The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

Sept. 1 2015 1:44 PM

D.C. Judge Says Employers Can Exercise “Moral” Objections to Birth Control Coverage

For most of 2015, it seemed that the assault on women's right to contraception coverage had reached something of a stalemate. While last year the Supreme Court did find that even corporations have a right to cite religious objections to insurance plans that cover contraception, further efforts to reduce access to contraception have failed. The HHS has created an accommodation that allows insurance companies to offer coverage directly to women without involving the employer, and efforts by employers to muck up the process have failed in the courts

But now anti-contraception forces have secured a new victory in the District Court for the District of Columbia. Judge Richard Leon has ruled that the March for Life, an anti-abortion organization that organizes a yearly march against legal abortion in D.C., can cut off contraception coverage not for religious reasons, but for "moral" objections. March for Life holds itself out as a non-religious organization, which is why they had to go this route. 

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March for Life is trying to frame their objections to affordable contraception in terms of abortion, making the same tedious and utterly false argument that some kinds of contraception are equivalent to abortion. "It opposes methods of contraception that it says can amount to abortion, including hormonal products, intrauterine devices and emergency contraceptives," the New York Times reports. At first blush, that might not seem like a big deal, but if you look at the HHS regulations, you'll find that their objection actually covers all forms of listed contraceptions, with the exception of sterilization and the diaphragm. 

As legal expert Ian Millhiser explains at ThinkProgress, the decision is "hard to follow" due to its use of pretzel logic, including the argument that religious exemptions to laws discriminate against non-religious employers. Judge Leon "appears to object to the government’s decision to exempt churches and other inherently religious organizations from the birth control rules," Millhiser writes, "without also extending this exemption to secular employers because such a rule discriminates against secular employers." Since the Supreme Court has already held that you can't just run around refusing to obey any law you want by simply invoking vague "moral" objections, I wouldn't bet on this decision holding up on appeal. 

Still, this decision is an important one because it blows the doors off the claim that anti-choice objections to contraception coverage are about "religious liberty" or "religious conscience." Instead, the lawsuits over Obamacare appear to be another variation of the anti-choice movement's "incrementalist" strategy, which has been employed for decades to reduce access to abortion. Instead of trying get an absolute abortion ban passed, which would likely never happen, the anti-choice movement chips away at access by passing a bunch of small regulations, hoping to bury women and providers in so much red tape that they simply give up. 

A look at the big picture shows the same thing is going on with contraception: Anti-choicers are trying to chip away at all the means and methods women use to get contraception, hoping to make the price and hassle too much for women to overcome. The summer's attacks on Planned Parenthood, while ostensibly about abortion, in fact resulted in Republicans defunding or attempting to defund contraception services—while leaving abortion services, which are privately funded, untouched. A similar dynamic appears to be going on with these lawsuits, with each one trying, bit by bit, to expand the power of employers to stop women from obtaining affordable contraception. 

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Aug. 31 2015 4:21 PM

Why Are These Duggars Clogging Up a Documentary About Preventing Sexual Abuse?

Sunday night, TLC aired an hourlong, commercial-free documentary about child sex abuse called Breaking the Silence. It looked like a good-faith move on the part of a network that's been been struggling with the P.R. fallout around 19 Kids and Counting: The Duggar family of the popular TLC series had spent years presenting themselves as a wholesome Christian clan, while hiding the fact that their eldest son, Josh, had been caught molesting underage girls, including his own sisters. His parents didn't report the offenses for more than a year, and instead of seeking help for Josh, they had a family friend give him “a very stern talk.” (That family friend, Arkansas state trooper Jim Hutchens, will likely spend the rest of his life in prison for possessing child pornography.)

TLC canceled 19 Kids and Counting after this revelation, and this film—which centers mostly around an activist named Erin Merryn—doubles a kind of public apology for TLC's part in the Duggar debacle. A few of the Duggars even make an appearance: Matriarch Michelle Duggar and daughters Jessa Seewald and Jill Dillard, both of whom Josh victimized, appear briefly in the documentary, speaking to the camera after a seminar about sex abuse prevention. You'd expect that, in this context, they might grapple with how Michelle and Jim Bob's handling of Josh's behavior is a textbook example of how not to deal with sex abuse. So what did they have to say?

