Tag Archives: gender

Maternal Health and the Status of Women

Both globally and domestically, maternal health and the standing of women are inextricably linked. If women do not have the means and access to give birth safely, with trained and educated midwives, physicians and nurses, with appropriate prenatal education and care, it is often indicative of the standing of women in their communities and countries overall. Women’s inequality is also linked to the soaring population growth in developing countries, which will pose a range of new challenges for the next few generations.

Some may point to the United States as an anomaly, citing women’s increasing economic and financial independence, education, and leadership roles in America, while in terms of maternal health rankings, we remain pathetically far down the line for our resources (49 other countries are safer places to give birth than the U.S. – despite us spending more money on healthcare than anywhere else). Of course, the recent and incessant attacks on allowing women to access credible, accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education and services makes this statistic not entirely…surprising, shall we say.

So, I found the incredibly detailed and visually impressive infographic by the National Post, pulled from spectacular data and research done by Save the Children to be particularly fascinating. What they did was combine information on the health, economic, and education status of women to create overall rankings of the best and worst countries for women, splitting the countries into categories of more developed, less developed, and least developed, and the countries were ranked in relation to the other countries in their category (the divisions were based on the 2008 United Nations Population Division’s World Population Prospects, which most recently no longer classified based on development standing). While these divisions and the rankings can certainly be contentious and may incite some disagreement (nothing unusual there, these kind of rankings usually are), I thought the results were interesting. Some highlights – Norway is first, Somalia is last. The United States was 19th, and Canada was 17th (Estonia fell in between us and the Great White North) in the most developed. Israel is first in the less developed category, and Bhutan is first in the least developed category. The full report with data from Save the Children is also available, if you want to learn more about the information combined to make this image. Take a look:

A Woman’s Place – Courtesy of the National Post

One thing that I thought was particularly great was that the researchers combined women’s health and children’s heath data to create rankings specific to being a mother, when that category is sometimes only assessed based on access to reproductive care.The specific rankings of maternal health highlights largely mimics the overall standing of women, as seen here – Norway is number one, again, and Niger falls into last place:

Mother’s Index, Courtesy of Save the Children

I think these images and graphs are particularly moving given one of the top health stories coming out of the New York Times today, which showed that a recent Johns Hopkins study indicated meeting the contraception needs of women in developing countries could reduce maternal mortality (and thereby increase the standing of women in many of the nations doing poorly in the above ranking) globally by a third. When looking at the countries in the infographic that have low rates of using modern contraception and the correlation between that and their ranking in terms of status of women, it’s not surprising what the JH researchers found. Many of the countries farther down in the rankings have rates below 50%, and for those countries filling the bottom 25 slots, none of them even reach a rate that is a third of the population in terms of contraceptive use – which of course in most cases has to do with availability, not choice. Wonderfully, the Gates Foundation yesterday announced that they would be donating $1 billion to increase the access to contraceptives in developing countries.

Also of note, and in relation to maternal and newborn health, is a new study recently published by Mailman researchers that showed PEPFAR funded programs in sub-Saharan Africa increased access to healthcare facilities for women (particularly important for this region, as 50% of maternal deaths occur there), thereby increasing the number of births occurring in these facilities – reducing the avoidable (and sometimes inevitable) complications from labor and delivery, decreasing the chance of infection and increasing treatment if contracted. This has clear implications for children as well (and why I think this study relates to the National Post infographic and the NY Times article), since newborns are also able to be assessed by trained healthcare workers and potentially life-threatening conditions averted – including HIV, if the newborns have HIV+ mothers and need early anti-retroviral treatment and a relationship with a healthcare worker and system. And it goes without saying that if a new mother is struggling with post-delivery healthcare issues, including abscesses and fistulas, or was dealing with a high-risk pre-labor condition like preeclampsia, the child will have an increasingly difficult early life, perhaps even a motherless one.

