Tag Archives: sexual orientation

Seeing Children’s Desire: Visibility and Sexual Orientation

In 2009, Benoit Denizet-Lewis wrote in the New York Times that youth were coming out as gay, bisexual, and lesbian at increasingly early ages. Coming out in middle school, though, often prompted parents to ask the classic question: “But how do you know you’re gay?”

The equally classic response to this question is, “Well, how do you know you’re not?” The response is meant to bring questioners’ attention to the invisible norm: heterosexuality. It’s a sexual orientation, too, and if a person must somehow determine that they are gay, then the same must be true of heterosexuality.

Of course, most heterosexuals simply respond: “I always knew.” At which point the gay or bisexual person just nods smugly. It’s very effective.

In any case, I was reminded of this when I came across a Buzzfeed collection of “painfully funny secrets” children think they’re hiding from their parents. A few of them were romantic or sexual secrets kept by four-, five- and six-year-olds.

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I’m not saying that any of these secrets actually mean anything about these children’s sexual orientation, but they might. The first crush I can remember was in 2nd grade. His name was Brian and we cleaned up the teacher’s classroom after school in exchange for stickers. I never looked directly at him, nor him at me, but he was soooooo cuuuuuuuute!

Anyway, it’s interesting to me that parents have a difficult time believing that their children might have a pretty good idea who they like. The signs of their sexual and romantic interests start early. Then again, if parents are looking for signs that their children develop crushes on the other sex, it’s likely easier for them to see. The invisibility of heterosexuality as a sexual orientation can make it, paradoxically, impossible to miss. While the non-normativeness of homo- and bisexuality can make these orientations invisible.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Kia’s Horny Hamster Ad Makes Me Go Sigh

This ad for the 2015 Kia Soul featuring hamster people is… charming.

It’s also a very good example of advertising that just up and shrugs and admits that its target is primarily men.  The scientists and engineers are all male and the audience is intended to identify with them.  The females are sexual objects that exist to attract and revel in male attention.  They literally buy them at the pet store, for goodness’ sake.

Hello Kia Soul! Like, women are 51% of the population and we make purchasing decisions. Maybe go with advertising that’s a tad more inclusive? You know, one or two female scientists would have been totally do-able. Your weird science could have included some hunks alongside the hotties. Maybe one of your guy engineers would have liked that, too. I’m just saying. Being more inclusive would have been easy. There’s no excuse for this.

But thanks for the hamsters.

Thanks to @MLerner_RBS for the link!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Girl-on-Girl Action: A New Visual Landscape

Perusing my Facebook feed, I came across a photo proudly posted by a former student — now a hair and makeup artist — of two brides at a wedding.  It was beautiful and the young, conventionally attractive brides were leaning in for a kiss.  Like these:
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When I saw the image, my mind immediately pulled up similar images it has in storage — frequently described as girl-on-girl action – and I was struck by the similarity of the images and their powerfully different messages.

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Until recently, “hot girl-on-girl action” was the primary visual that involved women kissing.  In mainstream culture, genuine and open female same-sex attraction was almost entirely invisible, hidden and denied.  Today, the proliferation of same-sex marriages offer a new visual landscape for framing what it means for two women to kiss each other.

The meaning, moreover, could not be more different.  Though often women with same-sex desire use this assumption to explore real attraction, girl-on-girl action shots are ostensibly between two heterosexually-oriented women who are kissing for male attention.  These brides are presumably doing the opposite of that.  They are displaying love and commitment to one another. The kiss is for them and no one else and they are, implicitly if not actually, openly committing to making themselves sexually unavailable to anyone else, male or female.  This is far from the notion that they are just kissing a girl to get guys to think they’re sexy.

I wonder how these images — ones that depict sexual intimacy between women who love one another and do not seek male attention — will ultimately change how we think about “girl-on-girl” action in the U.S.  As they proliferate, will they push back against the male-centrism and heterocentrism of our society?  I think they very well might.

Congrats to the newlyweds! Their wedding photos can be found herehere, and here.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Should There be Trigger Warnings on Syllabi?

Apparently universities are issuing guidelines to help professors consider adding “trigger warnings” to syllabi for “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly contribute to learning goals.” One example given is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” for its colonialism trigger. This from New Republic this week.

I have no desire to enter the fray of online discussions on trigger warnings and sensitivity. I have used trigger warnings. Most recently, I made a personal decision to not retweet Dylan Farrow’s piece in the New York Times detailing Woody Allen’s sexual abuse. I was uncomfortable shoving a very powerful description at people without some kind of warning. I couldn’t read past the first three sentences. I couldn’t imagine how it read for others. So, I referenced the article with a trigger warning and kept it moving.

