Force vs. Nonconsent: The Fight to Redefine Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault]

My piece at the Daily Dot today is about efforts to legally define sexual assault.

Like all laws, the legal definitions of crimes have changed throughout history in response to social, cultural, scientific, and political forces.Sexual assault especially is a crime that depends on social consensus for its definition. After all, while killing another person isn’t always considered “murder,” most of us at least agree on what it means to kill a person. Not so with sexual assault.

Feminist activists have been fighting for decades to expand and improve that definition, from including marital rape to deemphasizing vaginal penetration as a criterion. (Yes, people without vaginas can be raped.) They have also urged state legislatures to rewrite laws so that rape does not have to be “forceful” to count. After all, what matters isn’t whether or not force was used, but whether or not consent was given.

Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, however, wants definitions of rape to re-emphasize force. The reason, he claims, is that using consent (or lack thereof) as the basis upon which rape is defined leaves room for all sorts of ethical quandaries.

For instance, if someone falsifies their identity in some way to convince someone to have sex with them, then that person did not technically give informed consent, and could consider the act rape even though they appeared to fully consent to it. If we criminalize non-consensual sex, how could we not also criminalize sex under false pretenses?

Rubenfeld does include the caveat that the definition of force should be broadened. He says, “I’m in favor of an expanded force requirement, an understanding that sees force in threats, in drugging, in physical restraint (holding the victim down, locking the victim up), and so on.”

But even then, many (if not most) sexual assaults do not involve any of these things. Nor should they have to in order to be considered sexual assault.

Read the rest here.

~~~

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Promoting Mental Health in the Workplace

[Content note: mental illness, including eating disorders]

This post was requested by Kate [not FtB!Kate], who donated to my conference fundraiser. She wanted to hear my opinion on mental health in the workplace and how employees and employers can foster a culture that values and promotes mental health. She had some of her own suggestions, which I’ve incorporated into this piece with her permission.

Work is often a concern for people who suffer from mental illnesses. They might worry, for instance, that their struggles will impact their work performance, that coworkers or employers will find out that they have a diagnosis and stigmatize (or even fire) them, or that offhand comments at work could trigger eating disorder symptoms.

I wrote about this topic much more generally in this piece, which was about how to prioritize and promote mental health in one’s community. Workplaces are particular types of communities, so a lot of this still applies. At the same time, workplaces present particular challenges to promoting mental health, as well as particular capabilities that might help.

Note that I’m writing this as a person with a mental illness, as a person who works, and as a person who observes human behavior. I’m not writing this as someone who’s ever been a manager or a supervisor, so while I can speak to what I would like to see from managers and supervisors, I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be one. If you have that experience and you’d like to weigh in in the comments, feel free to do so.

For employers/managers/supervisors

1. Ensure that the assignments you give your employees and the culture you foster in the office encourage and allow employees to take good care of themselves.

Every workplace that expects people to skip lunch or sleep less than 7 hours a night is a workplace that is detrimental not only to physical health, but mental health as well. Sleep deprivation can dangerously exacerbate many mental illnesses, and having to skip meals can cause people with eating disorders to relapse. Obviously this is unavoidable with certain jobs or when a big important project is nearing completion, but it’s avoidable with most jobs most of the time.

(At the same time, recognize that this is a problem with American culture at large, and companies feel pressure to pressure their employees in this way because if they don’t, a competitor will, and it’ll reap the profits.)

2. Make sure that new employees understand the health coverage they’re receiving under the company’s benefits plan, especially as it pertains to mental health.

Explain in as little legalese as possible what the coverage includes and doesn’t include, and where they can go to find more detailed information or look up specialists in their area. In my experience, many people are worried that if they see a mental health professional using their employer-provided insurance plan, their employer will somehow have access to their medical records. Emphasize that it’s none of your business as an employer what your employees do with their health insurance and that providers cannot disclose such information to you without a patient’s consent. For extra points, give a short overview of HIPAA.

Going over this information not only improves the odds that employees are able to get the mental healthcare they need, but it shows that you’re comfortable discussing mental health with employees and that your company thinks it’s important.

3. If you choose to have health-related contests at the office, focus them on fitness goals or healthy eating, not weight loss.

Personally, though, I’d avoid these altogether because many people consider health a personal matter and feel pretty uncomfortable about having to discuss it publicly and competitively. Even if the contest is optional, keep in mind that people will feel a strong social pressure to join in. Who wants to be the only person in the office who doesn’t seem to care about staying in shape?

In any case, framing weight loss as an intrinsically healthy and positive goal is harmful and counterproductive. You can weigh little and be very unhealthy, and if you lose weight in an unhealthy way, you’ll probably gain it back anyway. A better way to structure a health contest is by encouraging participants to achieve goals that are proven to be healthy and doable.

4. Make sure employees understand the policies and processes about taking time off for medical reasons (and remember that mental health is a medical issue).

It’s especially important to find a way to emphasize that mental health is just as important as physical health, and little gestures make a big difference. For example, you could say something like, “If you know in advance you’re going to need time off, like for a physical or a therapy appointment, you can submit the form to me at at least a week’s notice.” That provides important information while also implicitly conveying the fact that you consider therapy to be a legitimate reason to leave work an hour early.

For employees

1. Consider your own mental health when choosing responsibilities to take on at work.

It’s understandable, especially in this economy, to try to impress your boss by offering to do as much as possible and overworking yourself. However, good mental health should be seen as an investment. If you take good care of it, you’ll ultimately be more productive than if you neglect it and burn out.

This applies to all those little volunteer opportunities that aren’t directly job-related, either. If you have social anxiety, it might be a bad idea to offer to organize a social outing for the office. If you have an eating disorder that makes it really stressful to choose food to buy, it might be a bad idea to offer to bring snacks for a meeting. You know yourself best.

2. If you feel safe and comfortable, let your boss know about mental health issues that may affect your performance and how you plan to deal with them.

The “if you feel safe and comfortable” is the key part. I’m absolutely not suggesting that everyone can and should come out about their mental illness to their boss, since I know that in many cases that’s a really bad idea. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.) But personally, I know people who did this and found it really helpful because they were able to work collaboratively with their boss to make sure that they can get the time off they need and that they can fulfill their responsibilities rather than having to keep it a secret and try to solve potential problems on their own. Disclosing also makes it possible to receive any accommodations you may need, which brings me to:

3. Educate yourself about laws related to mental illness and the workplace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is obviously a major one, but so is HIPAA, which I mentioned earlier. The definition of “disability” in the ADA is intentionally quite general, but mental illnesses are included: depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, and so on. Title I of the ADA concerns employment. There’s a lot of useful information in there; for instance, an employer cannot ask you in a job interview whether or not you’ve been treated for mental health problems, or which medications you’re taking. Keep in mind that the ADA only applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, however. Here’s another useful article about it.

For everyone

1. When someone asks you how you’re doing, be honest (within reason).

In the piece I linked to earlier, I wrote:

This is something I’ve been really making an effort to do. This doesn’t mean that every time someone asks me “What’s up?” I give them The Unabridged Chronicles of Miri’s Current Woes and Suffering. But I try not to just say “Good!” unless I mean it. Instead I’ll say, “I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, but things are looking up. How about you?” or “Pretty worried about my grad school loans, but hopefully I’ll figure it out.” The point isn’t so much that I desperately need to share these things with people; rather, I’m signaling that 1) I trust them with this information, and 2) they are welcome to open up to me, too. Ending on a positive note and/or by asking them how they are makes it clear that I’m not trying to dump all my problems on them, but I leave it up to them to decide whether or not to ask more questions and try to comfort me, or to just go ahead and tell me how they’re doing.

At work, there are obviously different standards than in other communities, or with friends and family. But even at work, there’s room for honesty and mutual support.

2. Be mindful of using language that relates to mental illness.

Casual usage of diagnostic terms (“That’s so OCD,” “You’re being delusional,” etc.) hurts people with mental illnesses by trivializing their conditions and turning them into the butt of a joke. It also makes it more difficult for people to disclose mental illnesses because it keeps people from taking them seriously. If “ADHD” is what you call it when you can’t focus on a boring project and someone tells you they have “ADHD,” you’re not going to think, “Oh, this person has a serious condition that makes it neurologically impossible for them to focus on a task unless they get treatment.” You’re going to think, “Oh, come on, they just need to close Facebook and get focused.”

3. Remember that talking about dieting and weight loss can be very triggering for people with past or current eating disorders.

Fat talk (as it’s called) is so ingrained in our culture and communication patterns that it’s hard to imagine that it could be such a serious issue for someone. But anecdotally, it seems that eating disorders in particular are very easily triggered by offhand remarks like “Ugh I need to work off this cupcake” or “My thighs are huge.” Even when not actually triggering, these comments encourage unhealthy behavior and create a social norm of dieting and preoccupation with weight loss.

I sometimes dread being around groups of women who are not my friends because more likely than not, I’m going to hear these comments. And it’s not like you can avoid your coworkers. So if you must do it, try not to do it to a captive audience.

4. Respect others’ privacy when it comes to mental health issues.

Just as you should never out an LGBT person without their permission, you shouldn’t discuss someone’s mental health with others at the office. Although I generally encourage people to be open about mental illness if they feel they can be, that has to be on their terms, not someone else’s. If you’re concerned that someone’s mental health problems are causing them to be unable to do their work, do the same thing you’d (probably) do anytime a coworker isn’t pulling their weight: talk to them about it in a kind and considerate way rather than going straight to the boss.

(An exception to this is if you’re worried that someone may harm themselves or someone else. In that case, please call 911. )

When it comes to structural issues like ableism and stigma, no community can be an island, unfortunately. There will not be stigma-free workplaces until there is a stigma-free society. But the more power you have in a workplace, the more influence yo have over its culture.

Thank you to Kate for her donation and for this prompt. 

