Category Archives: sexuality

Federal judge upholds most of restrictive abortion law in Texas

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The biggest news in abortion access this week comes from Texas, where parts of one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation–part of the bill that the now legendary Wendy Davis filibustered against this summer–was blocked by a federal judge. This is good news for feminist activism, a social movement whose presence in Texas has been instrumental in bringing national attention to the restrictive laws in this state. However, it is important for supporters of abortion access to fully understand the content of this law and the ways in which this ruling is not fully a win.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s decision blocked an aspect of the law which required  admitting privileges for all physicians who perform abortions.  The judgement seems to be based off the precedent made by the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which upheld the constitutional right to abortion under the Fourteenth amendment’s right to privacy, and the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision, which established an undue burden clause, indicating that abortion restrictions which place an “undue burden” on those seeking abortion is unconstitutional.  Referencing today’s ruling in Texas, Judge Yeakel ruled that Texas’s law “places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus and is thus an undue burden to her [emphasis mine.]“

Despite the block against the restriction targeting admitting privileges, other extremely harmful aspects of the abortion law in Texas will go into affect over the next week. This include a ban on all abortions after 20 weeks, (even those performed to protect the life and health of the uterus-owner) as well as a provision stating that after October 2014, all abortions must take place in “surgical facilities”. Judge Yeakel also did not block a provision which requires that medication abortions be prescribed according to FDA protocol– a restriction that sounds “sensible,” but actually limits the ability for qualified physicians to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

The Texas fight against abortion restriction is drawing national attention, and it is important for supporters of abortion access to realize this fight for what it is. This is the new battleground for abortion access– bills which seek to challenge PP v. Casey and the “undue burden” clause, bills which blatantly disregard the right to privacy established under Roe vs. Wade, and the growing constant need to push back against restrictive legislative measures rather than fighting forwards for economic justice, abortion funding, and healthcare for everyone.

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Race and Reproductive Freedom in the Childfree Community

This is a direct response to Melissa McEwan’s post at Shakesville today about being childfree, but it’s also something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time in regards to mainstream feminist views about “reproductive choice”, the recent attention being paid to teen parent shaming, and re: the Reddit Childfree community.

 

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Melissa McEwan’s article detailed her personal experiences as a “childfree” individual– someone who consciously chooses against being a parent for any number of personal, cultural, financial, environmental, or political reasons. Being “childfree” is not a new phenomenon, but those who identify as such are becoming more vocal, demanding an end to the endless questions about their reproductive choices, swapping tips for finding “childfree-friendly” doctors, and using feminist and reproductive justice rhetoric to articulate their identities and struggles. They are fighting for rights that students of second-wave feminism might recognize: the right to be sterilized on demand, without question, without waiting periods, and without needing a spouse’s permission; the right to define themselves as other than mother, father, or parent; and the right to absolute reproductive freedom and to make their own choices about their lives.

McEwan identifies the societal pressures to reproduce that she and other childfree individuals are subjected to as “cultural reproductive coercion”. And it certainly is a very specific form of cultural reproductive coercion– coercion to reproduce. The childfree community makes me uncomfortable (even though I do identify myself as “childfree… for now!”) because it often fails to apply an intersectional approach to this idea of “cultural reproductive coercion,” choosing only to focus on the pressure to reproduce– a pressure that is a result of white privilege and the fact that society wants you to reproduce.

I previously brought up the second-wave feminist fights for abortion rights and against sterilization restrictions, and again, if you’re familiar with those fights this may all begin to sound familiar. The “mainstream,” white, educated, cis, upper or middle class feminists of the second wave were fighting against “cultural reproductive coercion” to reproduce because society wanted and expected them to. Many of these women found their liberation through rejecting society’s call, putting off motherhood by fighting for birth control and abortion access.

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At the very same time, black, Latino, and indigenous women in America were suffering extraordinary rates of forced sterilization and forced removal of their children by social welfare agencies, while the leaders of certain groups in the Black Power movement forbid its female members from using birth control because it was akin to genocide. For these women, “cultural reproductive coercion” looked very different. Society told them not to reproduce because they would not, could not, be good mothers, and some among their own people told them they must reproduce because their people were dying out. Many of these women fought against the mainstream feminist movement’s goal of removing waiting periods and other restrictions on sterilization because those same restrictions helped prevent them from being sterilized without their consent or knowledge after a cesarean section or a routine operation. For many of these women, having a child on their own timing, by choice, and to parent that child in their own culture and communities without threat of removal by the state was liberation.

McEwan does mention race in her post about being childfree. She writes:

“…And when I still didn’t change my mind, I was subjected to all manner of shaming narratives trying to convince me there is something wrong with me if I choose not to parent. I am a traitor to my womanhood. I am an incomplete woman. I am a selfish woman. I am a frivolous woman. I am barely a woman at all, if I refuse to use my fertile, cis, female, male-partnered body for what I am told is its natural (and only) purpose. I am a traitor to my race—a white woman partnered with a white man refusing to have white babies when the white birth rate is dropping in the US. I am a traitor to my country—an educated middle-class woman refusing to make a contribution to the future of the great society which has provided her with so much. The ultimate taker among makers….”

