Archive for March, 2010

First, this may be old news to some of you, but Heather Corinna (founder and driving force behind the awesome sex ed site Scarleteen) is conducting a couple of surveys on people attitudes toward casual sex. She’s especially keen on people completing the second survey (which has fewer respondents so far) and particularly encourages LGBT people, people of color, people over 45, and social conservatives to pipe up. I’ll just add that the surveys are thought-provoking and definitely not just geared to people who’ve had lots of casual sex (however  you might define “lots”!).

Here’s the follow-up survey.

Here’s the original one.

If you have any questions, you can contact Heather at hcorinna@mac.com – but really, just go take the survey

I really appreciate that Heather’s trying to capture multigenerational attitudes toward casual sex, because it’s really not true that “those young kids today” invented hooking up! Hey, I thought we’d already done that in the Eighties! And the people a generation older than me … well, they came up with free love, did they not?

So no, I don’t think hooking up is especially new. The only real change is that ritual of dating is rather moribund, especially for college-aged people. But taking the long view, dating isn’t some sacred, ancient practice. It’s a historical blip on the radar. It emerged around the 1920s and began to decline in the 1960s, as Beth Bailey explains in From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America.

Judging from the moral panic around hooking up, though, you’d think young women, especially, indulging in casual sex was about to end civilization as we know it.

The problem with casual sex, in my view, is not that it’s fundamentally immoral. Nor have I ever felt especially constrained by what Jessica Grose at Slate calls “the shame cycle” – the recurrent backlash against casual sex that shames women for their sexual conduct. I see no scientific validity to the pseudo-theory (nicely dismantled by Lena Chen) that women with a history of casual sex will result in inability to commit later on because we become inured to the effects of the bonding hormone, oxytocin. Didn’t happen to her, didn’t happen to me. I guess you’d better worry about oxytocin burnout if you’re a prairie vole. Otherwise, not so much.

There are other potential complications in casual sex, mostly related to an imbalance of expectations, and that can tilt against women too – though men can bruise their hearts in not-quite-casual sex, too. That’s a topic for another day. Ditto for the possibility of pregnancy and disease, though they’re scarcely confined to casual sex.

Instead, I want to talk about a persistently gendered issue in casual sex, linked to what Fran Langum (aka Blue Gal) has called the “orgasm gap”:

I’ve talked with a large number of women about this topic over the years and asked lots and lots of girlfriends the following questions: How old were you when you first had sex, and how old were you when you had your first orgasm? The orgasm gap is pretty damn wide for a great many women. I have yet to meet an honest girlfriend who had their first good sex before the age of twenty-two. Lots and lots of women have had lots and lots of sex before they actually enjoyed it.

And sadly, some men and women never figure out which female erogenous buttons to push.

(More here.)

So that’s where I see a real girl-boy difference in casual sex. (Mind you, I’m only discussing heterosexual coupling here, and the rest of this post is pretty heterocentric.) Sex with a new partner has the thrill of the new, the fun of discovery. However! I’ve rarely known a very short-term partner who really knew how to ring my bells. The fun was all in the newness, really.

With all respect to those women who come at the slightest gust of the breeze, most women need more time and a partner who’s willing to learn what warms them. And so it makes sense to speak of an orgasm gap within new partnerships, too. At least, every time except one, my short-term partners easily reached orgasm. (Sometimes too quickly, to be sure.) I usually had a marvelous time, but I didn’t always keep pace with them. You don’t have to be anti-hookup to acknowledge that one-night-stands often leave women hanging.That’s not necessarily a problem if the guy is attentive even after he’s finished. But frankly? About half the guys in my experience thought it was over when they were done. Even where there’s lots of unselfish good will, a new partner needs to be really attentive if he’s going to learn quickly. A short-term partner needs to be a minor genius to figure it out in a night or two. (Mind you, my data personal points stop at about 1990, and they’re not a representative sample of anything!)

I’m not sure things have improved much in recent years, though. I mean, back in the 1980s I never heard about guys just demanding a blow job out of the blue. These days, my students tell me it happens regularly – sometimes not even preceded by flirtation, much less kissing.

At the new Ms. blog, Shira Tarrant worries – quite rightly – that women’s sexual behavior is increasingly linked to performing for men in ways that alienate women from their own actual desires and pleasure:

Hooking up also has a gendered hue when girls are taught that being sexy is about performing instead of about self-pleasure and expressing what feels good. It’s what philosophers call “illocutionary silencing”—when girls and young women fail to say what they want. As Heldman wrote in Ms. magazine, self-objectification has serious impacts on girls’ political efficacy and sexual pleasure. Getting off becomes tied to seeing oneself through the eyes of someone else, or through the lens of an imaginary porn camera.

Yes, and the ubiquity of porn seems to be progressively narrowing the focus of that lens. But even if we could wish away the porn and raunch culture and girls’ socialization to be pleasing? And if every man was suddenly, magically, an attentive and patient lover? We’d still likely see an orgasm gap, and it would still be larger, on average, in short-term casual sex than in longer-term relationships. My argument isn’t that love makes all the difference (though it can’t hurt). Rather, time and attentiveness matter. If you’ve got all that in a friendship-with-benefits, great! Most of us will find it – if we’re so lucky – in a partner who also loves us enough to stick around, in every sphere of life.

One way to respond to the orgasm gap would be to de-center orgasms as the paramount goal of sex. In fact, “goals” don’t have any place in sex. (I don’t even have much use for them in the rest of my life.) Certainly there are lots of routes to pleasure, and not all of them include orgasm. Sex can be wonderful without orgasm. Even with short-term partners, its rewards needn’t be purely physical.

I’m skeptical about taking de-centering orgasm too far, though, because we’ve only “discovered” female orgasm as a culture after thousands of years in which it either didn’t matter at all, or (during certain eras) was believed necessary only as a means to an end: promoting conception. Historically, women claiming the desire for orgasm is radically new – far newer than “hooking up.” And so I’d much rather see a world that honors all forms of sexual pleasure, for men and women, as long as there’s consent, enthusiasm, and (ideally) a mutual willingness to experiment, play, and have fun.

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My most recent lapse in blogging comes to you courtesy of the IRS and

Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in one of his pensive, sexier moments. (He looks much hotter with less mustache. If hot is a word one can ever connect to Bismarck.)

I’ve finished my taxes. (Yay!) They collided in ways both stressful and funny with my mad rush to prep my Nazi class. (For those not following along at home, that’s a class on the history of Nazi Germany, not a class on how to be a Nazi. Though for those inclined toward the latter, may I suggest the Libertarian National Socialist Green Party – no linky-love for them, nosirree, moving right along! – whom I discovered through yet another unsettling google search.)

Anyway, while awkwardly multitasking between class prep and tax prep, I toted up a list of the books I’ve ordered recently. Then I tacked on the books that are literally underfoot. I didn’t manage to squeeze out a deduction for the IRS, but it was still a revealing exercise:

  • Sandra Harding, Standpoint Theory Reader
  • Sandra Harding, Whose Science?
  • Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti, Yes Means Yes
  • Katha Pollitt, Learning to Drive
  • Rebecca Kukla, Mass Hysteria
  • Eugene Kennedy, Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality
  • Kelly Brown Douglas, Sexuality & the Black Church
  • Clayton Sullivan, Rescuing Sex from the Christians
  • Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex & Pleasure
  • Lisa Duggan, Sex Wars
  • Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad
  • Laura Kipnis, Against Love
  • Mama PhD (anthology)
  • Shulamith Firestone, Dialectic of Sex
  • Simone de Beauvoir, The 2nd Sex
  • Judith Walzer Leavitt, Make Room for Daddy
  • Carole Vance, Pleasure and Danger
  • Ann Patchett, Truth & Beauty
  • Lisa Jean Moore, Sperm Counts
  • Sarah Forth, Eve’s Bible
  • Cristina Mazzoni, Maternal Impressions
  • Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing
  • Margaret Atwood, Flood
  • Barbara Ehrenreich, Brightsided
  • Julia Serano, Whipping Girls
  • Kevin Haworth, The Discontinuity of Small Things (novel of Jewish life under German occupation)
  • Michael Kimmel, Guyland
  • Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men
  • C. J. Pascoe, Dude You’re a Fag
  • Eric Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy
  • Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs
  • Joan Sewell, I’d Rather Eat Chocolate
  • Deborah Siegel, Sisterhood Interrupted
  • Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness
  • Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich
  • Kershaw, Hitler: Nemesis
  • Peter Fritzsche: Life and Death in the Third Reich
  • Judith Grant, Fundamental Feminism
  • Laura Augstin, Sex at the Margins
  • Kristin Luker, Sex Goes to School
  • Jackson Spielvogel, Hitler and Nazi Germany
  • Jeremy Noakes’ four-volume collection of Nazi primary sources
  • Jane Caplan, ed., Nazi Germany
  • Dagmar Herzog, Sexuality and German Fascism
  • Eberhard Kolb, The Weimar Republic
  • Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem
  • William Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power
  • Maria Hoehn, GIs and Fräuleins
  • Nancy Reagin,  Sweeping the German Nation

See any patterns there? Have you guessed how Limbaugh’s got me all figured out?

