Myths and Modesty: the truth about victim blaming and female sexuality under patriarchy

By Emily D. Irvine, 6-23-13400079_479945938714474_254038652_n

Women like sex. We truly do, and I certainly hope that by this point in modern human history, the fact that women like sex is not a shocking revelation. Do men want sex more than women? I firmly doubt it. Women are, however, capable of functioning for longer periods of time without getting some. This is because men have a literal “release valve,” a physical need that leads to discomfort and a serious case of the man crankies if not met. The need for women is apparently more “mysterious” as the female orgasm is apparently such an elusive thing brought on by a specific combination of seeming inconsistent factors. Sex for woman allows for a physical release that is entirely internal and is therefore less tangible, leading thousands of years of human history to devalue the sexual experience for women, to even say sexual pleasure does not or should not exist for the female. The lack of understanding about the female sexual experience has led to countless cultures who completely devalue women and see them as completely un-sexual beings. A sexual being is one that has and enjoys sex, an organism made to feel pleasure from sexual encounters and that requires sex for emotional and physiological reasons, not simply for procreative purposes. Men have always been seen as sexual beings. Women are seen as sexual objects.

Various ways of dealing with female sexuality across the globe are truly abhorrent. Female genital mutilation is practiced in much of Africa, a practice by which at the onset of puberty, a girl’s clitoris is forcibly cut off, leading her future sexual escapades to result in zero pleasure and significant pain. Realizing that the clitoris is the source of female sexual pleasure, the cultures that practice this barbaric ritual do so because in their minds, it will keep a woman faithful to her husband as she will glean no pleasure from sex and thus not seek it elsewhere. Sexual pleasure makes women a threat. It gives them agency and desire and many cultures simply cannot deal with having women exhibit power and agency. Across the Muslim world, women are denied even the most basic of human rights. Women in Saudi Arabia are forbidden to drive as teaching them would inspire them to leave their husbands.  Women are forced to cover their entire bodies in order to prevent men from “lusting” after them. And let us never forget Malala Yousafzai, who survived a gunshot to the head for declaring that she and other girls in Pakistan should be educated, not a direct sexual repression, but an example of extreme gender repression practiced by men so insecure that the thought of educated women threatens their masculinity to the point of violence. This is also a culture of extreme victim blaming, as women who are sexually assaulted are put on trial for indecency while their attackers walk free.  Rape is not considered a crime in Islamic countries because if it was, it is believed that women who seduce men and commit adultery with them would simply claim rape when caught and then the man would be unfairly punished.  Take for example, Atefah Rajabi Sahaaleh, a 16 year old Iranian who was brutally raped and then put on trial. She was then hanged by her government for “crimes against chastity.”

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In America, we have no gender relations problems. Here, women are never faced with unwanted advances from men, women are never blamed for the actions of men, women are never told to wear more clothing or reap the consequences, and women assuredly make as much money as men. Feminism has won.

If you cannot detect my sarcasm, please leave.

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I spend a significant amount of my time browsing for thoughtful articles on the state of gender relations in America and beyond in this, the modern era. Generally, I walk away from my computer angry. But what I find is that in the last decade, women here have absolutely had enough. We are sick to death of the vicim blaming that occurs here, we are sick to death of being told our wardrobe is to blame for the asshole behavior of strange men we encounter, we are sick to death of antiquated “jokes” about our “rightful place,” and we are sick to death of not being adequately represented in the media. However, the best part about this is many to most men are just as sick of it.

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That said, on occasion, I happen upon blogs, articles, even Facebook posts, that present a bizarre counterpoint…. the notion of female responsibility in relation to the bad behavior of men. Often, this viewpoint resides in those of a religious persuasion. As I grew up in the Christian church, I am no stranger to phrases such as, “don’t cause your brother in Christ to stumble,” and “ if you commit sin in your head, you have already committed it in your heart.” And let’s not forget about praying for the all powerful “hedge of protection” around our struggling brothers and sisters in the Spirit.

Allow me to clarify that I bear absolutely no animosity to Christians and this jesting is done with a touch of fondness. In fact, my family and the majority of my dearest friends are Christians, and I too consider myself of a protestant persuasion. That is to say, I do genuinely believe that all religions are simply mankind’s way of understanding the mystery of God, which is a mystery far too great to be contained in one theology, however I personally find sense and meaning though much of Christian theology. Some of it, I find inspiring and beautiful to the point of tears, some of it I find bloody good storytelling, and some of it, I find just plain insane. One area of Christian culture I will never tolerate is the woman-blaming, Eve-shaming, nothing is Adam’s fault, patriarchal nonsense that litters the churches, Bible studies, and blog space of America.

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One example of this appears in the seemingly innocent and thought provoking post, “Can You Be A Lady Without Being Modest” by the sister blog team More Like Momma. In this post, it is argued that women who dress immodestly are A) committing adultery WITH the men they cause to lust after them as stated in the book of Matthew, and B) that women who dress immodestly have no right to ask to be respected by men or by other women. But most interestingly, the entire blog (I would assume inadvertently) presents men as thoughtless idiots completely unable to control themselves, and most importantly, they are not asked to. The responsibility falls entirely on women to never allow men to think naughty, nasty things.

The majority of these poster’s argument is based on Matthew 5:28, which states, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The blog author states:

I didn’t use to really think anything of this verse, as it seems to only address guys.  But do you notice that it says he has committed adultery with her?  Would you commit adultery with that grandpa you pass on the street, or the teenage boy who bags your groceries?  I didn’t think so.  So why do we as women think it is ok for us to dress in a way that invites them go there with us in their minds?

One of my biggest issues with Christian culture, in which I was raised, is the absolute truth to which they/we cling to English translations of the Bible. I majored in English literature and read many novels of non-English origins. During our study of translated novels, my professors took great care to share their own translation alterations where they felt the translator dropped the ball. Translations are so subjective as languages have a colloquial complexity lost on non-native speakers. The Bible, for all of its strengths, when written in English is one of the most poorly written, grammatical messes in the English language. To hinge an argument on a single preposition in this context is just plain stupid. The version quoted in this blog is the NIV, one of the least accurate translations available (according to the subjective opinion of some), but none the less, one of the most popular. The Message Bible, written to put the Bible into distinctly modern language while preserving the conversational context translates the verse much differently:

“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.”

Clearly, this translator chose to represent this message of Jesus’s as being distinctly about personal responsibility. If you look at someone and think impurely, it’s your own problem and deal with it personally. I am no expert in Ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic and hence I cannot say which version is more accurate, and so here, the argument stops. The point is, translations are subjective and therefore unreliable when it comes down to minute details. “With” means nothing to me in this blogger’s argument.

Perhaps my least favorite paragraph in this blog is this:

Because we have such a deep desire to be seen as beautiful we are often willing to sacrifice the purity of the men around us on the altar of our own beauty.  Women will flippantly say that it’s the guys problem not theirs, all the while selfishly enjoying the attention their clothing choices gain them.  But it’s not just the guy’s purity we are compromising when we ignore God’s way in the area of modesty, it is our own.

I am going to “flippantly” say exactly what she has an issue with me “flippantly” saying: No, another human being’s internal issues about my body are NOT my problem. But here is why I am going to say this: it is not because I am an arrogant whore who enjoys being the object of male attention (which is somehow “selfish” in her argument.) It is not because I don’t give a crap about the internal struggles of anyone around me. Are you ready for this? The reason I call complete and total bullshit on the argument that I have no right to allow MY clothing to distract, control, and seduce men unfairly is this: I don’t think men are that helpless, that weak, or that stupid. Did you get that? I refuse to accept this line of thinking because I KNOW men are better than this nonsense.

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Here is another point to ponder. Why is this argument so one sided? Why is there no discussion about immodestly dressed men? I work in a campground on a lake. I see shirtless men all day long. And guess what, I’m married, and I am and will always be a faithful wife. But that does not mean that when a bronzed, chiseled, Adonis of a man walks through the door that I do not look him up and down and appreciate the fine human specimen that he is. What I do not do is chat him up in a way that conveys I’m interested in any part of him beyond casual conversation. What I do not do is behave in a way that makes him feel like an object and therefore uncomfortable. What I do not do is take him outside and have sex with him by force. What I do is smile and treat him like any other human being.

