Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Godless Professors and the Subversion of American Youth

Did you know that universities are subverting the minds of America's young people by turning them into godless socialists? Dr. Mike S. Adams, a professor at University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is dispensing advice at Townhall to a father who is distraught about his daughter coming home with scary new leftist ideas. Jeff Fecke (h/t) has already taken down Dr. Mike bit-by-wingnutty-bit - including his coinage of the oh-so-clever acronym STD for "Socialist Teaching Disorder." I just want to zoom in on one little piece of Dr. Mike's take on university life:
First of all, I want you to understand that many of the crazy ideas you hear your daughter espousing are commonplace on college campuses. Nonetheless, it must have been shocking for you to hear that she supported Barack Obama in the last election principally because of his ideas about “the redistribution of wealth.” I know you were also disappointed to hear of her sudden opposition to the War on Terror and her sudden embrace of the United Nations. Most of all, I know you are disappointed that she has stopped going to church altogether.

Now that your daughter is not going to church it will be easier to get her to accept other policies based on economic and cultural Marxism. Socialist professors like the fact that average church attendance drops dramatically after just one year of college. God and socialism are simply incompatible. One cannot worship both Jesus Christ and Karl Marx.

(If you must, you can read the rest here.)
Although I'm not a real socialist - just a fan of redistribution, thanks to my pastor when I was 14! - I am one of those freethinking university professors. Scandalously, I think it's a good thing when my students start to examine their beliefs and preconceptions.

I just finished teaching a class on religion, gender, and sexuality that might well enrage Dr. Mike. I framed patriarchy in materialist terms and lectured on how poverty multiplies the odds that a woman will terminate a pregnancy. (Socialism!) We discussed the Gnostic Gospels and the struggle between heterodoxy and orthodoxy in Christianity. (Heresy!) We delved into the roots of the Christian valorization of virginity. (Sluttishness!)

At the end of the quarter, students were asked to write a short essay in which they discussed how their views had changed over the past ten weeks. Many of them said that the class upset their certainties. Some of them questioned their faith. How, after all, can you trust the Bible's authority if a politicized Church hierarchy - not divine revelation - determined which books became canonical?

So yeah. Dr. Mike would hate this class. So did one student (out of 85), judging from the final exam. She objected to the feminist framing of the material. She would have preferred ten weeks of Catholic dogma. She transparently didn't bother to engage with the material in any serious way.

The rest of the students - including many current and former Catholics - realized that they didn't have to follow any party line. Not mine; not any religion's. One young Catholic woman had a real crisis of faith mid-quarter. By the end of the quarter, she felt stronger in her beliefs than before. Another young woman who's planning to become a minister wrote of her past and present struggles with her faith.

Did I turn those students godless? Not by any stretch. And that was never my intent. If a person is going to embrace faith as an adult, they're going to have to find it themselves. They can't just continue believing a Sunday School version of it with colorful, sanitized pictures of Daniel in the lion's den and Jesus surrounded by fluffy lambs. They'll have to navigate their way from dogma to actual faith. That's exactly how some of my religious students used the class. They started questions and haven't stopped. And they have matured in their beliefs. (Interestingly, a number of them declare some affinity for Buddhist ideas, even as they remain in their own faith tradition.)

A substantially minority of my students wrote that they consider themselves agnostics or atheists. So did I convert them to godlessness? A few of them did begin to call themselves agnostics during the class, but most of them came into it already rejecting or questioning religion. Many of them felt liberated at being able to "come out" about their unbelief in their discussion groups - something they often had felt unable to do, until now.

These students took my class for one of two reasons. Some had grown up without any religion and felt they needed to close a gap in their education. Others were questioning their religious upbringing or had rejected it altogether, often in the wake of a loved one's death. (It's ironic and sad that religion seems so often to fail people at the very moment when it's supposed to provide the most comfort.) Disproportionately, the students in this second group had been raised Catholic. For most of them, the Church's condemnation of homosexuality was a serious dealbreaker, with its position on abortion and contraception coming in a close second.

This is why the Pope's statement on gender last Christmas made me crazy. There was some controversy at the time about what the English word "gender" connotes when used in Italian (as in the Pope's address), and I can't speak to that as an expert. I know about a dozen words of Italian and I wasn't raised Catholic. But the context - as well as some of the smarter commentary on this - convinced me that he was affirming the church's teachings on the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles.

More importantly, the Pope was trying to shut down all discussion of all gender issues within the Catholic Church. This is exactly what's driving young people out of the Church. They see the condemnation of homosexuality and the hierarchy's refusal to even discuss it as contemptuous and inhumane.

Dr. Mike, his letter-writer, and (I'm betting) a lot of conservative parents want to short-circuit that discussion too. It's a terrible loss, because their kids want to have it. They need to have it. That goes for everyone from the young fundamentalist to the hard-core nihilist. (And yes, the range in my class was that wide.)

If Dr. Mike were paying attention to his students, he'd realize that whatever their professors do or say, they are at an age where they're bound to question their upbringing. A good university education should help them learn to think for themselves in a more thorough, systematic, and deeper way. It should prod them to question received wisdom and authority. It should expose them to a variety of viewpoints. (Yes, even Dr. Mike's.)

If that's subverting young people, then I'm blessed to be a part of it. One student sent me an email at the end of the quarter saying the class had changed her life; another said the same as she turned in her exam. I don't personally take too much credit, because the potentially life-changing work happened in the discussion groups, not in my lectures. But even so, staying on the job full-time this quarter through weeks of illness and fear was probably the hardest thing I've ever done, and I'd worried that my students got cheated. I blubbed in gratitude when I read that email.

Oh, and as far as I know, I didn't convert a single student to Marxism. Nary a Trotskyist. Not even a mild-mannered socialist-feminist. I guess I'd better try harder.

Sexting TMI Tuesday

Uff da. Back in my premarital days when I was ethically eligible for a booty call, there was something called the "mobile car phone." It was anchored to your car with a 500-pound weight. It did not allow for texting. It barely permitted talking. I think if you tried to do anything sexy with it, you'd be crushed under its heft as soon as even one hand left the receiver.



1. Have you ever sent or recieved a sext message?

This would presume that I know how to text. I'm a kick-ass typist, but I require a querty qwerty keyboard.** I realize I just disqualified myself as an authority on my sexting post from a few days ago. I wouldn't mind receiving a sext message (from someone scrumptious my own age) but I probably couldn't figure out how to retrieve it. Oh, and my phone battery would surely be run into the ground. I am a walking billboard for landlines, pathetic as that is.

2. Have you ever made or recieved a booty call?

Well, this was back when phones were mostly analog, all attached to a wall jack, and still invariably owned by AT&T. But yeah. I'd just broken up with my college boyfriend and didn't foresee getting back together again. If I'd just waited a few days, my luck would've changed again. Luckily for me, I didn't wait, and I got to know the soccer legs of a workmate up closer than I'd ever hoped. (He would be worth a post or two of his own.)

3. Have you ever added or edited a word/entry to Wikipedia or Urban Dictionary or any other online reference?

I haven't added anything, but last I checked "Kittywampus" on Google, the only entry leading this blog was, in fact, Urban Dictionary.

4. At what age did you have your first consensual sexual experience?

Define sexual?

Okay, so there's not much point in nit-picking. I was a young-ish college freshman, and it all happened - everything from glorious oral sex to PIV coupling - the summer after freshman year, in the few months before I turned 19. I was so intent on moving beyond virginity, I wasn't terribly concerned with definitions.

5. What has been the greatest age difference between you and a consensual sexual partner?

Why, that would have to be my husband and long-term mate. He's six years older almost exactly. (I once had a not-quite-consensual experience with someone who might be a bit older yet, but that's a whole 'nother story, not light enough for TMI any day of the week.)

Bonus (as in optional): Why do you blog?

Umm, to embarrass myself in front of my ex-students who read this? To confirm my college friends' worst opinion of me? Actually, I think I do it to play with ideas that are otherwise outside the bounds of stodgy academic discourse. Why do I play TMI? Because I'm plum out of ideas for the moment - and the questions (or at least my answers) aren't so dreadfully shocking for my aforementioned students.

** Update: Seems I overestimate my typing skills! Well, let's just says I type faster than I think, and here's your evidence (if the rest of this blog didn't already prove it).

