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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Representations of Poverty in “The Casual Vacancy”

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Though I stood in line for the midnight release of almost every Harry Potter book, I was a bit more hesitant about reading J.K. Rowling’s newest book.  The Casual Vacancy has been hailed as an “adult” book, something vastly different from the author’s previous series about wands and wizards. Set in a small British town called Pagford, The Casual Vacancy follows the town’s residents through intertwining narratives, all surrounding the political issues brought forward by the death that occurs in the book’s first chapter.

Most reviews of Rowling’s newest tome have been lukewarm at best–critics and readers were put off by her very realistic prose which features swearing, drug use, depictions of rape and abuse, explicit sexuality, and references to Facebook. In contrast to Harry Potter’s magical world, where nobody ever needs to pee and magical teenagers left mostly to their own devices never progress past snogging, Pagford seems shockingly realistic. Many reviewers have blamed this feeling on Rowling “trying too hard” to show her worth beyond children’s fantasy. However, I found that the disingenuous feeling of Rowling’s realism came from somewhere else: the extreme representations of poverty in The Casual Vacancy.

   (My discussion from here forward will contain spoilers from The Casual Vacancy.)

Though Rowling’s mess of characters share screen-time pretty equally, much of The Casual Vacancy centers on the character Krystal Weedon. Krystal is the character who represents “the Fields,” a contentious area of Pagford that borders the larger town of Yarvil and contains unkempt public council housing and the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic. The Weedons are the only of Rowling’s main characters who live in poverty– though her remaining characters suffer from abuse, self-harm, and mental illness, they are all characterized as solidly middle class. The characterization of the Weedon’s poverty sets them apart from the other residents of Pagford, as does the fact that they serve to represent the entire idea of “the Fields,” a subject that crosses the minds of the rest of Pagford’s residents due to its political impact in the central plot point of the parish council elections.

The Casual Vacancy, and along with it, the characterization of the Weedon family, suffers from the extreme situation of poverty that Rowling chose to describe. It isn’t that the Weedon’s situation is not realistic– of course, stereotypes of poverty are informed by real brushes with it. The problem is that by representing social issues like poverty in extremes, we often cannot recognize the problem in any of its other forms.

The argument against extremes was first articulated to me through a feminist lens in a 1989 bell hooks article, “Violence in Intimate Relationships: A Feminist Perspective”. Hooks argues that while feminists have had to focus on extremes to bring an issue to the attention of the public, this same focus can be harmful when addressing more common forms of the problem. In the essay, hooks uses the term “battered women” to illustrate her argument. “Battered woman” not only defines a victim of intimate partner violence by their injuries, but implies repeated, visible, and ongoing physical abuse. When the term “battered woman” is translated into a representative figure in books, television, or film, we get the typical image of a battered wife– visibly bruised, emotionally shaken, and marked with a token black eye. This image erases many other forms of intimate partner violence that occur, most notably, emotional abuse that does not leave such visible scars.

The argument against extremes has been brought up in many feminist issues. In 2011, feminist activists convinced the FBI to change its definition of rape, which had not been updated since 1920. The FBI’s old definition included the phrase, “forcibly and against her will,” which (despite the obvious gender pronoun issues) placed pressure on rape survivors and law enforcement to prove whether the rape was “forcible”. The FBI definition was influenced by larger myths that we have about rape in society: that rape is usually committed by an evil stranger in a dark alley who physically injures their resisting victim. As feminists, we know these myths are wrong, but society continues to focus on “extreme” versions of the crime, which is represented and then echoed through our media and laws.

The same problem of extremes exists in society’s treatment of poverty. I am speaking from an American perspective, which of course differs from the exact issues of poverty that are prominent in Britain, specifically regarding issues of race. But here are just a handful of ways society creates a specific idea of what “poor” is supposed to look like:

Poor folks are regularly ridiculed for using food stamps to buy basically anything (soda, “junk food,” or treats for children). Poor people who buy new shoes must not really be poor. Poor people should stop having children, but we don’t want to pay for their contraception either. If you are not homeless, you are not really poor. If you buy fast food, you aren’t really poor. If you have money to celebrate birthdays/holidays/etc, then you’re not really poor. And so on. 

In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep this past September, Rowling touched on her own experience with poverty in Britain and how it informed her writing of The Casual Vacancy. Rowling said: “It’s not my story, but it does address themes, subjects that are very important to me”.  She may have been better off writing something closer to her story. Rowling is well-known for her period of poverty while she was writing the first Harry Potter book as a single mother. This time in Rowling’s life is almost mythical in the media, which likes to toss around stories about her writing the novel on napkins because she couldn’t afford paper. The media has also written that Rowling’s habit of writing in cafes was directly related to her poverty– she was escaping her unheated flat. Rowling has denied such myths, complicating the portait of her time of poverty. Those myths, along with many others, feed our desires for a romantic and extreme form of poverty. But the reality of Rowling’s situation did not fit our poverty narratives. She was a poor single mother from a middle-class family, educated at the University of Exeter, divorced after an unsuccessful marriage in Portugal, and unemployed and on welfare benefits so that she could finish writing a book about a boy wizard. Rowling’s life does not fit into stereotypical poverty narratives, but it is an image of poverty nonetheless.

