Inclusion is the Core of My “Radical” Feminist Agenda

I’m tall, I’m a natural blonde, and I have green eyes. I’m also anywhere from “pleasantly plump” to “obese whale” depending on your scale of things, and I’m invisibly disabled. Needless to say, I receive a lot of comments about my body, both directly and indirectly, on a daily basis, and am frequently reminded of how I am–or am not–valued on the basis of what my body looks like and what it can or cannot do. I “should” be thinner, healthier, ignore the people who think I should be thinner, healthier; I “should” embrace who I am, change who I am, be a ‘better’ version of who I am, achieve health at any size-the list goes on, and on, and it often seems and feels like everyone has, and feels comfortable, voicing their opinion on what my body should look like and be capable of.

Would there be any less pressure if I wasn’t fat? After all, some people might want to argue that the comments come because of my weight, and the fact that I am so close to “the ideal” for a woman (tall, blonde, fair) that if I could get get thin, it’d all be fine.

Well, Cassey Ho’s recent “The ‘Perfect’ Body” video should put that idea to rest:

And if I were thin, I think it’s safe to say that the so-called “radical feminists” would simply say that being a thin, tall, blonde, fair woman is merely contorting myself to a body approved by a patriarchal/porn culture, and criticize me for that, as well. I suppose I might get “points back” for being disabled, but who knows.

Are you getting the idea that I can’t win? Because if I can’t win–if I can’t be my normal hair colour, my normal eye colour, my normal skin colour, all of which are considered damned near ideal for way too much of the world, and thin or fat or anywhere in between-then how is anyone else supposed to win?

Playboy (yes, really) takes this on in their post on Laverne Cox’s nude photo for Allure and the frankly ugly response from “radical feminist” Megan Murphy. To quote Noah Berlatsky, author of the Playboy piece,

Murphy reacted to the photo just as Cox suggests that people often react to black and trans women — with disgust, prejudice and horror. In a short but impressively cruel post, Murphy sneers at Cox for attempting to achieve a “‘perfect’ body as defined by a patriarchal/porn culture, through plastic surgery, and then presenting it as a sexualized object for public consumption.”

She scoffs at the idea that trans women who take hormones or have surgery are accepting themselves. Murphy suggests that trans women are “spending thousands and thousands of dollars sculpting their bodies in order to look like some cartoonish version of ‘woman,’ as defined by the porn industry and pop culture.

My first thought, reading both Berlatsky and Murphy, is that this comes down to a question of how we define self. Berlatsky, along with most who support trans folks, seems to accept the idea that “who we are” can be a mismatch; your internal notion of self doesn’t match your external representation. For Murphy, it appears that you’re supposed to merely integrate the internal and external, and that if your internal notion of self doesn’t match your external being, that’s the fault of society for placing unrealistic notions on the external being.

Now, this notion of social expectation shaping external being is definitely accurate–if the mismatch you experience is what society tells you your external self should be and what your external self actually is. But where Murphy and most “radical feminists” seem to fall down is comprehending that there’s another option here, the one that trans folk fall in to, where your internal notion of self doesn’t match the assigned external self. When that happens, it’s not enough to say “ignore society” because the dissonance isn’t coming from society; there can, after all, be strong, physical differences between genders that have nothing to do with society and everything to do with biology.1 emp_v_obj-finalSociety might embrace fashion that emphasizes child-bearing hips, for example, but society doesn’t create those child-bearing hips. That’s biology.

But my first thought was a bit too shallow, on reflection. While this is all certainly true-Murphy and her ilk are simply not capable of dealing with the nuance of what it means on a base level to be trans-what it actually comes down to isn’t that, at all. What it comes down to is “radical feminists” not understanding the difference between sexual empowerment and sexual objectification. Which, to be fair, is a difficult concept to understand–but I don’t think I’m totally out of line to say “if you’re going to write critiques about bodies and empowerment, you’d best know what you’re talking about, first.”

I find that the cartoon by Ronnie Ritchie, posted by Everyday Feminism, really nicely captures the necessary nuance of power dichotomies (see right).