Monday, March 30, 2009

Love as an Act of Inference

My bedtime reading these days is a novel by Emily Listfield, Waiting to Surface. I'm only a few chapters into it so far, but it's making me wonder how well we can ever really know the people we love. The book's premise is that the husband of the protagonist, Sarah, disappears without a trace at a moment when they are estranged from each other and on a fast track to divorce.

While she's trying to digest the initial, nauseating news of her husband Todd's disappearance, Sarah reflects on something that resonated with me even though I'm pretty confident I'll never go through a comparable experience. (Listfield apparently based the book on her own real-life experience - a fact I'm trying hard to repress because it so horrifies me.)
People offer up fragments of themselves to friends, spouses, lovers, leaving each person to create the remaining whole according to what they have in hand, forensic scientists all. But no two pieces are precisely alike, some barely have any resemblance at all. Love, it seems, and understanding, are largely acts of inference.

(Emily Listfield, Waiting to Surface, p. 37)
Since I don't watch CSI but I did spend enough time in archives to warp my personality, the only metaphor that doesn't work for me in this passage is the "forensic scientist" bit. I'm picturing instead the archaeologist, holding shards of a life. Or even more pertinently, the historian, skimming through reams of documents that time's ravages have rendered fragile and frustratingly incomplete. The history of emotions is especially hard to reconstruct; in my dissertation research, for instance, I typically had to rely on doctors' accounts of how women reacted to giving birth, sometimes reading the doctors' descriptions against the grain.

We assume that the people we know are a whole lot transparent than that. Yes, people lie. But that's not what Sarah/Listfield is saying. She's insisting that it's in the very nature of relationships that we cannot fathom the other in his or her fullness.

In this novel, this unknowability and ambiguity lays the ground for (apparent) tragedy. Even in the absence of high drama, however, I think that our fragmentary understanding helps explain how a partner can demand a divorce, or have an affair, or suddenly declare themselves unhappy with the couple's division of labor - or maybe all of the above - and their partner may be blindsided.

Yet I suspect that recognizing love as an act of inference explains more than just the death of love. It may also hold the promise of greater happiness? Might it also be a call for humility toward our partners, which could liberate us (by, for instance, erasing the expectation that we'll always automatically be on the same page)? Might it open the possibility of continually discovering new and wonderful aspects in them? Might it suggest that terminal boredom in a marriage or other long-term relationship just means we've closed our eyes to how our partners are fundamentally unknowable?

I don't know the answer to those questions, but they remind me of Esther Perel's prescriptions for keeping a marriage erotically alive in her book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Much of her message is to cultivate a healthy distance and mystery. What Listfield suggests is that this mystery is always there, always present. Our task is to recognize it and celebrate it.

Perfect crocuses (which have withered since I took this picture behind my house). Relate this to the post as you will.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Shaking the Sausage

My penis spam junk mail box has had some marvelous subject lines this week:
Your sausage will be reputable

Women will beg you to walk naked and shake it
Combine those two images and you get a visual that ... well, maybe you'd better not go there. I sort of wish I hadn't.

I'll try to get back to more substantive posting tomorrow; I am completely fried from a long day spent driving to Columbus and chasing our kids around COSI, the science museum. Until then, dear readers, I'll leave you to ponder how exactly a hunk of quivering meat can be "reputable." Better than disreputable, I guess.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Poetics of Heirloom Tomatoes

My Sungolds, August 2008.

Now that I’ve put my winter quarter grades to bed, I finally had a chance this week to start my tomatoes, a week or two later than I’d prefer. I grow them from seed for two reasons. You can’t get most of these varieties from nurseries, and I am just endlessly fascinated by seeds. (In theory, I might also save money by starting my own, but I sort of doubt it, since I’m too obsessed with variety.)

Most of the ‘maters I grow are heirlooms, meaning they’re older varieties that will breed true without any human intervention. If I were more dedicated, and better organized, I could save the seeds, but I’m not, so I don’t. I do grow a couple of hybrids: Sweet Million cherries, Brandy Boy (which combines the flavor of Brandywine with much higher yields, but is annoyingly available only through the Burpee catalog. And of course – Sungold cherry tomatoes.

The names of tomatoes are ripe with color and flavor. I’ve got a whole series of purples: Pruden’s Purple. Marizol Purple. Eva Purple Ball. Purple Price. Cherokee Purple. They’re more pink than purple, except for Cherokee Purple, which is actually closer to the blacks, but I love the very idea of purple. I will say that the pictures of Purple Price look close to a real purple, but I managed to kill it last year in the Great Overfertilizing Disaster, so I can’t confirm its color.

I fell in love with black tomatoes last year: Black Cherry (which grows huge but wasn’t especially prolific, Chocolate Cherry (new this year), Black Krim, Carbon, and Black from Tula. They taste dusky and rich. Carbon was great for me last summer, which smacks mildly of irony, since I live at the edge of a dying coal region.

The tomato my family nearly fought over last year was Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomato. No corn flakes involved: it’s a big, juicy orange guy. I’m also planting a couple of bicolors, Big Rainbow and Isis Candy (cherry); they’re prettier than what the Tiger renamed “the Breskit Tomato” but not as flavorful. For the first time, I’m trying a bicolor version of Mortgage Lifter, so named because its original developer apparently got himself out of debt thanks to the variety’s huge fruit and prolific yield.

For some reason, tomatoes – like ships – are more likely to get feminine than masculine names. I’m planting Kimberly, Snow White, Marianna’s Peace, Aunt Gertie’s Gold, and the aforementioned Eva Purple Ball, but only two with dudely names, Andrew Rahart’s Jumbo Red and Matt’s Wild Cherry.

Then there are the names that are all over the map. Bulgarian #7 (no word on the whereabouts of 1 through 6), Galina’s (a tart yellow cherry from Siberia), Azoychka (a medium-sized yellow, also from Russia), Caspian Pink, Stupice (from then-Czechoslovakia), Nepal (from the Himalayas), and Stump of the World. I guess the Stump is where you land after all that traveling. Oh, and there’s Giant Belgium, which is apparently from … Ohio.

To round it off, I started Brandywine, Boxcar Willie, Great White, and Sioux. And did I mention Sungolds?

I do not have space for all these plants. I'll no doubt crowd too many too close, like I do every year. Today I finally finished what ought to have been the fall cleanup (and was grateful to finish the job without fatigue sideswiping me). All those dead vines reminded me that fungal disease is my enemy, air circulation is my friend. By the time I plant this year's babies out in six weeks or so, I will have forgotten that lesson.

I've still got oodles of seeds, so if you want some, let me know in comments! I would seriously send them to you. (You'd need to email me your address.) Or just show up in Athens around Mother's Day, when you'll find me disoriented, circling my garden, desperately plotting a way to squeeze in just one more plant.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Feminism, Sexual Revolution, and "Getting the Milk for Free"

Are men really from Mars after all? I kinda doubt it, but last night I got a comment that seemed to come straight from outer space. It appeared on a post I wrote last month on a study that suggests kissing alleviates stress for men and women. Amy wrote:
Sunglold, I don't know what rock you have been hidding under... but there is a massive difference in the way men and women think and feel about sex (and kissing).

In my experience, men and women are worlds appart when it comes to sex!

Men have at least 10 times more testosterone than women, and testosterone inhibits bonding and increases interest in casual sex and sex with a variety of partners. ...

Women strive for attatchment, bonding, love and commitment. Women can't understand why men don't have more feelings for them. But put simply, men just don't have as many feelings as women. [my emphasis]
I'll agree that in most Western societies, men are socialized to be less expressive with their feelings. That's not the same thing as not having feelings, however. Most of the men I've been close to have stories - sometimes over a decade old - about being painfully, painfully dumped by an earlier girlfriend. Most of them now have children and love them just as fiercely as any mother.

Denying that men can feel deeply amounts to denying men their full humanity. And they say feminists despise men?!

Women can get hurt in casual sex. So can men. Women can get their hearts broken by a lover. So can men. It happens to virtually all of us who aren't celibate. It even happens to celibate people, too! (Some of my worst heartbreaks came during my virginal teen years.)

