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Archive for the ‘sexism’ Category

Emily Yoffe at State puts her finger on precisely why I can’t believe that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is innocent of sexual assault. It seems DSK has given an interview to French TV, trying to exonerate himself but providing no real answers:

Although we only have translated summaries of the interview, Strauss-Kahn acknowledges there was a sexual encounter between the two but says no force was involved and he didn’t offer her money.  … If there was no force, and no money, are we to believe it was his continental charm that caused Diallo to get on her knees and relieve a stranger?

(See the rest of Yoffe’s analysis here; also at Slate, William Saletan offers a tandem, equally skeptical analysis.)

Exactement! This was the weakest point in the prosecutors’ motion to dismiss the case – how to explain the sex if no compulsion was involved?

In that motion, the prosecutors note that the complainant, Nafissatou Diallo, lied repeatedly, thus shredding her credibility (and, I agree, almost certainly alienating every potential jury in the world). But the evidence in the case went beyond he-said/she-said. While injury evidence was inconclusive, DNA analysis indisputably shows that DSK deposited his semen in the complainant’s mouth – a point that DSK does not dispute.

And so we have to ask, what narrative could possibly explain this most unlikely mixing of fluids? What sort of unpaid, consensual encounter could take place in the span of 20 minutes or less, from first meeting to au revoir?

Here’s how the prosecutors laid out the timeline in their motion to dismiss:

The relatively brief nature of the encounter between the defendant and the complainant initially suggested that the sexual act was not likely consensual. Specifically, key card records from the hotel indicated that the complainant first entered Suite 2806 at 12:06 p·.m., and telephone records later showed that the defendant had placed a call to his daughter at 12:13 p.m. Accordingly, it appeared that whatever had occurred between the complainant and the defendant was over in approximately seven to nine minutes. But in light of the complainant’s failure to offer an accurate and consistent narrative of the immediate aftermath of the encounter, it is impossible to determine the length of the encounter itself. That the defendant placed a brief phone call at 12:13 p.m. is not dispositive of when the encounter took place, how long it lasted, or where the complainant was from 12:06 to 12:26. Any inferences that could conceivably be drawn from the timeline of the encounter are necessarily weakened by the inability to solidify the timeline itself. (pp. 23-4)

But the prosecution hasn’t actually shown that the timeline is shaky. Not at all! DSK checked out at 12:28 p.m. (p. 6). The longest time span during which he and Diallo could have occupied the same space is 20 minutes. The prosecution has established this very ably indeed. Questions about what Diallo did after 12:26 – and inconsistencies in her testimony about her immediate reaction – don’t change the fact that the sexual encounter must have occurred in 20 minutes or less. (There is some question about the accuracy of the hotel’s clock and the key-card records, but the two-minute discrepancy described in footnote 25 would suggest an even shorter timeframe.)

Given that we’re taking about a 20-minute encounter, here is what we must believe to hold DSK innocent: We must imagine that a conspiracy set Diallo on DSK to entrap him and ruin his career. Or we must believe that Diallo was a prostitute – a possibility that both she and DSK have denied. Or we must presume that Diallo initiated the encounter in an attempt to sue DSK and get rich. All three of these theories are far-fetched on the face of it. And if you think any one of them aren’t totally bird-brained – well, consider that DSK was practically heading out the door. A few minutes later, and Diallo and DSK would have never crossed paths. That’s a piss-poor way to plan a conspiracy or entrapment.

Or, of course, we may choose to believe that DSK’s charm and charisma alone will bring any woman quite literally to her knees, with no desire for reciprocity. This charm. This charisma.

(Source: The Guardian)

Okay, that’s not quite fair. There are more flattering photos of DSK. But he’s no beauty. He’s a jowly man on the cusp of old age. I’m much closer to him in age than Diallo is, and yet I can’t imagine even eating potato chips with him in bed, fully clothed.

I don’t think any belief about what happened in Suite 2806 can be held “beyond reasonable doubt,” and in any event, the case will never come before a jury. But since DSK is appealing to the jury of public opinion, it’s fair to ask: Which is more plausible? Were two strangers overwhelmed by by lust? Or did a rich and famous man opportunistically assume that room service included gratification of his every whim?

