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Archive for the ‘shame’ Category

I didn’t think they really would kill Troy Davis. Surely, the worldwide campaign to spare his life would impress someone in Georgia. Surely, the Supreme Court would stop the process, once they’d delayed it. Surely, the work of the Innocence Project had raised enough awareness of the presence of innocent people on Death Row.

When I heard that they’d murdered him, after all, at 11:08 p.m. on Tuesday, I wept. I’m sure some of you readers did too. It is not true, as one of Davis’s nephews told Amy Goodman, that “we are all Troy Davis.” People like Goodman and me – white people blessed with education and elevated above poverty – are almost certain never to land on Death Row. Nor do I want to appropriate the grief of the people who knew Davis and loved him. And yet, tears of grief and rage seemed the only possible response to a rotten, festering system that committed homicide against a man whose only crime appears to have been being black in the wrong place on the wrong night.

All that is to say that I have no desire to over-intellectualize the murder of Davis. At the same time, I’ve been re-reading parts of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for a class I’m teaching. The first section of the book, aptly titled “Torture,” describes in excruciating detail pre-modern ways of punishing criminals. A man is drawn and quartered. Foucault forces us to look. Then he spends the rest of the book analyzing how the king’s power to maim bodies and take life has been supplanted in the modern era by the bureaucratic state’s ability to micro-regulate us through surveillance and, ultimately, self-surveillance, shaping docile bodies. We are disciplined, and we discipline ourselves. We are subjected to normalization, and we learn to conform to the norms. Modern techniques of power are all the more effective because they are subtle – and they are no longer confined to prohibiting behaviors. Where power had been merely repressive, it now has the ability to elicit behaviors, attitudes, identities, and reality itself:

We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. (189)

Foucault is surely right about the productive and proliferative aspects of modern power. But doesn’t he present a false dichotomy here? While European countries have abandoned capital punishment, the techniques of power in the United States remain deeply invested in repression. Of course, all of the productive aspects of power are in full swing here, too – often commingled with more repressive techniques, as in TSA routines that elicit docility. At the same time, torture is undergoing a renaissance. The spirit of Abu Ghraib courses through our polity.

As Troy Davis waited for nearly four hours while the Supreme Court took one last glance at his case, he was strapped to a gurney with the lethal needle already in his arm. That’s a form of torture that would have pleased the most bloodthirsty pre-modern tyrant. It would have warmed the heart of a postbellum Southern lynch mob. Without being naive about the more subtle forms of modern power, isn’t it time we renounced state-sponsored murder?

A dark flag bearing the words, "A man was lynched yesterday."

(Posted by a bunch of my Facebook friends, attributed to Randall Horton)

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Did you know that reading a book about vintage aircraft now falls under the umbrella of suspicious activity for airline passengers? Actually, it’s safe to say you can probably get away with it if you look like me: white, female, not visibly Muslim (my suspicious skirt notwithstanding).

If you’re male and black? Well, you can expect to be hauled off the airplane and interrogated.

Earlier this month, singer Vance Gilbert was waiting for take-off at Logan when he was asked by a United flight attendant to move his fanny pack from behind his ankles to the upper bin. He suggested shifting it in front of his feet, to keep his wallet at hand. She agreed.

No one is claiming that any conflict occurred. If you read the comments at the link, Lisa Simeone (frequent commenter on this blog) vouches for Gilbert’s character. So does Robyn Ochs, who I “know” through her work on sexuality. Both Lisa and Robyn have known Gilbert personally for years. They and others describe him as a calm, kind man who wouldn’t overreact. We are talking about a graying 50something guy who sports Hawaiian shirts who’s a doggie-dad to two standard poodles.

But moments later, evidently alarmed by the fact that Gilbert was perusing a book about airplanes – we’re talking cutting-edge machines made in Poland circa 1946! – flight personnel diverted the plane from the take-off queue and had a group of state police and TSA officers remove Gilbert from the plane. He was whisked back into a breezeway where he was questioned by police. Here’s how Gilbert describes it on his blog:

Policeman: “Did you have a problem with your bag earlier?”

Me: “No sir, not at all. The flight attendant wanted it secured elsewhere other than behind my feet, and I opted to put it under the seat in front of me. It’s my wallet, even though there’s only 30 bucks in it…And all that was done without belligerence, or words for that matter…it was all good.

A few beats…

Policeman: “Sir, were you looking at a book of airplanes?”

Me: “Yes sir I was. I am a musician for money, but for fun I study old aircraft and build models of them, and the book I was reading was of Polish Aircraft from 1946.”

Policeman: “Would you please go get that book so that i can see it?”

I go back onto the plane – all eyes are on me like I was a common criminal. Total humiliation part 2.

After a couple of minutes he says, “Why, this is all Snoopy Red Baron stuff…”

Me: “Yes sir, actually the triplane you see is Italian, from 1921 a little after World War 1…”

Policeman: “No problem here then, you can go on back on to the plane, sorry to inconvenience you…and have a nice flight”.