By the end of that paragraph, McEwan finally hits the most important part of her argument: the fact that she experiences “cultural reproductive coercion” to reproduce because she is a white woman. When we (as feminists, or as childfree individuals) talk about reproductive justice, freedom, and respect, we must also talk about white privilege. The majority of those who identify as “childfree” are white, highly educated, urban, secular individuals with higher-than-average incomes. The childfree community, specifically as it exists on the popular website Reddit, is often home to young parent shaming,  welfare shaming, and the propensity to call those who choose to parent “breeders,” which to me sounds weirdly… eugenicist.

Are the endless assumptions about a married white couple’s eventual fertility and the patronizing tone of a doctor trying to talk a young white woman out of voluntary sterilization a barrier to complete reproductive freedom? Absolutely. But we must remember that these barriers are a result of white privilege, and that poor, uneducated women of color continue to bear the brunt of our society’s “cultural reproductive coercion” not to reproduce.

A few weeks ago while spending my usual weekly morning at Planned Parenthood as a clinic escort, an older, friendly, liberal, all-around “good person” who is a fellow clinic escort said something that made me very uncomfortable. We were standing together watching one of our usual protestors who frequently chases passersby down the street to hand out anti-abortion pamphlets. Many of the escorts have noted and remarked that this protestor seems to run harder and faster after people of color, particularly young women of color, and especially young women of color accompanied by children. As we watched this fold out in front of us, the clinic escort I was standing with began to shake her head and said something similar to this: “You know, I live in [the city] so I often see these young black women walking around with three, even four kids in a stroller, and I think ‘Why don’t you just go to Planned Parenthood!’“.

Defenders of reproductive justice are not immune to the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and classism that constantly influences who we (as individuals and as a society) deem fit to reproduce. Feminist and reproductive justice activists along with the childfree community need to be proactive in removing oppressive “cultural reproductive coercion” against everyone.

 

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Reproductive Justice on TV: Call The Midwife

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There is a special place in my heart reserved for British television and period costume dramas–anything from Pride and Prejudice to Bleak House to Downton Abbey.  So, when I heard that BBC’s newest period drama combined fierce independent career women with 1950s hoop skirts, I knew I had to check it out.

Call the Midwife is a television dramatization of the memoirs of Jennifer (Lee) Worth¹, a young nurse and newly qualified midwife who takes a job in the impoverished East End of London in the 1950s. In the show, nurse Jenny Lee is shocked when she finds out her new job is not at a small hospital, but at Nonnatus House, a nursing convent that houses nuns (who are also nurse midwives) along with young secular nurses. The show is realistic and gritty, detailing poverty in its worst forms–pregnant women infected with syphilis, patients traumatized by workhouses,  and bugs crawling over tea-plates. Alongside their grittiness, Call the Midwife episodes all end with a silver-lining: some sort of lesson that is learned and narrated over each episode’s closing by an older, wiser, Jenny.

Bitch Magazine has already tackled some of the important connections between Call The Midwife and reproductive justice².  Although in the 1950s birth control had been developed and used by wealthier married women in the United States, most forms of birth control were non-existent for the women in Call the Midwife. Married women gave birth to baby after baby whether they wanted to or not, and women who had sex outside of marriage took the enormous risk of pregnancy “out-of-wedlock”.  Though the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House are all midwives, their reproductive health practice goes beyond simply attending births. The show addresses STDs, incest, miscarriage, and infectious disease prevention. We see the nuns and nurses care for premature infants, veterans, mother’s who’ve lost babies, and people at the end of their lives. Perhaps most importantly, and most interestingly to me, Jenny Lee and company provide emotional as well as medical care to their patients.

In the second episode of series one, a young Irish girl stops nurse Jenny Lee on the street and begs her to change a bank note for her, revealing that she hasn’t eaten in two days, but is afraid someone will think she stole the money if she uses it to purchase a meal. Jenny immediately notices that the girl looks pregnant, and takes her into the restaurant for some food. The girl, Mary, reveals that she ran away from a rough family situation in Ireland and was taken in by a man named Zakir and forced to work as a prostitute. After they share a meal, Mary, who is only fifteen years old, tells Jenny that she can’t go back to the brothel because she is afraid that they will hurt her and force her to have an illegal abortion. Mary tells Jenny that she sometimes slept with three or four men in a night and tells a shocked Jenny: “God love your innocence, Nurse Jenny Lee. Which of us is the oldest now?”