(As an aside: the motion to dismiss notes that four other stains in the hallway – not the bedroom! – were found to contain semen from men other than DSK. And here I thought bedbugs were the only reason to avoid New York hotels. I know the Sofitel caters to the privileged, but can’t they at least avoid splattering the wallpaper?)

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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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I’ll say right now that I think Dominique Strauss-Kahn most likely did sexually assault the maid at the Sofitel who accused him of rape. The prosecution originally claimed to have compelling, virtually conclusive physical evidence. That evidence hasn’t evaporated along with the alleged victim’s credibility.

But I can understand why prosecutors may have to drop the case anyway. Predisposed though I am to believe the accuser, her history of lying specifically about rape in her asylum application – while fully understandable as a survival lie – does raise the question of whether she has lied about the alleged assault. (I’m much less troubled by inconsistencies in her accounts of her behavior right after the incident, which can be put down to shock.) The preponderance of evidence may still weigh in favor of the maid, but that’s not the legal standard for conviction; proof has to be beyond a reasonable doubt. The alternative is that we’ll send many innocents to prison. And so, as Amp also concluded, if I were a juror I might well have to vote to acquit.

However, DSK is hardly in the clear. French writer Tristane Banon has filed a criminal complaint, alleging attempted rape. According to the AP:

Banon says Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her in an empty apartment during an interview for a book project, struggling with her on the floor as he tried to tear off her clothes. His lawyers describe the account as “imaginary” and say they plan to file a complaint accusing Banon of slander.

Banon’s complaint faces a series of difficult tests in the French justice system and could be dismissed long before reaching trial. Prosecutors must decide first if her allegations would support a charge of attempted rape rather than the less serious crime of sexual aggression, an attack that does not involve an attempt to penetrate the victim.

While it’s a damn shame that DSK’s first alleged victim may never get her day in court (and it’s hard not to view that as partly a triumph of DSK’s racial and economic power relative to to his accuser’s), a conviction by French courts would in many ways be an ideal outcome, even if it too is a long shot. I just had a visit from an old friend who is spending the year in Geneva, immersed in the French media and surrounded by her French-Swiss in-laws. She says that the French news has been all DSK, all the time. While some French women have indeed spoken out against DSK, the French media mostly just blame the Americans. Conspiracy theories abound. DSK’s allies are jockeying to alter the laws to still permit him to run against Sarkozy for the presidency.

If DSK were convicted in New York, the French could just shrug it off. If he’s found guilty in France, his career will be over. Banon faces a tough fight, as she’s fully aware. While she enjoys far more social power than the Sofitel maid (she’s white, prosperous, pretty, and politically connected), the case lacks physical evidence. It’s basically a he-said-she-said scenario. Still, one can hope. Perhaps Banon’s courage in filing charges will encourage other victims of DSK’s predatory behavior to go public, too.

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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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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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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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Charlie Sheen is a serial abuser of women, as Anna Holmes argued persuasively in the New York Times earlier this week. As Holmes wrote, his current two live-in partners are “disposable,” not least because they are presumed golddiggers who tarnished their virtue in sex work. I don’t care if they’re only with Sheen for the money, fame, and drugs. We should be worried for these women’s lives. Sheen’s “goddesses” (his word) are living 24/7 with a control freak with a long record of domestic violence charges and no discernable ties to reality.

Despite his evident break-up with the reality-based world, Sheen appears to have his two partners in thrall. That gives even more cause for concern. A People Magazine story portrayed the women’s relationships with him as downright Stepford-ish.

“I’ve always felt that a man should be able to be with as many women as he likes,” says Rachel Oberlin, 24, one of Sheen’s two live-in girlfriends. “I’ve never had the opportunity to share that with any man before because, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been with a man who was even deserving of that.”

