Lessons From Pam Grier: How Can We Do Better?

Bianca I. Laureano

What can we learn through the Pam Grier's narrative and the conversation she had with her gynecologist regarding her sexual activity and reproductive health while she was dating Richard Pryor?

Trigger Warning

My homegirl sent me an email in the early morning called: How Richard Pryor Gave Pam Grier A Cocaine Encrusted Vagina. This was a article about Pam Grier and a small part of her memoir Foxy: My Life In Three Acts which was released this month. The exchange is between Grier and her gynecologist regarding her sexual activity and reproductive health while she was dating Richard Pryor. The conversation has made its way around the Internet and if you have yet to read it I’ve posted it below. If you want to skip reading it again scroll down to after the block quote.

He said, “Pam, I want to tell you about an epidemic that’s prevalent in Beverly Hills right now. It’s a buildup of cocaine residue around the cervix and in the vagina. You have it. Are you doing drugs?”

    “No,” I said, astonished.

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    “Well, it’s really dangerous,” he went on. “Is your partner putting cocaine on his penis to sustain his erection?”

    “No,” I said, “not that I know of. It’s not like he has a pile of cocaine next to the bed and he dips his penis in it before we have sex.” I had a nauseating flash of one of Richard’s famous lines: Even my dick has a cocaine jones.

    “Are you sure he isn’t doing it in the bathroom before he comes to bed?” the doctor asked.

    “That’s a possibility,” I said. “You know, I am dating Richard Pryor.”

    “Oh, my God,” he said. “We have a serious problem here. If he’s not putting it on his skin directly, then it’s worse because the coke is in his seminal fluid.”

After any shock, fear, or discomfort there have not been too many writings about how this exchange can be useful for practitioners and for people working with women of Color and/or youth of Color. There’s something, I’m not sure exactly what, or if I will know what it is in a few hours (or days), about the Jezebel writers piece doing research with a physician regarding this story. I do not think it was a bad idea at all; there is just something I can’t pinpoint that leaves me with the impression of attempting to debunk the narrative of a Black woman.

Perhaps it is the use of the terms “The Truth” in the headline, as if Pam was not telling the truth. Perhaps it is Dr. Gurley’s statement (Jezebel’s “Bottom Line”): “It’s extremely unlikely that there could be any toxic vagina effect of cocaine” that questions Pam’s recollection of the exchange with her physician which Dr. Gurley states could be “either misremembered recall on the patient’s part, or, possibly more likely, a sleazy attempt by a vaguely irresponsible doc to scare someone into making a major life change.” My bottom line: There are ways to question aspects of a narrative without totally debunking the persons lived experiences. I had very clear memories and recollections of the attempts at discrediting Rigoberta Menchú when I read this piece. These are not memories I wish to have triggered to be honest.

In reading this part of Grier’s narrative I immediately thought of a few things: power physicians have over (not often enough with) their patients as Dr. Gurley mentioned, access to resources and education, various impacts of drug and alcohol use during sexual activity, issues of consensual sex, and harm reduction strategies.

Working at a school based health center in East Harlem under a medical director, physician, nurse practitioner, and other ancillary staff I learned very quickly that certain medical staff make final decisions and sometimes they are not exactly what the patient desires. I know this happens often enough, especially with younger patients, patients who may not speak the language of their care provider, patients who are undocumented, or who are differently-abled and thus have someone making decisions for their care. It took me a while to realize and understand that just because someone is a physician does not mean they know everything they need to about a particular form of care. It also does not mean that they are willing or able to provide the care that is required or desired. I remember being in situations where the physician used their power over me (as in their status, the assumption they knew more than me about my body, their wealth, and the list goes on) and I was so scared/intimidated/overwhelmed that when I left I felt totally frustrated.

Some ways activists and physicians have approached this topic is sharing what patients rights include. Yet, do we explain this to youth who we encourage to seek reproductive and sexual health care by themselves? How do we discuss the rights of our younger patients with them and confirm they understand?