~~~

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I Am Not Trayvon Martin

When Trayvon Martin was murdered last year, I remember seeing many people post things like “I am Trayvon Martin” online, sometimes accompanied by photos of themselves in hoodies. At first I thought it was something people of color were doing as a sign of solidarity and as a reminder that they, too, face the same prejudice and danger that Trayvon did, but then I noticed lots of white folks doing it. This sort of bothered me.

Now that the awful verdict has appeared, I’ve been seeing it again, but I’ve also been seeing plenty of thoughtful responses to it. For instance, this Tumblr, simply titled “We Are Not Trayvon Martin.”

The Tumblr is full of posts from people who submit their photos along with a note about why they are not Trayvon–that is, how they benefit from privilege. Here’s one:

I am a young white woman.  Last night, I attended a JusticeforTrayvon rally in East LA.  As I walked up the block toward the main square, I passed a line of (all white) cops.

“Are you going to the rally?” one asked.

“Yes,”  I replied.

“Behave yourself,” he said with a wink.

I gave a short laugh.  “I will”  (I really wanted to say, “You, too.”)

He gave me a big, friendly smile and pointed me toward the square.

I am not Trayvon Martin.

Another one:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a white, 30-year-old woman living with my husband and young son in the Midwest. We live two doors down from a black family that includes teenage sons. I have never met them, never introduced myself, never made an effort to show that I am happy we are neighbors, that they are safe in their neighborhood and respected by their neighbors. I do not fear them as black men; it’s more that I’m a shy person, afraid of the awkwardness of reaching out to anyone. But fear of any kind prevents community, breeds suspicion, and can lead to isolation and violence.

Will my white son wonder, one day, why we don’t know these neighbors? I repent of my fear; I promise to start being a true neighbor.

And another:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am an African American stay at home wife and mother of three sweet girls. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and though I am not Trayvon Martin. I know many Trayvons. As a former educator I witnessed a system that allowed some of our most brilliant children to fall through the proverbial cracks. As a college educated, lighter hued, African American woman who has always lived a comfortable middle class existence, I know my privilege. Though I have been racialized, and I know what it is like to be a woman in a society that attenuates women consistently, I will NEVER know what it is like to be a black man in Amerikkka. I do not know what it is to be viewed as a menace to society. I am not Trayvon Martin.

It’s not as palatable a message as the stream of “I am Trayvon Martin” posts and hoodie photos. But it rings much more true.