Consenting adults can order their households however they like. But what’s good for the gander ought to be good for the goose – yet here, it only the gander has the privilege of multiple partners. My understanding of ethical polyamory is that it’s based on equality, not hierarchy and paternalism. That’s the exact opposite of how Sheen describes his relationships to People Magazine quotes:

“They don’t judge me,” Sheen repeated. “They don’t lead with opinion. They don’t lead with their own needs all the time. They’re honest enough to tell me, ‘Hey, look, you – you know, park your nonsense. You gotta help me solve this.’ And we solve it.”

When it comes to household decisions, he said, “Everybody’s vote has equal importance. But when we’re approaching crisis, I remind them, ‘Look, I’m 22 years further down the road … my plan is gonna be the best one in the room. So, just trust me on that and everybody will win. Everybody will win and everybody’s needs will be taken care of.”

This is creepy, coming from a guy with a history of physically hurting women. What happens if a goddess dares to express an opinion? The old brick in the face, a la ancient Mesopotamia?

Patriarchy isn’t dead. It has just moved to Hollywood and allegedly developed an epic coke habit. (“For the win!” as Sheen might say.)

Also, the idea of Charlie Sheen as a problem solver and crisis mananger (???!!!) would be hilarious, if he were living in a universe occupied solely by the body and ego of Charlie Sheen. As it is, someone stands to get hurt.

Nonetheless, it’s Caturday, so let’s not just soberly criticize Sheen’s behavior. Let’s mock him, too! (Yes, I know he needs help. He’s making too much money off of not seeking it that mockery is perfectly fair.)

There’s lots more Sheen-y cattiness at the blog Medium Large – check it out. (Thanks to Lisa Simeone for the tip!)

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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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Overnight, a wannabe commenter tried twice to post a comment calling Lara Logan a tramp and accusing her of having sex in the streets of Cairo for money.

This person is a known troll (who will never be allowed to post on this blog), and obviously she (or he?) is only one horrible person. Yet she’s one of thousands, at least, as one can easily see by reading the comments at less-moderated spaces. (See yesterday’s post for links to examples. More vitriol – both of the victim-blaming and Muslim-hating kind – can be seen at the WaPo.) Most of those commenters are not semi-professional trolls.

It is demoralizing to see so much hatred and contempt for a victim of a crime displayed so openly, aggressively, and even proudly. I have to wonder what kind of shriveled soul produces such vitriol – and what kind of sick culture nurtures such hardened souls.

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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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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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So every time I’ve logged into Facebook recently, this ad keeps popping up:

I do like handsome men! I do like men a few years older than me! (Emphasis on: a FEW.)

It’s just that … I’m 47. Only 47. I’m still years from qualifying for the senior meal at Denny’s or Bob Evans. And yet, I’m being hit up on behalf of “Mature American Men,” aka dudes old enough to be my dad.

This is all academic since I’m not on the market. But if I were, and if I went for guys younger than me, I’d instantly be branded a cougar. Evidently, the men my age are supposed to pair off with women 15 years younger. What’s left is the contingent at the Senior Citizen Center. Should I be suddenly single, I’d better spiff up my pinochle skills.

I would love to know if men in my general age group are targeted similarly. “Meet sexy senior women – hot grannies!” Sure, that’s a niche market. I doubt it’s advertised on Facebook. I think you have to go looking for it.

What say you, men between 37 and 57?

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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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Last month, a clip of Tim Wise speaking on “guilt versus responsibility” for racism appeared on both Sociological Images and Womanist Musings, where it drew diametrically opposed reactions. Sociological Images posted it without comment from the bloggers, but reader comments were strongly positive, apart from one obvious white-supremacist troll. By contrast, Renee at Womanist Musings was scathing:

Isn’t that nice?  No guilt, only responsibility.  I think the problem with this little speech is that from the moment that White people are born, they do take advantage of every single ounce of privilege that is bestowed upon them.  They don’t have to feel guilty about slavery, or Jim Crow, but they should sure as hell feel guilty for the perpetuation of Whiteness.  Tim may have gone to multicultural daycare, but his Whiteness made that an option, rather than a necessity.  When he was streamed into university courses and the teachers worked hard to ensure that Blacks were not, he didn’t feel the need to question.

(The whole post is here.)

Here’s the clip, so you can judge for yourself.

