuba, the CDC reports.

The CDC’s latest estimates for international rankings are based on 2004 data. But as of 2005, the numbers haven’t changed much since 2000.

Nearly seven U.S. babies die out of every 1,000 live births. More than 28,000 American babies die before their first birthday.

In Japan, ranked in third place behind Singapore and Hong Kong, the infant mortality rate is 2.8 per thousand live births — less than half the U.S. rate.

This isn’t just odd; it’s inexplicable, and sad, and shameful, and downright pathetic. We know that prematurity is a major driver of infant mortality in the U.S. Women of color, especially African-American women, have prematurity rates far higher than their white counterparts. This in turn is due at least in part to their poorer access to prenatal control.

And I know this has been said before, but it obviously needs to be said again: Before we start conferring legal personhood on zygotes, how ’bout we pour some resources into at least catching up with Cuba on infant mortality? We all ought to be able to agree on that as a goal – apart from those folks who care about constraining women’s sexuality more than saving babies.

Update 10/27/08: When I first wrote this post, I had a feeling that all three of these news items had something in common but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I’ve now followed up with an attempt to articulate their common denominator – an “anti-life” attitude, by which I mean something different than how a doctrinaire “pro-life” advocate would probably define it.

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