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Reacting to the Red Light District

11 Apr

by Nicole Chenelle

When I say that I spent a week in Amsterdam during my semester abroad, most people respond with something along the lines of, “Oh! So did you see the Red Light district?” coupled with wide eyes and giggles. I spent the week in Amsterdam with my Prostitution and the Sex Trade class. We met with NGOs, government organizations, and former sex workers to discuss the status of sex work within the Netherlands. I definitely saw the Red Light district.

This week-long trip to Amsterdam with my Prostitution and the Sex Trade class was the reason I chose to study abroad at the Danish Institute of Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. As a women’s and gender studies minor at Georgetown, the idea of studying prostitution in countries were it is legal was exciting. I had never engaged with prostitution academically, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to study the issue through a lens of legality. My Prostitution and the Sex Trade course included a three-day intensive study in our home base of Copenhagen, where prostitution is legal, a three-day trip to Sweden, where prostitution is legal but the client is criminalized, and this week-long trip to Amsterdam, where brothels, as well as prostitution, is legal.

The Red Light district of Amsterdam cannot be ignored. Centrally located around the city’s oldest church, the Red Light district demands that you notice the sex work happening all around you. Whether it’s the beckoning of the dolled-up women in the windows, the neon lights advertising sex shows, or rainbow-colored condoms hanging in the windows of the Condomerie, sex permeates the atmosphere of Amsterdam. The Red Light district is both a neighborhood which celebrates sex and pleasure and one who’s glitter and lipstick camouflages exploitation and human trafficking.

The majority of our class discussions and my own personal musings come back to this question – can you separate freely chosen sex work versus the trafficking of human beings for the purposes of sexual exploitation? Can sex work even be chosen, or do the economic motivators limit the agency of this choice? How can we, or should we even, aid the Eastern European girls in the windows whose boyfriends would legally qualify as pimps? How do we stop the human rights violation of trafficking while allowing individuals to sell sex if that is what they so chose? Is sex work just another form of labor, or is there something about sex which makes it inherently different? These are questions I have spent my semester abroad contemplating, questions that activists and lawmakers have spent their whole careers thinking about, without coming to an obvious conclusion.

Learning about the sex industry in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands has made my ignorance about the sex trade in the United States glaring apparent. I know prostitution is illegal in the majority of the United States, but it still exists. Criminalizing the prostitute herself (or himself, but most often herself) does nothing but create a cycle of criminality. Marring these women with a criminal record does the opposite of helping them exit the sex industry, but instead, makes getting a job in another profession near impossible. Is the Nordic model, or the criminalization of the customer, the solution for the United States? Criminalizing the men who purchase sex rather than the women themselves is a step in the right direction, yet I worry that the Nordic model merely plays lip-service to the ideal of eradicating prostitution rather than enacting real change. I find myself leaning towards supporting the legalization of prostitution, yet fear that legalization would encourage sex traffickers to do their business in that country. The more I study prostitution and the sex trade, the more I come to appreciate the complexity and nuances of this issue, and the more I recognize that anyone who has a simple solution isn’t thinking hard enough.

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How To Get An Abortion

3 Dec

by Anonymous

I have never had an abortion. I do not know if I will ever have an abortion. I might, one day. It’s not something I think about or consider very often. I’ve never needed to think about it. But if I do need to, I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know where I would go to get an abortion or how I would pay for it. I have no idea how to get an abortion. I wish I did.

I think it is important to know how to get an abortion. Knowing gives you power over your body. Knowing gives you choices. Knowing makes you prepared. I never want to be pregnant, scared, and racing against the clock, trying to figure out where I can go, how I will pay, who will go with me, who will support me. I want to know. I want to know I will never have to be pregnant against my will.

I try to be prepared. I have been on birth control for years. I always use condoms. I should be safe. I should be ok. But things happen. I had sex with a guy I met in a club this past weekend. The next morning my friend joked that it would be hilarious if I got pregnant with the guy’s kid. I was horrified. I know I’m not pregnant, that the guy and I used two forms of contraception, that we were safe. I wasn’t afraid that I might be pregnant. I was horrified that my friend would joke about something like that. I was afraid that if I were ever pregnant, I would not know what to do. I was afraid that I did not know how to get an abortion.