“Inconvenience” is hardly the word. The flight was delayed and Gilbert missed his connection. He was out money and time, as were numerous other passengers. But far worse, he was shamed in public. He was frightened. He was reminded that in all the blather about keeping “us” safe, “we” and “us” are always construed as white. (The title of this post isn’t original; it comes from Gilbert’s realization that he was singled out – racially profiled – for flying while black.)

And the persecution of “flying while black,” like “driving/walking/BREATHING while black,” is only intensifying in the post-9/11 era. This isn’t coincidental. It’s built right into our society, from the cult of “Homeland Security” to the concentration of MP-style police ops in non-white neighborhoods. In her book Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting Sex, Violence and Feminism in the ‘War on the Terror’, Gargi Bhattacharyya details how the WOT isn’t just demonizing and victimizing brown men abroad. It’s also heightening and militarizing the oppression of brown and black men here in the United States.

Gilbert’s ugly experience is just one quotidian example of how the WOT is being brought home to men who aren’t protected by Whiteness. (Brown women are singled out, too, but mostly for the perceived infraction of “flying while Muslim”). It’s also a classic instance of covert racism; every white person involved can point to the manifestly DANGEROUS sketches of Snoopy’s dream plane. No racism here, no-sirree, moving right along …

Gilbert is fighting back. He has contacted the ACLU. United is making apologetic noises (though not yet issuing the abject apology Gilbert deserves). I think they might have messed with the wrong Snoopy/Red Baron aircraft geek, judging from his music:

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

A change is gonna come. A change has gotta come. The alternative is a racist dictatorship of the Tea Party-military complex.

On a wholly different plane (ahem), I think one good thing may have come out of Gilbert’s ordeal: wider awareness of his music. It was new to this humble blogger, anyway. So here’s one more … “Some Great Thing.”

(Clickety click if need be.)

Vance Gilbert, I hope you will get your measure of justice. I hope you can take your story to a national audience. Now, could you just add Athens, Ohio, to your tour schedule, pretty please? You truly are Some Great Thing.

(Hat tip to Lisa Simeone for alerting my to Gilbert’s ordeal, and kudos to her and his other friends for jumping to his defense.)

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Just when you think Rick Santorum’s “Google problem” had set a new standard for disgust, Dan Savage proposes a new meme far ickier than the one he has propagated as a neo-definition of “santorum”: “The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.”

(If you can’t see the clip, click here.)

Because we really need a laugh after the “clusterfuck” (ballgame’s word) that was the debt-ceiling bloodless coup. And because I’d promised ballgame I’d lighten up.

My condolences if you happen to be named Rick. Or Ricky. Or Richard … Unless, of course, you’ve got your own “man-on-dog” issues.

Oh, and if you figure out the bleeped portions, please do share in comments! Filthy minds want to know.

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It’s true I didn’t friend Anthony Wiener on Facebook, but I did follow him on Twitter. His voting record on feminist and LGBT issues is impeccable. That adolescent picture of him on Twitter? To die for! Weiner is funny and self-deprecating, in a profession where the ability to laugh at oneself is rare.

So I followed Weiner (even though I follow very few folks on Twitter). And one day, in the midst of congressional horse-trading (uterus-trading??) on Planned Parenthood, I boldly tweeted him this:

I didn’t call him my boyfriend, straight up. Just a simple declaration of love! Nor did I keep tweeting him. Nor did I look him up on Facebook (much less call him my boyfriend there). But I could have! Just look at the guys I’ve called my boyfriend on or off line. Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert. Hugh Laurie. Our school’s superintendent (as documented for Internet-posterity on this here blog). And, in fact, Anthony Weiner joined this boy-harem of mine after the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Good thing the tomatoes on my Twitter icon only give a glimpse of my face. Had I displayed my true hottness, who knows? I might have become sext-partner seven.

When the scandal broke, I thought it was complete bunk. I mean, Breitbart! BREITBART!! The man is a sleazy, lying, slimewad on a stick. The most pernicious consequence of this scandal won’t be that we lose a strong progressive voice in Congress and cable TV (though that seems inevitable, and lamentable, in the short run). It’ll be the rise in Breitbart’s fortunes.

Breitbart has made a career thus far of slinging political spaghetti against the wall and hoping it will stick. Unfortunately, his spaghetti has not been made of good ole North Dakotan durum wheat. It consists entirely of fecal matter. With each lob of it, he has discredited himself further. Even the mainstream media was starting to see through his tricks, and that’s saying a lot.

Until now. Much like the National Enquirer, which booked a permanent gain in credibility when it busted John Edwards hiding an affair and a child, Breitbart just scored. From here on out, no matter what vile lie Breitbart propagates, the media won’t dismiss him as a liar and propagandist. Breitbart comes out of this a huge (and undeserving) winner.

As for Weiner, considering that his missteps were private and (as far as we know) legal, I’m glad he’s refusing to resign. Those conservatives lawmakers who call him “creepy” forget about their own David Vitter, still a senator after being busted with a DC prostitution ring, engaging in clearly illegal activity and allegedly donning a diaper to boot. They ignore the fact that sexuality is changing. For young people – as well as those immersed in the new social media – sexting is not a kink but merely a new way to express one’s sexual impulses.