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Health Education, International, Politics, Public Health, Reproductive and Sexual Health, Women's Health

The Changing Face of Development in the Fight for Gender Justice

As International Women’s Day approached, I was thrilled to attend a panel at the United Nations, “Youth Approaches to Funding Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights,” with the Executive Director of an organization I am very excited to be a part of, Spark, as one of the speakers. Shannon Farley was joined by Mia Herndon from the Third Wave Foundation and Amina Doherty from the Young Feminist Fund. These dynamic leaders provided what turned out to be unique though complementary perspectives on engaging youth in development strategies, and I came away feeling revitalized and encouraged that Spark’s work is at the forefront of essential evolution in philanthropy and development.

While powerhouse young women lead each of these organizations, their differences should be noted. Spark, at 7 years old, is the middle child of the organizations, and the only one that operates within a member-driven framework, allowing those active members to vote on grantees and possible themes. Granting more than $1 million since its inception, a great feat since most gifts are seed money of the couple thousand dollar range, Spark’s offering of extensive pro-bono services to granting organizations also sets us apart – that and statistic of having nearly 50% male members. FRIDA is the new baby in the gender equality, women’s rights development world, and they interestingly refer to themselves as a “learning fund,” as each organization that applies for funding does some fairly in-depth research on other groups with whom they are competing for funds. Of the more than 1,000 applications from over 120 countries this year, FRIDA selected 125 ‘short-listed’ groups who then voted for a group in their region other than themselves who they felt deserved the grant based on their work and application. Lastly, the Third Wave Foundation, which has been around for 15 years, funds work that benefits 15 – 30 year-old women and transgender youth. They emphasize leadership development and advocacy, and given their size, are also able to offer multi-year ‘arc’ grants, supporting groups as they get off the ground, giving them a big financial push during subsequent cycles, and tapering off as the group begins to grow.

Despite these differences in age, funding history, and model of grant making, one can see the overlaps. My favorite element of the panel was discovering throughout the presentation how similar the roots of the missions of these groups are – interactivity, democratic funding policies, involvement of the grantees and groups for whom they are advocating, and leadership that represents the interests of the grantees. Each of these groups – and this is what I think draws many to Spark in the first place – emphasizes the input of passionate members or supporters who are emotionally and mentally invested in working for justice, and who may have previously been rebuffed in other volunteer development efforts. Equally important, they value the participation of those on the ground seeking to be funded. Panelists actually articulated how important the flow of communication was in the funding process, not only to ensure that the funding organizations were really sound in their understanding of the grantees, but also so the beneficiaries feel as though they are being heard and understood throughout the process. This is actually fairly empowering. This kind of communication between funding agencies and grantees used to be unheard of – grant applications would be filled out on one side, and grant-making decisions would be made on the other side, often with grantees not feeling as though they were making meaningful connections with funding organizations that would enable them to better articulate their needs.

These newer models can bring up questions of validity for some, and this query was posed by an audience member who asked the panel about issues of monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and how that was considered within these newer frameworks. This garnered perhaps my favorite answer, which was that one of the ways M&E can be handled is by changing the definition of what a successful program or initiative looks like. One of the ways these newer development organizations does this is by defining at the outset what success looks like to the grantees and how that will be measured, and emphasizing those goals in the evaluation process as opposed to adhering to strict, traditional methods that may not be appropriate measures for many of the newer, innovative groups that are seeking funding.

Piggybacking on this part of the conversation, panelists were asked about what they saw as the primary benefits and drawbacks of not working within the more traditional development models. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, these leaders focused mainly on the positive. Working within newer models allows them to take risks; to explore relationships with new groups and leaders that older, more established organizations may not have the time or framework to take on; and to nurture long term relationships with groups that can use the leadership guidance and seed money granted by organizations like Spark to get off the ground and be ready to present themselves to progressively larger funds. Essentially, these groups – Spark, the Third Wave, and FRIDA – are building a foundation to get a foot into the door of the local and global conversations about eradicating injustice for groups that may have been historically overlooked.

As the landscape for women’s rights and gender disparities shifts, this kind of risk-taking is essential in assisting burgeoning efforts of organizations that may have been traditionally ignored.

