Category Archives: sexualization

Top ten Sexual Stories of 2013


For the 5th year in a row, Sexuality & Society brings you its (highly subjective and mostly North American/U.S.-centered) list of top ten sexual stories of the year!

One of the satisfying aspects of compiling these stories each year is noticing their connections to past stories. Collectively, these “sexual” stories are critical to the societal narratives that are told and retold and sometimes sold to make sense of our lives. Below are some of the stories which struck us as worth retelling and analyzing…..Check out our lists for 200920102011, and 2012!

Also: We maintain an active Facebook Page — please find us there as well!

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10. Iowa court says it’s ok to fire women who are “irresistible”

This story is so ludicrous that it is difficult to believe that it is not out of The Onion. Nonetheless, it relies on 19th Century Victorian notions of femininity whereby women were viewed as responsible for controlling men’s sexual desires, and thus ensuing calls for modesty were viewed as minimizing the possibility of sexual attention from men. See below for a 2013 version of this Victorian mentality:

irresistible

Melissa Nelson was fired because her boss found himself unable to restrain himself around her “irresistible” charms. An all male jury and judge agreed that the scourge of irrisistible women must be stopped.

(CNN) – Melissa Nelson lost her bid Friday to have Iowa’s top court reverse its ruling that held the former dental assistant did not suffer gender bias when she was fired for being “irresistible.”

The Iowa Supreme Court stood by its December finding that Dr. James Knight was legally able to fire the assistant after his wife became concerned about the relationship between the two.

Knight’s conduct was not sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the court said.

The all-male court had previously ruled against Nelson, finding that employees who are seen as an “irresistible attraction” by their employers can be fired in such circumstances.

Source: http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/12/us/iowa-irresistible-worker/index.html

 9. Susan B. Komen rejects money donated by exotic dancers 

The Pink foundation has made our list for a second year in a row …. (remember last year, when they cut funding to Planned Parenthood due to anti-abortion politics within the foundation? But then they changed their mind?). This year they kept themselves under the public radar but still received some press when they refused money from a fundraiser held by exotic dancers. Their rationale? “Southern Nevada’s Executive Director Stephanie Kirby said it’s Susan G. Komen’s national policy to not partner with certain businesses, especially ones that may sexualize women.”

“It just doesn’t fall in line with who we are as an organization. There are too many survivors out there who no longer have the body part that is being displayed at a lot of these shows,” Kirby said.”

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One of many T-shirts available for purchase at the Save the Ta-Tas Foundation.

source: http://www.fox5vegas.com/story/23585295/breast-cancer-foundation-denies-donation-help

Meanwhile, the Komen Foundation also appears to be consistent in their distancing from sexualized breasts as they have no official partnership with the Save the Ta-Ta’s Foundation — a breast cancer research and for-profit organization which sells T-shirts like “Save a life; grope your wife.”

8. Teen girls criminalized for their consensual sexual relationships

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Kailyn Hunt (18) was prosecuted and eventually jailed for her relationship with a 14 year old girl.

In the state of Florida the age of sexual consent is 16. The problem is that the age of sexual exploration is much earlier than this. Given increased attention to the issue of child sexual abuse over the past couple of decades (a good thing), there have been many cases of older teenage partners now being defined as sex offenders, even if the relationship with consensual and non-violent (a bad thing). This is what appears to have happened to Kaitlyn Hunt, who was 18 when she entered into a sexual relationship with a girl four years her junior. The younger girl’s parents objected, and found that they could enforce their objections by law. Given the threat of going to prison and being a registered sex offender, Hunt chose a plea bargain, plead guilty to all charges and is now in jail. (Source: http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/02/justice/florida-gay-teen-kaitlyn-hunt-case/)

See also: http://theseattlelesbian.com/fl-teen-faces-felony-charges-for-same-sex-relationship/

 

7.  Russia instigates state-sponsored terrorism against sexual, ethnic, and artistic diversity (e.g.: gay people, labor migrants, and the punk rock band Pussy Riot).

Russia.Putin

Since 2011, thousand of people have gathered for Anti-Putin demonstrations such as this one in Moscow. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011–13_Russian_protests

In June of 2013, Putin signed into law an “anti-gay propaganda bill” which sought to punish individuals for “promoting” homosexuality. The law imposes fines for those members of society who “disseminate information at minors that are directed at forming nontraditional sexual setups” or which cause “distorted understandings” that gay and heterosexual relationships are “equivalent.”  (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130630/eu-russia-gay-rights/)

AmericaBlog reported on these events by stating that “Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law … one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet.” (right up there with Uganda: see # 6 below).

