Friday, April 6, 2012

Fifty Shades of Backsliding

from HBO's Game of Thrones

Over the past few days, I've been having an interesting discussion, both on and off a private book discussion thread on GoodReads. A young woman who used to be a member of a book discussion board I ran for several years innocently asked if anyone was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I guess she's pretty sorry at this point that she ever mentioned it, a fact which I kind of regret. But only kind of. (She denies that, btw, just now as I started writing this post, she posted a sweet reply in the discussion thread saying the conversation has been interesting and informative to her.) The discussion has definitely helped to frame and clarify in my mind some of the various feelings I've been having about the "War on Women" in my country in this election year. On my private Facebook page, as well as my Bright Nepenthe Facebook page, I've been posting steadily about some of the truly egregious erosion of women's rights going on in conservative states in this country. How does that tie in with Amazon's current #1 Besteller in Books? Let me tell you.

I first started hearing about the book several weeks ago. All I knew about it was that it was supposed to be an erotic romance that deals with BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism).  I didn't know much more than that, but I then started hearing that it was apparently being targeted to a female young adult audience because the author's work grew out of fanfiction inspired by the Twilight series, (a series of books for which I bear no love whatsoever for giving my daughter and her peers a passive heroine, Bella Swan, who looks for and latches onto the weird, dominating and paranormal guys, one of whom becomes her sole purpose in life, which, oh, by the way, she loses, becoming his immortal love and wife at the tender age of 18 and why would she need to go to college, etc. See here for more criticism.) Anyway, something about the idea of Fifty Shades of Grey bothered me. What bothered me has been crystallized by two things. First, there was Maureen Dowd's blistering column on the book and it's implications. And then the young woman mentioned above writing that she'd heard it was the "next hot trilogy", possibly in reference to our group's shared love of the Hunger Games trilogy, which in contrast involves a heroine who takes the lottery-selected place of her younger sister in a battle-to the-death, gladiator-type event mandated by her government to punish its citizens. But something tells me that young, virtuous and clever Katniss Everdeen, who refuses to submit to pretty much anything including tyranny and the threat of her own death, is very different, no doubt, from young, virtuous and not so clever Anastasia Steel (surname irony?), who after graduating college (yay!) signs a contract with dashing billionaire Christian Grey, giving him complete control over her life, person and body, becoming his submissive, sharing his "Red Room of Pain." (On the plus side, Christian reportedly gives her safe words, like Yellow (caution!) and Red (stop!), but more on that later.) BTW, I'm not the first to envision this comparison.

First, don't get me wrong here. I have no problem with the BDSM aspect between consenting adults. I have friends who are into BDSM (yes, I do, people) and who find it exciting and fulfilling. They are adults, older, and whatever they get out of it, it's their private life. Ironically, two of them are quite politically vocal and one is really politically active. I don't know or care whether they are dominant, submissive or whatever. Their private business. But I do really care about the hype and power of these books, which I don't think are a simple symbol of sexuality and freedom at all. No, I pretty much went postal in my discussion about the idea of putting forward money to purchase this book and the power that its being a bestseller gives to the idea that these fictional women are no longer just passive, but submissive. The idea of promoting women being submissive (even in fantasyland) at this juncture, here in the US, is very troubling to me. It's been interesting to explore why I feel that way with my bookish friends. Several friends in this discussion group are from other countries. One's in New Zealand, one in Scotland, one in Australia, and one, a Saudi national, is currently living in Switzerland. Meanwhile, I've got friends in other countries still, like Norway, Sweden and Germany, for example, who are just flabbergasted when they see the stuff I'm posting on my Facebook pages these days. One Iranian friend, and the Aussie friend mentioned above, pointed out it was easier and more affordable to get birth control in Iran than it is in the USA! But in general, women friends from around the world are incredulous at what's going on here in the US.

