Kids Will Be Kids, or Why We Should Stop Forcing Gender On Our Children

Grace Ramsay, LSRJ Summer Reproductive Rights Activist Service Corps (RRASC) Intern (’16, Smith College)

I spent the past weekend at a family friend’s in northern California, with no internet/phone access, and around 40 children ages 5 months – 10 years.  To many — myself included — this sounds like a nightmare.  I have never considered myself a “kid person,” and tend to feel uncomfortable when interacting with children.  My friends always seemed much more natural than I did when communicating with toddlers and pre-schoolers.  I didn’t understand how you could relate to someone whose age was yours divided by four.  So I was completely taken by surprise when I started forming relationships with several of the younger children over the weekend.  Boys and girls alike wanted to hold my hand, to run around together, and to tickle me to death.  Maybe it was because the parents at this weekend are fairly progressive, but I noticed right away that both sons and daughters were held to the same social expectations.  One moment in particular struck me: I was talking to a boy and a girl, and the boy kept interrupting her.  She turned to him, said “Excuse me!” and finished her sentence.  She didn’t let him cut her off again.  During my stay at The Land (the official name of the house upstate), I watched kids of every gender get dirty playing outside, decorate papier mache  bunnies, and sing along to folk music.

It’s no secret that gender socialization exists, and it starts right from when the doctor proclaims, “It’s a girl!”  The gender binary is coded for far more than difference in “biological sex,” a term debated today.  Girls and boys are expected to talk, dress, and play differently.  Gender differences are exaggerated to the point that activities are often gendered — girls get to play dress up, boys get to run around outside.  The socialization of boyhood and girlhood forces children into very distinct pink /blue boxes, leaving little room for gender expression outside of their assigned identity.  This limits cis boys and girls to either “girly” or “boyish” expressions, and completely disregards trans children’s possibility of living authentically.

Fighting gender socialization is a reproductive justice issue.  The right to parent with dignity goes both ways; children deserve to self-express in ways that make them feel comfortable and safe.  Returning to San Francisco after the weekend away, I was bombarded with gendered ads for young people.  Maybe a world without gendering childhood is only possible during a hippie retreat.  But from now on, I’ll keep on helping little kids play however they’d like.

New Study Debunks Six of the Worst “Myths” About Sex-Selective Abortion

Gavin Barney, LSRJ Summer Intern (’16, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

The documentary It’s a Girl was released in 2012 to immediate acclaim in traditionally progressive and pro-choice corners – the Amnesty International Film Festival made it an official selection and Ms. Magazine called the movie “unflinching” in its positive review. Fully titled It’s a Girl: the Three Deadliest Words in the World, the film describes the problem of son preference in India and China, telling how, tragically, as many girls are “eliminated” yearly in those countries as are born in the United States. However, the documentary was not quite what it appeared: a 2013 article in Slate uncovered that It’s a Girl was produced with strong, but well hidden, ties to an organization called Harvest Media Ministry that makes anti-choice videos. The film also has a subtle, but real anti-abortion message. The really troubling thing about It’s a Girl is not necessarily who produced it however – anti’s are not automatically incapable of producing material of worth. Rather, the problem is how films like this fit into the narrative of another issue here in the United States: the recent onslaught of “sex-selective abortion” ban legislation that impose criminal penalties on the performance of an abortion sought because of the sex of the fetus.

CaptureLast week I attended a talk coinciding with the release of a new report on the issue of sex-selective abortion bans called “Replacing Myths with Facts.” Produced by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), and the University of Chicago, the study identifies six common and damaging myths and misconceptions that have allowed sex-selective abortion bans to worm their way into so many legislative sessions. Chief amongst these myths is that male-biased sex ratios “are proof that sex-selective abortions are occurring,” (spoiler: there are other major factors at play) and that the “primary motivation behind laws banning sex-selective abortion in the United States is to prevent gender-based discrimination” (another spoiler: it’s really about restricting access to abortions in general).

The speakers began their presentation by introducing the room to It’s a Girl. It was suggested at the talk, and I am inclined to agree, that one of the reasons both that It’s a Girl has been a hit among pro-choice people and that anti-choice organizations and politicians have so aggressively pushed sex-selective abortion bans is that the issue of sex selection is particularly uncomfortable for pro-choice folks. The notion that people would be actively choosing boy babies over girl babies, and acting on those choices, is disturbing to any person with even the broadest feminist beliefs. Additionally, recent technological innovations that potentially open the door to allowing people to use artificial reproductive technologies to choose traits, including sex, for so-called “designer babies” make questions of sex preference more current and significant. In light of these realities, it is not terribly surprising that many normally pro-choice people may be willing to start carving out exceptions to abortion access – and it is equally unsurprising that racial stereotypes and misconceptions have played a major role.

