Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Family Research Council: Church and Parents Are Good! (Shocker)

The Family Research Council, the conservative organization that pushes a hetronormative, anti-abortion agenda, released a study yesterday purporting the claim that children of “both biological parents” that attend church on a weekly basis are less likely to repeat a grade. Wow. There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start.

Although the report claims that “controlling for all factors” like “family income and poverty, low parent education levels, and race and ethnicity.” But I don’t quite buy it. After all, if you’re in a two-parent household, by nature you are more likely to have about double the household income you’d have in a single-parent household — especially if your in the household of a single mother. Furthermore, families that attend church on a weekly basis are just more likely to be the kinds of parents that are invested in a child’s education, since they are more affluent, more likely to provide the kind of structures that would enable that, and so on. (Interestingly enough, although the press release billed the study as supporting “biological parents” the actual study lumps biological parents in with adopted parents. Presumably they didn’t mean to include gay parents in those adopted parents.)

They also measured behavioral problems in terms of “repeating a grade” and “children whose parents were contacted by school” about behavioral problems. As if these are the only factors that go into a child’s health and well-being. What such factors really measure is discipline, not necessarily overall happiness or achievement in a child.

But here’s the thing. Even assuming all these things are true — that “intact” families that attend church on a weekly basis have more disciplined children — the study seems to point to the idea that people have a choice about the kind of family they end up in. That’s the part I find so horrifying and insulting. Life is a bit unpredictable. You never know when a marriage might not work out or you become widowed. Some people get pregnant accidentally and choose to carry the pregnancy to term (something the Family Research Council strongly supports) but your partner may not stick around to see that child grow up.

Ultimately we don’t get a lot of choice about our family situations in life. Instead of pointing out how awesome two-parent households that attend church are, maybe instead we should look at how to support single parents so that their children’s achievements can match those of the families that don’t seem to need the help.

Cross posted at Pushback.


I'm liveblogging on the future of reproductive rights with Marilyn Keefe of the National Partnership for Women & Families, William Smith of SIECUS, Heather Boonstra of Guttmacher Institute, and Cristina Page of here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Female Brain, Not So Different From Male Brain

Amanda Schaffer has a very interesting article over at Slate that debunks some of the controversial “science” devoted to the differences between men’s and women’s brains. A prime example of this is Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, which caused uproar in the feminist blogosphere. Schaffer examines Brizendine’s claims that women are “more verbal” than men. When you look at the evidence, she notes, there is little difference between the sexes, even if you look at the tried-and-true test scores:

What is the scientific basis for these claims? Well-established literature suggests that girls tend to acquire language earlier than boys and are less likely to develop dyslexia (though the sex difference in dyslexia is less striking than some older research would suggest). But while adolescent girls may perform better on some tests of verbal ability, the gender gap is not large, according to meta-analyses assessed here. In the past couple of years, scores on the critical reading section of the SAT essentially show a dead heat for boys and girls: In 2007, they averaged 504 and 502, respectively. The new writing test on the SAT shows an advantage for girls, but it’s small: In 2007, those male and female averages were 489 and 500. Sex differences on reading comprehension and vocabulary tests also appear to be small or close to zero, when all ages are taken into account.

In other words, it’s just a case of finding science to back up stereotypes. All of the funding spent on research to discover “differences” between the sexes is about as useful as the research that shows taller people make more money. Okay… but so what?

Schaffer calls these scientists “evangelists,” saying that they purport these differences because it’s easier to explain the lack of women in science or the pay gap if there’s some kind of biological reason for it instead of facing the cold, hard facts that there’s still a lot of systemic and institutional sexism in society today. After all, if women are told all their lives that they should be “verbal” and “empathetic” they probably won’t be very likely to pursue a career in science or mathematics. Studies show that much of the spatial reasoning associated with technical professions like these improve vastly in both sexes with training. In other words, there’s no “natural” ability for the sciences–it’s just a matter of hard work. The cultural cues are disseminated to children early in life. Look at how even Legos are cued for boys.

So please, granters of research money, stop funding these silly studies about what boys and girls do differently. Time and time again, such studies do little to prove that there’s any kind of “hardwiring” in our brains just because of our sexual anatomy.

Cross posted at Pushback. Image by Flickr user hurleygurley.

Monday, December 15, 2008

OMG Hooking Up!