For instance, let's look at a proposed bill in Arizona that would allow employers to fire women who want to use birth control for contraception because that conflicts with the employers religious beliefs. The bill would mandate that employers could gain full access to an employee's medical records (how that doesn't violate HIPAA, I have no idea) and that if the employee refused (like, saying hey, there's this federal law that makes that info private info and I'm not giving it up) the employer can fire them. It also gives the employer the right to just refuse them insurance coverage for contraception to prevent pregnancy, or, if they're not happy that the woman now won't be able to get pregnant if she's having naughty sex while she's being treated for endometriosis or ovarian cysts, hey, they can still just refuse to pay, because contraception is wrong! As Cynical Nymph said to me, isn't it kind of troubling that in the eyes of these employers, it's okay that a woman could get the pill for her acne but not in order to prevent a pregnancy if she isn't ready to start or expand her family? Hello? The Arizona  ACLU has had a field day with this issue. The Arizona House of Representatives passed the bill but the Arizona Senate, especially after some very vocal remarks against it by US Senator John McCain among others, voted it down. But it's already been promoted for a revote (no date yet). Only two more votes are needed to pass this awful bill.

The issue of women and contraception has received a huge amount of media time in recent weeks, in no small part due to Sandra Fluke's brave and wonderful testimony before Congress after first being turned away, and the subsequent attacks aimed at her by Rush Limbaugh, who, without even knowing that her testimony was about a friend losing an ovary because she was unable to afford contraception prescribed for her ovarian problems, called Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a prostitute who needed birth control because she was "having so much sex  she can't afford the contraception" (certainly suggesting more than a bit of ignorance about how birth control even works!) and suggested that she ought to make video footage of herself having sex available to everyone, including especially him. (Interesting that he's scrubbed his comments from his website... Think we'll forget them, Rush? Think again.)

One of my friends has expressed amazement at the extent of the gender wage gap here in the US, which currently, according to the 2010 census, sites that a woman makes only $0.77 for every $1.00 made by a man in the same profession. And yet, a recently released National Bureau of Economic Research paper cites contraception as one of the leading factors closing the wage gap. Hmmm, you know that whole "barefoot and pregnant" thing could really make the gender gap irrelevant if women would just get out of the work place and stay at home, wouldn't it? Only, as Jezebel pointed out just today, denying women contraception and the subsequent costs of all those pregnancies and C-sections (unless we're going to legislate against those, too?) and all the lost work and parental paid leave time might really make the economy take a hit, you know? Yes, and contraceptive coverage translates to lower healthcare costs. Read it here, on Bloomberg. So why do we have politicians like Mitt Romney saying we need to get rid of Planned Parenthood, which is the largest provider of contraception to poor and disadvantaged women in the US? Why are Republicans trying to make it so hard for women to plan families so they avoid abortions? They say that Americans should work hard to get out of poverty. How are women supposed to do that if they can't easily obtain contraception or if their employer could fire them for using it for the wrong reasons?

But there's so, so, so much more heinous stuff out there.

As if the mandate of enduring a transvaginal ultrasound being performed (even on rape victims or pregnant children) in order to receive an abortion in Texas or Virginia isn't bad enough (other ultrasound mandate states are listed at the Guttmacher Foundation, or forthcoming ultrasound legislation at Mother Jones), or Kansas proposing charging a huge sales tax (even to rape and incest victims or to women bearing a fetus with genetic defects) on abortions, which of course aren't covered by Medicaid, your own insurance or any state funding for family planning, weren't enough of an assault on a woman's right to choice, there's the "knowing something's wrong" factor. One way to make sure a woman doesn't seek an abortion is to make sure she doesn't hear anything that might make her want one.