So according to the popular argument laid out by the bloggers of More Like Momma, I am an adulteress. However, I am not an adulteress for the crime of my clothing in this scenario, rather I am just like any man who happens to go weak at the knees over a non-conservative hemline. Why then aren’t men with oh so fabulous abs being asked to put a damn shirt on? It has also been said that a good suit on a man is equivalent to lingerie to us ladies (and it’s true, by the way.) So clearly, men need to be wearing oversized T-shirts and sweatpants because women just can’t handle the immodesty without sinning in their brains. So, get on that blog, More Like Momma. Or are you that not-so-rare breed of female misogynist that has SUCH a way of getting under my skin?

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I mentioned that I think better of men than to believe they have zero self control and that therefore it is up to women to “protect” their fragile, horny, constitutions. I stand by it. Yes, there are scores of men out there, whole cultures of them, to which this notion absolutely applies. But these men have been socialized this way over generations to the detriment of their own societies. It is so easy to blame women: we have been royally screwed from the onset of human history. It’s easy to just keep on blaming Eve. But the truth of the matter is that while Eve was a dumbass, so was Adam, and from their story, I do not get that women need to take the blame for the sins of men. What I get from that story is that when you blame others for your mistakes, whether you are male or female,  you get your ass kicked out of Paradise. As the Bible goes, it’s a fairly gender neutral story…. more or less. I know many, many men who are not in fact assholes, men who believe to their core in the equality of women and who treat us as equals. I know many, many men who know how to appreciate a pretty girl dressed in any attire without allowing their hormones to turn them into an animal. I know many of these men, and I married one of them. To him my heart is faithful, regardless of what well dressed or barely dressed thing crosses my path.

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I began this post by asserting that women like sex. We do. That’s why we have it. To assume that only men struggle with issues of respecting the opposite sex is just plain stupid. To assume that only women see sex as an emotional experience is as stupid as assuming that women always see sex as an emotional experience. Making this discussion one sided not only puts an insane level of misplaced guilt on women but it assumes the absolute worst of men, making them out to be out of control sex fiends. Personally, I think we need to seriously reframe this argument. How about instead of blaming each other, we instead realize that we are ALL sexual beings. Men and women are equally obsessed with sex. We are also equally aroused by what we deem a fine specimen of our preferred gender regardless of how it’s dressed. How about instead of teaching our girls to bear the weight of men’s problems as well as their own, we instead teach both girls and boys that they WILL find themselves sexually aroused by each other and what they need to learn is how to deal with these emotions appropriately both internally and externally. It is not OK to objectify each other, to disrespect each other, or to blame another (or something as stupid as another’s clothing) for our thoughts and actions.

it is utterly asinine to use any logic to assert that women need to dress “modestly” to keep the minds of men “pure.” This is the same appallingly skewed logic that leads to female genital mutilation and executing rape victims. It may seem like a gigantic leap, but it isn’t and those who don’t recognize the connection need to look long and hard at the society their backwards perceptions are creating.  When we teach girls that they are responsible for the actions of boys, we are sewing the seeds of the out of control victim blaming cultures that dominate a inappropriate percentage of our world. We are teaching boys that they are not responsible for their sexual misconduct and we are teaching girls to feel guilty about being sexually assaulted  We do a great disservice to men by perpetuating an erroneous stereotype that they are incapable of self control. We do an even greater disservice to women by blaming the world’s problems on their clothing.

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Marriage Equality in a (Surprisingly) Moderate Society: Reframing the Gay Marriage debate to show that Christians are not the Enemy

Our lives are shaped and defined by frames. As much as we may try to break the metaphorical molds that shape us, try as we might to continue to redefine our social boundaries with varying degrees of success, we are still all a product of cultural frame tales, the social narrative within a national narrative that gauges the merit of our society against the merits of others.

Perhaps the most highly prized of American qualities is that of universal equality. We have framed our national narrative around this notion, that we are all free and equal in relation to each other. Though such a phrasing exists in the most fundamental document defining our nation, Jefferson’s notion that “all men are created equal” has itself been redefined in the two and half centuries that have transpired since the time of his writing. “All men” has been expanded to include men of color and women, groups that have been historically excluded. Though racism and sexism have not been universally abolished and likely never will be in entirety due to the ever vigilant presence of extremists, the groups affected by them have, at the very least, universal protection under the law in our modern era. In the realm of marriage equality, the hot button topic a generation ago was interracial marriage, the controversiality of which is absurd to the average, rational citizen of the 21st century. We forget such a union has be legal for less than 50 years.

The gay marriage debate has reached such a pinnacle in the last few years that it is, in all likelihood at its peak and we will soon hear the end of it on a legal level. That is to say, soon the United States will likely join the short list of nations – Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden- that allow same sex marriage without restriction. On a global scale, treatment of same sex marriage at the government level varies from outright acceptance to public execution. Even in the United States, you can find groups of individuals who have framed gay rights as everything from a human rights issue to a degenerate social plague. Gays are either just like you and me or they are out to molest your children. They enrich our communities as they destroy the sanctity of marriage and the entire fabric of society. With so many different frames of reference, who is “right” and how did so many cultural narratives arise on one issue? The short answer, as this humble blogger sees it, is 1) religion has played a huge part on both sides of this issue, and 2) on a related note, some Americans have in part confused their country’s original frame, the historical point of reference in determining our rights as citizens.

As far as the media is concerned, there is no one who opposes same sex marriage who does so on any grounds other than religious. Whether this is an accurate representation of American opinion is  hard to say: The Gallup polls on the issue divide the data by age and political affiliation, not religion. What the polls tell us is if you are young and liberal, you likely support same sex marriage, while being old and conservative likely indicates an opposition. Such a generalization is the representation our media upholds. Those damn atheist liberals and their socialist agendas are constantly at odds with those Bible-thumping conservatives busy defining a legitimate rape.  Such is the narrative if one spends an evening flipping between Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. There are two sides and we all fit in one or the other, pitchforks in hand to destroy the other.

But how accurate is this really? How many of us, liberal or conservative, truly hate our friends and family who checked the “opposite” box on their voter registration form? Has democracy really filled us all with such an inflated sense of the divine inspiration of our own opinions that we are truly so intolerant of someone who doesn’t bring a reusable shopping bag to the grocery store? Is everyone with a recycling bin a secular tree hugger, and all people with religious inclinations judgmental homophobes?

I personally really dislike any person or news source that bashes any religion. I respect all faiths, and I am not exactly irreligious myself. That said, there are members of the “religious right” (whatever that means) who have lent a strong voice in opposition to same sex marriage. It is true that for the very first time, more Americans favor marriage equality than oppose it, but the numbers are still only 53% in favor. Meanwhile, over 75% of the country identifies as Christian (Protestant and Catholic combined). Clearly, Christians find themselves on both sides of the political aisle, representing a vast spectrum of political opinions even within the same religion. There are mild, moderate, and fanatical people of a religious persuasion, the mild saying the fanatical give everyone a bad name and the fanatical saying the mild to moderate are not really Christians at all (as if that is their place to decide). But regardless of persuasion, by sheer numbers Christians have more political influence in America than any other group of people. Lately, they have been solely blamed for opposition to same sex marriage, but the numbers suggest they likely have an equal influence on both sides of the aisle… and vote accordingly.

I live my life surrounded by Christians, and I myself fall largely in the “mild” category of a Protestant-leaning persuasion. My friends, family, co-workers, inhabitants of my small and isolated hometown, almost all fall somewhere on the spectrum from mild to moderate to fanatical, and theological diversity and disagreements included, I love them all and truly see the best in them all. That said, even if I feel the media has unfairly framed Christians as solely the enemy (rather than potential champions) of the pro-same sex marriage debate, I have seen, as most of us have, the complications and often skewed worldview that can arise in the inhabitants of an isolated environment.

There are many Christians who maintain that gay marriage is unbiblical and that America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principals. The unbiblical argument is a separate debate only appropriate for discussion outside of the realm of politics. The “Christian nation” framework, however, is partly erroneous. Yes, America is predominantly a Christian nation by demographics. To get technical, this is due to our Founding Fathers’ and first colonists’ European origins, and the largely European origins of the majority of our first immigrants. Our second wave of mass immigration brought and continues to bring immigrants from Latin America, where Catholicism acquired a stronghold during the Spanish conquests. Due to the simple fact that conquerers from Protestant England got here first, and our proximity to Mexico, to which conquers from Catholic Spain arrived first, all of North America is predominantly Christian. Had a Hindu India acquired a top-notch Navy simultaneously with a strong desire to discover New Worlds, we may be having a very different conversation. Religions are only as wide spread as the conquering technology that has backed them.

