The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

Sept. 3 2015 1:54 PM

Rick Scott’s Office Caught Manipulating Reports on Planned Parenthood Investigations

After the now-discredited videos accusing Planned Parenthood of selling fetal tissue came out, Republican politicians rushed in, demanding investigations and defunding efforts with an eye toward marginalizing or even destroying the women's health care provider. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida was particularly eager, sending a team of investigators into Planned Parenthood clinics in a fishing expedition to find malfeasance.

That effort may end up backfiring. Politico Florida reported on Wednesday that Rick Scott's office suppressed the findings of the investigators, who found no evidence whatsoever of the alleged fetal tissue sales. The initial press release drafted by Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration indicated that "there is no evidence of the mishandling of fetal remains at any of the 16 clinics we investigated across the state." Emails obtained by Politico through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that the governor's office struck that language from the press release. 

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At least one official at the AHCA was not happy about the manipulation of the press release:

When the revised release was sent back to the AHCA for review, Katherine Riviere, the communications director, sent an email to senior staff, including Secretary Liz Dudek, that said, "I would have thought a line on no evidence of mishandling of fetal remains would be included as that’s what questions will be on."

But the final press release has no information whatsoever about what the investigators were sent to find. 

This is not the only fishy aspect of these investigations. The final press release, sent out on Aug. 5, accused Planned Parenthood doctors of providing second-trimester abortions in clinics that weren't licensed for the procedures. Sounds bad, right? But Planned Parenthood argued that the accusation was based on a misreading of how Florida law defines the second trimester of pregnancy. As the Hill reports:

The AHCA said that the clinics were performing second-trimester abortions despite only being licensed for the first trimester. The abortions were performed around 13 weeks of pregnancy, which the agency said was after the 12-week cutoff for the first trimester. 
Planned Parenthood countered that it was using a definition of the first trimester as within 14 weeks of the woman's last menstrual period, which, it pointed out, was a definition endorsed by the AHCA in a 2006 letter.

In other words, AHCA officials appeared to be massaging the definition of "second trimester" to make the accusations stick. After Planned Parenthood pointed this out, the AHCA conceded that they were misreading the law, but continued to make accusations that illegal second-trimester abortions were being performed. Meanwhile, the accusation that started all this—that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue illegally—was conveniently forgotten. 

Even though the accusations of illegal second-trimester abortions are clearly on shaky ground, the governor's office also applied political pressure on the AHCA in this arena. The Scott administration revised the press release to include sentences indicating that the AHCA "would refer physicians who worked at the clinics to the Board of Medicine for possible disciplinary action," according to Politico

It's clear that Rick Scott wanted investigators to find something to hold against Planned Parenthood. However, all that's come of this is an order against Planned Parenthood to stop performing abortions on women at 13 weeks or more after their last menstrual period—an order that was almost immediately rescinded, once officials were reminded that the second trimester starts at 14 weeks. There's otherwise been a lot of threats and posturing, but nothing substantive.

Planned Parenthood has been subjected for two months now to an avalanche of baseless accusations of corruption. The more this drags out, the clearer it is that the corruption lies with those who are using these videos as a pretext to harass Planned Parenthood.

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Sept. 2 2015 4:07 PM

This Labor Day Weekend, Beware of Naked Toddlers Menacing a Hotel Near You

One of the great joys of summer in childhood is the freedom to strip off your clothes and frolic shame-free-naked on the beach. On a recent family vacation to North Truro, Massachusetts, without thinking twice, I let my 3-year son disrobe to his natural state and enjoy this pleasure, knowing that one day soon social norms will challenge his sense of modesty.

In these parts, however, these norms seem to be creeping in early. After two days of beach frolicking, the manager of our hotel pulled Grand Ma aside and told her that guests had been complaining about my son’s public display. Apparently, one guest had grumbled that my son’s nudity was “in the face” of her 8-year-old daughter—that it was not appropriate for her to see a naked little boy.

