Category Archives: sexism

patriarchy

on not freaking out about bias in public interest tech/ip

NYPL hosted a panel a few weeks ago on the Google Print issue. I noticed that there were no women on the panel. This was shortly after I’d seen a flyer for a conference Yale was hosting on Search, which also had very very few numbers of female speakers or commentators. I’d been trying to craft a cogent & reasoned critique of sexism in the industry and practices that lead to gender disparate conference panels in a field where, if anything, a majority of leading scholars are women. In the meantime, Ann Bartow wrote on the matter, and I linked to her in lieu of posting separately, and then I got focused on other things.

But today (12/6), trying to wrap up a similarly long-hanging draft post about Google commentary, I came across a two-post discussion in comments on Larry Lessig’s blog entry about the NYPL debate. First, Ann Bartow briefly noted the absence of women on the NYPL panel:

With little effort I can think of 50 or more women who could have been part of this debate without diminishing the quality of the discourse in the least; in fact quite the contrary. The majority of librarians, and library patrons, in this country are female, as are the majority of book purchasers. Yet not a single woman gets a voice in this debate.

To which unfortunately “David” cluelessly responded:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but women read as men do, as far as I know. By this I mean that the process is structurally equivalent, they look at the page, decode the glyphs or higher-order primitives (such as words) and convert this information into symbolic representations of the writing. Same can be said for search. Is there some peculiarity in women’s reading that would make it imperative to have them represented? Do they do something differently that needs addressing by itself? Because if they do not, as I would hold, it is a disservice to claim they should be represented. Women are first and foremost people, and just as 53-year-olds need not be represented in a debate, because their is no functional difference that requires it, neither do, in most debates, women.

So, whether there are women in the debate or not is entirely irrelevant, and subtracts no legitimacy whatsoever. It could be argued that women could participate just as the men who did, and this is true. Maybe there was a bias against women in the choice of debaters. Whether that was the case or not, though, doesn’t make it imperative to purposefully choose women as debaters on this and most other topics.

David wanted to be corrected if he was wrong, so here goes. He got one thing right: “Maybe there was a bias against women in the choice of debaters.” But alas he completely obfuscated this point with his off-point and non-responsive paragraph about whether men and women have special ways of reading. Or perhaps he simply confused himself. So let me shed a little light:

Professor Bartow said nothing about men’s special ways of reading. She did not “claim” that women “should be represented” because of something they bring to the debate. Rather, she made one simple point: The panel was not gender-representative of any relevant population: IP/law experts, book people, librarians, etc., who are qualified to speak on Google Print issues.

She was concerned about special ways of selecting speakers. That’s a problem of sexism, not cognitive processing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but both men and women spell sexism S-E-X-I-S-M.

David’s response reflects a broader problem in responses to critical engagements with sexism, racism, and other biases, which is, when racism or sexism is called out, to engage in one or more knee-jerk denials: “There’s no sexism here!” or, classically, “I’m not racist!” or “I’m not sexist!” as if it were a personal insult. One can observe three kinds of major knee-jerk responses: One, to become so politically correct that one becomes a caricature of one’s own politics. Two, to deny the critiques, and censor the critics by calling them politically correct. Three, to do the crazy white panic (“I’m not a racist! You don’t think I’m racist, do you? But I’m so not racist!”), so beautifully dissected by Alas, a Blog.

Hey, I’m not immune from any of these responses. It’s pretty natural to do this kind of thing when you’re dealing with a conflict between how you think you ought to be, and how you are being perceived. But that makes these responses all the more important to understand.

And understanding these kinds of natural responses helps us understand what David did, and didn’t do, and could have done more helpfully instead, in his response to Ann Bartow’s simple pointing out of a gender disparity.

When a critic points out a possible problem, the ideal response would be for people to hear and evaluate the critic’s comments, and respond appropriately (and not disproportionately or personally; go back and read Alas, a blog again.)

The first step: Is the criticism accurate on the facts? In the case of the NYPL panel, manifestly, yes: the panel was disproportionately — all — male.

The second step: Is the criticism accurate in its analysis? Well, here is a problem, because Professor Bartow just pointed out the facts, leaving the analysis mostly to the reader. Not entirely; she did try to subtly deflect content-oriented rejoinders by pointing out that the inclusion of women could have been quality-neutral, and that tended to lead the reader to the analysis that this wasn’t a content issue. But for the most part, she made a neutral observation about gender representation and left the rest of the rather obvious analysis to the reader.

Apparently, though, any suggestion of sexism can trigger knee-jerk responses: “There’s no sexism here! No sexism! Gender is irrelevant to books! Linguistic processing of higher-order mammals blah blah blah!”

David failed to analyze Professor Bartow’s critique of implied sexism in a rational way. Instead he hand-waved and obscured the criticism with a non-response. (<annoyed Sarcasm> While missing the point entirely, he did manage to sound very brainy by couching his non-response in big words and impressive phrases like “structurally equivalent” or “higher-order primitives.” It reminds me of the literary debate between William Faulkner & Ernest Hemingway: Faulkner on Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway on Faulkner: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Lots of fancy words don’t necessarily mean you’re on point. </annoyed Sarcasm>)

Rather than analyzing Ann Bartow’s implied critique of sexism, David instead shifted the debate. He didn’t deny the observation, and he didn’t even really deny the implied critique — he actually admitted it: “Maybe there was a bias against women in the choice of debaters.” But the locus of his response is something completely different — the value of diversity — and he then steers away from the point of original observation even further by questioning whether women and men are cognitively different. Bajillions of gallons of ink are being spilled on that question, by the way, so it’s hardly an open-and-shut question, but the point is that David chose to deny & distract rather than to engage the question. And my sense, from watching oh-so-many stupid arguments about sexism & racism, is that David’s response thus falls into exactly the same category as so many other pointless responses to criticism these days. The pattern goes like this: A: “That’s racist!” B: <radiating outraged indignation !> “How dare you call me racist?”

