Category Archives: Family

The good news and bad news about the new teen birth rate data

A new study by the Federal Inter-agency Forum on Child and Family Statistics reports that the teen birth rate is at an all time low. The current birth rate for teens between 15-17 in the US according to the study is 21 per 1000.* (That’s down from a high of 39 per 1000 in 1991). The same report gives a teen pregnancy rate of 44 per 1000 in 2002, the most recent year for which they give a rate, and some of the drop is attributable to an increase in condom use. You can see a PDF version of the report here.

Any drop in the teen pregnancy rate, the teen birth rate, and any increase in the rate of condom use is certainly very good news. But the good news is hardly unqualified. There is a fair bit of bad news that surrounds those important bits of good news.

One bit of bad news is that the teen pregnancy rate in the US is still much higher than it is in other western postindustrial societies. In the Netherlands and in Switzerland there were only 5 births per 1000 women between 15 and 19 in 2002 according to UN data. (There were 53 per 1000 young women in the US that same year according to the UN figures). The UN data I found did not report pregnancies, only births. Data from the Guttmacher Institute indicate that the pregnancy rate in the Netherlands was 12 per 1000 in 2001.

Another bit of bad news is that in the US there are significant differences in birth rates for girls of different racial and ethnic groups. The lowest teen birth rate is found among Asians (including Pacific Islanders). That group has 8 births for every 1000 girls between 15 and 19. For non-Hispanic White teens, the rate is 12 per 1000, for Native Americans (classified as American Indian/Alaska Native) the rate is 31 per 1000, for non-Hispanic Blacks it is 35, for Hispanics it 48 per 1000.

These differences must reflect, at least in part, access to health care, contraception, accurate sex education, and abortion services. The differences are not likely to be primarily related to differences in sexual activity between groups. A study published by the National Center for Health Statistics reporting on National Survey of Family Growth data from 2002 finds that Hispanic girls between 15-17 are less likely than their non-Hispanic black or white counterparts to have had sex. The same is true for 18-19 year olds. In the first age group 30% of non-Hispanic white girls, 41% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 25% of Hispanic girls report having had sexual intercourse with a male. In the second age group 68% of non-Hispanic white girls, 77% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 59% of Hispanic girls report having done so (p. 24). And, of those girls who had had sex in the previous four weeks, 19% of non-Hispanic white girls had had sex 4 or more times in that period compared with 13% for both black girls and Hispanic girls.

Why do white girls have lower pregnancy and birth rates if they’re having sex more frequently? This same study found inequality in use of contraception (which may provide some support both for the observation of unequal access and also of the observation of cultural barriers to use). White girls were more likely than either other group to be on the pill at the time of their first intercourse (18% compared to 13% of black girls and 10% of Hispanic girls), and were also more likely to use both pills and condoms together during their first time (15% compared to 9 % for black girls and Hispanic girls). This may speak at least in part to their access to multiple methods of contraception and to their ability to gain access to birth control pills before becoming sexually active.

In fact, when asked whether they had ever used specific methods of contraception, the study found that only 37% of Hispanic girls had ever used birth control pills (compared to 68% of white girls and 55% of black girls). Given an intersection between ethnicity and religion, and the prohibitions against contraception by the Catholic church, some of this difference might be explained by religion and culture. But given that Catholics around the world use birth control pretty regularly, I think that inequality of access to health care and prescriptions is a big part of the story.

There is no teen sex crisis in the United States, but there is a sex education and sexual health care crisis in the United States. If we want to bring our levels of teen pregnancy and teen births down to rates that are in line with those of countries like the Netherlands, we need to start addressing teens sexual health as a serious matter, treating teens with respect, and giving them the tools they need to make smart decisions and creating an environment in which those decisions are respected.

We need to do this while paying attention to race, class and ethnic inequality. Teen parenthood is associated with long term disadvantage for parents and for their children. Girls who become parents in high school are less likely to finish high school, and less likely to go to college. Children who start their lives in poverty are less likely to make it into the middle class. They’ve got all kinds of structural factors working against them.

The answer is definitely not to continue promoting abstinence-only sex education. The answer is complicated, but it certainly requires promoting sound, accurate sex education where the values of abstinence are taught in conjunction with the importance of contraception, relationships skills, and emotional well-being. It involves providing support for teen parents so that they are not so disadvantaged. It involves making sure that access to emergency contraception is secured for everyone, and that abortion remains a legal option for young women. It involves providing equal access to health care. And it involves the acknowledgment that we can’t talk about inequality without talking also about sex.

*The original version of this post incorrectly labeled that rate as the “teen birth rate” which would have been the rate for girls between 15-19. The error was brought to my attention by a very careful reader, Carole Joffe, of UC Davis, who continued:

“…the overall figures from 15-19 (birthrate) was 40/thousand–in fact, nearly identical to the year before. This fact aside, I think your analysis of the Report is right on. I look forward to reading more of your postings. Best wishes from a fellow sociologist, Carole.”


Return to the corrected sentence.

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Filed under abstinence only, culture, Education, Family, feminism, Gender, Health, inequality, moral panic, News and politics, reproductive freedom, sex, sex and health, sex education, sexuality, sexuality and age

Thoughts on Fathers Day

What are you doing for Fathers Day? My partner, a father of five children all adopted or conceived long before I entered the picture, is off sailing for two days on the Schooner Pioneer and enjoying parts of the Clearwater Festival. (Check his blog for an account, probably Tuesday.)

Our fathers and grandfathers have all passed away (my father when I was a child, my partner’s father just a few months ago) but my partner is himself a father and today I thank him for helping to shape the lives of five truly unique and wonderful individuals. I am honored to know them, and glad that they came into my life as adults so that we could develop relationships based on something other than a step-parent/step-child dynamic. (Don’t get me wrong, step-families can be wonderful! I had an amazing step-mother myself for a while, but I’m grateful for having the chance to know these people without the inevitable difficulties that come with any kind of parent/child relationship.)

