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Archive for May, 2009

A few weeks back, I mentioned that a former student of mine had been hurt by an abusive boyfriend. The campus judicial hearing was last week. In it, the accuser had to face trial herself.

Here’s the problem: Underage drinking laws and the equivalent campus rules deter victims of violent crime from reporting. As I learned at the eleventh hour, after I’d already written my character reference and shown up for the hearing, my student also faced multiple charges against her! One of them was underage drinking. After the original incident, she’d been frank with the investigators and told them she’d had two beers much earlier in the day. This was used against her, with no corroborating evidence.

Her alcohol charge stuck; apparently the panel felt it had to interpret university rules very narrowly. However, her punishment was extremely mild compared to the norm. She still doesn’t know for certain that he was found guilty, but the panel wouldn’t have been merciful if they hadn’t believed her version of events. (We also don’t yet know what will happen in the regular courts; that process seems to be stalled.)

My student’s problem is typical, I’m afraid. When dating violence and sexual assault occur on campus, alcohol is often part of the picture. Lots of assaults – sexual and otherwise – go unreported because the victims are afraid they’ll be punished for underage drinking. While this is a particularly pervasive problem on campus, it also potentially affects all women and girls who are underage.

May student is not a major-league partier, but she’s also not a teetotaler, and so these countercharges were used to intimidate her. (Her ex has done other things to intimidate her as well, but listing them might divulge identifying details, which I don’t want to do.) If she’d initially known that she faced possible suspension, she might have chosen not to press the case. She couldn’t have known in advance that the panel would impose the mildest penalty possible.

Why can’t we just have a blanket amnesty in the alcohol laws that would allow underage victims of violent crimes – male and female alike – to report those crimes without fear of repercussions? The university could easily enough change its policy. It has a great opportunity to do this, since it’s currently revising the sexual assault provisions of the student code of conduct (but any such change should apply to all violent crimes). It’d be harder to change state laws. But allowing people to report violence without fear of reprisals for drinking would obviously serve the cause of justice. It should help prevent violence, too, since potential perps would be aware that their targets would face one less deterrent against reporting.

One more thing: I spent my whole day at Judiciaries waiting around, and about five to ten minutes saying my piece. I could only take that much time because I didn’t have any teaching commitments that day. I don’t know how much it helped, if at all, to have a faculty member stand up for my student. Her family thought it was useful, and surely they felt better, knowing someone cared. But if the judicial process is going to be so time-consuming, faculty and staff will typically be boxed out of it, even if they might be able to add a valuable perspective. This, too, harms innocent students disproportionately.

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Kittywampus doesn’t usually aim to provide breaking news (there are thousands of sites that do it better), but I’m so disturbed by this that I have to say something.

Dr. George Tiller, one of a handful of doctors who performed late-term abortions in this country, has been murdered in cold blood. Cara at Feministe reports that he was shot dead as he was entering his church this morning in Wichita:

Dr. Tiller was one of the few late-term abortion providers in the country.  He had previously been shot, his clinic burnt down, harassed by ideological anti-abortion attorney generals, and threatened with death countless times.  We’ve written about his many trials and tribulations here numerous times. Still, Dr. Tiller continued to provide abortions to women who desperately needed them, to save their own lives or health, or due to tragic fetal deformities.  He put the health of women above his own life.

And now he is dead.

(More from Cara here.)

That little detail of him being on his way to church? It says so much about the ruthlessness of the hardline anti-abortion movement, their adamant refusal to recognize that those who condone abortion are ethical, moral, and often religious people.

I’d thought – hoped – that the wave of anti-abortion violence had ebbed. As Cara notes, it had been over a decade since the last anti-abortion murder. I figured that the less-crazy wing of their movement had prevailed, recognizing that murder is not politically persuasive to the people in the mushy middle. Guess I was wrong, though it only takes a single fanatic with a gun. Rhetoric like “murder of innocents” and “the worst Holocaust the world has ever seen” is guaranteed to produce at least a few such fanatics.

I’m sad and angry on behalf of Dr. Tiller, his family, and all the other abortion providers who’ll have to live in even more fear.

You shouldn’t have to be a hero to provide a needed medical service.

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This news isn’t brand new any more (it came out about a month ago) but since mother-blaming never goes out of season, here you go.

You know how there’s a massive body of science indicating that caffeine is harmful in pregnancy? It’s been implicated in low birthweight, prematurity, miscarriage, stillbirth, and being born with Vulcan features such as pointy eyebrows and green blood. Okay, so I made the last one up, but the rest are all conclusions from real studies. Less well known is that many studies have failed to find any associations at all between caffeine and these major poor outcomes of pregnancy. A few have even found possible benefits (in preventing gestational diabetes, for example).

Now a Cochrane review has sifted through all of these studies and found one – just one! – study that met its criteria for inclusion in the review. The problem? There’s a terrible dearth of randomized, controlled trials (RCT). Virtually all research on caffeine in pregnancy has relied on observational studies, which are beset by all kinds of confounders – nutrition, smoking, alcohol, stress, education, etc. This isn’t merely a matter of medical neglect. In the full-length version of their paper which is behind the usual firewall, the Cochrane authors, Shayesteh Jahanfar and Halimah Sharifah, note that randomization poses ethical issues if investigators assume caffeine could have harmful effects.

The single study that actually meets the RCT is very reassuring, however. Here’s Jahanfar and Sharifah’s plain-language summary:

Effects of restricted caffeine intake by mother on fetal, neonatal and pregnancy outcome
Caffeine is a stimulant found in tea, coffee, cola, chocolate and some over-the-counter medicines. Conflicting results found in the literature make it difficult for health professionals to advise pregnant women about avoiding caffeine during pregnancy. Clearance of caffeine from the mother’s blood slows down during pregnancy. Some authors of observational studies have concluded that caffeine intake is harmful to the fetus, causing growth restriction, reduced birthweight, preterm birth or stillbirth. The newborn could also have withdrawal symptoms if the mother has a high intake of caffeine (more than eight cups of coffee per day).

Only one controlled study was identified. The study was based in Denmark. Women less than 20 weeks pregnant were randomly assigned to drinking caffeinated instant coffee (568 women after exclusions) or decaffeinated instant coffee (629 women). Drinking three cups of coffee a day in early pregnancy had no effect on birthweight, preterm births or growth restriction.

Sufficient evidence is not available from randomised controlled trials to support any benefits from avoiding caffeine during pregnancy.

This suggests that expectant mothers need not stress about consuming modest amounts of caffeine. (The women in the Danish trial drank up to three cups a day.) The preponderance of evidence suggests that a couple of servings of coffee or pop per day is harmless.

My own experience was that I really didn’t want coffee in early pregnancy. It was one of my aversions. But that didn’t make me caffeine-free. My best trick for taming nausea was to eat a few saltines and drink a small glass of regular Coke before I tottered out of bed.

I know someone who got guilt-tripped for drinking a single Pepsi when she was about four months pregnant. She’d been proud of herself for cutting down from several a day. “Don’t you know what that’s doing to the baby?” her friend asked. I guess I was lucky that my Coke habit was hidden behind the bedroom door.

Her experience was in the early 1990s, when What to Expect When You’re Expecting was still edited by an unreconstructed team of food fascists. The “What to Expect” party line has moderated some since then. Currently, their advice is to cut out caffeine entirely, but they don’t totally shame women who manage to drop down to two doses per day.

I happen to think there’s a good case to be made for moderation, though that goes for all habits and all stages of life – not just pregnancy. The Cochrane authors mention that consumption of eight or more (!) cups of coffee per day can lead to withdrawal symptoms in newborns. That’s sounds like avoidable worry and misery. If I’d had more than one miscarriage, I’d cut out caffeine because I’d be totally paranoid.