Please leave your verdict in comments. First commenter to guess correctly gets a free copy of the map quiz I’m giving on Thursday on Europe in the interwar years. (But not before Thursday. It is embargoed! Super top secret!) Equally attractive prizes may be awarded for extra-creative wrong responses. We don’t do Rice-A-Roni here at Kittywampus, but we’ve got a mondo supply of Bunny Mac.

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Someone please tell me why John Boehner has to be from Ohio? Weren’t we shamed enough back when convicted felon James Traficant was one of our congresscritters? (Now out of prison, Traficant is contemplating another run at the House. Yipes.)

Republican obstructionism: Boehner owns it!

(Via Skippy.)

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Historians are awfully fond of saying “It’s more complicated.” For better or worse, I’m a historian by training and inclination. Consider yourself warned: pedantry ahead!

Even though it’s a decade old, Amy Richards’ and Jennifer Baumgarden’s intro to Manifesta- a quick tour through women’s lives in 1970, the year both were born – is still a great read.  I use that chapter, “A Day without Feminism,” every quarter to kick off discussion in my intro class. Courtney Martin, writing in TAPPED, updates it for the millennial generation:

A tenth anniversary edition of Manifesta, updated and with a new preface added, has just been released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And in many ways, our last decade was also a baptismal moment of sorts for women (though it’s certainly been less covered by the mainstream media). To steal a page from Jen and Amy, consider the state of all things feminist in the year 2000: Birth politics is a niche issue. Gay celebrities are a scandal. Feminism is about women, not gender, and most U.S. feminists have never heard of child trafficking or female genital cutting. The notion of a woman, much less a black, president is still more pipe dream than actual possibility. There are no feminist blogs.

Courtney is wonderful. She spoke at my campus a couple of weeks ago, and the students really connected with her. Her youth is one asset in her ability to build rapport (though far from the only one; she’s just a really effective speaker). And it’s always a good idea to take stock of where we are in the flow of history. But here, I don’t think Courtney quite gives earlier waves of feminism their due. I’m not a partisan of any particular wave; generationally, I fall in the trough between the second and third waves. I just think it’s easier to move forward if we can avoid reinventing wheels.

And also, well, the past really is more complicated.

To start where Courtney ended: Yes, feminist blogs are very new, and they rock. The only blogs I knew of in the late 1990s were a few people’s personal online diaries. That was it. But by 2000, there were lots of online communities. For me, Salon’s Table Talk filled some of the needs that blogs now meet. I’d just become a mother, and I remember (for instance) lengthy discussions of Andrea Yates’ murder of her children that helped me place her act in a larger, political context of untreated postpartum depression and fundamentalist Christianity. Of course there were trolls on Table Talk, too, but it wasn’t the nightmare that Salon’s letter section is today. So, while blogs were the best invention since wine and cheese, they also built on existing forms of online community.

The prospect of a female president seemed pretty remote in 2000, but then again, democracy itself was under siege with Bush v. Gore and the foiled Florida recount. But if you rewind a little further, there was a moment way back in 1984 when we had reason to hope. I don’t know that Geraldine Ferraro would have been the right woman for the job, given her inexperience at the time and her racist comments on Obama in 2008. But her nomination did signal new possibilities. As for a black president, Colin Powell flirted with the idea in the late 1990, back before he disgraced himself by telling the UN we had hard proof of Iraq’s WMD. At the time, he certainly seemed a more plausible candidate than Obama did at the start of the 2008 campaign.

Child trafficking? This is an issue that feminists have taken up periodically for almost as long as feminism has existed. In the 1800s it was called the “white slave trade.” By the mid-1990s, there was lots of talk about sex tourism by men who wanted to exploit very young child prostitutes in Thailand. What’s new is that some of us are realizing that men, women, and children are trafficked for purposes other than sex, and that this is no less reprehensible.

Female genital cutting? In the mid-1980s, there was a huge flurry of attention when Alice Walker publicized the issue – and African feminists informed her that she should butt out. Ever since then, Western feminists have been upset about the practice but often unsure what, if anything, they can and should do to help.

“Gender” was a central part of academic feminism by 1990 at the very latest. Scholars like R.W. Connell and Michael Kimmel were studying masculinity. Historians of women were strongly influenced by Joan W. Scott’s 1986 article, “Gender: A Category of Historical Analysis,” which called for intersectional analysis along lines of race and class as well. Throughout the 1990s, most academic feminists continued to emphasize the study of women but also took a relational view, comparing women to men and examining femininity and masculinity. By the time a lot of us renamed our programs “Women’s and Gender Studies,” we were just formalizing a change that had been underway for many years.

As for the politics of birth, the main difference is that high-achieving women like Courtney who were college students in 2000 are now thirty-ish, with motherhood no longer such a distant possibility for themselves and their friends. But birth has been politicized ever since the Lamaze method was popularized in the early 1960s. When I first started studying the politics and culture of childbirth in the early 1990s, there was already a rich feminist literature. By then, hospitals had introduced birthing suites in an effort to compete with freestanding birth centers and midwives, which had gained strong support from feminist activism. Sure, Ricky Lake gave home birth a famous face, but the issues were already highly visible twenty years ago. With c-section rates skyrocketing past 30% and maternal and infant mortality a national disgrace, we’re arguably losing ground.

So what has really changed in the past decade? Well, homophobia has a much dimmer future than I would’ve imagined ten years ago. While it’s not quite true that “gay celebrities were a scandal” (Ellen had come out and was still loved), famous gay people were much more likely to remain closeted than they are today. But the biggest shift is in young people’s attitudes. Even my most conservative, religious students are apt to take a live-and-let-live approach, or at least they realize that homophobia is incredibly uncool.

Trans issues have also started to get the attention they deserve. Something similar is happening with issues of ability and disability. In both of these areas, blogs are helping render people and experiences visible. They’re still highly marginalized, but the winds of change are starting to shift.

Feminists are also more aware of intersectionality in general. We talked about it in the 1980s already (before the term “intersectionality” was even coined), but change has been slow in coming. Those of us with multiple privilege still fall short. It’s not just unexamined privilege that’s the problem, either. Analysis is a lot more complex when you’re looking at multiple dimension. Political alliances require more effort when you try to bridge and understand differences rather than just ignoring them. The resulting alliances and analyses are a lot richer, though, and I’m hopeful that those of us with relative privilege are increasingly catching onto that.

And yes, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton made history. So did Nancy Pelosi. Their victories might have seemed remote in 2000. But 1970 – Baumgardner and Richards’ benchmark year – they were completely unthinkable.

So yes, history is complicated, often more so than we think. It doesn’t neatly repeat itself or develop linearly. Nor is there any guarantee of progress toward peace and justice. (See, for example, most of the twentieth century, with its nuclear weapons and genocides.) Sometimes there’s cause for celebration anyway.

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Through my stress-reduction course (aka my stealth Buddhism course), I learned a little more about how our brains work. It’s not just that the left side is logical and the right hemisphere is creative. The left is sequential and the right is all about NOW.

Or, to steal a metaphor from Jill Bolte Taylor, the left hemisphere is like a serial processor, while the right is a parallel processor. (My shriveled little inner computer geek, who surely lives in the left brain, loved this idea.)

Taylor should know. She experienced this the hard way in 1996 when a stroke wreaked havoc on her left hemisphere. Her TED talk on the insights she gained has been around for a while, but it was new to me when I viewed it in my class. Watch it, and prepare to be moved. By the end, my eyes weren’t the only ones shining with tears.

(Click here if you can’t view Taylor’s talk.)

Two things just floored me, apart from Taylor’s story itself. She described her recovery as taking eight years. Yes, that sounds awfully daunting. I took it as a beacon of hope. My health troubles that began last winter affected my brain and nervous system. They changed my visual perception (which might be a thyroid issue) and clouded my cognition. I am feeling weird paresthesias in my legs and lips as I write this, a sort of buzzing, tingling sensation that is annoying and distracting though not painful.

