When I picked my friend’s nine year old daughter up from school last week the first thing she said to me was, “We had to do something really weird in class today. The teacher paired all the girls with a boy and we had to be a married couple.” It turns out the teacher was having her students work on writing dialogue and since it was right before Valentine’s Day she thought it would be cute for them to write dialogue about love and marriage.
“Not all girls want to marry a boy. It was so lame,” my friend’s daughter told me. ‘Lame’ was not really the word that came to my mind; I was more thinking about heteronormativity and how it is reproduced through our social institutions.
This post was borne out of a recent discussion with a good friend of mine, Harriet, who is a self-identified lesbian. (I include the phrase self-identified here deliberately: I realise her propensity to prefer the company and sex of woman does not categorise her as a lesbian, but it is a term she very comfortably uses herself). She was talking about going to a sex party, and I, in what I perceived to be ignorance, asked her what her interest could be in going. “Would it not be far too full of men?” I asked naively.
I had expected her to laugh at me, which she did. My question displayed an assumption that I hadn’t realised I held, that lesbian women must only be interested in seeing women have sex with other women. Being the tolerant and long-suffering woman she is, she challenged my assumption. Sex parties often include lesbian sex, she pointed out, and just because she is a lesbian doesn’t mean she is repulsed by men or their sex, any more than a straight person should be repulsed by lesbians. Heterophobia is no more acceptable than homophobia. However, she went on to explain that actually lesbians quite often found men sexually attractive, and, slightly more unusually, they are often interested in watching men have sex with men, in the form of gay male pornography. (more…)
November is here, which means the season of ghosts and goblins has come to pass. As an enthusiast of all-things-haunted, I filled the month of October with scary movie nights, Halloween costume parties, visits to a haunted house and Phantom Fright Nights at my local amusement park, and even an outing that involved shooting paintballs at zombies. As any good graduate student in the social sciences might do, I pondered the sociological aspects of these activities throughout the month. What makes this campy season of fear so popular in U.S. culture? Does it serve any purposes beyond providing consumers with themed entertainment, as the producers of frightening fun reap massive profits each fall?
About a year ago, I wrote my first post for Sociology Lens about the tensions over sex education in the United States. Specifically, I commented on Jessica Field’s Sociology Compass article, “Sexuality Education in the United States: Shared Cultural Ideas Across the Political Divide,” in which she argues that, regardless of political position on sex education, most participants in debates operate from a shared assumption about the dangers of adolescent sexuality. Following Fields, I called for a truly comprehensive form of sex education that recognizes confusion, pleasure, and the risks of sexual activity.
Now, a year later as I end my time as a Sociology Lens contributor, I am happy to write that I have finally found a model of sex education that achieves the goals that I set out in that first post. A group in Iceland has created a government-sponsored awareness video that teaches teenagers about issues relevant to their sexual lives: confusion in the bedroom, body differences and issues, protection and contraceptives, emotional responses to sex, and sexual violence (Trigger warning: the video explicitly covers the topic of rape, which may be sensitive for some). In January 2013, all teenagers in Icelandic public schools screened the video. (more…)
An exciting new journal is slated for release next year—Routledge’s Porn Studies. The journal, the first of its kind, will focus explicitly on erotic and pornographic materials, as well as sex work generally. As its call for papers makes clear, it aims to include interdisciplinary, intersectional, and global analyses. Such a journal is a brave endeavor because the topic of pornography is an incredibly volatile one in academic and activist worlds. The journal is still a year away from publication and has already sparked angry responses, highlighting an ongoing problem in approaches to pornography that will be the focus of my post. (more…)
In a recent post, I discussed a longstanding trend in American (and Western) media of using racial Others to embody evil. From adult action films to children’s animated features, we can find examples of villains whose malevolent nature is clear from the racial/ethnic stereotypes used to characterize them. But racial stereotypes are not the only stereotypes used to denote wickedness; we can also find many examples of non-normative sexualities and gender performances associated with evil. Importantly, this sexual Otherness is often developed alongside and in relation to racial/ethnic Otherness. (more…)
This week, great news emerged out of Mississippi: an infant, previously infected with HIV, has been cured of the virus. This development indicates promise for the future. We have now entered an era with the possibility of curing a once incurable disease. This is certainly a time to celebrate the progress of modern medicine and its ability to save the lives of millions of people. However, alongside this great news, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has released new data on the rates of new HIV infections among adults and adolescents in the United States. This data reminds us that we still have a long way to go to eradicate this infection; many, many men and women are diagnosed with HIV every day.