This, of course, is where “Replacing Myths with Facts” comes in. In its introduction, “Replacing Myths” explains how proponents of sex-selective abortion bans focus on “the problem of ‘missing women’ in China and India in particular” to justify their policies. They rely on and reinforce stereotypes that people in the Asian and Pacific Island community bring these presences and practices to the US. This is myth #5 that “Replacing Myths” debunks: the most recent studies have found that foreign born Chinese, Indians, and Koreans actually “have more girls overall than white Americans.” This is a particularly important myth to debunk because the way the laws are designed – putting the onus on the health care provider to deny abortions based on son preference with the threat of criminal sanctions –opens the door to doctors generally denying API women abortions out of stereotype fueled fear.

Sex-selective abortion bans have become an extremely prevalent tactic to limit abortion access, and the fact that these policies are based heavily on racist stereotypes and spread by playing on people’s racial misconceptions make this an issue of particular import to supporters of reproductive justice. I encourage you to read “Replacing Myths with Facts” and to inoculate yourself as best you can against the lies around sex-selective abortion.

“You’re so domestic. How are you a feminist?”

Mangala Kanayson, Resident Blogger (’15, Emory University School of Law)

I get this question way too often for it to really be 2014. It’s asked under the impression that feminism is something ‘anti-femininity’ or ‘anti-masculinity’ when really, my feminism is about honoring the authentic self. When I talk about feminism, I’m not talking about swapping gender roles or making “men” out of “women” or “women” out of “men”. I’m talking about dissolving gender roles completely. My feminism is a refusal to let anyone but my most authentic self define who I am. Feminism is about all of us. It’s about challenging the restrictive ways we’re socialized and questioning external forces that coax us into compromising our identities. It’s about embracing who we are and striving to improve on our own terms, even at the risk of being vulnerable before others.

Feminists can be any gender. They can lift and code and knit and cook and go to space and still express whatever gender (or non-gender) feels true to them. Feminism defies hierarchy because it demands that we think for ourselves and speak truth despite our socialization.

My feminism is about dismantling oppression in all its forms – in our choices, in our words, in the way we treat each other and ourselves. It’s radical as sin because it’s the resistance – the refusal to praise despots and the conviction to subvert consolidated power when it denies our inherent right to be architects our own fates. Feminism is for anyone who believes to the core of their being that all people are inherently equal in human dignity and worth.

Feminism is for you.

Trans Sex Workers and Reproductive Justice

Candace Gibson, Resident Blogger (’12, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law)

The reproductive justice and LGBTQ liberation movements share the values of bodily autonomy and sexual liberation and believe that all persons should have the resources they need to form the families they want.  However, many of these desires, including bodily autonomy, are often denied to trans persons, especially trans sex workers, many of whom are trans women of color. At a recent conference that I attended, Cyndee Clay, Executive Director of HIPS, painfully articulated the experiences of trans sex workers and their attempts to survive in our economy.  She had mentioned how trans sex workers not only faced violence from their clients but also from the police as they were arrested, how police officers often sexually harassed these individuals. In 2013, a D.C. police officer shot three transgender women in a car after one of the transwomen refused to provide sex for money.  Clay also discussed how often young trans persons were forced onto the streets because their families rejected who they were and that trans persons are excluded and erased from larger conversations on anti-trafficking efforts, unfortunately nothing new to many of us in different movements.

Clay’s comments remind me that we still live in a society hung up with gender, body parts, and the selling of sex.  Unfortunately, through our regulation and, in this case, criminalization of sexual desire for sale, we often harm and kill the most vulnerable without providing critical solutions and resources for those who are merely trying to survive.  Survival should not be the standard for some-we should all have the resources we need to thrive as persons and as members of our community.

Maybe, it’s time for the broader reproductive justice community to center the voices of sex workers, especially trans sex workers, in our conversations.  It may be hard at first but we have never shied away from a challenge.  

