Our Bodies, Ourselves
in the 21st Century
In the 1960s some Boston women met to talk about their bodies and ended up starting a movement to seize control of their health from the male medical establishment. More than 40 years after they published Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book by and for Women, progress on reproductive and female-sexuality issues may be trending backward. “Conservative men in their 60s,” as comedian Stephen Colbert deadpanned, are “America’s foremost experts on young women’s reproductive health.”
Margaret Sanger founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood as a “fighting, forward, no fooling movement, battling for the freedom of the poorest parents and for women’s biological freedom and development.” Not long ago even the most conservative politicians believed in Planned Parenthood’s mission, including Barry Goldwater and George H.W. Bush, who was so outspoken in supporting contraception that his fellow senators called him Rubbers. When Roe v. Wade secured abortion rights based on a constitutional right to privacy, in 1973, an increase in contraceptives’ availability was generally considered necessary for a decrease in abortions. But Republican strategists made abortion a wedge issue for political advantage, and over the ensuing decades it became a major polarizing influence in the United States. Dr. Alan Guttmacher, Planned Parenthood’s president at the time of Roe, lamented, “The ironic fact is that those who oppose and those who favor legalization of abortion share a common goal—the elimination of all abortion.” The current conservative movement, while promoting abstinence-only sex education in schools, has paired a determination to make abortion illegal again with a push to shut down Planned Parenthood and other organizations promoting the commonsense family planning that reduces unwanted pregnancies—and abortions.
In recent years the Republican Party’s antiabortion stance has lurched rightward, away from the allowance that in certain instances—when pregnancy endangers the mother’s life or results from rape—the woman’s rights prevail over the fetus’s. Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri proclaimed in 2012 that women who are raped can’t become pregnant, while Richard Mourdock, running for Indiana’s open Senate seat, asserted, “Even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape…it is something that God intended to happen.” Wisconsin state assemblyman Roger Rivard was forced to backpedal on his statement that “some girls rape so easy.”
Most of the reactionary 2012 candidates lost. Early presidential-race dropout Rick Perry, upon returning to his Texas governorship, kept reproductive issues in the foreground; in July 2013 he signed antiabortion legislation that consequently restricts women’s access to the other health care services that soon-to-be-shuttered family-planning clinics provide. The month before, state senator Wendy Davis had staged an 11-hour filibuster that prevented the bill’s initial passage. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson, of RedState, dubbed her Abortion Barbie and tweeted, “Dear Liberals, go bookmark this site now,” with a link to a coat hanger dealer—referring to that implement’s use in deadly back-alley abortions.
The title of Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s confession that despite his 30 years of “research into the feminine soul,” he still hadn’t answered that question. Bergner’s study suggests women really want more sex with more partners—that they’re naturally less monogamous than men. In exploring how the female libido has been regarded through the ages, Bergner finds the curious belief, posited in the second century A.D. by physician Galen of Pergamum, that both sexes must reach orgasm during intercourse in order for conception to occur. This myth endured for centuries, and its flipside apparently still does: Conservative Missouri congressman Todd Akin in 2012 maintained that rape doesn’t result in pregnancy because, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” In a 2013 New York Times article about female desire, Bergner wrote that researchers developing the so-called female Viagra are mindful of such antiquated views. They worry that if their products work too well, the FDA will reject them “out of concern that a chemical would lead to female excesses, crazed binges of infidelity, societal splintering.”
“Reading the news this morning was like stepping into a time machine and going back 50 years,” Washington senator Patty Murray said in 2012 after the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform interviewed an all-male panel in a hearing on contraceptive coverage in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, now a reproductive-health advocate, later spoke in a special hearing. Her testimony—including “Without insurance coverage, contraception…can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school”—prompted conservative mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh to ridicule her on his radio program for days. Besides calling her a slut, he claimed, “She’s having sex so frequently…she can’t afford all the birth control pills that she needs.” Rachel Maddow and other political commentators noted Limbaugh’s misunderstanding of how oral contraceptives work, but Stephen Colbert assured audiences Limbaugh was correct: “There’s one [pill] for each sperm. They act like little baby deflectors.” Limbaugh’s tirade was widely decried as “slut shaming.” While some feminist groups, such as SlutWalk, have seized the word slut as an empowerment vehicle, the media’s blithe appropriation of the term—in headlines such as “Conservatives Stoop to Slut-Shaming Obama’s Dead Mother”—seems to cross a line.