I thank my partner too, on Fathers Day, for having done his child-raising before our relationship began, because this has freed me to decide not to be a parent without denying him his chance at parenthood.

Neal Watzman commented back in May on my Mothers Day Post, pointing out that the things I wished for mothers were equally applicable to fathers. I absolutely agree, and today I’m giving you a very slightly modified version of that post, tailored for fathers.

-Sexual openness, sane sex laws, and training in communication about sex so that men can enjoy their sexuality and share it fearlessly with their partners. Through sex we express desires, we communicate, we connect, and we feel pleasure. If men are socialized into a restrictive — albeit privileged — sexual role, they are less likely to be able to experience the fullness of their sexualities or to share themselves as openly, without shame, with partners. In fact, the privilege that comes from masculinity (with all its restrictiveness) makes it even harder for men to challenge the limitations placed on them, making it all the more difficult for them to experience their sexuality fully, openly and shamelessly.

-Access to contraception and recapturing the right to abortion when needed — without restriction — so that all motherhood is by choice. Men need this security as much as women do, and men need easy, affordable access to reproductive health care and education about “women’s health care” so that they can support their women parters when their women partners need care.

-High quality, affordable — dare we even say government subsidized — child care so that all parents who work outside the home — including those for whom work is a necessity and not a choice — can do so without economic penalty or fear for the safety of their children.

-Realistic part-time and flexible work options so that parents have more choices about how to divide the labor of wage-earning and child-care. I don’t mean part time with no stability and low pay. I mean part time with reasonable wages that would exceed the child care costs incurred while working those more flexible hours.

-Universal health care — not just health insurance — so that employers are no longer the ones who provide our access to health care. This isn’t just a matter of concern for the poor, either. Plenty of middle income people end up financially devestated even if they do have health insurance because the part of the medical bills that the health insurance doesn’t cover is still more than they can afford. (This is especially awful for people who have fallen prey to the “two income trap” where two parents are both working to pay for meeting the basic needs of the family and then one gets sick and the other can’t make up the difference.) Oh, and of course this health care has to cover treatment for addictions and mental illness just as it covers physical illness.

-Fair wages for all workers. This means eliminating the wage gap, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, and providing living wages to all workers. Living wages mean that parents can work reasonable hours and spend time with their kids. And we also need reasonable paid leave policies so that people don’t lose out when they need to take care of a child.

-Marriage rights for all fathers. To exclude fathers with male partners from marriage is to exclude their children from the kinds of benefits that marriage confers on couples. While I would still dispute that these benefits ought to be attached to marriage in the first place, as long as they are attached, marriage needs to be available to all who want it.

-Peace. The costs of wars, in dollars and in lives, is too great to justify, and the paying of that cost is keeping us from doing the kinds of things suggested above — things that would make economic security a reality for many more people. War touches everybody, but in the United States men still bear the largest part of the awful burden of actually killing people in war. Men need peace because we all need peace, and men need peace so that they can stop killing people.

All people, regardless of economic status, must be entitled to sexual freedom but sexual freedom feels like a luxury when you are too exhausted from working your second job and making sure the kids got to school to even think about having sex with your partner. When we work for sexual freedom we must take into account the needs of the poor and working class as well as the needs of the middle class and the wealthy.

Health care, child care, contraception, fair wages, peace, and sexual freedom. They’re all connected.

Happy Fathers Day!

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Filed under culture, Family, Fathers Day, feminism, Gender, inequality, Relationships, reproductive freedom, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, sexuality

Loving and Marriage

Today is the 40th anniversary of the landmark Loving v. Virginia case, the case that finally declared laws against interracial marriage to be unconstitutional. Many thanks to Rachel Kramer Bussel for reminding us all that not only is this the anniversary, but that an organization exists that promotes its celebration! Here’s a link to her interview with Loving Day’s founder, Ken Tanabe.

Interracial marriages were still against the law in 16 states as recently as 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled that laws criminalizing them were unconstitutional. (They were illegal in 24 states in 1958 when Virginia residents Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a black woman, traveled to Washington DC to get married.) Loving v. Virginia is an interesting case to think about. For one thing, the law being challenged did not prevent all interracial marriages, but only those that involved white people. An African American and a Native American could marry, but neither could marry a white person. The concern was clearly for protecting the “racial purity” of white people as the dominant race. Here’s an excerpt from the Supreme Court decision that quotes the law in question:

The two statutes under which appellants were convicted and sentenced are part of a comprehensive statutory scheme aimed at prohibiting and punishing interracial marriages. The Lovings were convicted of violating 20-58 of the Virginia Code:

Leaving State to evade law. If any white person and colored person shall go out of this State, for the purpose of being married, and with the intention of returning, and be married out of it, and afterwards return to and reside in it, cohabiting as man and wife, they shall be punished as provided in 20-59, and the marriage shall be governed by the same law as if it had been solemnized in this State. The fact of their cohabitation here as man and wife shall be evidence of their marriage.”

Section 20-59, which defines the penalty for miscegenation, provides:

“Punishment for marriage. If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.”

Not only were interracial marriages unrecognized, but to live together “as man and wife” was evidence of marriage and marriage was a felony crime punishable by up to five years in prison. In the case of the Lovings (aptly named!), who had gone to Washington DC to get married in 1958, the punishment had been 1 year in prison, suspended for 25 years as long as they left the state and didn’t return for 25 years. In other words, they must spend a year in prison or be banished from their home state. The Lovings pleaded guilty when they were charged in January 1959, moved to Washington DC after their banishment, and spent the next 8 years filing motions and appeals attempting to win their right to be married.

Their case is interesting also because it highlights the use of religion in decisions about marriage, and the way that God is invoked to justify socially-defined boundaries. The judge who ruled on the Loving’s original conviction wrote:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Of course many deeply religious people were activists in the civil rights movement, and that movement itself would have been impossible were it not for the part played by churches. The words of the judge in the Loving case reflect a narrowly defined understanding of Christianity and God held by a small but dominant group of people. We are seeing something very similar in our current fight for marriage equality today. When people oppose marriage between two people of the same gender, they often invoke a narrow understanding of god that is held by a shrinking but still dominant group of people.

