Call me maybe: Problematic yet adorable?

This post is entirely James Franco’s fault. Ever since I saw the somewhat-dull video of James Franco and friend singing along to Carly Rae Jepsen’s catchy-yet-insipid song, “Call Me Maybe,” it’s been stuck in my head. And, like everyone knows, the only way to get rid of an earworm is to listen to the song. So, today at work, I did. Via Youtube. Then, on the third repeat (whatever shut up!) I actually watched the video.

Yes, it’s just another (mostly) heteronormative pop video full of white, attractive, cis people. But. It’s also kind of adorable in an almost-progressive way.

First of all, it reverses the “girl next door” trope by making the boy next door the object of a girl’s fantasy. Second, Carly (or is it Carly Rae?) plays with the “sexy car wash pin-up girl” cliché by awkwardly trying to perform the sexual self-objectification that women know we’re supposed to buy into in order to capture the male gaze. (Oh and did you notice that her male band-mates are the one who suggest this tactic?) Then the romance lit analogy! Our protagonist has clearly bought into the hetero romance narrative (damsel in distress, hero as protector, etc) and fantasy and then, and then!, her hero turns out to be gay! Subversive? Just a little bit, maybe?

Okay, the “Surprise! He’s actually gay” narrative is not exactly new or progressive, but I still wasn’t expecting to see it in this video. I was expecting girl meets boy, girl rescued by boy, boy kisses girl. (Then again, I’m the kindof person that never suspects plot twists before they’re revealed.) And yes, they totally objectified the male neighbor and it would have been better if the male band member accepted his number with less of a shocked expression, but hey, what are you gonna do? Even though I recognize that a lot of things about this video are problematic, I was still pleasantly surprised by the way it played with tropes about gender, sexuality, and romance. Do you agree? Well, here’s my number. Call me, maybe!

We’re coming to vaccinate your children: the moral case for compulsory HPV vaccination

Are there moral grounds for compulsory HPV vaccination? Joseph E. Balog, PhD, MSHYG, certainly thinks so. In an article in the April 2009 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Balog concludes that compulsory HPV vaccination is not only morally justified, it’s a social justice issue.

Some are opposed to compulsory HPV vaccination because they are concerned that vaccinating teens for an STI could be seen as condoning or encouraging sexual activity, undermining abstinence messages and providing a false sense of security about protection from STIs. The scientific community is also skeptical of compulsory vaccination, arguing that the mortality rates of cervical cancer are too low to be considered an “imminent harm” and that the benefits might not outweigh the financial costs, as well as the costs to individual liberty.

Balog argues the “rightness” or “wrongness” of compulsory HPV vaccination should be determined by key ethical principles: whether vaccination would reduce harm to individuals and society, and whether vaccination would produce benefits that are at least as good as the alternatives for prevention of death and disease.

HPV meets the standards for compulsory vaccination
In addressing the concern that mortality rates of cervical cancer are too low to be considered an “imminent harm,” Balog argues that HPV still meets the precedent set by other diseases for which we mandate vaccination, such as polio and measles.  The risk of a fatal outcome from HPV is relatively low, but it is still comprable to that of polio or measles.  The HPV vaccine fits comfortably within the precedent already set for compulsory vaccination.

Eradicating disease trumps the preservation of social ideas
Balog rightly points out that the conservative folks who oppose HPV vaccination because they believe it might promote sexual behavior are more concerned with upholding moral values than they are with preventing real, physical harm. From a public health perspective, prevention of harm is the first priority, especially considering the fact that the types of prevention offered as alternatives to vaccination (abstinence) have been been studied and proven to be ineffective. As Balog argues, it would be wrong to deny teens a real solution in order to uphold a symbolic ideal.

A child’s human rights override parental rights
The law generally respects and protects parental rights over their children. But when it comes to the health and safety of the child, the state may sometimes step in. When it comes to child vaccinations, the state generally upholds the child’s right to healthcare. Since the health threat of HPV affects the child directly and the parent only indirectly, the right of the child to receive the vaccine outweighs parental autonomy. We don’t often think of it this way, but from Balog’s point of view, access to preventative healthcare, like vaccination, is a human right. Of course, any compulsory vaccination program must follow the legal precedent that includes the right of states to allow individuals with medical, religious, and philosophical objections to opt-out. A compulsory HPV vaccine would, of course, include these exceptions.

