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Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

This blog has been silent too long. I’ve had some health issues affecting my hands; maybe I’ll write about them eventually, but for now let’s just say I’ve recovered enough to tentatively revive this blog, though probably on a low scale.

It’s Caturday; and since the Kittywampus hiatus coincided with an issue that put the word “pussy” in the mouths of the journo-commentariat (they’re still trying to spit out the furballs), it seems only fitting for this blog to support those three brave Russian feminists who are now serving a jail term for questioning the rottenness of their state.

Sure, we’ve got our own rottenness here in the U.S., too. When was the last time the pundits or politicians spared a thought for Bradley Manning? Why do I find far more Canadian sources than U.S. ones on this week’s deportation of war resister Kimberly Rivera from Canada and her arrest at the Canadian border? How can the Obama Administration possibly justify its defense of the NDAA?

But see, it’s not a question of ignoring abuses of the rule of law at home while highlighting abuses abroad. We can deplore the state-sanctioned violence against Manning even as we condemn Russia’s sentencing of Pussy Riot for being loud and insulting in a cathedral (their real crime was criticizing the state).

At the New York Times, Vadim Nikitin wrote last month that Western supporters are simply jumping on a bandwagon, merely [u]sing dissidents to score political points against the Russian regime.” This is too facile. The Russian regime is profoundly anti-democratic. It deserves to have points scored against it. While I respect his point that using dissidents as pawns is a game that goes back to the good ole Cold War days – and thus ought to come under scrutiny – the fact is, Putin is gutting what remains of Russia’s fragile democracy.

Nikitin also joins a number of North American feminists in decrying some of Pussy Riot’s most overtly offensive stunts – in particular, those involving public sex. I will gladly concede that I do not see the political or artistic merit or utility of such stunts, while I definitely do see how they would just reinforce the objectification of women to most casual observes.

But none of these caveats present a roadblock to supporting Pussy Riot, and Nikitin insistence that they’re dealbreakers strikes me as disingenuous:

You can’t have the fun, pro-democracy, anti-Putin feminism without the incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics. … Because what Pussy Riot wants is something that is equally terrifying, provocative and threatening to the established order in both Russia and the West (and has been from time immemorial): freedom from patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system. We should only support these brave women if we, too, are brave enough to go all the way.

Actually, even though I’m not a hard-core anti-capitalist, the Pussy Riot program all sounds pretty good to me. But Nikitin creates a false dilemma. You most certainly can support Pussy Riot in their moment of persecution without agreeing with all of their stances or tactics. We do this all the time, as when we defend the right to freedom of expression for people whose speech we find abhorrent.

The three band members made eloquent closing statements at their trial, showing that they understood, deeply, that this wasn’t a case about punk music constituting blasphemy. The stakes were nothing less than authoritarianism, human rights, freedom of artistica and political expression, and the state manipulation of media. Pussy Riot knows this. We too should recognize it – and dwell upon the ways in which the U.S. government, too, is systematically eroding liberties and making martyrs of dissidents. The rule of law hangs in the balance, not just the freedom of three young women, and not just in Russia either.

And so, by the great power invested in my by this blog, I hereby declare today Anti-Authoritarian Caturday.

Authoritarian kitteh courtesy of Cheezburger.

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Well, I don’t know if she’s truly the best, since by definition I’m unfamiliar with the other composers I’ve never heard of. But Marion Bauer is pretty amazing, and it’s a damn shame she’s nearly forgotten. This post is my little contribution to publicizing a piece of newly recovered music history.

I encountered Marion Bauer via one of my students, who discovered Bauer through her research. She went on to rewrite the Wikipedia entry on her, which had previously been a mere stub. (If Wikipedia’s articles were always this good, no one would ever disparage it.) In short, Bauer made a life for herself through composing and teaching music at a time when women were absolute outsiders.

My student also featured Bauer’s work at her senior recital. She had to seek out the sheet music through interlibrary loan, since it’s out of print. Recordings of Bauer’s music remain scarce, so these YouTube clips of her “Fantasia quasi una Sonata” (Opus 18) are a step toward restoring Bauer to history. Plus, I thought my student and her accompanist presented a stirring performance. Put on your headphones and enjoy!

I. Moderato romantico

II. Ben ritmico e vivace

III. Lento espressivo-allegro con moto

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In my previous post, I promised I’d deal with feminist ethical objections to delving into the veracity of Palin’s claimed pregnancy with Trig. Is it illegitimate to ask questions about a candidate’s reproductive history? Are we invading Palin’s privacy, down to her very uterus?

The arguments for backing off from the tale of Palin, Trig, and her alleged Wild Ride fall into two main categories. (Let me know if you can think of others.)

1) Palin and especially her children deserve at least a modicum of privacy.

2) It’s always anti-feminist to second-guess women’s choices in childbearing and mothering.

On 1) privacy: As I mentioned in my last post, it’s standard operating procedure for presidential and veep candidates to disclose their medical records. While I would object strenuously to laws and policies that demanded the same of grocery clerks and accountants and locksmiths and (yes) college professors, the presidency isn’t just any job. There’s a reasonable case to be made for the citizenry knowing whether a candidate has a condition that might render her or him incapable of serving or exercising good judgment. We should have known, for instance, that Ronald Reagan was experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

We expect this disclosure of all candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency. Why should Palin get a pass? Why should her records remain private? Is it justifiable simply because she has a uterus? That would be sexist in its own twisted way, wouldn’t it – throwing us back to the days when ladyparts were still “unmentionables”?

Now it’s rather late to demand medical records be released, since Palin is no longer a candidate. But I think it’s still fair to say that Palin would have set the record straight on Trig’s birth, one way or another, had she only behaved like other candidates back in October 2008. Instead, she substituted secrecy for transparency (which didn’t surprise many Alaskans). She was nominated without any real vetting by McCain’s people, and they built an opaque wall between her and the press. She guarded her secrets while piling up lies. It’s not surprising that quite apart from Trig’s birth, the contents of her medical records would become subject to speculation.

Concern for the privacy of the Palins’ minor children (which included Bristol in 2008) is a legitimate and noble cause, one that I’ve consistently espoused. Let’s be clear: None of the brouhaha around Trig’s birth is actually about Trig. It’s about Sarah Palin.

The Palin children’s privacy has been breached, all right, but this has been almost entirely Sarah Palin’s own doing, apart from Bristol’s own self-promotion as a (*cough*) abstinence advocate. Who chose to use Trig as a political prop? Who decided to out Bristol’s pregnancy to the world instead of directly laying to rest the rumors about Trig’s birth? (Let us be clear: Bristol’s pregnancy in fall 2008 did not prove Sarah gave birth to Trig; it only made Bristol an unlikely mother to Trig unless he had actually been born earlier in the winter of 2008.) Who carried on a public feud with Levi Johnston’s family (which ultimately involved Palin’s grandson Tripp)? Who signed her family up for a reality TV show?

Mind you, I disapprove of the Gosselins and Duggars, too, for televising their children’s childhood. It’s just that none of them are running for president.

On point 2) – reproductive choice and trusting women – Melissa McEwan writes:

Birtherism, in which both conservatives and liberals are engaging, is a terrible and intrinsically misogynist game to play, entirely dependent on a belief that policing women’s bodies and reproduction is an acceptable recreation.

Actually, what’s going on here is not policing Sarah Palin’s body. What’s truly at stake is not what or who came out of her uterus. It’s what came out of her mouth. It’s her self-contradicting statements and outright lies.

McEwan tosses out a straw man when she says mockingly that the only acceptable evidence for “Trig birthers” would be video of Trig emerging from Palin’s vagina. Of course that’s silly. On the other hand, medical records showing that Palin truly was pregnant, underwent amnio, and gave birth when she claimed – well, that would be pretty darn conclusive. The unreasonable few would continue to hatch conspiracy theories. The rest of us – people like me and Litbrit – would say great; case closed; let’s carrying on dissecting why Palin, Bachmann, Trump, Santorum, and Co. are a danger to the United States. Andrew Sullivan would back off it too and devote himself more fully to his irrational quest for fiscal austerity. (Hmm, that’s one good argument for keeping the mystery of the Wild Ride alive.)

As I’ve written before, if Palin’s account of the wild ride is true, it displays epically poor judgment. By her own account, she board not one but two long flights after her water broke, without even stopping for a check-up before she left Dallas.

The party-line feminist response is: trust women. And I agree, we have to do that. Generally, women are trustworthy. That presumption underlies any pro-choice position on reproductive rights.

But what happens when a woman (or a man!) is reckless? What happens if a mother (or father!) makes egregious choices? Are we obligated to suspend judgment?

The consensus at both Shakesville and Feministe is that you turn in your official Feminist card as soon as you question the wisdom of anyone’s parenting or reproductive choices, no matter how irresponsible they may be.

Really?

To take a more extreme case, do I have to agree that it’s hunky-dory for a woman addicted to heroin and meth to have one baby after another, only to have them taken by Child Protective Services? As a matter of fact, I think it’s a pretty terrible situation. What makes me pro-choice is that I don’t want that hypothetical – but all-too-real – woman to be thrown into jail (as South Carolina has done, repeatedly, with pregnant women of color who are addicts). I don’t want her to be forced or coerced into Depo-Provera shots or Norplant. I do want the people who provide her prenatal and birth care (assuming she gets any) to compassionately counsel her about treatment programs. I want drug treatment programs to be abundant and free, so that no barriers prevent pregnant women from using them – unlike the many programs that have historically refused to admit expectant mothers! I want her caregivers to kindly and non-coercively explain her birth control options, including the potential benefits of long-term contraceptive methods (both the IUD and hormonal methods). I want her to have free access to birth control. If her children must be placed for adoption, open adoption should be the default unless there are very compelling grounds to separate the children from their birth mother.

That is a pro-choice position. I do see a need to exercise judgment. I do assert that childbearing while in the grips of an addition is a Bad Idea. Abandoning judgment, in such cases, would be abandoning responsibility. What makes this position pro-choice isn’t a refusal to judge; it’s rejecting punitive and coercive measures.

Now, Sarah Palin obviously is not comparable to a poor drug addict (unless you want to call power an addiction). Palin lives in a realm of privilege that insulates her kids, to some degree. CPS is not about to seize them even if she and Todd serve them Lucky Charms with crystal meth sprinkles for breakfast.

But the basic question still stands: Must feminists withhold judgment when a woman – or man! – makes reproductive or parenting decisions that are grossly unwise? Does it make us anti-choice to say that even though a woman has the legal right to implant eight embryos into her womb, it’s nonetheless an über-crappy decision? Does it make us anti-choice to say that medical evidence unequivocally shows that smoking is worse than crack for a developing fetus, and so every effort must be made to help expectant parents (not just mothers!) stop smoking?

And is it really anti-choice to say that Palin’s decision to fly home after her water broke not only potentially endangered her and Trig, but also exposed the whole plane to the risks of an emergency landing? I’m not saying “There oughtta be a law,” just that it was a piss-poor decision.

Again, this is not policing Palin’s uterus. This is questioning what went on in her brain. And if she runs again for POTUS, her brain is the organ that ought to concern us.

The good mother/bad mother dichotomy is still used as a cudgel. It’s one that feminists should always regard with deep suspicion.