But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. The message is that no one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I’ve talked before about how the student-customer model becomes a tool to rationalize away the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism.

The trigger warned syllabus feels like it is in this tradition. And I will tell you why.

In the last three weeks alone: a college student has had structural violence of normative harassment foisted on her for daring to have sex (for money), black college students at Harvard have taken to social media to catalog the casual racism of their colleagues, and black male students at UCLA made a video documenting their erasure.

It would seem that the most significant “issue” for a trigger warning is actual racism, sexism, ableism, and systems of oppression. Cause I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had my crystal stair dead end at the floor of racism and sexism and I’ve read “Things Fall Apart.” The trigger warning scale of each in no way compares.

Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.

At for-profit colleges, strict curriculum control and enrollment contracts effectively restrict all critical literature and pedagogy. We elites balk at such barbarism. What’s a trigger warning but the prestige university version? A normative exclusion as opposed to a regulatory one?

Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification.

That is an odd business for higher education to be in… unless the business of higher education is now officially business.

In which case, we may as well give up on the tenuous appeal we have to public good and citizenry-building because we don’t have a kickstand to lean on.

If universities are not in the business of being uncomfortable places for silent acts of power and privilege then the trigger warning we need is: higher education is dead but credential production lives on; enter at your own risk.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

Compulsory Coupling: Fit In By Finding Someone

Erika T. sent in this 30 second commercial for Frito Lay chips and dip.   Masquerading as simply “cute,” instead the cartoon sends strong normative messages.

It straightforwardly suggests that single people are inherently sad.  Being coupled up is presented as the norm and single people’s pathetic-ness is visible for all to see, even if they try to hide it.  It’s also implicitly heteronormative (different colors = the perfect blend) and overtly promotes monogamy between two and only two people.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

A Little Theory of Homophobia

Heterosexuality in the U.S. is gendered: women are expected to attract, men are supposed to be attracted.  Men want, women want to be wanted.  Metaphorically, this is a predator/prey type relationship.  Women are subject to the hunt whether they like it or not, so men’s attention can be pleasing, annoying, or frightening.  It all depends.

Accordingly, women know what it feels like to be prey.  Not all men make us feel this way, of course, but some certainly do.  The leering guy on the street, the heavy hitter in the bar, the frotteurist on the subway, the molesting uncle, the aggressive fraternity brother, etc.  It doesn’t matter if we’re interested in men or not, interested in that guy or not, there are men that — with their eyes, mouths, hands, and more — apparently can’t help but get their “sexual energy slime” all over us.

So what’s homophobia?  Sometimes I think it’s the moment that men feel what it’s like to be prey.  See, women are used to it.  It’s a familiar feeling we have to modulate all the time.  We’re used to constantly judging whether it means danger or not.  But when it happens to men for the first time, I bet it’s shocking as all hell.  It’s like they’ve been treated like a human being their whole life and then, POW, they’re a piece of ass and nothing more.  It must feel just crazy bad.

Of course, all that’s happened is that they’ve been demoted in the food chain.  No longer the predator, they’re the prey.  The dynamic between two men is the same as the one between men and women, except now they know what it feels like to be slimed.

facebook_1193239299Thanks to Mike Hrostoski for the awesome phrase and Andy Singer for the spot-on comic.  Cross-posted at Slate.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Bullying, the “Fag,” and the Problem with Grown Ups

In this excellent 6 minute video, CJ Pascoe discusses some of the findings of her widely acclaimed book, Dude, You’re a Fag.  She points out that, while being called “fag” and other terms for people with same sex desires are the most common and most cutting of insults between boys in school, they rarely mean to actually suggest that the target is gay.  Instead, the terms are used to suggest that boys are failing at masculinity.

This, she points out, is not “unique to childhood.”  For this reason, calling it bullying it is probably a distraction from the fact that this doesn’t just happen among kids.  She includes, as an example, a bomb destined for Afghanistan with the phrase “highjack this, fags” written on it by American soldiers.

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Kids, then, aren’t in a particularly nasty stage.  They’re “repeating, affirming, investing in all of these norms and expectations that we as adults are handing down.”  If we used more adult language, Pascoe argues, we might do a better job of thinking how we’re teaching boys how to be this way.

A great watch:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

2013, An Extraordinary Year for Marriage Equality

More than exponential growth in the percent of the population with access to same sex marriage in their state:

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Graph by Philip Cohen.

And here’s the global data, thanks to @filipspagnoli.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.