If Taylor managed to keep seeing improvements for eight years – which is how I heard her story – then I’ve got another good seven years to go! I’ve regained most of my mental clarity, except for a pesky problem retrieving last names. I’ve learned that meditating can enhance my powers of concentration. It’s almost as if letting my right brain steer for awhile makes my left brain more supple and focused. I’m curious whether a serious schedule of meditation could even take my thinking beyond my pre-illness abilities. Logically (says my left brain), the ability to call equally on both hemispheres should make one a better writer, for instance.

The other insight that struck a chord with me was Taylor’s explanation of right-brained perception and experience. People living in the now-now-now aren’t going to be setting goals or ticking tasks off a mental checklist. My son the Tiger is pretty right-brain dominant, as far as I can observe. He’s not just left-handed. He learned to talk late, with otherwise “normal” development. He’s got a great ear from musical pitch – another right-brained trait. And he drives his parents batty when getting ready for school in the morning. Yes, I know most families are rushed in the morning. The Tiger has turned chaos into a high art form.

Tiger! You need to put on your shoes and jacket, and grab your lunchbox.

Oh, Tiger, your shoes, remember? And then the jacket?

Um, you’ll need both shoes, not just the right one.

Now your jacket. Yes, I did so mention your jacket. How many times do I have to say it?

Please get your backpack. Well, where did you last see it? No, I didn’t put it under the dining room table.

[The boys stumble out the door.] Hey, TIGER! Wait up! You forgot your lunchbox!

The same scene repeats every morning, varied mainly by how impatient his dad or I sound by the end. I have no illusions about winning some apocalyptic battle against impatience. That struggle is built into parenting. But just maybe, having caught a glimpse of the now-now-now brain, I will appreciate that our Tiger is living with one foot in what Taylor calls Lalaland, a place where sequential thinking is difficult and foreign. Just maybe, I can to learn to visit him there, as a tourist. Present-moment awareness, as my teacher kept reminding us, is a gift to be nurtured. Just maybe, I can find new reserves of patience, understanding that what can look like willful obstinacy is actually far more about him inhabiting the ever-expanding, ever-demanding present.

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I’m sitting in front of my TV, like so many of you, watching the post-HCR vote speechifying. I’m grinning like a fool, tearfully.

James Clyburn just said that Nancy Pelosi got it done through tenacity and compassion. I’ll have more to say about this later, but I think that this combination – which I’ll call radical compassion – is precisely what we need to move forward, and not just in the healthcare arena.

(And speaking of hope: My miniature iris is up, too.)

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There’s a newish blog at my university that’s gotten attention in the local press – all negative – and even got a mention from Courtney Martin at Feministing, though for all the wrong reasons. Courtney didn’t link to it, no doubt due to its nasty content, but I’m local, so I will, because I’m not likely to give it the national exposure it so dearly hasn’t earned. It’s called what’d yOU expect? and it’s run by a couple of local students. (One of the bloggers, “Pooch,” is clearly identifiable through the blog’s Facebook fan page as a female senior; I won’t print her name, but just want to note that this is not the work of douchey dudes. Whether women can be douche-tastic is a subject for another day. Or maybe for comments.)

The premise of the site is to expose the side of the university that’s at odds with the carefully groomed “Bobcat” identity that our leadership is promoting. Of course, anyone who walks uptown on a weekend night (which might come as early as Wednesday) will see that this school remains more about partying than about intercollegiate athletics, even if it was fun to see the team upset Georgetown in the first round of March Madness. What really needs to be exposed here are the many thoughtful, intelligent students who take their studies seriously (whatever their attitude toward drinking). We don’t need more discussion of Beer Pong, unless perhaps through an anthropological lens.

So I actually don’t mind the site’s mission of disrupting Ohio University’s spin machine. The attempt to craft an identity out of a trip to the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl was always doomed, anyway.

What I do mind is the rampant misogyny of the site. Take this post about the perils of hooking up:

This is a true story that has not ever before been told in its entirety. I was a freshman here at OU and wanted to take advantage of what every freshman boy wants to take advantage of their first semester of college… party sluts. I have this theory that freshmen girls are ready to fuck anything that walks their first semester of college because they are new to the environment and have the idea that it is okay to sleep around because everyone does it(not actually the case but it worked out well for me my first year). New to the college environment myself, I raised hell my first couple of weeks on campus. Getting shitfaced every night, fucking all kinds of girls, basically doing everything you are supposed to do during your college years. I was loving life for a good amount of time until one particular night when I met this grizzly bear of a girl.

I’m sure that all of this dude’s former partners would love to know he saw them as “party sluts.” I personally am delighted – just charmed! – to hear that “fucking all kinds of girls” appears to be a graduation requirement. Women’s and gender studies – I’m doin it rong! We should be facilitating hookups, so these dudes can graduate on time!

Oh, and yeah, we’ve never, ever heard a story like this one before. ‘Specially not one that’s true!

Our hero continues:

My good friend got shutout at the last minute by this tease of a girl he was with. (What a bitch right?) So just as I am ready to head home with my depressed and sexually frustrated friend, the fore mentioned grizzly bear grabbed me and pulled me into the dorm. Alright, I know if I had any kind of decency I would have left immediately and walked home with my friend, but fuck it right? I was drunk and gonna get laid, how can anyone be expected to turn that down? So I went in. I went into this “grizzly bear’s” quad and fucked her in front of all three of her either sleeping or pretending to be sleeping roommates. For reasons you can imagine the rest of the night is forgettable. It probably ended with me passed out, sweaty, and naked. Same for the grizzly bear. I woke up, still naked, being smothered by the bear. I think she was dreaming that I was the last cupcake on earth and she was guarding me from a pack of starving Africans.

Oooh, now we’re adding racism to the mix, along with fat-shaming and slut-shaming. Let’s throw in some public humiliation and double down on it – first have sex with a girl in front of the roommates, just like in one of those public-humiliation pornos, and then tell the tale on the intertubes. I guess we can be glad no one took any pictures, but geez! Is that all that’s stopping this encounter from appearing on Youporn? Oh, and the girl was ugly and fat (in case you missed that), but at least she wasn’t a cock-tease like his buddy’s intended target!

This would be a good time for us all to go wash our hands, gargle, and take a long hot shower, preferably with a loofah to scrub away the nastiness of this creep.

So can we extract any meaning from the existence of this blog? I agree with Courtney that there’s a need to talk about what’s going on with casual sex:

We are so hungry to talk out loud about hook up culture–both the sexually empowering parts and the totally sexist parts. We need a space where feminists can really delve into the complexity of this issue, without being labeled, writ large, traitors or female chauvinist pigs. The blog world serves some of that, but it seems like we’re still searching for a more nuanced conversation.

I doubt these juicy campus type blogs are the place to do it, but is there a way to structure such a space that would lead to a real conversation about hook-up culture?

Well, my classrooms often allow for that kind of space. Those conversations are a heck of a lot more nuanced than what I typically see on blogs, but I realize it’s a luxury to have ten weeks with forty people who are willing to explore new ideas in a sheltered space. Obviously there’s a need for more public discussions, too. Online? Hmm. I think feminist blogs can do this, but we only reach a small fraction of young women and an even smaller group of men.

Campus gossip blogs and websites are completely unsuited for this. I don’t think they even support Courtney’s contention that there’s a need for serious conversation on hookups, casual sex, and students’ desires. While I think such a need exists, this and similar blogs deny that need. They make absolutely no attempt to analyze or criticize people’s actions. They make no attempt at basic human decency. They’re all about letting one group of students feel superior to others. They use classic junior-high aggression tactics, being mean to someone who was unlucky enough to trust the post’s author. I enjoy a good snark or rant as much as any blogger, but where mockery and cruelty rule supreme, there’s no space for civil discourse.

In other words, blogs like this one are a symptom of the problems in hookup culture. It encapsulates the misogyny and disrespect for basic humanity that bothers most of my serious students. What’d yOU expect might serve as a cautionary tale, or as a place to start analyzing what’s fucked up about this scene. It’s certainly not going to be part of the solution. We can start conversations about this on feminist blogs, but real change will ultimately have to come through discussions and interactions in the meatworld (so to speak).

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… these would be the survivors still on the island.

All of these chard pictures are brought to us courtesty of occasional commenter Hydraargyrum. It was he who covered the chard back in late November, when its ice-encrusted destiny was apparently sealed. Instead, he came by my house and dropped a blanket over the chard, allowing me to harvest more in December and then coax it through the winter under cover.

