Sexual Violence, the Patriarchy, and the Government Shutdown

Sometimes current events that don’t seem related begin to overlap and parallel in weird and uncomfortable ways. Earlier this year I wrote about a string of oddly connected stories in Connecting the dots: Nice Guys™, MRAs, mass shooters, and aggrieved entitlement. I discussed how the thread of aggrieved entitlement (an unfortunate product of a deeply patriarchal culture) underlies the Nice Guy™, MRA, and mass shooter phenomena. This time, the release of a groundbreaking new study on young people and sexual assault, Chris Brown’s childhood rape, and the government shutdown feel eerily connected.

This week, a groundbreaking study on sexual assault among young people was published in JAMA Pediatrics.  The study found that 9% of young people have committed sexual violence: 8% reported that they kissed, touched, or “made someone else do something sexual” when they “knew the person didn’t want to”; 3% verbally coerced a victim into sex; 3% attempted to physically force sex; 2% perpetrated a completed rape. (The numbers don’t add up because some perpetrators admitted to more than one behavior.)

Perpetrators reported having higher exposure to violence pornography (non-violent porn had no correlation to sexual violence). They also found that 98% of perpetrators who committed their first perpetration at 15-years-old or younger were male, whereas by the time they reached 18- or 19-years-old, perpetrators were more evenly split between men (52%) and women (48%). Perpetrators who began perpetrating later in life were also less likely to get caught. To top it all off, 50% of all perpetrators said that their victim was responsible for the sexual violence committed against them.

On October 4, Chris Brown (notorious for his violent assault against his girlfriend Rihanna) told the Guardian about “losing his virginity” at age 8 to a teenage girl. Many outlets have appropriately acknowledged that this is rape. Olivia A. Cole deftly explained why Brown’s framing of the event is problematic: “Chris Brown was raped, but to hear him tell it, that experience was positive, healthy. Something to brag about. “At eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it.” Cole writes:

Can you imagine being sexually abused and then growing up being told that this is a good thing? That your sexual potency has been enhanced? That rape was a “head-start” into the wonderful world of sex? The damaging system that tells girls they are worthless after rape has a disgusting flip side for boys: you have worth now. This violence has made you a god.

Then we have the government shutdown. The Tea Party and their conservative Republican friends are being the worst kind of sore losers — the kind that decide to flip the table over rather than play the hand they were dealt. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is law, and shutting down the government is not a rational, reasonable, or in my opinion, legal way of trying to “undo” a law whose constitutionality was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Robert Parry suggests that this is about more than Obamacare. He places the debate over Obamacare within the historical narrative of federalism vs. state’s rights, which was, notably, a big deal when the country was divided over the constitutionality of slavery. He writes:

The relevance of this history to the present is not only that the ideological descendants of the Confederacy are now up in arms over the election and reelection of the first African-American president but that they are insisting on the slaveholders’ distortion of the Constitution, over its truly “originalist” interpretation and the plain reading of its words.

The overwhelmingly white Tea Party, with its foothold in the overwhelmingly white Republican Party, has now developed a new variation on the theory of “nullification,” asserting that the Tea Party’s Confederate-style interpretation of the Constitution must be accepted by the rest of the nation or the country will face endless political extortion.

Through this lens, the Tea Party’s hostage-taking stance is, in effect, a tantrum over the looming loss of privilege and power for white men.

So where is the connection?

A small but significant percentage of America’s young people are perpetrating sexual assault at alarming rates. They are most commonly using verbal coercion (including threats) and manipulation to do so, all the while while believing their victims were responsible for their assaults. A small but significant percentage of America’s adult leaders are using coercion, including threats, to shut down our government – an action resulting in harm to our nation’s most vulnerable populations. Populations that these same adult leaders believe to be responsible for their own poverty or vulnerability.

Chris Brown’s story reminds us of the role that aggrieved entitlement has to play here.

Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man. Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.

Patriarchy hurts men as much as it hurts women by eliminating any space for men’s victimization. It does not allow male victims to let themselves feel victimized, or allow the rest of us to take men’s victimization seriously. Instead, it teaches men to get revenge by victimizing others.

