The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

July 1 2015 12:29 PM

The Women’s World Cup Is a Blast. Why Are We Still Arguing With Those Who Disagree?

As my colleague Jeremy Stahl makes clear, Tuesday night’s World Cup match between the United States and Germany was a riveting game of soccer. Sports analysts at FiveThirtyEight predicted this would be the greatest women’s soccer matchup of all time—no pressure, ladies!—and it didn't disappoint, with both teams bringing some serious hustle despite having to play on artificial turf

My boyfriend and I secured a central location at a very crowded sports bar in Brooklyn to watch the USWNT, which meant overhearing people’s conversations during the game. About halfway through, I realized that in all the happy chatter, one thing often overheard during women’s games was missing: defensiveness. No one seemed to feel the need to justify watching a women’s sport or even acknowledge the sexism that always flares up in general sports fandom every time the Women’s World Cup comes around. They were talking about the game with the same ease and enthusiasm when watching men play a sport.

It is not usually this way. Even during the previous USWNT game, a man sitting next to me tried to guilt-trip me for paying more attention to the U.S.–China game than the Colombia–Argentina Copa America quarterfinal that was playing at the same time. It was irritating but not surprising. Men who imply that fans of women’s teams don’t really understand sports or that watching women play is some kind of charity act is a constant problem in women’s sports. It’s the same story, over and over: Dude says women’s sports suck, fans of women’s sports push back, sexist dude smirks about how defensive the women are, and now the topic is yet again whether women really deserve equality instead of talking about, you know, the game.

This year’s most public example of this vicious cycle came courtesy of Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit, who got a lot of backlash when he tweeted that women’s sports are boring. Sexist haters love to fling around the word boring, both because it’s hard to argue back against a subjective assessment and it implies that anyone who watches the game is doing so out of some kind of political duty instead of pleasure. The rejoinders to him were good, don’t get me wrong. Will Leitch did a fine job breaking apart why boring is a superficial accusation. Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers used this as an opportunity to crack some clever sports jokes.

But I’m sick of defending the entertainment value of women’s soccer. It’s like trying to argue that it feels good to have sun on your skin or that ice cream tastes good. This is just the sports-world version of men who call women “crazy” in order to shame women out of having perfectly normal feelings that happen to inconvenience the men. Men who try to control what others find fun clearly just have hangups about women. It’s time we stop trying to argue them out of their hangups and just laugh at them instead.

Watching the game without any hint of those guys around was really fun. Just relaxing and watching the women kick butt without having to catalog it as further evidence that wrong guys are wrong was such a relief. I would like to have more game-watching opportunities like that, please. 

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June 30 2015 3:29 PM

Why Americans Are Becoming More Open-Minded on Gay Marriage but Not on Abortion

David Leonhardt and Alicia Parlapiano at the New York Times’ Upshot blog have a piece comparing growing support for gay marriage with trends in support for abortion rights, which has remained relatively steady, with occasional ebbs and flows. (They also look at other issues, but the centerpiece is gay rights versus abortion rights.) Their argument is that anti-discrimination causes tend to garner broad support over time, while issues that are framed as a matter of competing rights become permanently controversial. “People who favor abortion rights can point to a woman’s right to control her body; people who oppose abortion can point to a fetus’s right to live,” they argue. In contrast, arguments that same-sex marriage does harm to straight people “lacked any evidence.” 

It’s a tempting theory, but I have to express skepticism. For one thing, the two data sets they’re comparing don't really compare. The growth in support for gay marriage is all measured in the years prior to the Supreme Court awarding that right, and the data showing steady support for abortion rights starts in 1975, after Roe v. Wade.

We don’t yet know if support for gay marriage will keep growing. Leonhardt and Parlapiano’s main evidence that support for minority groups expands over time is polling data showing people are more willing to vote for a black person, woman, or member of a religious minority as president than they used to be. That’s not really the best measure. Sure, it demonstrates how willing people are to be overtly racist or sexist—which is not nothing, to be fair—but, as we have all experienced, your average bigot rarely admits to holding bigoted beliefs. A better measure of racism in this country is support for voting restrictions or support for police brutality against people of color than a hypothetical question of whether they’d vote for a black president. 