“The new law, coming only seven months before Russia is to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, would ban anything considered pro-gay, from gay-affirmative speech, to gays holding hands in public, to even wearing rainbow suspenders. The law also contains a provision permitting the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro-gay, foreigners for up to 14 days before they would then be expelled from the country. That provision ought to send chills to anyone gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender who is planning to attend or participate in the Winter Olympics.” (see: http://americablog.com/2013/07/russia-olympics-sochi-gay-law-putin.html)

The Russian media is also under fire by Putin: One Russian news media outlet is now under investigation for reporting on a gay teacher who was recently fired for being gay (he was said to teach that gay relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships). The news coverage did not report negatively (enough) about the gay teacher. (see http://www.advocate.com/news/world-news/2013/11/14/russian-newspaper-accused-violating-gay-propaganda-law)

While the Putin regime is also instigating crackdowns on ethnic minority labor migrants in Moscow, there is an increased movement to oppose Putin’s politics both inside and outside of Russia. The recently released members of the Punk band, Pussy Riot — imprisoned for two years as punishment for their anti-Putin demonstration in an Orthodox Russian Church — have promised to be part of this ongoing movement for greater sexual and social justice in Russia. See: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/927f4516-6f0c-11e3-bc9e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2pBljprat

6. U.S. preacher behind Uganda “kill the gays” efforts will be tried for crimes against humanity

Since 2009 we have been following the story about the connection between US conservative evangelical preachers and the push by some lawmakers in Uganda for strident and violent anti-gay laws. See our first post on this here:  

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Scott Lively, a US based anti-gay evangelical pastor who went to Uganda to preach his hatred, is now being tried for crimes against humanity.

Despite widespread global opposition, a version of this bill passed on Dec. 20, 2013. However, the story continues to evolve with now Ugandan GLBT activists pushing for accountability for the U.S. religious leaders who stirred up this mess. In what is being called a “landmark decision” .. “a federal US judge (has) ruled that the case filed by a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group against American anti-gay evangelist Scott Lively, for his collaboration with religious and government officials in Uganda that lead to the introduction of the African nation’s “Kill the Gays” bill, will be allowed to proceed.”

“As reported in Gay Star News, Michael Ponsor, the US District Judge in Massachusetts, said “Widespread, systematic persecution of LGBTI people constitutes a crime against humanity that unquestionably violates international norms.” This marks the first ruling by a federal U.S. judge calling the persecution of LGBT persons a crime against humanity, possibly setting a precedent for the human rights of sexual minorities will be protected under international law.”

“The case against Lively stems from the evangelist’s 2009 lecture tour of Uganda, the theme of which according to its Ugandan organizer, was “the gay agenda – and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.”

A 2010 article published in , The New York Times, wrote about on one of Lively’s speaking engagements in Uganda.”[T]housands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians,” reportedly attended the conference. Lively and his colleagues “discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how ’the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ’to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.’” Lively wrote days later that “someone had likened their campaign to ’a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.’” (Source: http://www.edgeonthenet.com/?148277)

5. Regnerus’ anti-gay “study” condemned by the American Sociological Association 

The past year showed us not just that U.S. based anti-gay pastors have influenced the laws of other countries (see #4 above), but that flawed empirical studies conducted by credentialed researchers can also inflict malicious impacts. The most striking example of this can be seen with the case of Mark Regnerus, who has a Ph.D. in sociology and is an Associate Professor at University of Texas, Austin. In the words of John Becker from The Huffington Post:

“The study was widely discredited for its flawed methodology, its wildly inaccurate conclusions and its alleged partiality. Nonetheless, it has been breathlessly touted by the anti-gay right as evidence justifying their opposition to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Many of the Supreme Court briefs filed by equality opponents rely on the Regnerus study, but the American Sociological Association — Regnerus’ own professional organization — has just demolished those arguments.”

Indeed, given its serious flaws combined with the intent by anti-gay activists to use it to justify anti-gay discrimination, leaders of ASAthe American Sociological Association have roundly condemned Regnerus’ study, including but not limited to the 42 page Supreme Court brief in support of overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Fortunately, law makers in the U.S. are also listening to the reasoning of the ASA as well as human rights activists to nip in the bud any ongoing legal influence of the Regnerus study. On November 12, 2013, we saw this news from a Florida judge:

In today’s opinion, Orange County Circuit Judge Donald Grincewicz ruled that emails and documents possessed by University of Central Florida (UCF) related to the flawed study’s peer-review process must be turned over to John Becker, who sought the documents under Florida’s Public Records Act. UCF houses the journal Social Science Research, which published the Regnerus study, and the editor of the journal, UCF Professor James Wright, led the peer-review process for the research. Becker is represented by the Law Office of Andrea Flynn Mogensen, P.A., and Barrett, Chapman & Ruta, P.A; and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation funded the litigation. (Source: Human Rights Campaign press release found at http://joemygod.blogspot.com/2013/11/florida-judge-orders-ucf-to-release.html)

While Regnerus’ study has been discredited by experts and law makers in the United States, other law makers with malicious anti-gay intent have and will continue to grasp at any “evidence” which supports anti-gay messages. For example, in Russia (see #6 above) the Regnerus study was presented to the Russian legislature and may have played a role in supporting Russia’s recent move to outlaw non-heterosexuality. See: http://www.bilerico.com/2013/08/anti-gay_regnerus_study_to_russia_with_love.php

4.  Transgender justice and visibility 

Laverne Cox plays the role of Sophia Burset, a transwoman prisoner in Orange is the New Black.

