Archive for September, 2010

Today was crap. I caught a student plagiarizing (off Conservapedia, no less!) and that’s the least of my concerns. I’m wound up, worried, and sad about a bunch of things I can’t write about here.

But this? It warmed even my shriveled soul.

(Click to enlarge.)

In case you’re having trouble diciphering:

Dere MaMa

I love you mama you are the best mama

in the howl younavers

you ar betr than the howl werld.

His signature follows (I blanked it here), along with maps of the werld (I am doing a backfloat on it – which sounds about accurate for today) and a diagram of the younavers, which consists of pointy houses that look like mountains – and me.

Of course, I cried when he gave this to me. Who wouldn’t?

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Caturday: Pallas Kittens

I thought that these kitties were adorable when I first saw them last summer (I think on ICHC?). Coming off a week that hit the skids – sick children, sick husband, sick me, and a few glitches at work – I can really empathize with how hard it is for the babies to do, well, anything at all. Only, their bumbling is much cuter than mine.

(Click here if you can’t see the clip.)

Aren’t they gorgeous? My kids want to bring them home. I do, too!

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And she knows where your other hand is, of course.

I’m a little late to the snarkfest. I’ve been toying with – oh, playing with! – a post on how hard it must be for a politician like O’Donnell to glad-hand a crowd, knowing where their hands have been. I’ve been flashing back to the precious scene in The Education of Shelby Knox where the youth pastor earnestly tells the very young Shelby that you can catch HPV from just a handshake. But I just can’t find the right way to approach that post without sounding like, well, a wanker.

Worse yet, I nowthink the snark might be a bit premature. Andrew Sullivan explains how O’Donnell’s anti-masturbation campaign isn’t an outlier, but integral to a much larger theoconservative project.

O’Donnell’s stance against masturbation is related to the new natural law that is central to the theoconservative project that Douthat endorses and believes in (and that is at the core of the Republican party base). It is rooted in the notion that any sex that is not self-giving in a lifelong marital bond between a man and a woman is destructive of the human soul and also of the community at large. (See “The Theoconservative Project” chapter in The Conservative Soul for a longer treatment of this.) And theocons are not classical liberals – they see all this as interwoven with society at large and central to what the Pope sees as modernity’s core sexual and spiritual problems.

They do not believe that masturbation can be a truly private act, no more than gay sex or homosexual relationships can be. The way in which jerking off divorces sex from procreation and marriage is as repugnant to them as is same-sex marriage and for the same reasons. O’Donnell, in other words, believes that masturbating has social ramifications, because it reduces sexuality to what used to be called self-abuse, and this itself corrupts society as a whole and weakens the family. This is exactly and explicitly the same rationale for the thoecon refusal to acknowledge gay relationships, their opposition to contraception and pornography, and, in part, to abortion.

(Read the rest here.)

Now the good side of this is that when the theocon agenda is exposed, most Americans recoil from it. My mom (who’s a sort of mushy liberal and a devout Presbyterian) says that O’Donnell is a nut and she’s doomed to fail. Mom hangs out with a lot of nice older ladies who are probably a pretty accurate political barometer. If she’s right, then the Dems get to keep Joe Biden’s seat. Sure, Mom’s just one data point, but Nate Silver agrees.

So let’s say O’Donnell goes down in flames. The theocon agenda won’t spontaneously combust along with her. It has leaders who are less obvious than O’Donnell or Sharon Angle. They may not be what I’d call nuanced, but at least they haven’t been blathering out loud about the evils of self-abuse. Some of them will win. Gradually, they’re becoming part of the “normal” U.S. political scene. Every theocon who wins a primary emboldens the Tea Party and lends new legitimacy to the fundamentalist oppression of women and LGBT people. (Yes, I realize that not every Tea Partier is a theocon, but there’s a substantial electoral overlap.)

I’m afraid that after November 2, we won’t be clapping at all. Okay, that frees up our hands for other things. Cold comfort, indeed.

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Addressing a proposal in Australia to make baby formula a prescription-only product, Spilt Milk strikes the perfect balance between breastfeeding advocacy and respect for women’s individual situations, experiences, and autonomy.

As a lactivist I obviously have a problem with the marketing of infant formula and any implication that it is as good as, or better than, breast milk. But as a human being I also know that people are hurt, seriously hurt, when they feel judged and shamed and when they are exhaustedly holding a hungry, crying, baby at 2:30 am and it feels like no one can help them.

Removing systemic barriers to breastfeeding certainly may require improved measures to reduce the popularity of formula – popularity which can be attributed to decades of marketing not only to the public but to health professionals. A big part of that marketing is about convenience: huge displays in chemist shops and regular sales at the supermarket of products in familiar-looking tins add to the impression of ease of use and the normalisation of artificial feeding. But whether we like it or not, formula and its ready availability is important to many families. Removing that now feels like a stick where a carrot should be.

Give parents the tools to make sound decisions that benefit them and their babies. Give parents not only choices, but supported, realistic choices. Don’t tell a woman who has to go out of the home to work, or who has other children to look after and little support, that the choice to dedicate perhaps days to increasing her milk supply through frequent feeding and skin-skin contact to avoid supplementing with formula is an easy one: it clearly is not. Education and information are hugely important but they are only part of the picture when practical barriers still so often interfere with breastfeeding relationships.

