Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sungold's Gold: Volume I

To be honest, all the "end of year" roundups get on my nerves. January 1 is such an arbitrary date. Why not celebrate the winter solstice instead? Or the spring equinox? Why not the start of the school year, which to me - perpetual student that I am - still feels like the "natural" beginning of the year?

Nonetheless, Jill's generous call at Feministe for her readers to promote their "best-of-2008" posts got me browsing my archives, and once I started, I decided I might as well embrace the tradition. Heck, if Abba can hawk "greatest hits" albums, why not me? Plus, I was having a lot of fun looking back; the historian in me was seriously happy. So was the navel-gazer.

First, this is as good a time as any to say how much I appreciate those of you who read Kittywampus. I love you even more when you comment. So thanks! I hope you'll keep coming 'round in the new year. I'll try to not waste your time too much ... or (I hope) be mildly amusing when I do.

When I look back, I'm amazed and appalled at how much I wrote. This blog was supposed to be a place to park some ideas and reflections for teaching, and maybe an outlet for the excessively long comments I'd otherwise leave at some other poor soul's blog. Instead, I wrote more than a post a day - 385 and counting - and some of them were really more essays than blog posts. (Okay, some days I just posted Tina Fey's latest takedown of Sarah Palin, but that was all good, too.)

Can I earn a second Ph.D. for this? Oh, nevermind. I'm sure somewhere on the Internet, you can buy a Ph.D. in any discipline. Including blogging.

Anyway, here's my "greatest hits" selection. These posts actually aren't necessarily the ones that got the most hits; they're the ones where I thought there was a flash of an idea, or maybe more. I notice that like my posts themselves, this list is way longer than the average blog year-end round-up. I don't think this is necessarily a virtue, but it's who I am - the same gal whose dissertation ran to some 900 pages. To be honest, I'm compiling this list mostly for myself, as an index of sorts. If you see something you like, though, I'll be pleased.

Teaching - my original raison de blog - really did spawn a few decent posts:
My favorite posts, though, are the more reflective ones, often not overtly political, but still informed by my politics, I'm sure. One group of these dealt with how we construct our selves, often (but not always) through our embodiment:
I wrote an awful lot about sex for someone who doesn't call herself a "sex blogger":
While not every last one of my posts on health and medicine related to gender or sexuality, most of 'em had at least an oblique connection:
I explored the connections between feminism, parenting, and just being human from a bunch of angles:
Like motherhood more generally, childbearing and reproductive rights are at the heart of my academic research, too:
I expended way too much emotional energy on Sarah Palin - yet another reason to hope that her career will henceforth be confined to Alaska:
I spun my minor-league involvement in the Obama campaign into a few posts that I think are still a good read even after the election:
And that seems as good a place as any to embark on the new year: hope. I wish it for you, my kind readers, and for all of us who totter on this spinning Earth. Thanks for spinning along with me.

Is Blue's Clues Going Black?

Via image.fishpond, used under fair use provisions of copyright law for educational and critical purposes. Welcome message to Viacom spiders: We love Blue's Clues, so please consider this a free promo and don't make me take the pic down. :-)

I live very happily without MTV and VH1. I get most of my Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert online anyway. No one in my house is a big Spongebob fan. But losing Nick Jr. and Noggin? Blue's Clues and Dora the Explorer? That is a crisis.

The crisis is scheduled for midnight tonight. When the ball drops for the new year, my #%*&$ cable provider, Time Warner, will also drop all Viacom channels. A last-minute settlement is still possible but unlikely, since Viacom claims Time Warner is refusing to negotiate.

Why - instead of hearing this directly from Time Warner - did I get word of it instead from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo? (Thanks, Skippy and Jill!)

These are the fruits of media consolidation, folks. Time Warner and Viacom are mired in a spitting match to determine who's the more powerful player in their little oligopolous world. They don't give a damn about notifying their customers. Why, Time Warner isn't even reachable via their customer service number today! All I get is a recorded message claiming "technical difficulties."

These big media meanies don't even mind if they make my little Tiger cry. He loves Blue's Clues and Max and Ruby. He used to be passionate about Dora, though that has faded slightly. Gosh, the whole family likes the Wonder Pets. If Blue goes black, even for a few days, tears are sure to ensue.

Those tears might just be mine if I have to do without what a friend of mine calls "the bad parent machine." She means that in the most affectionate way possible, because she too relies on TV at strategic moments. Not constantly, not indiscriminately. In my house, the kids are allowed to watch TV mostly in the early mornings, and then mainly on weekend and vacation days.

Yes, I'm a slacker. I like to sleep in when I can. Blue lets me do that. So for the sake of us dedicated slacker parents, let's hope Viacom and Time Warner catch a clue.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Greying of Abortion Providers: Doing the Math

Anyone who follows reproductive politics is likely aware that the doctors who provide abortion services have been rapidly aging. Now, a new survey of abortion clinics helps us quantify the situation. It reports that nearly two-thirds of providers (63 percent) are aged 50 or older.

The survey has some limitations. It looks only at clinics and not at doctors who provide occasional abortion services as part of a broader ob/gyn practice. The survey was circulated in 2002 and I have no clue why results are only now being published.

Still, the statistic on the aging of abortion providers seems solid enough that I decided to do the math and try to project what it means for the future availability of abortion services.

Let’s say we have 100 doctors. Assuming an average retirement age of 65, over the next 15 years 63 will retire, leaving 37 still in practice. This assumption is subject to error because while some providers may stay on past age 65 for lack of a successor, others may retire earlier due to burnout or fears for their personal safety.

Now let’s assume that the rate of entry into practice has been linear over the past 25 years – in other words, that the 37 younger doctors began practicing over the past 25 years and trickled into the field at a steady pace. This is probably optimistic. Training in abortion techniques has become less common in medical schools, and it’s more likely that the number of entrants per year has declined steadily over time.

Over the course of the next 15 years, the retirees will be replaced by (37 divided by 25 for the number of entrants per year) x (15 years) = 22 new doctors. Instead of the original 100 doctors, we’ll have only 59.

In other words, we can expect the number of abortion providers to decrease by about 40 percent over the next 15 years.

However you do the math: The current shortage of abortion providers is on course to become an all-out crisis.

Let's make one further assumption: A safe abortion, performed by a qualified, trained doctor, is preferable to an unsafe one. So I won't respond to comments that demonize abortion in general; that's not what this post is about. While I recognize that some opponents of legal abortion may see the provider shortage as an another route toward reducing the number of abortions, that idea belongs in fantasyland. There are much more effective strategies for reducing abortions that don't put women's health at risk.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sadistic Coaching and Parenting

Before it goes stale along with my Christmas cookies, I just have to vent about this expose of Santa and his head reindeer, Donner, via Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake (caution: not suitable for kids):

It's about time! Even as a kid, I hated Donner's overbearing, unsympathetic attitude. Until now, though, I didn't notice how relentlessly Santa had his back.