I suspect that Weiner truly believed that his activity was really just “frivolous.” That somehow, because it took place in cyberspace, it wasn’t real. Fidelity to one’s marital partner is one of the few values on which most Americans agree, and yet many of us fail to live up to our ideal. People seem to reconcile lapses in one of two main ways: 1) “This isn’t real because it’s online/at a conference/with someone I could never love” – or 2) “Yes, this is wrong, but my life will be hollow without some pleasure to relieve the drudgery and self-abnegation of my daily life.” I’m guessing that Weiner falls into the first group. I also suspect that these two rationalizations are gendered, with men tilting toward #1 and women toward #2, with lots of exceptions, of course. (Readers, if you have other interpretations – or other theories about how people rationalize infidelity – I’d love to hear them.)

In the end, it’s up to Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, to decide what Weiner’s online dalliances mean. She’s the one person who has been seriously wronged here. She didn’t give him carte blanche to flirt with women online and send them pictures of Weiner’s weiner at full staff. While it’s true that some people have open relationships, that’s a moot point here (and Amanda Marcotte only creates a distraction by bringing it up). Weiner and Abedin obviously did pledge monogamy; otherwise, why the public apology to her? I applaud Abedin’s refusal to perform the aggrieved wife for the ravenous gossip machine, and I hope she’ll find future happiness, whether through a fresh start or through Weiner making amends.

But it’s silly to say that the public at large was victimized by Weiner’s conduct. I can’t get too worked up about Weiner lying to the media and the country about entirely private behavior. I can’t even care much about whether he sexted during “work hours” because congresscritters – like professors – are rarely truly off the clock. If the public is screwed, it’s due to the power of special interests and corporations in Washington, not Weiner’s private fantasies.

The other genuine victim here is the final recipient of Weiner’s sexy tweets, college student Gennette Cordova, who appears not to have invited any sort of sexual attention. She has my compassion, too. She didn’t ask for the media circus. If indeed Weiner sent her his famous crotch photo out of the blue, then it’s harassment and a demonstration of sexual entitlement that clashes with Weiner’s perfect congressional record on women’s issues.

To my mind, though, there’s reasonable doubt that Weiner really sent that photo to Cordova. As Joseph Cannon argues, the only way to make the scandal go away was to confess to the real dalliances. (Via here.) Having admitted those indiscretions, it would be difficult for Weiner to argue credibly that he hadn’t sent Cordova his underwear shot. Cannon has explained the evidence for a third party having uploaded the picture to Twitter. Moreover, Breitbart evidently has possession of a photo of a naked, erect Weiner, which means – as Cannon again notes – Breitbart can essentially blackmail Weiner. Cannon can’t (yet) prove his case, but I think it’s plausible.

In addition, sending a sexy photo without prior contact completely breaks the pattern. With his consensual partners, Weiner first made conversation and flirted. Only after establishing a flirtation did he proceed to send them pictures. The fact that those flirtations escalated quickly and even recklessly shows that Weiner had developed a comfort level with sexually-charged online relationships. As one of his partners, Megan Broussard, said, “This is something that’s regular, he’s done all the time, he’s comfortable.” But sending women photos without prior flirtation was not his regular modus operandi. Add to that the fact that a gaggle of conservatives were gunning for him on Twitter, and Weiner’s confession regarding Cordova looks ever more contrived.

Weiner’s other sext-buddies, including Broussard, appear to have been completely consensual. But the now-public evidence for this raises other troubling questions. His entire Facebook exchange with a Las Vegas woman, Lisa Weiss, has been reprinted at a gossipy site called Radar. How did these screen shots become public in the first place? Were they captured when Weiner’s account was hacked (as he claimed a few weeks ago)? Was Weiss coerced or paid or even blackmailed? How secure are everyone’s Facebook transactions?

The other question is why women have now “come forward” to describe details of their consensual relationships with Weiner. What induced them to do so? They will be subjected to slut-shaming in the media.Private details of their fantasy lives have been made public. Why is Broussard giving interviews to ABC news? Is it really, as she claims, to shield her toddler daughter? As a parent, I don’t buy it. At three, her daughter is too young to understand any of this, and she won’t be protected Broussard releasing oodles of photos and electronic messages – quite the opposite. So is Broussard just responding to our reality-TV culture and grabbing her 15 minutes of fame? Could she, too, have been a target of blackmail?

Above all, how did Breitbart get his paws on compromising private photos in the first place?

The end of the FB conversation between Weiner and Lisa Weiss indicates machinations to put these women under pressure. This section of their chat is not reproduced as screen shots at Radar, but is included at the very end of the pdf transcript:

So yeah, Weiner behaved stupidly. He committed a breach of private ethics. He hurt his wife. He left himself open to the machinations of his enemies. He was so reckless, even I could have become one of his Facebook girlfriends.

