A Feminist Psychological Scientist’s Musings on Evidence-Based Menstrual Justice Advocacy
By Tomi-Ann Roberts, PhD
My research explores the relationships between sexual objectification, self-objectification and negative attitudes toward women’s bodily selves, including menstruation. Currently, I am working with a civil rights law firm to provide an expert report to a judge in a case involving dehumanizing, degrading treatment of incarcerated women during strip and body-cavity searches that happen each time inmates return in busses from outings to doctors appointments or court hearings. These searches are conducted en masse, in large groups, and female deputies often demean the naked women, who must bend over and spread their labia, during the procedure. Menstruating women must remove their soiled pads or tampons in front of the entire group. Many have been seen bleeding down their legs onto the concrete floor of the bus depot drop-off location, next door to the jail itself, where these searches are conducted. The class action suit cannot eliminate the procedure itself (which is legal and will remain so), but seeks restitution for women who have been traumatized by the way the procedure is conducted.
I have been asked to provide a “gender specific analysis” of how women, particularly, feel about exposing their bodies in this way. Over and over again, as I draft and edit my report, which cites countless scientific studies as well as philosophical approaches on objectification, self-objectification and women’s reproductive health, I find my feminist moral compass wavering. As I attempt to explain that the majority of women feel ashamed and even disgusted by their naked physical bodies, and especially by their genitals and by their own menstruation, that women make comparisons to other women’s bodies, that women rarely if ever appear naked or share their menstrual status in front of one another, as they must do here, and that states of self-objectification in women can lead to poorer cognitive functioning, I find myself wondering: Am I reinforcing and even perpetuating negative attitudes and emotions around menstruation that ensue from objectification and self-objectification? Am I essentially blaming these jailed women for reacting the way they do to the strip search procedure?
It would be easier to stick to publishing in academic venues, where I can hide behind the purely descriptive voice that social research in the “big name” journals requires. But I’m committed to a new persona in the latter part of my career as an evidence-based menstrual justice advocate. And so as I work on this report, I console myself by focusing on the potential this work has for making a significant impact in real people’s real lives in several very concrete ways. First, should we win this class action lawsuit, it would mean restitution for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of women who have been traumatized by this dehumanizing procedure, many of whom reported that it felt to them like sexual assault and was one of the worst experiences of their entire lives. Second, in addition to payment to victims, the case may further force reform in the system so that the conditions under which future jail inmates undergo the procedure would be improved. We are asking that the searches no longer be conducted in a group setting, and that deputies be trained to give clear instructions and be monitored to cease verbal abuse of the inmates during the procedure.
The third, more general way this case might be enormously impactful is in setting a precedent for getting judges and courtrooms to accept the expert testimony of researchers. When I was contacted by the law firm to serve as an expert, I hesitated to say yes, feeling ill-equipped for such a role. The lawyer told me that the judge in this case is not sympathetic to these women, and that they need me to convince him that the inmates’ experience during the procedure is indeed different from being naked with other women in a spa or locker room. He is reportedly shocked to hear that very few if any women insert or take out their menstrual products in front of one another in such settings. I know that lawyers make frequent use of clinical psychologists for their expertise, and in fact the firm sent me the expert testimony reports of three clinicians working with them on the case. But as a researcher, this is not my kind of writing, nor my kind of evidence.
As I contemplated whether I was up to the challenge of taking this case, I contacted a cognitive psychologist friend of mine for advice. She has served as an expert witness in many court cases involving eyewitness accuracy. Her’s is one of the rare few areas, she told me, where research psychologists are respected as experts. She advised me to take the case because, she said, we psychological scientists need to be heard in courtrooms. We are armed with data that ought to be considered in cases like this one. So I carry with me the added hope, beyond restitution for the actual women affected, that I can change a judge’s mind with feminist psychological science. And if my report can be taken seriously by this judge, then perhaps that will open the doors of other judges’ courtrooms to other researchers like many of you reading this post, armed with data, working toward reproductive justice. Imagine that!
Tomi-Ann Roberts, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at Colorado College, and a board director of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. Her research focuses on the psychological consequences of the sexualization and objectification of girls and women. The first paper she co-authored on this topic is the most cited article in the 35-year history of the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.