It’s Back Up Your Birth Control Day! (And in Defense of The Funny)

March 30th marks the 10th anniversary of the Back Up Your Birth Control Day of Action, and there is tons of action to take to advocate for emergency contraception. Just a couple from the campaign’s website:

There are a dozen other ways to spread the word, even if it’s just sending one of these ECards the campaign created (one included above) or spread this Why The Fuck Should I Use Emergency Contraception? Tumblr around.

Now on to the controversy. When I first saw that Tumblr, I was thrilled to see an organization (one I admittedly used to work for) take a refreshing, funny and bold messaging strategy — anyone who does non-profit work knows it ain’t easy. But then I saw this post on Abortion Gang:

Shame on you,, for this incredibly disrespectful attempt to cater your message to young folks.  I’m not even sure what it is exactly that you are trying to attempt with this tumblr, to be honest.  BUT I will be damned if Ima just sit here and keep clickin’ on the insults, generalizations and fucked-up stereotypes you are propagating about young people with vaginas (like me) who need access to emergency contraception.

Go read the whole thing to get a feel for it. I agree that the Tumblr is cisnormative and heteronormative; there is no doubt that there’s a straight and cisgender demographic they’re targeting. But the rest of the post and the subsequent twitter war directed at the creators of the Tumblr thereafter is really problematic for a few reasons:

There are many people who need EC who did it because they simply made a mistake. Fuck it, I have. I had consensual unprotected sex fully knowing the consequences of that action, and took EC the next day. Thank god. I’ve also had consensual sex with a person whose last name I didn’t know. Does that make me a “drunken slut”? No, but I have made fun of myself for it. It’s funny. So does joking about it make me a “drunken slut”?

I guess what I’m saying is that demonizing an awareness campaign for addressing the fact that people have unprotected sex is shaming in itself. More specifically, it shames the people who have had those experiences, because sometimes — let’s face it folks, a lot of times – this is what happens. Saying that having unprotected sex is “flippant” and “self-centered” is shaming. Like Miss Polk said in her comment, this value judgment is coming from the post, not the campaign. This is representative of what some young people experience as sexual beings, whether it happens because of a lack of comprehensive sex education, consensual sex during a wild night out, or just the excuse of being in “the passion of the moment” with your man and know you have the option of EC as a back-up — people make these decisions, whether they were being irresponsible or not. It’s essential to educate our youth in productive ways and express that using multiple forms of contraception is the most effective way in preventing STIs and unintended pregnancy — but we also can’t shame them if they don’t.

There’s also the issue of truth-telling in our activism. The reason why this campaign is effective is that while many people won’t identify with the campaign, many people also will — it’s personal and funny.  Many folks who use EC — and advocate for it — have brunch with their sassy girlfriends (ahem), use multiple forms of contraception, watch Top Chef, or don’t have an orgasm easily. Maya (one of the two young people who created this campaign) responded on her blog:

Believe it or not, it is possible to be a woman who spends a lot of time organizing for social justice AND ALSO watches bad tv marathons and has had drunk, unprotected sex. I have done it. And acting as if these are two mutually exclusive categories of women and claiming that we shouldn’t acknowledge the experiences of the latter—that to do so is, in fact, automatically sexist—is pretty much just a spruced-up, self-righteous “feminist” version of slut-shaming in my book.

I don’t claim to “represent the feminist movement”. But my feminism is about truth-telling. Even when the truths aren’t that pretty. Even when they support uncomfortable stereotypes. Even when they don’t reflect every other woman’s truth.

I think a larger issue here is that this Tumblr (and the campaign) uses humor to advocate for EC, and I get the feeling time and time again that using humor in feminist activism is often labeled as offensive — maybe out of some sort of fear that we’re not taking the movement seriously enough. But I think attacking feminist humor is a seriously big problem.