Dropping the F-Bomb

Amanda Shapiro, Resident Blogger (’15, Brooklyn Law School)

How many times has one of your friends started their sentence with “I’m not a feminist, but…”? If you answered “one,” that’s already too many. We [read: self-proclaimed feminists] hear the beginning of that sentence not just from our friends, but from celebrities, professors, acquaintances, and even blind dates. Sometimes, the qualifying “but” isn’t even thrown in; sometimes it’s the conclusory “I’m not a feminist.” A few weeks ago, a fellow female law student told me after class, “I would never call myself a feminist, but pregnancy discrimination has gotten out of control.” Does that mean feminism could finally warm its way into her heart if pregnancy discrimination hit absolute rock bottom? Now, to be fair, some people just refuse to ascribe any labels to themselves [read: hipsters]. But the most common “I am not a feminist” utterer isn’t someone who really doesn’t believe in feminism or hates labels, it’s someone who doesn’t want to be perceived as a feminist, or just does not understand it. I’ve been told “I can’t possibly be a feminist because I like pink and I like to get my nails done.” But when I pressed whether this person believed that there were social and cultural forces that prevented women from achieving equality on par with men, she answered with an unqualified “yes.” So what is it about the F-word that gives people the heebie-jeebies?

Embarassingly, I used to be a feminism-denier when I was an undergrad at Harvard. But there’s nothing quite like being surrounded by scary-rich young men of privilege to turn you into a practicing feminist. It didn’t help my anti-feminism either to learn that many of my friends had been survivors of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault; and apparently, it hasn’t gotten much better. Aside from the traditional, feminist groups on campus where I gained some much-needed perspective, there was also a growing coalition of conservative women. When one of these women (a board member of the campus republicans) was interviewed about her work, she proudly noted that she was a feminist. In response, one of her male, republican colleagues commented “that’s cute that she thinks that.” His comment gets at the source of the ire for the F-word: supposedly, it’s only reserved for certain women – women who don’t shave their armpits, who attend Lilith Fair, who go on diatribes about killing off the male race.

But the crux of feminism is that, as my Women and the Law professor reminds our class, there are many, many feminisms. They don’t all agree with each other. My feminism, for example, has been pulled in so many directions that it now feels like salt water taffy. But they all embrace the idea that something is wrong with the way our society treats women, and it needs fixing. If you can acknowledge that, then you are a feminist. And when you’re ready, I have an extra ticket to the Lilith Fair revival tour with your name on it.

Reflections on Women’s History Month

Deodonne Bhattarai, Resident Blogger (’12, Northeastern University School of Law)

Hannah Dustin is my great aunt thirteen generations removed.  As a direct descendant, Hannah’s story was as common to me growing up as any fairytale or children’s book.  In 1697, Hannah was kidnapped, along with her infant daughter and midwife during an Abenaki raid on her farm in present day Haverhill, MA.  At some point during her abduction, Hannah’s days-old baby was brutally killed by her captors when they smashed her against a tree to stop her from crying.  During a night on a small island in NH, Hannah, with the help of her midwife and a teenage boy who had been taken from another town, escaped after killing and scalping many of the Abenaki. Hannah then made her way back to her family in Haverhill, where she received a generous bounty and eventual notoriety for her actions.

In 1874, a statue of Hannah was erected on the small NH island. It is believed to be the first publically funded statue of a woman in the country – no small feat in a nation where only 8% of all outdoor sculptures of individuals depict women.[1] The island also took on the name of the Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site. However, like many strong, independent women, Hannah’s motives have been called into question and her legacy is wrought with controversy.  What is seen by some as a grieving mother’s desperate fight for survival and self-preservation is countered by claims that she was a vengeful, murderous women who should be seen as no more than a mercenary.

This past fall, a representative of the New Hampshire state legislature introduced a bill that would have, in response to this on-going controversy, stripped Hannah’s name from the island, returning it to its original name of the Contoocook Island State Historic Site. The bill was withdrawn once it was determined that the state didn’t actually own most of the island.

Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to reflect upon how we view female historical figures and I can’t help but wonder if this story would continue to garner so much ire if Hannah had been a man. The reductionist, ‘mercenary’ view denies Hannah’s experience justice in a similar way many would deny women their justice in the realm of reproductive health services.  By focusing on the broader context at the expense of the individual experience we are posed to miss out on the lived reality of women past, present, and future.