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“I feel like this should be a discussion people are having, even regularly,” Seewald says.  “I think that it shouldn’t be a taboo subject, that we should be bringing awareness to child sexual abuse and talking about this.”

So ... great? Oh wait, here's Michelle Duggar! 

“I was so glad that my girls and I were able to do this together and that we could just be a support and encouragement to each other to be able to gain more information about this important topic,” Michelle Duggar says.

Michelle is glad! So very glad for this opportunity to ... well, we're not sure.

If we had to guess, though, the real opportunity here is for the Duggars to spin themselves as concerned citizens shining a light on a terrible problem—the same terrible problem they concealed and denied, even to themselves, for the better part of a decade. It's particularly disturbing to see two of Josh Duggar's victims being deployed for clean-up duty on their family's reputation, while Josh and father Jim Bob—who appeared to be calling the shots in the cover-up of Josh's behavior—stay out of sight. 

It's even more of a shame when everyone else involved in the documentary sincerely cares about this issue and are fighting for policy solutions. Merryn, for instance, fights to pass laws that require schools to implement sex abuse prevention programs that educate students and teachers on what sex abuse is and how to spot it. This is serious, useful information. It doesn't need to be mixed up with the Duggar family's five-point plan for getting America to start giving them money again. 

Aug. 31 2015 12:48 PM

Chrissie Hynde Has Some Extremely Depressing Ideas About Rape and Blame

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Chrissie Hynde in a daring sleeveless look on Friends in 1995.

IMDB

The women of Sunday night's MTV Video Music Awards showed the resilience of what the New York Times called "the recent movement toward being naked-while-clothed," as shown in the fashion choices of Nicki Minaj, FKA twigs, and the many, many barely-there costume changes of host Miley Cyrus. Cyrus came in for some legitimate criticism for her racially tinged missteps (e.g., the "mammy" business with Snoop Dogg) and her clumsy response to Minaj's maybe-staged onstage challenge. But mostly, the Twitter commentariat seemed worried that Cyrus' relative lack of clothing corresponded to a lack of self-respect. Just put "Miley" and "self respect" into Twitter and enjoy the waterfall of disdain and concern-trolling. There's a lot of people out there who think that showing skin means you don't value yourself or your body.

Maybe some VMA-watchers long for a return to a better time, a simpler time, when some of pop music's pre-eminent female artists were also wearers of clothing—of long sleeves and pants, even! Take Chrissie Hynde, legendary frontwoman of the Pretenders, she of the button-down and the occasional blazer. That Chrissie Hynde had some self-respect! Right? 

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As it happens, Hynde recently had some thoughts to share about how to apportion blame when a man rapes a woman. "If I’m walking around in my underwear and I’m drunk? Who else’s fault can it be?" Hynde argued to the Sunday Times. "If I’m walking around and I’m very modestly dressed and I’m keeping to myself and someone attacks me, then I’d say that’s his fault. But if I’m being very lairy and putting it about and being provocative, then you are enticing someone who’s already unhinged—don’t do that."

And so on. Hynde has publicly complained about Rush Limbaugh using her band's song "My City Was Gone" as his show's bumper music, but perhaps they have more opinions in common than she thinks

The question of rape and blame isn't an abstract one for Hynde, who said these awful things to explain why, in her new book Reckless, she blames herself for being raped by a member of a motorcycle gang when she was 21. "Technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was all my doing and I take full responsibility,” Hynde said. “You can’t f— about with people, especially people who wear ‘I Heart Rape’ and ‘On Your Knees’ badges. … Those motorcycle gangs, that’s what they do."

Technically speaking, rape is caused by men who choose to rape. But instead of quibbling with Hynde, it's more useful to put her comments in context. Hynde came up in music at a time when the industry was even more ridiculously male-dominated than it is now. For a lot of women of the era, playing along with misogynist attitudes—even to the point of internalizing them—was a necessary survival strategy.

