The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

Feb. 17 2015 9:00 AM

We Never Wanted Kids. Now We Have Two.

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why women aren’t achieving as much in their careers as their male counterparts, even though women have been enrolling in and graduating from college in greater numbers than men since the 1980s. Explanations for this gender gap range from women aren’t “leaning in” enough, to entrenched sexism in the workplace, to husbands’ careers taking precedence, to a lack of social supports for mothers in American society.

But when we discuss the issue in a macro way, we don’t hear the stories of men and women who are making career choices not as statistics in a think piece, but as part of an often complicated balancing act between various interests and responsibilities in their lives. Here is the seventh interview in an occasional series, Best Laid Plans, about how career decisions get made over time and are altered by the unpredictability of life.

Names: Robyn and Ian

Ages: 39

Robyn’s Occupation: Environmental due diligence assessor

Ian’s Occupation: Employee at a local government environmental agency

Children: 4 year old and 1 year old

Location: Long Beach, California

Hi, Robyn. What were your career expectations when you first started working, and how have they panned out?

My original expectation was that I would be a research scientist. But that’s not what happened. I met my now-husband when we were both in grad school for geology, on opposite coasts. We met at a conference in Costa Rica and then developed a long distance relationship. I was about two years ahead of him in grad school, so the idea was that I would find a post doc in California, because his school was in California and I was in Massachusetts. I only applied to post docs and teaching jobs on the west coast so I could be closer to Ian.

But unfortunately for me—or so it seemed at the time—I didn’t get any of the post docs I applied for. One of the problems in academia is you need to be willing to go wherever geographically to secure a position, and I just wasn’t willing to sacrifice my personal life. We both knew after two years of a long distance relationship, it wasn’t sustainable indefinitely. I could have conceivably gotten a post doc somewhere else, but it probably would have meant our relationship had to end.

I went ahead and moved to California with no job. I had been living as a grad student so I didn’t have a whole lot of savings, and I realized I needed to figure out what I was going to do quickly. I couldn’t sponge off my also-grad-student-salaried boyfriend for too long. That’s when the expectations went out the window. I temped as a secretary for several months and tried to figure out what to do. I was throwing out resumes left and right in both the public and private sectors. I discovered having a PhD with no real life work experience makes private sector employers—in my experience—reluctant to hire you. They think you’re expensive, over-educated and under-qualified.

An old college friend of mine had gotten a job with an environmental consulting company, and it sounded like something I could do. It was a small mom-and-pop owned firm, and she was willing to give my resume straight to the owner. That’s how I got my first job in the environmental consulting field. Then I did 10 years of that, and now my new job, which I just got this past May.

Hi, Ian. What has your career trajectory looked like?

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Feb. 16 2015 2:08 PM

A Fifty Shades of Grey Think Piece Roundup

Fifty Shades of Grey, which sold 100 million copies by stealing the plot of every '70s-era Harlequin romance and adding BDSM, started out as Twilight fan fiction and has now morphed into a box office winner starring the daughter of '80s-era Hollywood stars. What does it all mean? Several writers in the past week, including Slate's own, have tried to explain what Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele say about society, sex, and the state of the human soul, circa 2015. Here are some of the highlights.

Feb. 13 2015 10:16 AM

New HPV Study Shows That the Vaccine Has No Impact on Sexual Behavior

Not even the MMR can beat the HPV vaccine when it comes to brewing anti-vaccination hysteria. On top of the usual baseless fears that vaccines have "toxins," there's also a widespread concern that the HPV vaccine, which prevents a common STI that can lead to cervical cancer, will cause girls to become promiscuous. The fear is that by signaling to your daughter that you believe she will probably have sex one day, you are giving her "permission" to have sex right now. Yale researchers found that this fear is the primary reason parents reject the HPV vaccination, leading to a situation where more than 40 percent of teen girls remain unvaccinated

New research shows that this fear of teen girl promiscuity is completely unfounded. In a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, medical researchers from Harvard and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles compared the rates of transmission for other STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes between vaccinated and unvaccinated girls. If parental fears about the HPV vaccine are right, we should see a spike in these STI rates for the vaccinated girls, because of all the unrestrained sex. But researchers found no such link. There is no reason to think the HPV vaccine influences sexual decision-making one way or another.

