Category Archives: women’s health

The Feminist Vaccine

Before we get started, this is going to be a LONG post, and I mean really long.  I don’t want to leave any stone unturned on this topic and I want to be as thorough (and sourced) as possible.

We – feminists, women, men, mothers and fathers, people – need to put a lid on the anti-vaccine craze.  “Wait, why is this a feminist issue?”  We’ll get there.  In under five thousand words, hopefully.

My goal in this entry is not to mock or fear-monger.  There are legitimate points brought up by the anti-vaccine side, which I will gladly include and address as they come up.  My point in all of this is to educate and persuade.  If my thoroughness comes off as condescending, please understand that is not my intention.  I don’t think anti-vaccine people are stupid – I think that raising kids is scary and every parent wants to do what’s best for their kids and is terrified of doing wrong and it makes things complicated.  I’m writing this with a “from the ground up” approach and assuming that someone, not everyone, but someone reading this has no academic background in biology.

If I miss anything, if there’s a rebuttal that needs to be addressed, comment and I’ll edit it in.  I am more than happy to address any questions or comments on this topic, because it’s something I feel very passionately about.

What is a vaccine?  The functioning base of a vaccine can be a number of things, I’ll break them down one-by-one, explain how they work in layman’s terms, and give some examples:

Live attenuated vaccine – this type of vaccine has a live form of the virus in it, but it is weakened or somehow made inert so that the patient’s immune system can “learn” the virus without getting ill.  Measles, mumps, rubella, and the chickenpox vaccine all contain attenuated agents.  Very rarely a bacterial vaccine can also be live attenuated type, such as cholera, but this is uncommon and not a type of vaccine most people will get.  Can a live virus vaccine become dangerous again?  The virus is bred down to be weak inside of humans.  Viruses can exchange DNA, but you would need to have the “wild type” in your system already (or a compatible virus – this is VERY rare and should not be considered an elimination-worthy fault of this type of vaccine).

Inactivated vaccines – like attenuated, these vaccines contain whole virus or bacteria, but it is killed (by heat, drying, radiation, or chemicals [we’ll get to chemicals later]).  Since it is dead, there is no chance it can revert back to being dangerous.  Inactive vaccines don’t provoke as strong of an immune response, so a “booster” later in life may be necessary.  Some examples of an inactive vaccine include the polio vaccine, most flu shots, and pertussis/whooping cough.  It’s important if you’re having children later in life, or if you work with children, the elderly, or the immunocompromised to get these types of shots as directed by your healthcare provider or employer.

Toxoid vaccines – some bacteria are not harmful because of the bacteria itself, but because of toxins secreted by the bacteria during it’s lifespan or at death.  You cannot build a “natural” immunity to most of these types of bacteria, because a bacteria is not going to produce a weak toxin on it’s own and often the toxin is fatal in it’s “active” form.  The most well-known toxoid vaccine is the tetanus shot, which is given every ten years.  Toxoid vaccines are made with formalin, which is a solution of formaldehyde and water (we’ll get to formaldehyde later), which damages the protein of the toxin enough to make it harmless enough for the body to learn how to fight it off.  Like inactivated vaccines, boosters are very important in this class.

Conjugate vaccines – this class of vaccine is particularly important for infants and young children, who’s immune system can’t yet identify and break down bacterial walls with special polysaccharide (a type of carbohydrate) coatings.  The coatings can mask the proteins sticking out from a bacteria or virus, which can make it difficult for a young immune system to identify and fight off.  The way this vaccine works is by developing the elements from the polysaccharides as well as a toxin or protein the body can identify.  This way the body learns how to respond to the coating using the secondary element as a trigger for the response.  The Hepatitis-B vaccine is an example of a conjugate vaccine, it contains protein marker elements, polysaccharide elements, and inert toxins that the body can identify and respond to better than the polysaccharides on its own.

Recombinant  Vector vaccines – this is one of two “new” classes of vaccines, made possible by developments in genetic research and understanding.  A recombinant vaccine functions by inserting the genes for one infectious agent’s protein or toxin markers into another attenuated virus or bacteria that the body can fight off.  This way the body learns how to deal with the potentially very harmful disease by way of a weaker, non harmful agent.  The HPV vaccine is a recombinant vector vaccine.  Why can’t you just make an attenuated vaccine then?  Some infectious agents are simply too virulent or risky to do this with – like HIV.  While we don’t currently have an HIV vaccine, a recombinant vector approach may hold the key to developing one that is safe and effective.

DNA vaccine – this type of vaccine is experimental and a bit tricky to explain, so I’ll let the NIH do it for me: “Researchers have found that when the genes for a microbe’s antigens are introduced into the body, some cells will take up that DNA. The DNA then instructs those cells to make the antigen molecules. The cells secrete the antigens and display them on their surfaces. In other words, the body’s own cells become vaccine-making factories, creating the antigens necessary to stimulate the immune system.”  What, generally, this means is that your own body uses the virus or bacteria’s DNA to make the protein all by itself.  There are currently no DNA vaccines approved for human use, though a bird flu vaccine using DNA vaccine research is being studied and developed.

