February 10

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Did the CDC just say that alcohol causes violence and STDs?

Media outlets and the public are conflicted over the CDC’s newest recommendation to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)—some say the recommendation that “young women should avoid alcohol unless using birth control” is “incredibly puritanical” , while others claim that’s not what the CDC recommended at all.

The CDC study found that 3 out of 4 women who say they want to get pregnant immediately are still drinking. Yes, of course we need to make them aware of the risks and help them stop drinking. Nobody is arguing that women should drink while pregnant.

But the recommendations stop there—at advising women to stop drinking if she is trying to get pregnant OR if she is not using birth control with sex. The CDC data found a link between the mother’s education and drinking during pregnancy. Why doesn’t the CDC recommendation include education initiatives outside alcohol screening at the doctor’s office? About half of all US pregnancies are unplanned. Why doesn’t the recommendation include family planning services and sex education initiatives for people BEFORE they become sexually active to learn about contraception, safe and healthy sex, etc. And then there’s this infographic:

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According to this infographic, drinking too much can have the following risks for any woman: violence, STDs, and unintended pregnancy. Wait…I think they missed a few steps there. Doesn’t there have to be another person involved for all of those things? Why aren’t men included in this recommendation? Why aren’t men being advised not to have sex with women who drink lest they impregnate them? Why aren’t men also being advised to not drink and have sex without contraception because there is evidence that paternal drinking can also lead to the same FAS effects. Why isn’t that research being replicated, translated to humans, and covered in the media like wildfire? That seems like a pretty big deal.

So after a few days, the CDC responded to the outrage that the recommendation suggested alcohol is the cause of violence, STDs, and unintended pregnancy by tweaking their infographic:

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So all they did was include a man next to the woman in the part where they say drinking too much can lead to violence, STDs, and unintended pregnancy. Somehow I think they missed the point. As a wise friend put it:

The CDC is like my old grandpa who changed his speech on dating from “most guys are no goddamn good” to “most people are no goddamn good.”

The point is that alcohol is not the cause of violence, STDs, or unintended pregnancy, and simply avoiding alcohol isn’t going to solve these problems. Yes, alcohol is used as a tool in sexual violence, alcohol can lower inhibitions and put people at risk for engaging in unsafe behaviors, but it seems that the bigger health issue here is WHY are people drinking so much? Why aren’t people engaging in safe and healthy sex? Why are people assaulting one another? And what can we do about it? I have a feeling that if we can address those things, we will address the FAS problem…but then again, it’s easier just to tell women not to drink…

Full disclosure: I don’t drink (recovering alcoholic), I don’t have sex with men (married to a woman), and I take hormonal birth control (none of your beeswax why), so this doesn’t affect me at all, right? Or does it? Alexandra Petri said it best:

Every time someone says that Women Drinking is the risk factor for violence and pregnancy and STDs, not other people who choose to take advantage of them or resort to violence, you pour a little more fuel onto the raging bonfire of This Isn’t On Me, It’s On The Women Who Are Accountable For My Behavior.

[2/13/16 update]:

Two days after posting this blog, the CDC changed their infographic yet again:

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They completely took out the top part of the image! Now there is no reference to violence or STDs or anything that doesn’t have to do with alcohol and pregnancy (which is all the recommendation was for anyway). This means two things to me: First, the CDC just doesn’t know how to address the root of the problem here which is related to education, mental health, violence against women, and trauma. Second, and more importantly, this means that our voices have power. WOMEN’S voices have power. Over the course of just a few days, countless women publicly criticized the CDC for wrongdoing and the CDC actually changed their problematic graphic, not once, but twice after women said the first change wasn’t good enough. The CDC–a 70-year-old public health institution with a $7 billion dollar annual budget–listened to “the whining and rage of shrieking harpies.” One woman criticized the CDC for thinking women must be “wizards” for being able to control the actions of others…but I don’t know, maybe we are wizards and we can use this power to change the way people treat us. Whine on, harpy feminists, whine on.

Apryl Pooley is a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, researching the effects of trauma on the brain and author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir

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