Feb. 12 2015 4:12 PM

Fifty Shades of Grey Is Not a “Good” Movie. I Loved It.

After you’ve seen Fifty Shades of Grey, come back and listen to Amanda Hess, Dan Kois, and Dana Stevens discuss the film in Slate’s Spoiler Special:

Fifty Shades of Grey is a ridiculous movie. Why are the main characters, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, named like 19th-century ballerinas? How is it that newcomer Dakota Johnson (Ana) manages to come off so wry, stunning, and sensitive, while recovered Calvin Klein model Jamie Dornan (Christian) rolls through the movie like a Brooks Brothers mannequin? BTW, how is Christian just 27 years old but has already amassed, like, a billion dollars? (“Telecommunications”?) Wait—Rita Ora’s in this? At one point, Christian steals away to a corner of his penthouse to plunk sadly at his grand piano (LOL). But then, Anastasia drops her robe, straddles him on the bench, and he carries her off to bed in his capable arms, and, uhhhh: Are you turned on by Fifty Shades of Grey right now?

In a 2013 Sexualities article, academics Sarah Harman and Bethan Jones posited that “anti-fans” of Fifty Shades have been more central to its wild popularity than sincere readers of the book. Hate-readers argued over, obsessed, and reenacted the book with the zeal of true believers; perhaps they’re even secretly responsible for the book’s best-seller status. “One wonders whether this constructed Other of the ‘vanilla’ housewife, the undiscerning reader of ‘trash’, truly exists except as an imagined spectre,” Harman and Jones write. Perhaps for most readers of the book, it’s actually the hate-reading experience that “offers the real readerly pleasures of performing and sharing distinctions of taste.” Emma Green reports in the Atlantic that contrary to the aging housewife stereotype, “about a third of the people who bought the books in the U.S. were actually 18 to 29 years old.”

Fifty Shades of Grey began as racy online fan fiction inspired by the tween vampire romance series Twilight. A middle-aged British Twihard named Erika Leonard, writing under the handle Snowqueen Icedragon, recast Twilight’s romantic leads as a Pacific Northwest college student and a handsome local billionaire, but the shuffled details do not matter—the whole thing was just a pretext to inject some kinky sex into their chaste relationship. “I’m not a great author,” Leonard, now going as E.L. James, admitted when her story was republished in novel form by Random House and, to her bemusement, debuted as an instant best-seller. But as James’ fan-fic amassed a fandom of its own, she started to take herself more seriously, and even earned the ire of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, who has denounced the books as “too smutty” for her bookshelf.

Now, Fifty Shades the movie has emerged as a kind of fan-fic of Fifty Shades the book, and the leap from page to screen has also opened a rift between author and imitator. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and E.L. James reportedly feuded on set as Taylor-Johnson struggled to wrest control of the story from James. The end product does not abdicate its responsibility to titillate, but it fills its sex scenes with exaggerated winks to the hate-reader. And as the movie’s attitude toward itself ping-pongs between deprecation and indulgence, it allows the audience to feel superior to the source material while experiencing the guilty pleasure of discovering that maybe they actually really like this stuff. The book only did the latter.

Fifty Shades of Grey is not a “good” movie, but it’s a mistake to judge it like any other: Buying into the Fifty Shades experience is more like purchasing a ticket to a funhouse tour through Fifty Shades’ weird, wild fandom. The Anastasia Steele of the book is an aww-shucks virgin in constant dialogue with her “inner goddess,” but the Anastasia of the movie is a stand-in for the Fifty Shades skeptic—the literal plot finds her seduced into the kinky world of Christian, but the obvious subtext is that our heroine has fallen down the rabbit hole of the cultural phenomenon of Fifty Shades itself. Director Taylor-Johnson says she deliberately recast the story in the image of a “a deep, dark, romantic adult fairy tale,” and the film is riddled with references to Alice in Wonderland (Anastasia wakes up with a hangover to find that Christian has left her painkillers marked “eat me” and juice marked “drink me”), and Beauty and the Beast (this time, the mysterious beast with the opulent mansion is already ridiculously good-looking, and the heroine is tasked with transforming him from a tortured control freak and into a regular boyfriend). The audience already knows Christian’s “terrible” secret, and the film exploits our ironic awareness that the sweet, innocent Ana is pratfalling straight into his dungeon. Right before Christian lets her into his “playroom” for the first time, she asks if they’re going to play his Xbox.  