Don’t ask me what the brick means in the next pic. It is a local brick. Does that make it magic? Dunno, but it helped hold down the agricultural cloth (aka Remay) while the winter winds whipped ’round my chard. The inscription is “ATHENS BLOCK,” in case that’s driving you slowly bonkers.

I will admit that this chard will be far beyond assertive. It will start as obnoxious, and then bolt, because it’s a biennial and destined to go to seed this spring. We’ll eat it anyway, at least until bolting makes it outright revolting.. And by “we,” I emphatically don’t mean my offspring.

Yesterday I spilled the beans about our crocus appearing, so as recompense for your putting up with my endless chard-blogging, here’s a particularly purple view. They’re survivors too, aren’t they?

Happy Spring, everyone! The equinox slipped by me yesterday, but at least my flowers didn’t miss it.

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This evening, within a twenty-minute span, I hear that my Congresscritter (Charlie Wilson) has pledged to vote yes on the health-care bill. Then I read a student paper that made me cry with gratitude, because it’s beautifully written, and because she says my class had “influenced me on a personal level more than any class I have ever taken.” A few minutes later, another student says the class changed her life. And then another.

I take only very partial credit. These kids mostly have very supportive families, and those who don’t have shown amazing fortitude in getting into college. They have survived the full spectrum of human tragedy: divorce of their parents, death of parents and spouses and other loved ones, brain tumors, rapes, unwanted pregnancy, and post-traumatic stress, just for starters. They’ve been an extraordinarily intelligent, engaged, and open group, despite the large size of the class (90 at the beginning, 74 now).

Also, I didn’t originally create this course on religion, gender, and sexuality. A colleague of mine designed it. I now feel like it’s “mine,” in my gut and heart and mind, but only after teaching it three times.

So when I say I’m grateful and humble rather than “proud,” please believe me.

And Charlie Wilson? What does he have to do with my students? Well, he joined them in proving that people can surprise us. Their inner compass can point toward integrity, even when the political landscape is constantly shifting. For his courage to do the right thing (and never mind Stupak), he too has my gratitude.

Or maybe it was just that email I sent him yesterday, threatening never to canvass for him again if he didn’t vote yes? Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, though, and say he listened to his conscience instead.

Whatever the case, my cynicism about politics and my doubt about the efficacy of teaching have both been lightly buoyed away like the first airborne seeds of spring.

And no, these guys don’t propagate by seed, but they’re the prettiest crocuses I’ve got so far this year. Photo by me, Sungold, taken in my backyard two days ago.

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As more wobbly Dem congresscritters commit to supporting the health care package, I’m guardedly hopeful that Bart Stupak is about to consign himself to the dustbin of history.


I’ve got two “pro-life” reasons why wafflers like my own congresscritter, Charlie Wilson, need to vote yes and put themselves on the right side of history.

First, a study came out this week in the New England Journal of Medicine that demolished fears that universal coverage – even if paired with liberal access to abortion through insurance – will drive up the abortion rate. Dr. Patrick Whelan found that in Massachusetts, abortion actually declined after coverage was expanded to virtually all residents:

The national health care reform legislation that was recently passed by the Senate has been modeled, in many respects, on the Massachusetts reform law; both lack the “public option” that was included in the House bill, which was the focus of the Stupak–Pitts Amendment prohibiting federal subsidies for health plans that would pay for abortion. Therefore, I hypothesized that the early experience in Massachusetts might serve as a good model in which to examine whether a substantial expansion in health care coverage might result in an increased number of abortions.

The relevant part of the Massachusetts program is Commonwealth Care, which provides subsidized insurance to the self-employed, small businesses, and unemployed individuals with incomes below 300% of the federal poverty level. This quasi-public agency began coordinating care through five private participating health plans effective January 1, 2007. I sought to determine whether this increased availability of care has led to an increase in the number of abortions performed in Massachusetts.

The number of abortions in Massachusetts in 2006, the year before the new law was implemented, was 24,245, including 4024 among teenagers. I obtained data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for each of the two subsequent years. Some 158,000 people were enrolled in Commonwealth Care plans during the first year. The Urban Institute estimated that between the fall of 2006 and the fall of 2008, the proportion of adults with incomes below 300% of the poverty line who were uninsured fell from 24% to 8%; 63% of all newly insured adults were in either Commonwealth Care or the state Medicaid program.

In 2007, the first year of Commonwealth Care, the number of abortions fell to 24,128, and in 2008, it fell to 23,883 — a decline of 1.5% from the 2006 level (see graph). The number of abortions among teenagers in 2008 fell to 3726, a 7.4% decline from 2006. These decreases occurred during a period of rising birth rates, from 55.6 per 1000 women 15 to 44 years of age to 56.9 per 1000 in 2006 and 57.2 per 1000 in 2007 (the latest year for which data are available from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health), and an increase in overall population (in 2008, the Massachusetts population surpassed 6.5 million for the first time, and it was nearly 6.6 million in 2009, according to the Census Bureau). The abortion rate thus declined from 3.8 per 1000 population in 2006 to 3.6 per 1000 in 2008. Overall, since 2000, the number of abortions in Massachusetts has dropped by 12% (from 27,180 to 23,883) and by nearly 36% since 1991.2 The Massachusetts abortion rate has similarly dropped by a third, from 30 per 1000 women 15 to 44 years of age in 1991 to about 20 per 1000 in 2005, with most of the decrease occurring during the late 1990s.3

(I excerpted the main findings, but the whole article, including its graphics, is free and easily comprehensible to non-specialist readers.)

Or, to put it briefly, abortions declined both in absolute numbers and on a per-capita basis. The drop was steeper for teenagers.

Now, it’s possible that Massachusetts is simply mirroring national trends, where abortions have slowly declined in reason years (with, however, an upward blip nationally in 2006). But at the very least, it seems reasonable to conclude that in the biggest, best real-life laboratory we’ve got, access to abortion – which was a covered service for Medicaid recipients and the next-lowest income tier covered by Commonwealth care – did nothing to increase the number of abortions performed.

Whelan doesn’t speculate what other factors might be depressing the abortion rate, but I can think of two. First, there may be fewer unplanned pregnancies if Commonwealth Care is delivering family planning services and contraception to the neediest residents. Second, a woman confronting an unplanned pregnancy may be more likely to keep it if she knows she can count on good medical care for her child and herself. I don’t know enough about the details of the Massachusetts system to know if it really does provide decent reproductive health care, but this seems like a reasonable conjecture.

What would happen if we expanded the Massachusetts experiment nationwide? Well, the likelihood of an upward trend in abortions might be even slighter in more conservative states, where cultural attitudes discourage abortion. Those women might also be less likely to avail themselves of contraceptive services, so they’d benefit less from access to it. On balance, my gut feeling is that red states would continue to have more unplanned babies and shotgun weddings than blue states like Massachusetts, but their abortion rates will remain about the same. That’s just my instinct, and I could be wrong, but if Massachusetts women didn’t start aborting by the millions, do we seriously think the gals in Utah will?

The second “pro-life” argument I’d like our congresscritters to hear relates to our shameful maternal and infant mortality rates. Our ostensibly pro-life politicians are utterly silent on those two interlinked scandals. They shouldn’t be.

This week, Amnesty International released a lengthy, serious, well-documented study on maternal health in the U.S. (Go here for the link to the full, free report in pdf format.) At Mom’s Tinfoil Hat, Hilary writes:

It’s often asserted, including in this report, that infant and maternity mortality are key indicators in the health and social justice of a country.

I’d add that they ought to be key indicators for the seriousness of grandstanding “pro-life” politicians.

Take, for instance, the ranking of states according to maternal deaths. Maine comes out on top, with just 1.2 mothers dying per 100,000 live births. Vermont is second, at 2.6. You might object that these are small states with small populations, and that the number of women dying there is so small that figures may be deceptive. Could be. But then check out Massachusetts in third place with 2.7. Hmm, we’re starting to see a regional trend.

The District of Columbia rules the hall of shame with 34.9 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, worse than Costa Rica. Georgia is second-worst with 20.5. (Figures are from pp. 104-5 of Amnesty’s report, Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA.)

As Amnesty notes on its webpage:

During 2004 and 2005, more than 68,000 women nearly died in childbirth in the USA. Each year, 1.7 million women suffer a complication that has an adverse effect on their health.

