The essentialist and dichotomizing battle over who is ideologically, morally, indeed humanly, more advanced (the West or the rest), has for centuries been fought over women’s bodies. A few hundred years ago the rationale for imperialism in the case of the British Raj included the idea of white men saving brown women from brown men. The post 9/11 invasion of Afghanistan was also partly justified as a war between good and evil, with the US representing all that is good in terms of democracy, human rights, and, significantly, women’s rights.

The same debate, boiling down to the ideologically simplistic question of “who is better?,” continues to be fought over Muslim women’s bodies. In recent months, this has been acutely evident with the Syrian refugee crisis raising pressing questions in Europe about whether “these” people can assimilate given the difference in cultural values; as well as with the alarming stories of seemingly “modern” young women’s recruitment to the decidedly fundamental ranks of ISIS on the promise of marrying a jihottie.

Perhaps the most visually potent symbol of this assumed backwardness of Islam is the headscarf that some Muslim women wear. How emancipated can Muslim women really be, the argument goes, when they have to cover themselves lest they sexually tempt men?

So it’s unsurprising that much feminist scholarship on Muslim women, especially in the US, has sought to illuminate and unpack the multi-layered meanings of the headscarf for women who wear them – meanings which extend beyond religious identities and injunctions. Scholars have shown that for some Muslim women, wearing the headscarf is a defiant way of embracing their besieged cultural and religious identity; for others, particularly African American Muslim women, the headscarf offers a way of transcending a national, cultural context where black female bodies are particularly hyper-sexualized. This research highlights the idea that what may seem to some an incomprehensible and even regressive practice, is actually a far more nuanced, and oftentimes times agentic, experience for women themselves.

In my ethnographic study of American coverts to Islam at a conservative Sunni mosque in the United States, these experiences rang true for my participants. But they also rang incomplete. By imagining veiling as a necessarily agentic act, as much recent sociological research on religion has done, we obfuscate how religious injunctions – including in the act of veiling – can, and do, normalize unequal gender relations within, and even outside of, religious institutions, as they push women toward accepting certain unequal practices as divinely ordained.

Much of the sociological research on veiling in the United States, amongst converts and born-Muslims alike, imagines veiling largely as an individual choice. My own data suggested a more complicated process. From the women I interviewed and in my observations at the mosque I found that women in the process of converting were constantly being taught – through religious classes that new converts attended – about the proper way to be a Muslim woman. This unequivocally included wearing, at the very least, a headscarf. Rather than being a choice, wearing a headscarf here was clearly presented as a woman’s religious obligation. In their interviews, women who had converted to Islam explained the fraught process of learning to veil. One explained how she resisted wearing the headscarf for a while after she converted because she thought she looked ugly in it. She described her eventual ability to don the headscarf despite her initial misgivings as a triumph of Islam over Satan. She proudly added how she has overcome her vanity to such an extent that now she even incorporated the full-length abaya in her everyday life.

I don’t doubt that for the women I interviewed and observed, wearing a veil and expressing themselves visually as a Muslim was, as sociological literature would suggest, agentic in some ways. These women were, after all, “self-authoring.” But, it’s important to note that these women were also institutionally compelled to view being a “good” Muslim woman as someone who wears, indeed cherishes wearing, a headscarf. Alternative, and perhaps more liberal, forms of “doing” Islam were not here presented as viable ways of being Muslim.

My in-depth data was collected at one mosque. So does this type of soft coercion also occur in other mosques and religious spaces? I think that my findings are part of a broader global trend, where certain forms of conservative Islam are becoming more visible and more mainstream. An example of these well-financed efforts could be the enormous amounts of money that Saudi Arabia provides for building madrassas in some South Asian countries, where particularly conservative forms of Islam are taught to those who will eventually become religious leaders. It would also be in prioritizing the headscarf as symbolizing Muslim women’s identity, as done through the World Hijab Day, as though the headscarf is necessarily the most potent symbol of women’s religious belief in, and practice of, Islam.

Muslim women’s bodies will doubtless remain the ideological battleground over which these contemporary debates about Islam will continue to unfold – particularly given the acutely troubling and anti-Muslim climate in the US and Europe, where all Muslims continue to bear the burden of being seen as responsible for the acts of the aberrant few. Muslims, in ways specific to their history of being in each nation, nevertheless remain the perennial Other who have to disprove their Otherness. At this time, we would do well not to succumb to simplifying complex phenomenon, and to consider the symbolic nuances of the headscarf, as sometimes reflecting agency and sometimes not. As history informs us, this religious and cultural issue is inherently bound up in larger social and economic forces, where some versions of culture/religion may be mobilized more readily at particular times and in specific spaces.

 

Aliya Hamid Rao is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Her research interests are in gender, family, work, religion, and emotions.

photo credit: Alexas_Fotos via pixabay

A recent study by Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer found that 50 percent of Americans feel that by law women should have to take their husbands’ last name. Shafer suggested in an interview that this is a fundamental cultural view: Women should prioritize family over themselves. Such cultural views are evident in other decisions that couples make. Consider the case of the “trailing spouse”—in which one partner follows the other, most commonly a wife follows a husband, almost as if it is part of what it means to be a wife or husband. Thing is, this can happen outside of marriage, too. Women—college women, like me, about to graduate—follow men in support of the man’s career and often at the expense of their own. There are many theories as to why this happens from gender roles to economic practicality to differences in job flexibility. But, I’m not here to talk about theory.