You see this dynamic at play in the story of Jackie Fuchs of the Runaways, whose manager, Kim Fowley, allegedly raped her in front of multiple witnesses. Fuchs describes a scene where nearly all the women present—including Joan Jett—saw the rape happening and did nothing. No one wanted to be seen as some kind of feminist buzzkill. You wouldn't get invited back to the parties, much less get record contracts and a shot at making a living as a musician. 

Today, things are infinitely better for women in pop—even the scantily clad ones! They call themselves feminists. Nicki Minaj openly criticizes double standards in the industry. Taylor Swift, in a clumsy but nonetheless earnest way, is modeling female solidarity. Amber Rose and Blac Chyna showed up to the VMAs in outfits that protested rape and harassment culture. Miley Cyrus offered up a drag queen–heavy performance that was tailor-made to mess with the heterosexual male gaze. Whatever they chose to wear, women in pop are pushing back against attitudes that used to be the price of doing business. Chrissie Hynde's shocking comments are just a measure of how far they've come. 

Aug. 28 2015 5:56 PM

The Odd Sexual-Consent Law That Explains the Bizarre Owen Labrie Verdict

On Friday, a jury found former New Hampshire prep school student Owen Labrie not guilty of felony rape—but also convicted him of several lesser charges. At a glance, the complex verdict does not seem to answer the burning question at the heart of the case: Did Labrie, then 18, force a 15-year-old girl to have sex without consent? While the full answer is thorny, the upshot is simple. The jury found that Labrie did have sex with the girl—but didn’t force her to engage in any unwanted contact.

Under New Hampshire law, an individual is guilty of aggravated felonious sexual assault if he penetrates someone after she indicates that she doesn’t “freely consent,” or before she has “an adequate chance to flee and/or resist.” The jury found Labrie not guilty on these counts. With that finding, the jury essentially held that prosecutors had not proved the girl resisted sexual contact. The jury also found Labrie not guilty of simple assault. Prosecutors had alleged that Labrie committed this misdemeanor by biting the girl’s chest.

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However, the jury did find Labrie guilty of endangering the welfare of a child, and of using a computer to “seduce, solicit, lure, or entice a child” in order to commit a sexual assault. The jury also found Labrie guilty of misdemeanor sexual assault. But Labrie wasn’t even charged with statutory rape. If that seems to make no sense, it’s because of a strange quirk in New Hampshire law.

Like many states, New Hampshire has a “Romeo and Juliet” exception to statutory rape. Such exceptions allows individuals to have sex with minors if they are close in age. These laws are designed to allow teens to engage in consensual sex without fear of prosecution. Florida provides a good example. The state has a general age of consent of 18. But under a Romeo and Juliet law, people aged 23 and under can legally have sex with individuals aged 16 and 17.*

New Hampshire’s law follows this model—with a twist. It sets a hard age of consent at 13: Before then, all sex is illegal. After 13, the rules change. It isn’t illegal to engage in consensual non-penetrative sexual contact with an individual between ages 13 and 16 unless you are at least five years older than the younger person. (Think necking and fondling.) It is always illegal, however, to engage in penetrative sexual contact with any individual between ages 13 and 16. (16 is the universal age of consent in the state.)

Here, the Romeo and Juliet law only affects the severity of the punishment. If you have penetrative consensual sex with an individual between ages 13 and 16 but are within four years of age, you are guilty of misdemeanor sexual assault. If the age difference is more than four years, you’re guilty of felony sexual assault.

Labrie was 18 when he allegedly put his penis, tongue, and finger in a 15-year-old’s vagina. The jury did not find that the girl resisted, so he isn’t guilty of felony rape. But he still had penetrative sex with a girl under 16, the jury believed. Thus, Labrie is guilty on three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault, one for each form of penetration.