Okay, what about all of those chemicals in vaccines?  Aren’t those harmful?  Are some of the chemicals in vaccines potentially harmful?  Yes.  Are they harmful as they are in vaccines?  No.  The thing a lot of people don’t understand about organic chemistry (and, in this entry, organic does not mean the same thing as it does at the grocery store, but scientifically, which is having to do with carbon-based biochemistry) is that dosing is everything.  Literally anything is harmful in the wrong dose (even good ol’ water) and most things are harmless at the right dose (even one of the deadliest naturally occurring toxins, botulinum can be safely administered, though I personally wouldn’t recommend it).  Biomass is very important in chemistry – the amount of formaldehyde, for example, that is lethal for a bacteria is totally and wholly inconsequential to humans, even tiny ones.  You will consume more formaldehyde in fruits and vegetables than you will ever get in a vaccine – it’s abundant in nature and it’s okay for us to consume because it’s the “dose” that matters – low levels of formaldehyde are processed into other chemicals in the body and passed in the urine.  Constant, high-level exposure to formaldehyde is dangerous and carcinogenic (cancer causing).  The amount of formaldehyde in vaccines is not.

The “hot chemical” in vaccines is Thimerosal.  Some have speculated that the inclusion of thimerosal in vaccines has led to an increase in autism.  It’s important to note that this chemical was phased out of most vaccines and reduced to a very, very low levels in the ones it remained a part of in 1997, so even if it were related to autism (it’s not), it would not be possible for this link to be made to children born after that time.  The removal was purely precautionary – thimerosal is ethylmercury, not methlymercury or elemental mercury.  When people hear “mercury,” most don’t realize there’s multiple types at all, much less that they have totally different effects on the body.  Elemental mercury is what you would find in a thermometer and is really only dangerous if inhaled (it’s where we get the term “mad as a hatter“) – the body does a poor job absorbing it and if eaten/swallowed would pass through the body.  DO NOT DO THIS, IT IS STILL A HEAVY METAL AND POTENTIALLY TOXIC.  Methlymercury is the “dangerous mercury” that can be found in high predator fish (through a process called biomagnification, in which a large fish eats 100 medium fish, which ate 100 small fish, which ate 100 tiny fish that ate 100 filter feeders with a small amount of methlymercury in it’s system – this is why pollution control is important).  Methylmercury is absorbed into the bloodstream and is harmful to humans, even in small doses because it accumulates and takes a very long time to break down.  Thimerosal/ethylmercury is broken down by the body quickly and excreted – it is not harmful and does not put people are risk for accumulation of mercury in their system.

Somewhere along the line a lot of people got caught up in this idea that natural  = good, artificial = bad, even if the artificial is merely a laboratory mass-created chemically identical version of what’s found in nature.  It’s not reasonable and it’s not a scientifically sound approach to life.  Prior to mass-production of antibiotics the number one killer in war wasn’t bullets and broadswords, it was bacteria.  Convention medicine occasionally has a misstep but, on the whole, it has vastly improved the quality of life for living things (not just humans).  Yes, new drugs should be tested thoroughly.  Yes, sometimes nature holds the cure (let’s not forget that penicillin producing fungus is naturally occurring and opiate based pain relief has been around for centuries), but sometimes artificial does too.  It’s one thing to ask questions, it another thing to entirely discount something because “you don’t understand the words on the label.”  Chemistry and chemicals are not the enemy, they are not bad for you any more or any less than nature.  Nature didn’t eradicate smallpox, vaccines did.  Nature isn’t going to halt HIV, science is.  Chemical synthesis is vital, it is absolutely critical to improving life on earth.  Period.

My general point is, yes, there are chemicals in vaccines that sound scary and can do scary things…but not at the concentrations in vaccines (even in all regular childhood vaccines put together at once).  Which brings me to the next question…

Isn’t the infant and early childhood vaccine schedule a little extreme?  With that many vaccines so close, how can you determine which one caused a reaction if a child has a reaction?  This is a point on the anti-vaccine side that does have some merit though I must emphasize that vaccination before socialization is the key because with many diseases group exposure is the real danger.  I hesitate to link to any popular “alternative schedules,” because most of their proponents spread misinformation about vaccines overall.  Suffice to say, if you want to spread out your child’s vaccine schedule, talk to their doctor about doing them 1-2 at a time and prioritizing according to local disease trends and potential illness complications. This is where it’s important to understand how vaccines move through a population, a study called epidemiology.

In epidemiology, you’ll see the term “r-nought” (R sub 0, R0, or R0).  What this identifies is for every one person infected, how many other people they can be expected to infect.  This is determined by a lot of factors: how the infectious agent reproduces, how it is spread, and how long the host is spreading the illness before symptoms show and incubation period, et cetera.  Measles, for example, has an R0 of 11-18 – that’s very high.  While measles is not typically fatal, 1 in 1,000 children with measles will have encephalitis and 1-2 out of 1,000 will die.  Some math:

On infected child will infect (lowball) 12 children.

12 infected children will infect 144 children

144 infected children will infect 1728 children

So within 3 cycles you’ve hit your statistical number for fatalities and encephalitis.  That’s a pretty rapid progression for a disease.

Let’s do another one: Pertussis.  R0 of about 15.  In infants and children 1-2 in 100 cases involve convulsions, 1 in 100 death, 2/3 apnea (which if not monitored closely can result in death), 1 in 300 encephalopathy.  If you include adult infection these numbers drop.

So, 1 infected child infects 15 peers.

15 infected children infect 225.  Two cycles to statistical mortality.