In Arizona and Oklahoma there are already enacted laws, making it legal for a gynecologist/obstetrician to not reveal anything wrong with a woman's pregnancy that might cause her to seek an abortion. You know, after all, fetal defects are God's will, as are maternal complications like eclampsia. (Because, hey, that baby is way more important than the mother, even if that mother has other children who are already here and need her or her husband loves her more than a potential child. Daddy can always get a new mommy for those chickadees!) A discussion of Arizona's shiny new law, from the ethics of the medical malpractice standpoint, can be found here. Both Kansas and Arizona have tried to move swiftly on these types of laws. Kansas is seeking similar legislation that, in one version, actually mandates that doctors not inform women of problems with their pregnancy and additionally mandates doctors to inform women that abortions can cause breast cancer, which isn't even true. (Actually Kansas is just a crucible of anti-woman and anti-choice legislation right now. The Trust Women PAC has a great summary of the stuff going on there, including, for instance, passing a law that allows doctors to refuse to make referrals, or Miami County in Kansas becoming the first county to disallow funding of contraception distribution in its family planning program [because hey, the last thing you want to do in preventing abortions is prevent conception!], or possible threats to the accreditation of the University of Kansas Medical School because of their teaching gynecology and obstetric students how to perform abortions as part of the curriculum.) The issue of wrongful birth/wrongful life is a difficult one. If a doctor makes a mistake or doesn't urge you to terminate the pregnancy of a defective fetus after telling you it's defective, should he be held liable? But what if the doctor doesn't believe in abortion personally and just doesn't want to tell you something is wrong with you or your baby? Should we indemnify doctors who simply don't want to tell their patients the truth? The central point to me here is what these laws are doing to erode the doctor-parent relationship and trust in that relationship and what they are doing to women's right to honest information about their health and body. Whether a doctor or a patient is pro-life or pro-choice, all women have a right to full and honest information, about their body, about their pregnancy and about the state of their fetus. As Cara Batema at puts it, laws such as these permit doctors to put their personal values above their patients' welfare.

Then there are the women's privacy issues. Of course, there's that issue of your employer being able to look at your medical records and reasons for using contraception in Arizona that still might pass. But what about Tennessee wanting to publish all the information about a woman's abortion other than her name. (Great if you lived in a small town, where someone could figure out that you had an abortion from the information published.) The bill was withdrawn after much contention but is being reformulated. The reason for its withdrawal dealt mostly with the Tennessee Medical Association's concern about the safety of doctors performing abortions if their names were published. Oklahoma tried to do the same thing in 2009 but the law was blocked after passage, by legal injunction. Tennessee was evidently sure the concept can be tweaked a bit and maybe women will tire of fighting for their rights on so very many fronts. 

By the way, Arizona now also wants to tell you when your pregnancy started. No matter what that mandated-by-law ultrasound (that maybe you didn't want to have) says, your pregnancy started at the date of your last menstrual period according to pending legislation in Arizona. That means the 20 week limit for an abortion is now cut to 18 weeks. Too bad if your amniocentesis showed that familial genetic disorder you were so worried about took too long to get back. (Could you even trust your doctor to tell you the results?) God wanted your baby to have Tay-Sach's Disease or Down's Syndrome and he wants you to have the baby, whether you can handle it or not. Really, he does. And if you can't afford to have a baby with a serious problem, hey, you shouldn't have been fooling around with your spouse like that. An Italian friend, from my grad school years, lives and works at a tenured job in Arizona. She has two young daughters and I wonder about the state they will shortly be coming to adulthood in. What other rights will they lose over their health and reproductive lives?

And, to make the current environment for women in this country even more supportive, recently the legislatures in some states have had this livestock thing going on. For instance, in February, a bill, The Ultrasound Opportunity Act, coming out of the Illinois State House Agriculture (yes, you read that right) Committee mandated ultrasounds and viewing of the imagery for women seeking abortions, and the women had to sign documentation about refusal to have an ultrasound if they refused. Angry constituents showed up at a House hearing of the bill wearing "Women Are Not Livestock" t-shirts. And then Illinois State Representative Kelly Cassidy motioned for an amendment to the bill that requires men who want to receive prescriptions for Viagra to watch a graphic video about the complications of using Viagra. Said Cassidy: "If they’re serious about us not being about to make our own health care decisions, then I’m just as serious about them not being able to make theirs.” This bill is tied up in the Rules Committee currently, no doubt because a lot of male representatives don't want to watch a bunch of penises getting injected because of priaprism and learn about all potential complications of that treatment, like necrosis of penile tissue, if there's anyway around it. 