For prosecutors, this verdict is likely bittersweet. Labrie faces up to 11 years in prison, a fairly severe penalty. But the jury did not accept the argument that Labrie raped the 15-year-old. The practical result of the ruling should cheer prosecutors. But the details illustrate, once again, that it is exceedingly difficult to prove a rape charge in American courts.

*Correction, Aug. 31, 2015: This article originally misstated Florida’s Romeo and Juliet law. It allows people under 24 to have sex with 16- and 17-year-olds, but does not legalize sex below age 16.

Aug. 28 2015 5:28 PM

This Viral PTA Fundraiser Sums Up What Every Parent Everywhere Is Thinking

If you’re a parent and you’re on Facebook, no doubt by now you’ve seen this PTA letter posted by Dee Wise Heinz, a mother of three in Texas, earlier this week. 

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Dee Wise Heinz/Facebook

Sometimes when things go viral, it’s because they are hilarious or outrageous or sensational. Or, as in this case, they are hilarious but also tremendously relatable. Every parent of a school-age child who sees this is going to nod knowingly, chuckle heartily, and discuss it with their friends at the bus stop.

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Because if there is anything that drives parents crazier than Common Core, it’s the dreaded school fundraiser. And we’ve all said, at one time or another: “Just tell me what you need. I’ll write a check.” And for at least this one school, that’s now a possibility. And to that all I can say is AMEN.

For years, our children’s public school went the wrapping-paper-and-magazines route. Students had to attend a kickoff assembly (during school time) and were supposed to collect and turn in addresses of friends and family so that the marketing company could send catalogs. Teachers sent younger kids home wearing stickers reminding parents to turn in forms. Students who met all their deadlines were rewarded with cheap plastic figurines (Monkeys! Penguins! Frogs!) that hooked onto a lanyard and became instant status symbols in the elementary school ecosystem.

What an enormous distraction, I thought. What an unfair burden for the teachers. But I dutifully bought the $10-a-roll wrapping paper and subscribed to more magazines than I had time to read. I spent enough money so that my kid got a decent prize and could go to the fancy after-school shindig for big earners.

That is, until the year my middle son, Jameson, was in kindergarten. I was out of town for work and made the executive decision to skip one of the early deadlines to ease the morning rush for my husband. No biggie, right? Or so I thought. When my husband texted me one day to say that Jameson stayed home from school, I had a momentary pang of guilt that I wasn’t there for my sick kid, but it passed and I went on with my day.

It was only when I got home the next day and asked Jameson how he was feeling that I figured out the real problem. He got very quiet and explained that he didn’t want to go to school because he was the only kid who didn’t have a penguin. ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH. Yeah, it was “only” kindergarten, but I was outraged that this dog-and-pony show was disrupting my kid’s education. I fired off an email to the principal, which mostly just made me feel better but didn’t bring the campaign to a screeching halt.

Happily, a few years later, we have ditched the overpriced wrapping paper once and for all. Last fall our PTO hosted a fun run at the nature park adjacent to our school. You donated whatever amount you felt comfortable with, the kids and parents got to exercise together, and—best of all—there was very little overhead, so the school actually keeps most of the money that comes in.

Parents want what’s best for their kids. And we don’t want to look whiny or cheap, which is a risk when it comes to speaking out against the school fundraiser. In fact, when I messaged Dee Wise Heinz to ask for permission to use her photo, she wrote back and told me about the fundraisers she and her family have happily participated in. We don’t mind contributing to our kids’ schools! We just want it to be done efficiently and not ridiculously.

Here’s hoping that this good-natured and hilarious letter sets some kind of global PTA record, so that something similar starts showing up in backpacks across the country.

Aug. 28 2015 12:18 PM

Men Had a Terrible Time on Ashley Madison. They Deserve Our Pity, Not Scorn.

Here’s a safe bet: If your husband’s name turned up in the Ashley Madison data released by the hacker group Impact Team, he probably isn’t cheating on you.

