Cosmo Girl for Women’s Rights

Why Cosmo Is Getting Serious About Its Reproductive Rights Coverage

By Tara Culp-Ressler April 14, 2014 ThinkProgress

 

photo: Cosmopolitan.com

Photo: Cosmopolitan.com

Lauren Rankin, a freelance writer who focuses on issues of reproductive justice, doesn’t always keep track of her new Twitter followers. But one recently caught her eye.

“A couple weeks ago I noticed that one of Cosmo’s editors, Lori Fradkin, followed me on Twitter… At the time I thought, Cosmo? That’s kind of weird, since I mainly write about reproductive rights,” Rankin recounted.

Then, a couple days later, Rankin was added to a list serv that receives periodic emails about Cosmopolitan.com’s latest reproductive rights coverage — topics ranging from abortion clinic harassment, to the new law in Texas that’s forcing abortion clinics to close, to combating abortion stigma.

Those probably aren’t the topics you’d expect to encounter in Cosmopolitan. After all, the women’s magazine is largely infamous for doling out complicated sex tips — advice that feminist sites like Jezebel have been mocking for years. But so far this year, Cosmopolitan.com has actually published story after story that focuses on in-depth issues related to reproductive rights.

For instance, in an article that went up at the beginning of last week, an OB-GYN practicing in Texas explains what it’s like to provide health care in a state that’s enacted so many harsh restrictions on abortion, which can force some women to resort to dangerous options. “My first hysterectomy as a resident was on a 16-year-old who had an illegal abortion. Her pelvis was nothing but pus,” the piece begins.

Rankin said she’s been heartened by the site’s “legitimate strides” to include more coverage of abortion policy, and impressed that the editorial staff seems to be making a concerted effort to connect with writers who are already working in this issue space. So she emailed Fradkin directly to offer to write for the site, too. She’s published two pieces — one on a middle school’s potentially sexist dress code, and another on a bill in Tennessee that’s seeking to criminalize pregnant women — so far. And Rankin isn’t the only feminist writer who now has a Cosmo byline. Jill Filipovic, a columnist for the Guardian and a blogger at Feministe, has also published several pieces about reproductive rights on Cosmopolitan.com.

“It all comes down to one core value, which is that we are unequivocally for women’s rights. It’s that simple,” Cosmopolitan.com’s editor, Amy Odell, told ThinkProgress when asked about the apparent editorial shift. “We believe every woman should have access to safe, affordable health care, and when that right is threatened, we’re not afraid to tackle those threats head-on.”

Rankin’s interaction with Cosmo’s staff appears to be part of the site’s new strategy. Odell explained that Lori Fradkin, who was hired as the new features editor at the end of last year, has been working on building up a team of writers who can tell “powerful stories” about the impacts of legislative attacks on women’s rights. Rather than publishing straight reports on new abortion restrictions, Cosmo is primarily attempting to find a way to tell personal stories their readers can connect with.

“The reception has been incredible — it’s been enormously gratifying to see such high engagement with our audience around these issues,” Odell said. “One challenge of working on the internet, as all of we online editors know, is getting people to care about hard news as opposed to what Kim Kardashian wore an hour ago. Of course we’re happy to keep readers filled in on what Kim Kardashian is wearing, but we do see stronger social engagement and traffic on stories about women who get harassed at abortion clinics by protesters.”

Other women’s magazines don’t entirely avoid reproductive rights. In 2009, Glamour profiled several women explaining why they chose to have an abortion. The same year, Marie Claire shared the stories of two women who each made different decisions about whether to have a later abortion. Both Marie Claire and and Elle have published a few stories about Wendy Davis’ famous filibuster and Texas’ new abortion law.

But Cosmo’s persistent focus on the issue, and recruitment of freelance writers who are real experts in the space, is something new. It also has the potential to spread abortion rights far beyond the audiences that currently read about that topic. “It’s such a mainstream magazine that could help reach people who might not be aware of the onslaught of attacks,” Rankin pointed out.

And maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising. Despite the perception that women’s magazines and websites never tackle serious stories, publications that cover fashion and beauty also produce content on a wide range of more hard-hitting subjects. It’s also not hard to see why outlets like Cosmo might be interested in experimenting. As magazine sales are slumping, Cosmo is probably trying hard to engage its growing base of digital readers with fresh strategies and new angles.

There are also some signs that the brand is becoming more aware of its reputation for silly sex tips, and is now embracing more of a tongue-in-cheek approach to that content. Ramping up the policy coverage could fit into a larger tonal shift for the publication.

If Cosmo continues to take more of an explicitly feminist approach on issues like abortion, will other magazines follow? If that content really does end up engaging readers better than celebrity news, as Odell suggests, it’s a real possibility that could end up influencing pop culture as a whole. Celebrity women are notorious for shying away from the “feminist” label, but as the movement continues to become more mainstream — for better and for worse — that might not remain the case. Beyoncé has done a lot to reclaim that ground lately, and Cosmo seems to be ready to do its part too.

“I can’t speak for other magazines, but at Cosmo, we are for women’s rights and that’s why it’s so important for us to talk about cases of those rights being infringed upon,” Odell said.

LGBT Hero Priest in Uganda

How One Reverend Is Defying Uganda’s ‘Kill The Gays’ Act

By Carimah Townes  March 30, 2014 Published in Think Progress

Ugandan Rev. Christopher Senyonjo (AP photo)

Ugandan Rev. Christopher Senyonjo (AP photo)

Last month, Uganda made international headlines when President Yoweri Museveni signed the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act, calling for the imprisonment of gay citizens. But one religious leader refuses to discriminate against people for their sexual orientation, and has become a hero to the country’s gay community.

In defiance of the legislation, commonly referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill, Rev. Christopher Senyonjo hosts weekly prayer sessions and counseling services to LGBT worshipers and supporters. He also critiques fellow clerics’ “healing” approach to addressing the gay community, whereby church leaders attempt to fix people through prayer. “They said I should condemn the homosexuals,” he said, referring to Anglican leaders in Uganda. “I can’t do that, because I was called to serve all people, including the marginalized. But they say I am inhibited until I recant. I am still a member of the Anglican church.”

Citing questionable evidence provided by Ugandan scientists, the President justified signing the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February by arguing that being gay is a choice. According to the harsh law, first-time offenders can spend at least 14 years in jail, while others can serve lifelong sentences. As a result, LGBT people are ostracized and subjected to violence.

But the country also penalizes people who openly support or discuss LGBT issues. Prior to the law’s enactment, Senyonjo was cut from Uganda’s Anglican church in 2006 for calling on fellow religious leaders to embrace LGBT people. Since then, the cleric has lived as a social pariah, surviving off of “gifts” provided by family and friends. And his situation has became more precarious, as the Anti-Homosexuality Act signed last month states, “A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality commits an offence and is liable, conviction, to imprisonment for seven years.”

Despite the threat of punishment, Senyonjo’s show of defiance and solidarity has garnered the title of elder among LGBT people in Uganda. During a time when they are forced to hideaway in safe houses or flee the country in fear of persecution, the religious ally is a source of comfort and encouragement to the LGBT population.

Uganda’s Kill the Gays bill has received international backlash. For example, the World Bank delayed a $90 million loan, indefinitely, and Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands have suspended aid promised to the African nation. However, the United States’ military alliance with Ugandan forces has produced a fragile relationship between the two countries — and has led to inaction from the former.

Contraception vs. Penis Pumps?

Daily Show’s Samantha Bee Nails Hypocrisy of Government Funding for Penis Pumps—But Questioning Contraception Dollars

 

She even tries a penis pump on her face.
Jodie Gummow – March 13, 2014   Alternet
Samantha Bee

Samantha Bee

One of the effects of ObamaCare is that insurance companies have to cover women’s health care needs including contraception.  This has caused serious congressional debate with Republicans adamant that women ought to pay for their own individual sexual health choices.

Yet, on last night’s The Daily Show, Samantha Bee revealed that unlike the serious congressional debate targeting female contraception and reproductive healthcare in general, Medicare has spent $172 million on penis pumps in the last five years, which the mostly white, older, male members (sic) of Congress don’t seem to have a problem.

“Medicare funds penis pumps at a cost of $362 a penis which has never been debated.  Not once. Never!” Bee said.

Bee interviewed a woman’s health advocate who explained why birth control pills are a medical necessity and often used for a number of non-sexual health issues.

So far this year, Republican legislators have launched close to 40 attacks on government mandated contraception laws.  And yet, our society spends $819 million on Viagara and $771 on Cialis.

“So for a less than a dollar a day a man can restore the glory of his erection. That’s amazing…Women’s selfish desire for sexual health and gynecological exam pales in comparison to man’s need to deal with erectile dysfunction.”

Still, in true satirical fashion, Bee ran a clip of a sexual health expert fervently defending federally funded penis pumps, concluding,  “These are hard working American penises. Should we really be abandoning them at the end of their careers?”

It seems, Bee says, that some members of our congress may have a vested interest in having penis pumps covered by Medicare.

“What would all these grey-haired old Rip van Winkles have to gain by not raising objections to penis pumps? Oh yeah, no, I get it,” she said.

Sexual Science

Science Confirms the Existence and Purpose of Rebound Sex

Study shows that the recently-dumped are more likely to use sex with someone new to cope with negative feelings.