When the Lovings’ case was heard by the Supreme Court, the question was really whether it was a violation of the 14th amendment to ban marriage between two people based only on their races. The first section of the 14th amendment reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The 14th amendment is not one that deals only with questions of race. In fact, the only place that race is mentioned in the text of the amendment is a mention of “Indians” in Section 2 which deals with representation in Congress, and there it is not race on its own but “Indians not taxed” — read: Indians who are members of Native American Nations — and while the entire history of the treatment of Native Americans in North America is one of racial injustice, of course, the issue as presented in the 14th amendment is one of “no representation without taxation.”

Celebrating the Loving v. Virginia decision is important for at least two reasons. First, we should celebrate the step away from institutionalized racism that the decision represents. And we should notice the degree to which racial injustice still pervades our social structure, and should continue to work for racial equality. We are still a segregated society, with segregated schools and segregated social groups. We need reminders to cross boundaries we wouldn’t ordinarily cross and to make friends. Second, we should celebrate in order to reminds ourselves that injustices can be rectified, and that with courage, persistence, and activism, they are rectified.

Can you imagine if the federal government had passed a “Defense of Marriage Act” in the late 1950s or early 1960s such that no state would have to recognize any other state’s interracial marriages? Might that have changed the tenor of the Supreme Court such that the Loving case would have gone differently?

Can you imagine requiring interracial couples to endure civil unions rather than having full marriage rights?

We are again in the midst of a struggle for equal protection under the law as it relates to marriage rights, this time for couples where the partners belong to the same group, rather than to different groups.

