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Archive for the ‘gender stereotypes’ Category

If you read feminist blogs, you’ve surely already seen this gem of a T-shirt, which JC Penney was hawking until they (sensibly) withdrew it in response to public protest and apologized for its sexist nitwittery:

Available in sizes for girls in roughly grades 1 through 8, the T-shirt sports the pseudo-sassy phrase, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.”

Feminist bloggers have rightly slammed the shirt for its obvious sexism. Recalling the notorious “math is hard” Barbie, feMOMhist snarks:

What person would want to encourage a little girl to think that beauty and intellect are mutually exclusive?  Clearly no one who has met moi!

The shirt is a disaster aesthetically, politically, and intellectually. It’s part of a larger phenomenon of T-shirts with attitude, mostly marketed to boys; this particular specimen adds sexism to the mix for a little extra charm. It reinforces the idea that girls and women have to trade sex, sexiness, and prettiness for security and success, an idea that you’d think would be moribund by now but just refuses to die: see Laurie Penny’s hilarious takedown of a new book by LSE researcher Catherine Harkin, who makes exactly that argument.

At Feministe, Caperton questions how “every employee who touched it between wholesaler and Web site” could have thought the shirt innocuous. I’d add that the design team, too, brings to mind the fine fellows from “Dumb and Dumber.”

But there’s one point that I haven’t seen other commentators skewer, and that’s the idea that a girl’s brother ought to be swayed by her prettiness. Am I the only one creeped out by this? Why should a brother be inspired to do his sister’s homework just because of how she looks? I mean, this shirt is encouraging boys to look at their sisters in a way that verges on incestuous. Ewwwww.

It goes to show that in a world where sexuality is seen basically as transactional, even young sisters and brothers are pushed into that paradigm. While actual brother-sister incest is (obviously) a real thing, it’s relatively rare, compared to adult-on-child incest. In most families, brothers and sisters are either indifferent to each other’s looks or insult them. I imagine this T-shirt slogan refers to brothers because most girls in the target age group don’t have boyfriends yet. Its dumb-and-dumber designers probably didn’t think through its incestuous implications. That doesn’t make it any less twisted. Ewwww, again.

 

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Now we know why Anthony Weiner tweeted his wang: his inner ape/caveman made him do it.

Funny how when reporters are trolling for “expert” sources on sex, evolutionary psychologists seem to be their first stop. They could consult some of us gender studies types, but they don’t have us on speed-dial. Anyway, I wouldn’t be able to give them a pat explanation, because I think that masculine sexual entitlement isn’t the whole story. We all have an unruly id. Men aren’t the only folks playing at sex on the Internet. Every hetero man playing around in the vast cyber sex emporium is interacting with female partners (or at least, so he thinks). I do think it’s true that a congresswoman who’d sent naked coochie pix would be shamed even more ferociously than Weiner. For both genders, though, sex is messy – emotionally, physically, and now technologically. Sex is humiliating when it’s reduced to screen shots, and that goes for all genders. Maybe someone like Gail Dines could reduce the Weiner saga to a tale of female victimization, but I tend to think that she, too, would see more nuance and complexity. (Echidne, for one, delivers on the nuance beautifully. So does Lilith at Evil Slutopia.)

The ev psych crowd, by contrast, provides the sort of soundbites that practically write the article for you. Consider Jeana Bryner’s piece, “Sex, Lies, and Weiner,” at LiveScience:

“I don’t think that people really take into account an accurate sense of just how risky a text message or a little picture is,” said Daniel Kruger, evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan. “There are probably a hundred different things they’re doing in their day.” …

From an evolutionary perspective, men are here to sow their seeds, so a sexual transgression here and there would make sense. They desire more sexual partners, and even lower their standards when it comes to one-night stands, studies have shown.

“The ultimate currency here is reproductive success and if there’s an opportunity for sex that is a goal that is worthy of such a risk,” Kruger said. …

This evolutionary urge, combined with modern technology that lets a person send off a note or photo to anyone in the ether, takes such risk-taking to a new level.

(Read the complete article here; note that the ellipses are mine.)

Here’s the kicker, though. Weiner’s chances of “sowing his seed” through social media were precisely nil. He took his bouncing bulge into the shower, from whence his seed could at best fertilize a female rat. His chats with blackjack dealer about a junket to Las Vegas sound like empty flirting, not serious trip planning.

It’s a basic tenet of standard evolutionary psychology that men’s sexual behavior is oriented toward fertilizing as many women as possible. That’s of course not synonymous with reproductive success, anyway, given that human offspring are uniquely vulnerable for an extraordinarily long time, and so “paternal investment” – sticking around to help raise the baby – actually amplifies a man’s chance of having his spawn live until adulthood.

