Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Teaching Feminism to Teenage Boys

I have had a desire bubbling inside me for some time now to sit my male teenage relatives down and give them a crash course on feminism and racism.

My cousin does not recognize white privilege and racism, and the relatives on that side of his family have not been good examples.

My brother-in-law told me he would not identify himself as a feminist because people (read: girls) would laugh at him.

But how do you teach the course? This blog post is as much an exercise in figuring this out myself as it is sharing the information with you. I am open to your suggestions!

Teaching Privilege

My first idea was to walk them through "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" of white privilege. This can be done in worksheet form or out loud, where each person looks at a statement and decides whether they can identify with that statement. This exercise allows the individual to identify their own privilege, and perhaps have their eyes opened to the oppression of others.

Some items from the exercise (slightly modified to work for teens):
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • My parents did not have to educate me to be aware of systemic racism for my own daily physical protection.
It would be better accomplished if a discussion could be had with a friend of theirs in the room who was not white who could answer the questions, too, and perhaps surprise my cousin with their non-white responses to the questions.

I actually just recently discovered that Buzzfeed has an online quiz "How Privileged Are You?" where you check off all the boxes that pertain to you. It goes a bit further than just racism, incorporating religious, sexual orientation, gender privilege, and more.

Another idea is to start by appealing to the ways in which they don't have privilege. Perhaps they are left-handed, or low-income, or have mental health issues. Just because we benefit from one form of privilege doesn’t mean that we benefit from all forms of privilege. Explain that just because an individual may feel oppressed, whites and men as a group are not systematically oppressed the way other groups are.

Specifically related to male privilege, I found several lists online that could be used. Here are some examples:
  • You can expect to be paid equitably for the work you do, and not paid less because of your sex 
  • A decision to hire you won’t be based on whether or not the employer assumes you will be having children in the near future 
  • Work comfortably (or walk down a public street) without the fear of sexual harassment 
  • Go on a date with a stranger without the fear of being raped 
  • You can seek political office without having your sex be a part of your platform
And here are some great posters from out of San Francisco about privilege.

Teaching Feminism

As far as teaching teenage boys feminism, I think a good place to start would be to relate it to them, personally, and to stress how the system hurts us all.

How does the patriarchy limit their own expression as boys and men? How does it hold them back?

Men are often pressured to fit into a "Act like a Man" or "Man up" world where men can't be sensitive, or have certain interests. It damages men's emotional literacy. It limits them. They are pressured to always appear strong and not ask for help. It encourages promiscuity. It encourages aggression and violence. It perpetuates one-dimensional stereotypes that not all men identify with.

If this is what is expected of men, then we can see how it also limits women. Namely, that women must be sensitive, weak, ask for help, less promiscuous, and less aggressive. That if a man is not a man, he is a woman, who are then inferred to be "less" or "worse". Thus, men are taught that women are inferior.

Some great suggestions for talking to young men about feminism:

  • by taking a role in feminism they will be helping everyone, not just women.
  • because they are at the top of society’s hierarchy, they have a responsibility and an ability to be part of social change and justice for everyone.

If the boys you are teaching are young, you still have the opportunity to change the things they've learned about women. For example, that women can be rocket scientists and doctors, are not merely ornamental, may not want children, etc.

Another important part of the lesson for young men would be to talk about how every woman they have ever known has felt unsafe at some point - walking to their car, walking down the street, etc.

Ileana Jimenez is a feminist teacher and has a whole segment about teaching boys to be feminists. She has a quote from a boy in her class whose eyes were opened to women's experiences with street harassment: "It’s scary to think that a man can completely get away with making a woman feel uncomfortable or unsafe on the street or subway.”

She notes that "the boys in my classes are curious about how feminism might connect to their lives. They want to know if feminism can help them become better versions of themselves in a world that tells them only one version is acceptable."

Remind them that the patriarchy oppresses all of the people in their lives, but especially their mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and female friends that they care about.

