Beyond Choice, Beyond Our Community

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

In the RJ community, word travels fast.  Scary fast.  So after the New York Times posted a well meaning yet misguided article regarding Planned Parenthood’s shift from its pro-choice framework, all of my feeds blew up with conversation, from Twitter, to Facebook, to my LSRJ intern email.  The article seems to credit Planned Parenthood’s recent (actually, three-year old) move away from the phrase “pro-choice” as being innovative and in-touch with today’s women.  The problem is, women of color adopted this stance over two decades ago with the term reproductive justice.  LSRJ took part in a Twitter storm using the hashtags #KnowYourHistory and #StopErasing as a chance to re-educate — or perhaps introduce — folks on the beginnings of beyond-choice reproductive justice activism.  I understand being sick of educating again and again people who are supposed to be our allies, but I also sense the hope of strength in numbers of more people “tuned in” to reproductive justice tenets.   I was surprised when I sat down with some older family members later in the day, family who considers themselves feminists, very involved with current issues regarding reproductive health, etcetera.  They asked me “Why would we want to move away from the word ‘choice’ ?”  I launched into my well-rehearsed explanation of the history of reproductive justice.  They seemed unmoved and I wondered if our differences in approaching the issue were too big to cross.  My family members are white, upper-class, educated folks who can separate out abortion from other RJ issues because of their privilege.  They spent their adult lives advocating for abortion access and birth control — “of course we believe in choice!” For me, it’s about more than abortion and birth control.  For me, it’s about access to high quality preventative healthcare, and childcare to those need it.  It’s about validating queer relationships.  It’s ensuring everyone can live free from sexual abuse and coercion.  It’s about so much more than Pro-Choice vs. Anti-Choice.

Loretta Ross was a guest lecturer at Smith College this past year and I will never forget how moved I was listening to her during my Introduction to Study of Women and Gender class. She explained how choice alone did not make sense of the reproductive oppression that women of color faced.  It was Loretta Ross and that class that made me realize RJ spoke to me more than anything I’d ever studied. We can’t erase barriers to reproductive injustice by only focusing on abortion when large populations of women have been forcibly sterilized, exposed to toxic chemicals in the workplace, or been shackled to a hospital bed in labor.  Why is this difficult to communicate to people who have long taken a pro-choice stance?  I have no answers, but it always seems to come down to power and privilege.  While I’m glad that Planned Parenthood is acknowledging that abortion is but a facet in women’s reproductive freedom, I hope that we will continue to honor the true foremothers of the RJ movement.

Mirena IUD Litigation, Misinformation, and a Few Thoughts on Informed Choice

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

According to a recent commentary in the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals (ARHP) peer reviewed journal, Contraception, reproductive health care clinics are currently witnessing a notable upswing in the number of patients requesting the removal of their Mirena IUDs. Mirena is a hormonal intrauterine system that prevents pregnancy for around five years through the release of levonorgestrel. And like other types of IUDs and long-term birth control, Mirena is very popular among the public health community: the ARHP refers to the device as safe and effective a number of times throughout the commentary. However, many women are choosing to have their IUDs removed and report being frightened by prevalent online and television publicity of common and devastating side-effects, including migration, perforation, and infertility. The problem, explains ARHP, is that these side-effect are not common, and some of them are actually fake – or “medically implausible” as the article puts it.

The supposed dangers of the Mirena device have made their way into the public consciousness as the result of solicitations for plaintiffs in mass litigation against the device’s manufacturer Bayer. This all initially passed me by, but after researching for this blog post I can report back that there is a lot of if-you-or-a-loved-one-has-been… out there. Mirena, like any other form of birth control, has potential risks, but as a result of media and advertising coverage these risks appear hugely magnified. ARHP contends that this hurts women in two ways: 1) by decreasing the number of women using long lasting birth control, and 2) by deterring contraceptive development by threatening that future technology will be met with similar litigation – note that from the 1970s to the 1980s, the number of companies pursuing contraceptive research fell from 13 to 1.*

