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Jennifer Baumgardner Talks Feminism and Sex Ed

By , 17, Staff Writer Originally Published: June 8, 2012 Revised: September 5, 2012

For the first time in history, three women serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet in the U.S. men and women are still treated unequally—with negative consequences for all.

As teens, we see it when it comes to teen pregnancy: the girl is too often shamed while the guy moves on with his life. We see it when a guy is called a “pansy” because he is gay, perceived to be gay or just not acting “manly” enough. We also see it when a girl is called a “slut” because of the way she looks, dresses or carries herself—whether she’s chosen to have sex or not.

I wanted to hear from a feminist about some of these issues. This spring, I was lucky enough to interview feminist writer, filmmaker and activist, Jennifer Baumgardner. She has written several books, including Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, which she coauthored with Amy Richards. She is deeply committed feminism—having economic, political and social equality for all people. And her writing discusses important issues facing young women today, including reproductive rights, rape, activism and popular culture. Jennifer is an inspiration, and she’s someone I’m glad I had an opportunity to talk with.

I think we are in a world where feminism has already had a huge impact, and people have adopted and internalized many feminist values and goals.

Sex, Etc.: Can you point to a moment in your life when you first felt moved to speak out against gender inequality? When did you realize you were a feminist?

The first issue I remember caring about was abortion rights. I knew at a really young age—like nine—that I was pro-choice and that this issue was serious to me. I gleaned even back then that if a woman didn’t have control over whether she became a mother, she didn’t have control of anything.

I think I was a feminist from birth in the sense that I was born into a radically changed world that was altered, in a positive way, by the second wave of the women’s movement. I remember Ms. magazine on the coffee table, girls sports and lots of being told that I could be whatever I wanted to be—including president of the United States!

Sex, Etc.: Some people think we live in a post-feminist world—a world where we don’t have to make sure that women have economic, social and political equality. How do you respond to that assertion?

I think we are in a world where feminism has already had a huge impact, and people have adopted and internalized many feminist values and goals. Once unheard of things like having female professors or paternity leave or a woman Secretary of State (or three!), or birth control for unmarried couples are now absolutely normal (wait, that last one is back on the table!).

In spite of these gains, we still need feminism. There are so many ways that gender is used to oppress and discriminate still. The current raging debate over whether birth control should be covered by insurance is one instance of inequality. Atrocities like date rape, slut-shaming and sex trafficking are still epidemics.

Sex, Etc.: From a feminist perspective, what do you feel is the greatest challenge facing teens today?

Creating healthy spaces for them to learn about sex, sexuality and becoming themselves. Helping them have love, confidence and support in situations where their parents can’t provide those things.

Sex, Etc.: Why is access to comprehensive sexuality education a feminist issue?

Having a reproductive system is very powerful and a huge responsibility. It’s borderline child abuse not to provide the tools for young people to understand their bodies and what they are capable of.

Sex, Etc.: Can guys be feminists? How does feminism benefit guys, too?

Guys can and are feminists. Men and boys are hampered by gender roles, too. In fact, in some ways (like with fashion or showing affection to another man), they are policed even more rigidly than women. I want men to have equal access to the full range of human emotion and experience, and I feel feminism as a philosophy enables that.

Sex, Etc.: What are some publications, TV shows and movies that you think send positive messages to young girls today?

Gosh, so many. I love the Hunger Games, Lady Gaga, Bitch magazine and Style Rookie. I don’t think we need to send a sugar-coated message about girls and women, but just show girls and women and men in positions of power, compassion, bravery and sympathy.

Because of the work of feminists, like Jennifer Baumgardner and the many others who came before and will follow her, more young women and men are able to live healthy lives—confident in their identities, actions and decisions—regardless of their gender.

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