But even if we ignore the importance of paternal investment in offspring, there’s a bigger gap in the ev psych explanation of Weinergate. Mainstream practitioners of ev psych systematically avoid theorizing about pleasure. It’s all about “reproductive success.” And yet, the quest for pleasure is by far the more parsimonious explanation for Weiner’s actions. What’s more, it even explains his partners’ actions! Weiner and his partners were looking to get off. They wanted the thrill of being wanted. They enjoyed the thrill enough to risk (or repress) the potential for embarrassment, should they be caught out. Of course it’s true that Weiner, as a congressman, had more to lose, but the women have also been dragged through the mud in ways that were foreseeable. They, too, took a risk.**

But that interpretation evidently isn’t as, well, sexy, since it presumes that men and women don’t come from Mars and Venus. They come from Earth. And they like getting earthy together, even if only virtually. Men and women both willingly take risks for the sake of pleasure. That’s actually quite a stunning story in the hands of an imaginative reporter who’s not cowed by the new dogma of ev psych. (Calling Natalie Angier?)

**(With the possible exception of Meagan Broussard, who provided pictures to Breitbart, including the sole copy of the cock-shot that Breitbart swore he wouldn’t release until … well, until it was no longer a useful chip in his little game of blackmail. Broussard may well have had motives that I’d consider much baser than pleasure.)

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Yesterday, the Tiger asked me: “Mama, what’s the opposite of ‘boys and girls’?”

Me: “Do you think there has to be an opposite? Well, some people think boys are the opposite of girls, but are they really?”

Tiger: “No! They’re all just people.”

Leave it to a seven-year-old to dismantle oppositional sexism.

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The kids are asleep, as of 11:55 p.m. EDT. I’ve got candles burning in the same tealight candelbra that did a job on Grey Kitty’s whiskers, lo those many years ago. I sit on the front porch as the rain cascades around me, letting me and my candles burn.

Oh, and I’m wearing a bathrobe, just to confirm that most hoary of prejudices against bloggers.

The kids will wake soon, and when they do, I’ll be presented with offerings. One involves dirt. Or earth. Or something that requires earth. I’m all for it, though I nearly managed to kill my ‘mater seedlings this weekend through a deadly combo of drought, too-close grow lights, and lack of fertilizer. (When my own fumbling incompetence rains down, I do wonder how my children continue to thrive. It helps that their CNS trumps the tomato’s defense mechanisms. I guess opposable thumbs don’t hurt, either. At any rate, my earth mother cred is shot to hell; just ask my ‘maters.)

I will tear up at my children’s sweet offerings, no matter that they felt obligated or spurred by a class assignment at school.

I will hug them and kiss them and keep their presents forever.

And yet, I still have a wishlist.

1) Can we get beyond the idea that women are uniquely suited to multitasking? Cordelia Fine just bulldozes this stereotype in her book, Delusionas of Gender. And more: Kevin Drum marshals the evidence that multitasking is folly for everyone, irrespective of gender. No wonder I still have a florid scar from the time when I tried to pull a baking sheet from the oven while ensuring that the mini-Tiger (aged not-quite-three) wouldn’t get burned. (Guess who got schorched instead??) I keep multitasking, I’m liable to lose that opposable thumb. Picture a dog watering a tree. Picture a dog baking a souffle. The intersection of that? Um, that would be me. Multitasking. The combo of onions and knives is a particularly foolhardy ideas.

2) Can we please just “be excellent to each other,” as Bill and Ted would say? The one thing I truly want from my beautiful boys is kindness. Toward each other. Toward me. They have mad skillz with their friends, so can we please bring those skillz home? Because, y’know, rudeness is a neurotoxin, especially when rudeness is spread among peer or near-peers. I’m well aware that another camp of researchers regards sibling arguments as healthy, spurring on their verbal development. May God, or some benevolent goddess, or my pal the Ceiling Cat save us from further precocious verbal development. We’re already at a point where the least bad outcome could be a Amero-Germanic version of Alan Dershowitz. But back to the neurotoxins. My kids appear to bee more than fine. They chat; they argue, they wear me down. But my brain? It’s in acute danger of rotting! Neural termites and mad-cow disease could hardly hollow it out any faster than the daily squabbles! No wonder the Red Cross recently rejected my blood on suspicion of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakobs disease, aka mad cow for homans. (True story.)

That’s just my very personal list. I know theere’s ooodles more to say about what other kids and mamas need – not to mention daddies. I realize that my personal wishlist is very much formed by the concerns and privileges of educated, middle-class mothers.As for what less-privileged mothers need – well, Katha Pollitt pretty kicked it into the goal with her commentary on the “Tiger Mother” flap.Please read what she has to say about class,mothering, and solidarity, and I’ll just leave it at that – with the injunction that we should all be excellent to each other, to our parents and our children, tomorrow and always.