The Definition of Feminism 

One of the most important elements of the lesson has to be the definition of feminism:
"the social, political and economic equality of the sexes"

The term "feminist" is a loaded term with a lot of misrepresentation. Being a feminist does not mean women hate men or that women think men are the enemy.

There are a number of videos where reporters or comedians ask people on the street if they believe men and women should be paid the same for the same work, whether men and women should have equal rights, and they all say yes. But when asked if they are feminists, they say no. Then when they're given the definition, they realize, "oh, maybe I am a feminist, then." Though they still seem hesitant to identify with the term.  

Further, as Patrick Rothfuss so eloquently explained:
1. Feminism is the belief that women are as worth as much as men.
    1a. (Corollary) This means women should be treated as fairly as men.
    1b. (Corollary) This means women should be respected as much as men.
    1c. (Corollary) This means women should have the same rights as men.
     1d. (Corollary) Etc etc.
2. Feminism is the belief that women shouldn’t have to do things just because they’re women.
    2a. (Corollary) Men shouldn’t have to do things just because they’re men.
3. Feminism is the belief that women shouldn’t have to *avoid* doing things just because they’re women.
    3a. (Corollary) Men shouldn’t have to *avoid* doing things just because they’re      men.

Fighting Guilt, Fighting Back

Many people feel guilt for having privilege because they did not earn it. This will be a common reaction to any discussion of this type. 

As Birth Anarchy explains, 
"It doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean you are a bigot when you exist and benefit from systems and institutions with odds stacked more in your favor. Owning our privilege doesn’t mean that we hang our heads in shame."

“If we inherit injustice, we should never feel guilty. We are not responsible for that past. However, if we choose to do nothing about it going forward, then we have plenty to feel guilty about.” 

And of course the #1 best thing to do is to lead by example. Make sure you "shut down" sexist arguments when they happen in front of you and your teen boys, do not essentialize, do not use racist or homophobic terms, and so on. Don't say "Man Up"!


Offer some ideas on how to not contribute to the patriarchy and fight back (AKA "check their privilege"). For example:

  1. Really listen to how being underprivileged affects women.
  2. Take responsibility for addressing feminist issues with other men. Don't be a bystander - call people out.  Don't be a "bro".
  3. Don't rape, don't catcall, don't objectify women, don't tell sexist jokes.
  4. Don't judge someone on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, skin color, religion, etc. 
  5. When a woman tells you something is sexist, believe her.
  6. Do not think you need to take over and "save" women from the patriarchy. Affirm the capable leadership of women.
  7. Be responsible for contraception, housework, emotional work, and other things typically thought to be "women's role".
  8. Help women feel safer, and be aware of the amount of space you take up (physically and in a conversation).
  9. Self identify as feminist and help educate others! 

I truly want to know, readers: What would you add to this if you were to teach teen boys about feminism? 

Plenty of men are feminists!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

New Ricki Lake & Abby Epstein Documentary on Birth Control

Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, the duo who brought us the ever popular Business of Being Born, are back together. They are planning a new documentary called Sweetening the Pill (based on a book of the same name) which aims to open our eyes the way that BoBB did, but this time, about birth control.

BoBB questioned the "one size fits all" and over-medicalized approach to childbirth, showing women that there are more options out there for birth. Sweetening the Pill hopes to do exactly the same thing, questioning the ubiquity of hormonal contraceptives (including the pill and hormonal IUDs, rings, implants).

They are probably assuming that the same audience who cheered at their questioning of the assumption that hospital birth or cesareans are right for everyone would also cheer at their questioning of the assumption that hormonal birth control is right for everyone.

I find the concept of this film fascinating from a medical anthropology perspective. Reproductive anthropologists examine phenomena like menstruation, menopause, and birth control from a cross-cultural and biological perspective, often finding that ideas we hold true are not always universal.

If you look at a the history of medicine, you find that men's bodies were considered the ideal, while women's bodies were thought to be defective machines. Men's bodies were the basis for a normal, healthy functioning body, without the confusing aspects of menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. Female bodies were seen as problems that needed to be solved.