But ordinary, healthy pregnancies ought not to be training for extreme self-renunciation. You’re preparing to be a mother, not a Desert Father.

So if a cup or two of coffee helps lift the fatigue of pregnancy or clear your muddled mind, Dr. Caffeine says: Go for it!

DrCaffeine2It should be noted that Dr. Caffeine (pictured above) is a fuzzy stuffed toy bird with even less medical training than I have, and no credentials whatsoever. The authors of the Cochrane review are, however, the real deal.

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For reasons that you surely would rather not know, I found myself googling “mucus in stool.” The third link was to a site that described various causes for this condition, ranging from bacteria to Crohn’s disease.

The page is illustrated with a picture of a conventionally attractive young woman who’s apparently just stepped out of the shower. Her hair is wet. Her front is covered (modestly or coquettishly?) with a white towel. Her naked back is visible to the viewer. There’s a link to enlarge the image. If you click it, you get an embiggened version under the title “Mucus in the Stool.”

I’ve been trying to dream up a possible connection between a naked woman and any sort of digestive abnormality. And no, this isn’t a scat fetish site. Maybe they’re just trying to make the subject matter more, um, palatable?

I guess you truly can sell anything – even information on weird poop – with a naked woman.

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Okay, so this is pretty far afield from my blog’s usual fare – but it’s pretty cool, too, so I can’t resist. Thursday I accompanied my kids’ classes to the spring performance of the university’s School of Dance, which is one of the really strong programs here. All but one of the pieces were riveting – even for the kindergartners. Even the boys! It’s such a false stereotype that boys don’t like dance. When the one and only male soloist performed a very muscular dance, inspired partly by break dancing and partly by robotics, the kindergarten boys went crazy, rocking out in their seats.

My favorite was also the kids’ favorite: a ultra-abstract piece called “Noumenon,” originally performed in 1953. Visually, it made me think of what the Wrapped Reichstag would look like if it started to move.

Reichstag2

Photo of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995) by Flickr user zug55, used under a Creative Commons license.

The dancers were encased in rectangles of knit silver cloth that stretched in all directions. As this picture from The Post shows, the fabric reflected the colors of the lights. The dancers, who couldn’t see through the fabric and were basically dancing blind, moved in and out of eerie shapes ranging from a seal to a pig to aliens. Or so said the kids. I missed the pig, myself.

Noumenon

Philosophically, the idea was apparently to display the concept of a noumenon – a thing in itself, prior to the human mind and perception, as distinguished from a phenomenon, which is a thing as we perceive it. Don’t ask me to go any deeper; this is why we have Wikipedia and  the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I’m not sure if the choreographer, Alwin Nikolais, intended dance or motion or the human body itself to be the noumena displayed through its choreography. Maybe he had the seal and the pig in mind. Maybe he just wanted us to reflect on what we perceive and how we perceive it – or the gap between his intentions and our perceptions as spectators. At any rate, the dance was visually spellbinding, even to those who didn’t trouble their little heads with the philosophy.

The music, which Nikolai also created, was suitably dramatic. In fact, between the shiny alien shapes and the opening crashes of the music, I thought some of the kindergartners might be scared. They weren’t.

Part of “Noumenon” is available online. It doesn’t do justice to what I saw (which also featured three dancers, not two). It’s fuzzy in quality and seems substantially shorter. But maybe this very indeterminacy is inevitable when dealing with noumena?

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Some folks have some pretty squirrely ideas about “safety” and who deserves it:

Cincinnati police arrested eight people in an undercover prostitution sting at the Millennium Hotel Cincinnati on Fifth Street downtown Thursday after the hotel sought help in light of two disturbing armed robberies.

The hotel said the classified advertising Web site Craigslist connected two women offering massages with men who ultimately robbed them in their rooms at gunpoint May 3 and on May 20. …

In the May 20 incident, the robber accidentally dropped a handgun and it discharged, sending a bullet into the mattress, said Jordan Cooper, the hotel’s general manager. No one was injured, but the incident prompted management to contact police to safeguard legitimate guests and the reputation of Ohio’s largest hotel. [my emphasis]

(Source: Cincinnati Enquirer)

So illegitimate guests are fair game? Would it have been hunky-dory with the management if a hooker or two had been shot on the premises? (Um, probably not, because that just might sully the hotel’s reputation.) And what is an illegitimate guest, anyway? There’s nothing in the article to indicate the women didn’t pay their bills. They may have been breaking the law as sex workers, but not specifically in their capacity as hotel guests.

And what is wrong with our priorities when a violent crime (robbery) is viewed as a handy aid to help catch prostitutes who aren’t hurting anyone? Nothing can possibly justify viewing them as a mere means to an end. Our judicial system has no right to objectify them in this way. We don’t know anything about the women arrested. They might have been forced or coerced into their jobs. They might love their work. Maybe they see it like many Americans view their jobs: as a boring but necessary activity for putting food on the table. Maybe they have children. Maybe they love cats as much as I do. Maybe they love to garden. I’m guessing there are lots of points of potential empathy – lots of ways that the press could choose to humanize the women caught in this sting.

Instead, the media coverage and the criminal justice system do a seamless job of obliterating these women’s humanity. And yet, the women did nothing to deserve becoming the targets of armed robbery. Their jobs made them more vulnerable, but mostly because they’re forced to operate underground and the robbers know that they’re more likely to be persecuted (see above) than protected by the police. Imagine how scared those women must have felt while the gun was pointed at them. Imagine how terrified the second woman was when the gun went off.

And the robber? The article doesn’t mention his fate. It seems reasonable to assume he got away. But hey, at least he wasn’t selling sex.

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Here’s a guest post by Euchalon Grandy, swiped from my comments section, offered here with no commentary from me just yet except that I agree with almost everything he says. (Bonus points if you can pick the one spot where I have some qualms.) The first half of his comment is also worth a read. Everything that follows is his; I skipped the “indent quote” feature for better readability.

—————–

OK, so here’s my issue — Not necessarily in your post, but underlying this whole discussion [of withdrawal as birth control] I sense an assumption that unwanted pregnancy is so incredibly awful that it must be avoided at all cost.  Thus the ‘wear three condoms, use a diaphram, and you *are* on the pill, right?’ tone.

Now, I understand that for many women, including a sizable portion of American women, abortion is not safe, legal, or available.  For those women, extraordinary caution is justified.  However, for a good portion of American women, safe, legal abortions are still available.  Absent personal religious or moral objections, isn’t abortion OK as a backstop once contraception is used to bring the odds of pregnancy down to a reasonably low level?

What disturbs me is that this extraordinarily cautious approach to contraception implies that abortion is off the table as an acceptable way to end an unwanted pregnancy.  It makes me wonder if, after decades of exposure to the abortion prohibition movement, that movement has on some level won our hearts and minds about abortion, if not the right to it.  (When I say “we”, I mean feminist and feminist-oriented men and women who have no explicit personal moral objection to abortion).

After all, if we don’t subscribe to the idea that a human being is created at the moment of conception, and if we acknowledge that legal abortions are a relatively safe procedure, why do we give ending a pregnancy through abortion such weight?  For a number of practical reasons abortion is lousy as a first-line method of contraception.  But as a backup isn’t it similar in function to other methods of contraception?  Why do we treat it as an evil to be avoided if we don’t believe it to be evil? When we treat something as an absolute last resort, we strongly imply that there’s something very bad about it.

People like Obama talk about this common ground where ‘we’d all like to see fewer abortions’.  I’m not sure I agree.  When children enter the world unwanted, I’d rather see more abortions.  When women go through pregnancy and labor for no other reason than avoiding having an abortion, I’d rather see more abortions.  When young men and women for years deny themselves the joyfulness of a good sex life, I’d rather see more abortions.

