Public Health Being Gagged, Hog-tied and Tossed in a Trunk

William Smith

The current Administration has given us more than enough cause for concern that they consider science to be simply another opinion. From global warming to emergency contraception, the views of those who know best have been tossed aside to placate the warped and self-serving appetites of constituencies that wield power, money, and votes. In fact, in Washington these days, public health doesn’t just take a back seat to this reality—it is gagged, hog tied, and tossed in the trunk. Think about promoting marriage as a means of HIV prevention in places where marriage is actually a risk factor for acquiring HIV and you’ll understand the mindset. Don’t try to be reasoned and logical, just go with it….

The current Administration has given us more than enough cause for concern that they consider science to be simply another opinion. From global warming to emergency contraception, the views of those who know best have been tossed aside to placate the warped and self-serving appetites of constituencies that wield power, money, and votes. In fact, in Washington these days, public health doesn’t just take a back seat to this reality—it is gagged, hog tied, and tossed in the trunk. Think about promoting marriage as a means of HIV prevention in places where marriage is actually a risk factor for acquiring HIV and you’ll understand the mindset. Don’t try to be reasoned and logical, just go with it….

I’ve known this for years so I suppose it was odd that I was actually surprised when, two weeks ago, I learned that I had become the latest poster child for the assault on logic and science. It came second hand as I was told I was persona non grata at the upcoming national sexually transmitted disease conference hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and several other non-profit organizations. The story has been sufficiently covered since and I refer readers to articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Slate Magazine, and the Washington Post for more details.

I went to the conference anyway. Sitting through the presentations of Dr. Patricia Sulak, one of the “experts” brought in to “balance” the session (and replace me), was a true lesson in the suspension of logic. Sulak spoke as if she were a great champion of contraception all the while not disclosing that she has made a mint off the federal ab-only industry in hawking her curriculum, Worth the Wait. Instead, we were told disturbing anecdotes about her own sex life (ALWAYS A NO-NO), cajoled repeatedly to believe that she was one of the top contraceptive researchers in the country, and, to crown it all, informed that she had received a call from the White House to become Surgeon General. Trust me, Richard Carmona is a God-send if there is truth in her assertion.

But it wouldn’t surprise me either. If FEMA could be run by an equestrian aficionado, why not an obscure and self-aggrandizing Doc from the Presidents’ home state as Surgeon General? Then, instead of a war on obesity, we might have a war on sex. Oh wait, we’ve already got that and it’s follies like the recent national STD meeting that bring the point home. Go to www.nonewmoney.org and continue the noise.

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William Smith is Vice President for Public Policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

Commentary Politics

No, Republicans, Porn Is Still Not a Public Health Crisis

Martha Kempner

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography.

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, the Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography. Without much debate, a subcommittee of Republican delegates agreed to add to a draft of the party’s 2016 platform an amendment declaring pornography is endangering our children and destroying lives. As Rewire argued when Utah passed a resolution with similar language, pornography is neither dangerous nor a public health crisis.

According to CNN, the amendment to the platform reads:

The internet must not become a safe haven for predators. Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life [sic] of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being. We applaud the social networking sites that bar sex offenders from participation. We urge energetic prosecution of child pornography which [is] closely linked to human trafficking.

Mary Frances Forrester, a delegate from North Carolina, told Yahoo News in an interview that she had worked with conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) on the amendment’s language. On its website, CWA explains that its mission is “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens—first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society—thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation.”

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The amendment does not elaborate on the ways in which this internet monster is supposedly harmful to children. Forrester, however, told Yahoo News that she worries that pornography is addictive: “It’s such an insidious epidemic and there are no rules for our children. It seems … [young people] do not have the discernment and so they become addicted before they have the maturity to understand the consequences.”

“Biological” porn addiction was one of the 18 “points of fact” that were included in a Utah Senate resolution that was ultimately signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in April. As Rewire explained when the resolution first passed out of committee in February, none of these “facts” are supported by scientific research.