My problem with the “radical feminists” is pretty simple, and it’s neatly illustrated by the above response to Cox and a lack of understanding agency and consent: they’re drawing such a tiny, tight boundary around what it means to be feminist, that most people fail. Perhaps even more damning, that tight boundary contains body policing–something that most feminists, one hopes, would tell you is decidedly anti-feminist.

I place “radical feminist” in quotation marks because I don’t actually think they’re radical or feminist. I think that, for the most part, they’re scared women who are trying to define themselves in a way that maximizes their own power, and they do that by trying to keep it to themselves rather than share it liberally–another hallmark of what I think feminism should be about. In fact, I think that along with trusting adults to their own agency, about the most radical thing any feminist can do is include everyone.


Paternalism, Procedure, Precedent: The Ethics of Using Unproven Therapies in an Ebola Outbreak

The WHO medical ethics panel convened Monday to discuss the ethics of using experimental treatments for Ebola in West African nations affected by the disease. I am relieved to note that this morning they released their unanimous recommendation: “it is ethical to offer unproven interventions with as yet unknown efficacy and adverse effects, as potential treatment or prevention.” WHOsOnFirstThere are, of course, the common caveats about ethical criteria guiding the interventions, but ultimately the recommendation has saved me from a tortured “WHO’s on first”-style commentary.For other commentary on the committee composition, see Udo Schuklenk’s short, sweet, and to the point commentary; you can also read his reaction to their statement here. I’m sure we all appreciate that.

But just because the WHO recommendation follows what I’ve been arguing for the last 10-odd days doesn’t mean that the argument is actually over. In fact, as far as I can tell, it’s just getting worse, where worse should be interpreted to mean “even more people coming out of the woodwork to argue about ethics when they don’t have any familiarity with ethics.” Granted, Twitter is full of sample bias, but still. It is for this reason that I think it’s still important to post this statement on the ethics of providing unproven interventions that my husband (a real life bioethicist) and I worked on last week. We were side-tracked by needing to actually verify the science behind ZMapp, as well as the additional hands-throwing-up of hearing that ZMapp was provided for a Spanish priest after various US public officials stated there was none left to give.After it was confirmed that the Spanish priest received ZMapp, also discussions about disparate treatment of people from the Developed vs Developing World.Again, to clarify: This was finished on Saturday afternoon. Obviously, in that time frame, we have learned that a third Westerner was given ZMapp, it was released to two West African doctors, and WHO’s medical ethicspanel convened and–pleasantly–reached the same conclusion we did. This is merely a more detailed argument for the release of unproven interventions. [Cross-posted at The Broken Spoke.]


Paternalism, Procedure, Precedent
The Ethics of Using Unproven Therapies in an Ebola Outbreak

A “secret serum.” A vaccine. A cure. A miracle. With the announcement of the use of ZMapp to treat two Americans sick with the Ebola virus with apparently no ill effect, the hum and buzz on social media, commentary websites, and even the 24/7 news cycle, has become one of “should the serum be given to Africa? Will it?” The question has dominated for more than a week, and become something that the World Health Organization feels it needs to address by convening a panel of medical ethics experts to offer an analysis of what should be done.

And the general question about untested cures/vaccines in the event of a disease pandemic is an important one; there are already guidelines for what kind of treatments can and will be made available during a flu pandemic, and it seems quite sensible that a guideline be developed for all potential pandemic pathogens. However, it isn’t a question that is relevant in the current context, because we are already past that.

While people may be stating “should the serum be made available?” that’s not the question being asked.
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Pre-Postshow, A Quick Explanation of Induction and Black Swans

A black swan from Vacha reservoir, Bulgaria. By Kiril Krastev.

A black swan from Vacha reservoir, Bulgaria. By Kiril Krastev.

Thanks so much to my guest, Dr. Janet Stemwedel, for chatting over a much-too-short hour about philosophy of science, science, knowledge generation, Commander Data and more. I’m having audio issues tonight with playback, so I’ll get a post-show recap with links up Thursday morning. Until then, here’s a link to Janet’s website, and a link to the recording of the show.

…so why is there a picture of a black swan illustrating this? It’s a phrase I used when Janet and I were talking about Karl Popper, deduction, and induction. I hand-waved at the black swan philosophical problem, which is a problem of induction that illustrates the role both our ignorance about what we don’t know and our own biases play in shaping the questions that we ask and the answers we assume are right. The concept of a black swan is old (Juvenal references one), but until 1697, European countries used the metaphor of a black swan to indicate something that did not exist (‘all swans are white’ being a “well-known truth”).

