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Jessica Valenti | The Nation

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Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti

Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.

Q&A: Texas Passed a Law Restricting Abortion Rights—Meet One of the Women Fighting Back

Texas abortion protest

Last week, an appeals court lifted an injunction on Texas’ exceedingly restrictive abortion law, which forces abortion clinics to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. This requirement—which went into effect when the injunction was lifted Friday—may close a third of the state’s clinics, according to research carried out by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project. Yesterday, attorneys for providers asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the injunction. I spoke with Merritt Tierce, executive director of Texas Equal Access Fund in North Texas about the law, how Texas women are faring and what we can all do to help.

Can you explain a bit about what TEA Fund does, for our readers who may not be familiar with abortion access funds?

TEA Fund provides financial assistance to low-income women who want an abortion and can’t afford it. Our clients are usually referred to us by one of the clinics we work with—I used to say one of the “dozen or so” clinics we work with, but now it’s basically down to three, plus one in New Mexico and one in Louisiana. Our volunteers conduct a brief intake interview to assess the caller’s need and situation. If the caller meets our eligibility requirements, we will commit an amount between $25 and $400. We never cover more than half the cost of the procedure, and our average grant right now is about $150. The money is paid to the clinic after the procedure is performed (we’re billed just like any other vendor). We are a small 501 (c) (3) nonprofit with an annual budget of about $200,000. We are usually able to help about 1,000 women annually, but have never been able to meet the need. We could easily commit $10,000 each week, and right now we commit only $3500.

Late last week an appeals court upheld a Texas law that widely restricts abortion access—one third of the state’s clinics could close as a result. How prepared was the TEA Fund and other reproductive justice organizations? Have you been girding yourself for this kind of loss?

We have all been preparing for the law to go into effect since the end of July. Clinics have been working overtime to try to get [hospital admitting] privileges for their physicians. The Texas Policy Evaluation Project has done phenomenal work compiling the data to predict the impact the closures would have on the state. NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Whole Woman’s Health, and Planned Parenthood have been coaching all of us to remember this is a long game. The fury and momentum we all felt coming out of this summer has to be sustained, and converted into concrete actions and votes.

Several new organizations have been created since the 2013 legislative session ended, and we are working with the new groups and our longtime allies the Lilith Fund [a reproductive equity group that assists women exercise their right to abortion] and Jane’s Due Process [a nonprofit that provides legal representation to pregnant minors] to ensure that we support one another’s efforts as efficiently as possible. We have also all increased our fundraising, knowing that not only would we be facing calls from more people, but that each person who needs financial assistance would need more after the law went into effect.

What are you hearing from the women you work with? Are they already feeling the impact of the law?

There have been a variety of responses from fear to anger. Many have had to reschedule their appointments at a different clinic. That means the people who scraped together the $100 for the sonogram will have to pay for it again, and wait twenty-four hours again, because of Texas’ sonogram law: the provider who performs the abortion must administer the sonogram. So if you go to a different clinic, there’s nothing the clinic can legally do to see you without starting all over. The rescheduling itself means that some women will be unable to afford the abortion because the cost will increase as the pregnancy advances.

My sense is that most of these women did not know much about what has been going on in the Texas legislature. It’s important to acknowledge that simply being able to pay attention to the news is a luxury many people don’t have, especially people who are struggling to find food, shelter, employment or healthcare, or people who are trying to escape intimate partner violence. What’s so infuriating about these laws is that the people who have the least ability to fight back are the very people the laws affect most severely.

What can people expect to see in terms of the law’s impact over the next few months?

More women will try to have an abortion outside of the healthcare system. The use of Cytotec (misoprostol) will increase, especially in south Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, where it is more easily available (and where there is now no access to abortion). Inevitably some women will harm themselves as a direct result of the clinic closures. Many women will continue unwanted pregnancies because they have no other options. Because of the shame and stigma that surround abortion, we may not hear these stories in detail; however we know that, historically, this is what happens when abortion access is restricted.

We can also expect to see the fight continue and intensify, as a result of the severe body blow this law has dealt. We were angry; now we are nuclear.