Laverne Cox plays the role of Sophia Burset, a transwoman prisoner in Orange is the New Black.

In 2013, many tuned into U.S.-based media and saw several stories featuring transgender individuals and issues. Perhaps the most visible faces were Chelsea (formerly: Bradley) Manning — a U.S. solider who was incarcerated for releasing war-related documents to Wikileaks; and Laverne Cox, one of the stars of the Netflix series hit centered in a women’s prison, Orange is the New Black.

The media attention on the real life and fictional stories of Manning and Cox inspired a press release from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project on “the realties for transgender and gender non-conforming people in prison, jails, and detention centers:”

A significant amount of media fascination with transgender people in prison is about accessing surgery and focusing on the criminalized act underlying an individual’s sentence. Not only do transgender people in prison have problems accessing healthcare, but they experience a heightened level of gender policing.  The clothing they wear, their hairstyles and grooming practices, their bodies, mannerisms and identities are scrutinized and controlled by the state.  Any deviance from norms can lead to violence at the hands of corrections officers or other people who are incarcerated.  Legal “protections” are hard to access as there is little accountability on the inside.  If one is brave enough to risk retaliation and file a grievance, they must follow up with that grievance and timely appeal any denials.  It is not until those appeals (usually two) are denied that one can access the court system.  Finding a lawyer or representing one’s self pro se (without a lawyer) is another difficult barrier that one must overcome, as SRLP’s report IT’S WAR IN HERE has documented.”

Beyond high rates of incarceration, trangender individuals also face an alarming rate of violence and harassment in the US and worldwide and this intersects with race, class, and other social locations. According to a recent report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, in the U.S., LGBTQ people of color experience 1.8 times the violence of white LGBTQ individuals. 73% of all LGBTQ homicide victims are people of color. Transgender people are 3 times more likely to experience police violence than non-transgender individuals, with transgender women experiencing the highest rates.

In one legal step toward transgender rights, in August 2013, Jerry Brown signed into law AB1266 that offered the right for individuals “to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities and facilities” (including bathrooms) based on their gender identity rather than by birth sex. Predictably, conservative groups and religious individuals immediately rallied in protest, creating a new “war on privacy rights.”  California Republicans support a referendum that is being prepared to overturn AB1266. While the law goes into effect on January 1, 2014 and the state plans to continue to issue same-sex marriage licenses, there could be enough signatures on Jan 8 against same-sex marriage to push the referendum process forward. We’ll be watching this case unfold in 2014.

3. The Papacy changes its guard

Despite the fact the the majority of the world is not Catholic, the Pope, as leader of the Worldwide Catholic Church, tends to have a lot of influence on sexual politics. (Recent church statistics indicate that 17.5% of the world’s population is Catholic). The Changing of Papal leadership was important in several ways, including the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of the left-leaning Pope Francis.

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The old (Pope Benedict XVI , left) vs. the new (Pope Francis, right). Source: http://www.tmz.com/2013/03/13/old-pope-vs-new-pope-whod-you-rather/#ixzz2p6HNNQB2

“Pope Francis faulted the Roman Catholic church for focusing too much on gays, abortion and contraception, saying the church has become “obsessed” with those issues to the detriment of its larger mission to be “home for all,” according to an extensive new interview published Thursday.

The church can share its views on homosexuality, abortion and other issues, but should not “interfere spiritually” with the lives of gays and lesbians, the Pope added in the interview, which was published in La Civilta Cattolica, a Rome-based Jesuit journal.

“We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel,” Francis said in the interview.

“The church has sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis said. “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” (source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/19/pope-francis-gay_n_3954776.html)

2. Utah finds itself in a pickle about its marriage politics.

Utah, a state founded by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) church, has long been a bit of an outsider compared to the rest of the nation; indeed it was only after leaders defined marriage as being between one man and one woman that it was accepted into statehood. This was after a long history of plural marriages:

In 1852 church leaders publicized the previously secret practice of plural marriage, a form of polygamy.[52] Over the next 50 years many Mormons (between 20% and 30% of Mormon families)[53] entered into plural marriages as a religious duty, with the number of plural marriages reaching a peak around 1860, and then declining through the rest of the century. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormons)

Given the need for the Mormon church to divorce itself from plural marriages it is likely that for Mormon leaders, the moral mantra of monogamous heterosexual marriage is likely undergirded by an ongoing quest for mainstream assimilation. Indeed the success of Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage ballot proposition in the 2008 California elections, can largely be connected to money from the Mormon Church, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City Utah.  (See, for example the documentary 8: the Mormon Proposition.)

Thus, when in December, a federal judge struck down Utah’s anti-polygamy stance on the grounds that one cannot “prohibitsister-wives-season-4 cohabitation” mainstream Mormon religious leaders were not happy. The challenge to the law was brought by the Reality TV star Kody Brown who stars along with his four female partners (and 17 children) in the reality TV show “Sister Wives.” The Brown family successfully argued that the Utah cohabitation law violated their rights to privacy and to religious freedom.

