Monthly Archives: August 2011

Don’t Pull Me Into Your Crazy

I occasionally (absurdly) wonder if I will run out of things to write about on this blog. And then, I walk out my front door and New York City is able to assuage those concerns by presenting me with something like this:

Courtesy of NBC

Oh, Whitney Cummings. Your brand of comedy has never really been my style (to each her own), but don’t try to drag me into your twisted, coded, gendered division of communication styling.

Many women I know are ninjas in the sense that they juggle multiple responsibilities at work and home – many men as well – successfully and admirably. But by claiming that half the population lacks the communication and conversation skills to express their anger and frustration and instead chooses to plaintively claim calmness while plotting a violent attack against their partner as opposed to saying “actually, I’m not fine, we need to chat about something,” really seems to hammer home that stereotype of women being unpredictable shrill harpies who have no control over their emotions. I smell a setup.

I know this is an ad for her comedy show, but I actually don’t think she’s joking and that’s why I’m a bit troubled. First off, I’m not someone who thinks that just because a woman tells a sexist joke it automatically isn’t actually sexist. I see women who promote negative associations of women, even in what is presented as a comic format, more as trying to utilize and manipulate a standard-fare misogynistic framework – one that’s already firmly in place and is pretty hard to change thanks to years of socialization – for their benefit. Slamming their gender seems like a crass way to get ahead. Not to mention it’s totally unwarranted. Why not challenge these claims with humor instead?

Making jokes about women’s supposedly untameable roller-coaster emotional lives is nothing new – comedians have been doing it for years. But what’s interesting to look at is how these jokes are then translated into real criticism of women – particularly ambitious women. Look at Hillary Clinton. Throughout the course of her campaign for Presidency, she was lambasted constantly for being “too emotional” or not emotional enough, supposedly indicating an inability to not be swayed by a hormonal response or showing a disconnect from the people. These claims were used to call into question her ability to lead the country. These irrelevant and sexist charged assessments and provocations, remarkably, took center stage of her coverage and entirely overlooked her phenomenal qualifications and understanding of both domestic and foreign policy. Even after being appointed to a position of such eminence as Secretary of State, some critics just can’t stop. The photo of the Cabinet in the Situation Room during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound was seen as another snapshot of Clinton supposedly having an emotional reaction to a situation that the men ostensibly handled “stoically.”

I’m inclined, because of this, to not so much see the ‘Whitney’ ads as funny or new but as pulling out some tired insults used against women and packaging them as funny and new because a woman herself is making the jab. Whitney’s presentation as one of the gang, going in on the old-boy jokes, actually makes it seem as though these old stereotypes are nothing, that they don’t really mean anything, that women agree we’re so hard to get along with, and unpredictable, and might burst into tears or bite your head off at any given moment! When in fact we know that isn’t the case, and that these adjectives and descriptions have and can cause women to be seen as inferior, less capable, and unable to manage. Reiterating them in a comedic setup doesn’t actually challenge but reinforces them. Perhaps her show will be different than what the ad suggests, only time will tell. I’m sure good comedians can find other things to joke about than women’s emotional lives.

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Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

The DSK Decision and the Definition of Consent

I have held off writing about the DSK case being tossed out because honestly, I can’t really bear it. Plenty of other news sources and bloggers have reported on the reasons why I feel this is a catastrophic blow to victims of sexual assault, and reiterating it would likely only upset me and readers even more. However, a news story reported in my hometown paper, The Chronicle, got me thinking about the definitions of consent and what it means to be a person worthy of a trial, and I thought I’d tie these two instances together.

According to the DSK decision, if one has lied in the past they are considered unworthy of a trial in the eyes of the DA – whose goal seems to be focused solely on winning as opposed to determining if in this particular instance one is lying. Let’s look at the specific lies in question – namely, the reason behind Diallo’s asylum in the United States and her recounts of the story.