But sometimes, bad mothering – and importantly, bad parenting – is egregious. When it occurs in politicians who position themselves as paragons of family values, it’s reasonable to ask about their general judgment and scrutinize them for hypocrisy. So while I regard it as out-of-bounds to criticize Todd and Sarah Palin for the fact that Bristol became pregnant, I do think it’s fair to criticize how they handled it in the national spotlight. When the Palins announced Bristol’s pregnancy instead of debunking the Trig rumors head-on, both parents threw their eldest daughter under the bus. (It was Sarah and her political who made that decision, but the First Dude was part of that inner circle and I’ll bet he could have vetoed it.) Similarly, it’s understandable that Sarah Palin would have kept her pregnancy quiet until late in the game. Most women who work for pay realize that they may be seen as less competent and committed once their pregnancy becomes public, and that goes doubly for female politician. What’s not reasonable is boarding a plane without any idea how imminent labor might be after leaking amniotic fluid.

If wanting politicians to exhibit sound judgment not just in public life but as private individuals – and yes, as parents – makes me an anti-feminist, so be it. Just let me know where I should turn in my F-card.

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I’ve got to disagree with Clarissa on this one: It’s not fair to equate pregnancy with a hangover (even if the nausea can be similarly overwhelming). Specifically, a student who misses class for pregnancy-related disability should not be treated the same as one who misses due to oversleeping or a hangover.

But let’s back up. Clarissa was responding to a post by The Feminist Breeder on prodromal labor, in which TFB also mentioned that she was feeling crappy enough in her 40th week of gestation that she just couldn’t hang with her college-degree program. Here’s the bit that set Clarissa off:

I have to keep going to class until I’m really in labor, and school is pretty far away.  My Tuesday class is a reasonable half hour away, but my Wednesday class is 90 minutes away in traffic.  If I started hard, active labor at school, I have no idea what I would do.  Also – get this – I left class early last Tuesday because I was so sick I couldn’t see straight, and my professor actually had the balls to dock me 20 out of 25 possible Participation points just because I had to leave.  Clearly she’ll be docking me ALL 25 Participation points for each class I miss while I’m doing a silly little thing like trying to have a baby, so I cannot take off a single extra day other than what is absolutely necessary.  (And yes, I am SOOO writing a letter about that.)

Now, I think jumping straight to a letter to college administrators, rather than trying so say, talk to her prof, is pouring gas on the flames. If a student has a beef – especially an adult student like TBF who’s got the cojones and verbal skills – she should first talk to the the instructor, preferably when she doesn’t feel on the verge of hurling. Personally, I would be much more receptive to a conversation than a formal complaint. Going slow offers a chance to preserve the student-teacher relationship as a collaborative one. Going directly to the administration strikes most teachers as an act of aggression (which is why I’ve never done that to my kids’ teachers, even when it might have been warranted). Often, too, the instructor will cool down and reassess a rash decision, opening the gate to a reasonable compromise. If not, there’s still time to write a scathing letter, though I suspect TBF, who could very well be in labor as I write this, felt the hourglass was empty (prodromal labor has a way of remininding one of the clock). And so I understand perfectly why she might skip negotiating and just lodge a formal complaint.

That said, I just can’t sign on to Clarissa’s reaction:

There is no doubt in my mind that her pregnancy is very special to this woman. It must also be very special to her relatives and friends. For strangers, however, of which her professor is one, it is neither more nor less special than another student’s hangover. Both the pregnancy and the hangover are the results of the choices these students made as adults. In my capacity as an educator, I don’t think it’s my place to judge whose choices are more legitimate and deserve of greater consideration. All I need to know is that the student wasn’t there and, as a result, didn’t manage to participate.

This is a false conception of “fairness.” As my friend Moonglow (who just happens to be the mother of a brand-new daughter, yippee!!!) told me today: “I never promise my kids that I’ll treat them all equally. But I do commit to treating them all fairly. That means knowing what each of them needs and when they need it.” (And if I misquoted you, my dear, please blame it on the delectable distraction of brie with fig jam.)

Much the same goes for my students. Last spring, a student of mine landed in the ER with appendicitis and only appeared two weeks later (full documentation in hand). I’ve had multiple students felled by mono, over the years. I’ve had students come to me with serious mental health issues (sometimes exacerbated by the portion of my syllabus dealing with sexual violence). I’ve had students totter to class on crutches due to slippery messes in the dorms. I’ve had students with arms in casts due to (ahem) barroom brawls.

I am not happy about the last category of problem – injuries that result from drunken stupidity – but I am grateful for those students’ frankness. And once a student acquires a disability, don’t I have an obligation – both human and feminist – to accommodate it? Would I not be a monster to mark down a student on participation just because his appendix tried to kill him? How could I live with myself if a student went into a spiral of depression, and I exacerbated it with rigid expectations of attending every single class meeting?

Last year, I had a graduate student announce to me that she was likely to give birth within the next couple of weeks. I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t even noticed she was pregnant, only that she’d put on a few pounds. (That alone should’ve given me pause, because I tend not to notice even major changes in people’s shapes. I’m obtuse that way.) The very next class meeting, she was absent, because she’d just come through labor. A week later, she showed up for class, her iPhone brimming with baby pictures. She worked very hard not to let her pregnancy interfere with her coursework, but I certainly could have found ways to accommodate her if she’d asked for more time off.

There’s an easy, pragmatic, fair solution to most of these situations. Exempt the student from work missed (as long as it’s not a major project) and weight the rest of their grade more heavily. This little trick works as well for a pregnant student as for anyone else struck by unexpected disability. The student does pay a small price, in that there’s more pressure on the rest of their work and less opportunity to dilute a crummy grade. But it’s a fair price that makes allowances for the fallibility and vulnerability of our flesh. However much a university might pretend that we’re all disembodied brains, in the end those brains still rely pretty heavily on their whole-body support systems.

I guess I’m a bit of a feminist-Marxist on these issues: from each according to hir ability, to each according to hir needs. That doesn’t mean abandoning all standards. It simply means realizing that life intervenes. Death intervenes. And all kinds of other shit – good, bad, and ugly – intervenes, too. Students are whole people, often needy people, coping with lives more complicated than we instructors often know. They cannot be reduced to their throbbing-in-a-petri-dish brains (or pickled-in-a-game-of-beer-pong brains, either).

This isn’t a matter of trusting my students. (Mostly they deserve my trust; sometimes they prove that they don’t.) It’s a matter of trusting my own judgment. I trust myself to distinguish between the student who couldn’t turn in her final paper on time due to strep and the one who added my class late, then fell asleep in the back row after a mere three minutes! Hey, at least he zonked out so fast I couldn’t take it personally; there was no time for me to bore him to sleep.

This is also an arena where I have to live true to my principles. Any feminist ought to be committed to disability rights. Heck, even Sarah Palin (a nightmare feminist, but a feminist nonetheless, in my book) at least pays lip service to disability rights. You cannot honor human rights without acknowledging that most of us, if we live long enough, will eventually live with a disability. You cannot work toward gender justice but then insist it’s only for those of completely able bodies and minds. What does that mean for me, practically speaking? If a student is struggling to achieve with a disability – of any sort, be it a physical, mental-health, or learning-style condition – it’s my job as an educator, feminist, and mensch to help them perform at their peak, on as level a playing field as I can cobble together.

But hey – isn’t pregnancy a natural, healthy condition? Well, for all the work that women’s health educators, natural childbirth advocates, and feminist historians have done to unseat the idea that pregnancy = disability, we do childbearing women an awful disservice if we insist that pregnancy never spawns disability. Most of us suffer at least debilitating fatigue. Most of us have stories about how we nearly ralphed at work. My students from fall 2002 and winter 2003 – when I was gestating the Tiger – can consider themselves lucky that I maintained a barf-free classroom. And I got off easy, compared to my friends who landed in the hospital, hitched to an IV, after weeks of incessant vomiting.

If you care about women, you must care about mothers, and thus you must be willing to honor pregnancy-related disability as real disability. And yes, pregnancy usually results from a planned, voluntary choice, these days, but not always; women still find themselves pregnant against their will, and they still sometimes decide to carry out a surprise pregnancy, even with the option to terminate. Anyway: Should I only make allowances for students’ injuries if they can prove that, say, the other guy started the fight, or the other driver broke the law? And do I really want to start interrogating a pregnant student about why she and her partner didn’t both get sterilized before they ever had sex (after all, every other contraceptive is fallible), or why she didn’t terminate the pregnanacy early on? That way lies fascism.

To be crystal clear – and fair! – Clarissa doesn’t advocate bare-bulb interrogations. She instead argues that one should never cut students slack when their free will contributed to their inability to participate; that a class missed due to a hangover is no different than one missed due to pregnancy symptoms, because in both cases, “choice” was involved. I trust Clarissa enough to believe her when she says she’s a good teacher – and actually, I trust that in a few more years, because she’s smart and tuned in to her students, she may very well trust herself to draw finer-grained judgments, which just might put the pregnant students in a different category from the hardcore imbibers.

But this other extreme – harshly penalizing pregnant women for making a “lifestyle choice” that most couples eventually make (but predominantly women  pay for) – sets feminism back a couple of generations. It tells women, “It’s fine if you want to compete with the men – as long as you’re just like the men!” Didn’t we leave that trap behind us in the ’80s, along with big hair, shoulder pads, and Tears for Fears?

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This week I’m reading Michelle Goldberg’s masterful The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World with one of my classes. In it, Goldberg traces the history of foreign aid for women’s health – especially reproductive health – from its Cold War, Rockefeller/Ford/Guttmacher beginnings to the present era.

In 2011, well into the second decade after the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, you’d think we’d be well along the path blazed there: foregrounding women’s need for education and autonomy. Nuh-unh!! Instead, the proponents of women’s reproductive autonomy in developing nations and the Global South face constant friction and opposition from groups funded by the Radical Christian Right in the U.S. This trajectory toward radical rightwing interference is lucidly, chillingly described in Goldberg’s book. It’s as though women’s bodies became a proxy war for the tensions over reproductive rights and justice back here in the U.S.

And now, with the House of Representatives today voting to defund Title X funding, that proxy war has come home. For details, see excellent recaps by Lindsay Beyerstein and Jill Filipovic. The legislation wouldn’t affect abortions – except to inflate their numbers by making birth control less accessible to poor women and young women. No, the target here is broader. It’s a war against all women, but especially those who are poor.

When I was young and underinsured, I too turned to Planned Parenthood, and I’m forever grateful for their services. Some women are transiently poor, like I was. Many struggle with poverty throughout their childbearing years. All of us deserve affordable access to basic services like a Pap test.

I believe this even though – or especially because! – I had a few dodgy Pap test results in my early twenties. Those diagnoses of “cervical dysplasia” scared me. Cone biopsies were threatened. The cellular abnormalities resolved on their own, as HPV usually does. Had I progressed toward cervical cancer, Planned Parenthood might well have saved my life.

All women deserve preventive care, and that includes the prevention of pregnancy. This is sooo not rocket science.

Odds are good that the Senate won’t stand for the House’s crap. Still, I’m appalled that a majority in the House signed onto it. While some members may try to hide behind a figleaf of fiscal responsibility, that’s balderdash, as Amanda Marcotte argues:

Of course, rhetoric that attacks federal funding for contraception as a state-subsidy for promiscuity obscures the fact that continuing Title X is one of the more fiscally sound things the government can do: Research from the Guttmacher Institute demonstrates that every dollar spent on family planning saves the government four dollars down the road.