So says the New York Times opinion column from this weekend by Charles Blow (heh, blow). Apparently Blow thinks that this strange thing known as “hooking up” is here to stay. He actually turns to a book that I reviewed negatively for Bitch this year called Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus. Also, apparently if you are over the age of 30 you won’t understand what “hooking up” means. So, for those of you in that age range, Blow defines hooking up as casual sex, but I’ve generally understood that term to be more ambiguous.

In fact, as I understand it, the term is meant to be ambiguous. Some people are only comfortable making out with people, others are more comfortable with having sex. The term is meant to encompass these and everything in between so that there’s some intrigue. But Blow defines hooking up as casual sex, so let’s dive into that.

The thing I never understand is that for people over 30, as Blow has chosen to define the non-hookup generation, hooking up is always seen as a bad thing. Older folks seem to want to protect us young ‘uns from expressing our sexuality. Now, let’s be fair. There are a lot of risks that go with causal sex, including pregnancy and STDs, but most people are sexually active with more than one person in their lifetimes, and some of those are bound to be causal encounters. In fact, if those over 30 really thought long and hard about it, they’d probably remember (or recall that they don’t quite remember) a few casual encounters from their day.

Instead of freaking out about the fact that casual sex exists, or, like Blow, offering a resigned sigh that it’s here to stay, it’s important to arm young people with accurate and up-to-date information about how best to minimize risks in casual encounters. That includes encouraging condom use, HPV vaccination, and STD testing. But to pretend that casual hookups somehow lead to devastating emotional damage, or that everything would be all better if we returned to the era of Dating*, is silly.

Yes, hooking up can bring negative repercussions, but there are far worse things about sexual repression. Furthermore, a lot of relationships start with a casual encounter. People find one another that way who otherwise wouldn’t. By discounting casual encounters, we’re limiting ourselves in all kinds of ways. And hooking up isn’t for everyone. Some people just aren’t into it. And that’s okay. The point is that we need to be open to all kinds of safe sexual expression, whether it includes hooking up or not.

* As far as I can tell, this is a return to 1950s-style Dating where the boy comes to the girl’s house, under strict supervision of the girl’s parents, the dad holds a gun and demands to have her back by a certain time, and then the boy and girl go and have sex in a car. Much better, don’t you think?

Cross posted at Pushback.

"Ideas" for Women

The New York Times Sunday Magazine this week was its “Ideas” issue. That is, a series of short blurbs that include everything from how to determine pay for teachers to a vending machine for crows (really). But there were two particular blurbs that were directly targeted at “women’s issues.”

The first was actually about men. See, it recanted this old study about how men who are more into gender equality tend to suffer lesser wages than their more “traditional” (i.e. sexist) male counterparts. The same is true for women. The article asked, “What if the real difference isn’t between men and women but between men who think women belong at home — and every-one else?” This sort of odd study shows that there is actually a long way to go in fighting for pay equity. It’s still useful to point out that even though men believe in equality and may be earning less than their “traditional” male peers, they still earn an average of a couple thousand dollars more than the women who believe in equality. Just because you believe in equality doesn’t make it so.

The second was a British study I hadn’t heard of until I read about it in the Magazine. The study shows that when a company is succeeding, both men and women are more likely to support a male candidate to take over in an executive position. But if that same business seems to be failing, men and women are much more likely to choose a female candidate for the job. This is a phenomenon that researchers call the “glass cliff.” The reasoning is that people don’t mind putting women in charge if there’s already a great chance of failure–think the last-ditch effort to name Sarah Palin as VP–but when things are going smoothly, they want to be sure to have a “strong leader”–read: man–in charge. It’s a unique phenomenon and seems to suggest that there’s a lot of underlying sexism that people don’t even realize they have.

Both seem to present problems more than actual ideas or solutions like the rest of the magazine. I guess solving gender problems is harder than teaching crows to drop coins into a vending machine.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Image by Flickr user Cayusa.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Winning on Language

Today over at RH Reality Check my piece is about how the coalition that fought for choice in South Dakota ended up winning. Hint: It's not by using language like "my body, my choice":

Sarah Stoesz, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota, credits the win to a well-run campaign with broad grassroots support. But it wasn't a strategy run only by outside consultants, with slick advertisements and catch phrases like "My Body, My Choice" or "Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries." In fact, the word "choice" was abandoned by the coalition fighting the abortion ban in South Dakota altogether. Instead, the coalition took a pro-family approach, using the word "baby" where mainstream pro-choice groups would have used the word "fetus." One Healthy Families ad featured a woman named Tiffany Campbell, who appeared with her husband and son. In the television ad, Campbell explained that during her pregnancy they discovered twin-to-twin syndrome, a condition in which one fetus would need to be terminated for the other to survive. Campbell phrased it this way, "I would have buried two babies." Much of the language in the ads talked about families making decisions without government interference.