The myth of porn addiction typically suggests that young people who view pornography and enjoy it will be hard-wired to need more and more pornography, in much the same way that a drug addict needs their next fix. The myth goes on to allege that porn addicts will not just need more porn but will need more explicit or violent porn in order to get off. This will prevent them from having healthy sexual relationships in real life, and might even lead them to become sexually violent as well.

This is a scary story, for sure, but it is not supported by research. Yes, porn does activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that are activated by, for example, cocaine or heroin. But as Nicole Prause, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Rewire back in February, so does looking at pictures of “chocolate, cheese, or puppies playing.” Prause went on to explain: “Sex film viewing does not lead to loss of control, erectile dysfunction, enhanced cue (sex image) reactivity, or withdrawal.” Without these symptoms, she said, we can assume “sex films are not addicting.”

Though the GOP’s draft platform amendment is far less explicit about why porn is harmful than Utah’s resolution, the Republicans on the subcommittee clearly want to evoke fears of child pornography, sexual predators, and trafficking. It is as though they want us to believe that pornography on the internet is the exclusive domain of those wishing to molest or exploit our children.

Child pornography is certainly an issue, as are sexual predators and human trafficking. But conflating all those problems and treating all porn as if it worsens them across the board does nothing to solve them, and diverts attention from actual potential solutions.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist, told Rewire in a recent email that the majority of porn on the internet depicts adults. Equating all internet porn with child pornography and molestation is dangerous, Ley wrote, not just because it vilifies a perfectly healthy sexual behavior but because it takes focus away from the real dangers to children: “The modern dialogue about child porn is just a version of the stranger danger stories of men in trenchcoats in alleys—it tells kids to fear the unknown, the stranger, when in fact, 90 percent of sexual abuse of children occurs at hands of people known to the victim—relatives, wrestling coaches, teachers, pastors, and priests.” He added: “By blaming porn, they put the problem external, when in fact, it is something internal which we need to address.”

The Republican platform amendment, by using words like “public health crisis,” “public menace” “predators” and “destroying the life,” seems designed to make us afraid, but it does nothing to actually make us safer.

If Republicans were truly interested in making us safer and healthier, they could focus on real public health crises like the rise of STIs; the imminent threat of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea; the looming risk of the Zika virus; and, of course, the ever-present hazards of gun violence. But the GOP does not seem interested in solving real problems—it spearheaded the prohibition against research into gun violence that continues today, it has cut funding for the public health infrastructure to prevent and treat STIs, and it is working to cut Title X contraception funding despite the emergence of Zika, which can be sexually transmitted and causes birth defects that can only be prevented by preventing pregnancy.

This amendment is not about public health; it is about imposing conservative values on our sexual behavior, relationships, and gender expression. This is evident in other elements of the draft platform, which uphold that marriage is between a man and a women; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its ruling affirming the right to same-sex marriage; declare dangerous the Obama administration’s rule that schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender identity; and support conversion therapy, a highly criticized practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and has been deemed ineffective and harmful by the American Psychological Association.

Americans like porn. Happy, well-adjusted adults like porn. Republicans like porn. In 2015, there were 21.2 billion visits to the popular website PornHub. The site’s analytics suggest that visitors around the world spent a total of 4,392,486,580 hours watching the site’s adult entertainment. Remember, this is only one way that web users access internet porn—so it doesn’t capture all of the visits or hours spent on what may have trumped baseball as America’s favorite pastime.

As Rewire covered in February, porn is not a perfect art form for many reasons; it is not, however, an epidemic. And Concerned Women for America, Mary Frances Forrester, and the Republican subcommittee may not like how often Americans turn on their laptops and stick their hands down their pants, but that doesn’t make it a public health crisis.

Party platforms are often eclipsed by the rest of what happens at the convention, which will take place next week. Given the spectacle that a convention headlined by presumptive nominee (and seasoned reality television star) Donald Trump is bound to be, this amendment may not be discussed after next week. But that doesn’t mean that it is unimportant or will not have an effect on Republican lawmakers. Attempts to codify strict sexual mores are a dangerous part of our history—Anthony Comstock’s crusade against pornography ultimately extended to laws that made contraception illegal—that we cannot afford to repeat.

