What Women Really Think

Dec. 22 2014 3:00 PM

A Week of “Good News” Shows How Bad Christian Women Leaders Still Have It

It was a big week for female religious leaders. Last Tuesday, the Vatican ended its six-year investigation into the lives of American nuns with an approving report. And, on Wednesday, the Church of England appointed its first female bishop. On the surface, the moves portend good things for Christian women. In reality, they just highlight how bad things have been—and still are—for many of the most active women in the church.  


In 2008, the Vatican launched an investigation into American nuns because the nuns were thought to have a “secular mentality” due to their commitment to social justice. Tuesday’s report concluded by encouraging the nuns to essentially continue doing what they’ve been doing: work toward “the elimination of the structural causes of poverty.” It’s tempting to think of the report as a six-year nuisance that ultimately reinforced the nuns’ relevance. But the very existence of the inquiry was a chauvinistic exercise that rightly outraged many Catholics. The Nun Justice Project deemed it a “huge waste of time” and “demeaning.” And on WBUR last week, Simone Campbell of Nuns on the Bus reminded us of some of the other things that the church had to worry about in 2008—like pedophilia, lack of fiscal responsibility, and generally poor management. In light of those troubles, it’s baffling that the church chose to pick on the Catholic sisters for scrutiny.

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Dec. 22 2014 2:00 PM

The Year Having Kids Became a Frivolous Luxury

As 2014 comes to a close, DoubleX is looking back on the year that was—the stories we covered and missed that captivated, puzzled, enraged, and delighted us.

XX Factor year In Review

There have been many prominent pregnancy and child care–related issues in 2014, from the UPS pregnancy discrimination case that was recently argued in front of the Supreme Court to the publicity around the scheduling software that makes child care arrangements impossible for working-class parents. In reading and writing about these issues, I’ve noticed a depressing sentiment: Having children is now often framed as a frivolous lifestyle choice, as if it’s a decision that’s no different from moving to San Francisco or buying a motorcycle. If you choose to buy that Harley or have that baby, it’s on you, lady.

When I’ve written about middle- and upper-middle-class parents wanting benefits like paid parental leave, this is the typical sort of comment people make: “I see no reason to subsidize women’s fantasies of ‘having it all.’ ” As if raising children is just about pinning another badge to a Girl Scout sash. When I write about working-class parents just trying to make ends meet and find safe child care for their offspring, the comments are even crueler: “If you can't afford a dog, don’t get a dog. If you can't afford a kid, don't get a kid.”

Though these sorts of reactions aren’t brand new, I’ve been seeing more of them. So I decided to ask June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, both law professors and the co-authors of Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family and Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, about where the framing of children as a lifestyle choice comes from, and whether my suspicion that there’s an uptick in people treating child-bearing as this kind of consumer choice is true.

There are two slightly different things going on. For wealthier parents, the turn against child-rearing happened in the late ’90s and early aughts, when childless white-collar workers started grousing about the benefits that workers with children received, from tax breaks to more flexible work hours. This coincided with a critical mass of mothers in the workforce. Cahn, a professor at George Washington University, points to the 2000 publication of Elinor Burkett’s The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless, as an expression of the growing resentment of parents.

Carbone, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has found in her research and reporting that, since the 2008 recession, the kids-as-your-choice-not-my-problem sentiment has been applied to poorer people. “People weren’t saying this as much in 2004,” Carbone says.

So what’s going on? When Carbone and Cahn wrote their 2010 book, Red Families v. Blue Families, they described the blue state model of parenting as the kind where people defer child rearing until “both partners reach maturity and financial independence.” Red families have a different model—they promote abstinence until marriage and are pro-life, and so people get married younger, and there are higher rates of teen pregnancy among red families. There used to be sympathy for young parents who were struggling to get by in the “red” model.

Blue families have long preached and practiced “responsible parenting,” which is that you shouldn’t have children you can’t afford. But the shift is that red families are now also on the “responsible parenting” bandwagon.

As Carbone eloquently puts it:

What I see in almost all walks of life is a sense of pessimism about the country.  The pie is contracting. People work much harder to stay where they are, the ability to guarantee the same life for your children is declining, and people feel they can’t afford to be as generous about anything. You have to be warier of new people, resentful of people around you, you can’t expand the benefits available to others without hurting your own chances and those of your children.

