Thursday, December 31, 2009

Margaret Sanger, birth control, eugenics

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow on Margaret Sanger, from The Nation.

In March 1914, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly produced out of her apartment. At this stage she advocated contraception for feminist reasons but also as part of an anticapitalist agenda: Workers, in her view, were multiplying too fruitfully, thus cheapening their labor; birth control offered a weapon for the revolution. In the first issue she wrote, "Woman is enslaved by the world machine, by sex conventions, by motherhood and its present necessary child-rearing, by wage-slavery, by middle-class morality, by customs, laws and superstitions"...

In October 1916 Sanger opened a clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, again testing the law. Hundreds of women, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, flocked there to receive birth control information and instruction. In a newspaper interview, Sanger boasted, "You can hear them calling from house to house in the congested district, 'Oh, Mrs. Rosenbaum, you ought to see this; this is something fine!'" But after ten days, the police shut the clinic down and arrested Sanger and her colleagues. Sanger spent several weeks in prison, but the sacrifice paid off: The case resulted in a court decision that contraception could be prescribed by doctors in New York State for general health reasons, not just for the prevention of venereal disease. This court decision, and the tremendous national attention generated through Sanger's sensational tactics, were major victories. Sanger's radicalism advanced her cause at this stage, although as she shifted to a more moderate approach, she tried to distance herself from these roots....

Although Sanger's arguments centered on the rights of women to be emancipated from conscripted motherhood, broader social ideologies were always present as well. Initially anticapitalist, she later adopted eugenic reasoning; later still, during the Depression, she insisted that birth control for the poor would solve the economy's problems. The common thread was that fewer children were better than more--a reasonable opinion with problematic implications.

Her primary exposure was to the masses of women who desperately wanted to control their family size. She received a constant stream of letters thanking her and soliciting advice, and answered many of them personally and with care. "You must not look upon this relationship as if you were a bad girl," she wrote to one young woman distraught over the premarital loss of her virginity. But presumably Sanger never received letters from the "unfit" reporting the tragedies that resulted from eugenic policies of forced sterilization. Her own views on the "dysgenic" are chilling. In a speech called "My Way to Peace" (she considered birth control the antidote to war, to boot), she advocated "a stern and rigid policy of sterilization" in order to control the reproduction of "morons, mental defectives, epileptics."

She did not regard the poor as inherently "unfit"--after all, she herself came from a poor family. She believed access to birth control would enable the working classes to provide for and nurture their children; lower quantity would mean higher quality. And in a milieu where racism was common, she frowned on prejudice in her clients and won the admiration of W.E.B. Du Bois for her work with the black community. But she believed that certain traits, such as epilepsy, mental retardation and physical disabilities, should disqualify people from reproducing. In 1934, in response to a questionnaire for the Yale News, she wrote of the new Nazi sterilization laws for the "unfit" (which were based on the proposals of American eugenicists): "If by 'unfit' is meant the physical or mental defects of a human being, that is an admirable gesture but if 'unfit' refers to races or religions, then that is another matter which I frankly deplore." (Sanger later helped a number of Jews escape from Europe by promising them work in the States.)

Sanger's concept of worthwhile life, then, was ruthlessly narrow, and she readily disregarded the rights of certain people. Also, she naïvely failed to see that oppression easily leaks beyond porous barriers. In Nazi Germany, the sterilization laws she admired--explicitly directed at the mentally retarded, schizophrenic and comparable classes--were, of course, soon turned against the Jews and other ethnic groups.

In the United States, involuntary sterilization was also scandalously widespread. In 1927 the practice received the blessing of the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell, which upheld the compulsory sterilization of a poor young mother, Carrie Buck, who was deemed "feeble-minded." The laws technically applied to the "feeble-minded" and other pseudo-scientifically designated "dysgenic" sorts. But in practice, the victims of involuntary sterilization--and there were tens of thousands of them, over the course of decades--were simply poor women and girls, disproportionately black, Puerto Rican and Native American...

The conflation of eugenics and reproductive rights has a different context. New genetic technologies herald the arrival of a "new eugenics," allowing the creation of "designer babies." The original eugenics was a misguided utopian scheme gone disastrously awry, all too typical of its time; the sequel, appropriately for ours, is about consumer choice. In both cases, threats lurk among the apparent promises: This time, unfettered use of enhancement technologies could lead to starkly deepened inequalities and disconcerting control over human evolution...