While each of these organizations emphasized the need for young women’s leadership and articulated how their models centered on the unique and essential perspectives of young leaders, the speakers also championed the importance of inter-generational work. When concern was raised by an audience member over being dismissive of the work of older activists and development organizations, panelists were adamant about the fact that their communities were grateful for the work that had come before them, and the wisdom that is often culled from creating partnerships with leaders who have been involved in gender equality development work for years.  The experience of these more senior leaders is not only valuable in gaining insight into what isn’t working and why within traditional giving pathways, but collaborating with them often leads to grant-making opportunities for these newer funding organizations. Shannon’s remarks specifically about how larger, older funds had passed on applications to Spark that are more suitable for our funding model than theirs was met with nods of appreciation from many in the audience – an audience that was in and of itself diverse in age and funding experience. And of course, having big voices in the field champion the work of newer organizations for their innovation certainly doesn’t hurt when trying to increase our donor circles.

I encourage my readers to check out Spark, and consider becoming a member. It’s an incredible organization that offers great opportunities for young leaders to get involved. In light of International Women’s Day, I’d also encourage you to check out these other fantastic on-the-ground groups doing fantastic work for gender equality and justice (some of them Spark grantees!):

The Komera Project: Education for girls in Rwanda, financial and mentoring assistance, started by Margaret Butler.

CAMFED: Investing in girls’ education in Africa

She’s the First: Education investment in the developing world

Plan International: Children’s rights and development around the globe

No coincidence that these organizations tend to focus on education access! Have organizations that you’re passionate about and want me to include in this list? Send ’em my way!

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Filed under Defining Gender, Education, Feminism, International, Politics

How Are Gen Y Women Faring in the Workplace? (A Mini-Exploration)

I came across this intereting post via Mashable courtesy of Accenture, detailing how Gen Y women are faring in the workforce. Some interesting points:

I thought the statistic that 30% of women said work-life balance is the most important career factor was interesting. Regardless of whether or not children are desired by a woman, I would think that work-life balance remains a pressing concern – particularly given what we know about work-related stress and its impact on our health.

What I found most fascinating, however, was that nearly half of women surveyed said that they felt their career was being held back because of lack of a defined path or lack of opportunities, and a third of them felt that their career path was stagnant. I’d love to delve deeper into that, given how many factors are likely at play – fewer people retiring at age 65 means less opportunity to rise within organizations, job uncertainty makes even attempts at lateral moves to different companies or organizations a risk, lack of mentorship and weak relationships with supervisors are often also culprits. It makes me wonder how this may make women ambivalent about leaving their jobs when they do have families – if they feel no connection or support within the work system, the impetus to return may be low.

Statistics about advocating for themselves in regards to pay raises and clear conversations about career growth are nothing new – studies for many years now have shown that women are less likely to do these things as well as less likely to negotiate salaries during hiring processes as well. But when women are given tips for broaching this subject and outlines for structuring conversations about career growth, they take them – and they are often successful. So how do we make these conversations more natural for everyone to have? How can we incorporate the development of these skills into education for women as well?

Thoughts? Comments? Let me know on Twitter.

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Thanks, KMart

…for making sure I didn’t actually take a few days off this holiday week!

What a charming little undergarment you were planning on selling to the masses this Black Friday:

Courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald

Every 7 year-old girl needs a thong (like, I could end the sentence there!), an article of clothing designed for the sole purpose of sexually exciting others, that also broadcasts to the world that they’re diggin’ for gold before they’re even old enough to have a checking account of their own.

The perfect holiday gift for your first grader. The message that baring their buns will be rewarded with a wealthy partner. Cheers! And happy holidaze.

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Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Feminism, Sexism

Feminism in Zambia: Finding an Unexpected Champion

Our last guest post this month is by Stephanie Reinhardt. Stephanie is a Program Officer with Jhpiego and is currently working to support HIV/AIDS and maternal health programs in east and southern Africa. Growing up in San Francisco and joining forces with Larkin Callaghan at the age of 4 has left her overly opinionated and easily distracted by all the exciting things around her. Hey look – a baboon just walked by my office window! When she’s not bouncing around the globe, she’s very busy procrastinating.