First, the defense is claiming that since she allegedly lied on her asylum application about being gang raped in her home country, she cannot be trusted in this accusation of DSK. Had she lied? Yes, she admitted to that. Does that matter in this specific case of DSK assaulting her in the hotel room when a forensic examination, including a medical exam, proved to be consistent with her story? No. When she lied on her asylum application – as many, many people do (an interesting and poignant piece in the New Yorker recently profiled this in a case example) – she did so to escape a country in which she felt constantly at risk and in danger and wanted to protect her daughter from the same fate. Should the fact that many people do this – and lie about repeated gang rapes in particular – immediately excuse the lie? No. But it does put it in the context of a reality that should not go unexamined. While lying in previous instances can make a case harder to win, and isn’t something I’m championing or condoning, when you look at her reasons for a falsehood on her asylum application, it make no sense that she would then risk a job she was grateful and proud to have gotten as a hotel housekeeper, raising in her daughter in New York, by having what the defense claims was consensual sex in the middle of her cleaning duties.

In regards to the changing of her story, it is well known and understood by trauma experts that women who have experienced sexual assault (and not just sexual assault, but any traumatic event, for both genders) often recall the order of events differently and clarify them as time goes on, due to the effects of the shock, denial, and the coping mechanism of blocking out of painful incidents. This does not mean that the assault didn’t happen, particularly since this reaction has been seen and understood many times over by many other rape and assault victims.

What I also find interesting in these cries about credibility is how gendered they are. DSK has a notorious history in France of being too forward and sexually aggressive with women; in my mind this causes some credibility issues for him as well, as he claims in this instance it was only consensual. It also reminds me of the fact that one of the NYPD officers acquitted this summer had a history of sexually harassing women, unsubstantiated arrest of a woman and blocking the filing of a report of the woman whom he sexually harassed – yet this was not seen as hampering his credibility. Nor was the fact that he made false 911 calls that routed him back to the apartment of the East Village victim and denied ever sleeping with her and then promptly changed his story to one of doing so but using a condom and assuring it was consensual. If we’re saying Diallo has credibility issues, I’d say these two need to join her on that wagon.

In the San Francisco case, we are confronted with a similar – though not the same – situation; one of assessing the validity of the accuser based on previous actions or claims. A SF lawyer (who specializes in sexual harassment cases, interestingly) is accused of raping three women, ages 19 – 36, whom he met over Craigslist while searching for partners interested in dominant-submissive rough sex. Two of the women had consented to having sex with this man on previous occasions before filing specific incidents of assault and rape. The man’s attorney has used this as evidence that the women were consensual partners, interested in engaging in sex and agreeing to what the man proposed in his post.

It seems we need a reminder of the definition of consent.

It does not matter if a woman is a prostitute. It does not matter if a woman had sex with you consensually in the past. It does not matter if in an email a woman expressed interest in specific sexual roles, positions, and activity. What matters is if in the specific encounter at hand, both parties have expressed the desire to go forward, and that if one withdraws that consent at any point it is the responsibility of the other to stop. The women could have easily agreed over an email exchange to engage in dominant-submissive sex, arrived at the man’s home still agreeing to it, and agreed to it right up to the minute they were to begin. But if in that minute she decided she no longer wanted to do this or was hesitant and unsure and wanted to wait, and he went ahead anyway – then it becomes rape.

Rape and sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to try. They are usually he said/she said situations, at best aided by forensic evidence. Each case is unique, each has elements that are often not introduced or examined until a trial begins – this exemplifies the importance of scrutiny and juries who devote days to understanding the nuances and details of cases that are not reported or perceived by the media.

Setting the precedent that previously engaging in sexual activity, lying, or expressing interest in sexual experimentation eliminates your chances for a fair trial regarding the specific assault case at hand pushes us into the realm of implausibility. It is also worth noting that despite outcries of false accusations, the most frequently repeated results of studies regarding false claims and filings of rape show that the real rate of these is between 2% at its lowest and 7% at its highest (American Prosecutors Research Institute). But the media sheds so much light on the false claims that people presume it is much higher. The vast majority of rape and sexual assault charges never see the spotlight – perhaps because they aren’t dangerous enough or don’t involve high-ranking political figures or people whom media isn’t able to coin as gold-diggers and attention mongers because of their social or socioeconomic status. The bottom line is that each story deserves to be closely and carefully examined, and not discarded because a DA thinks he can’t win the case. District Attorney Vance is quoted as saying “If we don’t believe her beyond a reasonable doubt, we cannot expect a jury to.” I would venture to say that given the outcry over his decision, many people would like to hear the full story (and who do in fact think that the issue of reasonable doubt is in question) from both sides, with all the available evidence and fleshed out arguments. The issue of the truth, and seeking it, should take the precedence over one’s doubt at a courtroom victory.

