Roundup: Common Ground, Michelle Obama and the Mommy Stamp, Television & Teen Sex

Amie Newman

What do anti-choice leaders actually mean by "finding common ground" on prevention abortion? What kind of First Lady will Michelle Obama be? Does television cause teen sex?

The Common Ground Myth?

Cristina Page, at Birthcontrolwatch.org, has a great post up written by Reverend Debra Haffner. If you’re interested in the concentric circles of religion and sexuality, you really should read Reverend Haffner’s blog. In the post, Haffner discusses the rash of anti-choice advocates pushing for what some say is a "new way" of discussing abortion – by focusing on the common ground between anti and pro-choice movements.

And while those common ground conversations have included discussion of expanding adoption services, increasing support for pregnant and parenting women by providing more health care and child care services (all worthy goals that the pro-choice movement consistently advocates strongly for), there is virtually no reference to what most reproductive health advocates understand is the critical component:

Preventing unintended pregnancies in the first place. Writes Haffner,

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Missing from every one of these calls was a call to work to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place through sexuality education and contraceptive services.

These leaders use the Guttmacher Institute’s research that shows that women often choose abortion for financial reasons and that poverty impacts the abortion rate. But what they fail to mention, is that it first affects the unintended pregnancy rate: that poor women are at least five times more likely to become pregnant unintentionally.

Haffner quotes Guttmacher’s assessment of how (if at all) expanding adoption services and increasing social services for pregnant women impacts the overall abortion rate. It’s a worthy, quick read

The Mommy Stamp

Anyone who is a mother, or who has a mother, or who hasn’t lived in a cave on a mountain for the last thirty years can likely relate to the discussion surrounding Michelle Obama as of late. On blogs, listservs, in newspapers and magazines, the buzz around Obama has been related to what "role" she’ll play as First Lady. Will she continue to work? Or won’t she? Will she take an active role in government goings-on or stick primarily to her role as family caretaker?

While the debate has raged over what she should do or over what some want her to do, Michelle Obama is clearly doing what she believes is the right thing to do: "mom-in-chief".  Marcus, however, notes that she feels somewhat frustrated that Obama has labeled herself this way:

Is it really good for the team — the team here being working women —
to have the "mommy" stamp so firmly imprinted on her identity?

Marcus examines whether or not Michelle Obama’s consistent concessions for her husband’s career is really a good example of female autonomy and concludes:

The brutal reality is that, like our president-elect, most men do not wrestle quite so strenuously with these competing desires. So when the needs of our families collide with the demands of our jobs, it is usually the woman’s career that yields.

I may have a more optimistic take. As has been the case with all things "Obama", this is a new age. Michelle Obama is neither Jackie Kennedy nor Hillary Clinton. Regardless of what Michelle Obama chooses to do in her new role or how she chooses to identify herself to the outside world, I am certain that she will embody the position of First Lady such as we have not seen before – an amalgam of professional woman, mother and wife that reflects back to all of us our own complex lives.

Television Causes Teen Sex?

Elizabeth Schroeder, director of Answer, pens an opinion piece in the New York Daily News today taking on the recently released study by Pediatrics that concludes teens who watch television with sexual content are more likely to become pregnant or cause a pregnancy, than teens who do not. 

Schroeder isn’t buying it:

We should all raise a skeptical eyebrow whenever any research claims that there’s a direct cause-and-effect relationship between one thing, such as television viewing, and something as complex as teenage pregnancy. Doing so betrays an inherent ignorance of the world in which young people are living today.

Schroeder notes that teens are certainly affected by the media but that sexuality educators, like herself, understand that there are a lot of factors that affect teen’s choices. And, while Tyra Banks was "shocked" on a recent show to discover that  young women are having sex at 15 years old and "having sex on school grounds", Schroeder writes,

What is shocking, however, is that we continue to survey girls, not girls and boys – once again holding girls responsible for setting the limits in sexual relationships and blaming them when these limits are not maintained. It is also shocking that with nearly 20 years of failed abstinence-until-marriage sex education programming in schools, the federal government continues to fritter away money to support these plans – nearly $1.5 billion between 1996 and 2006, according to figures compiled by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States – despite the lack of research showing the effectiveness of the programs.

Nothing new to those of us who have been writing about this for years. Abstinence-only programs are not educational programs. They are ideological sermons. If we want to prepare our young people for a lifetime of healthy sexuality and healthy relationships, comprehensive sex-ed that includes information on abstinence, family planning, sexuality, anatomy, healthy relationships and self-esteem is the only education they need. 