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

The discussion on Renee’s post made the important and valid point that white people shouldn’t dominate our conversations about race. Ultimately, a person who has grown up white needs to make the effort to read what people of color have written and listen to what they have to say. They can’t just listen to Time Wise and stop there.

But I would take issue with some of the other criticisms that Renee makes. First, Renee says that Wise should feel guilty about the unearned privileges he enjoys – about advantages he did not personally choose or seek. He should feel guilty about his daycare experiences? Really? How is he culpable for choices his parents made? Should he have foregone college, just because black and Latino boys are funneled away from it (and often into prison instead)?

Fighting privilege – or even “renouncing privilege” – shouldn’t mean voluntary abjection. Privilege comes in two basic forms. The first relies on power over others; it’s a zero-sum game. An example of this type of privilege would be the tendency of many audiences to take white middle-class male speakers more seriously than speakers from a marginalized group. (See, for instance, some conservative pundits’ dismissive comments on the Native American blessing given at the Tucson memorial service last week.) The second form of privilege need not entail the degradation of marginalized groups. Attending college falls into this category. These privileges shouldn’t be abolished but should be made so widely available that they cease to be privileges. (That doesn’t mean that every kid should attend college, or that colleges couldn’t be selective about admissions; instead, we would need to mitigate poverty, substandard K-12 school, dangerous neighborhoods, etc. until the racial makeup of colleges – including highly selective ones – looks very much like the demographics of the U.S. in general.)

More basically, I do not think guilt is a helpful emotion. Guilt paralyzes. It focuses attention right back on the feelings of the white person. It leads to inaction. It can even help perpetuate white privilege. As long as I wallow in guilt, I may have the illusion that I’m achieving solidarity with people of color. But that’s bullshit. Guilt is solipsistic. It’s a natural reaction, but if it’s more than transient, it’s toxic.

When I reject guilt, am I just shoring up my own privilege? After all, I’m a white woman who grew up in a practically all-white farm town in the overwhelmingly white state of North Dakota, dimly aware as a child that the civil rights and black power movements were taking place somewhere else.

So please consider, instead, the words of Audre Lorde:

Guilt and defensiveness are brick in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures. … (124)

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness. …

I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees. (130)

(Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, pp. 124, 130)

In fact, Lorde saw guilt as an obstacle to white women acknowledging difference, which in turn stopped them recognizing their own role in perpetuating racism.

In my teaching about racism, I’ve consistently tried to reframe the discussion as about responsibility rather than guilt. I try to show how racism is structural and systematic, rather than limited to outright bigotry. Most of my students are white, with backgrounds varying from rural poverty to suburban affluence, from highly integrated schools to all-white gated enclaves.

This past week I used the Tim Wise clip in my intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, and I thought it was very effective. More effective, in fact, than my teaching alone. Does it trouble me that may have Wise resonated with some of my white male students in part because he can draw on male privilege? A little. But I’m also pragmatic enough to see the value in male allies in anti-sexism. If Wise’s analogy of the manager who can’t ignore the debt side of the ledger makes some students more receptive to Patricia Hill Collins and bells hooks, then that’s a good starting place.

Many of the commenters on Renee’s post seemed to assume that Wise’s voice is crowding out the voices of people of color. I can understand why people of color would resent his earning an income as an anti-racist educator. I agree he has a responsibility to promote the voices of people of color, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to judge whether he does this adequately or not. From my perch here in Appalachia, I think Wise could do better in understanding the nuances of white poverty (in this otherwise useful piece, for example.) Overall, though, Tim Wise is helping to challenge young white people, especially, to see anti-racism as a cause that should matter to them.

Allies don’t have to be perfect. They/we need to be willing to listen. They/we need to be willing to speak up. They/we need to be willing to examine their own privilege. We’re all a work in progress. We all have opportunities to be allies. We’re all called to engage constructively with potential allies. Guilt doesn’t advance any of these processes. But a sense of responsibility sure does.