The problem here is that wages have stagnated, and Millennials—the people who are starting to have kids now—are having trouble finding jobs that enable them to support themselves, much less families, despite being the most educated generation ever. Unfortunately, instead of blaming a political and corporate system that is making life impossible for everyone, people are blaming parents for the perceived “benefits” they are getting, like unpaid parental leave and child care tax breaks.

Though in some ways, having children is a “choice,” to compare it to the purchase of an appliance is appalling. It’s a pretty typical part of the human experience. It’s not something that should be restricted to people who already won the birth lottery by being born middle class.

Dec. 22 2014 12:14 PM

Should Journalists Report on Sexual Assaults Before Charges Are Filed?

In July, a Houston teenager named Jada went to a party, passed out, and woke up to discover that she may have been sexually assaulted—after she saw photos of the event plastered all over the internet. One photograph, of Jada naked on the floor, spread across social media in the form of a viral joke. Enough people found the photo so hilarious that it inspired memes, the mocking hashtag #jadapose, and even a rap song. But Jada bravely pushed back, going to the media with her story and refusing to accept these attempts to dehumanize her. Jada’s supporters countered with a new hashtag, #IAmJada, dedicated to seeking justice for victims of sexual assault.

Now, two young men have been arrested and charged with sexual assault in Jada’s case: a 19-year-old man, who has been charged as an adult, and a 16-year-old boy, who’s been charged as a juvenile. CBS News reports that the 19-year-old turned himself in after the 16-year-old was arrested.

The arrests are a testament to how national media attention to these crimes can have a positive impact. It's an important reminder in the wake of the Rolling Stone debacle, which has raised fears that rape is just too sensitive and ambiguous to report on unless it’s been adjudicated in the courts. Last week, Joe Scarborough at MSNBC applied that lesson to Bill Cosby, and argued that journalists should refuse to report on rape cases where arrests haven’t been made. "I do know that to have someone come forward 40 years later, with a man who's never been charged, and then for the media to immediately put it out there and for it go viral and then to have it happen over and over again," he complained, pointing his finger for emphasis. "And then to finish reading, every time, 'Bill Cosby has never been charged.'" When Mika Brzezinski asked, angrily, “But do we not report it?”, Scarborough replied, "I don't think we should.”

But Jada's case shows why it's so critical for alleged rape victims to tell their stories in mainstream media spaces. When reported on appropriately and with due diligence, these stories draw attention to all of the reasons why sexual assault is so rarely prosecuted successfully. And in many cases, alleged assailants and their supporters have plenty of power to craft their own narratives. In Jada’s case, they had the power to humiliate her through social media. In Cosby's case, his accusers say that his wealth and fame protected him from the law. Giving alleged victims space to tell their stories is one way to give them some of that power back.

I shudder to think of what could have happened to Jada if she'd been stonewalled, per Scarborough's proposed rules, from telling her side of the story to the media back in July, when the abuse was at its worst. We don't know if the media pressure helped lead to these arrests, but what we do know, from Jada herself, is that the media attention helped her cope personally with the harassment, and keep fighting for justice. On MSNBC, Jada told Ronan Farrow, "From my community, there's very little support still [from] the teenagers,” even after the arrests. But “people outside of my community are very supportive.”  Now, Jada says, “I'm just grateful and thankful for everyone who followed and supported me.”

Dec. 22 2014 12:00 PM

The Year Network TV Finally Let Us See Natural Black Hair

As 2014 comes to a close, DoubleX is looking back on the year that was—the stories we covered and missed that captivated, puzzled, enraged, and delighted us.

XX Factor year In Review

It’s saying something when, in a television episode ending with the line, “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” the thing that makes the biggest headlines is the removal of a wig. That’s exactly what happened in mid-October, when Viola Davis’s character, Annalise Keating, performed a perfectly crafted, cathartic deglamorization on How to Get Away With Murder.  