So let me just state what I would have liked to have seen David or other commentators on the Lessig blog, or other readers of the Lessig blog do: Read Ann Bartow’s observation. Note to themselves, Huh. By golly, she’s right: there were no women on the NYPL panel, and there certainly could have been. That’s suggestive of sexism. When I do this kind of work I’m going to make sure that I don’t fall prey even to unconscious sexism or other bias. And I’m going to help other people avoid it too.

Don’t freak out. Don’t go all sarcastic or blah blah blah about the Western canon or higher order verbs or mammals or whatever weird issue you have. Everybody falls prey to internalized, subconscious sexism, racism, and other biases sometimes. Just try to be more self-aware about it and don’t freak out when someone calls your attention to it. It’s not an attack on you or on your livelihood or on western civilization. (Well, maybe western civilization ….) Unconscious bias is remedied, in part, by having your consciousness raised and beoming more aware of unconscious bias.

And I had a much longer response detailing why this kind of response is so silly, so irrational, so pointless, and so not helpful, but instead, I’m going to just point, once again, to my new favorite post of the year: How Not To Be Insane When Accused Of Racism (A Guide For White People) at Alas, a Blog.

Oh, and by the way. Thanks, Ann, for doing this work. It’s appreciated.

vagina dentata: prior art?

South African inventor Sonette Ehlers has developed the “rapex”, a barbed female condom aimed at discouraging rapists. A coordinator for Rape Crisis cautions that the device could backfire, and rapists in penile pain might respond with increased violence.

Of course, Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash (1992) was all over this idea: his teenage protagonist wore a similar device cleverly named the ‘vagina dentata’. But rather than just putting a rapist in pain, the v.d. actually disarmed him, by injecting a super-fast-acting tranquilizer directly into his penis.

[Yahoo! News 9/1 via slate 9/12]

update 15 minutes later: Wikipedia rocks; there’s simply no other way to say it. See the entry on anti-rape female condom.

non-katrina

yet more depressing news:

  • iraq: where people keep dying. A friend recently met with her family who lives in Baghdad, who reported a) her elderly aunties regularly have laser sightings trained on them by US soldiers; b) her cousin’s cousin was recently shot & killed by US soldiers; c) they still don’t have power & clean water most of the time. The situation is worse than it was a year ago. They were impressed to hear that an American woman would camp outside Bush’s home, since they thought there was no dissent in the US. …

  • declining science literacy, increasing religious belief, and increasing poverty in the US. See creationism survey (NYT) and the widely reported new poverty statistics from the Census Bureau, available at http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/p60-229.pdf; press briefing.

  • the FDA decided to hold off approving emergency contraception, AGAIN, despite promises by new commissioner to have decided by today (9/1). The FDA Director of the Office of Women’s Health resigned in response. See feministe; prnewswire.

  • and i just heard that the 8th Circuit affirmed the lower court ruling in Bnetd. [opinion @ 8th Cir] A big loss for consumers and tinkerers.

but still there is light shed:

  • the NYT recently published a supremely arrogant, sexist, and stupid editorial / piece by Keith Ablow. Ablow suggested that women should think twice before letting their husbands watch childbirth, since it might destroy the man’s sexual attraction to his female partner. a number of commentators have given that article the trashing it deserved. see belle waring 8/31, for example; see also belle waring 8/23; pandagon; slate; crooked timber on women’s culture (and by negative implication what men’s culture is failing to do).

    me, i couldn’t help remembering how sensible, non-sexist people handle the issue in a way that recognizes human realities, sexuality, and needs of all parties: In The Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy and Birth, the authors straightforwardly noted that after pregnancy & birth, some non-birth-parents might have difficulty feeling sexual toward the birth-parent. The authors didn’t try some reductive pop-psych “oh my god I’ve seen her insides” explanation, but pointed out that it could happen for a variety of reasons: birthing-related, parenting-related, the efforts of adjusting to a new lifestyle, new roles, and new family configurations. the answer? give it time, and work on having adult time together.

  • orcinus posted on right-wing bloggers decrying the motes in left-wing eyes (“all our extremists is belong to you”) [link from sideshow]

  • Reading A1 posted on the suggestion from right-wingers (apparently frustrated that their ideas suck) that left-wingers can’t criticize unless they come up with fully-formed strategic responses themselves. i feel like excerpting:

    [W]ho exactly is the audience for this sort of policy wanking supposed to be? Other than a tiny community of Beltway or Beltway-oriented intellectuals, or wannabes. The anti-war left is nowhere near the seat of power. Power is held, in fact, by a gang that regards opposition in general, and opposition to the war in particular, as tantamount to treason. … Even if we had detailed, rational and realistic policy advice to give, they wouldn’t listen to it. … It’s not “unserious” or “immature” or whatever other bullshit terms are favored by the Beltway types to advocate the simple message Out Now. On the contrary—advocating such messages is the only real political space within which we have to operate. Our job is not to pretend we’re living under a different regime than we are, one that takes policy proposals seriously. Our job is to do the only thing we really can do, namely cause as much domestic pain as possible for Bush over the war. … You want to have a real effect on Iraq policy? Drive Bush’s numbers down, drive the GOP’s numbers down, take their Congressional majority away from them, take the White House back. That’s not done with policy prescriptions—which (again, has Cooper been paying attention these last few years?) the vast majority of the American public will never hear, or hear an honest version of, anyway.