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Sister Julienne, the nun in charge of Nonnatus House, finds Mary a place to stay at Father Joe’s home for unwed mothers. After discovering that Zakir has been following and watching Mary, Jenny and Father Joe quickly transfer her to another home far outside of the city, where she gives birth to a baby girl called Kathleen. Jenny visits Mary, who tells Jenny about her experience giving birth.  “The midwife had a mustache… I yelled a little bit. She kept on saying ‘Nearly over’… All I kept thinking was, it’s nearly starting. I’m nearly a mam.” Jenny returns to Nonnatus House, pleased that she was able to help Mary and her child.

A short time later, Jenny receives a letter in the mail, with a messily written note stating, “baby gone please come”. Jenny immediately knows it is from Mary and rushes to the home to check on her. Jenny finds Mary sobbing and screaming for her baby, who has been placed for adoption by Father Joe. Jenny is furious as Father Joe tells her “Babies are always placed for adoption in these cases. It’s thought to be in the child’s best interest.” Jenny asks, “What about Mary’s best interest? She is that child’s mother and she did not consent!” Father Joe responds: “She can’t consent. She’s only fifteen. She’s legally a child herself… it was a case of which child should we choose.”

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This exchange between Father Joe and Nurse Jenny Lee is fascinating. While Father Joe displays a paternalistic concern for what he thinks is right for Mary, his concerns should not be written off. He later brings up issues of economic justice, mentioning that Mary has no home, no education, or skills other than prostitution. He stresses that without a baby, Mary will be employable. He says: “She could find love. She could have another child.” Jenny asks “Do you think that will console her?” and Father Joe replies, “It consoles me.” Jenny then cares for Mary, physically and emotionally, though there is nothing she can do to reconnect Mary with her wanted child.

In many ways, these strict traditions about unwed mothers and babies born out of marriage are a thing of the past. But shaming teen mothers who choose to parent is not a relic of the 1950s. New York City’s recent ad campaign³ against teen pregnancy has been heavily criticized by feminists for shaming teens who choose to parent, whether their pregnancy was planned or not. NYC’s campaign echoes Father Joe’s concerns that a teen parent will not have the economic ability to care for a child and therefore should not be given a chance to parent.

This episode of Call The Midwife does not leave viewers feeling like either Father Joe or Nurse Jenny were correct. As the episode closes we see Mary leaving the home without her child and into an uncertain future as adult Jenny tells us: “Mary was never reunited with her child. She might look for her, but her name would not be Kathleen anymore.” Mary’s blank face in this final scene reminds us that Mary was not allowed to control her reproductive future. While the nuns at Nonnatus House were able to save Mary from a forced abortion, they were not able to assist her in keeping and parenting the child that she very much wanted. In the reproductive justice movement, there is often a focus on making sure all people can access safe and legal abortion, but Call the Midwife is an important representation of the range of issues that reproductive justice must address in order to truly allow every person to determine their own lives.

 

¹ Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth (please buy from local/independent bookstores when you can!)

² Call the Midwife: What Nuns Know about Reproductive Justice by Jill Moffett. Bitch Magazine (29 Oct, 2012)

³ New York City’s teen pregnancy campaign 

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What Google Thinks About Feminisms

Disclaimer: The title of this post is NOT meant to indicate that Google as a company OR as a collection of employees thinks these things. By “Google” I mean to indicate collective internet consciousness, as these autofills reflect common searches done by people who use Google’s services.

This post was inspired by Steph Herold, who recently tweeted this picture:

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Honestly, it was no surprise to see that public perceptions of feminist movements are often way off the mark. But when I started doing some Google research of my own, I found some more harmful ideas emerge. (Trigger warning: transphobia):

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Planned Parenthood to Move Away from “Choice”

prochoiceRealizing that I identified with the “pro-choice” label was one of my very first “click” moments as a young feminist. From the Second Wave’s fight for legal abortion to our current struggle in the conservative war against reproductive healthcare, “pro-choice” has been one of feminism’s uniting slogans, one that we declare on bumper stickers, buttons, and protest signs. Just in time for next week’s fortieth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, Planned Parenthood announced its plans to abandon the pro-choice label to make room for language that is more inclusive of the complexities of abortion. Below is a video from Planned Parenthood called “Not In Her Shoes” which details some of the reasoning behind the organization’s shift in language.

This move by Planned Parenthood is concerning in more than a few ways.

To begin, it is disappointing that Planned Parenthood used such cissexist language in this latest video. It is not hard to say that “people need abortions” rather than “women need abortions”. The video not only relies on female pronouns and identities for its cartoon patient–it also genders the politicians, congressmen, and presidents male. This blatantly erases that fact that there are women in positions of political power at all. And it ignores the fact that quite a few of the congressional representatives who continue to vote to limit access to abortion services are women. The fight for abortion access is not men against women, so why is Planned Parenthood representing it that way?