Gabriel, a Zambian taxi driver who works outside an overpriced hotel in the capital Lusaka, drove me to a township on the outside of town last week. We started with the usual conversation.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“California,” I responded, “though I’m starting to feel like Zambia is my second home”.

I’ve been to Zambia six times in the past four years supporting public health programs run through Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins. After some discussion about various locations in the US he had learned about from other passengers, he jumped into his favorite story about American history to see if I knew it as well.

After slowing his taxi to traverse a particularly rough patch of potholes, Gabriel looks at me and said, “Well, you know about the Gremich sisters?” (Upon further research, I learned the correct spelling of Grimké sisters). I shook my head no, which gave Gabriel the green light to dive into his story:

“During the time of slavery in America (perhaps in California, or Texas or wherever), there were two sisters who wanted to put an end to slavery.”

I jumped in to briefly describe (with my best recollections from high school) the divisions between the north and the south that eventually led to the civil war, which I explained, for future reference was on the east coast of America, so I would guess that the Grimké sisters were probably from a state like New York. (Turns out they were from South Carolina, but later joined abolitionist circles in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey.)

Gabriel gave me a polite nod, but the civil war was clearly not his target conversation. With the eagerness of a school kid sitting in the front row, he continued his story, which he credited to a book he had read called, No Fear of Trying. Gabriel’s eyes grew large as he told the story of these sisters’ amazing bravery to publicly speak out against slavery. He looked at me and repeatedly tapped the top of the steering wheel with his palm to emphasize the profundity of this story. “These were the first women to speak at a podium…to men. Women did not do that at that time.” He described the message of equality and freedom that they took all the way to the US government. “People thought that women should not give public speeches to men. Lots of people threatened them and told them to stop, but these women were so brave, ” he continued. I was nodding in agreement, but apparently not giving the reaction he wanted.  “Isn’t that amazing?” he exclaimed. “It’s great!” I responded.

Despite a few factual inaccuracies (that the Gimké sisters final speech ended slavey, and this all took place in the 1950s), Gabriel’s story is pretty spot on. The Grimké sisters grew up in South Carolina with all the advantages of a privileged class awaiting them.  Unlike many other northern born abolitionists, the Grimké sisters had seen slavery first hand and felt compelled to not only put an end to the practice, but to put an end to racial and gender discrimination – an idea radically progressive for their time. They promoted extremely advanced messages for both racial and gender equality. Angelina Grimké letters demanded “educational reform, equal wages and an end to other forms of discrimination against women.”

What fascinated me most about Gabriel’s story was not that I was previously unaware of this significant historical biography (I am never shocked by the amount of information I don’t know or frankly, don’t remember). Rather, I was completely taken aback by his emotional response to this story. He loved these women for their bravery to stand up to men and wanted to share it with anyone who got in his cab.

Zambia is not a country known for its progressive gender relations. Women unfortunately still live very much as the mercy of their husbands, cultural laws and the State. As explained in a 2002 OMCT report on violence against women in Zambia:

Women in Zambia currently face many obstacles to the realisation of their human rights including high rates of violence against women in the family, in the community and by the State, discrimination in the application of customary laws relating to family and inheritance rights, low levels of representation in political and other decision-making structures, a lack of access to education and employment opportunities, poor health care services and the limited availability of affordable contraception.

The 2007 Zambian Demographic Health Survey (DHS) included an assessment of women’s empowerment by asking questions on employment and decision-making.  While great variations exist with regard to education level and location, overall 37 percent of men think that decisions about how to spend the wife’s cash earnings (if she has employment outside of the home) should be made mainly by the husband.  These views extend to a woman’s body as well – 46 percent of men think that the husband alone should make the decision on the number of children to have.  Only 64.8 percent of currently married women responded that they are the primary decision makers or make joint decisions with their husbands regarding their own health care.

So, given this context, I was baffled. I wondered if I had stumbled into the cab of an outspoken Zambian male feminist. As Gabriel’s taxi approached our destination, I probed him on his thoughts on women’s rights in Zambia. “Oh,” he responded, “we have learned a lot from Americans. Everyone is equal here.” Then he dropped the famous development buzz word “gender” and it was all over. “Yes, we have learned gender is important, so now we are all equal.” Ack.