Didn't you have a coach or gym teacher just like Donner, too? For me, the worst was Mr. Rosen in junior high. His favorite trick was to make his classes run "gut drills." I think they're called by different names in different parts of the country, but the upshot was that - starting at one end of the basketball court - you had to sprint to the first freethrow line, touch it, pivot and sprint back to the starting line, then do the same with the center line, the other freethrow line, and the out-of-bounds line at the court's far end.

If you didn't finish the gut drill in 30 seconds, you had to run another. Then another. And another. You were done if you made it in under 30, or when Mr. Rosen could see you were about ready to puke. Woe to you if his basketball team had lost the night before.

I almost never finished in less than 30 seconds. All through those long North Dakotan basketball winters, I'd make myself sick with nauseated worry on days when I had gym. Since P.E. was always late in the afternoon, I lost entire days of my life to that dread.

Mr. Rosen was a sadist. I suspect my sons' gym teacher has a similar, though much milder, streak. As a parent recently said on an email list I lurk on: "P.E. is institutionalized bullying." I'm think it's changed somewhat since 1975, but I don't see it as wholly transformed.

The truly appalling thing about the Donner character, though, isn't that he's a coach. It's that his parenting reflects the same sadistic approach. Even more sadly, I don't think he's wholly fictionalized.

This fall, watching the Tiger's kindergarten soccer team, I overheard a dad yell at his child: "Come on, pull yourself together out there!" He then stalked away in disgust. Dude! These are five year olds!! Ironically (but irrelevantly) this man's daughter was actually paying attention to the ball. My Tiger, meanwhile, was running in the wrong direction and chatting with a little girl who'd befriended him.

Sometimes I think my boys need to be a little tougher - not because they're boys but because they can both be cloyingly thin-skinned. They tend to cry over every little bump. They tattle on each other at each opportunity. I'll readily admit that my understanding and frustration spring from the same source: I was just like them as a kid.

But you know, the world is full of Donners, and my sons will encounter plenty of them. They're leading P.E. classes. They're on the playground. They're clawing their way up the corporate ladder. (Who hasn't had a Donner as a boss?)

What my kids need from their mama is not a Donnerette. They need love and understanding. They need sympathetic encouragement to distinguish the minor scrapes of life from the big bruises. They do need me to discourage the tattling, too - but that'd be another post for another day.

The Out-of-Control (Feminist?) Classroom

Control freak kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Historiann raises an interesting question of where professors experience the most control: research or teaching. In response to an MLA survey that contends professors, and especially women, may overinvest in teaching because it offers them a sense of control, she writes:
At least in my experience, research is the only area in which I have near complete control–not in the classroom, where someone else designed the rooms, and someone else determines the number of students and the number of courses we teach.
I agree completely. If I'm researching and writing, it's just me, the sources, and my ideas. Sure, someone else will eventually judge my work, but the process feels like it's within my own control. If I produce good work, it redounds to my credit. If it's crap ... well, there's no one else to blame. (Hmmm ... academic writing is a whole lot like blogging, that way.)

But teaching? There, the lack of control goes far beyond the conditions that Historiann mentions. Most importantly, the process of teaching escapes our control. We can steer, nudge, cajole. We can't totally direct it, however. In fact, I'd suggest that relinquishing control is sometimes necessary for effective teaching.

Teaching women's studies has forced me to wrestle with my inner control freak. (So has parenting, but that would be a whole 'nother post.) Let's just say my control freakery is not vanquished, but most days it's, well, under control. When I was interviewing last spring for my current job, the hiring committee posed this question, which I've been mulling over ever since:
How has your teaching changed now that you're in women's studies instead of history?
The big difference, for me personally at least, is that I've put more emphasis on discussion. In my lectures, I've increasingly taken an interactive, Socratic approach. I'm actually not convinced that such an approach is at all specific to feminist pedagogy. I think it's often just part of good teaching, period. But feminism definitely demands that the instructor repeatedly question the basis of her authority and how she expresses that authority in the classroom. This doesn't imply the professor has no special authority, a point that the occasional student - willfully? - misunderstands, only that she's obligated to draw on her education and experience to make that authority transparent and legitimate.

Teaching in the humanities often feels risky and humbling, anyway, because what you know is always dwarfed by what you don't. This is exacerbated when you throw touchy subjects such as sexual violence and abortion into the mix. I'm not saying that German history (my other areas of expertise) is uncontroversial, but at least there's a basic consensus that the Holocaust was a Bad Thing. There's no such consensus in women's studies.

It's often those out-of-control moments, though, that allow everyone to learn - me included. This past quarter in one of my intro classes, when one of my male freshmen boys insisted that being gay is a "lifestyle choice," other students had to articulate why they disagreed. My role was to make sure no one got hurt - including the guy who sparked the discussion - and otherwise to keep out of the way. This, by the way, is something I learned years ago as a T.A. in grad school, the first time I had to deal with a homophobic comment: other students can be far more effective teachers than me if I stay off my soapbox. That original incident actually occurred in a history course, which underscores the point that voluntarily and mindfully "losing" control can be useful in lots of different settings.

Or take the "cunt" discussion that erupted on the last day of my other intro class this fall. I'd previously talked with my theory class about reclaiming it and other pejorative terms, such as "bitch" or "queer," and we'd had the kind of reflective that made that group a huge pleasure to teach; they were advanced students with a basic commitment to feminist politics. But the intro class is a different beast, full of freshmen and business majors with little previous exposure to feminism. And so I was totally taken by surprise when one of my students - an outspoken Evangelical Christian feminist, and no that's not an oxymoron - wanted to end the quarter by discussing what's so offensive about "cunt" and why women might be able to use the word proudly.

I'm not sure I nudged that particular discussion in a fruitful direction. The other students weren't quite ready for it, and I really was ambushed by it, myself. A few of them were visibly embarrassed. And yet ... I'm willing to bet that at least one of them, sometimes in the hazy future, will think back on that discussion and feel just a bit less shame about her body.

Of course, none of this means you can just walk into a classroom unprepared. Quite the opposite. You need experience, confidence, and a pretty solid knowledge base.

And of course, I'm probably bloviating about the control issue precisely because I'm not prepared for winter quarter, which starts a week from today. :-)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Tail of Two Tigers

What to do when the kids are burbling with post-Christmas energy and turning the house into a zoo? My little Tiger, in particular, has been bouncing off the walls, acting silly and obviously craving the company of his own kind. Frustratingly, nearly all of his friends are still out of town for the holiday.

And so yesterday we packed these bouncy, giggly kids into the car and drove to Columbus. If you're running a zoo, you might as well take it literally. If my Tiger couldn't be with his friends, at least he could visit his namesakes.

Here's the tiger's best pussycat imitation ...

... and proof he was just faking it.

"I can has cheezburger?" (Or is that a childburger? He was looking straight at us!)

Thanks to weirdly warm temperatures of almost 70 degrees, the flamingos made a rare winter appearance.

I'd never seen the koala awake before yesterday (they sleep 22 hours a day), but apparently he too warmed up enough to scootch slowly, slowly toward his eucalyptus leaves.

The tree kangaroo was nearly as sleepy and slothful as the koala, and just as furry.

This gorilla was looking after a baby who made me very grateful for my own kids' comparatively good behavior. Her little charge was smearing something on the window that looked suspiciously like poop.