And then there is Georgia State Representative Terry England's failing to sympathize with women who have the devastating experience of losing their fetus late in their pregnancy. Even terminating the pregnancy in the instance of a dead fetus is out of the question in his mind. Said England: “Life gives us many experiences…I’ve had the experience of delivering calves, dead and alive. Delivering pigs, dead or alive. It breaks our hearts to see those animals not make it.” That's right Terry, it breaks our hearts to have dead babies inside us, just waiting for them to come out the natural way and hoping we don't become septic before that happens. Georgia's bill, banning abortions beyond 20 weeks, even in the instance of rape and incest, finally passed with an exclusion for medically futile pregnancies (irreversible chromosomal or congenital anomaly that is incompatible with sustaining life after birth) and, oh my gosh, are those Georgia girls cherished! in the case the of the mother's life or health are threatened. (Suicidal and mentally ill women, you're out of luck, though...)

Again, as with the contraception issue and the way Sandra Fluke was treated, the doctor telling his patients the truth issue, the real point here is women's rights to  truth, to have control over their bodies and the way these men, like Terry England and Rush Limbaugh, think and speak about women who want to make choices about their bodies, their lives, their healthcare and their children. To call a woman testifying before congress about the desire for more affordable birth control and easy access to it in a Catholic institution a slut and a prostitute, to compare a woman suffering a fetus dying inside her and having to just wait until it is expelled, to pigs and cows- this is how things are for women in America? It's a disgrace and not one that women with any sense should tolerate. Republican, Independent or Democrat, pro-life or pro-choice, all women deserve the truth, deserve respect and deserve the right to make their own healthcare choices without government interference in their medical care. That's what liberty is really about about, what Alice Paul and Betty Friedan and Pauli Murray and Shirley Chisolm and Gloria Steinem fought so hard for. They wanted liberty for all, not liberty for some.

Laela Zaidi, a savvy teen from Missouri, sees the lay of the land- the environment in which women's rights to contraception and reproductive choices is eroding:

"As a female and member of a younger generation, it is not only discouraging, but actually frightening to see what is happening across the nation." 

I applaud her interest in public policy and women's rights. Many young women, including my own daughter, who is in pharmacy graduate school, are often too busy to pay attention to some of what's been going on in this country. Although, last fall, my daughter expressed concern to me about hearing that some pharmacists refuse to fill emergency contraception prescriptions (the so-called Plan B) because they interfere with conception. Isn't that the whole point of the medication, to prevent the possibility of need for an abortion, she asked me? I haven't asked her yet about her thoughts on Kansas' proposed legislation that would give pharmacists an out on dispensing contraception at all. (A number of other states, including my own state of Florida, already have laws with broad language covering the moral objection to dispensing any contraceptive or even contraceptive devices.) 

I understand how busy many young women are establishing themselves or still gathering their education and that sometimes they want to escape into a titillating world of fantasy. They have grown up and reached adulthood in a world in which all they have ever known is that women have equal rights, and the right to a voice and choice. They (hopefully not falsely) assume those rights will be there for them when it comes time for them to plan their families and have careers and have a say. These are rights that were hard fought for by my mother's generation, enjoyed by mine and which are now eroding for my daughter's.

My 16 year old son is angry that I'm writing critically about a book that I haven't read in complaining that Fifty Shades of Grey is promoting an erotic fantasy of submissiveness. (A good friend says it's promoting the Republican dream!) He says it's quite out of character for me (it really is, he's right) and that it's wrong of me. I see his point, but also see that I don't want to put a single dollar into the revenue stream for this item, even by resale. Perhaps when the young woman who kindled this conversation is done with her copy, I'll borrow it, so I'll have a chance to read what I'm criticizing. She says that she doubts a book like that can influence her thinking. I do think that what we read influences us, whether we want to admit it, or not, though. And so, I want the young women around me, all women around me, to be like Katniss Everdeen, or Daenerys Targaryen. To be acutely aware, and to fight for their rights.

All I can say about even fantasizing about being submissive in these times is RED.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2012

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