A recent example is when our bowling team for the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-thon was asked to change our team name after being criticized by ClinicEscort on Twitter (and others called the National Network of Abortion Funds complaining), who felt that the team name “Boehner Killers” was inciting violence. After we decided to change the name to avoid unnecessary and time-consuming drama to try and fight for it, NYAAF made sure to hit ClinicEscort up and let them know that we changed the name — who declared it a victory. Because of a boner joke. A joke that, when I thought up the team name, didn’t even register as inciting violence — it was just a funny sexual pun on John Boehner being a boner killer. And feminist activists forced us to change it.

This isn’t to say we don’t have reasons to be self-critical, hold ourselves accountable when we fuck up, and help each other grow as feminists — I think that’s incredibly important. But we’re doing ourselves a serious disservice if we’re going to spend our precious time attacking one another about boner jokes and EC campaigns while our rights are constantly being attacked by the people who are spending all of their time fighting us.

And if we can’t use humor in our activism? Well, then we’re just completely fucking ourselves. As a Feministing co-founder, I can tell you with confidence that while the incredible voices, the content, the analysis and the community is what makes Feministing the blog we are today, one of the most important reasons why we became so widely read is because we used humor. Being funny and personal, making fun of ourselves, and advocating for feminism in creative ways is absolutely critical for the movement to succeed. Not only because we need it to survive the often depressing reality of injustice we’re constantly fighting, but also because it’s one of the most powerful tools we have to recruit other young people to get on the feminist bandwagon. And that is something worth taking a chance on a boner joke for.

Join the Conversation

  • nazza

    Levity is always needed. Without it, we really would take ourselves too seriously.

  • Tyler Thomas

    Great post. I absolutely agree that being personal is absolutely essential for any movement to succeed for multiple reasons (e.g. we are often motivated by our personal ‘stuff’) and humor is a creative and effective way of conveying that personal spark. A great connection can be forged through shared stories, motivations and laughter between people.

  • Gretel

    You really didn’t see the controversy behind a name like “Boehner Killers”? I can see the humor in it, but given that another member of Congress was almost assassinated a few months ago and how anti-choice people think everyone pro-choice is a “baby-killer” I think it’s better to choose something else. There are some hilarious punny bowling team names out there.

  • Sharon

    Although I agree that the majority of the slogans are funny, I think the campaign could easily have the same effect without picking up and reinforcing some of the more harmful scripts women have internalized.

    I also think that anything that would enrage most feminists if put up by anti-repro rights activists requires a lot of scrutiny before going public. I don’t think I would find a team named “Weiner killers” funny, for instance.

    I am glad that mainstream organizations are thinking out of the box, because what we’ve been doing quite honestly has not been enough. But like I said, I think the same effect could be attained without a few of the more objectionable (to me) phrases.

  • Lena Chen

    I just wrote a huge-ass post responding to this controversy and think that maybe it’s time to step back and say that no party speaks for all women, because that seems to be where a lot of the disagreement comes from. But ONE THING I want to note very quickly is that we should be aware that responsible sexual behavior is a privilege that not everyone has. So the proper way to address issues when you think a campaign is generalizing and characterizing all women as being irresponsible is to not say, “In fact, we ARE responsible so we don’t deserve criticism and stop railing on young women!” because it’s just as generalizing to say that we’re all super responsible people. Some of us may be, but a lot of female bodied folks aren’t because they can’t afford birth control or aren’t educated on where to get it for free or otherwise lack the same privilege as those who only use EC in “real emergencies”. I think it’d be great if we could start questioning (within the reproductive justice movement) whether someone’s sexual behavior or conduct should have any bearing on the right to access contraception/abortion.

    • Vanessa

      All really good points, and a great post, Lena. Thanks so much for weighing in.

  • @ClinicEscort

    I’m a bit surprised the issue of the Bowl-a-Thon team name came up today, after two weeks of radio silence. I’d said my piece and let it go. But, while I don’t want to rehash the debate, I do feel that the point I was making has been mischaracterized here. I have no strong feelings either way on the EC campaign, but I feel like rejection of violent “humor” is a pretty central feminist issue, so I’d like to clarify my point. Apologies in advance for faux-pas-grade length: I considered posting this to my own blog, but that seemed like an escalation, which is not my intent.