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A little background: We live in Sausalito, California, a place known for loose social norms, and where it’s common to see kids much older than 3 running naked around our local beach. But I think this encounter hits upon a deeper rift than just New England Puritanism versus Californian communitarianism—after all, we were just a stone’s throw from Provincetown, Massachusetts, and scarcely an hour before we were shamed for public toddler-nudity, I saw a group of scantily clad drag queens shaking it down Commercial Street.

On Facebook, a friend invoked Thomas Mann's 1929 novella Mario and the Magician, in which a family’s Italian beach vacation is marred when their 8-year-old daughter strips off her sandy bathing suit to rinse it in the sea. Italian locals protest the offense against decency and Italian hospitality, and the family is subsequently fined 50 lire. “It's a frightening depiction of nascent European fascism,” my friend wrote. “Perhaps our puritanical citizens are ready for a Trumpian version?”

Comparing helicopter parenting to pre–World War II European fascism may be extreme, but I would definitely say it’s a sign that the outer Cape is losing its status as a laid-back bohemian enclave. Another friend suggested that this type of helicopter parenting is “a toxic function of the over-sexualization of children.” It’s only logical that if a child is made to feel embarrassed of his or her naked body, or awkward around another child’s naked body, then their bodies have been sexualized, which in turn elicits shame and discomfort.  

“I know of no studies about beach trauma,” my friend Joseph Youngerman, a New York City child psychiatrist, told me. “Freud said that it’s not sexual curiosity but repression that hurts us. It’s healthy to be able to witness the bodies of animals, including our own, in situations not fraught with tension, despair, conflict, all the intense emotions, passed through the family and societal warp, which distort our perspectives into shame, guilt, and bad feelings.”

This event with my son really has little to do with what children should or shouldn’t see or do. It’s more about the projection of adult shame. My son’s nudity wasn’t dangerous to anyone; it only looked dangerous in the funhouse mirror of one woman’s internal shame. She missed the opportunity to empower her daughter, and instead sowed the seeds of female sexism and body shame. I’m all for teaching children about their private parts and protecting them from the real dangers of sexual predators. But I think this mother was teaching her daughter that the normal naked body is shameful and that the male body is something threatening and harmful.

For the rest of our vacation, every time my son tried to strip down, I had to tell him that he couldn’t. “Why?” he kept asking. I never told him. If he can’t experience all the freedoms of summer, at least he can remain innocent of the tiresome answer to his question.

Sept. 2 2015 1:19 PM

Why Would Anyone Fake a Pregnancy?

The Washington Post reports a strange story out of Michigan, where a teenager duped her small town of Wyandotte—including her 16-year-old boyfriend—into believing she was pregnant with triplets, even past her supposed due date. She pulled off the deceit with the help of a website called—and this is not a joke—FakeABaby.com. (They actually mean fake a pregnancy, as babies are even harder to fake than baby bumps.) Through this website, our young con artist purchased all the gear she needed for her hoax—including a sham ultrasound—until her ruse ran out of time.

FakeABaby markets itself as just a "prank" website, but no one in her right mind could ever mistake pretending to be pregnant for months for a harmless prank. And as Jezebel points out, one of the site's ads ask, "How Can I Get His Attention? We Can Help!" It isn't just this one website, either. As Chandler Friedman and Leslie Bentz at CNN reported in 2013, there's a small but brisk trade of pregnant women on Craigslist selling positive pregnancy tests to those who, uh, need them. ("Wanna get your boyfriend to finally pop the question?" one ad found by CNN read. "Play a trick on Mom, Dad or one of your friends?")

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Perhaps this phenomenon is not as baffling as it seems. Our culture does romanticize pregnancy and childbirth, with some corners holding out motherhood as the pinnacle of a woman's life, far surpassing any other accomplishments she might achieve. Anything that's vaunted that much is going to attract poseurs who want the glory without the work. Being a parent is a great thing, of course. But it might be worth asking ourselves how on earth a teen girl could get the idea that the way to get attention was to convince everyone she's making some babies.

