What’s Perverted About Curiosity About Sex?

Amanda Marcotte

By shaming scientists who research sex, culture warriors restrict access to valuable knowledge that could help women and gays push back against their oppression and advocate for better health and happier sex lives.

Mary Roach has dealt mostly with death
in her former books Stiff and Spook. In her
most recent book, she decided to tackle the other most uncomfortable
topic: sex. If that’s not enough to make our wingnut
brethren squirmy, she mixes in the other big "no-no" of the fundie
set — empiricism. The book is called Bonk: The Curious Coupling
of Science and Sex
, and I can’t rave about it enough.

think the topic would be a natural draw, because sex is just so damn
interesting. As Roach explains after reading the works of Masters
and Johnson — not necessarily. In the hands of dry science writing,
even sex can seem kind of boring. But Roach is the antithesis of a
dry writer. Jokes jump off every page and strikingly few of
them are smarmy – a real achievement if you think about the subject.

I loved the book for all the
great science-y stuff I learned of course, but I was also impressed with Roach’s handling of a touchy subject – people who make a living
addressing touchy subjects. Many of the scientists she spoke with
were less than thrilled about the assumptions people make about you
when you research human sexuality. An example from the book:

    Levin can recall overhearing
    a pair of [colleagues in physiology] sniping about him at the urinals
    during the conference where he presented his paper. The unspoken
    assumption was that he was somehow deriving an illicit thrill from calculating
    the ion concentrations of vaginal fluids. That people study sex
    because they are perverts.

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She notes that being a writer
covering sexual topics, she tends to get the same reactions from people, something to which I can relate. Writing about sex in frank terms and advocating
for sexual health and reproductive rights means your opposition will
happily reach for the term "pervert" or a synonym to dismiss
you. Nevermind that the moral scoldings of anti-choicers demonstrate far more
perverse imaginations than the rest of us could summon — witness anti-choice
state senator Bill Napoli from South Dakota, who lavishly imagined the
violation of the only woman he’ll allow to have an abortion, stating,
"A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped,
savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving
her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized
as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated." Even
Larry Flynt would have had trouble coming up with that.

What Roach demonstrates in
the book is that prudery, coupled with suspicion about kind-hearted people
who do not flinch from sexual frankness, create major obstacles for scientists
who really just want to collect empirical evidence to help people.

A theme can be easily detected.

It was the laboratory
where scientists confirmed that women really do orgasm from clitoral
stimulation, and that the clitoris is on the outside — not that the
source of orgasms drifted into the vagina as a woman matures as Freud
would suggest, or that the clitoris sits at the back of a woman’s
throat as a very famous seventies porn movie would have it.

It was in
the laboratory where Masters and Johnson discovered that committed gay
and lesbian couples were having better sex than committed straight couples,
and that straight couples could improve things by embracing better communication.
Because scientists have forged ahead and measured and observed human
sexuality, they’ve improved contraception and STD prevention.

In other words, by shaming scientists who research sex, culture warriors restrict access to valuable knowledge that could help women and gays push back against their oppression and advocate for better health and happier sex lives. Some might call
that a coincidence but I call that the patriarchy.

We don’t call people who
obsess over studying geology perverts, nor do we shame those with a
passion for French literature for wanting to deepen their knowledge.
But one area where we can clearly chart the direct line between knowledge
and power is sex, and that’s one area where searching for more knowledge
gets you labeled a pervert. Isn’t that the whole rationale for
abstinence-only programs – that somehow sex is the one special area
where knowing less is supposed to be preferable to knowing more?

Sadly, some liberals poo-poo
the importance of empirical knowledge of sexuality arguing, with
good reason, that many women knew where their clitorises were before scientists pulled the big "A-ha!" in the laboratory.
True. But women also "knew" that vaginal orgasms were "more mature"
than clitoral ones (because Freud said so outside of the world of empirical
research) and that douching with Coca-Cola prevented pregnancy.
Folk wisdom can be right or wrong but we’re all better off with an
opportunity to test it out in the laboratory and start settling some bets.

The best defense against accusations
of perversion because you like to research or write about sexuality
is a good offense. Cultivate a distinct disregard for the opinions
of prudes. I’ve always found accusations that I’m obsessed with
sex to be paper-thin if challenged. Why is it a bad thing to think
about sex a lot? No one can really say.

Really, if it’s
so bad, it should have bad results. Yet prudery shames people away from pushing
that line of inquiry as well. As Mary Roach discusses in her book – to cast
doubt on an obsession with learning about sex is more to cast doubt
on any obsession with learning. Few people are interested in being
branded as know-nothings, and so pointing this out will often suffice
as a defense against the perversion-through-intellectual-interest accusation.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.


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