I understand the importance and the appeal of solidarity, so I can sympathize with the sentiments of these posts. But I feel that they are misguided. We (white folks) are not Trayvon. We will never in our lifetimes be Trayvon, except perhaps by some fluke (which then by definition is not the same, because what happened to Trayvon was not a fluke at all).

And even if that happens, our faces will be all over the media with teary reporters talking about what good students we were and how kind we were to our friends, families, and neighbors. They will talk about how we could’ve gone on to write a bestselling novel or start a business or develop a new vaccine, but our lives were tragically cut short by a Bad Person who will soon face the full force of justice.

Sometimes—often, really—it’s more useful to think about our differences than our similarities. This won’t play well to those who claim that “we are all human” and we must “overcome these artificial divides.” Yes, we are, and we must. But before we do so, we must consider the tremendous impact these divides, however artificial, have had on our lives and societies.

You can’t wish this shit away. The familiar refrain of We Are All Human and We Must Look Beyond Our Differences can’t undo Trayvon’s murder and his murderer’s acquittal, and it won’t make this tragedy stop repeating itself. In fact, I would even argue that the more we sing this refrain, the less likely the tragedies are to ever end, because this overplayed song always plays much louder than the uncomfortable but truer songs: the ones about how everyone “sees race,” cops and judges and jurors included, and how the Supreme Court has institutionalized racism into our criminal justice system and on and on.

Before we can do what it takes to make sure that there will never be any more Trayvons ever again, we have to stop singing this song.