But behind the scandal is a problem of bigger proportions: right-wing propagandists who have already shown no compunction about lying and now prove willing to stoop to blackmail and coercion. Weiss writes: “someone contacted me about u …” Who is that someone? Breitbart? Drudge? One of the wingnut Twitter conspiracists who were out to destroy Weiner? (See also a similar article at the NYT if you want a “respectable” take on these Twitspiracists. They look no better there.)

This right-wing smear machine – and not Weiner’s dick pics – is what constitutes a real threat to democracy.

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So tell me, if you’ve ever fantasized about sex in public, did you have a solo effort in mind? And if so, did you imagine just how mind-blowingly sexy it’d be to whack off in your local Walmart? That’s a scenario I’ve never seen in Cosmo. In fact, I think it might even invalidate Rule 34: “If it exists, there is porn of it.” (I went searching for porn set in Walmart. Maybe I’m just having a bad google day, but I came up empty.) Clearly, this is a cutting-edge sex act.

And yet, a local man (not of my acquaintance) dared to live out his pole-polishing fantasies at my local Walmart!

Details in the university’s paper of record, The Post, are tantalizingly brief and slippery:

OMG, did the paper have to juxtapose the crime report with a picture of – what’s that – an erect baseball bat? Hitting it out of the park for – a home run? Oh, Walmart dude: you should have gone to sporting goods. There, you might have started a pick-up game and at least tried to get to second base. (To be clear: the athlete pictured is not the accused Walmart wanker.)

Now, at this juncture I should take a feminist stand. I know this is my duty. I should mention that men who expose themselves in public are engaged in an act of predation and intimidation. I could regale you with my Carl’s Junior bathroom encounter with a peeping tom. And I could concede that women commit similar acts on occasion (Girls Gone Wild, anyone?), but it’s absurd to call nonconsensual exhibitionism and voyeurism a sport protected under Title IX. Instead, these are intrusive manifestations of male sexual entitlement that remind women not to step out of line or consider their sexuality their own. As always, the bedrock principle is self-determination and consent. And I’m quite certain that in this case, his fellow shoppers had not consented to a free peep show.

But I can’t sustain that argument (correct though it be). I just keep bumping into WALMART – and giggling. I mean, a guy actually decided to buff his bishop under those glaring fluorescent lights, in constant danger of ramming carts, and under the watchful eyes of store detectives (or, as the piece preciously puts it, “loss prevention officers”). This just floors me. I’m still trying to parse what it means to be “near” automotive. Was he actually in the nearby toy section, a fact that – if true – trigger a moral panic about local pedophiles? Or was he actually in automotive, turned on by the manly-man smells of grease and rubber tires? Perhaps he had just misunderstood the meaning of “lube job”?

Seeking to understand, I undertook some research, which revealed that our local miscreant was not the first to get a Walmart woody. He’s probably not even the most abject, if you consider a case reported last year in the Frisky:

In case you folks were thinking about masturbating in public anytime soon, let William Tyler Black be an example of what not to do. The 28-year-old substitute teacher (yes … teacher) was arrested in Florida (yes … Florida) yesterday for spreading his baby batter all over a local Walmart (yes … Walmart).

William apparently became aroused by the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, featuring Brooklyn Decker, while browsing at his local Walmart in Sarasota. He decided to pleasure himself right then and there, splooging all over the floor and wiping some of it onto a “Star Wars” light saber in the toy section. When confronted by the staff about his masturbation session, he said he was buying a toy for his daughter. (Oh no! He’s a father?) He was charged with battery and exposure of sexual organs. Just so we’re clear, this is not something you should ever do. I don’t care how hot Brooklyn Decker is.

At least no light sabers were involved here in Athens, though I should add that there’s one wacky connection between the two incidents: Ohio and Florida are now tied for having the least popular governors! If you’re saddled with a Governor Jerk-off, why not join him?

But geez, Walmart? Rly? This is precisely why the Ceiling Cat created almost-private rooms for us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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If you haven’t already heard, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was viciously attacked by a mob of men last Friday during the celebrations at Tahrir Square. She was sexually assaulted and beaten. A group of women and soldiers came to her aid. She flew back to the United States and is convalescing in a hospital (which gives you some idea of the viciousness of the attack).

I am horrified that this happened, and I hope she will heal well, physically and psychically.

You’d think that every reaction would echo those sentiments, but no. Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon charts just a few of the hateful responses, which range from blaming Islam to blaming Logan herself. Jill has more at Feministe. Some of the blamers suggest Logan should never have been in Egypt – evidently her mere presence provoked sexual assault – and conclude that women shouldn’t do dangerous job. (See for instance the absolutely vile comment thread on Garance Franke-Ruta’s article at the Atlantic.) As Jill notes:

When male journalists are harmed or even killed on the job — and I’d be willing to bet that male journalists are assaulted and killed more often than female journalists — the media narrative is, basically, “He was brave and this is a tragedy.” But when it happens to a woman, the narrative shifts to, “Should women be doing this?”