For me, the most significant impact that misinformation around the Mirena device causes is not a reduction in the overall number of women using long term contraception. Rather, I am most concerned that opportunistic Mirena litigation and junk science could dissuade women from pursuing or keeping a birth control method that they would otherwise have chosen. IUDs do have some common side-effects – especially immediately following insertion – that can range from unpleasant to awful, so there are entirely legitimate reasons to remove the device early. But for those who actually do want to use and keep an IUD, misinformation can be tantamount to manipulation. Therefore, the central question the ARHP article raises is: what does informed and dignified decision making actually look like when we are so often bombarded with misinformation?

A quick search of the word “Mirena” shows just how murky the waters are when it comes to information on this IUD. Case in point: the first search result on Google, after Mirena’s official website, is DrugWatch.com, which describes a terrifying and “frequently encountered complication,” called “migration,” in which the IUD perforates the uterus and enters the body cavity, causing pain, infection, and damage to nearby organs. The ARHP article, on the other hand, scathingly refers to this problem as “fictitious.” Another site, in its review of the truth behind Mirena lawsuit ads, refers to migration as “so rare that even with tens of millions of women using IUDs worldwide, we can’t estimate how often it happens.”

I can easily envision a situation where a woman may encounter that first explanation of migration and immediately visit her doctor to have her IUD removed. Should the doctor simply dismiss her concerns out of hand because she knows that they are unfounded? Or should the doctor obey her patient’s wishes with the knowledge that she may have been manipulated into removing a device she actually wanted? The answer, as answers so often do, falls somewhere in the middle. LSRJ’s definition of reproductive justice holds that people must be able to “exercise the rights and access the resources they need to thrive and to decide whether, when, and how to have and parent children with dignity…” Here, my hypothetical patient has the right to access the resources she actually wants and needs, so it is her doctor’s responsibility to explain the true nature of the risks and dispel the misinformation. Then, should the patient still decide that the risk is too great, that choice should be met with the same degree of respect. Of course this all relies on the doctors themselves being entirely up on the most recent data about the device they are inserting/ removing and that they themselves are not intent on spreading misinformation.  So… fingers crossed on that one.

*From the ARHP article, this appears to have resulted from the litigation concerning the Dalkon shield. I do not think the writer intended to suggest that that was a case of junk science or junk law. I certainly don’t suggest that.

It’s the World Cup Again! Time to think about RJ.

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

I adore the World Cup.  I try my very best to spare my friends and loved ones, but I could happily talk all their ears off about the tournament all day without it ever getting old. And the fact that this year’s games are taking place in Brazil – the spiritual home of futebol – has made it all the more exciting.

However, given the ludicrous scale of this kind of global sporting event, some of the most important, fascinating, moving, and upsetting stories have taken place outside the newly built stadiums and team base camps. For example, with the collective eyes of the world trained on Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the months preceding the games, Brazilian citizens spilled into the streets to protest their government’s allocation of massive funds to stadium building at the expense of transportation, education, healthcare, and other vital services. Events like the World Cup or the Olympics give people around the world a unique opportunity to learn about the internal issues of the host nation because mainstream news outlets give the country more in-depth coverage than they ever would otherwise.

You might be wondering, well what does the World Cup have to do with RJ? Well, several articles have been cropping up about the effects the World Cup has had on sex work in host cities around Brazil. The tone and content of articles have varied widely, and while the influx of tourists and media has created an environment of heightened exploitation, it has also given some Brazilian sex workers an opportunity to be heard on a world stage.

Sex work is legal in Brazil, so long as the worker is over the age of eighteen, but according to the Huffington Post, the World Cup is expected to cause a marked increase in child prostitution in areas near the stadiums. The HuffPo article points out that this type of phenomenon is all too common and cites an expert writing on human trafficking at this year’s Super Bowl who wrote that events that attract huge numbers of (male) fans “could never not be breeding grounds for sexual exploitation.” Apparently, the last two World Cups also saw increases in child exploitation as high as 30-40%, and this year’s tournament will once again juxtapose the vibrant celebration of the games with the tragic reality of human trafficking. As advocates for reproductive justice –or any kind of social justice for that matter – this type of pattern is unacceptable, and the notion that it is just the-way-these-things-are needs to be strongly countered.