Though they came from Protestant England, America’s Founding Fathers saw the dangers of the union of government and religion. They saw religious freedom as the most fundamental human right. For this reason, they made a conscious decision to weave the separation of Church and State into the framework of American society. Both would forever be protected from each other. All citizens of this new nation would be free to worship whatever and however they chose with no fear of retribution. All churches, synagogues, mosques, and cathedrals would be welcome and exempt from taxes, provided they retained their own neutrality toward the campaigns of elected officials. The government also was to remain religiously neutral. This was the vision. It’s a good one, and we should all defend it mightily.

I have nothing against liberals or conservatives and generally feel various commenters on both sides have compelling arguments as often as asinine ones. Bill O’Reilly has said plenty of the later (arguably more so than the former), however, on March 26th, as the Supreme Court began the Prop 8 hearings, O’Reilly made a statement that was completely accurate:

“The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals. ‘We are Americans. We just want to be treated like everybody else.’ That is a compelling argument. And to deny that, you’ve got to have a very strong argument on the other side. And the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the bible.”

Though he made sure to follow up this statement by asserting that he is not a champion of gay rights but has “no strong feelings on either side” and wishes the issue to be left to the states to decide, O’Reilly’s acknowledgment that gay marriage opponents have run out of arguments is hardly contestable. If religion is the only argument, then what are we arguing about exactly? If there is no hard evidence to suggest that gays are causing a social detriment, that they rape and pillage when left to their own devices, then what exactly is there to debate on a political level? Religion, our Founding Fathers made sure of, has no place in government. And vice versa.

To further see why this debate is, quite frankly, un-American, one only needs to make a few gay friends. I have several, some Christian, some atheist, some agnostic, some short, some tall, all Americans, all fantastic people, all wanting to be treated with dignity and respect, and all quite sure that Lady Gaga is correct and they were in fact born this way. All people are free to interpret their religions in whatever makes sense to them personally. The only restriction is that they do not let their interpretation infringe on the rights of others. Religion is personal, deeply personal, and to some people it is exclusionary and provisional, to others it is open, welcoming, and a source of comfort and understanding. Religion is many things to many people, but what religion simply is not is a basis for social policy. Many (arguably most) religious people understand this.

To close the gay marriage argument, American society needs to begin working toward reframing it. Rather than seeing gay marriage as something supported by liberals, opposed by conservatives, and condemned by all Christians in an exclusively Christian nation, perhaps it is time that we instead all take a step back, look to our metaphorical right and left and then at ourselves and realize our societal molds are as wrong as our perceptions. Most of us, quite frankly, are moderates, both politically and religiously, and as such, none of us are really as far from each other on this or any issue as we perceive. Sure, the extremes will always exist, but if the rest of us can instead acknowledge that diversity has never been a bad thing, that disagreement never needs to destroy friendships any more than it destroys the fabric of society, then maybe we wont get so hot and bothered over issues that simply come down to matters of universal equality, not theological debates. Gays are not a threat to society any more than religious freedom is. Both have shaped a country that was founded on a principal that stipulates no one has to agree on anything but their fundamental right to respectfully disagree under a government that protects the equality of all.

To Bear Strong Children Willingly: How Oral Contraceptives Shaped the 21st Century

By Emily D. Irvine: 12-14-12

In 1960, modern medicine achieved a long awaited breakthrough that would fundamentally alter the course of women’s history. The final FDA approval and subsequent production of the birth control pill was the culmination of nearly fifty years of research and the answer to a need and demand as old as intercourse. The Pill was wrought with controversy long before it became a scientific reality, that controversy coming most strongly from religious organizations and men in political power. Though the Pill’s popularity has far outweighed its controversy in the fifty years that have transpired since its invention, opposition to the Pill remains in the same sectors that fought against it throughout the Twentieth Century. Despite unfounded and misguided opposition, a generation of use and relentless study have proven the benefits of hormonal birth control on women’s health extend far beyond the obvious empowerment and reproductive control afforded by its usage. Even without the truth of medical benefit beyond contraception to add legitimacy to usage the Pill, without it, advancements in women’s rights would be virtually non-existent as a steady increase in contraception use has correlated with a dramatic increase in educated and working women, both married and unmarried. The invention of the birth control pill is arguably the most significant catalyst in forwarding the movement toward women’s equality, a move impossible without first acknowledging and recognizing a woman’s right to be solely in charge of decisions regarding her body.

Though various forms of contraception with varying levels of effectiveness have existed as long as intercourse, it was in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries that methods as safe as they are effective began to emerge. In the United States, the medical and scientific community fought an uphill battle against American politics and the Catholic Church in the quest to give women complete power over their reproductive rights. In 1839, inventor Charles Goodyear discovered the means to vulcanize rubber leading the the mass manufacturing of the first rubber condoms and diaphragms, known then as “womb veils.” Immense popularity and accessibility of these devices over the coming decades was counteracted by Congress in 1873 with the passage of the Comstock Law, which declared contraception obscene and made the United States the only western nation to enact laws criminalizing birth control. Though developments continued in Europe toward improved barrier methods of contraception, such as Wilhelm Mensinga’s larger model cervical cap that would improve the diaphragm, as well as continued improvements to the condom in Great Britain, there existed no hormonal form of contraception (Timeline).

It was in 1912 that Margaret Sanger, a nurse in New York City and sixth child born to a poor Irish-Catholic family, first expressed the need for a “magic pill as easy to take as aspirin” that could be used to prevent pregnancy. Sanger became an avid lecturer and started a periodical entitled The Woman Rebel in which she made the radical statement that women should attempt to avoid pregnancy if they find themselves too ill or too poor to bear and raise children. In June of 1914, Sanger first used the term “birth control” and dared to publish it in The Woman Rebel, a step too far that lead to her being charged of nine violations under the Comstock Law. Sanger left the country to continue her work in England, returning in 1916 when the charges against her were dropped. She brazenly continued to fight for her cause, opening the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916. Her clinic remained open for a total of ten days before being raided and disbanded and all illegal condoms and diaphragms destroyed. In 1917, Sanger met Katherine McCormick, the wife of the heir to the International Harvester Company. Her husband, Stanley McCormick, suffered from schizophrenia, and Katherine was a strong supporter of birth control due to her refusal to have children should the disease prove hereditary. McCormick and Sanger formed a friendship and partnership with McCormick contributing a total of $2 million over the coming decades to the research that would ultimately lead to the invention of the magic pill Sanger dreamed of (Timeline).

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Margarete Sanger and Katherine McCormick 

In 1932, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published an article in The Nation in which she asserted her belief that the “unfit” should be sterilized, a common practice in the first half of the century, the “unfit” being the inhabitants of mental institutions (Knowles). Though such a belief is disturbing by Twenty-first Century standards, Gilman’s other beliefs on the benefits of birth control and the compelling social need for it echoed and reinforced the fight of women like Sanger and McCormick. Skewed social perceptions of forced sterilization aside, Gilman also believed in the right of women, who are significantly more effected by pregnancy than men, to decide when to avoid it. In a 1932 article entitled “Birth Control, Religion, and the Unfit,” Gilman, stated:

“Personal is the protest of the woman, who after all is more immediately concerned in the matter of birth than the man. Must she, if worn, exhausted, usually tortured, often killed in the process, bear children regardless of her own wish or ability, to the detriment of the entire family? Or may she choose, saying ” Not this year,” or “Not till we can afford it,” or “Six is enough”? Deepest of all is the interest of the child, who has a right to vigorous parents and a well-cared-for youth” (Gilman).

It was Gilman’s belief that producing children one cannot afford to feed is ultimately unfair to the child, and given the opportunity, most women would willingly and eagerly avoid pregnancy in the interest of providing better care for fewer children, a great benefit to the family as well as to society, limiting the number of families in poverty and the number of children ultimately made the responsibility of government funding. In 1932, Gilman composed a poem entitled “For Birth Control,” penning a work that would add artistic relevance to the cultural debate on contraception:

For Birth Control; for mothers free
To bear strong children willingly
And rear them well; not as before
Theirs and their children’s lives to pour
In needless death and misery.