Unfortunately, sexual coercion has become a “normal” part of teenage sexuality. Aggrieved entitlement flourishes in a culture that treats sex like a commodity: we teach men to measure their worth by how much sex they “get” from women, while conversely we teach women that their worth is determined by what they “give away.”

Likewise, the patriarchy teaches men that their worth is derived from power. It does not teach young men how to share power, or how to put the needs of others before their own. It teaches men to lash out in revenge when they lose power. Today it seems our Tea Party politicians are fighting — the way they learned in the backseats and bedrooms of their adolescence — to regain their power through coercion, threats, and ultimately, the victimization of others.

It’s generally not a good idea to use “rape” as a metaphor, but in this case, the comparison is disturbingly apt.

What sucks about condom snorting

Sure it’s a little gross to watch someone snort a piece of latex up their nose and pull it out through their mouth. We can all agree that it’s one of those stupid things young people do, just like sticking cinnamint gum wrappers to your forehead until it burns, piercing your own ears with safety pins, or standing against a wall while a friend runs into your chest to make you pass out. In my opinion, these types of shenanigans are developmentally appropriate; for the most part, everyone survives and grows out of it and it’s no big deal. The problem with condom snorting is not that teenagers are snorting condoms, but that journalists are having a field day with this because they’re snorting condoms. Like, condoms for sex.

For example, Kat Stoeffel writes in New York Magazine’s The Cut (emphasis added):

Teenagers are snorting condoms up their noses and pulling them out of their mouths, on camera and on the Internet, according to a Huffington Post report that raises more questions than it answers. A YouTube search for “condom challenge” yields more than 200,000 results, most of them NSFW due to gross noises. Is this the “gateway sexual activity”? Or is this what happens when there’s no sex ed? Is it an elaborate ruse to buy and possess condoms? And is this better or worse than the condom’s intended purpose?

Seriously? Let me clear this up.

“Is this a gateway sexual activity?” No.

“Is this what happens when there’s no sex ed?” No. What happens is one out of two young people will get an STI by the age of 25 and most wont know they are infected.

“Is it an elaborate ruse to buy and possess condoms?” No. Teenagers have every right, if not every imperative, to buy and posses condoms. Just like teenagers should own helmets, wear sunscreen, and use seatbelts, they should possess and use condoms. If they want to snort a few up their nose, so be it.

“Is this better or worse than the condoms intended purpose?” ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  Teenagers have sex. Condoms should be used for sex. Teenagers should use condoms when they have sex. Snorting condoms is not going to keep teenagers from having sex. There’s nothing wrong with teenagers having protected sex. Condoms are used to have protected sex. It’s really awesome when teenagers use condoms to have protected sex. Do we need to go around one more time?

I’m not sure what the health risks are of condom snorting, but I imagine choking is a legitimate concern. Still, it’s a fairly innocuous pastime compared to the expansive list of dangerously stupid things teenagers have devised to occupy their time, like skateboarding off rooftops, playing with fireworks, giving themselves homemade tattoos, etc.

The media hand-wringing over condom snorting is reminiscent of that of the cinnamon challenge, but this time it will have the added bonus of panic since this time they’re snorting lubed latex that’s made for (hushed whisper) s-e-x. 

This is a case where kids will be kids, and adults need to grow up.

One big reason I don’t miss the DELi*As catalog

Today I spotted a Buzzfeed article called 19 Reasons Why You Miss Getting the DELiA*s Catalog, and was instantly reminded of the one BIG reason I definitely DO NOT miss the DELiA*s catalog. The DELiA*s catalog was how I learned to hate my body.

Sure, DELiA*S wasn’t the only publication out there with images of thin teenage girl models. But I never had Seventeen or Cosmo magazines, so largely and for the most part, the DELiA*s catalog was the only collection of images of skinny girls I could take up to my room and stare at for hours, alone, wishing I was thin. That was my DELiA*s ritual — a deep, dark secret known only to me, my teenage self, and I. Until now, anyway.

