Archive | February, 2012

Komen, Meet the Online Feminist Army

6 Feb

Never again should anyone doubt the organizing skill and agility of the pro-choice movement, at least under the right circumstances. I’m often the first to groan that the big girl organizations are so mired in bureaucracy they can’t be nimble and that we’re usually so busy playing defense that we can’t even prepare to play offense. This was not the case in Planned Parenthood vs. Komen. Planned Parenthood had a carefully thought out response to Komen’s decision that included prepping their affiliates and partners with talking points, setting up specific donation channels ahead of time, and laying out a social media strategy to aggregate online outrage and channel it into action.

And never again should it be said that online organizing doesn’t work or that young feminists don’t play a vital role in the pro-choice movement. In fact, we were so effective during the defunding battle that PPFA built us into the strategy this time around. They knew they could rely on online feminist activists, many if not most of them young women, to stoke the fires of outrage and help them once again showcase the stories of the millions of women who’ve relied on their services. Amanda Marcotte’s #standwithpp hashtag, first used during the defunding battle, made a quick reappearance. And Deanna Zandt quickly put up a Tumblr called ‘Planned Parenthood Saved Me’ to collect the stories of women and men who got lifesaving medical care from their local affiliate. Komen’s Facebook page was deluged with angry comments, with Twitter users helpfully providing the link to the page so others could pile on.

Online organizers and journalists were also instrumental in quickly exposing the extent to which Komen’s decision was the result of anti-choice pressure. Bloggers quickly connected Karen Handel, a former gubernatorial candidate who pledged to defund Planned Parenthood who was recently added to Komen’s payroll, to the decision. Lisa McIntire snapped a screenshot on Handel’s page of a retweet, which she later deleted, that read, “Just like a pro-abortion group to turn a cancer orgs decision into a political bomb to throw. Cry me a river.” Adam Serwer and Kate Sheppard reported on the online outlet Mother Jones that Penn State, under investigation for covering up child sex abuse, would have also lost funds if one of Komen’s excuses for defunding PP, that they would not give to organization under investigation, actually held water.

No, Komen shouldn’t be congratulated for doing the right thing when all they did was damage control. Their statement wasn’t a victory for Planned Parenthood or for anyone, really. But the way things went down is victory in that an anti-choice power play failed miserably in the court of public opinion. As the election season heats up, the pro-choice movement just proved that we are not a paper tiger and that the public, when asked instead of told what to think, is on the side of women’s health. The GOP and the Democrats should heed this successful mass mobilization as a warning that we’re not to be trampled on and we’re not to be underestimated.

And doubters in the pro-choice movement should never again be given airtime or column space to say that online organizing isn’t real organizing or that young people aren’t invested in the movement. We just united – younger and older, online and offline – to play offense and we just won.

Why I refuse to call the Komen About-Face a Victory

4 Feb

So Komen decided to about-face on their disgusting decision to defund Planned Parenthood amid a shitstorm of controversy and an overwhelmingly negative backlash.


A victory would be if Komen acknowledged that their decision was based in partisan politics and then actually decided to remedy the issue by removing executives who are pandering to political bases. A victory would be if they doubled or tripled their contribution to not just Planned Parenthood, but to the institutions who do life-saving stem cell research, from whom they recently pulled over $12MILLION in support. A victory would be if their fake apology didn’t at the same time justify their decision to defund Planned Parenthood as “right and fair.”

Just because Komen decided that it would be better to reverse their decision than risk absolving their business is not a victory. Stop congratulating them on doing what could still barely be considered “the right thing.” Nancy Brinker and the Board of Directors has rightfully earned public scorn and a loss in “donations” (revenue).

We cannot accept their about-face as a victory because we are doing a disservice to all of these other wonderful organizations that have never abandoned their commitment to saving lives. So, I’m begging you, don’t go have a drink to celebrate because Komen decided not to remain GIGANTIC asshats. Have a drink and prep for our next battle, because this is far from over.

What if I don’t like the cup?

3 Feb

Those who know me may not be shocked to know that in my younger years I was a bit free-wheelin’ – I had a pretty “hippie” vibe back in high school, which has transitioned into a fairly left – some might say radical – take on most social and environmental issues even now that my hair is cut to a reasonable length.