Compulsory vaccination is a social justice issue
I’m not sure if you’ve seen the ads for Gardasil (the first HPV vaccine on the market), but they are clearly directed to white, middle class women. The reality is, however, that there are huge racial and economic inequalities in rates of cervical cancer and cervical cancer screenings. In the US, incidence of cervical cancer is 50% higher among African American women and 66% higher in Latina women than in white women. While they have the greatest risk, these groups are the least likely to receive cervical cancer screenings (PAP smears) and are also the least likely to get vaccinated. A voluntary vaccination program does not guarantee universal access; the vaccine is prohibitively expensive without health insurance coverage. Public health professionals understand that mandates are not only the most effective way to ensure that the disadvantaged women have access to the vaccine, but also the most effective means of protecting these women from cervical cancer.

Just like children faced the threat of polio in the 1950s, our adolescents are in need of protection against HPV and the array of cancers it can cause. Withholding that protection is unethical, and supporting abstinence as an alternative is both unrealistic and ineffective. But making the HPV vaccine available on a voluntary basis is not enough. It is only with a compulsory vaccination program that all adolescents, regardless of their parent’s values, race, socio-economic background or insurance status, will have real access to the vaccine. Then, and only then, will cervical cancer prevention reach the groups that really need it.

How should we celebrate Teen Halloween?


Image via Wikipedia

Halloween used to be my favorite holiday.  I loved dressing up in elaborate, homemade costumes and going trick or treating.  I loved it more as I got older.  I think the fun of trick or treating peaked for me in high school.  Yep, I was a teenage trick or treater.  Trick or treating with friends – especially friends who could drive – was exponentially more fun than trick or treating with your parents.  My friends and I hung on to trick or treating as long as we could, going for the last time our freshman year of college.  I had just turned 18, and judging by the response of the adults in the neighborhoods we chose to pillage, we were officially too old to be trick or treating.

From then on, I had to navigate the strikingly different progression of adult Halloween traditions that involve serious partying (either at bars, nightclubs, or house parties) and hyper-sexual costumes for women.

In only one year Halloween stopped being about this:

And started being about this:

I am grateful that I made it to age 18 before I began participating in these types of Halloween celebrations. According to ABC News, however, many cities are banning teenagers from trick or treating.

This makes absolutely no sense to me.  Banning teenagers from trick or treating forces them to find alternatives and for most kids, that will mean finding an unsupervised house party or college party with alcohol.  And since at a party you’re dressing to impress your peers, and you wont be in the company of elder neighbors or small children, young women may be more tempted or pressured to dress like a “sexy kitten,” “sexy nurse,” or Snookie. And if a teen doesn’t have a house party to go to, they could also be tempted to engage in the more traditional types of “mischief night” or “cabbage night” vandalism. Boredom is a huge motivator behind pumpkin smashing, egging, and TPing.

I suppose some might argue that teenagers are competing with younger children for candy, and that their participation might deprive some youngsters. I feel like this is a minor problem.  For one, teens are likely to go out a little later than the youngsters and will most likely be grabbing up the leftovers.  Also, if one were to run out of candy before the teenagers arrive, it wouldn’t be a tragedy.  Since teenagers can buy their own candy whenever they want, teen trick or treating isn’t about the candy.  It’s about dressing up and hanging out with your friends.

As a society, we get up in arms about the sexualization of young girls and about the perils of binge drinking.  So why on earth would we force teenagers to cut their childhood even shorter, slap on a corset and cat ears, and pick up a solo cup?  In this case, it really might be better to get teens back out on the streets, hitting the pavement for a few Kit-Kats and M&Ms.

Genital Herpes (part 3): More than 51 million Americans are cheaters and whores, apparently

Genital herpes occupies a uniquely stigmatized and shameful space in American culture.  STIs are always stigmatized due to the cultural and religious moralization of sexuality in America. They are often assumed to be the “consequence” of promiscuity. This stigma is so, unmistakably pervasive throughout American culture that I hardly need to give examples, but I will.

The entry on genital herpes in the Encyclopedia Dramatica, a satiric version of Wikipedia, reads: “ In fact, you get genital herpes because you are a whore.” Right wing blogger Melissa Clouthier writes: “Twice as many young adults ages 20 – 29 have herpes than did 20 years ago. This is a recurring tragedy for the sufferer and his partner–a consistent, unrelenting reminder of promiscuity that cannot be undone.”  These examples demonstrate the two different types of slut shaming going on: the former is simple, ignorant shaming for the purpose of “making a funny,” while the latter has a religious/political agenda behind it suggesting that herpes is the consequence of deviant sexual behavior.  (See how the Right capitalizes on ignorance and reinforces ignorance all at the same time?)