Happy Mother’s Day to you all, be you bio-mother, step-mother, adoptive mother, other-mother … or just another exhausted multitasker of any age, gender, or species. May your day be crowned by candles, flowers, champagne, and the survival of your opposable thumbs.

And on those days when excellence turns to flatulence? Well, you’ll still be welcome here at the Kitteh, where we recognize that being a child or a parent or just a fallible hooman is simply who we are. Welcome to the club. I’d light a candle for you, but I must admit it’s rather perfumed, and you might just prefer eau de methane.

(Next up: our local Mama Robin, if I can manage not to terrify her.)

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I continue to be transfixed by the situation in Japan, where technology has shown its best and worst face in the past few days. “Best,” I say, because the terrible human losses would have been greater yet, had builders not prepared for violent earthquakes. There were certainly gaps in planning for the tsunami, in particular, but overall Japan’s construction technology saved untold lives – tens of thousands.

The nuclear plants partly had bad luck, but then again, the chain of power failures that’s now leading to overheated radioactive fuel rods was fairly predictable. I don’t know enough about the technology to give an explainer. Rachel Maddow continues to have good coverage. But essentially, you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to know that highly radioactive spent fuel presents a problem for decades at a minimum, even under controlled circumstances. How many civilizations have survived for tens of thousands of years – long enough to keep ploutonium contained? And yes, some of the fuel rods (about 6%) at the Daiichi plant contain some plutonium.

Then again, with some technologies you really don’t need to be an expert in order to say: this is stupid. A case in point is the use of hormones to stunt girls’ growth lest they grow too tall to catch a husband. I knew that this was a fairly common practice in the 1950s. A recent study reports that the estrogen used to stop growth also mucked with these girls’ fertility, and as adults they have had trouble conceiving. Not all that surprising. What did shock me? The fact that this practice continues today.

This use for estrogen gained popularity about 50 years ago after researchers found it might limit the growth of girls who were much taller than their peers in adolescence. According to one estimate, up to 5,000 girls in the U.S. were treated with estrogen, and many more in Europe.

At that time, “women were basically supposed to get married and have children, and that would be harder if you were a very tall woman, everybody believed,” Christine Cosgrove, co-author of Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry’s Quest to Manipulate Height, told Reuters Health.

“There were so many parents, mostly mothers probably, who just feared that their daughters’ lives would be ruined if they ended up being six feet tall, because they’d never have a husband and a family,” she said.

Some tall girls are still treated with estrogen today — more in Europe than in the United States — and estrogen is currently given to these girls in about the same dose that is in a birth control pill, Cosgrove said. In the past, it might have been given at 100 times that dose before doctors realized the potential dangers, she said.

[Cosgrove is co-author of Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry's Quest to Manipulate Height, speaking here to Reuters.]

Two very different scenarios – one a matter of life-and-death, the other “merely” a matter of life foregone through infertility. Yet both reflect the foolhardiness of humans when it comes to technology. I’m no Luddite (my laptop is a cyborg extension of my brain), but could we just cut it out with the human experimentation? Because that’s what nuclear plants are, at bottom, too – an uncontrolled experiment with far too many uncontrollable variables. Also, perhaps friend-of-the-blog Hydraargyrum will chime in on this: humanity will never win against CORROSION, which is basically what I understand to be happening at lightning speed in those uncooled fuel rods.

Can’t we humans please learn for once, and put an end to the techno-hubris?

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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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In my offline reading this week, I came upon an argument for the allure of big boobs. The writer stated that all men prefer large breasts – and that women with small ones risked being misread as men.

Well, I’ve never been mistaken for a man, even though I’m decidedly not one of those gals who – as Susan once said of Edie on Desperate Housewives – enters a room several minutes after her breasts. The only time I was taunted for looking boyish, I had short hair and was five years old. Most of us lesser-breasted girls endured some teasing in junior high and beyond, but we were teased very specifically as girls. (Of course, no one escaped: the busty girls just had to deal with other forms of harassment. And everyone’s bra strap got snapped, sooner or later.)

Now that I’ve reached an age where gravity is an irresistible force and the flesh no longer an immovable object, smaller breasts have some real advantages. Who’d have thought that in seventh grade?

As for all men desiring large breasts? I doubt that’s true, either, though I think it’s still a widely held preconception. It may well be that some college-aged men, having grown up with ubiquitous access to porn, really do expect DDs or more. Even back in my youth, some men were fixated on size: the “breast men” of yore.

But all men? I started to do the math, and I realized that if all heterosexual men insisted on larger-than-average breasts, half of them would be left without a partner. It would be worse than China! Men would have to discover a dude-bro version of Lake Wobegon – one where instead of all the children being above average, all the boobs would be bigger than a C cup.

Back here in the real world, though, most men ultimately seem more interested in whole women, not just their parts. At least, that’s been my experience and observation. Yours, too, I hope?