Removing Hannah’s name from the island would not change this discreet episode of violence within the broader context of our country’s contentious and painful history with the Native Americans and it is disappointing that this revisionist approach to history would come at the expense of one of our nation’s few female historical figures.  For now though, it appears that Hannah’s name will remain and other elements added to the landmark.  In this way, we can recognize and honor the Abenaki experience without literally erasing Hannah’s.

The World is Round, People! Gender Inequity in Hollywood

Ruth Dawson, Resident Blogger (’12, Emory University School of Law)

“…And perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not.  Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.” – Cate Blanchett, accepting the Academy Award for Best Actress

Earlier this week, Cate Blanchett won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and used her bully pulpit to highlight the film industry’s implicit gender bias. Despite the highly problematic context around Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, the movie for which she won, Blanchett’s statement about women in film rings true at all levels of the entertainment industry.

Women actors, writers, directors, and producers alike face an uphill battle in this town.  This infographic from the New York Film Academy highlights some of the dismal statistics. Perhaps the most shocking number is the most basic: there is a 5:1 ratio of men to women working on films. Another is that the Forbes 2013 list of the ten highest paid actresses made a combined $181 M, compared to the $465 M made by the ten highest paid actors.  Yes, the men made over twice as much from their craft.  In 2014, I have to say this is fairly depressing. I live in Hollywood – in fact, the Academy Awards ceremony took place just a few blocks from my house. So though I am decidedly not in “the industry,” these numbers hit home. Gender justice is at the core of reproductive justice. Women (and other non-male-identified folks, though these numbers don’t reflect this nuance) must be able to work in their industry and support their families, free of systemic discrimination.

The good news is that engaging more women at all levels of the film process isn’t just good for gender equity – it’s increasingly good for business.  As Blanchett mentioned, movies with female protagonists or heroines are increasingly blockbusters.  We just have to get out there and see them.  Despite the uber liberal façade, Hollywood has a long way to go.

Getty Images & The Lean In Collection – There’s Room to Lean Further

Deodonne Bhattarai, Resident Blogger (’12, Northeastern University School of Law)

Last month Getty Images, in collaboration with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org nonprofit foundation, launched over 2,500 new stock images aimed at depicting “female leadership in contemporary work and life”. As a collection, the images are a beautifully composed collage of picture perfect women, girls, families, and friendship. However, taken individually, some of the images may perpetuate a problematic oversimplification of what it takes for women to thrive in the corporate world.

A number of the images play with the work/life balance motif, showing thin, stylish women in contemporary work and home office settings.  In an interview with NPR, Getty’s Pamela Grossman discussed how these images were intended to present an updated and more dynamic vision of motherhood.

“The older model would be that … the mother looked incredibly harried, and she would be juggling a dinner plate in one hand and a baby in the other. Sometimes even more arms would be Photoshopped onto her to show just how indeed she was juggling it all.”  Grossman compared this outdated model of a multitasking mom with that depicted in the LeanIn Collection, “They really feel like they have contemporary style, and they’re engaged and energetic.”

Although the intent behind the collection is admirable, it is hard not to question whether this contemporary view of working mothers may be setting an unobtainable bar for those of us contemplating or trying to balance motherhood with a career.  In a country where income inequality continues to grow and women face a wage gap of $.77 to every dollar earned by a man, where most lack access to paid maternity leave, where the glass ceiling and maternal wall are still very much intact for women pursuing corporate leadership, and where female attorneys represent less than one-third of lawyers at law firms (a number that has actually been dropping for the past four years), the new Collection presents a picture that is hard to reconcile with the reality working mothers face.

Many of the images of working mothers show them sitting at their immaculate desks, working on their laptops while young children balance on their knee or sit serenely nearby. How do these women manage to keep their children from grabbing at the laptops, pouring coffee over the keyboards or pulling on their dangly earrings and perfectly coiffed hair?  Where are these women supposed to be?  Certainly not at work-I have no data on this but I bet there are more dog friendly offices in the U.S. than child friendly.  So are these mothers supposed to be representing the women who are fortunate enough to have a flexible working schedule that allows them to work from home? If so, they must be wealthy enough to afford housekeeping because their offices are immaculate with few or no toys in sight for their perfectly behaved children.

Although the collection does include women of various ethnic backgrounds and ages, it fails to move past the model thin and designer dressed. The idea of a more “contemporary” working mother is nice, but at the end of the day these are stock photos used to depict artificial scenarios in order to sell a product or service, or to communicate a point of view or sentiment..