Okay, so you might say I am nitpicking. Let’s return to the larger issues represented by the “Not In Her Shoes” video. For many people seeking abortion in the US, “choice” is not really an option that can be exercised at will. Bills that limit state funding for abortion services for poor people, laws that keep underage teens from getting abortion without parental consent, and the mere fact that there is only one abortion clinic in the entire state of Mississippi is a very good reason to abandon the “pro-choice” label. Abortion access is not merely about having a legal choice anymore. To encompass this range of issues regarding access, affordability, and stigma, young feminists have been using the label “reproductive justice”.

It is understandable that Planned Parenthood, which continuously fights for its federal funding and its right to keep clinics running, is maybe a few steps behind the modern feminist movement. They are right to emphasize that “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels seem to ignore certain complexities in the issue, and perhaps most importantly, they create a hostile environment between the two sides with no room for dialogue about the real issues that people face. But the announcement to abandon the “pro-choice” label still makes me wary, and here’s why:

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“It depends on the situation,” reported the majority of voters when asked their personal view on abortion. Planned Parenthood wants to interpret that as “abortion is complicated and should be left a private decision”. I interpret that as “sure abortion is sometimes necessary for rape or incest but some sluts use it as birth control and that is just wrong and we should stop them no abortion on demand!”. Let me emphasize that this survey asked for personal views on abortion. The people who said “it depends on the situation” were really saying: “to me, some people’s choice to have an abortion is morally acceptable and some people’s choice is morally unacceptable.”

The pro-choice label emphasizes the fact that having or not having an abortion is a personal choice. I fear that by abandoning that strong label, Planned Parenthood is allowing people to continue to believe it is up to them to decide when abortion should be “allowed”.

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Can we please stop “What about rape and incest” -ing?

This election season, the issue of abortion in the case of rape seems to be the only thing that both parties might be able to agree on. I say might because, of course, there are plenty of Republican politicians who believe that women who become pregnant from rape should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term. But from my own involvement in the abortion and contraception debates on the internet and in the real world, the majority of folks are able to admit that even if the idea of abortion makes them uncomfortable, there should be certain allowances for abortion in cases of rape.

This tiny sliver of common ground feels like progress to some– but to me, the “there should be exceptions for rape and incest” rhetoric is very destructive to the future of the abortion debates and to my position as an activist. This position suggests that legally and morally, only certain people are “allowed” to have abortions. It divides women with unintended pregnancies into categories of moral “good” and “bad”. Not to mention (and pay attention, MRAs) that if being raped is the only way that a woman would have access to safe and legal abortion, false rape accusations would skyrocket. 

Especially within the pro-choice movement, using “What about a woman who has been raped?” as your primary argument for abortion access is ineffective at best, because it does not get to the heart of the issue. We cannot decide who is more deserving of an abortion. We cannot judge whether a woman’s reason for having an abortion is legitimate or not. We need to trust women.

I am fiercely pro-choice and do not mind calling myself pro-abortion either (a post on that for another day) but even I would like to see later-term abortions (when a fetus is closer to medical viability) be as rare as possible. This does not mean we should make them illegal, or only accesible to women who fit certain frameworks set by the government. This means we should encourage comprehensive sex education, safe sex and contraceptive use; make all forms of contraception accesible and free; and make abortion within the 1st trimester easily accesible and free. That will reduce late-term abortions. Making exceptions only for rape will not.

I’ve heard a lot of folks say they are pro-choice, spit out a “what about rape and incest” to make their point, and then degrade women who have abortions for “convenience.” This line of thinking is so destructive. What is your definition of convenience? Is it convenience if you don’t want to be a parent, took every precaution not to become one, but became part of that 0.1% of people whose birth control fails? Is it convenience if you are a single mother of an infant who knows she won’t be able to afford food and childcare for two children under three? Is it convenience for a fifteen year old who has only known abstinence-only sex education and was told by her boyfriend that she couldn’t get pregnant the first time?

These weak arguments against abortion only show that the anti-abortion movement is more interested in controlling people’s bodies and sexuality than they are in ending abortion.

 

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Why We Need Sex Ed Now

A really interesting infographic compiling statistics and information about sex education, courtesy of Complaince and Safety.

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Medicalizing Morality: Virginity Testing in KwaZulu-Natal

           Among the Zulu-speaking people who live outside the city of Durban in South Africa, girls as young as six line up on straw mats to have their sexual purity certified with a grade of ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C’. A grade of ‘A’ means she is a virgin. A grade of ‘C’ means she is not a virgin. A grade of ‘B’ places her somewhere in-between. This grading occurs systematically at virginity testing events in many Zulu-speaking communities, where the tradition of virginity testing has resurfaced as a localized response to the region’s growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.