This matters. Although abortion is frequently treated in the media as a struggle between bodily autonomy and fetal life, the reality is that debate has little to no real impact on how people feel about the issue. Your opinion on legal abortion is far more likely to be shaped by your attitudes about gender equality and sexual freedom than about how you feel toward embryonic cells. If abortion really were a debate over life versus bodily autonomy, you’d see people all over the political map struggle with this. In the real world, the issue is starkly partisan, and it’s an easy way for Republicans to ensure the loyalty of a religious-right base that sees anti-abortion activism as the linchpin of a larger movement to impose their beliefs about gender and family on the rest of the country.

It’s not a coincidence that the people who are angriest about this gay marriage decision also tend to be the people who are most stalwart in the war against reproductive rights. The thread that ties the two together is a rigid belief in traditional gender roles, namely that the husband is the head of household and the wife should have children and serve her family. Gay marriage and reproductive rights both threaten that ideal, and that’s where the opposition comes from. 

Yes, there’s a huge mushy middle of Americans who are ambivalent about abortion rights. That’s because Americans are ambivalent about women’s equality. For instance, research shows that support for abortion rights depends quite a bit on whether the woman is adhering to gender norms. Getting an abortion to complete high school, for instance, gets a lot more support than getting an abortion because you don’t want to get married. 

Certainly, there’s good reason to hope that American support for gay marriage will continue to expand. But that has more to do with the fact that it’s a simpler issue than abortion, which produces a lot of complex feelings and opinions. But the fight for gay rights is far from over. As nice as it would be to declare victory and go home, I fear that gay rights activists—and, of course, abortion rights activists—still have a hard road ahead.

June 29 2015 1:38 PM

Rand Paul Would Rather End Marriage Than Share It With Gay People

While most of the football team’s worth of Republicans running for president have reacted to the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision with straightforward rejections, Rand Paul decided to get cute about it. “Perhaps the time has come to examine whether or not governmental recognition of marriage is a good idea, for either party,” he argues in an editorial in Time. “So now, states such as Alabama are beginning to understand this as they begin to get out of the marriage licensing business altogether. Will others follow?”

Paul suggests that marriage shouldn’t be a standard-issue government contract but instead be treated like a business contract, written from scratch by couples for every new marriage. On the surface, it’s an appealing argument. Modern Americans in particular are infatuated with the idea that every relationship, like every person, is unique and individual, which is why weddings have become a competitive sport of self-expression. Why not extend that mentality all the way down to the details written into the wedding contract? 

Paul’s plan to privatize marriage rather than share it with gay people is reminiscent of how segregationists reacted to Brown v. Board of Education. Rather than allow their children to go to school with black students, white people throughout the South started private, often religious schools, nicknamed “segregation academies.” It wasn’t just schools, either. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie explained recently, the decline of the public pool is also a symptom of this reactionary urge to privatize an institution rather than share it with people who conservatives consider undesirable. That the same logic is being whipped out by Paul is no big surprise. This is a man who famously opposed the Civil Rights Act that made the “privatize instead of share” goal harder to achieve. 

But although this strategy has a lengthy conservative pedigree, it’s hard to imagine it really taking off as a way to shut gay people out of marriage. If the government really did stop issuing standard marriage contracts and couples were forced to write their own contracts, all that would do is make marriage a privilege of those who can afford lawyers. It wouldn’t preserve marriage as a right for straight people—it would just turn it into a benefit for the wealthy. And those people already have an option to write a contract—called a prenuptial agreement—that supersedes the standard wedding contract, if they want. The only thing Paul’s brilliant plan would do is ensure that most Americans, gay or straight, would never legally marry at all. 

Considering that conservatives are already up in arms about the out-of-wedlock birth rate, most aren’t going to be thrilled by a plan that ensures that the overwhelming majority of babies are born outside marriage. Paul’s gambit is a reminder of why libertarianism is a philosophy of angsty teen boys that withers upon contact with the real world. 