(Read her whole piece – it’s excellent.)

No, this is strictly culture war ammo, just as the Mexico City rule and all the other right-wing meddling into brown and black women’s bodies has to do with ideology and misogyny – not fiscal soundness.

This is merely the continuation of funding politics imposed on the “Third World” – now aimed at women that Chandra Mohanty once called the “Third World” in the United States. This is the redirection of contempt for brown and black women’s bodies to those women living within U.S. borders. Women like me – white, securely middle-class, employed, insured, and slouching toward the end of my reproductive years – will be just fine. It’s poor women of color who will suffer. College students who can’t tell their conservative parents that they’re on the pill. Appalachian women lacking any form of health insurance.

Senate? The ball’s in your court. Please show us that you consider women human beings whose health is as important as men’s – who should have a chance to participate fully in society – and who should not be written off if they lack racial or class privilege.

In the clip below, Michelle Goldberg suggests that the U.S. culture wars have affected women outside the U.S. more profoundly than women here at home. Up until now, she’s been right. As to the future? Well, that might just be up to the Senate.

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Henceforth, Kittywampus is banning all dudely commenters. Exceptions will be made if you bathe regularly, did not serve in the Boer War, have never called me a twat, and have never insulted the patron cat of this blog, Grey Kitty. Oh, and if you’re that dude who created Hufu, you got banned months ago. (That asshole – one of the AutoAdmit crowed – broke all the above: he abused my dear departed cat, reviled me as “dozy bint,” and called me a cunt. Given his predilection for war zones, he no doubt regrets missing the Boer War and bathes infrequently. He was a gleeful racist too. He has not been missed.)

All joking aside, Twisty Faster really has banned male commenters from her blog, I Blame the Patriarchy. Unless they’re already trusted dudes; then they’re grandfathered in. Or unless they don’t actually identify themselves as dudes; then they can try to sneak in. Reaction in feminist blogdonia has been partly supportive (Jill at Feministe and figleaf) and partly scathing (Clarissa).

I get that Twisty has every right to restrict commenting as much as she’d like on her blog. She already does anyway. I don’t regularly read Twisty because even though her writing is often amusing, her actual ideas are usually predictable once you’ve read a couple dozen of her posts. Also, the comments tend to be an echo chamber. I am quickly bored by any discussion where the first commandment is to police oneself. But hey – her blog, her rules. And while I don’t want to stray into all the pros and cons of same-sex spaces, there are times when a rather homogenous group can make headway on shared issues, and when a same-sex grouping can be productive as a temporary, tactical measure (with the caveat that each person gets to identify his/her/hir sex and gender, rather than having it imposed by fiat).

But it’s not just Twisty who nurtures some hope of creating a safe space – on the Internet? First, that’s just incoherent, because, well, it’s the fucking Internet! This is like expecting privacy while standing in front of the White House, naked except for a feather boa. The Internet just doesn’t do “safe.” (Ask any parent who’s installed NannyNet.)

Best case, the blog owner corralls hateful comments out of the comments section. But believe me, the blog owner will see the bile, and comments will never be a safe space for her or him! Contrary to Sady Doyle’s view, anti-feminist vitriol is not a special treat reserved for the “popular” feminist blogs. We little blogs get it, too, and while it may be less copious, it’s still ugly. It’s enough to be blogging while feminist. Perhaps on a private blog, you could create some sense of safety. But even then, you’d be wise to keep in mind that “safety” is not synonymous with self-censorship.

A “safe space” has some kinship what I try to foster in the classroom (though there’s always a power differential, always the knowledge that students’ work will be graded, which limits how “safe” they can – or should – feel.) There, “safety” has to do with the basic regard for the humanity of the other discussants. You can embrace norms in a small, defined group that actually facilitate conversation because people feel relatively safe and free. This works better when people can look into each others’ eyes, not so well when the community is wholly virtual and can more easily ignore the humanity of their counterpart. It cracks and crashes as soon as a participant expresses a hateful -ism, uses PC-ness to shame rather than educate, or gossips cruelly about a personal revelation. In my experience, “safety” is relative, often fragile and transient, sometimes deceptive, and generally not dependent on group homogeneity.

Which raises a crucial question: safe for whom? The comments on Twisty’s original dude-banning post troll the waters of transphobia and transmisogyny; on the follow-up, where Twisty affirms that trans folk are welcome (at least until the revolution, after which they’ll fade away), the comments jump right into the deep end of the pool. I am not going to sully my own space with direct quotes, but here’s the gist: commenters compare transness to pedophilia, call “cisprivilege” BS, declare all trans people “nuts,” and deny trans people’s experience – all in the name of radical feminism. At one point Twisty tells people to cut it out, but then Delphyne shows up and the party really gets started, with slams at the third wave, funfems, and sex workers.

By the time the fun’s over, the thread looks like the verbal equivalent of a frat party the morning after, complete with broken bottles and barf in the corner. Commenter yttik sums it up succinctly:

I kid you not, some of the worst patriarchal crap always winds up on this blog, just dripping it’s woman hatred all over the place. This is how women apparently define other women. No wonder we’re screwed.

just a bunch of cum-guzzling pole dancers
nothing but walking uteri and tits
third wave moron bandwagon
fucking dumb
a bunch of old, white, rich, racist women
a fuckhole
a party to human rights violations
white ass (American) women
backstabbing dykes
profoundly stupid and ignorant
step over the cold dead bodies of fucking white ass women-born-women feminists

Yttik is quoting from the other comments; those weren’t terms she personally used, and significantly, some were phrases commenters used to characterize their rhetorical opponents (sometimes fairly, sometimes not). The bile came from all directions, not just the anti-trans faction. But notice a pattern? The shouting match moved from transmisogyny to plain old-fashioned misogyny without skipping a beat.

And it managed all that without a single unauthorized dude in the house!

Twisty does have an actual dude problem, but it’s of a different order than the crap I got from Mr. Hufu. (Which I’m sure she sees by the buckets in her comment moderation queue and deletes on sight.) Twisty attracts men who want to please her, and so they engage in this fascinating yet repellent dance of “I’m so enlightened that I must verbally self-flagellate before your royal Twistyness so that I can become even more enlightened.” At a minimum, they ape her writing mannerisms. They may self-identify as a Nigel – Twisty’s one-size-fits-all name for dudes – and they decry douchiness even as they smarmily demonstrate it. Oh, just go read her example. It really is pretty funny. These guys aren’t standard-issue anti-feminist trolls. They’re not concern trolls. They’re … well, Twisty trolls, her own troll species. They are mutants. And I could see why she’d show them the door.

While she’s at it, maybe she could usher out a few transphobic self-described “radical” feminists, too?

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Most of the students I teach, I never hear from after the final exam. The exceptions are almost always utter delights – the folks who sincerely took interest, who liked to learn, who were kind and thoughtful and real. Every once in a while one will re-emerge from the ghostly wisps of the past, reminding us that our work isn’t ephemeral, even if it usually feels that way.

Two former students resurfaced this weekend. One, whom I taught in 2007, wrote me for a reference – no, not a recommendation letter, but the title of an essay! A piece she’d remembered and wanted to reread! Turns out she’s well on her way to a Ph.D. in psychology. She tells me my class made a lasting difference in how she views the world. Judging from her request, she’s got an abiding interest in sexual assault. I hope she’ll be able to marry that with her psych skills. She says she’s developed an abiding “passion” for women’s issues. Words like “powerful” and “inspirational” were bandied about. Let’s just say I’m the one who felt most energized and inspired.

The other ex-student was more of a monster rising up from the deep. [Edit: That comes across as unduly harsh: The ideas she espouses are the monster, not the ex-student herself.] Technically I’d never taught her; I’d only read her column in the school paper, marveling at its wingnuttery. I also listened to the venting of colleagues who had the dubious pleasure of teaching her in WGS and journalism. There, she was intermittently hostile to her feminist teachers and consistently too cool for school. I always thought her ambition was to become the next Ann Coulter.

Surprise! She’s publishing cheek-by-jowl next to Coulter at Town Hall! (Via Renee at Womanist Musings who braved the ooze of the far right – a far more intrepid gal than I.). Now that our young alumna is halfway to her goal, it’s fair to name names: Meet Ashley Herzog, recent Ohio University grad, proud denizen of wingnuttia, author of Feminists against Women. Oh, and she’s also making those lists of “top conservative women who are HAWT!!” (to which we owe the following photo).

In her latest post at Town Hall, Herzog takes aim at my university’s new gender-neutral housing option:

The idea that college life is so tough for gay and transgendered students that they need separate housing is preposterous. Far from being uniquely oppressed, the LGBT contingent is often the most catered-to of any group on campus. Administrators go to great lengths to satisfy these students while simultaneously nurturing a victimhood complex.

(Read the rest if you think it could possibly get better. I promise it won’t.)

Hahahaha! You’d think gender-neutral digs would feature jacuzzis, wall art by Robert Mapplethorpe and Judy Chicago, and surroundsound cycling through Liberace and Elton John, Holly Near and Bikini Kill.

No. Dude. It’s just a dorm room. In fact, said rooms won’t have any extra features. It will merely lack one simple furnishing that used to come standard: a roommate harboring homophobia and transphobia.

As for a “victimhood complex,” Herzog’s been nurturing her own for at least half a decade, spurred on by silly instructors who insisted she work for a grade. By now, her wounded victimhood is festering quite nicely. I’m sure she’s finding that what failed in the classroom will stand her in good stead at Town Hall. Ann Coulter, prepare to move over.

Me? I reserve the right to snark at Herzog in the future when she deserves it. (And she will, she will.) In the long run, I’m far more interested in what becomes of my smart, altruistic former students who don’t see self-promotion as their best quality.

Update 1-27-11, 4:30 p.m.: I want to make it crystal clear that I will never, ever mock students for statements they make in class. That is a zone of privacy, a safe place for exploring ideas, even (or especially!) half-baked ones. I will occasionally blog about interesting things they teach me, but I won’t publish their names. If a student places themselves in the public sphere by publishing views that are reprehensible, criticism is fair play. I still wouldn’t call him or her out for anything that happened in class. By the same token, I’ll link to any student who publishes something interesting, and I’ll do so with great pleasure. All of this goes for former students as well as current ones.

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This year’s Blog for Choice Day theme is to contemplate what the electoral gains of the anti-choicers will mean for “choice” this year. I’m sure other bloggers will ponder the damage liable to be wrought by our virulently anti-choice new Congress. For my part? I think most of the mischief will occur at the state level, where a new crop of reactionary leaders will exploit the abortion issue to pander to their base.

Take Ohio. (Please! Or at least, deliver me from our new “leadership.”) With John Kasich, we now have a blithering idiot as a governor. He’s so far right that if the earth were flat, he’d tumble off  its right edge. We have a completely Republican legislature. The anti-choicers are emboldened. And they’ve already made their first move.

Modernesquire at Plunderbund reports that one of our Democratic (!) legislators, Lorraine Fende, has introduced a bill that she and the media are framing as a ban on all late-term abortions. As Modernesquire notes, Ohio already has a law in place that prohibits “partial-birth abortions”: Ohio Revised Code 2919.151.