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I Still Don’t Think Yoplait Gets It.

I wrote about the Yoplait commercial that was pulled from the air a few weeks ago in a post that had some hope for a change of tune for the company. It seemed that given the outcry – from media critics to the National Eating Disorder Association – Yoplait understood that their presentation of an anxious and panicked woman weighing whether or not she was “good” enough to eat a piece of cake and how many pieces of celery she would punish herself with in return for this ghastly ingestion was both triggering and normalizing. Triggering for people who may have experienced battles with eating disorders in the past, and normalizing for those who may be on the cusp of such a struggle, ensuring them that their mental calculations and rewards were right on par with the rest of America’s women. I also saw the danger in the potential of the commercial subtly instructing young women that this kind of anguish over food was what they had to expect and look forward to in their future, thereby setting them up for young failure. (I want to note that I am not excluding this commercial’s impact on the men who suffer from eating disorders, I am emphasizing women here because of the construct of the commercial and the genders of those who were featured in it.) I’ve also discussed advertising’s effect on behavior elsewhere, and I think this post addresses some of my previously articulated concerns.

However. I fear I wrote with hope a bit too soon. Another of Yoplait’s popular commercials smacks me between the eyes every couple of days, and while it’s certainly not as yougottabekiddingme as the one with the celery champion, there is still a real issue here:

Classifying some foods as “good” and vilifying others as “bad” sets one up for failure in a most beautifully orchestrated series of events.  Certain foods may be healthier for you than others, but like most things, foods do not carry with them an innate characteristic of innocence or evil. In giving foods these kind of descriptions, they take on anthropomorphic identities that make it easy for one to associate with themselves. If cake = bad, and I consume cake, then I have consumed bad, ergo me = bad. Cake isn’t “bad.” It’s sweet. Sometimes sugary, sometimes tart. Sometimes in cup form. It isn’t “bad.”

And of course, you will eat cake at some point. Or a cookie, a brownie, a pie, pick your pleasure. If you don’t like sweets but are trying to calorie cut like a pageant contestant, perhaps it will be bread, or all carbs, or any drink other than water. Trying to eliminate the consumption of something either enjoyable (cake) or necessary (you know, food in general), the abstinence of which upon you have hinged your self-worth, leads you down a dark path resulting in you equating yourself with a monster when all you did was have some dessert.

While I noted above that men also suffer from eating disorders (they comprise about 10% of eating disorder cases), this commercial also does nothing to fight and everything to reiterate one of our oldest gender stereotypes. A woman obsessing over food and calorie counts and thinking herself to be deserving of punishment if she fails the arbitrary, socially sanctioned test of true character – resisting cake and losing weight! The fact that someone as talented as Jennifer Hudson recently articulated that her weight loss was more of an accomplishment than her Oscar shows just how far the socialization of this absurd test of character has gone for women and girls. Making the resistance of a slice of sheet cake the high point of one’s day (or the accomplishment of your life) really diminishes the much more astonishing achievements one is capable of.

Losing weight can be a healthy goal for a lot of people if they are at risk for complications like diabetes, heart disease, or high blood-pressure. But it isn’t everything – which is what most media messages seem to think it should be. If you’re trying to lose weight, talk to your physician about nutritional guidelines and an exercise plan. And first, clarify if you need to lose weight at all. I suspect that many of you don’t, but have been informed by a bear sheriff that you do not meet the specifications of his ideal woman.

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Filed under Defining Gender, Disordered Eating, Education, Feminism, Media, Mental Health, Pop Culture, Public Health, Sexism, Women's Health

Sexist and Sexualized Advertising: On the Rise

A new study released by University of Buffalo sociologists discovered something truly ground-breaking: there has been an undeniable and continually increasing hyper-sexualiztion of images of women in popular media over the last several decades.