We are not Trayvon because we’ve created a world in which some people are Trayvon and some are not. Wishing really really hard that we hadn’t done so will not undo it.

~~~

If you only read one (other) thing about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdict, make sure it’s this.

“I regret my abortion.”

[Content note: abortion, partner abuse]

The use of “I regret my abortion” as an argument against legalized abortion is nothing new, but I’ve been seeing it a lot lately in pro-life protests, such as this one at the Texas Capitol. (Yes, that is a man you see there with the sign.)

There are many things that are infuriating about this tactic, such as its implication that your own emotions can be used to legislate everyone else’s reproductive rights and its blatant appeal to emotion rather than reason (“But I regret my abortion! Look how sad I am! Wouldn’t you want to keep others from being so sad?”).

An argument like this also makes it really easy for pro-choicers to look like insensitive assholes, because our position is, simplistically, that your feelings about your own abortion don’t really matter in this debate. They don’t.

Of course, I care about people’s emotions. If having an abortion is going to be something you regret deeply for the rest of your life, I agree that you, personally, should not have an abortion. If you have already had an abortion and you regret it as painfully as these protesters do, then I think you should see a counselor who can help you.

But I don’t think your regret has any relevance whatsoever in public policy, and I think the argument from regret is completely baseless. Here’s why.

1. Humans do plenty of utterly regrettable things that we nevertheless don’t legislate.

This is, of course, the really obvious point. People regret plenty of their sexual experiences, but we don’t make those illegal (well…some try). People put dumb things on the internet that they shouldn’t and that follow them around forever, but it’s not illegal to put dumb things that follow you around forever on the internet. I’m no Libertarian, but I do essentially believe that people should be free (within reason) to make this own dumb shitty choices and learn from them on their own.

There are plenty of regrettable things that we legally regulate, but not because people feel bad about them later–because they have negative consequences that extend beyond an individual person’s regret (see below).

There are also regulations that prevent businesses from keeping people from amending their poor decisions after the fact, but that’s also not the same thing.

2. In fact, conservatives make fun of liberals for this shit.

Well, for what they perceive to be this shit. Conservatives and Libertarians are always attacking things like soda bans and cigarette taxes by claiming that the Nanny State is trying to save us from ourselves. Of course, the rationale for policies like these isn’t “Yeah but but you’ll regret it later!!”; it’s the fact that soda and cigarettes and trans fats have tremendous public health consequences. I don’t know how I feel about these policies yet, but the point is that the pro-lifers are doing the exact same thing they perceive liberals to be doing (whether or not that is actually what liberals are doing).

3. The majority of women who have abortions do not regret them.

A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported this:

Two years postabortion, 301 (72%) of 418 women were satisfied with their decision; 306 (69%) of 441 said they would have the abortion again; 315 (72%) of 440 reported more benefit than harm from their abortion; and 308 (80%) of 386 were not depressed.

The researchers noted, “Most women do not experience psychological problems or regret their abortion 2 years postabortion, but some do. Those who do tend to be women with a prior history of depression.”

On the contrary, people who get abortions tend to report feeling happy or relieved. If pro-lifers could only develop some theory of mind and imagine how another person might feel, they would realize that ending a pregnancy that you didn’t want, that has health risks for you, or that is going to produce a child that you don’t have the resources of willingness to raise would be a relief.

Of course, the fact that most people who get abortions don’t regret them doesn’t mean that nobody does. (Indeed, that’s…how the word “most” works.) At that point, you get into the dicey question of what exactly the proportion of abortion patients who later regret it must be to justify banning abortion. Clearly it doesn’t need to be a majority by their reasoning. Or I’m being overly charitable and they don’t realize that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”

4. When people do regret abortions, what actually causes that regret?

I don’t have data on this so I’m just speculating, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the stigma of abortion and of accidental pregnancy and of being a woman who does not want children (right now or ever) plays a role. The actual cost of abortion probably plays a role, too.

It could also be that you really want the baby, but realize that you’re not in a good place to raise a child right now. Someone in this situation could certainly regret their abortion a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong decision.

Tragically, people are sometimes pressured or coerced into getting abortions. This is more of an issue in places like China than it is in the United States, but it happens. I personally know of a few cases like this.

Forcing a partner to get an abortion is abuse. The problem here is not with the abortion itself; it’s with the fact that someone’s partner is abusing them. Abuse can, of course, go in many directions. Sometimes people’s partners prevent them from using birth control and thus force them to get pregnant; likewise, the problem here isn’t with pregnancy itself, but with the abuse that caused it.

Pro-lifers are aware of coerced abortions and use them as a pro-life argument. For instance, abortion restrictions often require having the patient sign a waiver stating that they were not coerced into getting the abortion. While this seems like a positive step to help ensure that abuse isn’t playing a part, it’s important to remember that the point of these laws is to restrict access to abortion and reduce the number of abortions, not to protect victims of abuse.

The fact that some people regret abortions and that some people are coerced into getting abortions is not an argument against abortion; it’s an argument against the factors that contribute to that regret, such as stigma, financial consequences, and abuse.

Here’s the thing. For some people, getting an abortion is a difficult, painful decision that will lead to regret and doubt no matter what they choose. It’s a big decision! Sometimes people get pregnant accidentally and find themselves sort of wanting to have the baby but they just can’t support a child and they need to finish school and there’s just no way.

But for other people–possibly the majority of people, it seems–an abortion is just a medical procedure like any other. It’s unpleasant and unavoidable and they’re just glad to get it over with, but it’s necessary, just like the vast majority of medical procedures you’re going to have in your life.

You can’t use the emotions of a minority of people to legislate the rights of everyone else, no matter how legitimate, strong, and real those emotions are.

On “Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs” and Being a Counselor

Via JT, here’s a new bill that recently passed in the Tennessee State Senate Education Committee by a 7-2 vote:

Republican state Sen. Joey Hensley encouraged fellow senators to pass SB 514 to “prevent an institution of high education from discriminating against a student in the counseling, social worker, psychology programs because of their religious beliefs.”

Hensley’s bill would protect any student who “refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.”

Here’s another relevant quote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

I don’t have to cite this one, right?

Forcing public universities to allow their graduate students to use their religion to avoid doing what they’re supposed to do is absolutely “respecting an establishment of religion.” And, contrary to the apparent opinions of the seven senators who voted yes, allowing public universities to require their graduate students to do what they’re supposed to do does not constitute “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion unless you view your counseling work as a form of religious worship. Hopefully, nobody does.

All of this relates to the larger problem of people believing that the First Amendment gives them the right to do a crappy job at work without being fired. When you’re choosing a career path, you should consider, among other things, whether or not you are willing to do the things that your chosen job requires. For instance, I started out college planning to be a journalist, but I realized that pestering people (especially survivors of traumatic newsworthy events) for interviews went against my personal ethical code. Rather than expecting the profession of journalism to adjust itself to my ethical code, I found a different field.

