What Women Really Think

July 25 2014 5:04 PM

Keith Olbermann Wonders Why the NFL Doesn't Think Women Are Worthy of “Basic Human Respect”

On Thursday night, ESPN’s Keith Olbermann delivered an on-point condemnation of the NFL’s pathetic sanctions against the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice. Rice was charged with assault after being caught on video dragging his unconscious fiancée from a casino elevator. As my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley noted, "Rice was indicted by a grand jury on a felony assault charge, but avoided further prosecution by agreeing to participate in a pretrial intervention program." Many assumed that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would issue a severe punishment of his own. After all, this is the league that issues four-game suspensions for marijuana use. In this case, however, Goodell handed Rice a fine and a two-game suspension.

Olbermann paused for 45 seconds during his ESPN monologue to show the silent surveillance footage of Rice removing his then-fiancée, now wife, from the elevator. Olbermann then notes that defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth was suspended five games for stepping on a player’s head during a game—an infraction the NFL took very, very seriously.


By being so lenient with Rice, Olbermann argues, the NFL displays an offensive disregard for women. As Justin Peters reported in Slate two years ago, 21 of 32 NFL teams “had employed a player with a domestic violence or sexual assault charge on his record” during the 2012 season.

While Olbermann’s points about the NFL are well-taken, I am particularly impressed by his attention to the responsibilities of sports journalists. Yes, pro football has a woman problem, but so do many other sports, as well as the people who comment on them. Olbermann took the opportunity to highlight comments about Marion Bartoli’s looks, Brittney Griner’s gender identity, and Gabby Douglas’ hair, noting how each of them “lowers the level of basic human respect for women in sports.”

A change in attitude across an industry does not come easy. On Friday morning, not long after Olbermann’s segment ran, his ESPN colleague Stephen A. Smith opined that while, sure, domestic violence is bad, women should make sure they don't do "anything to provoke wrong actions.” In such a climate, Olbermann’s words are not only refreshing, but incredibly important. Well done, Keith.

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July 25 2014 3:23 PM

Republican Congressional Nominee: A Woman Can Run for Office With Husband's Permission

Just because Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel lost to incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi doesn't mean that conservatives are done using the primary system to drive the Republican party further to the right. Finding someone more right wing than the Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia may have seemed impossible.  Conservative group the Madison Project gushed, “It is not an exaggeration to say that Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA) has sustained the most conservative voting record over the longest period of time of any sitting Republican in Congress.” But as Think Progress reports, Georgia's 10th District voters did it on Tuesday, booting Broun and awarding Baptist minister and bizarro talk radio host Jody Hice the Republican nomination to Congress instead.

July 24 2014 5:09 PM

Republican Strategy on Women: "Rape Is a Four-Letter Word. Purge It From Your Lexicon."

In the New York Times, Jeremy Peters covers the next chapter of the continuing saga of Republican efforts to appeal to women without having to give up warring on women. This time it’s about conservative strategists' efforts to help Republican politicians talk about abortion.

"Our self-mute strategy permits the Democrats to frame the issue on their own terms," says a report written by the Republican group American Principles in Action. On the other hand, Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List, thinks the self-mute button could be hit more frequently. "Two sentences is really the goal" when talking about abortion. "Then stop talking." (For what it's worth, hers is probably the right answer, as the more people hear about conservative views on abortion, the less they like them.) 

Rape is another subject to play dumb about. "Rape is a four-letter word,” Peters reports that a Republican consultant advises. “Purge it from your lexicon." How Republicans are supposed to do that when rape exceptions in abortion legislation are real issues in campaigns is a mystery.

July 24 2014 1:56 PM

The Scientific Case for Decriminalizing Sex Work

This article originally appeared in The Cut.

Arguments in favor of decriminalizing prostitution often rely on empathy for sex workers themselves: Journalist Melissa Gira Grant contends, for example, that criminalizing sex work implicitly condones violence against sex workers, who are often afraid to go to the police to report violence and are frequently ignored when they do. Current laws (sex work is illegal in 116 countries) require that sex workers render themselves largely voiceless and invisible—which makes their interests easy to ignore.

