Robin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” achieved international recognition in 2013. But the lyrics were also heavily criticized as promoting sexual violence by celebrating “blurred lines” around sexual consent. Indeed, the song and video prompted an online photo essay in which women and men are depicted holding up signs with words they heard from their own rapists — some of which were almost direct quotes from Thicke’s song. The song received a great deal of negative and positive press all at the same time.

It’s not a new argument to suggest that many elements of what feminist scholars refer to as “rape culture” are embedded in seemingly pleasurable elements of pop culture, like songs, movies, and television shows. And Robin Thicke’s song served as an example to many of how we not only tolerate rape culture, but celebrate it and render it “sexy.”

Recently, Rebecca Traister discussed just how much rape culture even informs what we think of as “good sex” in her piece “The Game is Rigged.” In it, Traister challenges the notion that all consensual sex is good and shows just how messy the debate about what qualifies as “consensual” really is. In many ways, our national discussion around sexual assault and consent is taking up themes raised by feminists in the 1980s about what actually qualifies as consent in a society in which violence against women is considered sexy.

Compared with “Blurred Lines,” Justin Bieber’s newly released hit single, “What Do You Mean?” has been subject to less critique, though it reproduces the notion that women do not actually know what they want and that they are notoriously bad and communicating their desires (sexual and otherwise). In the song, Bieber asks the woman with whom he’s interacting:

What do you mean?
Ohh ohh ohh
When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no
What do you mean?

The lack of clear consent isn’t just present in the song; it is what provides the sexual tension. It’s part of what is intended to make the song “sexy.”

Sexualizing women’s sexual indecision is an important part of the way rape culture works. It is one way that conversations about consent often over-simplify a process that is and should be much more complex. The song itself presents Bieber nagging the woman to whom he’s singing to make a decision about their relationship. But there are many elements suggesting that the decision she’s being asked to make is more immediate as well — not only about the larger relationship, but about a sexual interaction in the near future. Throughout the song, the click of a stopwatch can be heard as a beat against which Bieber presses the woman to make a decision while berating her for the mixed signals she has been sending him.

Bieber is presented as the “good guy” throughout the song by attempting to really decipher what the woman actually means. Indeed, this is another element of rape culture: the way in which we are encouraged to see average, everyday guys as “not-rapists,” because rapists are the bad guys who attack women from bushes (at worst) or simply get them drunk at a party (at best).

The controversy over the ad in Bloomingdale’s 2015 holiday catalog urging readers to “spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking” shows that this kind of rape culture is also casually promoted in popular culture as well.  But, the larger discourse that Bieber’s song plays a role in promoting is the notion that women do not know what they mean or want. Bieber plays the role of someone simultaneously pressuring her for sexual advance (“Said we’re running out of time”), helping her work through her feelings (“What do you mean?”), and demanding results (“Better make up your mind”). And, like the Bloomingdale’s advertisement, this is not sexy.

Indeed, the music video takes this a step further. Bieber is shown at the beginning paying John Leguizamo on a street corner and asking him to make sure “she doesn’t get hurt.” We later find out that John was paid to orchestrate a kidnapping of both Justin and the woman. Both are taken by men in masks, driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car, and tied up. Justin is able to free them, but they are still in a room with their kidnappers.

They back up to a door that leads outside the building and see that they are one of the top floors. Justin turns to the woman, holds out his hand and asks, “Do you trust me?” She takes his hand and they both jump out of the building. They jump and fall to the ground, landing on a parachute pillow only to discover that the whole thing was a trick. The kidnapping was actually an orchestrated ruse to bring her to a party that they entered by leaping from the building away from the men who’d taken them. The men in masks all reveal themselves to be smiling beneath. She smiles at Justin, recognizing that it was all a trick, grabs his face, kisses him and they dance the night away in the underground club.

Even though the song is about feeling like a woman really can’t make up her mind about Justin, their relationship, and sexual intimacy, the woman in the video is not depicted this way at all. She appears sexually interested in Justin from the moment the two meet in the video and not bothered by his questions and demands at all. Though it is worth mentioning that he is terrorizing her in the name of romance, indeed the terror itself is a sign of how much he loves her — also a part of rape culture. This visual display alongside the lyrics works in ways that obscure the content of the lyrics, content that works against much of what we are shown visually.

Part of what makes rape culture so insidious is that violence against women is rendered pleasurable and even desirable. Thicke and Bieber’s songs are catchy, fun, and beg to be danced to. The women in Thicke’s video also appear to be having fun strutting around nude while the men sing. The woman in Bieber’s video is being kidnapped and terrified for sport, sure, but it’s because he wants to show his love for her. She’s shown realizing and appreciating this at the conclusion of the video.