Modernesquire (who unlike me, is an actual lawyer) suggests that the late-term ban is redundant with ORC 2919.151, except in one crucial respect:

It potentially criminalizes all abortions.  H.B. 7 enacts a new section 2929.17 that makes the performance of any abortion in which the fetus is arguably “viable” a fourth-degree felony.  “Viable” is defined under the bill as:

“the stage of development of a human fetus at which in the determination of a physician, based on the particular facts of a woman’s pregnancy that are known to the physician and in light of medical technology and information reasonably available to the physician, there is a realistic possibility of the maintaining and nourishing of a life outside of the womb with or without temporary artificial life-sustaining support.”

The statute also creates a rebuttable presumption that any fetus at 24-weeks gestational age is viable.  But note that the statute does not create a converse rebuttable presumption that any fetus before 24-weeks ISN’T viable.  The bill declares the issue of the viability of the fetus to be an affirmative defense.  What does that mean?  It means that the State has no burden to proof that a fetus was viable to criminally prosecute a doctor under this provision, even in instances that don’t involve a late-term abortion.  Instead, the doctor has the burden at trial to convince a criminal jury unanimously that the fetus was not viable, or that the abortion was necessary to protect the life of the mother, or to protect from serious and irreversible impairment of the pregnant woman’s medical health.

If a doctor carries the burden of proof to show that the fetus was not viable, this bill would surely have a chilling effect. It would be still be pointless for a prosecutor to pursue first trimester abortions, but what’s to stop him from questioning the viability of a 20-week-old fetus? An 18-week-old fetus? Second-trimester abortions.

In criminal cases the burden typically falls on the state to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Here, the burden of proof is reversed in a stunning disregard for basic principles of jurisprudence. Modernesquire again:

Normally, affirmative defenses are things in the criminal law in which the law recognizes that the Defendant committed a crime, but holds that certain factors require the Defendant to not be held culpable for the crime such as insanity and self-defense.  In this instance, however, it takes what should be a major element for the State to have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt and forces the accused to prove the negative instead.  Such element shifting can only be by design to encourage prosecutions against any abortion provider.

Yes. Furthermore, this “element shifting” constructs second-trimester abortions as presumptively illegal. It essentially says that any abortion within the latter part of the second trimester is assumed to be a crime – unless proven otherwise.

With all due respect to Modernesquire’s legal smarts, I do notice a difference between the proposed bill (House Bill 7) and the existing law. They don’t appear to be entirely redundant, because existing law is limited to a single procedure (which it charmingly terms “feticide.”) ORC 2919.151 explicitly distinguishes between dilation and extraction (aka “partial-birth abortion”) and other techniques; it explicitly exempts dilation and evacuation, another late-term technique that is often an implicit target of restrictions on “partial-birth abortions”:

This section does not prohibit the suction curettage procedure of abortion, the suction aspiration procedure of abortion, or the dilation and evacuation procedure of abortion.

House Bill 7 is silent on these other procedures. It does not exempt any particular procedures. It appears to broaden the scope of the earlier “partial-birth” ban to any technique used in the second trimester – and even to those, like suction curettage, which are used only for early abortions!

Fende’s bill contains another little bombshell: it significantly narrows the health exemption for late-term abortions. Where the law previously included multiple sclerosis and diabetes as conditions that impose a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” and thus permit abortion late in pregnancy, now those two diseases are downgraded: they may be included among such conditions, but they’re clearly ranked lower than preeclampsia, which isn’t saddled with such a qualifier:

A medically diagnosed condition that constitutes a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” includes pre-eclampsia, inevitable abortion, and premature rupture of the membranes, may include, but is not limited to, diabetes and multiple sclerosis, and does not include a condition related to the woman’s mental health. [my emphasis]

In what appears to be a very substantial change, mental health would never qualify as a reason for late-term abortion. Where Fende invokes the image of a woman cavalierly choosing to abort at 8 1/2 months, my imagination conjures up a woman struggling with psychosis – a woman in acute danger of ending her own life. We are not talking about a woman who’s having a lousy day, feeling a tad blue, and flips a coin: an abortion or a pedicure as a quick pick-me-up? Hmm, if I get the abortion, I can paint my own toes??

Oh, and in any case where the fetus could be remotely considered viable, H.B. 7 mandates that the doctor performing the termination get a written certification from a second physician that abortion was medically necessary. The only exception would be for dire, acute emergencies.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that some Ohio lawmakers want to tinker with H.B. 7 to define a fetus as potentially viable all the way back to 20 weeks. As far as I know, no fetus born at 20 weeks has yet survived. For those of us who get ambiguous test results during the 19th week (as I did in my second pregnancy) and need to pursue further testing to learn what we’re up against, a 20-week deadline would be a nightmare. It would trigger precipitous decisions to abort in some instances, while potentially criminalizing those who choose termination after additional tests.

I’d like to close with some comforting words about how this bill doesn’t stand a chance. But you know, the Statehouse leadership saw fit to introduce this bill among its first ten. The Repubs are making it a priority. It’s sponsored by a Democrat. And Governor Kasich is shaping up as the kind of guy who’ll make G.W. Bush appear intelligent, humane, and pro-feminist.

If by some miracle this bill flounders, it’ll only be a matter of weeks before the anti-choicers launch their next salvo.

And that’s just my adopted state of Ohio. My purportedly purple state. I cringe to think of what will happen in those states that are even more retrograde.

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I haven’t blogged about Julian Assange and Wikileaks because I’ve been trying to understand before I judge. I’m still not willing to offer any final judgment on the rape allegations against Assange. That’s for a Swedish court of law to do, assuming that he’s extradited and the prosecution continues to press its case.

I feel confident about three things, though. If the Guardian’s article presents a good approximation of the facts, some sort of sexual assault occurred. (I’m well aware that Assange disputes his accusers’ accounts, and he deserves a chance to rebut them in court if formal charges are brought.) Secondly, anyone who dismisses the women’s accusations out of hand is out of line – and that goes doubly for feminists, who have every reason to know better. Lastly, even if the accusations never lead to a conviction, Assange is still an insufferable egotist who treats women like crap. That’s not a crime but it does raise questions about whether the left should continue to lionize him as a hero.

As I’ve already stated, I support what Wikileaks is trying to do. But as many other feminists have already argued, we can support its mission without preemptively assuming that Julian Assange is innocent of sexual assault. We don’t have to assume he’s guilty, either. We can instead support due process for Assange (including his right to bail) while also insisting that his accusers be treated respectfully, their allegations investigated, and their privacy protected. Or as Jill at Feministe said: “Seriously, we can chew gum and walk at the same time.” Seriously!

It’s still not clear what charges will be filed against Assange. Indeed, it’s still possible that Swedish prosecutors will decide the case is too difficult to win in court and decline to press charges. In that case, Assange just might be better off in Sweden than in Britain; should the U.S. cook up a brand-new crime and try to extradite Assange, I suspect Sweden would be less likely to cooperate than would Britain, with its “special relationship” to the U.S.

* * * * *

For the sake of conjecture, let us say that events transpired as described by the Guardian. Let us, for the sake of fairness, assume that the defendant is a fictional character we’ll call Albino Aussie. This lets us run a thought experiment without prejudging the actual real-world case. We will assume for this experiment that the women’s accounts are factual. In the real world, of course, the male protagonist disputes their statements, and we don’t have his side of the story. That would matter crucially in a court of law. The intent of my little thought experiment is more modest: to ask whether the alleged actions constitute sexual assault.

[The account of Miss A.] to police, which [Albino Aussie] disputes, stated that he began stroking her leg as they drank tea, before he pulled off her clothes and snapped a necklace that she was wearing. According to her statement she “tried to put on some articles of clothing as it was going too quickly and uncomfortably but Assange ripped them off again”. Miss A told police that she didn’t want to go any further “but that it was too late to stop Assange as she had gone along with it so far”, and so she allowed him to undress her.

According to the statement, Miss A then realised he was trying to have unprotected sex with her. She told police that she had tried a number of times to reach for a condom but Assange had stopped her by holding her arms and pinning her legs. The statement records Miss A describing how Assange then released her arms and agreed to use a condom, but she told the police that at some stage Assange had “done something” with the condom that resulted in it becoming ripped, and ejaculated without withdrawing.

(Source: The Guardian)

Ripping off clothing is standard fare in romance novels. It could be good fun in an established relationship where one partner knows for sure that their partner would like to be ravished in this way. But with no discussion about desires and predilections? Albino Aussie made some major assumptions. Once Miss A. started to put her clothes back on, he had a stop signal – a flashing red light – and he chose to ignore it. (Also, Albino Aussie was a complete asshole to wreck her necklace. Not a crime, but that would have been a deal-breaker for me.)

His attempt to keep her from grabbing a condom is not sexy by any standard. It’s coercive. By itself, it doesn’t constitute sexual assault, but it could be significant if it signaled his intent and he then did “something” deliberately to break the condom, as Miss A. alleges. Criminal intent (mens rea) is a key element in sexual assault law in the United States (except for statutory rape), and it would be surprising if it were irrelevant in Sweden.

Similarly, Albino Aussie ran roughshod over the insistence of the second complainant, Miss W., that he wear a condom:

Miss W told police that though they started to have sex, Assange had not wanted to wear a condom, and she had moved away because she had not wanted unprotected sex. [Albino Aussie] had then lost interest, she said, and fallen asleep. However, during the night, they had both woken up and had sex at least once when “he agreed unwillingly to use a condom”.

Early the next morning, Miss W told police, she had gone to buy breakfast before getting back into bed and falling asleep beside Assange. She had awoken to find him having sex with her, she said, but when she asked whether he was wearing a condom he said no. “According to her statement, she said: ‘You better not have HIV’ and he answered: ‘Of course not,’ ” but “she couldn’t be bothered to tell him one more time because she had been going on about the condom all night. She had never had unprotected sex before.”

(Source: The Guardian)

Note that Miss W. never consented to sex without a condom. In fact, she was adamant that she would refuse consent to unprotected penetrative sex. Nothing changed between the evening and the morning, except that Albino Aussie chose to ignore the critical conditions on which her consent was premised.

Whether any of Albino Aussie’s actions constitute “rape” will depend on the specifics of Swedish law. But there’s every reason to understand them as sexual assault of some form, even if they don’t rise to the standard of rape. He violated the conditions of consent that Miss W. had explicitly and repeatedly stated as a categorical prerequisite to sex. He initiated sex while she was sleeping and could not possibly say no. While the Guardian doesn’t specify the exact type of sex, it’s reasonable to assume PIV since she responded that he’d better not have HIV.

In the case of Miss A., Albino Aussie violated her conditions of consent by ejaculating inside her without protection. (If he was unaware that the condom broke – which is unlike if, as Miss A. claims, he ripped it himself – Swedish law might still allow prosecution on the basis of recklessness, though again I’m speculating since there’s precious little info on Swedish law.) He also ignored her clear signal to slow down and check in with her when she began to dress herself again in the midst of their encounter – an action that obviously signals NO.

To my mind, the clearest-cut example of sexual assault here is the allegation that he had sex with a sleeping woman. She could not possibly consent. What’s more, his decision to have unprotected sex clearly violated the terms of consent that she’d insisted on all night long. No way could he reasonably assume he was giving her something she wanted. (Jill at Feministe has a great analysis of the limits and nuances of consent; she wrote it before the Guardian piece appeared, but her basic points are still relevant. Plus, she’s a real lawyer … and I’m not even a fake one.)