In What Do Women Want? Daniel Bergner uses scientific data to refute the “sexual fable of evolutionary science” that women are less libidinous than men. Blaming “historic suspicion and fear of female sexuality” for this belief, he posits that if promiscuity were labeled slutty in boys and encouraged in girls, we’d have different stereotypes. Writers have long questioned the double standard: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, for example, exposes society’s hypocrisy in condemning women but not men for being sexual. In the 21st century, however, sexual shaming spreads quickly via social media. Photographs of a couple engaged in a sex act at a 2013 Eminem concert were sent globally on Twitter and Instagram. The man was dubbed a hero, the woman a slut. Her name and Facebook profile were revealed; his identity received far less interest. Also in 2013, after two 18-year-old Connecticut football players were arrested for the statutory rape of two 13-year-old girls, a classmate reinforced the inequality in a tweet: “Young girls acting like whores there’s no punishment.… Young men acting like boys is a sentence.” But the penalty for girls is often severe. Numerous sexual-shaming incidents have ended with the female’s suicide.
Investigative reporter Barbara Ehrenreich wrote “Welcome to Cancerland,” published in Harper’s Magazine in 2001, after her breast cancer diagnosis and her induction into the illness’s support community: “Although we may imagine ourselves to be well past the era of patriarchal medicine, obedience is the message behind the infantilizing theme in breast cancer culture, as represented by the teddy bears, the crayons and the prevailing pinkness.” Peggy Orenstein, after her second incidence of breast cancer, revealed in “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer,” a 2013 article in The New York Times Magazine, that not much has changed. Breast cancer charities, symbolized by pink ribbons, have spread “awareness” to the point that breasts seem pathologized. Fund-raisers celebrate thousands of “survivors” of nonthreatening cancers, yet their numbers didn’t budge in the dozen years between the articles. Researchers still don’t know why some breast cancers metastasize or why some that don’t are still fatal. For 87 to 97 percent of women with breast cancer, mammograms made no difference in survival rates. Yet when the nonpolitical U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended, based on clinical evidence, a reduced frequency of mammograms, conservatives denounced the findings and tied them to ObamaCare “death panels.”
In a 2012 clash over women’s reproductive health, Planned Parenthood, whose president was Cecile Richards (daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards), took on Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the breast cancer advocacy organization founded by Nancy Brinker (who had served in the George W. Bush administration). Citing a congressional inquiry into Planned Parenthood’s handling of federal grants, Komen announced it would stop funding mammograms at the group’s clinics. The outcry was severe, and Komen reversed its decision within days, stating that because the inquiry was “political,” not “criminal,” Planned Parenthood (which received an influx of donations at this time) was still eligible for funding.
Komen, whose logo is the pink ribbon, isn’t new to controversy. Many cancer researchers and survivors object to its “branding” of breast cancer, its dubious one-note message that early detection saves lives, its encouragement of treating cancers that aren’t life-threatening, and its licensing deals for unhealthful products (connections denigrated as “pinkwashing”), including Kentucky Fried Chicken and a perfume containing toxic chemicals. The Cancer Prevention Coalition denounced Komen’s association with AstraZeneca, a former pesticide maker that helped launch Breast Cancer Awareness Month, for making women “unwitting allies of the very people who make them sick.”
We can’t examine how far we’ve progressed in women’s health since the first publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves, in 1971, without examining how far we haven’t come. Fewer women die of breast cancer thanks to treatment advances, but more endure unnecessary treatment and duress thanks to questionably effective screening programs touted by Susan G. Komen for the Cure and other campaigns that push a lopsided, potentially harmful narrative. States have imposed nearly 200 restrictions on abortion since 2010. Among these were laws in five states mandating doctors to tell women seeking an abortion that the procedure may cause breast cancer—even though, as Komen’s website explains, “research clearly shows no link between the two.” These laws, shockingly, require medical personnel to violate their professional ethics and lie to women about their health, further complicating a decision no woman or couple makes lightly. A bright spot in reproductive rights was the FDA’s 2013 approval of Plan B One-Step (a.k.a. the morning-after pill) as an over-the-counter drug. Undeterred, Republican congressional representatives greeted 2014 with a bill requiring rape victims to undergo IRS audits to prove an assault had occurred if they want to claim medical-expense tax deductions for an abortion.