The Wall Street Journal deemed the reveal of Annalise’s close-cropped, natural hair from underneath a short, straight wig, “shocking.” Buzzfeed, in typical Buzzfeed fashion, broke down the moment in a series of dramatic GIFs. Damon Young, of the blog Very Smart Brothas, called her “unmasking” “one of the 10 most remarkable things I’ve ever seen on screen.”

As hesitant as I usually am to indulge in such hyperbole, the astonishment that greeted that episode was more than warranted. Seeing Annalise in such a stripped down state added layers upon layers to an elusive character who at that point had far less screen time than most of us wanted from her. “I pushed for that to happen,” Davis told the Huffington Post UK of the wig removal. "Because who Annalise is in public is a big fat lie, and we have to see her taking off the armour, which is so thick, it becomes all the more dramatic when she removes it, and you see all the pain." And it was more than just a great artistic choice—it was a cultural one too: a striking image so rarely seen on network TV, of a black woman at her most vulnerable and real.

Annalise wasn’t the only black female character to let her hair down this year on network TV: In the Season 4 premiere of Scandal, a (temporarily) relaxed Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) took a break from her hair relaxer while living on a secluded island with her boyfriend. It didn’t last long; as soon as she returned to “handle” things in Washington, D.C., her hair was back to straight. But for those few brief moments, it was refreshing to see a major black character with hair that looked like mine.

And the new show Black-ish took up the issue of natural black hair more directly, both on and off screen. In a recent episode, the contentious relationship between Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and her mother-in-law Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) came to a head when Ruby styled her granddaughter’s hair in an Afro without Rainbow’s permission. While the disagreement has more to do with Ruby not trusting Rainbow’s parenting skills than it does any sort of grand statement about being proud of natural hair, it was just one of many moments from Black-ish that has felt candid, and true to many black women’s experiences. And in a piece for Entertainment Weekly, Ross recently wrote: “I’m very conscious of how I wear my hair on the show, and yet it’s the way I wear my hair as Tracee. You hire me, you hire my hair and you hire my ass. It’s all coming with me.”

Ross’ statement is incredibly important. It’s important because it’s 2014, and it’s still a (pleasant) surprise when black women find success as leads in major network series. Because it’s 2014, and the recent Sony leaks have confirmed what many people of color have suspected all along: That for all the strides made in visibility on screen, too many of the folks calling the shots in Hollywood still subscribe to inherently racist notions. And because it’s 2014, and this year, the New York Times decided to publish a tone-deaf and misinformed piece in which an “older, darker-skinned” Viola Davis is declared “less classically beautiful” in comparison to her peers.

More diversity in TV is great, but it won’t amount to much if there isn’t a commitment to presenting a wide range of images within that lineup. Showing off a natural hairdo is only a small step towards greater inclusion, but it’s a good start.

Dec. 22 2014 9:00 AM

The Year We Asked the NFL, Budweiser, and TV Land to Solve Violence Against Women

As 2014 comes to a close, DoubleX is looking back on the year that was—the stories we covered and missed that captivated, puzzled, enraged, and delighted us.

XX Factor year In Review

In February, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punched his fiancée Janay Palmer in the head in an Atlantic City casino elevator, knocked her out cold, dragged her unconscious body out of the elevator, and kicked her legs aside to clear them of the closing doors. A month later, Rice was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault in New Jersey, then welcomed into a pre-trial diversionary program that will allow him to avoid prosecution if he completes an anger management course and stays out of trouble for a year. It’s the kind of get-out-of-jail-free card that’s generally reserved for those charged with non-violent or “victimless” crimes. Many Americans believed that Rice got off easy because he’s a big football star. So they turned to big football to balance the scales.

When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed down a two-game suspension to Rice over the incident, he incited a months-long shit storm over the league’s approach to players accused of committing violence against women. It was an outrage perfect storm—a celebrity player, a female victim, a viral video, and an embattled commissioner. But the event also keyed into a growing appetite for a strange new form of justice, one that’s dispensed outside the bounds of the traditional justice system—particularly in cases where the victims are women.