Rape culture hides the ways that sexual violence is enacted upon women’s bodies every day. It obscures the ways that men work to minimize women’s control over their own bodies. It conceals the ways that sexual violence stems not just from dangerous, deviant others, but the normal everydayness of heterosexual interactions. And all of this works to make sexualized power arrangements more challenging to identify as problematic, which is precisely what makes confronting rape culture so challenging.

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections and Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Tristan Bridges is a sociologist at the College at Brockport (SUNY) and CJ Pascoe is a sociologist at the University of Oregon. Pascoe is the author of Dude, You’re a Fag:  Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, and together they are the editors of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change.

Flashback Friday.

The number crunchers at OK Cupid recently looked at how age preferences disadvantage older women on the site.  First, the post’s author, Christian Rudder, points out, the distribution of singles is pretty matched by sex at most ages:

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that women and men of the same age are reaching out to one another.

Women at most ages state a preference to date men who are up to eight years older or eight years younger:

But men show a decided preference for younger women, especially as the men get older:And, Rudder notes, men target their messages to women even younger than their stated preference.  In this figure, the greenest areas represent where men are sending more messages and the red areas are where they are sending less:

So, even though men and women are more-or-less proportionately represented on the site, men’s decided preference for younger women makes for many fewer potential dates for older women.

Here’s what the dating pool looks like for 21-year-olds (the blue = men seeking women who are 21; the pink = women seeking men who are 21):

For 25 year olds:

For 30 year olds:

Rudder offers this summary measuring how a person’s desirability changes over time:

He writes:

…we can see that women have more pursuers than men until age 26, but thereafter a man can expect many more potential dates than a woman of the same age. At the graph’s outer edge, at age 48, men are nearly twice as sought-after as women.

Thus opportunities for dating are shaped by the intersection of gender and age to the detriment of women over 26 and men under 26.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

We’ve highlighted the really interesting research coming out of the dating site OK Cupid before. It’s great stuff and worth exploring:

All of those posts offer neat lessons about research methods, too. And so does the video below of co-founder Christian Rudder talking about how they’ve collected and used the data. It might be fun to show in research methods classes because it raises some interesting questions like: What are different kinds of social science data? How can/should we manipulate respondents to get it? What does it look like? How can it be used to answer questions? Or, how can we understand the important difference between having the data and doing an interpretation of it? That is, the data-don’t-speak-for-themselves issue.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

20150526_105320A substantial body of literature suggests that women change what they eat when they eat with men. Specifically, women opt for smaller amounts and lower-calorie foods associated with femininity. So, some scholars argue that women change what they eat to appear more feminine when dining with male companions.

For my senior thesis, I explored whether women change the way they eat  alongside what they eat when dining with a male vs. female companion. To examine this phenomenon, I conducted 42 hours of non-participant observation in two four-star American restaurants in a large west coast city in the United States. I observed the eating behaviors of 76 Euro-American women (37 dining with a male companion and 39 dining with a female companion) aged approximately 18 to 40 to identify differences in their eating behaviors.

I found that women did change the way they ate depending on the gender of their dining companion. Overall, when dining with a male companion, women typically constructed their bites carefully, took small bites, ate slowly, used their napkins precisely and frequently, and maintained good posture and limited body movement throughout their meals. In contrast, women dining with a female companion generally constructed their bites more haphazardly, took larger bites, used their napkins more loosely and sparingly, and moved their bodies more throughout their meals.

On the size of bites, here’s an excerpt from my field notes:

Though her plate is filled, each bite she labors onto her fork barely fills the utensil. Perhaps she’s getting full because each bite seems smaller than the last… and still she’s taking tiny bites. Somehow she has made a single vegetable last for more than five bites.

I also observed many women who were about to take a large bite but stopped themselves. Another excerpt:

She spreads a cracker generously and brings it to her mouth. Then she pauses for a moment as though she’s sizing up the cracker to decide if she can manage it in one bite. After thinking for a minute, she bites off half and gently places the rest of the cracker back down on her individual plate.

Stopping to reconstruct large bites into smaller ones is a feminine eating behavior that implies a conscious monitoring of bite size. It indicates that women may deliberately change their behavior to appear more feminine.

I also observed changes in the ways women used their napkins when dining with a male vs. female companion. When their companion was a man, women used their napkins more precisely and frequently than when their companion was another woman. In some cases, the woman would fold her napkin into fourths before using it so that she could press the straight edge of the napkin to the corners of her mouth. Other times, the woman would wrap the napkin around her finger to create a point, then dab it across her mouth or use the point to press into the corners of her mouth. Women who used their napkins precisely also tended to use them quite frequently:

Using her napkin to dab the edges of her mouth – finger in it to make a tiny point, she is using her napkin constantly… using the point of the napkin to specifically dab each corner of her mouth. She is using the napkin again even though she has not taken a single bite since the last time she used it… using napkin after literally every bite as if she is constantly scared she has food on her mouth. Using and refolding her napkin every two minutes, always dabbing the corners of her mouth lightly.