I am studying abroad right now. I have some idea of what I would do if I needed an abortion in DC, where I go to school. I know I would go downtown to the Planned Parenthood Clinic. I do not what would happen. I do not know what abortion procedures are offered, or how an abortion works. I do not know if I would need recovery time, or if I would be ok right away, or if I would need a few days of rest, and excuses to explain where I was. I do know I would go with one or two of my best friends, if I found the courage to ask them. I would hope there would not be any protestors outside of the clinic. I do not know how I would pay for it. I know I would never tell my parents. But here, in Europe? I have no idea. I do not know where abortions are offered, what the laws around abortions are here, if I could get one as a foreigner. This is never talked about in the on-site handbook or during study-abroad orientation. I do not know if my health plan would cover it. I do not know how much it would cost. I do not know who would help me. I would be lost.

When you are abroad, how do you ask someone to help you get an abortion? Who do you go to? I struggle to imagine who I would trust to support me at home. I can think of only a few people. Abroad, no one.

I do not know what my friends here think of abortion. I do not know if they are supportive of reproductive choice, and if they are, if they are supportive not just in theory but also in practice. I do not know if they would actually help me navigate the confusing web of abortion.

I have a site director here, whose job it is to help and support students while they are abroad. But she works for a Catholic university, and I do not know her personal position on abortion. Even if she were supportive, even if I could ask, I do not know if she knows how to access an abortion here.

I would never ask my host family. I cannot imagine how they would react, what they would say. I do not think they would, or could, help me.

I do not know if I could ask another student here, a student who is from here and lives here. I do not know how they would react or what people think of abortions here.

I would have to look online. I do not know what I would find. I do not know if it would help.

Even if I found the proper care, I do not speak the language well enough to navigate my own care. I do not have the vocabulary to talk about abortion or my reproductive health needs. I have no way to care for myself when it comes to abortion and my body.

Perhaps this is extreme, but I think everyone should know how to get an abortion, wherever they are. Statistically, it makes sense. In the U.S. 49% of pregnancies are unintended, and 1 in 3 women in the US have had an abortion by age 45 (I could not find any statistics documenting how many trans* people have had abortions, but I would like to acknowledge that many trans* people have abortions as well and need access to reproductive care that includes abortions). Knowing where to go for an abortion, how to pay, what will happen before, during, and after the procedure-and which different procedures are available-is necessary.

I used to think of abortion as an issue distant from me. I advocated for reproductive justice from the perspective of preserving individuals’ bodily autonomy, but rarely did I think of the issue in relation to me and my own life. Now that I have begun to think of abortion as a personal issue, and as something that I may one day do, I realize we need so much more. It is not just the right to a legal, safe abortion that people need; people also need access and education. Without knowledge of how to get an abortion and access reproductive care, the right to an abortion hardly exists. Teaching about access to abortion and options for terminating pregnancy should be at the very least an optional part of sex education, and should be included in orientations for both university and study abroad programs. Without this knowledge, people seeking abortions or looking to have control over their reproductive care are left with much less power, and they are less likely to find the care they need when they need it. If we really believe in advocating for reproductive justice and the right to an abortion then we need to teach people how to get an abortion.

Fisting

7 Oct

by Anonymous

‘Aight. Let’s talk about fisting. I know it’s scary (hell, I was a fisting virgin once too),  but that shouldn’t stop you from doing what you want or doing it SAFELY. That’s the thing, once I did my research, no more scariness. So hopefully this gives you some relief if you start thinking about logistics.

Also, fisting isn’t just for woman on woman. If you’ve got a hand and a partner, you’re good to go. I won’t speak specifically to the wider world of fisting, so hopefully some of the links in here can give you a starting place.

First things first: don’t do it alone. Not that you could. Fisting is more intimate than any other sexual act of which I know. We’re always being told not to be intimate with people unless we trust them, but let’s be real, things happen. Fisting cannot be one of those things. Fisting can produce some of the best sexual experiences, but you must be completely open and trusting of your partner whether giving or receiving. Constant communication is key. What makes fisting so amazing for both partners is the muscle involvement. Orgasms resulting from fisting usually involve the kegel muscles, the muscles along the vaginal wall, creating wave sensations. These muscles are treasures, but they are very sensitive to emotional states. If the receiver is anxious or uncomfortable, they can close off making the vagina “tight.” Let’s just say this is unpleasant for everyone. So talk to each other.