The fact that we now expect Goodell, of all people, to properly adjudicate claims of domestic violence and sexual assault says less about his duty as commissioner and more about the total failure of the cops and courts to fulfill their own responsibilities. The system for processing these cases has been broken for so long that it often seems pointless to even try to make it work. So now, we’ve resorted to calling on the closest American institution—be it sports league, university, media company, or brewery—to pick up the gavel. When the state of New Jersey helped Rice evade trial, we asked Goodell to take him off the field, and when his judgment failed to pacify our outrage, we appealed to NFL sponsors Anheuser-Busch, Cover Girl, and PepsiCo to call him out. Police stations are inhospitable to victims of sexual assault, so we’ve asked university administrators to carve out a safer space for reporting those crimes, and allowed them to mete out punishments in the form of semester-long suspensions instead of jail time. And when the statute of limitations ran out on Bill Cosby, we pressured TV executives to ban his reruns from their airwaves.

What else are we supposed to do? Police killings of black men from Ferguson to Staten Island inspired massive demonstrations this year, but it’s easier to criticize cops who engage in violent aggression than ones who lean back on quiet apathy. (And even when an officer kills a man on tape with a banned chokehold, we still can’t get him indicted!) We can’t pick a new American justice system, but we can switch from Bud to Miller—or at least threaten a brand change on social media until a beer executive releases a vague statement pandering to our concerns. Targeting corporate interests at least provides an illusion of control; just ask North Korea, which staged its large-scale terrorist attack not on American soil but on the Sony servers.

This process has been more effective in some cases than others this year. Widespread outrage over reports that CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi had assaulted a long line of women culminated with criminal charges in Canadian court; the Los Angeles police department is exploring its capacity to investigate some of the unearthed sexual assault claims against Bill Cosby. But even when consumer rage manages to rap at the door of the criminal justice system, the phenomenon only works on offenders with fancy radio shows or flush football contracts. It does little to improve the system for all the women who are abused or assaulted by average Joes.

When the real justice system takes a pass, and the system of public shaming takes over, we’re forced to translate our indignation over violence against women into missed football games or lost syndication checks. It makes for an unsettling calculation. As Drew Magary put it at Deadspin, nobody can reasonably say whether “hitting a woman is ‘worth’ more games missed than hitting a child, or if killing a shitload of dogs and going to jail is worth more missed games than killing a teammate,” so Goodell “has free rein to spin a magic wheel and hand down whatever stern-sounding punishment the arrow lands on.” This is the justice of optics: The “correct” punishment is whatever makes Budweiser feel comfortable, Goodell look good, or TV Land seem sensitive.

Even when the criminal justice system works the way it’s supposed to, the vigilante troops don’t always stand down. After a Steubenville high school student finished his sentence at a juvenile detention facility this summer, where he’d been locked up for raping a teenage girl, he was released back into society only to be surveilled by television cameras and publicly shamed for rejoining the football team. And after one student was disciplined for low-level sexual misconduct at Wesleyan University (he was accused of sending harassing text messages and “forced kissing”), he attempted to move on with his life only to be fired from his job after an anonymous caller phoned his employer and informed her of his ostensibly private record. Citing the “political reality of the situation,” the employer let him go. “At first I thought they didn’t want me to participate in campus activities,” he told BuzzFeed’s Katie Baker. “Then I thought they didn’t want me to graduate. Now they don’t want me to have a job or be part of society. Do they want me to commit suicide? Is that what they want me to do? What is the endgame?”

The idea of looking outside the courts for ways to protect women is not new. Decades of civil rights legislation have put some onus on employers and educators to prevent discrimination based on gender, by protecting women from sexual harassment at work and assault on campuses. This civil system is not meant to supplant our criminal one, but because female victims have so little leverage in the courts, feminists have pooled their resources into filing grievances with more responsive institutions. As my colleague Emily Yoffe noted last month, young women who don’t attend college are actually at a slightly greater risk of sexual assault than those who do. And yet the national conversation around sexual violence this year was laser focused on college victims, to the exclusion of working women—not because campus rape is a bigger problem than the alternative, but because anti-rape activists have more sway over university administrators than they do police and prosecutors, and because college victims have tuition checks and alumni donations to hold over their universities’ heads. Reporting a rape to a college doesn’t preclude a victim from reporting it to police, of course. But it’s a little depressing when so much activism and media coverage is dedicated to the first option, and so little to the second.