Where Amy and other anti-feminists blame feminism for bringing on the sexual revolution and leading directly to the shattering of young female psyches, the history is much more complicated, and most of it has little to do with feminism. Heartbreak goes back at least as far as Sir Lancelot and Lady Guinevere. The sexual revolution on the 1960s had its roots in youth culture, drugs, and rock and roll. The advent of the birth control pill in 1961 enabled young women to try out sex - whether in hippie communes, bars or with a committed boyfriend - without fear of pregnancy paralyzing their pleasure.

Second-wave feminism was generally chilly toward the sexual revolution, at least as most young heterosexuals were experiencing it in the 1960s and 1970s. Nowhere in The Feminist Mystique did Betty Friedan suggest that the path to women's liberation required shagging anything that moves. By 1970, Anne Koedt was assailing men's sexual incompetence in "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm." The Redstockings saw men as well-nigh irredeemable; why would you want to sleep with the enemy? While the Redstockings Manifesto (1969) didn't go so far as to repudiate all relations with men, within a few years political lesbianism and separatism became a major current within feminism. Needless to say, none of these women were advocating casual sex with men, either. Third-wave feminism has generally repudiated separatism and criticized slut-shaming, but that's not the same as positively advocating hookups and casual sex for all women.

Where feminism made a difference was, of course, in opening up historically new educational and economic opportunities for women. These made it possible for women to defer marriage and to enjoy sex without bartering it for economic security. This, to my mind, was the real sexual revolution. It's just not the one people mean when they blame feminism for the failings of the hookup scene.

So yes, in a materialist sense, feminism enabled casual sex. But more importantly in the long run, feminism has opened the possibility of for us (men and women alike) to have sex only when we want to, not under duress, and not for economic security or survival. In a perfectly feminist world, no one would stay married against their will, for example, or submit to a spouse's unwanted advances. We don't live in that world yet. Plenty of people stay married for economic reasons. (Some of them are men.)

For those of us who aren't trapped by economics, feminism allows us to say no to the sex we don't want, and an enthusiastic, lusty, happy yes to the sex we do want. That's revolutionary, all right. It's just not identical with "the sexual revolution." It's also antithetical to the idea that anyone needs to participate in hooking up.

Contrast this with the bleak view of sex and men that Amy expresses at her blog:
Casual sex makes men LESS likely to commit, he’s not going to buy the cow when he can get the milk for free. At least the whores are setting the price for sex! Casual sex means no flowers, jewellery or chocolates. Engagement rings, marriage and kids will be even further out of your reach. Always wait as long as possible before sleeping with a guy; because once they get you, they don’t want you anymore.

(More here, including advice to flatter a man, then knock his ego back.)
Viewing sex as a commodity is almost certain to lead to heartbreak. I can buy my own chocolate. I can't buy love at any price.

And then there's a pesky little Kantian ethical issue with regarding sex, and by extension one's partner, as a mere means to an end. I don't much care whether the end is "getting some pussy" or "getting married." Either way, it dehumanizes and disrespects one's partner.

Amy expresses a lot of frustration with men who are users and losers and just general douchebags (my word, not hers). She has apparently had a run of bad luck, and I'm sincerely sorry to hear about that. She's also young and has a lot of time to meet someone who's kind and warm and interested in a real relationship. I hope she'll find her heart's desire.

My advice (not that she asked)? Stay away from the bars and the hookup scene if what you want is a relationship, because it's true that among college-aged people, more men than women will want to keep it casual (see Kathleen Bogle's Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus.) Don't play games; any guy worth loving is one who won't be impressed by manipulation and scheming. Avoid casual sex unless it appeals to you. If you do have casual sex, remember that you don't need to justify it by immediately deciding you're in love (thus preordaining later heartbreak). Be true to your own desires and respectful of your partners'; you might still get your heart broken, but you won't end up embittered.

And have patience. I was 28 when I met my husband, 30 when I married him. He was more keen on having children than I was. Fifteen years later, he may be getting the milk for free (or maybe it's the other way 'round?) but he's absolutely not a user or a loser. He feels as deeply as I do; he loves as deeply as I do. This isn't a fairy tale (and lord knows we've had our share of bumps and woes). It's just one example of how we don't have to be trapped by ideas that denigrate one gender or the other. For that, we can thank feminism's real sexual revolution.

Feline GPS?

I am so totally stealing this from Badtux. This is Maru. If you've never encountered him 'til now, he lives in Japan and has his own blog, along with oodles of YouTube videos.

Watch closely and tell me if you see any holes in that bag. I couldn't see any. Which leads me to conclude that Maru is navigating via feline GPS. Pretty cool.

When Slut-Shaming Is Not Enough ...

... then it's time for a legal crackdown!

According to the Columbus Dispatch, an Ohio legislator has proposed a bill that would define "sexting" by teenagers as a first-degree misdemeanor:
Rep. Ronald Maag, R-Lebanon, said he will soon introduce a bill making the creation, exchange and possession of nude materials between minors – commonly known as “sexting,” – a first-degree misdemeanor.

“Local prosecutors have brought to my attention that under current Ohio law these teens could be charged with a felony and classified as sex offenders,” Maag said. “There is concern that this may not be appropriate for these minors.”
Now, in Maag's defense, it's an obviously good idea to ensure that teenagers don't get charged as felony sex offenders! But why criminalize this behavior at all? Adults can send legally naughty photos of themselves via cell or post them to the Internet. Obviously, nude photos of minors bump up against child porn laws, so there's good reason to restrict them on the Internet.

But as long as sexting remains an activity between two consenting teenagers, I see no reason for them to run afoul of the law. Why not use this chance to decriminalize it altogether?

Of course, teens shouldn't have sex until they're mature enough to handle it. Sexting is likely to magnify their vulnerability. I wouldn't want my kids involved in it when they're 13 or 16. There's too much scope for harming themselves and others. So this is an area that sex education ought to be addressing. I don't mean just sex education in the schools; I mean parents, the media, churches - anyone who cares about kids.

But it's a sign of moral bankruptcy, on the social level, if we think the criminal justice system should take over a role that properly belongs to education.

By contrast, it should definitely be illegal to disseminate a person's photos without permission, because it violates his or her consent. The sad story that spurred Maag's bill involved a girl in Cincinnati, Jessica Logan. She killed herself after her photos were circulated throughout her whole school. What drove her to despair wasn't her initial act of sending pictures to her boyfriend; it was the subsequent deception and breach of trust. While this isn't identical to rape, her consent was violated all the same, and in analogy to sexual assault laws, that violation deserves to be punished under the law.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In Which I Apologize to the Wombat

Wombat photo by Flickr user Fifila, used under a Creative Commons license.

Following up on yesterday's post about the disappearance of the beaver, I was asked (offline) why I omitted the wombat from my list of alternative critters that could metaphorically refer to ladyparts. Since I can't see any reason to discriminate, I hereby apologize to wombats everywhere.

A quick Google search turns up a link between wombats and femininity that I had sadly ignored - until now. There's a WOMBAT mailing list - WOMen of Beauty And Temptation - for discussion of women and sexuality. It's limited to bisexual women, so I'm not eligible to join, more's the pity. There's WOMBATS - WOmen's Mountain Bike and Tea Society - for gals "with a passion for pedaling in the dirt." I like a nice smooth road, so I don't qualify for that group, either. But still! Two whole data points!

I dunno. The wombat is definitely as cute as the beaver, so why not? Also, it's a marsupial, which is just unspeakably cool. What that does to the metaphor ... I'd rather not speculate. You get into weird anatomy very quickly. (Actually, the space just behind the uterus and vagina is called the pouch of Douglas, so maybe the marsupial connection isn't all wrong?)

Then again, neither beaver nor wombat is as pettable - or intelligent - as the pussycat. So I think I'm gonna stay with the kitty as my metaphorical animal of choice.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Beaver: An Endangered Species

Happy Beaver, photo by Flickr user stevehdc, used under a Creative Commons license.

Weeks ago, I posted a Kotex ad featuring a cute, furry beaver. In comments, Euchalon Grandy asked where the term "beaver" comes from, anyway. At first I was surprised he asked, because I happen to know he came of age in the early 1980s, just like I did, at a time when there was lots of discussion (feminist and otherwise) about "beaver shots" in porn. And so I thought, "Duh! It's because beavers are furry. Everybody knows that."