Funny how no one said that Bob Woodruff shouldn’t have been in Iraq when he suffered brain damage due to an IED that detonated while he was traveling. Nor should they! (Fortunately, Woodruff has made a pretty good recovery.)

As others have noted, the blaming directed at Logan demonstrates how deeply ingrained rape culture is. It shows how eager some people are to demonize Islam (which would merit a post of its own). It reveals some folks’ determination to use the threat of rape to restrict women’s choices. Following that last line of thought to its logical conclusion, we could argue that women shouldn’t be homemakers! Because women are often raped in the “safety” of their own homes! Funny how we don’t hear that argument often, either.

But the blaming exposes one other persistent element of rape culture that I don’t think has gotten much attention: the notion that being raped is even worse than being killed. In what universe is surviving rape worse than dying? Why would we think that sexual assault is worse than shrapnel entering one’s brain? And yet, only if you believe that rape is worth than death does it make sense to “protect” women – but not men – by keeping them out of war zones.

It all goes back to the idea that women’s worth is solely in their sexual purity. A woman who was sullied by rape, under the principles of patriarchy, had better be dead. If she was raped, well, then she just didn’t try hard enough to resist, because a chaste woman would rather die than “let” herself be raped. Apparently these ideas are still alive and kicking – unlike some of the women they have literally condemned to death.

So I’ll say it again: I hope Lara Logan recovers well. I hope she’ll be able to return to work she loves and does well – wherever that work may take her. And I hope for a world where sexual assault is vanishingly rare and is never, ever blamed on its victim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read the whole post here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Earlier this week, I talked to my husband and kids, who are keeping the fires burning in Ohio while I’m visiting family in California. All of them were aggrieved. My husband was planning to fix broccoli and noodles for dinner. Both boys were insisting that they would not eat it and furthermore never had liked broccoli. Never mind that two reliable witnesses (both of their parents) have seen them eat it with gusto! The standoff ended when the broccoli was discovered to have both mold and bugs.

You might imagine that this was simply an instance of children being picky and ornery. You would be wrong. New research shows that I am to blame!

When I saw the headline on the medical news wire Ivanhoe – “Pregnancy Diet Predicts Food Choices of Children” – I figured it would insinuate that mommy is at fault. But the actual article was much worse. It managed to blame mothers directly in its very first sentence:

If you’re a mother to a finicky child, then you may be to blame for his or her picky taste.  A new study conducted at the University of Colorado School of Medicine uncovers the possibility that a mother’s diet during pregnancy can both familiarize the unborn baby with specific scents and tastes and directly influence what the child will later prefer to eat or drink.

“This highlights the importance of eating a healthy diet and refraining from drinking alcohol during pregnancy and nursing,” lead researcher Josephine Todrank was quoted as saying.  “If the mother drinks alcohol, her child may be more attracted to alcohol because the developing fetus ‘expects’ that whatever comes from the mother must be safe.  If she eats healthy food, the child will prefer healthy food.”

I’m dizzy with those leaps of logic. How did we jump straight from food to alcohol – the kryptonite of mother-blaming? And how many children are attracted to alcohol, anyway? Yes, fetal alcohol syndrome is a serious problem among the offspring of binge drinkers. I don’t see a lot of kids clamoring for a glass of Merlot. In fact, we’ve let our kids taste beer and wine, when they expressed curiosity, just so they could discover that it tasted “pooey” to them.

Read a little farther and you learn that Todrank et al. tested their hypothesis on newborn mice. For better or worse, mice don’t have much of a culinary culture. They aren’t tempted by the toys in Happy Meals. Nor are they exposed to my delicious vegetarian chili. Even in terms of the mouse lifecycle, one wonders whether the pups acquired a broader range of tastes as they grew. Also, mother mice are never told to drastically limit their diet while breastfeeding due to a colicky or restless pup.

My firstborn child tolerates much more spice than I do. He eats chard and Thai curry and Kalamata olives with gusto. My second son? He’d live on candy, breakfast cereal, hard-boiled eggs, Kraft mac-n-cheese, and more candy if we’d let him.

If this study has any applicability to humans, you’d expect to see the same pattern in every family: the firstborn should be a foodie, while subsequent children – conditioned by the relatively bland diet that families often adopt while feeding a toddler – should be pickier. You’d also expect the children of my spice-loving friends to be omnivores, yet many of them are pickier than my younger son.

It may well be that the biological effects on taste and smell that Todrank et al. found in mice have some applicability to humans. If so, it’s heavily filtered through culture. As parents generally know, young children usually have much more restricted tastes than their parents. I, for one, forced myself to eat broccoli during pregnancy even though it triggered nausea – and look where it got me!

Can we stop with the mother-blaming already? Most women consume a reasonably well-balanced diet during pregnancy. The few who don’t are usually either poor or plagued by hyperemesis gravidarum (that’s medicalese for uncontrollable barfing). Let’s not make mothers feel guilty because they failed to eat their brussel sprouts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve been so serious these past two weeks, it’s time to take a brief break to gloat. As my long-time readers know, neither of those modes is my usual. I’m not typically a single-minded terrier, and I try not to be too smug. But sometimes The Kitty just has to pounce on an injustice when it’s fresh and new and potentially reversible. The TSA debacle pushed all of my buttons: Possible harm to my kids? Check. Sexualized violence? Check. Creating novel forms of bodily experience? Ugh – check. Trampling the rule of law? Checkmate!