Adding practical barriers to formula use, as I think this proposal would, isn’t a particularly kind way to help parents. Being caught between a rock and a hard place doesn’t make the rock seem any easier to budge: it just makes it hurt more to be stuck there.

(There’s lots more where this came from.)

I want to zero in on the problem of shaming. It’s illuminating to shift the focus away from infants and toward the choices that we adults make about our own bodies.

For instance: I had a super healthy dinner tonight: baked tofu, locally-grown Carola potatoes, locally-grown watermelon, and sliced golden tomatoes that I grew from seed. (I had been trying to grow these ‘maters, Aunt Gertie’s Gold, since I read rave reviews about them on Garden Web, but managed to kill them on the first attempt by mixing in too much organic fertilizer when I planted them out. Another year, they failed to germinate. This year – success!) I added a dab of butter to the potatoes and marinated the tofu in teriyaki sauce. I was in late-summer heaven.

But last night? Late after the kids were in bed? I ate a strawberry Pop-Tart. And damn, was that good too.

What if someone had decided to shame me about that Pop-Tart? Would that have caused me to ascertain that those potatoes were also organically grown, instead of just sustainably? Might I have foregone the butter? (Admittedly, if I’d been feeling well instead of ushering out a nasty GI infection, that pat of butter would have blossomed.)

Hell No!

I would have had a Pop-Tart for dessert.

Now, luckily people have not often shamed me for my Pop-Tart weakness. We don’t eat them regularly. My kids love them precisely because a Pop-Tart is a pink unicorn in their world, and a yummy one, at that. Most crucially, though: I am NOT FAT. And therefore I can only shamed along the “bad mommy” axis for keeping Pop-Tarts in stock; I’m pretty impervious to fat-shaming. (Fat-shaming would surely be worth a whole ‘nother post, and this post would be a whole lot different if not for my thin privilege.)

Of course, “bad mommy” shaming is the main tactic used against women who don’t conform to the loftiest ideals of breastfeeding practice. They’re told in no uncertain terms that their child’s survival depends on what they feed him or her. And they’d better feed mother’s milk, but then the true shaming begins. The new mother is eating all wrong! At least, this must be true, or the baby would settle better, sleep longer, give up his eight-hour crying jags. And so they’d better watch out for garlic! Peanuts! Soy! Cow’s milk! Eggs! That dejected bottle of prune juice, purchased solely in the hope of warding off postpartum constipation? Might as well dump it, dear; no one else in your family will go near it.

Through all this, the mother is trying to suss out her child’s new and changing needs. If she’s poor and/or not white, the “well-meant” advice may well come wrapped in a thick wrapping of paternalism. How’s she supposed to develop her sense of mastery and competency in this hullaboo of “Yer doin’ it rong!”

Really, what new mothers need is respect for the fact that they still are humans, and that their body remains their own. The baby has a moral claim on breastmilk, sure; the mother has a moral claim on being an autonomous person. In most cases, she also is willing to make very significant sacrifices for her baby – her sleep, bodily fluids, her illusion of invulnerability,  the very minerals from her bones. Shame her, though, and you’ve shortcircuited her chance to figure out what combination of sacrifices (because there will be sacrifices) could help her child thrive without eviscerating her as a woman – as a person.

And darn it – sometimes every mother needs a Pop-Tart. Mine was strawberry. Toasted. And I haven’t breastfed since spring 2003, so how much more do new mothers need a Tart? I don’t believe food should have to be earned through moral machinations, but I do tend to think that I’ve got a lifetime entitlement to Pop-Tarts. I’m certain that there’s still one box of brown sugar/cinnamon in the basement. I will eat it with utter lack of shame. Next morning, with nothing but a Tart headache, I will help my kids get their reasonably healthy breakfasts and lunches. They are growing. I’m pretty sure we’re doing something right. Quite possibly something that deserves a Pop-Tart and champagne celebration.

I’d be interested in your metaphorical Pop-Tarts – and that goes for non-parents, too. What small self-indulgences keep you afloat? How do you gird yourself against scolds?

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Longtime readers of Kittywampus may recall that there are just a few things that viscerally scare me:

Almost all of these things enter into the story from Thursday night, through I don’t believe any wasps were involved. But honestly? I wouldn’t know; I was holed up with my kids. As I was cleaning up the dinner mess, I heard the scream of an emergency siren. I knew that the university was planning to test its emergency system – on Friday. So I flew out to my front porch, straining to hear the announcement through its bullhorn-distortions. All I picked up was “take shelter,” along with the oppressive air on my porch, and that was good enough for this North Dakotan-bred gal. I yelled upstairs, “Tornado warning!” The Tiger yelled, “Tornado warning!”

He and his brother, the Bear, tore down the stairs. I followed them into the basement, laptop and phone in hand. (Why, oh why, didn’t a flashlight even occur to me?) Minutes later, I chanced the upstairs again just long enough to rescue a few treasured stuffed animals and the cord for my laptop. I was alone with the kids. Mmy husband was at a meeting in the country, out of cell range, which was a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because he holds the theory that tornadoes never strike Athens, and that warning aren’t worth heeding. A curse, because I couldn’t be sure he was in safety.