Echinacea in Berlin’s Tiergarten, July 2010; photo by Sungold

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Would you leave your gravely injured mate on earth while you blast off for several weeks in outer space? Today came reports that Gabrielle Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, may be planning to do just that in April. Salon describes Kelly’s choice – to fly, or to stay home and support his wife through rehab – as “a troubling predicament.”

Really? I’d say that if this is a predicament, my brain is a porous pickle. (Which, incidentally, is possible.) Your partner gets shot, through the brain, and a large arc of skull is removed to prevent brain cells from dying due to swelling. Minimum spousal duty according to Sungold: you stick around at least until the missing piece of skull has been replaced. This takes months. In the case of CBS newsman Bob Woodruff, doctors waited four months before reopening the wounds and placing a prosthesis. Until the patient has a complete skull again (whether composed of their own bone or, like Woodruff, a synthetic material), she wears a bulky helmet to protect the brain.

For me, staying home would be, um, a no-brainer. But can Kelly really help his wife? Salon reports:

Research shows a strong social support network — family, friends, church or similar — is crucial for rehabilitating patients and improves the outcome.

But that doesn’t mean a spouse has to be there 24-7, 365 days, said Dr. David Lacey, medical director of acute inpatient rehab services at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina.

“You also have to look at what’s normal for the couple,” Lacey said. “If it were my parents who had almost never been apart for the entire 50-some years they were married, all of a sudden changing that structure would be a pretty dramatic impact.”

But what’s normal for Kelly and Giffords, through their three-year marriage, is spending a few weeks apart at a time — he in Houston, she in Washington or her home state of Arizona. However, Kelly, 46, kept vigil at her side in the days immediately after the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson. The rampage outside a supermarket left six dead and 13 injured.

But nothing is normal when one partner is struck by a devastating illness or injury. Three weeks of normal life is not the same as three crucial weeks in rehab. Indeed, nothing is normal now about their previously independent relationship. Giffords will rely on her husband as caregiver-partner for a long time to come. Perhaps forever. It’s hard to feel indomitable, I suspect, when your brain is protected by thin skin and a helmet. It’s hard to feel enterprising when your mobility is highly restricted.

I don’t know Congresswoman Giffords or her husband (obviously!), but I’m irked by the presumption that Giffords ought to be game for her husband taking off, because that’s the kind of gal she’s always been. She’s not that gal now. Salon, again:

Mark Kelly has said he’d like the decision to be made jointly, with his wife’s opinion, if possible.

A former NASA colleague, Susan Still Kilrain, said if she can, Giffords will tell him to go.

Kilrain, in 1997, became the second American woman to pilot a space shuttle. Then, she was single. She recalls how Ashby’s wife, Diana, urged him to continue with his mission training despite her cancer.

“She really wanted him to stop sitting around and waiting for her to die,” Kilrain said. “All the wives would feel that way, and his wife (Giffords) seems to have a very big support system.”

That said, there’s no way Kilrain would resume training under the Kelly-Giffords circumstances. Women, she noted, tend to be the caregivers. She points to her own life story: She stood down from space flying after her first child was born, and quit NASA in 2002. She’s a stay-at-home mom to four children, ages 4 to 11.

“Me personally? I wouldn’t fly,” Kilrain said from her home in Virginia. “But I certainly would definitely respect his decision to fly. I wouldn’t second-guess that in a minute.”

For me, this type of decision isn’t just Monday-morning quarterbacking. I’ve been on both sides of this decision (minus the cool space stuff). And guess what? I didn’t fly. Nor did he.

When my husband fell terribly ill in Berlin, we stayed on for months while he completed treatment. I didn’t think once of taking the kids and flying back to the States. I dropped out of teaching (without any pay) for six months. Good thing, too, because the treatment was about as perilous as the disease. He needed help, as much as I could provide while also keeping the kids together, body and soul. I needed to be near him. We needed each other. Believe me, you don’t want to be on the other side of the world – or even out of this world – if your partner is gravely ill. That bit about “in sickness and in health”? It’s a vow that expresses the (temporarily) healthy partner’s need, too, to provide care and support and closeness. It’s not just about the sick guy.

Then, turnabout: Two years ago, when an MRI report suggested I likely had MS or vasculitis in my brain, my husband was scheduled to attend a conference in Germany. He was worried about leaving me, and so he asked my doc what he would do. “I’d stay home,” said my doc. And so my mate canceled his trip. Fortunately, my brain managed not to explode. (We still don’t know what was up, but we’re pretty sure it’s neither MS nor vasculitis.) My husband could have made his trip safely, after all. He would have worried the whole time, and I would have quivered in fear, again responsible for the kids but without knowing if they could count on me. I was also just plain sick – very sick. I say he made the right call. He says he doesn’t regret it.