Second is that it will take time. It’s like poker. Don’t expect to go all in during the first hand. Play each round. Add more to the pot each time. You’ll get there. And when you do, there’s a big payoff. For some people (and realize this varies for everyone) it takes about two to three weeks to work up to. Like I said, talk. If ever either partner starts to feel pain, stop. Rapid expansion of the vaginal walls can cause tearing and bleeding. Going slowly can prevent this from happening.

Third, and most important, is safety. Ladies and gentlemen, hands with nails have no business between anyone’s legs! I don’t care how much you love to scratch your partners or how great your manicure looks; neither of those things matter when your hand is inside another person. That said, most doctors recommend wearing gloves when fisting (be careful with latex allergies). They can somewhat protect against nails, but not very efficiently. Gloves do protect against various other things your hands may have on them. You never know.

Most important to me, which is why it gets its own paragraph, LUBE. There is no fisting without lube. It just doesn’t happen. Ever. Most sites and stores will recommend a water-based lube, as do I. You may think getting the small bottle is a good idea. It’s compact, cheap. For your first buy, the small bottle is good. But when you’re getting into fisting, honey, you Costco that shit. There isn’t enough lube in the world for fisting. Even when starting out and working your way up, add lube. Then, add more. Then, when you feel like your hand is swimming in a sea of lube, add more lube. Receiver, you will probably feel like slip’n’slide, but trust me, you need it. If you’re using enough, you’ll end up with lube all over your bed (or whatever location you chose), and, receiver, don’t be embarrassed—you will leak.

Fourth, don’t worry about it. Fisting is seriously fun, so try and relax and enjoy. As long as you’re in control and aware you should be loving life (not to mention being more aware can heighten sexual response).

If you want more information, doctors are a good go-to. As awkward as you think the conversation might be, taking any issue of this nature to an OB is not that big a deal.  Always refer to professional health caregivers with questions of sexual health or activity or anything really. For less serious advice, this is a great video on intro fisting, and they pretty much bring up all the points I could possibly think of. Get ready for International Fisting Day on October 21st! You can also find a handy diagram here for your introduction to fisting.

Running Naked

20 Aug

by Bethany Imondi

Okay, so the title is a little misleading. I have never run naked, but ask runners and I bet they will tell you they wish they could run in their birthday suit during D.C’s hottest months.

D.C. in the summer is hot. Not just 95-degrees-and-sunny hot, but 95-degrees-and-oppressive-dew-points-that-make-you-think-you-transported-to-the-surface-of-the-sun hot.

This past summer has been no exception. Despite this being my third summer in D.C., this was my first time living here as a “runner,” as in someone who despises treadmills, uses a GPS to track miles and reads running blogs in one’s spare time. After being bitten by the running bug last fall, lacing up my sneakers has made me one of “those people” who actually enjoy sweating en route to the monuments or along the Rock Creek Parkway.

Sweating in the summer, however, is a whole other story. Having begun training for my first half marathon last December, my runs were mostly done in temperatures requiring gloves to hold the water bottle that remained cold regardless of how long I ran and five minutes post-run peeling off layers of clothing to reveal that, in spite of the wind chills and inability to feel my nose, I still managed to work up a sweat.

Nowadays, I can barely keep the layers on. When the heat index is already 85 degrees at six thirty in the morning, a part of me cringes at the idea of attempting any sort of mileage. But then there is also that part of me that loves racing past the Kennedy Center and down to the Lincoln Memorial, watching as the sun peeks behind the Washington Monument and illuminates the National Mall’s Reflecting Pool.

Unfortunately, as a consequence of my runner’s high, I finish my summer runs in need of a shower as much as I look like I just took one— hair underneath my baseball cap soaked, shorts sticking to the back of my legs and running top looking as if I had just taken it out of the washing machine. After pushing my run even earlier in the morning and still feeling/looking like a hot mess before the official sunrise time, I made a decision: hello, sports bras.