But then I started wondering. Why a beaver, anyway? Why not some other mammal with a thick pelt? (I'm pretty sure this is what Euchalon was actually asking, and I just didn't get it.) Why not a raccoon, or a skunk, or a lemur? I suppose there's a stripe issue with those critters. Then again, the patterning of kitty fur is infinitely variable, yet the term "pussy" persists even though few of us sport calico or tabby markings. (I wouldn't rule out tortoiseshell, however, especially as we get older.)

Why "beaver," indeed? When I showed the beaver ad to the students in my women's studies capstone class, some of them were totally perplexed. They didn't get the ad, because to them a beaver is merely a furry woodland creature. They'd never heard the term applied to women. And so an ad with a beaver representing a pussy was just incoherent to them.

The reason for this came out in class discussion: The norm for pussies is now hairless, as anyone who's flipped through Cosmo in the past decade ought to know. If you don't take it all off, no guy will want to put his package anywhere near your vajajay (in Cosmo's anatomical lexicon). So our kitties are all supposed to be sphinx cats, and the beaver is on the verge of extinction.

Posted by Flickr user *n3wjack's world in pictures, used under a Creative Commons license.

This is a seriously generational phenomenon. It's not really possible for me to fathom it from my perch here on the far side of 40. I know young women, self-declared feminists, who believe that pubic hair is disgusting - that it makes them disgusting unless they're always smoothly waxed or shaven.

Maybe the closest parallel in my generation is that when I hit puberty in the 1970s, people took it equally for granted that girls would shave their legs and armpits. I've lived in hippy co-op houses, I spent years in Europe, I've considered myself a feminist since sixth grade. And guess what? I shave my legs. Inconsistently, irregularly, and often plain incompetently. (Being blind in the shower really doesn't help!) Ditto for my armpits, though more regularly and with less blood.

I choose to do this. But I don't claim that I do it without reference to social norms. That's where I part ways with my friend figleaf, who basically argues that any hairstyle is cool (so far so good) because it's a matter of personal style and choice (um, not entirely).

One of the college-aged women I know told me that a boyfriend pressured her to shave her pubic hair because she didn't look like the women in porn. She, too, made her choices. She shaved it. She hated the ingrown hairs and itching. She grew it out again. She ditched the douchey boyfriend.

She's not the only woman to discover that grooming pubic hair, even just the bikini line, is different from legs or armpits in some crucial ways. It's harder to achieve a smooth result by shaving. Waxing produces a smooth finish for a few days, but it can't be repeated until the regrowth is well past the stubble stage. (There's also some risk of infection, especially with Brazilians.) Laser treatments are expensive and don't work for all types of hair. Whatever the method, it's likely to result in red bumps and ingrown hairs. I'm not a dude, but I assume that red bumps are the very opposite of sexy.

In fairness, men, too, are subject to social pressures to shave. While we women can camoflage stubble under our clothes, they can't so easily hide their chins. Sure, a guy can get away with a ZZ Top beard if he's a lumberjack. For most white-collar jobs, he'd better make sure it looks distinguished and professorial - or just shear it off altogether.

I'm all for choice - but what exactly does choice mean when all the social pressure tilts in a single direction? Where is the pro-growth movement (as figleaf memorably calls it)? What magazine is extolling the glories of the unpruned bush? Organic Gardening, maybe?

I'm not saying women are anti-feminist dupes if they shave, and I sure don't want to shame anyone for doing it. I'm not opposed to grooming. Like I said, I do some of it myself. (And no, I'm not going to overshare on my more personal topiary choices.) But until there's actually a pro-growth faction, our choices will be tightly bounded and subject to pressure and penalties. That's not much of a choice at all. Especially when the pressures are greatest on young women who are still finding themselves and discovering their own bodies and sexuality.


The Abnormality of "Normal" Childbirth

Jaded as I am about medicine and medicalization, the assumptions behind this new study in Obstetrics and Gynecology still left me flummoxed:
OBJECTIVE: To assess the prognosis for vaginal delivery in women with entirely normal pregnancies who began spontaneous labor at term.

METHODS: Between January 1, 1988, and October 31, 2006, a total of 278,164 women delivered newborns at our hospital. A subset of women with uncomplicated pregnancies and spontaneous labor between 37 and 41 weeks of gestation then were identified for analysis of maternal and neonatal outcomes. The outcomes we studied included admission-to-delivery intervals, use of epidural analgesia, maternal perineal trauma, route of delivery, and several potential indices of neonatal condition at birth.

RESULTS: There were 103,526 (37%) women who delivered at our hospital during the study period who had normal term pregnancies and entered labor spontaneously. Overall, 96% of these women had vaginal deliveries, and adverse neonatal outcomes were rare. For example, perinatal deaths occurred in 0.3 of every 1,000 women.

CONCLUSION: Approximately one third of pregnant women have entirely normal pregnancies and enter spontaneous labor at term. Virtually all such women can anticipate safe vaginal deliveries for themselves and their infants.

[My emphasis. That's the entire abstract, but you can find it here. The full article is in
Obstetrics & Gynecology (April 2009, vol. 113): 812-816.]
I'm trying to fathom how only 37% of the women in this study had "normal" pregnancies that culminated in spontaneous labor (that is, without induction or a scheduled c-section). And I'm just failing. If you tally up all the women with prior cesareans, high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, placental abnormalities, and so on - do they really add up to nearly two-thirds of all pregnant women?

Yeah, the authors appear to be making a case for the safety of vaginal childbirth. But they do so on the basis of such a small subset of women that their conclusions can't carry any real force. Skeptics looking at their findings can easily object that the safety of vaginal delivery only applies to the healthiest women.

I'd really, really like to know how the study's authors defined "normal." I tried to look at the full text of this article, but my university's library doesn't carry this journal at all anymore - apparently not even in the print version - presumably because it's too expensive.

At any rate, it's a seriously through-the-looking-glass world when "normal" childbirth is defined such that it's actually outside the norm - that is, abnormal.

Update, March 25, 2009, 2:30 p.m.: Commenter smk has kindly provided the full text of the study. Its definitions of "normal" and "uncomplicated" closely match my assumptions, except that I neglected to mention anticipated fetal abnormalities. The authors of the study may serve a higher-risk population than is typical. They write: "Parkland Hospital is a tax-supported institution serving Dallas County that has a neonatal intensive care unit adjacent to the labor and delivery units." Taxpayer support suggests they may serve a disproportionate number of poor women, and the NICU means that the hospital will draw a clientele with an above-average rate of fetal complications.

The authors cite CDC statistics that put 50% of all women into the uncomplicated category. Using the CDC numbers and assuming 25 to 30% fall into the complicated category due to a prior c-section, that would leave 20-25% with significant complications. Those numbers seem slightly less outlandish but still high.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Caturday Theology: Or, The Ceiling Cat Is Watching Me

Sistine kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

No, I'm not hallucinating - or seeing visions of angels - from too much grading. (Though I am still buried under heaps of term papers and exams.)

Verily, the Ceiling Cat has cast his beatific feline glance upon me.

He really does see everything. At least, he saw this post about his presence on Twitter. He utters some LOLspeak ("Talkin bowt meh? Dey dunt seme so revrent") and the next thing I know, legions of his followers, hooman and kitteh alike, are pouncing on this humble blog.

And yes, it was the real Ceiling Cat, not his masturbation-obsessed doppelganger. O Ceiling Cat, I promise not to block you. (Unless that was you peeking at me the other day when I had a few private moments and ... oh, never mind.)

Just so you don't think we're blaspheming - we are a cat-inspired blog, after all, and we weren't snarking when we said you've mastered the form of the tweet - here's a felidiction in your honor:

May the Ceiling Cat bless you and keep you;
May he tickle you with his whiskers
And bring half-dead mice to you

May the Ceiling Cat lift up his furry countenance upon you,
And protect us from fleas.

If that doggerel is too un-catlike for you, well, we'd be happy to oblige with belly rubs.

(Oh, and I broke down and started following Ceiling Cat on Twitter. I was not going to actually use my account, just squat it! Thus begins the road to perdition, or at least procrastination.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Springing into Cognitive Dissonance

Am I the only one who thinks it's jarring that the first day of spring coincides with the sixth anniversary of the Iraq War? As if the war itself weren't appalling enough, the timing just seems like an affront to all that's good in the universe.