I question whether we should applaud wives for playing the martyr, struggling against long odds and terrible pain while their partner achieves a dream. We do not expect quite the same of men, nor should we. Instead, how about if Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly make a mutual decision that isn’t swayed by these cheering squads who seem to hope Giffords will gamely wave him goodbye? (That image conjures up the anniversary of the Challenger, which just passed, and how those brave families on the ground sometimes don’t get their astronauts back.) Maybe they’ll decide that he should fly after all. But if he stays with his wife, I can’t imagine how he could ever regret it.

Really. It’s not a predicament. It’s a no-brainer. (That cheap witticism is sure gaining mileage, yes?) If you do what’s least likely to cause regrets, the prognosis for future happiness and harmony will be better. You don’t need a neurosurgeon, astronaut, or even a small-potatoes blogger in Ohio to say this. Most of us know it as soon as we reflect on who and what we truly love.

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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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And by “back in the day,” I mean in the rollicking ’80s, when some parents panicked at the prospect of women and men on the same hall.

My university is on the verge of establishing a gender-neutral housing option. This doesn’t mean that all students will be mixed willy-nilly, irrespective of gender. It just means that some students can opt into a dorm where any genders can share a room.

This is really good news, obviously, for people who aren’t gender conformists. Students who are trans or genderqueer will finally have options. Since there are only 50 beds available in the pilot program, and they’re mainly for upperclassmen, incoming students will have to file special requests. I hope this process will be simple, so that the youngest trans students won’t feel they have to fight for access.

I’m frankly surprised that my university is taking this leap. Compared to a more diverse urban campus, we don’t have many openly trans students. Many of our students have conservative parents. Our university administration is not known for taking risks. I applaud it for doing the right thing. I’m even more impressed by the students who raised the issue and got the policy changed.

One of my outstanding former students, who blogs at I Hamburger, punctures the myth that opposite-sex couples will leap at the chance to live together:

How many unmarried couples did I know who lived together off-campus (and we’re talking planned it as they were a couple, not lived together and became a couple)? Zero. That’s because in college, people usually want to live with their friends, not significant others.

(Read the whole post here.)

That sounds about right. Even back in those swinging ’80s, my college friends shied away from living with their romantic partners. It represented more commitment than most of us wanted.

I did briefly live with a boyfriend for one summer during college, but only under duress. Not that we didn’t like each other. Not that we minded sharing a bed. We just didn’t want to be locked into a commitment we weren’t ready for. The house manager of our student-run semi-co-op informed us that the only way he could satisfy other students’ wishes was to place the two of us into a shared room. It was just for the summer, and at the end of it we happily reverted to separate quarters.

The only lasting impact of that summer? I inherited his kitten, since his new quarters prohibited animals. (So did mine, but I had a much better chance at hiding her.) That kitten was Grey Kitten, patron cat of this blog.

I knew exactly one couple who shared a room in a conventional dorm (not a co-op). That was my freshman year, in a dorm full of pre-meds and teetotaling Asian Americans. Skeet and Tom had matching plaid bathrobes that they wore almost constantly. Yes, Skeet was a dude (as was Tom). It took me half the year to figure out they were more than mere roommates. Even in that conservative milieu, way back in 1981, no one gave a hoot.

I’m sure a few parents will gripe about my university’s new policy. Maybe they need to recall that 30 and 40 years ago, students were having sex just like students do today – no more, no less. The only thing that might have changed since then? Our acceptance of sexual diversity.

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Just for the record: I would not care to samba with Julian Assange. Anything more intimate that square dancing, and I’d wonder what tricky step he might try … bareback, of course. Hmm, maybe “dosido your partner” means something different to Australian men of mystery?

Anyway, Gayle Force posted this irresistible clip. (Don’t see it? Go here.)

My favorite lyric?

Don’t corner Merkel, she’ll become tenacious

She’s risk-averse and rarely creative.

When I still lived in Germany, we regarded her as the Spawn of Helmut Kohl for her tenacity, risk aversion, and political acumen. Rather immaturely but accurately, we called her the Pillsbury Dough Girl. Back in the mid-1990s she honestly looked like she would end her career as a puff pastry; since then, she’s discovered tanning beds. I generally disapprove of tanning beds, but Merkel truthfully looks a whole lot less dowdy – unlike her mentor Kohl, who grew ever more dumpling-esque over time.

Here’s Merkel and mentor Kohl circa 1992:

(via the Editrix’ Roncesvalles)

And today? Why, it’s Merkel Barbie! (Or do the other dolls just call her Angie?)

(Image from Mattel. Don’t miss the flag on the left, or Angie’s pink accessories. Yeah, I know – I’m just spiteful because I want a Sungold Barbie!)

Had I been in the State Department, Wikicables would be a lot more embarrassing. Just imagine if diplomats and snarky bloggers magically traded places for a day! Oh, the places we’d go! The scandals we’d sow! Mmmmm, I feel some Seuss coming on: The Cat in the Hat Comes to the U.N.! The North-Going Zax and the South-Going Zax meet on that disputed Korean island! The Star-Bellied Sneetches Rock Paris! The Butter Battle and the Big Boy Boomeroo – coming soon to a dictatorial Middle Eastern nation near you!