Some scenes in Fifty Shades play like viral parodies—those late-night talk show routines where a celebrity is forced to keep a straight face while reading lines like “I’m 50 shades of fucked up!” and “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard!” Then there’s a warmly silly Dancing With the Stars routine, as Christian and Ana rub cheeks and bop around his austere modern apartment. And a glamour porn clip—Christian tears open Ana’s sports bra and blindfolds her with her own T-shirt—which inevitably leads to more disturbing fare, as Christian angrily whips Ana’s naked ass with his belt while she cries in pain.

The soundtrack—Annie Lennox, Sia, a breathy Beyoncé retread of “Crazy in Love”—is a Spotify playlist from a woman with good but unpretentious taste. And the scene where Anastasia and Christian sit at opposite ends of a low-lit conference table to negotiate the terms of their dom-sub contract plays like a Funny or Die video ribbing the concept of affirmative consent. Ana wryly nixes anal fisting and vaginal fisting; Christian agrees to a scheduled romantic date, up to and including ice-skating, once a week. Ana blurts out “what’s a butt plug?” just as his leggy assistants walk in the door.

The Fifty Shades team has done an expert job capitalizing on its sophisticated guilty-pleasure appeal. Though Charlie Hunnam, the bad boy biker of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, was originally tapped for the role of Christian, he was soon replaced by Dornan, best known to discerning Netflix watchers as the sexy serial killer of the feminist BBC thriller The Fall. On the Tonight Show, Dornan joined Jimmy Fallon to mock the book by reading its most absurd passages aloud in various ridiculous accents (all are better than the terrible American imitation the Northern Irish Dornan attempts in the film). And Jezebel has gleefully reported on how, in every appearance on their obligatory PR tour for the movie, Dornan and Johnson look constipated at best. The nasty gossip that bubbled up on the set about creative differences between author James and director Taylor-Johnson also functioned as a wink to the hate-readers: This adaptation makes E.L. James mad, so it might just please you. The very idea of all these skilled, funny, sophisticated professionals sinking millions of dollars into such a dumb book is thrilling in its extravagance. Jamie Dornan showed the top of his penis for this!

Pandering to ironic and sincere viewers at the same time is more than a clever marketing tactic. Pairing the humorous with the erotic produces a sensation of nervous, off-kilter euphoria; laughter and sex both leave you flushed, tingly, a little out of control. I left the movie feeling like I’d just been on a first date with someone I’d secretly crushed on for a long time. I’d definitely see it again.

Feb. 12 2015 4:00 PM

Anastasia Steele Leans In

The two words most conspicuously absent from the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey are “Holy crap.” In the book, our heroine Anastasia Steele uses the phrase the way people used “dude” in the ’90s: to underline every emotion, from furious to indignant to scared to embarrassed to utterly delighted. Given the extreme control series author E.L. James is said to have exerted over the movie, the omission is curious. Perhaps Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia in the movie, convinced James that no woman of her acquaintance has ever said those words to signify anything. Missing too from the movie is Anastasia’s internal monologue, the quickening and spinning and clenching and “flying, flying high”—those oddly quaint and euphemistic soft core idioms of the book that no live, post-Victorian female in heat has ever said.

In the book, Anastasia is described as “pale,” “scruffy,” clumsy, a virgin because she floats through life never touching the ground. She fancies herself literary and writes a witty e-mail or two, but as a wallflower without a body she is putty in Christian Grey’s well-manicured hands. In the movie Anastasia is an altogether more knowing creature. She purchases her own sexy office wear and has perfect comic timing. She is clearly a virgin by choice. Johnson’s performance is more in line with Melanie Griffith (Johnson’s mother, by the way) than an awkward, blushing Kristen Stewart. Her haplessness and quirks are entirely within her control, and thus seem to elide the grasp of men. So when Anastasia resists Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan, it doesn’t seem like she’s fighting her deepest desires so much as making the obvious, sensible choice.

This more self-possessed version of Anastasia exerts an oddly destabilizing force on the movie. Johnson’s character lives in the 2015 Pacific Northwest, and Dornan’s lives in a timeless ad for luxury real estate. She makes jokes about serial killers and drunk dials while waiting in line for the bathroom; he uses corporate jargon such as “incentivize” and “harnessing my luck.” She seems with it and he seems clueless. She is acting in the movie directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson; he is trapped in the novel by E.L. James.