The conflation of eugenics and reproductive rights has resurfaced, however, in a different context. New genetic technologies herald the arrival of a "new eugenics," allowing the creation of "designer babies." The original eugenics was a misguided utopian scheme gone disastrously awry, all too typical of its time; the sequel, appropriately for ours, is about consumer choice. In both cases, threats lurk among the apparent promises: This time, unfettered use of enhancement technologies could lead to starkly deepened inequalities and disconcerting control over human evolution.

"Lay off men": Doris Lessing

Lay off men, Lessing tells feminists:
Novelist condemns female culture that revels in humiliating other sex

by Fiachra Gibbons, The Guardian, August 14, 2001

The novelist Doris Lessing yesterday claimed that men were the new silent victims in the sex war, "continually demeaned and insulted" by women without a whimper of protest.

Lessing, who became a feminist icon with the books The Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook, said a "lazy and insidious" culture had taken hold within feminism that revelled in flailing men.

Young boys were being weighed down with guilt about the crimes of their sex, she told the Edinburgh book festival, while energy which could be used to get proper child care was being dissipated in the pointless humiliation of men.

"I find myself increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed," the 81-year-old Persian-born writer said yesterday.

"Great things have been achieved through feminism. We now have pretty much equality at least on the pay and opportunities front, though almost nothing has been done on child care, the real liberation.

"We have many wonderful, clever, powerful women everywhere, but what is happening to men? Why did this have to be at the cost of men?

"I was in a class of nine- and 10-year-olds, girls and boys, and this young woman was telling these kids that the reason for wars was the innately violent nature of men.

"You could see the little girls, fat with complacency and conceit while the little boys sat there crumpled, apologising for their existence, thinking this was going to be the pattern of their lives."

Lessing said the teacher tried to "catch my eye, thinking I would approve of this rubbish".

She added: "This kind of thing is happening in schools all over the place and no one says a thing.

"It has become a kind of religion that you can't criticise because then you become a traitor to the great cause, which I am not.

"It is time we began to ask who are these women who continually rubbish men. The most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man and no one protests.

"Men seem to be so cowed that they can't fight back, and it is time they did."

Lessing claimed that much of the "great energy" whipped up by feminism had "been lost in hot air and fine words when we should have been concentrating on changing laws.

"We have got the pay but only real equality comes when child care is sorted out and it hasn't been yet, well not for those who really need it anyway"...

J-Setting: Beyoncé revises Madonna

For now, this post on J-Setting will have to serve as a kind of place-holder. Beyoncé famously used J-Setting in her "Single Ladies" video. Another black gay dance style, this one, Southern, brought--for a moment--into the mainstream.

The March 2009 issue of Vibe has a longer and very useful piece on J-Setting, but it's not available on the web, and the links to Southern Voices on the Rod 2.0 Beta post are...down. More later, hopefully. But here's a teaser.

J-Setting, according to Vibe, originated at Mississippi's Jackson State, with the Prancing Jaycettes, the female dance line of JSU's marching band. In 1970, the Jaycettes (later, Jaysettes), abandoned their batons and began dancing in formation, but keeping their signature moves.

In 1997, DeMorris Adams joined the JSU as a baton twirler, the first male to do so. So developed the male, and eventually gay, cross-over...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"The Domestic Gulag"

Excerpt from Lura Kipnis' Against Love: A Polemic. Harpers Magazine, Oct. 2003, pp. 15-18.

Excerpt from the excerpt:

You can't leave the house without saying where you're going...You can't make plans without consulting the other persons, particularly not for evenings and weekends...You can't leave the dishes for later..You can't not notice whether the house is neat or messy...You can't leave the toilet seat up...You can't leave female-hygiene products out...You can't sleep late if the other person has to get up early...You can't watch soap operas without getting made fun of...Your best friends can't call after ten...You can't have your own bank account...You can't analyze the cinematography in a movie that they were emotional about...You can't not 'communicate your feelings.' Except when those feelings are critical, which they should not be.

Thus is love obtained.

"Either/Or: Sports, sex, and the case of Caster Semenya"

Very interesting article about gender indeterminacy, by Ariel Levy, in The New Yorker, Nov. 30 2009.

In normal human development, when a zygote has XY, or male, chromosomes, the SRY—sex-determining region Y—gene on the Y chromosome “instructs” the zygote’s protogonads to develop as testes, rather than as ovaries. The testes then produce testosterone, which issues a second set of developmental instructions: for a scrotal sac to develop and for the testes to descend into it, for a penis to grow, and so on. But the process can get derailed. A person can be born with one ovary and one testicle. The SRY gene can end up on an X chromosome. A person with a penis who thinks he is male can one day find out that he has a uterus and ovaries. “Then, there is chromosomal variability that is invisible,” Anne Fausto-Sterling, the author of “Sexing the Body,” told me. “You could go your whole life and never know.”