On second thought, maybe we bloggers ought to stay home and start poring through those cables ourselves. We might yet uncover a Big Boy Boomeroo. I hear Iran is building one.

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I kvetch a lot about snow days on this blog, because the North Dakotan girl in me is annoyed and appalled at how my little town in southeast Ohio shuts down as soon as a dozen snowflakes stick to the ground.

But this North Dakotan girl also knows the difference between a snow flurry and a blizzard. When the weather forecasters tell you that a foot and a half of snow is about to whomp your town, you locate your flashlights, make sure you’ve got food in the house, and then you hunker down.

“Hunkering down” ≠ getting in your car and driving.

And so I am amazed and appalled at how New Yorkers compounded their quandary by putting their cars on the streets where snowbanks could form all around them and block the plows. People! When Minneapolis got an equal dump of snow earlier this month, did you see the Minnesotans turning their city streets into impromptu parking lots?

I feel for the folks who are camping out at the airports and train stations. Their predicament was a stroke of rotten luck. But the motorists? Except for those few who were responding to an emergency, they were captured by hubris and willful stupidity, which they then inflicted on the whole city. It makes me think of this very cool puzzle/one-person game my kids got for Christmas, where you try to unsnarl gridlocked traffic …

… except that in real life, there’s negative fun and everyone loses.

Oh, and staying home in a blizzard isn’t a sign of the “wussification of America,” no matter what Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s thinks. Real men are smart enough to hunker down during the storm (again: not in their cars!!). They’ll have plenty of chances to prove their mettle when the digging out begins.

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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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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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I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe during this explanation of the new TSA policies:

(Go here if you can’t see the clip.)

It perfectly sums up the Homeland Security response:

Q: So why do I have to go through all of this?

A: 9/11.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

(But hey, what’s with all the questions? Don’t you know loyal Americans just do as they’re told? Have we gone soft since the heyday of that great American, Joe McCarthy?)

This snippet from Colbert includes some of those moments when Colbert’s parody is uncomfortably close to actual bigotry, and you wonder if the audience is laughing with or at homophobia. Ditto for Colbert’s use of “hermaphrodite,” which is exactly the term his character would use, but – ugh.

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

Kudos to Colbert for raising a question that’s been bugging me too: What genius came up with the name “Rapiscan”?

Dave Barry complains in this NPR interview about finding out from the TSA that he’s got a dire physical condition: a blurred groin. Less jokingly, when host Melissa Block repeats the TSA line about the grope searches not being punishment for folks who opt out, Barry replies:

Well, I would say whoever wrote that it’s not punitive was not having his or her groin fondled at the time.

Jessi at The Sexademic has some satirical ideas on how to protest the searches.

Badtux the Snarky Penguin offers some darkly accurate new slogans for the TSA.

And finally, Daniel Solove at the legal blog Concurring Opinions shows us the fun to be had with a TSA Playmobile kit!

Sadly, the TSA Playmo set is no longer sold in stores, so you’ll just have to check out the rest of Solove’s wickedly wonderful post.

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The New York Times reports that anti-bullying programs are already under fire from opponents who fear our wee children will catch The Gay if teachers present LGBT folks as, well, fellow human beings:

Some districts, especially in larger cities, have adopted tolerance lessons with minimal dissent. But in suburban districts in California, Illinois and Minnesota, as well as here in Helena [Montana], the programs have unleashed fierce opposition.

“Of course we’re all against bullying,” Mr. DeMato, one of numerous pastors who opposed the plan, said in an interview. “But the Bible says very clearly that homosexuality is wrong, and Christians don’t want the schools to teach subjects that are repulsive to their values.”

The divided Helena school board, after four months of turmoil, recently adopted a revised plan for teaching about health, sex and diversity. Much of the explicit language about sexuality and gay families was removed or replaced with vague phrases, like a call for young children to “understand that family structures differ.” The superintendent who has ardently pushed the new curriculum, Bruce K. Messinger, agreed to let parents remove their children from lessons they find objectionable.

(Read it all here.)

Message sent: We’re all against bullying, except when it comes to kids who are gay, or might be gay, or dress up as Daphne on Halloween even though they’re male. (If that last story doesn’t ring a bell, follow the link, stat!)

Opponents of bullying-prevention spew predictable condemnations of people who have “chosen the gay lifestyle.” I know a few lesbian parents in my town, and believe me, they are leading the “mom lifestyle.” Yes, it can be twisted, but they have chosen it! We see each other at music lessons and soccer. When it comes to carpools and practices, though, there’s not a heap of “choice” involved. (So sorry to disappoint the homophobes). Non-hetero moms and dad are supervising homework  just as painfully as the rest of us parents.

