Category Archives: inequality

The Myth of the Liberal Media, or Further Evidence that the NYT is an Elitist Paper

Originally posted on SexInThePublicSquare.org – join us there!

I’ve always known that the New York Times is an elitist paper. Most national papers are pretty directed at the upper middle and upper classes. You can tell just by looking at their advertising. Million dollar studio apartments and thousand dollar watches are not for the masses, after all. And I learned from a beloved sociology instructor in college to recognize the significance of the fact that there is never a labor section but always a business section and that the Times has two “Style” sections a week where you can learn about the newest expensive trends. So it isn’t like this is a revelation. But today’s Metro Section really beats all:

new york times screen shot of headline emperors club sold an oxymoron high class prostitution

The story itself is worse than the headline. It contains stereotypes, overgeneralizations, faulty logic, bad assumptions and lots of other problems that I warn my students about. And aside getting the prostitution stuff wrong, it’s very clear message is this: don’t try to pass yourself off as belonging to the upper classes if you weren’t born and bred among them.

Where to start?

Perhaps with the faulty logic. Susan Dominus asserts that Emperor’s Club was selling a fantasy image of “Kristen” that didn’t match Kristen’s real life. Of course many sex workers do in fact shield their identities by disguising other aspects of their lives. Dominus must know that. What she is pointing out in her article is that Kristen’s image was one of upper middle class or upper class upbringing, and to prove that Kristen was not in fact of such a background she poses a series of what she presumes to be inherently contradictory statements:

that she was a successful swimsuit model who’d traveled the world (as opposed to a singer getting nowhere with a boyfriend who’d paid her rent, as The Times reported yesterday); that she enjoyed civilized pursuits like dining at exclusive restaurants (actually, she’s been hoping for work at a friend’s restaurant); and that she liked sampling fine wines (no mention of the drug abuse she’d reported on her MySpace page). The site also described her as 24 (in fact, she’s 22, an age that might have sounded dangerously collegiate to an affluent clientele).

Can Dominus really believe that a working class or middle class person could never enjoy “civilized pursuits” like dining at fancy establishments, or that a person who enjoys fine wine never abuses drugs? (Wall Street, anyone?) Are these things really logically related in any way at all?

Only if one buys the assumption that pursuits like fine wine and fancy restaurants are reserved for the upper classes. And only if drug abuse is somehow different from addiction and the Betty Ford Clinic only serves the masses.

Then there are the overgeneralizations:

Once the story of Ashley Alexandra Dupré’s life actually came out, it was a fresh reminder that the words “high class” and “prostitution ring” pretty much never make sense in the same phrase (expensive prostitution ring, yes; high class, no). This was not someone who’d been turned down by the consulting firm of her choice and decided to make an alternative entrepreneurial move. Ms. Dupré’s MySpace page said she’d left home at 17 and had been abused. She’d been homeless. She said she knew, at 22, what it was like “to have everything and lose it, ” even if she’d built herself up since. Her story was not self-empowering; it was, even in its scant detail, profoundly sad, all the more so because of her extreme youth.

Somehow because this young woman herself is not of the upper classes no prostitute ever is. Somehow because her profile fits that of the stereotypical sex worker she must represent all sex workers. And somehow the fact that she reports having built herself back up (in part using sex work) after having lost everything is not evidence of any kind of self-empowerment.

Sudhir Venkatesh is quoted later as if his work supports this overgeneralization about prostitutes but if you heard him on the NPR the other day or read his piece on Slate.com you’d know that he has in fact interviewed women who left professional-class careers for upscale escorting. I have not reviewed his research so I’m not attesting to its quality, though I think highly of some of his other work. (And I should note that Melissa Gira Grant has taken Venkatesh to task for oversimplifying things, too.) But he introduces a three-tier categorization of prostitution that would certainly challenge the statements that Dominus makes in this article.

My real anger, though, actually comes from Dominus’s acceptance of the term “high class.” I know that is the term that much of the press has been using to describe the escort service in question. But to accept its use and to apply it to people is appalling.

“High class” is a value judgement and a way of obscuring the real stratification of wealth, power and privilege in the United States. Why not talk about the upper class, the elite, or the working class or the middle class, which are much more meaningfully descriptive?

And why not come out and make the message clear:

If you aren’t born among us you can never be one of us and we’d much prefer it if you’d stop pretending.

The ad at the top of the NYT screenshot is for Loro Piana and the Americana Manhasset, shopping for the wealthy.

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Filed under Eliot Spitzer, feminism, Gender, inequality, New York Times, public discourse, sex, Sex in the Public Square, sex work, sexually oriented businesses

The “Biology v. Choice debate” has no place in a discussion of sexual freedom and civil rights

I’m more than tired of all the uproar over whether sexuality is biologically determined or chosen. Actually, that’s not true. It’s ultimately more complicated than that dichotomy would indicate, and the answer has no place in a discussion of rights for gays.

It’s bad enough to hear the fundamentalists harp on the “gay lifestyle,” but LBGT groups also seem inclined to use the question of choice v. biology as a new potential litmus test for politicians. For example, In the HRC/Logo LBGT Presidential Forum, Melissa Etheridge asks Bill Richardson if he thinks sexual orientation is a choice or is biological. He’s been criticized for his answer but it’s actually not so far from mine: It really doesn’t matter. People should have rights whether they choose aspects of their identity or whether they are born with certain characteristics. (NB: There may be plenty of good reasons to be critical of Bill Richardson, but his answer to that question, which was essentially, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s really complicated and so honestly I don’t really know, and besides it doesn’t really matter because people deserve rights either way.”)

You can see Bill Richardson’s segments of the forum here, and all the others here.