There are a lot of factors that go in to surviving a serious childhood illness, not just simple math.  Nutrition, overall health, and speed in seeking medical attention all factor in to survival, so it’s perfectly possible a large pertussis outbreak can have no fatalities in an affluent area.  However, participation in society comes with responsibility.  There are children who legitimately cannot have a specific vaccine, or any vaccines due to medical issues (allergies, childhood cancer, and immune disease, for example).  For these children, “herd immunity” (an often misunderstood term) is vital – if a disease cannot move within a population because everyone in it is capable of fighting if off before they become infectious, the odds of someone who is a “good host” coming into contact with the disease drops drastically.  Herd immunity doesn’t negate the existence of a disease within a population, only the effectiveness by which it can spread.  Vaccines don’t magically make it so you don’t come in contact with an infectious agent – when you are infected, you body responds without you ever knowing you were infected, and you don’t pass the disease along.  You ruin the R0.  The point of the vaccine is twofold: to prevent possible severe complications from illness and to disrupt the natural movement of a disease through a population.  You don’t just get vaccines for yourself, you get them because humans are social animals and the microbe world relies on that fact to propagate.

But most of these diseases are rarely fatal anyway.  I feel I’m violating my child’s bodily autonomy by forcing vaccines into it to accommodate “regulations.”  Natural immunity will be better for him/her anyway.  I cannot emphasize enough – the immunity you get from vaccines is natural immunity.  Your body is responding, your body is producing the necessary antibodies, your body is learning the disease.  It’s like learning to ride a bike with training wheels or a tricycle first versus just jumping onto a two-wheeler from the get go.  Yes, you’ll probably learn to ride a bike still, but it will likely be at the very least painful if not outright hazardous.  Vaccines are training wheels for your body learning how to ride a disease, so when you come into contact with the disease you’re already a pro, you know what you’re doing, and the training wheels can come off.

As far as bodily autonomy, I feel it’s impossible to address this without comparison and weighing options.  Functionally all medicine given by a parent and doctor without consent of the child is a violation of their autonomy if you’re using “forced vaccines” as a standard – I didn’t want to take antibiotics any of the many, many times I got pneumonia as a child, but my parents forced me to so I didn’t drown in my own lung goo, arguably a good call on their part.  Children don’t want to do anything that’s painful and the concept of “pain now” versus “pain later,” they will pretty much always pick later because cause and consequence is a rationalization that takes a while to develop.  “You can get this shot now, and it will definitely hurt for a little bit, or you can maybe *insert common symptom list here* later,” most kids are going to pick whatever later is because later is not a concrete concept especially with “maybe” or “possibly” attached to it.  Compulsory vaccination is no different from compulsory vision tests for a driver’s license, or compulsory HIV screening for blood donation, or any other number of things wherein you trade something to participate in society – you are certainly able to opt-out, but it will reasonably restrict you from certain social activities, because failure to comply can result in consequences not just for you, but for someone else who had no way of knowing you were not in compliance and no way of protecting themselves.  You don’t have a right to put other people at risk, your right to put yourself at risk ends when it possibly risks someone else.  You don’t have the right to be negligent.

Further, I would make the argument that what amounts to intentional exposure to potentially serious illness is a greater violation of a child’s bodily autonomy than an injection.  Take something really benign for example, like chicken pox.  Fatality, ataxia, even pneumonia are very rare.  But scarring (a superficial blemish, but still permanent, and it’s not like we don’t live in a society that focuses on physical beauty) is quite common.  Amy Parker’s piece about growing up unvaccinated raises a good point about this – you can make it through unvaccinated alive and no worse for wear as far as complications and still look back on the illness experience miserably.  This is a situation where saying, “you can’t tell me what to put in my child’s body!” as a rallying cry out of principle is seriously counter-intuitive to reasonable medical decisions.  Most people would agree that parents who withhold life-saving treatment from their children for religious reasons are morally reprehensible – and the government has decided even in the face of religious liberty that when it comes to minors, medical care is compulsory.  Withholding misery-saving preventative healthcare should not be viewed as a brave or medically sound decision.  It’s not a decision between “exposing my child to something harmless” and “not,” it’s a decision of “how will I expose my children to something potentially harmful: in a controlled situation or not.”  Your child *will* be exposed to most, if not all vaccinatable childhood illnesses in their lifetime.  Your choice is whether or not their system is already equipped to handle it, they’re going to be exposed to it either way.

Also, the possible complications of not vaccinating our daughters is even more severe.  A great deal of childhood illnesses are generally recoverable…when you have them as children.  Rubella and Chicken pox can all cause pregnancy complications and do very serious damage to a developing fetus – and many vaccines cannot be given during pregnancy (though the pertussis booster and some forms of the flu vaccine can be and should be).  Additionally, a mother cannot pass temporary immunity to her baby for something she is not immune to.

Big Pharma can’t be trusted!  Vaccines are a profit scam!  Will you deny that some children die from vaccines?  Look, vaccine reaction is a absolutely a real thing, the body can adapt to or reject anything at any time if it’s in the right genetic cards.  You can reject your own organs, type I juvenile diabetes is a result of the body’s immune system attacking the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin (versus adult-onset type II resulting in the body’s cells no longer accepting insulin properly).  No matter what you introduce to the body – vaccines, medicine, essential oil, juice – someone is allergic to it, someone can’t process it, it will kill somebody.  Ginger is a great natural remedy for an upset stomach.  I’m (potentially lethally) allergic to ginger, so I don’t take it for an upset stomach.  Infants and children (and adults) should be monitored following vaccination and if anything seems awry, medical attention should be sought.  It’s not reasonable to avoid something because of the possibility of a reaction (unless you have a family history of adverse effects) because you’d have to avoid everything.  The CDC monitors vaccine reaction closely, and it’s important to note with childhood vaccines the frequency of severe reactions is so infrequent it’s medically impossible to prove the vaccine was at-fault in most cases.  Just as a quick comparison, the statistical odds of death or serious side effect from DTaP is less than 1 in 1,000,000 (.0001%).  The statistical odds of death from just pertussis is .2% – not high, but much, much higher than the vaccine.  MMR is also less than 1 in 1,000,000 (.0001%).  Combined in the US the mortality rate for these diseases is about 2 per 1000, also .2% (with poor nutrition this figure jumps to about 25%)