Who stands against us? Those who see
Gain in unchecked fecundity —
Not better children — only more
No Birth Control

For mothers in whose power shall be
The lifting of humanity —
A world of improving more and more —
A world at peace from shore to shore —
This is the reason and the plea
For Birth Control.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman believed that those who saw “gain in unchecked fecundity” were of a religious persuasion, stating, “every religion believes itself to be the Truth, and warmly desires to increase its membership, not intelligence and ability being requisite, but numbers” (Gilman). Though Gilman’s extreme generalization unfairly assumes that all believers are extremists, patriarchal religious organizations, particularity the Catholic Church provided the strongest and most long-standing opposition to birth control, an opposition that continues to the present. In 1930, the Vatican made its first official statement on the use of contraception with Pope Pius XI stating in Casti Connubii that “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” With this statement, the Vatican solidified its position as being in opposition to the cause of contraception, justified by their position that the prime purpose of marriage is procreation. Pius XI also likely inspired Gilman’s position on the detrimental role of church sanctioned “unchecked fecundity” with his statement that Christian parents are called to not just produce children, but specifically, “children who are to become members of the Church of Christ, to raise up fellow-citizens of the Saints, and members of God’s household, that the worshippers of God and Our Savior may daily increase.” Though it is no great crime for any religion to desire its own increase, to do so at the expense of health and financial security leads to great social detriment. The Catholic Church’s insistence that reproduction go unchecked regardless of the economic or medical burdens of the woman and family led countless families, such as Margaret Sanger’s, to be reduced to a life of poverty. Pius XI had an answer to this too, stating “we are deeply touched by the sufferings of those parents who, in extreme want, experience great difficulty in rearing their children. However…there is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties…” Faith is powerful, but it is no basis for social policy, nor is it grounds for the hinderance of medical advancement. Pius XI words did nothing to stop the inevitable.

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Ultimately, it was a Catholic who was one half of the team that made oral contraception a reality. In 1931, Physician John Rock became the only Catholic to sign a petition aimed at ending Massachusetts’s overly strict anti-birth control law. The petition was denied, but Rock spent the next thirty years pursing medical developments aimed at treating infertility in women, but ultimately discovered the groundwork for the wonder drug that would temporarily produce the opposite effect. In the late 1940s, Rock was experimenting with the oral administration of estrogen and progesterone, reasoning that by using these hormones to artificially create a hormonal pseudo-pregnancy in infertile women, fertility could eventually be restored. What Rock found was that by creating a pseudo-pregnancy with these hormones, ovulation did not occur. During the same period, biologist Gregory Pincus extensively studied the effects of these same hormones on the ovulation of rabbits, coming to the same conclusions. Rock and Pincus compared results and Margaret Sanger, now in her seventies and founder of the Planned Parenthood Foundation of America, provided a grant for continued research. Katharine McCormick, now solely in charge of her late husband’s fortune, asked Sanger where funding for their decades long cause would be best spent, leading to a massive donation to Rock and Pincus. Clinical human trials began utilizing a combination of synthetic progesterone and estrogen. The first oral contraceptive was created in 1957, though only approved in the United States for the treatment of menstrual disorders. In 1961, Envoid® became the first FDA approved oral contraceptive. The “magic pill” Margaret Sanger envisioned in 1912 was invented (Dhont).

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The Pill has been continuously improved and studied for fifty years and is the first medication designed to be administered to a healthy person for an extended period of time and remains the most extensively studied drug in medical history with virtually unanimous support by medical professionals giving strong credibility to its safety and effectiveness (Knowles). There are now dozens of brands of oral contraceptive available all administering varying doses of progesterone and estrogen in the case of combination pills, or progesterone only. These hormones are naturally produced by the body during pregnancy and their artificial administration  halts ovulation by keeping the hormone levels in the body consistent with that of pregnancy. Progesterone also thickens the mucus of the cervix making the passage of sperm more difficult. Many religious organizations and social conservatives express opposition to the Pill and call its use “morally suspect” due to studies revealing that progesterone causes the uterine wall to thin, making the implantation of a fertilized egg more difficult. However, it needs to be understood that the Pill, by design and when used properly, does not allow ovulation, making the point largely irrelevant. Furthermore, implantation failure is common under normal circumstances as a woman’s uterine wall varies in thickness between natural ovulation and menstruation, and progesterone is produced by the body naturally. There is no evidence to suggest that Pill failure inhibits implantation at a rate any higher than the natural process. In a 2001 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, physician Susan J. Fisher states:

“Human reproduction entails a fundamental paradox: although it is critical to the survival of the species, the process is relatively inefficient. Only 50 to 60% of pregnancies advance beyond 20 weeks of gestation. Of the pregnancies that are lost, 75% represent a failure of implantation and are therefore not clinically recognized as pregnancies” (Fisher).

Fisher touches on a key point that blows a hole in a long standing argument that life begins at the point of conception. Medically speaking, a pregnancy is not officially recognized unless implantation occurs in the uterus, as a fertilized egg can only survive if it implants on the uterine wall. Eggs can implant in inhospitable places such as the fallopian tubes (where they will ultimately kill the mother if the ectopic pregnancy is not terminated) or fail to implant long enough to begin the  growth process, or simply fail to implant at all, all by means entirely natural. For the progesterone qualities in oral contraceptives to be considered abortifacient by those who maintain the point of conception is sacred, their rate of causing implantation failure would have to exceed the 50-60% natural failure. There is no evidence to suggest this is true. Statistics aside, The Pill is a virtually flawless form of birth control when used properly, and its failure is generally the fault of the user. The pills are generally administered in twenty-eight day regimens, though extended cycle regimens such as Seasonique® have recently become available. Regardless, pills must be taken every day and at the same time everyday. Missing a day and vast inconsistency in the time of day at which the Pill is taken are virtually the only reasons for its failure, aside from the use of some antibiotics which women are warned of upon prescription.  If the Pill fails and ovulation occurs, all statistical information suggests that a woman’s chance of pregnancy remains the same and depends on the same perfect combination of factors as natural process (Fisher).

Womens-march

The invention of oral contraception correlated with a rapid change in the social climate of the United States. The 1960s bore the Civil Right’s Movement as well as the Sexual Revolution, making it the decade in which women and minorities began to find their voice in numbers that could truly inspire social change.  In the 1940s and 1950s, the “nuclear family” was the foundation of American life. In post-war America, men worked for high end corporations that afforded them disposable income while their wives tended to the home, (which was owned and located in a desirable patch of suburbia), and raised children. Women came to embody the  stereotypical 50s housewife, not necessarily by choice but because other options were frowned upon by the pressures and expectations of post-war American society. Historian Susan L. Cohen states that in the year 1957, more than half of American women were married by age twenty and nine out of ten Americans viewed individuals who chose not to marry as “sick,” “neurotic,” or “immoral. By the year Envoid® was finally available, Cohen states:

“Only 8% of women were college graduates. Only 2% of law degrees, 4% of MBAs, and 6% of medical degrees were conferred on women. In the year President John F. Kennedy announced the nation would put a man on the moon, most young American women dreamed of marrying by age twenty-one, quitting work, and having four children” (Cohen).

By the 1960s, more daughters became college graduates who pursued careers before families while their mothers returned to work after their children left home. These freedoms were made largely possible by oral contraceptives, a drug that gave women complete sexual freedom and allowed them to consciously choose to defer motherhood without deferring becoming sexually active. Subsequently, the nuclear family of social construction dissolved in the mid 70s, partly due to a rise in educated and working women and partly out of necessity. The weak economy of the early to mid 70s made households with only one working parent impractical and unfeasible, with use of the Pill providing couples with a vital tool in limiting family size for financial reasons, a luxury Margaret Sanger dreamed of at the beginning of the century. The difference was by the 1970s, working women, be they single, married, or mothers, were socially acceptable and relatively common. The stigma was dissolving.