Controlling our bodies' menstrual cycles allows the female body to be more like a man's, as we can control our "out-of-whack" hormones, keep from getting pregnant at any unknown time, and even cease bleeding. It created a freedom for women who were somewhat enslaved by their bodies making decisions for them, consequences that kept some from living a life they wanted or working outside of the home.

These days, the white Western body is seen as the norm, while women of color or women from other nations are to us what women used to be to men. Hormonal birth control was developed based on what would be appropriate for the European/American body, not for the Asian, African, or Latina body. Standard hormone dosages, or any hormones at all, may not be right in all bodies, similar to how not everyone's body can process lactose.

Many women find they have side effects from taking The Pill that they do not like, like feeling sick or uncomfortable, and often stop taking the pill. There has been some research on biological side effects, and we know that the pill does increase your risk of blood clots. Unfortunately, so does being pregnant! Other serious issues are rare, and it is up to women to make the right choice for themselves. Many think that choosing when to be pregnant (or never being pregnant) is the right choice for them, so taking the pill is worth the small medical risks.

There is research that has found that hormonal birth control can affect sexual desire. We know that it affects hormones, and studies have found that it might affect who we find attractive. Women might wonder "Would I be different if I wasn't on this birth control?" It is a valid question to ask.

Sweetening the Pill doesn't say that hormonal birth control isn't great, they just wonder why its the only one that is usually recommended to women when they talk to their doctors about birth control. Are there other options? What's right for me? Maybe a lot of women don't even know there are non-hormonal birth control options, other than condoms. Maybe their doctors don't even tell them the side effects.

I think that this is a valid perspective. I think that women deserve to know that there are non-hormonal options, such as the diaphragm and a non-hormonal copper IUD (Paragard).  Other examples include cervical caps, spermicide and sponges, the pull-out method (withdrawal), and natural family planning (also called fertility awareness).

The main method that the film seems to focus in on is Fertility Awareness (Natural Family Planning). They argue that though we felt empowered by The Pill, being aware of your own body's processes is even more empowering. You don't need a medication or "unnatural" hormones messing up your own natural processes, you just need to get in tune with your body.

Fertility Awareness Method: a mathematical calculation of a woman’s cycle in order to determine periods of fertility and is only effective if a woman has regular 28-day periods. Fertility Awareness requires that the woman daily monitor cervical fluid, temperature and other factors to determine fertile days. In either case, either abstinence or use of a barrier method during fertile times is required in order to prevent pregnancy. 

Fertility Awareness is a great thing to learn to do, especially if you're trying to get pregnant, but it is not a highly reliable form of birth control if you are really super trying NOT to get pregnant. If people used it perfectly, it would be as effective as people perfectly using the pill or the patch, but people don't use these things perfectly. In typical use, you take the pill at different times each day, and you might mess up or forget your tracking.

Typical use of Fertility Awareness methods (including cervical mucus methods, body temperature, methods and periodic abstinence) has a 24% "failure rate," which means it is about 76% effective. That is quite close to the effectiveness of Withdrawal (pulling out), which people often refer to as a ridiculous method to use to prevent pregnancy. The success rate for withdrawal is 78% (surprisingly effective, all things considered)! I've seen other website cite Fertility Awareness as 80% effective and pulling out as 73% effective, but I trust the data from the Guttmacher Institute, a highly respected reproductive health research organization:

So, the public health side of me thinks that it is not wise for Sweetening the Pill to get too many people moving away from their hormonal birth control, which has quite a few benefits for women, especially low income women and marginalized women and women of color. Birth control that is highly effective, like the pill (91% effective with typical use) and the hormonal IUD (99% effective), is not something we should step away from lightly. It allows women control over their lives, it helps women who truly shouldn't (medical reasons, youth, or otherwise) get pregnant, and it avoids abortions. The Natural Family Planning method really doesn't have the efficacy that these methods do.

