Theory To Praxis: Abortion Access and Class Equity Issues

Through our time in GSS, I learned more about something I am already very passionate about, reproductive justice issues. If I learned anything in our short time delving into these issues in class, it is that they are highly intersectional, something which is often omitted from mainstream discussions of them. While not the only reproductive justice issue in any regard, the most commonly discussed topic of our time is abortion access.  In popular media, pro-choice and pro-life narratives are heavily centered around towing the line of viability. Furthermore, a sticky compromise, legally, was made by founding the right to abortion in a constitution right to privacy. This has allowed the focus on abortion to be shifted on morality instead of looking at the many nuanced reasons that women reach out for these procedures.

In my literature review I focused on what the major ways in which pro-choice arguments have been founded and identifying some common themes that are seen across the literature. These themes did include some legislative basis, particularly regarding rights to autonomy and how we discursively construct or limit personhood, particularly in regards to the oxymoronic concept of fetal personhood. One of the more interesting themes that I found was the topic of class equity as a means for opening up abortion access. A lot of these arguments center around women lacking access to provide adequately for any child. A number of narratives have noted that it is not just to have children if they are unable to be provided for and cherished. These arguments have also been used in a similar fashion regarding the cost of maintaining a healthy pregnancy. Depending on a woman’s health needs and the state she lives in, the total cost of pregnancy can be a very expensive process in comparison to the cost of an abortion.

Due to these issues being more current than some that are often discussed, I would like to use this information to propose a DRI / some other research project specifically into the intersections of class equity issues and abortion access. I would specifically like to focus on class equity and how this concept interacts with race regarding these issues, as many of the books commented on token populations, and I would personally like a more thoroughly representative depiction of the wide experiences of women seeking out these procedures. I believe that, as this issue is one with many extremist attitudes on both sides of the aisle, this research is essential and would provide different points and voices in the reproductive justice conversation.

Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus

Power dynamics based on gendered interactions can be seen widely in Western societies in particular. The most prominent negative repercussions of these dynamics can be seen as instances of rape and sexual assault. Similar gendered interactions and discourses can be seen as heavily embedded into initiation and bonding rituals and fraternity culture at large. These rituals have been sometimes seen to rely on rape, sexual assault, and sexual discourse in general. In her book, Fraternity Gang Rape, Peggy Reeves Sanday chooses to focus on all male group bonding rituals at a college campus in the United States, particularly the bonding ritual of “pulling train,” or, gang rape. Peggy Reeves Sanday is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She has authored a number of books, focuses primarily on matriarchies and acquaintance rapes occurring in societies. She was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania at the time that the specific gang rape addressed in Part One of this book occurred and was teaching the victim.

Sanday constructs an argument that focuses on exploring how groups of men bond through the use of sex. This is further developed as not only being constructed through actions but also through discourse amongst the group. Her argument is crafted around these group acts existing to allow for homoerotic and sexual experiences to be shared between the men involved. This is particularly explored due to the heavily homophobic mentalities usually seen in these environments. Finally, Sanday focuses on how sex can be seen as a marker of power societally and the constructs that exist which uphold these dynamics.

Fraternity Gang Rape begins with a delving into a discussion of, societally, how the differences between men and women have been seen. This is primarily done through the lens of looking at the three sexual revolutions and models that have been used to understand gender power dynamics. While discussing the various sex models, Sanday constructs a picture of the act of rape as societally upheld by the sexist subjectivity that people have been raised within. Sanday also explores some of the problematic structures that exist within college, mainly fraternity, party culture. Namely these are seen as the seduction tactics used by males, which include feeding girls drinks until they are drunk enough to give in. The ability to do this successfully is often used as a marker of one’s masculinity and reinforces the gender hierarchy that exists within these party interactions.

Sanday constructs her study in two parts. The first part is specifically tailored towards what she calls “The XYZ Express,” which focuses on trends discovered following a specific incident that happened at a fraternity on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus in 1983. This part contains a lot of information that primarily applies to the the fraternity “XYZ” and various incidents recounted primarily by women. This goes through interviews with both members of the fraternity and a number of women who have unique relationships, either sexual, friendly, or both, with members of XYZ. Their interviews highlight social bargaining for a better position within the group’s hierarchy, primarily through having sex with members, an ability to hold your own while drinking with the brothers, or both, which is heavily encouraged by party culture. Sanday also depicts structures within XYZ that reinforce these dynamics, primarily what the brothers refer to as the “Little Sisters Program” as well as aggressive circle dances, which end with a mass heap of all of the brothers, sometimes on top of a woman. The concept of this program is that the brothers of XYZ essentially scout out females to be sexually available for members within their organization. The major rape that spurned Sanday’s writing of this book was the gang rape of one of her students, referred to as Laurel, whose rape was referred to as an audition for this program by brothers. Sanday uses this discourse and the actions of gang rapes and circle dances to discuss the manners in which these actions allow for brothers to bond homoerotically within a heavily homophobic and hegemonic masculine environment.