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The notion that women actually enjoy sex was made public knowledge in the 1960s and 1970s when unmarried women sought prescriptions for oral contraceptives. Access to the pill has forever changed the social perception of sex and made clear that girls are as sexually curious as boys and made this acceptable. A full generation later, it has also altered how mothers and daughters talk about sex. Teenage and young adult women in the 60s and 70s had access to oral contraceptives if they so chose without parental knowledge or consent, which statistics show they utilized. 80% of American women born since 1945 have used oral contraceptives at some point in their life. The teens of the 70s raised teens of their own in the last decade and while they themselves were raised by the conservative, largely uneducated housewives of the 40s and 50s, many mothers to the daughters of the Millennium Generation are actively and supportively involved in their daughters’ sexual decisions. Having experienced acquiring oral contraceptives in secrecy, they wish for their daughters the very openness and opportunity they either passively or actively fought for during the Sexual Revolution and Second Wave feminist movement. Gynecologist Paula Adams Hillard has observed this trend, stating, “In my practice, I see many adolescents; I see most of them with their mothers. As I have grown as a clinician, I have come to recognize the importance of fostering healthy communication between mothers and daughters.” This new style of parenting, where sexual health and decisions are treated as normal parts of life has led to a more sexually aware generation, one knowledgeable about the risks involved in unsafe sexual behavior and what “unsafe” sex constitutes. By being raised by the generation that welcomed the first oral contraceptives, today’s teen girls have open and accepting access to a drug that gives them the freedom to make their own sexual decisions without the risks of becoming a teen mother. Adams Hillard rightly states, “the pill has evolved from a revolutionary new pharmacologic development into an assumption of modern life and health”(Adams Hillard).

Over the last fifty years, oral contraceptives have been as widely studied as much as they have been widely used, emerging as a drug with benefits that range far beyond the intended use, though like any drug, they are not without risks. Birth control pills have one rare potentially life threatening side effect, and that is an increased risk of deep vein thrombosis. This is a rare occurrence with most instances involving women with other risk factors such as smoking. Most women are warned of this risk upon prescription and informed of the warning signs, and by FDA mandate, the information sheet contained in every pack of birth control pills informs of the risks and signs of DVT. Aside from this risk, the other side effects of birth control pills mostly fall into the category of irritating, not dangerous. Nausea, especially in the first few months, is the most common and a result of the hormone changes brought on by the pill that mimic pregnancy. Essentially, nausea common at the onset of pill use is morning sickness, and like morning sickness, it tends to go away after time. Pill use correlates with a slightly elevated risk of cervical cancer, though it is unlikely that the Pill itself is directly responsible. Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is classified as a sexually transmitted infection. The National Cancer Institute believes the correlation between Pill use and cervical cancer to be a result of the obvious fact that Pill users are more sexually active individuals, not caused by the Pill alone. Though STIs are nothing new, the AIDS crises of the 1980s was a wake up call to the possible downsides of sexual liberation and the need for safe sexual practices. With the advent of the Pill, pregnancy is no longer the biggest consequence of sex and STIs have risen to the spotlight. Though all individuals should be free to make their own sexual decisions, education on safe sex practices remains of the utmost importance. American culture has undoubtedly modified its view of sex and attempted to rise to the challenge, though room for improvements remain (Knowles).

Most physicians agree that the benefits of oral contraceptives far outweigh the risks. Pill use correlates with a decrease in ovarian and endometrial cancers (Oral). The Pill is also widely used to treat various menstrual disorders as it makes periods lighter and more regular. It has been used to treat iron deficiency anemia, polycystic ovarian syndrome,  and it protects against bone thinning and pelvic inflammatory disease. Cosmetic benefits of Pill use include most notably acne treatment, balancing the hormonal changes in adolescence that lead to breakouts. The Pill also often has an effect on breast size and growth, a purely trivial side effect that is not so positive for the feminist movement, but none the less one many women (and their partners) appreciate (Birth, Dhont).

Perhaps the most compelling social benefit to birth control is its effect on abortion rates. The right to an abortion remains an intensely polarizing issue in American politics, and though the advocates for a woman’s right to choose believe the issue should be personal and not political, everyone is fairly unanimously in agreement that reducing the need for abortions is in the best interest of everyone, even if there remains disagreement on how best to accomplish this. From 2007 to 2011, the Washington University School of Medicine conducted a study involving nearly 9,300 women between ages fourteen and forty-five. The participants were provided with free hormonal contraception, either birth control pills or intra uterine devices (IUDs). The researches split the study to provide statistics of age and race and found participants had 4.4 to 7.7 abortions per 1,000 women. When compared to overall national average of 19.6 abortions per 1,000 women, it becomes indisputable that hormonal contraception methods have a dramatic effect on abortion rates. The problem is, the women in the study, many of whom were poor and uninsured, were given their contraception for free. Birth control pills are available by prescription only, and IUDs as well as other hormonal methods of contraception, such as patches and shots, require a physician for administration. Despite all of the health and social benefits, hormonal contraception methods remain out of reach for many of the poorest women in the country (Waxman).

Reproductive-rights

In the noble and necessary quest to make the most effective forms of contraception available to all women, regardless of economic standing, there are two options: government funding, or over the counter sales. In a country strapped for government funds, as well as religiously divided on the issue, the American Congress Of Gynecology and many physicians and women’s groups are pushing for over-the-counter sales of oral contraceptives. Such a move would not require tax payer responsibility, removing conflict of interest towards funding, as well as make the Pill available to any woman who wants it for any reason but lacks the insurance coverage for a doctor’s visit or prescription medications. Gynecologist Malcolm Potts has studied the Pill since the 1960s and presents a compelling argument for over the counter sales:

“One simple solution to today’s birth control battles would be to sell the pill over the counter. The epidemiological data on pill safety are now so compelling that it seems likely the Food and Drug Administration would go along with such a proposal. The dose does not have to be adjusted to fit the user, and no one — not even a toddler who found her mom’s pills — has ever died from an overdose. An over-the-counter pill packet would need to carry some clear warnings: Women over the age of 35 who smoke should not use the pill, and those who are hypertensive or diabetic should seek the advice of a health professional. But many nonprescription drugs carry similar warnings. The category of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, to which aspirin and ibuprofen belong, is associated with 16,000 deaths a year, while the pill actually causes users to live slightly longer than average. The wider availability of the pill would help those who lack insurance or can’t afford to go to a doctor. Today, poor women have three times as many unintended pregnancies as wealthier women” (Potts).

According to Potts, despite the non-insured cost sometimes breaching $100 a month, generic birth control pills can easily be sold for $8 a pack while still providing huge profit for the manufacturer. Stated in such simple terms, it seems remarkable that a prescription is still needed. Potts has an answer for the reason birth control pills remain locked away behind the pharmacy counter: “Commercial greed and a strong patriarchal streak in American politics.” It seems absurd that fifty years after the invention of the birth control pill, after the Sexual Revolution, the Second Wave of feminism and a continued rise in educated and working women that now results is a virtually even gender split in both departments that modern American politics could still be accused of patriarchy. Absurd it may be, but patriarchy is indeed alive and well in American politics.

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In 2012, Georgetown University Law School graduate Sandra Fluke rose to prominence in the media spotlight over her eloquent remarks surrounding improved insurance coverage for contraception. Three conservative men became outspoken in their opposition to her opinion. Fluke was invited to speak at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in February, her purpose to state, as an educated young woman and member of the American public, why she felt President Obama’s contraception rule was necessary and the compelling need for better insurance coverage of birth control for millions of young women like her. She was however barred from speaking by Chairmen Darrell Issa, who claimed she was not appropriate or qualified as a speaker on the topic. Fluke was not there to give any sort of authoritative medical opinion on contraception, nor was she there to demand government funding for her birth control. She was there to state the experiences of herself and a close friend who were denied coverage for contraception through Georgetown University’s student insurance plan as it is a Jesuit school and does provide such coverage, even as needed by medical necessity.  Fluke was later invited to speak before the Democratic National Convention, and in September, Rep. Joe Walsh responded to Fluke’s  remarks, stating:“Think about this, a 31-32 year old law student who has been a student for life, who gets up there in front of a national audience and tells the American people, ‘I want America to pay for my contraceptives. You’re kidding me. Go get a job. Go get a job Sandra Fluke.” As shockingly offensive as Walsh’s remarks may be, they pale in comparison to the crowning jewel of idiocy that surfaced in response to Fluke’s speeches and assertions. Rush Limbaugh chimed in, using his usual charm to state:

“It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex” (Gentilviso).