"We were completely ready to and did redraft all of the usual rhetoric that is used by people on our side," Stoesz said. She noted a lot of feminists on the national level were upset at a pro-choice campaign that would abandon rhetoric built on for decades, but Stoesz isn't sorry she abandoned the rhetoric. "As the head of Planned Parenthood [in the region] I'm responsible for keeping the sole abortion clinic in South Dakota open and I'm responsible for making sure there is a strong base of support for women's reproductive health in South Dakota," she said. "South Dakota isn't Manhattan. It isn't San Francisco. It isn't even Chicago and it's not even Minneapolis. It's so different. The culture is so different."

Go ahead and read the whole thing here.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sarah Haskins Explains the Appeal of Vampires

So. Funny.

'Twilight' Fires Female Director with Biggest Opening Weekend for a Woman Ever

Apparently when you are a female director and make a cult movie that made a profit of $100 million in the first three weeks of its release (the largest opening weekend ever for a female director) you know what you get? Fired.

Ah yes, the world makes sense again.

Family Research Council: CAP's Influential ... and We’re Jealous!

The Family Research Council (FRC), a right-leaning group that counts among its main priorities opposing same-sex marriage and making abortion illegal, sends out an e-newsletter multiple times a week. I subscribe to it because I’m curious about what they’re up to and also to see their hilarious graphics and headlines (they will go out of their way to use a pun at any cost). The group is headed up by Tony Perkins, who you may have seen on TV a lot talking about how he’s not one bit sorry Prop 8 passed in California.

This week, FRC sent an email about our parent sister (I guess that makes it our aunt?) organization, the Center for American Progress, or as FRC called it, the “ever-expanding empire of liberal billionaire George Soros.” To be fair, George Soros’ Open Society Institute is one of CAP’s many donors that include both foundations and individuals. The email pointed to CAP’s influence over the new administration, since the building is housed “just three blocks from the White House.” This is, of course, unlike FRC’s headquarters, which are also located in downtown DC, a whole five blocks from the White House.

FRC actually got many of its facts right while giving its readership a rundown of CAP, including when they talked about two of the people who work at CAP who also have a relationship with the new administration: CAP’s CEO John Podesta, who is leading Obama’s transition team and CAP’s (now former) Senior Fellow Tom Daschle, who has been tapped to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. They actually also managed to get some policy positions right as well:

Their advice to Obama is largely contained in CAP’s book, Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President, released just a week after the election. Though the organization has been counted on for its recommendations on domestic issues, the group’s social agenda is devastatingly pro-abortion. On CAP’s website, visitors will find two extra, online chapters from the Change book, which advocate, among other things, the radical Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), taxpayer-funded abortion, “comprehensive” sex education, a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, and a repeal of the abortion ban on military bases. CAP’s political arm also spoke against the state marriage amendments and actively worked for the defeat of the state life initiatives on November 4.

Why, that’s exactly what CAP supports! The policy arm upstairs works to ensure that choice is a real thing that exists for all women in America, not just wealthy (mostly white) women who have the luxury of paying for their reproductive freedom. While FRC thinks these polices are bad things, we happen to think they’re good things.

But the funny thing is, the end of the write-up is downright flattering. They seem to be recognizing how influential CAP is to the new administration and are just a teeny, tiny bit jealous:

This should illustrate just how potent Washington nonprofits can be, particularly when they are functioning in the minority. Now that FRC finds itself in a similar position, rest assured that we are working from within to lead the battle for conservative ideas. To help us build on those efforts, please consider donating to FRC as we regroup for major fights over the future of faith, family, and freedom.

So hat tip, Family Research Council! Thanks for getting us mostly right and good luck with that whole working from within to battle for conservative ideas thing.