This is something that I would normally take notice of and file alongside the slew of reports that have similar conclusions and continue to confirm what I’ve always felt to be true about advertising and media presentations of women. Being a major theme of my blog, I occasionally worry that I’m Not Tired Yet will begin to sound like a broken record as I continue to write about how damaging media portrayals of women and girls truly are, and how it impacts human development, sense of self-worth, and definitions of beauty for both sexes.

That being said, as long as women and girls continue to be hyper-sexualized in images, videos, and advertisements, there have to be just as many consistent criticisms of them. Creating a chorus of opposition that shows growing girls this is not normal, not healthy, and that they have much, much more to offer than what our culture’s media is telling them they do through a ceaseless blasting bullhorn.

In this particular study, researchers’ conclusions did offer a concrete example of gender disparity in this realm. While representations of men and women have become increasingly sexualized, it was the intensity of the sexualization of women which was particularly shocking and far exceeded that of men. A scale was developed to rate the intensity of the level of sexualization of images, which showed evidence of women being far more likely to be in positions of submission or of offering pleasure as tools of hetero-male sexual desire. This sets a dangerous precedent – women are those who satisfy, men are those who are satisfied.

In the grand scheme of things, media not only influences our decisions and impacts our thinking, but is a reflection of these things as well – it’s a circuitous pattern of reinforcement and ever-heightening intensity. The more these images are sexualized, then the more it is socially expected for women to act as sexualized as they are portrayed, then the more sexualized the images become, building upon themselves as viewers need increasingly overt sexualization to feel excited or as though advertisements are pushing boundaries – which is what advertisements do to draw in a receptive audience. This causes two immediately obvious problems – first, that this pattern leads one down a path that ends in unquestioned and irrelevant nudity and commodification of the sexual identity of girls;  secondly, we move farther and farther away from the objections that this kind of imagery is entirely inappropriate, sexist, pedophilic, and harmful.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to guest speak on a radio show about the effects of sexualization and violence in video games and media. One of the last questions the host asked me was, “So, what’s the solution? Should we censor these video games and movies?”

My response to this was no, of course I am against censorship. The free speech I advocate protects the video game developers (and advertisers, fashion labels, films, etc etc) as well as my criticism of them – which I will stop as soon as I see the egregious violence against women, forced sex acts and trivialization of women stop. That being said, there is an element of self-censorship — editing, if you will — that could certainly happen on the part of the creators. Until the developers want to change the games, they aren’t going to change – which is why I said that the ‘solution’ as it stands is keeping up the constant conversation, the constant writing, the constant research, that refutes the idea that these games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc, that send the same messages) are just harmless entertainment. We know they aren’t. But the games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc) keep selling and people keep buying because it’s seen as normal, and the media’s bottom line – $$ – is different than that of a parent, educator, coach, sibling, etc, who have concerns (hopefully) centered around the health of their children. So the ‘solution’ is to keep up the commentary, keep up the research, keep up the discussions about why these media messages are harmful, and ensure that parents, teachers, siblings, and, of course, anyone who are concerned about healthy children growing into healthy adults, are aware of why media matters and the kind of influence it is having.

Curbing the effects of non-stop media is difficult, but not impossible, and involves even more talking – this time directed at the kids. Getting media to change its tactics can feel damn near impossible, but keeping up a constant dialogue with children about the kind of messages they’re on the receiving end of can certainly help.

In the end, it comes down to what kind of society we want to cultivate – for us and our future generations. The kind of culture we want to look upon as having created – the definitions of gender, success, individual expression, and love – and having fostered. Is it one in which the bottom line is comprised strictly of financial and monetary goals, with little regard as to what happens to members of our communities and how our actions impact children and youth in pursuit of that goal? Or the opposite?

Wanna answer that question on Twitter? Follow me here!

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A Bunny’s Return

“The Playboy Club,” a show debuting on NBC’s fall lineup has had its fair share of publicity. A Salt Lake City NBC affiliate is refusing to air the show for moral reasons, Troy Patterson’s thinly veiled assault on Maureen Dowd’s coverage of the show, in which he quotes Amber Heard – the show’s leading Bunny – as saying “what’s wrong with being sexy? Why is that subservient?” Even NPR covered the show’s bizarre claim that it was empowering for women because, as Hefner says, “a bunny could be anything they wanted;” an odd claim since the identity of a bunny was scripted with a hard line and came with a hefty set of rules and guidelines.

