The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

April 9 2015 11:33 AM

Is Rand Paul Sexist or Just a Jerk?

Rand Paul's newly minted presidential campaign is already plagued with accusations that he's sexist, after he lectured Today's Savannah Guthrie on Wednesday, following a February incident where he literally shushed CNBC’s Kelly Evans. Now Paul has responded, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer:

I think I've been universally short tempered and testy with both male and female reporters. I'll own up to that. And it's hard sometimes. As you know, like during our interview right now, I'm looking only at a camera and it's hard to have a true interaction sometimes, particularly if it's a hostile interviewer and so I do think that interviews should be questions and not necessarily editorializing.

It's a sign of feminist progress that a major politician thinks it's worse to be perceived as sexist than as an imperious jerk who thinks that reporters should be stenographers. But is it really true that Paul gets equally fussy with every reporter who challenges him? 

Paul appears to be thinking of a recent encounter with the Associated Press’ Philip Elliott.* In this interview, Elliott presses Paul to clarify whether his proposed abortion bans should include rape and health exceptions. Paul rambles on about his personal feelings on abortion, but when Elliott tries to pin him down on actual policy positions, Paul gets annoyed and interrupts: "I gave you about a five-minute answer; put my five-minute answer in," he says. 

No doubt Paul was openly irritated with Elliott. But his behavior here doesn't hold a candle to how he talked down and mansplained to Guthrie and Evans about how to do their jobs properly.

By mounting the "I'm not a sexist, just a jerk" defense, Paul can shift the discussion from whether he's hypersensitive toward whether women in general are hypersensitive—and, better yet, continue dodging questions about his abortion policy.

Correction, April 9, 2015: This post originally misspelled Associated Press reporter Philip Elliott’s first name.

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April 8 2015 2:39 PM

To Keep Women Safe, North Carolina GOP Tries to Stop Med Students From Learning How to Provide Safe Abortions

For the past few years, Republicans at the state level have passed a frenzy of abortion restrictions while arguing that they're doing it to protect women and make abortion safer. North Carolina state Rep. Pat McElraft says as much about her latest bill, HB 465: “There's no effort here to try to restrict a woman's right to have an abortion,” she told WRAL. “What we're trying to do is make her care competent.”

Except that the bill would ban medical students from learning how to provide that competent care. On top of extending the waiting period for an abortion to 72 hours and banning anyone but OB-GYNs from performing abortions, the bill also bans the University of North Carolina and East Carolina University from providing abortion training to medical students

When WNCN asked McElraft about this provision, all of her previous concern for competent medical care for abortion patients dried right up. “There are opportunities for doctors to learn,” she said. “Abortion doctors learn from all kinds of training—in spontaneous abortions and sometimes miscarriages.” So which is it, McElraft? Is abortion such a delicate procedure that only one kind of doctor can even begin to understand it? Or is it such a no-brainer that you don't even need training? 

For what it's worth, common methods of abortion—such as medication abortion (which only requires pills) and aspiration abortions—are simple enough that most doctors, as well as nurses and physician assistants, can learn to do them safely. However, providers still need training, even if bills such as HB 465 serve to obscure this reality. 

As Rachel Maddow reported on Monday night, UNC has one of the best OB-GYN residency programs in the country, and its gynecological programs are the pride of the school. Now, the accreditation of this part of the medical school is under threat. “The Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education is the accreditation entity that provides for maintaining a medical education program within the United States,” UNC spokeswoman Jennifer James told WRAL. “They have stated that access to experience with induced abortion must be part of residency education.”

The idea that the abortion restrictions being passed across the country are meant to protect women's safety has always been transparent nonsense, as these laws only serve to shut down safe abortion clinics and drive women to seek abortion pills on the black market. But this North Carolina bill rubs your nose in how cynical the “protect women” line is. McElraft tipped her hand when she told WRAL that her hope is to have “a few more little taxpayers born.” Even if it means threatening women's safety to get there. 

April 7 2015 12:13 PM

Anti-Choicers Say Women Who Want Abortions Are Like Children Near a Hot Stove

Meaghan Winter of Cosmopolitan attended the Heartbeat International conference, where volunteers from anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) gather to socialize, share tips, and murmur disapprovingly about all the sex that women are having these days. CPCs are storefront operations, often placed near abortion clinics, that try to lure women seeking abortion into their offices in hopes of talking them out of it. Heartbeat International is an umbrella organization for about 1,800 CPCs across the country, and they have helped popularize some of the dishonest tactics that CPCs use to manipulate women. For instance, their outreach website OptionLine appears to be a site on abortion and contraception, when its real purpose is to scare you out of using either. 