While Ashley Madison claims to have almost 40 million members, very few of them seem to have gotten much out of the site. Studying internal emails from the company’s management, Gizmodo’s Annalee Newitz claims to have “found ample evidence that the company was actively paying people to create fake profiles.” And many of the profiles created by real women, Newitz argues, were inactive. If this is true, the site’s male users—who Newitz reports had to pay to send “custom messages” to women—were essentially talking to themselves. Above all else, they’re a pitiable bunch, but that fact is unlikely to spare them from the ongoing parade of public shaming—as well as the threats of extortion and identity theft—indiscriminately directed at those implicated in the leak.

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The lucky users were those who got out before getting trapped, though even they are feeling the heat. In this week’s “Dear Prudence” advice column, a married reader wrote in claiming to have created his account when he was “single, bored, and curious,” adding, “I surfed the site for an hour or two, and didn’t contact anyone.” Because the site never purged the data of former users, even those who paid to be removed, his information was still there.

It’s possible that Prudie’s correspondent was just covering his ass, but if he’s telling the truth, he’s not alone. Few if any of the site’s male users were successfully employing it to set up extramarital affairs. According to Newitz, about two-thirds of the site’s male users—slightly more than 20 million men—had checked their messages at some point after creating their accounts. But only 1,492 women had looked at theirs. Whether or not real women were logging on to the site, Newitz argues, their accounts “were not created by women wanting to hook up with married men. They were static profiles full of dead data.” Unless the men were all chatting up one another—unlikely given the site’s almost compulsory heterosexual framing—the messaging stats suggest that relatively few visitors were engaged in real correspondence.

If hardly anyone was successfully using the site for its ostensible purpose, the primary line of attack against those found on its hacked user lists—that they’re actually cheaters—starts to seem dubious. Troy Hunt, who maintains a site that lets people check whether their information has been compromised on the Internet, has compiled a list of reactions to the hack from his commenters. “I'm glad someone is providing some true justice in the world,” goes one typical response. Another reads: “Anyone who signed up to this sick site deserves everything they have coming to them.” In their minds, just having an account is an Old Testament–level offense.

But even if millions of men who joined the site did so in pursuit of real infidelity, they did not, for the most part, achieve it—at least not via Ashley Madison. Any explanation of what made them sign up—even the marginally famous like Josh Duggar—is bound to be speculative at best. Ultimately, the site gave such users little more than the idea of adultery, what Dear Prudence’s Emily Yoffe called a desire “not to actually get into bed with strangers, but to imagine what it would be like to do so.”

Whatever their original intentions when they created their accounts, most of Ashley Madison’s members committed little more than thought crimes. Sure, they may have taken those thoughts one step further by signing up for a cheating site, but that, in and of itself, tells us nothing about their marriages. Condemning acts of the imagination is a familiarly dark path. It encourages us to pathologize ordinary proclivities, such as porn consumption, to justify our contempt for harmless behaviors. Yet, by and large, most of us know and accept that fantasies are just fantasies, and the evidence that Ashley Madison is ultimately a bust may not be all that surprising. Newitz’s revelations should stop all the finger-pointing and public bounty hunting, but it doesn’t seem likely that they will. The men who either dabbled briefly or chased after make-believe visions in Ashley Madison will always be branded by their time on the site.

Perhaps that’s because the Internet itself has irreversibly blurred the lines between real and fake, life and dream. Anonymity—or at least the illusion of it—can bring out the worst in us, giving us permission to behave in ways that we never would if we knew we could be identified. One view of human nature would say that when we behave badly on the Internet, free of society’s strictures, we are more fully ourselves. According to this increasingly common conceit, even a whiff of the unseemly online seems to guarantee real awfulness.

It’s not just old-fashioned moralism, then, that inspires us to wag our fingers at the victims of the Ashley Madison hack. Instead, it’s the way that the Internet tricks us into qualifying fantasy as fact. As Newitz’s research shows, the men most dedicated to the site suffered from this firsthand. We, however, would do well to remember the distinction. In the end, Ashley Madison was a haven not for sinister cheaters, but gullible dreamers. And now they’ve had their rude awakening. Let’s go easy on them until they have their coffee.

Aug. 27 2015 2:46 PM

Donald Trump Is a Joke. But His Popularity Among Women Is No Laughing Matter.