One of those rules that Gloria Steinem revealed in her great expose “A Bunny’s Tale” about going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, was STI examinations and a physical. This logically leads one to the assumption that the bunnies were expected, encouraged, or even forced to engage in sexual relationships with the clients under the identity of Bunny – why else require a waitress to get an STI test? This is where my first retort to Ms. Heard’s bafflingly short-sighted comment comes into play. The Bunnies have to get tested so they don’t infect the men – what about the men infecting the Bunnies? Were they swabbed upon entrance to the club to ensure that they weren’t putting the waitresses at risk? It seems they were excused because they were funneling money into the pockets of Hefner, and this is a perfect example of why Ms. Heard is serving above all else. Catering to the whims of the customers with the most money without protection or regard for the workers doesn’t make it seem like those workers are so empowered after all. Seems more like they’re at risk.

Ms. Steinem had a great response to the show, in which she said: “It normalizes a passive dominant idea of gender. So it normalizes prostitution and male dominance.” She has hopes that it will be boycotted, and I fully share in Ms. Steinem’s vision of what the show projects. Normalization of unhealthy behaviors and images is a primary topic of my blog. Despite it taking place 50 years ago, witnessing the power dynamic between the bunnies and the customers reinforces how damaging those scripted gender roles truly are – and for viewers who still think those gender roles should remain as scripted, this show and the participants’ comments that it’s all just fun and games helps to serve their ideal. Why would we want to bring back – even as a source of entertainment – the vision of a reality that restrained women from being seen in their workplace as anything more than a decoration? Beyond that, this show isn’t even an attempt at parody, it’s an attempt to glorify this world that Ms. Steinem points out resulted in “women…[telling] me horror stories of what they experienced at the Playboy Club and at the Playboy Mansion.”

There are also serious flaws with the idea that these roles were empowering for the women simply because the men were told “not to touch” the bunnies. This creates the false notion that the best way for a woman to maintain a position of power is to withhold sex. The bunnies could have had this “power” which was limited to withholding sexual pleasure while in a sexual pleasure palace taken away from them easily, through direct assault or coerced sexual relationships that they felt they needed to engage in given their role as servers. Withholding something is not in and of itself an act of positive power but one of passivity masquerading as control - which can easily yield to the money these customers had. An act of positive power would be intellect, a skill set, developed talent, cultivated life experiences leading to the fully fleshed out self not entirely composed of a sexuality and not reliant on the financing – whether in tips or in marriage – of men. True power exists when the reliance on others or threat of others ceases to exist. This isn’t to say that sexuality isn’t a part of an identity, I most certainly think it is. However, the bunnies – infantilized, presented as reward, reduced to the image of a cuddly baby rabbit – are not actually presented (in this show, and in Ms. Steinem’s brilliant ‘A Bunny’s Tale’) as women who have a deep understanding of their sexuality and identity. The power in sexuality lies in one’s ability to articulate what their sexual needs and wants are, to respect those of others, and to communicate with partners. That is what prevents one partner from feeling or being subservient to the other – something The Playboy Club doesn’t seem to promote.

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Bill O’Reilly, You So Crazy

Oh, Bill. I never cease to be amazed by some of the things you teach me. For example, how the brutal and horrifying rampage in Norway was not committed by a Christian (despite the rambling Christianity-soaked manifesto, and your O’Reilly-esque insistence that all terrorist attacks are carried out by Muslims regardless of any indication of their Islamic faith), simply because you don’t think a Christian would do that. Or like how your three visits to Africa assured you that you just can’t “bring Western reasoning into the culture.” Oh, and that the ACLU is second only to Al-Qaeda in how dangerous and threatening it is. And that poverty is a result being lazy and irresponsible, and if you just work hard and go to school, then, you know, you’ll make bags and bags of money and be just fine regardless of anything else or circumstance. Which sounds totally on point, since you also taught me that conservatives “see things in black and white, and liberals see gray.” Which sounds like nuance, and uh-oh, you’ve made me see that nuance makes things complicated…

And this past week, O’Reilly taught me this: “Many women who get pregnant are blasted out of their minds when they have sex and [are] not going to use birth control anyway.”

