…the agencies built by society for preventing deviance are often so poorly equipped for the task that we might well ask why this is regarded as their “real” function in the first place. (p. 14)
He notes that the amount of deviance and crime found in a society is largely related to how many resources we commit to looking for it. And once we’ve created institutions and industries to deal with particular types of deviance, we tend to continuously find enough deviance to continue to justify the system’s existence. If we’ve built a large criminal justice system, that system takes on a self-sustaining life of its own. Even if we eradicated all major crime as we know it, Erikson suggests, the agencies would turn their attention to behaviors we’ve previously ignored or treated as relatively unimportant, finding a new reason for the system’s existence and access to resources.
In the past several decades, fighting the War on Drugs has become an important role of the U.S. criminal justice system. Drug infractions are a major cause of the growth in imprisonment rates and, especially, the racial gap in incarceration.
I thought of Erikson’s insights when I recently saw the trailer for The House I Live In, an upcoming documentary about the impact of the War on Drugs. The trailer highlights the way that low-level drug dealers and addicts are fed as raw material into the criminal justice system. Law enforcement agencies often benefit directly from seizures of cash or property during drug busts, which then becomes property of the agency; additionally, agencies that design programs to target drug use/sales often get access to federal funds for training and equipment that they’d have no way to purchase otherwise:
The War on Drugs is an industry, one with vested interests with a powerful motivation to ensure its continued existence and expansion, regardless of any objective cost-benefit analysis of the consequences of incarcerating such a large proportion of the population or even of the effectiveness of our policies for actually decreasing drug use.
Well, crap. It turns out I might be a terrorist. I wasn’t aware of this, but then Dave A. sent in a video from Houston’s Make the Call anti-terrorism initiative, and it isn’t looking good.
I sometimes walk off and leave bags unattended in public spaces.
I gather information about routines in public spaces, often sending operatives out to stand by entrances and exits. They covertly take notes, and I specifically tell them not to draw attention to themselves. Occasionally they even take photos of the layouts of public places or ask employees detailed questions about the inner workings of the organization. I have cleverly disguised these surveillance activities as sociology assignments.
I sometimes carry small electronic gadgets that might not be immediately recognizable to every single person sitting at a cafe.
I get cold easily and often wear sweaters or bulky hoodies in summer, even in Vegas.
I can be kind of hyper and nervous-acting, which probably makes me “sketchy”.
I always forget the security code at my friend Robin’s housing complex, so I usually just sneak in behind someone else.
I have been known to park in prohibited areas.
Watch the video and see for yourself:
This method of fighting terrorism is extremely unrealistic. The behaviors listed in the video are things people do all the time, in a variety of contexts. If every citizen of Houston reported every incident they see that is mentioned in this video, the Houston PD would be overwhelmed and unable to function because of the number of calls they’d have to investigate. I’d have to call the police every time I saw a woman wearing Ugg boots in Vegas, because it’s never cold enough here to justify them.
The video tells viewers not to ignore their “instincts.” But do we have an instinct for detecting “sketchy” people or behavior? Given what we know about stereotyping and selective perception, the reality is that people will view behavior through their pre-existing beliefs. Their interpretations of behavior as unusual or inappropriate will be influenced by how comfortable they otherwise are with the person engaging in it, which is impacted by race/ethnicity, class, and many other social categories. A guy leaving a backpack unattended is scary if that guy has a mohawk or, you know, looks scary and stuff, but when I do it, no one bats an eye. This video basically legitimizes turning anyone who makes you at all uncomfortable in public in to the police, on the argument that you are simply following your “instinct.” When you ask every citizen to become an intelligence agent, reporting every incident they perceive as odd, the result is the increasing stigmatization and semi-criminalization of those who can’t or won’t conform to pretty narrow standards of physical appearance, dress, and behavior.
UPDATE: There’s an interesting discussion in the comments about how you balance the need to avoid paranoia with the fact that, for instance, some rapes on college campuses would be prevented if people didn’t leave dorm doors ajar or let people in without knowing who they are, and that’s a conversation worth having. However, I’m also interested in the issue of feasibility here: If all the citizens of Houston literally did what this video suggests, law enforcement would grind to a halt and response times would slow for everyone.
As for why I sometimes leave bags unattended in public…Because there’s nothing of value in it and I left it on an outside table while I go inside to order, or because I’m gathering a lot of books at the library and I get sick of lugging my bag while I do this and leave it on a table while I go into the stacks, or because I realize I forgot to grab something on another aisle at the grocery store and I run around the corner to grab it without thinking to grab my bag. My point isn’t that any of the things I do are laudable or even smart, but rather that people do these things, sometimes on purpose, sometimes because we get distracted or make mistakes, and it’s going to take a massive increase in law enforcement if we really want citizens to start vigilantly reporting them.