So let this be my “Moment of Smug,” to paraphrase Colbert. Over the past few days, my post debunking the right-wing meme of TSA favoritism toward Muslim women drew thousands of hits – with this result:

In case you can’t quite read the graphic – and even if you can (because hey, I’m gloating!) – my post, “Not Exempt,” is the first listed on Google after the breaking news links. The first. Number one. Nummer eins. Woo hoo!

Starting tomorrow, instead of all-TSA all-the-time, I’ll be going back to a broader mix of posts. But for a few sweet moments, I’m going to savor my ascendancy over Fox News. Yes, I realize my post floated to the top of Google mainly because 100,000 other posts all regurgitated the same right-wing distortion, while I offered a fresh view. In spite of this, I know many readers merely sought to confirm their wingnutty views. (From my comment spam folder: a commenter with the clever handle “fuck you” tells me to “get fucked.”)

Never mind the haters. I’m still tickled that my information rose above the scum of Islamophobic disinformation. I guess I assumed disinformation always wins because it never fights fair. Some of us feel an inconvenient obligation to the truth, which hobbles you in the fight. It’s lovely to see that sometimes the truth does rise to the top. I’m happier yet that my post might have planted a few seeds of awareness in the minds of people who were sincerely questioning.

Thanks to my readers – old and new – for hanging with me! I’m not dropping the TSA story. You can expect updates when I feel moved to provide them, but they’ll be jumbled in with my usual mishmash of sex, feminism, parenting, kittehs, and any stuff that catches my fancy or pisses me off. For those playing along at home, I’ve put together a list of my TSA posts to date:

Also, if you’re not reading Cogitamus, do pop over there. Lisa Simeone has been covering the abuses of the security state in depth for years. Her co-bloggers are excellent too – among them litbrit, who like me wants Sarah Palin to explain her “wild ride.”

It remains to be seen if the TSA will really be forced to revamp their policies. So far, they seem terrified of losing face. In the meantime, though:

(Smug kitteh from ICHC?)

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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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It’s become a cottage industry, this business of coming up with new phrases to fit the acronym TSA. Read the two following stories and see if you can come up with a better title.

Story 1: Multiple breast cancer survivors have reported TSA harassment due to wearing a breast prosthesis. A Charlotte-based flight attendant, Cathy Bossi, underwent an “enhanced” patdown because as a survivor, she worried about radiation exposure from the naked scanners. MSNBC reports:

The TSA screener “put her full hand on my breast and said, ‘What is this?’ ” Bossi told the station. “And I said, ‘It’s my prosthesis because I’ve had breast cancer.’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ll need to show me that.’ “

Bossi said she removed the prosthetic from her bra. She did not take the name of the agent, she said, “because it was just so horrific of an experience, I couldn’t believe someone had done that to me. I’m a flight attendant. I was just trying to get to work.”

This is just one reason why exempting the pilots from screening solves nothing (apart from relieving the government from worrying about the pilots walking out on their jobs). (Bossi gives additional detail on her experience here.)

But there’s more. MSNBC continues:

Marlene McCarthy of Rhode Island said she went through the body scanner and was told by a TSA agent to step aside. In “full view of everyone,” McCarthy said in an e-mail, the agent “immediately put the back of her hand on my right side chest and I explained I wore a prosthesis.

“Then, she put her full hands … one on top and one on the bottom of my ‘breast’ and moved the prosthesis left, right, up, down and said ‘OK.’ I was so humiliated.

And the stories just go on: a woman with a pacemaker, another breast cancer survivor, a man who uses crutches, a woman whose hip replacement hardware trips all the red flags, now more than ever … and that’s just in this one brief MSNBC report.

Story 2: At Detroit’s airport, Thomas Sawyer, a retired special-ed teacher, was selected for secondary screening after his urostomy bag showed up on the naked scanner. A bladder-cancer survivor, he needs to wear this bag to collect urine, since he had to surgically trade in his bladder for more years of life. Here’s how MSNBC reports the rest of his experience:

Due to his medical condition, Sawyer asked to be screened in private. “One officer looked at another, rolled his eyes and said that they really didn’t have any place to take me,” said Sawyer. “After I said again that I’d like privacy, they took me to an office.”

Sawyer wears pants two sizes too large in order to accommodate the medical equipment he wears. He’d taken off his belt to go through the scanner and once in the office with security personnel, his pants fell down around his ankles. “I had to ask twice if it was OK to pull up my shorts,” said Sawyer, “And every time I tried to tell them about my medical condition, they said they didn’t need to know about that.”

Before starting the enhanced pat-down procedure, a security officer did tell him what they were going to do and how they were going to it, but Sawyer said it wasn’t until they asked him to remove his sweatshirt and saw his urostomy bag that they asked any questions about his medical condition.