The theme of this year's conference was Love Is Our Language, i.e., don't hate women who have abortions, because they are simply too dumb to realize that they really want their babies. Winter reports:

Over the course of the three days of the conference, I chatted with a few dozen pregnancy center workers. Multiple women told me it was their job to protect women from abortion as "an adult tells a child not to touch a hot stove." Another oft-repeated catchphrase was, "Save the mother, save the baby," shorthand for many pregnancy center workers' belief that the most effective way to prevent abortion is to convert women.

It's insulting to suggest that women who have sex are silly little girls who don't know what's good for them, but anti-choice activists don't have a better alternative. The only other real option is to denounce sexually active women as wantons and to call women who have abortion murderers—all of which gives credence to pro-choice claims that the anti-choice movement is fundamentally misogynist. (“I don't think it's disrespectful to shout, ‘You're killing your baby,’ ” one attendee told Winter. “That's not saying, ‘You dirty whore.’ ”)

Winter's piece also makes clear that conference speakers encourage volunteers to use manipulative tactics with women seeking contraception and abortion. (For instance, you could say to a woman in need of emergency contraception, "You might not be at a fertile time in your cycle, and it's not worth taking hormones for no reason.") Clearly, if you've convinced yourself that women who want abortions are the equivalent of children close to a hot stove, you could also convince yourself to lie to them for their own good.

April 7 2015 11:47 AM

Women Read More Books, but Men Get to Write More Book Reviews

Women read more than men—by a particularly wide margin when it comes to fiction. So why is it that male voices, both as authors and as critics, continue to be given way more authority in the world of book reviewing? A new study out by VIDA, a group dedicated to improving women's representation in the literary world, shows that while things are improving slowly, men are still way overrepresented when it comes to book reviewing. Hannah Ellis-Petersen at the Guardian reports:

One of the worst culprits was found to be the London Review of Books which featured 527 male authors and critics on their pages in 2014, compared with just 151 women. It also saw a rare drop in reviews of books written by women from the year before, with 14 fewer than in 2013.
The New York Review of Books displayed a similar imbalance, featuring an overall 677 men to 242 women. The New York Times book review featured an overall 909 male contributors and authors, compared with 792 women; The Nation’s male-female split was 469 to 193; and at Harper’s fewer than half the authors reviewed were women.

Erin Belieu, the co-founder of VIDA, emphasized to the Guardian that “our goal has always been consciousness not quotas.” The cultural default is to treat men as voices of authority and wisdom while relegating women to the role of mere consumers whose opinions are given little weight. That problem is not easily reducible to numbers.

Still, surveys like this can help tremendously to highlight how those prejudices are reflected in and perpetuated by the world of book reviewing. A lot of women hesitate to put themselves and their opinions out there, fearing the blowback that comes with being an opinionated woman. But the more women who are seen in public sharing their opinions and being treated with respect and authority, the more the stigma of the opinionated woman recedes. Happily, VIDA found that the number of outlets with increased female representation—including the Slate Book Review—solidly outnumbered those that stayed the same or fell behind. 

April 6 2015 12:54 PM

Kansas Legislature Bans Spending Welfare Money on Cruises

Last week, the Kansas legislature passed a welfare reform bill to limit access to TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), a program that helps clothe and shelter children living in poverty. For one thing, the legislature put a lifetime limit of 36 months on TANF, when the federal limit is 60 months. What was really remarkable, though, was the fantastical list of items that TANF recipients—the majority of whom are children or single parents—are not allowed to buy with their aid money. Tim Carpenter of the Topeka Capital-Journal reports:

No TANF cash aid could be spent out-of-state or anywhere for expenditures in a liquor store, casino, jewelry store, tattoo or body piercing parlor, spa, massage parlor, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility or sexually oriented retail business.

It's unclear why TANF recipients aren't also barred from buying magical swords or vacations to the moon, since they're about as likely to buy those with their big TANF bucks as they are to buy a cruise or a theme-park package. And if you're the sort of person who loses sleep at night thinking of an impoverished child spending a couple of fun hours at a movie theater, don't worry: The average TANF benefit for a single mother with two children in Kansas is $430 a month, which is down a whopping 33 percent in real dollars from the 1996 average. Not much money left over for the movies once you're done covering basic bills. 