The Columbus Zoo does a holiday light show, Wildlights, which drew so many visitors yesterday that traffic was backed up for miles in both directions when we headed home. A photo can only hint at how many lights there were (millions, I think) and how beautiful they are when you see them "by real," as the Tiger would say.

On the drive home, the Tiger fell asleep, all his silliness and wildness now just a shimmer of a dream.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas Redux

The Brits have Boxing Day. The Germans have their Zweiter Weihnachtstag (second Christmas Day).

Here? The dang markets are open and so my poor little sister, who works for a major mutual fund company, has to go to work. That just seems wrong! I love the idea of a second Christmas Day and I think no one should have to go to work unless they provide a life-sustaining service. Heck, I'm in favor of all twelve days, even if that song really gnaws on my nerves.

So here's wishing you a very merry Second Christmas Day. In its honor, I give you two of my favorite holiday things: music (at least those songs that don't make me want to shoot someone) and cut-out cookies.

Thanks to my computer's built-in mike, the sound is pretty reminiscent of a music box. And the beginning sounds pretty wooden, since I was watching to see if the technology was cooperating, which only enhances the music-box effect. Otherwise it's a flawless performance (ha!) of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song," arranged for piano by Philip Keveren. Listen at your own peril.

I can't claim the cookies are in any better taste. Still, the frosting does taste good (thanks to a generous splash of almond flavoring). There's probably enough dyes in them to preserve us for the next 80 years.

The Tiger, who made this one, hearts Christmas almost as much as he hearts sugar.

What's Christmas without a festive cat?

Or two?

And then there's the traditional Christmas rooster.

This guy might slide through as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Apparently the Blue Man show has gone to the North Pole.

Here's our homage to Charlie Brown's tree.

I'd close by quoting Mel Torme's last line - "May all your Christmases be white" - but darn it, a thunderstorm just rolled into town. So instead, I'll just wish you love, kindness, joy, peace, compassion - and a glimpse of the holiday spirit where you might not expect it, whether in a torrential rainfall or a purple tree.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Tragedy of the Elves

Today I have a horrible elf hangover. No, I didn't fall too deep into the egg nog last night. I was up until the wee hours doing the work of the elves.

As always, this wasn't how I'd planned it.

A few weeks back, the Bear mentioned that the one toy that caught his imagination in the Christmas catalogs was a puppet theater. I whispered to his dad that we could maybe build our own; the one in the catalog looked small and flimsy. By "we," I of course meant "he." The Bear didn't bring it up again - until a few days ago, with hope gleaming in his eyes. By then, his dad was under the weather and nothing was going to be built of wood and hardware.

But I started to fret that the Bear might be disappointed to not get the one and only toy he'd requested. So yesterday, I got the brilliant idea (and by "brilliant," I of course mean "harebrained") that I could sew a puppet theater. These Martha Stewart-ish fits strike me only about once a year. They always end in me feeling grateful that home ec was a required course during my long-ago North Dakotan girlhood - and foolish at not having learned my lesson during my last fit of craftiness.

4 p.m.: I'm in Wal-Mart, scouring the fabric department for supplies. (Please don't chide me for patronizing the evil empire; it's the only source for fabric within 40 miles.) Finally I find the only bolt of velvet in stock. Technically it's velveteen, but it'll do. It's lush and black. As for trimmings, I settle on sequined braid, ribbon, and tassels, all in a festive gold.

9:30 p.m.: I sneak the sewing machine out of the upstairs closet and past the kids as their dad gets them ready for bed. I discover that the prongs on the plug are badly warped. I unwarp them just enough to render them pluggable. Mercifully, the machine runs smoothly; I hadn't used it since I'd driven all the way to Zanesville for repairs after I'd broken the entire needle unit while sewing a Halloween costume. It dawns on me how stupid it is to engage in Christmas brinksmanship.

9:35 p.m.: The Bear appears downstairs. I bark at him - rather unmerrily - to get back to bed. I thank my stars that it wasn't the Tiger, who still believes.

11 p.m.: My husband slinks out to his woodshop in the garage, after all, to sand down a dowel to support the bottom of the stage's opening.

12 midnight: We cross the Christmas dateline without any kids appearing again. Ribbon loops grace the top edge of the curtain, an arched opening has taken shape, and I'm about to hem the edges. I realize that the edges are really long - six foot along the floor and nearly five feet vertically. This theater is big enough to accommodate three or four puppeteers.

1 a.m.: Everything is finished except the trim. I reconsider my original plan of using the hot glue gun to attach it. What if it makes the curtain too stiff? What if it melts the sequins? If I wreck the theater, I've got no Plan B. How about if I sew the sequins on with the machine? No, no, no - that's how I broke the damn thing last time. (My machine is no match for the glue on sequined fabric and trims.) I google variations on "attaching sequins" and come up remarkably empty. Oh Martha, Martha, why hast thou forsaken me?

1:15 a.m.: I sigh and start sewing on the sequined braid by hand. It is two yards in length. I learn that black is a truly fiendish color in dim artificial light when your eyes are tired and you've refused to get bifocals despite advancing presbyopia. I take off my glasses and bring the fabric within a few inches of my face.

2:30 a.m.: I go through another round of dithering about how to attach the tassel trim. This time, I use the machine. The metallic gold thread breaks again and again.

3:00 a.m.: I hang the theater on the suspension rod. I can't believe it's finally done. I can't believe it actually worked and - as the Tiger loves to say - "it looks awesome." I'm so tickled, I have to take a picture.

I lay out a trail of animal puppets to lead the kids from the stairs to the theater. Santa's work is done, and not once did I use the seam ripper.

3:30 a.m.: I crawl into bed.

4:00 a.m.: The Bear crawls out of his bed.

6:15 a.m.: The Bear wakes me up to inform me that the motor for one of his toys just overheated.

I promised you a tragedy, so I'll tell you right now that nothing burned down from this incident. But as I groggily assured the Bear we'd figure it out later, I realized that yet again, the kids proved it's impossible to witness their pleasure when they discover Santa's goodies. Unless, of course, you stay up all night. Hey, I nearly did pull an all-nighter, and I still missed that mythical magical moment.

That's the tragedy of the elves, isn't it? Every year, they do Santa's bidding. And then, every year, Santa gets the credit and the elves - unless they're uncommonly early risers - miss the show.

I'm reminded of a story my mom still tells of how my dad once built a kid-sized tool bench for my brother. Santa got the glory. I'd always vowed that I wouldn't do the same; that I would refuse to let Santa be a free rider.

Except for this: The Bear is in on the secret. A few years ago, he dissected all the logical flaws in Santa's cover story. And so after I finally dragged my bones out of bed later this morning, he and I exchanged a few knowing, smiling glances. He knows. I know he knows. That's good enough. That, plus the excited gleam in his eye as he said, "I really love the puppet theater, Mama."

Christmas Wonder through My Little Bear's Eyes

So last night we're driving home from services, reflecting on the message of compassion and joy that we'd just heard. From the back seat, my little Bear asks:
Has the Earth existed for more than a googolplex seconds? Or less?
Let no one tell you that science and wonder are at odds.