For those of us who support the right to an abortion, aren’t we losing ground here?  Don’t things get a little worse every year?  Gay folks didn’t make much progress until the slogan ‘gay and proud’ came into common usage.  When will we come out of the closet?  What’s our slogan?  I’d suggest, if not ‘pro-abortion and proud’ at least ‘pro-choice and I just don’t think an abortion is a big deal’.  Those of us who identify as pro-choice are strong on the political right to an abortion.  It seems, however, like we’re conflicted and afraid when it comes to abortion itself.  The prohibitionists are very clear on both.

I would like to see a life-affirming narrative that supports abortion rights and abortion.  Life-affirming as in the better life the pregnant woman (and often her male partner) can have without the burden of an unwanted pregnancy/child.  Life-affirming as in pro-sex, taking a practical but not fearful approach to contraception.

If we take our cue from the prohibitionists and frame this issue as something that takes place only inside the uterus then it’s just an argument about death or not-death and we can’t win.  If we expand our vision to outside the uterus then we are pro-better-life, pro-freedom, and pro-sex.   With these values on our side, we will prevail over the narrative of death which the prohibitionists have used so effectively, but only if we have the courage to embrace not only the right to an abortion but abortion itself.  And it seems to me we ignore this at our peril when discussing contraception.

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The evening after Prop. 8 was upheld, I went out to dinner with my family at China Panda. The food there is pretty good, but the TVs that are mounted on the wall are a distraction, even with the sound off. The last time I’d been there, Dick Cheney’s snarling mug was befouling the ambience. (I can haz undisclosed location, pleez?) This evening, the headlines were all about Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment and Prop. 8.

The Bear, who’s now nine and a half, wanted to know about Sotomayor. Why was this such a big deal? Why were the Republicans already so riled up?

“Well, she stands for fairness and equality for all people, sweetie, including women and minorities.”

“But isn’t that a good thing? Why would they be against that?” The Bear has no mercy when it comes to illogic and unfairness. If he hadn’t gotten stuck on the Republicans, he might have noticed how the subtitle on CNN was behaving no better than the Repubs. “Sotomayor: negotiator or liberal activist?” Um, as even the Tiger knows at age five, one of these things is not like the other. I think my boys need to school Lou Dobbs.

Then the Bear wanted to know what was going on in California. He’d been paying just enough attention to be confused. “Didn’t they just say boys could marry boys in California?” So I explained the original California Supreme Court decision and how Prop. 8 reversed it. “But that’s not fair, Mama! What’s going to happen to the people who are already married?” This, with a wrinkle of his freckled nose and a withering glare at the decision’s obvious unfairness.

I’d like to stop and brag now about our wonderfully progressive parenting. But actually, that would be an exaggeration. All we’ve done is explain matter-of-factly that in the past, some groups of people haven’t had full rights, and lately that’s starting to change. My husband and I let our kids know that we believe in fairness, kindness, and generosity. But I’m skeptical that those values can be indoctrinated. They can only be modeled. Most days, we do our imperfect best.

In the end, I don’t want two little clones of me. That would be awful! I just want kids who see the world with a wealth of empathy. If they do that, we’ll still squabble about details, I’m sure, but we’ll agree on the important stuff.

Perhaps more crucially, our kids are growing up in a changing society where it’s just normal to know same-sex couples. They have a lesbian aunt. In the Bear’s grade level at his school, there are two families each headed by two women. It seems bizarre to kids that some of their friends’ parents aren’t allowed to get married. My kids aren’t oddities; I think they’re part of a growing norm that’ll embrace all sexualities and all family forms.

This is why the right wing can bloviate all it likes. And the days ahead promise to be ugly indeed, as the SCOTUS confirmation hearings heat up. It can marshal racism and sexism against a nominee who has more experience than any of the current justices had upon their nomination. It can try to scare people with homophobic TV ads crying “what about the children?”

Yeah, what about those children? It’s already too late. They’re growing up into a world – they’re helping make a world – where only fringe groups will openly espouse inequality and hate. Where anything other than equal protection will just seem weird and mean.

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Wow. As Salon’s War Room reports, Theodore Olson – who represented Bush in Bush v. Gore and served as Solicitor General under Bush – has teamed up with the opposing attorney from Bush v. Gore, David Boies. As if that weren’t weird enough, they’re both fighting for marriage equality! On behalf of two couples (one lesbian, one gay), they’re petitioning a federal court to overturn Proposition 8.

But here’s where the weirdness turns to coolness: They hope to take this challenge all the way to the Supreme Court. Their intent is apparently to set a federal precedent that would require marriage equality in all states by declaring all other arrangements unconstitutional.

Their argument? Equal protection! If both Ted Olson and I agree on it, can it possibly be wrong?

Here’s how they put it in their complaint:

More than 30 years, ago, the Supreme Court of the United States recognized that “[m]arriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.” Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 12 (1967). But today, as a result of the passage of Proposition 8 in November 2008, the State of California denies its gay and lesbian residents access to marriage by providing in its constitution that only a civil marriage “between a man and a woman” is “valid or recognized in California.” Cal. Const. Art. I § 7.5 (“Prop. 8”). Instead, California relegates same-sex unions to the separate-but unequal institution of domestic partnership. See Cal. Fam. Code §§ 297–299.6. This unequal treatment of gays and lesbians denies them the basic liberties and equal protection under the law that are guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. …

This action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeks (1) a declaration that Prop. 8, which denies gay and lesbian individuals the opportunity to marry civilly and enter into the same officially sanctioned family relationship with their loved ones as heterosexual individuals, is unconstitutional under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution …

(The full complaint is here in pdf form.)

I teared up when I read this. I loved their invocation of Loving v. Virginia, which is more than just an assertion of the right to marry as a basic civil right; it suggests a parallel with the right to marry across lines of color or race. Whether or not that parallel works legally, it sure resonates emotionally.

If this case really does go all the way to the SCOTUS and if the plaintiffs prevail, it could do for marriage equality what Roe v. Wade did for abortion rights. That’s both good and bad. The negative is that there would surely be a public backlash against a decision imposed by judicial fiat, as there was after Roe. But that’s no reason to hesitate. The backlash is doomed to extinction. Young people already support marriage equality in overwhelming numbers. There’s no reason for today’s couples to wait another generation until public opinion catches up with basic fairness.

Update 1, 9 p.m., 5/28/09: Via Unrepentant Hippie, here’s an actual lawyer, John Dean, discussing the outlook for this approach on Keith Olberman’s show. Dean agrees that constitutionally, equal protection ought to guarantee marriage equality. However, he cautions that other supporters of it haven’t gone to the Supreme Court because it’s by no means certain how they’d rule. I’m afraid it’ll all come down to Justice Kennedy again, and that’s not reassuring.

Update 2, 10 p.m., 5/28/09: Pam Spaulding has a wonderfully nuanced discussion of Olson and Boies’ case, which pro-marriage equality legal scholars seem to consider a highly risky strategy. All the more reason to wish that the equal protection argument had been more seriously pushed at the level of the California Supreme Court.

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One morning a few weeks ago, the Tiger peered out the kitchen window while we were getting breakfast on the table (he no longer says “breskit,” such a shame), and announced: “Mama, there’s some kind of kitty in our yard!”

Obviously my child has been exposed to too many fictional rabbits and Easter bunnies, because he didn’t immediately recognize that “some kind of kitty” was actually somebunny.

So we traipsed outside and watched him. The next morning, the bunny appeared again. And the next. Then, we didn’t see him daily, but he kept coming around – often enough that I realized he’s probably got a burrow in our yard or one of the adjoining ones.