June 29 2015 12:04 PM

Emergency Rooms May Be Overdiagnosing UTIs on a Massive Scale

A new study in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology tracked nearly 300 female patients to find that emergency departments massively overdiagnose urinary tract infections. What’s worse, in many cases ERs fail to diagnose the sexually transmitted infections that are the real culprits behind the symptoms. This means millions of women are being put on unnecessary antibiotics for nonexistent UTIs and/or going around unaware that they have STIs.

A UTI begins when bad bacteria, usually E. coli, enters the urethra and infects part of the usually sterile urinary tract. Nearly 1 in 3 women will get a UTI at least once, and they’re the cause of nearly 7 million doctor-office visits a year. The trouble is that lower-tract UTIs and STIs often share very similar symptoms: pelvic pain, painful urination, and the urgent need to pee even when the bladder is empty. “Distinguishing between these infections can be challenging,” the researchers write.

One way that providers figure out whether you have a UTI is by doing a urinalysis, which can spot bacteria in your tract. Urinalysis has the benefit of being instant, unlike the more thorough urine culture test, which typically comes back in 24-48 hours. Unfortunately, urinalysis is also prone to contamination and frequently bears abnormal results.

“Providers really rely on this test to make the diagnosis, and it’s really not a very good test,” says Michelle Hecker, an assistant professor of infectious disease at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and lead author on the Journal of Clinical Microbiology study. Among the women in this study diagnosed with UTIs, less than half actually had one.

When providers see an abnormality, they often assume it means a UTI, prescribe you antibiotics, and call it a day. That’s where the problems start. First off, they might be misdiagnosing an STI, and no one wants to be walking around with an untreated STI. Second of all, unlike STIs, UTIs aren’t contagious—you could be unknowingly transmitting, say, chlamydia to your partner.

Most concerning to the researchers, though, was the threat of antibiotic resistance. Besides unpleasant side effects, taking antibiotics unnecessarily builds up antibiotic resistance: Only the strongest bacteria in your body survive, making it more difficult to treat infection in the future. In recent years, researchers have become worried about our widespread use of these powerful and commonly prescribed drugs. And at least one study has found that taking antibiotics can actually increase your chances of getting a UTI in the future.

For the study, Hecker and her team tracked 264 women who had gone to the emergency room in Ohio, 175 of whom were diagnosed with a UTI. Then they evaluated participants’ urine samples using molecular tests to determine what infection—if any—they actually had. In reality, less than half of the women diagnosed with a UTI had one. Moreover, overdiagnosing UTIs often meant underdiagnosing STIs, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis. Sixty of the 264 participants turned out to have one or more of these STIs, yet 22 of them did not receive STI treatment within a week. Of those, 14 were instead diagnosed with a UTI.

Clearly, emergency departments need to rethink the way they test for both of these types of infections. But for now, if you think you’ve got a UTI but aren’t sure, what can you do? “Honestly, if it were me, I would request a culture,” says Hecker. “And if you’re sexually active, it’s not a bad idea to get an STD test as well.”

June 26 2015 4:15 PM

Texas Governor Appoints a Homeschooler to Head State Education Board

Last week, Texas governor Greg Abbott nominated member Donna Bahorich as the chair of the Texas Board of Education. Bahorich is one of the quieter members of the board, largely going along with the board's radical right-wing agenda, which has included voting to approve history textbooks that claim Moses helped shape democracy, show sympathy with Joseph McCarthy, and argue country music is culturally relevant but hip-hop is not. 

Now the Texas Freedom Network—a watchdog group that has been fighting creationism, right-wing historical revisionism, and abstinence-only education in the classroom—is raising the alarm about Bahorich's history of hostility to public education. In their press release, TFN notes that Bahorich went to great lengths to keep her three sons from attending public school; they were first homeschooled, then sent to private and religious schools. Bahorich also voted against a resolution asking the state legislature to reject private-school vouchers. 

It's not necessarily a problem to take over a school system that you didn't want educating your kids. It 's conceivable that Bahorich felt the schools weren't high-quality enough and she intended to make them better. But the school board battles that Republicans have been waging in Texas have nothing to do with improving the quality of the state's public schools. Most of these efforts are about making the education experience less educational, by injecting conservative propaganda into history class and religious dogma into science class. Texas is bent on undermining public schools, not fixing them. This appointment only serves as further proof.