At the time of this situation occurring with her physician, Grier was most likely in her late 20s and she had over 10 films she had starred in. I wonder about what resources and education she was exposed to in the early 70s regarding sexual and reproductive health. During the time of her relationship was when women of Color, especially Black and Latinas were being forcibly sterilized in the U.S., and many Nationalist organizations had taken strong anti-abortion and reproductive freedom stances in response to these human rights violations, in addition to the ideology of increasing the number of people of Color would come an increase in political power. Historical context matters, especially when we live in a society where we are quick to judge people’s decisions.

Many of us discuss alcohol and drug use during sexual activity and the connection to consent. However, as someone born in the “Just Say No” era of drug and alcohol use, it is extremely difficult to unlearn all of the misinformation and “scared straight” tactics that were taught to us. I recall being in an adult education class about the U.S. War on Drugs and having to unlearn so much I was told was right regarding how our bodies respond to various forms of narcotics and alcohol. To this day I’m still appalled at how many deaths are connected to alcohol use and consumption over illegal drug use and abuse.

One aspect of this discussion that is important to keep in mind is the access to cocaine by communities of Color in the U.S. at specific times (and some may argue even today). Anybody remember why “crack is wack?”  It’s tied to class status and wealth. The first time I really understood and even heard about a person of Color using cocaine was Len Bias. That was in the 80s. I can only imagine how cocaine was seen as a drug used by the wealthy and a part of a hierarchy of drugs that is connected to status. Do we even discuss class and status in our sexuality education with youth? If so, how? If not, why not?

I admit that when I first read the story I thought: “where were the condoms or diaphragms?” then I caught myself and asked, “Who am I to ask such questions?” I then wondered what information or lack of it was provided that Grier believed having a numb mouth while performing oral sex might be a normalized physical response. I don’t doubt that Grier and Pryor both received one another’s consent to engage in particular activities together. I do wonder how this narrative challenges my ideas of consent.

Did anyone think of consent when reading this narrative? Do we have conversations and lesson plans in place that helps youth and adults think about how consent is not always so overt? Often my abstinence conversation with youth focuses on the various forms of sex that people may choose to have with themselves or with partners. I help youth decide how they want to define abstinence for themselves and giving them scenarios, versus telling them what it means. Yet, I realized reading this part of Grier’s memoir I don’t think I have as strong a conversation as I thought I did. How do we help people discuss what boundaries they wish to create, especially among younger populations, with their partners?

In the age of reality shows such as Intervention, do we discuss how consenting to a relationship, to a sexual activity, to a conversation about sexual boundaries and relationships is also a part of consent? For example, how could we begin a conversation about consensual sex with a 20-something finding herself in an intimate sexual relationship with a partner who uses a narcotic (even if not around her but to her knowledge) challenge or affirm the consent she’s given to her partner? Do we always meet our clients and patients where they are at in the moment? Or are we too committed to shaming and judging them into some form of action? Have we considered how shaming is connected to race, class, health, and is political as Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell discusses? What do we do if we over-identify with a client or patient?

Enter my ideas on harm reduction. I am in support of harm reduction strategies, yes even among youth who some may define as in “extremely vulnerable” spaces/situations. I realize this is not a very popular position, I worked with a supervisor once who made it very clear to me they did not approve of harm reduction at all, especially for the working class communities of Color we were working with at the time. I’ve found that harm reduction works well with many populations. It has opened up dialogues that I don’t think would have occurred had I shared a stronger judgmental/shaming approach. I also think that harm reduction can be more flexible than we may think. I’ve thought about this for a while now, and wrote a bit about this idea and if harm reduction can be more inclusive than we originally thought or were trained to implement. I wrote: “I choose to respect where people are as I hope others respect where I am at as we move through a situation or seek assistance or community.”