During my recent runs, I could count on two hands the number of women I have seen running the streets in only a sports bras, a number far less than the number of men I have seen pacing shirtless through the city. The low value does not surprise me. Myself a subject of street harassment while fully clothed in broad daylight, I can understand why a woman would not want to subject herself to the torment of beeping car horns and obnoxious taunts simply because she wanted a little relief from the heat.

So when I see those few belly-button displaying women I pass, I feel admiration. By running in a sports bra, even if they just want to feel less sticky or have a less awkward runner’s tan, these women say to society:”Look, I don’t care whether you judge me; I don’t care if you holler; I don’t care if you can see the chicken pox scar near the bottom of my spine—it’s hot and this is how I feel comfortable!”

This level of comfort is the main reason behind my respect for these women. Females are all too familiar with the anxiety of wearing a bathing suit on the beach, so running in a sports bra can be equally discomforting. Yet with these women, I sense a great deal of self-confidence in themselves and their bodies. At times, I almost want to stop mid-run and high-five them for being such bad-asses and inspiring me to work up the courage to don the bikini top of running apparel.

If you had asked me four years ago whether I would ever venture outdoors in a sports bra, I would have fiercely shaken my head in the negative. Insecurity and body consciousness were regular thoughts that drove me to exercise for not always the healthiest reasons. Though days of low self-esteem and body loathing are not absent from my calendar, I am in a much more comfortable position with the way my body looks and feels today. Whereas before running was something I mainly did to burn calories, today I do it mainly for the pleasure, for the sweat and sense of accomplishment that comes with running half of a half marathon before the work day begins. Choosing to run only in a sports bra has been a small way of demonstrating to myself, and to others, that I am comfortable enough in my own skin to show it off.

Running in a sports bra is the closest a woman can get to running naked while avoiding an arrest for indecent exposure, but It is also an act of empowerment, well-being and self-confidence. Even if I notice runners glance at my bare belly, their subtle acknowledgement is all I need to remind myself how much my self-esteem has grown to feel comfortable enough to run sans shirt, sweat, flaws and all.

Body Positivity for Men: Lessons to be Learned

12 Aug

by Guy Jones

In any discussion, debate, fireside chat, or what have you regarding feminism, the topics of body image, ideals of beauty, self-esteem, and lack thereof are hard to avoid. The conversation is important to have, though society will likely always prop up conventionally “beautiful” people as models for our emulation.

Advertisements often get significant attention in this kind of discussion, and for good reason: those who sell products know they can profit more from fear than from genuine attraction to the product. If you don’t try this diet you won’t look like Megan Fox, don’t you know Bane uses P-90X, buy our lingerie or your breasts won’t look nice enough, if you think your acne cream is working remember that girl who dumped you.

This kind of dialogue is addressed in feminist thought and is often seen to be mainly a women’s issue, and yet men have a lot to gain from the attitudes and understandings that feminists have adopted towards body image. I’ve seen plenty of men shrug off the issue of body negativity in advertising, media, and overall culture because they think women should either be able to attain the perfect body or simply ignore this pressure entirely.

However, pressure to conform to an ideal body type applies to people of all genders, and this is why I believe men who don’t self-identify as feminist have a lot to learn from those who do. Victoria Edel wrote a wonderful piece on this subject that offers ways to approach body positivity, and she is right to say that both genders can benefit from this kind of thinking. Men tend to overlook body positivity as an issue at all, because often the body negativity fed to men is more quiet, and in darker places in entertainment.

I mean, of course, in that circa-30% of the Internet that is visited mainly by males. I don’t mean ESPN, mind you, since most women love sports much more than I do. And though many women do enjoy their porn, those sites and companies know that they are targeting a male-dominated audience. As in, people with penises. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.

Shocking Discovery Reveals 1 Secret for Big D*ck”. This one was a tad strange: “I taught my 23 year old virgin little bro ONE amazing secret to get a big d*ck”. Or perhaps this great offer: “C*ck under 7”? 20% of men know the secret to growing 4” in 4”. (this one cut off here, and I’m anxious about how long it takes. Four days? Weeks? Years?). And this was found all in just a few pages of internet porn.

