What Women Really Think

Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM

A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls

For months, a slice of the gaming subculture has waged a campaign of online harassment against prominent women in the videogame industry, including game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian. The reasoning behind the targeting of these women is too batshit to unspool here—if you’re interested in falling down the rabbit hole, Deadspin has a decent primer on “Gamergate”—but what’s clear is that some people just don’t like seeing women play, design, and discuss video games, and seek to punish them with “virtual” violence.

Quinn has previously detailed how her online critics have spread revenge porn, harassed her family, and released her personal information in an attempt to terrify and silence her. Last Saturday, Wu fled her home after an online stalker posted her address and threatened to rape and kill her in a series of gruesome tweets. And this week, administrators at Utah State University received an anonymous email threatening to carry out “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if they went through with a planned campus event featuring Sarkeesian; she cancelled the talk over Utah’s gun laws, which prevent the school from banning concealed firearms at the event.

So far, the anonymous perpetrators of these threats have yet to be unmasked. How hard is it, really, for law enforcement to catch them? I called Tim Ryan, a former FBI supervisory special agent who led investigations into cybercrimes ranging from the distribution of child pornography to corporate espionage, to find out.

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Oct. 17 2014 1:54 PM

Republican Midterm Debate Strategy: Be Pro-Life, But Not Anti-Abortion

As the midterm campaigns hit their final weeks, a clear picture of the Republican strategy on reproductive rights issues has emerged: However anti-choice you are, downplay it.

Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst usually trumpets her radical anti-choice views that include support for a federal personhood law, but she started to go squishy during Thursday night's debate against her opponent, Rep. Bruce Baley. According to TPM, Ernst admitted she wants to ban abortion, but said:

“There would be certain exceptions but again it’s something that has to be discussed,” Ernst said. “I support life. Those things come together when there is consensus upon what is put into legislation. Right now there is not consensus but I do believe in supporting life.” When asked about what those exceptions might be, Ernst would not commit: "Going back to the life of the mother I think that would be important. But again, civil discussion needs to happen."

Oct. 16 2014 6:16 PM

The Very Popular Store That Only Sells Clothes for Skinny Girls  

If you’re a teen girl, or have shopped with one lately, you’ve probably heard of Brandy Melville, the Italian brand that came to the U.S. five years ago, and has lately enraptured teens’ hearts and wallets with its social media savvy, targeted product research, and very special niche: They only offer one size, small, under the banner "one size fits most."

A quick look at Brandy Melville’s Instagram will tell you most of what you need to know. With more than two million followers, @brandymelvilleusa predominantly features white girls with long, blonde hair wearing cozy, loose-fitting clothes, worn-in and distressed to perfection. The girls have something else in common: Without exception, they are very, very thin.

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Unsurprisingly, not everyone likes this brand strategy. Browsing Brandy Melville’s online store, where most pants come in sizes 00 to 2, one has to wonder, "'One size fits most' of whom?" A store has the right to sell to whomever it pleases, and Brandy Melville certainly has the right to only make clothes for the select few to whom every other store in the country already caters. But in the words of my mother and probably yours, "Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should."

Though Brandy Melville is extreme, it is not alone in its skinny-only mindset. Abercrombie and Fitch drew criticism last year because of its refusal to make clothes for bigger girls. Many stores don’t bother carrying above a size 18 (and that’s being generous) despite the fact the average American woman wears a size 14. In other words, women up to seven sizes below average can find clothing, but women more than two sizes above are told to, "eat less."

And teen girls are getting the message loud and clear: More than half of them use unhealthy weight control methods, including skipping meals and purging, in obsessive pursuit of bodies that Brandy Melville implies "most" people already have. In an ideal world where body size, character, and worth were not conflated, perhaps a store like Brandy Melville could coexist with the department stores and plus size stores. But we do not live in that world, and girls above a certain size are already taught they’re not good enough.