Ironically, during the same month, Federal Officials also shot down Utah’s discrimination against same-sex marriage — thus striking down the original requirement by the Feds a century and a half earlier that Utah define marriage as a dyad between one man and one woman. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby stated that the law to ban same-sex marriage conflicted with the U.S. Constitution which guarantees equal protection and due process. Thus even though 2/3 of the voters voted to ban same-sex marriage on a ballot in 2004, in 2013 Utah became the 18th state in the United States (17 states and the District of Columbia) that allows same-sex couples to be legally married.

utah.gayWhile same-sex couples flooded the county clerk’s office seeking to be married, movements to reverse both legal the Utah polygamy and same sex marriage decisions are underway. We’ll be following both stories as they progress in 2014.

 

 

 

1. Two victories for sex workers’ rights: Decriminalization of Prostitution in Canada, and the repeal of the Anti-Prostitution Pledge

Finally, we end with two major developments in support of global rights and justice for individuals who work in the sex trade.decriminalize-prostitution-men

The movement for decriminalization of prostitution (much like that of moves historically and currently against criminalization of homosexuality) — arises out of the work of a range of global human rights activists. And after years of work by Canadian activists, on December 20, 2013 prostitution was decriminalized in Canada.

“The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the country’s major prostitution laws, saying that bans on street soliciting, brothels and people living off the avails of prostitution create severe dangers for vulnerable women and therefore violate Canadians’ basic values.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for a unanimous court, stressed that the ruling is not about whether prostitution should be legal or not, but about whether Parliament’s means of controlling it infringe the constitutional rights of prostitutes.” (source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/supreme-court-rules-on-prostitution-laws/article16067485/)

This ruling comes on the heels of an important statement stemming from the United Nations in 2012 calling for decriminalization of prostitution in Asia. (See: http://www.voanews.com/content/un-reports-calls-for-decriminalization-of-prostitution-in-asia/1529473.html)

In a similar spirit, in June of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Anti-Prostituion Pledge, stating that “it is a violation of the First Amendment for the federal government to force groups to endorse the government’s views opposing prostitution in order to receive funding to combat AIDS overseas.” (Source: http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/politics/read-supreme-court-strikes-down-required-anti-prostitution-pledge-for-hiv-and-aids-workers/243/).  Finally! A brief breath of relief from global health workers and sex worker activists across the globe — but more work needs to be done as this ruling still only protects US-based organizations.

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Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists, scholars, and practitioners working towards sexual and social justice. May 2014 be filled with stories of hope and justice.

The real problem with “sexting”: Adult complicity in labeling teens “sluts,” “perverts,” and “criminals”

“Sexting” — the practice of sending sexy words and images from cell phones from person to person– has suddenly emerged as the newest social problem for American youth. News reports overwhelmingly describe sexting as a new teenage trend which is “alarming,” “dangerous,” and “shocking.” Parents of minors are told be on red alert. Sales are on the rise for “net nanny” controls, which alert parents via a text message if their child visits an “inappropriate” web site and/or sends or receives “inappropriate” email or instant messages. Parents are advised to pay extra cell phone fees to block all images–sexual or not—from their children’s phones. The underlying message of most news reports is this: if parents don’t put a stop to sexting, their children will end up traumatized, endangered, in jail, or dead. Read on, as we’re not making this up.

This sort of alarmist language, suddenly emerging as a sort of moral tsunami, is a fantastic example of what sociologist Stanley Cohen has termed a “moral panic.” According to Cohen, moral panics are reflections not of any inherent physical threat but of threats to existing moral orders. Moral panics are driven by the construction of a “folk devil” — symbolized by a group or a social movement seen as causing a threat to a particular moral order. Using this framework, the moral panic around sexting reflects deeper social fears — for example around loss of parental authority and increasing teen agency over their own sexuality. The folk devil responsible for this moral threat lives in “cyberspace” and in some cases may be “cyberspace” itself.

From what I can tell, the growing visibility of, and panic over, sexting was at first largely generated by media personalities such as Dr. Phil and Matt Lauer of the Today Show. Since then, dozens of news outlets have featured stories on sexting. Surveys on sexting have been quickly conducted and released: MTV asked teens about the prevalence of their sexting; CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health asked parents about how concerned they were about teen sexting. The results, as reported in the media are as follows: Teens are sexting like crazy, and parents are freaking out.

imagesDr. Phil was one of the first to discuss this on a national stage with a show in April 2009 called, ”Scary Trends: Is your Child at Risk?” In the video promo for the show, Dr. Phil warns in his classic fatherly drawl: “There are some dangerous trends popping up in schools everywhere, and you may not even know if your children are getting involved.”

The camera cuts to video shots of three pairs of young white hands (two identifiably female) punching keys on a cell phone. A voiceover from deep, spooky-sounding male voice says: “The disturbing new trend, called sexting, sending nude shots from phone to phone.” (the word NUDE is flashed on screen).