Science can teach you new things, or it can provide official validation for things you’ve long known to be true. And with things like love and sex, it’s sometimes nice, comforting even, to impose a structure on the chaos, to realize that every lap you take around the track falls into the well-worn groove of humanity—that a lot of the time, we do the same things, for the same reasons. Over and over again. Like having rebound sex to get back at your ex. For example.

They say to get over somebody, you need to get under somebody else. By “they,” I mostly mean “best-friend characters in romantic comedies.” Though such questionably helpful bon mots abound in our interpersonal relations and pop culture, there wasn’t much scientific evidence to back them up. Until now.

In a study published recently in Archives of Sexual Behaviorresearchers at the University of Missouri had 170 heterosexual undergrads who had gone through a breakup in the past year keep online diaries over the course of a semester. They submitted weekly “distress reports” and “self-esteem and sex reports.”

The study gathers some canonical definitions of “rebound sex” from Yahoo Answers (“Rebound sex is when you’ve just gotten out of a relationship—typically a serious one, and you have sex with another person to either stick it to the one who dumped you or try to quiet your emotional hurt… or both!”) and of “revenge sex” from the website Lemondrop (“random, meaning- less hook-up just to make the ex jealous”).

Over the course of the semester, the researchers found that—lo and behold—people were using sex to cope with their anger and distress, or to get back at their ex. Those who did were also more likely to keep having sex with new partners over time, “suggesting that they may be slower to recover from the breakup,” the study reads. Overall, participants’ distress decreased and then leveled off. Distress was at its lowest about 25 to 28 weeks after the breakup. “The average person also reported higher levels of coping, rebound, and revenge motives for sex immediately after the breakup, which then declined over time,” the study says.

The nature of the relationship and the breakup had an effect on participants’ behavior, unsurprisingly. A “dumpee” was much more distressed at first, and therefore more likely to have revenge or rebound sex than a “dumper.” The researchers also looked at how long the relationship lasted before it ended, and how committed the person was to it, but those results were more complex. For example, it seemed that someone who was more committed to their prior relationship was less likely to have sex in its aftermath, but if they did, it was more likely to be motivated by a desire to cope with negative feelings.

Interestingly, self-esteem was the attribute that changed the least, “suggest[ing] that self-esteem…is a relatively stable property of the individual and, as such, may be relatively unaffected by relationship loss.” So that’s something to hold onto in the dark and lonely night.

Cyberbullies and Cyberstalkers

Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet

By Amanda Hess  Published in Pacific Standard

PacificStandard“Ignore the barrage of violent threats and harassing messages that confront you online every day.” That’s what women are told. But these relentless messages are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, and their freedom to live online. We have been thinking about Internet harassment all wrong.

I was 12 hours into a summer vacation in Palm Springs when my phone hummed to life, buzzing twice next to me in the dark of my hotel room. I squinted at the screen. It was 5:30 a.m., and a friend was texting me from the opposite coast. “Amanda, this twitter account. Freaking out over here,” she wrote. “There is a twitter account that seems to have been set up for the purpose of making death threats to you.”

I dragged myself out of bed and opened my laptop. A few hours earlier, someone going by the username “headlessfemalepig” had sent me seven tweets. “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured,” the first said. Then: “You suck a lot of drunk and drug fucked guys cocks.” As a female journalist who writes about sex (among other things), none of this feedback was particularly out of the ordinary. But this guy took it to another level: “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks.” And then: “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” There was more, but the final tweet summed it up: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”

My fingers paused over the keyboard. I felt disoriented and terrified. Then embarrassed for being scared, and, finally, pissed. On the one hand, it seemed unlikely that I’d soon be defiled and decapitated at the hands of a serial rapist-murderer. On the other hand, headlessfemalepig was clearly a deranged individual with a bizarre fixation on me. I picked up my phone and dialed 911.

Two hours later, a Palm Springs police officer lumbered up the steps to my hotel room, paused on the outdoor threshold, and began questioning me in a steady clip. I wheeled through the relevant background information: I am a journalist; I live in Los Angeles; sometimes, people don’t like what I write about women, relationships, or sexuality; this was not the first time that someone had responded to my work by threatening to rape and kill me. The cop anchored his hands on his belt, looked me in the eye, and said, “What is Twitter?”

Staring up at him in the blazing sun, the best answer I could come up with was, “It’s like an e-mail, but it’s public.” What I didn’t articulate is that Twitter is the place where I laugh, whine, work, schmooze, procrastinate, and flirt. It sits in my back pocket wherever I go and lies next to me when I fall asleep. And since I first started writing in 2007, it’s become just one of the many online spaces where men come to tell me to get out.

The examples are too numerous to recount, but like any good journalist, I keep a running file documenting the most deranged cases. There was the local cable viewer who hunted down my email address after a television appearance to tell me I was “the ugliest woman he had ever seen.” And the group of visitors to a “men’s rights” site who pored over photographs of me and a prominent feminist activist, then discussed how they’d “spend the night with” us. (“Put em both in a gimp mask and tied to each other 69 so the bitches can’t talk or move and go round the world, any old port in a storm, any old hole,” one decided.) And the anonymous commenter who weighed in on one of my articles: “Amanda, I’ll fucking rape you. How does that feel?”

None of this makes me exceptional. It just makes me a woman with an Internet connection. Here’s just a sampling of the noxious online commentary directed at other women in recent years. To Alyssa Royse, a sex and relationships blogger, for saying that she hated The Dark Knight: “you are clearly retarded, i hope someone shoots then rapes you.” To Kathy Sierra, a technology writer, for blogging about software, coding, and design: “i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” To Lindy West, a writer at the women’s website Jezebel, for critiquing a comedian’s rape joke: “I just want to rape her with a traffic cone.” To Rebecca Watson, an atheist commentator, for blogging about sexism in the skeptic community: “If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain.” To Catherine Mayer, a journalist at Time magazine, for no particular reason: “A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. IT WILL GO OFF AT EXACTLY 10:47 PM ON A TIMER AND TRIGGER DESTROYING EVERYTHING.”

A woman doesn’t even need to occupy a professional writing perch at a prominent platform to become a target. According to a 2005 report by the Pew Research Center, which has been tracking the online lives of Americans for more than a decade, women and men have been logging on in equal numbers since 2000, but the vilest communications are still disproportionately lobbed at women. We are more likely to report being stalked and harassed on the Internet—of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female. Sometimes, the abuse can get physical: A Pew survey reported that five percent of women who used the Internet said “something happened online” that led them into “physical danger.” And it starts young: Teenage girls are significantly more likely to be cyberbullied than boys. Just appearing as a woman online, it seems, can be enough to inspire abuse. In 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up a bunch of fake online accounts and then dispatched them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.

There are three federal laws that apply to cyberstalking cases; the first was passed in 1934 to address harassment through the mail, via telegram, and over the telephone, six decades after Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. Since the initial passage of the Violence Against Women Act, in 1994, amendments to the law have gradually updated it to apply to new technologies and to stiffen penalties against those who use them to abuse. Thirty-four states have cyberstalking laws on the books; most have expanded long-standing laws against stalking and criminal threats to prosecute crimes carried out online.

But making quick and sick threats has become so easy that many say the abuse has proliferated to the point of meaninglessness, and that expressing alarm is foolish. Reporters who take death threats seriously “often give the impression that this is some kind of shocking event for which we should pity the ‘victims,’” my colleague Jim Pagels wrote in Slate this fall, “but anyone who’s spent 10 minutes online knows that these assertions are entirely toothless.” On Twitter, he added, “When there’s no precedent for physical harm, it’s only baseless fear mongering.” My friend Jen Doll wrote, at The Atlantic Wire, “It seems like that old ‘ignoring’ tactic your mom taught you could work out to everyone’s benefit…. These people are bullying, or hope to bully. Which means we shouldn’t take the bait.” In the epilogue to her book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin—an editor at Slate—argued that harassment of women online could be seen as a cause for celebration. It shows just how far we’ve come. Many women on the Internet “are in positions of influence, widely published and widely read; if they sniff out misogyny, I have no doubt they will gleefully skewer the responsible sexist in one of many available online outlets, and get results.”

So women who are harassed online are expected to either get over ourselves or feel flattered in response to the threats made against us. We have the choice to keep quiet or respond “gleefully.”

But no matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment—and the sheer volume of it—has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet. Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages. I’ve spent countless hours over the past four years logging the online activity of one particularly committed cyberstalker, just in case. And as the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them—all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online every day.

THIS SUMMER, CAROLINE CRIADO-PEREZ became the English-speaking Internet’s most famous recipient of online threats after she petitioned the British government to put more female faces on its bank notes. (When the Bank of England announced its intentions to replace social reformer Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the £5 note, Criado-Perez made the modest suggestion that the bank make an effort to feature at least one woman who is not the Queen on any of its currency.) Rape and death threats amassed on her Twitter feed too quickly to count, bearing messages like “I will rape you tomorrow at 9 p.m … Shall we meet near your house?”

Then, something interesting happened. Instead of logging off, Criado-Perez retweeted the threats, blasting them out to her Twitter followers. She called up police and hounded Twitter for a response. Journalists around the world started writing about the threats. As more and more people heard the story, Criado-Perez’s follower count skyrocketed to near 25,000. Her supporters joined in urging British police and Twitter executives to respond.

