Is Surrogacy Anti-Feminist?

This morning I read an article about the regulation of and growing demand for surrogacy. For gay or infertile couples, surrogacy is the best way for parents to have biologically related children. But surrogacy contracts have the potential to be legal minefields—coercion, conflicts of interest, or either party withdrawing from the contract is nuanced and tricky territory. Restrictions in the US, UK, and Australia have driven prospective families to look for surrogates in India, Nepal, and Thailand, where there are fewer regulations. 

Oddly, the religious right and left-wing feminists are in consensus on this issue—or, at least in their opposition to it. The Catholic Church sees surrogacy as a failure of responsible motherhood and conjugal procreation, while many feminists believe that the act of surrogacy positions women as baby-making machines. Both sides essentially view surrogacy as unnatural and unethical.

From my perspective, the left-wing view that surrogacy equates women with their reproductive value is ironically paternalistic. Limiting an individuals choices for their own body based on a narrow definition of what is “in their best interest” is just another arm of the patriarchy. It is the cultural equivalent of a father policing what his teenage daughter wears because he doesn’t want her to be objectified. 

Bodily autonomy is at the core of my feminist values. As long as someone isn’t causing harm to themselves or others, they should have jurisdiction over their own body. 

With surrogacy, there is justified concern about coercion and exploitation, but I think this is a problem of human trafficking and not of surrogacy itself. (I want to acknowledge that human trafficking is a serious problem and I am in no way minimizing it, but is another topic for a later post.)

A history of exploitation, classism, and racism informs the current landscape of surrogacy. This looks different in the US than it does abroad. It is far easier to exploit poor women in less-developed nations. But if I argue that American women should be able to be surrogates and that foreign women shouldn’t (because I’m trying to “protect” them), then I am approaching surrogacy in the same paternalistic way that frustrates me. 

I like to think that better regulation in the US could address this problem. Laws that highlight informed consent or independent evaluation of surrogacy candidates to ensure a full understanding of the process and the risks involved are steps to combat coercion. But the fact remains that hiring a surrogate in the US is twice as expensive as hiring a surrogate abroad, so there is still incentive to seek out surrogates from countries where there is less regulation. This is starting to change, though, as other countries are beginning to adopt more stringent regulatory practices. 

I wonder, though, if a woman in the US who had financial security would pursue surrogacy? Frankly, barring altruistic surrogacy for family members, I have a hard time imagining that people choose surrogacy for non-financial reasons. In this context, then, the rich are essentially renting the bodies of the poor. This is a significant structural problem, but is it a problem of surrogacy or of capitalism? Is there a difference?

From a practical perspective, banning things only drives them underground. Essentially, the purpose of law is to maintain a safe and peaceful society, not to enforce a moral position. There are structural problems with surrogacy, but banning it only serves to amplify them. If surrogacy is banned, the risk of exploitation is higher because surrogates have no legal recourse if they are not compensated or if the hiring party changes the terms of the informal contract. Alternately, the surrogate might change their mind, in which case the hiring party would have no legal right to their child or would have to fight for joint-custody—a difficult situation to explain when you have hired an illegal surrogate. Having regulations in place establishes a legal framework that aims to protect all parties.

The question of whether surrogacy is anti-feminist reminds me of a woman I know who claimed that deciding to take her husband’s last name was a feminist act. I don’t think taking her husband’s name is inherently feminist, or what you can maybe think of as “capital-F” Feminist. But! Her willing and independent choice to take her husband’s last name is a “lowercase-f” feminist act because she is exercising her own choice and autonomy. 

I willingly and independently shave my legs, but I’m aware of the patriarchal conditioning that has shaped that preference—it is my choice but it is not “capital-F” Feminist. I feel similarly about plastic surgery. I think someone who decides to get a nose job or breast implants or vaginal rejuvenation is influenced by patriarchal standards of beauty, but I also think it is an empowering choice to do something that makes you feel more confidant. It’s not Feminist but it’s feminist. Ya know?