Now, whether or not you think porn is wrong and supports the subjugation of women, or a sex-positive expression of ownership over one’s body (a very different conversation which is worth having), it’s hard to deny that men are very often assaulted with similar fears and anxieties concerning purported body flaws that serve to make them purchase some terrible product. And while it may be more direct and less nuanced than advertising targeted at females (I hardly see ABC running an ad that even mentioned the word “dick”), and though it is obviously all a scam, many men have an incredible anxiety regarding their body image as it relates to their attractiveness and sexual performance – even those with average or above average body types.

Take, for example, the one penis enlargement advertisement that makes it onto actual TV: ExtenZe. What they are doing with the Z there, I don’t know. But consider the tagline for a moment – “natural male enhancement”. Tongue-in-cheek as it may be, this is a deceptively sinister marketing strategy that should be lauded at least for its complete honesty: when it comes to male bodies, bigger is always better, and smaller is always worse, and when there’s always room for improvement (or “enhancement”) you ought to buy all of our products and continue their use for as long as possible (ExtenZe claims its effects are only temporary). Don’t forget – in all this talk of “male enhancement”, men in almost every clothing ad have six-pack abs and huge biceps; they’re tall, tan, and chiseled. And (implicitly, since there’s nearly always a conventionally pretty girl under their arm) they have a big penis.

It’s important to know that the repercussions of all of this negative advertisement are not limited to buying bad products. As feminist thought has already unpacked in great detail, selling poor body image as a way to make people feel dependant on your product harms everyone’s self-esteem and can move them to destructive habits. Crash diets, eating disorders, unhealthy supplements and even unnecessary surgeries are undertaken by people of all genders, and men need to recognize this as it affects them more silently than it does women. Whether one self-identifies as a feminist or not, everyone must support a body positive culture in which self-loathing is not a marketing tool and beauty is found in everyone, including ourselves.

Learning Body Positivity

1 Aug

by Victoria Edel

Having a positive body image is incredibly difficult for both women and men, though usually body positivity is seen as only a women’s issue. People of both genders are affected by eating disorders, self esteem issues and other problems related to the society’s obsession with an ideal body.

Loving yourself is generally really hard, and loving the way you look may be hardest part of it. We consume media that tells us that only certain types of bodies are acceptable or desirable, despite the fact that most people don’t have those and still live meaningful, loving, exciting lives. But we believe the lie — we obsessively count calories, we hide the parts of our bodies we’ve been told to be ashamed of, we spend an inordinate amount of time worrying that we don’t look the way we’re “supposed to look.”

But all hope isn’t lost! You can be a body positive god/goddess, whether you have a six-pack of abs, flabby arms, love handles, a flat chest — whatever! It’s time we all stop hating ourselves, because it’s pointless. You only get one body, and your life doesn’t start when you lose weight — you’re living your life right now, and any moment that the way you look keeps you from being happy is wasted.

Here’s the thing — admitting you deserve to be happy is one thing, but actually living that is hard. I’m speaking from experience. Logically, I know that my body is awesome and let’s me do great things, but sometimes I can be pretty unhappy with it. This is an experience you might be familiar with.

But just because you have bad moments doesn’t mean you can’t be happy. Here are my tips for being body positive, whether you’re fat, thin or somewhere in between.

Recognize negative body talk.
Sometimes this is really obvious. You might look in the mirror and think something bad about yourself. A friend might make a comment about someone in a bathing suit, a magazine might dissect a celebrity’s cellulite, or your parents might comment on you gaining the Freshman 15. But sometimes it can be a lot more insidious. It’s a comment about how something isn’t “flattering,” how you might want to think about working out more, or how “some people shouldn’t wear skinny jeans.”

Once you’ve recognized the comments that work to make you feel awful, you can realize why they’re happening. A magazine wants to make you feel bad about your body because then you’ll invest in diets. Your friends or family members might be projecting their own insecurities. When you realize that these comments usually aren’t really about you, you can distance yourself from this hateful speech.

Don’t talk about “health” or “fitness” to shame people.
Sometimes people will talk about being “healthy” or “fit” when they actually don’t care about how much you work out or what you’re eating. They often are just talking about being thin. Don’t fall into the trap. Some thin people eat junk food all the time and some fat people run marathons. Both those groups of people are awesome, for the record.