To claim that the Collection serves a loftier dual purpose is an overreach and I question whether these images of the “contemporary” working mother are actually an improvement upon the traditional multi-armed multitasking mother. What woman can possibly live up to the unrealistic standards these images depict while trying to succeed in a world where working women continue to be discriminated against because they are mothers. The Collection’s embrace of the unrealistic while touting it as “empowering,” left me feeling just the opposite – how will I ever be able to obtain such a lifestyle while balancing my legal career with the needs of my family?

Would I trust my partner with birth control?

Melissa Torres-Montoya, Resident Blogger (’11, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

Would I trust my partner with birth control?  Thinking of past partners the answer would have to be; yes, yes, no, maybe, absolutely not.  Which I guess mean that my answer to that question has changed over the years so it really depends. With technological breakthroughs and the eventuality of a male birth control, this is a question that will be contemplated more and more often.

Vogue recently published a story on their website where one man shared he and his wife’s exploration of this question.  While he brings up some interesting points, issues that I’m sure will cross the minds of many when tackling this question, their exploration of a male using birth control mostly reenforces gendered stereotypes, lacks real acknowledgment of how each relationship is unique as is their decisions about how to control their fertility.  When the writer of this Vogue profile & platform piece describes how he and his wife discussed the idea of a male in control of birth control more generally than just within their own relationship, he describes how his wife found the idea of “putting a male in charge of contraception” “amusing,” even suggesting “that putting the male in charge of contraception would just embolden him to have sex with random women, and riskier sex at that; unlike a condom, the pill would do nothing to prevent disease.”  Not surprisingly, these same concerns were expressed when a female birth control pill was developed.  These are also some of the same concerns that are currently being expressed about PrEP, a daily pill that works sort of like birth control but instead to reduce the likelihood of HIV transmission rather than pregnancy.  I won’t argue that social norms around sex haven’t entirely changed since the advent of the birth control pill, and while some conservatives would argue the family system has broken down, I think it’s pretty evident that monogamous relationships, marriage and family units still remain the overwhelming norm even while most women at one point in their lives use a form of contraception.  The birth control pill and other new contraceptive options have revolutionized sexual agency, allows couple’s to plan pregnancies and has been instrumental in women being able to enter into the work force.  Both PrEP and the male birth control pill could provide similarly positive social benefits.

Sure, there could be the instance where both people in a couple slip up on their pill, thinking they have double protection because they’re both using a form of birth control.  And maybe we might have to redouble sex education efforts to make sure that everyone ACTUALLY knows the only way to prevent STIs is through condom use.  But the addition of a male birth control pill as a contraceptive option, allows more individuals to take control of their fertility, allowing them to choose when and whether they ever want to become parents.  Similarly, while PrEP may not be a medication that should be recommended for everyone, it does offer one more avenue for people to engage in sexual activity while safeguarding their sexual health by reducing the likelihood that they will become HIV+.  I, for one, am all for developing more options that allow for sexual agency and overall improve the public’s health, as well as pushing forward a society in which we trust both men and women to each take actions to protect their sexual and reproductive health.

Stock Up: Ridding Preposterous Images of Women from Stock Photography

Amanda Shapiro, Resident Blogger (’15, Brooklyn Law School)

It was a pleasant surprise to wake up the other morning and see a positive move towards gender parity. Leanin.org announced that it would be partnering with Getty Images to improve the representation of women in stock photography. That’s right, heels will soon be back in style for walking instead of stepping on men, or hanging off of disembodied legs. I’m not too crazy about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In thesis: that women must learn to adopt characteristics like “assertiveness”  to succeed in this maniverse, rather than dismantling it. But Sandberg aptly described the need for this project as, “you can’t be what you can’t see.”

And what we’re seeing these days is pretty abismal. Advertising is gravitating towards more objectification of female bodies than ever before. It’s not difficult to imagine the toll this imagery takes on young women and girls: depression, eating disorders, and lower self-esteem, to name a few ramifications. But we hear less about the implications these images have for young men. One peer-reviewed study found that men were more tolerant of rape myths and sexual harassment after they viewed images of sexually objectified women. The effects became more pronounced as the exposure to objectifying imagery increased. And if the stock images out there aren’t offensive, they’re just downright ridiculous. This project won’t rid the world of women posing as beer bottles, but it will more accurately depict the “working woman;” she’s leaving those man-stomping heels at home this time.