Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came under fire for their new guidelines for preventing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which told women who weren't on birth control to stop drinking alcohol entirely on the off chance they got pregnant. Unfortunately, this was hardly the first time the CDC's recommendations were problematic; as much as we prefer to think of science as being outside the subjective rules of society, a quick perusal of scientific history tells a different story. Any scientist worth their salt will tell you that they're just as biased as the rest of us — the only difference is that they take great pains to mitigate that bias.
This isn't to say that the CDC's research on FAS was biased in and of itself; rather, the problem arose from what they did with the data. Like most discussion of family planning, researchers placed the responsibility for pregnancy, and by extension all its complications, on women. The recommendations were directed solely at women who don't use birth control, without once acknowledging the role men play in pregnancy: Not once did the CDC suggest that men get vasectomies, or even just use a condom, if their partners weren't on birth control. Needless to say, such one-sided discussions only reinforce the idea that pregnancy is a woman's problem — an idea that's problematic, to say the least.
This wasn't the CDC's first time at the unintentionally-problematic rodeo, even in an era when feminism is increasingly mainstream — although it should be noted that they do a pretty amazing job when you consider the breadth of the population they serve. Let's take a look at four of their more problematic recommendations below.
1. STD Screening Recs Left Out Straight Men
In November of 2015, the CDC updated their STD screening recommendations based on its annual report on STD infection rates. The report pointed out that some demographics are more affected by STDs than others, and it ended with a helpful infographic reminding women and gay or bisexual men of the importance of STD screenings... But it had nothing to say for heterosexual men, despite the fact that the penises belonging to straight men are just as responsible for passing on diseases as any others. In fact, there's evidence that STD rates are actually lower among vagina-havers who only have sex with other vagina-havers — but again and again, heterosexual men are left bearing no responsibility in discussions of STD transmission.
2. Domestic Violence Recommendations Heavily Favor Heterosexual Relationships
Although domestic violence does tend to be perpetrated by men on women, it's hardly exclusive to heterosexual relationships. Women can be abusive to male partners, and same-sex domestic violence is much more common than many realize — and yet the CDC's materials regarding domestic violence heavily focus on women. On one hand, it makes sense to favor the more common form of intimate partner violence, and their page on sexual violence does have information for the LGBT community. However, the materials available often almost exclusively favor the battered-woman stereotype.
3. Women's Drinking Recommendations Emphasize Very Different Aspects Of Sexual Assault
Much like domestic violence, sexual assault tends to be man-on-woman, but recent research has shown that there are far more male survivors of assault than previously believed. However, the CDC's alcohol recommendations for men and women emphasize a very traditional view of sexual assault: While the men's section merely notes that "excessive alcohol use is commonly involved in sexual assault," the women's section notes that the risk of assault increases when "both the attacker and victim have used alcohol prior to the attack." Not only does this difference in wording imply that women are likely to be the victims, it implicate's the victim's behavior (in this case, drinking) in their own assault.
4. It Previously Urged Women To Treat Themselves As "Pre-Pregnant"
In 2006, the CDC suggested that all women treat themselves as "pre-pregnant" during their reproductive years, even if they weren't planning to become pregnant. The recommendations, which stemmed from the high number of unplanned pregnancies in the United States, told women to avoid cigarettes, maintain a healthy weight, and keep drinking under control from their first period until they hit menopause, all on the off chance that they got pregnant — and ignoring the fact that women may choose to terminate a pregnancy. Sound familiar?
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