Obviously, there isn’t actually a “capital-F” Feminist. There’s no universal doctrine or prescribed way to practice feminism and it means different things to different people. My point is that, yes, surrogacy has the potential to be problematic. For some people, it might reinforce patriarchal ideas of gender roles and, in some cases, it might exploit marginalized groups. But it can also be seen as a subversion of capitalism by allowing individuals to profit in unconventional ways. Or as a way to encourage divergent family structures that break away from heteronormative molds. 

Ultimately, I think whether something is feminist is often less about what it is and more about how you do it. 


What do you think? What does “anti-feminist” mean to you?

What do Cleopatra and Vibrators Have in Common? (Pt. 1)

A few years ago I lived in a house that spoke very openly about sex and bodies. My roommates and I would pass around vibrators (along with a cleaning spray, obviously) to compare which models and styles worked best. The Hitatchi Magic Wand, the Jimmy Jane Form 6, and the Lelo Ora were among this collection. My roommates’ vibrators even had names—everyone, please welcome Kristoff and Thor to the family. Our guests would often see extra vibrators on our coffee table, and we gave more than one visitor a run-down on sexual pleasure. (Babeland, if you’re hiring, I’m definitely interested.) 

Most people I know have explored sex toys in some capacity. Admittedly, I live in a sex- and body-positive bubble. Every February, my alma mater has an event called “Bard On,” which is a day of sexual health olympics, sex toy raffles, free massages, and genital-themed cupcakes. My current job runs sexual health workshops and we’ve been sent demo vibrators—for educational purposes, of course. Perhaps, even you, have a toy so near and dear to you that it lives under your pillow.

As I delved more into the history of hysteria, I watched a documentary on the invention of the vibrator. “Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm” traced the invention of the electromechanical vibrator in the 1880’s to the resurgence of the vibrator in the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s. For all my work in sexual health education, I realized I didn’t know much about the history of sex toys more broadly. 

So I decided to investigate!

The world’s oldest known dildo was found in a section of rock dating back ~30,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic (or “late stone age”) era. There is some debate among the historical community as to whether or not this was actually used as a sex toy, but I (along with actual historians…) think that scholars who doubt its use are just unwilling to acknowledge human sexuality. I would imagine that as long as sex has existed, sex toys have existed. And not just among modern Homo sapiens but our predecessors as well. If other primates use tools to aid in sexual pleasure, then certainly every iteration of mankind has as well. 

By the Greco-Roman era the use of dildos was more prevalent. Dildo’s were depicted in Grecian vase art and mentioned in various Greek plays. Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” (411 BC) and Herodas’ “Mime VI” (3rd cent BC) both make jokes about dildos. There’s also some evidence that the Romans invented the double-ended dildo because the dominant belief was that sex required penetration. As a result, images depicting female masturbation or lesbian sex usually included a faux phallus. (This idea, unfortunately, still has traction.) 

Before the electrical vibrator appeared on the scene, it is rumored that Cleopatra fashioned a vibrator out of a hollowed out gourd filled with angry bees. There’s no historical evidence to back this up, but what an idea!

Dildos really took off in the post-classical era and early modern period. Chinese dildos were cast of bronze and other metals. Other dildos were crafted out of stone, gold, silver, and intricately carved ivory. Typically, Renaissance dildos were ornate and artistic. In fact, the word “dildo” comes from the Italian “diletto” which means “delight.” And it should be no surprise that Shakespeare referenced sexual aids in numerous plays. Artistic depictions in the 17th-19th century also suggest the use of candlesticks, broom handles, and unripe plantains (??) for sexual pleasure. I don’t know exactly how common this was, but I’ve read multiple accounts of a man giving his wife a cast of his penis when he went off to war. Kind of romantic, no?