            In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that sexuality became an increasingly important part of individual identity in Western society, despite the repressive discourse that suggests otherwise. Foucault explored the religious, medical, and psychological institutions in which societies theoretically repressed sexuality while actually bringing these issues into the forefront of Western culture. Foucault’s theoretical framework dealt exclusively with the West, but in the context of an increasingly globalized regime of health, I will use this paper to explore his ideas as applied to the phenomenon of virginity testing in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

            KwaZulu-Natal has a thirty-nine percent prevalence of HIV infection, the highest among all the South African provinces. In response to this quickly growing threat to public health, many communities in KwaZulu-Natal have seen a resurgence of traditional virginity testing of young girls. Though this return to tradition began in a grass root, bottom-up fashion, it has garnered the support of government officials and many NGOs concerned with the region’s growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. The practice of virginity testing enforces sexual purity by searching for the physical evidence of the nontangible idea of virginity.  This custom is legitimized within the community and in more expansive institutions through a lens of public health.

            Virginity testing also highlights related fears about the perversion of traditional gender roles. As I will explore in further detail later on, framing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the context of changing gender roles of youth cultures permits communities to moralize a medical crisis. This allows communities to deal with suffering actively and from within the community, in a context where medical solutions may be either unavailable or ineffective. Within a patriarchal culture, virginity testing simultaneous reinforces and is reinforced by cultural notions of certain bodies as polluters and others as vulnerable to pollution.

Advocates and Opponents of Virginity Testing

            In the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, virginity testing, or ukuhlolwa kwezintombe, is a public event. The virginity of the girls in each community thereby reflects the purity, and health, of the community as a whole. The girls are systematically examined in large numbers without much privacy, reinforcing the idea that women’s sexuality is of public concern. The way in which virginity testing is conducted also enforces the idea of a collective sexuality, whereby the “health” of the community is located in the sexuality of a group of certain kinds of bodies.

            Virginity testing advocates are found among the well-educated government and NGO officials who are dedicated to the idea of an “African Renaissance”.  This idea of cultural revival supports the rediscovery and application of indigenous African systems of knowledge to the problems facing Africa today, most notably, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. (LeClerc-Madlala, 536). Seeing that foreign intervention often does more harm than good, advocates for an African Renaissance encourage localized, community solutions to issues of poverty, disease and education. While the attempt at cultural revival is well founded, it also raises many questions. Specifically, it brings up the conflict between tradition and modernity—a conflict that is pervasive in the discussion on modern virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal.

            The biggest opponents to virginity testing have been a largely female group of officials from South Africa’s Human Rights and Gender Commissions, who argue that virginity testing constitutes “a new form of violation of and violence against women” (LeClerc-Madlala, 536). Challengers of this tradition argue that familial and community coercion plays a role in the virginity testing events, especially for the youngest girls who may not even realize why their genitals are being examined. Furthermore, opponents argue that virginity testing events go against South African constitutional rights to privacy and bodily integrity. These concerns about social oppression are largely framed by the debates over tradition versus modernity, “whereby culture is equated with tradition and the democratic constitution is equated with Western-style modernity that… espouses foreign ideas” (LeClerc-Madlala, 536).

             The most outspoken supporters of virginity testing are older South African women who are often heads of their household, supporting children or young relatives orphaned by HIV/AIDS. These rural women often “see virginity testing as the only way to reinstill what they view as the lost cultural values of chastity before marriage, modesty, self-respect, and pride” (LeClerc-Madlala, 535). The role of these women in virginity testing is contradictory and intriguing. While their involvement in advocating for and organizing virginity testing events empowers an age-set whose voices are often overlooked in larger society, these women simultaneously enforce a social oppression of the next generation of women. By bringing back the idea of virginity testing, they are allowing a cycle of oppression to continue.

            It may also be noted that these older women have economic reasons to support virginity testing. As previously stated, the most outspoken supporters of virginity testing are women who are in charge of an extended kinship unit due to HIV/AIDS deaths. Their desire to prevent the disease within their own families may be closely tied to the economic hardships they already face. Simultaneously, many of the older women who organize virginity testing events become “experts” in testing and earn a living by teaching women in other communities their profession. Their advocacy of the procedure then reaches beyond morality and tradition and opens up an economic sphere of “medical professional” that is very often closed to rural women. Their involvement has become a way to “empower older women in a society where women’s voices have been historically muted but where women… have always held power and authority over younger women” (LeClerc-Madlala, 547).

            The arguments for and against virginity testing are compelling on both sides. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault writes that “the sex of children and adolescents has become… an important area of contention around which innumerable institutional devices and discursive strategies have been deployed” (Foucault, 30). The choice in KwaZulu-Natal to focus on the sexuality of the community’s youngest women in order to combat a disease that does not discriminate by age or gender reveals specific conceptions about vulnerable bodies within those communities. Virginity testing moves society away from locating identity within individual sexuality and instead establishes a collective compulsory moral and physical purity for specific bodies. This collective purity theoretically ensures the health of the community as a whole, enforcing virginity testing as a localized, gendered response to the enormity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

 

Locating Purity in the Body

            The results of the public virginity tests are shared with all who attend the event on an alphabetical grading system. The three tiers of virginity are labeled ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C’. While a C-grade certifies a failure of the test and an A-grade guarantees a girl’s purity, it is the bridging B-grade that tells us the most about the values that such a system is enforcing. A grade of ‘B’ is given if the testers determine that the girl “may have had intercourse once or twice” or “may have been abused”. Consequently, “active complicity in the sex act” bears weight on whether a ‘B’ or a ‘C’ grade is given. Though the physical requirements for being given a B-grade all imply that vaginal penetration has occurred, the real bearing of virginity seems to be a purity of mentality, ensuring that even if a girl has had sex or been touched inappropriately, it happened in the context of the girl’s own passivity (LeClerc-Madlala, 540).