If you are unwilling to help people simply because of who they love, don’t become a counselor.

If you are unwilling to drive a bus simply because it has an ad about atheism, don’t become a bus driver.

If you are unwilling to give someone their prescribed medication simply because it will prevent them from getting pregnant, don’t become a pharmacist.

If you are unwilling to perform an elective surgery on someone simply because it will change their assigned sex, don’t become a plastic surgeon.

If you are unwilling to teach actual science simply because it includes evolution, don’t become a science teacher.

When I was applying to my social work program, I read through the list of requirements for acceptance. I needed a B.A. from an accredited college/university, at least 60 credits in the liberal arts, a decent GPA, and so on. There was also a list of attributes that social work students should have: empathy, interpersonal skills, and a bunch of others. On the list was also this:

The social work student must appreciate the value of human diversity. He/she must serve in an appropriate manner all persons in need of assistance, regardless of the person’s age, class, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), gender, ability, sexual orientation and value system.

There you have it. It’s a requirement. If I’m unwilling to do it, I shouldn’t go into the field.

Of course, with counseling things can get a bit tricky. If a counselor realizes that their personal bias may prevent them from working appropriately with a given client, it is their responsibility to refer the client to another counselor. Not to just say, “Sorry, can’t help you,” but to try to ensure that they get the help they need somewhere else.

Furthermore, counselors should not attempt to practice outside of their expertise, so if a client shows up with problems that you have no idea how to work with, you should also refer them to someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should refer out every LGBT client who comes your way, of course, but if they’re struggling with issues like coming out, dealing with homophobia, or trying to have children, and you have no experience counseling LGBT individuals facing such issues, this is probably not the client for you and you are probably not the counselor for this client.

But there’s a fine line between being unable and being unwilling to do something. There’s a difference between lacking the training or experience you’d need to work with someone and simply not wanting to work with them because you disapprove of their “lifestyle.” There are plenty of “lifestyles” of which I suppose I “disapprove,” but all that really means is that I wouldn’t want to do the same thing and don’t necessarily understand why someone would. That doesn’t mean I can’t still affirm that person as a human being worthy of sympathy and help.

I don’t know how it is everywhere else, but in the programs I’ve looked at, graduate psychology students who are interning tend to work with clients on a sliding scale, which means that these interns are often the only type of counselor that some people can afford. The silver lining of a bill like this is that these clients, who may already be disadvantaged, will be spared from homophobic counselors.

However, the bill’s language does not suggest that it was written to protect LGBT clients, but rather homophobic counselors. And crucially, the bill contradicted advice from psychologists, social workers, and those who oversee graduate psychology programs. They noted that programs could lose accreditation, that part of the job of a counselor is to put their “sincerely held religious beliefs” aside when they do their work. But no, the Religious Right won out again.

Quotes from some Tennessee senators are very telling:

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, couldn’t understand why psychology departments aren’t teaching their students how to pray away the gay with homosexual clients.

“So if someone were to, say, come in and—I’m just going to throw an example out there—say they were a homosexual and a person did not believe that was a natural act and they suggested, say, change therapy?” Campfield asked. “Would that be something you could allow a student to do?”

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said, “I would think that you should be up front and truthful and tell them if they are doing wrong and try to counsel them to do what’s right. That really disturbs me.”

I have sympathy for people whose sincerely held beliefs, religious or otherwise, make it difficult for them to do what they need to do. As I said, I’ve been in that boat. And a certain amount of accommodations for religious people at work and school is, I believe, reasonable. It’s not a huge deal for professors and employers to allow people to occasionally miss a day for a religious holiday or to wear religious garments. It is a big deal for them to exempt students and employees from a crucial part of their training or job.

Allowing people to freely observe their religion does not necessitate bending over backwards to allow them to keep doing jobs with which their religion clashes. Sometimes you just gotta get another job.

Besides, such counselors are free to go practice at any of the many religiously-affiliated counseling centers that exist in this country, which is a topic for another post.

Abortion and Suicide: A Spurious Link

In South Dakota, it is now legal to require doctors to tell women seeking abortions that they are putting themselves at risk for suicide.

This move is brilliant from a PR standpoint. Unlike banning certain types of abortions entirely or, say, forcing women to undergo invasive screenings that are medically unnecessary, this seems completely apolitical when you first look at it. Don’t people deserve to be informed if they may be increasing their risk for suicide? Don’t we all agree that suicide is a Bad Thing?

However, something tells me that this is actually another attempt to scare women out of (what should be) a normal, socially acceptable medical procedure.

First of all, the inconvenient truth here is that credible research consistently shows little or no link between abortion and poor mental health. One 2008 study reviewed the literature and found that the only studies that seemed to show such a link had very flawed methodology, whereas the studies that were well-designed showed no links. (Damn liberal academics!) And here’s another study that showed no such links. And here’s a thorough debunking of a study that did claim such links:

Most egregiously, the study, by Priscilla Coleman and colleagues, did not distinguish between mental health outcomes that occurred before abortions and those that occurred afterward, but still claimed to show a causal link between abortion and mental disorders.

In other words, that study actually tried to use mental health pre-abortion to confirm a hypothesis about mental health post-abortion. This is simply not how you do science. And it’s especially bad here, because according to the American Psychological Association, guess what the best predictor of mental health post-abortion is?

Across studies, prior mental health emerged as the strongest predictor of postabortion mental health. Many of these same factors also predict negative psychological reactions to other types of stressful life events, including childbirth, and, hence, are not uniquely predictive of psychological responses following abortion.

That’s right. Shockingly enough, the best predictor of mental health is, well, past mental health. And poor mental health predicts poor response to all sorts of stressful events, of which abortion is only one example. Another one being, for instance, childbirth!

Compounding the bad science here is that, unlike physical side effects,suicide isn’t something that just happens to you suddenly and without warning. People don’t just suddenly wake up one morning and decide to kill themselves. Suicidality is a complex process that involves factors like genetics, family history, environment, social support, mental illness, and life circumstances. For instance, here are some things that, according to research, actually increase one’s statistical risk for suicide:

As you can probably surmise, not all of these correlations are also causations. While mental illness and drug addiction can actually cause suicidal behavior, being intelligent and being LGBT probably cannot. In the latter case, the causative culprit seems to be (surprise surprise) institutionalized discrimination and homophobia. Before I get too off-topic, let me point out the irony in the fact that, despite this well-known risk faced by LGBT youth, I don’t see any of these pro-lifers advocating for an end to homophobia.

That’s why something tells me that nothing about this court ruling actually has anything to do with suicide prevention.