(And don't ask me how big a googolplex is. That's what Google is good for.)

This picture of my forsythia in its holiday finery is totally cheating; I took it a few days ago before the snow got washed away. For Christmas Eve, we had warm rains.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Belated Tuesday Recipe: Stuffed Mushrooms with Pine Nuts

Image from Flickr user One Good Bumblebee, used under a Creative Commons license.

Despite my last post, I'm not all gloom and politics, y'know. I've been enjoying some holiday cheer. Last night, the festivities included these stuffed mushrooms. The recipe is slightly adapted from the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook.

The kids loved watching me make them but turned up their nose at actually eating them. (The Bear at least tried them; the Tiger refused even that.) Everyone else was happy to eat the kids' share.

Stuffed Mushrooms with Pine Nuts

18 to 20 large white mushrooms
2 T. lemon juice

Stems of the mushrooms
2 to 3 garlic cloves (more if it pleases you)
1/2 cup pine nuts (previously roasted is nicest)
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Olive oil for sauteeing

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Gently clean the mushrooms. Finely chop the garlic and the stems of the shrooms (I use a food processor), then saute them in olive oil. Remove from the heat and mix in the rest of the stuffing ingredients.

Dip the mushrooms in lemon juice (use just enough to coat the outside, otherwise it can get too tart). Stuff them gently but generously and place them in an oiled baking dish. Bake 20 to 25 minutes.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bush's Christmas Gift to Women

As any beginning student of the German language learns, the word "gift" is a false cognate. In German, it means "poison." That double meaning seems just about right to describe George Bush's parting gift to women: the new HHS rule that allows health providers to refuse women basic health services.

Jill at Feministe has a great analysis of what's really at stake in this rule. Here's the short version (but you should really go read her whole post):
It’s being framed as about abortion, but here’s the thing: There are existing laws that protect health care workers from performing or assisting with abortion. Under current U.S. law, no one can be forced to partake in an abortion procedure if they have a moral objection.

This is about birth control.
Yep. I have just two things to add, both in connection with the Nativity story.

First, a film I often use in the classroom - Sacred Choices and Abortion: 10 New Things to Think About - starts from the premise that "Mary Had a Choice." And it's true that the Gospels don't say that God impregnated Mary against her will. They don't suggest that the Holy Spirit essentially raped her. God asked Mary if she was willing. She had a choice. She said yes. She could have also said no.

Imagine if Mary instead had to convince an intransigent pharmacist to prescribe Plan B for her after unprotected sex with Joseph? I'm not being flip about this. I sincerely think that the HHS rule doesn't protect the Christian faith; it conflicts with it.

Secondly: Over twenty years ago Margaret Atwood made a poetic plea for all women to have the same reproductive choices as Mary. I would like Bush and his minions to have to write out this poem over and over again until they knew it by heart - until they took it into their hearts. I realize that would take a miracle on par with the virgin birth.

(Warning: This is a poem, but it vividly depicts sexual violence, so it's not for you if you're easily triggered.)
Christmas Carols

Children do not always mean
hope. To some they mean despair.
This woman with her hair cut off
so she could not hang herself
threw herself from a rooftop, thirty
times raped & pregnant by the enemy
who did this to her. This one had her pelvis
broken by hammers so the child
could be extracted. Then she was thrown away,
useless, a ripped sack. This one
punctured herself with kitchen skewers
and bled to death on a greasy
oilcloth table, rather than bear
again and past the limit. There
is a limit, though who knows
when it may come? Nineteenth-century
ditches are littered with small wax corpses
dropped there in terror. A plane
swoops too low over the fox farm
and the mother eats her young. This too
is Nature. Think twice then
before you worship turned furrows, or pay
lip service to some full belly
or other, or single out one girl to play
the magic mother, in blue
& white, up on that pedestal,
perfect & intact, distinct
from those who aren’t. Which means
everyone else. It’s a matter
of food & available blood. If mother-
hood is sacred, put
your money where your mouth is. Only
then can you expect the coming
down to the wrecked & shimmering earch
of that miracle you sing
about, the day
when every child is a holy birth.
From Margaret Atwood, Selected Poems II: 1976 - 1986, p. 70.

Atwood holds the copyright on this, of course, and if anyone objects to my reprinting it in its entirety, I will take it right down. She was describing truths from history and nature, but as usual, she was also all too prescient about the future.

Photo by Flickr user andy castro, used under a Creative Commons license.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What I Never Knew about Sex and Anti-Depressants

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

By now, I think it's pretty common knowledge that Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and all the other anti-depressants in that class (SSRIs - selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) can cause serious sexual side effects. They can cause delays in arousal and orgasm. Some people lose the ability to have orgasms altogether. Some men develop erectile dysfunction. Some people lose their libido altogether.

In this week's Boston Globe, journalist Carey Goldberg reports that the scope of SSRI-induced sexual problems is greater than had previously been recognized. Early studies put the number of Prozac users who developed sexual dysfunction at about four percent. Now, Goldberg says, that percentage is being revised dramatically upward:
But more recent studies, in which patients were more likely to be asked about specific sexual side effects and thus more likely to report them, suggest that the ballpark range of those affected by SSRIs is between 30 percent and 50 percent, said researchers including Dr. Richard Balon, a psychiatry professor at Wayne State University who studies the symptoms.

That would translate into millions of affected sex lives among the estimated 1 in 8 American adults who have tried these antidepressants in the past decade or so. Some studies have found the range still higher.
Wow. Fancy that. Doctors hadn't bothered to ask specifically about sexual problems. I guess they were trusting that patients would volunteer the information? And then they just assumed that no news was good news?

This goes way beyond naivete or cluelessness. This is not just another instance of doctors being pathetically repressed when it comes to sex - although it's true that far too many doctors are embarrassed to talk about sex ... and then they wonder why their patients don't raise the issue? This is also more than just the drug companies not wanting to know the complete downside of some of their most profitable products.

This is boneheadedness. Plain and simple. This is the ostrich approach to practicing medicine. Just prescribe a powerful drug, then stick your head in the sand of comfortable ignorance and assume all is well.

However, the wide prevalence of SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction is not even the worst news. The most disturbing part of Goldberg's article is this:
[A] handful of recent medical and psychological journal articles document a small number of cases in which sexual problems remain even after a patient goes off the drugs.
This is something I'd never heard. And I'm one of the folks who's been paying attention. I know plenty of people who've taken SSRIs for short periods or long-term, and I'm willing to bet very few of them realize that sexual side effects may be permanent.

Goldberg reports that the scope of this problem is unknown because - surprise, surprise! - it hasn't been studied.

Based on recent case reports of persistent effects, an article earlier this year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine said patients should "be told that in an unknown number of cases, the side effects may not resolve with cessation of the medication." ...

In the past two or three years, scattered published case reports from around the country have described patients whose sexual symptoms failed to resolve after going off antidepressants.

Dr. Robert P. Kauffman, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Texas Tech University, has published accounts of three cases in his practice. "It's probably a small number of men and women," he said, "but I really think it deserves investigation."