Almost every anti-choice talking point I’ve read about this law mentions that restrictions on abortion are meant to “protect women.” What’s your response to that?

Bullshit.

What I see in the state’s argument and the Fifth Circuit’s ruling is an obvious prejudice toward women who seek abortion for any reason, and consequent decisions that exploit the legal limits of “undue burden” to push on the meaning of “undue.” I see a really Calvinist sadism in the perspective that any woman who wants an abortion for any reason must bear whatever burden there is to be borne en route to that abortion. The burden is, in truth, her punishment from the state.

It’s insane to me—and I mean truly insane—that they have made any headway at all with the idea of “protecting women,” because abortion is safer than not only most medical procedures but a ton of other things people do every day. The only climate that could have allowed this preposterous cloak of an angle is widespread ignorance about abortion that allows the taboo to remain intact.

What’s next for Texas reproductive justice activists in the short and long term?

We are working to establish a statewide practical support network, to help people get to the remaining clinics by assisting with transportation and lodging costs and arrangements. Texas is an enormous state with limited public transportation, especially from the rural areas that have been hit hardest by clinic closures, so this is the key focus for all of us right now. Long-term our focus will be to elect pro-choice leaders who can begin to restore access to reproductive healthcare. Another area of primary importance is educating the public about abortion, so that everyone is on the same page about what it really is. Basic abortion realities have to be common knowledge, or we will continue to be vulnerable to these attacks.

What can people who don’t live in Texas to do help, besides donating to groups like the TEA Fund? (Though they should certainly do that as well!)

We definitely do need the money! But we also implore people to recognize that this situation is not solely the result of extreme conservatives having their way within an extremely conservative state. It is just as much a result of political complacency and/or neutrality among an immense population of Texans who actually do support reproductive rights, just as a majority of Americans do. But silent support of justice and freedom doesn’t cut it.

If people who aren’t necessarily activists or writers or politicians had been more “out” about abortion, it could have been normalized over the past forty years. The stigma could have been broken down and abortion could have been assimilated into the mainstream practice of healthcare, where it belongs. Instead we legalized abortion but let it remain taboo, and that’s exactly what has given the religious right room to work in. The only way to make abortion acceptable and keep it legal is to learn about it and talk about it—and I specifically mean in everyday conversation.

That should include not only the tragic, compelling stories of people who were raped, or fetal anomalies, or maternal health issues, but the story that is in fact the most common abortion story: the first-trimester procedure chosen by someone who just doesn’t want to have a baby right now. The lawsuits and the media coverage always focus on the most sympathetic cases, without acknowledging that while of course those cases absolutely deserve our sympathy, most women will not experience anything like what they see and hear in the media.

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Fewer than 1 percent of abortions occur after twenty weeks, so even if people do feel tremendous sympathy for those cases, it’s remote. It is too easy for people to shut out experiences that seem too foreign, and statistically it isn’t likely that a woman who needs an abortion will be able to identify with any of the experiences she has seen in the media.

To my mind that is itself a tragedy, because if a woman gets to a place in her own life where she needs an abortion, she should know that abortion is common. She should know that abortion is extremely safe. She should know that it won’t affect her ability to have children later. She should know that many of the women she knows have had abortions. Instead she walks into the clinic and she doesn’t know any of these basic realities and she feels very alone.

To donate to TEA Fund, click here.

Owen Davis and StudentNation take a closer look at the schools—and the kids—opting out of testing

How to Write About Rape: Rules for Journalists

A woman demands that rape culture end on Beacon Hill, Boston in 2012. (Flickr us

Feminists spend a lot of time taking journalists and media institutions to task for the way they cover rape—and for good reason. Victim-blaming runs rampant in headlines and news features, sexual assault is often misnamed or mischaracterized, and women’s behavior is treated with more scrutiny than rapists’ crimes. Media makers are smart, interesting people who—like all people—make mistakes. But even well-meaning missteps cause harm. So for those writers, editors, producers and pundits who are looking to cover stories about sexual assault in a fair and accurate way, here are some suggestions:

—When an adult is charged with assaulting a minor or someone is someone is accused of assaulting an unconscious person, don’t refer to the crime as “sex with a child” or “sex with an unconscious person.” Call it rape—because that’s what it is. I understand there are legal issues to consider when a perpetrator has been accused but not found guilty, but even an alleged crime needs to be accurately described. “Sex” with someone who is unable to consent because of age, consciousness or ability is not sex; it is always rape.