The punitive, controlling, and condescending aspects of this bill aren't limited to a ridiculously specific list of forbidden pleasures. An amendment to the bill limits the amount of money a TANF recipient may withdraw from an ATM to $25 a day. "Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, argued against that amendment, noting that some people used TANF aid to pay rent and utility bills," Carpenter writes. It's a pointless and humiliating tacked-on hassle, seemingly devised to punish people for being poor. 

Most TANF beneficiaries are adult women who are the heads of their households, or children whose money is obviously controlled by their parents or guardians—most of whom are women. Since this is the same legislature that has spent the past few years passing laws limiting women's reproductive health care access, I'm wondering if it might be simpler and more affordable to pass a law mandating a state-appointed guardian for every woman in Kansas. 

April 6 2015 12:47 AM

Despite Damning Report, Rolling Stone Will Continue “To Do What We’ve Always Done.” Are They Serious?

Sunday night, Rolling Stone published a report explaining how it got the story of an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity so wrong. The report, co-written by Columbia School of Journalism dean Steve Coll, is an investigation into lapses in reporting, editing, and fact-checking. It runs 13,000 words long—much longer than the original story—and uncovers many lapses, some of them (almost) understandable and others so basic that a first-year Columbia J-school student would be reprimanded for making them. Given all that, the final section of the report is the most surprising: Rolling Stone’s editors are “unanimous in the belief that the story's failure does not require them to change their editorial systems.” Are they serious? Did they read the report?

The original story, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, pivoted on a horrific anecdote from a UVA freshman called “Jackie” who went on a date with a Phi Kappa Psi brother she called “Drew.” (The piece is no longer available online because Rolling Stone retracted it.) According to the story, he smuggled Jackie into a “pitch-black” room at the frat house and orchestrated a gang rape as some kind of hazing ritual. Jackie, whose real name was ultimately reported in the press, did not speak to the Columbia Journalism School—in fact, she hasn’t spoken publicly since the story started to unravel. In late March, the Charlottesville, Virginia, police, after a four-month investigation, concluded there was no basis to support Jackie’s account as told in Rolling Stone. It’s pretty clear at this point that Jackie made it up.

But it’s also clear that Jackie was a very convincing storyteller. The report takes pains to distinguish this case from those of fabulists such as Jayson Blair or Brian Williams. Erdely thought she had a true story, and from the beginning Jackie tried hard to make it believable, telling the reporter in their first conversation, for example, that she arrived at the frat house at exactly 12:52. She remembered being smashed over a coffee table, hearing someone say, “Grab its motherfucking leg.” All of this was in Erdely’s notes, which were turned over to the magazine before this investigation. Erdely interviewed her seven times, and she never wavered. Jackie even told the same story to T. Rees Shapiro, a Washington Post reporter who eventually debunked it.

Given that, it would be tempting for Rolling Stone to say it got duped by a source. But this would be an unseemly thing to do, because lying sources are a hazard of the trade, and it’s the professionals’ job to spot them. In the magazine’s first apology back in December, managing editor Will Dana stated that their trust in Jackie was “misplaced”; he was roundly criticized and had to take it back in a series of tweets. Rolling Stone is no longer saying it’s Jackie’s fault. (Well, actually, Jann Wenner, the magazine’s publisher, almost said it, telling the New York Times on Sunday that the story’s problems started with its source, a “really expert fabulist storyteller.”). But overall they are saying a modified version of Jackie-did-it which makes them look perhaps naive and sloppy, but also respectful and kind.

The magazine’s central narrative is still that most of the reporting mistakes happened because they were being overly sensitive to the wishes of a rape victim and did not want to retraumatize her or have her pull out of the story. “We were too deferential to our rape victim,” Sean Woods, the story’s editor, told Columbia. “We honored too many of her requests in our reporting.” Erdely, too, is quoted regretting that the discussion she had with her editors was so focused on “how to accommodate her.” But the report soundly concludes that “deferential” and “accommodating” don’t cut it. The report’s most damning finding is that the magazine “did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain.” These are “basic, even routine journalistic practice—not special investigative effort,” the report adds. “And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.”