Psychologist Audrey Bahrick at the University of Iowa said she became concerned when she observed that several clients whom she followed went off SSRIs and "very, very credibly to me, they did not recover" sexually.

Among their symptoms, she said, were "telltale signs" of SSRI-caused dysfunction, unrelated to the known effects of mental illness. They had "pleasureless orgasms," and "genital anesthesia," in which sex feels no more intense than a handshake. She became particularly concerned about adolescents put on antidepressants, whose sexuality might never have a chance to develop normally.

Bahrick began to explore. She found that post-SSRI sexual effects had never been systematically studied, but she came across a Yahoo group called SSRIsex, a support group for people with "persistent SSRI sexual side effects" that now has more than 1,800 members.

I'm not suggesting that this figure of 1800 sufferers tells us anything about the true scope of the problem. The thing is, no one knows how big the problem may be. And the ostrich approach isn't miraculously going to shed any light on it.

Now, I'm not trying to demonize anti-depressants. I've seen them drag people out of despair. At the risk of sounding overdramatic, I'll even say I've seen them save lives.

I'm just saying we need to have a grip on the full range of these medications' possible side effects and their probability, so that patients can decide, in consultation with their doctors, when the risks just might outweigh the benefits.

And if that's not happening - if patients are tinkering with their brain chemistry without fully informed consent - well, that's just depressing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Our Most Naked Selves

Gustav Klimt's Danae, posted on Flickr by freeparking, used under a Creative Commons license.

A couple of weeks ago, Cosmo got piled on - deservedly, in my opinion - for a headline on the cover of its December issue that reads "Your Orgasm Face: What He's Thinking When He Sees It." I haven't read the article. I'm loathe to buy the magazine. I was even more loathe to read it while waiting to pay at the supermarket while my little Bear (age 9) reads over my shoulder. So I'll rely on the précis of it from a long discussion thread on it at Open Salon, where someone who actually had seen the article weighed in and noted that it was relatively benign, apparently intended to reassure women that men like their O-face.

That still didn't make the cover okay! Isn't it just typical of Cosmo that whatever the article's content, its headline fans women's insecurities?! I mean, we all know that the lure to buy the magazine isn't desire; it's fear of what our partner might be thinking. And if the article is eventually reassuring, well, then it's responding to a need that the cover headline helped create in the first place.

On one level, of course, Cosmo is tapping into the way women's pleasure is viewed more generally in our culture: as something to be performed for a male partner's benefit and not just enjoyed authentically in its own right. This is only the latest salvo in the objectification and commodification of women's bodies and pleasure. It totally deserves the snark it got from commenter CrossWord at Jezebel:
Please. He is waaaay to busy being grossed out by your pubic hair/shape of your labia to notice your O face.
Heh. If he's got a kebab fixation, he doesn't deserve to notice anything else.

All snark aside, I also think there's a vulnerability in orgasm that's not entirely reducible to social conditioning. And this, I think, is far more interesting than Cosmo's foolishness. Now that I've got that mini-rant out of my system, I'd like to ponder this vulnerability from a more philosophical angle.

For me, at least, there's an element of trust and intimacy in letting a man see me at that moment, naked in every sense, which I hope would be appreciated, enjoyed, and never treated casually or with contempt. Thankfully, I've never been teased about it; I've never felt judged. Appallingly, several of the commenters at Jezebel mention exes who actually did give them a hard time. The right retort to that comes from their fellow Jezzie commenter Swashbuckling: "If a guy can't deal with an orgasm face, he's well within his rights to give up sex." Indeed.

However, in my chequered past I have experienced partners who did a quick disappearing act, which felt too much like disrespect for my vulnerability (and perhaps for their own). In one case, the guy's retreat was literal and almost instantaneous, as he leapt off of me, into his trousers, and out the door. Other times, the guy conspicuously avoided me once everyone's clothes were on again. Either way, I found it hurtful and bewildering. Note that these were situations involving friends where I wasn't pressing for any deeper involvement. I assume that their reactions had more to do with a general fear of intimacy or unresolved inner conflicts about their own boundaries, but that's all conjecture since, after all, they didn't stick around to explain.

Nonetheless. Even in a supposedly low-commitment situation, when I allowed myself to be that naked and my partner's reaction was a rapid retreat, it felt like a breach of trust. And I think this has to do with the vulnerability of having been seen with every defense down, exposed in every way.

Now, I suppose one solution would be to avoid such vulnerability. The only problem? I think that really wonderful sex, whether with a long-term partner or just a partner-for-tonight, requires precisely this vulnerability. In my experience, anyway, there's a deep need to be really seen, for a partner to look at my exposed self, with all its messy desires and pleasures, and to embrace it anyway. No, more: to be embraced because of that wild nakedness.

If this isn't just my personal quirk (and if I really thought it was, I'd shut up), it sheds some light on why "casual sex" is so often not really casual and even less often meaningless. I also imagine that this is one reason why so many people are sexually unsatisfied even where the mechanics of libido, arousal, and orgasm work just fine. It might help explain why some people seek out affairs or prostitutes. (For me, it suggests why I find commercialized sex so unappealing, but I know it's true that many men seek more from a prostitute than just physical release.) It illuminates why solo sex apparently strikes so many of us as a wholly inadequate substitute for coupling with another person.

And so sex is about much more than just pleasure and orgasms, or even love and affection; it's about the need to be seen and embraced in our orgasmic vulnerability.

I don't for a minute believe that long-term relationships hold a monopoly on this sort of connection. It can happen in the shortest-term liaison as long as there's mutual regard and a willingness to take emotional risks. It can occur between friends with benefits as long as the friendship is real and not a mere fiction. It can be absent in long-term relationships, even in otherwise loving and intimate ones. In fact, familiarity may tempt us to think we know our partners fully, to stop seeing them afresh, and to carry this jadedness over into routinized sex that feels "safe" in all the wrong ways.

When this sort of vulnerability is nurtured over the long run, its rewards can be greater, I think. But this requires a willingness to take risks.

Whatever the relationship context, people may tend to default to emotional pseudo-safety in sex because the need for shared, perceived, embraced vulnerability collides with another need: to protect ourselves against possible rejection. Because what if your partner sees you in your naked neediness and is repulsed - or just alarmed at the too-muchness of it? What if your partner beats a quick retreat (see above)?

This pushme-pullyou of vulnerability and fear isn't only about gender, though it has some gendered dimensions. In the Western world, throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, women were held to be more carnal than men: voracious, sexually aggressive, and just plain out of control. Kochanie recently suggested that
By attributing such power and malice to women, men became, by default, the submissive class. A resentfully submissive class.
This puts a new spin on why men put (respectable) women on a pedestal in the nineteenth century - and why, despite its ongoing costs to all of us, so many men persist in claiming women are the less lusty sex. This historical legacy also suggests that men may put more at risk in letting themselves be vulnerable, sexually, because vulnerability can edge into loss of power and privilege, if not necessarily submission per se.

In the wake of this history, men can too easily conflate vulnerability with weakness. They are not the same.