Commentary Politics

Michelle Obama’s Garden Is Political

Natasha Chart

People who think food is apolitical don't know much about food, just like people who think taking care of kids isn't important don't know much about kids. Devaluing either isn't just ignorant, it's dismissive of the women who take on these essential roles to life and society.

Read more on so-called feminist critiques of First Lady Michelle Obama here. 

Michelle Cottle recently wrote a deservedly maligned hit piece in Politico Magazine about First Lady Michelle Obama called “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare.” It was the umpteenth article to come out that could have been titled “Why Isn’t Michelle Obama Meeting Everybody’s Expectations?”

Inevitably, such articles must point out how popular the first lady is, and how much everyone likes her—except, supposedly, feminists. Really? Did someone take a poll? Was there a referendum? Are feminists just the handful of professional opinion writers and one university staffer quoted in Cottle’s article? If so, these are sad days for the movement; the activists of Respect ABQ Women, for one, are sure to be ticked when they find out they don’t exist.

Mainly, though, I would like to take issue with Cottle’s dismissal of Michelle Obama’s gardening as the first in a list of “safely, soothingly domestic causes.”

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As Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, is quoted as saying in Cottle’s article, “How can you hate a vegetable garden?”

Here’s how, courtesy of the Mid America CropLife Association, an industry association for large agricultural chemical manufacturers, from March 2009:

Did you hear the news? The White House is planning to have an “organic” garden on the grounds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the Obama’s and their guests. While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I shudder. As a result, we sent a letter encouraging them to consider using crop protection products and to recognize the importance of agriculture to the entire U.S. economy.

This statement from the group’s letter to the first lady is worth some analysis: “Congratulations on recognizing the importance of agriculture in America!” It comes off as condescending, and it is. Though the agribusiness industry works hard to downplay the importance and power of agriculture in the United States, unless you happen to be an elected official. In public, they hide behind “family” farmers who run massive factory feedlots or whose crops span hundreds of acres. In the corridors of power, at the behest of agribusiness, semi-official United States farm policy has been “get big or get out” since the Nixon administration.

Agriculture, a massive and highly consolidated industry run by a few powerful monopolies, works largely on a model of dictatorial control over farmers and ranchers, backed by a paid, private court system for negotiating contract disputes. The absolute geographic monopolies of meat packers and crop commodity companies often means that if a conventional farmer criticizes these extremely vindictive corporations, they often have no one to sell to and may have to leave the business.

Even when farmers try to get out of this system, by going organic or trying other distribution models, they still aren’t safe from malicious lawsuits over genetically modified organism (GMO) contamination of their crops. Undaunted in leading the way toward a new model are the latest generation of female farmers in the United States prioritizing a sustainable and organic agricultural practice that rejects synthetic crop chemicals.

Most of these women farmers work at a small scale, earning less than $25,000 a year. It’s easy to look at this as a new trend but it isn’t; not historically, not as a world cultural norm.

Women have farmed, have grown food that sustained people’s lives, for as long as there has been farming. Except that when women do it, it has usually been referred to as gardening, or perhaps being the farmer’s wife.

But in cities and on small-scale farms all over the world, women are continuing a longstanding tradition of trying to make up their families’ food deficits with few resources and little support.

In developing countries, women account for 60 to 80 percent of food production, but receive only 5 percent of government agricultural services. While organic and particularly small-scale agriculture has a much smaller place in U.S. food production than it does in many other countries—something that’s been true since the Dustbowl era and the Great Depression, when we began a major shift away from smallholder agriculture that’s accelerated faster over time—it’s still underfunded relative to its market share.

The multinational conglomerates that dominate U.S. and world agriculture would like to keep things that way, with any alternatives to large-scale factory farming and chemical agriculture ignored, underfunded, or delegitimized. They would rather people not find out that artificial scarcity and poverty are bigger drivers of hunger than the size of the food supply, or that expanding organic agriculture is compatible with improving global food security. They would prefer you to believe that we are all going to starve unless everyone uses their genetically modified crops and factory farming methods.

In the face of that, First Lady Michelle Obama decided she was going to have an organic vegetable garden.

Not being on her staff or a member of her inner circle, I have no idea if Mrs. Obama shares my views on the importance or role of organic agriculture. But I’d be surprised if she didn’t know even before getting that industry letter that some people regard it as a dangerous political statement to make a point of growing food without synthetic crop chemicals, some of which have been linked to rising obesity, among other concerns. Since crop chemical manufacturers have effectively prevented most systematic government research into the public health effects of their products as they are likely to be present in the environment for farm workers and consumers, information about potential harm comes out in isolated bits of information that are impossible for most people to keep track of. Eating organic is, while imperfect and too often expensive, the only way to opt out of this massive, uncontrolled public health experiment.