I was hugely disappointed. My image of this Zambian male taxi driver in a superhero outfit championing women’s rights quickly vanished. I thanked him for the ride and started to get out of the car. As I was about to depart, he pulled out a small piece of paper and said, “You work in health? Can I ask you a question?” I nodded, and he continued: “My wife has decided that we should only have three kids, and so we want to stop now that we have three. Can you look at this list and tell me what you would recommend?” On the piece of paper was a list of family planning methods that they had received from their local clinic. I sat with him and explained the differences between some of the short term methods and the long term methods. I also described the vasectomy process should he be interested in the procedure. I explained that if his wife wants no more kids, a long term method, such as an IUD might be best, as it offers protection for 5-7 years. He smiled and responded, “Great, thank you. I will tell my wife this information and see what she wants to do.”

Maybe we have our champion after all.

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Filed under Feminism, Health Education, International, Public Health

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

How Images and Ads Impact Self-Image and Human Development

I got a lot of traffic and messages about my recent post regarding Duke Nukem. People in the gaming community condemned it for its lack of originality, how it strayed from the original premise of apparently ostensibly mocking the ’80s action-hero genre, and how it overall disappointed those who are used to more complex and engaging videos. Some replies also included people needing to “get over it” when discussing images of coerced sexual activity or the game’s encouragement of merging violent and sexually explicit content together (I don’t post comments that are condescending or don’t encourage dialogue), something I found…disturbing. My initial argument, however, did not change – that is, that the imagery and the actions the gamer supposes in this video are tragically abusive and in fact detrimental to both men and women.

Many gamers also respond that they know when they are playing a game, and that their non-virtual socializing is not impacted by the game’s content. This, along with the recent news that the American Medical Association finally condemned the use of photoshopping in advertising campaigns and photo shoots, got me thinking about what repeated exposure to images and actions actually does to our brain and with who and what we identify.

A well-known study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that repeated exposure to images and advertisements ultimately were processed in people the same way actual experiences were processed. That is, if you see or watch something enough times – in a video game, in a fashion magazine in which models are photoshopped to near obscurity, in a parent abusing your sibling – you begin to process it as though it was you yourself experiencing the act and identify with the “player” (model, game character) you are watching. You see enough pictures of a model like this:

Courtesy fashion-o-lic.com

And you begin to think you are supposed to align yourself with her, that this image is what is normal (the image on the right was criticized heavily in 2009 for being so drastically photoshopped). After so many exposures, you begin to mold yourself after her, to think that since this is how we project women for adoration in our culture, that you should begin appropriating yourself to match her image. Just like a gamer, after so many exposures, can begin to mold themselves after the image of the character they are impersonating in a game. And while they may not go out on a shooting spree, they are desensitized to the effects of that reality, just as they are desensitized to the effects of coerced sex in a game, which can lead to difficulty distinguishing that from a healthy sexual relationship.

As I have also discussed in previous posts, a foundational theory in behavioral science and education is the Social-Cognitive Theory, which has informed educators and psychologists for years in explaining that people learn by watching, and that even one observation of a behavior can influence perspective. It also importantly points out that while full on adoption of behaviors witnessed may not occur, the more we see, the more our attitudes and beliefs about them change. This can be good and bad. It can make us more accepting of others’ opinions and outlooks, and it can also desensitize and normalize the opinions and behaviors that are harmful.