Image: Tony Perkins, President of Family Research Council

Cross posted at Pushback.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Reprioritizing College Affordability

An article in today’s New York Times paints a dire picture for the affordability of college in the future. As states cut allocations to public colleges and universities, the institutions are making up for it by hiking tuition prices. At this rate, an expert quoted in the article says, tuition could make up 24 percent of the family budget by 2036. The Times points to a study released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education today which shows that 49 of the states are getting an “F” in college affordability, with only California managing to get a passing grade.

The list of reasons why college has become so unaffordable is long. Many schools are just aren’t getting as much out of their endowments since the stock market has taken a tumble, and therefore schools are seeking more from state budgets. But state budgets are tight, too, so states are allocating less and less. This means the burden falls on the students to make up the rest. While some families can afford to pay the increased cost, the hardest hit are low-income students. The Pell grant just hasn’t been keeping up with the cost of tuition, forcing low-income students to take our more and more loans. While federal loans are fairly safe–they’re guaranteed and come with a fixed interest rate–private student loans are fairly unregulated. What’s left is piles and piles of debt, and students are having a harder time paying them off when they have a hard time finding jobs after graduation.

Kevin Carey recently pointed out in a Washington Monthly article that some schools have been compensating for increasing costs by increasing distance-learning-style classes. But the reality is that there are a lot of good things about college affordability–Pell grants and federal loan programs–but there just hasn’t been enough to go around. And many schools, in a constant vie to increase rankings, are spending money on merit aid, or scholarships that often go to those that don’t necessarily need it. If we really want to make sure that low-income students can go to school, we need to restructure priorities in higher education. Low-income students may be the most expensive to educate, but they also see the greatest economic mobility increases. That means it’s the best return on an investment.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Is the Path to Gender Pay Equity Through Unionization?

A study (PDF) released this week by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that women joining unions has a big impact on increasing wages. Women in unions see an average increase of about 11 percent, or about $2 an hour. Women in unions are also more likely to have health insurance and pensions than women with four-year college degrees. Currently women make up about 45 percent of all unionized workers, and are on track to become the majority of unionized workers by 2020.

My guess is that this has a lot to do with unions having increasing power in traditionally female professions. Health care workers, for instance, have been targeted by organizers to unionize. Traditionally female roles like caregivers have long been subject to low pay and little thanks. By organizing these workers, women are gaining real earning power in what is a skilled profession, but has traditionally not thought of as such. Today, health care workers are one of Service Employees International Union (SEIU)’s main constituencies.

The idea behind unionization is for skilled workers to gain negotiating power–this is something women have traditionally been thought of ask lacking. So if more women join unions, they can take the power of collective bargaining to help close the gender inequality gap. Women in professions that don’t require higher education can actually earn more if they join a union.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Extreme Dieting Makeover

Today over at Campus Progress I have a review of the much-talked-about memoir, Thin Is the New Happy. I talk about how the book is instrumental in highlighting some of the more horrifying aspects of women's weight behavior:

In one experiment, she counts each time she has a negative thought about her body. She discovers it happens about 263 times in one day—that’s once every three and a half minutes. Her negative thoughts about her body surpassed her thoughts about sex, family, work, and money.

The results of Frankel’s experiment are hardly out of the ordinary. Most women today have a negative, chronic relationship with dieting and body image. A 2001 study showed that college women who diet have a much greater disparity between their perceived body image and their “ideal” body image than women who don’t diet. The misperceptions aren’t because their “ideal” body images are unrealistic; it is because they have unrealistic ideas about how heavy they actually are. A study this year explored a behavior known as “fat talk,” or intensive conversations young women engage in about food and body size that often lead to negative perceptions of their bodies.

Go ahead and read the whole thing.

Yes, the Proposed HHS Regulation Is Sexist

The Los Angeles Times has a good recap of a Health and Human Services regulation that’s bad news for women (Planned Parenthood has a petition here). The article points out what feminist bloggers have been saying all along: the rule wouldn’t just grant doctors the right to refuse to perform an abortion; it would allow doctors and nurse practitioners to refuse other treatments like birth control, emergency contraception, fertilization treatments, and many others.

While some have argued that there’s no harm in allowing doctors to exercise their right to freedom of religion (although this is technically already covered under the Civil Rights Act of 1964), it’s important to take a moment to examine the embedded sexism in this regulation, buried under layers of cultural “norms.” The legislation is targeted explicitly at women. Women are the ones that use the reproductive treatments outlined in this regulation. None of the treatments were specific to men. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg outlined in her dissent in the Gonzalez v. Carhart case, women simply can’t enjoy equal access to citizenship as long as they can’t control their reproduction.