I also haven’t been given the inside scoop on the rationale for her healthy eating campaign, but the food industry loves it when people think that recommending a diet high in fresh, low-sugar foods is apolitical—something nice, meaningless, or insubstantial. Large corporations spent several decades and many millions of dollars stifling research on the health effects of sugar alone, and lobbying to end any official government mention of even the possibility of a relation between sugar and any health problems. Everyone with a big cash stake in the food industry, from meat producers to chemical manufacturers, weighs in on U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional standards and health recommendations without regard to anything but securing higher profit margins.

So it’s kind of a BFD, as Joe Biden might say, to raise these topics at all.

Both the implied support for organic food and a diet focused on fresh, unprocessed foods, are stances that I was glad to see the first lady taking. Coming from the food policy world, I’d say they’re highly political and incredibly important to the country’s health and future.

Do I wish she’d handled the politics around food issues differently? No—though I do appreciate the work she’s done to raise awareness, work for which I’d note that she is not being paid. Michelle Obama’s friendly, low-key educational campaign has done a great deal to directly reach children as they’re forming habits for a lifetime, children that more typical forms of activism would not have been able to speak to. If kids are going to have any counterweight to the bombardment of advertising for processed food, and can get that from a beloved first lady who’s an impressive role model, I count it as more good in the world than most people are likely to achieve in a lifetime.

Positive improvements in people’s lives are ultimately measured by the net benefit to the individual, not the stridency of the argument for those improvements. Given a choice between any number of healthier children and any number of opportunities to rage against the food industry machine, I’d take the healthier children.

Mrs. Obama also accomplished all this on top of deciding to make sure that her own children had at least one parent to always be there for them, at a time in their family’s life when their other parent has a job with an incredibly long, punishing schedule. As many commentators have noted, it’s a revolutionary choice for a Black woman to make, when traditionally their nurturing skills have been devalued unless they were looking after a white family’s children, as if their own, Black children were not really worth the same effort.

Full-time parenting is also a path that many parents, of many backgrounds, usually mothers, have found themselves choosing when they judged that their children needed more attention than it was possible to provide them in conjunction with paid employment. I could defend that in a nuanced way that … that would be totally beside the point.

To endlessly nitpick over women’s individual parenting decisions is to turn feminism from a vital liberation movement directed at oppressive systems into another story of women tearing each other down over the ways we find to survive those systems, turning the empowering narrative of choice sharply against all of us. Once she’s decided to be a parent, if it’s an individual woman’s responsibility to pick a tortuously correct path to motherhood, then there is no room left to discuss the responsibility of society—government, employers, partners, community members—to create a safe and supportive world in which to raise children.

The fact that women will inevitably be made to feel as though every choice we make is wrong somehow should not be taken as a sign that women are bad decision-makers. Rather, it’s proof that the system of oppression we face is invested in making that oppression seem natural and justified, rather than manufactured and malicious. Standing by as a Black woman is repeatedly subjected to that treatment over her personal choices does even more harm, as racist caricatures of Black women have been used at every turn to hold back women’s rights and keep us playing some version of the endless game of respectability politics that we always lose: proving that we’re not like that. Open season on Black women needs to be over.

I digress a bit, because I came here to talk about food. But maybe I don’t, because big politics often hides in the cracks of things that are supposed to seem normal, justified, apolitical, or even natural.

What could be more self-evident than how unimportant food is? Especially when women care about it. Women’s concerns are obviously silly, like the children they foolishly care for. Especially Black women, who are even more wrong about everything they ever do than the typical woman, amirite?

It would be hard to come up with a set of underlying assertions more in service to existing power structures. Food is a multi-billion dollar industry and a necessity of life. Women are a bit more than half the human race, and our potential is woefully underdeveloped. Children are, as the lady sang, the future. And the United States has been dining out on the publicly disrespected work of Black women for too long.

As long as human society remains oppressive, hungry, sick, neglectful of children, and grossly unequal, the place of feminism is to criticize the systems that keep it that way and to build up the oppressed, not to endorse this cruel state of affairs as the inevitable order of the world. If a writer can’t bring themselves to be concerned with lofty affairs like the well-being of children and the quality of our food supply, they’re not up to the task of getting to define feminism in the public eye.

Roundups Sexual Health

Sexual Health Roundup: Illinois to Improve Sex Ed, Changing HPV Messages, and West Virginia Bans Teen Sexting

Martha Kempner

This week, the Illinois senate took up a bill requiring that sex education be medically accurate, West Virginia took on teen sexting, and a new study suggested we may need to change our HPV messages if we want more women to get the vaccine.