The connection between genital herpes and promiscuity is consistently made in film and TV as well. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the rock star Aldous Snow reveals to his girlfriend that he has genital herpes: “ Well, look, you know, I’ve not told you I’ve got genital herpes because it’s not inflamed at the moment.”  Here, genital herpes is used as a device to emphasize Snow’ s promiscuous, “ rock n’ roll” lifestyle. Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report poked fun at the association between herpes and promiscuity with a story about oysters infected with a strain of herpes. Colbert called them “ oyster sluts,” asking, “ Come on oysters, have you never heard of protection?”

Perhaps the best recent pop culture example of the link between genital herpes and promiscuity in the American imagination is MTV’ s The Jersey Shore. After the first episode aired, one blogger called it “ The Real World with herpes,” implying that the show was comparable to The Real World, another MTV reality show first broadcast in 1992, but with more promiscuity . In 2010, a Jersey Shore producer made headlines when she said “We hand [Valtrex] out like M& Ms. ‘Hey kids, it’s time for Valtrex!’ It’s like a herpes nest. They’re all in there mixing it up.” The cast of the Jersey Shore denied this allegation in an attempt to avoid the stigma of genital herpes. In later episodes, however, cast members make herpes jokes themselves, categorizing certain women as promiscuous or “ tainted” in a humorous way. In doing so, they become both victims and propagators of this stigma, thus strengthening the association between genital herpes and promiscuity.

About 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 people in the U.S. have genital herpes.  If the US population is 310,519,000 (all stats taken from Wikipedia), then that means there are over 51 million Americans with genital herpes right now.  That’s more people than there are Latino Americans (46.9 million) or African Americans (37.6 million).   What’s the likelihood that all of those people are “sluts,” or “deserved” to get herpes?

Genital herpes is often framed as physical evidence of infidelity. This Saturday Night Live parody (I couldn’t get the embed code to work, sorry!) of a Valtrex commercial plays with this stigma. In the sketch a husband (Alec Baldwin) and wife (Amy Poehler) are sitting together on a couch and it is obvious that the husband has been unfaithful. When the wife says that she finds it odd that a married couple with no history of STIs could have genital herpes, the husband replies: “But then I explained it, and that was the end of it, and there was no need to talk about it anymore.”  See how people with genital herpes are further stigmatized, not only as cheaters but as liars? The majority of Valtrex parodies play with the stigma of people with genital herpes as cheaters and liars in a similar way – perhaps suggesting that people believe using Valtrex is dishonest because it makes herpes easier to hide.

Lying about having genital herpes is also discussed in the context of celebrity divorces. For example, David Gest made headlines when he accused Liza Minnelli of giving him herpes inthe midst of their divorce. In an attempt to overturn a prenuptial agreement, DavidHasselhoff’ s ex-wife accused him of infecting her with genital herpes. In some cases, lying about genital herpes becomes a legal or criminal issue. In 2005, a woman sued NFL quarterback Michael Vick for negligence and battery for infecting her with herpes.

Celebrities often use their fame to help raise awareness for diseasesor health-related causes. (Think: Michael J. Fox for Parkinson’s Disease.)  When it comes to genital herpes, however, no celebrity would risk the stigma of association or exposure. As a result, the only time we hear about a celebrity having genital herpes is in the context of a scandalous rumor, bitter divorce, or lawsuit.  No one in their right mind would dare be open about having genital herpes, right?

Then, wait.  It’s not safe to be open about having genital herpes yet, you’re a liar and a cheater if you aren’t?  Seems like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t here.  It’s almost as if we want people with herpes to wear a scarlet “H” on their clothes so we know when to run away screaming. This seems a little much for a disease that is, in actuality, relatively mild condition with hardly any health complications that can be managed quite well with medication.

And speaking of running away screaming, my next post will discuss the different metaphors we use to talk about herpes and the people who have it.  *Read Part 4 here.* If you need to catch up, check out part 1 and part 2 of the series.