Feb. 11 2015 2:38 PM

The Daily Show’s Funniest Feminist Moments

The news that Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show has kicked off a flood of reminiscences. But not all the memories are joyous. It was less than five years ago that Jezebel kicked off a public spat with Stewart and his diehard fans with a lengthy reported piece suggesting the show was not welcoming to women. The situation was a little contentious at the time, but, in the long term, it seems that Stewart took the criticism to heart. In the past few years, the show became aggressively more feminist in its comedy. Here are some of the funniest examples. 

Jon Stewart and Jessica Williams covered the Supreme Court's decision on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Highlight: Jessica Williams trying to define a “closely held corporation.” “You know what, Jon? Think of it as a hug. A hug that squeezes all the sluts off the health plan.” 

In response to Brit Hume complaining about how men are oppressed by a “feminized atmosphere,” Stewart and Kristen Schaal parodied male fears of women being able to treat men like, well, men have been able to treat women since basically forever:

Highlight: Kristen Schaal apologizing to Hume, saying, “It was not our intention to feminize the atmosphere by coming in with our cut flowers, our scented computers, and our breast milk fax machines.” When asked by Stewart what a breast milk fax machine is, Schaal replies, “What? Am I going to fax formula? I'm not a monster.”

Stewart mocked conservative efforts to argue that there's no such thing as a Republican war on women. 

Highlight: After pointedly showing that Fox News takes the “war on Christmas” more seriously than the war on women, Stewart said, “Maybe women could protect their reproductive organs from unwanted medical intrusions with vagina mangers,” as a picture of a naked woman with a nativity scene covering her genitals pops onscreen. 

Taking on the campus sexual assault issue, Jordan Klepper and Jessica Williams share party safety tips for male and female students:

Highlight: Klepper says, “This is a big one, guys. Don't pass out on the couch. Someone might draw, like, a dick on your face.” Williams responds, “Yes, do not pass out on the couch, ladies. Someone will put a dick on your face. At a minimum.”

Schaal ironically “defends” the right of men to take up too much room on the subway, a practice that's been nicknamed “manspreading.”

Highlight: After Stewart suggests it's just “common courtesy” for men to avoid hogging space on the subway, Schaal replies, “Oh no, Jon. You've been so brainwashed by this feminized world that you can't even see everything that men have lost. You used to run companies by yourself. You used to run countries by yourself. You used to do everything, just you dudes! And if a woman showed up? You got to call her ‘Sugar Tits’ with no consequences. And give her a seat in the typewriter pool with all the other sugar titses.”

Feb. 10 2015 9:09 AM

The Career and Life Decisions of a Single Mom

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why women aren’t achieving as much in their careers as their male counterparts, even though women have been enrolling in and graduating from college in greater numbers than men since the 1980s. Explanations for this gender gap range from women aren’t “leaning in” enough, to entrenched sexism in the workplace, to husbands’ careers taking precedence, to a lack of social supports for mothers in American society.

But when we discuss the issue in a macro way, we don’t hear the stories of men and women who are making career choices not as statistics in a think piece, but as part of an often complicated balancing act between various interests and responsibilities in their lives. Here is the sixth interview in an occasional series, Best Laid Plans, about how career decisions get made over time and are altered by the unpredictability of life.

Name: Wendy Litman

Age: 38

Occupation: Staff member at a university

Children: a 9-year-old daughter

Location: Denver, Colorado

Hi, Wendy. What were your career expectations when you first started working?

I started working in high school, and I have not ever not worked since then. And then it was just…I didn’t have career expectations, more job expectations. I worked in a restaurant for a long time. And I had sort of a non-traditional high school experience, so work experience was more important than school experience. I went to a half-day high school program in Boulder, Colorado that was, I don’t even know how to describe it. It was just non-traditional. Now I’d say it was unschooling, but then I didn’t know what that term was.

I went to college not out of any great ambition, but so I could make sure I could have health insurance, because my jobs were not doing that. I studied fine arts, a creative field that I knew I was not going to work in. I worked for state government for about a year and a half after I graduated. Again, not out of passion, but because I needed a steady job.