Once a month or so, I’d spot the DELiA*s catalog in the pile of mail on the counter, grab it, and go up to my bedroom. I’d pour over each page, looking not at the clothes but the girls. I took in every detail, every airbrushed line. (Of course, at the time I didn’t realize they were airbrushed.) I even cut out a few of my favorites — girls with hair, outfits, and bodies I wanted — and pasted them into my journal.

I would strip to my underwear and look at myself in a full length mirror, strategically covering the parts of my body that weren’t “right” — the love handles, the belly, etc., and imagine myself without them. I used to fantasize about a magic knife that could simply slice off the extra that didn’t belong. I would visualize slicing, slicing, slicing, in long, fluid motions — literally carving my body into the shape I thought it should have been — the shape of the girls in the DELiA*s catalog.

Sick, right? Describing this behavior is weird and when I write it down, it sounds completely pathological. It’s horrifying to remember this part of my past. But if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that a lot of my peers were doing similar things.

I’ve come a long way since then, of course. Despite my perpetual and (unfortunately) NORMAL struggle with body image, I managed to develop a healthy self-confidence about the way I look. There are a lot of things I’ve always loved, and some that I’ve learned to love, about my body. And my feminist awakening, graduate research on body image, and introduction to Health At Every Size certainly made a huge difference in how I feel about my own body image journey.

So yes. I didn’t share this embarrassing secret so that people would pity me, nor did I share it to brag about how far I’ve come since then. I share this embarrassing secret because the Buzzfeed article about the DELiA*s catalog made me realize how glaringly absent my experience was from this ever-so-nostalgic account of what the DELiA*s catalog meant to girls who came of age in the 90s.

I can’t help but imagine how different my experience would have been if DELiA*s models exhibited the varied and beautiful range of body diversity in our world. What if some of those teen models looked like me? (What if the clothes they were selling actually fit me?)

I just read an amazing piece on XOJane about Lena Dunham’s audacity in showing her own, “imperfect,” body on screen — and how much people seem to really hate the fact that she’s doing it. It says:

For all our talk about wanting to see more so-called “real women” in the media we consume — a problematic category itself, as all women are “real,” no matter how near or far they might be to the female beauty ideal — we are awfully quick to condemn a woman who is showing us reality in a very plainspoken, unvarnished way.

The aghast controversy evoked by Dunham’s nudity shows us just how much of this “real women” talk is lip service, and how very far we have to go before we can socially deal with the fact that different bodies exist. Truth is, we’d all probably be a lot less neurotic about our own bodies if we could get used to seeing and accepting the natural variety in other people’s — without shame, and giving no fucks.

So maybe I, too, would look back with loving nostalgia on the DELiA*s catalog if it showcased a cohort of teen models who reflected the wide and diverse reality of what girls look like, and if those girls modeled not only quirky 90s fashion, but also how to not give any fucks about what other people think about their bodies.

Now, that would be a catalog to reminisce about.

Connecting the dots: Nice Guys™, MRAs, mass shooters, and aggrieved entitlement

A few things happened in the last couple weeks that stood out to me because they felt connected. About a week ago someone showed me the hot new tumblr, Nice Guys of OKCupid.

Never before has Nice Guy Syndrome been so clearly illustrated.

Not long after that, I got a spike in hits recently from a not-so-feminist-friendly forum and as you might imagine, the comments coming in have been … unkind. One pointed me to a blog called “A Voice for Men.” Up for a good hate read, I clicked. This is what I saw on the site’s masthead.

register-her

Yep. Clear as day, right next to the words “compassion for boys and men” is an ad promising revenge on bitches with the graphic image of a bloody knife. So much for compassion. (This is also an example of their fine work.)

Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) is not a legitimate movement advocating for boys and men, but a vehicle for misogyny, violence, and hate. Even the Good Men Project, which has recently come under fire for their icky rape apologism, agrees that Men’s Rights is bullshit. David Futrelle wrote: “the more I delved into the movement online, the more convinced I became that, for most of those involved in it, the movement isn’t really about the issues at all—rather, it’s an excuse to vent male rage and spew misogyny online. To borrow a phrase from computer programmers: misogyny isn’t a bug in the Men’s Rights Movement; it’s a feature.”

