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Context and Variation

Context and Variation


Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.
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Ladybusiness justice, and why Plan B shouldn’t be your only birth control

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Pregnant woman with a "no" symbol over the words "birth control" painted on her belly.I have accumulated readers to the point that I occasionally receive emails, tweets and other things that ask me to point my eyes, which happen to also be Laser Beams of Ladybusiness Justice, upon some ridiculous article. Usually it’s evolutionary psychology.

Today, it was a factually inaccurate, embarrassing, horribly wrong and honestly not-funny blog post by health and beauty editor Cat Marnell for the new women’s webzine XOJane. On birth control. That she doesn’t like to be bothered to take. Oh, also, she doesn’t like condoms.

So she just takes Plan B whenever she has unprotected sex.

Really.

Here’s the thing. I am not the only blogger with Laser Beams of Ladybusiness Justice (henceforth known as LBOLJ, and intensified by the wearing of gender lenses) – not even close. And so first I want to direct you to three blog posts written by owners of LBOLJ that cover the main, important points of why this Plan B article on XOJane is both wrong and dangerous.

Rebecca Watson of Skepchick: http://skepchick.org/2011/10/xojanes-cat-marnell-performance-art-or-gross-idiocy/

Scicurious at Neurotic Physiology: http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious/2011/10/15/xo-janes-health-editor-are-you-playing-with-me/

Michelle Clement at Crude Matter: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/crude-matter/2011/10/15/girlybits-101-now-with-fewer-scary-parts/

Watson covers the sheer stupidity of the article, and considers whether the writer intended it as performance art. My guess is that she thought she was being funny, but that the article does reflect her best thinking about contraception, which is a pretty dangerous person to hire as your health editor.

Sci covers the many, many factual inaccuracies of the article, particularly one that Sci herself has put to rest in the past: as it turns out, many empirical articles support the assertion that the pill does NOT make you fat.

Clement provides a truly wonderful, accessible account of how reproductive physiology works in women. This happens to be my research specialty, and I can tell you it is one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read for how the uterus and ovaries function.

I want to add only one other point: if, as Marnell implies, taking the pill regularly is just too darn hard, and she just doesn’t like condoms, there are plenty of other options for contraception that don’t involve having to remember to do something daily or just before intercourse. Depo-Provera is a shot you take once every three months. IUDs can require an outpatient procedure but are incredibly effective and, after some of that icky spotting that Marnell hates so much for the first month after insertion, astoundingly low in side effects and effective for five years.

So, good birth control that you only have to think about every three months, or every five years.

Of course, and please forgive the all caps here, but Marnell’s liberal use of them has inspired me:

NONE OF THESE OPTIONS PREVENT STDS.

Do you want pelvic inflammatory disease? Syphilis? Gonorrhea? HIV? As one commenter over at Marnell’s piece pointed out, gonorrhea may quickly become untreatable because many strains are antibiotic resistant. Other STDs can cause cancer like human papillomavirus (HPV), and still others, like bacterial vaginosis (BV), can cause pre-term birth.

As an aside, I was a devoted Sassy and Jane reader back when they were each in circulation. I found both this irresponsible article on Plan B, and Jane Pratt’s weak response to the outcry against it, distressing.

Finally, maybe my status as a blogger with LBOLJ has made me immune to these things, but I have only ever encountered women, young and old, who have an intense curiosity about their own bodies. Rather than recoiling from the science of female physiology, they email me, tweet me, find me at roller derby practice, message me on Facebook; they come to my office hours, wait around after class, or send me anonymous notes that they ask me to address in class, all asking me to explain, clarify, or help them understand something about how their bodies work. I get blunt questions, honest and detailed descriptions of cervical mucus or menstrual blood, and hypothetical scenarios about friends with problems.

And I answer every single one I possibly can, because the last thing I’d want to do is discourage curiosity about a topic of such massive importance to women taking charge of their bodies, reproductive rights and enjoyment of the variable, nuanced, sometimes painful, often delightful, experience of being female. Most women just want to know that they are normal, or want to place their experience in the context of our current understanding of the biology of reproduction.

Marnell’s piece glamorizes being incurious in a fundamental and problematic way. It makes it cool to be skeeved out by one’s body, to hate it and want to dissociate with it, to avoid glaringly obvious contradictions (such as, I hate birth control pills but love a single pill that contains lots and lots of birth control in it). And the fact that Jane Pratt saw fit to hire a writer with only a background in beauty to write a health and beauty column that even the writer admits is pretty short on health, is a disservice to her readers.

Being curious is one of the most important aspects of having a fulfilling life. My curiosity is what drives me to work crazy hours at my job, because I just can’t stand not knowing how my data analysis will turn out, or whether I will be able to process and understand my data as I write about it, or whether I can find something cool or new in the literature. I love nuance, and perplexing questions, and topics that find themselves continually in shades of gray.

Fight against this unfortunate idea that it’s cool and funny to not be curious. Be curious every day.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ejwillingham 12:57 am 10/17/2011

    OH MY GOD I LOVED SASSY SO MUCH.

    And great post.

    Link to this
  2. 2. scicurious 9:15 am 10/17/2011

    Interestingly, the progesterone only options for hormonal contraceptives (like depo) actually do have indications that weight gain is a side effect (so she’s not actually wrong about that, though I’m sure it wasn’t because she tried). And of course this does not explain why she feels the gigantic pile of progestin in plan B isn’t going to “make her fat”. But definitely the IUD is a perfectly good option.

    What gets me here are the financial implications of this. Many young women are already having financial difficulties enough without being encouraged to spend $50 a pop on Plan B (which I have been informed is no longer out, instead it’s the one-step version) every time they have sex. Unless you’re only having sex twice a year, birth control or condoms make much better economic sense.

    Thanks for weighing in!

    Link to this
  3. 3. scicurious 9:16 am 10/17/2011

    Ok, ok, the financial is not the only thing that gets me. It’s just ONE of the many things. :)

    Link to this
  4. 4. Jennifer Ouellette 10:27 am 10/17/2011

    “Marnell’s piece glamorizes being incurious in a fundamental and problematic way. It makes it cool to be skeeved out by one’s body, to hate it and want to dissociate with it…”

    Yes. THIS. This is what bothered me the most about that horrible piece, and thanks so much to Kate for weighing in so eloquently. And I, too, find Jane Pratt’s weak “it’s all about diverse voices” defense problematic. Hiding behind the flag of diversity to excuse piss-poor writing (pardon my French) and factually inaccurate statements and, mostly, to promote willful ignorance as something cute and cool is NOT okay.

    Link to this
  5. 5. scicurious 7:56 pm 10/17/2011

    “The Laser Beams of Lady Business Justice”

    -How about just the Lasers of Ladybusiness?
    -The WARHAMMER OF TEH WIMMINZ
    -The Lance of the Ladies!
    -The Slightly Damp Tampon that was in the bottom of your purse but you’re desperate Saviour of Lady’s Dignity and JUSTICE?

    Link to this
  6. 6. erinjprosser 12:22 pm 10/18/2011

    Oh geez. Nevermind ALL the things that are wrong with that post (TOO MANY TO NAME), but what a CRAP piece of writing. Jane should be embarrassed to have any association with this. Just yuck.

    Link to this

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