Instead of nurturing the shock, confusion, disgust, debunking of narratives, and ridicule of this testimony, what can we learn from Grier? How can we do better? We need to do better.

News Abortion

Texas Pro-Choice Advocates Push Back Against State’s Anti-Choice Pamphlet

Teddy Wilson

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated since 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature.

Reproductive rights advocates are calling for changes to information forced on pregnant people seeking abortion services, thanks to a Texas mandate.

Texas lawmakers passed the Texas Woman’s Right to Know Act in 2003, which requires abortion providers to inform pregnant people of the medical risks associated with abortion care, as well as the probable gestational age of the fetus and the medical risks of carrying a pregnancy to term.

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated or revised since it was first made public in 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in June published a revised draft version of the pamphlet. The draft version of “A Woman’s Right to Know” was published online, and proposed revisions are available for public comment until Friday.

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John Seago, spokesperson for the anti-choice Texas Right to Life, told KUT that the pamphlet was created so pregnant people have accurate information before they consent to receiving abortion care.

“This is a booklet that’s not going to be put in the hands of experts, it’s not going to be put in the hands of OB-GYNs or scientists–it’s going to be put in the hands of women who will range in education, will range in background, and we want this booklet to be user-friendly enough that anyone can read this booklet and be informed,” he said.

Reproductive rights advocates charge that the information in the pamphlet presented an anti-abortion bias and includes factually incorrect information.

More than 34 percent of the information found in the previous version of the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet was medically inaccurate, according to a study by a Rutgers University research team.

State lawmakers and activists held a press conference Wednesday outside the DSHS offices in Austin and delivered nearly 5,000 Texans’ comments to the agency.  

Kryston Skinner, an organizer with the Texas Equal Access Fund, spoke during the press conference about her experience having an abortion in Texas, and how the state-mandated pamphlet made her feel stigmatized.

Skinner told Rewire that the pamphlet “causes fear” in pregnant people who are unaware that the pamphlet is rife with misinformation. “It’s obviously a deterrent,” Skinner said. “There is no other reason for the state to force a medical professional to provide misinformation to their patients.”

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said in a statement that the pamphlet is the “latest shameful example” of Texas lawmakers playing politics with reproductive health care. “As a former registered nurse, I find it outrageous that the state requires health professionals to provide misleading and coercive information to patients,” Howard said.

Howard, vice chair of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, vowed to propose legislation that would rid the booklet of its many inaccuracies if DSHS fails to take the thousands of comments into account, according to the Austin Chronicle

Lawmakers in several states have passed laws mandating that states provide written materials to pregnant people seeking abortion services. These so-called informed consent laws often require that the material include inaccurate or misleading information pushed by legislators and organizations that oppose legal abortion care. 

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) sent a letter to DSHS that said the organization has “significant concerns with some of the material and how it is presented.”

Among the most controversial statements made in the pamphlet is the claim that “doctors and scientists are actively studying the complex biology of breast cancer to understand whether abortion may affect the risk of breast cancer.”

Texas Right to Life said in a statement that the organization wants the DSHS include “stronger language” about the supposed correlation between abortion and breast cancer. The organization wants the pamphlet to explicitly cite “the numerous studies that indicate undergoing an elective abortion contributes to the incidence of breast cancer in women.”

Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) said in a statement that the state should provide the “most accurate science available” to pregnant people seeking an abortion. “As a breast cancer survivor, I am disappointed that DSHS has published revisions to the ‘A Woman’s Right to Know’ booklet that remain scientifically and medically inaccurate,” Davis said.

The link between abortion and cancer has been repeatedly debunked by scientific research.

“Scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer,” according to the American Cancer Society.

A report by the National Cancer Institute explains, “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”

DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Texas Tribune that the original booklet was written by a group of agency officials, legislators and public health and medical professionals.

“We carefully considered medical and scientific information when updating the draft booklet,” Williams said.

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

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“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.