Under the glare of international criticism, the police and the company spent the next few weeks passing the buck back and forth. Andy Trotter, a communications adviser for the British police, announced that it was Twitter’s responsibility to crack down on the messages. Though Britain criminalizes a broader category of offensive speech than the U.S. does, the sheer volume of threats would be too difficult for “a hard-pressed police service” to investigate, Trotter said. Police “don’t want to be in this arena.” It diverts their attention from “dealing with something else.”

Meanwhile, Twitter issued a blanket statement saying that victims like Criado-Perez could fill out an online form for each abusive tweet; when Criado-Perez supporters hounded Mark Luckie, the company’s manager of journalism and news, for a response, he briefly shielded his account, saying that the attention had become “abusive.” Twitter’s official recommendation to victims of abuse puts the ball squarely in law enforcement’s court: “If an interaction has gone beyond the point of name calling and you feel as though you may be in danger,” it says, “contact your local authorities so they can accurately assess the validity of the threat and help you resolve the issue offline.”

In the weeks after the flare-up, Scotland Yard confirmed the arrest of three men. Twitter—in response to several online petitions calling for action—hastened the rollout of a “report abuse” button that allows users to flag offensive material. And Criado-Perez went on receiving threats. Some real person out there—or rather, hundreds of them—still liked the idea of seeing her raped and killed.

Feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.

THE INTERNET IS A global network, but when you pick up the phone to report an online threat, whether you are in London or Palm Springs, you end up face-to-face with a cop who patrols a comparatively puny jurisdiction. And your cop will probably be a man: According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008, only 6.5 percent of state police officers and 19 percent of FBI agents were women. The numbers get smaller in smaller agencies. And in many locales, police work is still a largely analog affair: 911 calls are immediately routed to the local police force; the closest officer is dispatched to respond; he takes notes with pen and paper.

After Criado-Perez received her hundreds of threats, she says she got conflicting instructions from police on how to report the crimes, and was forced to repeatedly “trawl” through the vile messages to preserve the evidence. “I can just about cope with threats,” she wrote on Twitter. “What I can’t cope with after that is the victim-blaming, the patronising, and the police record-keeping.” Last year, the American atheist blogger Rebecca Watson wrote about her experience calling a series of local and national law enforcement agencies after a man launched a website threatening to kill her. “Because I knew what town [he] lived in, I called his local police department. They told me there was nothing they could do and that I’d have to make a report with my local police department,” Watson wrote later. “[I] finally got through to someone who told me that there was nothing they could do but take a report in case one day [he] followed through on his threats, at which point they’d have a pretty good lead.”

The first time I reported an online rape threat to police, in 2009, the officer dispatched to my home asked, “Why would anyone bother to do something like that?” and declined to file a report. In Palm Springs, the officer who came to my room said, “This guy could be sitting in a basement in Nebraska for all we know.” That my stalker had said that he lived in my state, and had plans to seek me out at home, was dismissed as just another online ruse.

Of course, some people are investigated and prosecuted for cyberstalking. In 2009, a Florida college student named Patrick Macchione met a girl at school, then threatened to kill her on Twitter, terrorized her with lewd videos posted to YouTube, and made hundreds of calls to her phone. Though his victim filed a restraining order, cops only sprung into action after a county sheriff stopped him for loitering, then reportedly found a video camera in his backpack containing disturbing recordings about his victim. The sheriff’s department later worked with the state attorney’s office to convict Macchione on 19 counts, one of which was cyberstalking (he successfully appealed that count on grounds that the law hadn’t been enacted when he was arrested); Macchione was sentenced to four years in prison. Consider also a recent high-profile case of cyberstalking investigated by the FBI. In the midst of her affair with General David Petraeus, biographer Paula Broadwell allegedly created an anonymous email account for the purpose of sending harassing notes to Florida socialite Jill Kelley. Kelley reported them to the FBI, which sniffed out Broadwell’s identity via the account’s location-based metadata and obtained a warrant to monitor her email activity.

In theory, appealing to a higher jurisdiction can yield better results. “Local law enforcement will often look the other way,” says Dr. Sameer Hinduja, a criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “They don’t have the resources or the personnel to investigate those crimes.” County, state, or federal agencies at least have the support to be more responsive: “Usually they have a computer crimes unit, savvy personnel who are familiar with these cases, and established relationships with social media companies so they can quickly send a subpoena to help with the investigation,” Hinduja says.

But in my experience and those of my colleagues, these larger law enforcement agencies have little capacity or drive to investigate threats as well. Despite his pattern of abusive online behavior, Macchione was ultimately arrested for an unrelated physical crime. When I called the FBI over headlessfemalepig’s threats, a representative told me an agent would get in touch if the bureau was interested in pursuing the case; nobody did. And when Rebecca Watson reported the threats targeted at her to the FBI, she initially connected with a sympathetic agent—but the agent later expressed trouble opening Watson’s file of screenshots of the threats, and soon stopped replying to her emails. The Broadwell investigation was an uncommon, and possibly unprecedented, exercise for the agency. As University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire criminal justice professor Justin Patchin told Wired at the time: “I’m not aware of any case when the FBI has gotten involved in a case of online harassment.”

After I received my most recent round of threats, I asked Jessica Valenti, a prominent feminist writer (and the founder of the blog Feministing), who’s been repeatedly targeted with online threats, for her advice, and then I asked her to share her story. “It’s not really one story. This has happened a number of times over the past seven years,” she told me. When rape and death threats first started pouring into her inbox, she vacated her apartment for a week, changed her bank accounts, and got a new cell number. When the next wave of threats came, she got in touch with law enforcement officials, who warned her that though the men emailing her were unlikely to follow through on their threats, the level of vitriol indicated that she should be vigilant for a far less identifiable threat: silent “hunters” who lurk behind the tweeting “hollerers.” The FBI advised Valenti to leave her home until the threats blew over, to never walk outside of her apartment alone, and to keep aware of any cars or men who might show up repeatedly outside her door. “It was totally impossible advice,” she says. “You have to be paranoid about everything. You can’t just not be in a public place.”

And we can’t simply be offline either. When Time journalist Catherine Mayer reported the bomb threat lodged against her, the officers she spoke to—who thought usernames were secret codes and didn’t seem to know what an IP address was—advised her to unplug. “Not one of the officers I’ve encountered uses Twitter or understands why anyone would wish to do so,” she later wrote. “The officers were unanimous in advising me to take a break from Twitter, assuming, as many people do, that Twitter is at best a time-wasting narcotic.”

All of these online offenses are enough to make a woman want to click away from Twitter, shut her laptop, and power down her phone. Sometimes, we do withdraw: Pew found that from 2000 to 2005, the percentage of Internet users who participate in online chats and discussion groups dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent, “entirely because of women’s fall off in participation.” But for many women, steering clear of the Internet isn’t an option. We use our devices to find supportive communities, make a living, and construct safety nets. For a woman like me, who lives alone, the Internet isn’t a fun diversion—it is a necessary resource for work and interfacing with friends, family, and, sometimes, law enforcement officers in an effort to feel safer from both online and offline violence.

The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman draws a distinction between “tourists” and “vagabonds” in the modern economy. Privileged tourists move about the world “on purpose,” to seek “new experience” as “the joys of the familiar wear off.” Disempowered vagabonds relocate because they have to, pushed and pulled through mean streets where they could never hope to settle down. On the Internet, men are tourists and women are vagabonds. “Telling a woman to shut her laptop is like saying, ‘Eh! Just stop seeing your family,’” says Nathan Jurgenson, a social media sociologist (and a friend) at the University of Maryland.

What does a tourist look like? In 2012, Gawker unmasked “Violentacrez,” an anonymous member of the online community Reddit who was infamous for posting creepy photographs of underage women and creating or moderating subcommunities on the site with names like “chokeabitch” and “rapebait.” Violentacrez turned out to be a Texas computer programmer named Michael Brusch, who displayed an exceedingly casual attitude toward his online hobbies. “I do my job, go home, watch TV, and go on the Internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time,” he told Adrian Chen, the Gawker reporter who outed him. “People take things way too seriously around here.”

Abusers tend to operate anonymously, or under pseudonyms. But the women they target often write on professional platforms, under their given names, and in the context of their real lives. Victims don’t have the luxury of separating themselves from the crime. When it comes to online threats, “one person is feeling the reality of the Internet very viscerally: the person who is being threatened,” says Jurgenson. “It’s a lot easier for the person who made the threat—and the person who is investigating the threat—to believe that what’s happening on the Internet isn’t real.”

WHEN AUTHORITIES TREAT THE Internet as a fantasyland, it has profound effects on the investigation and prosecution of online threats. Criminal threat laws largely require that victims feel tangible, immediate, and sustained fear. In my home state of California, a threat must be “unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific” and convey a “gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat” to be considered a crime. If police don’t know whether the harasser lives next door or out in Nebraska, it’s easier for them to categorize the threat as non-immediate. When they treat a threat as a boyish hoax, the implication is that the threat ceases to be a criminal offense.

So the victim faces a psychological dilemma: How should she understand her own fear? Should she, as many advise, dismiss an online threat as a silly game, and not bother to inform the cops that someone may want to—ha, ha—rape and kill her? Or should she dutifully report every threat to police, who may well dismiss her concerns? When I received my most recent rape and death threats, one friend told me that I should rest assured that the anonymous tweeter was unlikely to take any physical action against me in real life; another noted that my stalker seemed like the type of person who would fashion a coat from my skin, and urged me to take any action necessary to land the stalker in jail.

Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor who focuses on Internet threats, charted the popular response to Internet death and rape threats in a 2009 paper published in the Michigan Law Review. She found that Internet harassment is routinely dismissed as “harmless locker-room talk,” perpetrators as “juvenile pranksters,” and victims as “overly sensitive complainers.” Weighing in on one online harassment case, in an interview on National Public Radio, journalist David Margolick called the threats “juvenile, immature, and obnoxious, but that is all they are … frivolous frat-boy rants.”

Of course, the frat house has never been a particularly safe space for women. I’ve been threatened online, but I have also been harassed on the street, groped on the subway, followed home from the 7-Eleven, pinned down on a bed by a drunk boyfriend, and raped on a date. Even if I sign off Twitter, a threat could still be waiting on my stoop.

Today, a legion of anonymous harassers are free to play their “games” and “pranks” under pseudonymous screen names, but for the women they target, the attacks only compound the real fear, discomfort, and stress we experience in our daily lives.

IF AMERICAN POLICE FORCES are overwhelmingly male, the technology companies that have created the architecture of the online world are, famously, even more so. In 2010, according to the information services firm CB Insights, 92 percent of the founders of fledgling Internet companies were male; 86 percent of their founding teams were exclusively male. While the number of women working across the sciences is generally increasing, the percentage of women working in computer sciences peaked in 2000 and is now on the decline. In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found, women made up just 22.5 percent of American computer programmers and 19.7 percent of software developers. In a 2012 study of 400 California companies, researchers at the University of California-Davis, found that just seven percent of the highest-paid executives at Silicon Valley companies were women.

When Twitter announced its initial public offering in October, its filings listed an all-male board. Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s general counsel, was the only woman among its executive officers. When Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, suggested that the gender imbalance on Twitter’s board was an issue of “elite arrogance” and “male chauvinistic thinking,” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo responded with a joking tweet, calling Wadhwa “the Carrot Top of academic sources.”

Most executives aren’t intentionally boxing women out. But the decisions these men make have serious implications for billions of people. The gender imbalance in their companies compromises their ability to understand the lives of half their users.

Twitter “has a history of saying ‘too bad, so sad’” when confronted with concerns about harassment on its platform, says Citron, the University of Maryland law professor who studies the emerging legal implications of online abuse against women. The culture of the platform has typically prioritized freewheeling discussion over zealous speech policing. Unlike Facebook, Twitter doesn’t require people to register accounts under their real names. Users are free to enjoy the frivolity—and the protection—that anonymous speech provides. If a user runs afoul of Twitter’s terms of service, he’s free to create a new account under a fresh handle. And the Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects platforms like Twitter from being held legally responsible for what individuals say on the site.

The advent of the “report abuse” button is a development Citron finds “very heartening.” Allowing people to block an abuser’s account helps women avoid having to be faced with vile and abusive tweets. But our problems can’t all be solved with the click of a button. In some cases, the report-abuse button is just a virtual Band-Aid for a potentially dangerous real-world problem. It can undermine women by erasing the trail of digital evidence. And it does nothing to prevent these same abusers from opening a new account and continuing their crimes.

When I received those seven tweets in Palm Springs, a well-meaning friend reported them as abusive through Twitter’s system, hoping that action on the platform’s end would help further my case. A few hours later, the tweets were erased from the site without comment (or communication with me). Headlessfemalepig’s Twitter feed was replaced with a page noting that the account had been suspended. Luckily, I had taken screenshots of the tweets, but to the cops working with a limited understanding of the platform, their sudden disappearance only confused the issue. The detective assigned to my case asked me to send him links pointing to where the messages lived online—but absent a subpoena of Twitter’s records, they were gone from law enforcement’s view. If someone had reported the threats before I got a chance to see them, I might not even have been able to indicate their existence at all. Without a proper investigation, I am incapable of knowing whether headlessfemalepig is a one-time offender or the serial stalker who has followed me for many years. Meanwhile, nothing’s stopping headlessfemalepig from continuing to tweet away under a new name.

It shouldn’t be Twitter’s responsibility to hunt down and sanction criminals who use its service—that’s what cops are (supposedly) for. Twitter has to balance its interests in addressing abusive behavior with its interests in protecting our private information (or that of, say, political dissidents), which means keeping a tight lid on users’ IP addresses and refusing to offer up deleted material to civilians. When I asked how Twitter balances those demands, Nu Wexler, who leads public policy communications for the company, pointed me to a chart published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation—an advocacy group dedicated to defending the free speech and privacy rights of Internet users—that illustrates the platform’s “commitment to user privacy.” The chart, titled “Who Has Your Back: Which Companies Help Protect Your Data From the Government?,” awards Twitter high marks for fighting for users’ privacy rights in court and publishing a transparency report about government data requests.

A high score awarded by the Electronic Frontier Foundation communicates to users that their Internet activity will be safe from overreaching government snoops—and post–Edward Snowden, that concern is more justified than ever. But in some cases, the impulse to protect our privacy can interfere with the law’s ability to protect us when we’re harassed. Last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation came out against an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act. Until recently, the law criminalized abusive, threatening, and harassing speech conveyed over a telephone line, provided the abuser placed the call; the new law, passed in March, applies to any electronic harassment targeted at a specific person, whether it’s made over the telephone or by another means. Critics of the legislation pulled out the trope that the Internet is less real than other means of communication. As the Foundation put it, “a person is free to disregard something said on Twitter in a way far different than a person who is held in constant fear of the persistent ringing of a telephone intruding in their home.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation—and the tech companies that benefit from its ratings—are undoubtedly committed to fighting government First Amendment abuses. But when they focus their efforts on stemming the spread of anti-harassment laws from outdated media, like landline telephones, to modern means like Twitter, their efforts act like a thumb on the scale, favoring some democratic values at the expense of others. “Silicon Valley has the power to shape society to conform to its values, which prioritize openness and connectivity,” Jurgenson says. “But why are engineers in California getting to decide what constitutes harassment for people all around the world?”

Tech companies are, of course, fully aware that they need a broad base of users to flourish as billion-dollar businesses. Today women have the bargaining power to draft successful petitions calling for “report abuse” buttons, but our corporate influence is limited, and alternative venues for action are few. Local police departments “have no money,” Jurgenson says, and “it feels unlikely that the government is going to do more anytime soon, so we’re forced to put more pressure on Twitter.” And while an organized user base can influence the decisions of a public, image-conscious company like Twitter, many platforms—like the dedicated “revenge porn” sites that have proliferated on the Web—don’t need to appease women to stay popular. “I call this the myth of the market,” Citron says. “There’s definitely a desire for anti-social behavior. There are eyeballs. And there are users who are providing the content. The market isn’t self-correcting, and it’s not going to make this go away.”

IN A 2009 PAPER in the Boston University Law Review, Citron proposed a new way of framing the legal problem of harassment on the Internet: She argued that online abuse constitutes “discrimination in women’s employment opportunities” that ought to be better addressed by the U.S. government itself. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, or gender, was swiftly applied to members of the Ku Klux Klan, who hid behind hoods to harass and intimidate black Louisianans from voting and pursuing work. Anonymous online harassment, Citron argued, similarly discourages women from “writing and earning a living online” on the basis of their gender. “It interferes with their professional lives. It raises their vulnerability to offline sexual violence. It brands them as incompetent workers and inferior sexual objects. The harassment causes considerable emotional distress.”

On the Internet, women are overpowered and devalued. We don’t always think about our online lives in those terms—after all, our days are filled with work to do, friends to keep up with, Netflix to watch. But when anonymous harassers come along—saying they would like to rape us, or cut off our heads, or scrutinize our bodies in public, or shame us for our sexual habits—they serve to remind us in ways both big and small that we can’t be at ease online. It is precisely the banality of Internet harassment, University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks has argued, that makes it “both so effective and so harmful, especially as a form of discrimination.”

The personal and professional costs of that discrimination manifest themselves in very real ways. Jessica Valenti says she has stopped promoting her speaking events publicly, enlisted security for her public appearances, signed up for a service to periodically scrub the Web of her private information, invested in a post-office box, and begun periodically culling her Facebook friend list in an attempt to filter out readers with ulterior motives. Those efforts require a clear investment of money and time, but the emotional fallout is less directly quantifiable. “When people say you should be raped and killed for years on end, it takes a toll on your soul,” she says. Whenever a male stranger approaches her at a public event, “the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.” Every time we call the police, head to court to file a civil protection order, or get sucked into a mental hole by the threats that have been made against us, zeroes drop from our annual incomes. Says Jurgenson, “It’s a monetary penalty for being a woman.”

Citron has planted the seed of an emerging debate over the possibility of applying civil rights laws to ensure equal opportunities for women on the Internet. “There’s no silver bullet for addressing this problem,” Citron says. But existing legislation has laid the groundwork for potential future reforms. Federal civil rights law can punish “force or threat[s] of force” that interfere with a person’s employment on the basis of race, religion, or national origin. That protection, though, doesn’t currently extend to threats targeted at a person’s gender. However, other parts of the Civil Rights Act frame workplace sexual harassment as discriminatory, and requires employers to implement policies to both prevent and remedy discrimination in the office. And Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 puts the onus on educational institutions to take action against discrimination toward women. Because Internet harassment affects the employment and educational opportunities of women, laws could conceivably be amended to allow women to bring claims against individuals.

