Fair warning – this week’s article has a pretty solid dose of indignant rage.
Today I would like to talk about the messages being sent to women as a result of two separate yet related situations: the recent infographic published by the CDC as part of their campaign to reduce rates of foetal alcohol syndrome, and the rampant and terrifying spread of the Zika virus (recently declared a global emergency by the WHO).
For anyone who may be unfamiliar with the CDC’s infographic:
This seems pretty standard at first glace. Don’t drink if you’re pregnant, it might negatively influence the development of the foetus, ok. But I’d like to direct your attention to the upper right-hand quadrant of the infographic, in which risks of alcohol use for women include injuries/violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancy. According to the CDC, all women who drink alcohol are knowingly exposing themselves to these risks.
However…these are not the effects that alcohol has on a woman’s body – these all involve someone else. For at least the last, and potentially for all three, these effects require the involvement of a man. Some have called these so-called guidelines a lesson in victim-blaming, because they do imply that if a woman drinks, well, she should expect to be assaulted, physically and/or sexually. It doesn’t seem to matter if a woman is or isn’t planning on getting pregnant. As Alex Zielinski writes for ThinkProgress, “the CDC suggests that simply drinking alcohol could make any woman forget to practice safe sex, thus leading to her to have a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome. All blame is placed on this imaginary, irresponsible woman.”
Furthermore, the CDC fails to mention that men are equally more vulnerable to contracting an STD or impregnating a woman when they are under the influence of alcohol. And yet…I have yet to see the CDC publish an infographic that details risks of alcohol consumption for men in the same way.
Thankfully, Chris Giganti took care of that for us:
I quite enjoyed this infographic. But did you notice that it is kind of funny? It’s funny for the simple reason that I can’t imagine actually seeing this as a poster in any school, clinic or doctor’s office – but have no problem imagining the CDC’s version for women plastered all over everything.
Alexandra Petri, writing for The Washington Post, makes some lovely arguments with a perfectly intellectual tone of righteous indignation – I almost want to include her entire article, but I’ll settle for a few choice gems:
“Who knew that drinking alcohol could give “any woman” a sexually transmitted disease? That’s the last time I drink merlot alone in my apartment. I don’t want herpes. Furthermore, I had no idea that drinking eight beverages a week could result in a baby. I always thought, somehow, that there were other activities involved. But the CDC knows best.”
“I’ve said before — hey, here’s video of me saying it — that one of the unexpected costs of being female is that people keep holding you accountable for other people’s behavior. You thought you were just a person, but it turns out that you are a wizard. You control the actions of others by the way you choose to dress and walk and talk and live your life. It’s not what he said. It’s what you were wearing. It’s not what he did. It’s how much you had to drink. By wearing leggings to school instead of pants you can throw a whole school into chaos and have to be sent home. […] You have such tremendous power. And now, it turns out, you can impregnate yourself by drinking too much.”
“Every time someone says that Women Drinking is the risk factor for violence and pregnancy and STDs, not other people who choose to take advantage of them or resort to violence, you pour a little more fuel onto the raging bonfire of This Isn’t On Me, It’s On The Women Who Are Accountable For My Behavior. But women aren’t that. They’re just people. Not Potential People-Containers. Not wizards. People.”
So many excellent points.
Points that bring me to the conversation about the Zika virus. The Zika virus is carried by mosquitos, and was recently confirmed to be sexually transmissible. If a woman contracts the virus while pregnant, there is a high risk that her baby will be born with microcephaly, a rare congenital condition in which the baby is born with an abnormally small cranium. In countries where people have limited to no access to contraception, abortion is illegal and sexual violence widespread, women are being told to avoid traveling to these areas, and to avoid getting pregnant for up to two years.
Remembering that contraception is often not available, a woman “avoiding getting pregnant” for two years means total abstinence, and hoping very hard that she is not the victim of sexual violence. People take this advice more or less in stride.
Paula Young Lee published an article for Dame Magazine that pointed out the one small word missing from all of the Zika virus warnings and advisories – men.
Again, I would love to simply copy-paste her entire post, and highly encourage you to read through it yourself, but here are the main points:
“Rather than telling women to “avoid pregnancy” in the manner of avoiding a pothole, why are none of these assorted agencies telling men to stop having procreative sex until we know more about Zika? Why does the very suggestion of any government recommending men to practice abstinence for two years seem like a joke? The cultural reflex to hold women accountable for male lust and subsequent reproduction is so ingrained that we don’t even notice the asymmetry. Indeed, it strikes the domesticated mind as verging on unreasonable to hold men morally responsible when pregnancy is unwelcome, unwanted, or, in the case of the Zika virus, a potential public health disaster. Yet women do not “get pregnant.” Men impregnate them. […] Biologically speaking, there’s really no getting around the fact that female eggs require male sperm in order for fertilization to occur. And yet, the phrase, “she’s gotten herself pregnant” is so commonplace that it passes without question.”
“Even when men are on trial for rape, the burden on women to avoid pregnancy is so strong that a man was acquitted after he claimed that he tripped and his penis fell into the vagina of a sleeping 18-year-old woman. In finding him not guilty, the jury reinforced the cultural narrative that the onus is always on the woman to get out of the dick’s way. It’s the same reason why Todd Akin thought that “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” in case of pregnancy via rape, because a collective cultural discourse overtly conveys the idea that pregnancy is a primordial act of female will – something that the uterus just does, performing the dream of self-fertilization, sort of like the lady reptiles morphing into males and fertilizing his/her eggs in “Jurassic Park.” So in Akin’s mind, women get themselves pregnant, as females are wont to do, and therefore can make themselves un-pregnant by thinking really hard about it. (What man? Where?)”
The key concern in both situations – foetal alcohol syndrome and the CDC, and the Zika virus in South America – is health, and specifically children’s health; something that we can all agree is of fundamental importance. However, we need to change the dialogue. We need to ask more of men.
If I were a man, I would feel insulted at this implied lack of agency and potential to make a positive impact.
Men need to be taken into account, and responsibility needs to be shared – sustainable changes in attitudes and behaviour require the involvement of all parties.