It’s worth recognizing that “Big pharma” is starting to realize serious profit from vaccines…because of the growth of the voluntary vaccine market.  Childhood vaccinations are a pretty null line for pharmaceutical companies, you can’t turn profit on something that’s been around for a long time because it goes to generic production.  Flu vaccines, however, will always be new market/brand name because it’s a different vaccine every year.  So yes, pharmaceutical companies are making bank on vaccines, but only because of flu vaccines.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get them – the important takeaway from flu history is that the biggest, most lethal epidemics have killed the young and healthy more than the weak because of immune over response.  That’s right.  Your healthy young body does such a good job at building immunities when it sees a totally new, strong flu, it boots into beast mode trying to kill it, fails, but in the process manages to start taking out your own cells.  This doesn’t happen in vaccines because the flu doesn’t “fight back” so you don’t get the hyper-response from your immune system.  And before anyone says it – flu vaccines do NOT go onto the market untested.  For one, the majority of flu vaccines are made by the same method (which isn’t new by any stretch) and for two, they are tested, extensively, and when they fail their producer is out millions.  It happens.  No company is getting a pass on having to test their vaccines.

A pharmaceutical company is a business, not a charity, they operate to make money.  It’s unreasonable for anyone to expect there to not be a profit margin associated with  their products – the up-front costs alone for developing flu vaccines are into the hundreds of millions of dollars.  Profit allows pharmaceutical companies to dump literal billions of dollars into research and development of new drugs (phase III trials alone account for about 40% of most pharmaceutical companies’ R&D operating budget) and often end up with complete failure/FDA rejection (only 5 out of about every 5000 make the cut).  The flu vaccine having a mark-up doesn’t make it less effective, or less of a good idea especially for at-risk individuals and people who work around other people (aka everyone).  Everyone selling something is in business to make a profit, the super nice local farmer you get peaches from every summer at the Wednesday farmer’s market is selling those peaches with a markup to make growing the peaches and driving the peaches to the market a worthwhile endeavor.  The farmer’s family isn’t living off of peaches and wearing peach-fiber clothing and checking email on an iPeach, they make profit from their products and buy things.  That doesn’t make the peach less delicious and it doesn’t make the farmer dishonest…so why is it bad for a pharmaceutical company to make a profit?

Doctors don’t know how vaccines work, how can they explain them to patients?  This is a radical statement made by some anti-vaccine advocates based on anecdotal observation, not objectively fact-based.  Do all doctors everywhere know exactly how each and every vaccine works and exact numbers behind every possible reaction off  the top of their head?  No, that’s ridiculous to even expect.  What doctors can do is give you general expected side-effects (soreness) and common reaction signs to watch out for (difficulty breathing).  What doctors can do is go over the vaccine brochure/insert (which you have every right to ask for, some doctors won’t offer it out the gate because most people don’t want it, but all are required to have it on-site) with you and explain things you don’t understand.  You absolutely have the right to know what a vaccine is and to have it explained to you, and if your doctor is flippant or resistant about providing that information, by all means “fire” them and get a new doctor or anonymously report them to their superiors or state licensing board for investigation if you feel it’s warranted.  Most doctors and nurses are in medicine because they care about their patients.  Most scientists working in pharmaceuticals want to help humanity.  A doctor isn’t blowing off this information because they don’t know or care, it’s that most patients and parents coming through the door that don’t know and don’t care.  If you do care, they are obligated legally and ethically to explain it to you in a way you understand (because those inserts are not typically written in laymen language).

…so what the hell does any of this have to do with Feminism?

Look at these pictures:

Group-photo-rally1 img_01251

And this rally.  And this one.  Notice anything similar?

The voices in the anti-vaccine crowd, overwhelmingly, are women.  The above seems to have a male speaking, but most of the participants are women.  The most famous face of the movement (who I’ve avoided mentioning because she’s not taken particularly seriously at this point) is Jenny McCarthy (who ironically now promotes unregulated eCigs).  The anti-vaccine movement relies on women, and these women communicate with and trust and relate to the other women in their group.  It’s a place where women have power.

If pro-vaccine, pro-science advocates want to turn the tide on public misinformation, the face needs to not be pharmaceutical companies, or faceless blasts with stock images from the CDC and NIH, we need real, relatable women explaining why these vaccines are safe and necessary, we need scientist moms out there explaining why they vaccinated their children, we need female doctors who got the Gardasil vaccine showing that it was safe, we need, as women, to get out there and be vocal about this because when it comes to something as dear and important as raising our children, facts and numbers aren’t going to break the ice on their own.  We need facts and numbers and compassion, we need relatability, we need leaders.  We need crunchy moms who understand that vaccines aren’t unnatural immunity, we need parent groups to explain vaccines and illness clearly and without fear because you don’t need fear to illustrate vaccines as good and illness as bad.

Women listen to woman and men, but women relate to women.  Vaccines need feminism, and feminism needs to get on board with advocating for vaccines.