Don’t criticize others.
Besides the fact that this makes you a mean person, being critical of other people’s bodies will only make you more critical of your own. It will also make it hard for your friends to feel positive about their bodies. Ever gossiped with friends about someone who wasn’t there and then wonder if they gossip about you when you’re not there? Shaming other people’s bodies is just like that — it leaves people wondering what you say about them.

Related: Don’t project your friends’ insecurities onto yourself, which is something I’m often in danger of. Sometimes when a friend is talking about wanting to be thinner, he’s just talking about himself and not you. Don’t drive yourself crazy.

Don’t talk about “real bodies” or “real women.”
There was a time when “Real women have curves” was a very popular slogan in the body positivity movement. It was well meaning — those who said it wanted fat and curvy women to be considered beautiful too. The problem is the slogan excludes those who lack curves, who are still obviously “real women.” We can’t put down other people to make ourselves feel better. Body positivity means all bodies, not just ones that look like yours.

Don’t tolerate negative speech.
This means negative words from you, your friends, your family and the media. When you’re saying or thinking something negative about yourself, try to stop. Calling people out for their behavior can be really difficult so don’t feel badly if you can’t bring yourself to do it. But you can try to tell your friends that what they’re saying makes you uncomfortable, explain to your mom that you don’t like when she talks about your weight, or use social media to chastise companies that use problematic messages.

Say positive things.
This one is much easier. When you look in the mirror, instead of thinking you look too fat or too thin, think about how nice your hair looks, how pretty your eyes are, or how much you like the shirt you’re wearing. Or do yourself one better, and think about what a good friend you are, how much you like the essay you’re working on, or something else that has nothing to do with your appearance. Also say positive things about your friends. When you put those things out there, everyone will feel better.

Surround yourself with people who are body positive.
This doesn’t mean abandoning all your friends and making new ones. But if one of your friends or acquaintances happens to exude a confidence that you’d love to have, try to spend more time with them.

This is exceptionally easy to do on the Internet. Read fashion blogs of people of all shapes and sizes who are happy with the way they look and celebrate a diversity of sizes and shapes. If Gabi Fresh can be confident in a bikini, so can you!

Don’t beat yourself when it doesn’t work. Realize everyone goes through this.
This is actually the hardest part. Some days I know that I am super cute and awesome, and some days I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and want to hide in my bed for a few days.

You’ll feel better about these moments when you realize that everyone has these moments. Your size two friend whose body you envy probably envies how big your boobs are. Your bootylicious friend might wish she could buy pants as easily as you can.

When you realize that everyone has these insecurities, you’ll slowly start to stop being jealous. When you see that other people who you think are beautiful and lovely have trouble seeing it, you’ll realize that your friends aren’t lying when they say you’re beautiful and lovely.

I’ll end with a quote from blogger Mara Glatzel, who probably says it best:

“It is hard to be a fat girl. No matter how much you tell yourself how sexy, talented, amazing, worthy, fabulous, and genius you are, there is a pretty serious backlash that you are facing … And I absolutely guarantee that inside every phenomenal kick-ass fat positive role model is the tiniest inkling of doubt and fear, and every once and a while, when you are feeling a little vulnerable, even the toughest, most awesome girl can be tripped up, even if they refuse to admit it. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that I believe this so wholeheartedly – anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. This is not to say that we should just succumb to the cultural standards and get all weak in our knees when someone calls us fat – we will keep fighting and loving ourselves no matter what and becoming role models for other women to follow in our example, BUT there has to be some room for honesty in the equation. And honestly? It is not always easy to be a Body Image Warrior.”

And being one is possibly even harder at Georgetown, which isn’t exactly known for it’s size diversity. (I’m one of few fat people on campus, and it really sucks sometimes.)

Hopefully now you, whether fat or thin, curvy or stick straight, male or female, are on your way to being a confident, amazing Body Image Warrior too. But for the days when you don’t want to take it anymore, remember that you’re not alone.