—If you find yourself writing or editing a sentence that describes what a rape victim wore, the kind of makeup she had on or that she acted “older than her age” (I’m looking at you, New York Times)—stop it. Cut it. Burn it with fire. Unless it is of direct importance to the case—like this infamous Italian case where criticism over a judge’s comments on clothes were taken to task—it’s not only unnecessary, it’s harmful. Victims of sexual assault are already blamed enough in our culture without the media perpetuating the lie that their behavior had some bearing on the violence that was perpetrated against them.

—If the victim you are reporting about comes from a marginalized community—if they are queer, trans, poor, disabled, an immigrant, a person of color or a sex worker—take extra care that the pernicious stereotypes that surround that community do not impact your piece. Make broader links—different communities have different and disproportionate rates violence perpetrated against them. Interview people who are experts on this. Include information and expertise from organizations that work within these communities.

—If you run a story exploring the reasons why rape happens, focus on the perpetrator, not the victim’s behavior. Because despite what Emily Yoffe writes, the common denominator in most rapes is not young women drinking, the common denominator is rapists.

The United States does not have a rape problem—it has a rape epidemic. A woman in this country is raped every two minutes, 42 percent of victims are raped before they are 18 years old. One in three Native women report being raped, as do almost 19 percent of black women. Ninety-seven percent of rapists will never go to jail.

It’s our responsibility as journalists to ensure that we are covering stories of sexual assault with truthfulness, care, and in a way that does not make the country a safer place for rapists. We are not just media makers—we shape the culture as well. So let’s make it a culture that’s safer and more just for girls, women and all survivors of sexual assault.

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I know this is not a complete list—if you have more tips for how to write about rape, tweet them at me! I’ll update this post with more suggestions and resources (with credit to you, of course!).

Resources:

RAINN
INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence
Legal Momentum’s Immigrant Women Program
Our Bodies, Ourselves
SAFER

Reed Richardson seeks to understand how another issue is being misreported: healthcare.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape 


The courthouse at Maryville, Missouri. (Flickr user : lhilyer_libr)

Last year it was Steubenville, where two football players raped a girl while party-going bystanders looked on. Now it’s Maryville, a Missouri town where two girls—just 13 and 14 years old—were raped by older classmates who captured the attack on video. We know how this is going to play out: there will be outrage, there will be victim-blaming, there will be media attention and maybe even a court case. And then there will be another rape. There will always be another rape.

Because despite best intentions, too many people are making America a very comfortable place for rapists. The incredible work being done by feminists—work that’s made progress changing policy and shifting the culture—is consistently stymied by an ignorant, even if well-meaning, majority. If we want justice for sexual assault victims, Americans needs to get on board with feminists or move out of our way.

Though the statistics make it hard to be too optimistic—someone is assaulted every two minutes in the United States and one in ten young Americans has committed sexual violence—there is progress being made. The national conversation around rape is changing, in large part thanks to feminists online. They shone a light so bright on sexual assault that the mainstream media had to pay attention, and created a shared vocabulary ensuring that terms like ‘rape culture,’ ‘victim-blaming,’ and ‘slut-shaming’ have national resonance. This is no small thing; it is, undoubtedly, a culture shift. Ten years ago, for example, CNN bemoaning the Steubenville rapists’ lost “promising futures” would have gone largely unnoticed—last year there was a firestorm.

While feminist language and thinking on rape is becoming more mainstream, it’s not happening fast enough. And because rape culture is so strong, any time an institution, politician or media outlet veers into victim-blaming territory, it has the potential to set back the cause significantly.

Yesterday, it was Slate’s Emily Yoffe, who argues that if girls want to avoid rape they shouldn’t drink so much. (Yoffe seems to think this is a novel and brave position, despite it’s being the central message young American women receive around sexual assault.) I agree there should be a conversation about the relationship between rape and drinking: We need to discuss the way that rapists use alcohol as a weapon to attack, and then discredit, their victims. But focusing on rapists is not nearly as popular as scolding young women.