My first thought was: cute cute cute! My next: We need to get some rabbit repellent and sprinkle it around our garden. The local garden store, White’s Mill (great place!), had some powder that’s harmless to all critters but apparently stinky to bunnies. I may be ruthless toward weeds and cruel to ants, but I am not going to hurt a bunny. I know there’s no ethical justification for sparing a creature just because it’s cute, but I have to admit I’m a sucker for cuteness.

For a long time, the rabbit was very well behaved, and so I didn’t bother with the repellent. We saw him munching happily on some of the broadleaf plantain that flourishes in our lawn.

BunnyPlantain

Better yet, he’d hang out around the pea patch but he seemed to be leaving my peas in peace.

BunnyPeas

I thought we’d reached a perfect symbiosis. Two days ago, the Tiger and I looked out the window and spotted two “some kind of kitties.” (And we all know it won’t stop there! If you look closely at the noses on the two pictures above, you can see that they’re two individuals.) They were both so fearless that they let us get within six feet of them.

My peas were still looking good.

Then, the next morning I checked the rest of the garden and found my lettuce and chard decimated. They’d also beheaded a few of my purple pole beans. The lettuce wasn’t a big loss (it germinated so late that it was probably destined to bolt before the leaves were big enough to pick). But the chard! I sprinkled the repellent around and so far they’ve left the surviving chard unmolested.

My tomatoes, however, are flourishing.

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On this day when Prop 8 was allowed to stand in California, I’m torn between the very abstract and the very concrete. The abstractions are what we’ll need to win this struggle, eventually – legal strategies that don’t depend on whim and prejudice, and that don’t let a minority bully a majority. The concrete level – well, that’s why the strategies matter, and why I’m fuming about it.

To my mind, the killer legal argument for why gay marriage ought to be legal is the Equal Protection Clause of the federal constitution. It ought to invalidate the federal DOMA and all the nasty state mini-DOMAs. It’s pretty short and simple: “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Its interpretation has been more complicated, because the Supreme Court has denied its most stringent protections to groups other than racial and religious ones. But Sandra Day O’Connor invoked it in Lawrence v. Texas without arguing that homosexuals constituted a group requiring greater legal scrunity scrutiny (a so-called suspect class). She just pointed out that it was unfair to deny right of privacy in the bedroom on the basis of sexual orientation.

As far as my little non-lawyerly brain understands it, the California Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage relied on the state constitution’s version of an equal protection clause. Its decision today was purely on the procedural issue of whether the law required more than a simple majority to amend the state constitution to bar same-sex marriage. As far as I understand, it didn’t address the equal protection issue at all; this was never at stake.

And I don’t understand why, because last fall anti-Prop 8 lawyers were still talking about equal protection, although they were already zeroing in on that narrower procedural strategy. Here’s what Karen Ocamb reported at Alternet:

“Prop. 8, if it passes, conflicts with the equal protection clause (in the California Constitution),” [attorney Gloria] Allred said at an afternoon news conference in her Los Angeles office on Wednesday. “We will argue to the court that Prop. 8 is a disguised revision to the constitution which cannot be imposed by the ordinary amendment process, which only requires a simple majority. We believe that then the court must hold that California may not issue marriage licenses to non-gay couples because if it does, it would be violating the equal protection clause as straight couple would have more rights, by being allowed to marry, than gay couples.”

Maybe this is where my non-lawyerness seduces me into fatal error, but I don’t understand why the arguments were apparently so narrow. Why didn’t equal protection emerge as the central issue?

The thing I love about the equal protection argument is that it’s not just a legal formality. It’s not just strongly rooted in the constitution. It appeals to Americans’ better angels. Who among us is willing to stand up against simple fairness? (Well, apparently quite a few, but let’s ignore NOM and its ilk for a moment.) They totally get this in Iowa, for crying out loud! How much more heartlandish can it get?

GayMarriagePieFrom GraphJam, via Renee at Womanist Musings.

All these abstract arguments matter fiercely, because real people’s lives are being sabotaged by inequality. Last winter, after Prop 8 passed, I got back in touch with a college friend via Facebook of all things. We managed to catch up on the big things that had happened in our lives – and those that hadn’t – which, in his case, was a wedding. He and his partner live in LA. They’d hoped to get their act together for a summer ceremony. But it felt rushed and it was hard to find a date when all the relatives could fly in from Kansas and beyond, and so they decided to wait until they could have the wedding they’d imagined.

Now they’re stuck. If they’d done the deed last summer, their marriage would stand. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad that the court didn’t annul the 18,000 existing marriages.) I fully realize that he and his partner are only one couple and the struggle for equality is much bigger than just marriage. But dang, I’ve been thinking about them all afternoon, feeling sad and angry.

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I grew up in a small town in central North Dakota, population 488 in the 1970 census. No one locked our doors. Why would we? The only time anything got stolen was when a punk teenager my dad had disciplined in class got revenge by taking our 1969 Pontiac for a joyride. He drove nearly as far as the Montana border before running out of gas.

That car was easy pickins: It was unlocked. With the keys in the ignition. And left running.

After I moved to California as a teenager, I figured I’d never again live in a town where people were so casual about their locks. But when I moved to my current house Athens, I learned that pretty much everyone on my street left their back door open during the day, and often their front door too. I slid back into the unlocked habit as if it were an old pair of slippers. I thought I had the best of all worlds: a 1950s small-town atmosphere combined with hippie style and progressive politics. (Our county voted 2/3 for Obama, and in town I’m sure it was reminiscent of East German election results.)

But two nights ago, thieves struck. I’m fine, my family is fine. But a house just a couple of blocks away was broken into by cover of night. They woke up to find all their electronics missing, along with a collection of musical instruments. They have a boy who’s a classmate of my older son’s. Everyone was home, asleep. (It’s that last point that gives me the chills.)

Of course I feel for them. But beyond their personal losses, I think everyone in the neighborhood feels as though we’ve all been robbed of something rare and precious. Now everyone is reminding each other to lock their doors when they go out. Mine are locked right now.

We’ve been outrageously privileged to not worry about this. Our security was probably a cotton-candy illusion all along. I’ll miss it anyway.

I think I might just sleep with my computer under my pillow tonight.

Daffodil9

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What, exactly, is “the sex class”? If you read Twisty Faster’s blog, I Blame the Patriarchy (which I do only sporadically), you would get the impression that it refers to patriarchy’s definition of women wholly as sexual objects, at the whim of men’s desires. Some of the blogosphere’s other self-professed “radical” feminists use it in the same way. This has been bugging me for a while, ever since I went back and actually read some early radical feminist texts, because it’s a gross distortion of how they used the term. Maybe it seems like I’m being pedantic. (It wouldn’t be the first time!) However, this distortion has profound consequences for the relationship of feminism and sexuality, especially heterosexuality. It also drastically circumscribes the relevance and inclusiveness of feminism. I’ll get to all that in a moment.

But first, let’s look at the genealogy of the term “sex class.” It goes back to Shulamith Firestone, who coined it in analogy to the Marxian category of (economic) class. For her, the word  “sex” does not mean sex as in intercourse, sexuality, etc. (Twisty’s usage). Instead, for Firestone “sex” refers to the basic biological division of humanity into two categories, men and women, which she regards as prior to class divisions. In The Dialectic of Sex, she modifies Engels’ analysis of the origins of the family and patriarchy by insisting that economic class did not supplant patriarchy. Instead, male domination remains the primary oppression – and like class oppression, it can be understood through a materialist analysis.