By almost all accounts, 2012 was the year of the woman, as female voters opted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney 56-44. For a while there, all we seemed to be talking about was the way in which women would not be talked down to again.

A series of remarkable gaffes by various GOP politicians that evinced a lack of concern about basic women’s health issues aided and abetted that effort. The various stupidisms of the 2012 campaign ranged from the assertion by Missouri Rep. Todd Akin that "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," to Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's fervent belief that pregnancy from "rape ... is something that God intended to happen." Wisconsin state Rep. Roger Rivard thoughtfully opined that "some girls rape easy," and Mitt Romney's infamous claim that he was in possession of "binders full of women" probably became the single most notorious episode, because it signified what a gender gaffe truly is: an inadvertent blurting out of a statement you secretly believe to be wholly true.

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The attendant outcry from those gaffes led to some significant spinning and walking back, and the system seemed to finally be in perfect equipoise: GOP men said dopey things about women, women punched back, and GOP men retreated to their man caves of bewilderment to await 2016.

Yet the ostensible lessons of 2012 seem to have been completely subverted in one brief summer that has returned us all to the Gidget era. The genius of Donald Trump’s run for the White House is that he has almost single-handedly upended the national gender stupidity/umbrage continuum. We have, seemingly without warning, reached the point in time at which when Trump says something hateful and misogynistic, nobody evinces any surprise, he declines to apologize, and nothing changes in the polls.

This new dynamic has stupefied Trump’s critics on the left, with the Onion putting it all pretty bluntly in a headline that reads: “Female Trump Supporters Just Feel More Comfortable With GOP Candidate Who’s Openly Horrible to Them.” MSNBC’s Aliyah Frumin pondered openly why GOP women aren’t turned off by Trump’s deliberate anti-woman comments—including his ongoing feud with Fox News Megyn Kelly (he retweeted a claim that she’s a bimbo and says she is bad at her job because she asks questions during debates). Yet this Zogby poll from late July shows Trump with a huge lead among women over his closest GOP rival, Jeb Bush. A Gallup poll taken after the debates showed his support among women increased from 29 to 30 following the altercation with Kelly.* Wondering why his statements aren’t significantly eroding his popularity with Republican women voters, Frumin puts it: “It’s all a bit baffling. Not only does Trump say sexist things, but his invariably macho stance on everything from foreign policy to immigration is the sort of testosterone-fueled bravado that typically rubs many female voters the wrong way. But with Trump, apparently, that’s not the case.”

I confess to be equally baffled by the meh-reaction by GOP women to Trump’s decades of Pretty Woman–style musings on gender, including global statements about women being manipulative craven vixens who outsmart men largely by way of their extremely large boobs. (One tiny gem, from his 1997 book The Art of the Comeback: “Women have one of the great acts of all time. The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they are real killers. The person who came up with the expression ‘the weaker sex’ was either very naive or had to be kidding. I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye — or perhaps another body part.”)

Of late, poor Lindsey Graham has been reduced to sputtering that “the way he attacks women is going to be a death blow to the future of our party,” as he sags further and further behind Trump in the polls. Perhaps Trump’s greatest gift, as a steaming misogynist, is that he is basically always the drunk guy in the bar slurring “nice tits.” Serious women don’t take him seriously, and everyone else just thinks he’s deranged. Worse, he is the unrepentant drunk in the bar; he’s not sorry for calling women pigs or gold-diggers. Unlike the Romneys or the Mourdocks, he doesn’t let himself get “bullied” by politically correct women. He just sends them mail telling them they’re ugly.

Part of what Trump is cashing in on is your standard umbrage fatigue. The year of the woman in 2012 was totally bracing for a blowback. Michelle Letner, who donated $225 to Trump, told MSNBC’s Frumin, “I like that he’s not politically correct. … He’s saying it like it is. If you want to be treated like a lady, act like a lady.” Or, as Amanda Marcotte explains here, trashing women and defending that as a refreshing tonic to political correctness is a way of life in some conservative circles.