Shouldn’t we grant couples of the same gender the kind of equal protection granted to couples of different races 40 years ago?

~~~~~

Bonus points: I know some of you read from other countries. In addition to discussing the specific issues raised above, can anybody provide links or discussions of marriage segregation laws from other countries, or discuss how they’ve changed?

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Filed under civil rights, culture, discrimination, Family, Gender, heterosexism, Homophobia, inequality, Loving v. Virginia, marriage, News and politics, public discourse, racism, Relationships, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, US Supreme Court

“Do it ourselves” Abortion Reduction Policy

Atul Gawande had a very clear, concise, mostly very smart and only partially problematic op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times about how to reduce the number of abortions in the US (TimesSelect registration required). He started out by dispelling some of the myths we have about who has abortions and why. For example, on the upsetting side, roughly half of pregnancies are unintended, and four in 10 unintended pregnancies end in abortion. On the optimistic side, teens are getting the message about contraception:

“Pregnancies at age 15 to 17 are down 35 percent since 1995, according to federal data; one-fourth of the drop is from delaying sex, and three-fourths is from increased use of contraceptives. Today, just 7 percent of abortions occur in minors.”

and

“Forty-five percent of abortions occur in adults ages 18 to 24; 48 percent occur after age 25. Most are in women who have already had a child. The kids are all right. We are the issue.”

Consistent and correct use of contraception appears to be the biggest problem:

“92 percent of abortions occur in women who said they used birth control. Six in 10 used contraception the month they got pregnant. The others reported that they had used birth control previously but, for one reason or another, not that month. (Many, for example, say they didn’t expect to have sex.)

Gawande then asserts that the “trouble appears to be blindness to how easy it is to get pregnant and what it takes to make birth control really work.” I would disagree: the trouble is not blindness to how easy it is to get pregnant. It is wishful thinking of the “it won’t happen to me” variety, and a difficulty accepting one’s own likelihood of having sex. It is also fear of the stigma attached to being willing to have sex without a committed relationship. Another problem is the difficulty women have with requiring their male partners to use condoms, and the difficulty some men have using them. Then there is the forgetting of the many ways to have sex that can’t result in pregnancy in the first place! Lets get more creative with our hands and our mouths and the rest of our bodies! Lets buy sex toys. (Wow, did I actually just recommend a consumer-based solution to a problem? Yikes!)

Gawande is right, though, that the number of unwanted pregnancies in the United States — and thus the number of abortions — could be dramatically reduced if we were a more sexually honest and open society. If we — men and women — were honest with ourselves and with each other about the situations in which we are willing to have sex, and about the degree to which we do not want to be responsible for a child, I think we would have an easier time consistently and correctly using contraception. Imagine….

…if we were more honest with ourselves about how the contraception we do use makes us feel, and more willing to talk to each other about our contraceptive methods, we would be better able to find the methods that would work best for us.

…if we were more willing to admit that we simply won’t stop having sex just because we aren’t ready, able or interested in raising children.

…if we could acknowledge sexual pleasure as a basic human right and not a privilege for the middle and upper classes.

Then perhaps we would — as a society — realize our moral imperative to improve access to contraception and safer sex education and supplies for those who need them.

Gawande believes that politics precludes government from helping to create that society and that ultimately we need a “do it yourself” approach. I’m not willing to let government or the politicians who control it off the hook quite so quickly, but I agree that there is much we can change about this society if we “do it ourselves.” And among the things we can change through grassroots community-based activism is, in fact, the government.

Among the things the government could do better, or do at all:

  • Offer incentives for research and development of long-lasting contraceptives that have fewer risks and side effects.
  • Provide contraceptives free, and without any burdensome monitoring, to women and men who want them.
  • Require that sex education programs offer clear, accurate information about the effectiveness of contraceptives and about their correct use.
  • Support programs that help parents learn how to talk to their kids about sex.

But Gawande is right that, absent some sea change in what we as individuals and communities demand of our government, these things are not going to happen quickly. We need to take up the lead of organizations like Planned Parenthood which already offer workshops on how to talk about sex, and start branching out in our communities and among our friends to “do it ourselves.” Imagine if we each had at least one conversation a week with someone about the right to sexual pleasure, or he right to sex without fear of pregnancy or disease.

Try it out. Start with yourself and make a list that honestly accounts for the ways you like to have sex, the people you like to have it with, and your own risks of pregnancy. (Yes, this applies to men too. Women don’t get pregnant on their own!) Any unpleasant surprises on your list? If so, acknowledge them and make a plan to reduce your risks. Then, be courageous: share your list with someone. And share this post. Next week try a conversation with someone else. Ask someone how they feel about the right to have sex because it feels good. Discuss whether we should take a punitive attitude toward sex for pleasure.

And stay tuned here. This blog has been part of my attempt to create more open space for reasonable and productive conversations about sex. But you’ve inspired me to do more, and I’ve decided to expand the public square:

Coming soon to a computer near you: SexInThePublicSquare.org!

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Filed under abortion, activism, culture, EC, emergency contraception, Family, feminism, Health, inequality, pro-choice, public discourse, reproductive freedom, sex, sex and health, sexuality

My not-collaborative, daughter-only, very late Mother’s Day post

I wanted to write this post with my mother, who was visiting this weekend for, you guessed it, Mother’s Day. But every time we’d start talking about the post we’d end up in a debate about whether the ideas were feasible or whether they were too idealistic. I think my mother likes to debate with me, even when she agrees with my positions, because she doesn’t get a chance to have a lot of intellectual debates and because we can argue with each other without it becoming personal. Believe it or not, I think that arguing was part of my mother’s day gift to my mom!

So, instead of a collaborative mother-daughter post, you’re getting my list of things I want to see achieved so that mothers — and hence the rest of us really — can have better lives and lives where working for sexual freedom doesn’t seem like such a luxury.

My list, the items on which my mother largely generally thought important but too idealistic, includes the following:

– Sexual openness so that women can enjoy their sexuality and share it fearlessly with their partners. Through sex we express desires, we communicate, we connect, and we feel pleasure. We should continue to work so that women are free to experience the fullness of their sexualities without shame or danger.

– Access to contraception and safeguarding the right to abortion when needed so that all motherhood is by choice. This is a place we need to redouble our efforts, as access to good information about contraception, and access to abortion when needed, is being eroded in this country, and being eroded or prevented in other countries this country’s policies.

– High quality, affordable — dare we even say government subsidized — child care so that all parents who work outside the home — including those for whom work is a necessity and not a choice — can do so without economic penalty or fear for the safety of their children.

– Realistic part-time and flexible work options so that parents have more choices about how to divide the labor of wage-earning and child-care. I don’t mean part time with no stability and low pay. I mean part time with reasonable wages that would exceed the child care costs incurred while working those more flexible hours.

– Universal health care — not just health insurance — so that employers are no longer the ones who provide our access to health care. This isn’t just a matter of concern for the poor, either. Plenty of middle income people end up financially devestated even if they do have health insurance because the part of the medical bills that the health insurance doesn’t cover is still more than they can afford. (This is especially awful for people who have fallen prey to the “two income trap” where two parents are both working to pay for meeting the basic needs of the family and then one gets sick and the other can’t make up the difference.) Oh, and of course this health care has to cover treatment for addictions and mental illness just as it covers physical illness.

– Fair wages for all workers. This means eliminating the wage gap, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, and providing living wages to all workers. Living wages mean that parents can work reasonable hours and spend time with their kids. And we also need reasonable paid leave policies so that people don’t lose out when they need to take care of a child.

– Peace. The costs of wars, in dollars and in lives, is too great to justify, and the paying of that cost is keeping us from doing the kinds of things suggested above — things that would make economic security a reality for many more people.

Julia Ward Howe is often credited with initiating Mother’s Day in the United States as a protest against war, ironic since she also penned the Battle Hymn of the Republic. But she herself was inspired by the work of Anna Jarvis who organized around workplace health and safety issues and then organized women to tend to the wounded in the Civil War. In fact, the Mother’s Day we now celebrate is on or about the anniversary of a memorial that Jarvis’s daughter held in her honor after she died. The holiday, which originally honored women who worked for social justice and peace has become, in the US, a mostly-consumer, mostly-private holiday where we thank our own mothers for the sacrifices they have made and the work they have done. I think it’s time, again, to turn the day around and make it a day when mothers — and the rest of us — call for justice and peace.

Mothers have sex, and they need sexual freedom and economic security. Without economic security it is difficult for people to make sexual freedom a high priority. When people don’t have economic security their first priority must always be gathering what resources they can to meet their basic needs. All people, regardless of economic status, must be entitled to sexual freedom but sexual freedom feels like a luxury when you are too exhausted from working your second job and making sure the kids got to school to even think about having sex with your partner. When we work for sexual freedom we must take into account the needs of the poor and working class as well as the needs of the middle class and the wealthy.

Health care, child care, contraception, fair wages, peace, and sexual freedom. They’re all connected.

Happy Mother’s Day.

~~~~~
Links:

Click here for Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation as posted on the CodePink web site.

Click here to watch the Mom’s Rising! Mothers’ Day E-Card
featuring the Infant Aerial Stunt Team and a simple laying-out of the Moms Rising policy goals (several of which are reflected in my post, above).

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Filed under activism, culture, Family, feminism, inequality, mothers day, public discourse, reproductive freedom, sex

Wage equality is a queer issue, too!

Yesterday I posted about Equal Pay Day, and the discussion was one that assumed heterosexual marriage as a foundation. But issues of wage inequality, and economic issues in general, are queer issues, too, and the gender wage gap is an interesting one.

Women typically earn less than men, so female-headed households are more likely to struggle financially than are male-headed households. In fact, 29% of families with female householders are officially poor. For female-headed households with children under 18, this jumps to 38%, and for female-headed households with young children (under five), the percentage that are officially poor is even higher: 47%.

How does this have anything to do with sexuality? For one thing, women are more likely than men to have low incomes, and female-headed households are more likely to be poor, so women in same sex partnerships are more likely to struggle than are their male counterparts, and women living alone are in even worse shape.