Although the court’s ruling does at least acknowledge that abortion probably doesn’t cause suicide, it nevertheless states that “conclusive proof of causation is not required in order for the identification of a medical risk.” This is probably true, but it only makes sense from a physical health standpoint. If studies show that people who get a certain elective medical procedure are much more likely to, say, experience headaches or nausea or numbness, you don’t necessarily need a causative study to conclude that there’s a reasonable chance that these symptoms were caused by the procedure (assuming, of course, that there was no illness present that might be causing them). Furthermore, there’s a difference between saying “This procedure may cause you to experience cramps and headaches” and saying “This procedure may cause you to kill yourself.”

The truth is, mental health doesn’t work that way. A person who gets an abortion might experience mental side effects because of the stress of having gotten pregnant accidentally and been forced to decide what to do, perhaps without the support of a partner or family. Furthermore, any invasive medical procedure can be stressful and worrying for many people–especially one like abortion, which is consistently portrayed as more painful and dangerous than it really is.

And this is all made even more complicated by the fact that the faulty studies in question were actually studying mental health before the abortion. Perhaps a person with poor mental health is more likely to seek an abortion in the first place–say, if they feel that they aren’t mentally capable of raising a child at the moment.

Ultimately, decisions about what to tell a patient should be left up to the people who know most: doctors (with, of course, a reasonable amount of regulation to prevent malpractice). If a doctor can tell that a person seeking an abortion is going through a lot of mental distress, then that doctor may want to gently recommend counseling and perhaps give out some hotline numbers–and training doctors to recognize signs of mental health troubles is always a good thing.

But doctors should not be mandated to fearmonger to their patients. They should especially not be mandated to serve a pro-life agenda.

Surprise! Elle Magazine Editor Doesn't Really Care About Eating Disorders

Nope, no Photoshopping. Nothing to see here, move along now.

Confession: sometimes I read women’s magazines. They’re fun to make critique and laugh at.

This time, though, I didn’t even get past the magazine’s front matter before finding something objectionable. In her opening letter for Elle magazine’s August issue, Editor-in-Chief Roberta Myers discusses the recent legislation in the U.K. that would require digitally altered photographs of models to be labeled as such. You can practically feel the derision and dismissal dripping off the page:

So now the National Academy of Sciences is getting into the act, trying to define what ‘impossibly beautiful’ means. In response to legislation pending in the UK to require digitally altered photos to be labeled out of concern for public health, as well as the American Medical Association’s campaign against changing pictures ‘in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image,’ two Dartmouth computer scientists proposed a ‘metric’ at a recent NAS meeting designed to rate how much retouched photos have ‘strayed from reality.’ The authors noted that ‘highly idealized’ images have been associated with eating disorders, such as anorexia.

Scare quotes aside, I have the feeling that Myers knows exactly what “impossibly beautiful” means, even if the idea of defining it operationally seems a bit silly. I do think that regulatory measures like these should be approached with a certain degree of healthy skepticism, because government regulation should not be undertaken lightly and without good evidence. But Myers isn’t critiquing it skeptically. She’s sticking her head in the sand and denying that a problem exists.

Furthermore, the regulations don’t even propose to ban severely Photoshopped images, but merely to place labels on them. Is putting an extra little bit of text on the bottom of an image really such a burden for Myers? I think not. Note that some countries are going even further–Israel, for instance, banned the use of underweight models in advertising entirely.

Myers continues:

Yet according to David Scott Rosen, MD…eating disorders are as old as the Bible. They cropped up in popular literature 200 years ago–long before Photoshop but right around the time when John Singer Sargent painted his famous Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), a most flattering oil-on-canvas portrait that left out many a “flaw.”

I couldn’t find a citation for this, but it’s probably true. However, nobody’s claiming that eating disorders exist solely because of unrealistic beauty standards in the media. It’s not like a perfectly healthy young woman (or man, but that’s a slightly different conversation) opens up Elle magazine, sees a picture of a thin model, and immediately starts starving herself. Eating disorders arise from a complicated interaction of genetics, family life, and the surrounding culture. They involve complex cognitive processes, such as the ones described in this study. As another example, research shows that people determine attractiveness based on what they have seen the most. So if you’ve been looking at images of impossibly thin women for your entire life, that may be what you’re going to find attractive–and that’s what you may aspire to be.

We can’t prevent genes that predispose one to eating disorders from being passed down, and we can’t make it illegal for parents to teach their daughters that their appearance is the most important thing and that one should use unhealthy means to maintain it (though, with more education, we might be able to prevent that). We can, however, place restrictions on the images that permeate our media.

Furthermore, Myers conveniently ignores the fact that eating disorders have been growing more and more prevalent over the past century, especially among young women. Studies have also shown possible links between media that promotes thinness and eating disorders. It is impossible to establish a causative link with certainty, but that’s because 1) nothing is ever certain in science, and 2) we live within a culture that promotes and glorifies thinness. You can’t really evaluate phenomena like this accurately when you exist within the system that you’re trying to evaluate.

But luckily, studies done with non-Western cultures are very revealing. One extremely compelling study showed that girls in Fiji, who previously had little exposure to Western media, became much more likely to show signs of disordered eating after watching Western television shows for the first time.

Several Google searches brought up countless studies like these. Myers seems to consider them irrelevant here. She continues:

My point is that trying to define “impossible beauty,” and then regulate its dissemination by putting warning labels on retouched images, seems rather preposterous. You know, my chocolate bar never looks quite as creamy as it does in the ads; cars are never quite that sexy and sleek; and the milk in my cereal bowl never looks quite that white. Oh, wait! It’s not milk at all! It’s some gelatinous concoction meant to look like milk while it stays sturdy under hours of hot lights. Shall we label those photos, too?

This passage is as laughable as it is offensive. First of all, cool slippery slope fallacy, bro. Second, while one may argue over the sleekness of a car or the whiteness of a bowl of milk, it is completely unmistakable when magazines alter photos of models such that they appear to thin to actually be alive.

Third, and most importantly, the comparisons Myers makes are flippant to the point of inanity. The worst thing that can happen in her examples is that one’s chocolate bar isn’t creamy enough. The worst thing that can happen when magazines use Photoshop to excess is that, you know, someone develops anorexia and dies.

As I mentioned, the link between digitally altered images and eating disorders probably isn’t simple. But research is increasingly showing that it is there. It is worth noting that Myers never makes any comments about her own magazine’s use of Photoshop, which tells me that she’s fully aware of what she’s doing and is just willfully playing dumb. She knows. And she’s threatened by it, because things are starting to change.

But she’s not done. She goes on to cite an article in this month’s issue:

I wonder what the National Academy would have to say about the photograph we ran in this issue of novelist and essayist Ann Bauer, who writes so eloquently about growing up “ugly”–bearing a steady stream of abuse about her looks from classmates, strangers, and even lovers.

This bit confirms for me what I already suspected–that magazines like Elle print articles like this solely from the purpose of distracting people from the role they play in upholding our society’s beauty standards. These magazines can trot these articles out as examples of their commitment to portraying “women of all shapes and sizes,” when, in fact, they use these women as tokens.

The article in question is indeed a beautiful article. But what’s ironic is that Myers doesn’t even realize how magazines like her own have contributed to the bullying and abuse that women like Bauer face. Of course, people have always valued beauty and mistreated those who are deemed “ugly.” But lately, the box into which women must fit in order to be considered beautiful has been shrinking, whereas the “ugly” box has been growing. Magazines like Elle may not be the only (or even the main) causes of this trend, but it would be naive not to implicate them in it.