Next we see and hear clips of a white woman talking about her daughter, who we gather, was a “sexter.” The spooky male voiceover comes back: ”It nearly killed her daughter.” The camera shoots back to the mom, eyes pleading for Dr. Phil’s forgiveness: We thought we were doing everything right, Dr. Phil.” Dr. Phil nods, knowingly. The Spooky voiceover states: “how to protect your children.” The camera cuts back to Dr. Phil, who points to the camera and warns: “Don’t think it’s not your kid!” (Click here to see this short promo).

Dr. Phil’s “Scary Trends” program arrived on the heels of a few stories, some tragic, found in the news in the previous weeks and months. For example, in separate cases, two teenage boys (one in Wisconsin, one in New York) were charged with “child pornography” after sharing digital photos of their girlfriends posing nude. In another case, four middle school girls in Alabama were arrested for exchanging naked photos of themselves (ABC news, March 13, 2009). In all of these cases, the photos were being exchanged for and among peers. None of these photos were sold.  And yet, teens taking pictures of themselves, their partners, and/or their friends are now being labeled and punished as child pornographers by the criminal justice system.

The most tragic stories however are of two teen girl suicides; both killed themselves after they were viciously bullied, sexually shamed, and socially isolated from their peers. In both cases the girls were inadequately defended, and even further shamed and punished by, teachers, school administrators, and parents. Jesse Logan, a vivacious 18 year-old from Ohio hanged herself in her bedroom after being targeted for torment by other girls at school. Jesse had tdy_lauer_sexting_090306.300wsent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend, and in retaliation when they broke up the boyfriend sent the photo to a group of younger girls. The younger girls ran with the photo, using it as a powerful social shaming tool (which of course can only work within a social context where girls’ sexuality is shameful). In an interview with Matt Lauer of the Today Show, Jesse’s mother, Cynthia Logan, said that:

“…she never knew the full extent of her daughter’s anguish until it was too late. Cynthia Logan only learned there was a problem at all when she started getting daily letters from her daughter’s school reporting that the young woman was skipping school.

“I only had snapshots, bits and pieces, until the very last semester of school,” Logan told Lauer. She took away her daughter’s car and drove her to school herself, but Jesse still skipped classes. She told her mother there were pictures involved and that a group of younger girls who had received them were harassing her, calling her vicious names, even throwing objects at her. But she didn’t realize the full extent of her daughter’s despair. “She was being attacked and tortured,” Logan said.

“When she would come to school, she would always hear, ‘Oh, that’s the girl who sent the picture. She’s just a whore,’ ” Jesse’s friend, Lauren Taylor, told NBC News.

Logan said that officials at Sycamore High School were aware of the harassment but did not take sufficient action to stop it. She said that a school official offered only to go to one of the girls who had the pictures and tell her to delete them from her phone and never speak to Jesse again. That girl was 16. Logan suggested talking to the parents of the girls who were bullying Jesse, but her daughter said that would only open her to even more ridicule.

In this same interview with Matt Lauer, Cynthia Logan described her unsuccessful legal attempts (she tried six attorneys) to hold school officials accountable for not intervening in the bullying of her daughter. Lauer turned to his guest, Parry Aftab, described as “an Internet security expert and activist in the battle to protect teens from the dangers that lurk in cyberspace.” In a stunning re-direction of the issue of school accountability for creating bully-free zones, Aftab brought the discussion back to laws about child pornography:

“If somebody’s under the age of 18, it’s child pornography, and even the girl that posted the pictures can be charged. They could be registered sex offenders at the end of all of this. Even at the age of 18, because it was sent to somebody under age, it’s disseminating pornography to a minor. There are criminal charges that could be made here.”

Here’s the take home message we get from the Today Show: don’t worry about madonna/whore dichotomies that are spread among youth and adults. The main thing we should be concerned with is that Jesse “fell victim to the perils of the Internet and the easy exchange of information on cell phones.“ So let’s be clear: The source of Jesse’s anguish and eventual suicide is not the unrelenting and unchecked bullying at school but the fact that cyberspace (folk devil that it is) made her into a perpetrator of child pornography. And don’t forget, parents: child pornographers go to jail, and you don’t want your kid to go to jail.

Hope Witsell was only 13 when she killed herself in her bedroom, also by hanging. Hope, a girl from a conservative Christian Florida family, hadg-tdy-091202-texting-suicide-peace-8a.300w sent a topless photo of herself to a boy crush. The boy showed the photo to a friend, who embraced the opportunity to gain social power by sharing it widely with kids in that school and neighboring schools. The following comes from a story about Hope on Today, MSNBC.com:

While Hope’s photo spread, her friends rallied around her in the midst of incessant taunting and vulgar remarks thrown Hope’s way. Friends told the St. Petersburg Times, which originally chronicled Hope’s story, that they literally surrounded Hope as she walked the hallways while other students shouted “whore” and “slut” at her.

“The hallways were not fun at that time — she’d walk into class and somebody would say, ‘Oh, here comes the slut,’ ” Hope’s friend, Lane James, told the newspaper.