Elsewhere, in an altogether different kind of story, RT.com reported on a public pick-up style game of soccer played between professional (adult) sex workers and a group of American Christians on a street in Belo Horizonte. The “naked match” was organized by the Prostitutes’ Association of Minas Gerais to draw attention to sex workers’ rights and to protest prejudice and stigma. Above all else, these members of the “naked Brazilian forces” called for their profession to be treated like any other legal job. In addition to providing a refreshing take on the dignity of sex work, this event has produced some of the most striking images I have seen during the World Cup. I highly recommend that you take the time to look through them.

Ultimately, I’m not entirely sure what to take from these stories or how they should color my enjoyment of the actual soccer matches. Just as the World Cup itself is complex – simultaneously a bloated and exploitative celebration of excess and an event of pure joy – this small sample size of media coverage speaks to many more complicated issues than these journalists have the time or inclination to fully flesh out. But in the end, I suppose it is just more proof that there are very few things in this world that don’t lend themselves to some thoughts on reproductive justice.

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.

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?

Women’s Mixed Martial Arts: Skilled fighting or glorifying distorted masculinity?

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

While in procrastination mode during finals season last year I discovered the inspiring, impressive, and bloody world of women’s mixed martial arts. Women’s Mixed Martial Arts (WMMA) is unabashedly badass. These fighters are strong, skilled, determined, and occasionally terrifying -  as fighters should be. WMMA broke into the mainstream in 2013 after an uphill battle, and this year is more promising than last.

During the 2013 attempt to legalize MMA competitions in the state of New York, women’s groups and lawmakers denounced MMA as a sport that promoted violence and harms women who are victimized by glorification of distorted masculinity.” Women’s MMA involves the same testing of skill, of physical prowess, and presence of mind as men’s MMA does, but sometimes it seems like only the fighters have each others back. The inclusion and mainstreaming of WMMA could help challenge the perception that MMA glorifies a “distorted masculinity” by forcing a shift in rhetoric.

Like most women’s sports, media coverage and promotions of WMMA often relies on the sexualization of female athletes, pressuring them to “keep their hair long, wear make-up even on the court, and emphasize any relationships they have with men or children to “prove” they are straight” to avoid stigmatization.

For the most part, however, sexist incidents are both reported  and censured by fans. Articles that reflect blatant disrespect for female fighters are forcefully taken to task. Hopefully, the mainstreaming of WMMA will continue to shift the top-down rhetoric from “distorted masculinity” and heavy sexualization to a celebration of dedication, talent, and strength.

In the meantime, here are some WMMA-focused websites unlikely to offend your feminist sensibilities while keeping you up to date:

http://wmmatoday.wordpress.com/

http://www.mmarising.com/

http://femalemmafighting.com/

http://wombatsports.wordpress.com/

http://thewmma.com/

It’s a “Football Thing”

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

When a prosecutor announced in early December that now 2013 Hiesman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston, would not be charged with rape, his attorney took to Huffngton Post and described Winston and other athletes as “targets” for rape accusations.  Specifically, attorney Tim Jansen said,

“If anybody that knows this young man – he’s poised, polite, he’s the nicest young man and I believe he was targeted. These athletes are targeted by these young women. And if they don’t get what they want, or they expect more, a lot of times you see in these, date rape things, maybe they’re embarrassed, maybe they regret it, maybe he didn’t call her, it’s not the first time I’ve had a case like this with an athlete.”