Furthermore, that photo of Bauer that Myers is so proud to have featured? It takes up one corner of a page and measures about two by three inches. Compare this to the dozens of full-page Photoshopped models in the magazine.

The most telling (and touching) part of Bauer’s piece, to me, is the end, in which she describes visiting Hungary with her husband and going to the opera in Budapest:

I turned and found myself looking into a full-length mirror. And I saw something I’d never seen before: myself, in a sea of women who looked just like me.

[...]Everywhere I looked in that lighted glass, there were women with large features, deep-set eyes, rounded cheeks, riotous hair, and delicate-yet-meaty little bodies. We were, in other words, an army of ugly people.

Only, for the first time in my memory, we weren’t. I wasn’t. I was normal, even conventionally attractive. Stylish. Interesting. Sexy. Simply that.

I stood in front of that mirror in the Hungarian State Opera House, watching couples mill. Men holding the arms and hands of dozens of women who could’ve been my sisters, mother, and daughters, tipping their heads back, kissing them lightly, gazing with naked admiration at faces like mine.

Bauer shows, ultimately, that she is not ugly. It is American culture that makes her out to be so. In Hungary, women who look like her are not bullied. They are not sent anonymous emails about how ugly they are. They are not denied jobs or pressured to lose weight and get plastic surgery.

This makes Myers’ stubborn refusal to examine the potential effects of her magazine even more ironic (and upsetting). Magazine editors seem to feel that they are being solely blamed for the devastating experiences of many women (and, increasingly, men), but no informed researcher or critic would say that magazines directly cause eating disorders. We have to examine this phenomenon as a system of interacting elements–the mass media, politics, families, and individual brains and bodies–in order to begin to understand how to prevent unhealthy beauty standards, poor body image, and eating disorders.

We can’t start without making sure that everyone knows that the images they see around them every day of their lives are not realistic. They’re not something to aspire to, because they cannot be obtained–except perhaps at a very high cost.

The editorial this photo belongs to is totally unironically called “The Surreal World.” Photo credit: Elle August 2012

"Vagina" is Not a Four-letter Word

You would be forgiven for assuming that our elected politicians are mature adults who can handle using words that designate genitalia. You would especially be forgiven for assuming that given that many of these politicians are very eager to legislate what can and cannot be done with genitalia.

However, you’d be wrong.

This is old news now for anyone who follows these things, but in case you don’t, here’s a recap. On June 14, the Michigan House of Representatives was debating a new bill that would severely limit a woman’s ability to get an abortion by placing new restrictions on abortion providers. The bill passed the House and will go to the Senate most likely in September. (They were also debating a separate bill, which did not pass, that would’ve restricted all abortions after 20 weeks, with no exception for rape or incest).

In response to this, Representative Lisa Brown (three guesses which party) gave a speech in opposition and said, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.'” You can see her speech in its entirety here.

The shock! The horror! Brown was quickly forbidden from speaking on the House floor by Republican leadership of the House. A spokesman for Republican Speaker of the House Jase Bolger said, “House Republicans often go beyond simply allowing debate by welcoming open and passionate discussion of the issues before this chamber…The only way we can continue doing so, however, is to ensure that the proper level of maturity and civility are maintained on the House floor.”

To that end, Republican Representative Mike Callton said that Brown’s remark “was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

What Bolger, Callton, and the rest of these concern trolls apparently do not realize is that language is malleable and entirely based on context. In general, words might be inappropriate to say for three different reasons:

  1. They are derogatory and hurtful slurs (i.e. the n-word, fag, retard)
  2. They have been designated as “profane” by our society (i.e. fuck, piss, shit, cunt)
  3. They refer to things or functions that are generally considered inappropriate for polite conversation (i.e. penis, vagina, feces)
These three categories of Bad Words operate in different ways. The first category is inappropriate to say basically always, unless, in some cases, you belong to the group targeted by the slur, or you are using the word in a conversation about the word (but even that is controversial).

The second category are words that are usually used to make a statement. They are much more frequently okay to use than the words in the first category. That’s why when people curse, they use these words. That’s why many writers, such as myself, use them for effect. They’re generally okay to say around your friends, but many people avoid using them in front of people they don’t know well.

The third category comprises words for things that we usually avoid discussing in polite company without a good reason. You wouldn’t exclaim, “That looks like a penis!” in front of your grandma, and you wouldn’t say, “My vagina feels funny” in front of your boss (I mean…unless you have a very open-minded boss/grandma). It’s not the words themselves that are “bad,” it’s the fact that you usually shouldn’t talk about the things those words refer to if you want to be polite.

But all of this falls apart when the context demands discussion of such topics. If you’re at a doctor’s appointment and the doctor needs to tell you something about your penis or vagina, it would be laughable for him or her to avoid using those words. If you’re negotiating sex with a partner, you shouldn’t have to worry that he or she will be offended if you use those words. And if you’re attempting to legislate what women can and cannot do with their private parts, you’re going to have to face the fact that those parts have names.

The most ironic thing here, though, is Callton’s remark about the word “vagina”: “I don’t even want to say it in front of women.” First of all, that’s patriarchal as hell; women can handle naughty words just as well as men can. Second, it’s not just a naughty word; it’s a word for a thing that (most) women experience on a constant basis.

Some conservatives have apparently made a slightly more legitimate criticism of Brown in that she connects restricting abortion with rape (via her “no means no” allusion). I say “slightly more legitimate” only because, having once been a pro-lifer, I understand how they would take offense.

After all, pro-life politicians do not wake up in the morning thinking, “Yo, I’m gonna take away some rights from women and tell them what to do with their own vaginas today.” They think, “Abortion is murder and I have a duty to stop it just like I would stop the murder of a child or adult.” To them, drawing any parallels whatsoever between restricting abortion and committing sexual assault would naturally seem preposterous. It is only those of us who couch the debate in the language of personal liberty who see the similarities.

That’s why this whole incident really highlighted for me the divisions between liberals and conservatives on the matter of reproductive rights. It’s not even just that they can’t agree on whether or not abortion should be legal; it’s that they can’t agree on what abortion is, and on the terms with which the debate should be framed. Liberals say abortion is a woman’s right over her own body; conservatives say it’s the murder of an unborn human being. How can we ever reach a consensus if we define our terms differently?

I don’t know how to solve this problem–and if I did I would probably be the savior of American politics–but at least this story has a partially-happy ending. Brown and several of her colleagues performed the play The Vagina Monologues with its playwright Eve Ensler on the steps of the statehouse last Monday night as a tribute to our right to speak the names of our own body parts. About 2,500 spectators came to watch.

But as for the bill that the House passed, that’ll go on to marinade in the state Senate, which currently has 26 Republicans and 12 Democrats. I’m not getting my hopes up.

How Not to Argue Against Abortion

Our campus magazine, North by Northwestern, recently did a cool feature called “Dormroom Debate” in which it pitted a conservative and a liberal against each other to discuss the recent Arizona abortion laws.

I think that it’s great to expose yourself to dissenting viewpoints, not just for the sake of understanding and kumbaya (though that too) but so that you can learn how to better counter them.