The Jewish Press Must Not Kowtow to Religious Homophobia

This is another piece I wrote for Jewesses with Attitude in response to a Jewish newspaper’s retraction of a gay wedding announcement. I am re-posting it here because, though it is about an incident that happened within the Jewish press and Jewish community, the lessons are applicable to the mainstream press and national community as well.

On October 4, the New Jersey Jewish Standard published an apology for printing a same-sex wedding announcement. In that apology, the paper’s editor, Rebecca Boroson, made it clear that the decision to stop running same-sex wedding announcements, and the apology, was in response to pressure from the so-called “traditional/Orthodox” Jewish community. Thanks to the internet, the outrage felt at this editorial decision was felt across the nation.

David A. Wilensky at Jewschool was quick to respond with a letter to the editor. He wrote:

Next week, you will be apologizing to the wider Jewish community for jumping at the snap of some Orthodox bullies’ fingers. You will be forced to apologize to unaffiliated, non-denominational, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews for forgetting that they are the vast majority of the community. Despite your otherwise pusillanimous handling of this journalistic catastrophe, you somehow managed the chutzpah to apologize for the “pain and consternation” you caused a few noisy homophobic readers. When can we expect your apology to the gay community for the pain and consternation you have no doubt caused them?

Today, the NJ Jewish Standard published a note on Facebook, saying:

We ran the wedding announcement because we felt, as a community newspaper, that it was our job to serve the entire community — something we have been doing for 80 years.We did not expect the heated response we got, and — in truth — we believe now that we may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding only to one segment of the community. We are now having meetings with local rabbis and community leaders. We will also be printing, in the paper and online, many of the letters that have been pouring in since our statement was published. The issue clearly demands debate and serious consideration, which we will do our best to encourage.

This response seems to have satisfied Wilensky, who wrote: “In the end, kol hakavod to NJJS for recognizing their mistake and rectifying it. And kol hakavod to NJJS for stopping the apologies in their tracks.” He even suggested that the NJ Jewish Standard’s interest in encouraging “debate and serious consideration” on this issue is an example of “journalism of the highest order.” With this last point, I respectfully disagree.

As someone who has spent more time studying journalism ethics than working as an editor or reporter, I will admit that my opinions are based on idealistic principles rather than experience. Still, I don’t believe that “fair and balanced” means giving equal time and voice to “both sides” of an issue. Especially when that issue is a question of equal rights for gay people. A newspaper that says it is “not affiliated with any program, organization, movement, or point of view, but is dedicated to giving expression to all phases of Jewish life” should not hide behind “fair and balanced” in order to avoid taking a stand and acknowledging that “giving expression to all phases of Jewish life” means including gay Jewish life. Saying that this issue “demands debate and serious consideration” is a practical, political, and cowardly way out.

Exclusion is a form of discrimination and so is giving voice and legitimacy to homophobia in a paper that is supposedly for “everyone.” And this type of discrimination is directly related to the sorts of direct harassment and bullying going on in schools and colleges that has contributed to a tragic string of suicides by LGBT youth across the nation. Comedian Sarah Silverman bluntly connects the dots in this video:

The NJ Jewish Standard could not have picked a worse moment to kowtow to the homophobic minority of the national Jewish population.

The It Gets Better Project, started by Dan Savage to give hope and support to LGBT middle school and high school students, has been getting a lot of positive and negative attention. Tablet writes: “While most coverage of the project has been favorable, there has been some backlash, among other things over the fact that the project allegedly stereotypes religious people as bigoted. Religious people bigoted? Thoughtful people refuse to play into that stereotype. So do thoughtful publications.” As much as the Jewish press would like to keep the Jewish community united, religious homophobia is still homophobia and it has no place in publications that are intended for the larger Jewish community.

Here’s how you can help:

Sign the petition to tell the NJ Jewish Standard to print same-sex wedding annoucements. (“Encouraging conversation” is NOT sufficient.) You can also participate in Wear Purple Day on October 20th to honor the 6 gay boys who committed suicide in recent weeks/month due to homophobic abuse in their homes at their schools.

Equality is not something that requires “debate and serious consideration.” It requires courage and love for all of our Jewish brothers and sisters. It requires us to be brave and take a stand on what we believe in. It is obvious now that there are lives at stake.

[Originally posted at Jewesses with Attitude]

Now, here’s a sex study that makes sense

After a dubious study from The Heritage Foundation nearly drove a friend of mine to insanity, it’s nice to see some conclusions based on actual research that account for and acknowledge socio-economic forces at work. In this study, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (UK) analyzed data from 59 countries. They conclude that sexual health strategies must go beyond individual risk reduction and address social and economic determinants of behavior. (They also use funny spellings like “analyse” and “behaviour.”) (I’m allowed to make jokes because I lived there, ok? Sheesh.)