MRA Marmoset gets it

Instead of advocating or protesting or doing anything really to better the lives of boys and men, MRAs just like to bash women and feminists in particular. And when I use the term “bash” I mean it both figuratively (complaining about them on the internet) and literally (advocating for violence against women, often supposedly “in jest”). And handy for them, MRAs’ misogyny is supported and reinforced by dominant cultural beliefs about women being manipulative, back-stabbing sluts.

Like everyone else, I’ve also spent a lot of time this week reading and reflecting on the horrific tragedy at Newtown’s Sandy Hook elementary school. I came across a great Examiner piece by William Hamby on school shootings and white, male privilege that introduced me to the concept of “aggrieved entitlement.”

Aggrieved entitlement is a term used to explain the psychology behind mass shooters, which have all been white males. It is perhaps best defined by Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel (2010) in their article, Suicide by mass murder: Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement, and rampage school shootings:

These perpetrators were not just misguided ‘kids’, or ‘youth’ or ‘troubled teens’ – they’re boys. They are a group of boys, deeply aggrieved by a system that they may feel is cruel or demeaning. Feeling aggrieved, wronged by the world – these are typical adolescent feelings, common to many boys and girls. What transforms the aggrieved into mass murders is also a sense of entitlement, a sense of using violence against others, making others hurt as you, yourself, might hurt. Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man. Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.

Aggrieved entitlement is the thread connecting Nice Guys™, MRAs, and mass shooters. I spent a couple hours yesterday drawing webs, diagrams, and graphs trying to figure this all out. I wanted to see if I could diagram the different expressions and mutations of aggrieved entitlement in relation to variables like aggression, perceived threat of emasculation, introversion, extroversion, isolation, etc. I wasn’t able to come up with a model that made sense to represent this whole mess, but I did come up with a hypothesis.

MRAs and mass shooters probably started out as Nice Guys™. 

Now, I realize I can’t prove this hypothesis. I also don’t want to be misunderstood — I am not saying that all Nice Guys™ are future murderers or bigots. I just believe that they have the potential to be, depending on their circumstances and the influence of certain variables.

For example, an aggrieved and entitled Nice Guy™ who experiences rejection and the perceived threat of emasculation who is an extrovert may seek connection and community on the internet, and may one day become an MRA. An aggrieved and entitled Nice Guy™ who experiences rejection and the perceived threat of emasculation who is an introvert, on the other hand, may bottle up his anger and frustration. If you factor in aggression and the desire for revenge, that Nice Guy™ could be positioned to become an Adam Lanza or Seung-Hui Cho.

Of course, an aggrieved and entitled Nice Guy™ could become a lot of things. He could become an abusive partner, a rapist, the next radio host calling Sandra Fluke a “slut,” or the next right-wing Republican congressman trying to legislate birth control. But just as likely, an aggrieved and entitled Nice Guy™ could grow out of it. He could get educated and learn to understand the problems with this way of thinking and go on to become a perfectly healthy, well-adjusted, non-misogynist man and partner.

So, how do we make that happen? What can we do to help Nice Guys™ climb their way out of that aggrieved entitlement rabbit hole?

In a perfectly timed Cracked article, 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person, David Wong gives some straight talk advice to Nice Guys™:

“I read several dozen stories a year from miserable, lonely guys who insist that women won’t come near them despite the fact that they are just the nicest guys in the world.”

“I’m asking what do you offer? Are you smart? Funny? Interesting? Talented? Ambitious? Creative? OK, now what do you do to demonstrate those attributes to the world? Don’t say that you’re a nice guy — that’s the bare minimum. Pretty girls have guys being nice to them 36 times a day.”

“…don’t complain about how girls fall for jerks; they fall for those jerks because those jerks have other things they can offer. “But I’m a great listener!” Are you? Because you’re willing to sit quietly in exchange for the chance to be in the proximity of a pretty girl (and spend every second imagining how soft her skin must be)? Well guess what, there’s another guy in her life who also knows how to do that, and he can play the guitar.