            Within biomedical frameworks, there is no institutionally agreed upon medical definition for virginity. Therefore, the criterion that certifies “purity” in virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal reflects the “folk constructs of the body and ethnomedical beliefs of health and illness” of that culture (LeClerc-Madlala, 539). While virginity is often considered a medical and physical state of the body, there are non-biological aspects that are considered in virginity. For example, an important factor in virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal is that “a girl’s eyes… reflect virginity in that they ‘look innocent’” (LeClerc-Madlala, 540).

            The virginity testing phenomenon in KwaZulu-Natal reflects a collective awareness of the roles of certain kinds of bodies in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In many areas of South Africa, traditional “notions of pollution are associated with sexually active women and their bodies” (LeClerc, Madlala, 541). This reference of sexual pollution within the body lends itself to an understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as not only inherently sexualized, but also inherently gendered. To inform her own fieldwork, LeClerc-Madlala refers to the research of Ingstad (1990). Ingstad, conducting research on HIV/AIDS in Botswana, found that “informants often used female sexual anatomy as a point of reference when describing women as unclean and as potentially carrying more disease than men” (LeClerc-Madlala, 545).

            Moral conceptions about female sexuality are reflected in how female biology is symbolically conceptualized in certain communities. In Zulu-speaking areas of KwaZulu-Natal, the vagina is seen as a site of potential disease associated with its “’nesting’ qualities: not only do babies grow there, but potentially deadly ‘germs,’ including HIV, may also ‘grow’ and ‘hide’ within them” (LeClerc-Madlala, 542).  Consequently, “dry vaginas are conceptualized as ‘clean’ and disease-free, the imagery reflecting the moral character of its owner” (LeClerc-Madlala, 542). The standards of purity in the virginity testing event reflects these ideas about bodies and pollution.

            The control of female sexuality is also framed by traditional Zulu expectations of femininity. The ideal Zulu woman is “demure, soft-spoken… serves her husband, her children, and her in-laws” (LeClerc-Madlala, 543). Many of the older women in these communities are fighting against the “popular perception of the modern young woman as…assertive and active in pursuing her sexual interests” (LeClerc-Madlala, 543). This behavior is often seen as women attempting to act like men, a set of behaviors that fall outside the boundaries of accepted gender morality. While virginity testing explicitly controls bodies, it simultaneously controls systems of values.

Conclusion

            In South Africa, there is a “pervasive ‘national denial’ of the enormity of the AIDS problem during an era that most people expected to reflect post apartheid promises of ‘the good life’” (LeClerc-Madlala, 534). With this constant threat to the health of its citizens, the communities in KwaZulu-Natal have allowed traditional rituals such as virginity testing to resurface as a way of preventing another generation of ill bodies. However, opponents to the virginity testing events argue that while the tradition claims to be an attempt to fight HIV/AIDS, it is a rather ineffectual way of doing so. If the resurgence of virginity testing truly is a sexualized response to the threat of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, why are boys and men not included in the tradition?

            Virginity testing in Zulu-speaking communities of KwaZulu-Natal represents a medicalization of sexual control and traditional gender roles. Its resurgence, while claiming to be in response to a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, also coincides with an era in which young women have been liberated on a global scale in terms of their own bodies and sexuality. In response to rapidly changing gender roles, communities have drawn lines of causality between the liberation of female sexuality and the increasing prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Virginity testing reemerged as a way to bridge these simultaneously threatening forces, one that is located in a cultural consciousness, the other located in a world of illness and biology. Virginity testing shapes the meaning of “health” for specific bodies in these communities by labeling sexual purity as healthy and sexual activeness as unhealthy.

            Virginity testing is supported as a way to suppress childhood and adolescent female sexuality. However, as Foucault hypothesized, it actually reveals how important sexuality is to the identity of Zulu-speaking communities in South Africa. Rather than being confined to a private sphere of the home and marriage, female sexuality is, quite literally, laid out and examined in public in order to guarantee the purity and “health” of a community. While post apartheid South Africa is often influenced by Western modernity, the trend of virginity testing reveals that anxieties about female bodies and sexuality continue to influence many community’s responses to modern epidemics such as HIV/AIDS. The contributions of tribal traditions, state modernity, and biomedicine are all revealed in the medicalized morality enforced by virginity testing.