It’s understandable that activism around domestic violence and sexual assault would follow the money, capitalize on media attention, and call the powerful to account. But NFL commissioners and corporate CEOs make for strange bedfellows in this fight; they will invest in the lives of women only so long as it bolsters their own reputations and preserves their bottom lines. And this movement doesn’t just compel them to use their resources for good—it also increases their power by granting them a claim to moral authority. As this year comes to a close, we shouldn’t look back and mistake a press release from Bud, a nod from football, or a campus tribunal as justice served.

Dec. 19 2014 3:52 PM

The Alarming Inaccuracy of Prenatal Testing  

When I was pregnant with my first child, I got an important call from my doctor’s office. I remember very little of the specifics aside from where I was standing (on the sidewalk, outside of a management training seminar I had to do for work), and the dread I felt as the call proceeded. I’d had a prenatal screening, and the medical professional on the other end was telling me that the fetus was at a higher than average risk for one of the disorders they were screening for.

I no longer remember what disorder it was; what I remember was the sense that my future lay in numbers I didn’t understand. I scribbled down the odds—my chances versus those of an average 33-year-old mother—and tried to parse them. What does a 1-in-385 chance look like? The numbers were so precise that I trusted them as wholly scientifically accurate. The elevated risk seemed ominous, even though I knew there was a much greater chance the baby would be okay. And she was.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting has a story out that should alarm every woman who’s recently had blood drawn for a prenatal screening.

Dec. 16 2014 3:12 PM

Conservatives Believe Contraception Is Abortion Only When It’s Politically Convenient

In recent years, there has been a surge in energy behind the conservative argument that some forms of birth control are tantamount to abortion. Anti-choice activists have taken to saying that emergency contraception and IUDs work by "killing" fertilized eggs, a claim that is unsupported by science, which shows instead that these forms work by preventing sperm from meeting egg. Despite that, the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that employers can use the abortifacient claim as a way to deny women birth control coverage, as long as the belief in the falsehood is sincerely held. 

But is this belief that contraception equals abortion all that sincere, or has it been invented as a pretext to chip away at contraception access? In a new paper for the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, senior policy communications associate Joerg Dreweke lays out a compelling case that the "belief" that some forms of contraception are abortion fluctuates based on political necessity. "Rather than applying the claim that some contraceptive methods in effect cause abortion consistently to all aspects of their advocacy," Dreweke writes, "antiabortion groups ignore and often contradict their positions when it might hurt them politically."

Dec. 16 2014 11:47 AM

Wisconsin Is Throwing Pregnant Women in Jail to Protect “Unborn Children”

Last week I wrote about the escalating trend toward arresting women who use illegal drugs while pregnant, even when the science indicates that legal drugs like tobacco and alcohol do the same or more proven harm to babies than opioids and methamphetamine. I cited the case of Wisconsin mother Alicia Beltran, who was arrested and forced to undergo in-patient treatment for a Percocet addiction she’d already kicked, and wrote that it “sounds like a dystopian satire.”

I can now say the same about another case out of Wisconsin: a woman arrested for drug use even though she says she stopped when she realized she was pregnant, brought to court and twice refused lawyers (even though her fetus was given one), and then sent to jail for 17 days, where she was placed in solitary confinement, denied prenatal care even as she began cramping, and not given her thyroid medication for two days, according to the woman and her lawyers.

Dec. 15 2014 3:20 PM

A Short History of Songs About Masturbation

The subject of Nicki Minaj's new song, "Feeling Myself," is not exactly hidden. Released last week, the collaboration with Beyoncé for Minaj's upcoming record includes lyrics like: "Bitch, never left but I’m back at it/ And I’m feelin’ myself, jack rabbit/ Feelin’ myself, back off, cause I’m feelin’ myself, jack off/ Heard he thinks about me when he whacks off/ Whacks on? Wax off."

Pop musicians have long been inspired by masturbation. Here's a short, not-at-all comprehensive modern history of some of the highlights.  