Specifically, the CDC reports that southern states, like Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, have some of the highest rates of new HIV infection among adults and adolescents in the United States. The rates of diagnoses in these states is anywhere from 20.0 to 177.9 new HIV infections for every 100,000 people in the population. While some northern states, like New York and New Jersey, have comparable numbers, the greatest concentration of these astoundingly high rates can be found in the southern half of the United States. Something is clearly going on here.
Some analysts point to the lack of complete and factual sexual education in the disproportionately affected states. None of these southern states require comprehensive and accurate HIV/AIDS education. Two states, Florida and Texas, do not require any sexual education in public schools. While the CDC did not statistically test the relationship between comprehensive sex education and rates of new HIV infection, the link between the two seems pretty obvious: if students learn how to prevent the spread of the disease through safe sex practices, their risk of infection should decrease.
Why, then, are states still resistant to comprehensive sex education in their schools? We have moved past the days when the federal government espoused an abstinence-only agenda and tied education funds to states’ adherence to the “no sex outside of heterosexual marriage” motto. Since President Obama has entered office, an equal amount of funds for comprehensive sex education that teaches about safe sex practices, including abstinence, and about sexualities other than heterosexuality is available for states wishing to educate their students. Yet, some states, like Florida and Texas, do not take advantage of this funding.
Sociologically, we know that a fear of adolescent sexuality underlies many of the concerns about sexual education in public schools. In my first Sociology Lens post back in 2012, I described some of these fears by drawing on Jessica Field’s Sociology Compass article, Sexuality Education in the United States: Shared Cultural Ideas Across the Political Divide. In this article, Fields insightfully points out that regardless of political position on the issue of sex education, most people are motivated by the desire to regulate an out-of-control or dangerous adolescent sexuality. Fields’ argument continues to be relevant today; the new statistics on rates of HIV infection seem to be an unfortunate consequence of these publicfears.
While I am very optimistic about the health of the Mississippi baby, I am hesitant to say that this medical progress is enough. Can the same procedure be used to cure older individuals infected with HIV? Will the procedure be widely available at a reasonable rate? In the absence of these answers, we need to remember that one of the ways to eradicate HIV is to spread knowledge about safe sex practices so that new infections decrease. In addition to new medicine, we need to continue to raise awareness about safe sex and disease prevention through publically funded education.
Guttmacher Institute. 2013. State Policies in Brief: Sex and HIV Education.
Kirby, Douglas B, B.A. Laris, and Lori A Rolleri. 2007. “Sex and HIV Education Programs: Their Impact on Sexual Behaviors of Young People throughout the World.” Journal of Adolescent Health 40: 206-217.
In the past weeks, I’ve focused on the normative beauty expectations that govern women’s bodies and bodily habits. I was excited to see a recent article at the Huffington Post on one Minneapolis photographer’s attempt to challenge those norms. Matthew Blum, assisted by his wife/partner, has begun the Nu Project (warning: website NSFW), a multipart photography project in North and South America, in which he attempts to document real women’s nude bodies. All volunteers, the “models” represent a spectrum of bodies—different ages, shapes, weights, heights, skin colors, breast sizes and so on. Although Blum admits that he hasn’t fully achieved the diversity he envisions—relying on volunteers means he can’t seek out the “type” of women missing from the project—the photos do present a variety of bodies. As he explains the project, “The things that I had seen either used models with typical model bodies or average people who were made to look extremely unimpressive. I figured there was a way to treat women (of any size/shape) like models and photograph them beautifully, respectfully without a lot of sexual under or overtones” (quoted from HuffPost). Projects like this may encourage more women to appreciate their bodies, and because Blum refrains from sexualizing the women, the presentation resists objectification. Blum reports that many of the volunteers say participation has helped them see themselves as beautiful.
But do projects like this produce social change? That is, do they actually challenge our deeply held beliefs about beauty? And what happens when we consider representations of stigmatized male bodies? (more…)