Let’s take a look at Firestone’s actual words. (They’re taken from her first chapter, which can be found here in its entirety; passages in bold are my emphasis.) Here are the opening lines of The Dialectic of Sex:

Sex class is so deep as to be invisible. Or it may appear as a superficial inequality, one that can be solved by merely a few reforms, or perhaps by the full integration of women into the labour force. But the reaction of the common man, woman, and child – ‘That? Why you can’t change that! You must be out of your mind!’ – is the closest to the truth. We are talking about something every bit as deep as that. This gut reaction – the assumption that, even when they don’t know it, feminists are talking about changing a fundamental biological condition – is an honest one.” (my emphasis)

Later in Chapter One, Firestone writes:

But Engels has been given too much credit for these scattered recognitions of the oppression of women as a class. In fact he acknowledged the sexual class system only where it overlapped and illuminated his economic construct. Engels didn’t do so well even in this respect. …

And then, on Simone de Beauvoir, upon whose work Firestone is building:

Her profound work The Second Sex [note that Beauvoir's title also does not refer to genital sexuality, but again to biological sex, male versus female] – which appeared as recently as the early fifties to a world convinced that feminism was dead – for the first time attempted to ground feminism in its historical base. Of all feminist theorists De Beauvoir is the most comprehensive and far-reaching, relating feminism to the best ideas in our culture.

It may be this virtue is also her one failing: she is almost too sophisticated, too knowledgeable. Where this becomes a weakness – and this is still certainly debatable – is in her rigidly existentialist interpretation of feminism (one wonders how much Sartre had to do with this). This, in view of the fact that all cultural systems, including existentialism, are themselves determined by the sex dualism. She says:

“Man never thinks of himself without thinking of the Other; he views the world under the sign of duality which is not in the first place sexual in character. But being different from man, who sets himself up as the Same, it is naturally to the category. of the Other that woman is consigned; the Other includes woman. (Italics mine [that is, Firestone's].)”

Perhaps she has overshot her mark: Why postulate a fundamental Hegelian concept of Otherness as the final explanation and then carefully document the biological and historical circumstances that have pushed the class ‘women’ into such a category – when one has never seriously considered the much simpler and more likely possibility that this fundamental dualism sprang from the sexual division itself ? To posit a priori categories of thought and existence – ‘Otherness’, ‘Transcendence ‘Immanence’ – into which history then falls may not be necessary. Marx and Engels had discovered that these philosophical categories themselves grew out of history.

Before assuming such categories, let us first try to develop an analysis in which biology itself – procreation – is at the origin of the dualism. The immediate assumption of the layman that the unequal division of the sexes is ‘natural’ may be well-founded. We need not immediately look beyond this. Unlike economic class sex class sprang directly from a biological reality: men and women were created different, and not equal. Although, as De Beauvoir points out, this difference of itself did not necessitate the development of a class system – the domination of one group by another – the reproductive functions of these differences did.

(All of the above comes from Shulamith Firestone, Chapter 1 of the Dialectic of Sex)

These passages make abundantly clear that “sex,” for Firestone, is not genital activity. It’s not the bundle of acts, desires, feelings, and cultural ideas that we term sexuality. “Sex,” here, is the biological distinction between men and women.

In particular, her reliance on Beauvoir shows that Firestone sees women as ensnared not by sexuality per se, but by its consequences. She modifies Beauvoir’s critique of maternity by arguing it’s not society that constructs pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation as oppressive, trapping women in “immanence” (or passivity and cultural irrelevance) as Beauvoir contends. For Firestone, the root of women’s oppression is their biological function as mothers. She retains enough of Marx and Engels’ materialist method that she views the material reality of motherhood, and not the ideology that surrounds it, as the real problem for women. Women’s biology is thus inherently oppressive. Free women from their biology, says Firestone, and you free them from their subordination. (That’s where artificial reproduction plays into her argument, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

So how on earth did we get from this basically Marxian category of women (or “woman”) as a biological class (or caste, as Beauvoir termed it) to a category focused entirely on women getting fucked, literally and figuratively? It’s because Twisty and her compatriots are not radical feminists in the same sense as Firestone. They’re what Alice Echols – the preeminent historian of radical feminism – would categorize as cultural feminists:

Most fundamentally, radical feminism was a political movement dedicated to eliminating the sex-class system, whereas cultural feminism was a countercultural movement aimed at reversing the cultural valuation of the male and the devaluation of the female. In the terminology of today, radical feminists were typically social constructionists who wanted to render gender irrelevant, while cultural feminists were generally essentialists who sought to celebrate femaleness.

(Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75, 6)

I don’t know that Twisty would reject social constructionism altogether, but her conviction that patriarchy is all-encompassing and basically unchangeable comes very close to essentialism, in my book. She certainly reverses the valuation of male and female without overturning the idea of a hierarchy. Women really do appear to be the better human beings in her worldview.

In addition, actual radical feminists were steeped in Marxian thought, even if they modified Marxism dramatically, as Firestone did. They accordingly retained an awareness of socioeconomic class, though they tended to be well-educated, middle-class white women who didn’t always recognize their own privilege. Most of them remained critical toward capitalism. Twisty – and other self-professed “radical feminists” who actually fall into the cultural feminist camp – rarely discuss class. They’re far too focused on sex and sexuality.

This narrow focus on (hetero)sexuality spawns a plethora of problems. First, while it doesn’t necessarily preclude intersectional analysis, it certainly draws attention away from it. Cultural feminists only rarely differentiate on the basis of socioeconomic class, for instance. Daisy at Daisy’s Dead Air had a strong critique of this a while ago; while she focused on Twisty, you could easily multiply the examples. As Daisy points out, this often leads to a heavy-handed judgmentalism toward women’s experiences and choices.

This judgmental tendency leads to another problem of cultural feminism: Though its practitioners claim to be blaming the patriarchy, too often they end up blaming women’s choices, especially when it comes to sex. (See for instance the feminist BDSM blow-up of last winter.) This is an ironic corollary of portraying patriarchy as a monolith: Since you can’t actually target and change the system, you can only target its inhabitants. What purports to be a systemic analysis of sexism ends up radically individualizing it. Yet more irony: By portraying women as only ever the objects of male sexuality, the cultural feminist version of the sex class too often denies women’s agency.

This approach to feminism ends up ratifying and reinforcing the heterosexual status quo, rather than pushing it toward greater equality or actually giving free reign to women’s desires and pleasures. As figleaf points out for Twisty,

by insisting that women withhold sex from men — even those who want to have sex with men, either eternally or at least until men agree to the terms of this leverage-for-sex strike — she’s perpetuating rather than subverting the dominant no-sex class paradigm.

(More from figleaf here.)

By the way, I don’t think that my criticism of the cultural feminist “sex class” invalidates figleaf’s analysis of what he calls the no-sex class. Not at all. But it does suggest that it’s important to carefully define its points of reference, since Twisty ≠ Shulie. It also draws attention to some of those early radical feminists whose ideas could enrich his arguments – Gayle Rubin, for instance. Rubin sees the sexuality of women as subordinated to a much larger system of domination, in which men historically exchanged women in order to cement kinship systems:

It would be in the interests of the smooth and continuous operation of such a system if the woman in question did not have too many ideas of her own about whom she might want to sleep with. From the standpoint of the system, the preferred female sexuality would be one which responded to the desire of others, rather than one which actively desired and sought a response.

(Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” in Linda J. Nicholson, ed., The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, 42)

As an actual radical feminist, Rubin grounds her argument in a critical reading of Marx, Freud, and Levi-Strauss. She radically reimagines the possibilities of sexuality and gender, rather than getting stuck in the idea that PIV intercourse is at the center of women’s oppression. She identifies grand structures in society and culture, but she doesn’t regard the resulting power relations as immutable.

I’m not suggesting that an analysis of sex and sexuality is tangential to feminism. (Any reader of this blog knows otherwise!) Nor am I implying that hetero sex has magically cast off the chains of male domination. Instead, I want to recover and respect the original meaning of “sex class,” in the hope of getting beyond some of the impasses that cultural feminism has created. Including the alienation of a great many women from feminism when they find themselves getting blamed for the patriarchy.