I'm not vehemently against starting the conversation that this documentary is starting, the way some articles on the internet have been -- see the infamous Amy Tuteur's post on and's articles to hear some outrageously unbalanced reviews. I think that this is a valuable conversation to have. I recognize that I am of a class privileged enough to be able to afford all types of birth control and have the time to track fertility, if we want to. Not everyone actually has the financial and temporal freedom to actually choose what is right for them, so we need true open and honest information on all of the options.

You can find more information on the film Sweetening the Pill at the Kickstarter site (which has been fully backed).

I think a great part of this conversation, from an academic viewpoint, is whether the Pill or Natural Family Planning is more empowering, more feminist. The film's preview implies that though the Pill was the ultimate female empowerment 55 years ago, being one with your body's processes and not relying on pharmaceuticals is more empowering. Others might think that by rejecting the pill, we are undoing the work that was done to become less enslaved by our biology.

 Best Daily's post quotes Ricki Lake/Abby Epstein:
"The progression of mainstream feminism is founded in part on women overcoming and controlling their biology", they explained. "This is because for a long time women's biology or difference has been used against us as justification for our mistreatment and oppression. Women have come to feel that they must overcome their biology in order to have equality and freedom."
To enjoy the same privileges as men, do we feel we must we be more like them, not just in our attitudes, but in our biology? Lake and Epstein think so: "The male body is held up as the "ideal" in the medical industry and the female body is seen as inherently faulty and problematic. Women have had to make sacrifices to be allowed to work alongside men in a patriarchal society. The fear is that if we stop making those sacrifices we will lose that ground."
I don't think Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein are "anti-choice" or "anti-feminist" as the Time and Slate articles call them, but I do hope that they present their information in a balanced way. I do hope they talk about the pros of hormonal birth control for so many women, and the potential cons of fertility awareness methods. I hope they talk about other methods that aren't usually talked about in the mainstream.

We will have to wait for its release to find out!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Officially a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator

It is official - I passed my Lamaze exam and am now a certified childbirth educator!

I wrote a couple of months ago about why I did my training in Lamaze, before I had completed my requirements. Because I had to wait from my training course in October to my exam in April (the exam is only offered twice a year), the process took me exactly that length of time (plus waiting for exam results)! I was able to teach a childbirth education course to be "signed" off on and register and take the exam in the time in between. If you are interested in becoming an LCCE and are already in the birth world, I think you could also do it in this time frame. I will point out, however, that if you do not "keep up" with at least the last couple of years' worth of birth/breastfeeding research and recommendations, you might have trouble. 

The Exam

To prepare for the exam I read the enormous study guide, which I did not think was a very user-friendly review source. It spends much of the time referring you to outside sources. This is great as far as providing resources goes, but when I want to sit down and study for something, I don't want to have to go searching all around. I appreciated that each section had a "Review Questions" page, which I think actually helped me understand the Lamaze thought-process better than reading the study guide. I like the articles that were actually included in the study guide document, but skipped most of them unless they were Lamaze-specific and I wanted to get an idea for what their angle was. This turned out to be a good idea, because most of the questions on the exam asked extremely vague questions (e.g. "choose the best answer") rather than clear-cut fact-based questions. It is a good idea to get a feel for how Lamaze would like you to answer.

One of the up-sides, or down-sides, of Lamaze is that I get to create my own curriculum. I do not have to follow a particular work book or a set of rules. I am encouraged to base the curriculum on the 6 healthy birth practices, which I would do anyway (because they are great!), but other than that, I can choose my own books, worksheets, posters, and other teaching tools/resources. This is a pro because I am not limited, but a con because that means I have to come up with what I want to use! I am still experimenting, and haven't fully decided on what tools I think most essential. I am doing it on the cheap, at the moment, before I decide to invest in expensive DVDs, posters, pelvises, dolls, etc. Any recommendations or product reviews would be greatly appreciated!

Lamaze does offer the purchase of a pre-made slide set, but I don't see myself teaching with slides, and I know that it is a product I could probably make on my own (minus some shiny photos). For someone who is starting from scratch, though, I bet this would be a really useful tool. 

I am excited to join the a community that I feel is respected, focused on evidence-based medicine, and well-known. 
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