Clearly, the taunts were getting to Hope. In a journal entry discovered after her death, Hope wrote, “Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore! And I can’t be a whore. I’m too inexperienced. So secretly, TONS of people hate me.”

Shortly after the school year ended, school officials caught wind of the hubbub surrounding Hope’s cell phone photo. They contacted the Witsells and told them Hope would be suspended for the first week of the next school year.

Donna Witsell told Vieira that she and her husband practiced tough love on Hope, grounding her for the summer and suspending her cell phone and computer privileges.

In her interview on the Today Show with Meredith Vieira, Hope’s mother was joined, just as Jesse’s mom was, by the same Parry Aftab, proponent of internet safety measures. Again, Aftab directed the viewers away from thinking about adult accountability in protecting the rights of teens to not be shamed and bullied about their bodies. In fact, parents and their girls are all innocent here in Aftab’s view. Aftab even reassured Hope’s mother that her child wasn’t a bad girl; in fact, Aftab points out that Hope’s suicide is actually a sign that she came from a “good” home because kids with good morals have more guilt when they stray sexually:

Good kids are the ones this is happening to; Jesse was a great kid, and now we have Hope,” she said. “Good kids; they’re the ones who are committing suicide when a picture like this gets out.” (Parry Afteb, speaking to Hope Witsell’s mother on the Today Show).

Dr. Phil, the Today Show, and countless other media sources are doing teens, and especially girls a great disservice by offering content, tone, and implications of their sexting panic. Instead, a much more helpful and interesting perspective on the issue would be to explore the following questions and lines of reasoning:

  • What are the gendered sexual, class, and race dynamics of the panic over sexting? It seems that white “good” girls are at most “risk”: let’s talk about why, and what it is that is at stake! Should we panic over boys as well?
  • Why do so many adults remain complicit in the sexual shaming and bullying of kids? What models can be used to talk openly about sexuality at school, and to create a safe learning environment for all kids regardless of their sexual expressions?
  • Related to the above, how do school curriculums that teach/preach abstinence only sex education (which implicitly and explicitly underscore a Madonna/Whore dichotomy) encourage and facilitate the bullying and shaming of girls? How do they set up a gendered system that assumes that girls are usually sexual victims and boys are usually predators?
  • How can sexual health and justice scholars work with parents, teachers, school administrators, and teen advocates around these issues?
  • How does a concern with protecting girls’ sexual purity come at the expense of NOT protecting their sexual and human rights?

Recommended readings & resources:





Pure Fashion Policing

ABC news recently featured a story about “Pure Fashion,” a U.S. faith-based program that leads 14-18 year-old girls “through an eight-month course in which they are encouraged to ‘dress in accordance with their dignity as children of God.’” The eight month course ends with a “‘purity preserving’ fashion show.”

The obsession with, monitoring of, and handwringing over girls’ (sexualized) appearance is of course not new, but this particular iteration comes from an ironic source: a fashion model and former Miss Georgia, Brenda Sharman. Sharman may be preaching “purity” but she also understands that her message will be considered more hip if she can dissociate from conservative and/or mainstream culture. Hence, Sharman is on a mission to reframe “pure” girls as “radical” girls:

Brenda Sharman: model, former Miss Georgia, and founder of Pure Fashion.

Brenda Sharman: model, former Miss Georgia, and founder of Pure Fashion.

 

“The idea with Pure Fashion is very countercultural,” said Brenda Sharman … “It takes a girl who is brave and gutsy…This is not for the weak and wimpy girl … to say, ‘I’m different, and I’m going to preserve my innocence and virginity,’ that’s a girl who’s radical!”

Scene from the Pure Fashion catwalk

Scene from the Pure Fashion catwalk

 

The problem is, radical, counter-cultural movements are supposed to challenge and pave new ground. In contrast, the leaders and proponents of Pure Fashion look to conservative established models for their inspiration. They are mothers, fathers, and church leaders who are deeply disturbed by the sexual displays (assumed to be impure) of their unmarried daughters. This may be a radical backlash to signifiers of sexuality or the de-coupling of sexuality and reproduction, but it’s not radical.

Concerns about sexually expressive girls and women is common amongst groups whose cultural and religious norms privilege men and/or believe that men and women have naturally different physical capabilites and personalities. As Shari Dworkin and I argued in a recent article,

“(c)ultural and religious traditions that privilege men always require intense regulation and surveillance of girls’ and women’s sexuality. In these contexts, the moral and social ‘worth’ of girls and women is based on their sexual availability, creating a good virgin-bad whore dichotomy. This tradition is thriving in many aspects of U.S.  culture, including the movement for abstinence-only education, virginity pledges, purity ball, and so on” (Lerum and Dworkin, 2009b).

It is clear that “Pure Fashion” can be added to the list of cultural institutions that support a hierarchical segregation between “virgins” and “whores.” For example, one mom who sent her daughter to “Pure Fashion” expressed her desire for men to look at her daughter in the same way that she looks at her daughter, as “pure and beautiful and innocent”:

“I don’t want her to be distracted by men. So I kind of don’t want men to look at her at all, not notice her,” Tina said. “But I recognize that they will, so I just want to make sure they look at her in the way that I see her, which is pure and beautiful and innocent.”