Refusing to emphasize rapists’ role in rape is telling. Yoffe writes of a girl who “ends up being raped”—as if she tripped and fell into it. (Even more illuminating is the lesson she wants to pass on to her son is not to be the boy “who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate.”) It reminds me of a headline from years ago that read, “More Rapes Linked to Young Women on Drinking Binges.” Why not, “Rapists Attack Drunk Women”? This centering of women’s behavior is what allows rape culture to flourish.

When we make victims’ choices the focus of rape prevention, we make the world a safer place for rapists. It gives attackers what Thomas Macaulay Millar calls—in his excellent piece ‘Meet the Predators’—social licence to operate. You know why rapists attack rape women? Because they know the victim’s community and law enforcement will be less likely to believe them. When you tell a rape joke? A rapist thinks that you’re on their side! In ways big and small, we are making this easy on them.

I’ve written before that I think a huge part of rape culture is that we don’t have a widely accepted cultural definition of rape to guide these conversations. I still think this is true. Relatedly, there is no national standard for teaching young people—girls and boys—about sexual assault and rape culture. I theorized on Twitter last night that American girls learned more about rape culture on Tumblr than they ever did in school—the responses I got were amazing. (And distressing.)

“I’m 24 and went through the public education system. We never learned about rape, let alone rape culture. Instead we learned to dress modestly and that it’s the girl’s place to say no.”

“Rape wasn’t even mentioned in “sex ed” in high school. I found out through tumblr and other sites that it’s ok if I say “no” and that “no” should always be listened to.”

“I had extensive sex ed (which was heteronormative and cisnormative) between 5th and 9th grades. I never heard the term “rape culture” or any talk of consent at all really until I started reading (books and online.)”

We are counting on Tumblr and teenage girls to do the work that schools and mainstream culture should be doing. And as incredible as teenage feminists and online activists are, they cannot do it alone. How is it possible, that with a well-known epidemic of rape in this country, that we don’t demand rape culture be taught in every school? (Abstinence only education would need to be abolished, too.)

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Perhaps to some teaching “rape is wrong” seems silly—don’t we all know this already? The truth is we don’t—as a country, we don’t really even understand what rape is. In Steubenville, a student who had learned that drunk driving was wrong—he took car keys away from an inebriated friend—looked on while an unconscious girl was penetrated because “it wasn’t violent…I thought [rape] was forcing yourself on someone.”

For every story of sexual assault that sparks a national outcry, there are thousands more that go unnoticed. Not because we don’t care, but because rape and victim-blaming is business as usual. Feminists are offering interventions to this sad reality, but if anything is going to change, we all need to listen up. And if you find yourself making arguments that feminists find abhorrent, consider that you just very well may be helping a rapist.

Aura Bogado celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day, not Columbus Day, this Monday.

No Country for Young Women: America’s War on Girls’ Bodies


Activists marked forty years since a US Supreme Court ruling established a nationwide right to abortion with a demonstration at a Mississippi clinic in January. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

There’s no easy answer as to why some judges in the United States would rather force a teenager to have a baby than allow her to have an abortion. It’s clearly not about logic—a girl deemed too immature to have a minutes-long medical procedure surely can’t be adult enough to raise a child for eighteen years. It’s not about the best interest of the state, or what’s best for the girl herself. Yet over and again abortion policies dictate that we ignore common sense—not to mention basic decency—and mandate that girls carry pregnancies they don’t want. (Women, too, of course—but for now let’s focus on the young among us.)

Some girls are lucky—they live in states without parental notification and consent laws, or have legal guardians who care about their bodily autonomy and right to decide if and when to become a parent. But many girls do not have this good fortune.

One young woman in Nebraska—a 16-year-old ward of the state—has just been forced to carry a pregnancy she does not want because a nearly all-male state Supreme Court says she should. Without legal guardians to protect her from state interference in her reproductive health, she will have a child against her will.