Sexual Health Roundup is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Illinois Lawmakers Look to Expand Sex Education

The Illinois senate is poised to vote on a bill that would require sexuality education courses to be medically accurate and teach about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This is a bit of switch for the state, which has allowed abstinence-only education for over a decade.

In fact, the state’s current law says that schools must “emphasize abstinence as the expected norm” and that any course that teaches about sex must teach “the hazards of sexual intercourse.” Schools in Illinois, however, do have some choice in how they teach sexuality education. They can provide an abstinence-only course, a comprehensive course, or choose not to have sex education at all. All courses must emphasize abstinence.

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If the bill passes, this would change. Schools would still have the option of not providing any sexuality education at all, but if they choose to do so the education must be medically accurate and cover both birth control and STD-prevention. The law includes an opt-out policy that allows parents who object to the content to take their children out of the class without penalty.

The bill passed the state house last month by a vote of 66-52. It now moves to the senate, where it is being sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago). Steans explained to the Chicago Tribune, “Kids are doing this. We need to give them proper and better tools to inform them. Our goal is we need to limit teenage pregnancy.”

According to the Tribune, a number of Steans’ senate colleagues agree, and feel that simply telling teens to wait for the right person is not enough. During committee hearings on the bill, Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), for example, compared the proposal to school-based drug awareness programs.

Cancer Messages Don’t Motivate Young Women to Get the HPV Vaccine

As we know from past reports, there are now two vaccines that can prevent the strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that are most likely to cause cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine has been a hard sell in this country, as parents seem reluctant to follow the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and vaccinate their sons and daughters early. Like many of my public health colleagues, I’ve long believed that the best messages—especially for parents—are ones that look past the sexual nature of HPV transmission and focus on the ultimate goal of preventing cancer. However, a new study suggests that college-age women are more motivated by preventing STDs, while their mothers are neutral.

Researchers enrolled college-aged women who had not yet had the vaccine as well as their mothers in a study designed to see which messages motivated them the most. Half of the students and half of the mothers got a packet of information called “Prevent Cervical Cancer,” while the other half got a packet called “Prevent Genital Warts.” The groups were given the same amount of time to read their packets and then answered a questionnaire that asked how they felt about HPV and the vaccine and how interested they were in seeing a doctor about this issue.

The genital warts message clearly resonated more with the college-age women, as this group was not only more likely to say they were interested in seeing a doctor, but were also more likely to say they’d be comfortable talking to the doctor about the HPV vaccine. The researchers believe that this comfort is key, and that scare messages are probably not the right tactic to take. The lead author told Medical News Today, “Our results suggest it is more important to get women to feel comfortable talking to their doctor about the vaccine. Fear doesn’t work. They need to feel it is not difficult or embarrassing to discuss the vaccine with their doctor. That’s the best way to encourage them to be vaccinated.”

The concern that STD messages would not resonate with mothers because it would force them to confront the possibility that their daughters are sexually active turned out to be unfounded in this study. The mothers reacted similarly to the two messages, which led the researchers to conclude, “[if] we focus on the prevention of genital warts in our messages to daughters, it may not mean we have lost the mothers.”

I do wonder if the results among the mothers in the study have anything to do with the age of their daughters. It is relatively expected that college-age women are sexually active. A repeat of this study with younger girls and their moms would be very interesting, as the vaccine is recommended as part of routine care for 11-year-olds to make sure that they have all three doses before they become sexually active.

West Virginia Bans Sexting Among Teenagers

Teenagers in West Virginia should probably set an alarm on their smart phones for July 12 that tells them, well, to put down their smart phones. That’s the day a new law goes into effect in the state making sexting an act of juvenile delinquency.

Specifically, the law bars juveniles from making, having, or distributing photos, videos, or other media that portray a minor in an inappropriate sexual manner. Minors found with such material would be guilty of juvenile delinquency. The law, however, also directs the state supreme court to develop an education program that would show offenders the consequences of sexting, including the long-term harm it can do to relationships, school success, and future job opportunities. Minors who are caught sexting can choose this course as an alternative to juvenile charges.

While I agree that sexting, especially when it involves naked or otherwise sexual pictures, can have long-term consequences, I wish states would not rush to punish young people for their sexual behavior. Here’s a radical idea for West Virginia: Put education first. Instead of waiting until you catch kids red-handed to teach them something, develop that course and use it to teach all young people how to think critically before they hit the send button.

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