Again, we don’t know what happened. But the substance of the allegations amounts to much more than “sex by surprise” (whatever that might be!). The allegations definitely fall on the spectrum of sexual assault. Everything else that allegedly happened – the fact that Miss A. let her guest continue to sleep in her apartment, partied with him, didn’t contact the police for days – is immaterial, if indeed events went down as she and Miss W. described them.

The allegations are not atypical for date rape cases. As a professor and as a feminist, I hear too many stories from students that echo elements of this case: the desire to normalize things the next morning, pressure to keep the social fabric intact by keeping accusations private, fear of character assassination if one does report, reluctance to label one’s experience as rape instead of – as Miss A. called it – “the worst sex ever.” (That last point is borne out by research done by Arnie Kahn, who found that many college-aged are reluctant to call nonconsensual sex “assault” if the perpetrator is a friend or lover. See Arnie S. Kahn, “What College Women Do and Do Not Experience as Rape,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 28 (2004), 9-15.)

* * * * *

Feminists who’ve worked with college students and rape survivors should be aware of all this. And yet … Naomi Wolf is not. Or more likely, she chooses to repress what she knows, because she so fiercely wants Assange to be able to continue his work with Wikileaks. Here’s Wolf (in the HuffPo):

I see that Julian Assange is accused of having consensual sex with two women, in one case using a condom that broke.

Um, no. Compare with the accusations above. In the second instance, the allegation is that the sex was not consensual, because Miss W. had not consented to barebacking, and she had no opportunity to say yes or no while she was sleeping.

More Wolf:

I understand, from the alleged victims’ complaints to the media, that Assange is also accused of texting and tweeting in the taxi on the way to one of the women’s apartments while on a date, and, disgustingly enough, ‘reading stories about himself online’ in the cab.

Um, no. Self-centered texting is not among the allegations. I’m no expert in Swedish law, but I don’t think they’ve outlawed egotism yet. Just file this nugget away for the last part of this post (on why Assange is a douche).

Wolf expanded on her flippant HuffPo piece in an interview with Amy Goodman, which also included Jaclyn Friedman. Wolf said one thing I agree with: We do need to expect women to behave as “moral adults.” Sure. We cannot expect men to simply intuit a woman’s every wish. But Wolf didn’t stop there:

If you read these allegations, he took off Miss A’s clothes too quickly for her comfort. She tried to tell him to slow down, but then, quote, “she allowed him to undress her.” This is what the report says. The second woman says she woke to find him having sex with her. When she asked whether he was wearing a condom, he said no. Quote, “According to her statement, she said: ‘You better not have HIV.’” He answered, “Of course not.” Quote, “She couldn’t be bothered to tell him one more time because she had been going on about the condom all night. She had never had unprotected sex before.”

So, if you’re going to treat women as moral adults and if you’re going to take the issue of rape seriously, the person who’s engaging in what he thinks is consensual sex has to be told, “I don’t want this.” And again and again and again, these women did not say, “This is not consensual.” Assange was shocked when these were brought up as complaints, because he had no idea that this was not a consensual situation. Miss A kept Assange in her home for the next four days and threw a party for him.

Thing is, the women did say and signal: “I don’t want this.” At some point, both of them gave up on him getting the memo. But dang it, Assange – or “Albino Aussie,” if you will – had every opportunity to see the yellow and red cards the women were pulling. And instead of saying, “OK, being ravished is not your thing – so what would really turn you on?” he just keeps going on autopilot, ripping bodices until Miss A. gives up resistance. Instead of asking, “Should we do something else, since I only want to fuck bareback?” he waits until Miss W. is sleeping and slips it to her against her express wishes.

These women did act as moral adults. They delineated their boundaries. They tried to negotiate a satisfying, sexy experience for both partners. They said and signaled no to activities they found disturbing or unacceptable. According to their allegations, he drove a bulldozer over their moral agency.

How many times should a woman have to say no for it to count?

A final beef with Wolf: In the Democracy Now interview, she insinuates that only violent stranger rape is real rape:

In 23 years, I’ve never seen any man in any situation this ambiguous, involving this much consent, have any kind of legal process whatsoever. And all over the world, women who have been gang-raped, brutally raped, raped in alleyways, pimped, prostituted, trafficked, you know, their rapists go free.

Yeah, well, most rapists will never be convicted. But does the existence of violent stranger rape make date rape irrelevant, trivial, or harmless? Wolf and I are almost exactly the same age. It was our generation of college students that first started talking about date rape in the mid-1980s. Wolf knows that date rape is real rape. Just a few years ago Wolf accused Professor Harold Bloom groped her inner thigh back when she was an undergrad. That might not have been a case of sexual assault, but it was at least sexual harassment. No trafficking or gang-rape occurred, yet Wolf saw fit to publish the incident in New York Magazine. I’m not saying she was wrong to do so, only that she seems to have lost her compass since then. How else to explain her assertion that Assange and Miss W. were “making love”? (She said it in her Amy Goodman interview, at 5:27 – sorry, no transcript.)

It’s not just Wolf who’s twisting herself into pretzels to defend Assange. AnnaAnastasia at Shakesville directs us to Laurie Essig’s essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Titled “Assange, Morality, and Desire,” it’s remarkably devoid of morality. Instead, Essig – a a sociology professor at Middlebury – is channeling some combo of Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and Harlequin romances:

One can imagine the summer air in Stockholm, ripe with possibilities, seducing Mr. Assange into  thinking it was a good idea to hop into bed with his host, known as Ms. A in the court papers, and then hopping into the bed of one of his fans, Ms. W, just a few days later.

Essig doesn’t even try to make Assange into a moral actor. He’s giddy with optimism, opportunity, and the seductive air of Stockholm. Potential entrepreneurs, take note: there’s an untapped market for bottling Swedish air and selling it to frustrated men (the Seduction Community might buy in bulk). Poor Assange was defenseless; he was seduced, perhaps even entrapped, by Swedish women who, Essig suggests, subscribe to a moral code that is wholly foreign to an Australian man.

While Essig initially concedes that Assange is charged with”having sex without a condom (without full consent of the women),” she backpedals a moment later:

And while Sweden might consider having sex without a condom against the law, most countries do not.  Perhaps more confusing is the issue of consent. Although this young woman clearly found being taken while asleep upsetting, some women would be turned on by being the object of that much desire.

This is pure disingenuity. Essig has just noted that the problem is a lack of full consent, not laws against barebacking. She damn well knows better! What’s so “confusing” about consent here? Consent to one sex act doesn’t imply consent to another. Just as consent to vaginal sex doesn’t imply consent to anal sex, consent to safer sex doesn’t imply consent to condomless sex.

As for being “taken while asleep” – in a longer-term relationship, partners might let each other know they’d welcome sleep sex. To just presume it? When it’s your first time hooking up? When your only real communication revealed your incompatible expectations vis-a-vis condoms? That’s more than just stupid and presumptuous. That’s rape.

Then again, Essig seems to consider “date rape” to be something quite distinct from “rape.” Channeling Whoopie Goldberg, Essig digs herself in even deeper in a follow-up post:

Based on what we do know, I do not think Assange is guilty of rape.  I am not sure whether he is guilty of date rape, but if he is, then the date rape is incredibly murky since no one seems to have been drugged or beaten or even particularly coerced.

So if Miss W. had taken drugs before sleeping, then Essig might entertain the possibility of “date rape”? I can only imagine how she might respond when her students report having been raped. “No roofies? No worry! Just be more careful next time … and remember, some women get off on lack of consent.”

Essig wants us to understand that sex is messy and complicated. She strikes the pose of a sophisticated libertine, a connoisseur of heterosexual behavior. Essig teaches classes on heterosexuality – but in her essay, she offers up a vision of female heterosexuality that’s cartoonish, not complex:

According to press reports, Assange held one of the women down in a sexual manner.  Yes, and many women like that.  Assange started having sex while one woman was sleeping.  Yes, that too some women like.  Because people like all sorts of things—clothes being ripped off, dirty threats whispered in their ears, even somewhat violent sexual encounters.  Not everyone likes these things, but many, many people do.  Clearly someone in Assange’s past sexual encounters thought it was a turn on or at least didn’t think it was rape.  That’s why he was doing it.  Is that gross?  Sure.  Is all sex gross when you’re not the one doing it?  Pretty much.  Is it rape if the woman doesn’t wake up and say “Stop” and “No, I don’t want that”?

Many (most?) heterosexual women will cop to some un-PC desires. Fantasies about non-consent are quite common – among hetero men as well as women. But when we go beyond fantasy, the desire to submit and be ravished is virtually always predicated on consent. Partners can ethically incorporate violent activities, even “nonconsensual” scenes, into their sex lives – if they negotiate. If they agree on a safe word. If they consent in advance, with an option to bail if the scene goes wrong. Two people who disagree on whether a condom must be used are in a whole ‘nother universe than partners who communicate their edgier desires. Essig surely ought to know all this too.

After all, Essig teaches in Women’s and Gender Studies as well as sociology.

* * * * *

Even though I think the allegations are serious and credible, I’m still not committing myself to the “Assange must be guilty camp.” I do think that if the two women set out to smear him, they would have constructed a much smoother story. Someone setting a premeditated trap would have avoided the details that Essig and Wolf find damning, such as Miss A. continuing to host Assange in her home, or Miss. W. giving him a ride the next morning. They would have continued to say no throughout the encounters. They would have called the police immediately and filed sexual assault charges, instead of just demanding Assange take an STD test. In short, they would have sought to fit the ideal of how a sexual assault victim ought to act, rather than behaving in the way that actual survivors often act – confused, trying to not to make waves socially, and unsure what to call their experience.

Does that make Assange guilty? No. I would want to hear Assange’s side before drawing any conclusions.

What we do hear from and about Assange doesn’t exactly cover him in glory, though. He comes across as a user and a sponger. Given that he now draws an income from Wikileaks, why did he keep squatting in Miss A.’s  apartment even when she moved into a friend’s place to avoid him? Why did he apparently have Miss W. pay for his train tickets to and from her home? (He told her he had no cash and feared being tracked by his credit card – a thin excuse for a guy who was easily trackable via his public speaking schedule in Sweden.) How narcissistic do you have to be to immerse yourself in online stories about yourself even as you’re trying to get laid? Why did he order Miss W. to bring him orange juice (as Essig reports)? Couldn’t he pour his own damn juice?

And why didn’t he just get the STD tests? He claimed that Miss W.’s demand for testing was “blackmail,” but it’s a pretty reasonable request, given how open he was about his predilection for barebacking. If he’d agreed, the whole matter would probably never have come to the prosecutor’s attention.

The interview Assange granted the BBC last week hints at the answers to these questions. Here are a couple of especially prime slices:

Q: You do see yourself as a martyr here.

JA: Well, you know, in a very beneficial position, if you can be martyred without dying. And we’ve had a little bit of that over the past ten days. And if this case goes on, we will have more. …

Q: But you haven’t denied having sex with those women?

JA: No, I haven’t denied that.

Q: So you did have sex with those women?

JA: I have always tried in this case and in my other dealings to be a private person and to not speak about matters that are private.

Q: This is now public. So I’m asking you the question. Did you have sex with those women?

JA: It’s a matter of public record as far as the courts are concerned but I am not going to be exposing other people’s private lives or my own more than is absolutely necessary. That is not what a gentleman does, that why I have also never criticised these women. We don’t know precisely what pressures they have been under, exactly. There are powerful interests that have incentives to promote these smears. That doesn’t mean that they got in there in the very beginning and fabricated them. …

Q: The allegation against you, the very broad allegation that’s been made over and over again in the media over recent days is that you’re some sort of sexual predator who has sex with a large number of young women, ideally without a condom, and that you do it because you can, effectively, because in some cases they’re groupies or they’re enthralled to your fame or whatever it is. Are you a sexual predator?