The invention of electricity really gets things going. The Manipulator (1869), the Pulsocon hand crank (1890), and the Chattanooga vibrator (it was 5 feet tall!) all appeared on the scene during this time. Mortimer Granville is most often credited with the invention of the electromechanical vibrator in 1883. Similar devices were created across Europe and one of the first documented uses of the vibrator as a therapeutic practice was at Le Salpêtrière Hospital (where advancements in psychiatry were happening at the same time!) in 1878 with a device created by Roman Vigouroux. Regardless of the exact origins, vibrators became wildly popular among medical professionals for the treatment of hysteria. 

Vibrators began to be marketed for home use around 1899. Developments in advertising, railroads, and the post office facilitated mail order vibrators, making them accessible to the general population. Ads for vibrators appeared alongside needlepoint patterns in upscale women’s magazines. These ads didn’t offend Victorian sensibilities because vibrators were marketed as medical devices. The vibrator actually preceded the iron by 10 years, the vacuum by 9 years, and the electric frying pan by 11 years.

When vibrators started to appear in erotic movies and photographs in the 1920’s, though, physicians began dropping them because of the association with sexuality and advertisements for them began to disappear from respectable magazines. With the social camouflage gone, the vibrator essentially went underground for the next 40 years. 

Next week I’ll pick up at the sexual revolution and talk about vibrators as we know them today!

Did any of this surprise you? Share any fun facts or stories you have about vibrators in the comments!

First Thoughts: Hulu's Adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale

Spoilers, obviously. 

The Handmaid’s Tale has received a lot of attention since the November election—and for good reason. This dystopian novel depicts a world in which environmental pollution has rendered the majority of the population sterile and the religious right has seized power. The events of the book, written by Margaret Atwood in 1985, are eerily similar to our current political climate. The constitution is suspended under the guise of protecting the country from Islamic radicals, abortion is outlawed, and Christian fundamentalists run the government. 

I’ve thus far enjoyed Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, though I am forever a book-loyalist. Ofglen’s story significantly deviates from the novel, but in this case I’m actually interested in the direction they are taking her. In the novel, Ofglen hangs herself when the Eyes come for her because of her participation in the resistance. In the adaptation, however, Ofglen is arrested for gender treachery (i.e. being gay.) While Ofglen’s parter, a Martha, is hanged for her crime, Ofglen is pardoned because of her fertility. Her life is spared and she is instead sentenced to Redemption which, in this world, means the removal of her clitoris. (I actually wrote my thesis on genital cutting and have a lot of thoughts about this, but they are best explored in their own post.)

Alexis Bledel’s performance in episode two, in which she is featured but does not speak a word, redeems her from the awful Gilmore Girls revival (something I didn’t think possible.) Overall, I think that the show is maintaining the ethos of the book and I am impressed with how they are incorporating Offred’s internal monologue. 

While I like the adaptation, the Hulu series focuses exclusively on fertility and does not address its intersection with race. On one hand, this means a more diverse cast with actors of color in significant roles—which is great! But on the other hand, race and reproductive rights are inextricably linked and to gloss over that means erasing a complex, problematic, and violent history. The executive producer, Bruce Miller, has said “What’s the difference between making a television show about racists and making a racist television show?” And this is a major challenge of adapting a story about a white supremacist society. I do prefer watching a show in which actors of color are playing significant characters and are not relegated to playing “the help.” The Handmaid’s Tale is a great example of how Hollywood can, and should, deviate from source texts to create more diverse casts. Effecting change in the real world is, I think, more important than recreating the text. But, as viewers, we need to remember that this society (both Gilead and the real world) is not post-racial and find ways to engage with the complexity of race and reproductive rights. 

To be clear, “reproductive rights” doesn’t just mean being pro-choice. Forced sterilization still happens in low-income communities, to people of color, and to people who struggle with addiction and other mental health problems. Structural barriers limit queer people, people of color, people who are incarcerated, and people who are mentally ill in their pursuit to have children. This topic deserves more attention and has been written about by people smarter than myself, so check out the links at the bottom of this post. 