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Valentine’s Day Sucks

Valentine’s Day really is the worst – for everyone.  It’s a holiday that has become the representation of everything that is wrong with relationships, an emphasis on rom-com style romance and gratuitous consumerism that has absolutely nothing to do with love, commitment, loyalty, or sex.  That being said, this post has nothing to do with how horribly we celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Instead, I am solely going to focus on Valentine’s Day advertisements.

It’s not news that advertising harms women (and men) by enforcing impossible body ideals (even the models in the ads don’t look like the ads), adhering to traditional gender roles rigidly, and playing up negative stereotypes of both genders.  Valentine’s Day brings out a special kind of self-hate inducing and objectification in advertising.

This was the inspiration for this post (sorry for the quality, a friend nabbed it on an iPad screenshot for me):

workoutappad

Um…what?  The language of this ad communicates several troublesome things: your body belongs to “him” (it’s a capital H, so maybe they mean Jesus, but I doubt it) and it’s not good enough.  I’m going to lay down some truth to all of you: if someone is with you, they already think you’re pretty great.  If you don’t think you’re pretty great and want to change something about yourself, do it for yourself, and do it for healthy reasons.  If your partner demeans, degrades, and doesn’t appreciate you, don’t “surprise him with a new body” he (or she) doesn’t deserve anyway, surprise him with a breakup because you deserve better than to be made to feel like your body is for the enjoyment and property of another.  Period.  This ad is bullshit and further, there’s zero chance the young woman featured it it only works out seven minutes a day anyway.

Nakshatranatan

These are two diamond ads from previous Valentine’s Day promotions.  For the sake of just evaluating these ads, let’s put away the issues with diamond engagement rings for just a second.  It’s not even a “clever joke” anymore and frankly the implication that women are essentially willing to prostitute themselves for a valuable shiny rock is eyerollingly offensive.  It also reduces the value of a woman to her vagina.  “Give her diamonds, not because you love her, but because you want easier access to sex!”  It cheapens relationships, it prostitutes women and stereotypes men into being drooling sex fiends only interested in women for what’s between their legs.  Frankly I don’t see why a woman would want a diamond from a company that implies she’s a frigid idiot only meltable with an overpriced stone or why a man would want to spend a borderline obscene money at a business that thinks he’s barely higher functioning than a baser primate.

Also according to ads, ladies, not only is your body not good enough for him, but the only part of it he apparently cares about is a disgusting filth hole you should be embarrassed of:

TampaxValentinesDay Summers_Eve_V-Day

Ah yes, don’t forget your “v!”  Never mind the fact that douching and introducing harsh scents and disinfectants to your vagina really screws up your body’s natural flora and can actually cause yeast infections.  Also don’t forget your naturally occurring period will ruin your significant other’s planning (seriously, it’s a 28 day cycle guys, learn how to count and you’ll know when your GF’s next period is; if you’re not into period sex, then don’t book a sex hotel room during that time.  Duh.).  I’m not even sure what Tampax is trying to communicate – that you can have sex with her tampon in and avoid having your dick look like it came out of the elevator in the Shining?  That doesn’t sound very safe, sounds like a gross way to get TSS actually.  I don’t even understand what’s going on besides trying to shame a woman out of having a period on Valentine’s Day.  I can’t speak for all women but if that was something I could control with will power alone, I would never have a period.  Ever.  It’s messy and painful and I’m a big fan of efficiency and not wasting resources, i.e. keeping my blood inside of me.

This Valentine’s Day, don’t celebrate with consumerism and encourage companies like these to put out degrading advertisements.  Celebrate with earnest expressions of love and loyalty, and cherish those close to you.


“You’re a Bad Feminist”

This is something a lot a self-identifying feminists hear (and think) at some point.  For me, it was something that become a bit of an existential crisis – how could I champion women’s rights if I couldn’t champion myself?

 

It took me a long time (months) to come to terms with the fact that acknowledging the falsities of the media and the pressure women and girls face did not somehow make me magically immune to the effects.  I’m not immune to body image pressure, I can’t turn my mind off to the pressure to fit a very streamlined and impossible idea of beauty, and I felt like a failure as a result.

 

When Pinterest opened up private boards last year, I made a thinspo board.  In public I wrote here, I wrote for friends, I wrote to friends discussing the dangers of thinspo (and it’s closely related cousin “fitspo,” which has nothing to do with being athletic and everything to do with being incredibly thin AND very toned) and I had my own thinspo collection.  I hated myself for it, I cried and I felt ashamed, and eventually I stopped writing, not just here but everywhere.  I couldn’t even make myself write fiction that had nothing to do with women’s rights because I felt like a fraud, unworthy of even writing a female character.

 

A friend of mine who I admire deeply posted a query on Facebook towards the end of the year asking about diet pills.  At first I thought she was kidding – this is a woman who works, lives, and breathes fighting for women’s rights – but it became clear to me she wasn’t.  I was floored, I was angry, I was so pissed that such a smart and motivated friend was driven to something so harmful and I didn’t understand why or how.  I’d put her on a feminist pedestal, I decided for her that she was immune to the exact same societal pressures I couldn’t escape from myself, and I realized how utterly wrong I had been to do so.

 

Ultimately my “failure as a feminist” wasn’t a failure at all, it was an awakening.  We’re all in this together.  I deleted the thinspo board.  And now, I’ve admitted it existed.

 

I’m back.  Every part of me, every weakness and strength.