The worst mistake—the one that could have saved them from this mess—was the failure to track down the three friends who Jackie says she saw that night, right after she was raped. Erdely describes a scene in which the friends callously decline to take her to a hospital because they do not want to ruin their reputations. The clichéd dialogue should have made any editor suspicious (“We’ll never be allowed into any frat party again”). Erdely asked Jackie for their last names, but she wouldn’t tell her; she asked a friend of Jackie’s who wouldn’t tell her either.* Jackie continued to insist that at least one of the friends didn’t want to talk, but she never told Erdely she would drop out of the story if Erdely found them.

Erdely should have looked harder, found them on Facebook, asked other friends, the report concludes. If she had they would have told her—as they later told Shapiro—that they never said those things and that on the night in question, Jackie recounted a completely different story. That section of the report ends with a Journalism 101 lesson: “Checking derogatory information with subjects is a matter of fairness, but it can also produce surprising new facts.”

In general the report is somewhat inconclusive about Erdely, who issued an apology Sunday. It hints that she went into the story with a strong agenda, looking for a “pervasive … rape culture” and a dramatic story to prove it. It contends that she is an experienced investigative reporter, although that doesn’t square with the many examples of her taking short cuts whenever she could—for example, emailing fraternity leaders to get comments about allegations of a gang rape without giving them dates, names, or any details they could investigate. The report leaves the impression—without coming out and saying it—that Erdely maybe didn’t want to look too hard for outside sources who might contradict Jackie’s story. And it doesn’t mention that this isn’t the first time that Erdely has relied largely on uncheckable sources or had her stories questioned.

The report mentions possible backlash, including the worry that the Rolling Stone debacle will make it even harder to reform the prevailing systems for dealing with campus sexual assaults. I’m not sure the story actually did so much damage. The debate has continued, with more evidence and good ideas for reform stacking up. Hearing the Phi Kappa Psi chapter president Stephen Scipione say in the report that the Rolling Stone story tarnished their reputation and ruined their lives for the semester doesn’t lead you to conclude that no rape story is ever true and all accused men are innocent; it just sobers you up to realize that rape charges are a pretty serious affair that should be handled with as much care and thorough investigation as possible. 

As for reporting on sexual assault? I wouldn’t put my trust in Rolling Stone. No one at the magazine, or at an outside legal firm representing them, would comment on what the magazine’s lawyers said when they looked over the original draft of the story. No one is getting fired. And the editors, despite lots of apologies throughout, wind up sounding indifferent. Dana ended by saying they don’t need new ways of doing things; they “just have to do what we've always done and just make sure we don't make this mistake again." And Coco McPherson, head of fact-checking, said, "I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter."

Thankfully the report doesn’t end that way. It gives practical—and somewhat obvious—advice that will likely become required reading for journalism students. Avoid pseudonyms. Check derogatory information, in detail. If you’re reporting on rape, explain to victims, kindly, that you will have to check what they tell you, and if they’re not ready for that, both of you should be prepared to walk away. And I might add: Don’t hide behind the man who pays your salary. Just because he’s not firing you doesn’t mean you should keep doing what you’ve always done.

*Correction, April 6, 2015: This post originally misstated that Sabrina Rubin Erdely asked a friend of hers for the last names of three people who were with Jackie the night she alleged she was raped; Erdely asked a friend of Jackie’s.

April 2 2015 12:55 PM

Somehow, Indiana Managed to Convict a Woman of Both “Feticide” and Child Neglect

Indiana's getting a lot of national attention lately because of its new "religious freedom" law, which critics say will shield businesses that discriminate against LGBT people. But there's another reason Indiana has moved to the front of the pack in the race for most retrograde state in the nation. Purvi Patel, the first woman in the country to be convicted of "feticide" for attempting to abort a pregnancy, has been sentenced to 30 years in prison, 10 of which were suspended.

Patel stood accused of ordering black-market abortion drugs to abort a pregnancy caused by her affair with a married man. Sometime in her second trimester, Patel gave birth to either a stillborn baby or a baby who only lived a few moments, and Patel threw the baby's body into a dumpster. She was subsequently charged both with feticide and child neglect—charges that contradict each other, as I reported in February. But with the double charge, the prosecution managed both to maximize the potential sentence (rendered as six years for feticide and 30 for child neglect, to be served concurrently) and advance the drive to criminalize abortion in the U.S.