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After the Smirking Cat discovered she’s a Norwegian Forest Cat, I got curious about my own feline lineage. There’s a quiz you can take at iVillage (ignore the fairly obstrusive ads, like any good cat) and find out what kind of cat you are. I already know that in the LOLcat universe, I’m Happy Cat.

And now we know: I’m an ocicat! Yay!

Ocicat

Ocicat The Ocicat is both playful and devoted. She may spring into action on a whim at any moment, or languidly pass an hour away in the lap of a loved one. The Ocicat is happiest with friends and struggles at being solitary for any period of time. Her exotic, no-fuss coat is a breeze to maintain, and looking her best comes easily. Inquisitive by nature, she gets into trouble from time to time. But any trouble is soon forgotten because she is off on a new adventure in a flash!

Works for me … except for the part about not needing solitude (I need it desperately) and being off in a flash (it’s more of a slow shuffle). But I do have a no-fuss coat, I guess.

The picture is too small to do her justice, because these are really gorgeous cats. I’ve nicked one from Flickr as evidence:

OcicatRoar

“Roar” by Flickr user signalstation, used under a Creative Commons license.

I’m trying to figure out how my new ocicat identity squares with the result of the other quiz I just took (on Facebook):

[Sungold] took the Which Critical Thinker Are You Most Like? quiz and the result is Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is best known for his critical views on social institutions and academic disciplines. Foucault was a left-leaning activist throughout his intellectual life.
Pretty cool – and accurate – result! Foucault broke my brain the first time I read him, but he really has shaped the way I think about the formation of the modern “self,” the workings of power in the world, and how we just might be able to effect change. (His defeatist reputation is all wrong; if he really believed we were hopelessly and eternally trapped in discourses, why would he have bothered to write so darn much?) Simone de Beauvoir might have pleased me more, but I’m not sure she was even a possibility. I’m just very glad I didn’t turn up as Ayn Rand.
As always, I’m tickled if you post your results in comments. If you just want to summarily declare yourself the heir of Nietzsche, that works for me, too.

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Daisy at Daisy’s Dead Air has put up a class privilege meme. It was originally intended to be a classroom exercise (full instructions are here), but Daisy’s discomfort in completing the exercise even anonymously online has convinced me: It’s as likely to shame the poor kids as the rich kids. That’s surely not its intent, but when you’re teaching, you’d better think of the consequences.

Good intentions alone are never enough. I once led a classroom discussion on gender and work in which a bunch of college gals vented about the piggish middle-age men who felt entitled to hit on them when they worked retail or restaurants. I thought we’d had a productive discussion. But at the end, after everyone else had left, a woman who’d been very quiet said: “Look. I don’t even know where to begin with these people. I know what it’s like to earn my money by literally shoveling shit.” It was a pedagogical FAIL for me. For her, it was an awkward and probably painful experience.

So, I’m not sure what I can glean from doing this meme, either, except that I think it’s important to talk about class, and maybe my experience shows how class privilege can come in different flavors. Here’s what I came up with. The italics indicate my editorializing – a bent that in itself might indicate a certain degree of privileged. (The most dispossessed people are unlikely to assume that anyone else cares what they have to say.) The bold statements are the ones that hold true for me:

  • If your father went to college before you started
  • If your father finished college before you started
  • If your mother went to college before you started
  • If your mother finished college before you started (college was taken for granted for all three of us kids)
  • If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor (my paternal grandfather was a country doctor; I had older cousins who were lawyers, doctors, and chemists, as well as farmers and teachers)
  • If your family was the same or higher class than your high school teachers (both my folks were teachers – though at annual salaries of less than $12,000 in the mid-1970s)
  • If you had a computer at home when you were growing up (no, but that would’ve required devoting a room to a mainframe! I’m just that old)
  • If you had your own computer at home when you were growing up (no, but my eight-year-younger sister did during high school)
  • If you had more than 50 books at home when you were growing up
  • If you had more than 500 books at home when you were growing up (pretty sure we did; most likely the majority were mine)
  • If you were read children’s books by a parent when you were growing up (every night – and practically every night my dad fell asleep – but hey, that was an incentive for me to learn to read so we could finally finish the stories)
  • If you ever had lessons of any kind as a child or a teen
  • If you had more than two kinds of lessons as a child or a teen (French horn for a year, plus six weeks of piano – lessons required a sixty-mile round trip to the next largest town, so mostly my mom taught me piano, then I taught myself)
  • If the people in the media who dress and talk like you were portrayed positively (well, at least until Fargo came out)
  • If you had a credit card with your name on it before college
  • If you had or will have less than $5000 in student loans when you graduate (just under – in mid-1980s dollars)
  • If you had or will have no student loans when you graduate
  • If you went to a private high school (there were none where I lived)
  • If you went to summer camp (music camp and Bible camp!)
  • If you had a private tutor (but if I’d needed it, my parents would’ve made it happen)
  • (US students only) If you have been to Europe more than once as a child or teen (I went once, with a touring band, when I was 16, and already thought that was massively privileged)
  • (International question) If you have been to the US more than once as a child or teen
  • If your family vacations involved staying at hotels rather than KOA or at relatives homes (we crashed pretty shamelessly with relatives, but where none were available, we stayed in motels because my dad suffered from Crohn’s disease and needed a nearby bathroom)
  • If all of your clothing has been new (heck no! that would be plain stupid)
  • If your parents gave you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them (I got a 1974 Maverick from them in 1985, and called myself lucky)
  • If there was original art in your house as a child or teen (by my grandma, who sometimes let me experiment with her paints)
  • If you had a phone in your room
  • If your parent owned their own house or apartment when you were a child or teen (nearly everyone did, in Medina, North Dakota, even if was just a trailer – but we had the biggest house in town, a wonderful old white elephant)
  • If you had your own room as a child or teen (always, until I went to college)
  • If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course (they barely existed in 1980, and I didn’t even know that the SAT was coming up until friends clued me in; I missed the PSAT altogether and I’m still pissed I didn’t get a crack at National Merit Scholar!)
  • If you had your own cell phone in High School (not yet invented – is this also an old-fart meme??)
  • If you had your own TV as a child or teen
  • If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College (also not on the radar circa 1980, and WTF is up with capitalizing high school and college?)
  • If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
  • If you ever went on a cruise with your family
  • If your parents took you to museums and art galleries as a child or teen (there aren’t really any in North Dakota, unless you count various pioneer historical exhibits, and on our big trip to California the highlights were Disneyland and Johnny Carson)
  • If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family (but my folks also had to shovel coal in my early years)

[By the way, if your background is so poor that none of the above applies, Daisy has another checklist that captures serious hardship.]

Compared to Daisy and many others, I’ve enjoyed heaps of class privilege. But looking at the pattern that emerges from my answers, I notice it’s a little complicated. I’ve experienced tremendous educational privilege. I was born the child of two teachers, both of whose mothers were also schoolteachers. My mom owned a book entitled something like Games to Make Your Child Smarter. (You be the judge whether it worked!) My dad taught music, so he was happy to spring for lessons as long as I practiced.

On the other hand, my parents’ combined household income was less than $20,000 in the early 1970s. That’s just how teachers were paid in North Dakota. My dad had some family money as a cushion, but times were tight when his health forced him to retire from teaching in 1976, leaving my mom the sole wage-earner. My grandpa was a doctor, all right, but he served the sort of clientele where payment was often in some form of barter. He was still able to invest some money in Standard Oil around 1900, and that became the aforementioned cushion for our family.

When it came time for college, I was clueless about the process, and so was my family. But when my folks moved us out to California, they took care to find a decent (though not top-flight) school district. I was a high school (not High School) junior. My classmates (not my parents or counselor) nudged me to take the SAT on time, and to apply to one fancy-pants school – which admitted me and then coughed up generous financial aid when divorce decimated my mom’s finances and put my dad out of the picture for a while.