The Commodity of Sex

I’ve wanted to do a piece on sex workers for a long time (the first draft of this was in November of 2011 to give you an idea).  Sex work (prostitution) is a tricky topic in feminism with no clear conclusion either way and good arguments on both sides.  I think my problem is I’m not entirely sure where I fall, there’s just too many issues with both sides.  I’m breaking this piece into bullet points of pros and cons.  Ultimately I favor decriminalizing and legalizing prostitution…but it’s really a lesser of two evils, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with my own position even.

1. First, let’s stop pretending it’s an merely an issue of choice.  “If a woman wants to sell her body for sex, it’s her body and she should not face legal penalty for doing so.”  Well, yes, if it were that simple, then there wouldn’t even be a question.  But it’s not that simple.  Most women working as sex workers were sexually abused as children and/or raped before the age of 15 with a very large number having been raped as a child by at least 3 perpetrators.  Sex workers are disproportionately impoverished with 75% being homeless or previously homeless.  89% of prostitutes want to leave sex work but have no other means of survival.  Certainly there are some women who are not financially desperate, victims of childhood sex abuse, and work in sex 100% by choice, but they are exceedingly rare.  These numbers do NOT back up the claim that women are entering this profession by choice.  To quote Catharine MacKinnon, “If prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices most often found doing it?”  The choice between starvation and homelessness or selling your body isn’t really a choice.  Desperation, abuse, force, and coercion are not choosing to be a sex worker.  In fact, in some cases it’s rape.  Legalization does absolutely nothing to solve these issues, but it doesn’t exacerbate them either.

2. …but let’s also recognize that in areas where prostitution is legal (even if Johning isn’t), the women in the industry have comparably better lives.  Nevada’s 12 county legal prostitution isn’t without problems, but the sex workers in that area are regulated and legally protected.  Pimping is still illegal, prostituting is not.  Women who are raped by their Johns can go to police (for those not in the know, prostitution in legal brothels is typically done in a pay-by-service model wherein a sex worker can deny clients and/or specific services at any time for any reason and acts and prices are negotiated beforehand).  Johns are required to wear condoms for all sex services.  Sex workers are regularly tested for STDs.  Brothels are strictly forbidden from recruitment or encouraging women (or men) to become sex workers.  But despite these laws there are still abuses and women are still exploited.  It’s not a good industry, it’s just comparably better than street work.  Perhaps a better example is the Swedish system that makes the purchaser the criminal, not the woman.  Since the change in prostitution laws and crackdown on Johns took place, Sweden’s sexual assault rate dropped to the lowest in Europe.  By 2008 the prostitution rate dropped by half.  Women could now go to police when they were being exploited and abused.

3. Keeping prostitution illegal hasn’t stopped prostitution from occurring.  Legalizing prostitution doesn’t remove danger but it sure as hell doesn’t help abused sex workers seek justice either.  Women performing sex work illegally are often told “what did you expect?” when trying to report rape or abuse.  However, legalizing prostitution has the burden of further solidifying the patriarchal norm of considering a woman’s body not her own property.  Ultimately as long as there is poor job opportunity, sexual abuse of minors, poor education, and cyclical poverty, exploitative prostitution will exist.  By making prostitution legal (but not necessarily Johns) and keeping pimping illegal it is a step towards helping sex workers have personal autonomy and more control over the industry they work in.  In Spain, which has very lax laws regarding sex work, sex trafficking is rampant, so legalization doesn’t even necessarily decrease the exploitation factor.

4. The prevalence of violent pornography has made prostitution more dangerous, not less, and legalization can possibly make it worse.  Nearly all porn contains anal sex and a huge amount has verbal and/or physical abuse of the actress.  This wasn’t the case even as recently as the 1990s.  Because prostitutes are often treated by Johns as outlets for sexual gratification they fantasize about or cannot get at home, sex work has taken a darker turn as well.  It is in most cases not only not really a “chosen” career, but also a violent and dangerous career.  Moves to make condom usage mandatory in pornography was met with serious outcries from industry big-wigs and from porn viewers who complained that it ruins “the fantasy,” completely ignoring the fact that it’s real people with real health concerns performing.  Sex entertainment, sex work, and sex trafficking are very closely intertwined.  The problem with legalization is that prostitution will become more like porn in that since services are more openly shown, women will more or less be forced to perform acts they might not even want to do (such as anal sex or violent BDSM) or risk losing business.  We’ve already established that most women in sex work do not want to be prostitutes in the first place, adding the element of violent sex acts just to stay “employed” is another layer of horror.

5. …but legalization and regulation allows women to openly network, form support systems, and even unionize.  Prostitution is not going away.  It’s not.  It’s idealist to say “prostitution should be illegal because it’s exploitative and makes women property.”  Yes it’s exploitative, yes it makes women’s body into property, and both of those things are bad but keeping it illegal only serves to make former sex workers transitions into the non-sex job force more difficult because it adds a criminal record to their history.  Slut shaming related sex discrimination already occurs in the workplace, having a sex-work offense on a permanent record only serves to keep women out of regular employment.  There is an international sex workers union, it would be nice for sex workers in the US and around the world to have access to this group and the legal protections it advocates.

In the end, we should work to abolish prostitution…but we should legalize sex work first.  The end goal should be to stop sex trade because it’s rooted in the sexual abuse of minors and taking advantage of impoverished women.  We need to work towards ending what causes prostitution in the first place, but we can give sex workers tools to keep themselves safer until that is achieved.