JA: That’s ridiculous. Of course not.

Q: How many women have you slept with?

JA: That’s a private business. Not only does a gentleman not tell, not only does a gentleman like to talk about his private life, a gentleman certainly doesn’t count.

Q: Many, without being specific?

JA: I’ve never had a problem before with women. Women have been extremely helpful and generous.

Q: Not quite the question I asked you.

JA: No, women have been extremely helpful and generous and put up with me. But…

Q: Does put up with you mean having you in their beds?

JA: Of course on occasion, I mean I’m an adult man, but women have been generous to me over many years.

(Read the full BBC interview here. Ellipses are mine except for the one in Assange’s second-to-last statement.)

Of course, a gentleman wouldn’t argue when his partner insisted on a condom. That’s what a foolhardy narcissist does.

A gentleman might not keep count of his lovers, but then again, a gentleman would keep some mad money in his pocket, so as not to mooch train fares off his lovers. A gentleman gives as well as takes. Relying on women to be “generous”? That’s what a sponger does.

Also, a gentleman doesn’t relish martyrdom. That’s a role better suited for a someone with a messiah complex.

In a profile of Assange as a dark-hatted hacker, Bruce Sterling calls him a sociopath. I don’t see proof of that. But a wannabe martyr? A cheapskate mooch? A narcissist? An exploiter of groupies? A misogynist with no understanding of women? An antifeminist who says “Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of feminism”? A jet-setting, globe-trotting, world-class douche? I think the evidence is in.

None of this makes Assange guilty of sexual assault. But it does indicate that Assange has some grave character issues. He’s too self-centered to earn my trust – too entitled and narcissistic. The Wikileaks organization would be better served with a leader driven more by public interest than by self-interest.

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Gratuitous flowers for a sex post: Cascading morning glories captured by me, Sungold, in October, back before the frost bit ‘em.

The Denver Post ran an article today asking why an arousal-booster for women called Zestra can’t find TV stations willing to run their ads, even as Viagra ads are literally driving in circles around us. Historiann took the article to task for its casual disavowal of feminism, and I’ve got nothin’ to add to her critique except a vigorous nod of approval. Figleaf chimed in to say that the stations’ ad policies spotlight the illegitimacy of autonomous female desire.

What most struck me about the article, though, was its conflation of libido and arousal, which is endemic in “science writing” that reports on “pink viagra.” Here’s how reporter Mary Winter framed it:

Now, you would not know it from the $300-million annual ad campaign for erection-enhancing ads for Viagra, Cialis and Levitra, but women suffer more sexual dysfunction than men do — 43 percent to 31 percent, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In other words, the potential market for flagging female libidos is huge. But here’s the irony: When the makers of Zestra went to 100 television networks and stations to buy ads, the vast majority refused them. The few stations that did take their money would run the ads only after midnight or during the daytime.

The stations “told us they were not comfortable airing the ads,” Zestra co-founder Mary Jaensch told “Nightline.” The double-standard here — men, you deserve sexual pleasure, and women, what’s wrong with you hussies? — is breathtaking.

So how about this ad: a Camaro, a woman, and a vibrating driver’s seat?

(This is just the end of the article; read the whole thing here. Winter is very sharp and witty on the Viagra ads!)

In a way, it’s unfair to pick on Winter, because most writing about female sexual dysfunction fails to draw basic distinctions between arousal, orgasm, desire, and libido. It also tends to ignore the reality of the physical pain some women experience (which K has explored eloquently at Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction.) In practice, women can of course have issues with any or all of the above, and problems in one area can easily spill into another. A woman  suffering from vulvodynia, for instance, might be able to orgasm, but if sexual activity hurts, that’s likely to dampen her libido. Another woman might have a generally low libido (meaning she doesn’t crave sex very often) but develop desire responsively to her partner, at least in certain situations. There are probably as many variations as there are women.

Now, getting back to Zestra and the Denver Post: Winter’s article refers mainly to libido. She’s partly on the right track, insofar as that “42 percent” figure refers mainly to women who complain about low libido. (Some feminists have criticized that figure as too high, but let’s set that debate aside for today.) Winter does hint at the primary issue here – arousal – in that apparent throwaway line about a vibrating driver seat in the Camaro. Why yes, I think quite a few of us gals might enjoy such a ride! But if we got a good buzz per gallon, that wouldn’t mean our libido was revving – only that our engine was purring smoothly.

Libido is not the primary target for Zestra, though Zestra’s website refers to a whole host of potential benefits: stronger libido, greater satisfaction, more earth-shaking orgasms, and a more harmonious relationship with one’s partner. (That last point comes up only in testimonials; the overall tone of the website is “try this for yourself,” not “use this to please your long-suffering husband.”) It’s being marketed to women who suffer from sexual problems of any sort due to illness (including cancer), postpartum changes, menopause, antidepressants, stress, and even widowhood. But what does it really do?

Zestra’s primary mechanism, as far as I understand it, is to enhance arousal and response during sexual activity. As far as I can see without having tried it myself, it looks like it might increase engorgement and/or creaste prickling sensations in a nice way. In the best case, yummy sensations start a cascade of increasing desire during lovemaking. As a topical agent applied directly to one’s ladyparts, Zestra doesn’t act directly on libido, which is regulated by the brain and a complex dance of different hormones and neurotransmitters (including estrogen and testosterone, but also thyroid hormone, stress hormones, dopamine and lots of other nifty “messenger” chemicals). A topical gel won’t directly influence that chemical brew. It’s only logical, though, that if sex is more pleasurable, some women might want it more. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher has written about how hot sex with a new partner gives us a dopamine high akin to cocaine (quick summary of her ideas here). Maybe hot sex with in a newly reinvigorated relationship can give us the same buzz?

Also, the testing for Zestra relied on women who committed to have sex eight times in a month, so it’s unlikely many of them had a super low libido. (For more details on the testing, check out the clinical study.) These women were already open to regular sex. As a group they sound to me more like women who basically like sex but were frustrated by difficulty getting aroused. They don’t sound like the subset of women who’ve given up on sex – a group that constitutes about 15% of American marriages, by the way. (This according to Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times, where “sexless” was defined as no sex at all with one’s spouse during the previous six to twelve months.)

In other words, the mechanism behind Zestra appears to be entirely different than flibanserin, an orally-administered drug recently rejected by the FDA for ineffectiveness. Flibanserin was supposed to increase libido directly by changing one’s brain chemistry. It too was compared to Viagra, and quite wrongly so: Viagra targets a mans plumbing, so to speak. It produces an erection (though it almost always requires mental and/or physical stimulation to be effective). Flibanserin left physical arousal untouched while aiming to increase psychological arousal and desire.

Calling flib a “pink viagra” was just misleading. In the case of Zestra, the comparison appears more apples-to-apples, since both Viagra and Zestra appear to work by increasing engorgement.

I still think it’s too bad that flib flopped. Yes, the drug was intended to be a Big Pharma Bonanza. I don’t really give a shit. If it had really helped women live better, I’d be all for it. I trust women to make decisions about their bodies (though I also insist on our responsibility to understand our bodies. At any rate, flib failed to gain FDA approval because it didnt work.

As far as I know, there’s still nothing  on the market that specifically helps women who only desire sex once in a blue moon. For some women, hormone therapy (sometimes including testosterone as well as estrogen) delivers a libido boost. But hormones carry some risk. Women fear breast cancer if they take estrogen and they fear growing a beard and unibrow if they take T. But these are the choices, because there’s no drug that specifically targets libido.

Zestra interests me because it seems to be quite safe (worst side effect: transient burning sensations in some rather precious real estate). I’m skeptical to the extent that their studies are pretty small. Unavoidably, the very fact of running a study is an intervention in itself. This can have real effects on its findings. How many of the couples studied would have had sex at least eight times in a month? If most would’ve had less, that means Zestra wasn’t the only independent variable. Perhaps the twice-weekly commitment, combined with a new toy or just wall-to-wall pictures of George Clooney and Jon Hamm would fire their engines just as well. I’m pretty sure I’d be off and roaring on that program! (Where do I sign up?)

Seriously, I have been meaning to try Zestra just for the fun of it, since it sounds like its potential benefits might not be limited to people suffering from difficulty with arousal … and, y’know, anything for science! I’ve got a packet of it in a drawer but I’m not so sure what my lab partner would think.

As always, I’m very curious if any of you out there in bloglandia have given Zestra a whirl? And if so – are you willing to dish? Pretty please?

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Betty Draper of “Mad Men,” played by January Jones. Photo from examiner.com (Columbus). I claim fair use.

Confession: I find lists of trendy baby names fascinating. If you share this mildly guilty pleasure (“guilty” because it’s so easy to snark and criticize), the list for 2010 is up at Babycenter.com. But what caught my eye this time around was the “Mad Men” trend that Babycenter spotted: “Betty” has emerged from almost total obscurity, landing at number 868.

Of course that’s still pretty obscure. Of course there’s nothing inherently bad about “Betty.” It’s a perfectly nice name. It’s even the name of an iconic second-wave feminist, Betty Friedan. But new parents are not finding inspiration in Betty Friedan; they’re evidently borrowing the name from Betty Draper. (Then again, Betty Friedan had issues of her own, failing to adequately recognize her class and racial privilege, and accusing lesbian feminists of constituting a “lavender menace” to the rest of the women’s movement.)

In case you’ve never watched Mad Men, the first thing you need to know is that you’re missing out on a real treat. I was a real latecomer, but once I started, I was practically hypnotized from the first episode onward. For you Mad Men virgins, I promise no major spoilers below! (But do get your hands on season one!)

The second thing you need to know is that the show brilliantly portrays the sexism of American society in the early 1960s. Betty Draper is the wife of a handsome but philandering ad executive, Don Draper. While there’s plenty of sexism to go around at Don’s agency, too, Betty exemplifies everything that was wrong with the upper-middle-class housewife role in the early 1960s.

At the outset of the series, Betty’s life revolves around keeping a perfect suburban home, drinking coffee and cocktails, and waiting for her husband to come home. She’s spoiled and childish, seemingly stunted by her beauty and social privilege. In her marriage to Don, she’s lonely and depressed. She’s not a very likable character; her demeanor is mostly cool and passive, though she does seem to feel passion for her husband. Although her life is organized around homemaking, she typically appears detached from her children. In one early episode, she scolds her daughter Sally for putting a big plastic dry-cleaner’s bag over her head. Betty’s not worried about Sally’s safety, she’s just angry that her dry-cleaned clothes might be soiled.

In short, Betty Draper evokes more pity than sympathy. She’s a dramatic embodiment of what Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name” – the anomie, depression, and disorientation of highly educated, affluent suburban housewives of the early 1960s:

Just what was this problem that has no name? What were the words women used when they tried to express it? Sometimes a woman would say “I feel empty somehow . . . incomplete.” Or she would say, “I feel as if I don’t exist.” Sometimes she blotted out the feeling with a tranquilizer. Sometimes she thought the problem was with her husband or her children, or that what she really needed was to redecorate her house, or move to a better neighborhood, or have an affair, or another baby. Sometimes, she went to a doctor with symptoms she could hardly describe: “A tired feeling. . . I get so angry with the children it scares me . . . I feel like crying without any reason.” (A Cleveland doctor called it “the housewife’s syndrome.”) A number of women told me about great bleeding blisters that break out on their hands and arms. “I call it the house wife’s blight” said a family doctor in Pennsylvania. “I see it so often lately in these young women with four, five and six children who bury themselves in their dishpans. But it isn’t caused by detergent and it isn’t cured by cortisone.”