The second part of her study is heavily focused on phallocentrism, male power, and silencing the feminine. This part focuses on discourses and interactions that are seen in groups, primarily in male centric groups. This focuses heavily on rituals utilized to break young men out of “the feminine”, or their dependencies on their mothers seen prior to adulthood, with a heavy emphasis on the ways in which this is done through fraternity initiation rituals. Sanday discusses in particular detail the exact ways in which the fraternities psychologically mess with their pledges in order to shift their mindset from a loyalty to oneself to a loyalty to the fraternity. This is done not only to promote male social and sexual dominance, but also to construct widely felt male bonding throughout the new members. This is opened up to how initiation rituals in non-Western cultures either create rape free societies or uphold gender power dynamics similar to the ones seen in fraternities. Sanday raps up this part by focusing on how sexist subjectivity is created through discourses and how difficult these structures are to deconstruct as they are so embedded into our language and interactions.

The book ends with an afterword, written in 2006, discussing how much has actually changed since this book was first published. Sanday explores the various ways that hookup culture and these sorts of incidents are perpetuated not only by fraternity culture. An interesting discussion can be seen about the roles that sororities play in upholding the hookup and rape culture that is perpetuated by most fraternities.

Ultimately, Sanday argues that while these issues are discussed much more heavily than they used to be, the statistics haven’t really changed at all. This is primarily due to the persistence of privileged positions of all male organizations of cisgendered, heterosexual white males in society. While this is not 100 percent true about fraternities,  they are predominantly filled with white, cisgendered males. Sanday does comment on the prevalence of discourse regarding sexual assault and rape that is happening in what she dubs the “New Sexual Revolution,” with a particular focus on the affirmative consent policies that are becoming widespread in colleges and universities. She concludes that protecting those more vulnerable and deconstructing these power dynamics that uphold and allow for rape and sexual assault to occur commonly is the most important move we can make societally.

This book gives an interesting overview into a very serious occurrence seen in many all male university organizations. A particularly interesting perspective can be seen when looking at rape and sexual assaults through an anthropological sense instead of sociological. The discourses and interactions are vital to understanding more about why these events occur at the rates they do, whether through groups or by individuals. Furthermore, Sanday does a good job at comparing these discourses and structures across Western and non-Western cultures. However, a further delving into other experiences with in Western fraternity culture would be beneficial. Also, while Sanday provides commentary that this is applicable to groups of men that are not fraternities, more evidence and discussion of these alternative groups would be helpful to support her argument. Furthermore, the generalizability to other fraternities at the University of Pennsylvania or on other campuses is slightly problematic. Through this part, Sanday offers a limited gaze into a few other situations, providing token examples, but a wider spread study that expressed experiences truly representative of the diversity of colleges seen in the United States would provide a more appropriate generalizability.  The manner of splitting the book into two distinct parts makes the main argument hard to connect or follow at some points. Sanday also fails to discuss that all of these interactions she is exploring have occurred in aggressively heteronormative environments. While she briefly highlights homophobic discourse, the addition of this could be beneficial to helping strengthen her argument. This is presented as central to her argument, but discussion of it is lacking in comparison to her other points. I would recommend this book as a good eye opener to someone looking to delve into how fraternity culture upholds and reinforces gender power dynamics and privilege in a heteronormative, white centric perspective.

Sanday PR. Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus. 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press; 2007.

Respect Me For My Brains, Not My Body

Picture this. You are a blonde, caucasian woman. Perhaps you have large breasts. Perhaps you are frustrated with societal assumptions that because you are blonde, you must not be intelligent. Perhaps you are on the lookout for a company to purchase new glasses from, as you just got a new prescription. Enter Oogmerk Opticians, an eyewear company from Belgium. Their ad campaign, entitled “Get The Respect You Deserve”, contains a simple depiction of the same blonde, white, large lipped, large chested woman with one difference. One of the women is wearing a pair of glasses. In what is an extremely simple cartoon, both women are gifted a singular descriptive adjective below their depictions. The woman without glasses is labeled “easy”; the woman with glasses is labeled “hard”(See picture to the right). oogmerk_hard_rgb_1While the intended purpose of this advertisement is to get women to buy glasses, its main success is perpetuating effects caused by the sexual objectification of white women, namely through self-objectification. Furthermore, this advert does not even skim the surface on the wide ranges of stereotypes and objectifications unique to non-white women.

Culturally, women are objectified in a number of ways. The most prominent kind of objectification seen is sexual objectification, which occurs “when a woman’s body or body parts are singled out and separated from her as a person and she is viewed primarily as an object of male sexual desire” [1]. This dynamic is constructed through a society-wide hierarchy that places white, cisgendered, heterosexual males at the top. Sexual objectification of women can lead to a variety of outcomes on a scale from seemingly harmless to some of the worst experiences people will have to go through in their lives. A direct offshoot of this practice can be seen as the societal scrutiny of women’s bodies which create a wide range of standards and, often, unattainable images for how women can and should look and act. This analysis will focus namely on the experiences of white, heterosexual, cisgendered women, who exist at the top of the femininity hierarchy. However, it is extremely important to remember that these interactions and expectations exist in a wide range of unique ways the varying intersections face these challenges.