In a different register, but also distressing: Ohio's unemployment rate climbed to 9.4%, the highest in 25 years, according to figures released today.

In the face of all that, my daffodils have finally burst into bloom.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sungold, Superathlete

Jock kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

So I've decided I need to take a yoga class to help deal with some of my remaining symptoms - the fatigue and freaky muscle tension. My university's employee gym offers yoga classes for a very affordable membership price. This morning I hauled my sedentary butt to the gym for their mandatory pre-membership fitness test. Luckily the testing didn't include that nasty ritual humiliation, pull ups, which I couldn't even do as a kid. I just had to let my fat be calipered, take a pulmonary function test, and ride a stationary bike. All easy peasy.

But then I collided with something I hadn't done since 1979: push-ups. Seriously. It's been 30 years. I was asked to do a minute's worth of push-ups, followed by another minute of crunches. All I could think was: You've got to be fucking kidding. Of course, that's not what I said to the nice young exercise physiologist. Instead, I warned her that I might not be able to do a single push-up. Humiliation predicted is humiliation half-averted.

And then - to my amazement and amusement - the Sloth God intervened, or maybe just sheer cussedness. I did 34 push ups (yes, girly ones, but still!) and 36 crunches. When I got my fitness assessment, both of those measures came back as "excellent." Cardiovascular fitness was "good," despite being sick all winter. Lung function, cholesterol, BMI - all fabulous. On paper you'd mistake me for a jock. Except for the minor fact that I haven't exercised since last fall, and even then it was only my seven-minute bike ride to work.

So why does this super-athlete want to curl up in the corner like a pair of stinky old socks? I am beyond kaput - too tired to grade, too tired to blog intelligently. I managed to get a sunburn today while collecting take-home exams, and I'm fried inside and out.

Don't worry if blogging is a bit slow the next few days. Once I've recovered from my athletic feats, I've got to tackle end-of-quarter grading. I promise I'm still basically on the path to recovery - even if I'm not quite ready to give Mia Hamm a run for it. (Yeah, I know she's old by now, but so am I!)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sex, Schools, and the Politics of Distraction

The superintendent of Westfall School District in south-central Ohio is being pilloried for accessing racy websites from work, the Columbus Dispatch reports. Okay, he shouldn't have done that. But is he really all that different from millions of other American employees who've done the same while at work? Don't millions more use work computers for personal stuff? This guy's biggest offense, I think, was forgetting how teachers and other school employees are held to higher standards than the rest of society. In other words, his main offense was stupidity.

And what did he actually look at? Well, he did check out one hardcore free porn site - exactly once. The rest appears to have been no spicier that what you see on the average newsstand. (Cosmo covers, anyone?)

At 6 p.m. on Oct. 22, 2007, [Superintendent] Cotner's computer was used to visit an Internet site that today features free online hard-core pornography videos, the newspaper [the Dispatch] found.

The computer assigned to the leader of the Pickaway County district also was used three times during the fall of 2006 to visit a site that sells sex aids and toys.

The majority of the site visits being examined by the Westfall school board involved Google image searches for pictures of swimsuit models, actresses and celebrities.

Some of those sites included Sports Illustrated swimsuit models and "almost-nude photos-wet-and-wild" of a female former American Idol contestant.

(Source: Columbus Dispatch)
Oooh, women in swimsuits! Wet women in swimsuits! I'm no big fan of the SI swimsuit editions (they give kids the idea that women's main role in sports is as eye candy), but does even the most prudish fundamentalist consider this to be porn? And is ordering a sex toy from a work computer any less ethical than shopping at Amazon while at work? Actually, if the superintendent had browsed the sex toy section of Amazon, no one would have been the wiser!

If I lived in this district, I'd be steamed, all right. But not about the superintendent's computer usage. The district's former treasurer is sitting in prison after pilfering tens of thousands of dollars. And its school board meeting drew a crowd of 300 last night. They came not to accuse the superintendent (though some attendees did call for his resignation), but to protest proposed budget cuts.

The politics of distraction is so handy in tough economic times.

Marx Was Wrong

Zombie bank kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

The proletariat isn't killing capitalism. The banks are.

This is not an economics blog, but I thought Robert Reich really nailed it in his commentary on the big bonuses AIG is paying to the guys who orchestrated the failure of our economy:
This sordid story of government helplessness in the face of massive taxpayer commitments illustrates better than anything to date why the government should take over any institution that's "too big to fail" and which has cost taxpayers dearly. Such institutions are no longer within the capitalist system because they are no longer accountable to the market. [my emphasis]

(More like this here.)
The Obama Administration's greatest failure, so far, has been its unwillingness to insist on accountability. The lack of accountability built into the initial rescue package should have been obvious to the least perspicacious economic minds. I mean, it was obvious to me! But I thought Obama would institute accountability even though his appointees helped get us into this mess. I hoped he'd override Timothy Geithner on at least this one point.

Why is Robert Reich not in the White House? Why not Joseph Stiglitz? Dean Baker? George Soros? I could name a half-dozen other people who aren't so personally invested as Geithner or Larry Summers in maintaining the status quo. For crying out loud, Badtux the Snarky Penguin would make a helluva better Treasury Secretary than Geithner. (See this post for just one example of why I'm not joking about this!)

AIG and its ilk are going to have to be nationalized (or put into receivership, or whatever euphemism you prefer) sooner or later. The only question is whether Obama has the nerve and foresight to do it now, and not wait until another trillion or so is squandered. Joseph Stiglitz has a smart explanation of what's going wrong and how to fix it: basically, by splitting each of the zombie banks into two pieces, hiving off the bad investments, and sticking shareholders and executives with the losses. In other words, he advocates eliminating the current moral hazard and disincentives to lend while reinstating accountability.

Right now, the zombie banks are murdering markets and capitalism itself. Time for a new escape plan.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Politics of Attraction

Bouncing off a hysterically funny post by Aunt B about the penis of one of Tennessee's douchiest state legislators, I've been thinking about how political convictions serve as a filter for who and what we find attractive. The legislator in question, Stacey Campfield, definitely fails to pass Aunt B's filter - and mine, too, now that I've seen his smarmy blog photo. The dude is not ugly - he's got the smooth, glossy looks of a former fraternity president - but geez, does he look self-satisfied. Smug is so not sexy. Especially coming from a sexist Republican.

Aunt B went on a rant inspired by Campfield's telling another legislator that if he had sex with her, he wouldn't want to pay for her children. The bottom line is that Aunt B doesn't want to think about this tool's tool:
So, here we are, forced to think about Campfield having sex. And I’m going to be honest, my first thought was that no conservative Christian woman are going to have sex with Campfield because they don’t have sex with men they aren’t married to and no libertarians are going to have sex with Campfield without him using a condom and them being on some form of birth control and no liberal woman who knows him is going to be able to have sex with him since his antics cause arid tightening in Democrats, so Campfield talking about potential kids he might or might not have is a little beside the point.

(Read the rest here.)
I just love that phrase "arid tightening."

I suppose political anti-sexiness feels different for guys - neither arid nor tight - but a similar phenomenon definitely exists for men, too. One day after last fall's election, possibly courting trouble, I asked my husband if he thought Sarah Palin was sexy. He said, well, she was pretty enough on the surface, but as soon as she opened her mouth? Both her politics and her (lack of) intelligence totally undid her looks. (My husband is clever, as you can see, but he was also perfectly sincere.)

Obviously not everyone feels that way. Lots of guys were ready to vote for Palin based solely on her sex appeal. Most of them appeared to be fellas in their 60s and 70s who'd never have a prayer with her - or at least, those were the ones willing to admit it on the Daily Show.

So here's my true confession: I once dated a guy who wasn't just a Republican, he was a minor player in California's College Republicans. Hey, I was a college freshman when I met him - not even old enough to vote - and he was a senior, so I figured he knew what he was doing. This was back in the early 1980s when moderate Republicans still existed. He was one of that dying breed, His politics tilted leftward of many present-day Democrats, even if he was also kind of an asshole. The assholery was mostly independent of his politics. In my defense I can only say that he was a pretty good kisser.