While there’s plenty of criticism, Brandy Melville has its defenders (not to mention customers—Business Insider says it’s "ranked No. 1 among brands that teen girls say they are starting to wear"). The most prevalent defense I’ve seen is, to paraphrase, "if plus size stores exist, so should tiny size stores." As one Huffington Post commenter put it, "I don't complain Torrid is 'shaming' me because they don't carry my size... I just go shop somewhere else."

But this misses the point. Yes, girls larger and smaller than the idealized body both can face challenges and insecurity. But Brandy Melville isn’t a specialty store for the girls who are so skinny they can’t find clothing at an average department store. Sizes 00, 0 and 2 can be found in most teen stores. (You may have seen them on the rack, after all the 6s and 8s have disappeared.) Plus size stores emerged out of necessity—for girls who couldn’t find any clothing because stores won’t make and carry their size. Plus size stores are what prevent girls above a certain size from being forced to wear the few, often unsightly or ill-fitting items department stores do carry. Size zero teenagers just do not have that problem.

Brandy Melville is very good at catering to its target audience. The brand’s product research strategy is smart: According to Racked, by employing a team of roughly 20 teen girls to brainstorm new concepts and offer feedback on existing designs, the store manages to stay completely in tune with what their customers want—and launches some girls’ careers in the process. But on the flip side, this strategy can create an echo chamber that ignores how exclusivity, experienced from another perspective, is exclusion. The company’s social media-heavy marketing, in lieu of paid advertising, also shows that it knows where its customers are and how to speak to them. If only they would recognize that there are so many other girls worth reaching.

Oct. 16 2014 12:39 PM

A Thot Is Not a Slut: The Popular Insult Is More About Race and Class Than Sex

This spring, a lewd Instagram account sprang up in Louisa County, Virginia. Its anonymous administrators had collected dozens of nude selfies that local middle- and high-school girls had sent to friends and boyfriends, exposed them publicly on the site, and branded the girls in the pictures “thots.” If you listen to rap music and follow trending Twitter memes, you have likely heard the word thot before. If you listen to NPR and read the Atlantic—where this week, Hanna Rosin investigates how Louisa County is dealing with the fraught legal and social implications of teenagers taking naked photos of themselves and sending them to one another—you may have heard the term for the first time on Wednesday, when Rosin spoke it aloud on Fresh Air.

A thot, for the uninitiated, is shorthand for a constellation of riffs on a central theme: “that ho over there,” “that ho out there,” “thirsty hoes out there.” On the surface, it appears to be a synonym for slut. (And for rappers and Internet meme producers, it is conveniently both easy to rhyme and effortless to pun.) But the thot label is wielded to indicate class status as much as it refers to sexual activity. Thots are criticized based on sexual behavior, yes, but they’re more broadly identified via their consumption habits; this makes it possible to denounce them on sight even when their sexual histories remain private.

Oct. 16 2014 8:52 AM

In Defense of Egg-Freezing Benefits

Earlier this week, Apple announced that it would join Facebook in offering benefits that cover egg-freezing for female employees who are not ready to bear children, but want to have some eggs in the freezer before their fertility starts to decline. That decision has gotten a lot of backlash, with many expressing concern that offering women a way to defer child-bearing is tantamount to hanging a sign that says “moms need not apply,” others lamenting women’s waning commitment to incubating the next generation, and yet others wondering if egg freezing perks just distract from more important benefits, like paid family leave and flexible work schedules.

Boy, do I wish these egg-freezing benefits were on the table alongside better parental leave, friendlier lactation policies, and free universal daycare. But I don’t think the egg-freezing coverage has to be instead of family friendly policies, and I also don’t think egg-freezing has become necessary because of women’s career trajectories or their sexual tendencies or their persistent desire for equal pay and civil rights. Egg-freezing is simply a need, one of many, that women may have.