Elizabeth sent in a link to a long and judicious New York Times article about biologically-male, gender-variant children, written by Ruth Padawer. It’s well done, laying out the struggles even liberal-minded parents go through, including the mixed messages they get from “experts.” It also briefly addresses the hormonal and genetic research, but acknowledges that the measures of femininity and masculinity used in these studies — and in daily life — are socially constructed. That is, what is considered masculine or feminine is different across cultures and changes over time.
I thought this picture of three boys at a camp for gender-variant children, waiting for their turn in a fashion show, was particularly interesting (photo by Lindsay Morris):
I was struck by not just the emphasis on the dress/skirt, but the nail polish, jewelry, and high heels (on at least two of the children). Their poses are also striking, for their portrayal of not just femininity, but sexualized femininity. It’s hard to say, but these boys look pretty young to me, and yet their (or their camp counselors?) idea of what it means to be a girl seems very specific to an adult hyperfemininity. (After all, even most biological girls don’t dress/act this way most of the time and lots of girls explicitly reject femininity; Padawer comments that 77% of women in Generation X say they were tomboys as kids.)
In contrast, girls, when they enact a tomboy role — and now I’m off into speculation-land — don’t seem to go so far into the weeds. We don’t see girls dressing up like lumberjacks or business men in suits and ties. They don’t do tomman, they do tomboy. There’s something more woman about how some of these boys perform femininity.
Some research on tomboys shows that girls who adopt it are sometimes, in part, trying to put off the sexual attention that comes with growing up. So perhaps tomboyism is a way of rejecting one’s maturing body. In contrast, perhaps femininity appeals to some boys because we adultify and sexualize young girls; it’s a form of grown up play as well as gender deviance?
Who knows. The truth is — and the article does a good job of communicating this – we have no idea what’s going on here.
Wired describes the new documentary, The Mechanical Bride, as a “moving, weirdly human exploration of artificial companionship.” Directed by Allison de Fren, explores the range of mechanical brides, from robots to Real Dolls (NSFW), and the “technosexuals who love them.” I can’t wait to see it.
This is the fourth part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. See also, parts One, Two, and Three. Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.
This post details some daily rituals that help interrupt damaging beauty culture scripts.
1) Start enjoying your body as a physical instrument.
Girls are raised to view their bodies as an thing-to-be-looked-at that they have to constantly work on and perfect for the adoration of others, while boys are raised to think of their bodies as tools to use to master their surroundings. We need to flip the script and enjoy our bodies as the physical marvels they are. We should be thinking of our bodies, as bodies! As a vehicle that moves us through the world; as a site of physical power; as the physical extension of our being in the world. We should be climbing things, leaping over things, pushing and pulling things, shaking things, dancing frantically, even if people are looking. Daily rituals of spontaneous physical activity and thanks for movement are the surest way to bring about a personal paradigm shift from viewing our bodies as objects to viewing our bodies as tools to enact our subjectivity.
Fun Related Activity: Parkour,”the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle within one’s path by adapting one’s movements to the environment,” is an activity that one can do anytime, anywhere. I especially enjoy jumping off bike racks between classes while I’m dressed in a suit.
2) Do at least one “embarrassing” action a day.
Another healthy daily ritual that reinforces the idea that we don’t exist to be pleasing to others is to purposefully do at least one action that violates “ladylike” social norms. Discuss your period in public. Eat sloppily in public, then lounge on your chair and pat your protruding belly. Swing your arms a little too much when you walk. Open doors for everyone. Offer to help men carry things. Skip a lot. Galloping also works. Get comfortable with making others uncomfortable.
3) Focus on personal development that isn’t related to beauty culture.
According to research, women spend over 45 minutes to an hour on body maintenance every day. That’s about 15 more minutes than men each day and about 275 hours a year.
But, since you’ve read Part 3 of this series and given up habitual body monitoring, body hatred, and meaningless beauty rituals, you’ll have more time to develop yourself in meaningful ways. This means more time for education, reading, working out to build muscle and agility, dancing, etc. You’ll become a much more interesting person on the inside if you spend less time worrying about the outside. The study featured above showed that time spent grooming was inversely related to income for women.
4) Actively forgive yourself.
A lifetime of body hatred and self-objectification is difficult to let go of, and if you find yourself falling into old habits of playing self-hating tapes, seeking male attention, or beating yourself up for not being pleasing, forgive yourself. It’s impossible to fully transcend the beauty culture game since it’s so pervasive. It’s a constant struggle. When we fall into old traps, it’s important to recognize that, but quickly move on through self forgiveness. We need all the cognitive space we can get for the next beauty culture assault on our mental health.
Being both a good parent and an all-out professional cannot be done the way we currently run our educational and work systems… Being a working parent in our society is structurally impossible. It can’t be done right… You’ll always be failing at something — as a spouse, as a parent, as a worker. Just get used to that feeling.
In other words, the cards are stacked against you and it’s gonna suck.
And it’s true, trust me, as someone who’s currently knee-deep in the literature on parenting and gender, I’m pleased to see the structural contradictions between work and parenting being discussed.