Remember the big push for marriage-supportive policies during the 1996 Welfare Reform and again during Bush’s “Faith-based initiatives” agenda? It seems that the Bush administration, especially, believes that if people would just “do the right thing” and get married (and stay married), we’d have a lot less poverty. And the data appear to support that conclusion on the surface. Only 5% of married-couple families are officially poor, and if you look only at married couple families with children, the percentage only jumps to 7%. Quite different from the situation of single mothers, for example.

But there is a correlation/causation problem here: it isn’t marriage as a state of being that makes a difference. Marriage makes a difference because of the way that it is defined and the way it is treated by the state. Married couple families are less likely to be poor and more likely to have higher incomes in part because they are by definition going to have a man’s income to add to the ledger, and they are quite possibly going to have two incomes to add together. And then there are the many rights and benefits that married couple families are given. Lesbian couples, women or men living alone, or not having the privileges of marriage, are not going to have the same chances.

Making income and poverty politically a “queer issue” is not necessarily easy. For one thing, once it’s seen as an issue for queer folk, it has the potential to divide gay men from lesbians. In fact, single straight women and lesbians have more in common, and even married-couple families have more common ground with lesbian couples on this issue than would gay male couples. (This is not to suggest that there is no poverty among gay men, or that gay men raising children don’t face many of the same challenges that opposite-sex couples or lesbians raising children will face, but just to point out that where wages and occupations are concerned, gay men tend to benefit by being men.)

There is another reason to consider income and poverty from the perspective of sexuality: people have more sexual agency when they are not constrained by poverty. Women and men make choices about whether or not to begin or end sexual relationships in part based on economic factors. They are more or less free to leave abusive relationships depending on economic options. They are more or less free to remain single. Constrained income options are also among the reasons some people perform sex work. And then, of course, people who have to work multiple jobs or take on lots of extra hours to make a living are less likely to have the time and energy to sustain a satisfying sex life in the first place.

Wage equity is an important step toward gender equality, but also an important step toward equality for queer folk. But there are a lot of other steps that need to be taken as well.

One of the most important things I think we need to do is to de-emphasize marriage as the basic ‘family’ structure, and a focusing on households. Policies that took households, instead of marriages, into account would help single moms, cohabiting lovers, polyamorous people, communal households, same-sex couples, and would level the playing field dramatically. But that would mean lending tacit social approval to people who have sexual and intimate relationships that challenge the dominant heteronormative model wherein marriage rules.

This is why I have mixed feelings about the same-sex marriage agenda. As long as marriage is the only family form that is given privileges, of course I want people to have access to it regardless of the gender of their partners, but as long as we keep marriage at the center of our definition of “legal family,” we will have to continue to deny recognition and rights to all those people who choose other forms of intimate commitment and interdependence.