The young woman appeared in a lower court when she was ten weeks pregnant seeking a judicial bypass for parental consent to abortion. She, along with two younger siblings, had been removed from her drug-addicted biological parents because of physical abuse. According to Jessica Mason Pieklo of RH Reality Check, the teen told the court she had basically raised her siblings, and didn’t think she could be the mother she would like to be right now.

The young woman also underwent counseling about her decision to terminate the pregnancy and had plans to graduate high school early. The judge told her, “When you have the abortion, it’s going to kill the child inside of you.” Now tell me, who is the immature one?

There is no logic here, just fear. Fear of young women’s bodies, young women’s sexuality, and young women’s autonomy. And parental consent laws are just one violation in a long line of bodily injustices young women are forced to endure in the US.

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American culture and policy “protect” young women by constantly reinforcing the idea that their bodies are not their own but dangerous and in need of outside control. We fret about what they wear, implementing biased dress codes that target girls, especially those with more developed bodies. We obsess about their sexuality, whether through insisting on their abstinence or assuming their promiscuity.

The only thing US culture and politics does more than “protect” is punish. We don’t believe girls when they are raped, saying they must have asked for it—especially when they are young women of color. We teach them to hate themselves, letting them believe their natural hair is “unacceptable,” that their bodies are public property, and that the violence done to them can be made into “satire” with no concern for their humanity.

Parental consent laws are an awful combination of this protection and punishment, a chilling violation of girls’ human rights shrouded in the language of caring. These policies target the most vulnerable, while telling girls it’s for their own good.

Young women deserve our respect, but even more they deserve the dignity and the ability to make decisions about their own lives and futures. Giving up control is a small price to pay to let them do so.

Leslie Savan has noticed how the Murdoch newspapers are ignoring polls that show Lhota lagging and de Blasio ahead.

Joining Forces With NARAL Pro-Choice America

The NARAL Pro-Choice America table at the Baltimore Pride rally in 2010. (Flickr user: .m.e.c.)

Fun fact: In 2004, I was a blogger with NARAL Pro-Choice America. They brought me on to write about the election, and I liked them so much I stayed on for a while, blogging and launching their Blog for Choice campaign. Now, almost nine years later, I’m working with NARAL again in a totally different and even more exciting role: as a new member of their Board of Directors. I’m especially thrilled because I’m joining the organization just a few months into the tenure of NARAL Pro-America’s dynamic new president (and my Nation colleague!) Ilyse Hogue.

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NARAL Pro-Choice America has an incredible legacy, but like other mainstream pro-choice organizations, it has had a fraught history with young people—something I haven’t been shy about pointing out. Too many entrenched pro-choice leaders and organizations have perpetuated the myth that young people don’t care about access to abortion, or that they take their rights for granted. As someone who has been working with young people (and a recently young person myself!) I know nothing could be further from the truth. The future of this movement is young people, the work they’re doing, and the innovative ways they’re thinking about reproductive justice and health.

I believe NARAL Pro-Choice America, under Ilyse’s leadership, is fully on board with this reality and working hard to help in any way they can. From their long-standing work helping to elect pro-choice representatives and defeating anti-choice legislation to their newer initiatives on young people—I have tremendous faith in NARAL and their new vision for our pro-choice future. (I also think the fact that NARAL would embrace a board member who has been critical of the organization in the past speaks volumes about their commitment.)

I don’t expect that my new role at NARAL Pro-Choice America will impact my writing here, but if I write about NARAL’s work in any of my pieces, I will remind readers of my relationship in the interest of transparency. I’m incredibly excited about this new role and eager to work with NARAL and Ilyse to curb the assault on reproductive rights, and starting thinking about what a progressive, pro-choice future might look like.

Zoë Carpenter documents the Conservative outrage over Obamacare.

Blame a Feminist: The Top Tragedies Feminism Has Wrought


(Reuters/Eric Thayer)

If you’re having a bad day, there’s a national tragedy, or the weather just doesn’t seem right—it’s probably thanks to a feminist. After all, feminism has been blamed for everything from killing the family to traffic. Seriously. This week—in the wake of the tragic shootings in DC—a GOP Senate candidate blamed women in the workplace.