So go right ahead, you sanctimonious Christianists. Let us who’ve chosen the “mom lifestyle” hear just how depraved we are – just how repulsive! We can take it.

Just leave our beloved children out of it. My elder son’s favorite color was purple up until about second grade. I don’t think either of my kids are actually gay, but if they were – so what? So fucking what?

No kid deserves bullying, period. As long as wingnuts and ignoramuses act like gayness is a communicable disease and marriage equality is the death-knell of Western Civilization, kids who step outside the norm will continue to be bullied. Some will despair. Some will take their lives in their despair.

What kind of “family values” justify the lethal bullying of children? (Maybe Jerry Falwell will reach out from his grave and enlighten us?)

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This USA Today headline is one of the most annoying I’ve seen in a while:

It’s true: Menstruation does affect women’s emotions

And no, I’m not irked because I’m PMSing. In fact, if it’s not TMI, I’m in the “follicular phase,” which the study cited in this article claims is the least emotional phase of women’s cycles!

Here’s what the study actually found.

Researchers used MRI to study the brains of women who viewed a series of pictures and rated them as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This test was repeated at different stages of the women’s menstrual cycles.

In the early follicular stage of the menstrual cycle, no areas of the women’s brains showed significantly increased activation while viewing the pictures. But during the midpoint of their menstrual cycle, when hormone levels were higher, the women had increased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain involved in processing emotional information, the researchers found.

So no, it’s actually not menstruation that makes women more emotional, assuming the study’s findings turn out to be valid. It’s ovulation! And the hormones that accompany ovulation! Because that’s what happens at the “midpoint” of the cycle.

In fact, the article says nothing whatsoever about what happened in the brains of women who were actually menstruating or on the verge of it. The headline nonetheless preys shamelessly on the stereotype of the moody menstruating woman. Some of us do get moody, and that’s okay – but all women are not the same. (Also, this may be pedantic, but it’s sort of simplistic to say that “hormone levels were higher” at mid-cycle. It depends on which hormones you mean. First estrogen peaks, then progesterone hits its maximum several days later.)

Apart from the misleading headline, the study itself makes me wonder if function MRI technology is feeding into a kind of “physics envy” among psychologists, biologists, and biomedical researchers. Biologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky offers my favorite explanation of physics envy:

This is a classic case of what is often called physics envy, a disease that causes behavioral biologists to fear their discipline lacks the rigor of physiology, physiologists to wish for the techniques of biochemists, biochemists to covet the clarity of answers revealed by molecular geneticists, all the way down until you get to the physicists who confer only with God. Recently, a zoologist friend had obtained blood samples from the carnivores he studies and wanted some hormones in the samples tested in my lab. Although inexperienced with the technique, he offered to help in any way possible. I felt hesitant asking him do anything tedious, but since he had offered, I tentatively said, “Well, if you don’t mind some unspeakable drudgery, you could number about a thousand assay vials.” And this scientist, whose superb work has graced the most prestigious science journals in the world, cheerfully answered, “That’s okay. How often do I get to do real science, working with test tubes?”

(From Sapolsky’s wonderful essay on testosterone.)

Obviously, MRI is way cooler than test tubes! It’s no wonderful that researchers would rather get big grants and fiddle with fMRI, because it not only seems like “real science.” Grants and equipment tend to impress tenure committees, as well. While we actually know very little about what – if anything – fMRI actually tells us, it makes for cool pictures of the brain and imposing CVs.

But surely I’m not the only person who read about this latest fMRI study and wondered: Golly, couldn’t the researchers just ask the women how they were feeling?

 

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As I’ve written before, I’m not in any way opposed to casual sex. Still, I think there are real problems with hookup culture. The Duke “sex list” that I wrote about yesterday gives some clues to what’s wrong with it.

First, too often the sex is  just not very good for women. Karen Owen, the list’s author, raves about one guy – Subject 12 – who made sure she came first. This speaks volumes about what was likely lacking in her other encounters. But it’s not just her. I’ve heard innumerable stories from students who hooked up with (or refused) guys who were basically out to get serviced. Even if the guy is interested in mutual pleasure (and I think the majority of men are), he’s going to have to make a serious effort to get it right with a new partner if it’s only going to be a one night stand. He’s up against the orgasm gap, which is especially pronounced in younger women, as I wrote last spring.

Second, most of her hookups are drunken. She’s astonished when she discovers that sober sex can be pretty great. On “Subject 7″:

My second hookup with Subject 7 was an entirely new experience for me: a 100% sober booty call.

She enjoys it enough that they do it again. And again.