Sometimes a woman would tell me that the feeling gets so strong she runs out of the house and walks through the streets. Or she stays inside her house and cries. Or her children tell her a joke, and she doesn’t laugh because she doesn’t hear it. I talked to women who had spent years on the analyst’s couch, working out their “adjustment to the feminine role,” their blocks to “fulfillment as a wife and mother.” But the desperate tone in these women’s voices, and the look in their eyes, was the same as the tone and the look of other women, who were sure they had no problem, even though they did have a strange feeling of desperation.

(You can read the whole first chapter of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique here.)

And new parents are saddling their infant girls with a name honoring this legacy? Sure, Betty has a chilly glamour reminiscent of Grace Kelly, but it’s swamped by all her negative baggage.

Babycenter suggests that we may be craving “a simpler, Betty Crockeresque way of life.” but that just doesn’t compute if you’ve watched Mad Men even once. Nothing is simple about the Drapers’ world, despite all their privilege. Kennedy is assassinated. Racial tensions simmer, and casual racism is as common and unremarkable as sexism. People betray their colleagues and their lovers. The show features some strong women, but all of them suffer real injuries from sexism. That’s not simplicity; it’s oppression. Funny how people tend to confuse the two.

(Then again, Babycenter reports a surge in Bristol, Willow, and Piper, too. As I said, it’s way too easy to criticize and snark.)

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It’s possible that John Boehner cries easily for the reason I do: he’s easily touched and not so hot at self-control. But I’m not buying that. As Rachel Maddow pointed out in her excellent segment on Boehner’s waterworks, if the fate of America’s children reduces him to tears, he could actually take steps to improve their future!

Boehner’s not the first pol to cry easily and often in public; he’s just the most unexpected and the least discriminating when it comes to his triggers. Rachel traces the history of weeping politicians back to Edmund Muskie, whose alleged tears in New Hampshire allegedly derailed his 1972 Democratic primary. (Muskie’s damp cheeks – and the weird media reaction – are among my earliest political memories. He won that primary but lost the nomination.)

Rachel argues,

There’s nothing wrong with politicians showing emotion. There’s nothing wrong with politicians crying in public. It demonstrably does not hurt them with voters, but it shows us what they feel passionately about, and what’s wrong with that?

So true. And yet, while you can find military giants shedding tears in the ancient world, here in the U.S. we’ve liked our men tough and dry-eyed. For a political leader to cry publicly was pretty well verboten from the end of WWII until the closing years of the Cold War. The same probably holds true all the way back to George Washington and his unruffled wig, but this is a blog post, not a book. So let us think of our post-war presidents! Truman was gruff and bluff. Eisenhower never lost his military bearing. JFK drew much of his power from his aristocratic cool. (Did he ever once cry publicly over the loss of his infant son, Patrick?) LBJ couldn’t afford to look soft while playing hardball with Congress.

But then came Nixon. Tricky Dick did emotion, all right. He knew how to project self-pity all the way back in ’62, when, in his purported “last press conference,” he announced his withdrawal from politics, telling reporters, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” By the early 1970s, he projected anger and paranoia pretty well, too. Indeed, Muskie’s destruction can be laid at the feet of Nixon’s henchmen and their ratfucking.

Even when forced to resign in disgrace, Nixon controlled his grief – in public. His resignation speech was calm and even resolute. (You can listen to his speech here.) My ten-year-old self felt sorry for him as I watched it, and I distinctly recalled tearing up despite knowing he was a crook and needed to go. Disgrace and shame push my empathy buttons even when that shame is richly deserved. But Nixon held it together, even launching into a policy disquisition toward the end. The WaPo described Nixon’s public composure but also the gap between the private and public man:

Mr. Nixon’s brief speech was delivered in firm tones and he appeared to be complete control of his emotions. The absence of rancor contrasted sharply with the “farewell” he delivered in 1962 after being defeated for the governorship of California.

An hour before the speech, however, the President broke down during a meeting with old congressional friends and had to leave the room.

He had invited 20 senators and 26 representatives for a farewell meeting in the Cabinet room. Later, Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.), one of those present, said Mr. Nixon said to them very much what he said in his speech.

“He just told us that the country couldn’t operate with a half-time President,” Goldwater reported. “Then he broke down and cried and he had to leave the room. Then the rest of us broke down and cried.”

(Carroll Kilpatrick, Washington Post, 9 August 1974)

Goldwater is yet another guy who’s hard to imagine weeping.

In the wake of Watergate, the whole country felt emotionally ravaged. We found respite in blandness: Gerald Ford’s good-natured bumbling and Jimmy Carter’s be-sweatered earnestness. But we did not find collective catharsis. That would wait until 1980.

The defining moment in presidential emoting came with the election of Ronald Reagan, who – though not much of a weeper – brought his entire actor’s armamentarium to the office. At the time, critics gleefully described Reagan as merely a “B-movie actor.” No matter. His acting skillz, modest as they were, earned him his “Great Communicator” moniker and enabled him to transform American politics in both substance and style. (Peggy Noonan had a hand in all this, of course, but her lines would have flopped, had Reagan been unable to fill them with warmth and passion.)

And yet, Reagan wasn’t much of a weeper. Serious presidential tears came into their own with the first Gulf War. International relations scholar Steve Niva views the end of the Cold War as a watershed in public political expressions  of hegemonic masculinity. Suddenly, General Colin Powell was weeping at his high school reunion. General Norman Schwarzkopf raved about his love for opera. In an America that had shed much of its Vietnam Syndrome through Rambo and Reagan, it became possible, Niva argues, for American masculinity to be both tough and tender. (See Steve Niva, “”Tough and Tender: New World Order Masculinity and the Gulf War,” in The “Man” Question in International Relations, ed. Marysia Zalewski and Jane Parpart (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 109–28.)

The floodwaters sprung all the dams in 1992, as Bill Clinton teared up at every tale of woe on the campaign trail. He wept his way through his presidency, and we’ve never been the same since.

Niva’s excellent article explains just part of this transition. Reagan laid the groundwork. The first Gulf War expiated the shame of Vietnam and allowed American men to claim their manliness again as long as it was cloaked in khaki. But the “tender” part of Niva’s equation requires further explanation. Men like Clinton were simply of a new generation. They had defied conventional masculinity by growing their hair long, questioning the corporate rat race, fantasizing of careers in rock and roll – or at least playing the tenor sax on the Arsenio Hall Show. They had tuned in, turned on, and dropped out – or at least, they “didn’t inhale.” Perhaps most significantly, many men of Clinton’s generation had married a new generation of women. Some were feminists. A larger number were too timid for “women’s lib” but still warm toward egalitarianism. Most of these women expected and honored male emotion, though still within constraints.

The Boomers and subsequent generations are thus willing to grant our male leaders some slack in expressing public emotions, as long as it’s for a serious cause. Rachel’s clip shows how both Bushes and Mitch McConnell – powerful Republicans all – cry in public without losing face.

But none of them are crying about TARP. And that brings us back to Boehner’s tears, which are quite extraordinary even for a tough-and-tender post-Cold War leader.

Go to about 8:30 in Rachel’s clip. You’ll see him beg tearfully for the big-bank failout bailout known as “TARP.” He has subsequently attacked those who voted for it, conveniently forgetting his own damp-eyed support.

Rachel nails him for hypocrisy:

As Americans we react to someone crying about children’s welfare because we think that it implies strength of his commitment to improve children’s welfare. It doesn’t always. When the new congress convenes and John Boehner is Speaker of the House, remember this: just because he’s crying about something doesn’t mean he’s going to fix that thing. Crying in public is neat. I’m all in favor. Crying in public, however, is not the same thing as fixing the thing that makes you cry.

(This and the previous transcript via Business Insider.)

I, too, think hypocrisy is the most likely explanation for the cavernous gap between Boehner’s tearful public pronouncements and his Grover-Norquistian actual policymaking.

But there’s an alternate explanation, and it’s a doozy. A few weeks back, Gregory House, M.D. (the TV doctor played by Hugh Laurie, my next-husband-in-spe) had a patient whose emotional expression was the exact opposite of what most people would feel. The “case” was medically incoherent, but it nudged the two brain cells in my head where I’d stored the concept of pseudobulbar affect. I’d read about this phenomenon – the expression of inappropriate emotions – when I was diagnosed with MS. (New readers: that diagnosis was later overturned, though it’s still my sword of Damocles.)

So could Boehner have pseudobulbar affect? If so, there’s a short list of conditions that can cause it. Multiple sclerosis. Amyloid lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Stroke. Parkinson’s and Alzheimers’. Traumatic brain injury.

To put it bluntly: Pseudobulbar affect only occurs in a brain that has suffered considerable damage. If Boehner has any of the conditions I mentioned, he merits your sympathy and mine, no matter what his politics. But he also might not be capable of serving as the third in command. People can suffer from pseudobulbar affect without having impaired judgment. I’d want to be sure of that, however, and not just assume it.

I still lean toward hypocrisy and manipulative tactics as the most parsimonious explanation of Boehner’s tears. I just wouldn’t rule out brain damage.

Either way, I question his fitness for the office of Speaker of the House.

No word tonight on where Glenn Beck gets his waterworks. At least he’s not President – yet.

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The other day, I googled “cold flashes.” That wasn’t a typo; I didn’t mean “hot flashes.” I meant COLD.

I’m not at menopause yet, and judging by family history I’m probably a good half-decade away. But over the past several years I’ve had even more trouble than usual staying warm. My internal thermostat went completely haywire when I got sick in January 2009 with the still-undiagnosed ailment that messed with my nerves and muscles and brain. Nothing could keep me warm. While that has improved somewhat, it hasn’t returned to my pre-illness state. Then, after a minor virus this fall, I started to notice that warm stimuli – the blessed touch of sun on skin, or the spray of hot water in the shower – could give me the chills. Goosebumps, even!

I wasn’t alone. A friend of mine, a few years younger than I, seemed equally miserable at those chilly soccer games at the end of this fall’s season. We were both hiding under blankets and nursing a thermos of tea as soon as temperatures dropped into the 50s.

I began to wonder: might freezing just be part of aging?

According to Google, yes. Women do report cold flashes, though they typically follow upon hot flashes. Somehow, the hot flashes, with their dramatic sweats and red skin, get all the press, while the chills get – well, the deep freeze in the media!

The root cause seems to be the same, though. The hypothalamus is responsible for keeping our internal temperatures running steady. In the decade or so prior to menopause (a woman’s last period), the hypothalamus stops running so steadily. Conventional wisdom holds that fluctuating estrogen levels send confusing signals the hypothalamus, but actually there’s an intricate interplay between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and ovarian hormones. Contrary to its image, estrogen does not function as the ringmaster – not on its own, anyway.