In her work, Atwood is careful to only include events that have actually happened. Forced reproduction of enslaved women has happened in this country, but there is some critique about Atwood employing this storyline in a book that features only white women. Is it co-opting an experience? Is it following the power of the religious right to its logical end? If The Handmaid’s Tale is altering Ofglen’s story in order to explore the world of Gilead, should they also follow a character who is sent to the Colonies? I’m all for a second season exploring the rest of Gilead. 

Have you watched The Handmaid’s Tale yet? What are your thoughts?

Update June 2017: Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale is going to explore Gilead outside of the novel, and showrunner Bruce Miller has specifically said that race is going to get real attention in season 2. 


A breakdown of reproductive justiceIntersection of race, gender, and class relating to laborRace and reproduction in The Handmaid’s TaleStories of people of color in The Handmaid’s Tale


From Madness to Mental Illness: History of Psychiatry 101


Stone of madness, evil spirits, possessed by the devil—these were common explanations for madness before modern psychiatry. Madness was a term broadly applied to afflictions ranging from schizophrenia to autism to epilepsy to feminism, and was often attributed to a magical or supernatural causes. 

Imagine a medieval doctor using a flint to drill a hole into a patient's skull. This procedure, known as skull trepanation, was intended to create a hole in the patient's head through which an evil spirit could escape, thus curing them of their madness. Skulls over a thousand years old have been found bearing evidence of skull trepanation. Some of these skulls display healing around the bore, indicating that the patient survived long after the procedure!

This supernatural conception of madness extended past Christian Europe. Buddhists in Sri Lanka believed in the healing power of rituals and performed the devil’s dance to evict demons from those afflicted with madness.

Greco-Roman Medicine and the Four Humors

In 770 B.C.E. there were two medical schools in Greece: one in Knidos and one in Kos. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was a doctor at the Kos school. He rejected the notion that diseases were caused by evil spirits and sought a physical explanation. Hippocrates believed that disease was caused by an imbalance of the four major body fluids (i.e. the Four Humors): blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. In order to restore the correct proportions he used bleedings and vomitive therapies, suction of bile and phlegm, and laxative and dehydrating herbs. He considered madness a disease of the brain and treated patients with baths, rest, diet, and music. 

As in Greece, Roman medicine before Caesar (who brought Hippocratic theory to Rome) was an amalgam of mythology and magic. There were two approaches to madness: the repressive and the therapeutic. One camp viewed madness as the simulation of disease in order to escape social or economic responsibility (sound familiar?), and the other viewed it as the result of tension caused by the patient’s surroundings. For the former, treatment included confinement and torture. For the latter, therapy consisted of rest, music, and pleasant company. This dichotomy of repression and care continues even today.

Shifting Attitudes Toward Mental Illness

Before the rise of modern psychiatry, the mentally ill often weren’t treated at all but were separated from society. Isolation and confinement was the common fate of the economically unprofitable: the mentally ill, the disabled, orphans, and criminals.

The shift from madness to mental illness, that is, the understanding of mental illness as something supernatural to something biological, took off during the Enlightenment. The emphasis on the scientific method and the increased skepticism of religious orthodoxy laid the groundwork for a more scientific approach to mental health and medicine. 

It was during this time that the world began to widely understand mental illness as disease, and thus as something treatable. William Battie, an English physician, was the first to speak of the moral management of the mentally ill. After starting work at St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics, Battie published Treatise on Madness in 1758, in which he critiqued the coercive and barbaric treatment of the mentally ill and advocated for tailored, moral treatment. In France, this shift was led by Philippe Pinel. In his role as superintendent of La Salpêtrière Hospital, he abolished the use of chains for mental patients. In Germany, Johann Reil was the first to use the term “psychiatrie” in 1808. He advanced the idea that madness could be cured and that institutions were the therapeutic means for that treatment. Use of the general term “psychiatry” began in 1816.