June 26 2015 3:47 PM

A Short History of Bristol Palin’s Lectures

Bristol Palin's canceled-wedding debacle was just fading from public view when we got hit with another bit of tabloid-y Palin news: Bristol is pregnant again. Likely because of all her work preaching abstinence, she knows what you're thinking and would like you to cut it out. "I do not want any lectures and I do not want any sympathy," Palin wrote in her announcement

You will get no lectures on how to live your life from me, Bristol. As a feminist, I really do believe it: Your body, your choice. The world is full enough with people reducing women's morality to what they do with their vaginas. 

Instead let's talk about what you do with your mouth, or really your keyboard. This "no lectures" policy sounds great in theory, but you've never applied it to other people. Cases in point: 

1) Wendy Davis. After discovering that Texas state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis spent some of her marriage living apart from her kids while attending Harvard Law, Palin launched a memorable grenade in the Mommy Wars. "Is everyone paying attention?" Palin asked, warming up into lecture-mode. "This woman is the hero of the Left?  A woman whose ambition and ego were so big she couldn’t have both a career and kids at the same time," Palin sneered. "Gosh, children are sooo inconvenient, huh?"

2) Barack Obama and his daughters. After President Obama credited his daughters for helping him see the light on same-sex marriage, Palin lectured Obama on his parenting skills. "While it’s great to listen to your kids’ ideas, there’s also a time when dads simply need to be dads," she wrote. "In this case, it would’ve been helpful for him to explain to Malia and Sasha that while her friends' parents are no doubt lovely people, that’s not a reason to change thousands of years of thinking about marriage."

3) Miley Cyrus. When Miley Cyrus said that conservative Christian beliefs shouldn't dictate the rights LGBT people have and explained why she thinks creationist Christianity is silly, Palin lectured Cyrus about, well, a lot of things, including Cyrus's "hippie lifestyle" and her tendency to "drop lots of profanity." "She wants everyone else to let her be 'free to be Miley,' but seems unwilling to offer the same respect to her parents and those who wish to live out their Christian faith," Palin said.

4) Meghan McCain. It appears that Meghan McCain did not want to be Bristol Palin's friend, an offense that could not be borne. And so Palin ripped into McCain in her memoir, complaining that the first time the Palins visited the McCains, Meghan "ignored us during the entire visit." "I'd never seen people with so much Louis Vuitton luggage, so many cell phones, and so many constant helpers to do hair and makeup," she added.

5) Keith Olbermann. Bristol Palin took umbrage at Keith Olbermann's skepticism regarding her sincerity as an abstinence-only spokeswoman and lectured him about it on Facebook. "Mr. Olbermann fails to understand that in order to have credibility as a spokesperson, it sometimes takes a person who has made mistakes," she explained. "Parents warn their children about the mistakes they made so they are not repeated." 

While Palin mostly enjoys dishing out the lectures she does not appreciate receiving, she has on occasion doled out the sympathy she wants no part of. Here are two bonus beneficiaries of the gentle rains of Palin sympathy. 

1) Phil Robertson. When Phil Robertson compared gay sex to bestiality and praised the era of segregation, Palin used her blog to defend the Duck Dynasty star's sacred right to say bigoted things without criticism. In a post titled "Leave Phil Robertson Alone!", Palin expressed sympathy the only way she knows how: by lecturing liberals about how much they suck. " I think it’s so hypocritical how the LGBT community expects every single flippen person to agree with their life style," she griped. "Everyone needs to treat others like God would, with love."

As a reminder, here are some of the loving words Robertson bestowed upon gay people: 

It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.

2) Josh Duggar. When it was revealed the eldest son of the 19 Kids and Counting clan had molested five underage girls and had his family help cover it up for him, Palin went on the offense against Duggar critics. "Josh Duggar touched a sleeping girl's breast—a terrible thing to go. But now their ENTIRE family is punished and their hit show is canceled? He’s labeled as a pedophile? His family is crucified!" she exclaimed

"Liberals in today’s media can do no wrong, while conservatives can do no right," she added. Bristol, you have our sympathy—oops, sorry!