Culture & Conversation Media

Bitch Magazine Co-Founder Probes ‘the Buying and Selling’ of Feminism in New Book

Amy Littlefield

In We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler argues that a 2014 Beyoncé performance signaled feminism's "arrival" as a mainstream movement. But, the gender equality promised by feminist imagery in pop culture and the market​ has not trickled down.

Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Emma Watson are feminists. So is Miss Piggy from the Muppets. Chanel’s 2014 runway show flaunted feminist imagery, and even Katy Perry’s signature perfume is feminist.

Something has happened to feminism.

“It was hot,” Andi Zeisler writes in the introduction to her new book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. “And, perhaps most important, it was sellable.”

It’s the moment Zeisler, one of the founders of Bitch magazine, has been fighting for for 20 years: the tipping point. Feminism has arrived.

“I always believed that the realm of media and popular culture was where feminism would truly change hearts and minds,” Zeisler writes. “Theoretically, this was exactly the breakthrough my cofounders and I had always hoped to see.”

But as you may have guessed from the subtitle, there’s a catch. Like the wealth promised by President Ronald Reagan, the gender equality promised by feminist imagery in pop culture and the market has not trickled down.

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Here’s how Zeisler sums up the disconnect:

As we celebrate the increasing number of female TV showrunners and writers, Senate Republicans have twice unanimously voted against an act designed to close the gendered wage gap. As our tabloid magazines documented every blessed step of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, an anti-discrimination ballot measure in Houston, Texas was defeated thanks largely to TV ads that painted transgender women as child predators, warning, “Any man at any time could enter a women’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman.” As we excitedly binge-watch a Netflix series about life and love in a women’s prison, dozens of black women have died in police custody in recent years, with no satisfactory explanation as to why.

In this deeply researched account, Zeisler charts the co-optation of feminism and women’s empowerment over the decades, and shows how this process reached a peak in 2014. In 1929, Lucky Strikes cigarettes were cast as “torches of freedom,” a co-optation echoed in perhaps my favorite of Zeisler’s examples: the 1970 billing of the Liberated Wool Sweater as the “embodiment of the new freedom.” In 1998, First USA offered a Mastercard celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention. But while corporations and popular culture have always tried to sell their ideas of what women want, Zeisler identifies 2014 as The Year It Happened.

It was Beyoncé. On stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé sampled Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and posed in front of the bright, white, glowing word: “FEMINIST.” In a 2014 Bitch post after Beyoncé’s performance that presaged some of the ideas in her new book, Zeisler wrote that the performance “positioned feminism as Beyoncé’s official brand.” While its impact was undeniable, Zeisler wrote that “the branding of feminism as an attractive product for consumption is very different than the work of feminism as a progressive movement.”

To be clear, Zeisler’s book doesn’t diss Beyoncé; it draws a distinction between what she calls “marketplace feminism”—the “mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism,” which is often about selling us something—and the less visible work feminists (including Beyoncé) do every day to advance gender justice. In fact, the best part about Zeisler’s writing on pop culture is that she doesn’t hate it; she’s a connoisseur, which makes her the most entertaining, well-informed of critics.

She applies an almost encyclopedic knowledge of film, television, music, and advertising to reveal the funhouse-mirrorlike results of mainstream culture’s co-optation of radical ideas. Take what pop culture did to the punk movement Riot Grrrl, with its out-of-bounds, anti-capitalist, “girls to the front!” ethos: “The phrase ‘Girl Power’ was harvested from Riot Grrrl zines and re-emerged, a marketplace-feminist Frankenstein’s monster, in the juggernaut of the Spice Girls.” And what happens when even consumer products like underwear can become feminist? An “uncanny valley,” filled with objects that kind of look feminist: “In the uncanny valley, those granny panties are feminist because they say so on the butt.”

In one of the book’s strongest sections, Zeisler unpacks how even feminist ideas like choice and empowerment have been co-opted to sell damaging mythologies, like poverty as an individual, not a societal failing, or the notion that women make choices about work and family in a vacuum. Zeisler writes that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, “shifted the language of bodily rights from demands to choices.” After that, “the advent of neoliberalism did the rest, normalizing the self-focus and singularity made ever more possible by a booming free market. The parlance of the marketplace became the default way to talk about almost all choices made by women.”