It’s a good start, but we need to do more than explain that being nice isn’t enough to get girls.

We need to teach boys how to be friends with women. We need to teach them that friendship and kindness are standard elements of being a decent human being, not precious commodities to be rewarded or paid for in sex. We need to teach boys that rejection is a normal part of life, and to stop lashing out at All Women Ever when they feel hurt. We need to teach boys that violence doesn’t make them any more of a “man,” and that revenge is never the answer.

The past few weeks have been full of finger-pointing and solution-hunting. Gun control, mental health, and school security are all important things to talk about in light of what happened at Sandy Hook. However, the issue is larger than Sandy Hook and larger than mass shootings.

This issue at hand is the complex web of sexism, misogyny, and violence that spawns from aggrieved entitlement. In my opinion, the best place to start this deeply important work is consciousness raising with those young, marginalized, and misguided kids who identify themselves to us as “Nice Guys.”

While Nice Guys of OKCupid is a great tool to help explain Nice Guy Syndrome and raise awareness of the problem, it’s also a vehicle to further shame and humiliate kids who already feel marginalized and rejected. It’s not going to help them, and they need help. This is the real challenge. How do we reach out to them? How do we get through to them?

We need to start thinking of solutions; the potential cost of ignoring or further humiliating Nice Guys™ is far too scary to ignore.

Quick reactions to the New York Time’s take on MTV’s Teen Mom

Last week the New York Times published an article about the effect of MTV’s reality shows 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 on combating teen pregnancy. While the article acknowledged that some have challenged the franchise for glamorizing teen pregnancy by turning these girls into celebrities, it overwhelmingly asserts that the shows have had a positive effect by drawing attention to the issue and providing a vehicle for discussion. Still, I’m not sure I’m ready to jump on the “Yay, Teen Mom is the best for sex ed!” bandwagon.

Here are some off-the-top-of-my-head reactions to the piece. I should also preface these by admitting that I am an avid viewer of these shows.

  1. It’s great that the shows are providing entry points for conversation for both parents and educators, but are the majority of viewers actually having those conversations?
  2. A friend of mine who is the mother of teenage girls noted a lack of empathy that some teens have for the girls on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. While some people (myself included) do react emotionally to the girls’ hard-luck stories, others have little pity or sympathy, often assuming that the girls were “stupid” or “careless” or “sluts” and look what happened.
  3. The show doesn’t actually provide sex ed information, just says “Teen pregnancy is 100% preventable, go to our website.” If the programs were truly meant to prevent pregnancy, wouldn’t they want to include real sex ed info as much as possible?
  4. The show does not do enough to address abuse, physical or emotional. While MTV did react to the physical abuse depicted in the first season of Teen Mom, they have not addressed different forms of emotional abuse that aren’t hard to pick out, including emotional abuse from boyfriends (like Adam in Teen Mom 2) and extremely unhealthy parent-child relationships.
  5. Dr. Drew is a manipulative creep and should not be involved. The New York Times calls him a “hand-holder,” but after watching one too many finale specials, his involvement makes me cringe. He consistently encourages the girls to try to make it work with the baby-daddies, even if they don’t want a romantic relationship with them, and even when the baby-daddies are deadbeats or abusive.  This is not the message that teen viewers should walk away with at the end of the season.
  6. While educators use 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 in classrooms with little or no opposition, the one-time special No Easy Decision, in which a girl chooses abortion, is not used in this manner. One teacher cites not wanting to “test the limits.”  While the No Easy Decision special was super well done – seriously, I loved it – it was only aired once at an odd time and clearly no one is using it to spark discussion. There is no question that as a franchise, these shows ignore abortion as much as possible in order to remain “neutral,” which really isn’t very neutral at all.