“One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”

The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.”

Humiliated, upset and wet, Sawyer said he had to walk through the airport soaked in urine, board his plane and wait until after takeoff before he could clean up.

(Read the whole story here.)

There are so many layers of horror in these stories, I hardly know where to begin.

Anyone who has survived the pain, indignity, and fear of cancer and its treatment deserves nothing but kindness and compassion. I know that first-hand, having seen my spouse and my sister suffer. The same is true for every other disease and disability. People suffer enough from nature’s ravages; why add human callousness to the mix?

Passengers deserve to be heard, not ignored, when they try to explain their medical situation. As far as I can see, the TSA response is repeatedly, hey, we’re just doing our job, so get out of our way. (Subtext: STFU.)

No one – regardless of their physical ability – deserves humiliation. The TSA may appear to be applying policies “consistently” by not exempting passengers with disability or medical conditions, but the ultimate effect is profoundly discriminatory. If you wear a prosthesis or an ostomy bag, your choice is to face humiliation – or remain grounded, regardless of how far away you live from loved ones. The ableist impact of the TSA procedures is yet another instance of ostensibly “same” treatment resulting in gross inequalities.

And how ’bout that vaunted TSA professionalism? There’s no private space available when Mr. Sawyer asks for it. The officer responds with an eye roll. Neither of the two agents have the basic human decency (never mind professionalism!) to apologize.

As for a “private” screening being a right? Mr. Sawyer had to fight for it. Ms. Bossi was given it. Ms. McCarthy never even had a chance to demand it; her humiliation occurred in full public view.

Mr. Sawyer’s experience wasn’t as clearly sexualized as that of the breast cancer survivors, but all of these people are being harmed by the confluence of the rampaging security state with ableism and contempt for bodily autonomy.

One other factor is in play, too: the obviously woeful training of TSA officers. Badtux explains just how perfunctory his own training was when he once began a similar government job. Badtux views the inconsistency of TSA grope-searches results largely from half-assed training. Obviously the erraticness becomes even more egregious as soon as TSA officer lay hands on non-normative bodies: children, gender-variant folks, and people with disabilities.

Be that as it may, the TSA is still in violation of its own policies. Here’s what its website says about “assistive devices and mobility aids”:

  • Security Officers will need to see and touch your prosthetic device, cast or support brace as part of the screening process.
  • Security Officers will not ask nor require you to remove your prosthetic device, cast, or support brace.
  • During the screening process, please do not remove or offer to remove your prosthetic device.
  • You have the option of requesting a private screening at any time during the screening of your prosthetic device, cast or support brace.
  • You have the right to refuse the offer of a private screening; however, you will need to allow the screening to be conducted publicly if you wish to proceed beyond the security checkpoint.

The TSA has clearly violated the second point. Also, re: point one, there’s a difference between touching the device (a breast prosthesis, say) and moving it around in a way that draws public attention to the fact that it is indeed a prosthesis. The TSA also violated the fourth point in these stories.

In the face of the TSA breaking its own rules and violating basic human rights, Obama says only this (again via MSNBC):

“I understand people’s frustrations, and what I’ve said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety. And you also have to think through are there other ways of doing it that are less intrusive,” Obama said.

“But at this point, TSA in consultation with counterterrorism experts have indicated to me that the procedures that they have been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing.”

In other words: underpants bomber! underpants bomber!

Maybe it’s hard to imagine now, President Obama, but someday you too will likely live with a disability. This is not just an issue that affects a few unlucky elderly people. Many people living with disability are young or in their middle years. Disability is in all of our futures, unless we die young and violently. It will touch all of us, whether we’re now temporarily able-bodied, partially disabled, or living with disability 24/7.

There’s got to be a more compassionate course. How ’bout we start with some well-trained bomb-sniffing beagles, serious security for cargo, and real checks of employees working behind-the-scenes at airport? That might keep the TSA so busy, they’d have no time to mess with ostomy bags and prosthetic breasts.

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I’m deeply troubled by some of the memes surfacing in the right-wing discussion of the TSA invasion of privacy. The worst is the claim that Muslim women are exempt. That simply is not true.

What is the truth? Well, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has issued some recommendations for Muslim women:

  • If you are selected for secondary screening after you go through the metal detector and it does not go off, and “sss” is not written on your boarding pass, ask the TSA officer if the reason you are being selected is because of your head scarf.
  • In this situation, you may be asked to submit to a pat-down or to go through a full body scanner. If you are selected for the scanner, you may ask to go through a pat-down instead.
  • Before you are patted down, you should remind the TSA officer that they are only supposed to pat down the area in question, in this scenario, your head and neck. They SHOULD NOT subject you to a full-body or partial-body pat-down.
  • You may ask to be taken to a private room for the pat-down procedure.
  • Instead of the pat-down, you can always request to pat down your own scarf, including head and neck area, and have the officers perform a chemical swipe of your hands.