So here are a few of my favorite things feminism has been blamed for:

Impotence: Laura Sessions Stepp (of Unhooked fame) wrote in The Washington Post that young women’s feeling empowered to initiate sex was causing a scourge of impotence among college-aged men: “According to surveys, young women are now as likely as young men to have sex and by countless reports are also as likely to initiate sex, taking away from males the age-old, erotic power of the chase….. One can argue that a young woman speaking her mind is a sign of equality. “That’s a good thing,” says [teacher Robin] Sawyer, father of four daughters. “But for some guys, it has come at a price.” Because if there’s one thing that kills straight guys’ boners, it’s girls that want to have to sex with them.

Crime: Concerned Women for America, the anti-feminist organization, believes that feminism is behind the increase of incarcerated women. According to CWA’s then-president Wendy Wright, feminism made a grave error in promoting women’s autonomy: “Such ideology, which often encourages women to feel that ‘they don’t need to be dependent on a husband and they shouldn’t have to depend on their family,’ could be leading women into these kinds of activities ‘where they’re forced to fend for themselves,’ Wright says.” Hear that ladies? Husbands don’t just take out the trash, they keep you out of jail!

Mass Shootings: It’s not just women in the workplace that’s behind mass shootings, it’s “feminized” schools. According to Charlotte Allen in National Review Online, the murder of twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School can be traced back to the lack of men around : “There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred….. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. [A] feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm.” Guns don’t kill people, feminized settings kill people.

Traffic & Environmental Decline: Women are so selfish, with their wanting to work outside the home. Don’t they know they’re single handedly ruining the environment? According to Jack Cashill—a writer who just put out a book, If I Had a Son: Race, Guns and the Railroading of George Zimmerman (ahem)—feminism is bad for the environment. Or, as he writes, “Equal pay for equal work also means equal commutes.” Cashill continues by saying that stay-at-home moms “save the state’s highway infrastructure from meltdown, especially since a ‘nanny’ often drives to the working mom’s house, putting three cars on the road where otherwise one would do. Homeschooling moms further ease the strain on the ecosystem by keeping their kids off the road.” The less you gals leave home, the better off the earth will be!

Anthony Weiner: You may have thought that the only person responsible in the Anthony Weiner sexting controversy was Weiner himself—how shortsighted of you! Thankfully, Fox News set the record straight and pointing to the real culprit: feminism. You see, feminists made it easy for slutty, slutty girls to go on the Internet and entice men into sin. Because birth control.

This is just a small sampling of the horror that feminism has brought to our doorstep. We didn’t even get into the ways feminism caused the horrors in Abu Ghraib (so says Phyllis Schlafly) or helped Michael Jackson’s criminal defense.

So when you’re tasked with seeking the root cause of a major problem, don’t waste your time looking to the easiest answer—look to feminism instead! If you work really hard, I’m sure you can find a link. And remember, any time you get a paper cut, or trip over something or a man somewhere stubs his toe—that’s not an accident, friends, it’s just a feminist getting her wings.

Acting Older Isn't Being Older: How We Fail Young Rape Victims


A women attend the so-called 'SlutWalk,' Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011, which organizers described as a demonstration against those who blame the victims of sex crimes. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Last year, a defense attorney called an 11-year-old gang rape victim a “spider” luring men into her web. When the New York Times covered the case, they reported that she “dressed older than her age,” wore make up and hung out with teenage boys. It wasn’t a new framing; when young girls are raped—especially young girls of color—they’re frequently blamed for “enticing” adult men or painted as complicit in the attack because of their supposed sexual maturity. From the criminal justice system that re-traumatizes assault victims to a media that calls rape cases “sex scandals” or insists statutory rape isn’t “rape rape”, we are failing young sexual assault survivors every day.

One young woman we have failed is Cherice Moralez. When Moralez was 14, she was raped by her 49-year-old teacher. She killed herself a few weeks before her seventeenth birthday. Last week, a Montana judge sentenced Stacey Dean Rambold—who admitted raping Moralez—to just thirty days in jail. Judge G. Todd Baugh said Moralez was “older than her chronological age,” and was “as much in control of the situation” as her rapist. Baugh also said the assault “wasn’t this forcible beat-up rape.”