June 25 2015 1:06 PM

Margaret Atwood Joins the Mix for The Secret Loves of Geek Girls

Drop what you are doing, female geeks and the men who love them: Margaret Atwood is contributing to a comic book anthology about the love lives of your misunderstood tribe. This is not a drill. 

The book is called The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, which is being put together by comics editor Hope Nicholson. Nicholson started fundraising for the book on Kickstarter this week, and she's nearly reached her $30,000 goal with a hefty 29 days left to go. “I find myself very optimistic whenever I see an article on advice or information on geeks and dating,” Nicholson explains in her fundraising appeal. “But soon this excitement turns to disappointment; the articles are almost always written with only the male geeks in mind.” This book intends to fill that gap with stories about female geeks dealing with “relationships and crushes, rejections, unwanted advances, and general romantic and sexual entanglements.” And it's told in the geekiest form possible: the comic book. 

Atwood is up there with Stanley Kubrick as a figure who's helped elevate the literary and artistic status of science fiction, showing mainstream audiences that truly great art can come out of this genre. Her most famous book is, of course, a sci-fi novel, the dystopian classic The Handmaid's Tale. But sci-fi and fantasy, as genres, leave their fingerprints all over Atwood's work, from the sci-fi novel-within-a-novel of The Blind Assassin to her recently completed Oryx and Crake trilogy of speculative fiction. 

“I'm white-hair w. cat; pleased I have long legs at last!,” Atwood jokingly tweeted about her promotional image for the book. Having a white-haired lady in the mix is a great thing for us all. Female geekdom is on the rise in recent years, which is partly why you're seeing such ugly backlashes against it. But it's important to be reminded that it's not a new phenomenon. There are plenty of OGs of female geekdom running around such as Atwood and Elena Kagan, who outed herself as a comics nerd this week with a multitude of goofy Spider-Man jokes in her opinion in Kimble v. Marvel. Our people have always been around, lady geeks. Don't let anyone say that you're late arrivals to the party.

June 25 2015 11:17 AM

Ricki Lake Starts a Crusade Against Hormonal Birth Control

Meet the newest hero of the anti-choice movement. Talk show host and actress Ricki Lake, who some hailed as a feminist hero for her 2008 anti-obstetrician documentary The Business of Being Bornis raising money on Kickstarter for a documentary based on the book Sweetening the Pill, by self-declared feminist Holly Grigg-Spall. Sweetening the Pill was widely praised by the Christian right for discouraging women from using hormonal birth control.

When Grigg-Spall's book came out, Lindsay Beyerstein, writing for Slate, thoroughly debunked Grigg-Spall's half-baked arguments, scientific illiteracy, and regressive attitudes toward female gender roles. “Women are encouraged to suppress their monthly ovulatory cycle in order to not miss any days of work or so as they can remain sexually available,” Grigg-Spall writes. In reality, many women actually do enjoy either working outside the home or having sex for their own reasons, as opposed to simply being “sexually available” for male use.

Grigg-Spall's retrograde attitudes about women are the most fun to unravel, but the more serious issue was her bad science. She leveled accusations about the pill—that it causes depression, weight gain, or headaches—that double-blind studies have debunked. The one bona fide risk of the pill, increased risk of blood clots, is slight and falls far below the blood clot risk of pregnancy

But pregnancy is “natural” and hormonal contraception is “unnatural,” and “unnatural” is the problem, according to Grigg-Spall and now Ricki Lake. “Our goal with this film is to wake women up to the unexposed side effects of these powerful medications and the unforeseen consequences of repressing women’s natural cycles,” Lake and her director, Abby Epstein, said last year in a fundraising statement.

A similar faith in the benevolence of nature is all over The Business of Being Born, which conflates the naturalness of childbirth with safety. Human history should say otherwise, but medical experts concur: Some people make it out of home birth OK, even at the hands of noncertified midwives, but the inherent danger of childbirth suggests you're just better off in a hospital or in a birthing center, in the hands of people who have actual medical training and access to modern technology. 