But new research suggests that existing legislation against sex work may also be harming society at large—and that decriminalizing sex work could help slow the spread of HIV.

July 24 2014 8:13 AM

Blake Lively Launches a Lifestyle Website and You Will Hate Yourself

The actress Blake Lively is following in the Prada-shod footsteps of Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, and Lauren Conrad: She launched a lifestyle website.  It’s called Preserve, and in her editor’s letter, Lively says her new website isn’t a new website, per se. It’s a “new street. A sort of greatest hits of ‘Main Street, USA’. While the whole world races to keep up with technology, we tighten our laces, join the race, but our end goal is to preserve what's already there.” So far, Preserve includes a paean to the art of letter writing, a recipe for “kick ass” baby back ribs, and a featured artisan who makes leather goods through a distressing process described as “sensual.”

At first blush this is not a predictable move for an actress best known for her role as the uber-wealthy Upper East Side vixen Serena van der Woodsen on Gossip Girl. But, if you think of Lively as part of a generation of women that turns the DIY  ethos into a quest for perfection, it makes a strange sort of sense that she would take a few years off from acting to devote herself to launching such a project.

July 23 2014 5:18 PM

Why Can’t We Stop Talking About "Bikini Bodies"?

This article originally appeared in The Cut.

Every summer, tabloids and women’s magazines bombard us with news of “bikini bodies,” a predictable ritual with an equally predictable response: Jezebel recently dismissed the term as “infuriating bullshit,” while a Huffington Post quiz promised women that having a “bikini body” requires just a bikini and a body.

Yet, despite these efforts, the fact remains that bikini body conjures a specific image: a thin, fit female body, perhaps belonging to Gisele or Beyoncé, and almost certainly not belonging to you. The women whose figures we idolize have changed over time, but the idea that only certain bodies are worthy of the title bikini has been used in articles and advertising language for over 50 years.

The term bikini body was first popularized in a 1961 ad campaign by a chain of weight-loss salons called Slenderella International, according to linguists consulted for this story, as well as public records. “Summer’s wonderful fun is for those who look young,” read a Slenderella ad that ran in in outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post in the summer of 1961. “High firm bust—hand span waist—trim, firm hips—slender graceful legs—a Bikini body!”

July 23 2014 2:44 PM

NRA Commentator: Kids Should Be Required to Learn How to Shoot a Gun in School  

Media Matters snagged a rather startling example of what passes for thought-provoking commentary at NRA News, which is a news-and-commentary site for the National Rifle Association. The video is called "Everyone Gets A Gun" and features regular NRA commentator Billy Johnson musing about an ideal world in which the government would promote gun ownership. (The NRA includes a disclaimer indicating that Johnson's commentary "does not necessarily" reflect the larger organization's.)

"But what would happen if we designed gun policy from the assumption that people need guns—that guns make people's lives better. Let's consider that for a minute," he says. "Gun policy driven by people's need for guns would seek to encourage people to keep and bear arms at all times." Johnson even suggests that it would be cool to have "gun-required zones" instead of "gun-free zones." That's deep, man.

July 23 2014 1:13 PM

True Blood May Be a Lot of Things, Ted Cruz, but It's Not Misogynist

Ted Cruz, once again demonstrating that he has an ego too tender to be in politics, threw a tantrum on Facebook Tuesday upon learning that the HBO schlock-fest True Blood made fun of him in a recent episode. “Sunday night, they aired a misogynist and profanity-ridden episode where Texas Republicans are murdered attending a ‘Ted Cruz fundraiser,’” he wrote, not even giving his followers the courtesy of a spoiler warning.

It was a masterful display of completely missing the point, and not just because he complained about the profanity in a show whose sex and violence make Game of Thrones look like Sesame Street. Still, at least that complaint was accurate enough. But “misogynist”? It’s like Cruz heard somewhere that “misogynist” was a bad thing to be and just started flinging words around to discredit the show. I mean, sure, one of the characters in the clip in question uses the words “Republicunt,” but considering that she’s a self-identified “asshole” who murders people for fun, it’s a stretch to argue the show is endorsing her language choices here.