But conservative religious parents aren’t the only one sounding the alarm horns; many feminist and feminist-leaning academics and professionals are also concerned about sexy and sexual girls. This is because mainstream media appears to create the opposite problem of conservative religion: that is, rather than telling girls and women that their worth is based on their lack of sexual availability, the media appears to “tell” girls and women that their worth is based on their widespread sexual appeal and availability. They may leave God and purity talk out of it and they may not send their daughters to Sharman’s fashion reeducation program, but secular, feminist, and academic critics are still dismayed by girls who dress “sexy.” Indeed, it has become common for people across lines of politics, religion, and profession — at least in the US — to shake their heads in dismay over the increasing “sexualization” of girls, women, and of culture. This perceived shift in mainstream US culture is almost uniformly seen as harmful, something to critique and work against. It is in this cultural context that the American Psychological Association formed a task force on the Sexualization of Girls and wrote a highly publicized report (APA Task Force report on the Sexualization of Girls 2007).  (See below for the APA’s definition of “sexualization”).

In contrast to the APA task force and conservative religious groups, we think it is a mistake for scholars and activists to automatically assume that sexualized images and appearances are harmful to girls and women. We critique the methodological, empirical, and epistemological foundations of this argument in great depth in a recent article (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009a), but here I focus on just one point: how the concern about “sexualization” misses the boat on sexual health. While the APA task force briefly discusses what they consider to constitute “healthy sexuality,” we argue that the term “sexual health” is much more useful for social justice, feminist, and public health scholars/activists:

… we suspect that an ideological gulf may exist between the APA’s (2007) concept of healthy sexuality and the more widely recognized concept of sexual health. For one, the APA’s version of healthy sexuality seems to rely on the existence of a sexual partner: (‘‘intimacy, bonding . . . shared pleasure . . . mutual respect between consenting partners,’’ p. 2). In contrast, the concept of sexual health is often explicitly tied to a rubric of individual sexual rights (some of which may apply to both children and adults). Originally developed by the World Association for Sexual Health and now widely recognized (and modified) by other organizations including the World Health Organization, the concept of sexual rights may include the right to sexual pleasure (not necessarily with another person), the right to emotional sexual expression (including self-sexualization), and the right to sexually associate freely (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009, p. 259).

We further argue that “(s)ounding the alarms on sexualization without providing space for sexual rights results in a setback for girls and women and for feminist theory, and is also at odds with the growing consensus of global health scholars (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009, p. 260).

While the APA task force report virtually ignores sexual health, statistics about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are widely embraced and utilized by conservative religious groups. The following quote comes from Brenda Sharman, director of “Pure Fashion”:

“If you are too steamy in your bikini, you will become a part of a statistic,” Sharman told a roomful of 40 girls at the Atlanta conference. “By the age of fifteen, 76 percent of teens are involved in a sexual relationship. What do we expect, really, when so many girls have displayed their bodies to the world? … For the first time teen girls have the highest gonorrhea rate in the nation, teen boys have the second. Approximately 400,000 teens have abortions every year. And according to UNICEF, half of all new HIV infections occur in young people 15-24.”

Of course, Sharman’s use of these statistics is alarmist and conflated (e.g., the UNICEF statistics are GLOBAL, reflecting more about conditions of access to contraception, early marriage, and/or extreme poverty than whether or not a girl has access to a bikini!), but it is also clear that conservatives are using them to shore up a particular theory of sexuality (i.e. bad things happen when girls get sexy). For critical scholars of sexuality, justice, health, and inequality, these statistics illustrate points and questions around a very different set of assumptions. We leave these interpretations to the conservatives at our own peril.

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The APA task force defines sexualization as a condition that occurs when a person is subjected to at least one of the following four conditions:

  • 1) a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics,
  • 2) a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy
  • 3) a person is sexually objectified – that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making, and/or
  • 4) sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person          (APA Task Force, 2007, p. 2)

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Halloween as a Heterosexual Pride Parade

I’ve been reading Dan Savage since the day of his first publication of the now nearly iconic Seattle alternative newspaper, The Stranger, in the early 1990s — this was before the Savage’s advice column, “Savage Love” became syndicated and before his appearances with Anderson Cooper on CNN.  I would pick up The Stranger on the steps of Savery Hall and read it before and after my graduate classes in classical and feminist theory. Though not an “academic,” Savage introduced a sort of Pop-Queer Theory to University of Washington’s students prior to any formal classes in this area. For this, I credit to Savage as being one of several key cultural workers who indirectly supported the development of cutting edge (third wave feminist, postmodern, queer) sexuality and gender scholarship. In that spirit, I’m going to share with Sexuality & Society readers some quintessential Dan Savage analysis — on Halloween as a Heterosexual Pride paradevignette2-570. Just a head’s up: the language here is bawdier than our typical format at Sexuality & Society (I’ve cut out some sections but you can read the entire story from the link above). Savage unfortunately employs the same repression/release analysis long ago refuted by Foucault and other critical sexuality scholars. He also often tends to glide over issues of sexism, and doesn’t mention the use of race or class stereotypes in the production of some halloween performances. However, other points I think are worth considering. There is certainly much here for analysis as a cultural text. Let us know what you think and Happy Heteroween!