This is not just a public health emergency – it is a human rights crisis. Women in the USA face a range of obstacles in obtaining the services they need. The health care system suffers from multiple failures: discrimination; financial, bureaucratic and language barriers to care; lack of information about maternal care and family planning options; lack of active participation in care decisions; inadequate staffing and quality protocols; and a lack of accountability and oversight.

So why should Stupak care? After all, these are just a bunch of women – disproportionately poor women of color – who should’ve kept their legs shut, right, according to Stupakian logic? In his view, aren’t these just throw-away mothers?

Well, when mothers die, babies sometimes die with them. Hemorrhage, eclampsia, embolism – all can endanger the infant as well as the mother.

While babies can’t yet talk, I don’t think it’s a big leap to say that most prefer not to be half-orphaned at birth.

Most significantly for Stupak and his allies, however, is that obstetric care benefits babies and mothers alike. Where mothers survive, infants are more likely to survive and thrive. That’s true here in the U.S. as well as globally. We do worse than Cuba when it comes to keeping newborns alive.

And guess what? Health care reform has the potential for helping mothers and (potential) babies get the care they need.

So I’ll be waiting to hear from Stupak and the bishops on how, exactly, killing health care reform will help preserve mothers and babies – and how, precisely, they can call the resulting deaths and complications “pro-life.”

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Or maybe, just maybe, the idea will catch fire this time, bringing the series to a merciful end? (Oh-oh … gotta watch my death panel rhetoric!)

Amid all the hullabaloo over Dennis Kucinich pledging to vote “yes” on the health care bill, which blanketed NPR for the three hours I was on the road today, I didn’t hear a peep about a simple little bill that Alan Grayson is sponsoring. Nor had I heard about it in the full week that’s passed since he introduced it. And why should the media bother with this trifling little bill? Grayson’s H.R. 4789 is only four pages long. It’s probably a long shot.

But dang, what’s not to love about the “Medicare You Can Buy Into Act”?

Grayson isn’t grandstanding with the Senate health care bill now in front of the House, nor is he undermining its chance of passage. He’s just putting forward a public option as a stand-alone resolution in addition to the mondo bill, and he’s framing it in a way makes it hard to shoot down. Here’s what he said (via John Nichols at The Nation, who rocks for being on this):

Health care reform — here’s where we are. The House of Representatives is about to vote on a Senate bill without a public option. It looks like the reconciliation amendment will not have a public option. The House bill had a public option, but once the House passes the Senate bill, that’s history.

Which is why I introduced H.R. 4789, the Public Option Act. This simple four-page bill lets any American buy into Medicare at cost. You want it, you pay for it, you’re in. It adds nothing to the deficit; you pay what it costs.

Let’s face it. Health insurance companies charge as much money as possible, and they provide as little care as possible. The difference is called profit. You can’t blame them for it; that’s what a corporation does. Birds got to fly, fish got to swim, health insurers got to rip you off. And if you get really expensive, they’ve got to pull the plug on you. So for those of us who would like to stay alive, we need a public option.

In many areas of the country, one or two insurers have over 80% of the market. They can charge anything they want. And when you get sick, they can flip the bird at you. So we need a public option.

And they face no real competition because it costs billions of dollars just to set up a national health care network. In fact, the only one that’s nationwide is . . . Medicare. And we limit that to one-eight of the population. It’s like saying that only seniors can drive on federal highways. We really need a public option.

And to the right-wing loons who call it socialism, we say, “if you want to be a slave to the insurance companies, that’s fine. If you want 30% of your premiums to go to ‘administrative costs’ and billion-dollar bonuses for insurance CEOs who figure out new and creative ways to deny you the care you need to stay healthy and alive, that’s fine. But don’t you try to dictate to me that I can’t have a public option!”

And there is a way left to get it. By insisting on a vote on H.R. 4789. Three votes on health care, not two. The Senate bill, the reconciliation amendments, and the Public Option Act.

We got 50 co-sponsors for this bill in two days. Including five powerful committee chairman. But we need more.

Sign our Petition at WeWantMedicare.com.

Call. Write. Visit. Do whatever you can do to get you Congressman to co-sponsor this bill, and push it to a vote. Right now, before it’s too late.

I just adore the line about only letting seniors drive on federal highways. Because that, in fact, is exactly what we’re doing with the public option that exists right now, right here, in the United States.

If you’re a Grayson junkie and want to hear him personally digress on the federal highways and his $10,000 baby, here y’go:

As of today the bill has 74 co-sponsors. Unfortunately my congresscritter, Charlie Wilson, is not among them. He’s still too busy flirting with his fellow Blue Dogs, I’m afraid. Wilson is proudly pro-life, and scared as a little mouse that he might not be reelected if he votes yes on the big bill. After all, Wilson already voted for the Stupid Stupak amendment last fall.

I wouldn’t be too heartbroken if Rep. Wilson goes down in the next election. And if he does, then I’d like to invite Rep. Grayson to consider relocating to Ohio. I know, I know – he’s brash. He says things that offend. But that’s what can happen when you try to speak truths, not platitudes. Right now, his blunt, sensible words could save thousands of lives. We’ll see if they can be heard over the shouts of teabaggers and the grunts of obstructionist Republican congresscritters.

Oh, and Dennis Kucinich is on board with Grayson as a co-sponsor, too. Just goes to show that if you resemble a leprechaun, you’re bound to make the news on St. Patty’s Day.

[My earlier Medicare for all posts are here and here.]

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Just for the record, I believe today would be my name day, if I were only Catholic. Which, also for the record, I am not and never will be. Closest I ever came was taking Communion while attending Mass with a long-ago boyfriend. This was apparently quite a dire sin, as my Presbyterian cred didn’t transfer all that well. His family did a lot of hushed, shocked whispering, which tipped me off to the gaffe, and also hinted that he and I might not have a long and glorious future. I still think it’s funny that the Presbyterians wouldn’t blink an eye at Catholics joining them for Communion, but apparently endangered at least my immortal soul, and possibly their’s too.

Anyway, my long-term love is an ex-Catholic, so I guess we can celebrate St. Patty’s Day any way we choose.

Wanna-be leprechaun kitteh from ICHC?

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This is a post that begins with Godwin’s Law already fulfilled. Hitler is already in the picture and can’t be wished out of it.

But first, a word on how Hitler got here. As regular readers know, I’ve been teaching women’s and gender studies for nearly a decade, and I love doing it. As you know if you regularly follows feminist issues, you don’t have to surf very far through the intertubes before you run into sad, traumatic, or just plain disturbing shit. Whether it’s the seemingly infinite variations on the theme sexual violence or the occasional anti-feminist troll who’s moved to call you a cunt just because he can, there are constant reminders of the need for educating people on how gender is still all messed up with abuse of power and racism and heterosexism and cissexism and classism and ableism. More upsetting for me are my students’ own stories of violence and other trauma. So I’ve become accustomed but never inured to confronting some pretty sick stuff in my work.

This spring, I’m teaching a class on Nazi Germany. As only a few of you know, my grad work was primarily in modern German history, with only a minor field in women’s studies. In theory, I’m returning to my intellectual roots. In fact, I’m a bundle of nerves, because I haven’t taught a history class in ages, and never have I taught a whole class on the Nazis. And yes, I’m aware that disturbing stuff will be on that syllabus, too.

But here’s what I didn’t anticipate. The other day I’m googling for historical maps, and I swear I hadn’t entered “Nazi” or “National Socialism” or “Hitler” or “World War II”; I’m just searching on Germany historical maps. Within seconds, I arrive at a place I refuse to link to, whose name is St*rmfront dot org. (Sorry for messing with the spelling, but I don’t want any visits from these horrid people.) Their slogan: “Wh*te Pride World Wide.” Naturally, they’ve got a forum. One category is titled “Ideology and Philosophy Foundations for Wh*te Nationalism.” Just as a sample, behold the start of a thread with the charming title, “Why Deny the Holocaust?”

Nationalist hatewad #1:

Hey, I’m somewhat new here, not looking to start an argument. But if we really HATE the jews that bad, why wouldn’t we embrace the holocaust as a grand slam for our team?

Nationalist hatewad #2:

There is truth and there is fiction. Some people question the official history.

If the truth is that Hilter’s regime intentionally killed 6 million Jews then there isn’t any great noblility in it, and there is no reason to embrace it.

If the truth is that Hilter’s regime didn’t intentionally kill 6 million Jews the question is why are we told that he did.

Either way, the “Holocaust” is used to distract people from the Jews historic crime, most importantly the Bolshevik Revolution, Purges, Famines and Communist Slave States. Even if we give the Jews 6 million dead to Hitler, thats a drop in the bucket compared to the dead in Ukraine, China, South East Asia, etc. And yet, how many documentaries do you see about it, how many memorials.