    I’ve got a rant, somewhere inside, about labels, actions, and correctly identifying your own politics & where they fit on the historical spectrum. Something in response to the right-wingers who try to claim the higher ground created by the left-wing civil rights movement, the left-wing anti-fascist movements, and so on. But it’ll have to wait.

Juarez: missing-non-white-women meme, at work?

This article is the first time I have seen NYT coverage of the missing women in the maquiladoras towns along the border — a rash of killings and disappearances that has affected literally hundreds of women, many of whom worked in US-owned factories.

Searching the NYT archives since 1996 (“missing women maquiladoras”, “missing women Juarez”) I found a couple of others; one from Dec. 2002; one from Aug. 2002 focusing on a filmmaker doing a documentary about the issue; and one from Aug. 2003; another from Oct. 2004. I won’t do the word count; it’s embarrassing, since many of these articles appear in the short-shrift foreign desk section. But by comparison a search for “Natalee Holloway”, missing in Mexico, turned up 17 articles since June. With this relative level of media coverage, I’m certainly glad to see this year’s story about the Juarez disappearances actually make the front webpage of the NYT. [Well, for a couple of hours it did, anyway, as one of three articles in the NATIONAL subsection.] Maybe the missing-non-white-women meme is starting to spread? Or maybe there’s some natural spillover effect from the missing-white-women coverage? every twenty articles about a missing white woman the NYT can run one about a non-white-woman human interest story?

Amnesty International, in 2003, noted that the disappearances and murders involved at least 700 women in 10 years.

According to official figures 70 women remain missing in Ciudad Juárez, and more recently in the city of Chihuahua. Information from other sources puts this figure at 400 women missing since 1993. Their families fear the worst, given the alarming number of missing women who have subsequently been found murdered days, or even years, later.

Amnesty International’s investigation found that in the last ten years approximately 370 women have been murdered, of which at least 137 were sexually assaulted prior to their death. A further 75 bodies have still not been identified — it is thought some may be those of women who have been reported missing but grossly inadequate forensic investigations have made this impossible to confirm.

Many of the women were abducted, held captive for several days and subjected to humiliation, torture and the most horrific sexual violence before dying, most as a result of asphyxiation caused by strangulation or from being beaten. Their bodies have then been found hidden among rubble or abandoned in desert areas near the city.

An unknown number of other women, not included in these numbers, have escaped their captors.

Taking the top figure of 400 missing women, but subtracting the 75 unidentified bodies from the missing women to arrive at a conservative (non-official) estimate, you find that one woman has gone missing every 5.25 days. Juarez, for comparison, is 1.2 million people — that’s pretty comparable to San Diego, and just a little bit smaller than Philly. Imagine a rash of disappearances: one every five to six days. Friday, another woman missing; Thursday, another woman missing; Monday, another woman missing; Saturday, another woman missing … tick, tick, tick, another woman, and another woman, and another woman … Every couple of weeks they turn up a body. They identify most but not all of the bodies. Now imagine this goes on for twelve years.

I’ve been following this story off and on for five or six years. It’s impossible to maintain a proportionate sense of horror with so many individual lives. I decided to focus on women who share my name. Over the years, five women named Laura have been murdered or have disappeared.

  • Laura Ana Inere (b. approximately 1968; 27 years old when murdered; body found Dec. 1995). She was shot to death. Her body was found on Christmas day, 1995, in the municipal cemetery. Because a firearm was involved, investigators suspect police involvement in Laura Inere’s murder.
  • Laura Georgina Vargas (b. approximately 1961; 40 years old when murdered; body found Jan. 3, 2001)
  • Laura Alondra Márquez (b. approximately 1985; 16 years old when murdered; body found May 1, 2001)
  • Laura Berenice Ramos Monárrez. Laura was a high school student when she disappeared in Sept. 2001. Her body was found Nov. 6-7, 2001. Two Juárez bus drivers confessed to Laura’s murder, and the murder of ten other women, but claimed they were tortured to elicit a confession. El Diario, 11/12-21/2001, also reports that the victims’ families are unconvinced about the confessions, and they and human rights groups cite irregularities in police investigation techniques.
  • Laura Lourdes Cordero García. No information other than her name on lists of disappeared and murdered women.

More info about the murders and disappearances in Juàrez and nearby Chihuahua communities:

  • Women of Juarez. (English) The site includes a list of some of the victims’ names, or occasionally a cursory description of remains found, painstakingly gathered by Esther Chavez Cano from news sources through 2002.
  • Mujeres de Juarez (Español) The list of names includes 286 women reported missing from 1993 through 2004.
  • Amnesty Int’l’s page on Juarez’ missing women. (English) Amnesty wants people to contact their own Congressional representatives to urge them to cosponsor a US Congressional Resolution offered by Representative Hilda Solis and Senator Jeff Bingaman on the murders.
  • Safe Juarez takes donations. (English) They began by providing self-defense training & establishing safehouses for women. They are now doing family interventions. While I have no knowledge of this group other than what’s on their website, a couple of quick google searches looking for criticism of them didn’t turn up anything negative in the first many pages.
  • AcciOn (Español) Another list of women’s names.
  • crimelibrary.com. (English) Listing of media coverage (notably, most from nearby Texas towns)
  • Mother Jones, To Work and Die in Juarez (2002) (English)
  • El Paso Times, Death Stalks the border, 2002. (English)
  • Gender[f] offers an online memorial rollcall of 400 missing women’s names. (English)

related posts: missing non-white women meme

girls go(t) game

Hillary Clinton has jumped all over the Grand Theft Auto downloadable sex mod scandal, apparently in an attempt to shore up her right-wing base and reconnect with the Tipper Gore Fan Club. USA Today 7/14; wikinews 7/17; salon.com 7/22; gtaSanAndreas links to a video of the mod in action]. Ted Frank on Overlawyered reminds us of a similar culture-war foray from the Democrats — Bill Clinton’s 1992 attack on Sister Souljah — and is pretty funny to boot:

Me, I’m just amused by the thought of class action attorneys trolling for a named plaintiff parent who will testify that, while she was okay for her little Johnny to buy a game involving drug dealing, gambling, carjacking, cop-shooting, prostitution, throat-slashing, baseball-bat beatings, drive-by shootings, street-racing, gang wars, profanity-laced rap music, homosexual lovers’ quarrels, blood and gore, and “Strong Sexual Content,” she is shocked, shocked to learn that the game also includes an animation at about the level of a Ken doll rubbing up against an unclothed Barbie doll with X-rated sound effects, and is thus a victim of both consumer fraud and intense emotional distress, entitled to actual and punitive damages totalling $74,999 per identically-situated class member in the state.

Having posted this, I have to comment on a) the class action schtick is just unnecessary; this anecdote stands alone; b) I wrinkled my nose at a few whiffs of sexist patronizing & homophobia: the contemptible ‘named plaintiff parent’ of the anecdote is of course female (because Donald Wildmon & crew are just not funny, I guess) and Overlawyered’s list of social ills includes, along with various depictions of violence, “homosexual lovers’ quarrels”. Dude. When my spouse & I fight, it’s ill, all right, but not “throat-slashing, baseball-bat beating” ill. Get some perspective.

Speaking of sexism & Grand Theft Auto, feministing raised the concern about the frequent sex-violence connection in popular entertainment. Commenter erin shed some light, which I’ll quote in full since I can’t point directly to it:

I’ve done some research on game patches, and unfortunately, the majority of those out there serve to further exploit female characters (avatars). For example, in the Xtreme Beach Volleyball game, there is a nudity patch which allows the player to play in full nude mode. No big surprise that all of the volleyball players are female. There is also a patch for BloodRayne 2 that allows a player to actually change the breast size of Rayne, inflating or deflating to one’s personal desire. These patches are readily available on gaming websites and message boards, and are fairly easy to use for any semi-experienced gamer.

However, there are also some female gamers who are designing patches to further enhance their gameplaying experience as well, kind of a proto-feminist hacker art movement. There are a few patches for the Tomb Raider series that allow a player to “gender bend” Lara Croft, turning her into a drag queen, dominatrix, or queer babe.

For more on these patches, look at Anne-Marie Schleiner’s article “Does Lara Croft Wear Fake Polygons?” www.opensorcery.net/lara2.html

Posted by: erin at July 11, 2005 11:16 PM

What’s the remedy for stupid, sexist, ridiculous, offensive, insensitive, unsatisfying speech? More speech. These female gamer/hackers get that. And so do some universities and businesses. The current monoculture in video games isn’t ‘just the way it is’; it’s a result of social forces and trends. These social forces and trends are hackable and that’s an opportunity.

update 8/15:

On the sex-violence issue, shakespeare’s sister linked to an article about research showing no change in aggression from playing aggressive video games. The paper is Williams, Dmitri & Skoric, Marko (2005). Internet Fantasy Violence: A Test of Aggression in an Online Game. Communication Monographs, 22(2), p.217-233, available at https://netfiles.uiuc.edu/dcwill/www/CMWilliamsSkoric.pdf.

Most intriguing, though, the rest of shakespeare’s sister’s post on gaming and kick-ass girl heroes talked about lance mannion’s concerns about boys hitting girls in action media (video games, movies, comics). Sh-Sis isn’t too concerned about it, and neither am I. But I’m glad she brought it up, because often, while watching Buffy, Xena, Lara Croft, and the like, I experience a split-second cultural response to the gender: “There’s a boy hitting a girl!” Or, sometimes, “There’s two girls fighting!” I never have a gender consciousness moment like, “There’s two boys fighting!” This learned response annoys me; my own mind is colonized; I know it, but how can I turn it off?

As for boys hitting girls in video games, I’m going to throw out an aggressive opinion and see how it ages: I’m all for it. To the extent there is violence in video games, I want it to be equal opportunity violence. I don’t want female exceptionalism. In the real world, boys hit girls all the time, despite the politesses of “boys shouldn’t hit girls”. Those politesses haven’t stopped gendered violence and I have a sneaking feeling that they contribute to it. Combining two different instruction sets (“girls are special; don’t hit them” with “but it’s okay to hit otherwise”) is surely just going to lead to confusion and anger and a well-founded sense of injustice among young people of the okay-to-hit variety. A stripped down rule set (“don’t hit”) seems much less confusing & much less likely to cause gender-based anger.

tech mandates and reproductive care

I never cease to be astonished by how smarmy politicans can be: today, leaders in the Smarm Community, the anti-choice people (‘pro-lifers’). The latest RU-486 story in the NYT, sensationalistically titled “2 More Women Die After Abortion Pills”, covers two recent RU-486 deaths (two, for a total of five; four of which were probably infection-related). Naturally the pro-lifers jumped on it, using the opportunity to pontificate piously and misleadingly. Here’s “Concerned Women of America” policy director Wendy Wright:

“Sadly, people who support RU-486 apparently believe the risk of death is preferable to having a child.”