The Casual Vacancy is very much a book about politics and class wars, so Rowling may have intentionally created the Weedon family as a stereotype for poverty in the UK. If this was the intention, I believe she failed. Rowling herself articulates the problem that I find with her book in this quote: “One of the great problems for me is that the poor … are so often discussed just as this large, shapeless mass. You lose your individuality a huge amount when you have no money, and I certainly had that experience…”¹ .

It is unfortunate that the extreme and stereotyped description of the Weedon family represented the poor as something Rowling wished to avoid: a large, shapeless mass of stereotypes.

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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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Updates!

My first article was published at Feminspire.com  this week and I am thrilled at the feedback it has been getting. If you have a moment to read and comment, please do!

As The Feminist Anthropologist is approaching its one year anniversary, I’ve been making a couple of changes to the site. First, you will see that you can now reach this webpage through the url: http://www.thefeministanthropologist.com. I am very excited about this change! Second, I am looking to increase my number of guest posts. If you would like to be a guest blogger or know someone who might be interested, please email me at thefeministanthropologist(at)gmail(dot)com.

As always, you can like the site on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, and explore The Feminist Anthropologist Tumblr! 

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Advertising and Marketing: Sexism Doesn’t Always Sell

As a feminist and social critic, I often point out how the advertising and marketing spheres are a major source of sexism and misogyny. From sexualization to objectification, advertisers know that sex (and poking at people’s insecurities) sells. Unfortunately, a common reaction to my blogs which point out the sexism and sheer ridiculousness of advertising and marketing is to claim that “It’s their job to sell you stuff!” I want to clear up why I believe that companies should be held responsible for how they market their products and why we as consumers should not accept sexism, sex and body-negativity, or misogyny as the status quo.

Popular consumerism feeds off of the sexism that already exists in society. This is how companies can get away with blatant sexism; unfortunately, many people just don’t notice sexist products or ads because they believe that it is “just the way things are.” JC Penney’s famously kicked up some anger with their t-shirt for young girls that read: “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” More recently, Land’s End committed a major sexist advertising snafu by not only gendering the backpacks in their back-to-school issue, but by imbedding sexist messages in the ad copy itself. While the backpacks geared towards boys were “superhero tough,” the backpack marketed to girls were “tough as long division!”

Sexist ads exist because we live in a sexist society. By feeding off ideologies that already surround us, sexist media also perpetuates sexism and misogyny. Understanding the cyclical nature of harmful advertising is the first step to changing it.

From a feminist perspective this all seems very simple. It is easy to forget that some people make a living writing successful ad campaigns, or that others may accept that sexism sold to them because they don’t know there is another way. Organizations like the Better Business Bureau fight against false advertising for diet and medical products, but have yet to become very active in fighting against the more social harms of sexist business and advertising. I believe that while big change must come from consumers themselves, an awareness of social issues should be mandatory for those in the advertising and marketing fields. Advertising and marketing as a profession must be more self-reflective. It must reconcile a way to market effectively without perpetuating sexism, racism, ableism, heterosexism, sex-negativity, body-negativity, etc. Some say this cannot be done, but there are many successful ads that fight against the status quo and have won companies plenty of positive media coverage. For example, a recent Ray Bans ad featured a gay couple holding hands. JC Penney was targeted by the conservative group One Million Moms for featured gay parents in their advertisements. Rather than give in to OMM’s protest, JC Penney affirmed its commitment to representing diverse families. This is one example of a company doing what they believe to be right, not necessarily what will sell more.

Calling attention to the way that sexism is perpetuated through seemingly harmless television shows, advertisements, magazine spreads, and marketing schemes is a way to disrupt the acceptance of sexism. Organizations like Miss Representation and Spark Summit do a wonderful job at calling companies out on a grander scale. Boycotting a product or writing a letter to the company explaining your disgust is always a good idea. Giving companies who use sexism to sell products lots of negative press is another step you can take. On a very micro-level, I have found that simply pointing something out to those who are around me while watching TV, riding the subway, or listening to the radio is more productive than you might think. Nothing makes me prouder than hearing my younger siblings declare, “That’s so sexist,” while watching television.