Why I love Veronica Mars

This weekend I rewatched the first season of Veronica Mars, one of my all time favorite tv shows.  Veronica Mars, which aired in 2004, is about a teenage girl trying to solve the mystery of her best friend’s murder.  Veronica assists her father as a private investigator and puts her sleuthing skills to work to help classmates at school while she continues her murder investigation in secret. Veronica Mars is completely badass and as good of a feminist role model as you are going to find on television. I made the video below as a tribute to Veronica Mars.  It’s a compilation of scenes from the first season that illustrate why I think she’s so kick-ass.

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency made a great video explaining why she loves this show. She makes a lot of great points, and while I’m not going to repeat them all here, I would like to expand them a little bit.  I’m also not going to discuss the show as a whole and just focus on Veronica and why I think she’s a great role model for teenage girls.

1.  Veronica Mars is smart.  She’s in the top of her class and manages to keep her grades up despite her time-consuming detective work.  She’s not afraid of technology, using advanced cameras and spy gadgets and the like. She uses her wit to solve problems, resolve disputes, and find the truth.  She’s also not afraid to ask for help when she needs it.

2.  She apologizes when she makes mistakes.  Veronica Mars is not perfect. Sometimes she goes too far and she invades a friend’s privacy or betrays someone’s trust.  She always apologizes sincerely – a vital social skill that is often overlooked.

3. She doesn’t compromise on her ideals.  The series begins after Veronica is cast out of the popular crowd because she and her father refuse to accept that the man who confessed to the murder was really the killer.  After a year of bullying at school, she is given the chance to admit she was wrong and sorry and rejoin her old group.  She decides not to, saying that she didn’t feel “the least bit wrong, or sorry.”

Occasionally her grasp of right and wrong can seem a little too black and white.  For example, when her father tries to explain that her mother’s reasons for leaving are complicated, Veronica says, “No. The hero is the one who stays, the villain is the one who leaves.” This kind of “all or nothing” morality  is problematic but feels realistic because it helps remind us that, despite her maturity, she is still a teenager.  Still, it’s heartening to watch her resist peer pressure and stick to her guns despite whatever effect it may have on her social life – something that is rare among teenagers on TV or in real life.

4.  She sticks up for the little guy.  Along the same lines as #3, Veronica stands up for people she sees getting bullied.  I cannot stress enough how incredible this is.  It takes a lot of guts to stick your neck out for someone else, and it’s something that does not happen enough – especially in high school.

Veronica’s story in the first season is very much a coming of age story.  The murder of her best friend and rejection by her peers is a huge turning point in Veronica’s life as she loses her innocence and struggles to rebuild her identity as a strong and independent young woman. Her story is complex, yet relatable and instructive. It has so much more to offer than the simplistic morality lessons on other teen dramas like Secret Life of the American Teenager or Glee.

I sincerely recommend that you watch the first season of Veronica Mars, and share it with your kids if you have any.  (The second and third season are terrible, but the first season can stand on it’s own.)  We need more shows on television with female characters like Veronica.  And, it would be great if Kristen Bell could find some equally awesome movie roles.  It hurts to see our beloved, sharp-witted Veronica fall into the “pretty blonde” rom-com void a la Katherine Heigl.

So, here’s to you, Veronica. Let’s hope we see some more like this on tv soon.

Thoughts about “Tiger mothers” and parenting styles

Amy Chua at the 2007 Texas Book Festival, Aust...

Image via Wikipedia

It’s taken me a while, but I finally got around to reading Amy Chua‘s article in The Wall Street Journal,Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” The piece has generated a lot of discussion, much of it angry. (Although that’s to be expected with a headline like that.) A lot of other blogs have discussed the article with an eye to ethnic stereotyping and cultural sensitivity. (I really liked this piece at Jezebel.) I don’t want to re-hash the same arguments here; instead, I want to look at Chua’s argument about parenting styles, stripped of its cultural and ethnic essentialism. When I read Chua’s article ignoring the assumptions and generalizations about “Chinese parents” vs. “western parents,” I found that I didn’t find her arguments about parenting offensive, but interesting and eerily familiar.