Maybe that experience also cured me of dating Republicans (and I use the term "dating" very euphemistically, since my friends and I didn't really date). As far as I know, I never got involved with another Republican again.

Oh, I know there are lots of long-term relationships - apparently happy ones - that cross party lines. During my adventures in canvassing last fall, I marveled at those households where husband and wife planned to cancel out each others' votes. In one case, they'd been doing it for 50 years. This couple was so warm and welcoming, they would have fed me cookies and iced tea if I'd been allowed to accept goodies. They were equally warm toward each other. Their political convictions seemed like a thing completely apart from their marriage.

But here's the thing. For me, my politics are my values. My values are my politics. There's no firewall between them. I'm not talking about rigid political correctness, just a deep basic commitment to the equal worth of all humans and the notion that "justice is what love looks like in public" (to quote Cornel West yet again). I can't imagine dating, much less building a life, with someone who didn't share those principles and all their ramifications. Anything else strikes me as, well, aridly tight.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Seeds, Sentiment, Magic

Sorry to illustrate a post about seeds with a flower I grew from a bulb, but hey, this is what's blooming in my garden today. The photo shows my little rock iris.

Today I started to plant my garden. Well, that's the truth if you don't mind a little embroidery. My garden is entirely indoors, so far, and all I planted was a slew of impatiens seeds.

It's hard not to get, well, impatient while planting those little buggers. They're small. Very small. I have to take off my glasses to see them. I end up hunched over the seeds and the flats like a clumsy horticultural Mr. Magoo. And so they make me feel old. Planting tiny seeds relentlessly tracks my presbyopia from year to year. (If you clicked on that link, you're probably young enough not to worry about it yet.) One of these years I'm going to need bifocals. For now, I can get by without them, but only because I can leverage my nearsightedness, Magoo-like.

Anyway. There aren't a whole lot of smart reasons to grow impatiens from seed. They're readily available from any nursery - even Wal-Mart. It's true I want a lot of them (for my too-abundant shady beds) and I'll save a little money by starting them myself. That is the official rationale.

If I'm honest about it, though, I'll admit it's not really about economizing. Not at all. I just love seeds. And so I'll promiscuously start almost anything indoors, weeks before I can really garden outside. I keep watch on the seed coat as it softens and relents. I'm spellbound by the improbability of the seed leaf emerging from its harsh husk, sometimes after years of dormancy, wakened from sleep by the kiss of moisture. I hold my breath in fear of damping off (the plague of seedlings). I'll dab my own spit on any recalcitrant seed coat that threatens to trap the leaves, then coax out the tender greenery. So much wonder and anticipation even before the first true leaves, never mind the flower and fruit.

I'm no different from my son the Tiger, who planted beans in his kindergarten class last week. He doesn't know exactly what to expect. He just knows they're magic. And he's waiting for that magic beanstalk to emerge, leading places only he can imagine.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Medical Abortion under Pressure in Ohio

Ohio's Democratic, pro-choice Attorney General, Richard Cordray, is sticking up for a state law that restricts the use of medical abortion (RU-486, aka mifepristone or the "abortion pill") to a narrower window of time than good medical practice currently requires.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, a 2004 Ohio law limits the use of RU-486 to the first seven weeks of pregnancy, while doctors commonly use it up through the ninth week. The original FDA approval covered only the first seven weeks, but subsequent experience with vastly larger numbers of women has shown it to be safe and effective for two weeks beyond that window. Doctors have been prescribing it off-label through the ninth week, in line with current medical knowledge. The Ohio law has never been implemented because Planned Parenthood sued to block it. This week, the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the law should be allowed to take effect; the case has not yet been decided.

So what stake does the Ohio AG have in this? The Dispatch reports:
Anne Berry Straight, an attorney in Cordray's office, said she's not asking the court to set medical policy, only to recognize that lawmakers had the right to regulate the drug. ...

Straight pointed out that Ohio lawmakers already have banned the use of anabolic steroids for muscle-building and amphetamines for weight loss.

[Ohio Supreme Court] Justice Terrence O'Donnell said the court shouldn't be put in the position of playing surgeon general for Ohio.

"The court is going to micromanage the practice of medicine if we start getting into managing off-label uses like we're being asked to do (with RU-486)," O'Donnell said.
I'm not sure why either the courts or the legislature are mucking around with the fine points of medical policy! Whatever happened to the notion that doctors and public health experts should be regulating drugs? Neither the legislators nor the justices have the slightest qualifications. Heck, as a historian of medicine, I'm way more qualified than they are! Seriously!

For instance, you only need a dollop of medical knowledge to understand the difference between a medication that the FDA found to be safe and effective (RU-486) and drugs that are notorious for being abused (anabolic steroids and amphetamines). One of these things is not like the other; one of these things doesn't belong! Geez, my legislators need to watch more Sesame Street. (And no, I'm not saying that the FDA's process is perfect. It's often deeply screwed up. In this case, though, the FDA approved RU-486 in spite of intense political pressure to ignore the science.)

None of the statements from the AG's office explain why Cordray believed he had to stick up for the legislature's right to make medical policy. I understand that it's a constitutional issue as well as a matter of women's health, but I cannot fathom why the AG would have a stake in it. I do know that Cordray has publicly supported abortion rights, and I seriously fail to understand why protecting the scope of legislative power would trump his commitment to women's health.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Letting Kids Be Kids (Even When They're Parents)

I'm still on my soapbox about leaving Bristol Palin alone, and so all I've got to say on the announcement of her canceled engagement to Levi Johnston is that I'm glad if they're following their hearts, and I wish them both the best.

But all the angst-y right-wing commentary on the non-wedding of the season is fair game. Not to mention easy pickins! Here's what Lisa Schiffren of the National Review had to say (via Hugo Schwyzer):
I certainly don’t know if they should have gotten married. You’d have thought so . . . even if it didn’t last forever. Better odds for the kid. [My emphasis.] If the parents didn’t like it, well, they should have thought about that when they were drinking and fooling around. But, as we all know, shotgun marriages lead to plenty of unhappiness, some of the time. And very young marriages have a lousy track record. So parents of the expecting teens are not willing to push. And maybe they are sometimes right. Still, the default position of the girl, left on her own with the baby, now in serious and immediate need of further education and a set of remunerative skills with which to support herself and Tripp, which will be harder to acquire with her maternal responsibilities, isn’t much of a happy picture either.

For all of the high-minded discussion of marriage policy on these pages and elsewhere, to me it looks very late. That train left a while ago. Even Corner readers, who will discuss choosing life vs. abortion, with endless passion, do not get so worked up about marriage. Which is why all I have to say is, “poor girl.”
Hugo rightly points out the pity, condescension, and ethical bankruptcy in Schiffren's position. Amanda Marcotte argues that the pressure put on Bristol and Levi to redeem her pregnancy through coerced marriage reveals how ultimately, conservative anti-sex fury punishes men, too, by pushing them into unwanted and possibly loveless marriages.

Yes to all that. But I think the punishment goes deeper than the shotgun marriages that even Schriffren can't quite stomach. Schiffren unwittingly exposes this deeper dimension when she writes: "Better odds for the kid." I read that and thought: Which kid? Because Tripp is not the only child in this story! Bristol was 17 when she became pregnant!

In my book, that's still a kid. But in the anti-sex reactionary playbook, as soon as you have sex and get caught out - that is, if you turn up pregnant - you're disqualified from being a kid anymore. And since abortion isn't an option, you've got no choice but to plunge pell-mell into adulthood, whether you're 17 or 13.

I understand that a young parent will have to grow up faster than usual and meet the challenges of parenthood. Having had two babies, I know that babies impose their own limits and constraints, and unless you give your child up for adoption, your old freedom is toast. That doesn't mean young teen parents will instantly grow up, however. They are still kids - cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally - even if they rise to the challenge. This is why a pregnant child should always have the option to terminate, with or without parental permission; no one should be forced to grow up so fast. But if she does choose to carry the pregnancy to term, she deserves massive support to let her finish her education and maybe even have some fun once in a while. She deserves to enjoy whatever vestiges of childhood remain.

Imposing premature adulthood on pregnant girls and their partners as a punishment is just the flip side of seeing a baby as a righteous punishment for having sex. Both attitudes betray a profound contempt for children.