                                                                                           Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.

LeClerc-Madlala, Suzanne. Virginity Testing: Managing Sexuality in a Maturing HIV/AIDS Epidemic. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 15 (4): 533-552

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Hysteria: A Double Take

Editor’s Note: Sorry for the delays in posting this week. Today I am featuring an awesome guest post by Marissa. 

I wonder why it is rare in film to see women partaking in rebellious activities, rather than activities that are not rebellious whatsoever, but somehow claim to be. Hysteria, a newly released film directed by Tanya Wexler, examines the invention of the vibrator during Victorian England, and depicts female orgasms as the cure for the contrived illness of “hysteria”. Why is female sexual desire– especially the idea of a woman having an orgasm– still something that feels so taboo?  How is it that a film such as Hysteria can exist based solely on the shame surrounding the idea of a woman as a potentially sexual being, the comedic elements relying on shame-induced laughter? And lastly, why do we continue to tell the offensive and oversimplified story that all an uptight woman needs in order to feel liberated is sex?

Hysteria centers around Mortimer Granville (played by Hugh Dancy), a young and educated British fellow, who wants to innocently dedicate his life to helping others (and also make lots of money).  Granville is portrayed as a progressive/liberal character, because he believes in “modern medicine” and specifically the futuristic idea of germ theory. He favors all things modern and looks down on those he believes to be stuck in the past. The beginning of the film depicts him struggling to find someone who will bless his naïve eagerness and hire him. The only person who will give him a job is Dr. Robert Dalrymple (played by Jonathan Pryce), a “women’s doctor”. Dr. Dalrymple has two daughters, Charlotte (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Emily (played by Felicity Jones).  Charlotte is “feminist” because she is loud and reactive, while Emily is quiet, obedient and clearly missing out the exciting life that Charlotte the feminist leads.  Charlotte punches men in the face when she is angry, and Emily just doesn’t get angry.  Dr. Dalrymple treats hysteria by giving women orgasms via pitching a puppet-show-like tent around their waists. Then, while they’re lying down so they cannot see him, he rubs them off. This is all unbeknownst to the women, who are depicted as having no idea that they are even feeling sexually aroused, and furthermore may not even know that they are capable of these sensations.

A major reason that I wanted to explore this film was because I find it simultaneously troubling and fascinating how we all too often underestimate the psychological strength of medical labeling (for example when words such as “sick” or “crazy” are used to describe a person). Labels like these carry much weight, and can easily encourage the formation of intense, dominant/submissive relationships (between friends, family, doctors and patients, whoever). This film is shocking because it does not portray hysteria accurately, but attempts to make light of it.  It does not depict the pain and suffering that many women experienced during Victorian England. It does not do justice to what hysteria really was—a contrived medical diagnosis that gave men the power to oppress women, to strip them of their rights and to delegitimize the way that women felt. I argue that the film reflects how many of these misogynistic ideas have still managed to linger around. The female characters in the film are not complex individuals, and as a viewer, I wondered how they really felt about what was going on. Obviously, if we cannot acknowledge past suffering we cannot honestly move on.  The diagnosis of hysteria was never humorous, and fully worked to further sexism and the violence against female-identified bodies. Hysteria may aim to lovingly mock the past, but in reality, it winds up inadvertently displaying how little feminist and queer efforts have impacted the major film industry and society at large.  I realize that Hysteria was not meant to be a “serious” film, but the point is precisely that it is grappling with very serious topics. Although it may have intended to be a retrospective, tongue-in-cheek look at the invention of the vibrator, it fails to tell the whole story, which I also realize is generally difficult (if not impossible) to do.  The danger is that the film masks itself as feminist, telling a story pitched to female viewers, intending to give women more power by telling us to just laugh off the past. We absolutely cannot laugh off the past, especially when it comes to issues of inequality.

Hysteria uses similar logic to beauty magazines: a woman must suffer and sacrifice in order to be considered worthy. I would like to seriously question this: should we really always suffer for what we want, or even need? I’m not arguing against the concept of hard work, but I am arguing against the idea that abuse, self or culturally inflicted, is okay if there is a positive outcome. In Hysteria, Charlotte is financially dependant on her father (whom she despises), and in the end she is only satisfied when Granville gives her money so she can pursue her dream. However, in order to get Granville’s money, she had to go through hell. There are plenty of feminists who are not simply reactive—they are thoughtful, brilliant, and yes–often very angry, but for the most part (if they have the financial means to do so) rely on themselves and their support systems for their needs rather than the forces that oppress them. Why is it that there are not more movies made about women starting revolutions, loving each other, and achieving their goals without requiring the approval of men?