But it’s hard to get there from here. As Citron notes, the Internet is not a school or a workplace, but a vast and diffuse universe that often lacks any clear locus of accountability. Even if online threats are considered a civil rights violation, who would we sue? Anonymous tweeters lack the institutional affiliation to make monetary claims worthwhile. And there is the mobbing problem: One person can send just one horrible tweet, but then many others may pile on. A single vicious tweet may not clear the hurdle of discriminatory harassment (or repetitive abuse). And while a mob of individuals each lobbing a few attacks clearly looks and feels like harassment, there is no organized group to take legal action against. Bringing separate claims against individual abusers would be laborious, expensive, and unlikely to reap financial benefits. At the same time, amending the Communications Decency Act to put the onus on Internet platforms to police themselves could have a serious chilling effect on all types of speech, discriminatory or otherwise.

Citron admits that passing new civil rights legislation that applies to a new venue—the Internet—is a potentially Sisyphean task. But she says that by expanding existing civil rights laws to recognize the gendered nature of Internet threats, lawmakers could put more pressure on law enforcement agencies to take those crimes seriously. “We have the tools already,” Citron says. “Do we use them? Not really.” Prosecuting online threats as bias-motivated crimes would mean that offenders would face stronger penalties, law enforcement agencies would be better incentivized to investigate these higher-level crimes—and hopefully, the Internet’s legions of anonymous abusers would begin to see the downside of mouthing off.

Our laws have always found a way to address new harms while balancing long-standing rights, even if they do it very slowly. Opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 characterized its workplace protections as unconstitutional and bad for business. Before workplace sexual harassment was reframed as discriminatory under Title VII, it was written off as harmless flirting. When Title IX was first proposed to address gender discrimination in education, a Senate discussion on the issue ended in laughter when one senator cracked a co-ed football joke. Until domestic violence became a national policy priority, abuse was dismissed as a lovers’ quarrel. Today’s harmless jokes and undue burdens are tomorrow’s civil rights agenda.

MY SERIAL CYBERSTALKER BEGAN following me in 2009. I was on the staff of an alt-weekly when a mini-controversy flared up on a blog. One of the blog’s writers had developed a pattern of airing his rape fantasies on the site; I interviewed him and the site’s other contributors and published a story. Then I started receiving rape threats of my own. Their author posted a photo of me on his blog and wrote, “Oh, sure, you might say she’s pretty. Or you might say she looks sweet or innocent. But don’t let looks fool you. This woman is pure evil.” (To some harassers, you’re physically not very attractive; to others, you’re beautiful.) “I thought I’d describe her on my blog as ‘rape-worthy,’ but ultimately decided against it,” he added. “Oops! I’ve committed another thought crime!”

In the comments section below the article, threats popped up under a dozen fake names and several phony IP addresses—which usually point to a device’s precise location, but can be easily faked if you have the right software. “Amanda, I’ll fucking rape you,” one said. “How’s that feel? Like that? What’s my IP address, bitch?” On his Twitter account, my stalker wrote that he planned to buy a gun—apparently intending to defend his First Amendment rights by exercising the Second.

Then, one night when my boyfriend and I were in our apartment, my cell phone started ringing incessantly. I received a series of voicemails, escalating in tone from a stern “You cut the shit right fucking now” to a slurred “You fucking dyke … I will fuck you up.” For the first time ever, I called the police. When an officer arrived at my house, I described the pattern of abuse. He expressed befuddlement at the “virtual” crime, handed me his card, and told me to call if anyone came to my house—but he declined to take a report.

Without police support, I opted to file a civil protection order in family court. I posted a photograph of my stalker at my office’s front desk. When the local sheriff’s department failed to serve him court papers, I paid $100 for a private investigator to get the job done. It took me five visits to court, waiting for my case to be called up while sitting quietly across the aisle from him in the gallery as dozens of other local citizens told a domestic violence judge about the boyfriends and fathers and ex-wives who had threatened and abused them. These people were seeking protection from crowbar-wielding exes and gun-flashing acquaintances—more real crimes the justice system had failed to prosecute. By the time the judge finally called up my protection order for review, I had missed a half-dozen days of work pursuing the case. I was lucky to have a full-time job and an understanding boss—even if he didn’t understand the threats on the same level I did. And because my case was filed under new anti-stalking protections—protections designed for cases like mine, in which I was harassed by someone I didn’t have a personal relationship with—I was lucky to get a court-appointed lawyer, too. Most victims don’t.

My harasser finally acquiesced to the protection order when my lawyer showed him that we knew the blog comments were coming from his computer—he had made a valiant attempt to obscure his comments, but he’d slipped up in a couple of instances, and we could prove the rape threats were his. When the judge approved the order, she instructed my harasser that he was not allowed to contact me in any way—not by email, Twitter, phone, blog comment, or by hiring a hot air balloon to float over my house with a message, she said. And he had to stay at least 100 feet away from me at all times. The restraining order would last one year.

Soon after the order expired, he sent an email to my new workplace. Every once in a while, he re-establishes contact. Last summer, he waded into the comments section of an article I wrote about sex website creator Cindy Gallop, to say, “I would not sacrifice the physiological pleasure of ejaculating inside the woman for a lesser psychological pleasure. … There is a reason it feels better to do it the right way and you don’t see others in the ape world practicing this behavior.” A few months later, he reached out via LinkedIn. (“Your stalker would like to add you to his professional network.”) A few days before I received the threats in Palm Springs, he sent me a link via Twitter to a story he wrote about another woman who had been abused online. Occasionally, he sends his tweets directly my way—a little reminder that his “game” is back on.

It’s been four years, but I still carry the case files with me. I record every tweet he sends me in a Word document, forward his emails to a dedicated account, then print them out to ensure I’ll have them ready for police in analog form if he ever threatens me again (or worse). Whenever I have business travel to the city where he lives, I cart my old protection order along, even though the words are beginning to blur after a dozen photocopies. The stacks of paper are filed neatly in my apartment. My anxieties are harder to organize.


This post originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “Women Aren’t Welcome Here.” For more, consider subscribing to our bimonthly print magazine.

Reproductive Rights in 2014

Why 2014 Could Be A Huge Turning Point For Reproductive Rights

By Tara Culp-ResslerThinkProgress

Equal Lives Roe v. Wade will mark its 41st birthday later this month, amid ever-increasing assaults on reproductive rights across the nation. According to the latest report from the Guttmacher Institute, states have imposed a staggering 205 abortion restrictions between 2011 and 2013. That legislation has attacked access to abortion from all angles — targeting providers and clinics, driving up the cost of abortion for the women who need it, making women travel farther and wait longer to get medical care, and outright banning the procedure. Since 2000, the number of states that Guttmacher defines as being “hostile” to abortion rights has spiked from 13 to 27.

That’s left abortion rights advocates on the other side, working hard to stem the tide of anti-choice attacks. Constantly warding off restrictive legislation hasn’t left much space for proactive policies to expand women’s reproductive freedom, like expanding access to maternity care or making family planning services more accessible to low-income women. Most of the headlines about abortion issues are bleak.

But there may be a shift on the horizon.

As the new year kicks off, the pro-choice community is beginning to lay the groundwork for a new kind of strategy. On the state level, they’re beginning to push for legislation that not only rolls back anti-choice restrictions, but also expands health care opportunities for women and their families. They’re striking a delicate balance between finding common ground with social conservatives — like focusing on preventative care and maternal health outcomes — while maintaining that abortion is also an important aspect of reproductive health. And grassroots activists are committed to nudging the dial forward on issues that have long been considered too controversial for the political sphere.

“The momentum has shifted,” Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told ThinkProgress in an interview. “Americans as a whole have had enough. We’re not just going to sit idly by and fight defensive fights and take these attacks on reproductive freedom sitting down. We’re starting to define what a new agenda for reproductive freedom looks like in the 21st century.”

A new agenda for reproductive freedom

So what does that agenda look like? In a political atmosphere that’s long segregated women’s health care from the rest of policy as a “culture war issue,” it involves a more comprehensive approach to reproductive freedom.

“Abortion access is ground zero of reproductive freedom; without it, we don’t have autonomy and self-determination over our lives. But it’s not as though our reproductive lives start and end there,” Hogue noted. “There’s a whole landscape out there of policies that have lagged far behind.”

Those policies include other health-related initiatives, like ensuring that women have access to family planning services and maternity care. They involve tackling sexual health issues, like cracking down on domestic abuse and rape. But they also include economic policies to help ensure that women have the resources to direct the courses of their lives and provide for their families — like equal pay legislation, affordable child care services, and efforts to prevent workplace discrimination. Rather than framing reproductive rights as a women’s issue, groups like NARAL are working on making the point that they’re also inextricable from the nation’s economic agenda.

On a national stage, some lawmakers have already made the shift to talking about women’s full equality in this way. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) were particular champions of this fight in 2013, attempting to reposition women’s economic success as a national priority. “We want women to know that there’s a path, there’s a fight being made on these subjects,” Pelosi told ThinkProgress in July.

State legislatures starting to lead the way

Pelosi has focused on workplace equality as a women’s issue without necessarily coupling that effort with other areas of women’s rights, like abortion rights or sexual assault prevention. But state lawmakers are beginning to propose sweeping packages of women’s health legislation that include the full range of those issues.

For instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) pushed an ambitious Women’s Equality Act — which included measures to advance pay equity, outlaw discriminatory practices against women in the workplace and the housing sector, tighten penalties for sexual crimes, and reaffirm reproductive rights — in 2013. It ultimately failed to pass because some members of the legislature wouldn’t agree to its abortion-related provision, but the female members of the Assembly’s Democratic majority are ready to try again. They’re already urging Cuomo to take up the full version of the legislation again this year. They’re also framing these issues broadly, pointing out that advancing women’s equality is more than access to gender-specific health care. “We believe it is important to look at all of those barriers women face and to make sure we include issues such as access to affordable, high-quality child care, paid family leave and eldercare so that New York’s women and families have every opportunity for a dynamic future,” a statement from the Democratic Women Assembly Members explains.

Pennsylvania probably doesn’t immediately come to mind as a state that’s committed to protecting reproductive rights — Guttmacher rates the state as “hostile” to abortion, since it’s enacted several harsh restrictions on the procedure — but lawmakers are making a very similar push there. In December, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a package of legislation that includes measures to strengthen workplace protections for pregnant women and nursing mothers, prevent anti-abortion harassment at health clinics, advance pay equity, and protect victims of domestic violence.

“The Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health represents a genuine cross-section of issues and concerns facing women today,” Rep. Dan Frankel (D-PA), one of the lawmakers heading up the new initiative, explained when it was first introduced. “This is a comprehensive collection of bills based on what women want in regard to their own health.”

Just this week, a pro-choice coalition in Virginia unveiled the 2014 Healthy Families Legislative Agenda, another broad push to advance women’s health from this angle. After a high-profile gubernatorial race that resulted in the election of pro-choice Terry McAuliffe, reproductive rights activists are eager to begin undoing some of the damage to women’s rights in recent years. In addition to pushing to repeal the state’s forced ultrasound laws and harsh restrictions on abortion clinics, the coalition is also advocating for expanding Medicaid and increasing health coverage for low-income pregnant women.

“We are re-orienting ourselves a bit more toward offense and trying to take advantage we see in this immense backlash to these really radical attacks on women’s health care access,” Anna Scholl, the Executive Director of ProgressVA, explained to ThinkProgress. “I don’t want to minimize or underestimate the size of the hole that we have to dig ourselves out of… But we are taking a much more holistic approach to choice and to women’s health, putting together an agenda that we think will support families across the Commonwealth in every one of their childbearing positions.”

Are national lawmakers finally ready to go on the offense?

The end of 2013 signaled a potential shift in the way that Washington approaches abortion rights, too. Of course, getting pro-choice legislation past both chambers of Congress is far less likely than beginning to turn the tide at the state level. But national lawmakers are indicating that they may not be afraid to take a bold stance in favor of reproductive rights. In November, a group of Senate Democrats introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013, the first piece of national legislation in nearly a decade that is intended to protect — rather than dismantle — abortion rights. The Women’s Health Protection Act would prevent states from enacting medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion.

“This assault on essential, constitutionally protected rights has gone on too long,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, explained in an op-ed when it was first unveiled. “We are introducing the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013 this week to end it, once and for all.”

NARAL’s Hogue points to Wendy Davis, a relatively unknown state lawmaker who rose to national fame after fighting to defeat stringent anti-abortion legislation in Texas, as evidence that the American public is ready for more elected officials to go down this path. “When you actually take a strong, courageous stand on abortion access as part of a full suite of reproductive freedom, voters reward you. We’re going to see more of that, and we’re going to incentivize more of that,” she noted.

And grassroots activists are preparing to push lawmakers even further. The hostile environment around abortion has made elected officials wary to take any strong stance on expanding access to the procedure, particularly if that results in taxpayer dollars financing abortion. For nearly 40 years, the Hyde Amendment has outlawed federal funding for abortion, preventing low-income women who rely on Medicaid from using their insurance coverage to help pay for the procedure — and Democrats have largely refrained from doing anything to get rid of that policy. But this past fall, reproductive justice activists formed All*Above All, a coalition that hopes to bring a renewed momentum to the fight to restore abortion access to economically disadvantaged individuals.

“All*Above All pushes back on the long-running urban legend that funding abortion coverage is some kind of political third rail,” Kierra Johnson, Choice USA’s executive director, explained in a statement about the coalition’s launch. “This campaign offers people a fresh approach to declare their support for bold action to change these policies.”

Looking to 2014 and beyond

“I think we’re going to sort of hit our stride in 2014,” Hogue told ThinkProgress. “In 2014, we’re going to see a lot more offensive legislation. We’re going to start to see states really experiment with what policy packages look like that actually support women at all stages of their reproductive life, and we’re going to demand what we need to be thriving, equal members of American society.”

But change is slow, and after such a dramatic recent assault on women’s bodily autonomy, it will take time to pull the country back to the other direction. As ProgressVA’s Scholl noted, there’s still a lot of damage to undo. In deeply red states like Texas, much of that damage will only continue to worsen this year. And, of course, the pro-choice community may be mobilizing for 2014 — but so are abortion opponents.

According to Hogue, the shift will begin in 2014 and get even more dramatic in 2016 and 2018. It will take several trips to the ballot box to counteract the power that the Tea Party built up over the past three years. But there’s reason to believe that the American people, who have repeatedly rejected legislative attempts to restrict abortion, are ready for a dramatically different approach to reproductive freedom.

“It’s going to take longer than more election cycle to re-center the country where the actual center is, but make no mistake — this shift has started to happen,” she noted. “The pendulum will be swinging back in this direction for quite some time.”

Related, also by Tara Culp-Ressler:

In The Past 3 Years, We’ve Enacted More Abortion Restrictions Than During The Entire Previous Decade

Also Related, from Salon: More than half of US women live in a state denying abortion care: “By now you’ve already read the year-end roundups, so you know what a dismal year 2013 was in terms of reproductive rights. This week, the Guttmacher Institute added some context to recent trends in abortion policy by comparing the reproductive health restrictions passed over the last three years to those from the previous decade.” Full article in Salon

Video Games Teaching Murder

Grand Theft Auto V makes it cool to pick up – even kill – prostitutes

My students play GTA V instead of studying. It teaches them to kill prostitutes and demean women in the game – and beyond

Cassie Rodenberg    Theguardian.com, December 27, 2013

A scene from Grand Theft Auto V where a player kills a prostitute. Photograph: Guardian

A scene from Grand Theft Auto V where a player kills a prostitute. Photograph: Guardian

Prostitutes walk certain locations at night. There’s a line of them in the industrial area. In something backless with thigh-high stockings. You can beep your horn to pick one up. “Get in gorgeous! Let’s party,” you’ll shout. “Let’s find someplace quiet, baby,” she’ll say.

Drive her to a secluded place, on a beach, next to the surf and palm trees.

“Go ahead, sugar. Tell me what you crave.”

Select your service from a drop down menu on the screen – $50 for a blow job, $70 for a half-and-half or $100 for everything. Use your joystick to move the camera on the game, to get a good angle.

“Oh my god, fuck yeah, give it to me,” she’ll say. She’ll keep talking for 20 seconds.

When you’re done you leave her there, run the car forward next to her, then reverse, backing over her. You can get out of the car and beat her. She’ll let you. Once she’s dead, you can grab your money back from the ground.

This is all possible, even encouraged by tips on YouTube and chatrooms, in Grand Theft Auto V. In fact, your character’s health (aka life points) goes up when you have sex with a prostitute.

Like many teenagers, students in New York City’s poorest neighborhood, the South Bronx, play Grand Theft Auto V. It was the fastest entertainment property to ever gross $1bn, which it managed in its first three days of release in September. In the first 24 hours alone, the game sold 11m copies. That’s 11m pixelated ghettos. The latest model is based like its predecessors on a high crime, poverty and gang violence area, this time outside Los Angeles. They see its advertisements featuring a sexy blonde character smirking on bus stops and the logoed stickers affixed to sidewalk posts and curbs.

They play at night instead of doing their homework. It’s cool to pick up prostitutes. This is how you learn to “be a man”. And while those students play their game, in their neighborhood, perhaps under their window, real prostitutes walk.

Millie was one of them, a woman who worked in South Bronx, who walked the streets. She stood on the track, a simulacrum of game pixels. Her hair was short and curly and she had an accent. Maybe she asked men, “want to party?”

She’s dead now, dead like the on-screen women that are fun to kill. There, game and real women split. Millie died of an infection to the heart after too many hits of heroin into an abscess. She was an addict.

Men took her to a dumpster-filled lot, or to a Coca-Cola bottling plant, for a blow job, not to the beach. She would have celebrated $40 for a half-and-half. When her addiction peaked and her luck became short, $10 to earn a hit of heroin would suffice. $10 for most anything.

Sarah works the track, too. Her face is lined with grime, and she lives in a van on the side of the road, sometimes under the bridge of an overpass. She wears sneakers and sweatshirts, whatever she finds, instead of stockings. At work, she passes other women: Pepsi, Desire, Beauty, Egypt, Niecy. Other women who work to placate an addiction birthed by a lifetime’s worth of abuse and bad circumstances that landed them there. They fear ending up like Millie, the dead one.

