The Missing Piece of the Puzzle


An increasing amount of attention is being paid to the issue of rising birth control prices at college health centers, due to an intricate bit of budget engineering by the federal government that made it less appealing for drug companies to offer deep discounts to university-affiliated health clinics. Big media is writing about it, I dedicated a column to it, students are organizing protests, and bills are getting introduced in Congress to combat the problem. With this much thorough attention and coverage, it's shocking to note that a stone has been left unturned and one big piece of the puzzle has gotten minimal to non-existent coverage: The part where the elimination of discounts that drove birth control pill prices up 100-400% affected not just college health centers, but also 400 community health centers that primarily serve the poor.

The NY Times mentioned it in passing. Slate covered that angle in an article written a year and some months ago. But most of the coverage has focused entirely on the plight of college girls deprived of their pills, with very little attention paid to the patients at community health clinics, who may not all be going to college but mostly fall within the same age range as the college students who take the pill. Why the big hole in the coverage? Naturally, I have my theories.

Soft core porn poisoning. From the incessant ads for "Girls Gone Wild" to the "Girls of the (fill in some university grouping)" editions of Playboy magazine, there's a lot of energy focused on framing college women in the most prurient light possible; and there has been roughly since women started demanding and winning the right to go to college. In fact, women's growing successes with higher education correlates so strongly with the rise in pornified images of college women that it suggests some kind of linkage, as if the more women prove that they're full human beings capable of engaging in the world on every level, the more society has to push back and cough up a stream of images insisting that college women are nothing but dumb sluts.

The prurient insistence that sex undermines women's independence doesn't limit itself to the hopeful hostilities of soft core porn. The ostensibly anti-porn and generally anti-sex right obsesses over the idea of college women and sex, but what really gets them going is the idea that college women might be sexual agents with desires all their own outside of snagging that MRS. Degree and commencing with the baby-making and housework. Entire right wing organizations like the Independent Women's Forum put most or all of their energies into fighting the scourge that is college women controlling and owning their own sexuality, instead of using it as husband bait.

The disapproving and demeaning arms of nation's prurient interest in the sexuality of college women fold into one beast in many places, such as Tom Wolfe's book I Am Charlotte Simmons and the secret video folders of many a straight-laced social conservative. The news media knows what gets ratings, and framing stories as about the sex lives of the mysterious co-ed qualifies as a surefire ratings attraction. The need to move papers and/or sell ad space makes the college angle almost all but impossible to embrace, even at the expense of covering the entire story.

Classism. Embracing the college angle while ignoring the poorer women who also lost these vital discounts also reflects the larger classist viewpoint that infects the entire news media. The professional class that runs the media finds itself fascinating above all other things, as masochistic readers of the Style sections of the New York Times can attest, or anyone who's followed the media-concocted "mommy wars" between stay at home moms and those who choose to work – as if all women have a choice that's a product of upper middle class privilege.

It might also be a bit of a novelty thing, sadly. The poor getting screwed over in America is as shocking a news story as, "Winter came around again this year." But middle class entitlements getting cut creates havoc, upsets the natural order of things. Huge cuts to welfare spending gets the lovely euphemism "welfare reform," but if you dared to lay a finger on the right to declare your children on your taxes, the coverage would be more straightforward. The same prejudice infects the coverage of the birth control pill discounts.

The privilege to resist. The good news is that college kids are getting attention for their issue because they are drawing attention to it through various means of protesting. The bad news is that the access college kids have to protest is still a privilege, and not a genuine right shared by all. College students have newspapers and the ease of campus organizing. Working class people their own age don't have any of that most of the time. Students are encouraged to stand up for themselves by professors and school administrators. Working class people usually find that the bosses are hostile to the entire concept of standing up for yourself. If you're a college student, organizing for yourself and your fellow students looks good on a resume and can be a great step towards a career. For working class people, organizing might actively harm your career, if you get a reputation for being a troublemaker.

None of which is to say that it's wrong or bad for college kids to stand up for themselves and get attention to their cause. On the contrary; these kids deserve all the help and encouragement they're getting. The focus should be on seeking ways to extend their privileges to others.

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  • harry834

    Thorough, showing how each aspect that enhances college students lives will be used as a weapon against similar youths who are not within the safe walls of college. And of course, cheering the college kids on, because the enemy is not protest, its the lack of protest outside the college walls. And also, I'm always happy to hear breakdowns of the way that the pro-porn and anti-porn mechanisms can work together in diminishing women's agency and respectful image.

  • emily-douglas

    We deleted an uncivil comment from this post; you can see why here: http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/about-us#comments

  • harry834

    Providing a positive standard of discourse, while still allowing some of my favorite haters to speak. Good balance, power and kudos to you both, and to everyone who runs this site.