Why I didn’t post about the election

As I’m sure you’ve (rightfully) assumed, I’m more or less surrounded with politically and socially active men and women.  Some are liberal, some are conservative, some are somewhere in between; my facebook wall saw more candidates pictures on it this year from both the big two and third parties than ever before.

 

So, why didn’t I speak up?  This was, arguably, one of the most important elections for women since suffrage was still on the table.

 

Here’s the thing: as much as I agreed with (and ultimately, supported) the Democrat’s positions regarding women’s health issues, I was more than a little bothered by the rhetoric that seemed to assume that 1. women’s health issues were my only concern and 2. as a woman I should automatically feel a certain way about women’s issues and so would be naturally inclined to vote Democrat.  And, apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m overjoyed Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost their respective races, it’s great that Americans won’t put up with people with such misguided and horrifying opinions on rape (especially when those opinions can dictate law).  And Elizabeth Warren winning her seat is totally awesome not just for women but for constitutional law scholars as well, she’s a brilliant scholar motivated to end corporate welfare.  Wisconsin electing the first openly lesbian senator, Tammy Baldwin?  Amazing, as was Washington, Maine, and Maryland voting to support gay marriage.   I guess what I don’t understand is the mentality that, if you’re a woman, you should have automatically voted for President Obama.

 

Why?  I mean, quite a large percentage of women are pro life.  Further, both Gary Johnson and Dr.Jill Stein ran on pro-choice platforms (Dr. Stein’s being arguably more liberal in regards to abortion and birth control access than even the Democrats).  And it’s not like Libertarian or Green are the only two third party options even.  Yes, it’s true that in the present political climate no third party has a chance of taking a presidential election, but third parties do win Representative and Senate seats, and ultimately change tends to start at the grassroots and as third party voices become stronger, their ideas tend to be absorbed into the big two.  My point is, you really weren’t limited to two choices, there was more than one pro choice/pro life and pro birth control access/anti birth control access if you didn’t care for Obama or Romney (as many didn’t).

 

I don’t like that both the right and the left seemed to bully voters into picking between Rep or Dem, especially women.  It’s like over the span of a few months my uterus became a battleground state, with both sides saying they knew that their side would do what’s best for it.  The fact of the matter is, no matter how pro choice, pro birth control I am, another woman holding the belief that a early term fetus is a person and that as a person has rights does not make her fundamentally anti-woman, nor does it make me a baby killer.  The issue is a lot more complicated than that, it really is, and if you’re trying to simplify it down to a simple “it’s a woman’s body!” statement then I’m sorry but you’re missing the point.  I guarantee that no pro life woman believes that she doesn’t own her own body, or that her body is worth less than, say, a man’s.  And but for a very small percentage of evangelicals, no pro life women would say that abortion should be 100% illegal even if the mother’s life is in danger.  It is a fundamental difference in the view of personhood of a fetus, not just over who has rights to a woman’s body.

 

Thus, if a woman believes that a fetus is a person with rights, then that woman is justified in voting for a party that supports that idea and isn’t “stupid” or “anti-feminist.”  I disagree with her wholly, but I understand where her decision is coming from and while I may try to persuade her to see things my way, I would never say outright she shouldn’t vote for the candidate she supports just because I think she’s wrong.  Trying to shoehorn women into voting against their beliefs just because of their gender seems inherently wrong to me.


Sexy Cancer and Ugly Self-Acceptance

I’d originally planned on writing this post when images like this:

started circulating around facebook and other social media outlets, but then the Susan Komen Foundation/Planned Parenthood event happened and I had to retool my thoughts and approach the topic a bit differently because omitting the politicization of breast cancer in a post about the sexualization of breast cancer felt incomplete in the current blog climate.

 

Before we get to sexy breast cancer I’d like to address the “real woman” images floating around and what they really mean and address how damaging they actually are to women as a whole.  And they are damaging – Kiera Knightley is not inferior to me because of my breast size and Heidi Montag isn’t a disgrace because she paid for her body (though it says a lot about society that a gorgeous woman felt compelled to have ten invasive surgeries in one day because she didn’t feel she was beautiful enough).  We need to get away from this idea that there is a “correct” woman, only one kind of “sexy” woman, and accept that the most beautiful thing any woman can be is healthy.

 

For some women that’s a size zero and for others it’s a size 14.  And that’s okay.

 

Fellow WordPress blogger Whirlygigagogo made this image, and I think it makes this point well:

The fact of the matter is, when women point to one image and say, “this type of body is inferior to this type (which I more closely resemble),” in order to make themselves feel better it is at the cost of other women and that own woman’s value as an individual.  These images are not about whether D cups are “better” than A cups, or whether narrow hipped lithe women are “sexier” than wide hipped voluptuous women, they’re about bringing down one group to elevate another and it’s unnecessary.  More than unnecessary, it takes away what our focus should be on: health.  Should we starve ourselves to be thin?  No.  Should we overeat fatty and unhealthy foods to get curvier?  No.  We should strive to be as healthy as we can be with the shape our bodies are already inclined to be.  It’s really ugly to label an entire group of women as unattractive just because you’re not in that group.