Wright’s politicized sorrow obscures the facts, some of which are included in the NYT article. It turns out that these two deaths are from infection after RU-486 abortion, and, statistically, the deathrate from infections after childbirth and abortion remains consistent across procedures and methods. [The NYT article fails to mention anything in response to this misleading quote; I would have thought that the risk of death from ‘having a child’ would have been appropriate here. The risk of long-term health problems, considerably greater for childbirth than for any method of abortion, might also have improved the article. But ranting about the NYT is a task for another day. For many other days.]

Politicized Research

The statistics are unsurprising, but in the politicized world of abortion statistics you would have difficulty verifying the data, or trying to flesh out Ms. Wright’s statement. For instance, if you googled something like ‘childbirth abortion mortality rates’, you could see that Google has been successfully bombed by a flood of political sites on the topic (largely anti-abortion). You have to get to the second page of results before you actually start seeing any material from the medical community.

A search of PubMed proved much more helpful. The scientific literature largely treats abortion, pregnancy, and birth control as part of a continuum of family planning and reproductive outcomes — what I’ll call the reproductive medicine approach. This makes sense. Research that seems tailor-made to proving somebody’s point about abortion (from whatever perspective) is just inherently less trustworthy.

The reproductive medicine approach makes clear that when the government gets involved in restricting women’s reproductive choices there are clear medical consequences: Whatever the risks of specific procedures, techniques, and reproductive outcomes, what’s really risky is lack of access to family planning and contraception. Unplanned pregnancies are, ultimately, the cause of most pregnancy & childbirth-related mortality, by leading to high-risk pregnancy, or in many countries, illegal or quasi-legal abortion. In the US, for instance, restrictions on abortion delay many women’s access to the very safe first trimester abortion, perversely leading to more late-term abortions. But the message from those who would politicize and involve the government in individual medical decisionmaking, is never about healthcare or policy, probably because the healthcare policies they would propose would be unacceptable to most people. Instead, they focus on particular technologies, techniques, and procedures — effectively establishing technological mandates and prohibitions.

Technological Mandates Are Bad Government

It’s almost never a good idea for the government to establish technological mandates. Technological developments are notoriously difficult to second-guess or steer; tech mandates all too often exemplify the law of unintended consequences [Library of Economics, WikiPedia]. Whenever Congress or state legislators try to take aim at specific technologies, they end up effecting a lot of other changes, scattershot. And any technologically specific law is bound to be out of date very quickly.

We usually think of tech mandates & prohibitions in geeky areas, like copyright: the DMCA (thou shalt not tamper with copy protection measures, etc.); DAT (digital audio tape recorder manufacturers shall include copy protection schemes); broadcast flags (thou shalt include broadcast flag recognition technology in video recorders). But the same impulses are clearly at play in the politics around abortion and birth control. And as in copyright, politicians’ attempts to mark out this or that technology, technique or method as sinful and wrong is bad policy. The politicization of this or that reproductive medicine technique (most recently emergency contraception and intact dilation and extraction, or so-called ‘partial-birth abortion’) only hampers attempts to improve reproductive medicine and outcomes for women, infants, and their families.

Abortion is only the most obvious example. Legislators do nobody any favors when they start toying with technological mandates in any field.* Look at the recent Congressional hearings on stem-cell research. Saletan in Slate tried to put a good spin on it: These guys are working really hard & exploring the issues; isn’t that nice? Yeah, that’s nice from a personal growth standpoint, but the problem is these guys are making laws about very specific techniques, and they have no clue what they’re talking about, much less doing. They don’t understand biology, they don’t understand genetics, they don’t understand development.

But Congress members do understand policy-making, and one might argue that they understand ethics. Well, err, anyway, they understand policy-making. So if Congress members feel they must Take Action, then I have a suggestion for them: Do what you know — make policy. Set out broad principles of respect for life (which includes the lives and health of women as well as the lives of their potential children) and autonomy. Fund research into family planning methods that enhance autonomy and health. Make principled statements that are general about no wanton cruelty (or whatever) in harvesting stem cells. Skip the specific tech mandates.

Then Congress could let the NSF & NIH apply those guidelines when funding specific grants. That’s what regulators & grantors are good at: reviewing specific proposals to see if they fall within general guidelines. And Congress could let the courts interpret those terms in the course of litigation. That’s what courts are good at: reviewing the facts of particular cases, heartwrenching, difficult cases, and figuring out how to apply broad principles. And Congress could stop grandstanding and micromanaging cases (like Schiavo) and technologies (anything to do with biology, family planning, and copyright protection is by definition a Bad Idea for Congress to muck with — others no doubt will occur).

follow-up: 2005/7/25: The AP version of the story also pointed out that the women who got the infection and took the drugs may not have followed FDA-approved instructions.

The agency also said the four deaths occurred among women who were treated at clinics that didn’t follow FDA-approved instructions for the two- pill regimen. Although the FDA stressed that it could not prove that the “off- label” use was to blame, its new public health advisory warns doctors of the possible link to such use.

The fifth death followed a ruptured tubal pregnancy, a dangerous condition and type of pregnancy that the drug does not terminate.

Geez. Could the NYT article have been any less informative?


* For that matter, technological mandates & prohibitions really might be considered a subspecies of micromanaging generally. The Terri Schiavo fiasco demonstrates why legislators should stay out of individual cases, and far, far out of medical decisionmaking.

annoying me today

So far today I am thrice annoyed:

  • Multiple Double Standards: NY Sex Offenders Get Viagra [5/23] Jesus. Get over Viagra already. What is with the guys running the guvmint? “According to [NY State Comptroller Alan] Hevesi, the problem is an unintended consequence of a 1998 directive from federal officials telling states that Medicaid prescription programs must include Viagra.” Who are these mysterious unnamed federal officials? Could they be … men? And how did they feel about birth control? Last time I looked, the federal government & states like Missouri were trying to make it harder more difficult for women to get family planning, including birth control.