Many Bronx students, mostly males, many of whom live in shelters or subsist in the foster care system, play GTA V and laugh. They play a game advertised to them, one that insidiously belittles their world, giving them lessons on what to mock about it.

These teenagers have the power to reign over those whores. Game and real women merge.

What they see dictates that they should mock the women outside their windows, mothers and sisters and neighbors. They should harden and laugh like the rest of the world who thoughtlessly screw, dump and kill the bitches in ghettos, things that no longer seem real to them.

Millie died with four children in the foster care system, two of them teenage boys. Her body lies in a mass grave for unclaimed bodies, a place where her sons cannot visit. But they can reach one memory of her on screen, hear her say, “hey, baby,” watch men shove her down.

• This article was amended on 27 December 2013 to clarify that killing prostitutes does not give a player additional points in the game, but having sex with them does.

A Law for All Families

National Paid Family Leave May Finally Be on the Horizon

By Michelle ChenIn These Times

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is one of the sponsors of the bill to support paid leave insurance for families.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is one of the sponsors of the bill to support paid leave insurance for families.

Any working parent will tell you that raising a family might as well be another full-time job—one that comes with no vacation days or health benefits. But millions of Americans don’t get days off from their regular job, either, even for the sake of their health or their family’s.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF), just 12 percent of American workers can take paid leave time to tend to an illness in their household, and only about 40 percent can get time off for themselves through employer-sponsored disability coverage. This gap affects about two-fifths of the private sector workforce, or 40 million people—a vast deficit compared to many other industrialized countries, where paid leave is routine.

Now, though, some lawmakers are recognizing that taking a few weeks off to deal with a health challenge shouldn’t hurt your paycheck. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have sponsored legislation to establish a nationwide paid family leave insurance program that would partially protect the wages of workers who take time off for the medical needs of themselves or their families.

Financed by small contributions from payroll checks and employers, the program would allow workers to “take time for their own serious health condition, including pregnancy and childbirth recovery; the serious health condition of a child, parent, spouse or domestic partner; the birth or adoption of a child; and/or for particular military caregiving and leave purposes,” according to a briefing by NPWF, who is one of the groups campaigning for the bill, known as the Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY) Act.

The proposed weekly benefits would generally range from $580 to $4,000, depending on income. Like Social Security taxes, the insurance would require a small payroll deduction from the employee and would enable workers to earn as much as two-thirds of their regular weekly earnings for 12 weeks. After the first year, the payment rate would increase based on the average national wage. Overall, advocates say, the federal program would help provide stability for many low-income and precariously employed people by covering workers in any size workplace at any income level, including part-timers.

With the state of current legislation, activists point out, even workers with some insurance coverage may experience extreme hardship when a child’s illness destabilizes a family. In a testimony gathered by the New York State Paid Family Leave Coalition, a mother named Devorah from Rosendale, N.Y. recalled the hardships she faced when her daughter was born premature with a severe medical condition and continued to suffer from long-term medical problems in later years. Though her family had some insurance protection, Devorah said, “By the time we walked out of the hospital with our baby, we had spent an additional $30,000 out of pocket.” In her daughter’s first years, she went on:

There were times when … we didn’t pay our bills. We didn’t pay the gas company or the oil company or the phone company. If there was a choice between prescription drugs and groceries, we bought prescription drugs. If there was a choice between groceries and the phone bill, we went without a phone. … And it’s taken us six years to dig our way out of the financial hole that this dumped us into.

The FAMILY legislation is modeled after similar landmark family leave insurance laws in California and New Jersey, which provide benefits that cover partial weekly earnings on a short-term basis. In addition, policies enabling workers to take paid leave time to tend to family health needs have been emerging at the local level all over the country. In recent years, New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Portland lawmakers have all passed paid sick days legislation, often braving fierce opposition from the business lobby.

The paid leave insurance act would complement laws like these, which focus on short-term medical needs like a bout of the flu, by allowing financial protection for long-term medical needs in a self-financed system. As Vicki Shabo, NPWF director of work and family programs, tells In These Times via email:

It is reasonable to expect employers to provide a basic amount of paid sick time for routine illnesses or health needs, but providing a significant level of wage replacement or full wage replacement for an extended period of time may not be feasible for some employers. Requiring employers to bear the full cost of an extended family leave could also dissuade employers from hiring women, who would be more expensive to hire and retain.

The insurance, administered through the Social Security Administration, would not completely replace a worker’s wages during her time off, but it would be a major step toward broadening access to compensated leave time—and, in turn, improving gender and age equity in the workplace. According to NPFW, “In the year following a birth, new mothers who take paid leave are more likely than those who take no paid leave to stay in the workforce and 54 percent more likely to report wage increases.” Older workers and family caregivers tending to elders would also benefit from extended time off for medical issues that come with aging.

In addition, expanding access to paid leave would help narrow racial divides. Surveys indicate that Latina and black women are less likely than whites to have access to paid sick days or parental leave, with many of them working in precarious service sector jobs that with less access to healthcare in general.

And for many parents, it’s one less thing to be concerned about in a baby’s first few months. In New Jersey, which recently instituted its own statewide leave insurance program, one mother testified for advocacy campaign New Jersey Time to Care, “When I had my first son, I was only able to take a few months off.” But after she got paid leave for her second child, she continued, “I was able to take longer time off and bond with him for what I felt was a more substantial amount of time … and not have to worry about the financial impact of staying home without pay.”

Having one parent at home also makes it easier to manage clinic visits and preventive care, ultimately minimizing a child’s time away from school for health issues. A policy analysis by the California-based think tank Human Impact Partners found that parental leave leads to better health outcomes that can “improve a child’s brain development, social development and overall well-being.”

But workers aren’t the only people stand to gain from the insurance. Their bosses would benefit, too, because employees will be more likely to stick with a company in the long run if they can occasionally leave work when necessary. Under California’s program, NPWF reports, “workers in low-wage, high-turnover industries are much more likely to return to their jobs after using the program.” And there will be public health benefits for consumers when low-paid cooks, servers and hotel cleaners aren’t pressured to go to work with the sniffles.

Paid family leave insurance won’t overcome all the obstacles that workers face when coping with a medical challenge. For the most vulnerable groups, however, paid time off for care will be time well spent.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

About Last Night…

The Real Reason Women Might Regret Casual Sex

A new study reveals sexual regret isn’t about sex itself.
The Guardian / By Jill Filipovic
A UCLA research them found that college-age women are more likely to regret a one-time sexual encounter than men. Photograph: Mathew Sturtevant / Alamy/Alamy

A UCLA research study found that college-age women are more likely to regret a one-time sexual encounter than men. Photograph: Mathew Sturtevant / Alamy/Alamy

The “walk of shame” is a Sunday morning ritual on college campuses (and sometimes beyond) across the United States: young women, hair matted and still in last night’s skirt and heels, trudge home post-hook-up. It’s a uniquely female ritual, and the term itself evokes a singularly female image.

While men also have to go home after sex, often disheveled and exhausted, there’s no shame attached to their commute. In a culture that imbues sexual activity in women with shame and judgment while applauding sexual prolificacy in men, it will surprise no one that women are more likely than men to report regretting sexual encounters. But according to a new study, it’s not cultural views of female sexuality that saddle women with regret; it’s evolution.

The research team found that college-age women are more likely to regret a one-time sexual encounter, whereas men are more likely to regret not taking a sexual opportunity. Women’s biggest sexual regrets are losing their virginity to the wrong partner, cheating on a partner or moving too fast sexually. Men, on the other hand, regretted not making a move on a potential partner, and a lack of sexual adventurousness in their younger or single days. Similar patterns held among gay men and lesbians – women were more likely to regret sexual activity, while men were more likely to regret chances not taken.

Martie Haselton, a UCLA social psychology professor on the research team, said:

One thing that is fascinating about these emotional reactions in the present is that they might be far removed from the reproductive consequences of the ancestral past. For example, we have reliable methods of contraception. But that doesn’t seem to have erased the sex differences in women’s and men’s responses, which might have a deep evolutionary history.

Or a deep cultural one. While evolutionary biology traffics in real, science-backed facts, evolutionary psychology is largely a project of backward-looking guesswork, and often an attempt to chalk up complex social phenomenon to evolution. That’s wildly appealing, because people love having their biases confirmed, and because alleged scientific confirmation of an “evolutionary” reason for social inequity handily gives us an out for having to deal with injustice. If women have actually emotionally evolved to feel sexual shame absent social context, then what’s the point of pushing back on a social context that sexually shames women?

In reality, our emotional and psychological responses to interactions with other human beings are shaped by culture and socialization at least as much as biology. But as sexual mores continue to shift – perhaps more rapidly than many folks are comfortable with – it’s comforting to believe that some evolutionary fact underlies our unease. Human sexual expression has long been widely variable, and social institutions have struggled to reign it in through a variety of mechanisms (outlawing same-sex relationships or premarital sex; valorizing female chastity and reproduction within marriage) for a variety of reasons (economic stability based on a nuclear family model; continuance of male social, political and economic dominance).

We are complicated animals, and even as we study our own motivations and feelings, we are operating within a set of cultural assumptions and values that – being thickly swaddled in them – we cannot fully see. Which helps psychologists who fancy themselves evolution experts to conclude that their own personal preferences, or the current norms of their culture, are universal and explicable by evolution alone.