I’m a maternal fetal medicine specialist, and so I field lots of questions from women, both in my professional and personal life, about egg freezing. Patients, but also friends, cousins, colleagues and neighbors will turn some age (36? 38? 40? everyone’s panic button is different), and I’ll get a call or an email about where to get this “done,” and what the experience might be like. How much will it cost? Will it work? How will it feel? I get these questions from women who span the gamut in terms of race, ethnic background, and cultural expectations.

But here’s one way in which these women are the same: They’re usually single. And that makes sense, right? Because if these women were partnered, but still wanted to delay child-bearing, they would probably pursue IVF with their eggs and their partner’s sperm, and freeze the resulting embryos. IVF and embryo cryopreservation is an older, more refined, and arguably more successful technology, although as egg-freezing becomes more sophisticated, it is reportedly beginning to approach the same success rates. (I’m focusing this discussion on heterosexual women, for whom the alternative to egg-freezing seems to be an easy fix: making babies the old-fashioned way. This means that I’m excluding a bunch of other wonderful kinds of families here, and not discussing the ways that assisted reproductive technology offers some great options for those people too.) Before you ask: These are women who can’t achieve their goal with a sperm donor. What they want is a baby, yes, but with a willing partner for child rearing and a present father for their child. Sometimes this is called “social infertility.”

Oct. 15 2014 3:56 PM

A New Book Confirms That Male Doctors Have It Really, Really Good

A few months ago, New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor wrote about the havoc that on-call scheduling wreaks on low-income employees with children. She profiled a Starbucks worker who had to rely on a patchy network of relatives and friends to care for her young son because her work hours were so unpredictable. The story resonated, not just because of its frustrating particulars, but also because it was just one more example of how the modern working world is dysfunctional for many working parents: From Debra Harrell, the McDonald’s worker who was jailed for letting her 9-year-old go to the park alone while she worked, to Rhiannon Broschat, the Whole Foods employee who was fired because she missed work to care for her special-needs son when school was cancelled, it has become abundantly clear that our systems of work and care do not fit together.

The new book Unequal Time: Gender, Class, and Family in Employment Schedules explores the clash of childcare and work scheduling. What makes the book—by UMass Amherst sociologists Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel—a particularly necessary addition to the topic is that it explores how odd hours affect men and women up and down the socioeconomic ladder.

Clawson and Gerstel look at four different kinds of health care workers: Doctors, nurses, EMTs, and certified nursing assistants. They chose health care because it’s one of the few fields where both white collar and working class jobs need to be filled 24-hours a day, seven days a week. The way these workers dealt with their job scheduling was impacted not just by their class, but also by their gender, in surprising ways.

Oct. 15 2014 12:31 PM

South Carolina Says “Stand Your Ground” Law Doesn’t Apply to Abused Women

South Carolina has an expansive "stand your ground" law that paves the way for someone to get immunity from prosecution by declaring that they killed another person in self-defense. Liberals have been critical of these laws, arguing that they make it far too easy for violent people to deliberately provoke or escalate confrontations and then avoid prosecution when things get out of hand. (There is some proof that such laws correlate with a rise in the murder rate.) There are also concerns that the laws are unfairly applied, due to massive racial disparities in who successfully invokes "stand your ground" to avoid punishment. Now comes a reason for women to be especially worried.

Oct. 15 2014 11:25 AM

Supreme Court Surprises Everyone, Allows Texas Abortion Clinics to Reopen. For Now.  

Tuesday evening, the Supreme Court issued a reprieve for 13 abortion clinics in the state of Texas. The clinics had been closed after a ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court, which overturned a district court's earlier stay on a new Texas law requiring abortion clinics to meet ambulatory surgical center standards. The standards are medically unnecessary, since abortion is a simple outpatient procedure or, in some cases, just a matter of taking a pill. As the American Congress of Gynecologists and Obstetricians noted in a press release denouncing the Texas law, it is "plainly intended to restrict the reproductive rights of women in Texas through a series of requirements that improperly regulate medical practice and interfere with the patient-physician relationship." The Supreme Court largely sided with the original district court stay, which holds that Texas cannot enforce the draconian regulation while it's being fought over in court.