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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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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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Am I the only person struck by the Orwellian weirdness of calling a grope-down an “enhanced” pat-down? The term seems to originate with the TSA. Their pusillanimous shill, “Blogger Bob” at the official TSA blog, ran a post titled “Enhanced Pat-downs” back on August 27. The language is theirs. (Weirdly but typically, in that post Bob never defined what the “enhancements” would entail. Now we know.)

Has anyone else made the connection between “enhanced” pat-downs and “enhanced” interrogation techniques? I haven’t seen anything on the terminological connection, neither in the mainstream media nor the blogs I follow. My husband and I each independently saw a connection. What do you think?

While chipping away at different facets of the TSA debacle, I’ve been haunted by bigger questions – ones much harder to answer than how safe the scanners are or whether the grope-downs constitute “sexual assault.” These are existential questions for the United States, for democracy, for our basic decency and humanity: How did we come to this pass? How is it possible for my country to commit acts that in any other context would be deemed sexual assault? How can Americans allow our government to commit them in our name?

We – the American people – haven’t just become more fearful since 9/11. We’ve become more callous, too. From Afghanistan to Guantanamo, we have tolerated torture that promises to “keep us safe.” No wonder a silent majority appears prepared to tolerate virtual strip-searches and government-sponsored groping. As Adam Serwer argues eloquently at TAPPED, many of those livid at the TSA abuses supported the PATRIOT Act and every subsequent grotesquerie aimed at Muslims and foreigners. These folks are only angry now that we’re feeling the reach – nay, the grab – of the security state on our own flesh.

I have to wonder if Abu Ghraib, in particular, lowered the bar for sexual abuse. The differences between the sexualized torment inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the new TSA procedures are important, of course. President Bush never publicly affirmed the Abu Ghraib abuses, while President Obama has publicly defended the TSA. The torment inflicted on the Abu Ghraib prisoners was considerably more severe, including the outright rape of children, according to Seymour Hersh, who first broke the scandal.

However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Abu Ghraib coarsened us – that it put sexual abuse on the menu of techniques routinely employed by the security state. Sure, Lynndie England went to jail for her deeds, but her commanding general, Janis Karpinski, was merely relieved of her duties. Donald Rumsfeld, who Karpinski said authorized the abuses (and I believe her), lives the comfortable life of a retired war criminal. Rummie’s former boss is currently profiting handsomely from a partially-plagiarized memoir.

At the same time, it’s probably an oversimplification to say the new TSA policies are a direct descendant of Abu Ghraib. It seems equally likely that they sprang from the same source – a willingness to allow democracy, the rule of law, and basic human rights to be abrogated after 9/11.

The post-9/11 climate, in turn, has deeper roots. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a symposium on “Islamophobia” at my university. One speaker said that the hatreds that took hold after 9/11 violate America’s greatest values. Another speaker contended that our paranoid responses are very American indeed, reaching back to the xenophobia of the so-called Progressive Era and beyond.

They were both right.

The United States has a tradition of championing justice and equality, liberty and privacy. It also has a tradition of racism, inequality, xenophobia, and willingness to jettison the rule of law in wartime. Unfortunately the gap between the two traditions has often been a gulf between ideals (the first tradition) and practice (the second).

At that forum, we watched an ABC Primetime segment that tested Americans’ willingness to stand up for a Muslim woman being refused service in a shop:

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

If you tear up at the clip – well, I did too. And then I asked myself why civil courage should seem so exceptional and so deeply touching.

I’m beginning to think the public outcry over naked body scanners and grope-downs might just force a change at the TSA. Today, John Pistole finally admitted that the agency went too far in one case where a screener reached inside a woman’s underwear. As these stories multiply, the pressure on Pistole, Napolitano, and Obama will continue to mount.

Let’s say we win the struggle against TSA abuses. Let’s say they agree to keep their hands off our genitals and to reserve the naked-body scanners only for cases where there’s probable cause. What next? What would it take to dismantle the out-of-control security state that spies on its own citizens and kills and tortures brown people overseas, all in the name of freedom? Which tradition will we choose – that of liberty and justice for all, or safety at any price? As a nation, will we continue to be the six people who perpetuated abuse or the twenty-two who stood by silently? Or will we have the courage to become the thirteen who spoke up?

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