Lake and Epstein present themselves as pro-contraception, but their trailer and Kickstarter page primarily pushes the same “fertility awareness method” beloved by the Catholic Church. I like its other name, “periodic abstinence,” because avoiding sex at certain times of the month is the central concept behind it.

Despite their feminist veneer, The Business of Being Born and Sweetening the Pill are little more than a 21st-century spin on the very old belief that women's beings should be reduced to and defined by our reproductive functions. As nice as it would be to believe otherwise, nature—which produces mosquitoes and measles and sunburns—is not your friend. And the human ability to manipulate nature and extract what we want out of it is the defining feature of our species.

June 24 2015 12:40 PM

We May Have a Chlamydia Vaccine for Future Generations

Most people don't fear the STI chlamydia quite like they do the dreaded herpes, even though it's both really common (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are nearly 3 million cases a year) and a major cause of infertility and ectopic pregnancy. Chlamydia can be cured with antibiotics, which likely explains why it freaks people out less. The problem, however, is that most women who are at risk don't get tested nearly enough. There are efforts to change that, but we need more and better prevention efforts.

Now there's a tendril of real hope about a vaccine. Science has published a study showing that vaccines administered to mice offered six months of protection against the disease. It's a small start that could lead to further research in humans. Even if the end result is only a vaccine that offers temporary protection, that would be a huge boon. Risk for chlamydia varies dramatically over a woman's life. Rates are much higher, for obvious reasons, in women under 25 and for women who have multiple partners in a year. Targeting at-risk people not just with testing but preventive vaccines could do a lot to curtail the disease's spread. 

It's important to sound a note of caution here, because these findings are extremely preliminary. As anyone who has seen the endless news items about how we're going to get a new form of male birth control any day now can attest, there's a lot of promising research in sexual health that ends up going nowhere. 

That said, this story is important for big-picture reasons. As the public panic over the HPV vaccine has demonstrated, there's still a lot of anxiety over novel approaches to sexual health care, which many fear are tantamount to giving “permission” to have sex. That fear perpetuates a sexual double standard and treats a normal and happy part of human life like it's some kind of tragedy to be avoided.

What we need is a countervailing narrative about how taking responsibility isn't about “just say no,” but about accepting that sex is something nearly all of us do. Condoms are great, but vaccines offer more long-term protection and help normalize the idea that one can be prepared to have sex in the future, instead of just getting caught up in the moment.

June 23 2015 12:17 PM

Scott Walker Argues That Equal Pay Pits Women Against Men

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has gone on the offensive against women again, despite the backlash against his previous ugly remarks about rape victims seeking abortionAs reported by Right Wing Watch, Boston Herald Radio host Adriana Cohen asked him about the issue of equal pay for women, using largely discredited numbers to accuse Hillary Clinton as a hypocrite who pays her staff unequally. Walker could have scored the easy point on hypocrisy and left it at that. Instead he doubled down on why he finds it so offensive to be for equal pay in the first place.

“But I think even a bigger issue than that,” he said, “and this is sadly something that would make her consistent with the president, and that is I believe that the president and now Hillary Clinton tend to think that politically they do better if they pit one group of Americans versus another.” 

Walker added that Democrats’ “measure of success in government is how many people are dependent on the government, how many people are dependent, on whether it's Medicaid or food stamps or health care or other things out there.”

That's the way to win women's vote, Walker: Imply that their paychecks are akin to government handouts. This line of argument started by telling women that their contraception health care benefits—which women work for—are also government handouts, so framing their actual pay in the same way isn't that big a leap. 

Walker's implication on equal pay is that Democrats are pitting men against women. But when women make more money, men do better. For couples, when the woman is underpaid, that means less money overall for the household. Sixty percent of married couples with children are two-income families: When those women make less, the men's standard of living goes down alongside theirs. That's where Walker misses the sense in helping women become less dependent on men.

Walker is the one actually stoking conflict by falsely implying that advocating for women puts them in opposition to men. He makes it sound as though equal pay for women takes away from men. But for most men, the numbers don't lie: More money in women's paychecks means more cash in men's wallets.