What's more, the blurring of self/other boundaries that can happen when you risk sexual vulnerability challenges the very notion of the autonomous self. Men have more invested than women in the illusion of autonomy and self-containment. The autonomous and controlled self has been fundamental to Western masculinity. It was essential to John Locke's articulation of the modern political subject. Sigmund Freud saw it as the result of successfully navigating the phallic phase. Jean-Paul Sartre asserted the superiority of transcendence over immanence. All of these subjects were deeply gendered as masculine. And while Locke would probably be appalled, you could trace the association of masculinity with self-contained autonomy all the way up to the emergence of the "pick-up artist" and the Seduction Community, which as far as I can tell is largely about using sex to avoid real sexual vulnerability.

However. Vulnerability is scary for everyone, not just for men. I recently mentioned bell hooks' take on romance as consisting of people putting a false front, trying to impress their partner (and maybe trying to fool their very own selves, too). That false front doesn't just get in the way of love, as hooks notes. It also prevents us from letting our vulnerability show, sexually and otherwise. I tend to think that the people who maintain the facade most ferociously are also precisely those who may feel the most vulnerable under the surface - and who might gain the most from dropping the mask.

And this false front interferes mightily with good sex. This is partly because forgetting yourself is no small part of good sex, which is why anything that makes us judge our performance through external eyes is so pernicious. (Yep, I'm talkin' to you again, Cosmo!) It's also because vulnerability itself can be hot.

In the end, though, the imperative to drop the mask is about way more than just heat and friction. It's about an existential need to convince ourselves, if only for one peak moment, that we're not truly alone. That we're not ultimately disconnected and atomized. That we don't have to be self-contained.

If the existentialists exalted the transcendent, autonomous, self-directed man, they also recognized the anxiety (the nausea, as Sartre would have it) that comes with seeing ourselves as wholly alone and wholly free. If Sartre were around to comment on this post, he'd likely see me as either naively romantic or stupidly mired in immanence.

But Simone de Beauvoir (who I'm pretty sure would hate that Cosmo cover) might have thought I'm on the right track. Here's her final word in The Second Sex on sexuality in a world where women and men would be equals (my emphasis):
It is nonsense to assert that revelry, vice, ecstasy, passion, would become impossible if man and woman were equal in concrete matters; the contradictions that put the flesh in opposition to the spirit, the instant to time, the swoon of immanence to the challenge of transcendence, the absolute of pleasure to the nothingness of forgetting, will never be resolved; in sexuality will always be materialised the tension, the anguish, the joy, the frustration, and the triumph of existence. To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue none the less to exist for him also: mutually recognising each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other.
It's this mutual recognition that I think we yearn for - and that I believe we deeply, deeply need, women and men alike. It's neither utopian nor romanticized. It can only happen, though, when we drop the mask and pretense and allow ourselves to be seen fully, nakedly, as equals transfigured by desire.


It would be too easy to turn these little guys into an inspirational statement. So I won't.

They are just themselves, my tough little pansies, rearing up through the snow and ice yesterday, the 17th of December. Today the snow melted and they're still there, standing a bit taller.

I may see them as embodying persistence. You get to pick whatever metaphor works for you.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Helicopter Parenting Goes off to College

Indulgent mama kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

There's humoring one's children. There's hovering. And then there's outright helicoptering.

So this morning, I get an email from the mother of a student who's enrolled in one of my classes winter quarter. She wants to know the names of the books for the course so she can buy them for him. The email concludes by saying I should "feel free" to contact her via email or phone.

Now, I realize that the money for my students' textbooks normally flows from their parents. That is, if they're lucky enough to have parents who are both solvent and supportive. But geez, there's a world of difference between paying for your kid's books and actually buying them for him.

This is not the first time I've had a mother contact me about book purchases. (And yes, so far it's always been mothers, not fathers.) When I spoke with the bookstore manager this morning, he said there's been a real uptick in mothers buying their kids' books.

What's more, some of the parents pay with their credit card but have the kid actually go to the bookstore. However, according to the manager, they don't trust the kid enough to give him or her the card or the number. The cashier then has to speak to the parents on the phone - usually with lines of other customers snaking out the door - to complete the sale.

Yes, I'm totally judging. As the store manager said: "Who dresses these kids in the morning?"

Of course, it's not just the parents coddling the kids. We professors coddle the parents. After speaking with the bookstore manager this morning, I fired off an email to mother with a list of the books and information on where to buy them. So yes, I'm an enabler.

Then again, with all the budgetary pressures my university faces, we can't afford to piss off parents. So coddle we must.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tuesday Recipe: Pecan Tassies

Maybe you've had these miniature pecan pies. Unlike with my pecan-maple pie, I haven't contributed anything original to this recipe. The tassies are one of the treats my mom used to make around the holidays, and I could eat them by the handful.

Since we had a snow day today (and another is likely tomorrow - eek!) I figured I might as well spend it baking. And so I made a triple batch of these little guys, 72 in all. My family will probably fight over them anyway.

Pecan Tassies

1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 3-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 cup all-purpose flour
Filling (see below)

In a small mixer bowl, beat together butter and cream cheese. Stir in flour. Cover and chill about 1 hour or till easy to handle. Cut into 24 pieces. Shape into l-inch balls. Press onto bottom and up sides of ungreased 1 3/4-inch muffin cups. Fill each with 1 rounded teaspoon filling. Bake in a 325 F oven for 20 to 25 minutes or till done. Cool slightly in pan. Remove and cool well. Makes 24.

Pecan Filling:
Beat together 1 egg, 3/4 cup packed brown sugar, 1 tablespoon melted butter, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir in 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans.

You can also substitute other fillings. One I thought was pretty good (though not better than the original) was Cranberry-Nut Filling: Beat together 1 egg, 3/4 cup packed brown sugar, 1 tablespoon melted butter, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir in 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh cranberries and 3 tablespoons chopped walnuts. I'm guessing Craisins might work in lieu of fresh berries.

And finally, here's one I'd like to try if I can ever get out of my delicious pecan rut, Almond-Raspberry Filling: Divide 1/4 cup red raspberry preserves among pastries (about 1/2 teaspoon each). Beat together 1 egg, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup almond paste, crumbled. (I would probably substitute ground almonds.) Spoon 1 level teaspoon of the mixture over preserves. Sprinkle with coarsely chopped sliced almonds. If desired, drizzle cooled baked tarts with additional red raspberry preserves.

Not on My Wish List: Hello Kitty Undies

While shopping for my niece online, I came across a product I really, really don't need for Christmas. This would be the perfect present for a frenemy to buy me if they want to make sure my partner keeps a chaste distance from me in the year 2009.

Never mind that I'm a cat lover. Hello Kitty is not a cat; she is a marketing juggernaut with only a passing resemblance to actual felines. I think she's freaky looking, with those blank, fixed eyes and that pink bow that looks like it's surgically attached to her head.

As if the front view weren't alarming enough, the panties feature Hello Kitty peering up from one butt cheek.
On a more serious note, I think this product creeps me out because it so industriously blurs the line between childhood and adult sexuality. I feel similarly about schoolgirl fetishes, which I think eroticize immature girls, even if it's a fifty-year-old woman sexing herself up in knee socks and a plaid skirt. Making adult women "sexy" in a child's costume is just the reverse of turning little girls into sex objects. (Remember those Hooters shirts for toddler girls?)