Whatever the exact mechanism, it sure feels like a broken thermostat to me. At the blog re:Cycling, Heather Dillaway objects strenuously to calling it broken, or attempting to “fix” it. She objects to any language that portrays menopause negatively or suggests that women “suffer” from it. She’s part of a noble tradition of feminist criticism that has pilloried the medicalization of women’s bodies. This critique, however, too often sets up a false opposition between how doctors tell women they should feel and women’s actual experience.

Sure, experience is partially shaped by our expectations, including biomedical ideas about women’s bodies. Menopause is indeed a natural transition, one that every cis-woman will undergo if she doesn’t die young. We should certainly oppose the idea that women’s worth is based on their youth, beauty, and fertility. We should celebrate the wisdom that can come with time.

But doggonit, my thermostat feels broken! I might fantasize about it improving if were to spend a week in St. Tropez, but realistically? It’s likely to get worse before it stabilizes or improves. And it’s not a trivial thing. When I’m unable to get warm, despite long underwear and a sweater, a heating pad, and an ambient temperature of 72, I don’t merely experience cold; I suffer it. Putting a positive spin on this merely denies my experience. To anyone intent on painting menopause in shades of rose and mauve, I ask: What color do they turn when they freeze?

For many women undergoing the menopausal transition, temperature regulation is only one challenge. Many women also report debilitating fatigue, which is also linked to a wonky hypothalamus. They wake up at night, drenched in sweat, heart racing. It’s not a panic attack; it’s “only” a night sweat.  Salon just ran an essay by Beth Aviv detailing her struggles to manage such symptoms after (admittedly foolishly) stopping hormone treatment cold turkey:

… I wake in the middle of the night, heat percolating to the surface like an underground spring — flooding between my fingers, into elbows, under my arms, onto my chest, my neck, my scalp until my straightened hair curls. If you could slide your fingers over my forehead, it would feel like you were finger-painting. Sleep does not return for hours.

The comments on Aviv’s essay are Salon’s usual mixed bag. There’s no shortage of people telling women to just “suck it up.” (This phrase appears repeatedly.) It’s mostly women piling on other women, as in this especially judgmental comment by a woman calling herself Semolina:

Most menopause symptoms are psychological. Some people enjoy making drama out of trivial events, and those are the folks who suffer mightily. I’m sixty years old and female and none of my friends has had this extreme problems — because I don’t hang out with drama queens.

Well, that Judgey McJudgey comment drew the smackdown it deserved from another commenter named Mona:

I see. Well, I am a 54-yr-old woman with a law degree from an elite university. A bit more than a decade ago, I suffered a severe emotional breakdown in the wake of the death of my oldest son via vehicular accident. Followed by that son’s father deciding to leave me for a man — that happened 6 weeks after we buried our 19 year old son.

As a consequence, I developed a crippling anxiety disorder. I’ve been in peri-menopause or menopause for about 8 years, and had been swimming right along assuming mine would be as easy as my mother’s.

It is now NOT. And it’s not in my head. It’s in the interference with my work toward recovering and living an emotionally stable life — a life with joy.

The extreme insomnia is not in my head. Nor the heart palpitations and the profuse sweating followed by cold clamminess ALL NIGHT LONG.

So, Seminola, I’m glad you don’t hang with “drama queens.” Neither do I. But some women have had, and continue to have, serious, dramatic problems that are, most decidedly, not in our heads. Or wait, they are, but not in the way you imperiously meant.

Now, obviously most menopausal women don’t undergo two personal tragedies in quick succession (though most of us do start to notice the losses piling up as we move through our forties). I’m offering Mona’s experience not to typify menopause, but to underscore its variability. She thinks she’s going to try bioidentical hormones, which I would likely try myself in her situation. (The debate on the relative safety of “bioidentical” versus synthetic and equine-derived hormones is not one I want to engage here – maybe in a future post?)

It’s great that some women sail through menopause, getting by with a sense of humor and a willingness to just suck it up. That’s their experience. I’m glad they were able to manage. I’m still early-days enough to fantasize it could be my experience, too, especially if I keep my house well heated.

But other women have other experiences. Some experience severe cognitive and mental health issues. Most face the more mudane – but still sometimes disabling – issues of body temperature regulation and insomnia. Oh, and sexual issues, but that would be a whole ‘nother post.

Point is, nobody gets to define your experiences for you. Not the perhaps well-meaning but ultimately wrong-headed doctors in the 1950s and ’60s who promised eternal femininity. Not those present-day doctors who fail to see patients as individuals, either demonizing Prempro (the most common synthetic HRT) or withholding it across the board. Not good-hearted feminists who want to put power back in women’s hands – but haven’t walked in your shoes, nor tried to sleep in your soggy sheets. Certainly not the Internet scolds who tell you to suck it up.

You. Only you get to decide what you’re experiencing, whether you’re suffering, whether something feels “broken,” and how – if at all – you might try to fix it.

Then again, maybe I’m a drama queen, and I just haven’t noticed it?

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Yesterday at 1:29 EDT, I was lecturing on fundamentalism in my religion class, listing some of the phenomena fundamentalists generally condemn as symptoms of moral decay – among them, abortion and pornography.

Yesterday at 1:29 EDT, someone using the server of the Pro Life Action League in Chicago accessed an older post of mine, “Feminist Porn: Where Are the Men?”

I made the point to my students that people aren’t as simple as their ideologies might sometimes imply. Here’s a great case in point.

I’m not even sure that one should call this hypocrisy. I think I’d rather regard it more charitably as an instance of people perhaps being creative and flexible in their ideas and behavior – a case of refusing to conform to stereotypes.

Of course, it’s also possible that this reader was looking for ammo to prove how sexually depraved feminists can be. He or she might have a guilty relationship with sexuality that projects one’s shame onto the abjection of women that appears frequently in industrialized, mainstream porn.

But I’d prefer to imagine this reader as embracing his or her desires – not least, because it’s impossible to sustain a hard line against abortion if one regards sexual pleasure as a birthright for women and men alike, part of a full and fulfilling human life.

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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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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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It’s really cool to see a New York Times op-ed co-authored by Rebecca Traister and Anna Holmes. Women are still underrepresented on op-ed pages, and these two have the distinction of getting their start online (at Salon and Jezebel, respectively). Maybe this is the start of feminist bloggers storming the NYT?

Their piece – “A Palin of Our Own” – makes the incontrovertible point that progressives have done too little to celebrate high-flying female politicians. (Echidne lays out why Traister and Holmes are right about this.) They note that this has concrete policy implications that harm women, especially regarding abortion rights. If women weren’t considered marginal and disposable, Nancy Pelosi could have passed a health care bill that safeguarded access to abortion. So far, so good.

But do we lefties and feminists really want a Palin of our own?

It’s not the shooting-wolves-from-helicopters that puts me off. (Well, okay, that too.) Most of all, I’m disturbed by the idea that we should emulate Palin’s character and style. Palin’s distinguishing features are her willful ignorance, reckless disregard for truth, contempt for the reality-based world, and plain old playground-variety spite. Traister and Holmes write:

Imagine a Democrat willing to brag about breaking the glass ceiling at the explosive beginning, not the safe end, of her campaign. A liberal politician taking to Twitter to argue that big broods and a “culture of life” are completely compatible with reproductive freedom. A female candidate on the left who speaks as angrily and forcefully about her rivals’ shortcomings as Sarah Barracuda does about the Pelosis and Obamas of the world. A smart, unrelenting female, who, unlike Ms. Palin, wants to tear down, not reinforce, traditional ways of looking at women. But that will require a party that is eager to discover, groom, promote and then cheer on such a progressive Palin.

(Read the rest here.)

Anger has its place – you betcha! (Yes, I’m still pissed that I can’t employ Northdakotanisms any more without people thinking I’m aping Palin.) But unlike Palin, progressives aren’t trying to appeal to people’s basest nature. If we recruit and foster female politicians who speak “angrily and forcefully about [their] rivals’ shortcomings,” we’re just going to get into a mud wrestling match with Palin and her Mama Grizzlies. The end result? Everyone’s covered with mud.

I’m not convinced that Twitter offers much hope, either. Sure, lots of liberals and lefties use Twitter. Heck, I’m even on Twitter! The Ceiling Cat is on Twitter! The presence of all that goodness doesn’t change the bedrock fact that it’s easy to convey simplistic ideas in 140 characters. You need more space to develop an argument. And really: Would Palin’s tweets get so much media exposure if they weren’t so unrelentingly stupid?

That said, Palin has lobbed the F-word back into public discourse. Now it’s our job to catch it and reclaim it. “Feminism” has never been the property of any faction within it. As I argued back on September 4, 2008 – long before the feminist blogosphere ever discussed whether Palin deserves to be a feminist – she is a feminist, of a sort. The history of feminism includes activists who were also anti-abortion and anti-choice, as well as people who were deeply racist or homophobic. After all, the history of feminism is bound up with the history of the Western world, not a thing apart. There has always been a subset of feminists who reduced the movement to “equal opportunity to compete with men” and to hell with the collateral damage (poor women, lesbians, women of color, even mothers). Palin can definitely claim those feminists as her ancestors.

Palinofeminism is screamingly reductive. It’s all about claiming a woman’s right to compete in a man’s world – something liberal feminists have historically demanded – though in order to reap its benefits, you have to be, well, pretty much a clone of Palin. But the very narrowness of Palinofeminism offers an opportunity to redefine feminism, for those of us who are broader of mind and bigger of heart. Feminism can and must oppose poverty, racism, cissexism, homophobia ableism, ageism – the whole panoply of oppressions that make people less than they could be. Feminism needs to be about ending gender-based oppression, and yes, that includes practices and norms that harm men, too.

We need to seize the moment, now that Palin has dragged feminism back into public view, and put forth an inclusive, compassionate vision of a United States where everyone has equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

How we achieve that, I’m not quite sure. I’m just a marginal university instructor in Appalachia with a small (albeit smart and loyal) blog readership. But I suspect that publishing more feminist op-eds is a great place to start.

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A whole bunch of feminist blogs commemorated the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment today – that’s 90 years of American women having the constitutional right to vote. Of course, Jim Crow laws kept a lot of black women from exercising that right, and well into my childhood it was common for wives to follow their husband’s lead in voting. Mad Men gets that right: Betty Draper’s response to the candidacy of JFK is that she doesn’t yet know how “we” (she and husband Don) are voting.

I suppose I could have done a nerdy post on the history of woman suffrage (though I couldn’t top Christine Stansell’s op-ed on it in the New York Times), or I could have posted on how women’s political participation has exploded just in my lifetime.

Instead I spent most of the day away from the computer – first at the eye doctor, then trying to refocus my dilated pupils, and finally volunteering for the re-election campaign of my state representative, Debbie Phillips, who also happens to be my friend and neighbor. I helped with collecting donations (and cleaning up after the event) at a dinner where Senator Sherrod Brown was the keynote speaker. He shook my hand afterward. How did Ohio ever deserve such a progressive senator?

My little stint as a volunteer turned out to be a pretty apt way to celebrate what Obama declared “Women’s Equality Day.” Debbie wouldn’t have been able to run for office 100 years ago. As she was speaking, I scanned the room and noticed that the attendees were at least half female. Ditto for her key aides. She’s a fabulous, smart, progressive candidate who’s done a great job as a freshman in the Statehouse.

All of this was unimaginable a century ago – except for a few visionaries who believed woman suffrage could be the first step towards true equal rights.

P.S. Not that we’re quite there yet! But slowly, incrementally, we’re moving along the long long path toward equality.

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