For a good half hour, the biggest challenge was keeping the Tiger’s whine of “I’m bored!” from driving the rest of us around the bend. I let them watch a couple of silly YouTube clips (this one cracked them up again). I was hoping we could go back up once the warning expired at 7:15. The Bear would be about to go to his music practice, and we could try to track down their dad.

But then we heard the emergency siren again. And again. Soon sirens were wailing every minute or two. I still couldn’t catch the message, but I was certain it wasn’t “all clear.” I’d have guessed, oh, “prepare to die.” The next day, a friend said he’d heard “Tornadoes are surrounding Athens!” which I’m sure was close to the truth.

Here’s what it really said:

Looking around our basement hideaway, I started toting up the hazards. The small window. The bookshelves. My French horn (hey, that would be deadly if it went airborne.) I gave each kid an oversized pillow to shield their noggins and necks. At that, the Tiger’s boredom tipped over into terror. He would not be consoled by how silly it was to have a lumpy Winnie-the-Pooh chair over his head. I nixed YouTube so I could hear, and the LOLcats just weren’t cutting it as a distraction. Even the Bear was fighting tears. Heck, I was working hard to act brave. It didn’t help that the National Weather Service was starting to report multiple sightings of a twister touching down. Or that I was frantically hitting refresh on their page.

When we finally emerged from our secure underground location after an hour and a half (without ever sighting Cheney, I might add), we were all rattled. So were our neighbors and friends. We’d kept our power while most of the town and county had lost it. An acquaintance had actually seen the funnel cloud moving merrily down his road. Afterward, he had to take his chain saw to the large trees that had fallen across the road, trapping him and his family.

News filtered in only slowly. It seemed clear that Athens and its environs had been struck by at least one tornado. Rumors started to spread that the high school had been hit. One of the first reports noted that Pine-Aire Village had suffered damage and had to be evacuated due to a gas leak. The tornado had duked it out with the achingly poor mobile home park where I went canvassing in 2008. As usual, the tornado won. As usual, Pine-Aire Village lost. People who are trying their damnedest just to eke by now have new worries.

I haven’t taken a look at Pine-Aire because frankly, I’m still scared of the meth dealer and the vicious, unleashed dogs. But I did see how similar trailers were flipped and squished nearby in The Plains, the closest thing Athens has to a bedroom community. These mobile homes were located right next to Athens High School, which for bizarre reasons relating to government pork funds is located in the Plains.

This picture (and the next) was taken by my husband the next evening, as dusk was closing in. The woman next to the trailer is a Fox News local reporter. (They just lapped this up.)

Note how someone has scribbled “NOT SAFE” in big red letters. I’m not gonna argue.

The rumors about the high school turned out to be true. It was full with soccer and volleyball players and their families. The morning after the storm, a good friend of mine – the mother of the Bear’s best friend – responded to my worried email. She’d been working in the concession stand when some prescient soul yelled that a funnel cloud was approaching. She sprinted up the long steep hill to the high school and took shelter in the bunker-like locker rooms. Other adults, perhaps thinking they’d be safer sheltering in place (the hill is pretty daunting), remained in the concession stand. At least two of them were injured, though not seriously. One was taken to the hospital, the other treated on the scene.

That’s the inside of the concession stand.

That’s its exterior.

Meanwhile, the students on the field had sought shelter from the rain in the press box. Someone ushered them down to a locker room that’s located right on the edge of the field. Good thing. The press box blew clean off the top of the bleachers.

Cars were crushed as the press box collapsed behind the stands.

My friend had a bad half hour before she was reunited with her son. The fear of another strike hadn’t quite abated enough for everyone to be released. My friend was in cell contact with her son, but the wait was hard, especially as the smell of gas indicated leaks. When they were finally permitted to leave, they found a moonscape: mature trees snapped like sticks, debris everywhere, and a stadium that won’t host games anytime soon.

The scoreboard is whacked.

The football goals stand at jaunty new angles.

The wreckage in the foreground used to be a stadium light. (Those to the right and left remain standing, but their lamps have been turned 90 degrees.) The wreckage in the back – well, that was the visitors’ bleachers.

Structures to the right and left of the locker room were decimated. And yet, the kids sheltering there stayed safe.

School is called off until further notice. The high school suffered damage to some classrooms.

It also lost its two 1000-pound AC units, which blew off the roof.

It is a miracle that no one was killed. I heard one chopper take off Thursday night, and the next day a colleague confirmed that one person was injured badly enough to require transfer to Columbus. On the whole, though, injuries appear to be few and minor. Property damage is much more significant.

The tornado also touched down in Athens proper, leaving its main mark on Autotech, an automotive servicing and towing company at the edge of town. The only two buildings farther out along that road are the Super 8 Motel and the clinic where I had my colonoscopy. Those facilities survived with only minor damage (mostly missing shingles). Just a few yards away, Autotech was damaged beyond redemption.

The view from the highway.

Note the Coke machine encircled by corrugated metal. (I took this photo yesterday morning, and the machine was liberated by evening.) Note, too the wads of insulation. We saw them everywhere. All those years growing up in North Dakota, and I never imagined that the hallmark of a tornado could be oodles of rogue insulation.