    Look, I support prisoners’ rights, and adequate medical care is a right. The problem isn’t prisoners, who will get tossed to the curb by any politician trying to prove they’re tough on crime. The problem is with the double standard that treats Viagra, a recreational drug designed for men, differently (and better) than sex toys or birth control, both of which most directly benefit women.

    Ought I also point out the role of Big Pharma, which still holds viable patents on Viagra & similar drugs, but which has generic competition for many birth control formulas?

    And finally, as long as we’re on the topc of “recreational drugs”, compare: “Since it was approved by the FDA in 1998, about 16 million men have tried Viagra, according to Pfizer.” (1) and “Over 83 million Americans over the age of 12 have tried marijuana at least once.” (2) … And health risks: 60-120 deaths directly related to ingestion of Viagra (3, 4) vs. 0 deaths directly related to ingestion of marijuana (5).

  • The Filibuster Compromise. Salon.com’s Tim Grieve says, patronizingly, that “if we’re confused” about who won, we should look to the wingnuts frothing over the compromise to assure ourselves that the Democrats won. Well, whoop-de-fucking-doo. The Democrats did indeed win exactly what they wanted to win: preservation of the judicial filibuster. How did they win this brave victory of exactly what polls show that most Americans want? By giving up whatever principles they claimed to have had that inspired the filibusters to begin with. This leaves us exactly nowhere, except with 3 more life appointments on the bench, and a new set of “but he said” whines for the next round.

  • Double Standards, Again: In Montgomery, a Catholic HS Girl who’s pregnant was refused permission to walk with her graduating class [St. Jude Educational Institute Class of 2005], although the boy who made her pregnant was allowed to participate. She walked on her own, anyway, but her mother and aunt were then “escorted out of the church by police”. The Red Hot Chili Peppers said it best: Catholic School Girls Rule. As for the school’s actions, it’s a Roman Catholic HS, a private entity, so I sort of don’t care, but then again, I sort of do, because the double standard pisses me off.

    Now, I have it on good authority that the school system in Montgomery sucks, so I understand what might drive parents to take their children out of the public system and pay to send them to a Catholic HS. A little reminder about just why there are so many private “religious” schools in Alabama: Desegregation and racism. Once public schools were forced to integrate, many racist white folk took their children out of public schools and into a horde of new private “religious” schools. With so many white folks sending their kids to private schools, funding for public schools has never gone anywhere — Alabama continues to use its sales tax to fund its public schools, leaving that poor benighted state with one of the highest sales taxes in the nation. (School funding is shared between state & city/counties, so local governments have incentive to keep sales taxes high — in Huntsville, AL, for instance, the sales tax is up to 10%, and no exceptions for food, you uppity poor people!) Even with a ridiculously high sales tax, the school system is still really crappy & under-funded (6, 7). So you can understand parents being willing to send their children to be indoctrinated in private schools, especially Catholic schools which were usually set up independently of desegregation. So I’m sorry for the family which did the best they could for their daughter, who was then treated like shit by the backwards-ass Catholic school.

    Oh, Alabama, I mock you but you make me sad.

name changes & blog comment-discussion threads

A couple of blogs [Matthew Yglesias, Volokh Conspiracy 1 and 2] have been running long comment-thread arguments about US women changing their names on marriage. Most comments fall into one of a few categories:

  1. Rationalizing / defensive about the decision w/in their marriage for the woman to change her last name to the man’s: “It wasn’t a big deal for her to change her name … She liked his name better … She didn’t really care about her name ” [Seen mostly on Volokh 1 and Yglesias]

    Wow. That so many literate folk could completely ignore the effect of socialization and sexist traditions is rather astonishing, but there you have it, the same old lines: “I got breast enlargements because they make me happier.” Almost none of these people up-front said, “It’s a silly and sexist tradition but I think there’s an independent value in following traditions anyway,” “I did it without much examination because it seemed like the thing to do, and you’re right, that was a result of sexist social pressure (but I don’t care / I regret it),” or any other response that would have indicated consciousness of themselves as individuals within a larger social framework. No, these were all free individuals, no social pressures here, move it along. Can there be individual situations and individual reasons for going with the convention? Sure, of course. But for so many people to claim the convention had nothing to do with their decision, and yet their decisions all followed the convention, is classic lack of political self-awareness.

  2. Rationalizing and silly. “We did it for the children; think of the children!” (Variants: Well, we couldn’t hyphenate; what would happen when our children wanted to marry some other hyphenated children?)[Seen mostly on Volokh 1]

    Think of the children? What? Numerous people asserted that children were better off if their parents had the same name as each other; or if the children had the same name as the parents. Where is this coming from? I’ll tell you: This kind of statement is just the most obvious recitation of a belief described as a reason. Not once did anyone even pretend to cite to some sociological data showing, I don’t know, family unity, family happiness, divorce rates, child identification with parents, or any other piece of admittedly subjective and silly data to support these arguments.

    I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt when I say that they can’t really think that children are better off objectively, because after all many of them seemed aware that there are numerous different naming traditions in different cultures and times. So they must just think that children are better off because other children in this culture have that experience. The same reasoning of course explains why some folks continue to have unnecessary genital surgery on male infants and why people used to stay locked together in unhappy marriages: “Little Johnny will be so unhappy if he’s the only one with divorced parents / uncircumsed penis / different name than his parent!” It’s a reason, but I have trouble respecting it.

    (As for hyphenating: What a silly argument. It almost pains me to have to point out that (1) Your patrilineally single-named children may marry some hyphenated-name child and have to deal with the issue anyway, and (2) Let them figure it out when they grow up. If they have a hyphenated name, they have more names & syllables to play with as they devise their own family name and figure out how to name their children.)