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Though Chairman Issa’s refusal to let Fluke speak as a representative of American women is disappointing, it is the remarks of Walsh and Limbaugh that highlight the overwhelming streak of patriarchy that still dominates American politics and culture nearly a century after women’s suffrage. It is easy to try and write off these men as anomalies, simply abhorrently outspoken bad examples who render themselves so asinine with their remarks that they do not deserve the breath wasted to condemn them. Unfortunately, such an approach forgets that, though Rep. Walsh thankfully lost his bid for reelection in November of 2012, he was originally elected by the people of Illinois to represent them to the American people. Meanwhile, despite his remarks, Talkers Magazine named Rush Limbaugh the #1 Talk Show host in the United States for the year 2012, citing his success to his, “uncanny ability to deliver unique insight into current events and a profound element of showmanship into a program that simply connected with listeners” (2012).

Fluke published a response to Rep. Walsh’s comments in the Huffington Post, correcting his erroneous accusations of her intent with the same eloquence with which she stated her points before Congress. She stated:

“I testified before members of congress not because ‘I wanted the American people to pay for my contraception,’ but because I wanted the private insurance that women pay for themselves to cover the contraception they need. I was there to tell, not my own, but the story of a close friend who, despite paying her deductible, lost an ovary when she was unable to afford the contraception her insurance failed to cover, but that she needed to treat her polycystic ovarian syndrome” (Fluke).

Fluke went on to quote a survey by Hart Research Associates that discovered 55% of women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four have difficulty affording contraception, be it intended to prevent unwanted pregnancies or to treat any number of underlying medical conditions. She also reported a statistic by the Center for American Progress that reports contraception can cost women upwards of $1,210 a year. Representative Walsh also called Fluke’s supposed cry for the government to pay for her birth control heartless when so many Americans can’t make their mortgage payments and stating “[The Democratic Party] are going to put a woman in front of us who is complaining that the country — you, me and you — won’t pay the $9 per month to pay for her contraceptives” (Gentilviso). This statement highlights Walsh’s complete inability to understand Fluke’s statements. $9 a month is a good deductible, what women fortunate enough to have good insurance that covers their contraception may pay. These women are the lucky the ones, and Fluke’s plea was for all insured women to be so lucky.

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In the year 2012, Sandra Fluke was forbidden to speak, called a slut and a prostitute, negatively told she is a lifetime student for graduating law school at the age of thirty, and told to get a job, all for asserting that women deserve affordable access to contraception through their private insurance in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies and treat potentially life threatening medical conditions. She was called heartless for her beliefs in bettering the lives of women, and had her words appallingly misconstrued by an elected member of the House of Representatives and the #1 talk show host in America. This is the state of American politics regarding contraception in the year 2012.

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As the Twenty-first Century is on its way, we celebrate one-hundred years since the birth control pill became an idea, and fifty years since its invention. We have watched it shape our society as a medical advancement that is good for our health as well as allowed it to become a symbol of equality and sexual liberation. And yet, we have far to go in the ongoing journey to unravel the patriarchy that remains a great flaw in the American political system. None the less, the many advancements towards equality in the second half of the Twentieth Century were not in vain, and the wide use and medical acceptance of the birth control pill remains a monumental achievement and catalyst to some the biggest advancements to gender equality. Over the next fifty years, the pill is sure to continue shaping American society, continue to aid in the sexual liberation of women of all ages, and perhaps with a much needed change in policy, its availability can reduce and possibly and put an end to the epidemics of unwanted and unplanned pregnancy. The very existence of the birth control pill stands as a testament to the determination of women like Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, women who refused to allow a patriarchal society to determine their rights. One-hundred years later, women like Sandra Fluke are continuing their fight, boldly stating that all women have the same rights to sex as men, and that involves safe and affordable access to the medical advancements that give them complete control over what can be one of life’s greatest rewards as much as it can be the biggest of life altering consequences, before left almost entirely up to chance. In no uncertain terms, the invention of the birth control pill heralded a generation shaped by female choice.

Works Cited

“2012 Heavy Hundred.” Www.talkers.com. Talkers Magazine, 2012. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. http:// http://www.talkers.com/heavy-hundred/.

Adams Hillard, Paula. Mothers, Daughters, and the Pill. Discovery Service for CSU, Chico. Family Planning Perspectives, Apr. 2000. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.

“Birth Control Pill FAQ.” Www.anog.org. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2012. http://www.acog.org/~/media/For %20Patients/ faq021.pdf?dmc=1&ts=20121208T0638243049.

Cohen, Nancy L. Introduction. Delirium: How the Sexual Counter Revolution Is Polarizing America. N.p.: Counterpoint, 2012. N. pag. Alternet.org. Web. <http:// http://www.alternet.org/story/153969/how_the_sexual_revolution_changed_america_forever?   page=0%2C0>.

Dhont, Marc. “History of Oral Contraception.” The European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Healthcare (2010).  Discovery Service for CSU, Chico. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.

Fisher, Susan J. “Implantation and the Survival of Early Pregnancy.” New England Journal of Medicine (2001):  Www.nejm.org. Web.

Fluke, Sandra. “We’re Not ‘The Entitlement Generation'” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sandra-fluke/sandra-fluke-joe-walsh_b_1876782.html?utm_hp_ref=womens-health&gt;.

Gentilviso, Chris. “Joe Walsh Slams Sandra Fluke On Contraception Issue: ‘Go Get A Job’ (VIDEO).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 08 Sept. 2012. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/08/joe-walsh-sandra-fluke_n_1867469.html&gt;.

Knowles, Jon. “A History of Birth Control Methods.” Www.plannedparenthood.org. Katharine Dexter McCormick Library, 2002. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

“Oral Contraceptives and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute. National Institutes of Health, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/oral- contraceptives>.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “Birth Control, Religion and the Unfit.” The Nation. N.p., 27 Jan. 1932. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.thenation.com/article/154433/birth-control- religion-and-unfit>.

Pius XI. “Casti Connubii.” Address. St. Peter’s, Rome. 31 Dec. 1930. The Vatican. Web. 08 Nov. 2012. <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p- xi_enc_31121930_casti-connubii_en.html>.

Potts, Malcolm. “A Contraception Game-changer.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 20 Feb. 2012. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/20/opinion/la-oe-potts-the-pill-revisited-20120220&gt;.

“Timeline: The Pill.” PBS.com. PBS, n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/timeline/index.html&gt;.

Waxman, Olivia B. “Study: Free Birth Control Slashes Abortion Rates | TIME.com.” Time. Time, 5 Oct. 2012. Web. Dec. 2012. <http://healthland.time.com/2012/10/05/study-free-birth-control-significantly-cuts-abortion-rates/&gt;.

An Unlimited Scope of Study

By Emily D. Irvine: 12-20-12

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Though I am an avid reader, I find my “to-do list” in terms of which novels demand my attention is stuck in 19th Century England. In my quest to read every “classic” I missed by virtue of of my late 20th Century birth, I find myself forgetting that great modern literature does indeed exists, and also comes from authors and countries that are not England. My senior year of college is now half over, and as my chosen major is English Literature, it stands to reason that the beautifully timeless and tragic novels of the Victorian period, not to mention the even more so timeless and tragic works of the English Renaissance have featured heavily in my studies. As much as I adore the fact that my bookshelves are positively buckling under the weight of Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters, to be given the opportunity to read modern, multicultural literature over the past few months has been a welcomed diversion from the past few centuries of British fiction.

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I read the fiction of past centuries as a way of learning about and understanding the lives of people who shaped a time period that in turn shaped the age I live in. My reading interests have always seemed most heavily rooted in the past, something I have decided needs to change. In reading five modern, multicultural novels, I have come to find that I have expanded my knowledge on the lives of people who live now, but have lived very differently from myself. It is true that the best way to learn about someone, about their culture and about their lives, is to talk to them directly, or better yet accompany them to the streets that shaped their formative years within the borders of the land from whence they came. However, the second best way to learn is to read their story.

I began my cultural adventures with two memoirs by two very different immigrants to the shores of my country. As works of nonfiction, Funny in Farsi by Iranian born Firoozeh Dumas and East Eats West by Vietnam born Andrew Lam, present the raw, honest perspective of two people whose lives were completely altered midway through their childhoods, both having to learn to reconcile the culture of their birth with western ways.  Both ultimately place huge value on education.