The ruling is surprising. As Irin Carmon at MSNBC writes, "Either or both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy appear to have signed on with the court’s liberals; both voted to let an earlier portion of the law go into effect, which also closed more than a dozen clinics." The earlier portion of the law, which has been upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court, requires doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of their clinic. As with the requirement that abortion clinics meet surgical center standards, the hospital admitting privilege standard is medically unnecessary and clearly meant to force clinics, particularly in rural areas, to close.

Oct. 15 2014 10:33 AM

Is It Impossible to Write a Decent Sexiest Woman Alive Profile?

Has anyone ever written a not horrible Sexiest Woman Alive piece? Chris Jones’ icky profile of Penelope Cruz, Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive for 2014, is the latest icky entry in the icky genre. Jones uses rapt, creepy, overheated language to say practically nothing about his subject, except that she is “impossibly beautiful,” “has no physical flaws,” “looks like a thousand different women,” and “can be whatever we want her to be.” (So, nothing.)

Jones’ particular contribution to the grease canon elaborately compares a pure white bull being publicly, erotically, stabbed to death by matadors (“There was a growing intimacy between the matador and the bull in those moments. They had become familiars in each other’s heat”) to what the author/reader would like to do to Cruz, except that she does it to him first (“She picks her splattered white napkin off her lap and rises from the chair. All that remains on her plate is a bone and a puddle of blood”). The whole thing is pretentious, overwritten, and too satisfied with itself for landing its “feminist” reversal—that Cruz is the powerful swordsman, not the fetishized animal. Whatever, Esquire: What’s clear is that your writer had next to no time with the profile subject and is filling in the gaps with a labored allegory that yanks our voyeuristic levers while pulling Cruz closer to myth and far away from anything recognizably human.

Oct. 15 2014 8:52 AM

Male Allies Are Important, Except When They’re the Worst

Male allies are having a moment. In the space of the past month, Emma Watson stood in front of the United Nations and urged men to join the feminist movement under the banner #HeForShe. President Obama responded personally to the NFL’s handling of domestic abuse, saying that as “the father of two daughters,” he knows that “hitting a woman is not something a real man does.” Aziz Ansari sat on David Letterman’s couch, came out as a feminist, and said that anyone who contests the idea that Beyoncé "should be making 23 percent less than Jay-Z" ought to join him. And the Grace Hopper Celebration brought top executives from Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to the stage for the “Male Allies Plenary Panel,” where they were to talk about how high-powered male allies can advocate for women in tech.

Too bad the GHC male allies panel spent less time discussing how men can advocate for women than it did instructing women to advocate for themselves by “speaking up.” (They did, against the tone-deaf panelists.) Ansari’s feminist identification was just “a watered-down version of something so many women have been arguing” for ages, as BuzzFeed’s Katie Heaney noted. (In the tradition of “mansplainers everywhere,” she wrote, he cribbed his definition of feminism from the dictionary.) “As the father of daughters,” Obama apparently needed to create a female human with his very own sperm in order to understand that it’s not OK to beat them. (How far can this dubious claim to feminist identity extend—“as the son of a mother,” “as the boyfriend of a girlfriend,” “as the man who approaches women on the subway”?) And #HeForShe has finally encouraged members of One Direction to hold signs with hashtags on them and post soulful photos of their feminist solidarity to Twitter.

Allies are important, except when they’re the worst. That is my takeaway from this current moment in man-feminist relations, but the idea is not new. In 2012, North Carolina State University sociologist Kris Macomber interviewed dozens of men and women who advocate against gendered forms of violence, and found seemingly endless contradictions embedded in the process of incorporating men into feminist movements. The central conflict is simple: Because men are “members of the dominant group, they have access to social and institutional power that women lack,” Macomber writes, and that makes them valuable to feminism—but it also makes them representatives of a culture feminists are working to change.

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