While state prosecutors are seeking to appeal the sentence and the case has generated justifiable outrage, some believe the thirty days was too much. Former lawyer Betsy Karasik, for example, used the case as an example to argue for the decriminalization of student-teacher “relationships” in The Washington Post. Karasik insisted that no one she knew who had sex with teachers was “horribly damaged” and that “many teenagers are, biologically speaking, sexually mature.”

But biological maturity or “acting” mature is not the same thing as being an adult. Roxane Gay writes, “People often want to ‘complicate’ the statutory rape conversation by talking about the sexual empowerment of adolescents and this and that. These exercises in intellectual masturbation are pointless.”

“I was a teenager, we were all teenagers and we all felt empowered in our youthful seductions. We maybe were and we probably weren’t. We like to tell ourselves we know exactly what we’re doing, even when we don’t.”

When I was a sophmore in high school, my social studies teacher—who was his 60s or 70s—asked me to come to the board because “everyone wants to see how you look in that shirt.” I stopped going to class, too ashamed to return. Before the semester ended, the teacher cornered me in the hallway and told me if I gave him a hug, he would give me a 95 in the class. I did it.

At the time, I laughed with my friends about the “pervy teacher who gave me an awesome grade.” I reacted the same way when I was 17 and a man in his 30s who had been my teacher since I was 13 years old called my home the week I graduated to ask me out. Because that’s what teens do—deflect pain with humor.

I thought my blasé reaction made me mature, but the truth is that it epitomized my immaturity—a testament to the fact that I didn’t know how to handle unwanted advances of much older men.

Teenagers can act unhurt over sexual harassment and abuse for all sorts of reasons, including trying to reclaiming agency from an abusive situation. That does not mean what is happening is not abuse, or rape, or assault. And no matter how grown teens act, it’s the responsibility of teachers and adults to remind us that we’re not adults, not to lasciviously bolster a myth that says otherwise or worsen it with blame.

Sexualization of young girls is not just something that happens as part of abuse, it’s something that’s part of their everyday lives. A report from the American Psychological Association shows that even the personal relationships girls have with peers, parents and teachers can contribute to this sexualization through daily interactions:

Parents may contribute to sexualization in a number of ways. For example, parents may convey the message that maintaining an attractive physical appearance is the most important goal for girls. Some may allow or encourage plastic surgery to help girls meet that goal. Research shows that teachers sometimes encourage girls to play at being sexualized adult women or hold beliefs that girls of color are “hypersexual” and thus unlikely to achieve academic success.

For girls like Moralez—who are depicted as “troubled” or deserving of the abuse done to them because of racism and their perceived sexuality—the consequences are acute. One study, for example, showed that Latina girls are likely to stop attending school activities in order to avoid sexual harassment—a survival technique that is more likely to result in a label of deliquency than victimhood.

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Cherice Moralez deserves more justice than thirty days. She deserves more humanity than being fodder for an intellectual argument that supports rape. And no matter what she looked like or acted like, she was a child.

As Cherice’s mother Auliea Hanlon told CNN, “How could she be in control of the situation? He was a teacher. She was a student. She wasn’t in control of anything. She was 14.” Cherice was described as “gifted” by her teachers. She loved poetry. She was 14.

Reproductive rights debate should include everyone, including the most marginalized.

Free Abortions on Demand Without Apology


Abortion rights advocates gather in Smith Park in Jackson, Mississippi, to rally support for a woman's right to an abortion, Saturday, July 15, 2006. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

When did so many feminists get polite on abortion? I cannot take hearing another pundit insist that only a small percentage of Planned Parenthood’s work is providing abortions or that some women need birth control for “medical” reasons. Tiptoeing around the issue is exhausting, and it’s certainly not doing women any favors.