For Firoozeh Dumas, education in the country of her birth would have been hard to come by. Her father, Kazem, a Fullbright Scholar, moved his family from Iran to California in the hope that his daughter could experience the education denied to his sister. Kazem’s love of learning knows no gender, contrary to the stereotypical beliefs of his heritage, and Dumas recount his declaration that, “you, Firoozeh, will go to a university…. I don’t care if you do nothing with your college diploma, but you will have one!” (101). Ultimately earning a diploma in English and using it to tell her story, Dumas’ memoir resonates heavily with me, proof that language is the most powerful tool we have in the quest to understand each other. Funny in Farsi is as hilarious as it is poignant, a heartfelt tale of growing up between two cultures, yet the things that transcend cultural differences, such as the love of family and the dream of equal opportunity.

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Like Firoozeh Dumas, Andrew Lam found his bliss in literature, a passion found after earning a degree in biochemistry. Lam credits American opportunity as being the sole reason for his chance to explore the self directed path of creative writing that ultimately led to his successful career as a journalist, stating, “I seriously doubt, were we still in Vietnam, even if the South had won the war and communism were in retreat, even if my family had retained our upper-class status, that I would have veered toward a self-directed path. If I mourned the loss of my homeland, I was also glad that I became an American” (45). Most people have tremendous love for the country that bore them, even if they ultimately leave it. Lam’s sentiments show the line an immigrant walks, often equal love for their first and second homes. The education Lam received in the UnitesStateswas one that allows for a future driven entirely by one’s interests rather than the promise of wealth. Here, one may be able to make a “better” living at biochemistry and engineering, but a living can be made with a literature degree.

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Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist radically transitions from equal pride in two home countries. Unashamedly controversial, Hamid’s novel tells the story of Changez, a fictional man from Pakistan, who after being educated at Princeton and securing a job at an American corporation located in New York City, returns home after facing unbearable discrimination in the aftermath of September 11th. Though it is perhaps the most uncomfortable novel I have ever read,The Reluctant Fundamentalist does not exist solely for the purpose of being sensational and “anti-American,” a conclusion one can easily come to simply by glancing at the cover. That said, it is a book that requires an intense amount of critical thinking and open mindedness for an American reader to stomach. In light of the subject matter, finding redeeming qualities in a protagonist who smiles at the “symbolism” of the fallen World Trade Center and returns to Pakistan to teach anti-American sentiments to students is difficult, something the reader does not want to do. And yet, the fact that we do not want to think about it is what makes this book ultimately worth the exhausting journey that it is. It is the product of an author simply stepping up to a metaphorical podium as an average citizen of a country given precious little voice and saying, “we are here too.” Rather that penning an easy story in which a fictional Pakistani protagonist vehemently condemns everyone who hates America, Hamid instead gives due credit to the complexity of human emotions, that all decent people do indeed condemn the loss of human life and are therefore saddened by the 9/11 tragedy, but that doesn’t mean they are required to have a love affair with America, nor does it require them to sit back and take it when, out of understandable fear, Americans generalize those they perceive to be their enemies. This is not a novel that falls into the category of “pleasure reading” and is easily one of the most morally challenging things I have ever read. But I am exceedingly glad to have read it, to have allowed it to require me to think very deeply about subjects that I would have presumed were better left unthought.

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On the topic of complex human emotions, A Human Being Died that Night by South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is perhaps the most emotionally draining and spiritually uplifting work of non-fiction I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Recounting the horrors of the apartheid era in South Africa through the testimonies that emerged during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, Pumla’s memoir explores the power of forgiveness in the face of the unforgivable and tells the testimony of a country that has worked tirelessly to bring peace and unity where both seem impossible. Pumla extensively interviewed Eugene de Kock, a former police commissioner serving multiple life sentences for his unspeakable crimes against humanity, one of the few not granted amnesty in the name of reconciliation. Pumla explores everything from the nature of evil and power, to the fragility of oppressed groups through a lifetime of fear, to the need to forgive. Formerly a country divided by political motives enforced through senseless and brutal violence, South Africa emerged as an example of a bloodless change in policy, a change that seems impossible. Pumla states, “The question is no longer whether victims can forgive ‘evildoers’ but whether we – our symbols, language, and politics, our legal, media, and academic institutions – are creating the conditions that encourage alternatives to revenge” (118). Pumla’s book is filled with such statements, declarations that demand us to fully examine ourselves and suggest that the most human parts of us are the parts that allow us to abandon natural instinct by abandoning revenge and hatred, even when revenge and hatred are most due.

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After such heavy material, Haruki Murakami’s surreal collection of short stories entitled The Elephant Vanishes felt like an even more extreme departure from reality than it already is. Surrealism comes in varying degrees of ridiculous (and I mean that in the best possible sense) with Murakami’s brand in this collection falling into the category of “things best read by insomniacs at 3 a.m..” As I happen to be an insomniac who frequently reads at 3 a.m. when my brain tends to make anything surreal, this book was in some ways, a sensory overload, and in others a welcomed escape from literature that fits any type of conceivable mold. Murakami’s style lends itself less to cultural expression and more to universal appeal. Though most of the stories are centered in the metropolis ofTokyo,most could conceivably be set in any metropolis with only small nuances present to reveal the true cultural setting – dinner eaten with chopsticks, for example. In this way, Murakami’s short stories are not so much about expressing clear pride in a cultural identity but about expressing a universality in the trails of life, with love and loneliness taking center stage.

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Reading itself appears to be a tragically dying pass time, and with the loss of reading comes the loss of one of our greatest sources of cultural understanding. Multicultural literature crosses oceans and political boundaries giving us invaluable insights into the lives of people we will never meet. All literature also transcends time, freezing in place events that, in the grand scheme of things, only embody an instant of historical time, things such as South Africa’s period of reconciliation, 9/11, or the Vietnam War. By being born in one place, by only inhabiting the Earth for a few meager decades, we all miss so much. With a passport, we can cross political boundaries and see much, but only that which exists in the present, and the present is the most fleeting of all periods. Through literature, we can experience and understand that which physical limitations make impossible. With such a wealth of knowledge at our disposal, anyone would be exceeding foolish to limit their scope of study.

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Seeking Forgiveness in the Legacy of Apartheid: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s “A Human Being Died That Night”

By Emily D. Irvine: 11-4-12

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Human history is lined with acts of evil, individuals who have appeared to void their human status in the pursuit of power and a skewed perception of righteousness. With varying degrees of world outrage, human rights violators – Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Sadaam Hussein, –  have come to represent the epitome of evil, people who used the support of the governments that backed them to shape the world for worse. In A Human Being Died That Night, Pumla Gobodo- Madikizela discusses the moral complications surrounding Eugene de Kock, an incarcerated former South African Police commissioner during the horrors of the apartheid era, a man who has come to be known as “Prime Evil” by the people his actions touched. Pumla presents evil committed with political motivations as a different kind of evil, one that not only seizes people differently but a type of evil  that it is essential to try and understand if their respective societies are to successfully move on. She asks if forgiveness is possible for people who commit unspeakable crimes agains humanity while acting on behalf of their governments, and if such forgiveness is powerful enough to heal a society shaped by a violently segregated past.

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South African professor, psychologist, and author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela 

South Africa finds itself in a unique position. Though violence, bloodshed, and loss of life permeated the country’s narrative throughout the twentieth century, a fact that cannot be ignored, the switch to democracy and the renouncing of an apartheid government happened without war, the potential “bloodbath that never happened” as Pumla described it at a UCSB Capps Center lecture in 2004. In this same lecture, Pumla addresses the necessity of forgiveness in a society pursuing a peaceful existence after this specific type of conflict, stating: “Societies like South Africa and Rwanda, for example, have found it is more constructive to focus on creating and  nurturing the conditions that make forgiveness first conceivable, then ultimately possible. In these two societies, the language of reconciliation and restorative justice has defined and continued to define the process of dealing with the past.”

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Images of apartheid.

Restorative justice is a concept that could quite conceivably bring world peace if it could be properly executed on a global scale. The obvious difficulty in this concept is it requires those who have been wronged in the worst conceivable ways to not only forgive those who have wronged them, but be satisfied with seeing them endure a punishment that could never fit their crime as true revenge is counter productive and true justice is impossible to define when the crime involves the egregious loss of life. Such an ability seems superhuman, our own intrinsic natures seemingly wired to desire revenge over reconciliation. But Pumla shows us with absolute clarity that it is humanly possibly to forgive the unforgivable.