If there’s a more general point to be drawn from my answers, it’s that educational privilege is largely fungible for economic privilege. It won’t trump it, but it sure acts as a buffer. I may have had an English/social studies teacher in junior high who spelled subpoena as “supena,” but my mom made up for it at home, as did heaps of books. And educational privilege tends to beget more of the same; after surviving some piss-poor teachers in North Dakota as well as benefiting from a few great ones, I went to some of the best schools in the country for both undergrad and grad school. (They weren’t just prestigious; I really did get a great education.) I didn’t know the right etiquette and I was always dressed wrong, but I only came in contact with those “inadequacies” because I’d already been catapulted into the milieu of the very rich.

Don’t anyone tell me I earned these privileges (although I did have to bestir myself to finish my Ph.D.). If I’m smart, it’s due to genetic serendipity and my mom’s silly book. If I’d been born into a family that didn’t care about education, I would’ve done well to go to college at all. I was a lazy student until college and am still a horrible procrastinator. That’s the thing about privilege: It compensates for our failings and lets us do well despite our flaws. If you don’t have any of it, the world is a pretty unforgiving place.

And yes, my boys are growing up in a house full of books. But the count is probably closer to 5000 than to 500. So the pattern repeats itself, every generation accumulating a little more cultural capital.

If your father went to college before you started

If your father finished college before you started

If your mother went to college before you started

If your mother finished college before you started

If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.

If your family was the same or higher class than your high school teachers

If you had a computer at home when you were growing up

If you had your own computer at home when you were growing up

If you had more than 50 books at home when you were growing up

If you had more than 500 books at home when you were growing up

If were read children’s books by a parent when you were growing up

If you ever had lessons of any kind as a child or a teen

If you had more than two kinds of lessons as a child or a teen

If the people in the media who dress and talk like you were portrayed positively

If you had a credit card with your name on it before college

If you had or will have less than $5000 in student loans when you graduate

If you had or will have no student loans when you graduate

If you went to a private high school

If you went to summer camp

If you had a private tutor

(US students only) If you have been to Europe more than once as a child or teen

(International question) If you have been to the US more than once as a child or teen

If your family vacations involved staying at hotels rather than KOA or at relatives homes

If all of your clothing has been new

If your parents gave you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them

If there was original art in your house as a child or teen

If you had a phone in your room

If your parent owned their own house or apartment when you were a child or teen

If you had your own room as a child or teen

If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course

If you had your own cell phone in High School

If you had your own TV as a child or teen

If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College

If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline

If you ever went on a cruise with your family

If your parents took you to museums and art galleries as a child or teen

If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family

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A Fishy Bear Story

So my friend who hosted me during my last night in Seattle emails me the following story:

Black bear runs through Ballard

The bear’s path led him less than a block from my friends’ house – less than two hours after we’d packed up the barbecue. My friend thinks he might have been drawn by the smell of fish. If so, that bear had impeccable taste. The salmon was some of the best I’ve had.

Alternate theory: Bears like fruit, bears like alcohol – and there were open bottles of rhubarb wine and pear brandy in the vicinity.

It was reportedly a “small” bear. Un-huh!

When it comes to small bears in my presence, I think I’ll stick with my son, the Little Bear; or at most, this fellow, who was safely on the other side of a moat in the Berlin Zoo.

BearBerlinZoo

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A few days ago, Miriam at Feministing suggested we take another look at withdrawal as a contraceptive method. Up to a point, she’s right that “it might be a useful method in low-resource situations.” If, that is, we’re talking about the sort of grinding poverty where the partners can’t even afford condoms.

Overall, though, I’m really troubled by this idea. I think it’s setting women up for more unwanted pregnancies than they already experience. (I’m leaving aside the STI issue, not because it’s trivial, but because it’s self-evident that condoms are vastly superior.)

Right off the bat, I’m suspicious of the figures Miriam cites (which come from a Guttmacher Institute report) that portray withdrawal as statistically equivalent to condoms (18% of women became pregnant with “typical” use of withdrawal versus 17% with “typical” use of condoms over the course of a year). First, other sources show a much bigger gap. Planned Parenthood says 15% of women will become pregnant with typical use of condoms over a year, versus 27% with typical use of withdrawal. (Scarleteen cites two other sources that agree on this statistic for withdrawal. Ditto for condoms. Bear in mind that the Guttmacher report is based on a single study, which ought to give us pause right there.)

Now let’s compare the ideal conditions. Even with “perfect” use, the figures are 2% for condoms, 4% for withdrawal. (Both Guttmacher and PP agree on this.) So, for those of us who’re downright obsessive about avoiding pregnancy, that means withdrawal would be twice as risky! I don’t see that as trivial.

Secondly, if we’re talking about truly low resource conditions, it makes no sense to compare condoms and withdrawal. Instead, we should be asking how withdrawal stacks up against other free methods. The various rhythm methods – which Planned Parenthood calls “fertility-based awareness methods” – fail 12 to 25% of women per year. The proposal is to educate people on withdrawal, but honestly, how much needs to be said aside from “it only works if you do it on time, every time”? Where people are too poor to afford condoms, wouldn’t it make better sense to educate women to the point where they could use a fertility-based awareness method and approach that 12% figure? Where poverty is less absolute, condoms could be used on days when conception was more likely. Or scarce resources could be allocated toward fitting women for diaphragms, cervical caps, or IUDs, which don’t require major ongoing expenditures.

But the killer argument against withdrawal, to my mind, is how dependent it makes women on their partners. Much more than condoms, it puts a woman’s reproductive fate totally at the whim of her partner at a moment when he’s not clear-headed. This may not be a big deal in a long-term relationship devoid of abuse, where both partners trust each other, know their bodies, and wouldn’t experience a pregnancy as catastrophic. These, however, are mostly not the couples who need help and education on contraception.

Think about the fifteen-year-old with a twenty-year-old partner. Can she trust him with her future? What about the thirty-year-old mother of five in sub-Saharan Africa whose husband won’t wear a condom – can she hope he’ll more willingly commit to withdrawal? How about any hookup situation, never mind where or with whom?

Even for couples where the power differential is small and the trust is great, using withdrawal effectively requires much more than “good communication.” Miriam at Feministing writes:

But I think we can all agree that we want to promote communication around safer sex.

Yes, and the key word is “around.” By all means, talk about birth control before and after sex. Communicate your desires during sex. Negotiating contraceptive decisions or timing during sex is asking for trouble, however. I wouldn’t want to stake my reproductive future on complete and reliable communication at a moment when my partner (and maybe I) are both muddled with passion.

Can we even hold men wholly culpable when they promise to pull out but don’t? Is anyone fully compos mentis when they’re about ready to come? If you’re doing sex right, the guy shouldn’t exhibit Olympian detachment at the moment of climax. Myself, I wouldn’t want to be with a partner who was having to pull back erotically (and maybe emotionally too) in order to pull out. Condoms, at least, can be donned earlier, before arousal is at its peak, when both partners are still more sensible.

Any method that collides with people’s lived experience is bound to fail, over and again. Sex isn’t a game of Tiddlywinks in which you can change the rules and expect embodied experience – and thus behavior – to follow. Apart from those folks (men, mostly) who’ve internalized porn’s money shot fetish, doesn’t orgasm feel better for most men when they’re inside their partner? Don’t their female partners sometimes feel a loss, too, if detachment has to trump connection at a moment that should be about ecstasy, not calculation? Or if the lovely friction comes to a screeching halt right when she’s verging on orgasm, herself? Can the female partner really relax and enjoy if she’s wondering whether he’ll pull out soon enough? I’ve never relied on withdrawal, personally, but I’m certain I’d find it much, much more intrusive than using condoms.