In contrast, women dining with a female companion generally used their napkins more loosely and sparingly. These women did not carefully designate a specific area of the napkin to use, and instead bunched up a portion of it in one hand and rubbed the napkin across their mouths indiscriminately.

Each of the behaviors observed more frequently among women dining with a male companion versus a female one was stereotypically feminine. Many of the behaviors that emerged as significant among women dining with a female companion, on the other hand, are considered non-feminine, i.e. behaviors that women are instructed to avoid. Behavioral differences between the two groups of women suggest two things. First, women eat in a manner more consistent with normative femininity when in the presence of a male versus a female companion. And, second, gender is something that people perform when cued to do so, not necessarily something people internalize and express all the time.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kate Handley graduated from Occidental College this month. This post is based on her senior thesis. After gaining some experience in the tech industry, she hopes to pursue a PhD in Sociology. 


Well done, Joy Regullano, well done:

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Dating site OKCupid did an analysis of 500,000 inquiry messages to determine what keywords correlate most strongly with getting a reply.  It has some great lessons about dating and some counter-stereotypical news about what heterosexual women want from men.

This first graph shows that mentioning someone’s level of attractiveness decreased the likelihood of getting a response (for both men and women), though men were more likely to mention looks.  But general compliments about one’s profile increased the likelihood of getting a response (the middle line is the average number of responses, the green bars signify an increase in the number of responses, and the red bars a decrease):


A good lesson in operationalization: “pretty” is used in two ways in our culture, so when they made sure to differentiate between pretty (meaning “sort of”) and pretty (meaning “attractive”), you can see clearly the way that commenting on looks decreases the recipients’ interest:

So, in contrast to stereotypes, many women cannot be flattered into a date (though the figure above includes men and women, I’m assuming most people being called “pretty” are female).

Further, the site found that when men sent messages, female recipients preferred humility to bold self-confidence.  The words below all increased the chances of a woman responding to a man’s inquiry:

Instead of bravado and flattery, women appear to actually like men who take an interest in them.  They respond positively to phrases that indicate that a guy actually read their profile and is interested in the content of their person:

The lesson: Treat a woman (on the OK Cupid dating site) like a human being and she will respond positively.

And to answer the question, “What do women want?”  As my dear friend David Landsberg would say: “Everything!

This post originally appeared in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

From Reddit comes the story of an assignment given to high school students in a sex education unit of health class in Columbus, Ohio (as reported in theDispatch). The introduction reads (typos included):

Appreciating Gender Differences: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many differences in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the differences.”

Then there’s this graphic: 1 (3) - Copy Yes, boys and girls in the class all got the same handout, with the normal human described as “you” and the one in the dress labeled “she.” After the graphic is a list of questions for the students to ponder in an essay, such as, “How might knowing these differences influence and impact an intimate relationship you might currently have or develop in the future?”

In her defense, the teacher naturally told the Dispatch that the point was to just “stimulate conversation.” But nothing in the assignment suggests the stereotypes might not be anything but true. None of the essay questions cast doubt on the facts presented. Consider revising the text like this:

Appreciating Gender Similarities: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many similarities in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the similarities.”

That could be a useful opening to a unit on gender and development for high school sex education (without the graphic). Where did this come from? The teacher said it came from “an outdated book.”

With the power of Google image search, you can follow this image around the Internet, where it has been used by a lot of people to illustrate supposedly funny-but-oh-so-true stereotypes, like “Hilarious differences between men and women,” and on pages with sexist aphorisms such as, “A woman worries about the future until she gets a husband; a man never worries about the future until he gets a wife,” and on relationship advice pages, with conclusions such as, “If we understand this basic fundamental, there will be better relationships … steadier !!,” and even “Real, Honest Female Advice” for men who want to “start having unbelievable success with women.” It always has the same typo (“Figure Our Her Needs”).

I can’t find an original use, or any serious attempt at educational use, but I’d love to know who came up with it.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Today is Love Your Body Day and is this is our favorite body positive post of the year, re-posted in celebration. 

Rachel Wiley delivers a provocative poem about her experience as a “fat girl” loved by a skinny boy.  My favorite part:

My college theater professor once told me
that despite my talent,
I would never be cast as a romantic lead.
We put on shows that involve flying children and singing animals
but apparently no one
has enough willing suspension of disbelief
to buy anyone loving a fat girl.

Watch the whole thing (transcript here):

If you liked, we also recommend Kara Kamos’ confession that she’s ugly, but can’t think of a good reason to care.  Hat tip to Polly’s Pocket.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.