Here is the first part:

The analysis revealed the huge regional variation in sexual behaviour but also showed that there has been less change in behaviour over the past two decades than was thought:

  • There is no universal trend towards sex at a younger age. However, a shift towards later marriage in most countries has led to an increase in premarital sex, more so in developed countries and for men. Sexual activity in single people tends to be sporadic.
  • Most people are married (or live together in partnerships) and most sex happens in stable partnerships. Marriage does however not always safeguard sexual health.
  • Monogamy is the dominant pattern everywhere, but having had two or more sexual partners in the last year is more common for men and in industrialised countries.
  • Condom use has increased almost everywhere, but rates remain low in many developing countries.
  • School-based sex education improves awareness of risk and ways to reduce it. It increases the intention to practise safer sex and delays rather than hastens the onset of sexual activity.

So, contrary to certain bio-determinist beliefs, it seems as though we aren’t experiencing an “unprecedented rise in casual sex.” No universal trend towards sex at a younger age, either! Instead of looking at rates of “sex outside of wedlock” as evidence of moral decay, this study uses social logic to explain how premarital sex has increased while people aren’t having sex any younger: delay of marriage. And hey, they found that sex education actually “increases the intention to practise safer sex and delays rather than hastens the onset of sexual activity.” (We knew that, but it bears repeating!)

Regional variations in sexual behaviour do not correlate with sexual health status. Higher rates of partner change in industrialised countries are offset by higher levels of condom use and better access to treatment results in better health. The authors explored the main reasons for the variations:

  • Some of the variations can be explained by demographic and structural changes. The age structure and ratio of men to women in a population can limit or extend opportunities to form new partnerships.
  • There is a striking gender difference in sexual behaviour. Multiple partnerships are more common for men than for women. This is in line with a double standard in most societies that makes non-exclusive relationships more acceptable for men than for women.
  • Poverty, deprivation and unemployment work with gender inequity to promote partner change, multiple partners and unprotected sex.

Let’s talk about that “striking gender difference.” At first glance you might see this as support for the bio-determinist argument that men are just less monogamous and/or can’t keep it in their pants. But not so!  The authors make sure to first of all use the word “gender” and not “sex” to imply that this is not a XY/XX distinction, but a man/woman, “gender-as-a-social-construct” distinction. They point out, rightly so, that the data correlates with the double standard in most societies that makes non-exclusive relationships more acceptable for men than women (aka the “player” v. “slut” double standard). They also point to the influences of poverty, deprivation and unemployment on promoting partner change, multiple partners, and unprotected sex.

The authors highlight the need to base interventions on evidence rather than myths or moral stances. Approaches focusing exclusively on expectation of individual behaviour change are unlikely to produce substantial improvements in sexual health. Comprehensive multi-level behavioural interventions are needed that reflect the social context. These should attempt to modify social norms and tackle the structural factors that contribute to risky behaviour. Examples include mainstreaming HIV and sexual health in development projects; empowering sex workers through business and IT training; and integrating sexual health education into microfinance schemes. However, the success of these strategies requires decision-makers to accept the reality of sexual practices.

Wow.  I have shivers. Can we just read that again?

The authors highlight the need to base interventions on evidence rather than myths or moral stances. Damn straight!

Approaches focusing exclusively on expectation of individual behaviour change are unlikely to produce substantial improvements in sexual health. Comprehensive multi-level behavioural interventions are needed that reflect the social context. Amen!

These should attempt to modify social norms and tackle the structural factors that contribute to risky behaviour. Examples include mainstreaming HIV and sexual health in development projects; empowering sex workers through business and IT training; and integrating sexual health education into microfinance schemes. HELL YES!

However, the success of these strategies requires decision-makers to accept the reality of sexual practices. BAM.

And then, just when you thought this couldn’t get any better? They list and link to their sources and give an explanation of who funded the research. And guess what? It’s academic! Not a lobby group!

It’s work like this that gets me excited to begin my MA in Health Communications at Emerson next week. There is such a need for information about sexual health that serves not to moralize or control, but to actually reduce the spread of STDs based on the reality of sexual behavior and the social forces that influence it.