My then-partner, who is my daughter’s father, was a university administrator. I went to a graduate program at a private school at a spousal discount for almost nothing, and became a teacher. My degree was in curriculum and instruction.

What was your life situation at that time—did you have kids then, or did you expect to in the future?

I was with my daughter’s father when I gradated from college. We met through mutual friends. We didn’t have a wedding. Colorado is very sort of…different about common law marriage. The state takes it very seriously. We had a hetero civil union almost, and we had paper work through his employer. A sort of declared partnership. At the time, I knew I always wanted kids and a long-term partner.

How does your current work situation match up with your earlier expectations?

Feb. 10 2015 8:32 AM

Teachers Give Girls Better Grades on Math Tests When They Don’t Know They Are Girls

When it comes to explaining why women are underrepresented in STEM, it’s not enough to point to discrimination in hiring, even though that is a real phenomenon. It’s also true that STEM fields have a “pipeline” problem, where not enough girls are choosing to pursue education, and eventually careers in science and tech. New research suggests that part of the problem is girls are being discouraged at very young ages from thinking of themselves as capable at math.

Victor Lavy of the University of Warwick in England and Edith Sand of Tel Aviv University recently published a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research that suggests one reason girls do less well in math is because teachers expect less of them. Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times summarizes the study:

Feb. 6 2015 5:03 PM

Buzzfeed Piece on "Men's Rights" Leader Discredits the Movement

The rise of feminism in mainstream culture has had the odd side effect of increasing media interest in a particular strain of anti-feminism: "men's rights activists," who argue that far from being the dominant class, men are actually the ones who are oppressed.

Friday, Adam Serwer and Katie J.M. Baker of Buzzfeed published the most in-depth look at MRAs yet, an investigation into Paul Elam, the most prominent online MRA and the founder of the popular website A Voice For Men. Elam "preaches the gospel that men’s failures and disappointments are not due to personal shortcomings or lapsed responsibility, but rather institutionalized feminism and a family court system rigged against dutiful fathers, as well as a world gripped by 'misandry,' or the hatred of men," they write.

But when they dug into Elam's history, a very different picture emerged. "For example, although Elam compares the family court system’s treatment of fathers to Jim Crow, he abandoned his biological children not once but twice," they write. "Although Elam says that 'fathers are forced to pay child support like it was mafia protection money,' he accused his first wife of lying about being raped so he could relinquish his parental rights and avoid paying child support." Elam's first wife and daughter spoke on the record to Buzzfeed, though they used pseudonyms out of what they describe as fear of retaliation from the MRA community. His other two ex-wives refused to speak on the record at all, with his third ex-wife citing fear of retaliation. 

Feb. 5 2015 12:36 PM

The Vaccine Battle Is Ruining Friendships and Breaking Up Playgroups

There are now more than 100 confirmed cases in the current outbreak of measles, most of which are in California, where parents are allowed to claim both religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccines. Pro-vaccine parents, particularly parents of infants and the immune-compromised, are starting to ask their peers, playgroups, and preschools about vaccine status. That does not always go well.

The New York Daily News talked to New York moms who are thoroughly freaked out by the idea of non-vaccinated kids in their midst. At one pediatrics practice in Brooklyn, moms are demanding a separate waiting room for non-vaccinated kids. Another local mom told me she’s no longer taking her son to a local toddler play space because the woman who runs the joint is open about not vaccinating her child.

Then there is the San Francisco mother I spoke to earlier this week who told me  that she’s fallen out with one of her oldest friends, because her friend refuses to vaccinate her two children. The SF mom of an infant and a toddler (who asked that I not print her name) had booked a trip to see her friend in her small Northern California town before the outbreak happened. “I had seen the KQED article on the vax study and all the California schools and their opt-out rates a few weeks ago. I noticed a ton of schools up in [my friend’s town] that had super high rates (some of the highest in the state),” she said in an email. Because she was planning to introduce her infant to this friend on the trip, the SF mom initiated a Gchat conversation about vaccinations.

“I asked her what school her youngest went to, and what his school opt-out rate was. She asked why, and I said ‘It seems like lots of [schools in her town] have high rates, aren't you scared for your kids?’” The friend responded:

Yeah we have a very high unvaccinated population at our school we are among them ;) thats what happens when you roll with the crazy hippies lol. they've had the tdap but not nearly all. afraid to be around us now? :p