Of course the impaired Coke dispenser adds credibility to the conspiracy theory …

… that this tornado was brought to us by Pepsi. (Photo from the high school.) Yes, I’m being flip. Black humor is one of the ways I deal with the world’s horrors.

I’m grateful that my family didn’t suffer any harm beyond the shock and fright. Today the Tiger has been playing with Lincoln Logs. Every once in a while a tornado comes and knocks them down. It’s spookily reminiscent of boys I knew who were 10 after the Twin Towers collapsed. They built mega-towers out of legos, which were level by terrorist flying planes. I shudder. Yet our kids seem to need these reenactments in order to come to grips with destruction that none of us can really fathom.

I’m grateful that all of the neighborhoods in Athens proper were spared, and that the elementary schools (except the Plains?) seem to be fine. (I still expect them to stay closed on Monday, given the track record of my boyfriend, the superintendent. We’ve now burned through a full third of our three calamity days.)

Ohio University got very lucky. It appears undamaged. Nor will the Darwin Award go to any of those students who went outdoors to watch the storm “cause I’ve never seen a tornado!”

Tonight, my thoughts are with the people of The Plains, the families of AHS students, and (further afield) the people who did succumb to the storm: a man in West Virginia as well as those killed in Queens in a separate, even freakier storm.

And I’m grateful for the rescuers, pictured here in an extraordinary photo by Spencer Heaps, taken the same evening as the storm:

Spencer Heaps has several other stunning photos at his blog. Please do pay him a visit.

The Athens News also has info on Athens County being declared a disaster area and on the confusing scene at the high school. They offer a photo gallery, too.

There’s no really good footage of the tornado itself, thankfully. (I don’t want people putting themselves in harm’s way!) The next closest thing is this clip, taken by college students living on a hill on the south side of town, which to my knowledge was not damaged.

Photos by me and my husband except as noted.

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Clarissa posted this on her blog a few days ago, and I just loved it. I don’t quite think I can use it in my religion and sexuality class (it’s a bit too flippant) but I may yet change my mind.

In the meantime, enjoy some theologically accurate apostasy! Oh, wouldn’t NOM just love to teleport us all back to the Old Testament?

(Click here if you can’t see the video.)

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Seen on a roadside sign – y’know, one of those with moveable block letters? – next to a gas station in Athens, Ohio:

Remember 9/11

Soft drinks 99¢

(Sorry no photo; I’m a Luddite regarding my cell phone.)

Even my 10-year-old Bear understood how tacky this was.

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In comments to my  post on “birth rape,” more than one person expressed surprise and shock that a feminist would say that intent matters in the definition of rape. This is a really complicated issue, and I’ve been reading about it on and off for nearly two years without fully understanding the nuances. I’m not a lawyer, and my (layperson’s) understanding of the issue is still evolving. I’ll be grateful for any input from people who know more about the law than I do.

With those caveats in mind, I would argue strongly that the motivations and awareness of someone who commits sexual assault do matter. Taking this position doesn’t amount to rape apologism. A perpetrator’s motivations matter for feminist reasons: as the example of “birth rape” shows, the possible remedies, penalties, and prevention strategies are different for rape than for other violations of bodily autonomy and integrity. They also matter for reasons of fairness: In the Anglo-American tradition, criminal law generally imposes different penalties depending on the moral culpability of the defendant.

First, let’s bear in mind that rape is not the same as sexual assault. Rape is one form of sexual assault – the most serious. Some states don’t use the term “rape” in their criminal code any more, preferring instead to designate various degrees of sexual assault. I’ve previously written about some of the various forms of sexual assault that the law recognizes. Having a spectrum of offenses is very important because even if a sexual assault doesn’t rise to the standard of “rape,” the law can – and in my view, should – provide additional recourse to a victim.

Generally speaking, in order to prove rape (or first degree sexual assault), the prosecution has to prove two things: that a crime occurred (or actus reas) and that the defendant committed it with a “guilty mind” (or mens rea). The principle of mens rea runs throughout our criminal code. It is especially important when it comes to the most serious crime. The most familiar example is homicide, where distinctions exist between first-degree murder (which is premeditated), second-degree murder (purposeful but not planned in advance), and quite a wide a variety of other forms of homicide and manslaughter, depending on how the killing occurred and how negligently or intentionally the killer acted. (Exact categories and definitions vary from state to state.) Without mens rea, all forms of killing would be considered equally culpable and equally blameworthy, and they’d be punished with roughly equal severity.

Mens rea is relevant to sexual assault law in most states in the U.S., though the standards vary from state to state, and they often aren’t specified very clearly. (Here’s an overview – it’s a Word file. Subsequent references to state laws rely on this chart unless otherwise noted.) Because of this fuzziness, it’s helpful to look at the American Law Institute Model Penal Code (MPC). The MPC isn’t binding on the various states, but it has been highly influential. The MPC delineates four levels of culpability, which I’d summarize as follows (exact wording is at the end of this post):

  1. Purposeful: The defendant intended to commit the crime and harm a specific victim.
  2. Knowing: The defendant might not have intended to harm the victim, but he/she had knowledge that such harm was certain or virtually certain.
  3. Reckless: The defendant knew the odds were high that his/her actions would harm the victim.
  4. Negligent: The defendant was not aware that he/she was likely to harm the victim, but he/she should have been realized it. (Note that the standards for negligence are higher for criminal cases than in civil court.)