As cultural norms change, so do sexual behaviors and our responses to them. A recent UK survey found that more women than ever before have had same-sex sexual experiences – four times as many women as two decades ago. And while the vast majority of respondents had sex before marriage, majorities nonetheless said sex before marriage was wrong. That disconnect between a cultural ideal – that sex is best within the confines of marriage – and the biological and social reality – that human beings physically desire sex and that we have had sex outside of the confines of marriage for all of human history – is perhaps a better explanation of any attendant negative emotions attached to premarital sex than an evolutionary guessing game.

The UK survey also found that women bear the brunt of negative sexual experiences, whether that’s sexual assault, sexually transmitted infections or unintended pregnancy. Women will of course feel less positive about sexual experiences that are tainted by assault or fear. And women will of course feel less positive about sexual experiences in a culture that attaches negative attributes to sexually active women.

That so many women are making sexual choices shrouded in shame and regret is a public health problem that policy-makers have an obligation to take on, not just a moral issue suited to public debate and Sunday sermons. Shame and fear are bad positions from which to make healthy, affirming choices – if women believe that one-time sexual encounters are often regretful, there’s little incentive to prepare for them or to negotiate one’s needs within them.

Why bring condoms along on a night out if you believe having casual sex is wrong? Easier to just allow yourself a hormonal or drunken lapse. Why support abortion rights if everyone agrees unintended pregnancy is a deserved consequence of regrettable sex, rather than a relatively common but relatively preventable aspect of the human experience? If men believe that women who have casual sex aren’t worthy of respect and that drunk women are sexually available, it’s easier for everyone else to look the other way or blame women for their own victimization when sexually assaulted.

Women are also much less likely than men to orgasm during casual sex. This is partly biological since more women report having trouble orgasming generally than men, but is also partly cultural and social. It’s not that women need to have commitment to orgasm as much as it’s that we culturally center sex around the male experience: starting with an erection and ending with ejaculation. A female orgasm also often takes more direction and communication, which women may not feel comfortable asserting in a one-time hook-up. Men, too, may simply be sexually selfish in short-term situations, buying the dominant cultural narrative that sex is something women give to men and is fundamentally about male pleasure.

Sexual regret isn’t about sex itself. It’s about all the ideas we attach to sex, and particularly to sexual women. We’d be much better off squaring our sexual ideals with reality rather than pushing a set of social mores that not only put our physical and mental health at risk, but mean too many of us are having bad sex and regretting what should be one of the most fundamentally pleasurable activities.

Jill Filipovic is a lawyer in Manhattan who formerly served as the Gender and Reproductive Justice editor at AlterNet. More of her writing is available online at her blog, Feministe.

What Is Sex

What Is Sex?

Anna Pulley, Alternet 

Our definitions of sex are all over the place. Why does it matter?

sexybrain In my recent piece, “10 Things Not to Say to a Lesbian,” one of the questions never to ask was “So, how do lesbians do it?” The inside joke is that many of us have actually asked ourselves, though not usually aloud, “Wait, did we have sex?” Since many people consider “sex” to mean penis in vagina, the lines for what constitutes sex for queer women can blur easily and often.

It’s an interesting question, and not just for lesbians: What is sex? The answer is something that nobody can agree on, though many have tried. Planned Parenthood looks to the dictionary for a definition: “People define ‘sex’ in different ways. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as sexually motivated behavior.’ This sounds right to us. But not everyone agrees with the dictionary or with us. People all have their own definitions of what ‘sex’ and ‘having sex’ means.”

Personally, I adhere to the Salt ‘N’ Pepa definition, which counts as anything that makes me want to shoop.

Discussions about what sex is often devolve into increasingly more specific and narrower rules, as people try to pin down a precise explanation. This is evidenced by this humorous Reddit thread: “The number of times a person has had sex with another person in heterosexual relationships represents the number of male completions per unit time,” said one. “I would count each removal of the pants that ends in any number of orgasms,” said another. In the sitcom “Seinfeld,”  Elaine asks Jerry when he believes sex is taking place, and he says “when the nipple makes its first appearance.” So keep your shirts on, folks, and you’re in the clear.

As a Kinsey Institute study proffered, a culturally agreed-upon definition of “having sex” is important for medical research and clinical practice. If “having sex” to me means farting on a cake until orgasm (don’t Google that, Dad), then researchers are going to have a hell of a time gathering accurate data on sexual behavior. The Kinsey study, “Misclassification bias: diversity in conceptualisations about having ‘had sex’,” published in 2010 in Sexual Health, surveyed just under 500 participants in order to figure out what qualifiers and acts people considered “doin’ it.” Or, put more scientifically:

To our knowledge, this is the first study of a representative sample to assess attitudes about which sexual behaviours constitute having ‘had sex’ and to examine possible mediating factors (gender, age, giving/receiving stimulation, male ejaculation, female orgasm, condom use or brevity).

The results were, unsurprisingly, mixed. The highest percentage (90 percent) believed that penis-in-vagina sex was sex. This is the Gold Standard for hetero sex, “reaching home base,” what many talk about when we talk about sex. But that means around 10 percent of respondents didn’t count penis-in-vagina sex as sex. This also excludes gays and lesbians, of course, who would be considered virgins no matter how many orgies or Goddess Circlings they participated in.

Thirty percent thought oral sex wasn’t sex, and 20 percent thought anal sex wasn’t sex, despite the fact that both acts have the word “sex” in the name. Perhaps even more confusing is the orgasm factor. Eleven percent of people said it wasn’t sex if no male ejaculation occurred. Conspicuously absent was any mention of the female orgasm. Maybe they fell asleep before getting around to it. Manual genital stimulation counted more when it was received (48 percent) than when given (44 percent), and among men, “the oldest and youngest age groups were significantly less likely to believe certain behaviours constituted having ‘had sex’.”

Why does age play a factor in all this? Can we blame Bill Clinton? One group of researchers has done just that. Researchers at the University of Kentucky-Lexington think that Bill Clinton’s infamous admission that he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky may be the reason so many young people today don’t consider oral sex to be sex. Also published in 2010 in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, the study surveyed 477 college students about their views on sex. Researchers found that 20 percent of those students considered oral-genital contact to be sex, compared with nearly 40 percent of a similar sample surveyed in 1991.

“Our respondents were adolescents after the Clinton-Lewinsky era, which our comparisons of data over time suggest may have been a turning point in conceptualizations of oral-genital contact,” they noted. Pinning all the blame on Clinton would be too much of a low-hanging cigar, however.

Other sources for the changing perceptions in attitudes on sex noted were access to comprehensive sex ed, increasing TV portrayals of sex, and cultural beliefs. Oral sex (and anal sex as well) isn’t tied to the cultural narrative about virginity and purity like penis-in-vagina sex is. The prevailing thought among some misguided evangelical folks is that you can blow or plow whomever you want, as long as no hymen is involved, and still get a thumbs-up from Jesus. Since you’re not really having sex the biblical way, you’re technically still a virgin, the thinking goes. Since a woman’s chastity is tied to her morality and character, the purity stakes are even higher, which in part explains the tendency not to count oral sex as sex, since doing so may boost a woman’s “number” to sluterrific proportions.

Of course, as in such discussions, both online and off, many are quick to point out that no one has real authority over what counts as a sexual act, that the experience is entirely subjective and varies not just from person to person, but culturally as well. The Sambia tribe in Papua New Guinea participate in a ritual where younger men fellate older men in the tribe in order to ingest their manliness and become strong and virile. This isn’t considered sex, but a rite of passage. In certain Latin American cultures, a man who is the insertive partner in same-sex relations isn’t considered to have had gay sex.

Then there’s situational sex, where one is in prison or a single-sex institution. Does that count? What about using sex to curry social favor or protection? What about porn stars and sex workers? Must they count those acts of sex where money was exchanged, even if it’s their job? What of kinky sex and fetish sex? Does a well-placed foot count, or a helpful balloon? Perhaps most importantly, why do we care? Why do we attach such significance to a number or a definition that doesn’t ultimately require any?

Partly, it’s neurological. Our brains categorize and compartmentalize data in order to make sense of the world. For instance, the word “dog” inevitably conjures an image of what a dog looks like, though no doubt my idea of a dog (a black Yorkshire terrier, for some reason) will be vastly different than yours. We have beliefs and ideas of what “real” sex is and we carry those ideas into our relationships, cocktail conversations, and countless all-caps-riddled YouTube comments, sometimes with very little thought about how they might be limiting or even downright silly, as the Reddit pants comment illustrates.

As Greta Christina put it in her essay, “Are we having sex now or what?”:

[Y]ou have to know what qualifies as sex, because when you have sex with someone your relationship changes. Right? Right? It’s not that sex itself has to change things all that much. But knowing you’ve had sex, being conscious of a sexual connection, standing around making polite conversation with someone thinking to yourself, ‘I’ve had sex with this person,’ that’s what always changes things. Or so I believed. And if having sex with a friend can confuse or change the friendship, think of how bizarre things can get when you’re not sure whether you’ve had sex with them or not.

Christina talks at length about her experiences working at a peep show, hosting orgies, about consent and reciprocity and pleasure and sadomasochism, concluding ultimately that she still doesn’t have the answer to the question of what is sex.

But that is also the point, and maybe we should be spending more time enjoying sex than trying to define it in a way that will satisfy every person. Now somebody bring me a cake; I’m feelin’ lucky.