“Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?”

Nothing is easier to love than an unborn child.

An unborn child never cries all night. She never spits all over your shirt. An unborn child doesn’t bite the other kids at preschool. He doesn’t hurl food from his highchair to the floor. An unborn child doesn’t sneak out of the house at 3 A.M. An unborn child doesn’t get drunk and smash up the car. An unborn child never aggravates, upsets, or disappoints.

When I had a miscarriage, I lost an unborn child. Since having had a baby, I’ve thought a lot about the difference between the unborn and the born. One thing I can say for sure is that the born are a lot more work and a lot more mess. They make physical and emotional demands that the unborn do not. They’re not harder to love than the unborn, but it’s a different kind of love. My love for Frances is love for a real and willful individual, a human being who is changing and growing everyday and over whom I have little real control. The unborn child I lost was real, too, but what I mourned was a dream—my hopes for what she might become. The fact that those hopes will never be realized gives them a paradoxical power: They are impossible to fulfill, but also impossible to destroy. The unborn child is pure potential, and when she is lost, she attains a state of permanent perfection.

Emily Bazelon touches on this dynamic in “Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome ?”, her cover story for yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, as she describes a ceremony conducted at the end of a 10-week program for women—in this case, prisoners—who have had abortions:

Inside the Tom Baker Chapel of Hope at the jail, Harper and Kimbrough arranged long pieces of gauzy white cloth over the altar and onto the floor, so that the material lined a short aisle. Into the cloth they tucked white teddy bears with red hearts around their necks that read “Happy Mother’s Day” and “No. 1 Mommy.” Kimbrough sprinkled silk rose petals over the altar and floor. On a side table, Arias placed baskets of cloth “heritage dolls.” Their heads and hands were tied with thin ribbons. Their faces were blank. Heitzeberg erected a curved metal frame over the altar and draped it with more white cloth. Kimbrough climbed on a chair to hang a string of Christmas lights over the top. Arias surveyed the altar. “It looks like a bassinet,” she said approvingly….

Heritage Doll

Arias wove a sermon from Biblical stories: Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria, Hannah praying to God to give her a child, Eve celebrating the birth of her sons. It was time, Arias told the inmates, to release their babies to the Lord. Kimbrough and Harper passed around the baskets of heritage dolls, telling the women to take one for each baby they’d aborted or miscarried. The women rocked the blank-faced dolls, many holding three or four. Their faces dampened with tears….

She instructed the women to stand up, speak in memory of their lost babies and take their heritage dolls to the altar. The women stood one by one. They clutched their dolls and said they were sorry. They imagined a baby with his father’s dimple or curly hair or green eyes. One woman mentioned a child who had been born and taken into state custody, and the woman who kissed the pictures of her daughters sent them her love. For the most part, though, the messy mothering of living children — and the reality of their lives outside the prison — did not intrude on the ceremony. The women focused on mourning the elusive, innocent loss represented by the dolls. They gave them fairy-tale names: Sarah Jewell, Angel Pillow, Xavier Dante. At a side table, Kimbrough and Harper wrote the names on certificates for children “expected to be born.” The documents promised, “By virtue of being conceived, the spirit of this child lives eternally with Jesus and in the heart and the mind of the mother, now and forevermore.”

I can’t think of a better symbol, a better embodiment, of the unborn child than this heritage doll. It’s a blank canvas onto which one can project a fantasy child, a perfect child. To the extent that it suggests anything, it suggests an angel. The extent to which this meshes with Rhonda Arias’s description of aborted babies hugging their mommies in heaven suggests that the resemblance is intentional.

Should the anti-choice movement decide to start using heritage dolls instead of blown-up photos of aborted fetuses, it’s going to be bad news for reproductive rights. Those photos are arresting, yes, but they are also gross, and I really do believe that some of the bad feeling they engender bounces back on the people who display them. I do volunteer work at the Planned Parenthood in my town, and we’ve had our share of protestors. I’ve had occasion to talk to a few people who are disturbed and offended by the fetus photos—not because they’re staunch defenders of a woman’s right to choose, but because they don’t think they should be subjected to horrifying images while they’re driving to work or to Wal-Mart. I’m guessing that if you show these same people the haunting absence of the heritage doll, they’re going to see their own baby or grandbaby or lost baby. If you show them a thousand heritage dolls, they’re going to see a holocaust.