The best defense is a good offense.  And here, Jansen, attempts to create a narrative that obscures the more prevalent issues that our society faces with rape, binge drinking, and sports culture.  I am not contesting that false rape accusations may occur and that such false accusations are problematic because they diminish the credibility of rape victims, I am arguing that the bigger issue here is not that athletes are targeted but that far more rapes occur then are reported or prosecuted.  That the day the charges were dropped, the media blasted out his attorney’s response to this instance of rape as male athletes at large being “targeted,” loses sight of how only 40% of rape gets reported to law enforcement, only 37% of reported cases are prosecuted, and only 18% of these cases end in a conviction.  These statistics indicate that rather than there being an epidemic of targeting men with false accusations, instead perpetrators of rape are often unlikely to face legal consequences for their actions

Moreover, if we are discussing targeting, I would argue that on college campuses it’s more common that inebriated young women are targeted for sexual intercourse — consensual or otherwise.  The culture of binge drinking leads to situations where one or even both parties of a sexual encounter lacked agency creating a problematic murkiness regarding consent of the encounter.  This case is no exception, whether or not Winston is guilty or innocent of rape, it is clear that drinking was involved and clouded the perceptions of the events of the night by all involved.   Facts also point to some seriously troubling sexual norms for those athletes – Winston’s teammate described going in and out of the room where Winston was having sex with the accuser to also have sex with her, citing such behavior as a “football thing” because she was acting like a “groupie type.”

In short, rather than spotlighting comments about athletes being “targeted” by rape allegations because a girl didn’t get a call back, the media should be exploring how we have a long way to go as a society so that all victims of rape can come forward and report this crime and sparking conversations about how problematic binge drinking and sports culture perpetuates this very critical issue.

If I Were Ruth Bader Ginsburg…

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

Last week, I watched in horror as the Fifth Circuit approved a Texas law that will prevent one third of abortion providers from performing much-needed services. I had two thoughts: (1) I was reminded of the saying in Austin, TX, “The problem with Austin is that once you leave it, you’re in Texas;” and (2) if this gets appealed to SCOTUS (it did), and I were Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), what would I do? If I (RBG) don’t grant certiorari,Texan women will face almost insurmountable barriers to abortion access and let’s face it this is just the latest terrible attack on access to reproductive health services; but if I do, I risk making the Texas law a model move in the war-on-women playbook.

After pondering RBG’s thoughts, I began to think about the cultural climate that produced anti-abortion sentiments today. We have movies like Juno and Knocked Up (recall “shmashmortion”) that gloss over unplanned pregnancies, and that refuse to entertain abortion as an option. But remember the ‘70s? Abortion wasn’t a bad thing. Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High? That movie had an excellent abortion scene. Stacy has a regretful sexual encounter, she gets pregnant, and the guy (Damone, ugh.) refuses to help her pay for the abortion. But she gets one, and there’s no uproar. The outrage is correctly directed at Damone (ugh.) for just sucking overall. Let me be clear, Fast Times—the movie that features oral sex on carrots, and Sean Penn as a greasy-haired, Hawaiian-shirted stoner—handles abortion better than most of the country today. I don’t know what I would do if I were RBG, but if I were Harvey Weinstein, I would be getting at least one of my leading ladies out of maternity clothes, and into the abortion clinic.

Enough with smooshing already! (Part 2)

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

Earlier this week I wrote about the merits of the film Don Jon; it was entertaining and delivered a meaningful but not preachy social commentary. While Don Jon brings to light the struggle viewers of pornography face in determining its role in their journey to sexual individuality (or lack thereof), it’s important that we not forget about the real people upon which the pornography industry is based and the public health challenges they face.  The same month that Don Jon was released three performers in the pornography industry tested positive for HIV.  Despite federal workplace laws that should mean pornography actors wear condoms on set, condoms often are not used.  Actors have even expressed fear they would be out of work if they ask to use condoms on set.  The pornography industry has reacted to the most recent HIV-infections by stating they will conduct more frequent STD testing.  However, testing costs fall on the actors.

Regardless of your view on pornography or its role in your sexuality, it’s a lucrative industry that will continue to thrive.  The pornography industry must be pushed to implement workplace practices that protect their employees’ health, including requiring that actors wear condoms.   Learn more about the public health reasoning for advancing policies that safeguard the sexual health of these actors here.