As it turns out, state law is typically sloppy about specifying the mens rea required for a rape conviction. Often it’s just a matter of “general intent.” This leaves the door open for case law to further specify the mens rea needed to convict. On the whole, recklessness or worse is required. The MPC calls for recklessness at a minimum. (For an overview of this messy situation as of 2000, see David P. Dryden, “Redefining Rape” – full text and citation in this pdf. It runs to 163 pages, and I’m still trying to digest it.)

Here’s where things get sticky for feminists concerned with rape and other forms of sexual assault. Defendants exploit the mens rea requirement by arguing that they made an “honest mistake” and believed consent was given. This defense usually flies if the mistake is judged honest and also reasonable, though again jurisdictions vary, with some considering even unreasonable mistakes to be exculpatory.

Given that the mens rea requirement allows some rapists to game the system, shouldn’t a feminist just demand its abolition? For instance, statutory rape is typically a “strict liability” crime, which means if a defendant has sex with a very young person. In my state of Ohio, this applies when the victim is under 13, “whether or not the offender knows the age of the other person,” without any verbiage about reasonableness, recklessness, or negligence. The perpetrator can be found guilty of rape without any other consideration of his or her culpability. (In practice, though, most such cases in Ohio are prosecuted as a lesser offense, gross sexual imposition.)

However, I’m reluctant to abandon the basic principle of blameworthiness. Statutory rape is already a pretty extreme outlier. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no other equally serious crime that relies on strict liability. If we made all sexual assaults strict liability, how could we oppose the injustice of, say, a profoundly mentally retarded individual being convicted of rape and imprisoned for years on end? To me, it seems immoral to incarcerate people who are not in a position to recognize their own moral culpability. In case you don’t care for this argument: Wouldn’t juries be even less likely to convict if the law failed to distinguish degrees of blameworthiness?

Instead, I’d rather consider how we might redefine “reasonable” beliefs in consent. For instance, Catherine MacKinnon has advocated replacing a “reasonable man/person” standard with a “reasonable woman” one – an approach with both promise and problems, which I’m still weighing. Or we might introduce a category of sexual assault based on criminal negligence to ensure consent, which would carry substantially lower penalties than rape, but would offer a chance of conviction in acquaintance rape cases, which remain very difficult to prosecute. This isn’t unheard of; Ohio’s criminal code defines forcible rape as committed “purposely,” but the bar for sexual battery is only “knowingly.” Why not create a lower category of sexual assault that specifically addresses instances of recklessness and criminal negligence? I’m still thinking and learning about the possibilities, so I’m reluctant to commit to any particular legal model. (Maybe in a future post?) But given that the rules of evidence have already been changed substantially (e.g., rape shield laws) without much changing conviction rates for acquaintance rape, I think it’s crucial to consider other areas for potential reform.

Finally, I know some readers are wondering – as Melissa did in comments: Shouldn’t feminists have a definition of “rape” geared to women’s experiences? Well, only in some ways. Surely our desires for reform ought to be anchored in the experiences of victims (who, as feminists are increasingly realizing, are not always women). There are abusive situations that are currently legal, yet we may well want to see punished by law. If so, we should clarify our positions and work toward changing the law. We also need to continue criticizing the rape myths that allow juries to buy an “honest mistake” defense that’s obviously founded on misogyny. Laws need to change so that the typical defense doesn’t rely mainly on those myths. Rape myths negate women’s experiences and they prejudice juries against complainants.

On the other hand, we should not embrace a “social” or “psychological” definition of rape that’s disconnected from both the current law and the law as we’d like to see it. Rape is always irreducibly a legal category – a crime. I’m not willing to say, “Well, it’s up to every person to define for him- or herself whether an experience was rape.” In the feminist blogosphere, some folks are branding anything short of enthusiastic consent as rape. (That, too, would be another post.) Enthusiastic consent is a great cultural standard. I teach it, especially to beginning students, because I think it offers a chance to make real inroads against acquaintance rape. It is not embedded in the law, and I’m skeptical that it ever ought to be. As I’ve argued before, there are areas of sexual behavior where ethics are more appropriate than legal remedies. Frankly, just a cursory look at existing law shows that many states still retain a requirement to prove force (or the dire threat thereof), and some still require resistance.

There’s plenty of work to do. The most important reforms don’t require that we abolish “intent” – or mens rea – as a meaningful category. In fact, if we attend to mens rea, we can probably increase conviction rates, but more importantly, I think we can teach and write against rape more effectively than if we bracket out a perpetrator’s state of mind.

Appendix: Mens rea as defined by the Model Penal Code

2.02 General Requirements of Culpability.

(1) Minimum Requirements of Culpability. Except as provided in Section 2.05, a person is not guilty of an offense unless he acted purposely, knowingly, recklessly or negligently, as the law may require, with respect to each material element of the offense.

(2) Kinds of Culpability Defined.

(a) Purposely.

A person acts purposely with respect to a material element of an offense when:

(i) if the element involves the nature of his conduct or a result thereof, it is his conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result; and

(ii) if the element involves the attendant circumstances, he is aware of the existence of such circumstances or he believes or hopes that they exist.

(b) Knowingly.

A person acts knowingly with respect to a material element of an offense when:

(i) if the element involves the nature of his conduct or the attendant circumstances, he is aware that his conduct is of that nature or that such circumstances exist; and

(ii) if the element involves a result of his conduct, he is aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause such a result.

(c) Recklessly.

A person acts recklessly with respect to a material element of an offense when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and purpose of the actor’s conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a law-abiding person would observe in the actor’s situation.

(d) Negligently.

A person acts negligently with respect to a material element of an offense when he should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the actor’s failure to perceive it, considering the nature and purpose of his conduct and the circumstances known to him, involves a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.

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(TMI alert, especially for the medically squeamish, and trigger alert for medical violence.)

The story of how I birthed my first child is a far cry from the dimly-lit, romantic scenarios pictured in hospital brochures and natural birth guides alike.

The Bear got stuck before his head was even properly engaged. I was in Germany, so you can’t blame what happened next on medicalized childbirth, American-style. I did have an epidural (at my own request, nay, demand!) and enough Pitocin to deliver a small elephant. My midwife tried acupuncture. We tried every possible position: all fours, squatting, draped over an elevated bed with my head hanging down. I even swallowed some homeopathic remedy. This was Germany, after all.

Still, he was stuck. After seven hours (!) of being fully dilated – which is four or five hours longer than a U.S. ob/gyn would tolerate without a c-section – my midwife had to turn me over to a doctor. Even then, he didn’t go straight for the knife. He proposed trying vacuum extraction, with a c-section as backup. Three tugs, three giant pushes, and three mighty shoves on the top of my uterus – out came the Bear.

I was grateful my son was healthy, and glad I’d avoided a cesarean. I thought I’d gotten off easy. The recovery proved me wrong. I’d lost a lot of blood and my healing was difficult and incomplete. In the long run, I probably would have been far better off with a c-section. The pushing on my uterus (“fundal pressure”) did a lot of damage to my pelvic floor, which persists a decade later. I was given a lengthy consent form that explained the risks of a potential c-section, but it said nothing about the risks of fundal pressure and vacuum extraction, particularly an extraction from so high in the pelvis.

In other words, I had no crack at informed consent for what was actually done to me. And I don’t want to hear that none of it matters since my baby was healthy. The violence of my delivery severely affected my ability to be an effective mother. Try hauling around a 13-pound infant six weeks postpartum, feeling as though your viscera are about to fall out. Then try it again with a 19-pounder at four months. The Bear was not a sleepy, contented baby. He was irked at the world. He needed to be walked around. I couldn’t do it. Not on the scale he demanded. For optimal healing, I shouldn’t have been lifting anything heavier than ten pounds. I felt utterly trapped.

Many women have traumatic childbirth stories. Many are uglier than mine and revolve around disrespect by medical personnel, which sometimes edges into outright violation. Over the past few years, some birth activists and feminists have started to label such stories “birth rape.” The term struck me as wrong when I first saw it (which I’m pretty sure was this post at the F Word). So I was glad to see a flurry of criticism ripple through the feminist blogosphere over the past few days, starting with Irin Carmon at Jezebel and then spreading to Amanda Marcotte at XX, Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet, and Lindsay Beyerstein at Big Think. Even my friend figleaf has weighed in against using “rape” to characterize traumatic birth experiences.

In discussions of sexual violence, it’s not unusual for women who’ve actually experienced the trauma in question to use their experience as a trump card against anyone who disagrees with them. Ditto for childbirth experiences. In actuality, experiences vary, as do our interpretations of them. One woman may feel violated by a c-section, while another might feel relief.

So far, none of the feminist bloggers who’ve criticized “birth rape” have actually experienced childbirth in their own flesh. Their opponents may well say that this disqualifies them. I’m weighing in to support them, partly as a mother (and partly as a professional historian of childbirth and critic of medicalizaiton) who has in fact experienced a failure of informed consent and a traumatic birth (and who has studied some truly egregious instances of it in the past). Of course, my labor experiences don’t give me the right to trivialize other women’s feelings of violations, and I would never want to do that. At the same time, the trauma women experience doesn’t justify the inflationary and misleading use of “rape” to describe violations of medical consent.

It’s important that we can talk about birth trauma. We need a language of childbirth that will help us protect women’s autonomy. But it’s hyperbolic to call incidents of unwanted vaginal exams or artificial rupture of the membranes “rape.” It does an injustice to victims of actual rape by conflating two different phenomena, thus watering down the meaning of “rape.” It’s not as bad as the trivialization that goes along with saying, “Man, that test really raped me,” but both uses are on a continuum, because they’re both metaphorical, not literal.