April 1 2015 1:20 PM

Women Sue the Pentagon Over Military Sexual Abuse

For years, momentum had been building on the issue of sexual assault in the military. Sara Corbett's 2007 exposé in the New York Times helped shine a light on how widespread and serious the problem is, as did the 2012 documentary The Invisible War. A dramatic increase in the number of reported sexual assaults drew yet more attention, as did a high-profile case against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair in 2014.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand pushed for legislation to reform the military's response to sexual assault, but the Senate repeatedly shot down her efforts. One of the biggest points of contention was Gillibrand's wish to remove sexual assault reporting from the chain of command. Right now, a victim has to report to her commanding officer, even though he may know or even be the assailant, and her commanding officer decides what to do about it. Gillibrand wanted victims to be able to report instead to an independent third party, likely military lawyers, arguing that they are more likely to be impartial. That particular bill died in the Senate last March. Since then, much of the momentum on this issue appears to have receded. 

April 1 2015 12:32 PM

MTV’s True Life Shows Slut-Shaming in Action, and It’s Nauseating

Only one of MTV’s best three shows remains on the air. Daria left us long ago, and the gem Rich Girls lasted just one season. But True Life soldiers on. True Life launched in 1998 and its format hasn’t changed: Each hourlong episode addresses a theme in young people’s lives, from the trivial (“I Have a Summer Share”) to the serious (“I’m Placing My Baby for Adoption”). It’s voiceover-free, letting the shows’ subjects carry the narrative weight. New episodes air only sporadically, but Monday night’s installment—True Life: I’m Being Slut-Shamed—demonstrated that the trusty old show remains strong.

The title pretty much sums it up: The episode examined three young women who were facing social or familial pressure to change the way they dress and behave. The conclusion, that slut-shaming is bad, seems obvious, but the show demonstrates just how cruel people can be to a woman they have deemed loose. Case in point: Della.

In the clip below, Della, a beautiful 23-year-old who spends most of her segments with her eyes cast down, is meeting with her two “best friends,” Clint and Jason. She slept with one of them three years ago, another a few months ago—and since that fling, the two men appear to have treated her in a disgusting manner. They take every opportunity to stake the moral high ground. “I did not spend 12 months in Afghanistan for you to dress like that,” one scolds her after pulling her aside at a party.

But it’s worse when they gang up on her. “They say a man can have sex with a hundred woman and he’s a legend. Now, a woman has sex with a hundred men, and she’s a slut.” Normally that statement comes from one pointing out the hypocrisy. Nope. Not here. “That’s not even a saying. It’s a scientific fact,” his friend chimes in.

It’s truly amazing that not one but two people thought that it would be a good idea to act this way on television. The most likely explanation: They believe that they are wholly in the right, and the audience will sympathize with them about the burden of having a slatternly slut as a friend. Jon Ronson might disagree, but it seems that they deserve the shame that should be coming their way right about now.   

March 31 2015 4:48 PM

Abortion Patients Deserve “Spa-Like” Conditions

Sandhya Somashekhar at the Washington Post writes about efforts to reduce abortion stigma and make the experience of getting an abortion slightly less miserable. She kicks off the piece by highlighting a new clinic in Montgomery County, Maryland, whose ads read, “Abortion. Yeah, we do that.” Somashekhar writes, “With its natural wood floors and plush upholstery, Carafem aims to feel more like a spa than a medical clinic.”

You can already hear the who-do-they-think-they-are responses being typed out on social media, but why shouldn't a health clinic aim for a more welcoming experience? I know I appreciate, for instance, having a DVD player on hand during a root canal. 

Of course, the answer is that an abortion clinic isn't just any health clinic. “Although a majority of Americans say abortion should be available in most cases, polls show roughly half of those surveyed also think abortion is morally wrong,” Somashekhar writes. Certainly, anti-choice forces want to tap into that unease. “Abortion is not pleasant,” Carol Tobias of National Right to Life told Somashekhar, “and trying to put pretty wrappings around the procedure isn’t going to make any difference.”

Well, cancer isn't pleasant, either, but that's not a reason to deny cancer patients fluffy robes and soothing music. Getting medical treatments in general is unpleasant. That's exactly why health care providers should try to smooth the edges as much as possible with creature comforts. The same should go for abortion, a really common procedure that a woman runs a 1-in-3 chance of needing at some point in her life. Abortion is legal. If you want a little more misery and shame with your abortion experience, feel free to impose that on yourself, but for those who disagree, pass the fluffy robes and the herbal teas. 

Correction, March 31, 2015: Due to an editing error, the headline of this post originally stated that the clinic is located in Washington, D.C. It is located in Maryland.