True Blood may be a muddled mess that riffs on touchy political issues without having anything coherent to say about them. You can definitely ding the show for having some racially unsavory moments or for accidentally perpetuating the homophobia it seems to want to denounce. But the show isn’t misogynist, and not just because you can see Alexander Skarsgård or Ryan Kwanten in the altogether in any random episode. (Though having a show that panders to the female gaze as much as the male gaze is a quiet triumph.) No, it’s because in the topsy-turvy, screwed-up world of True Blood, female characters are allowed to be just as crafty, evil, autonomous, and straight up horny as the men.

July 23 2014 12:26 PM

Women Can Succeed in Corporate America, as Long as They Don't Promote Other Women

A new study by management and entrepreneurship professors at the University of Colorado at Boulder asked the bosses and peers of 362 executives to rate those executives on their performance, warmth, competence, and “diversity-valuing behavior,” or commitment to racial and gender diversity at the company. (The paper will be presented at next month’s Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management.) They found that women and people of color who demonstrated strong diversity-valuing behavior received lower performance ratings than white men who demonstrated the same. Women who promote other women “will tend to be viewed as less warm” than white men who also value diversity, the researchers found. (Jill Abramson just earned a new talking point in her New York Times post-firing interview tour.) Meanwhile, minority executives who value diversity risk being “stereotyped as incompetent.”

July 22 2014 3:14 PM

$190 Million Can’t Buy “Closure” for the Victims of Johns Hopkins’ Abusive Gynecologist

For 25 years, Dr. Nikita Levy ran an obstetrics and gynecology practice out of the East Baltimore Medical Center, a community clinic run by the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System. Last February, Johns Hopkins authorities discovered that Levy had been secretly filming his patients in the examination room, using cameras embedded into pens that he wore around his neck and key fobs he carried in his pockets. At his home, police found hard drives and servers stocked with thousands of videos and photographs of his patient’s naked bodies, snapped under the auspices of performing routine pelvic examinations.

Levy treated 12,600 patients during his 25-year career. They will never know whether their trusted gynecologist filmed them at their most vulnerable: The evidence, collected by police, doesn’t reveal their faces, and Levy killed himself shortly after his abuse was discovered. Some patients now say they recall Levy bringing them in for unnecessary treatments and touching them inappropriately under the guise of medical care. In a lawsuit filed last fall, one former patient wrote that she and other victims must now live with the fact that their doctor viewed them “not through the clear eyes of a physician but through the filthy lens of a depraved pervert.” Some say they no longer feel safe seeking medical care at all. Others feel uncomfortable even bringing their children to doctors.


“They are in fear, dismayed, angry, and anxious over a breach of faith, a breach of trust, a betrayal on the part of the medical system,” Jonathan Schochor, an attorney who represented 8,000 plaintiffs in a class-action suit brought against Johns Hopkins’ medical network, said in a news conference Monday. “Many of our clients still feel betrayed, and still feel the breach of trust they have experienced, and they have fallen out of the medical system.”

On Monday, Johns Hopkins announced that it would pay $190 million in damages to the class-action plaintiffs for the sexual abuse they suffered at its medical center and the psychological distress that persists. Now, the court will go about the strange business of distributing those funds to each of Levy’s victims. According to the Associated Press, each individual plaintiff “was interviewed by a forensic psychologist and a post-traumatic stress specialist to determine how much trauma she suffered and how much money she will receive”; their relative harms and eventual payouts will be determined based on a “four-tier damage matrix.” In a letter to the JHU community, Johns Hopkins Hospital officials said, “It is our hope that this settlement—along with law enforcement’s findings that no images were shared—helps all who have been affected to achieve a measure of closure.”