I realize that proponents of the term say that a speculum is no different than a penis. Here’s how Amity Reed expressed it at the F Word:

A woman who is raped while giving birth does not experience the assault in a way that fits neatly within the typical definitions we hold true in civilised society. A penis is usually nowhere to be found in the story and the perpetrator may not even possess one. But fingers, hands, suction cups, forceps, needles and scissors… these are the tools of birth rape and they are wielded with as much force and as little consent as if a stranger grabbed a passer-by off the street and tied her up before having his way with her. Women are slapped, told to shut up, stop making noise and a nuisance of themselves, that they deserve this, that they shouldn’t have opened their legs nine months ago if they didn’t want to open them now. They are threatened, intimidated and bullied into submitting to procedures they do not need and interventions they do not want. Some are physically restrained from moving, their legs held open or their stomachs pushed on.

These things happened commonly in the past, and they still occur today. A commenter at Salon wrote:

Once, while still a nursing student, I heard a nursing supervisor inform a screaming patient in labor – “maybe you should have yelled like that 9 months ago and you wouldnt be here”. Later, during my own labors, I remembered her remark and it made me smile.

She smiled? Boy, I’m glad she didn’t attend one of my births. And it gets worse. A self-identified midwife commented at Salon:

The quickest example I can come up with is the time a doula friend of mine heard the OB say while a VBAC mom was pushing (pretty much under his breath, I don’t even think the mom heard this): “It’s the LEAST you can do for your VBAC” and he put one end of the scissors in her vagina and one in her anus and cut her a 4th degree episiotomy. No fetal distress, no reason beyond what I guess was his irritation at not just doing a repeat cesarean?

(Her whole comment was terrific, if you can stand to wade through the morass of misogyny that is Salon’s comment section.)

Stories like these are appalling. I feel sick and angry when I read them.

And yet, this is not rape. There’s nothing sexual about it, even though the assault is perpetrated on a woman’s genitals.

Let’s take a look at the legal definition of “rape.” It requires, as Amanda Marcotte points out, intent to violate someone sexually against her will. This is what the law calls “mens rea,” or awareness that one is committing a crime. If a prosecutor fails to demonstrate mens rea in a rape case, it’s still possible to convict on a lesser count of sexual assault (e.g., gross sexual imposition). “Rape,” however, is off the table.

The intent of this OB was to hurry the birth along. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he was also high on his own power, getting off on his dominance. But he wasn’t getting off sexually. Nor was he intending to commit a sexual act. What he perpetrated was neither rape nor a lesser form of sexual assault.

“Birth rape” is not just an exaggeration, though. It also does not say enough. It fails to specify what makes such violations of autonomy in labor reprehensible in their own awful way. First, doctors and nurses enjoy a high degree of trust. The minority of them who break our trust deserve contempt. Similarly, the discourse on medical ethics has been hammering on the importance of informed consent for the past few decades. We rightly expect medical professionals to have internalized this. Most of all, a woman in labor is extremely vulnerable. I don’t know of any situation where I’ve felt comparably exposed, defenseless, and liminal. To receive abuse from the very person charged with expecting you and your child has got to leave emotional scars.

What should we call these violations, then, if not “rape”? Well, “medical battery” works for me. (“Medical assault” would be more satisfying because of the parallel to “sexual assault,” but legally the correct category, as far as I understand, is battery, not assault.) I would also distinguish between situations where real bodily harm is perpetrated, as opposed to assholish behavior such as slut-shaming women in labor, and also as opposed to neglect of informed consent, such as I experienced. (I’m not speaking here of outright malpractice, though some cases of abuse may also constitute malpractice too.)

Medical battery in childbirth ought to be treated as a criminal offense. That’s not a stretch, legally. For instance, except in an emergency, a physician who performs surgery against the patient’s will is guilty of battery, and is subject to both criminal and civil law. Even failure to obtain informed consent is already subject to criminal penalties. In cases of assholish behavior or flawed consent (as in my own experience), medical professionals should be sanctioned by their peers. In those cases where professionals protect their own and refuse to discipline offenders, patients should go public with their stories.

The law already supports a woman’s right to autonomy in labor, just like it does for any other patient. Actually enforcing that right in court is tricky. Doctors may argue that they were forced to act due to an emergency. Proving otherwise may be difficult. But just the awareness that medical battery carries penalties could work as a deterrent to battery and lesser forms of abuse. In addition, it might serve as a counterweight to the pressure OBs often feel to take action – any action, even if it’s not supported by evidence – to avoid a later malpractice suit.

To avoid failures of informed consent, obstetrical doctors and nurses could do much more to enlighten expectant mothers on possible interventions, their justifications, and their risks. I would have been better off if I’d been provided any information on the risks of vacuum extraction. I knew a lot about forceps because they were used in the period of history I study. Vacuum extractors are newer, and so I was flying blind, even though I was an exceptionally well-educated parturient. I didn’t even know that vacuum extraction carries a significant risk of damage to the baby’s brachial nerves. Most women would’ve known less. This is just not necessary in childbirth, where there’s usually nine months to prepare and become truly informed. And yet, neither doctors nor nurses nor midwives nor childbirth educators are really preparing the women whose bodies and children are at stake.

I don’t imagine that these potential solutions would be a panacea. I do think, though, that they’re closer to the mark than the tactics that a notion of “birth rape” would suggest.