One other line of thought suggests that since Trump’s putative opponent this year is Hillary Clinton, his gloves-off attitude toward gender may actually help him. One recent focus group, treated to details of Trump attacking Rosie O’Donnell as a fat pig, liked him more afterward than they did before. This, goes the theory, is how to take down a woman who keeps banging on and on and on about women.

Or maybe since Trump still reads a bit like a joke, it’s still easy to dismiss his whole women-as-lamb chops worldview as a joke, too. On the bright side, things will change in the coming months, and we can all look back at Trump’s run for the presidency and remember that both he and we got what we wanted out of it: good burlesque. As Trump famously said in a 1991 Esquire interview, “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” One thing we can know for sure, Trump will not be changed by his little tango with destiny. The thing we should perhaps worry about is whether political discourse will never recover.

Correction, Aug. 27, 2015: This post originally misspelled Gallup.

Aug. 27 2015 7:00 AM

No, Porn Addiction Is Not Really a Thing

Josh Duggar has reached the "checked into rehab" station of the celebrity-scandal cross. What does Josh need to recover from? It's unclear from his family's statement, but Josh's claim that he has "been viewing pornography on the Internet and this became a secret addiction" gives us a hint.

Is porn addiction really a thing? Or, at least in this particular case, is it an attempt to medicalize religious dogma that forbids normal and healthy interest in sexual fantasies? 

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Certainly, the idea that men (and women) who look at porn are addicts is incredibly popular in Christian-right circles. Focus on the Family's site has an authoritative-looking article from 1996 claiming to lay out "The Stages of Pornography Addiction," with psych-jargon like "escalation" and "desensitization" in the listed stages.

But a closer reading should induce some concern they're just making this all up. "Not everyone who sees porn will become addicted to it," authors Gene McConnell and Keith Campbell write. "Some will just come away with toxic ideas about women, sex, marriage and children." 

They don't offer any statistical or research-based evidence for this claim, but they do share an alarming story:

When I personally got to the "acting out phase," I started fantasizing about what it would be like to actually rape a woman. I finally tried it one night when I saw a woman who "fit" the scenario that porn had taught me to look for. I was lucky. Very lucky. I didn't go through with it. After being reported, arrested and spending some time in jail, I finally was able to begin the process of weeding out the lies in my life that porn had put there.

It's not clear from this page which author did time, but an Internet search shows that it was McConnell, for aggravated assault. While it's not a surprise that someone who did such a thing might be tempted to blame porn for their behavior, it's worth remembering that real-world research suggests that there is no link between porn use and rape.

"Erotic and highly emotional experiences ... are powerful," the authors write in their conclusion, "too powerful, it seems, for the human soul to regularly absorb, very much like radiation, which also possessed a mysterious capacity to heal and curse." Passages like these make it clearer that when Christian conservatives talk about "porn addiction," it's less a real psychological problem than another way for Christian conservatives to shame people for being sexual. 

In this piece in Christianity Today, for instance, Shaun Groves claims that "most of my friends" are addicted to porn; the "addiction" he describes consists of subscribing to Playboy and buying a few videos. Pastor Justin Davis's apparent rock-bottom moment was when his wife caught him watching some titillating TV. On the website Every Man's Battle, addiction is defined as having private thoughts about women in skimpy clothes. Winning the war for purity seems to slap the label "addict" on you if you masturbate. 

It is true, as Todd VanDerWerff explains at Vox, that conservative Christians classify all "lust" for people not your spouse as sinful and even adulterous. The medicalizing language turns a sin into a disease; it forces "addicts" to live their lives in a state of minute-to-minute dread of their bodily urges and become dependent on the church to get them through this basically impossible journey. 

There are certainly men out there who use porn so much it interferes with the rest of their life, which means they need help. But these Christian "porn addicts" mostly seem like perfectly normal men who, like most people, need a bit of a private fantasy life. Instead, there's all this drama about rehab and redemption. That puts way more strain on people's marriages than simply letting people have some alone time once in awhile. 