All sorts of things can happen, and do. An embryo that is chromosomally male but suffers from an enzyme deficiency that partially prevents it from “reading” testosterone can develop into a baby who appears female. Then, at puberty, the person’s testes will produce a rush of hormones and this time the body won’t need the enzyme (called 5-alpha-reductase) to successfully read the testosterone. The little girl will start to become hairier and more muscular. Her voice may deepen, and her testes may descend into what she thought were her labia. Her clitoris will grow into something like a penis. Is she still a girl? Was she ever?

If a chromosomally male embryo has androgen-insensitivity syndrome, or A.I.S., the cells’ receptors for testosterone, an androgen, are deaf to the testosterone’s instructions, and will thus develop the default external sexual characteristics of a female. An individual with androgen-insensitivity syndrome has XY chromosomes, a vagina, and undescended testes, but her body develops without the ability to respond to the testosterone it produces. In fact, people with complete A.I.S. are less able to process testosterone than average women. Consequently, they tend to have exceptionally “smooth-skinned bodies with rounded hips and breasts and long limbs,” Dreger writes in “Hermaphrodites.”

People with incomplete A.I.S., on the other hand, could end up looking and sounding like Caster Semenya. Their bodies hear some of the instructions that the testosterone inside them is issuing. But that does not necessarily mean that they would have an athletic advantage.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Skinny male models emerge as the prototype (winter '07-'08)

From "The Vanishing Point," by Guy Trebay, New York Times, Thursday Styles, Feb. 7, 2008. (Thanks, Stephen.) Read the entire article here. Be sure to check out the slide show. (Photo: Karl Prouse/Catwalking/Getty Images.)

The last line quoted below may be the most significant.

Where the masculine ideal of as recently as 2000 was a buff 6-footer with six-pack abs, the man of the moment is an urchin, a wraith or an underfed runt...

Wasn’t it just a short time ago that the industry was up in arms about skinny models? Little over a year ago, in Spain, designers were commanded to choose models based on a healthy body mass index...The models in question were women, and it’s safe to say that they remain as waiflike as ever. But something occurred while no one was looking. Somebody shrunk the men...

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans are taller and much heavier today than 40 years ago. The report, released in 2002, showed that the average height of adult American men has increased to 5-9 ½ in 2002 from just over 5-8 in 1960. The average weight of the same adult man had risen dramatically, to 191 pounds from 166.3.

Nowadays a model that weighed in at 191 pounds, no matter how handsome, would be turned away from most agencies or else sent to a fat farm...

In terms of image, the current preference is for beauty that is not fully evolved.

[Model Demián] Tkach said that when he came here from Mexico, where he had been working: “My agency asked me to lose some muscle. I lost a little bit to help them, because I understand the designers are not looking for a male image anymore. They’re looking for some kind of androgyne.”

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Muxe: a 'third sex' in Oaxaca, Mexico

The local Zapotec people have made room for a third category, which they call “muxes” (pronounced MOO-shays) — men who consider themselves women and live in a socially sanctioned netherworld between the two genders...Not all muxes express their identities the same way. Some dress as women and take hormones to change their bodies. Others favor male clothes. What they share is that the community accepts them; many in it believe that muxes have special intellectual and artistic gifts.

Every November, muxes inundate the town for a grand ball that attracts local men, women and children as well as outsiders. A queen is selected; the mayor crowns her...Muxes are found in all walks of life in Juchitán, but most take on traditional female roles — selling in the market, embroidering traditional garments, cooking at home. Some also become sex workers, selling their services to men.

Excerpted from "A Lifestyle Distinct: The Muxe of Mexico," by Marc Lacey, New York Times, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008. Go here for the full article and the not-to-be-missed slide show. Here's a sample (photo: Katie Orlinsky.)

NYT caption: "Beth-Sua enjoys a smoke at a vela in Oaxaca City. She traveled there from the Isthmus to represent her city’s muxes. Beth-Sua, born as Octavio, is a local organizer and H.I.V.-AIDS activist. She makes a living embroidering huipiles, the traditional blouse of the Isthmus region."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gay kissing in public: still (very) taboo

I'm posting this almost three years after the original publication, but it's still relevant. And will no doubt remain relevant for some time. From the New York Times Sunday Styles section, Feb. 18, 2007. Entitled "A Kiss Too Far?" (photo, Rahav Segev).

"Why is it that behavioral latitudes permit couples of one sort to indulge freely in public displays lusty enough to suggest short-term motel stays, while entire populations, albeit minority ones, live real-time versions of the early motion picture Hays Code: a peck on the cheek in public, one foot squarely planted on the floor?"