However, just from glancing over the article, you’ll see a problem–both of the writers are men.

Now, as a disclaimer, I don’t see anything wrong with men discussing issues like abortion and contraception. I don’t think that having a penis and/or lacking a vagina makes you unqualified to even talk about these things. I do think, however, that it’s more difficult to have a well-informed opinion on these things if you’re a man. Why?  Because it means you have to take extra efforts to learn about things that women already know by default, such as how hormonal birth control actually works.

What I do think is downright wrong is the fact that women are continually being left out of conversations about their own bodies. It happens in congressional hearings, and it’s happening–albeit to a much less drastic and harmful degree–in our own campus magazine.

I’ll grant that this particular “panel” only involved two student writers, so it’s almost certain that women were left out of it entirely by accident. However, considering that Northwestern has slightly more women than men, and the school of journalism is even more skewed towards women, I find it very unlikely that the editors of NBN could not have produced at least one woman to participate in this debate.

What bothers me much more than the fact that NBN chose two men to discuss what women should and should not be able to do with their bodies, however, was the content of the conservative writer’s piece. Now, obviously, I knew from the get-go that I was going to disagree. However, I expected an entirely different line of argument.

For instance, as a conservative, you can make the argument that abortion laws should be left up to the states. You can make the argument that these laws make restrictions on abortion without actually taking away the right to get one. You can make the argument that these restrictions are necessary because they actually make abortion safer. You can even make the argument that abortion is morally wrong because you believe that life begins at conception.

You can make all those arguments, and I’d disagree with all of them, but they would at least be legitimate, logical arguments. Up until the end, the arguments that the conservative writer was making were mostly these. But then:

Opponents of this law do not really prioritize women’s health and their right to choose. Instead of wanting women to make smart decisions for themselves, they become “pro-abortion.” Their ultimate goal is the slaughter of innocent babies, so women can maintain their more comfortable lifestyles rather than live with the results of their choices — both the trials and the blessings.

Reread this: “Their ultimate goal is the slaughter of innocent babies.”

I’m going to go line by line now:

“Opponents of this law do not really prioritize women’s health and their right to choose.”

There is absolutely no evidence for this claim. None whatsoever.

“Instead of wanting women to make smart decisions for themselves, they become ‘pro-abortion.'”

Classic strawman fallacy. If indeed there are any pro-choice advocates who think that abortion is a “good” thing, or even that it is a decision to be made lightly, they can only be a tiny minority. In fact, the liberal writer in this piece explicitly states, “I believe every abortion is a tragedy.” Why not take him at his word?

“Their ultimate goal is the slaughter of innocent babies…”

Do I even need to say anything about this?

Just in case, I will anyway. Because there is no scientific or legal consensus regarding when life begins, individuals are free to define it for themselves as they choose. Those who believe life begins at conception probably would not choose to get an abortion. But those who believe that life begins at birth (or at the third trimester) do not believe that abortion is murder. Therefore, accusing them of promoting “the slaughter of innocent babies” is unfair. In other words, because there is considerable ambiguity in the definition of life’s beginning, it’s quite intellectually disingenuous to accuse those who disagree with your personal definition of advocating murder. Also, hello appeal to emotion.

“…so women can maintain their more comfortable lifestyles rather than live with the results of their choices — both the trials and the blessings.”

This statement shows a stunning lack of understanding of why women might choose to get abortions. First of all, statistically, most women who find themselves in that situation never had “comfortable lifestyles” to begin with. They tend to be young, single, and working-class. A woman who winds up accidentally pregnant is likely to be someone who didn’t have sufficient access to contraception–or, more tragically, a victim of sexual assault.

Second, the wording of this sentence clearly shows that the writer considers pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing to be an acceptable consequence for a woman’s “choice”–meaning, obviously, the choice to have sex. Since I’m guessing this writer is someone who believes that sex should be for procreation only, there’s little I can really say in response except that, guess what, that’s not how the vast majority of people see it anymore.

I’m neglecting something here, of course. This writer made it clear from the very beginning of his piece that he’s not basing his arguments on logic or on conservative political ideology at all. At the very beginning, he writes:

My dad is a confessional Lutheran pastor, my mom a parochial school teacher, and I went to a Lutheran High School. Because of this upbringing, I have a strong belief in my innate sinfulness and need for my Savior, Jesus Christ. My faith is the primary foundation for my political ideology and is why I would say I’m a pretty staunch conservative all around. I believe that we should be good stewards of the blessings God has given us and we should live in a way that is pleasing to Him.

That’s right. He comes right out and says that the basis for his political beliefs is his religion–a religion that is legitimate and meaningful to him, but a religion that not all of us share.

Political arguments must not be based on religion. We have separation of church and state for a reason.

A Handy List of Ludicrous Anti-Abortion Legislation

For your reference. I’ll try to update this as needed. Read the linked articles for more information about these bills and why they are so harmful.

  • Oklahoma State Bill 1433–defines a fertilized egg as a “person” and seeks to extend human rights to said “persons”; conflicts with Roe v. Wade.
  • Georgia House Bill 954–bans all abortions after 20 weeks, even in cases of rape and incest, unless the woman’s life or health was threatened (this last exception was only added later); also conflicts with Roe v. Wade; this is the bill that a George state rep defended by comparing women to lifestock.
  • Mississippi House Bill 1390–would close the state’s last remaining abortion clinic on a technicality to “prevent back-room abortions.”
  • Arizona House Bill 2036–bans all abortions after 20 weeks because, according to lawmakers, that’s when fetuses begin to feel pain (which is false); conflicts with Roe v. Wade; defines fetal age as beginning at fertilization–up to two weeks before a woman’s last period, which is how fetal age is usually calculated. So really, it’s after 18 weeks, not after 20 weeks like the other dumb bills.
  • Mississippi Senate Bill 2771would make all abortions performed after a fetal heartbeat can be detected illegal; doctors who perform such abortions could serve up to 30 years in prison. Women seeking abortions would be forced to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound to check for a heartbeat, which can be detected just 6 weeks after gestation.
  • Alabama Senate Bill 12–would have mandated all women seeking abortions, even victims of rape and incest, to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound and view the image. Why? To help “a mother to understand that a live baby is inside her body.”
  • Virginia House Bill 62–slashes state funding for low-income women who are pregnant with complications and need abortions.
  • Arizona Senate Bill 1359–allows doctors to withhold information from pregnant women that may cause them to seek an abortion (such as fetal abnormalities) by shielding them from potential lawsuits.
  • Kansas House Bill 2598–same as above, plus a bunch of other restrictions for good measure.
  • H.R. 2299–would prevent women under 18 from crossing state lines to get an abortion without their parents’ consent.
  • Tennessee House Bill 3808–would create an online list of the names and addresses of all abortion doctors. Not insignificant given the recent bombing of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Wisconsin.

One note–I’ve chosen not to attempt to find updated information on how these bills did in HRs and Senates, first of all because that would take all of my time, and second because that’s not the point. Some of these bills passed, some of them are still being deliberated. Point is, none of them should’ve made it onto the floor to begin with.

Another note–I stopped writing this post not because I was unable to find any more bills, but because I just got tired and sad from looking at them.