My combined interest in conservation and lady stuff naturally led me to tampon and pad alternatives. In my early twenties, all the cool enlightened feminists I knew were talking about Diva Cups. I had already read about bleached tampons and toxic shock syndrome, and I also kinda hated the whole process of using pads and how much paper was produced, and the constant possibilities for embarrassment (come on, who hasn’t shown up for class with a pad stuck to their jeans?). So I was pretty excited for something new.

I did my research first, because $40 was a lot of money for me, an unemployed college student. I knew it would save me a lot of money in the long term, but “long term” has never really been a mainstay in my financial vocabulary. So first, to make sure it would be okay for me, I bought the disposable menstrual cup things. They look like a clear plastic bag attached to a livestrong bracelet – you sort of squeeze the rim together and shove it up until it’s sitting against your cervix.

I tried the disposable cups for two periods and I liked them. I bought the Diva Cup. And I hated it.

I tried, I really did. It was forty dollars, after all. I tried using it for three cycles, and then I gave up.

The problem was that I could never get it to feel comfortable. Now I know that I have an unusually long and narrow vaginal canal (thanks, horrible IUD insertion!) and a weirdly tilted cervix, I guess the problem was that I wasn’t getting it in far enough to sit against my cervix. When you’re putting something solid like that into your vagina you tend to get increasingly nervous the further you shove it, and I just didn’t want to push it too far. However, even now that I know that, I’m not sure I would want to try it again. When it comes to menstrual blood, I’m more on the side of flow than containment.

I couldn’t go back to disposable pads and tampons though – I felt like I was losing enough ecofeminist cred as it was. That’s when I discovered cloth pads. Wonderful, lovely cloth pads. Again, they are expensive – but you can use them for a long time, so you save money in the long run. And they can be messy, but if you are diligent about soaking them before throwing them in the wash, it’s really no biggie. I kind of love them. Also, they can be an opportunity to support independent crafters!

It wasn’t until a couple years after I gave up on the Diva Cup that I even said anything about it to anyone. One of the volunteers at the clinic asked me if I had one. Before I could answer, she started to tell me about hers – how much she hated it, how she was trying so hard to like it, how she couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong. I was so happy to have found someone who shared this with me!

I really think that feminists have a code like any other group, silent unwritten rules that vary from chapter to chapter, and one of them (at least in the circle I was running with at the time) was that under no circumstances were you to badmouth any of the great feminist advances – the pill, the Diva Cup, etc. etc. Maybe that was just in my head, I don’t know. But I was so relieved to find there was another feminist (and presumably lots more out there) who wasn’t as stoked about this great device as everyone else.

The lesson, I guess, is that everyone is different. I would never go around badmouthing the Diva Cup (in fact, I promote it as much as I can – after all, most of the people I know who have it, love it), but I’m always careful to tell people who ask me about it that it’s ok to feel like it didn’t work out for you. The more people who are upfront about what’s not working for them, the more chance there is that something else will come along to meet those needs.

So if you are thinking about chucking pads and tampons for something earth-friendly, I recommend doing your research (either online, with friends, or if you have a local feminist sex shop or health store,ask the staff about your options), and considering what features you’re looking for (eg. how comfortable do you feel putting something inside you?, etc.) before committing. Your comfort and safety should always be at the forefront of decisions you make about your body, so don’t be afraid to take some time to choose.

Good luck and happy bleeding!

Rectal exams for men and abortion restrictions for women are not the same thing

2 Feb

It always comes up. Usually the argument goes as follows: why do men get Viagra paid for by their health insurance, while women are stuck paying out of pocket for birth control? Senator Janet Howell’s recent proposal to require a rectal exam and cardiac stress test prior to offering prescriptions for erectile dysfunction drugs in order to highlight the invasiveness and over-reach of a Virginia law that proposes to require a woman undergo and view an ultrasound is the most recent and creative iteration of this theme.

While I heartily agree that a state legislature has no place telling doctors which procedures their patients must undergo, and I recognize that the Senator is trying to make a point in a political theater, I think in the end making comparisons such as these do us a disservice. They minimize what a pregnancy truly means in the life of a woman.