Lots more where that came from! (And since I’m wearing my historian hat, I’ll just add that no serious, respected historian denies that the Holocaust happened. They may quibble about numbers, argue about its motivations, and disagree on whether it’s useful to compare one genocide to another. But the deniers are regarded like real biologists view new-earth creationists.)

Of course we all know people like this exist, but it’s jarring to stray into their charming little white supremacist neighboorhood. That’s one of the deeply disconcerting aspects of the internet: rabid anti-semites can slip into your living room while you sip your Almond Sunset tea. And you can’t just send them back to their well-armed cabin hideout in the remote Idaho woods.

I’m starting to wonder why I didn’t study botany. Or music. ‘Course, even there, Godwin’s Law kicks in as soon as Wagner is the topic …

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I’m as curmudgeonly as anyone about Big Pharma. I’ll readily agree that their pursuit of profit has driven up drug prices (direct-marketing ads, woo hooo!) and cost lives (Vioxx, anyone?). But I’m also realistic about why we take drugs and how they can, in fact, improve our lives. For instance, there’s a good argument to be made for not having yanked Vioxx from the market, but instead packaging it with stern warnings, because for some people, it may have been the least bad choice.

So, too, with hormone replacement therapy. Yet the critical media (which we need, don’t get me wrong) sometimes present HRT as a nasty conspiracy between careless doctors and greedy Big Pharma. Martha Rosenberg, frequent contributor at Alternet, does it again with an article titled “The Dangers of Hormone Therapy: Why Is It Still Prescribed?”

Why, indeed? You’d hardly know from reading Rosenberg’s piece. It’s an interview with Dr. Rowan Chlebowski, a lead investigator of the Women’s Health Initiative, the massive double-blinded study that revealed the dangers of HRT: an elevated risk of cardiovascular events (instead of the protection women had been promised) and significantly more breast cancers than predicted. In their conversation, they come to the reasonable conclusion that HRT doesn’t offer long-term protection against cardio and memory problems. Dr. Chlebowski states:

HT is still not a desirable chronic disease risk reduction agent though for short term relief of vasomotor systems like hot flashes no other therapy comes close.

Where the article falls down is in its failure to explore what women can do about those immediate symptoms, and why women are still willing to try HRT in the face of its well-known risks. For instance, as an alternative to HRT doctors are prescribing antidepressants to help women cope with miserable, sleep-stealing vasomotor symptoms. There’s some doubt about their efficacy, since placebo achieved very similar results. If a woman is depressed, it might well make sense to try antidepressants, but estrogen is still much more effective for vasomotor disturbances.

And then there’s the collision between antidepressants’ sexual side effects and the other, often unspoken quality-of-life reason women try HRT. This second motive only rates a parenthetical mention in the interview’s final paragraph, where Dr. Chlebowski asks:

Unless you have limiting climacteric symptoms (hot flashes, sexual difficulty), when you look at the emerging cancer data, is this really something you want to take?

Ah, yes, “sexual difficulty”! Problems with lubrication can be addressed with, well, lube. Vaginal atrophy? That’s tougher, especially for those women who don’t benefit (enough) from the old adage, “use it or lose it.” Topical estrogen can help slow atrophy. But then there’s also the matter of libido … and when you add up all the sexual troubles and top ‘em off with sleep deprivation and hot flashes, oral estrogen therapy starts sounding like just the ticket.

I’m not there yet, but I’m no longer a twentysomething who still thinks menopause only happens to other women – you know, those older ladies. Shortly after the WHI dropped its bombshell about the risks of HRT back in 2002, Salon published a letter from reader Susan Young on why women will continue to demand estrogen therapy until a substitute is found. I guess it must have impressed me, because I was sure it was a full-blown article, not just a letter. Here’s the crux of it:

I know I’m going to die of something someday; I want to stay sexually active till then, and it’s difficult or impossible without HRT. That’s the real truth that no one wants to admit. Mother Nature, that unhelpful old bitch, castrates women “naturally,” long before the end of life, and yet now it seems that we’re going to go back 50 years and be told to just grin and bear it (Oh, and exercise and avoiding caffeine will make everything OK, sweetie!). Viagra is A-OK with the media and medical hysteria mongers, although it has sudden death as one of its potential side effects. Why is preserving men’s sexual functioning approved of no matter what the cost? Why aren’t castrated men told to think positive thoughts and wear loose clothes?

Lots of things are natural; death, disease, labor pains, impotence and menopause among them. Why is it important to overcome the discomforts of all but the last? This is a feminist issue, folks.

I don’t know what I’ll experience – whether I’ll be greatly troubled by menopausal symptoms. Maybe I’ll have an easy ride and remain randy into my dotage. If not, I don’t know what I’ll choose. But I do know I’d want to have a choice, even if it entails risks. Better yet, I’d like to have multiple options. So far, we’ve got vaginal estrogen creams and “bioidentical” hormone therapy, which seem safer than regular Prempro (the estrogen-progesterone cocktail prescribed to women who still have a uterus). What else might be possible?

Maybe it’s time to say we deserve treatment of hot flashes and sexual issues that’s both safe and effective – not because it’d be a cash cow for Big Pharma (though it would), but because women want to sleep well and enjoy sex for as long as they’re physically able. That’s not ageism. That’s not caving into medicalization. That’s not pandering to capitalism.

“This is a feminist issue, folks.”

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Y’know, I wasn’t going to write about vajazzling, because I figured it was too silly for words. I like sparkly things as much as any gal. Yet I’m just bemused that anyone would desire a crystal encrusted “vajayjay.” (How does one achieve this? Let Sociological Images enlighten you!) I don’t think this will take off as a real trend. A recession is on, and most of us can find better ways to spend $50. But even if it mercifully remains a mini-trend, its symbolism deserves to be sliced and diced.

It really comes down to denaturing women’s genitalia. By that, I don’t just mean that we’re rendering them unnatural. In itself, that would hardly be worth noticing. All of us engage in body modification, whether it’s something as simple as a haircut or as complicated as plastic surgery. Sometimes there’s a clear patriarchal background, such as the billions of dollars women spend on makeup and men don’t. Yet I’m not down on lipstick. I like it. What’s the difference? Well, lipstick isn’t meant to change lips into something they’re not. I dislike black lipstick because it makes living lips look dead, but in general, lips clearly remain lips.

Whereas the pubic area, once vajazzled, looks like something else altogether. It is indeed denatured in the sense of being far removed from its natural state. More significantly, it’s denatured by rendering it less suitable for actual sexual activity. The literal definition of “denaturing” alcohol is adding a substance that makes it unfit for human consumption. Obviously, I don’t mean that a woman’s partner should be literally consuming her, or that cunnilingus – like wood alcohol – could make him go blind, but crystals aren’t exactly conducive to loving nibbles, either. As usual, Sady Doyle totally nails it:

Probably what your vagina needs is to look MORE LIKE THE RUMP OF A SPECIAL-EDITION MY LITTLE PONY THAN USUAL. …

Like, I mean: I hate to be a jerk here, but if you need my vagina to dress up for this party, my suspicion is that it is not going to be much of a party. Not to be all second-wave, but the continuing impulse to make ladyparts look less like themselves and more like gifts you would get from your dingier variety of novelty shop, next to the lava lamps, bespeaks some ill to me.

(More spot-on snark at Tiger Beatdown. It’s worth reading the whole thing.)

I don’t really think male partners are going to start insisting women bejewel their nether regions, but fussy decor is bound to dampen the party regardless, and by “dampen” I don’t mean it in the good way. The crystals are supposed to last five days. They can pop off. That implies won’t stand up well to serious bumping and grinding. I’m reminded of women of my mother’s generation, those genteel young ladies of the 1950s and 1960s, who admonished their partners not to muss their hairdos or lipstick. “Oh no, darling, don’t touch my vajayjay! I don’t want to pop a crystal!”

Really, is there anything less sexy than “don’t touch”?

Nor may vajazzles be every guy’s cup of tea. I love how figleaf describes the sparkly things:

That should read shiny, sharp cut-glass crystal objects! Which at the very, very least would tend to limit one’s partner’s interest in face-to-face intercourse. And assuming men are being honest who say they don’t want pubic hair in their mouths ought to be just even more balky about chipping their molars on Swarovski crystals.