The parenting style Chua attributes to Chinese mothers is one in which the parents push their kids to excel academically and in chosen extra-curriculars, valuing success and achievement over self-esteem. As a juxtaposition, she attributes a style to “westerners” that values self-esteem and a child’s happiness over success and achievement. While I do believe that there is some truth to stereotypes, I don’t think it’s fair or wise to argue that these parenting styles are representative of an entire cultural or ethnic group. Regardless, these contradictory styles are interesting and worth looking at more carefully.

A lot of people have made the comparison between Chinese mothers and Jewish mothers, and probably for good reason.  I do not want to make the same mistake as Chua and stereotype Jewish parents or suggest that my upbringing was typical of the Jewish kid, but there are definitely similarities in my personal upbringing to the style Chua describes and I do believe some of them are related to my Jewish identity.

My parents (especially my father) are the type that value achievement over self-esteem. I was expected to get straight A’s, play a musical instrument, and participate and excel in extra-curriculars. Unlike many of my peers, I wasn’t told to “do my best,” but to “be the best.” I’ll share a few anecdotes that illustrate what I mean. (Sorry Dad, I still love you!)

My dad was forced by his “Jewish mother” to play the violin. He hated it. While he still forced my brother and I to play a musical instrument, he gave us the luxury of choosing which instrument. I chose the flute, and after a week or two I could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Excited, I went to show my dad.  His response? “Come show me again when you don’t sound like a beginner.”  As a kid, I was never that great at math. So, my dad created “Chocolate math nights” where he drilled me on fractions and long division (in addition to my regular homework) and threw in a little chocolate to sweeten the deal. Another memorable moment was in high school, when I came running home waving my test for him to see. I got a 99 out of 100!  A+!  His response?  “What, you couldn’t get that last point?”

Chua describes two different belief systems that perhaps explain the difference between the two parenting styles. One style is based on the belief that your kid can be the best, or can achieve excellence with enough practice and hard work. Alternatively, some parents believe that their child “just doesn’t have the aptitude” for a particular subject or skill, or chalk bad grades up to inadequate teaching or unfair circumstances. The second belief is that children “owe” their parents everything, where alternatively, some parents believe that they owe their children everything, including happiness. The third is the belief that ultimately, the parent knows what is best and their opinions override the child’s desires or preferences. Alternatively, some parents believe in giving their kids the freedom to find their own way. Chua believes that both types of parents love their children equally; “It’s just an entirely different parenting model.”  Of course, considering the title of her piece, its obvious which style she thinks is better.

Thinking about how I want to raise my own kids one day, I often wonder if I will follow in my parents’ footsteps.  The reality is that I may not have a choice considering that, like most kids, I have internalized my parents’ values.  Remembering how much pressure my parents placed on me, and how much pressure I now place on myself, I am uncomfortable with the idea that I’ll put that much pressure on my children.  I don’t think it harmed my self-esteem, per se, but it did fuse my idea of self-worth to achievement and I often (still) struggle with the feeling that I will never be “good enough.” On the other hand, it did get results. I was a straight A student, got into a great college, and I’m on my way to getting my second Masters degree.

Oddly enough, Amy Chua’s article actually made me feel better about my own future as an overbearing, achievement-pushing parent. I thank her for getting down to the beliefs underlying the style, particularly the belief that your kid can be the best, get straight A’s, etc. Telling a kid that B’s are not good enough may seem like a put-down, but for these parents, it really means “I believe in you. I believe you can do better.” Understanding this puts my parents’ actions in better perspective. While I still feel pressure to accomplish great things in order to make them proud of me, it feels really good to know that they believe I am smart and capable enough to accomplish these great things.

My dad tried to be a little less overbearing than his own parents (adding chocolate to math drills, letting us choosing our own instrument, etc). Like him, I know I want to give my kids a slightly more balanced upbringing than I had. I know I will be a little more concerned with things like self-esteem, but I also don’t want to abandon the achievement-based values my parents instilled in me. Despite the pressure that may result, I know that I too will believe that my kids can do anything and everything with enough hard work, help and support. There are lots of different kinds of love and while I’m not going to say that this one is “superior,” it makes a lot of sense to me.

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?

Jack-o-latern

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.