Similarly, when the anti-choice movement depicts a woman who has had an abortion as a monster and a murderer, the hyperbole and lack of compassion demonstrated by such an image reflects poorly on the movement that creates it. Bazelon hints at a future in which the anti-choice movement will instead represent the woman who’s had an abortion as a grieving mother duped into killing her little angel. As Bazelon writes at the conclusion of her article, this is a very powerful trope:

At the prison the day before, I watched the inmates drink in Arias’s preaching…. Abortion-rights leaders would accuse her of manipulation, of instilling guilt in women to serve the anti-abortion movement’s political ends. But Rhonda Arias ministers from the heart; the lack of scientific support for her ideas merely underscores that she is a true believer.

Her ardor and influence is better explained, perhaps, by the theory of social contagion, which psychologists use to explain phenomena like the Salem witch trials or the wave of unfounded reports of repressed memories of sexual abuse. Reva Siegel of Yale compares South Dakota’s use of criminal law to enforce a vision of pregnant women as weak and confused to the 19th-century diagnosis of female hysteria. These ideas can make and change laws. The claim that women lacked reliable judgment was used to deny women the vote and the right to own property. Repressed-memory stories led states to extend their statutes of limitations. Women who devote themselves to abortion recovery make up for the wrong they feel they’ve done by trying to stop other women from doing it too — by preventing them from having the same choices.

And then there is the relief in seizing on a single clear explanation for a host of unwanted and overwhelming feelings, a cause for everything gone wrong. When Arias surveyed 104 of the prisoners she had counseled in 2004, two-thirds reported depression related to abortion, 32 percent reported suicide attempts related to abortion and 84 percent linked substance abuse to their abortions. They had a new key for unlocking themselves. And a way to make things right. “You have well-meaning therapists or political crusaders, paired with women who are troubled and experiencing a variety of vague symptoms,” Brenda Major, the U.C. Santa Barbara psychology professor, explained to me. “The therapists and crusaders offer a diagnosis that gives meaning to the symptoms, and that gives the women a way to repent. You can’t repent depressive symptoms. But you can repent an action.” You can repent an abortion. You can reach for a narrative of sin and atonement, of perfect imagined babies waiting in heaven.

This is a powerful narrative, then, not just for women who have had abortions, but also for the rest of us—for everyone who gets to cast a vote for or against a ballot initiative outlawing abortion, for or against an anti-choice candidate. It’s an emotional appeal with an easy-to-follow plot that absolves us from making difficult decisions about abortion, and from dealing with the complex socioeconomic realities that make abortion such a huge issue in our country.

As Bazelon points out, just about half the pregnancies in America are unplanned. One would think that honest education and access to birth control would be the first steps in any attempt—private or public—to address the demand for abortions in this country. One would, of course, be wrong. Rhonda Arias, the preacher and activist that Bazelon profiles, discovered during the course of Bazelon’s research that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant (the father was a boy she met at church). This woman who had 4 abortions herself, and who has devoted her life to stopping other women from having abortions, explained that she talked to her daughters about chastity before marriage, but she didn’t talk to them about contraception. “‘Abstinence works better than birth control, really,’ she said. ‘It’s just that people don’t do it.’” This is one point on which Arias and I agree, even if we draw different conclusions from it. She doesn’t believe in birth control. I believe that making honest family planning and safe, effective contraception available to everyone is the best way to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country.

I don’t believe in “post-abortion syndrome,” but that doesn’t mean that I believe abortion is easy. Any woman who has ever had a child—or lost a child she desperately wanted to have—can tell you that it’s disingenuous to call a fetus “a blob of tissue,” and it’s equally misleading to refuse to acknowledge the fact that—for some women, at least—an abortion is more traumatic than, say, a bikini wax. Whether or not the anti-choice movement decides to shift its focus from the aborted fetus to the woman who aborts it, I think that pro-choice advocates need to make room for more open, more honest conversation about abortion. I know that a lot of activists are afraid that such a conversation would be a gift to anti-choice forces. I’m familiar with the slippery slope argument. But I would counter that, for most Americans, abortion is already a slippery issue. Polls affirm again and again that we don’t really want it to happen, but we do want it to be legal. I don’t see a position that reflects that ambivalence as a weak position. I think it’s an honest one, and I think anything less is a tragic disservice to the very women we hope to protect.