It’s time resuscitate the old rallying cry for “free abortions on demand without apology.” It may not be a popular message but it’s absolutely necessary. After all, the opposition doesn’t have nearly as many caveats. They’re fighting for earlier and earlier bans on abortions, pushing for no exceptions for rape and incest, fighting against birth control coverage—even insisting that they have the right to threaten abortion providers. The all-out strategy is working; since 2010, more than fifty abortion clinics have stopped providing services.

The anti-choice movement isn’t pulling any punches—why should we?

This may be the outcome of 2012’s “war on women”: messaging that mobilized voters, got mainstream media coverage and put reproductive rights at the center the national conversation. But efforts to appeal to all often meant framing reproductive rights issues in the most palatable way possible: by shying away from wholeheartedly supporting comprehensive abortion access.

Earlier this month, I went to the launch of All Above All, a campaign dedicated to restoring public funding for abortion. I listed to partners in the campaign—representatives from organizations like the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights—describe the desperate need to stop treating funding for abortion as a “third-rail issue.” They talked about women who had to sell diapers and formula to be able to afford their abortions, and the incredible toll the Hyde Amendment takes on low-income families. It’s a message reproductive justice proponents and organizations have been hammering home for years, a message the mainstream movement has been hesitant to take on.

I understand the trepidation—we live in a country where even talking about insurance coverage for birth control erupted in a national slut-shaming extravaganza. But the cost of remaining “mainstream-friendly” is too high. Women should not have to count on bowl-a-thons and yard sales to be able to access the care they need. As wonderful as abortion funds are, their existence is proof that the United States is failing the most in need.

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Too many of us—especially those with access and power to the mainstream—have become convinced that public funding for abortions will never happen. But Hyde is only a given if we refuse to take it on. All feminists should be taking a cue from the work that reproductive justice organizations and activists have been doing for so long—centering the most marginalized.

“Free abortions on demand without apology” is a call for equal access to a constitutional right. More importantly, it’s a promise that feminists won’t ignore the needs of all women in favor of tailoring messages to the mainstream. Because being pro-choice means doing what’s right, not what’s popular.

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Having the Sexism Talk: Lessons for My Daughter


A Cinderella doll. (Courtesy of Flickr)

How young is too young to talk about sexism? Because according to my just-turned-3-year-old, mommies aren’t strong—daddies are. Her certainty of this hit me square in the gut; it didn’t help that immediately after she declared she didn’t want to be a mommy because “they have to go to doctor’s appointments and go shopping.” Oof.

Friends have assured me that this is the age when children see things in a very binary way—they’re attached to boundaries and rules, and gender becomes a part of that. But it’s hard not to see that even at such a young age—and even with a feminist mother—my daughter is picking up on sexism. I knew this moment was inevitable, but never thought it would come so soon.

When people have asked me how I’ll raise my daughter in a misogynist world, I’ve mostly answered with positive ideas—I’ll model feminism in our family relationships and my marriage, I’ll present her with diverse books and toys, tell her that she’s smart instead of cooing that she’s pretty. But the truth is that a sunny “girls can do anything!” attitude just isn’t enough.

At some point, I’ll have to explain to my daughter that the world simply doesn’t think she’s as good as, smart as or valuable as men. I’ll have to tell her that to many she’ll be less than just because of her gender. It’s a devastating reality, but one she needs to know. Glossing over this fact would be a disservice.

Because as depressing as misogyny is, acknowledging and naming it helps. It means that our daughters will realize the everyday slights—or huge injustices—are a failure of the system, not of themselves.

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A few things I wish I would have known as a girl: the guys who catcalled/flashed/grabbed me on the subway to junior high didn’t do it because I dressed “too sexy,” they did it because they were assholes; I was good enough for the baseball team; the reason my fifth grade math teacher didn’t call on girls had nothing to do with how good or bad we were at division; I wasn’t ugly, the magazines I read were; it was perfectly fine for me to speak loudly; there’s nothing wrong with being a little “bossy.”

I know there won’t be one talk I give Layla, but many. Her feminist education will come in waves, as circumstances and her age call for it. But it will have to be proactive, not just reactive. In the meantime, I’ll have to learn to relax a bit and remember it’s not the end of the world that she told me today her name is ‘Cinderella’. It just means we’ll have a lot to talk about.

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