I'm generally pretty non-judgmental about people's kinks. Most of 'em don't bother me even if they don't do anything for me. But I see the eroticization of fake little-girliness as in a wholly different category than, say, a fursuit fetish. (Go google that yourself if you really must know.)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Farewell to Socks the Cat

This picture of Socks in his salad - um, catnip - days is ubiquitous on the web, but I swiped it from Chaos in the House of Cat.

I think it probably dates me that I remember when Socks the Cat moved into the White House. Back then, he'd just outgrown kittenhood. Now comes the sad news that Socks is sick with cancer and not expected to live much longer.

He apparently enjoyed good health through last spring, when U.S. News reported that he was "still purring" at age 18. He had a thyroid condition that caused his fur to look a bit mangy, but otherwise he was okay. He must be 19 now. That's a pretty good run for a cat.

I'm sad about this. It's not just Socks; I rage, rage against death no matter where it strikes. Sure, it's the circle of life and all that, but I don't have to like it. Then, too, I'm always saddened when a beloved animal dies, even if it wasn't my beloved animal.

But Socks was also a symbol of an era, wasn't he? It was always clear that Bill Clinton had more of a connection with their dog, Buddy. I honestly couldn't picture him appreciating a cat's less-obsequious affections. Still, Socks brought a dose of feline grace into an administration that had lots of graceless moments.

What I really don't understand: Why, upon leaving the White House, did the Clintons hand Socks off to Clinton's former secretary, Betty Currie? I could not do that with a beloved animal. I left GK with my mom for some months when I first headed off to Germany, but once I had a stable living situation I dragged her across the pond. Maybe the Clintons felt they traveled too much and once Chelsea was grown, Socks wouldn't have a steady companion. Both Bill and Hillary were allergic (though this was oddly not an issue during their White House years). Socks and the Clinton's dog, Buddy, allegedly clashed. But still! (I guess this is one of the very few things I agree with Caitlin Flanagan on. Eek.)

Anyway, it sounds as though Betty Currie has given Socks loads of love. Last spring, Southern Maryland Newspapers Online published a feature that portrayed them as besotted with each other:
She is his biggest fan.

And the feeling appears to be mutual.

Socks lies on the back deck of the Currie home and nuzzles Currie’s toes with his nose and face as she grooms him to prepare him for photos. Her attention is one of the only things that has roused him from his determination to nap. ...

He’s even won the somewhat grudging affection of [her husband] Bob Currie, who says he’s not really a fan of cats.

‘‘He really has a nice personality,” Bob said. ‘‘He’s really smart.”

Like both Hillary and Bill Clinton, Bob is allergic to cats. For Bob, too much exposure to cats causes ‘‘sneezing, coughing, his eyes to get swollen,” he said, especially when Socks gets up on the Curries’ bed and curls up on one of Bob’s shirts, just for instance.

The cat ‘‘lives better than I do,” Bob says as he looks down at Socks lying on his shirt, not seeming to mind that much.
Maybe Socks ended up right where he needed to be after his retirement from politics. Here's wishing him - and the Curries - peace and comfort.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Orgasmic Childbirth - Unicorn, Guilt Trip, or Taboo?

Now that I've been nominated for the honor of Hottest Mommy Blogger, I guess I have to live up to it by promiscuously mixing sex and maternity in a single post.

At the New York Times Motherlode blog, Lisa Belkin unleashed a storm of debate a few days ago by raising the question of whether childbirth can result in an orgasm. Belkin described a documentary entitled "Orgasmic Birth" that will air on ABC's 20/20 on January 2. (Correction 12/15/08: The 20/20 episode will discuss the topic but only show excerpts from the actual film.) While over the years a small number of women have reported experiencing orgasm during labor, it's quite uncommon. According to its director, doula and childbirth educator Debra Pascali-Bonaro, the film's intent is not to imply that orgasm during childbirth is attainable for all women; rather, she says:
"I hope women watching and men watching don't feel that what we're saying is, every woman should have an orgasmic birth," she said. "Our message is that women can journey through labor and birth in all different ways. And there are a lot more options out there, to make this a positive and pleasurable experience."
(ABC's entire promotional summary is here.)
Fair enough. But why, then, choose such a misleading title? Okay, ABC wants to drive ratings. Pascali-Bonaro wants people to watch her film. But dang it, the title is sure to generate more heat than light. (Oops - no pun intended.)

That's not to suggest orgasmic birth is entirely fictional, even if it is vanishingly rare. More than one commenter on Belkin's blurb reports having experienced an orgasm during birth.
No, it is not ridiculous, because some of us actually experienced it, but were too embarrassed to mention it.

It happened during both of my deliveries, and it’s kind of a relief to read this and know that it has happened to others - I didn’t even tell my husband, because it sounded so weird, and I was afraid it would make him feel really insecure!

— Nell
Nonetheless, orgasmic birth also appears to be very infrequent indeed. It's also not clear that what these women describe as "orgasm" is the same sensation they'd experience during sex. Of course there are different flavors of orgasms, even as experienced by the same woman at different times. But a couple of the descriptions given by those who've been there make me skeptical that this is actually "orgasm" as opposed to some other sort of pleasurable peak experience:

Yes, actually it’s true. I had that experience, and I sure wasn’t expecting it. It wasn’t like sex at all, it was more like surfing the best wave ever.

— Catherine

Well, I guess I’m in the minority here, but the birth of my first child was actually an orgasmic experience…So much so that the first thing I said to my midwife after I could see straight was “I want to do that again! Right now!”…What I experienced was not identical to an orgasm during sex, but it was intensely pleasurable and memorable enough that I couldn’t wait to go into labor with my second baby… — rebecca
Even Tamra Larter, the woman whose birth is shown in the film, qualifies her experience in a follow-up post by Belkin:
“I never claimed to have a pain-free birth,” she wrote, “but laboring with my daughter was awesome and for the most part felt really good.” The actual “orgasmic experience” did not feel like the climax of sex, she says, but rather “sensations which were something different than sex, but similar enough I feel O.K. using the word orgasmic. It was a wonderful feeling.”
If some mild skepticism is warranted about the nature of the experience, there are stronger grounds to worry that a few women's capacity for pleasure will get blown into another benchmark for all women's "performance" in labor, much as some women's (reasonable) preference for drug-free childbirth has too often been treated as a modern norm for the Good Mother. Concerned that this film will raise unrealistic expectations, one midwife writes:
As a Certified Nurse Midwife who has worked with thousands of women during their births, I can safely say I have never seen a single one come close to an orgasmic experience. Having said that, I work in a busy hospital, not in peoples homes. Most couples do not “mak[e] out” in the hospital. I could see an orgasm as a remote possibility if someone were deeply relaxed in the comfort of their own home.