January 22, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Blowjob Nation

I like Caitlin Flanagan. She’s a good writer, and I always find her choice of subject matter (housewifery manuals, parenting, Mary Poppins) compelling. She has a wry sense of humor, and—most importantly—she’s a skeptic. Flanagan is always just a little bit suspicious of received wisdom.

The latest issue of the The Atlantic contains the best piece I’ve read on the oral sex “epidemic” that has taken hold of our nation’s youth. Here’s my précis: With cool and convincing logic, Flanagan argues that the blowjob problem in America’s middle schools is probably not as bad as The Rainbow Party suggests. She does, however, acknowledge that girls today feel differently about fellatio than past generations of adolescent females. Flanagan makes the depressing but cogent suggestion that we have, as a society, abandoned our girls to a pornified culture and a woefully inadequate model of empowerment. She concludes by writing

I am old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls. I think that girls are vulnerable to great damage through the kind of sex in which they are, as individuals, as valueless and unrecognizable as chattel. Society has let its girls down in every possible way. It has refused to assert—or even to acknowledge—that female sexuality is as intricately connected to kindness and trust as it is to gratification and pleasure. It’s in the nature of who we are.
But perhaps the girls themselves understand this essential truth.
As myriad forces were combining to reshape our notions of public decency and propriety, to ridicule the concept that privacy and dignity are valuable and allied qualities of character and that exhibitionism as an end in itself might not be beneficial for a young girl, at the exact moment when girls were encouraged to think of themselves as victims of an oppressive patriarchy and to act on an imperative of default aggression—at this very time a significant number of young girls were beginning to form an entirely new code of sexual ethics and expectations. It was a code in which their own physical pleasure was of no consequence—was in fact so entirely beside the point that their preferred mode of sexual activity was performing unrequited oral sex. Deep Throat lingers in the popular imagination because it was one of the few porn movies to trade on an original and inspired premise: what a perfect world it would be if the clitoris were located in a woman’s throat. In a world like that a man wouldn’t have to cajole a woman to perform fellatio on him; she would be just as eager to get it on as he was. But this was a fantasy; a girl may derive a variety of consequences, intended and otherwise, from servicing boys in this manner, but her own sexual gratification is not one of them. The modern girl’s casual willingness to perform oral sex may—as some cool-headed observers of the phenomenon like to propose—be her way of maintaining a post-feminist power in her sexual dealings, by being fully in control of the sexual act and of the pleasure a boy receives from it. Or it may be her desperate attempt to do something that the culture refuses to encourage: to keep her own sexuality—the emotions and the desires, as well as the anatomical real estate itself—private, secret, unviolated. It may not be her technical virginity that she is trying to preserve; it may be her own sexual awakening—which is all she really has left to protect anymore.
We’ve made a world for our girls in which the pornography industry has become increasingly mainstream, in which Planned Parenthood’s response to the oral-sex craze has been to set up a help line, in which the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy—which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence. And here are America’s girls: experienced beyond their years, lacking any clear message from the adult community about the importance of protecting their modesty, adrift in one of the most explicitly sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Here are America’s girls: on their knees.

January 23, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Hot Girl-on-Girl Action on Primetime TV

Night after night, I sit in front of the television (Ted and I just traded in my 13-incher for a Jumbotron; Lord, it’s glorious) and ask myself, “Where is all the hot girl-on-girl action? Don’t they know everything is better with hot girl-on-girl action? I’d watch The King of Queens if I thought there was any hope of pretty ladies kissing.” Then I sigh, and watch another rerun of SVU.

Thank goodness, it looks like The O.C. is moving in the right direction. Us Weekly broke the story that Marissa would be smooching on saucy bartender Alex in their December 27 issue, and I thought that last night might finally be the night. It was not, but scenes from next week suggest that it’s imminent.

While I certainly—obviously—look forward to the actual consummation, I have to say that the closing moments of last night’s show were sweetly sexy. There’s nothing more delicious than adolescent anticipation of action—no doubt you can still remember it like it was yesterday—and, with same-sex coupling, there’s an extra frisson. Here’s the thing: When a boy and a girl are sitting on the sofa, watching a late-night horror movie and sharing a blanket, 9 times out of 10, making out is a foregone conclusion. It’s going to happen; it’s just a matter of when. But, when it’s two chicks, who knows?