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My last post is a whole week ago, marking my kids’ back to school daze. Maybe I had to get back to school, too, before I could feel energized about blogging again? My classes started yesterday, and I think I’ve got a great crop of students this term. I’m not yet sure they’ve got a great instructor. I nearly left my notes, handouts, and class roster at home this morning! My brain is mired somewhere around August 25th – jubilant to have a moment to think without hearing “Mama, Mama,” yet unencumbered by responsibility. Ha! Responsibility? That rump brain of mine had better catch up, stat.

Anyway. I taught my first Feminist Theory class today, and the students were an absolute joy – already engaged and passionate before I did anything to ignite them. They also show indications of thinking hard and deep, and while that’s just what I’d expect, it means I’d better get with the program! I asked them to introduce themselves by going around the room and describing what brought them to feminism/gender studies, and what most stuck with them from their coursework so far. Next thing you knew, we were in the midst of an old-tyme consciousness-raising session. After the break we got back to more detached theorizing, but our mini-CR session turned into a spirited ice-breaker.

All hell broke loose when a student I know well from a previous class described her frustrations: “I just feel so angry and bitter.” The class erupted in nods and yeses and “me toos.” By that point, several students had disclosed or hinted at some difficult personal situations: assault, family violence, and the like. Even more had described becoming aware of the little, everyday things that made them feel diminished because they were female-bodied.

Their response set me thinking about anger, and bitterness, and what’s politically useful, and what’s personally poisonous.

I see a big gulf between anger and bitterness. Both are legitimate emotions, and both may need to be expressed so that we can master them before they master us. But bitterness? It’s paralytic. Bitterness springs from hopelessness and despair. Bitterness rests on the assumption – or fear – that nothing can ever really improve. Bitterness consigns us to passivity and fatalism.

Anger, on the other hand, calls us to action. That only works if we can imagine strategies and tactics that will lead us toward a better world, which is easier said than done. Anger, too, can become toxic, especially if we direct it inward rather than outward, or if we keep it bottled up, or if we hallucinate that any and every expression of anger is productive. Sometimes, anger is just stupid and hurtful. But at least it doesn’t pin us down like captive butterflies. If we combine it with analysis, it can give us the energy to make the world incrementally better.

I don’t have all the answers. This is what I said to my students: When you’re feeling frustrated and hopeless, know that in time, you’ll observe how change occurs, even if it’s glacial. The signal issue that has changed during my adulthood is marriage equality. It wasn’t even on the map in the early 1980s, when I was the age of my students. Now it’s a no-brainer even among many conservative and/or fundamentalist students.

Basically, I launched into a far less eloquent version of Martin Luther King’s famous statement: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Except my version of it featured my youthful anger at James Bond movies, complete with steam puffing out my ears (for some reason, my students found that image hilarious), and I didn’t quite dare to offer them the promise of justice, someday. Instead, I held out the more modest promise that generational change would extinguish Neolithic ideas about gender.

I don’t have all the answers. I’ve merely lived roughly twice as long as my students. Which doesn’t stop them from being further and faster evolved than I: a whole bunch of them mentioned intersectionality and trans issues as dear to their hearts. I’m blown away by their casual use of the term “cis,” which no one even imagined publicly when I first explored gender issues in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Maybe I’m less caught up in anger and bitterness only because I’m old (in internet and cat years) and a natural slacker?

If you’ve got favorite tactics for turning anger – or even bitterness – into something positive, I’d love to hear about them.

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(From ICHC, where every day is Caturday, a holy day of rest.)

So yeah, that ought to be just how I feel. The kids started up a week ago. Except once the kids were in school, I got inspired to de-grungify the basement, one of several sites of permamess in my house. Seriously, the EPA ought to extend its Superfund program to cover domestic permamesses. At the very least, I’m lobbying for a gas mask fitted with a top-notch HEPA filter.

What I thought was allergies from the basement turned into a distinct bug – and not one of the creepy crawlies that calls our basement home. It seems to be a wretched virus. The hallmarks of this dread disease: bone-deep aches, a ferocious sore throat, and vats of self-pity. No fever, so I’m inclined to rule out strep or flu. It could be worse: A friend of mine, hit by the same villainous germ, has comprehensive exams over the weekend for her doctoral degree in civil engineering. Oy. Join me in wishing her a quick bounceback.

As for me, when I’m not wallowing in self-pity (did I mention my husband is on a business trip until mid-weekend?), I’m stunned at how part of the basement has been transfigured. (Only “part” because the rest harbors box upon box of old baby and toddler stuff destined for a rummage sale and then ReUse Industries, our local indie thrift stores/charity.) It turns out you don’t have to eliminate every last hairy centipeds. Just vacuum up the obviously dead insects, and the basement no longer looks like a vault for the undead. We had house guests last night, and they were not repulsed by the basement. They were brave enough to sleep there. I even went barefoot down below without any obvious skin eruptions. (Yet.)

Tomorrow, I’d like to do the cat thing and aim for 14 to 16 hours of sleep. instead, I’ve got full schedule of apppointments. My plan is to guzzle Mountain Dew in hopes of finishing my syllabi (so close to done!) and maybe even writing a substantive blog post in between my other commitments. If I can’t fire up, though, you’ll know it’s not for want of trying. There just might not be enough Yellow Dye no. 6 in the world supply of Dew to revivify me.

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