Dr. Joseph Guislain, Belgium’s first psychiatrist, brought together two major schools of thought: the theory of  Philippe Pinel and the ideas of Jean-Étienne Esquirol. Pinel thought of madness as a disorder of the intellect and that the cause of madness was the result of the intestines disrupting the brain. (New studies suggest that there actually is a strong connection between the gut and the brain.) His student, Eqsuirol, attached importance to the passions. Esquirol believed that the passions could directly influence the soul and thus madness was a disease of the soul. Guislain argued that insanity is a disorder of the mind and the cause is found in the psyche. He acknowledged the role of biological causes of mental illness, but he placed more importance on fear, sadness, stress, and strong emotions. He also believed that social and cultural factors play a role in the development of mental illness.

Modern Approaches to Mental Health

I often hear people talk about the rise of mental illness, especially in the West, but the treatment of mental illness goes back millennia and extends all over the globe. Madness, neuroses, nerves, melancholia—these all translate to what we today understand as anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. I think there is an argument to be made that antidepressants and benzodiazepines are overprescribed, and that the terms "anxiety" and "depression" are misused to describe normal stress and sadness. But the existence and treatment of mental illness is not new.

Today, the rhetoric around mental health is focused on the biological roots of mental disorders. This connection is only strengthened by advancements in brain imaging techniques and genetic sequencing. And as these technologies advance, they can be translated into more precise treatment that is specific to individual patients. Not only are science and medicine advancing, but the conversation around mental illness is changing. There are widespread campaigns to reduce the stigma around mental illness, and the internet provides resources and support to people who might struggle to access it elsewhere.

Welcome to Hystera

Welcome to Hystera!

This all started at the history of psychiatry museum back in Ghent, Belgium. The Dr. Guislain Museum, a former asylum and still active psychiatric facility, houses a permanent history of psychiatry collection as well as several rotating art exhibits. It was unsettling at times—covered windows, low light, temporary walls through which you could see parts of the old building, and the occasional mannequin that catches you off guard. Nevertheless, I spent three hours wandering through the compact exhibit, reading every placard and panel. I followed the evolution of madness to mental illness, walked through remedies from skull trepanation to bleeding to pharmacology, and started to trace the connections between reproductive and mental health. 

After that, everything connected. 

In Berlin, the Museum of Medical History displayed an impressive collection of pathological anatomy and highlighted the medicalization of gynecological care. The Sex Museum in Amsterdam reinforced the commodification of the female body and reminded me of the oft-ignored connection between religion and sex. The Van Gogh Museum interwove Van Gogh’s mental health with his art and underscored the connection between creativity and madness. 

I started seeing these themes everywhere. These experiences all connected to each other and to this core thread I had latched onto: What is madness? Then my personal life started reinforcing these connections and now here we are. Me pursuing a long-held goal of sharing and getting better at writing and you along for the ride. 

There is a lot of meaning for me in the word “hystera.” It is derived from the Greek word for “uterus,” and it is also from “hystera” that the word “hysteria” is derived. I've spent the past two years working in reproductive health and have spent considerable time examining cervixes and uteri. This personal connection is amplified by the historical. Hysteria was a pathological disorder, specific to women, that was characterized by volatile behavior and emotional excess. It was believed to be caused by disturbances in the uterus and was a general catch-all diagnosis for women who were loud, outspoken, or basically difficult in any way. It is because of this history that I have chosen the name “Hystera” for this project.

Hystera, to me, is the intersection of mental health, feminism, science, reproductive health, bodies, and culture. Major themes of this project include anthropology of the body, narrative medicine, history of science, and reproductive justice. Put more simply, this project exists at the intersection of bodies, science, religion, and feminism. 

In this project I want to explore the threads that connect these ideas. Expect to read more about the pathologization of women, the stigma of mental health, shifting attitudes toward mental illness, witches, menstruation, depression, and revisionist history. Given our political climate, there will probably be some writing on that too.  

After several years of dealing with my own mental health and after spending the past two years engaging more deeply with reproductive health, this blog is a way for me to more actively work through these ideas. My primary objective with Hystera is to hold myself accountable for writing. But I'm also interested in discussion around these ideas and welcome your comments, (polite) disagreement, and engagement. 

I don't yet know where this project is headed, but the only way to figure it out is to keep at it.