    I did not “attack” Feministing for “inciting violence.” I went out of my way to specify that I understood that the team name was meant as only a silly boner pun, and that I had no problem with silly boner puns, but that it fell grievously short of the standard of accountability to which the entire political left held Sarah Palin and others for their “activist humor,” after January’s mass murder in Tucson. Feministing seemed on board with that standard of accountability when it published a roundup of progressive articles condeming “violent political rhetoric”, which included this quote from a James Fallows piece:

    It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk–on rallies, on cable TV, in ads–about “eliminating” opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say “don’t retreat, reload.”

    I take his “anyone” to mean “everyone.” That was the point I was making. To boil that down to “we can’t use humor in our activism” is so far off-target that I really can’t even see how you got there.

    As for my “declaring it a victory” when you changed the name–I can only apologize for my flippancy. I thought “For the win!! Thank you :)” was just a funny, humorous way of acknowledging the change and expressing gratitude that it happened. But I guess humor is subjective, isn’t it.

    Thanks again for hearing me out–and for changing the team name. I don’t believe anyone “forced” you to, but I remain tremendously grateful that you did.

    • Vanessa

      Thanks for responding! I guess you think the humor in activism point was off mark because like you said, you didn’t think the team name was funny! Which makes sense. But we did — and didn’t think it held “violent political rhetoric” that of course Feministing condemns toward any political figure; I’d hope any reader of ours would know that. And sorry if you felt mischaracterized, certainly wasn’t my intent — just trying to make a larger point and I personally thought the bowl-a-thon name change was an example of that. But we can agree to disagree — no hard feelings!

    • Lauren

      “but that it fell grievously short of the standard of accountability to which the entire political left held Sarah Palin and others for their “activist humor,” after January’s mass murder in Tucson.”

      I want some of what you’re on! XD

      The left is not a unified, monolithic entity, and furthermore has no voice with which to hold any right-wing pundit accountable because they do not have much, if any, respect for analysis or opinion from the many movements loosely termed “the left.” Some people said, “Oh look, Palin and Co. are being inane and loopy again,” but holding someone accountable requires ramifications — some sort of adjustment, apology, change etc.

      Here’s what really happened: You bullied a group of women into changing their charity bowling team name because you’re less willing to stand up for people in your movement than Sarah “Bumblesmith” Palin is.

      That exposes a sad paradox I’ve encountered several times when working with activists: we savage each other because we care so much/want everything to be point-perfect, and people like Palin emerge unscathed because they’re in the crazy bunker, defending their ill-gotten turf in the “culture war” with swagger.

      The other commenters don’t want to burn a bridge with you, but I have the freedom of distance to call this like I see it, and I wouldn’t let someone who can’t even defend the humor behind a dick joke escort me into a clinic anyway. :)

      • @ClinicEscort

        Profiles in Courage! But, Lauren, unless you or your invisible posse can make a cogent, ad rem case for the existence of “savaging” or “bullying” in any of the five tweets I linked above–the sum total of my pronouncements on the “Boehner Killers” matter, before this Feministing post went up yesterday–I’m going to offer the gentle suggestion that you may not quite be Team Thick-Skinned Feminism like you seem to think you are. Something to think about!

  • Sarah

    I am all for the funny in pretty much every situation. While I don’t feel like I have much to add to the debate on whether or not the name “Boehner Killers” incites violence (although, as a general lover of puns, I gotta say it falls a little short considering how he actually pronounces his name), I do feel like there is another issue that doesn’t quite seem to be addressed. If it really is only me who feel this way, then so be it, it wouldn’t be the first time when it comes to humor. It does seem to me, however, that we spend a lot of time expounding legitimate frustration over the sexual commentary (intended humoroulsy or not) surrounding female politicians and that to employ a similar technique undermines this. I am well aware of the fact that male politicians are typically not subjected to this same kind of sexual commentary and often feel the benefit of that in their political careers; and well aware of the fact that this one pun is not going to bring down this man’s career. But do we really want to start making a habit of turning the tables in this fashion? If there are important points I’m forgetting, please point them out to me….but I gotta say this seems like pretty straightforward logic…