Pills on Pills

14 Jun

by Kayla Corcoran

Forty-five minutes after first dialing the number on the back of my insurance card, I’m still on hold with Blue Cross Blue Shield Anthem as I write this blog post. My cell phone burps out obnoxious elevator music on speaker beside me on the desk as I type. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning: Africa.

Not in Africa, exactly, but in a manner of speaking. In the middle of June, I’ll be leaving Boston to spend the next two months in Rwanda, where I’ll be participating in a social entrepreneurship project in rural Rwanda.

Still on hold. Now the count’s at fifty minutes.

Traveling to Rwanda means, among many other (and better) things, vaccinations and medications. I’ve already gone to the travel clinic for five shots: Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Influenza, Polia, and Tuberculosis. Unfortunately, Malaria continues to be a threat in Rwanda. I’ve opted for Doxycycline because some of the other pills have psychotropic side effects and I don’t really dig crazy dreams. The RN at the travel clinic wrote me a prescription for 87 pills and sent it to the pharmacy. Enough pills for each day in Rwanda plus time before and after.

I’ve been disconnected once already from the insurance company; this is the second call I’ve placed. Both times, I was greeted by the automatic voice generator that kept stating, “I don’t understand what you said,” when I tried to recite my insurance policy number out loud for “more personalized care.” “For more personalized care, I’d actually like to speak to a human being,” I mutter. “I don’t understand what you said,” comes the automated response.

Seventy-one minutes later, the BCBS representative with whom I’ve been speaking for the past hour (let’s call him Paul) checks in again to thank me for my patience. He’s already tried calling three different internal numbers (one of which he was disconnected from and another of which rang unanswered). He’s also phoned my pharmacy to talk to them. “Can I call you back on Monday?” he asks. “No, but thank you,” I respond. “I’ll continue holding, as I’ve done for the past hour. I’d like to get this situation resolved by the end of the day.” I’m practically an expert now at holding (let me know if you need any tips!). He tells me that my case will be transferred to a senior representative, but they’ll need to do a bit more research before above-mentioned unknown person can get back to me. “Do you mind if she calls you back in an hour?” he asks me. I sigh. Of course I mind, but what can I do? “No, that’s fine,” I whisper into the phone, feeling my case slipping out of my hands as it drifts into the murky blue abyss of BCBS.

I still haven’t told you what the problem is and why I picked up the phone in the first place, so while I’m holding, I’ll fill you in. In addition to needing a two-month supply of Doxycycline to avoid getting Malaria, I also need a three-month supply of birth control. Ah, yes. Therein lies the problem! Needing a three-month supply of birth control is obviously suspicious. I must be up to some really crazy things.

This morning, before this ridiculous phone call, I opened the crinkly white paper bag from the pharmacy only to find a very small orange bottle filled with thirty capsules of Doxycycline. “Um,” I said to my mother, “where’s the rest of it?” “Here,” she said, handing me one package of Mononessa. “I mean, where are the other pills and the other two packages of the Mononessa?” I asked. She shrugged. “They wouldn’t give it to me.”

The insurance company won’t authorize more than a thirty-day supply of any medication.

I’m not sure if the insurance company understands how antimalarial or birth control pills work, but in case they’re unaware, I’ll gladly share! Doxycycline is a daily antimalarial pill, which means it actually needs to be taken every day in order for the medicine to work effectively. Birth control works the same way. One pill every day. As tempting as it is to play Rwandan roulette and ration out my thirty Doxy pills over eight weeks, I think I’ll get my kicks another way.

Hence, the phone call to my insurance company.

After the robot lady got done talking about how awesome BCBS is and about how she didn’t understand what I was saying, I pressed zero for the operator. I spoke with someone about my problem. She put me on hold for ten minutes. “I’m sorry,” she said when the elevator music shut off. “I don’t have access to do anything. Let me transfer you.” Sure, no problem. The waiting game began.

Ten minutes later, I was on the phone with Paul, and I explained my problem again: “The travel clinic prescribed me a two-month supply of Doxy and the gynecologist prescribed me a three-month supply of birth control. The pharmacy will only give me one month of each. I’m travelling to Rwanda in two weeks and I’m not going to have access to a pharmacy. Can you please authorize a vacation override for these prescriptions so I can travel with the medication that I need?”