Stylistically, this advertisement makes its message crystal clear. The subtle nature of utilizing so few words in this advertisement draws up the image of a picture being worth a thousand words. The secondary sex characteristics, both the enhanced breasts and enhanced lips, depict an obvious statement about the assumed sexual behavior of the women. The viewer is then coerced in a simple manner to adopt this train of thought. Namely, that women who wear glasses are smart and/or stuck up, and therefore are “hard” to get into bed. This parallel structure seen is in no means a novel idea and claims its foundations around the segmenting of the female body. The females depicted are segmented so that the points of focus are their breasts and faces. Societally, women are commonly “seen as parts, rather than a whole”, namely their sexual body parts [2]. This stems from a depiction of sexual desire that reduces women to “a mere tool for sexual purposes,” or to a “sex object” [3]. While this conversation focuses mainly on cleavage, of any variety, as a depiction of a marker for essential female sexuality, the linking of the lips in this instance only aids in painting the portrait of a sexualized woman. Considering the unique role breasts play in conventional femininity, it is not a surprise that they are such sexualized part of the female figures in this advertisement. Breasts are utilized more than any other part of female anatomy in advertising and media images, that society “can barely catch a glimpse of side boob without thinking it’s sexual” [4]. However, an intriguing focus is made in this advertisement as well by enhancing the lips and linking these sex characteristics through color. This makes a subconscious association for the viewer regarding sexual acts that only works to underscore the overarching message.

This sexualization of secondary sex characteristics is solidified with the conquest related terminology applied to each woman. By stating the ease in which, if wanted, a heterosexual man could bed these two women, the objectification is internalized and able to cause a cascade of self-objectification and its effects. Furthermore, this diminishes the ability of women to appear educated, which reinforces the societal threat of women’s intelligence to the patriarchal hierarchy. By viewing these images in a sexual connotation, this concept of women being educated is erased from the thoughts of any potential customers, which allows the grounds for the tag line “get the respect you deserve”.

The language used, albeit simplistic, is probably the most problematic part of this advertisement. The message that women have to control their image in order to be respected, and that one can only be respected if they are “hard” to get into bed, constructs a pre-existing societal framework in which women are judged, as beings, solely for their appearance and not for their character. By evoking these images and concepts in this advertisement, the company is pining to tap into the appearance anxiety of the women viewing it. Appearance anxiety and body shame have been seen heavily in women who have been objectified, due largely to self-objectification [5]. The coopting of these symptoms of sexual objectification has one purpose: to trick women into feeling that they can change societal beliefs about their sexual promiscuity by buying Oogmerk glasses. This is a clear example of the rhetorical appeal of pathos, as its intention is to sway the emotions of its audience [6]. Through an explicitly minimalist approach, combining visual and verbal messages, these effects caused via sexual objectification are exploited to make sales and inherently reinforce these standards and requirements for existing as a “successful” woman. All of this ultimately ties to support the deeply ingrained societal dynamic of sexual objectification of women, which “no woman can opt out” of [7].

While ultimately this is not the most problematic use of objectified tropes surrounding the ties between female sexuality and female body parts, it highlights an overarching problem seen in the advertising industry today. Too often, there are problematic outcomes, like the power dynamics of rape and sexual assault, that stem from these beliefs that women exist as objects for men’s sexual desires.

 

[1] Szymanski, D. M., L. Moffitt B., and E. Carr R. “Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research 1 7.” The Counseling Psychologist 39.1 (2010): 6-38. Web.

[2] Pappas, Stephanie, and LiveScience. “Our Brains See Men as Whole and Women as Parts.” Scientific American. N.p., 2012. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.

[3] Papadaki, Evangelia. “Sexual Objectification: From Kant to Contemporary Feminism.” Contemp Polit Theory Contemporary Political Theory 6.3 (2007): 330-48. Web.

[4] By 50 Million Liters Since 2007. “The Sexualisation of Breasts – The Circular.”The Circular. N.p., 03 Mar. 2014. Web. 16 Sept. 2016. <http://thecircular.org/the-sexualisation-of-breasts/>.

[5] Szymanski, D. M., L. Moffitt B., and E. Carr R. “Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research 1 7.” The Counseling Psychologist 39.1 (2010): 6-38. Web.

[6] “Pathos.” Writing Commons. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.

[7] Fischer, A. R., S. K. Bettendorf, and Y.-W. Wang. “Contextualizing Sexual Objectification.” The Counseling Psychologist 39.1 (2010): 127-39. Web.