 One of Eugene de Kock’s many crimes involves the calculated death of three black policemen, whereby de Kock, as a police commissioner, orchestrated the construction of a car bomb that could be detonated remotely. He sent three black officers on a false mission in the car the bomb was placed in, these black officers “crime” being that they “threatened to expose their white colleagues’ involvement in the mysterious death of four black [anti-apartheid] activists” (13). The bomb was detonated as planned and the three officers (plus a seemingly civilian friend in the car with them) were killed. After the collapse of the apartheid government and de Kock’s trial for his many involvements of this sort, he appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Pumla herself served on. Before the TRC, de Kock asked to speak to the widows of  the  men he killed, to  apologize to them. Not only did two of the widows agree to the meeting, but they forgave him. Pumla interviewed both women after their encounter with de Kock and recounts that Pearl Faku stated she was “profoundly touched by him… I couldn’t control my tears. I could hear him, but I was overwhelmed by emotion, and I was just nodding, as a way of saying yes, I forgive you. I hope that when he sees our tears, he knows that they are not only tears for our husbands, but tears for him as well…. I would like to hold him by the hand and show him that there is a future, and the he can still change” (14-15). Pumla herself is shocked by this act of empathy and the widow’s ability to shed tears for de Kock’s own loss of moral humanity. She questions if de Kock is deserving of this level of forgiveness, if those who commit atrocities of this sort deserve to be given the opportunity to express remorse and asks if de Kock was “too evil –Prime Evil– to be  worthy  of  the  forgiveness Mrs.Faku  and  Mrs. Mgoduka had offered him?” (15).

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Prime Evil

 At UC Santa Barbara, Pumla expanded on this notion of what constitutes an unforgivable act and how far forgiveness can be stretched to encompass the perpetrators of unspeakable acts of violence. She states that “there may be some deeds for which the language of apology and forgiveness may be entirely inappropriate, however, to exclude all horrible acts committed with a political motive from the realm of the forgivable does not capture the complexities of the social contexts within which gross evil occurs.” In this sense, Pumla expresses that acts of evil fall into different categories, something that, as a psychologist, she could naturally form an educated and experience based opinion on. The acts of a classic, anti-social, Hannibal Lector style serial killer are not driven by the same motivations as the actions of someone like Eugene de Kock,whocommittedhis atrocities in  a  skewed political environment. A Hannibal Lector is separated from society and society will eventually eliminate him, writing him off as an anomaly. Eugene de Kock operated within the accepted confines of a particular society at a particular time. His actions were not abnormal in the eyes of the government, for hewas the government. For him to be held accountable, the government had to change. And it did. Pumla by no means excuses de Kock for his actions, rather illuminates that actions can be called deplorable, but if the government does not call them illegal and administer the proper punishment, then those who uphold the social constructions have entered a grey area, a place where moral fiber becomes effectively subjective even if morals themselves remain absolute in even the most backward of societies.

Apartheid will forever be a damned spot in the narrative of human history, a reminder of the pain and suffering we are capable of inflicting upon each other though government sanctioned violence. Those who can find the power to forgive the perpetrators of atrocities effectively put an end to the “eye for an eye” mentality that halts social progress, bettering social conditions by accepting that there exists no perfect solution in light of human rights violations. Whether or not Eugene de Kock is genuine in his remorse, whether or not he is deserving of the forgiveness shown to him is only relevant for him as an individual. But if we look at de Kock as representative of an institution, as nothing more than a face representing the Prime Evil legacy that is apartheid, then forgiveness is not intrinsically linked to his personal revelations of remorse.Inthis case, forgiveness  is  a  form of closure benefitting the victim far more than the perpetrator, an act of closure that expresses life must go on and healing must be allowed to occur regardless of whether or not those who inflicted the pain are remorseful. Harboring hatred for men like de Kock will only continue to give them power over society by halting the emotional restoration and reconciliation of the people they tried so desperately to keep apart. Forgiveness brings unity, a human connection between the perpetrators and victims of inhuman acts and is the gateway to a peaceful, integrated, restored society.

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“Pretoria was a city filled with too many of apartheid’s symbols…. Pretoria was the heart and soul of apartheid and I had no desire to set foot there. But now…eight years later, Pretoria symbolized something new. It was the city where Nelson Mandela had been inaugurated as the first president of a democratic South Africa” (2). 

Works Cited

Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. “A Human Being Died That Night: A South Africa Story.” Lecture. Walter H. Capps Center, Santa Barbara. May 2004. 31 Jan. 2008. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1-01dPT1bk&gt;.

Polarizing: Love and Hate and Chick-Fil-A

By Emily D. Irvine: 9-6-12

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Cherry flavored ice cream. The Iraq War. The Twilight series. Hybrid cars. Barak Obama. Global Warming. Gay marriage… The unlimited list of things people find polarizing, issues, objects and concepts with no middle ground in the public perception. There is only love or hate, for or against, no room for open mindedness, no chance for change or reconciliation of beliefs. To this list, add Chick-Fil-A.

Not in recent memory has a fast food restaurant so dramatically gained its fifteen minutes of fame. One comment by a founder unearths a company history of donations to a polarizing cause. The verbal endorsement by one conservative politician leads to an unofficial holiday honoring an corporation for its founder’s “courage”. Millions of conservatives flock like moths to a flame to purchase a meal in the name of “freedom of speech,” the right of everyone to speak their mind against the rights of others. The irony is too much to bear.

Does Chick-Fil-A have a right to, as a corporation, show support to organizations who seek to destroy the rights of others? Yes. As much right as anyone with $6 and an appetite has to eat there. But to call this a defense of “freedom of speech” is a gross miscalculation. Rewind the chain of events leading up to Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day, examine where the company has unabashedly made clear where your money is going, and what this restaurant’s patrons are defending is the perpetuation of prejudice against a segregated group of people. The right to make statements like Dan Cathy’s is not in question, rather the ethics and morals of such a viewpoint. To do business with Chick-Fil-A on the grounds of the defense of freedom of speech is to say “but only MY freedom of speech and those who agree with me.”

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Those who support the chain have claimed that it never refuses employment on the basis of sexual orientation and never discriminates against gay customers. I am sure this is true as the former is illegal and the later is poor business sense. But I ask you to imagine this scenario. I am a woman, and women before me have worked for hundreds to years to ensure that I have a fighting chance for equality in the business world. Though women with more power and courage than myself have managed companies and run countries, there are still plenty of people in this supposedly progressive country that believe women to be secondary to men, and ironically, the majority of these people are believers in “traditional family values,” Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day’s largest body of clientele. Imagine you are a woman and the founder of the corporation you worked for stated he believed in traditional family values, including the importance of women staying home with their children, her abilities best suited in her own kitchen rather than a restaurant’s. But he still hired women, because by law he has to, and still lets them buy his food for their family rather than making them dinner themselves. What if the CEO said he felt black people were untrustworthy due to their involvement in crimes. How would you feel as a female or black employee or customer of this company? A customer can obviously cease to be one, personally boycotting the chain and taking their hard earned money elsewhere. But what about an employee, an employee who, in this economy cannot risk to seek employment elsewhere. Imagine a hardworking gay employee of Chick-Fil-A in the coming months. Perhaps he or she is passed over for a promotion, or perchance a coworker receives a raise instead. How is this working American supposed to react? Would they be delusional to wonder if their exclusion had nothing to do with merit and everything to do with the companies beliefs? What is there to make this individual feel valued at the company they work for, to inspire them to work harder? Dan Cathy’s statements and his company’s actions are legal. No crime has been committed by this company, no business malpractice. But just because actions are legal does not make them ethical.

From this moment henceforth, I refuse to give Chick-Fil-A my business in defense of freedom of speech and in defense of a non-hostile work environment. I believe in equal rights for all, women, people of all colors, and those of all sexual orientations. I believe the merits of an individual are determined by their contributions to society and the compassion they show others. I believe a family is defined by the amount of love shared between its members, not the archaic and stagnant definition Chick-Fil-A and its proud customers are choosing to perpetuate under the guise of “freedom of speech.” I do believe in their right to speak as much as I believe in their right to exist in the box of a “traditional” family. Though personally, I choose to speak for diversity and hope for a world where diversity of belief can still allow room for acceptance of those we differ from. I choose to fight for a country where love between two people is never publicly silenced by the legality of its definition, for there is already enough shortage of love in the world. I choose not to support a corporation known to strike down these values with the money they earn. I support their right to, but they will never receive my financial help in doing so.

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