  3. Dismissive: “Does this matter any more? … Feminism has moved on … Name changes are irrelevant …” (plus sarcastic variants of this) [Seen on both Volokh blog entries and Yglesias]

    These people are socio-politically naive. Are non-legally-mandatory name changes for adult women on marriage the biggest issue that human rights people ought to be dealing with? No, it ranks well below female genital mutilation, reproductive rights, equal employment rights, etc. But the existence of a gender-based tradition that came from, co-exists with, and supports sexism is different from a hypothetical gender-based tradition that has nothing to do with sexism.

  4. Here’s our great compromise: She uses both our names! (mostly on Yglesias)

    I’m not sure whether the “She kept her name as her middle name” and “She kept her name as her first last name, i.e., Paula Jones Smith” fall into category 1 or 2. In the modern US-Anglo tradition, without hyphenation, only “Smith” is treated as the family name / surname. So this is some sort of compromise which tries to fit into both traditions. B for effort, I guess. Was she the only one or did he do it too? Do they really use both names? Might be interesting to know how that works out for people.

  5. Self-congratulatory: “She kept her name … We’re a great liberal couple.” (mostly on Yglesias)

    Right. And yet so many of these people, both in these blog comments and among folks I know, give their children the man’s last name. Apparently without much consideration.

    IMO, an adult woman choosing to take her adult male spouse’s last name in accordance with an admittedly sexist tradition is, you know, whatever. I wouldn’t do it, and I don’t like the outcome on a society-wide basis when some large percentage of women do it — but whatever. They’re grown women, with their own names, and they can change them if they want to.

    Frankly, I get much more annoyed by the continued patrilineal naming of children.

What didn’t I see? Nobody, not one person on any of the comment trails (when I saw them, although admittedly I scanned quickly because it was just such an annoying set of threads), brought up same-sex couples. Very few people brought up blended families. And non-marital families were brought up only, so far as I could see, in the context of sarcastic “Well why don’t you get rid of all the traditions and just not get married, Mr. Modern Feminist” type comments. And non-Anglo/US naming traditions were brought up only to demonstrate the point that other cultures have different naming traditions. Only one comment seemed to notice that there are non-Anglo naming traditions present here in the US today! All of these are groups of people dealing with the name issue and what it means to other folks right here in the US, and how to deal with a dominant naming tradition.

So little light, and not even much interesting heat. This just confirms my suspicion that blog comments are really not interesting ways to have a discussion. There’s no threading; there’s no individual responses to individual comments. Blog comments do seem interesting when someone adds information. Volokh’s original post was a query, and many of the responses came was answers; the whole entry + responses therefore acted as an informal survey, which was interesting use of comments. But the discussion value was poor, poor, poor. Yglesias’ blog discussion was no better. Pfah. Maybe it will improve as the technology improves.

Excellent question

“Why can’t I make my own decision?” A 13-year-old girl in Florida who has been making her own decisions about sex thinks she should also be able to make her own decisions about whether she ought to carry a pregnancy to term. The girl, in DCF custody, notes that “It would make no sense to have the baby. I don’t think I should have the baby because I’m 13, I’m in a shelter and I can’t get a job.” She also pointed out that young women are at higher risk from childbirth & pregnancy than abortion: “Since you guys are supposedly here for the best interest of me, then wouldn’t you all look at the fact that it’d be more dangerous for me to have the baby than to have an abortion?”

Why was this even in court? The girl is in DCF custody. The DCF, under the direction of the politically appointed DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi, has moved to seek a judge’s determination as to whether the abortion is permissible (or maybe to stop the abortion; it’s unclear from the different news articles I’ve read). This despite the fact that Florida has no parental consent law at the moment, and is one of the few states with the right to privacy enshrined in its state Constitution. Lucy Hadi ought to be ejected from office for illegally interfering with the young woman’s constitutional rights and endangering her health. (Hadi’s insistence on taking the girl to court set aside the work and decisions of adults who are on the ground with this case, such as the girl’s caseworker, who actually works with the girl and has intimate knowledge about her situation.) … J. Alvarez ruled in her favor today, saying that she would not be harmed by the procedure.

[See AP 5/3; palm beach post 4/30;
sun-sentinel 4/30; st. petersburg times editorial 4/29]

I can only conclude that this is yet another example of the craziness that is the Florida state & municipal government right now — inspired & led in large part by Jeb Bush. Let’s see: Schiavo; Florida’s ban on gay adoptive parents; the case from 2003 of Jeb Bush’s push to appoint a guardian for the fetus of a developmentally disabled woman who was pregnant as a result of rape. The Jeb Bush administration of Florida keeps pushing state interference with individuals’ and families’ private lives. This trend is not a good one.