Sept. 1 2015 2:30 PM

Teachers Shouldn’t Teach for Free

The Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania is $22 million in the hole and can't currently guarantee teachers that they'll be compensated for their work. Yet teachers are going back to school on Wednesday without paychecks, after their union voted unanimously to work without pay as the year begins. It's happened before in the same district: In 2012 it faced a similar financial shortfall, and teachers agreed to work without pay. Other educators have made the same move under similar circumstances: In 2013, for example, a small district in Michigan ran out of money to pay teachers before the end of the year, yet the teachers decided to keep going.

“Some of our children, this is all they have as far as safety, their next nourishing meal, people who are concerned for them,” explained John Shelton, the dean of students for Chester Upland’s only middle school, told the Washington Post. “We are dedicated to these children.”

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The motivation is noble. But the decision is not beneficial for Shelton and his fellow teachers, and by extension it's not beneficial in the long run to the children they care about. The teaching profession is already vastly underpaid and underappreciated. Shelton and his fellow district employees get good grades for best intentions. But no teacher should agree to work for free.

Elementary school teachers make about $53,000 a year at the median; middle school teachers make slightly more than that, and high school teachers make slightly more than $55,000. That's not minimum wage, but teaching is also not a low- or even medium-skill occupation. It’s one that requires significant training and education. Teachers have to have at least a bachelor’s degree; many are required to have a master’s. They have to know how to manage a crowd, tend to a variety of emotional needs, comply with state requirements and regulations, not to mention pass on critical knowledge to a group of children in their formative years.

Yet when compared with workers with the same or similar credentials, teachers make a whole lot less. Those who work in public schools and belong to a union have the smallest pay gap compared with other college-educated workers, but they still earn about 13 percent less than their peers outside the profession. Private school teachers who aren’t unionized have the biggest gap, making more than 30 percent less.

Teaching has gotten caught in the “women’s work” trap. It’s a field dominated by women, where they make up about three-quarters of all workers. And unlike college professors, who make closer to $69,000 at the median, K-12 teaching is more closely associated with care work. That’s because of the idea that K-12 teachers do it out of passion and devotion, not out of a sense of professional ambition or monetary gain.

The most underpaid sector of care work—that is to say, women's work—is child care. Child care workers are paid far less than teachers—even preschool teachers—and make about $10 an hour. They’re paid on par with fast food workers, parking lot attendants, and bartenders. Yet they care for and nurture the country’s youngest, most vulnerable children.

Care work is still seen not as work; it's seen as something women just do. Something they would do even if they weren’t paid. This is the dynamic that the teachers of Chester Upland are playing into by deciding to work for free. The message they send about their work—and the work of all teachers—is that it is motivated by love, not money. That weakens the call to pay teachers more money, or any money at all.

Underpayment, in turns, weakens the education system. After years of budget cutting during the recession and recovery, the workforce is missing a whole lot of educators. School districts have eliminated 313,300 teaching jobs since the recovery began in June of 2009. Public school enrollment has continued to increase in the same time frame, which would normally necessitate hiring even more teachers to keep up. With that growth taken into account, as of October of last year there was a 377,000-person shortfall in teaching positions.

Now that states and towns are spending more on education, they’re having a hard time enticing people back to the field. Pay is a huge piece of this puzzle. Why would a smart, talented young graduate seek out a devalued, underpaid profession when she could take her skills elsewhere?

Until we raise teacher pay, it’ll be hard to raise the status of teaching, despite the fact that we put our faith in the education system to cure society of every conceivable ill, from institutional racism to income inequality and lack of economic mobility. Teachers’ pay exposes what we think teachers are really worth. There's no way to break down that mode of thinking if teachers agree to work for nothing.

Sept. 1 2015 1:44 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug. 31 2015 4:21 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug. 31 2015 12:48 PM

Chrissie Hynde Has Some Extremely Depressing Ideas About Rape and Blame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug. 28 2015 5:56 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug. 28 2015 5:28 PM

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

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

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Dee Wise Heinz/Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug. 28 2015 12:18 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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