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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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Filed under cultural anthropology, feminism, gender, medical anthropology, sexism, sexuality, social justice

Gender, Race, and the Wage Gap: Why Intersectionality Matters

We often talk about the wage gap solely in terms of gender. From the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to the argument over whether a wage gap exists at all, we are usually only talking about men vs. women. The wage disparities that many people face, however, have more to do with the intersection of gender and race. White women, the group of people who are most talked about and targeted in the discussions of the wage gap, actually make more money than everybody except white men. Black men make less than white women, and black women make less than black men. Hispanic men make less than black women. Finally, hispanic women are most disadvantaged by the wage gap, making only $0.60 to a white man’s dollar.

Before I continue on with this discussion, I’d like to address some of the confusion that arises when we talk about the wage gap. The wage gap exists and is affected both by race and gender. However, the statistics that are used in order to locate the wage gap vary enormously. Many people argue that choices, not racism or sexism, create the wage gap¹. They argue that men work more hours per week than women and that women tend to enter lower-paying career fields. These arguments have been debunked time and time again². No matter how many outside factors you control for, women make less money than men for doing the same work.

Women are not the only demographic affected  by the wage gap. Race weighs more heavily on wage disparities than gender. But the wage gap is still seen as merely a feminist issue. This is why feminism and other movements for equality need to look at this and many other issues with an intersectional lens. The wage gap affects working women, but it also affects men of color, single-parent families, and poverty levels. Media coverage of the wage gap needs to include these groups that are affected the most, not just focus on white women vs. white men. Feminism does not own the fight against the wage gap. This fight belongs to men and women of color, families in poverty, gay and transgender workers, as well as women everywhere.

For more information on the wage gap and intersectionality, see:

Infographic: The Gender Pay Gap– See What Inequity in Earnings Costs Women and Their Families Each Year and Over Their Lifetimes

Top 10 Facts About The Wage Gap 

Pay Equity and Single Mothers of Color: Eliminating Race-Based and Gender-Based Wage Gap Key to American Prosperity

The Gay and Transgender Wage Gap: Many Workers Receive Less Pay Due to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination

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Filed under feminism, gender, identity, politics, privilege, sexism, social justice, Uncategorized

Victoria’s Secret vs. Dove: Or, how companies appropriate body-positivity to sell you more stuff

The above image has been going around Facebook to the same devastating results as the “When did this…become hotter than this…?” meme. Both images were taken from advertising and marketing campaigns by two large companies, Dove and Victoria’s Secret, who have been appropriating body positivity to continue to profit off of people’s insecurities. While the sale of false body positivity is all I see in these images, Facebook responded positively to Dove’s ad campaign and negatively to Victoria’s Secret’s.

These reactions of “ew, gross, way too skinny” about the VS models are not at all body-positive, and the celebration of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign gives them far too much credit.

Dove’s Real Beauty campaign showcases women whose bodies fall on the societally acceptable side of normal. While people love to tell a size 0 VS model to “eat a damn sandwich,” the same people appreciate Dove’s campaign, which only celebrates the size 6, size 8, size 10, maybe size 12 curves of a conventionally attractive woman. Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign is just a marketing front for selling a line of “firming creams” to women with insecurities about “flab” and cellulite. Does Dove’s campaign ad show a few more women of color, a few more “curvy” women, and a little bit less retouching than Victoria’s Secret’s ads do? Yes. But is Dove really the savior of women everywhere whose self-esteem is continuously torn down by our culture and media? Not a chance.

Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign has been around for a few years now and the criticisms of it are widely documented. Now, Victoria’s Secret–the cultural gatekeeper of sexual perfection and unattainable bodies–has weakly used body-positive language to sell bras to women who may worry that their partners prefer watching the VS fashion show to looking at their imperfect bodies. Even though “I Love My Body” is very weakly tied to actual bodies– the bras they are selling as called “Body” bras, so really it’s just “I Love My Bra”– the use of a body-positive statement to sell products is offensive.

Dove, Victoria’s Secret, and those who celebrate these campaigns need to understand that loving your body, appreciating real beauty, and being body-positive is incompatible with buying products to make you do so. These pathetic marketing campaigns continue to profit off our insecurities when the truth is that self-esteem cannot be bought. The same fake endorsements of body-positivity can be seen in Julia Bluhm and Spark Summit’s recent “success” in getting Seventeen Magazine to stop airbrushing models. While Seventeen talks the talk with its diplomacy with Bluhm and its “Body Peace Treaty,” the magazine cannot celebrate real bodies because it makes its business by advertising to girls that they need certain products to be prettier, cooler, sexier, and more desirable.

What is the solution to this? We all need to buy soap or lotion or those special halter-back bras from Victoria’s Secret; companies make a business selling us things. So buy the things you need–but don’t let them convince you that you “need” something to make you sexier, prettier, more confident, or more desirable. Be critical of advertising and don’t fall for the celebration of “body-positive advertising” that is just another front for manipulative marketing. Criticize the sexism, the airbrushing, and the message that you are not good enough. And don’t tell the VS model to eat a sandwich.

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Filed under advertising, body image, feminism, gender, sexism, Uncategorized