The police state blends seamlessly into sex phobia

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, April 7, 2009 15:22 EDT
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TPMCafe is having a Book Club for Jessica Valenti’s new book The Purity Myth, and I’ve been asked to blog for it. I used by first blog post to explicate the two general arguments for the necessity of controlling and punishing female sexuality, what you might call the malevolent and benevolent patriarchy arguments. The latter argument is just a PR stunt, and I don’t really see too many strong believers in it that don’t come across as feeble-minded (like K-Lo), but it’s the preferred strategy right now, because it just reads better in mainstream media spaces to say that you want to control female sexuality for women’s own good. Occasionally, you’ll see this patronizing attitude get labeled as “feminism”, which you get with the group Feminists For Life, who actually claim that they want college women who have sex to be forced to bear children for their own good.*

Message control has been hard, however, because most conservatives still prefer to paint women with any degree of sexual independence as a Fifth Column, Our Ladies of Emasculation. Painting sexually active women as broken victims of feminism coupled with predatory male sexuality might make it easier to pretend you mean well when you go on “The Today Show”, but it’s also just less fun and feels dishonest. The urge to punish and freak out tends to surface fairly quickly, which is why the people who got arrested and charged with child pornography in the “sexting” case were girls. In the new, improved benevolent patriarchy, it would have been better to paint the girls as victims of male sexual demands, and to offer that the only protection for them is to strip them of their autonomy for their own good, but it’s just not as satisfying that way. Plus, it leaves the door open to prosecuting the boys, which is unacceptable to both non-crazy types, but also “boys will be boys” wingnuts.

Which leads me to this story that shows where the panic over young women’s sexuality crosses streams with the War On (Some Class Of People Who Use) Drugs. (Hat tip.)

When a Fairfax County mother got an urgent call from school last month reporting that her teenage daughter was caught popping a pill at lunchtime, she did not panic. “It was probably her birth-control pill,” she thought. She was right.

Her heart dropped that afternoon in the assistant principal’s office at Oakton High School when she and her daughter heard the mandatory punishment: A two-week suspension and recommendation for expulsion.

Drug rules and laws are enforced selectively, as anyone who follows the issue knows. I briefly mentioned it in my last post about this, but it’s worth repeating—the people that come out of the Cannabis Closet are pretty much going to all be middle class white guys, because they have the least to fear in terms of being made an example out of by the cops and/or having their entire body of work discredited because they ever toked up. When young women do anything in our culture, it gets a sex panic spin to it, and so young women are especially vulnerable to being made the targets of drug panics, because they also turn into sex panics and, as you are no doubt aware, sex panickers are a mix of panic and fantasies of coercion. Which is exactly what happened when an Arizona school used the existence of an ibuprofen pill as an excuse to sexually violate a 13-year-old girl with an unnecessary strip search.

Here is what is interesting to me—the school officials were, I suspect, playing like they didn’t know what kind of pill the girl took. Which is ridiculous, because while many pills are hard to identify at a distance, birth control pills aren’t in that category. They’re probably the most iconic, easily recognizable pill packs around. In fact, I’ve often questioned whether or not it’s so great to have birth control pills be so damn obvious, because it’s that much harder to conceal the pill from prying eyes, if you need to take one around other people or if you’re a young woman who doesn’t necessarily think it’s wise to share your sexual status with your folks. I say this while appreciating the classic design of the pill pack, which I do appreciate from an aesthetic perspective.

Here’s the thing: You have to take your pill at the same time every day (or as soon as you remember, if you forget), or you raise the chances of not just untimely bleeding, but of getting pregnant. This young woman probably had a stark choice—run that risk (which is many times more terrifying for an adolescent than a grown woman) or break the rules. By choosing to be responsible to herself, her health, and her future, she got suspended. Because she visibly rejected both drug war and sex war hysteria.

The article makes it clear that there’s a real problem of using zero tolerance rules to specifically punish young women who show a disinterest in getting pregnant as teenagers, even punishing that rejection of pregnancy more harshly than they do the use of illegal drugs.

Health advocates say that harsh penalties for students who take birth-control pills at school conflicts with a campaign schools are waging against teen pregnancy.

A small portion of school health clinics across the country distribute birth-control pills to teens. But in Fairfax, even carrying the pills in a backpack is counted among the most serious offenses in the Student Responsibilities and Rights handbook.

During two weeks of watching television game shows and trying to keep up with homework online, the Fairfax teen, an honor student and lettered athlete, had time to study the handbook closely. If she had been caught high on LSD, heroin or another illegal drug, she found, she would have been suspended for five days. Taking her prescribed birth-control pill on campus drew the same punishment as bringing a gun to school would have.

Well, being a sexually active teenage girl that doesn’t want to accept her baby-or-abortion punishment for being a slut is up there with attempted murder, right? Even though that means nearly half our teenage girls should be treated like criminals.

*Their speakers tend to fall into two camps—young women who had the baby and it turned their wretched, slutty lives around. They got married and now, according to them, they wake up every day farting roses and shitting gold, their lives are so perfect. Babies magically transform sluts into wives and mothers, in other words. You also have the women who had abortions and regretted it. There is no such thing as an unhappy wife, a single mother, or a happy single woman who is sexually active in these stories.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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