"Corrective" Rape: Where Misogyny and Homophobia Collide

While listening to BBC radio this morning, I learned a new term: "corrective" rape. I was driving at the time, and I nearly had to pull over. (Consider this your obligatory trigger warning; I'm so upset about this topic that I almost can't write about it, and yet I feel like I have to.)

"Corrective" rape refers to raping lesbians with the ostensible purpose of "curing" them of same-sex attractions. In "Hate Crimes: The Rise of 'Corrective' Rape in South Africa," the NGO ActionAid documents a sharp rise in the incidence of this crime (pdf available here). The BBC report stated that about ten "corrective" rapes are occuring each week in Cape Town alone. (See also this article in the Guardian.)

It's ironic that these crimes are on the rise in South Africa, because as the BBC report stated, the South African constitution is one of the most progressive in the world, guaranteeing equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. In practice, however, homophobia and misogyny combine in everyday life and the justice system, making lesbians' lives very dangerous, especially if they're women of color. Young boys are growing up with the idea that raping lesbians is acceptable - that they are actually doing women a favor by teaching them to appreciate a real man.

ActionAid reports that the targeting of lesbians represents an intensification of the risks that all women face:
In South Africa, no woman is safe from violence. There are an estimated 500,000 rapes, hundreds of murders and countless beatings carried out every year. Shockingly, it is estimated that almost half of all South African women will be raped during their lifetime. And for every 25 men bought to trial for rape in South Africa, 24 walk free. ...

As part of this oppression, the country is now witnessing a backlash of crimes targeted specifically at lesbian women, who are perceived as representing a direct and specific threat to the status quo. This violence often takes the form of ‘corrective’ rape – a way of punishing and ‘curing’ women of their sexual orientation. (p. 3) ...

‘Corrective’ rape survivors interviewed by ActionAid say that verbal abuse before and during the rape focused on being “taught a lesson” and being “shown how to be real women and what a real man tasted like." (p. 12)
So the hallmark of this crime is the assailant telling the woman that his attack will make her a proper woman - and yet, according to ActionAid reports, judges have balked at punishing such rapes as hate crimes. (Of course, one might argue that every rape is a hate crime since it's an expression of misogyny.) It remains a mystery how women are supposed to learn their lesson in the numerous instances where "corrective" rape culminates in murder.

The BBC report was followed up by a discussion of whether Western media show a negative bias in their reporting on Africa. I'm not qualified to judge whether that's so, although I agree that Americans almost never hear good news about Africa in the media. But I definitely see a danger in othering this phenomenon of "corrective" rape. We know lesbians are at risk of violence in the U.S., too, and I'm sure this crime occurs here as well, even if with (much?) less frequency than in South Africa, where violence of all kinds is so prevalent. We just haven't had a name for it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Found: Twitter's Divine Feline Use

First, you have to get over your chimera-disgust at the idea of cats tweeting. Really, it can be quite natural! Not monstrous at all!

Second, you (well, I) have to get over our anti-Twitter biases.

And then you can enjoy the application for which Twitter was obviously made in the first place: the tweets of the Ceiling Cat.

I stumbled on this chirping deity while exploring the LOLcat Bible, which was helping me procrastinate my actual task of reading up on feminist theological projects like The Woman's Bible. The LOLcat Bible very nearly landed in my Tuesday lecture. Yeah, we're all punchy by now, students and instructors alike, in this, the last week of classes before finals. I now regret not doing it.


So here's a sample of feline revelation:
An Iz dump teh sno on teh norfeest, So dat teh hoomins stai insied an cuddle der kittehs an keep dem warm.

Yu kno why kittehs eet teh tinsel from yer Crismus Trees? Cuz wen I wuz leeding dem thru teh desert, dat is wut manna luk liek.
In other words: Proof positive that the 140-character count meshes perfectly with a cat's walnut-sized brain. Not sure if this says more about cats, or more about Twitter.

I should warn you that there's a rival Ceiling Cat tweeting. While it doesn't appear to be the Basement Cat in disguise, this one is less active and creative, but a whole lot more prurient - maybe he's laying the groundwork for a Catichean struggle? Maybe he's just gunning to lead a meagachurch? Anyway, here's his obsession:
Watching you masturbate.

Just call me LL Ceiling C, because judging from my followers: Ladies Love Ceiling Cat. And Ceiling Cat loves watching you... you know.

If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe some of the stuff y'all get up to.
Luckily for you (and by you, I once again mean me), Twitter offers the option: "Block Ceiling Cat."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Science of Being Worried Sick

One of my bugaboos, ever since I learned there was a name for it, is iatrogenic risks: the damage that medicine itself can cause, however inadvertently. A big ole iatrogenic risk made the news recently, as Ivanhoe's medical news wire service reports:
The agonizing wait for breast cancer biopsy results can be harmful to a woman's health. The results of a new study suggests not knowing a diagnosis can lead to stress that may have adverse effects on the immune system.

More than 1.2 million breast biopsies are performed each year in the U.S. -- 80 percent result in non-cancerous findings. In this new study, researchers sought to establish a biochemical marker to assess the physical effects associated with the stress of extended waiting for a final diagnosis. They collected stress hormone [cortisol] samples from 126 women who had just undergone a large core biopsy. Four days later, the scientists learned the stress hormone levels of women with uncertain results were significantly different than women with benign results, but highly similar to women with malignant results.

(The original study is published in Radiology, March 2009, full reference below.)
Any of you who've awaited the results of high-stakes medical tests are probably thinking: Well, duh! The day I got my initial, troubling MRI results, I was in tears for much of the day before I even saw my doctor. I'm pretty sure my cortisol levels stayed sky-high for a several weeks, until I heard that I didn't have MS and that the radiologist who read the scans was probably mostly covering his ass.

So why is there any value in a study like this one? Because even though its findings are glaringly obvious, it points out that most of the women in the study had to wait at least five days for results. The study's authors, Elvira Lang et al., recommend in another well, duh! moment:
It is important to deliver histopathologic results in a timely fashion.

(Source: Elvira V. Lang et al., "Large-Core Breast Biopsy: Abnormal Salivary Cortisol Profiles Associated with Uncertainty of Diagnosis," Radiology 2009;250:631-637.)
Or to put it bluntly, doctors and hospitals need to organize anxiety-producing procedures with the patient's needs in mind, not the organization's. This would be worthwhile even if stress weren't a risk factor for (additional) illness.

By the way, it's not just women who would benefit from faster, healthier, and more humane delivery of test results. Lang et al. cite a larger, better-powered study in which men who underwent prostate biopsy had the most abnormal cortisol levels two weeks after the biopsy, right before they got their results. Like breast biopsies, prostate biopsies are more painful than doctors will generally admit, or so I hear from people who've experienced one or the other procedure. A cancer diagnosis in either case often strikes at a person's identity and sexuality as well as raising fears of mortality. Lang et al. write (again in the full text version):
These authors reported that some of their patients described the waiting period as a nightmare.
That earlier study was published in 1995, and yet people often still wait a week for test results. I'm hoping the new study might make a bigger splash, as breast cancer news tends to attract more media attention.

How long is the waiting period, exactly, before an obvious iatrogenic risk can be diagnosed and treated?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sungold = Angela Davis?

So Daisy just bailed me out when I've got too much grading and class prep, and no time to develop a thoughtful post: She led me to a quiz, Which Western Feminist Icon Are You? (Daisy was bell hooks, a very cool result indeed.)

Somewhat weirdly, I came up as ...
You are Angela Davis! You were the THIRD WOMYN IN HISTORY to appear on the FBI's Most Wanted List. You are a communinist, black power-lovin' lady who shook up the United States when you refused to lie down quietly to oppression. You WENT TO JAIL! Wow. You kick so much more ass than Foxxy Brown.
Hmmm. I checked the box for wanting feminism to reflect intersectional analysis. I also consistently checked the one on attitudes toward men that stated "Men are comrades and they're fun in bed." Otherwise, I tried varying a few answers. No matter how else I answered, I kept coming up Angela.

It's mysterious because I'm no communist, not even on those days where my socialist leanings swell and grow. I think black power alone is analytically inadequate just as feminism alone cannot explain the world. I've never been to jail (though I did once pick up a friend there) and while I may well have an FBI file, I'm not sure what the file would hold apart from "friend of people who know people who embrace lefty politics. Oh, and married to a furriner."