But I’m frustrated about an invisibility, an erasure, a taboo that goes unnamed. It seems like it should at least get a nod in this discussion. I’m talking about the one really excellent solution to the clusterf@ck that is parenting in America.
Don’t. Have. Kids.
No really — just don’t have them.
Think about it. The idea that women will feel unfulfilled without children and die from regret is one of the most widely-endorsed beliefs in America. It’s downright offensive to some that a woman would choose not to have children. Accusations of “selfishness” abound. It’s a given that women will have children, and many women will accept it as a given.
But we don’t have to. The U.S. government fails to support our childrearing efforts with sufficient programs (framing it as a “choice” or “hobby”), the market is expensive (child care costs more than college in most states), and we’re crammed into nuclear family households (making it difficult to rely on extended kin, real or chosen). And the results are clear: raising children changes the quality of your life. In good ways, sure, but in bad ways too.
Here are findings from the epic data collection engine that is the World Values Survey, published in Population and Development Review. If you live in the U.S., look at the blue line representing “liberal” democracies (that’s what we are). The top graph shows that, among 20-39 year olds, having one child is correlated with a decrease in happiness, having two a larger decreases, and so on up to four or more. If you’re 40 or older, having one child is correlated with a decrease in happiness and having more children a smaller one. But even the happiest people, with four or more children, are slightly less happy than those with none at all.
Don’t shoot the messenger.
Long before Slaughter wrote her article for The Atlantic, when she floated the idea of writing it to a female colleague, she was told that it would be a “terrible signal to younger generations of women.” Presumably, this is because having children is compulsory, so it’s best not to demoralize them. Well, I’ll take on that Black Badge of Dishonor. I’m here to tell still-childless women (and men, too) that they can say NO if they want to. They can reject a lifetime of feeling like they’re “always… failing at something.”
I wish it were different. I wish that men and women could choose children and know that the conditions under which they parent will be conducive to happiness. But they’re not. As individuals, there’s little we can do to change this, especially in the short term. We can, however, try to wrest some autonomy from the relentless warnings that we’ll be pathetically-sad-forever-and-ever if we don’t have babies. And, once we do that, we can make a more informed measurement of the costs and benefits.
Some of us will choose to spend our lives doing something else instead. We’ll learn to play the guitar, dance the Flamenco (why not?), get more education, travel to far away places, write a book, or start a welcome tumblr. We can help raise our nieces and nephews, easing the burden on our loved ones, or focus on nurturing our relationships with other adults. We can live in the cool neighborhoods with bad school districts and pay less in rent because two bedrooms are plenty. We can eat out, sleep in, and go running. We can have extraordinary careers, beautiful relationships, healthy lives, and lovely homes. My point is: there are lots of great things to do in life… having children is only one of them.
Just… think about it. Maybe you can spend your extra time working to change the system for the better. Goodness knows parents will be too tired to do it.
In May of this year the baseball team at Our Lady of Sorrows, a high school charter in Arizona, was scheduled to play a championship game against Mesa Preparatory Academy. Claiming a religious tenet forbidding co-ed sports, they forfeited the final game of the season. Mesa’s second baseman, you see, was a 15-year-old named Paige Sultzbach.
This was not an isolated incident. In 2011 a high school threatened to forfeit a junior varsity football game unless a girl on the opposing team, Mina Johnson, sat out. Johnson, a five-foot-two-inch 172-pound linebacker on the opposing team, had “gain[ed] a reputation in the league as a standout junior varsity player”; she sacked a six-foot quarterback in her very first game.
Nevertheless, not wanting to be the cause of a lost opportunity for her team to play, Johnson sat out. The opposing team still lost to hers 60 to zero, but apparently that was less humiliating than losing to a girl.
In my sociology of gender textbook I discuss the practice of segregating sports by gender. Both those on the political left and political right tend to think this is a good idea. Conservatives tend to think that women are more fragile than men, while liberals want women to have the same opportunities.
Ensuring that men never compete alongside or with women, however, also ensures that the belief that men would always win goes unchallenged. In other words, because we already assume that men would win any competition with women, it is men, not women, who have the most to lose from de-segregating sports. If women lose, the status quo — believing women are physically inferior to men — simply remains in place. But if men lose, the assumption of male superiority is undermined.
Women’s participation in non-team sports, of course, potentially challenges these assumptions in a different way. While some of these sports try to write rules that ensure that women never measure up to men (e.g., body building has a cap on how muscular women can be), others lay these comparisons bare, which brings us to Sarah Robles. Robles, a weightlifter, out-lifted all Americans of both sexes at last year’s world championships. ”On her best day,” writes Buzzfeed, “she can lift more than 568 pounds — that’s roughly five IKEA couches, 65 gallons of milk, or one large adult male lion.” You’ll see her at the Olympics in London. Here she is lifting an easy 317 pounds:
The Buzzfeed article focuses on how a main source of revenue — corporate sponsorship — is likely out of reach for Robles. Companies don’t like to support athletes who challenge our beliefs about men and women. And Robles certainly does. She’s proof that women can compete with men, at their own games even, and win.