We’re humans. We learn by watching, by then mimicking and imitating what we observe. It doesn’t happen all at once, which is why fashion moguls or game designers claim they have no real impact. Are girls entering periods of self-mandated starving as soon as they open this month’s Vogue? Are adolescent boys heading to the hills for a sawed off shotgun fight after the first round of Duke or stealing cars after playing the new Grand Theft Auto? No, of course not. But can it impact their sense of compassion, affect their interpersonal relationships? Can it make violence seem less threatening, less damaging, and less impacting than it is? Yes. Can that change the way people behave, from nuance to imitation? Sure. Even researchers who admit that it won’t necessarily turn children violent admit that’s likely true (and, interestingly, still disallow their children to play). Human development takes time – language acquisition, understanding of and the processing of visual messages, being able to comprehend meaning from a block of text – these are all cognitive functions that take years to develop and perfect, and their influence lies in the words and actions of children’s families, friends, teachers. Unfortunately, messages of gender have been largely commandeered by the media. And the repeated exposure, over years, to these specifics of models’ physical appearance has resulted in the erosion of self-confidence that many girls and women – and boys and men – experience as young children becoming adolescents. And the repeated exposure, over years, to the specifics of war, sexual violence, and the presentation of hyper-masculinity, can also result in the erosion of what kind of impact violence truly has, as they become desensitized, and what a healthy understanding of and relationship with the opposite sex is (as opposed to its portrayal in my Duke Nukem piece). As the study articulated, it’s about changing people over time, it’s about how perceptions and perspectives change when a new definition of the norm that is not contested or dissected – a Ralph Lauren model, a Duke Nukem – enters the picture. Women who suffer from eating disorders and body dysmorphia, while not blaming the fashion industry, have emphatically articulated that it certainly has had an impact as it normalized this destructive self-image and behavior.

I think it’s also relevant here to bring up the Supreme Court’s decision about a week ago to shoot down California’s attempt to ban the sale of violent video games to children. Timothy Egan, a Times columnist, had a great commentary on this, noting how ridiculous it seems for there to be a perpetual ban on nudity and sexually explicit images, but not on virtually dismembering a human or sexually assaulting a woman. It does seem…well, more than troubling, that a game in which a player can simulate murder and rape is protected by free speech but a bare breast is the height of vulgarity. (I found a great post from a female gamer about this kind of sexual violence in video games, and I agree with her assertion that sexual expression can in fact exist without it also involving violence and degradation.) I don’t think any of the representations of sexuality that I have seen in video games are appropriate for children because they overwhelmingly associate it with abuse and/or coercion (I’ve done a lot of viewing in the past couple days after my Duke Nukem post). To say that sexuality would have a more harmful impact than violence seems questionable, when representations of both are equally unhealthy.

It should also be said that I am far from someone who believes nudity and sexuality itself is vulgar. I celebrate and support healthy (and protected!) sexual expression in any way the individual consents and desires. I firmly believe that discussions of sex and sexuality should be brought up early on, so children can ask questions, be informed, protect themselves when they do engage in sex, and have an understanding of what a respectful, consensual sexual relationship is. I also believe that when these discussions in families don’t take place, and when sex is a taboo topic, that it is a disservice to these children, and that any confusion they have about sex or uncertainty about what a healthy sex life actually is will be magnified by the messages the media sends them.  I’m an advocate of early onset, comprehensive sexual health and reproductive health education. Sex shouldn’t be confusing, and it shouldn’t be stigmatized. Sexual violence, however, and a misappropriation of the presentation of sexual relationships that are abusive, coercive, and violent, should be condemned.

This is also why a diversity of exposures is important. It’s important to not be inundated with the same message over and over again. Advertisers know that repeated exposure is key to getting people to buy what they want to sell. If you see an image of a Coke bottle once, it won’t register with much impact. If you see it every time your favorite TV show breaks for commercial, when you’re leafing through the pages of a magazine, when you’re driving down a freeway and it’s up on a billboard, when you’re listening to the radio and it breaks for the Coke jingle – it adds up, as do afternoons in front of a game console, as do hours reading “women’s” magazines and fashion spreads, as do episodes of spousal or child abuse, (which we know increases the likelihood of the child being in an abusive relationship him/herself and hampers healthy development – the others are logical extensions, to a lesser degree). We have to have enough positive images, positive games, positive and healthy discourse about relationships to not just equal the stream of negative imagery and messaging, but to overtake it. Positive, healthy messages, not abusive, harmful, violent messages, have to be in the majority. The norm. It’s nice that the docs finally said so.

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Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Mental Health, Pop Culture, Public Health, Sexism, Violence