Much as I admire Angela Davis' body of work over the years, the one time I saw her speak was an unmitigated disaster. She was trying to use a laptop in her talk, and she was clearly overwhelmed by the technology, to the point where she kept getting tangled up and lost in what she wanted to say. (It was one of those feminist empress-has-no-clothes moments, because most of the audience rhapsodized anyway, even though the talk was largely incoherent, in my not-so-humble opinoin.) I had the feeling she'd have given a fine speech, if only she hadn't felt tethered to the laptop.

But Angela I am - never mind my evident whiteness or lack of kickassness. I'll take it as a compliment. Maybe as a challenge. At the very least, it's a reminder not to let my beloved laptop get in the way of actual communicaiton.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Perils and Privileges of Invisible Disability

This isn't exactly a LOLtopic, but invisibility of any sort calls for a kitteh - from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Spurred partly by my recent scary health experiences, and partly by posts from Julie at Alas and Daisy at Daisy's Dead Air, I've been thinking about the peculiarities of invisible disability.

About a week into my bizarro neurological adventures, I started to go public with my colleagues and a few students. I realized I wasn't going to be healthy again overnight. It became obvious that I might need some extra support - which I got in abundance.

The first group of colleagues I told were shocked. "But you looked like nothing had changed!" "Nobody could tell that there was anything wrong!" "Really, your lecture was just fine!"

What shocked me, upon reflection, is how gratified I felt to hear this. I had a mild tremor in my lower left lip, and I was convinced I must look like Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther movies. My facial muscles were freakishly tight and I was sure my face resembled a death mask. Brain fog interrupted my ability to string together sentences, and I perceived my own lectures as rank gibberish.

I suppose it's understandable that I was glad to hear that none of this was evident to an outside observer. And yet, I think my reaction also betrays an investment in "normalcy" that I really ought to have shed by now. I've been teaching about disability in women's studies classes for years. My partner has a somewhat visible physical disability. While in grad school, I experienced another invisible, ultimately temporary, but fairly long-lasting disability when I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.

What does it take for a gal to get over the ideal of normalcy? Why was passing so important to me?

There's a serious privilege built into invisible disability. While I'm still pretty far from normal (my hand tremor is acting up as I type this), I can choose whether to disclose it to people. I don't have to respond to questions from strangers about what happened to me - something that happened to my partner all the time when he was wearing an arm brace. It's as though any piece of orthopedic equipment makes your body and its history public property. I'm very relieved not to have to defend my personal space and privacy.

Faced with wearing a wrist brace that might help her heal but would call attention to her disability, Daisy explains why she can't quite make herself do it.
It makes me appear vulnerable and calls attention to my age, in a job market in which older workers are getting left behind. I try to look energetic and "happy" on my job, since we are "selling a lifestyle" and all that shit: I feel pressure in the health supplement industry to always appear healthy. Since it's a job in which people are always talking about their health, I am duly questioned about mine, when there are many times (like now) that I'd rather not answer. The overall sentiment seems to be: well, if you know so much about supplements, why are you falling apart? Aging is inevitable and people are in denial about that, as well as in denial about disability-as-part-of-life in general...
I'm not in the health industry, but in my work I'm surrounded by apparently-healthy young people. As their instructor, I often hear about what lies beneath. One person has ADHD, another is coping with rheumatoid arthritis, yet another has Crohn's disease, someone else comes down with mono, and a legion of them struggle with various mental health issues. Yet the norm on campus is what's visible. And all you can see - except for the occasional leg cast - is "healthy," vigorous youth. It's possible this is more pronounced at my university than most, because the campus is hilly and the accommodations for anyone who's mobility-impaired are a joke.

This silence and invisibility contribute to the denial Daisy mentions. So does our shared but repressed fear of mortality and decline.

There are also serious perils in looking "too healthy." Julie at Alas recounts how she can't wrap her own mind around the idea that her back pain is real, and this sabotages her ability to get the care she needs. Daisy points out that Julie's experience collides our expectation that if a person is young, attractive, middle-class, and educated, she ought to be healthy, too, just by definition.

Maybe most people with invisible disabilities aren't as hard on themselves as Julie appears to be, but they also can't always count on the recognition and help they need. When I had my chronic fatigue experience, my grad school advisers were wonderfully supportive, but some of the other people in my orbit really didn't get it. My then-boyfriend once accused me of using my illness manipulatively because I could find energy for some activities but not others. It was hard for him to understand that my energy level varied, and that I had to set priorities. (This was the beginning of the end for me and him.) A few fellow students expressed skepticism behind my back, which came back to me through the grad-school gossip tree: How could I really be sick? I didn't look sick! Was I just trying to get a break on my coursework? To my face, though, some of my comrades radiated pity; this group overlapped with the skeptics, weirdly enough.

This time around, I've encountered only warmth and support from family, friends, and colleagues. My husband took on some of my usual household tasks. My mom sent money and offered to come help if we needed her. Friends took care of the kids, often at short notice, and one of them babysat overnight so we could go to Cleveland. One colleague gave a lecture while I was away, and another was on call to cover my seminar. Yet another found money to pay a grader so I didn't have to deal with 90 midterms.

I'm sure it helps that I'm out of the grad-school hothouse with its petty resentments. More importantly, most of the adults in my life are now old enough to have some close-up experience with disability. Without their support, I don't know how I'd have made it through the past weeks.

But the precondition for all this help was that I had to make the invisible visible. I had to take the risk of making it public. I couldn't hide under the mask of normalcy. I had to give up the privilege of passing, however uncomfortable that made me. I'm so grateful that the people in my life all chose to make that radical phenomenological leap of faith - to believe in the reality of my reality, no matter how impossible it was for them to see it.

What would it take to transform our society so that invisible disability is always taken seriously - and that leap of faith is no longer even necessary?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

War of the Roses and Clematis

I have no energy to post on the stuff that's really got me thinking today - because I've become a casualty of the undeclared war of the roses and clematis.

Today was stunningly beautiful, and so our whole family trooped out to the yard to try and undo the winter's damage. Well, two of us tried; the other two, the small ones, played with household chemicals and made rockets blast off with Alka-seltzer tablets. On balance, this was probably less risky than entrusting them with pruning shears.

My mission was to save my poor diseased clematis. If you've been with me since summer, you might recall some of the pictures I posted here. Well, I have a confession: Like more conventional porn, my garden porn is cleverly cropped to hide imperfections. While I haven't stooped to airbrushing (yet!), I did conceal the fungus-ridden foliage on my clematis.

So I determined to prune them all hard (not just the jackmanii, which expects a hard pruning) and hope that what grows back will be less fungified. It took a few hours and I felt like I was performing an amputation, but I pruned my darlings back to short (4- to 6-inch) stumps, bagged up all the nasty foliage, and removed a bit of topsoil to boot. Now I'm praying to the Ceiling Cat that my plan works.

The only problem? My clematis shares space with the roses. All the garden guides will tell you that clematis and roses are excellent partners. I'm sure that the authors of said guides let their hired help do the pruning.

Because it was a bloody mess - quite literally. Even though I waited until my husband had first pruned the roses, I ended up with scratches and fragments of thorns in my arms, a deep cut in one finger (how I got that one, I can't even say), and a thorn under a thumbnail. Yes, that was as hideous as it sounds. I think I shouted some words that I usually avoid saying in front of the kids, but I really don't know, because I was seeing swirls and starbursts of yellow, orange, and red and trying not to scream a second time.

Oh, and I got a mild sunburn, too - while working in the shade, in Ohio, on the seventh day of March. I'm actually kind of tickled about this, since it really is mild and it seems just as happily anomalous as the perfect day that just ended.

I'm so grateful that I had the energy to work in my garden. I'm paying for it tonight, and I'll likely be kaput tomorrow, but it buoys my hope that I'll keep on healing. (In case you were wondering, I'm not back to "normal," though I'm continuously improving. The fatigue is the worst of my remaining symptoms.)

Since the only thing to show for my work is some black dirt and a blank trellis, here's a more photogenic alternative: an update on the crocus that popped up a week ago. It's no longer alone, so you can expect more pictures in the days ahead. If you click to embiggen the photo, you'll see the tracery of russet veins on the petals.