"Pictures of Lily" by the Who (1967)

 A young man suffering from insomnia is given aid by his loving father in the form of pin-up photos of "Lily." While the song does not mention masturbation explicitly, Pete Townsend has said that's what it's about. Things ultimately take a dark turn for our hero: "And then one day things weren't quite so fine/ I fell in love with Lily/ I asked my dad where Lily I could find/ He said, 'Son, now don't be silly'/ 'She's been dead since 1929'/ Oh, how I cried that night."

"Orgasm Addict" by the Buzzcocks (1977)

With a name like the "Buzzcocks," this '70s British punk band pretty much had to go there. This particular song is quite clear that it's not about partner sex: "Sneaking in the back door with dirty magazines/ Now your mother wants to know what all those stains on your jeans/ And you're an orgasm addict, you're an orgasm addict." As with all Buzzcocks songs, this one is an undefeatable earworm that will plague you for days, but it's worth it. 

"Penetration in the Centerfold" by Devo (1979)

Devo had a habit of invoking masturbation in song lyrics like "Praying Hands" or even in the title of their biggest hit, "Whip It." But this song, a B-side for "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize," skips subtlety altogether: "'Cause there's something in the middle/ And it's giving me a rise/ There's a girl in the middle/ With her finger in her gash."

"Turning Japanese" by the Vapors (1980)

They can deny it all they want, but we all know that this one-hit wonder, with its bafflingly racist title, is about masturbating to memories of the girl who left you. 

"Dancing With Myself" by Generation X/Billy Idol (1981)

Basically the same song as "Orgasm Addict," except easier to dance to and not as funny.

"She Bop" by Cyndi Lauper (1984)

First entry by a woman, and the highest charting song about masturbation so far, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Notable for an overt reference to a gay men's magazine (Blueboy)—Lauper outed the dirty secret of many straight women!—and the fact that my 7-year-old self would embarrass her parents by running around the house singing the song with absolutely no clue what it was about. 

"Darling Nikki" by Prince (1984)

"I knew a girl named Nikki/ I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/ I met her in a hotel lobby/ Masturbating with a magazine." This is the song that kicked off those parental advisory stickers and demands for record censorship, when Tipper Gore heard these lyrics on her kid's copy of the Purple Rain soundtrack.

"I Touch Myself" by the Divinyls (1990)

This is the nadir of masturbation tunes, a song that was a huge hit despite having none of the wit or listenability of its masturbation-celebrating predecessors. 

"Hands On Experience" and "Hands On Experience Part II" by the High and Mighty (1997 and 1999)

As thoroughly goofy as hip-hop can be about sex, songs about masturbation are surprisingly uncommon in this genre. One fun exception is "Hands On Experience" by the High and Mighty, with its sequel featuring Kool Keith and Jean Grae, the latter beating Nicki Minaj to the vibrator by 15 years: "Holding myself down when I'm on the clit/ I've got gadgets like I'm James Bond and shit." 

Dec. 11 2014 5:07 PM

Feminism Can Stand Without Jackie

I’m told that this has been a bad couple of weeks for the anti-rape movement.  “Rolling Stone just wrecked an incredible year of progress for rape victims,” Arielle Duhaime-Ross wrote at the Verge last week.  Since the magazine’s November story about a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity began to unravel early this month, feminists have raised alarms that the magazine’s whiff will have devastating effects for past and future victims. The story “could be read as a setback for an entire movement,” campus activist Annie Clark  wrote in BuzzFeed. UVA is “on its way to becoming the next Duke Lacrosse—a highly publicized incident that misogynists will point to as a way to discredit all people, especially young women and students, who experience rape,” Audrey White wrote at Autostraddle. According to Duhaime-Ross, “the credibility of rape victims will be put into question for years to come,” as Rolling Stone has helped to “perpetuate the dangerous and damaging myth that women lie about rape.”

I’m surprised that these activists and commentators are so quick to hand over the future of this movement to packs of roving social media misogynists. There are people on the fringe who believe that any rape story with any discrepancies is evidence of a vast feminist conspiracy aimed at inventing rapes and vilifying innocent men, but these rape truthers are not reasonable people, nor are they most people, and it is unwise to mold the conversation around their fantasies. I am, however, concerned with how some feminists and progressives have responded to the ever-expanding holes in Rolling Stone’s story.