I don’t see anything wrong with having sex tipsy, some of the time. I’m not talking about the sort of inebriation that can result in sexual assault charges, just enjoying a drink or two – or at least having a pre-existing agreement, as a couple, that you’ll get drunk together and get naked. It’s hard to forge such an agreement if there’s no communication outside of bars and bedrooms, and it’s even harder in a one-night stand.

At any rate, it’s sort of sad if sober sex is a novelty. Here, too, I see a lot of students stuck in the same rut. Everyone relies on liquid courage. As long as that’s your only mode of interaction, you’re going to miss out on a lot of fun. (Maybe that’s where a Powerpoint presentation is useful – in jogging one’s memory?)

Owen also seems to view sex as being about conquest to a degree that feels highly transactional to me. The “subjects” are always described in terms of their alpha status. Lacrosse/baseball/soccer player. Good looking. Aggressive. While Owen also talks about who manages to be entertaining, these various status markers overshadow their personalities in most instances. Again, this is unsurprising. Because of its emphasis on surface traits, hookup culture is far better suited to assessing (and advertising!) status markers than it is to promoting mutually joyful, rewarding sex.

I do think it’s possible to have casual sex that’s not transactional. The obvious prerequisite for this is respect, an ability to see your potential partner as a full-fledged human being, and a sincere interest in your partner’s pleasure as well as your own. This is easier to achieve if you’re at least acquaintances before you begin.

It’s telling that Owen’s best sex was, apparently, also the least transactional, with the aforementioned Subject 12. He’d floated under her radar because he’d been in a relationship. Also, he evidently wasn’t her physical type, because the few times he’d been out to the bars she hadn’t noticed him. Significantly, they didn’t meet in a bar; they were hanging out with friends.

There’s some real sweetness in this story. Yes, they were hungover in the morning, but they hadn’t been sloshed, and they had no regrets by daylight – just more helpings of what they’d had the night before. What if hookup sex routinely ended this way? Well, most likely, there’d be a lot more hookups that segue into other sorts of relationships. For sure, there’d be fewer people just using their partner to get off, and a lot more having good, real sex.

Owen’s out in the “real world” now, beyond the comfy nest of Duke, and lying low while the hubbub over her list dies down. But for all of my students, male and female alike – I hope they’re having fun this weekend. I hope they’re being safe. And I hope, for those who do hook up, a “Subject 12″ experience, brimming with mutual lust, good humor, and a sense of truly being appreciated.

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I can easily imagine the impulse to chronicle one’s sex life in a diary. I can’t imagine turning it over to one’s friends. That’s what Karen Owen, a recent Duke grad did, except she framed her sex list as a mock honor’s thesis and sent it as a Powerpoint to three of her friends. One of them wasn’t much of a friend and forwarded it to, well, the whole world.

It’s amazing to me how an otherwise apparently intelligent person can still think that anything in electronic form is likely to stay private. Even I, who came of age when Facebook wasn’t capitalized and was a literal book, know this. Of course, it wasn’t just Owen’s privacy that was violated. Half of the baseball and lacrosse team had their privacy violated, too, through no fault of their own. She was utterly reckless with their privacy.

You can read all about it at Broadsheet and Jezebel, if you want the salacious details. I’m more interested in what’s not being discussed. First and foremost, Owen writes of an encounter (“Subject 5″) in which she was completely blacked out. This is normally considered to be sexual assault. Under North Carolina law, it appears to be second-degree rape:

A person is guilty of rape in the second degree if the person engages in vaginal intercourse with another person … Who is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless, and the person performing the act knows or should reasonably know the other person is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.

It’s odd that neither Broadsheet nor Jezebel is calling this rape. Broadsheet doesn’t even mention it. Jezebel breezes past it:

With one subject, the author blacked out and doesn’t remember having sex, but doesn’t seem troubled, by her own account.

Owen doesn’t have a duty to prosecute it. However, a feminist website surely ought to call it by its rightful name. A situation where one partner is blacked out isn’t some “gray” situation. It is not marginal or borderline. It is sexual assault, period. That doesn’t change just because Owen seems to boast that “I had somehow, in my black out state, still managed to crawl into bed with a Duke athlete.”

I’m also surprised (though I shouldn’t be) at how gender is affecting the way people interpret this incident. Imagine if the genders were reversed. There’d be more feminist outrage at how the “subjects” were exposed to shame, instead of Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet saying the guys were “pantsed.” There’d be less unfeminist outrage – as expressed on the Today Show – that a girl did this. There’d be a lot more shaming of the “subjects,” who would also be at higher risk for desperate acts. We’ve all heard of young women and gays who’ve committed suicide after their sex lives were broadcast without their will; I haven’t yet heard of a heterosexual male doing the same. That still doesn’t make it okay to treat a guy’s privacy like a dirty tissue. Not even if he’s an alpha male!

To be clear, I don’t want anyone to be shamed. I don’t want anyone’s privacy to be violated. I’m just struck by the hypocrisy, and how it’s toxic to everyone involved.

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