Analysis Contraception

New Research Blames Low-Income African American Women for Couples’ Contraceptive Choices

Elizabeth Schroeder

A new study concludes that adolescent girls who get spending money from their boyfriends are more likely to never to use condoms.  Yet again research is holding girls and women responsible for being sexual and moral gatekeepers and devaluing the capacity of men to be active participants in their relationships.

Recently, I was asked by a reporter to comment on a study titled, “Cash, Cars and Condoms: Economic Factors in Disadvantaged Adolescent Women’s Condom Use.” The purpose of the study was to “evaluate whether adolescent women who received economic benefits from their boyfriends were more likely never to use condoms.” My first question was, “Why is this question even being asked?”  As I read the study, my questions grew—as did my dismay at reading this examination of girls’ condom use that asked no questions of the men whose penises would actually be covered by these condoms.

I do not think the reporter expected me to open up the can of evaluative whoop-ass I did on this study, so I wasn’t all that surprised when in the article my prolific rants were condensed down to a benign sentence or two admonishing the greater research community that more research needs to be done.  There is much more to say about this new publication by respected researchers that yet again ends up blaming women for their male partners’ sexual behaviors and decision-making.

The researchers, who used data collected from African-American girls and women ages 15 to 21 living in a low-income area (we’ll come back to that in a sec), did indeed conclude that “adolescent women whose boyfriend is their primary source of spending money may not explicitly exchange risky sex for money, but their relationships may be implicitly transactional.”

Well, duh.

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Is this conclusion truly publication-worthy? Of COURSE their relationships are transactional—every single relationship is transactional.  And it doesn’t matter what one’s socioeconomic status or racial or ethnic background is; it doesn’t matter what the gender(s) of the partners in the relationship are. We all negotiate wants, needs, and desires with our partners. We make choices based on what we have and do not have.  We communicate well, we communicate poorly—and we make decisions with which some will agree and others will disagree.

The difference here, however, is that what was being examined was whether the male partners of these young women provided them with money. And right there you have a not-so-veiled statement: low-income, African-American girls are whores. Think I’m exaggerating? Just read the key words beneath the article’s abstract, which include “sexual behavior; safe sex; adolescent” and “prostitution.” 

What if we took a look at a middle-income, white couple in their early thirties? One partner or spouse works outside of the home, and the other stays at home and raises their 2.5 children. This is a transactional relationship. In a male-female relationship, we will most likely see the male partner playing the breadwinner role and the female partner staying home—although this has been shifting more over the years with more stay-at-home dads. The choice of who will work and who will stay home is a transaction between the partners. It is one that involves and reflects, among other things, each partner’s capacity to earn money. Yet no one would look at the stay-at-home mom in this example who accepts money from her partner to run their home as being “paid” by her spouse, and certainly no one would imply that any stay-at-home mom is a prostitute.

What the results of this study communicate is, “if these poor, African-American adolescents didn’t rely on their boyfriends for money, maybe they’d make better decisions about their sexual health.” This is a useless conclusion in relationships that involve far more complex issues than whether a boyfriend has money or a car. It is an equally useless measurement of safer sex practices, because girls and women do not use latex condoms, their male partners do.  But this is far from the only study that examines girls’ use of one of the only male contraceptive and safer sex methods (“Women’s Condom Use Drops During First Year in College” is slated to be published in the next Journal of Sex Research). Each study that does this renews the misplaced blame on girls and women for not being stronger in insisting that their male partners use condoms—instead of helping us reaffirm that both partners in a relationship have equal responsibility in determining how best to avoid an STD and/or pregnancy.

“Boys will be boys,” these studies imply. “How can we expect them to make such a difficult decision like using condoms? They think with their penises, they don’t actually have brains.” 

The messages are as offensive and degrading to boys and men as they are to girls and women. And as long as we continue to hold girls and women responsible for being the sexual and moral gatekeepers in their relationships with men we are putting an unfair burden on women and devaluing the capacity of men to be active participants in their relationships with women. 

Those of us who actually work directly with young people know that myriad decisions relating to romantic and sexual relationships are often extremely complex. There are consequences for every single decision we make, some positive and some negative. Girls are socialized from the youngest ages to be in a relationship and then to do everything they can to stay in that relationship—even if it is an unhealthy one. Girls are socialized from the youngest ages to please other people. These are lifelong messages they receive up until the day they find themselves in a sexual relationship with a partner. And at that point, we turn around and wag a judgmental finger at them when they make a choice they have had zero support in making? Even if they have had sexuality education courses, even if they have been with partners who used condoms in the past, each relationship is a new experience. And if a girl’s male partner doesn’t use condoms, perhaps we should be asking him why not instead of asking her why she wasn’t able to convince him to do so.

All that has been reinforced here is a judgment against the girls in these relationships that if they only chose better partners—those who, perhaps, didn’t have stronger earning potentials or didn’t have cars—they wouldn’t have made the poor choice to have sex with men who did not wear a condom. We don’t have any learning about how we can more effectively reach boys and young men, how we can help men and women communicate more openly and effectively about safer sex—you know, actually helpful, applicable knowledge. Instead we have statistical significance and other high falutin’ language that doesn’t amount to a whole hill of beans when you’re working with young people.

I know the work of several of the researchers and have long respected them. So I was particularly disappointed to read such a waste of brilliant minds stating the obvious; blatantly reinforcing stereotypes about girls (particularly, African-American girls, particularly African-American girls from lower-income areas); and validating the antiquated notion that we should be measuring how a male-female couple practices safer sex by examining the female partner’s choices and behaviors while completely ignoring the role her male partner plays in these decisions.

Research can be so, so valuable to our work with our service populations—but the time and funding to do meaningful research, particularly program evaluation, is particularly tight today. So to waste these limited resources on a study that reveals absolutely nothing new and provides no additional insight as to how to most effectively serve men and women seeking support and services is an absolute tragedy.

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.”

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.

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