Intellectually, or scientifically, what factors shape a person’s sexuality is an interesting question. But in terms of the law it ought to be irrelevent. Discrimination against people based on the kinds of sex they have, or the genders of their partners ought to be illegal. Period. End of sentence.

It feels like another instance of where those in favor of sexual and reproductive freedom have ceded the framing of the debate to those who would like to lock sexuality down. Only this time the word “choice” has been adopted by the other side.

Conservatives focus a lot on their claim that sexual orientation is not an orientation at all but is rather a “chosen lifestyle” because they are fond of punishing people for what they see as “bad” or “immoral” choices. By that logic, they feel justified denying marriage to same sex couples because they should have ‘chosen’ differently.

That’s ridiculous. Even if sexuality is to some degree chosen — and I would argue that all kinds of sexual expression is chosen, and much is shaped by culture, even though some is likely influenced by biology — I should still be allowed to marry who I want, as long as that person is legally able to consent to the marriage. I should not be discriminated against at work or in housing matters or health care because of the partners I choose.

Why should sexual choices (between people capable of consent) be seen as somehow different from other choices we are freely able to make? Sexuality is complex and there are lots of desires that we choose to act on and explore and others we choose never to explore. And sexuality should not be reduced to sexual orientation, either. Go beyond the gender of your partner and think about explorations in bondage or flogging or sex at play parties. Do we need to argue that those desires or explorations are driven biological predispositions in order to assert that we should be free to act on them and that our rights should not be limited if we choose to do so? Should it be legal to deny housing to people who are polyamorous? Should it be legal to fire a person who is into leather and whips? Of course not. So why, when we talk about LGBT rights, which are extremely important, do we end up arguing based on biological determinism?

I think we do so because it’s easier to argue that people shouldn’t be denied rights because of something over which they have no control. The comparisons to race, ethnicity, disability should not be missed. But there are other “protected categories” that are seen as sacred in terms of rights and freedom and are certainly a matter of choice. Religion comes to mind first. Religious faith is a matter of conscience and culture and not at all something you are born with. (I know, some religions are “passed on” through families but there is generally a moment when the individual has to choose to become a full member of the religious community by way of some consciously engaged-in ritual.)

And even regarding race, which is not chosen but is a characteristic others ascribe to us based on physical appearances, there is precedent for adopting “choice” as a basis for rights, especially where sexual relationships are concerned.

In 1967 the Loving v. Virginia case made it clear that it is unconstitutional for states to prevent interracial couples from marrying. Does anybody argue about whether the partners in interracial couples are “born that way” (i.e., somehow biologically inclined to sexual attraction and love of people from other racial groups) or whether they’ve “chosen” to partner with people outside their own races? No. In fact the biology of sexual attraction never entered the picture in the Loving decision. The question was one of whether or not it was legal for the state to regulate marriage by taking race into account.

We should not allow a “biology v. choice” framing of the rights debate to continue. If we do, we will likely find ourselves backed into a very unpleasant corner. We will be forced to argue that we are helpless over our sexuality, and then will be faced with the very frightening prospect of arguing in favor of a medical definition of sexual orientation — which can then be used against us when people decide to start looking for “cures.” For make no mistake about it: if they think they can “cure” us by counseling us into making different choices, they will be no less likely to try to “cure” us of a sexual orientation that they can frame as a disease. If there is a “gay gene” we should be very wary of what happens if it’s found. It will then be possible for genetic testing to “discover” the sexual orientation of a child and gene therapy may be used to “fix” that child. We’ve been there before in less technologically sophisticated ways. Sexual orientation was only declassified as a disease in the 1970s!

Choice v. Biology is no way to have a debate about rights. When we fought for civil rights we didn’t ask what causes race (though we certainly have debated what defines race). We shouldn’t be arguing about what causes sexual orientation. Its an interesting scientific question, and probably has a very complex answer that combines biological and social factors, and I’d be very curious to know more about it. But it has no place in the politics of anti-discrimination policy.

Ultimately sexuality is a blend of biological, cultural, and individual factors. Rights, on the other hand, are determined through the political process, and sexual freedom and civil rights should not depend on whether we are born with a sexual orientation or choose how to express our sexual selves. Sexual freedom and civil rights should be granted to all. Period.

(Note: This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.Org, our community-building site. Come on over!)

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Filed under civil rights, culture, discrimination, inequality, Loving v. Virginia, marriage, News and politics, polyamory, public discourse, Relationships, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, sex and the law, sexual orientation, sexuality

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

Genarlow Wilson is not yet free

Many many thanks to our indefatigable virtual-girl-reporter JanieBelle for her continued updates on the Genarlow Wilson debacle. She’s been leaving her updates in the comments on this post, but I thought I’d summarize here.

Last Thursday Wilson’s defense team was in court before Monroe County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wilson asking that he be released because he was being improperly imprisoned. This was a habeas corpus action. The judge issued his ruling on Monday,and according to a CNN story pointed out by JanieBelle the ruling stated that:

Genarlow Wilson’s punishment was cruel and unusual and voided it on constitutional grounds. The judge reduced the sentence to one year and said Wilson should not be put on Georgia’s sex offender registry, as the old law required.

Georgia’s Attorney General Thurbert Baker immediately appealed. At issue according to AG Wilson is whether the Superior Court judge has the authority to modify a sentence passed by a trial court. On a habeas corpus action a judge can throw out a sentence, but he generally can’t modify it. (Tom, do please consider stepping in here to keeping me from drowning. I’m just about over my head!)

So, Genarlow Wilson remains in prison despite what sounded like good news earlier in the day, and the lawyers will fight over an important procedural point that may not lead to justice when what is really needed is a quick path to a just and rational outcome.

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Filed under civil rights, culture, discrimination, Genarlow Wilson, inequality, News and politics, public discourse, racism, sex, sex and the law, sex crimes, sexuality and age

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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