Aug. 26 2015 2:32 PM

Teens Don’t Oughta Know

At a recent concert, Taylor Swift pulled Alanis Morissette onstage with her, and they sang “You Oughta Know,” Morissette's 1995 anthem about being that embarrassing person who makes drunken, angry calls to your ex who then inevitably tells his or her partner that it was just a telemarketer. Many Swift fans in the audience were not aware of who Morissette is.

This display of ignorance “will either make you feel old,” writes Bobby Finger of Jezebel, “or inspire you to become a middle school teacher who assigns all your students to write an essay on ‘Jagged Little Pill.’ ”

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But there is a third feeling to be felt here: I am happy for these teenagers who don't know who Alanis Morissette is. I envy you, teens.

Alanis Morissette was a singer who, in the mid-1990s, capitalized on a small but growing trend of “angry woman” rock acts, such as L7 and Hole, and made an absolute killing, selling 33 million copies of her album Jagged Little Pill worldwide. But while her predecessors wrote songs protesting sexual harassment and rape, Morissette's big hit protested guys who break up with you.

Long before the terms “nice guy syndrome” and “friend zone” were created to describe men who think they are entitled to have a relationship with someone just because they do nice things for them, Morissette tore up the charts with a song about a woman who thinks the same way. “Would she go down on you in a theater?” the narrator of “You Oughta Know” plaintively asks about the woman her ex chose instead. “And would she have your baby?” Begging and clumsy emotional blackmail isn't a good look on anyone, male or female. 

There's nothing wrong with songs told from the perspective of unsavory characters, or else half of the Johnny Cash catalog would have to go into the trash. But weirdly enough, “You Oughta Know” was held up in 1995 as some kind of feminist anthem of empowerment, an angry yalp of rebellion from ladies who had enough. And certainly, Morissette throws her back into it, growling and singing with all her might. But it's still a song about refusing to take no for an answer. This is a “yes means yes” world. There's no reason for the teens of this world to know anything about Alanis Morissette. 

Aug. 26 2015 1:21 PM

The Duke Student Who Doesn’t Want to Read Fun Home Explains Himself

Earlier this week, we learned that a group of college freshmen are refusing to read Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s memoir about her father, because the book is dirty and has boobies in it. Now one of the complainers, Brian Grasso, has an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he explains that his refusal to do his homework has more complicated moral—biblical!—underpinnings. 

“The book includes cartoon drawings of a woman masturbating and multiple women engaging in oral sex,” he writes. “If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex.”

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Right, because the book is dirty and has boobies in it.

This op-ed raises a number of important questions, starting with how Grasso knew the book had boobie pictures without looking at the boobie pictures, since Fun Home doesn't exactly advertise “Hot Lesbian Sex Scenes!” on the cover. But here's what's really confusing: I was told by a huge cover story in the Atlantic this month that it's liberals who are ruining academic freedom on campus. The real censorship, I was told, is to warn students about violent or explicit material that you then expect them to read anyway. Free speech is under assault, I was informed, because student unions decline to pay for the comedy stylings of Dennis Miller or goofy novelty song acts. But nobody mentioned the students who are literally refusing to read books because the Bible told them not to.

Are there liberals and feminists who go overboard and demand censorship? Yes, that is a thing that has happened, and we should push back against it. But this incident is a reminder that the majority of threats to education and academic freedom come from the right, from the attempts to suppress science education to “abstinence-only” programs to attacks on schools teaching kids about the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Fun Home is not a pornographic book. It's a shame that Grasso and his fellow conservative Christian students objectify women's bodies to the point where they think all nudity equals porn. The sex scenes in Fun Home portray, in a secular way, what one might call “the inherent sacredness of sex.” Bechdel's youthful sexual encounters are seen as life-affirming and full of joy—the kind of joy she fears her repressed father never had the chance to experience. Grasso may see all female nudity as nothing more than “titillating content.” If so, that's all the more reason for him to read Bechdel's book and consider the possibility that sex—complete with nudity!—can be about intimacy and human connection and so much more. But first he needs to chill out and do his homework.

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