Monthly Archives: January 2008

Access denied: A different kind of de facto segregation

blog for choice iconIt’s interesting that “Blog for Choice” day falls right after Martin Luther King Jr’s holiday. It has me thinking about intersections and parallels of civil rights issues. For those who’ve studied segregation, the terms “de facto” and “de jure” are familiar. They mean “in fact” and “by law” and they are used to describe the reality of segregation in the United States today. Segregation in schools, for example, has been illegal since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 yet there is a great deal of de facto segregation in American schools.

I mention the terms because I think there is a similar phenomenon going on with access to abortion services. Abortion services, since Roe v. Wade in 1973 have been legal — with restrictions — across the United States, and states have not been allowed to ban abortion outright. (Note: some have come perilously close.) But, abortion services are not accessible in many places, and so there is a kind of de facto abortion ban over much of the country.

I think about this on “Blog for Choice” day, because the right to choose to have an abortion is not very real for the women living in the overwhelming majority of counties without abortion services, for whom the cost of abortion is not only the price of the procedure and any attendant health care costs, but also the price of the travel and the cost of days away from work.

Recently, the Guttmacher Institute published the results of its study, “Abortion in the United States: Incidence and Access to Services, 2005” (PDF) and they found that the rate at which women have abortions has continued to fall since 1990. In 2005 there were 19.4 abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44. For comparison, in 1990 there were 27.4 and in 1995 there were 22.5. In raw numbers, this means that 1,206,200 abortions were performed in 2005, about 400,000 fewer than in 1990. (Table 1, p. 9)

This all sounds like good news, and it may be good news. Reducing the number of abortions as a result of reducing the number of unintended and unwanted pregnancies is certainly a good thing. But the report also indicates that the number of abortion providers continues to drop (though that drop has slowed). Taking the whole country into account, 87% of counties have no abortion providers, and what part of the country you live in matters a lot. If you’re in the northeast, where I am, you’re the luckiest. Only a bit more than half of counties have no providers (and we’re pretty densely populated, and counties are packed together, and transit options are not so terrible). If you live in the midwest, though, are among the least likely to have access. Ninety four percent of counties in the midwest have no abortion providers. Obviously that puts an enormous research and travel burden on the woman seeking an abortion. In the south 91% of counties have no provider and in the west 78% have none. (Table 3, p. 11)

Could this be among the reasons that, as reported in the New York Times this past December, the number of births per 1,000 women rose in nearly all age groups last year, ending a decline in teen births that had been going on since the early 1990s and rising above the replacement rate in general for the first time since 1971. As with most social phenomena, this one no doubt has many causes, and actually immigration (immigrant women tend to have more children, for an intersecting number of reasons) is no doubt a bigger cause. But I wonder whether we have reached a level of no-access that more unintended pregnancies are resulting in births than used to.

Amanda Marcotte made some interesting speculations about what else this could mean last week in her post “Could it be easier to force childbirth when abortion is legal“. She wonders whether, because there is no outrage over a legal prohibition in many of those areas, there is less organizing around issues of access. Certainly there are women’s health organizations and abortion access organizations that are trying hard to increase access for women who live in regions without their own providers, but it might be a good deal harder for those activists to drum up support (especially volunteers and money) because there is no legal issue for people to fight.

The theme for this year’s Blog for Choice is “why it is important to vote pro-choice.” I would extend that to “why it is important to vote, talk, agitate and live pro-choice.” Voting goes an important distance toward protecting legal rights. We certainly cannot afford another Supreme Court Justice who is opposed to abortion or weak on privacy rights, for example. But until the rights that are protected by law are made real by ensuring access (geographic and financial) to abortion services, they are pretty unevenly distributed, available to women with privilege to travel if needed, or with the good fortune to live in a place with providers.

The law is only the foundation for our rights. Real live access — to abortion, to education, to opportunity or to anything else — depends on much more than the law. We all need to walk the walk so that it is safe for people to provide the services that the law says we have a right to use.

And that is not a matter of voting. That is a matter of speaking up in the eleven months of the year that there are no elections. It is a matter of declaring that we will not tolerate the infringement of anybody’s rights, regardless of where they live or how much money they have.

It is a matter of finally understanding that class and race and gender and geography all intersect in ways that put some US residents at much greater disadvantage than others, and it is about all of us understanding that such inequality is wrong.

And that goes beyond voting. That means we need to act.

Now.Loudly.

Without rest, until we all are free.

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This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org – it’s like this blog, only with a whole lot more going on!

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Filed under abortion, activism, Blog for Choice, civil rights, pro-choice

Note to Bob Herbert: Misogyny is much more complicated!

Herbert’s column in the NY Times this morning reprises his claims about the misogyny of prostitution and pornography but in a different context this time and with some unwittingly apt parallels.

Readers of this blog know that I have a very different analysis of sex work, one that doesn’t assume that prostitution or pornography are inherently and essentially misogynistic, so I won’t reprise that here. (You can get a glimpse of some of that here and here) Instead, I’d like to point out some of the things I think make Herbert’s analysis here especially weak, including some false assumptions about causality, and unfortunate parallels to sports and the military.

Let me start with the false assumptions about causality. Herbert seems to be asserting that the existence of pornography and prostitution, as evidenced by legal brothels in Nevada, serve as evidence of the misogyny in American culture that then leads to the epidemic of violence against women. Wrong. Are more wives and girlfriends murdered by their partners in Germany or the Netherlands where prostitution is legal? No. I would say it is our culture of violence that leads to violence of all sorts. (Note: I am not asserting a direct connection between watching violent movies or playing violent video games and committing violent acts. I am suggesting that in a culture where violence and aggression are rewarded, as they are here, that you get more violence and aggression.)

The other problem with Herbert’s argument is his assertion that sex work is somehow uniquely problematic. The fact that he uses sex work and pornography as the sine qua non of misogyny tells us that he sees those things as uniquely and irredeemably degrading and dehumanizing to women. One of the bits of evidence Herbert shows us — again — from his Nevada trip to support his claim that the brothels there degrade women (and I have no doubt that some are run in degrading ways) is that the women must answer to a bell. Now others have previously pointed out that school kids answer to bells, workers in factories and other locations often answer to devices like bells or buzzers. I bet even Mr. Herbert has a Blackberry or some other device that vibrates or rings in his pocket, and causes a Pavlovlian response where he hastens to comply with some instruction from his employer. Oppressive? Yes. Unique to sex work? Not a chance.

In fact, Herbert mentions the men at the Jets games, which made me think about the way that professional athletes, while much better compensated than sex workers, are also selling the use of their bodies in dangerous circumstances, governed by whistles and commands, for the entertainment of others and the profit of a few immensely wealthy owners and media corporations.

Herbert also raises the very real — and too little examined — problem of sexual violence in the military, but again he misses an important connection. He completed passes over the degradation rituals common to military life. Think drill instructors shouting insults at new recruits as they train. Think chants about blood and killing. Think hazing-type rituals as groups are formed and as their members shuffle in and out.

Think leasing your body to a male-dominated institution for a period of years to be used as the leaders of that institution wish. They can send you to another country. They can separate you from your family. They can command you to kill and send you on missions where your chances of being killed yourself are incredibly high. And you can’t refuse without breaking the rules.

Think your only option for escape, if they don’t want to let you go, is to commit the crime of desertion.

It is all the more clear now that Herbert opposes prostitution and pornography specifically because they are centered on sexual transactions. But degradation and dehumanization in work are problems that are not unique to the sex industry, and the sex industry ought not be uniquely condemned for them.

The Times ran an article on Sunday about the violent crimes committed by returning vets and noted that about a third were committed against spouses, girlfriends, kids or other family members. If Herbert wants to understand the causes of violence against women he needs to look beyond pornography and begin examining the toxic aspects of conventional masculinity — including the valorization of violence and aggression — and he also needs to remind himself of the economic exploitation and oppression and hardship facing so many families, including those of returning vets, that cause so much stress and anxiety in people’s lives. If he understood the intersection of those problems he’d be much closer to understanding how the misogyny that does still percolate through American culture puts women at great risk.

Note: This piece is also published on my blog at the community site Sex in the Public Square dot Org. If you haven’t visited, check it out!

Sex in the Public Square | activism + community + information

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Filed under Bob Herbert, culture, feminism, pornography, public discourse, sex, sex work

Where have I been and where am I going?

I just noticed it’s been one month since my last post here. It has never happened before that a whole month has elapsed between posts. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing in the past month. I haven’t been writing much, it’s true, but if you check out Sex In The Public Square dot Org you’ll see that there’s been a lot more activity there than here. Please consider switching your readers, links, or favorites over to http://sexinthepublicsquare.org because that site is updated much more frequently. If you’re really really attached to my blogging, you can link to http://sexinthepublicsquare.org/ElizabethsBlog if you want the page that has only my writing on it. (Please explore the whole site, though. It’s much more interesting than anything I could put together on my own.)

Where else have I been? I finished my first semester back in the classroom (what an adjustment!), spent two separate weekends at union conferences (union work being another of my passions), and just got back from a trip to Georgia to see family.

Where am I going? Next semester is going to be a busy one! I’ll be speaking at:

Eastern Sociological Society annual meeting in New York City (Feb. 23rd)

South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, TX (Mar. 8)

Sex 2.0 in Atlanta (April 12)

At SXSW I’ll be leading a conversation with Lux Nightmare about using “web 2.0” technology to help deconstruct what she has called the “pink ghetto” and others have called “NSFW” — the stigmatization of sexual content whether it be educational or entertaining in nature, and the further stigmatizing of those who produce it. At ESS and Sex 2.0 I’ll be speaking about the important project of creating a “sex commons,” a project well underway. The “sex commons” is an space where independent information about sex, sexuality, sexual health, and communities can be collected, updated and archived. You can see by blogs alone that this sex commons is growing. I’ll be talking about the challenges of maintaining such a commons and safeguarding the quality of the information it contains.

I’m excited about all of these conferences, but I’m especially excited about Sex 2.0 because it is an independent grass-roots conference of people interested in the intersection of sexuality, feminism and social media, and it is being organized by the unstoppable Amber Rhea. Some of my favorite sex-and-society writers and podcasters will be there. Audacia Ray of Waking Vixen, Naked on the Internet, and The Bi Apple, Viviane of The Sex Carnival, Rachel Kramer Bussel, erotica editor extraordinaire and excellent writer of fiction and nonfiction, Ren of Renegade Evolution, Melissa Gira of Bound, not Gagged, Sexerati and The Future of Sex, Minx of Polyamory Weekly, and lots of other amazing folks will be there, and will be talking to each other face-to-face.

Sex 2.0Because it is an independent grass-roots conference, though, it could use some grassroots support. If you have a couple of dollars to donate via PayPal I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. (I did!) It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s secure, and you can donate as much or as little as you like. Even a couple dollars helps. To support Sex 2.0 click here to go to the conference’s home page and click the “Help make it happen” button on the upper right hand side of the page.

Why does it matter? Because those of us who are dedicated to working on the construction of what I call the sex commons (independent space containing info on sexuality of all sorts) rarely get to meet each other face to face and work on the issues we all care about together. Amber’s insight in bringing us to Atlanta is sharp. She understands that the work we do online is important and that we need moments together in person to push that work forward. You can help defray the cost of renting the space where we’ll meet, and providing modest travel scholarships to those who would otherwise not be able to attend.

To find out more you can go to the Sex 2.0 Google Group, Facebook page, MySpace page, or to its pages in Eventful or Upcoming.

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Filed under Advocacy, Info, and Activism, community-building, feminism, pink ghetto, public discourse, sex, Sex 2.0, sex work, sexuality, technology, Travel