Economic justice and social justice need to be considered together. Economic issues are queer issues. The politics of sexuality and the economics of family life are inseparable when it comes to social change.

~~~~~~~~

Here are some links to a couple of organizations that frame economic justice issues as queer issues:

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Filed under community-building, culture, Family, feminism, Gender, inequality, marriage, News and politics, polyamory, Same-Sex Marriage, sexuality

Mind the gap!

Today is Equal Pay Day according to an AFL-CIO email I just received. What they mean is that, on average, a woman needs to work a year and four months to earn what a man earns in one year. That means that it isn’t until sometime near the end of April that women catch up to what men earned the previous year.

While we all know households where a woman is the primary wage-earner, there is a persistent gap in the average earnings for men and women working full time, year-round. Forty-four years after the Equal Pay Act of 1963 mandated that men and women with equal experience and qualifications who do the same work be paid equally, women working full time, year-round make about 73 cents for every dollar men make. Or, put the other way around, men working full time, year-round, make 1.37 for every dollar women make.

To get a more specific sense of the inequality in different occupations, click here for the Bureau of Labor Statistics “Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by detailed occupation and sex” Some interesting examples:

At the upper end of the economic spectrum:

  • The median CEO weekly salary is $1,907 for men and $1,422 for women, with men making $1.34 for every dollar women make (or, the other way around, women CEOs make about 75% of what men make)
  • Among lawyers, the median weekly salary for men is $1,891 and for women it is $1,333, so men make $1.42 for every dollar women make (or women make about 70% of what men make).

At the lower end:

  • Among cashiers, the median weekly income for men is $387 and for women it’s $327, so men make $1.20 for every dollar women make (or women make about 83% of what men make).
  • Among waitstaff the median weekly income for men is $401 and for women it’s $348, so men make $1.16 for every dollar women make (or women make about 86% of what men make).
  • Among housekeeping and janitorial staff the difference is about the same as for cashiers with income being only slightly higher.

The wage gap holds at the lower end of the economic spectrum as well as at the upper end but it’s worse at the upper end. And aside from the persistence of gender inequality in wages, it’s also important to be reminded of the startling income inequality between classes in the United States.

The AFL-CIO’s Union Voice campaign is asking people to contact their legislators to support two bills currently being considered in the U.S. Congress.

  • The Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 766 and H.R. 1338), which would provide more effective remedies for victims of wage discrimination on the basis of sex.
  • The Fair Pay Act (S. 1087), which would prohibit sex-based wage discrimination and would address the issue of comparable worth by calling for equal pay for equivalent work.

Please click through to support these bills. They are important bills. As the notice points out, given that the majority of households made up of a mother, a father and their children are households where both parents work, men and kids are hurt by the pay gap just as women are hurt by it. Pay inequality hurts men in opposite-sex partnerships because if their partners’ incomes are unfairly low, then the men themselves have to work more to make up the difference. This not only means more work, but also less time with family, and ultimately less time together.

Still, these bills alone won’t solve the problem. That’s because overt wage discrimination is not the only cause of the wage gap. The Fair Pay Act recognizes this by picking up on the issue of “equivalent work,” but even that fails to acknowledge some of the more persistent structural problems that underpin the wage gap.

Gender role socialization and the gender-typing of jobs probably have more to do with these structures than anything else.

For example, one important reason that men and women tend to have different salaries even when they are working full time doing the same jobs (take the waitstaff or the lawyers mentioned above) is that the men in those jobs may devote even more hours (in terms of overtime) than the women who work alongside them. Why? Often because it is women who take time away from the job to take care of children or aging parents. This gives men an edge in terms of earning seniority and promotions. This will not change based on the kinds of legislation being proposed. In fact, seniority is one of the reasons pay equity bills give for justifying differences in pay. So as long as women are more likely to take time off from work to take care of people, women as a group will tend to make less than men do.

There is another piece to that equation, too: Let’s say you are a woman, and you and your male partner both work full time. Let’s say you want to make decisions purely rationally, that is, without reference to gender roles, and you need to decide whose wages can be sacrificed for a while in order to tend to a child. Wouldn’t you choose the person with the lower wages? And that person would more likely to be you, the woman. The cycle is a hard one to break.

In addition, because of gender role socialization, men and women still don’t all do the same kinds of jobs. And within broad job categories they don’t choose the same specializations. Take teaching. High school teachers make more than kindergarten teachers. Kindergarten teachers (who make an average of $555 a week) are much more likely to be women than to be men. High school teachers are slightly more likely to be men than to be women and make an average of $950 if they’re men and $890 if they’re not. Among doctors, cardiologists are much more likely to be men than to be women. In the medical field in general, women are much more likely than men to be registered nurses. Cardiologists make a lot more than registered nurses, just like high school teachers make a lot more than kindergarten teachers.

Some part of that division, too, comes down to expectations about family roles. To be a cardiologist requires putting several years-worth of incredibly long hours of highly specialized training. This is a difficult thing to do if you want to have a family. But it is much more difficult if you are a woman and you want to have a family than it is if you are a man and you want to have a family. Why? Because generally, if you are a man and you want to have a family, you imagine that you will have a woman who will do much of the home/family support work. Men less often perform the kind of work/family calculus that women expect to have to perform.

What would it take for women not to be handicapped at work by the expectation (and their own desires) to be primary care givers? It would certainly take better organized and subsidized child care. It would take radical changes in the way that health care and care for the aging are managed.

What would it take for women to be better represented in jobs that are traditionally male jobs? Not much more, actually, than we’re already doing. Women are going into previously male-dominated professions at increasing rates.

The bigger question is this one: What will it take to get men into jobs that are predominantly “women’s” jobs — jobs like child care, nursing, home health care, and so on. Because if some women move out of these jobs and move up the ladder, so to speak, people will have to take their places. If those people are also women, we haven’t changed the balance at all.

And men, as human beings, are harmed by the social pressures that cause them to exclude themselves from jobs that would emphasize their capacities for love, compassion, and nurturing. Children are harmed, too, as they get less nurturing contact with the adult men in their lives.

What keeps men from these jobs? One thing is wages. They don’t generate enough income. Another is socialization. We imagine that taking care of children or cleaning up after people is “women’s work.”

And then, unfortunately, we devalue it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Other resources for pay equity action:

Coalition of Labor Union Women

National Committee on Pay Equity

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Filed under activism, culture, Family, feminism, Gender, inequality, life, News and politics, sexism

More on the Awfulness that is Gonzalez v. Carhart, the first successful nationwide banning of an abortion procedure

As if the outcome of the decision weren’t bad enough, there are aspects of the majority opinion that are especially offensive. For example:

The Act also recognizes that respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in a mother’s love for her child. Whether to have an abortion requires a difficult and painful moral decision, Casey, 505 U. S., at 852-853, which some women come to regret. In a decision so fraught with emotional consequence, some doctors may prefer not to disclose precise details of the abortion procedure to be used. It is, however, precisely this lack of information that is of legitimate concern to the State. Id., at 873. The State’s interest in respect for life is advanced by the dialogue that better informs the political and legal systems, the medical profession, expectant mothers, and society as a whole of the consequences that follow from a decision to elect a late-term abortion. The objection that the Act accomplishes little because the standard D&E is in some respects as brutal, if not more, than intact D&E, is unpersuasive. It was reasonable for Congress to think that partial-birth abortion, more than standard D&E, undermines the public’s perception of the doctor’s appropriate role during delivery, and perverts the birth process. Pp. 26-30.

Where to begin!

  • “The Act also recognizes that respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in a mother’s love for her child.” Oh really? Not in our love for one another? Not in our efforts to end human rights abuses or to demand social justice or equality? Specifically, the ultimate expression of respect for human life is the the love of mothers for their kids? This is a philosophy of human love and respect for life that is much more useful for controlling women’s sexuality than for protecting the dignity of full human life.
  • “In a decision so fraught with emotional consequence, some doctors may prefer not to disclose precise details of the abortion procedure to be used. It is, however, precisely this lack of information that is of legitimate concern to the State.” Congress thinks that it is protecting women from doctors who won’t tell them the whole truth about abortion procedures and thus might lead them into decision that they will regret later? Oh come on.
    • First of all, it’s true that women sometimes regret their decisions. But women also regret their choices to give birth. Lots of difficult life decisions and life circumstances lead to regrets. Therapy and good friends and appropriate care and a society that offers compassion instead of stigma can all help. And when it comes down to it, it seems less damaging to cope with the regret of having an abortion than the regret of having a child!
    • Second, it’s hard to imagine that there are lots of doctors out there lying to women so that they can do abortion procedures that the women might not like. A woman seeking a late-term abortion is not in a happy place, to be sure. Her doctors are likely trying to make her situation as tolerable as it can be. Doctors are not infallible by any means, but they are generally well intentioned.
    • Third, it is hard to credit Congress, at this point, with being the “full disclosure, complete information” people! Please! Especially when dealing with issues of life and death. Issues like, oh, say, war. Sure we’ll send your kids off to war without bothering to know or share complete information. But don’t let those doctors try to make a woman’s difficult situation any easier to handle.
  • “It was reasonable for Congress to think that partial-birth abortion, more than standard D&E, undermines the public’s perception of the doctor’s appropriate role during delivery, and perverts the birth process.” Congress thinks that it is acceptable to determine what procedures doctors can perform based not on the medical integrity of the procedure but based instead on the public’s perception of the procedure? Congress is afraid that if doctors perform abortions the public will lose faith in those doctor’ abilities to deliver babies?

Actually, there is a telling bit of text there: “undermines the public’s perception of the doctor’s appropriate role during delivery.” Are they afraid we’ll go back to a system of midwifry where women helped each other through birth and where the beginnings and endings of life were not quite so medicalized as they are today? Where experts and organizations had less control over our lives, and especially over women’s lives?And then there is the sentence that Feminist Law Profs call the scariest sentence in the decision:

The Act’s failure to allow the banned procedure’s use where ” ‘necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for preservation of the [mother’s] health,’ ” Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New Eng., 546 U. S. 320, 327-328, does not have the effect of imposing an unconstitutional burden on the abortion right.

The rationale? Because if the mother’s health was truly in jeopardy the doctor could inject the fetus with something that would kill it and then do a D&E instead of an “intact D&E” and the procedure would be legal because the extraction would be of a dead fetus and not a living fetus. This is about the most twisted logic I can imagine: It’s all about where you kill the fetus? It’s all about the public image of the procedure? (A public image that was very skillfully manipulated by anti-choice activists who framed the issue as “partial birth abortion,” in the first place.)

No, it isn’t really all about those things. It’s also really about beginning to chip away at access to abortion. Period. It’s really about forcing women to continue pregnancies that they do not want to or cannot continue and it is about continuing to exert as much control as possible over women’s lives.

Register your outrage!

Act out! Speak up! Plan rallies. Write about it. Leave comments here and on the other feminist and pro-choice blogs that are mobilizing. Support organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL and legislation like the Freedom of Choice Act. Support research by organizations like the Guttmacher Institute and SIECUS which both offer sane, rational, well-grounded information about sexuality and reproductive health.

It won’t stop here.

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Filed under abortion, activism, Family, feminism, Gender, Gonzales v. Carhart, Health, life, News and politics, pro-choice, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sex education

Shocking.

Today the US Supreme Court for the first time upheld a nationwide ban on an abortion procedure. The Court ruled on two challenges to the “Partial Birth Abortion Act” of 2003. One challenge was brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of physicians who provide abortions (Gonzalez v. Carhart) and the other was brought by Planned Parenthood Federation of America on behalf of it’s network of women’s health clinics.

Here is a link to the act and here is a link to today’s decision.

You might recall that back in 2000 the Supreme Court rejected a Nebraska ban on this same set of procedures (less dramatically and more medically accurately called “intact dilation and extraction”) because it failed to include an exemption in the case that the mother’s health was at risk.

The current ban also fails to provide such an exemption.

So, how could it be upheld by the same court that rejected Nebraska’s ban? There are two main differences. First, this is not the same court, really. With the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor and the appointment of Samuel Alito, the balance on the court tipped toward the conservative on reproductive rights issues. Second, there is an interesting bit of legal-but-logic-defying procedural stuff that Tom Joaquin might be able to speak to better than I, but that goes something like this, as argued in the findings in Section 2 of the Act.

  1. In the Nebraska case, (Stenberg v. Carhart, 2000) it was a Federal district court that first found that the law in question placed too great a burden on women because of it’s failure to allow the procedure to protect a woman’s health. In reaching that decision, the Federal district court in that case found there to be significant medical evidence to support the claim that this procedure is sometimes necessary to protect a woman’s health. On appeal, the 8th Circuit court found that the findings on which the district court based its decision were not “clearly erroneous” even though many anti-abortion activists claim that the procedure is never medically necessary and is sometimes even harmful to a woman’s health. The US Supreme Court agreed that the lower court’s findings, while in dispute, were not “clearly erroneous.”
  2. Congress, on the other hand, is apparently not bound by those findings. So, in the push to pass the “Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003,” Congress held lots of hearings at which enough people said “this procedure is gruesome and is never medically necessary and even sometimes harms women,” that Congress indeed found that the procedure “is a gruesome and inhumane procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited,” and it passed the ban.
  3. So, in this set of cases, the Supreme Court was presented with a new set of findings, these by the US Congress, that the procedure is never necessary to protect a woman’s health and so, voila, they allowed the ban to stand even though it failed to include an exemption for the health of the woman.

Shocking. Congress is authorized to determine what is medically necessary. Congress is authorized to determine what is medically accurate. A body that is at its core a political body and not a scientific body — this group gets to decide, according to the Supreme Court, what procedures are appropriate for safeguarding a woman’s health. Mind you, we are not talking about Congress deciding what procedures to offer fund with public health money. No, we are talking about Congress deciding what procedures your doctors are allowed to perform. And the penalty for performing a prohibited abortion? A fine and or up to two years in prison. Two years in prison for performing a procedure that many doctors and pregnant women find medically necessary in order to preserve the woman’s health.