I’m not much of a fan of Mischa Barton (or Marissa, for that matter), but she did a fantastic job of projecting confused arousal and arousing confusion. With nothing more than wide-open eyes and a tilt of the head, she suggested a feverish interior dialogue: “Oh my God! Is Alex puttin’ the moves on me? Oh my God! Do I want her to put the moves on me! She’s turning her head. Is she going to kiss me! Oh my God! I am totally going to kiss her back! Oh, she’s just smiling at me. OK, well, maybe if I slide over a little, and lean towards her…”

Well, it was all very adorable, and delightful. I hope that The O.C. lets this relationship play out for more than one or two shocking episodes, and I hope that other shows take note. All I’m saying is, I watched the first episode of Medium, and that show would benefit mightily from some hot girl-on-girl action.

January 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack


Long, long ago, back when he was in college, my friend Rob had a roommate named Blackie who worked at a photo lab. As is the case with all kids who work at photo labs, Blackie would occasionally bring home his own prints of particularly choice photos, most of them naked. Everybody’s favorite was a picture that came to be known as “The Man of the House”: a short, squat, hirsute, middle-aged gentleman, quite cheerfully naked.

Dirty FOUNDThat’s just the kind of thing you’ll find in the pages of Dirty FOUND—that kind of thing, and stuff that’s even better. If you’re familiar with FOUND Magazine, you have to know that, over the years, the editors have collected an abundance of nasty, naked, raunchy material—bad poetry and photos and drawings too lewd for the pages of their publication. Now, at long last, they’re sharing this profanity with the public. Dirty FOUND is an adults-only archive of serious perversion and weird smut. No less an authority than John Waters describes it as “art-filth folk art that proves that everybody’s sex life is secretly touching.” It’s just been released, and it’s already getting excellent press. Playboy’s favorite find? “An anti-masturbation contract signed by ‘Tony’ and discovered in a Kiss record sleeve.”

While I make free with the critical opinions, I pretty much never recommend anything without reservation—I stopped doing that after several people were actually angry at me for suggesting they see Magnolia—but I’m pretty sure you should order Dirty FOUND right now.

December 8, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Labiaplasty in SundayStyles

One of the fundamental tenets of the women’s health movement was that everyone should be familiar with her body. This might seem obvious, but, before the ‘60s and ‘70s, women were generally taught that their bodies were, at best, mysterious, and, at worst, shameful. Medicine certainly treated them as if they were inferior versions of male bodies. To counter this view—and to save lives—pioneers in the women’s health movement encouraged their peers to really get to know and appreciate their bodies.

Cunt Coloring BookThis cultural moment was concurrent with the rise of sex-positive feminism and the birth of feminist porn. It’s not overstating the case too terribly to say that, as a result of these interrelated trends, women discovered the vulva. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a small but significant explosion of vulvic art—from Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party to the erotic nature photography of Femalia to Tee Corinne’s Cunt Coloring Book. The message of all this imagery was that women’s bodies are beautiful, and that they are beautiful because they are unique.

Goodness, how things have changed. While we can still buy vulvic jewelry and vagina hand puppets, it seems we can also purchase plastic surgery to make our external genitalia symmetrical or to reduce “oversized” labia. I know I shouldn’t be surprised—we’re living in the perfect storm of commodification, consumerism, and rampant body dysmorphic disorder—but, in fact, I was. Beyond pointing out that the labia contain sensitive nerve endings vital to sexual satisfaction, I hardly know what to say. Mostly, I just feel sad. Maybe spending some time with my crayons and a coloring book will make me feel a little bit better…

November 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday Morning Shoe Report

So, a fan of the Wednesday Morning Shoe Report—Cameron Kippen, a podologist and shoe historian living in Perth, Western Australia—dropped me a line to let me know about his own work. “My area of research,” he wrote, “is the psycho-social and psycho-sexual aspects of shoe design and STDs in the Middle Ages.” Of course I was intrigued. Having spent some time on Kippen’s website, I’m still not sure what the venereal disease angle is, but his site certainly has a lot of information about feet and the history of shoes. There is, as you might guess from Kippen’s introduction, a focus on the sexy throughout the site.