Of course, withdrawal is a time-honored method. It was the method of choice for many couples in the early twentieth century, prior to the pill. It was quite effective when used with another time-honored backup method: abortion. In Germany during the 1920s, withdrawal was the primary method. Various dodgy douches held second place; all you really need to know about them is that whatever didn’t wash out got forced up into the cervix. So withdrawal was superior to douching. It was also clearly better than nothing. But the abortion rate was estimated at half a million per year – and this in a country of 60-odd million – despite abortion being illegal and often unsafe.

There’s a moment in the film The Abortion Diaries where one of the women telling her story says, “He said he’d pull out. And then he didn’t.” She’s retelling this because it’s the moment that led to her pregnancy. Her words are clipped and bitter. This, too, is a disadvantage to withdrawal: when it fails, someone is very clearly to blame. I have no idea how many other relationships have failed as a result, but the number can’t be trivial.

So I’ve got nothing against discussing withdrawal. And perhaps the Guttmacher authors are right in saying it has a place in providing extra insurance when used with other methods. (Even there, I can’t imagine compliance would be high: if you’re on the pill, will you really feel a need for you partner to pull out, too? If a guy is already putting up with the decreased sensation of a condom, will he be motivated to finish up outside his partner?) Still, there’s no reason to be “sanguine” about withdrawal. And there’s really no good basis for recommending it as a sole method, unless the alternative truly is no method at all.

Update, 5-21-09: This study continues to draw attention from the feminist blogs: Rachel at Feministe is skeptical, while Lynn Harris at Broadsheet gives it a more sympathetic reading. I’d like to repeat that this is just a single study and its findings differ from the existing literature. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it means the discrepancy requires further explanation and can’t just be asserted as the new “truth.” According to the original study by Rachel Jones et al (.pdf), most of the couples using withdrawal were also using other methods (see Nat’s comments below, as she describes the kinds of strategies the researchers also found). It’s not clear to me that you can chart withdrawal on “safe” days against condom use on “less-safe” days and produce a meaningful comparison. These are apples and oranges! I’m having trouble linking the original study (it’s a .pdf) but you can get to it from the Guttmacher summary report. Its strong point, in my view, is its phenomenologically fascinating interview material, in which people talk frankly about how they use this method, how it feels, and how it fits into their lives.

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A Garden Lament

Late last night I arrived home from my trip to the Pacific Northwest, delighted to see my boys. But as soon as the Bear and Tiger were tucked into bed, I snuck outside with a flashlight to inspect my other little ones: the tomatoes and coleus I planted before leaving on my trip a week earlier.

The coleus had become slug salad. Every plant has huge holes in it. Some are reduced almost to their skeletal forms.

Slugs1

So this morning, once I could see what I was doing, I scattered Sluggo across the bed, hoping that some can recover. (You can see the little pellets in the next photo.)

Slugs2

I do have a few more starts, but I’d planted the best, strongest plants.

As for the tomatoes? Even by flashlight, I could already see that their foliage was too yellow. By light of day, it’s now apparent that the potato-leaved varieties are most affected. I can’t spot any obvious insect pests. The few tomato plants that are still in pots look even more sickly, so I don’t think I repeated last year’s fertilizer-burn catastrophe. (Anyway, I only used manure and it seemed well-rotted, but it’s hard to be sure. I mean, it’s not like you can do a taste test on it!) Also, volunteer tomato seedlings in these beds appear a healthy green.

I’m thinking nutrient deficiency. (But why, with all that manure?) I tried dousing some of them with Monty’s Joy Juice to see if that helps.

In the meantime, here’s what they look like, in case any botanical medical detectives have a diagnosis for me! This one shows the characteristic yellowing of the potato leaves, plus some brown dryness on the far-right leaf:

SadTomato1

Here’s similar yellowing on a regular-leaved plant. Oddly, a few plants have yellow leaves and purpling on the underside of the leaves, which I know results from phosphorus deficiency and should resolve on its own now that they’re in the ground. I’m really only worried about the yellowing.

SadTomato2

Finally, here’s my strongest seedling – my prize Sungold, no less! – looking healthier than the first two but still mottled.

SadTomato3

Oh, and all those silver maple seeds you see lying around the plants? They’ve sprouted into legions of trees in my absence. But that’s a mere nuisance that can be fixed with work. I’m not in despair over them. My tomatoes, on the other hand, make me want to weep.

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A while back, Amanda Marcotte had a spot-on, hilarious post comparing the Republican meltdown to our favorite felines: How Can I Say This without Insulting Cats?

One of the best things about having cats is their “meant to do that” moments.  Every cat owner has a favorite story about this. When I was a child, my cat fell in the toilet and then tried to walk it off like she meant to do that.

(More here, including the blathering by Michael Steele that inspired Marcotte.)

Grey Kitty used to do equally foolish things. Her slogan could have been, “Can I Haz Feeline Grace?” She’d run headlong into her scratching post, then act as though she’d meant to hit the brakes for an emergency grooming session. My husband would call this an Übersprungshandlung, and the actual behavior was about as clunky as the word.

But does the comparison to Republicans hold water? Well, how does your average cat stack up against Dick Cheney? The cat is cuter, equally devious, amoral instead of immoral, and too sleepy to ever be evil. And did I mention cuter? Now sub “Limbaugh” for “Cheney.” “Colter” for “Cheney.” No matter the permutation, the cat comes out on top due to terminal cuteness.

Surely these people are getting desperate about how to repackage themselves. We can be glad they don’t sport tabby stripes and adorable whiskers. Or we might be in trouble. Here’s exhibit A. (By the way, Simon’s cat’s bitchy meow reminds me an awful lot of Grey Kitty’s.)

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So I’m in Eugene, Oregon – home of the Mighty Ducks! – at a conference on pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering seen through a philosophical lens. As a historian, I’m a not-so-mighty duck out of water, but the actual philosophers are turning out to be warm, welcoming, and very very smart. I attended an absolutely fabulous session this afternoon on the trouble with birth plans, but I’m too tired to write about it. 

And so, instead, you get a report on what I found on my motel room TV when I flipped through the channels: soft-core porn on HBO Plus. This was a free feature, not blocked by a TV nanny filter. Not sure what the “Plus” stands for, but I think it had to do with the breasts of the hostess. They were at least ten times the volume of your average B cup, and they had the curious feature of not moving when she danced. So maybe it’s plus-sized boobs. Or just “plus” silicone. At any rate, their immobility was an interesting physics experiment. 

But what struck me was the prudishness of it all! Here’s this exotic dancer, alternately romancing the pole and “educating” the audience about sex techniques in a faux little-girl voice. Her topic was how to give a blow job, and boy did she offer some advanced techniques. Swirl your tongue! Stroke his balls! And watch those teeth – OMG! 

She was fully nekkid. The recipient of her ministrations? A cheap-looking “realistic” plastic dildo. I’ve seen rubber chickens that were more alluring.

So HBO Plus can show full-frontal female nudity. But heaven forbid the audience be offended by actual boy parts made of flesh, attached to an actual man. The assumptions about who wants to look at what (no pix for the gals, fake boobs for the boys) would boggle even if I hadn’t woken up at 4 a.m. (Darn jet lag!) I’m not quite convinced that figleaf’s Two Rules of Desire capture everything important about heterosexuality, but they fit very neatly here:

#1: It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for a woman to have sexual desire. 
#2: It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for a man to be sexually desired.

To #1: Our HBO hostess announces – on the “spit or swallow” question – neither, because she has issues with texture. It’s very interesting to see a naked, sexualized woman get all prissy about eating yogurt (which she apparently loathes too).

To #2: Nothing against dildos, but when they’re standing in for real men because women’s nudity is sought but men’s is taboo? Well, I guess that’s one way to damp down women’s desires.

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