In Hysteria, a woman can quite literally only have an orgasm at the hands of a man (until the end when the portable vibrator is invented) and the film completely disregards women who might use their own hands to induce orgasms. Hysteria pities women who are not like Charlotte, who may actually be comfortable in their submissiveness (such as Emily). What about those women who fully embrace their positions of submission and subordination and might even enjoy it?  Are those women considered less worthy of respect? How does this film account for them, besides including a character that is a former female sex worker, and who is often the unfortunate subject of jokes?

The medical diagnosis of hysteria is not taken seriously within the film, and this creates a lack of acknowledgment that distorts the very real, very serious, and very legitimate feelings that women experienced (and still experience!). Consider the trouble that would occur if a comedic film were made depicting the logic of a group of oppressive people? It would not be funny at all! This film fails to show how women really felt (and feel), and furthermore, the ways in which patriarchy is still alive and kicking today, just in a slightly different form.

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Should we listen to rapists?

In its focus on rape culture, contemporary feminism has encouraged victims of rape or sexual assault to share their stories. These stories aim to reveal that rape does not always have to be violent or predatory, that perpetrators are often people we are familiar with, and that rape occurs more often than we’d like to think. This week, a Reddit user reoriented the discussion of rape culture by posting a thread asking rapists to share their stories. The thread was titled: “Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?”.

This thread began a slew of comments and commentary that questioned the effects of allowing rapists to anonymously share their stories of committing rape and sexual assault. The thread itself is very disturbing, including comments from people who begin their stories with, “I don’t think this was rape but…”. Many posters expressed feelings of remorse or confusion about what they did wrong. Others explained clear stories of rape or assault surrounded by justifications of why it was okay. There were stories from intentional, serial rapists, and stories from those just now realizing that they may have sexually assaulted someone.

Internet users have had mixed reactions to the thread and its usefulness as a resource for change. Many feel that the anonymity afforded by Reddit is too much of a kindness to self-admitting rapists, and that it is disrespectful to their victims to share the story of their assault for the whole world to see. Others feel that the only use for the thread would be to track down the identities of these users and make sure they are prosecuted for their actions.

The above concerns are valid. Victims should be morally, socially, and legally considered above their attackers. It makes me rather uncomfortable that many of these posters continue to live their lives, walk the streets, and work in our communities after knowing they have committed such a crime. However, Jezebel thinks that there are reasons to listen to rapists, and I agree. Here are the most important things that I learned from Reddit’s stories from rapists:

1. Sexual Education needs to stress consent, consent, consent.

The number of Reddit posters who had created their own definitions of rape, assault, and consent was astounding. The number of commenters who told posters: “That isn’t really rape,” was offensive. All of this vague language regarding sex and consent could easily be solved by early, comprehensive, and sex-positive sexual education. People need to understand that just because someone has not said “no,” does not mean they have given consent. Consent is active, enthusiastic, and positive. Not neutral, not passive, not “not fighting back”.

2. Alcohol and drugs make consent more complicated.

This is not to say, “Don’t ever mix drugs/alcohol with sex,” because that is both unrealistic and pretty much impossible. It is only to say that getting consent while drunk/high is a whole different level– for consent experts only. Many of Reddit’s rapists’ stories included hazy cases of consent where the victim and/or rapist were intoxicated  . For more information about alcohol/drugs and sex, see the below video by YouTuber Laci Green.

3. Speaking up about rape and sexual assault is important– from both sides. 

Rape only happens because somebody decides to rape somebody else. Whether or not that decision is made by someone who is informed about what rape means is up to us. As I stated above, consent must be stressed above all else in our sexual education. Rapists must be held accountable legally, morally, and socially. I will leave you with this comment from Redditor mrrrrrow:

I would just like to post a plea to the people here who have expressed remorse – even if you don’t feel like you can apologise to your victim, you can still do a lot of good. Please speak to the next generation. There are young people and teenagers growing up right now who will make the same mistakes. We have the most appalling attitude towards sex education in general, but boys and girls need to know that ‘stranger rape’ is not the most common form of rape. They need to know that these situations do happen.

Tell the young men1 in your life your story (sanitised as much as seems necessary). Tell them how your situation arose, why you kept going without consent, what it meant to you afterwards, how you’ve come to your position of remorse. Ask them how they would feel if that was their sister, friend, mother, and to remember that every girl2 is someone’s sister, friend, daughter.

If you can, go into schools and colleges and tell your story. Contact self-defence and sexual assault prevention groups for help on outreach.

Although some of the posts in this thread are beyond what I can bring myself to read, I do think that the conversation needs to happen. The only way to truly prevent rape is to teach people not to rape.

1 I acknowledge that not all rapists are men, but they overwhelmingly are. And obviously not all men are rapists.

2 Ditto not all victims are women

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I apologize for the lack of updates; I have taken the past week to get acclimated to my new position as a Social Media/Publicity Intern for an awesome website called A Mighty Girl. If you follow A Mighty Girl’s Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest, you’ll be seeing lots of my behind-the-scenes work!

 

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