If I understand correctly, the stones are pretty tiny, so it’s unlikely anyone will suffer a gash requiring stitches. But yeah, they’re not exactly pettable. In his post, figleaf notes that he’s carefully not judging others’ choices or preferences. Me, I think we can gleefully criticize anything that makes us less touchable.

Isn’t any practice that emphasizes appearance at the expense of sensual pleasure actually, ultimately sex-negative? Aren’t practices like this – including rigid standards for public grooming, which are widespread – fundamentally alien to a sexual culture where ideas about beauty and appearance would actually amplify sexual pleasure, rather than interfering with it? Sure, you can avoid rubbing up against the crystals with a rear-entry position – and nothing wrong with that, not at all! But then who’s going to admire the vajazzles?

And shouldn’t we be suspicious when said practice is only marketed toward women? In comments at figleaf’s, Chingona said:

The nice, succinct way of putting this is escaping me at the moment, but the whole notion that women’s bodies are both their greatest asset and yet fundamentally unacceptable in a state of nature comes straight out of patriarchy, and I don’t think you get to vajazzling without that foundation.

Actually, I think she put it nicely and succinctly. It turns out that if you regender vajazzling, its intelligibility disintegrates. It makes no sense unless you factor in patriarchy, even in its current rump, zombie form.

So here’s the regendering test: Would vanilla heterosexual men do the same? Are those men waxing their balls and encrusting the family jewels in, well, jewels? And could any dude do the My Little Pony look without casting serious doubt on his masculinity?

Clue: The answer to those questions tells you that at the very least, oppositional sexism is in play – Julia Serano’s term for the conviction that men and women must think in act in polar opposite ways. Honestly, the odds of men embracing their inner sparkle are about as high as my six-year-old sincerely wanting a Pretty Sparkly Princess scooter – he jokes about it, but actual desire is somewhere less than zero. (Anyway, I think the Hello Kitty Band-aids have sated his need to mock the pink.)

Plain old garden variety sexism is at work, too, insofar as women’s genitals are reviled in ways that men’s typically aren’t. Take, for instance, all the jokes about women smelling like fish, and all the products that have been sold to sanitize us, from Lysol (yes, really) to flavored douche. A vajazzled mons is so closely tended, it’s practically guaranteed to smell like a rose.

And if all this sanitizing didn’t already stink, vajazzling takes us back to weird anatomy, where the “vagina” has migrated suspiciously far north. This anatomy might work fine in Cubism, or if Escher had produced female nudes (I don’t think he did). On real women? Personally, I hope to keep my vagina as an innie and at a safe remove from my belly-button.

“Vajayjay” is even worse, über-cutesy and little-girlish. It too is anatomically challenged. And about that oppositional sexism: When was the last time you heard a guy talk about his “cockadoodle-doo”? Of course I just made that up, because there is no parallel term that an adult man would use to frame his genitals as childish and coy. Weenie? Junk? They’re just not the same.

We have perfectly good terms to name the petals of the labia, the soft hillock of the mons, the eager clitoris. Let’s use them. And it they sometimes feel too clinical, let’s adopt or create words that convey power and pleasure, not a Bratz doll aesthetic.

And yet, the folks who are getting vajazzled talk relentlessly about decorating their vaginas and vajayjays. Here’s one anonymous first-person report (via Tiger Beatdown):

After my Brazilian bikini wax, Alicia affixed the flair right above my vagina. It came in temporary tattoo form, which Alicia placed on me after first rinsing the area with rubbing alcohol. (This didn’t hurt although Alicia told me some women found it painful.) She used a tongue depressor to push down on the crystals (that hurt) and then I was all set.

Note, in passing, that the wax itself also hurt, and that the crystals were initially set upon a field of angry pink skin. So, so sexy! But the author can be so, so happy that Alicia didn’t actually apply the crystals “right above [her] vagina,” because her clitoris would’ve been mighty displeased. Also, I do wonder about the potential for a sweet little sparkle to migrate into the urethra, but I’d just rather not go there.

All of this – the anatomical obfuscation, the juvenile terms for ladyparts, the urge to embellish one’s crotch to match a five-year-old’s Barbie T-shirt – all of this contributes the mystification of women’s genitals. It neutralizes and denatures them, even as the “natural” pussy is rendered disgusting. It colludes with old, old ideas about “unmentionables” even in an era when Jennifer Love Hewitt gabs about her pubic grooming habits on national TV. It makes at least some young women reluctant to have sex that they want, only because their pussy isn’t “perfectly” groomed.

You know what would be a truly awesome trend? If people could be minimalist in their personal grooming, or creative and expressive, or whatever – as long as grooming and body modification didn’t get in the way of actual sex and pleasure. And as long as it didn’t reinforce the zombie, rump idea that women should get their jollies entirely through their partners’ pleasure, rather than pursuing desires and pleasures of their own.

Let’s leave the fussy, fusty grooming of pussies to the real experts – the felines – and just have some fun. Temporary tattoos, anyone? I have a mondo stash from Oriental Trading Company. Some of them are even shiny – with nary a sharp edge.

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You know how products for kids just seem to get more blatantly gendered every year? Well, the other day when my sons and I were trying to buy Band-Aids in CVS, they came in just two flavors for kids: Transformers and Hello Kitty.

With no prompting from me, my boys picked Hello Kitty. They don’t care much for Transformers and the Tiger thinks Hello Kitty is hilarious. She ranks with sparkly pink princesses, Wow Wow Wubzy, and twirly mustaches – all ridiculous enough to give him the giggles.

And so it came to pass that I have been tenderly wrapping their boo-boos with the visage of a cat who lacks a mouth. If there is a Judgment Day for mothers anything like the one Allison Pearson describes in I Don’t Know How She Does It, my immortal soul is toast.

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And no, I haven’t been on Jon Stewart’s closing segment. I’ve just been taking a stress-reduction class, which flies under the radar even in this rather hippy-dippy town as a “wellness” course, but in fact has been an introduction to Buddhist practice.

I’ve got nothing against hippy-dippy. Half my youth would’ve been lost without it (although I imagine a few folks might think I squandered it precisely because of my hippy streak – c’est la guerre). But I’ve been ambivalent about Western uses of Buddhism. It has always felt to me like cheap cultural appropriation. After all, this is not my tradition; what right to I have to lay claim to it? I’ve also suspected it was an easy way for Hollywood stars to appear “spiritual.” Fair or not, Richard Gere pops into my mind. I do have a friend out West (and occasional reader of the Kitty) who is absolutely a bona fide practitioner and a wise old soul. Overall, though, I thought people too often call themselves “Buddhist” to be trendy.

This class is changing my mind. It’s possible to engage in Buddhist practices, such as meditation, mindfulness, and compassion, without buying into Buddhism as a religion. One can be agnostic and Buddhist at the same time. And yet those practices feel like they’re transforming me. I feel less pain and am better able to cope with what remains. I am not quite so much at the mercy of the chatter in my head, and as a result, my concentration is growing sharper. That’s especially welcome after I lost most of it last winter. And compassion? Well, I am trying to meditate compassionately upon Dick Cheney. My teacher wrinkled her nose and said that might be a little advanced. But I figured I’d start with the person whose lack of compassion has created the most pain in today’s world.

The class has been stressful, itself, in that I’ve found nowhere near enough time to practice. (So much for stress reduction!) We had a one-day retreat out in the country, during which only our guide spoke, and that was a huge gift. I’m not quite so taken with tai chi, but I’m very enamored of meditation.

How does this affect my daily life? I feel as though I’m thinking more clearly. I find more focus in my lectures, so my teaching is better. I’m better able to approach  my kids with  patience (most days …). And I want to explore compassion’s deeply radical potential. Because if I can cultivate compassion toward Cheney, and if millions of others did so, Cheney might not change – but the rest of us surely would.

Anyway, maybe I’m just immersed in navel-gazing, but I thought I’d open up discussion to paths you’ve take toward cultivating mindfulness and compasssion in your lives. This Buddhist, lapsed Presbyterian, hopeful agnostic would like to know.

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In a previous post I made a glib reference to fraternities as likely sites for rape to occur. While I agree with brinkmanship’s criticism that I tarred all fraternities with a single brush, I will also say that the stereotype of them as places conducive to acquaintance rape isn’t unfounded. It has a pretty firm basis in reality.

That’s not to say all frats are the same. They’re not. Some are vastly safer than others. And even in the higher-risk houses, there are lots of great young men, most of who wouldn’t dream of violating a partner’s consent. I’ve had many wonderful students – both men and women – who were involved in the Greek system. My brother and sister each had good experiences with it, too.