The thing is, most of us aren't that relaxed. Sure, tension exacerbates pain, but that doesn't mean the pain itself is illusory. The ABC promo for the documentary and its director's comments imply that pain in childbirth is avoidable. It's true that a lucky few women do actually experience a pain-free, unmedicated labor.
I certainly did not experience an orgasm with either birth, but I was quite surprised to find that the 2nd stage of labor (pushing the baby out), did not hurt at all (in contrast to 1st stage, which was like a hellish version of menstrual cramps). At one point, the midwife asked me to “push into the pain.” After a few repetitions of this instruction, I told her that I had NO PAIN. I’m quite prepared to believe that the experience of childbirth differs greatly from woman to woman, and from labor to labor; and I’m sure there may be a luckly few who even experience orgasm in 2nd stage labor.

— Laurel
While pain-free birth is highly unusual (though not as exceptional as orgasmic birth), it does exist, and anyway I would never presume to tell another woman what she did or didn't experience. I don't know what causes painless birth, but I can think of a couple of possible explanations. Maybe it's natural endorphins. Maybe just-right pressure on pelvic nerves cuts off sensations. Maybe mind triumphs over matter.

I do know that given the rarity of painless birth, the rest of us shouldn't be made to feel like it ought to be within everyone's reach.

One Motherlode commenter implies that if you do feel pain, it's because you're, well, a tight-ass. Or too tight somewhere, anyway.
Of course it [orgasmic birth] makes sense. Women’s bodies have been birthing babies for eons. When they are truly open, and energy is flowing, anything can be ecstatic, orgasmic. Same nerves, just have to be stimulated in a system that is open. There can be uterine contractions, but if the emotions are not contracted, of course it can be orgasmic. Proof is in the example given, and in the case of many.

— Robbie
Um, yeah. Those nerves need to be stimulated, all right. How they're stimulated matters very much. Most women have fairly specific preferences about how they like to be touched even under ordinary sexual circumstances. Most of us don't prefer levels pressure otherwise achieved only by pneumatic tools.

An advocate of hypnobirth who believes labor pain is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy chides us for forgetting our animal roots:
Watch animals in the wild who aren’t taught what to expect. They don’t cry out in pain. For others its the most painful thing they ever experience. I believe this is mostly due to that expectation combined with the way many hospitals pressure one to push and to see the whole experience as medical and anxiety producing.

— Erika
Well, wild animals don't generally walk on their hind legs, which necessitates a smaller pelvic outlet. They also don't spawn absurdly big-brained progeny. If you want to appeal to nature, let's be honest about our natural differences from other beasts. We're operating with a system with very narrow tolerances and no real clearance whatsoever. It's a tight fit, and sometimes the fit is simply too tight.

That's why for most of us, childbirth really does hurt like a sonofabitch. We're not deluded, uptight, or removed from nature. We're just responding to pressure on nerves that I'd be tempted to call inhuman if it weren't so characteristically human. Some Motherlode commenters compare labor pain to a root canal without anesthesia. Others just said it was excruciating. I sort of related to this description:
My first birth experience I’d liken to be turned completely inside out and then having a very large tractor run over me back and forth for 30 hours.

— Jenna
In my own experience, even the pain of early labor had nothing to do with mere cramps, whether a "hellish version" or not. When I had my first child, I had debilitating back pain within the first half hour of labor. It didn't feel like cramps. It didn't feel like the regular, five-minute-apart pains that all the books described. It was a wall of continuous pain.

I was one of the best-educated first-time mothers I've ever known, and yet, I had only one thought as I crouched on all fours on the bare linoleum of my apartment's hallway at 4 a.m. and waited for my husband to haul his butt out of bed: I am clearly dying. There was no point in timing contractions, because either I was in labor or I was in mortal danger. Either way, the hospital sounded like a brilliant idea.

Then there was the nausea. More surprisingly, there was the uncontrollable chills and shaking. By the way, that's another experience neglected by the What to Expect squad: the not-uncommon uncontrollable trembling that can occur during labor, and not just during transition. There's a world of difference between this and shuddering in ecstasy.

The other main objection to this documentary that Motherlode readers express is disgust at the idea that the birth of a baby could be a sexual experience (and not just the result of our sexuality). This reaction doesn't come just from defenders of the medical model of childbirth. Even some commenters who chose "natural" (that is, unmedicated) birth are repelled by the idea of orgasmic birth:
I’ve given birth three times. One in hospital, one in birthing center, and one at home. All were so painful I lost my voice. Orgasm during child birth seems gross and weird. Not to mention the midwife/ doctor/ nurse/ whatever around while you are giving birth and who would want to have an orgasmic birth with people watching you. Giving birth is hard enough, let along with people around watching you and then expecting you to orgasm while you are in the most insane pain anyone could possibly imagine. How intrusive and bizarre. I can’t even get my mind around it.

— Jennifer

Everything else aside, I feel like it’s going to be really awkward down the road when Baby Larter reads in The New York Times that he entered the world to his parents “kissing and caressing,” and he may have actually given his mother an orgasm. On camera.

— Ben A
It seems almost self-evident that the "gross" response is rooted in our incest taboos. People are icked out at the idea that you could get an orgasm from your very own baby. I suppose it might sound like it carries a whiff of pedophilia too.

Of course, this is nonsense. It's not as though women set out to have a baby because they think it'll be a sexual thrill to push it out. (Well, at least now they don't. Let's see what happens after this documentary airs!) Nor do women forgo pain relief in hopes of an orgasm. Those who do experience sensations they label "orgasmic" actually sometimes express confusion about it (like the first woman I quoted, who wondered if telling her husband about it would make him feel insecure).

More commonly, women experience sexual pleasure and sometimes even orgasm while breastfeeding. We don't talk about this, either, because it feels vaguely incestuous. Yet it's a widespread enough experience that taboos and silence only condemn women to feeling shame.

But this taboo is the real shame. It alienates women from their bodies, makes them feel freakish, and tries to shore up an untenable line between our experiences as parents and our existence as embodied creatures. That's a conversation I'd love to see this documentary inspire: how can our culture move beyond its anxieties about parents as sexual creatures? Unfortunately, the chance of that happening is about as likely as, well, a woman actually having an orgasm in childbirth.

Update 12/15/08, 1 p.m.: Laura Shanley, a proponent of "unassisted childbirth" who appears in the 20/20 show, has contributed her perspective in comments, so be sure to check them out. Also, to see a trailer for the documentary, go to its website, If you're at work, make sure your computer's sound is muted or pop on your headphones, because the trailer's soundtrack is pretty much what the title implies.

Also, if the film's publicity is not meant to play up its potential sensationalism, then it's doing something wrong. From its website:
Joyous, sensuous and revolutionary, Orgasmic Birth brings the ultimate challenge to our cultural myths by inviting viewers to see the emotional, spiritual, and physical heights attainable through birth. Witness the passion as birth is revealed as an integral part of woman's sexuality and a neglected human right. With commentary by Christiane Northrup, MD, and midwives Ina May Gaskin, Elizabeth Davis and other experts in the field . . . and stunning moments of women in the ecstatic release of childbirth.
It's hard not to read this as a blurb for soft-core erotica. Nothing wrong with erotica, mind you, but this way of framing the film won't focus attention on the larger issues of home birth, support for women, etc. that are supposedly the film's broader agenda.