Pussies, Rioting: A Response to Our New Administration’s Attack on Reproductive Rights
The following commentary is one in a series from KCET and Link TV writers and contributors reflecting on how the incoming president will shape, change, and redefine the future of California.
America is afraid of vaginas.
A few years ago, when I went on tour for my middle-grade novel, “My Life with the Lincolns,” I was disinvited from speaking at a couple of private schools because the novel contains — in a completely innocent context — the word “vagina.” As if kids hadn’t heard the word before. As if kids should feel such shame about their bodies, they shouldn’t even dare acknowledge certain parts of their anatomy.
I recently reviewed the book “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus” by Lisa Wade. While there was much to be disturbed about in the book (hookup culture is largely aligned with rape culture), one thing that stuck with me is the fact that Wade found both men and women in college are grossed out by vaginas. Sure, men are fine with using vaginas to get off, but a large percentage of college guys don’t want to get their faces near one, and many college women are OK with that, worried about how they look or smell “down there.” No wonder there is a huge orgasm gap between men and women on campuses around the country.
This fear of vaginas can, of course, translate into punishing legislation against women, against women’s bodies, women’s choices. With our incoming administration threatening to defund Planned Parenthood and the GOP already voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act (which has provided free contraception, saving women $1.4 billion in 2013 alone) and calling for a federal abortion ban, we may be facing the most vagina-unfriendly administration ever (and really, how could we not be, when our soon-to-be president bragged about grabbing women by the pussy?)
I still have a pair of pink panties from the Dubya-era printed with “The only Bush I trust is my own.” Women did fear for our bodies during W’s time in office; in 2001, he reinstated the “global gag rule,” cutting funding from family planning clinics overseas that offered abortion counseling (including the international arm of Planned Parenthood, which lost more than $100 million during his eight years as president.) Still, he refused to sign a pledge to defund Planned Parenthood when he was running for office in 1999, and his family has been surprisingly instrumental in helping Planned Parenthood — his grandfather Prescott Bush was treasurer for PP’s first national fundraising campaign and his father, George H.W. Bush, was apparently so dedicated to the cause of family planning around the world, he was given the nickname “Rubbers.”
The real push to defund Planned Parenthood didn’t come until 2011, when Republicans took back the House, thanks to the rise of Tea Party conservatism. Now our new administration is chomping at the bit to take money away from an organization that has saved many women’s lives, federal money that, despite Republican talking points, has never funded abortion, but has funded breast cancer screenings and pap smears, prenatal care, and other important services for women.
Over the years, I have used Planned Parenthood for contraception, for pregnancy tests, for biopsies. Before yeast infection meds were available over the counter, women would have to have a pelvic exam to get a prescription (thank goodness those days are over). I had negative experiences with male doctors making inappropriate remarks during such exams at my local urgent care center, and after I discovered Planned Parenthood offered this service, I was and continue to be so grateful for the respectful, compassionate (and blessedly affordable) care I received there.
At a time when Paul Ryan used six security guards to block the delivery of 87,000 “I Stand with Planned Parenthood” petitions, it can feel hopeless to even try to be heard by our incoming administration, but we must continue to raise our voices in resistance, to call our representatives, send letters and emails and petitions to let Trump and his ilk know we will not abide their stripping away of our rights, our access to affordable healthcare, our agency over our own bodies. We have to remind them that defunding Planned Parenthood or making abortion illegal won’t end abortion but will end women’s lives. And we must continue to use our art to help transform our culture’s relationship with our bodies, our choices. I think of work like Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party;” Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues;” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale;” poems like “After Reading ‘Mickey in the Night Kitchen’ for the Third Time Before Bed” by Rita Dove, where the speaker and her 3-year-old daughter innocently compare vaginas; Sharon Olds’ odes to the hymen and to tampons, work that shows that vaginas and our decisions about them are worthy of respect and attention, worthy of a narrative. We need to talk about the reactions to such art, too — when Kara Walker included a 10-foot-tall vulva on the Sphinx in her sugar sculpture, “A Subtlety,” people took disrespectful selfies with it, which enacted the very racism and misogyny she was trying to expose.
And because language matters, we need to remember that women’s bodies aren’t just about vaginas — our vulvas contain labia and the clitoris, too. Part of the reason women’s bodies and women’s pleasure continue to be denigrated is because our common vernacular has reduced our complicated, multi-layered anatomy to a simple (albeit miraculous) hole. We need to teach our children a wide-range of words so they can fully own their bodies, their power. Our elected officials clearly don’t know enough about our bodies (remember former Republican congressman Todd Akin saying “If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down” or Donald Trump insisting that with partial-birth abortion, you can “rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month on the final day”?) We need to keep doing what we can to educate our representatives and protect one another — our bodies, our voices, our rights.
In the meanwhile, we’ll be donning our pink knit pussy hats, our “Pussy Grabs Back” t-shirts, and joining Women’s Marches all over the country, taking our bodies to the streets to honor all the hearts and minds, all the fear and hope, all the pain and joy and vulnerability and power our bodies hold.
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