Shocking. The law also contains a provision for civil suits to be brought against doctors who provide the banned procecures. Under section 1531 (c)(1):

The father, if married to the mother at the time she receives a partial-birth abortion procedure, and if the mother has not attained the age of 18 years at the time of the abortion, the maternal grandparents of the fetus, may in a civil action obtain appropriate relief, unless the pregnancy resulted from the plaintiff’s criminal conduct or the plaintiff consented to the abortion.

Look at the continued privileging of husbands in marriage (though notably not fathers in general). If married to the mother of the fetus, the father can bring a civil suit. There are two problems here: the first is that it asserts that husbands are harmed when their wives attend to their own medical care and, with their doctors, choose procedures with which the husbands disagree. Second, it privileges husbands over all other kinds of partners.

This is all the more frightening in light of other recent findings — findings that abstinance-only sex ed, for example, doesn’t work, even though Congress and the President continue to authorize money for advancing abstinance-only approaches. (Click here for the study — a 10 year examination of these programs.) Are we moving into an era where young people have less access to medically accurate information about pregnancy and disease and at the same time fewer outlets for dealing with unwanted pregancies?

This is an opportune moment to ask you to act: The REAL (Real Education About Life, S.972/H.R.1653) Act is again before Congress. It is being cosponsored by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Christopher Shays (R-CT). It was first introduced back in 2005. We need it NOW. Senator Lautenberg’s web site calls it “a bill that would authorize federal funds for states to offer comprehensive and medically accurate sexual education in their schools” and notes that

“there are three separate federal programs that fund abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, but no federal funding currently exists specifically for comprehensive sexuality education. Currently, states can only receive funding if they agree to teach abstinence-only-until-marriage while excluding information about the health benefits of contraception to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”

Please support the REAL Act and demand that the government specifically fund comprehensive sex education.

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Filed under abortion, activism, Education, Family, feminism, Gender, Gonzales v. Carhart, Health, life, News and politics, pro-choice, public discourse, reproductive freedom, sex, sex education

Our kids are born sexual. Now what do we do?

My mother says I don’t write enough about positive things in this blog, and she’s right. So I’ve decided to start a book review section where I’ll tell you about books I think help to create a healthy and open sexual environment. This is a great moment to begin, because I just read a fantastic book about kids and sex.

The book is called Everything you never wanted your kids to know about sex (but were afraid they’d ask: The secrets to surviving your child’s sexual development from birth to the teens by Justin Richardson and Mark Schuster, published by Three Rivers Press (2004) and I think the title says a lot, but not enough. For one thing, the book is clearly intended to not only to help parents survive their child’s sexual development, but to help the child survive the parents’ anxiety about his or her sexual development. In that way it teaches parents how to help shape their children’s sexuality in healthy ways. For another thing, it acknowledges the fear that parents often have about dealing with their kids and sex, and yet I think for many parents the issue is the “afraid they’ll ask” not the “never wanted them to know” part. I think a lot of parents want their kids to figure it out without having to talk about “it.” This book helps parents figure out how to talk about “it.”

One reason I like the book so much is that it starts out with an important-but-difficult-to-accept reality: talking to kids about sex isn’t going to make them sexual. Kids are already sexual. They lead into this with a short bit about observing a male fetus on an ultrasound and pointing out that it has an erection: sexual arousal occurs even before birth. Sexual response is biological. It is shaped, structured, and channeled by culture and socialization, but it is at its base a biological reality and it exists in babies just as it exists in adults.

Richardson and Schuster, both doctors with very down-to-earth attitudes (a psychiatrist and a pediatrician/public health specialist both with very impressive resumes), take on subjects like childhood sexual development, kids and sex play, masturbation, the Internet, discussions about abstinence, safer sex practices. And in all these areas their main focus is on open discussion, accurate information, and remaining calm. They explain that their approach to sexual development is based on putting children’s health first and they define health in a very comprehensive way:

Our definition of health includes physical health, by which we mean the absence of sexually transmitted disease and unintended pregnancy, and safety from sexual abuse and violence; and emotional health, by which we mean the ability to take pleasure in sex, the freedom of mind to make choices about love and sex, the possession of a meaningful value system to guide those choices, and the presence of strong self esteem. (p. 9-10)

They do all this with great humor and an sensitivity to the real strain, concern, and fear that parents really feel around these matters. I discovered this book while browsing for parenting section of Books-a-Million with my sister, a mother of two young boys. We were so engaged by the book that we sat on the floor in the aisle and read out loud to each other. We read the section about what to do when your kid walks in on you when you’re having sex. One reason I’m telling you about this book: one real life scenario used as a model by the authors involved a same-sex couple — two men — and the authors presented this without comment on the sexual orientation of the couple. Instead, their focus was on the quality of the reaction that “Jack and Simon” had in the moment:

We still marvel at the composure of Jack and Simon. When their four-year-old boy walked in on them having sex, Jack managed calmly to say, “Oh, you found us doing the special thing that people in love do when they want to make each other feel good; now, which of us do you want to put you back to bed?” (p. 103)

They point out that the most important thing is not to hide, not to ignore it, to try an explanation that is simple and clear, like “When you came in we were having sex. It’s a way that grown ups like us show that they love each othe. Do you understand?” They recommend answering any questions that the child has, and then reminding the child to knock if the door is closed. In other words, they recommend treating it without alarm, as an everyday act, and moving on. (An example of the humor they bring to the book. They end that section with the remark, “You can now tuck your little one into bed, go back to your room, and perform CPR on your partner.”

Another reason I’d encourage you to take a look at this book is because of its strength in addressing questions about kids, sex, and the Internet. First, they point out that if your child or your teen is online in any interactive forum, there is a chance that she will be approached for sex. You can’t prevent this. What you can do is prepare your kid for it when it does happen. Richardson and Schuster recommend telling young Internet users that they’re safe as long as they don’t respond to such requests and don’t give out any personal information about themselves to people they don’t know. Teach them how to block senders of unwanted IMs and to let you know about the incident. (Then, when they do talk to you, don’t freak out, but calmly discuss it with them to get the details, and, I’d presume, to support them for having done the right things!) Second, Richardson and Schuster talk about the near-inevitable event that your child surfs to a porn site or some other site containing explicitly sexual content. They discuss the benefits and drawbacks of web browser filters and again focus on being open with your kids about sex so that they’re willing to talk to you about what they see.

There are lots of good reasons to check out this book. I can’t mention them all now but I’m sure I’ll be referring back to the book in future posts.

I encourage you to check out the website for the book. You can read selections from the book, read more about the authors, and ask questions, too.

It takes guts to talk to kids about sex. In this time of moral panic about kids and sex, though, it is as important as ever that adults step up to the plate early and create a healthy environment for their kids’ developing sexualities. This is truly the best way to protect them from harm.

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Filed under book reviews, culture, Education, Family, life, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sexuality, sexuality and age