This is the cold legal solution: Thousands of women will have their experience plotted on a “damage matrix” so that a court can calculate their distress and cut them checks. But Levy did not just victimize thousands of women—he victimized a community, and his abuse of his Johns Hopkins perch threatens to reverberate across the city and the country for generations. As one of Levy’s former patients put it in a lawsuit filed last fall, the doctor’s victims “were generally poor, black, undereducated, and of course, female.” Attorneys spearheading the class-action suit against the university notified former patients by publishing a full-page notice in the Baltimore AFRO-American and buying up ad space on local hip-hop station 92Q. Johns Hopkins is one of the most powerful landowners and employers in the state of Maryland, but many of the surrounding communities are among the country’s most vulnerable. Steps away from the university’s top-tier scientific research facilities, Baltimore’s black residents suffer from extreme health disparities and severe income inequality. Some local residents refer to JHU as “the Plantation.” Even $190 million will not provide “closure” for that reality.

“Monetary compensation is the easy part,” says Dr. Stephen B. Thomas, a professor of Health Services Administration at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health and the director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Health Equity.  “The harder part is making sure it never happens again, and recognizing that these communities are vulnerable at so many levels.”

Levy’s crimes won’t just affect the 8,000 women who sat on his examination table. The breach of trust that Levy’s actions represent will congeal into “a legacy that’s passed on to the next generation,” Thomas says. If women and their children stop seeing doctors, “the transference of distrust will be passed down by word of mouth, through family networks.” Thomas adds, “It’s very important to recognize that a community has been harmed, and that community, in my opinion, doesn’t just live in east Baltimore. The ripples extend across the black community.”

The Levy case is just the most recent incident that lays bare the long-standing “racial discord between black communities and white medical institutions,” as Thomas put it. A 2003 study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that black patients are more likely to distrust physicians than are white patients and more likely to be concerned about privacy violations and medical experiments. “There’s a broader context here that contributes to the hesitancy, leeriness, and distrust among these communities,” he says. “And that distrust has been earned; that distrust is legitimate.” In the 1950s, Johns Hopkins doctors treated a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks for cervical cancer; when she died, its scientists harvested her cells without her family’s permission, then used Lacks’ cells to fuel scientific experiments and build a multibillion-dollar biotechnical industry around her DNA. Meanwhile, her family suffered in poverty, unable to afford their own health insurance. In the '90s, two JHU scientists ran experiments on local black residents, connecting with slumlords to lure families with small children into apartments coated with lead paint. When parents sued, a judge determined that researchers made those children “canaries in the mines” without their families’ consent.

These are headline-grabbing ethical breaches that inspire big lawsuits and celebrated books, but the day-to-day experience of urban health care speaks to a quieter tragedy. “The people living in the shadow of these institutions do not benefit from all the science and technology that’s being developed there,” Thomas says. “These communities should be the healthiest in the state.” Dr. Susan Reverby, a Wellesley historian who studies the ethics of public health and is an expert on the Tuskegee Institute’s infamous syphilis studies, says that high-profile incidents like the Levy case need to be understood in a greater context of health care disparities that reveal themselves in smaller, personal experiences. “Most of the research shows that it’s not usually the knowledge of incidents like Tuskegee that keep people from getting health care—it’s hearing about what happened to Grandma when she went to the doctor,” Reverby says. “The word Tuskegee gets used as a metaphor for attempting to give a voice to racist systems and bad experiences.”

In many ways, Johns Hopkins appears committed to improving its relationship with local residents. The university’s community physicians program—of which the East Baltimore Medical Center is a part—aims to extend the university’s medical services to surrounding neighborhoods. The university now sponsors an annual Henrietta Lacks memorial lecture, award, and scholarship dedicated to improving relationships between scientific researchers and their surrounding communities. Its researchers work with Building Trust, a Maryland organization dedicated to fostering positive and transparent collaborations between minority residents and scientific researchers. That’s why it seems so disingenuous for the university to suggest that a one-time monetary settlement will provide “a measure of closure” between its doctors and its patients. “No apology, no settlement, will solve these problems,” Thomas told me. “The ultimate response needs to be atonement—and atonement means making things better.”