This is when Paul put me on hold and started making all of those other calls that I already mentioned above. In between the second and the third call, he picked up the line. “Kayla, are you still there?”

“Yes, Paul.”

“I’m getting the run-around from everyone around here, and I can’t seem to find any answers. I’m going to try a third number. From what I understand of the policy, though, you’re allowed to have two vacation overrides within a period of one hundred eighty days, but they must be thirty days apart.”

“Sorry?” I asked. From what I understand of the policy, you can’t go on an extended vacation and have two medications at the same time. From what I understand about the policy, I’m being asked to choose: antimalarial pills or birth control.

“I know,” Paul said. “I’m just as frustrated about this now as you are.” I want to believe Paul. I want to believe when he says that he empathizes with my problem that he really does understand the panic I feel about being away from home for two months without access to the medication I need. But I doubt that Paul has ever had to choose between antimalarial pills and birth control. “What’s the number for your pharmacy?” he asked, and I gave it to him. He put me on hold again.

“Okay,” he says when his voice crackled back to life on my phone. “The pharmacy can’t do anything about it today. Their system won’t allow it since there has already been action today on those prescriptions. And they can’t actually find the scrip for the Mononessa.” Now we’re all caught up to minute seventy-one when Paul offers to do some research and call me back on Monday. I politely decline and ask to speak to a supervisor. I’ve already invested an hour and a half on this problem today, and if today is any indication of how long this process is going to be dragged out, I don’t have time to wait until Monday to figure out if the pharmacy can actually fill my prescriptions.

I get bounced around to three more people before I get a supervisor, who informs me that she’s spoken to the pharmacy and the prescription company and that I’ll be able to pick up both prescriptions tomorrow. Huzzah! She tells me that in the future I’ll need to order my three-month prescriptions online because there are no restrictions or need for vacation overrides online. “What’s the difference between buying at the pharmacy and buying online?” I ask, wondering why I had to go through the disaster this afternoon just to pick up my prescriptions at the pharmacy.

“It’s cheaper for the insurance company,” she responds, “because they don’t have to send the medicine to the pharmacy. In truth, I’m not sure why you even called this number or how you ended up speaking with us.”

“I called the member number on the back of my insurance card,” I stutter.

“Yes, well, we only deal with the medical side of things. Most people don’t realize that we’re a different company than the drug providers, even though you pay the one premium. You should have called them directly. Instead, we did that for you,” she hisses.

“Why didn’t the very first woman I talked to tell me to hang up and call the drug company directly?”

“Well, I don’t know. But you shouldn’t have called us.”

Thus ends my phone call with the friendly folks at BCBS, but as I have yet to pick up my prescriptions because I’m not allowed to today, who knows what fun adventures await me tomorrow?

My point, after all of this, is actually two sub-points: first, it is clear that the insurance system in this country is deeply flawed. While it is true that I know very little about economics, I do know that it might be a good idea for health insurance companies to prioritize the needs of their clients over their own interests (they’re going to make money no matter what). The RN didn’t prescribe me 87 Doxycycline pills because she thought, “Hey, 87 is a fun number! Let’s go with that!” She prescribed 87 pills because that’s what I needed, and the insurance company gave me 30 pills because that’s what the insurance company wanted.

I’m not afraid to stay on hold for three hours and to demand to speak to someone who actually has the ability to solve my problem. But there are people who are afraid or who can’t fight with these people, and this is my second point. What about people who have more complex medical problems who only get bounced around? What about the people who file claim upon claim only to discover that they’ve all “never been received”? What about fifteen-year-old girls who are looking to be put on birth control but have no idea how to navigate this web of insurance benefits? What about the people who hang up after only one person tells them “no”?

This is a feminist issue because it is an everyperson issue. Why are we making it difficult for people to gain access preventative medications? Why are we saying to young women, “Hey, that’s cool if you want to travel and try to make a difference, but you’ll have to jump through ten hoops to get enough birth control to take with you on your trip, if we even decide to give it to you at all”? The process is ludicrous.

My suggestion to BCBS and the rest of the insurance companies out there is this: for “more personalized care,” try caring about the person on the other end of the line.