So long as there are regulations or laws that specifically control or limit the rights of one gender and not the other, the legislation is unequal. The regulation is allowing doctors to deny treatment to women based on their sex, using religion as a defense (one also wonders why a doctor would become an OB-GYN if he or she opposed abortion and birth control). Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex lately, but many of the things we accept as cultural norms or based in religion are actually age-old notions of treating the woman as someone or something to be controlled.

Much of The Second Sex is devoted to outlining all the ways women are painted as the Other. They are either condescendingly thought of as less than human, incapable of achieving the plane of male thought, or elevated to some kind of superhuman inspiration for chastity and artistic inspiration. While this is certainly very centered on the gender question–after all, there have been many Others in society–it certainly points to all the double standards that women are subjected to.

By forcing women to stick to abstinence as means of birth control, women’s lives are restricted in ways that men’s just aren’t. The regulation doesn’t put restrictions on Viagra or fertility treatments for men. Even though it is framed as a religious rights issue, it is ultimately about controlling the reproductive lives of women. Ultimately, controlling women’s reproduction means controlling their freedom and equality as citizens.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Ford: Squeezing the Middle Class

Ford proposed a new plan to Congress today with various components, which included Ford CEO Alan Mulally volunteering to accept a salary of $1 for a year. But part of the plan also includes negotiating with the United Auto Workers to cut their “labor costs”–in other words, Ford is seeking pay cuts for its workers. I understand the mentality: to save the company everyone needs to make sacrifices.

But what I wonder is if cutting workers’ wages really accomplishes the plan of stopping economic hardship. Despite claims of $70-an-hour union workers, unionized auto workers are squarely in the middle class, the economic group that’s seeing the most squeeze in this economic recession. They’re still paying taxes, but with inflation and pay freezes, the middle class is seeing their real wages shrink. By asking the unions to drop securities for their members and cut wages, the companies may actually make the economic situation worse for the average worker.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Can Boys and Girls Play Sports (Even If They're Not Good)?

Lisa Belkin--the one that wrote that interesting article on equal parenting in the New York Times Sunday Magazine earlier this year--talks today about the ramifications of a $149 genetic test you can give to your child to see if he or she will be athletically inclined. She doesn't delve so much into what that means for the future of sports, but she talks about what it means for parents and kids.

The stereotype of the screaming, bossy, overly invested parent at the athletic game comes to mind and may even live in the memories of some of the nerdier types out there. Sure, a simple test may stop parents who want an athletic kid from riding them so hard: If the kid just isn't genetically inclined than the pressure's off. But what about the value of failure?, Belkin asks. Apparently there's a lot of good to trying out a sport and failing at it. After all, that's how kids learn to deal with the failures of life.

But knowing that your kids won't be good at sports and making them play them anyway seems a little sadistic. So perhaps the solution is just to not give your kids the test but also be open to the idea that your kids may not be naturally good at sports. That can be frustrating and heartbreaking, but it can also teach children the valuable lesson of learning that they're not good at something.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Christian Berenstain Bears

Berenstain Bears Via Emily , the beloved Berenstain Bears of our youth are promoting wholesome Christian values on the Focus on the Family website. While many might be horrified at these beloved childhood books endorsing the right-wing, anti-gay agenda of James Dobson 's organization, I don't exactly remember the original books being secular. The new Dobson-sponsored religious versions are authored by Stan & Jan Berenstain, the same authors of the original books. Stan has now passed away, but his son Mike continues to author books with his mother.

Let's remember that the Berenstain books focused on morality tales and holidays that were obviously Christian in origin. It's fairly common, especially in the days before we were young, to weave Christianity in with children's literature. But in addition to the Berenstain Bears, let's remember that there are plenty of other progressive children's books out there: Heather Has Two Mommies , All Families are Special , and the ultra-feminist Paper Bag Princess .

While it's a little concerning that Dobson's organization is working on indoctrination at such a young age, there's plenty of indoctrination that progressives can do as well. It's important to realize that there's a huge slection of children's books out there, so there's no need to rush to the Focus on the Family website to order the books of the churchgoing Berenstain Bears.

Cross posted at Pushback.
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