For example, Greek prostitutes were apparently the first women to realize that elevated shoes give a gal a shimmy when she walks, but men have also exploited the suggestive possibilities of footwear. For instance, there was the poulaine:

Satan’s Claw
By the High Middle Ages… [m]en began to wear long toed shoes called pigaches or poulaines. The style became an instant success and the fashion lasted over three hundred years before it was eventually legislated against. Soon extensions became longer and longer until they were so long they made walking almost impossible. Young bucks started to stuff wool and moss in the extensions to keep them erect. So blatantly phallic and long, soon the style included attachments to the knee with a chain to prevent tripping. A popular vulgarity was to paint the extensions flesh coloured, allowing them to flap with lifelike mobility.
Small bells were often attached to the end of the poulaine to indicate the wearer was a willing partner in sexual frolic… Sometimes worn by curling the toes, the poulaine was the forerunner to the codpiece… Youths were chastised for standing on the street corners waggling their toe suggestively as the young ladies walked by…

The Church called the poulaine Satan’s Claw and blamed it for the Black Death of 1347. Ultimately, the size of a man’s shoe was mandated by sumptuary laws. “Between 1327 and 1377, during the reign of Edward III (1312-1377), pointed toes were prohibited to all who did not have an income of at least forty pounds a year… [P]ikes could not be more than six inches long for a plain commoner, twelve inches for a landowner (bourgeois), Knights, one and a half feet, twenty-four inches for a baron, and princes could wear them as long as they liked.” Later, under the reign of Queen Mary, sumptuary laws limited the breadth of a person’s shoes, suggesting—to me, anyway—that some cobbler somewhere had figured out that girth is actually more important than length.

The true high-heel—as opposed to the platform shoe—was, according to Kippen, pioneered by Catherine de Medici, who wore them to her royal wedding in 1533. This great moment in fashion launches Kippen into a disquisition on the whole history of the high-heel right up to the present—including the introduction of toe cleavage—and from there he heads straight into the Victorian fantasy that women didn’t actually have legs to full-on foot fetish.

This website also offers articles on a variety of other shoe-related topics, including essays on foot superstitions and biblical feet.

September 8, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

My Favorite Playboy Playmate Ever

Fran Gerard, Miss March 1967

Please entertain yourself with Fran Gerard, Miss March 1967, while I enjoy the final week of my honeymoon.

August 13, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

“Everything a Happily Married Bible Belt Woman Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Was Afraid to Ask”

Scanning the table of contents of the latest New York Times Magazine, I groaned inwardly when I got to “Everything a Happily Married Bible Belt Womas Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Was Afraid to Ask”, a profile of a thoroughly endearing entrepreneuse who drives around rural Arkansas selling vibrators, stimulating lubricant, and edible undies the same way some women move Tupperware or Mary Kay.

Anyone who is, like me, both creatively inclined and deeply lazy will recognize the dull, cold, soul-deep ache from which my groan emanated: This was a story I was meaning to write, ever since I found out that a childhood friend is running sex-toy parties for farmers’ wives in Southern Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

C’est la vie. I’m happy to say, at least, that it’s a very fine story. The author, Jennifer Senior, did her homework—not only did she clearly spend time getting to know her subject and her subject’s customers, but she also referenced The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel P. Maines’s outstanding history of the vibrator, and she provided a cultural context for the phenemenon of home-selling, particularly as it is practiced by women. Thus, I recommend this article, even as I sigh wistfully and think, “That could have been my by-line…”

July 6, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Lesbian Kung-Fu Porn

Hot Kung-Fu Master on Kung-Fu Master ActionFor, like, the past ten years, I have occasionally mused, "You know what would be the greatest? Lesbian kung-fu porn. Seriously, wouldn't that be the greatest?"

Now, at long last, it's here!

"LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter)—Here! TV, a supplier of gay- and lesbian-oriented content to satellite customers via pay-per-view, is eyeing an Oct. 1 lauch for a round-the-clock programing service that will feature classic and original films and TV shows…

"The Here! TV original series include… "Weapons of Mass Destruction," a spy thriller starring Cynthia Rothrock as a lesbian action hero."


April 16, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"The Michigan Hookup"?

I know that college is the time to be magnificently self-absorbed and completely provincial, but, I mean, really—the blow job is the University of Michigan's "trademark hookup"?


February 4, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack