The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an infographic on Feb. 2 stating that all women of childbearing age should completely avoid alcohol consumption unless they are using some form of contraception. This report was specifically directed towards women between the ages of 15 and 44 in an effort to reduce the number of babies that are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Federal health officials estimate that approximately 3.3 million women are at risk of exposing a fetus to alcohol due to being sexually active while drinking and not using birth control.
The infographic addressed both pregnant and non-pregnant women, claiming that any woman is at risk for injuries or violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancies when they drink “too much” (which the CDC quantifies as eight or more drinks per week, or four or more drinks at a time). The controversial report has recently sparked heated debates across the Internet.
FASD is a very real, very distressing issue that afflicts millions of children around the world. Its prevention is a goal that we should all be supporting wholeheartedly. So what’s the problem with the CDC’s report? Blatantly sexist language.
As a woman of childbearing age, the diction of the infographic creates a condescending, patronizing tone that I can’t help but think was intentional. It clearly states that all women are at risk of violence when they drink too much. Who are they at risk from? Most likely not from themselves and most likely not from other women, yet men are not even referred to once.
Here’s a basic biology lesson for the CDC: it takes two to tango. Women are not able to magically produce children on their own, but it is only our behavior that is being policed. Nowhere in the infographic does it state that men should not engage in sexual activity with visibly intoxicated women of childbearing age. Nowhere in the infographic does it cite how much alcohol is “too much” for the average man to consume before he begins committing violent acts against women.
I fully understand why the CDC is wary about women who are sexually active and not using any form of birth control, but an infographic focused on promoting the usage of contraception rather than condemning alcohol consumption would have been far more effective and far less offensive. Attempting to control the behavior of women who are not yet pregnant for the safety of babies that are not yet conceived conveys the idea that we are merely dormant incubators for future children.
On a similar note, warnings about the Zika virus have been plastered across the news for several weeks now. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the disease a global emergency. Women in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and El Salvador have been advised to avoid becoming pregnant for fear of spreading the disease to unborn children; in fact, they’ve even been encouraged to remain abstinent in some countries. Women have also been advised to avoid traveling to affected countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The one word missing from all of these warnings? Men.
The mother may carry the child, but that doesn’t mean that the father’s health has no effect on the fetus. A 1991 New York Times article noted that certain substances, such as alcohol, can actually cause genetic mutations and other alterations in sperm that can lead to permanent defects in unborn children. It is for this reason that sperm donors are discouraged from excessive consumption of alcohol.
Ultimately, there needs to be a shift in terms of our cultural attitude towards gender, sex, and health. Women cannot be the only ones addressed in cases of sexual health crises. While the CDC may have good intentions, the concept of body policing cannot be tolerated. On that note, it’s a Friday night and I think I’m going to go out with my fellow childbearing-age sorority sisters after a few glasses of wine. Hopefully things will go smoothly despite the fact that we’re all at risk for violence, STIs, and unintended pregnancies tonight. Wish us luck.