Sexual dysfunction is a serious matter that can affect a man’s emotional and sexual well-being in important ways. However, pregnancy affects women in a more profound way. It affects not only a woman’s emotional and sexual well-being, but also her general physical health, and her financial health. If she continues the pregnancy and gives birth it affects every minute of her day for many years to come.

The idea that medical treatment for male sexual dysfunction is a fair analogy to medical treatment to prevent or treat undesired pregnancy has always bothered me. It minimizes the profound impact pregnancy has on women’s lives. I can’t think of any event common to the male experience that compares. And perhaps that is exactly the problem.

When the pro-choice movement perpetuates abortion stigma

1 Feb

Last week I had the privilege of participating in a panel called Demystifying Abortion, an event that aimed to shift the conversation away from the politics of abortion into the day to day reality of reproductive health care provision here in NYC. I was on the panel representing NYAAF, the abortion fund here, and joining me was an abortion provider, an abortion doula, a woman who’d had an abortion, a representative from Exhale, and a clinic escort. While the panel did a lot to shed light on the who, what, when, where, and why of abortion, it also did something I didn’t expect: it revealed just how much the pro-choice movement itself stigmatizes abortion.

Stigma manifested itself in a number of ways. For one, the abortion doula decided to use this quote to describe why women have abortions: “A woman wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.” Unbeknownst to the doula, this quote is from the anti-choice group Feminists for Life, and is meant to describe a desperation that is destructive, a desperation that leaves a woman alive but (literally) hurt by the experience. Did the doula know the context of this quote? No, and I’m sure she thought she was somehow making women who have abortions sympathetic to the audience. Regardless of the quote’s origins, do we really want to discuss abortion in the context of self-mutilation? To do so is misleading, manipulative, and harmful.

The doula wasn’t the only person to perpetuate abortion stigma. During the Q&A after the panel, several women shared their abortion stories. One woman in particular mentioned that after listening to the representative from Exhale, she felt guilty for not feeling regret after her abortion. I have no doubt that Exhale provides support to women regardless of how they feel after their abortions, but there is something not quite right with your messaging if you’re making women question the validity of their emotional responses, positive or negative.

What surprised me most about the event (though it really shouldn’t have surprised me) was how much both the provider and the doula emphasized that most abortions are not later abortions, and that later abortions are particularly icky. The provider casually mentioned that some people pass out when they see later abortions (giving absolutely no context as to why, leaving the audience to assume the worst), the doula emphasized that all women who have later abortions cry their eyes out before and afterwards. Is it true that some people pass out and some women cry? Of course. But to lay out these statements as universal truths is misinformation, and stigmatizes later abortions (what could be so bad that people pass out??) and the women who have them (what could be so bad that they cry all the time?). What could’ve been useful: some science on later abortions and the women who have them. The truth? Most people don’t pass out. Some women cry, some women don’t. Making later abortions sound like gruesome tragedies stigmatizes the women who need them and the clinicians who perform them.

I understand why we emphasize that the majority of abortions are first trimester abortions from a PR standpoint–most people are grossed out by the idea of later abortions, I get it. And the reality is that most abortions happen in the first trimester. But does emphasizing this over and over do anything besides stigmatize later abortions? Shouldn’t we have empathy, respect, and compassion for all women who need abortions no matter when they have them? We do our movement, and the women we serve, a disservice when we say that an early abortion is ideal and a later abortion is tragic or bad. In doing so, we lose the nuance of why women have abortions, of their personal stories, and instead focus on what makes us comfortable or uncomfortable. It’s not about us. It’s about the women who have abortions.

I don’t want to give the impression that this event was a disaster. In fact, it was the exact opposite. What could be better than an enthusiastic and eager audience listening to experts talk about the ins and outs of getting an abortion? With that said, I do not think the pro-choice movement is absolved from thinking about how we perpetuate certain myths and stigma surrounding abortion. It’s not just the anti-choice folks who succeed in this role. We clearly have some work to do on our own.

Note: To clarify, this post is not meant as a criticism of the work of any of the organizations represented by individuals on this panel. Rather, this post is a critique of abortion stigma, and is meant to cast a light on how pervasive this stigma is, as even members of the pro-choice movement ourselves perpetuate it.