That said, certain cultural and social practices in fraternities make it easier for rape to occur. Way back in the late 1980s, Patricia Yancey Martin and Robert A. Hummer outlined some of the reasons for this in their much-anthologized article, “Fraternities and Rape on Campus.” They noted that norms of masculinity, expressed in a desire for members who could drink heavily and withstand hazing, tended to exclude men might hold more critical views. They observed that practices of brotherhood, including loyalty and secrecy, sometimes trumped allegiance to ethics and the law. The commodification of women, seen too often as sexual prey, can lay the groundwork for trying to extract sex from women instead of viewing sex as a mutual pursuit of pleasure.

Martin and Hummer got the big picture right, and I don’t think all that much has changed in the past two decades. But I also know that when I was in college, I felt a different vibe coming from some houses and some guys. The Alpha Delts, for instance, were more into getting stoned than drinking heavily. I don’t remember ever hearing of anything untoward happening there. My students, too, know very well that some frats are dicier than others.

So how can you assess the risk in a given house? Well, I’m gonna go all academic again and cite another widely anthologized study, this time from A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade, “Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places for Women?” (pdf) They list a host of factors that distinguish higher-risk from lower-risk atmospheres. Their study goes for bars, too, so it’s very broadly useful, though generally speaking most bars fall into the lower risk-category. In high-risk settings, you’ll find:

  • Highly skewed gender ratios at parties
  • Less respectful behavior toward women (rating them, dropping trou)
  • Conversations based on flirtation, with meaningful one-on-one talks a rarity
  • Open hostility on the part of men, and also more aggressive behavior from women such as pushing and name-calling
  • Heavier drinking and less dancing
  • Higher noise levels
  • Bragging about sexual exploits the next morning
  • Distinctions between girlfriends, who are respected, and faceless conquests, who are seen as objectified
  • Cleaner women’s bathrooms!

The high-risk houses tended to have larger membership, more varsity athletes, more disciplinary incidents (including property damage and harm to persons), and lower participation in rape awareness programs.

Obviously, one ought to trust one’s own observations and instincts more than a list of characteristics. Still, I think Boswell and Spade provide a useful starting point for assessing risk.

Saying that fraternities are often sites of elevated risk isn’t equivalent to calling all fraternity members rapists. Far from it. Recent research shows that most acquaintance rape is committed by a very small number of repeat offenders. While this research doesn’t look at Greek life (as far as I know), it seems highly likely that those few extremely rotten apples seek out environments that provide some cover for them. Fraternities do this, however unwittingly. At the same time, getting rid of the Greek system wouldn’t solve much, either, because – as Boswell and Spade note – the high-risk party environment would likely move into private houses. I don’t have a pat answer, but I know that any solution has to involve education and changing attitudes, not just in frats but in the dorms, too. Education probably won’t deter the most predatory rapists, but it sure could make it harder for them to find cover.

Note: Both of the articles I cite can be read in pieces through Google Books, but I couldn’t find the full text for Martin and Hummer.

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I used to date a guy in grad school for whom shaving was pure misery. He got razor burn nearly every time. He’d let it go for a few days, and then I’d get whisker burn. (If I was lucky. Other times, we were so deep into poststructuralist theory that we were always already studying.)

I’ve been thoroughly shaved (serious TMI alert!) only for pelvic surgery and childbirth. No, shaving is no longer standard for giving birth. But if they think you’re possibly gonna need a c-section, out comes the blade. My midwife apologized about it, profusely.

The re-growth was miserable. Itchy, bumpy, red, stubbly. You want the antithesis of sexy? Ooooh, honey, I had it!

In the porn world, those itchy bumps can be photoshopped smooth or covered with makeup. The rest of us can’t photoshop as we go. Nor is adjusting positions to camouflage bumps the hottest way to approach your partner in bed. Expect a chirpy article on that from Cosmo, one of those days: “Nine Sizzling Ways to Hide Your Razor Burn in Bed!”

And so, when I read even fairly civilized discussions of removing pubic hair like this thread at Em & Lo’s, I react allergically to the men who expect women to depilate their ladybits. Women’s decision to do so for their own pleasure is another matter, though one that’s now highly, highly constrained and hopelessly entangled with porn images and men’s expectations. But the guys! The clueless, it burns! Worse even than razor rash!

As you’ll see from the Em & Lo thread, a common complaint among men is that they get hair in their mouths and – just when their partner is about to see stars – they have to stop and cough up a hairball. Giving their gals oral sex turns into a tragic reprise of Bill the Cat. Fellas, I have one word for you: plunger. That’s the effect you’ve got that gals don’t. Removing a hair from your bottom teeth is an entirely different operation than us untangling one from our uvula. By these dudes’ reasoning, men ought to be hairless from their kneecaps to their belly-button, if they ever hope for us women to go down on them.

Then there’s the obdurate cluelessness about the maintenance required. If you wax, you can’t repeat the operation until you’ve got about 1/4 inch of regrowth. That’s days upon days of furriness. Which makes waxing superior to trimming … exactly how, pray tell? As for shaving, see above: itch, bumps, redness, stubble.

But what about the equity argument? Increasingly, guys are shaving, too. Hey, if they enjoy the sensation, I say go for it. But even in a perfectly balanced world, where both men and women removed their pubes, the burden would still be grossly imbalanced. Swiping a razor blade anywhere near the vulva is visually and technically tricky. You’re navigating crevasses and valleys, not just a smooth hillock. Any slip will draw copious blood. Not to mention that you’re within mere centimeters of the pleasure dome at all times.

So when guys start scraping, waxing, and depilating their cocks, let me know. That would entail something close to equal risk. Until then, a lot of folks might be more relaxed – and thus have much better sex – with an occasional trim and regular doses of Laxatone.

Bill the Cat image found here, quite possibly in violation of copyright. I claim fair use, but if Berkeley Breathed objects, I’ll gladly take it down.

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I’ve been reading students papers instead of blogs this week, and so I was stunned just now to learn belatedly of the death of one of my very favorite bloggers. Jon Swift, the best and funniest faux conservative in blogtopia, died of an aortic aneurysm on his way to his father’s funeral. His real name was Al Weisel, he was a journalist, and he was just 46 (my exact contemporary). My thoughts are with his mother, Mimi, and his siblings, who now must mourn doubly, as well as the partner and friends he left behind.

I didn’t know Al, who, by all accounts, was a successful journalist. (Here’s the homepage for his latest book.) I only knew him through his writing as Jon. His pitch was often so perfect that he hoodwinked liberals and conservative readers alike into missing the satire. He’s one of the folks whose work convinced me that blogging was an interesting form I wanted to explore more, as a reader and a writer.

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo – who, with Jon, founded Blogroll Amnesty Day to boost small blogs – has pulled together a long list of tributes. I owe Jon a debt of thanks for including me in B.A.D. when I was first blogging and for graciously including me in his blogroll.

I always thought that Jon’s acerbic humor let him sound a call for integrity without sounding preachy. He was impatient with the wingnuts’ anti-intellectualism and greed. He pilloried their willful stupidity and cultivated lunacy. My favorite Jon Swift post was all of that: his takedown of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, generously illustrated with lolcats. And not just any lolcats. Kitler lolcats. (Or is that lolkitlers?)

Librul kitler from Jon Swift

The first post of Jon’s that I ever read was his Journalism 101. Of course, I read it a little differently now that I knew he was a professional journalist himself. The dry rot among his colleagues must have infuriated him. But typical for him, he channeled it into bleak, spot-on humor. A sample of his rules for journalists:

12. Journalists should not censor a story unless the government or a big advertiser asks them to.

13. Because space in newspapers and magazines is limited there is no room for ideas that are too far out of the mainstream or that challenge the conventional wisdom unless the ensuing controversy would sell more papers or magazines.

14. Plagiarism is strongly discouraged and anyone caught plagiarizing should be fired immediately and never be allowed to work as a journalist again, unless they are prominent or distinguished or a close personalfriend of the editor and have a really good explanation, in which case they should be given a second chance or even a third.

(Read his whole primer here. The links alone are awesome.)

You could spend days browsing his archives, and I did just that when I first discovered him. He hasn’t been blogging in the past year, but his old posts are as acerbically true as ever in this new Teabagger Nation. The loss to us, his readers and admirers, is nothing next to the loss to his family. And yet, I feel like I need to chime in because his writing didn’t just make me laugh or cringe in recognition; it touched me, too. I shed tears over his death. So I hope he wouldn’t mind a sad kitler in his honor. Even if the mustache is placed a bit too far north, the whiskers are appropriately at half mast.

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