 

This is where I believe the fat acceptance movement has in some places really overstepped it’s bounds.  Nobody should be made to feel ashamed for their very existence, nobody deserves to wake up and hate his/herself because of their body, I absolutely and totally agree with that, but to suggest or even outright say that obese women are superior to thin women or that obese women should ignore the health implications of their condition and accept their bodies as they are is irresponsible.  I’m not saying very overweight women are not/cannot be beautiful, I’m saying that on this path to self-acceptance we have sacrificed health.  TLC’s show Big Sexy was lauded for finally bringing sexy large women to television and I think it’s great that fashionable women who aren’t very, very thin can be shown as sexy on TV but I question whether it’s really a good idea to say things like, “Big Sexy follows a group of big sexy ladies who are living large with one mission: to show the world that bigger is better, ” (from the show’s lineup description) when several of the women on the show are clearly above a healthy weight.  Again, I’m not saying these women are unattractive, I’m saying they’re seriously unhealthy and saying that they’re superior to thinner women because of their size is pretty reprehensible.  Fat women are not better.  Thin women are not better.  Healthy women, healthy women who are proud of their bodies and take good care of themselves are what we should strive to be.

 

But, no matter how healthy you live your life, cancer can happen.  And, if the overwhelming wave of pink goods is to be believed, it’s probably going to be breast cancer.

 

Well, no, it’s not.  While being diagnosed with breast cancer is most common, lung cancer is the most common fatal cancer in women and colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer death across all ethnic groups.  For that matter, all cancer deaths total don’t topple the number one killer (of both men and women), heart disease.  So what’s with all the pink if what we really need to be wearing is red?

 

Heart disease and lung cancer isn’t sexy.  There, I said it.

 

Let me explain: when was the last time you saw a “save the lungs!” bumper sticker?  An “I ❤ clean arteries!” awareness bracelet?  How about a bar fundraising event called “save the colons and rectums,” featuring $2 shots with all proceeds going towards a charity specifically focusing on colorectal cancer treatment and awareness?  You haven’t seen or heard of any of these things because they don’t exist, but I’m willing to bet you see “save the boobies” or “I ❤ titties” pink stuff on a nearly daily basis.

 

Ultimately, what all this marketing and awareness boils down to is the breasts.  Not the woman they’re attached to, the breasts.  It’s not about ending breast cancer to save women, it’s about ending breast cancer to save breasts.  You want to see a powerful breast cancer awareness image?  Show a husband lovingly embracing his bald, scarred, breastless wife post double mastectomy.  Tell her she’s a proud and brave warrior and after she heals up she can get implants or just wear bra falsies, because having breasts and saving breasts is more important than the rest of her.  The wall of pink we’ve put up to pat ourselves on the back and say, “hooray titties!” has blinded us to the horror of what cancer is, the pain and trauma that women and their families endure.  Buying pink stuff and shoveling money towards groups that ultimately do nothing does not help these people.  Wearing a “save the boobies,” bracelet is insulting and childish in the face of real pain.  Save the woman.  Her life is more than her breasts.

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was started by the American Cancer Society and Astra Zenica (you know, the pharmaceutical company) to promote mammograms.  Great, no problem, regular mammograms can help with early detection and treatment of cancer, but where did all the pink come from and where the hell is all this money going?  Pink handguns (firearms are the second leading cause of violent death in women), pink alcohol (that causes cancer), pink makeup (that causes cancer), everywhere pink pink pink, most with some or all of the proceeds going to to Komen.  And what does Komen then do with that money?

 

For a brief stint in January-February 2012, they stopped their funding of Planned Parenthood, who uses about 16% of their budget to provide breast, cervical, and other cancer screenings to women at little or no cost.  Why?  Originally the statement was that Komen would not provide funding to any group facing investigation but the reality that everyone knew was that Karen Handel, a Vice President level executive in the company, was taking her anti-abortion message louder and prouder than her breast cancer awareness message.  While Handel denies this (regardless of evidence to the contrary), the plain fact of the matter is this rule regarding funding groups being investigated was created solely to give an excuse for defunding planned parenthood.  Why?  If the focus, the one sole focus, of your group is to end breast cancer, why would defunding a group that provides free screenings as a major part of its service program even be an option?

 

Because the Komen foundation hasn’t been focused on doing the most good for the most women for some time.  This breakdown of their expense report (available here) provides some interesting insight:

12 percent for administration

8 percent for fundraising

7 percent for treatment

15 percent for screening

24 percent research

34 percent for education

Combined research, treatment, and screening make up less than half (46%) of the budget.  The three things that actually end breast cancer, the three things that most actively impact the women who have cancer, comprise less than half the budget.  As Lowder points out, why is 34% of the money going towards education/”awareness” when you’d be hard pressed to find a woman anywhere in the US who wasn’t aware of breast cancer and her potential risks?  Komen is a business, it’s a company, and with “education” comes brand recognition.  More money, more power.  More power, more weight to say things like, “we won’t fund an organization that performs abortions is under investigation,” and expect to get away with it.

 

Except they didn’t.  Women (and men) took a stand against Komen and with Planned Parenthood, vowing to cease donations, promising to stop buying all the pink crap.  And it worked, Komen recanted, Planned Parenthood proudly announced their continued partnership with the foundation, and Karen Handel resigned (having played her cards a bit too boldly or a bit too soon perhaps).  The reality is Komen hasn’t changed though, and just like the “I ❤ boobies,” “save the tatas,” bracelets and bumper stickers, they’re just using sexualized breast cancer and a pink ribbon to sell a product instead of focusing on the lives of the women they claim to want to save.

 

I relate these two topics because they have the same root issue: somewhere along the line health became second to something else.  The change in attitude has to come from within, we have to stop putting down other women, we have to stop buying meaningless pink stuff we don’t need and focus on getting back to being healthy.


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