Commentary Contraception

The Key to Unlocking the Youth Vote: Why Birth Control Is a Force Multiplier in the 2012 Election

Andrew Jenkins

Beginning this month, for the first time in the history of this country, access to no-copay birth control will be a reality for millions of young people across the country. To underscore this moment – or fail to maximize its transformative potential – would be a grave mistake.

Beginning August 1, 2012, for the first time in the history of this country, access to birth control without a co-pay will be a reality for millions of young people across the country. To underscore this moment—or fail to maximize its transformative potential—would be a grave mistake.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the Millennial generation will now benefit from a provision in the law that fundamentally changes the landscape of sexual and reproductive health in this country. With the fall semester quickly approaching, college students will no longer face the difficult choice between paying for books, and affording their birth control.

Tracey Hickey, a Choice USA activist and student leader at the University of Pittsburgh, elaborates on the cost-benefit of birth control coverage for college women,

I don’t think a woman should have to decide whether to keep taking a birth control pill that gives her terrible side effects, because it’s the only brand whose co-pay she can afford. I don’t think a woman should have to decide whether to enroll in a birth control study and rely on a pill that isn’t on the market yet, not because the compensation is great, but because it’s the only way to get contraception for free. Starting now, with co-pay-free birth control under the Affordable Care Act, college women don’t have to make those tough decisions anymore. Now that we can cross “how do I afford my birth control” off our lists of things to worry about, college women can focus on making the kinds of decisions we want to make, the ones that empower us to choose what we want from our lives.

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Beyond the material benefits of the contraceptive mandate, there is also a unique political trajectory to be seized upon. You see, access to birth control is about more than just health care.

Birth control access is a force multiplier for young people.

Access to a wide range of affordable birth control options gives young people economic power, and it enables us to exercise agency over our own bodies. That’s a powerful thing. So powerful, in fact, that it scares the shit out of the policy makers and power structures that rely on us being alienated from our own bodies. Because when young people are subjugated and disenfranchised, systems of power thrive.

So if our electoral candidates expect their one-dimensional campaign narratives about the economy to resonate with young people, they better start talking about birth control. If political organizations and action committees want young people to mobilize and vote in this election, they better start talking about birth control.

Make no mistake about it: this is a unique political moment. It’s a political moment that carries with it the potential of politicizing our generation in ways previously unimaginable; the potential to challenge entrenched systems and transform oppressive paradigms.

But it isn’t sufficient enough to celebrate this moment as a victory for young people. We have to celebrate this as a victory for young people, won by young people. The contraceptive mandate would not be here today if it weren’t for the record number of young activists who demanded that birth control be included as preventive health care. This provision wouldn’t be here today had it not been for the youth-led and youth-focused organizations that made strategic investments in young activists.

It’s time to double down on those investments.

If the ongoing controversy over birth control coverage has taught us anything, it’s that young people are a force to be reckoned with, and we get active – we get politically engaged – when our issues take center stage. Over the past year and a half, the Millennial generation moved from a climate of low voter turnout in the 2010 Midterm election, to a moment of incredible civic engagement. And we did it in the face of unwarranted accusations that we’re a generation of apathy. We forced hundreds of sponsors to drop Rush Limbaugh after his vicious attacks against young American women. We effectively prevented the doubling of student loan rates. We stopped Virginia from passing an extremist trans-vaginal ultrasound bill. And we educated thousands of new young people about the benefits provided in the Affordable Care Act.   

Young people have never been apathetic.

At times, we may have been skeptical. And in the 2010 Midterm election, some of us opted out of the voting process. But if that has become our litmus test for evaluating the political engagement of this generation, I’m afraid we’re missing the boat entirely. Young people aren’t going to vote in this election because a bunch of out-of-touch politicians and political parties tell us to. We’re going to vote because we understand that the issues that matter most to our well-being hang in the balance.    

There is more at stake for young people in 2012 than ever before and we have to seize this political moment for what it is: an opportunity to strategically invest in young people. We have to give them the information and resources they need to take back our political system from the institutions and power structures that benefit from our disenfranchisement.

As a country, we need to ditch the tired stereotypes that young people are passive and disillusioned. We need to stop scapegoating blame and take responsibility for the fact that the political narrative we continue to rely on leaves young people in the periphery.

With less than one hundred days left before the election, we need to prioritize a different narrative. We need to elevate a storyline that celebrates the benefits of the birth control mandate and politicizes the emerging threats to take these benefits away from us.

At this very moment, anti-choice forces are working tirelessly to roll back access to sexual and reproductive rights. Nine states have considered legislation or ballot measures that would roll back birth control coverage. Hercules Industries was successful (for now) in exempting itself from the contraceptive mandate, setting a dangerous precedent that a corporation has the right to selectively deny its employees access to imperative, life-saving health care services. In the U.S. House of Representatives, an appropriations measure is pending that could effectively eliminate the implementation and enforcement of the birth control provision. And in 2012, voter suppression efforts stand a chance of disenfranchising five million voters, hitting young people the hardest.

That’s the political moment we’re living in.

The good news is that the power of the youth vote is boundless, and if we play our cards right, we can make the 2012 election a referendum on sexual and reproductive freedom. If we play our cards right, we can tap into the most powerful electoral force in the country and build the systemic and cultural change our generation desperately needs and deserves.  

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.

Commentary Race

Have a Problem With Black-Only Spaces? Get Over It

Ruth Jeannoel

As the parade of police killings of Black people continues, Black people have a right to mourn together—and without white people.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Dear Non-Black People:

If you hear about a healing space being organized for Black folks only, don’t question or try to be part of that space.

Simply, DON’T.

After again witnessing the recorded killings of Black people by police, I am trying to show up for my family, my community, and victims such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I am tired of injustice and ready for action.

But as a Black trans youth from the Miami, Florida-based S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective told me, “Before taking action, we must create space for healing.” With this comment, they led us in the right direction.

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Together, this trans young person, my fellow organizers, and I planned a Black-only community healing circle in Miami. We recognized a need for Black people to come together and care for each other. A collective space to heal is better than suffering and grieving alone.

As we began mobilizing people to attend the community circle, our efforts were met with confusion and resistance by white and Latinx people alike. Social media comments questioned why there needed to be a Black-only space and alleged that such an event was “not fair” and exclusionary.

We know the struggle against white supremacy is a multiracial movement and needs all people. So we planned and shared that there would be spaces for non-Black people of color and white people at the same time. We explained that this particular healing circle—and the fight against police violence—must be centered around Blackness.

But there was still blowback. One Facebook commenter wrote,

Segregation and racial separation is not acceptable. Disappointing.

That is straight bullshit.

To be clear, Black-only space is itself acceptable, and there’s a difference between Black people choosing to come together and white people systematically excluding others from their institutions and definitions of humanity.

But as I recognize that Black people can’t have room to mourn by ourselves without white tears, white shame, white guilt—and, yes, white supremacy—I am angry.

That is what racist laws have often tried to do: Control how Black people assemble. Enslaved people were often barred from gathering, unless it was with white consent or for church.

Even today, we see resistance when Black folks come together, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, in Nashville, Tennessee, Black Lives Matter activists were forced to move their meeting out of a library because it was a Black-only meeting. Last year, students at University of Missouri held a series of protests to demand an end to systemic racism and structural racism on their campus. The student group, Concerned Students 1950, called for their own Black-only-healing space, and they too received backlash from their white counterparts and the media.

At our healing circle in Miami, a couple of white people tried to be part of the Black-only space, which was held in another room. One of the white youths came late and asked why she had to be in a different room from Black attendees. I asked her this question: Do you feel like you are treated the same as your Black peers when they walk down the street?

When she answered no, I told her that difference made it important for Black people to connect without white people in the room. We talked about how to engage in political study that can shape how we view—and change—this world.

She understood. It was simple.

I have less compassion for adults who are doing social justice work and who do not understand. If you do not recognize your privilege as a non-Black person, then you need to reassess why you are in this movement.

Are you here to save the world? Do you feel guilty because of what your family may have done in the past or present? Are you marching to show that you are a “good” person?

If you are organizing to shift and shake up white supremacy but can’t understand your privilege under this construct, then this movement is not for you.

For the white folk and non-Black people of color who are sincerely fighting the anti-Blackness at the root of most police killings, get your people. Many of them are “progressive” allies with whom I’ve been in meetings, rallies, or protests. It is time for you to organize actions and events for yourselves to challenge each other on anti-Blackness and identify ways to fight against racial oppression, instead of asking to be in Black-only spaces.

Objecting to a Black-only space is about self-interest and determining who gets to participate. And it shows how little our allies understand that white supremacy gives European-descended people power, privilege, and profit—or that non-Black people of color often also benefit from white supremacy just because they aren’t Black in this anti-Black world.

Our critics were using racial privilege to access a space that was not for them or by them. In the way that white supremacy and capitalism are about individualism and racing to the top, they were putting their individual feelings, rights, and power above Black people’s rights to fellowship and talk about how racism has affected them.

We deserve Black-only community healing because this is our pain. We are the ones who are most frequently affected by police violence and killings. And we know there is a racial empathy gap, which means that white Americans, in particular, are less likely to feel our pain. And the last thing Black people need right now is to be in a room with people who can’t or won’t try to comprehend, who make our hurt into a spectacle, or who deny it with their defensiveness.

Our communal responses to that pain and healing are not about you. And non-Black people can’t determine the agenda for Black action—or who gets a seat at our table.

To Black folks reading this article, just know that we deserve to come together to cry, be angry, be confused, and be ready to fight without shame, pain, or apologies.

And, actually, we don’t need to explain this, any more than we need to explain that Black people are oppressed in this country.