So what happens when neoliberalism—with its ethos of privatization, deregulation, and individualism—co-opts feminism? You end up with figureheads like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose “lean-in” feminism masks the failings of capitalism by implying that women who fail to break through systemic barriers simply aren’t leaning hard enough. As Zeisler notes, the neoliberal approach to feminism obscures racism, classism, and other barriers that “make grabbing status-quo balls almost impossible for anyone other than the people who are already in closest proximity to them.”

By tackling the false promises of “marketplace feminism,” Zeisler has provided a much-needed counterpoint to Sandberg’s classist vision. Her critique of this exclusive iteration of feminism—and its cozy ties to the corporate powers that be—reaches its peak during her description of the 2014 MAKERS Conference, a corporate-sponsored, invitation-only event attended by Sandberg, Martha Stewart, actress Geena Davis, and more, or what Zeisler sums up as a gathering of “very elite women patting other very elite women on the back for their individual achievements in highly rarefied fields.”

What Zeisler calls “marketplace feminism” could, at times, have simply been called “capitalist feminism” or maybe just capitalism. Its co-optation of social movements is hardly new or unique to feminism. But in an email to Rewire, Zeisler said she coined “marketplace feminism” as a more specific term, “because of the way it invokes picking and choosing, taking on the parts of an ideology or practice that appeal to you and ignoring those that don’t.” In co-opting feminism, pop culture and the market have taken the sellable and left the “thorny, unsexy realities” behind.

Still, Zeisler misses an opportunity to fully articulate an alternative to “marketplace feminism,” perhaps one that encompasses its logical counterpoint: socialism, another idea that’s arguably having its Beyoncé moment right now. For many on the Left, watching Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticize capitalism on a national debate stage has been akin—and bear with me here—to what happened at the VMAs in 2014, albeit … well, not nearly as … hot. The number of young women identifying with socialist principles suggests many potential readers would appreciate an explicit discussion of alternatives to capitalist feminism—beyond equal pay, what about basic income?—but Zeisler largely avoids this conversation, instead alluding more broadly to the need for a “post-marketplace-feminism world.”

In the end, the book’s greatest weakness is that it sidelines today’s grassroots feminist and intersectional social movements, many of which oppose capitalism. While she acknowledges organizations like Know Your IX and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Zeisler’s only explicit mention of Black Lives Matter is to cite the hashtag as a branded entity, lumped in with “Barack Obama’s presidential campaign” and “one-for-one TOMS shoes.” (“By a branded entity, I don’t mean that #BLM is actively selling a product,” Zeisler wrote, when I asked her about this in an email, “but that it has leaders and language and imagery that are associated with it, and the words have become shorthand for something that people feel deeply invested in.”) Yet, it feels like an oversight of one of this generation’s most defining social movements. #BlackLivesMatter caught fire like a brand, but it was created by women of color, not by tobacco or shoe companies. It’s a surprising blind spot for a book that reckons with how “marketplace feminism” can obscure racial and economic injustice.

Zeisler ultimately falls into her own trap, focusing too much on the very things on which, she suggests, we are too focused. In critiquing the fixation on celebrity spokespeople, she writes: “It’s as though feminists are becoming part of a celebrity movement, rather than celebrities joining up with a feminist one.” But the opposite is true: Celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, and Miley Cyrus are responding to a movement that has pushed some feminist ideas into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean feminism has been bought. Beyond the rarefied MAKERS Conference, feminists are protesting on behalf of women killed by police and against anti-transgender legislation. The feminists I know watch Beyoncé’s “Formation” video on repeat, but they don’t think the battle’s over because Beyoncé tipped her hat.

I learned a lot from Zeisler’s witty, well-informed prose, and it was refreshing to read a feminist book so openly critical of capitalism. But in the end, I just can’t buy the idea that feminism has been sold. Maybe it’s because I was there on March 2, as thousands of feminists gathered outside the Supreme Court while it heard the most significant abortion case in a generation. People who had had abortions told their stories, on their own terms, and so did abortion providers. That was feminism—not defined by Sheryl Sandberg or even by Beyoncé.