(First of all, if the women O’Reilly and the men he knows are having sex with are blasted out of their mind, I’d be interested in hearing how that consent discussion went. Perhaps his definition of consent is a little hazy. Recall - if she’s too drunk to consent, it’s not consensual sex.) 

But back to what he’s taught me. With this latest statement, I’ve learned that women – regardless of their sobriety level – are exclusively the ones who need to be concerned with contraception and infection (and that, in fact, they do a terrible job of this). Only one person in a two-person sexual encounter is responsible for ensuring the woman doesn’t get pregnant (hint – it is not the man). He’s also informed me that contraception is something only considered the exact moment before a sexual encounter occurs – not hours or days or months before – just in that whisper of a moment before the magic happens. If O’Reilly had actually engaged in sexual activity with the woman he harassed, maybe he would have just crossed his fingers that she was both sober and using birth control and not have give it a second passing thought or considered it his concern. So let’s all just do the same moving forward.

More seriously now – it’s unconscionable that someone supposes men should be able to have sex with a woman (a drunk or sober one) whenever they want and also not have to worry about or share the burden of responsibility to avoid pregnancy. We need to utilize as many tools as we can to prevent pregnancy, and that prevention should be shared equally between the two partners engaging in sexual activity. It would be great if health insurance took the lead and incorporated 50% (or 100%, if they were so inclined) of the cost of a partner’s contraception of choice into a man’s health insurance plan. I think that would be even more of a fighting point than co-pays being covered under plans.

Nancy Northrup, CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, did a great job and broke it down over at CBS News about why the hysteria over insurers now eliminating co-pays for women with contraceptive prescriptions that is bubbling over is not actually all that hysterical. In fact, it’s something that 28 states require to be covered by health insurance, something already covered (with those pesky co-pays) by government health insurance, and something that 99% of all women have used, regardless of religious affiliation.

Additionally, under the Affordable Care Act, virtually all of us will be required to have or purchase health insurance (a contentious point, still, largely among Republicans, but others as well). With what will be an added cost to the personal budget of many Americans, let’s take a snapshot of what the cost of birth control is: the pill is up to $50 a month (over $500/year), the NuvaRing is up to $70 a month (over $800/year) $500 – $1,000 for an IUD; even the morning after pill, used if other birth control methods failed or were forgotten, costs up to $70.  If you are currently one of the millions without healthcare and one of the millions without a job and an income, these costs are likely to be the first that are cut as you struggle to keep you and your family afloat. However. Pre-natal care costs, the cost of delivery, well visits for a newborn – and, you know, the food and clothing needs of a baby – are not going to be cheaper than the contraception options. Bottom line – prevention can be costly, and beneficial to all. Absence of prevention is even more costly, and frequently puts a lot of burden on all parties involved.

Remember how in O’Reilly’s world everyone is super wasted when they’re having sex – too wasted to worry about a condom? All these methods – the IUD, the birth control pill, the NuvaRing – can be taken or inserted well before sex. Some don’t ever come out, some devices like the NuvaRing are changed monthly. This is why these are called preventive measures. You are utilizing them well before you engage in sexual activity, so when you’re in O’Reilly’s alcohol-soaked sex fiesta and about to engage in consensual sexual activity, pregnancy is already well on the way of being stopped in its tracks. (Not STIs, let’s not forget. None of these protect against sexually transmitted diseases.) His excuse that they aren’t thinking about using contraception holds no water in the argument of preventive techniques like these that take the worry about pregnancy prevention out of the immediate sexual encounter (not 100%, though – no method is 100% effective, and I actually recommend using one of these birth control methods as well as condoms). I’d also add here that many women when drunk are still concerned with pregnancy prevention, so that weasle-y move of trying to make intoxicated women look like reckless players shooting for a fertilized egg is also inaccurate.

Bill’s “black and white” take on the issue of contraception seems to boil down to: women need to pay for their birth control, they need to pay for their pre-natal care costs and gynecological exams, they need to pay for the cost of having the baby. But the fetus was not put there by her alone. The desire to not get pregnant is not hers alone. Communicative partnerships and cost coverage in these areas leading to happy, healthy mothers and children would benefit everyone.

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