Note that these are recommendations for how Muslim women should respond! I have copied them verbatim. They are not phrased as policy demands on the TSA, and CAIR is most assuredly not a major Beltway player. The recommendations focus solely on how individual women can respond, and they’re almost painfully polite: “you may ask” and “you can always request.” Even Miss Manners would be more assertive! (In fact, Miss Manners has a keen sense of social justice. She would surely note that “a private room” is actually a right that already exists under TSA rules.)

And yet, the headlines at right-wing sites announce “CAIR: TSA Can’t Pat Down Muslim Women” (that’s Fox News, not the extreme fringe).

How is the TSA actually responding? Here’s how Janet Napolitano answered when a reporter asked whether Muslim women would be exempt:

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

Napolitano’s key quote from the video:

Adjustments will be made where they need to be made. With respect to that particular issue [the sensitivities of Muslim women], I think there will be more to come.

That’s a far cry from announcing an exemption.

Meanwhile, during yesterday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearings, TSA chief John Pistole clearly stated that no one would be exempted from the new screening protocols on religious grounds.

SEN. JOHN ENSIGN (R-NEVADA): Are you going to, you know, allow certain groups to be exempted from that because of, you know, religious beliefs?

PISTOLE: Senator, we try to be sensitive to each individual and in groups that have particular sensitivities as to whether it’s head-wear or certain garb or sensitivities about being viewed or touched and everything. So we try to be sensitive to those issues. At the same time, the bottom line is we have to ensure that each person getting on each flight has been properly screened. And so we have options such as, if somebody does not want to go through the advanced imaging technology, it is optional. They would just do the walk- through metal detector and then–and have a pat-down that would identify any possible items.

They can request private screenings. So if they don’t want to be screened in public, they can go to a private area, have a witness with them.

And so we try to address those concerns in every way possible, recognizing, again, in the final analysis, everybody on that flight wants to be assured with the highest level of confidence that everybody else on that flight has been properly screened, and including me and you and everybody.

ENSIGN: I realize this is a difficult question for you, but–so are you going to make no exceptions, then?

PISTOLE: Everybody…

[...]

ENSIGN: No, no, I–let me–maybe not (inaudible) my question. If somebody is–a random screening. I just got randomly screened at the airport. For whatever reason, my number seems to come up quite often.

But if that, you know, happens and either the imaging, OK, was one of the options or, you know, the pat down–let’s just say I don’t–I don’t want either of them because of religious–because of religious reasons. What happens to me?

PISTOLE: So while I respect and we respect that person’s beliefs, that person’s not going to get on an airplane.

ENSIGN: OK. And there will be no exceptions because of religion.

(I trimmed this for length; see the uncut transcript here.)

Despite the fact that Ensign has trouble spitting out the question, Pistole’s response is clear: Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, no one gets to opt out of both the strip-search scanner and the grope-down.

The right-wing outcry over Muslim women even asking for religious sensitivity is ironic, given the way Muslim women are treated when flying. Consider this incident, which happened to a native-born American citizen before the new protocol was implemented:

Nadia Hassan, 40, a suburban Washington, D.C., real estate agent, says she was traveling from Dulles International Airport to California on Jan. 5 when she was ordered to remove herhijab before going through a metal detector. She refused and a security officer conducted a full-body search in view of other passengers, even though she had not set off the metal detector. She says another officer told her she had to go through the added security because of her scarf.

“To target women in head scarves blindly, it’s ignorance,” she says.

(Source: USA Today)

Of course, the TSA denies it does this (see the article just linked). The TSA denies pretty much everything. (And did you know they’re just trying to keep up safe?)

The new policies spread the humiliation Hassan endured to all Muslim women. CAIR reports:

CAIR offices have already received complaints, particularly from female travelers who wear hijab, about being subjected to the new pat-down procedure. …

One traveler wearing hijab, a 56-year-old Muslim flying out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, told CAIR the TSA screener patted-down her entire upper body, including, head, neck, chest, and hips, with the backs of her hands. The Muslim woman said she had “no idea” how invasive the procedure would be and would otherwise have opted for a private room or demanded to know why she was selected for secondary screening.

[NOTE: The woman had been referred to secondary screening even though the metal detector did not go off, a phenomenon reported frequently to CAIR by female Muslim travelers.]

Bear in mind, that Islam calls all believers to modesty, men as well as women. Not all Muslim women choose to wear hijab as expression of modesty and piety. However, even those women with bare heads still regard modesty as a virtue. The new procedures trample on all Muslims’ religious sensibilities, along with their basic human right to privacy.

Update 11/18/10, 4:30 p.m.: This should already be clear from my comment policy in the sidebar, but any comments hating on Muslims, women, or anyone else will not be permitted. Let’s keep it civil. Also, comments that are grossly ignorant of Islam won’t be approved, either, because they amount to anti-Islamic propaganda even if that’s not the author’s intent.

Update 11/22/10, 9:50 p.m.: If you liked this post, you might want to check out my other commentary on TSA violations of basic rights to privacy, dignity, and bodily autonomy.

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