(thanks to David Ryder for this story!)

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I’m often asked—confronted—about gay pride parades when I speak at colleges and universities. Usually it’s a conservative student, typically someone who isn’t happy about my being invited to campus in the first place. We gay people like to pretend that we’re all about love and marriage, the conservative student will insist, but look at your pride parades! Look at those guys in assless chaps and all those bare-chested lesbians dancing! Just look! The exchange almost always ends with this:

Conservative student: “Straight people don’t flaunt our sexuality like that. We don’t have straight ‘pride’ parades.”

Me: “You should.”

And it seems clearer with every passing Halloween that straight people do.

Back in the bad old days—pre-Stonewall, pre-pride-parades, pre-presidential-gay-history- month-proclamations—Halloween was the gay holiday. It was the one night of the year when you could leave the house in leather or feathers without attracting the attentions of the police. Halloween resonated for pre-Stonewall homosexuals because the closeted life—out to a select few friends, closeted at work and home—was a stressful masquerade that never ended. We were good at masks, at pretense, at dressing up, because we had to be in order to survive. Halloween took our skill set—pretending to be what we are not—and allowed us to find joy in it one night a year.

While Halloween is still celebrated by gays and lesbians, it’s no longer the most important date on the gay calendar. Oh, we keep it, but we don’t keep holy. It’s just another excuse for a party—and we’re always on the lookout for an excuse—but Halloween has been downgraded, displaced by other and better excuses for parties, by pride parades and Folsoms and the weekend. There are still parties in gay bars on Halloween, of course, and you’ll see plenty of homos in costume on Capitol Hill this weekend. But Halloween belongs to heterosexuals now.

And you need it more than we do. Straight people in Brazil have Carnival, straight Northern Europeans have Fasching, straight people in New Orleans have Mardi Gras—all big public parties where straight people show their tits, shake their asses, and flaunt their sexualities. Booze companies attempted to make a national holiday out of Mardi Gras, without much success. But straight people seem to have made a collective unconscious decision to adopt Halloween instead.

You made a good choice, straight people, a better one than the booze companies were trying to make for you. Whereas the pride parade is now the big public celebration of queer sexuality with all its squalor and glamour, Halloween is now the big public celebration of straight sexuality, of heterosexual desire, every bit—tit?—as squalid and glamorous.

We don’t resent you for taking Halloween as your own. We know what it’s like to keep your sexuality under wraps, to keep it concealed, to be on your guard and under control at all times. While you don’t suffer anywhere near the kind of repression we did (and in many times and places still do), straight people are sexually repressed, too. You move through life thinking about sex, constantly but keenly aware that social convention requires you to act as if sex were the last thing on your mind. Exhausting, isn’t it? It makes you long for moments when you can let it all hang out, when you can violate the social taboos you honor most of the rest of time, when you can be the piece of meat you are and treat other people like the pieces of meat they are.

It’s that kind of pressure—pressure to conform and maintain—that makes you want to pull on a pair of assless chaps and march down the street, the kind of pressure that cries out for some form of organized mass release. It’s the kind of pressure that a pride parade—straight or gay, Mardi Gras or Halloween—can release.

Right now things are a little unfair—a little—on the gender front. Straight girls are expected to show flesh on Halloween; straight boys aren’t. Sadly, I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon. People who want to f… men—straight and bi girls, gay and bi guys—show flesh because it works, it will attract positive male attention. (Well, that depends on how you feel about male attention, I guess.) … Straight guys don’t have the same incentive to bare their flesh on Halloween.

It’s a shame, of course, because there are a lot of straight guys out there who have amazing bodies, and they should be encouraged to show off on Halloween, to celebrate their erotic power and do like the gay boys do: objectify and be objectified at the same time. That would make the straight pride parades, aka Halloween, feel as egalitarian as the gay pride parades on which they were unconsciously modeled.

Every year around Halloween, I see some columnist or blogger or other talk about how ‘Halloween is just an excuse for girls and women to whore it up all night,’” writes nicolechat on a post at Feministing.com. “But every time I read that, I think to myself, so what? What’s wrong with having a night where we can say ‘This is my body, and I’m not ashamed of it, or of using it to express my sexuality.’”

Nothing at all, nicolechat. Heterosexuals in North America have needed a holiday like this for a long, long time. And now you’ve got one in Halloween. It’s yours now, straight people. Be good to it. And remember: Wrap those bandages loosely, and by midnight your boyfriend’s “mummy” costume will be just as revealing as that off-the-rack “sexy witch” costume you bought at Champion.

Happy Heteroween. recommended