Why until 1697?

Because in 1697, Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered black swans, in Australia.

Virtually Speaking Science: Science, Philosophy and STEM

VSSTonight on Virtually Speaking Science, I’ll be talking to Dr. Janet Stemwedel about the role of philosophy in science, philosophy of science, STEM, and knowing us, probably ethics and values and so forth.

The conversation topic was sparked by the recent Neil deGrasse Tyson comments on philosophy and science; my response to that can be seen here.

Tweet questions ahead of time to me or my producer, Sherry Reson, or ask during the show with the hashtag #AskVS. Join us! 5pm PT/8pm ET.

Contraception: The “acceptable” medical need vs “just” recreational baby prevention debate

Have you ever had that experience where you’re walking along and someone tries to hand you a religious tract, and you smile politely and say no thank you and try to keep going, but they reach out again and for whatever reason you stop, and then the following conversation happens?

“Can I tell you about Jesus?”
“Thanks, but I’m a Buddhist.”
“But have you heard the word of our lord and saviour?”
“Actually, I was raised Catholic, so–”
“Oh but that’s not a REAL Christian, let me tell you–”

And then you have to break whatever it was that made you stop, feel rude, and just walk away, because you realize that no matter what you say or do, they’re going to keep pressing because no answer but the one they want to hear is good enough?

FP_Contraceptives_225x200I often feel like that about birth control.

Almost inevitably, if the topic of birth control comes up, someone will come along to tell you that there are some really unacceptable risks to whatever birth control you’re talking about, but have you thought about these other, better birth control options? And of course, hopefully the person being this imposing is a friend (but let’s be honest, it generally isn’t) and you smile and say yes, thanks, and go back to your conversation except you’re interrupted again. “But have you tried…” and the well-meaning person goes through every birth control option they find acceptable.

In my case, since I’m utilizing a hormonal birth control (the Mirena IUS), whomever is acting critic will start asking about non-hormonal options. Sometimes, I’m nice and I’ll play along. “Yes, nasty contact dermatitis makes it not fun. Yes, with that, too. No, I don’t really trust options with failure rates that high. Yes, I’m aware of perfect vs real world use, but failure is not an option.”

Because, you see, I have that in my back pocket. Not one trump card, but two. Because even if people find my “yes, well, I was nearly hospitalized for blood loss before I had a Mirena inserted” an unacceptable medical excuse (and there are some who do), I have a final saving grace trump card, the one that says “it is medically advised that I never have children, due to my severe, degenerative nerve damage; having children could leave me permanently disabled and bedridden for life, if not worse.”

Funnily enough, that gets a pass from pretty much everyone except the very worst of the Republican politicians.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to detail out my medical history in order to get a pass for deciding to use hormonal birth control. No one should have to detail out their medical history in order to show an “acceptable” medical need vs “just” recreational baby prevention; at most, a friend has the right to say “well, I’m concerned about the risks, are you familiar with them?” A “yes” response means drop the conversation, not run through every other birth control option out there. A “no” response means ask if more information is welcome, not immediately launch in to it.

The minute you get into dissecting out what is and is not a medical reason for birth control, you start wandering over into the territory that is labeling the choices and decisions women are making, and for hopefully understandable reasons, that makes little pro-choice, pro-birth control-as-part-of-basic-healthcare me nervous.

Are women making bad choices for themselves out there? Undoubtedly. There are shitty doctors. There are uninformed women. But taking the default position that every woman is uninformed is not the answer. No woman should have to lay out her entire medical history (or that of her partner!) in order to “get a pass” on contraceptive use.

When a woman tells you she’s utilizing birth control, don’t ask her if it’s medicinal or for contraception, don’t tell her she has better options, don’t immediately launch into the laundry list of why her choice is bad for her. We–those of us who are pro-women’s health, pro-choice, pro-birth control–are better than that.

Or, at least, we should be.

 


For a quick overview of contraception options and risks of pregnancy see this Planned Parenthood graphic.