I can’t help but note that it’s school officials in Florida who have been getting freaked out over, god forbid, Florida girls not wanting to adhere to gender-biased dress codes. Floridians, is this really what you want? If not, please get these wackos under control.

hear, hear

siva calls out the folks who keep on talking to men in the public interest tech community & ignoring the women who’ve laid the groundwork: SIVACRACY.NET: Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Weblog: Y (Chromosome) the Same Old Faces? [thanks to copyfight]

and an nyu student demonstrates to j. antonin scalia understand that the private sex practices of consenting adults ought to be, well, private. (at a Q&A at nyu, the student asked j. scalia about his position regarding Lawrence, and dissatisfied with his response, followed up with the question: “Do you sodomize your wife?”) [page 6 in the nypost and Eric Berndt, the student questioner, explaining why he did it] [thanks to copyfight AGAIN] i wonder if j. scalia got the point? or did he merely console & distract himself by feeling outraged that someone would be so rude & inappropriate? ‘you can disagree with someone’s politics, but that doesn’t give them the right to verbally assault you in public!’ does he think it would be more appropriate & less embarrassing if asked by a prosecutor or judge in a courtroom with the coercive threat of prison and/or punitive fines and/or registration on ‘sex offender’ databases behind the question? [rewritten 5/5]

5/5: oh yeah. and did i mention how curious i found the blog commentary on this incident? on so-called liberal / progressive blogs, commentary seemed largely critical. ‘He did our cause a great disservice; how dare he be so rude & uppity’ with only a small minority defending the kid. [See, e.g., daily kos 4/12] And on the right-wing blogs I read that day I saw more commentary & debate between people who thought it was rude & people who got the point about individual rights & privacy! [I will try to remember which blogs those were – maybe volokh conspiracy.]

florida high school yearbook insanity

This is at least the second such story out of Florida in the last couple of years. This year — 2005, not 1955 — high school principal Sam Ward at Fleming Island High School in Clay County, Florida, has decided that the high school yearbook will not publish the photo of a senior young woman who had her picture taken in a “tuxedo” top instead of a “drape” top.

The mind boggles at this guy’s stupidity. How is he 50 years behind? Why on earth are the students not rising up in protest? This kind of idiocy from adults, and apathy / “good soldier” behavior from students is why I will never, ever live in the South again.

men reading men

pet peeve: men reading men.

More precisely, based on highly scientific studies of (a) watching what people on public transit read; and (b) reading & listening to interviews with people about their reading habits, I conclude that men (in a general, statistical sense) love to read other male authors and rarely read women authors. Women, in my experience, read both. Sure, it may just be my observational prejudice, but i actually think its men’s gender-bias in selecting reading material, i.e., sexism.

to wit:

salon: What have you been reading recently?

JS: Well, a little [Michel] Houellebecq. Did you ever read that guy? I can’t spell his name. That French guy. He’s one of these fucking great maniacs. And, you know, the usual. David Foster Wallace. Bruce Wagner’s new book is great. There’s a lot of amazing writing out there right now.

salon: Which Wallace book?

JS: I love “Oblivion,” and one of my favorites is “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.” And “Infinite Jest” is one of those books you’re always three-quarters through till you keel over at 80, you know. It’s just genius, man. It’s like maybe if you wave it over your head some of it will rub off.

salon: I keep hearing people saying, “Oh, no, it’s not a time for novels anymore; this is a time for serious books and nonfiction.”

JS: Yeah, it’s like people announcing the death of irony. You know, there are people who make their livings by making declarations. But from where I’m sitting, just as a guy who reads, it seems like there’s a lot of great stuff out there. Sam Lipsyte has a great new book coming out. There’s a guy who couldn’t even get his book published in America, you know. Now Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing it, a book called “Homeland.”

— Salon.com Books Interview w/ Jerry Stahl
“All my heroes were dope fiends” [salon.com 12/6/2004]

Four for four.

Needless to say, such sexism could have a variety of interesting effects, some of which will amplify others:

  • male readers limit their exposure to female perspectives.
  • this becomes a self-reinforcing tendency if there are gender-affects in the writing beyond the subject matter — such as style, perspective, gender of narrative voice. if male writers are read 3 times more often, then the male affects become the standard, the norm, against which all writing is measured. it becomes difficult to evaluate quality when the work is different in ways that the reader has become accustomed to. so men go looking for “good writers”, and they naturally pick and like writers who hew more closely to writers they’ve previously recognized as “good writers.”
  • male reviewers who pick and choose among writers may choose to review male writers, thus either creating gender disparity among those writers reviewed, or gender segregation between writer/reviewer pairs.
  • glass ceiling effects. To the extent that women are glass-ceilinged out of prestige reviewing slots, prestige editorial slots, prestige publishing decision-making slots, then men’s bias towards men’s writing will result in gender bias in publishing and reviewing along a prestige axis.
  • awards which flow from publicity [don’t all awards ultimately flow from publicity?] will be skewed towards men. awards which have men on their awards committee would be statistically likely to demonstrate bias.

at this point i’ve almost worked myself up into a rant about a sexist self-important literary community talking to itself and a bunch of boys all talking about each other (“Oh, he’s a genius.” “No, he’s a genius among geniuses.”) … i almost feel inspired to do it … but i won’t, not right now, because i’m at work and have work-stuff to do, and the rant needs more thought than i have time to give it.

but i do think i’m going to make a new category of boys-reading-boys and pay especial attention to everything that proves my point. i will also attempt to ignore everything that disproves my point, of course.

… my real point is that i wish more self-defined non-sexist men would self-define as anti-sexist. in other words, while i’m being a bit flip here, i do think this particular form of sexism is a real, observable phenomenon. And i wish guys who would like it not to be real would (a) check themselves to see if they do it, and (b) engage in a little positive affirmative action with other guys, in the name of men fighting sexism

subsidiary points that are not really points but preventive self-defense:

  • yes, i know a lot of good, anti-sexist men who are already conscious of their own biases and fight them, and do indeed make sure that they are as open to reading female as male writers. but i also know a lot of men who think of themselves as non-sexist — or even as feminist — but ignore their own biases in action.
  • no, this is not to say anything bad about the writing of Wallace or Wagner or any of the other boyz who are so loudly proclaimed to be geniuses. they may well be geniuses. or not. but if male writers get read 75% of the time and female writers get read 25% of the time then genius male writers are more likely to turn up. [and of course they become the standard … so recognition of genius outside of what male writers are doing is trickier]