Instead, as a senior in college who is in a relationship, I would like to openly challenge the acceptance of this norm. I am committed to my career goals, such as publishing my own research and working on social policy and to my relationship. I simply relate more to a “backs together facing the world” model than one in which either of us feels the pressure to follow the other at the expense of our own aspirations. I am in good shape: my partner, a lovely guy also about to graduate from college, and I agree on this. Do we want to live with or near each other? Yes. But, we are also both ambitious and are aware that our careers may lead us to separate places at times. This is okay. Loving your work and loving your partner are not mutually exclusive.

Given my views, you can imagine how I felt when reading that half of Americans believe women should legally have to take a man’s last name in marriage. In a world where I feel empowered enough to say yes my relationship matters, and yes my career matters, too, it is disheartening to see the prominence of an opposing worldview. To be clear: I believe name changing is not just a quaint tradition, but also a kind of submission, that can perpetuate the cultural expectation that women should follow men. Following is not the only way to make a relationship work—and there is a lot of research on the new normal in egalitarian relationships and couples satisfaction that suggest that following might not be the best way. That is not to say that studies cannot point to how egalitarian ideals can fall down. But who wants to start out with abandoning egalitarian ideals, by following, or by name changing.

Where do I go from here? Wherever my work takes me.

Megan Peterson is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs and Social Media Intern.

Hey Girl w/ Pen readers! I’m excited to share with you an excerpt of a piece I wrote recently with sociologist, Orit Avishai, on how some evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews challenge stereotypes about conservative religion and sexuality that appears in the latest edition of the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) Contexts magazine. You can read the full article for free for a limited time here.

Orit Avishai and Kelsy Burke. “God’s Case for Sex.” Contexts 15(4): 30-35

The church conference in a small Midwestern town was called, “Intimacy in Marriage,” so Kelsy expected speakers and participants to talk about sex. A graduate student just beginning research on evangelicals and sexuality, she was not expecting the prayers for couples to experience “the deepest sexual pleasure in the name of Jesus Christ” or a raffle for a vibrating massager that sat on a table in the sanctuary. Her field notes were punctuated with exclamation points, like after the phrase, “There is a vibrator in a church!”

On the other side of the globe, in Israel, an Orthodox Jewish bridal counselor discussed with Orit the sexual education component of a twelve-session marriage preparation course. A stern looking woman in her fifties, she served as an example for brides-to-be of Jewish modesty codes—hair covered, she was dressed in a long skirt and shirt with long sleeves and high neckline. Yet she spoke enthusiastically and directly to the sexually uninitiated young women enrolled in the course, telling them to “Get the mood right. Tell him what you want.”

Were it not for the obvious markers of religion, these scenes might not be surprising in the 21st century. At least within western popular culture, “good sex” has seemingly won out over sexual shame and become a prerogative of modern adult life. From advice books like The Joy of Sex to TV shows like Sex in the City and popular podcasts like Savage Love, a fulfilling sex life is promoted as integral to happiness and personal fulfillment. But religious traditions are notorious for sexual rules and norms that seem to fly in the face of modern secular culture, with its emphasis on sexual expression, experimentation, and satisfaction. In fact, many observers associate the expansion of progressive sexual norms and practices with the decline of organized religion.

It is in this context that we examine how some religious followers live and love amid secular and religious messages about sex and sexuality. Kelsy observed, surveyed, and interviewed American evangelical Christians who used websites or attended workshops to discuss sexual pleasure in Christian marriages. Orit interviewed Orthodox Jewish women in Israel about the sexual education that is part of an elaborate marriage preparation. The believers, educators, and experts we interviewed and observed contradicted the stereotype that religiosity is incompatible with sexual pleasure. They self-identified as “traditional,” “conservative,” and “devout,” yet insisted that their religious traditions encouraged sexual pleasure and could even improve how they experienced sexuality. Our respondents learned to navigate the religiously prescribed boundaries surrounding sexuality and embrace “good,” religiously sanctioned sex.

Continue reading at Contexts.org

I’ve long been a fan of Lyn Mikel Brown’s, professor of education and human development, author of six books about gender and girlhood, and cofounder of multiple grassroots organizations and projects, including Powered by Girl, an online media activism campaign for girls by girls. I’ve more recently become a fan of a sophomore in high school named Lilly Bond, whose middle-school activism you may have read about in Time, The Nation, Cosmo, and on feministing. (If not, I urge you to watch this video and learn about it! Lilly rocks.) I put the two of them together to discuss Lyn’s newest book, Powered by Girl: A Field Guide to Supporting Youth Activists. Here’s how their exchange went down. – Deborah

LILLY: My mother used to be a women’s studies professor at Columbia Chicago, as well as Northeastern, so I was raised in a very “girl power” household. I’ve got an older and a younger brother, and my dad’s a high school teacher. In middle school I went through a whole ordeal where the school banned leggings because they were “distracting” to male students. My mother and I did interviews with the news and were written about by several different news outlets including The Chicago Tribune, and Huffington Post. I loved your book. So as I continue my own activism, I’m interested to know: what got you interested in writing it, or even more broadly, what got you into feminism?

LYN: I remember reading about your activism! My interest in feminism developed in high school. Like so many girls, I was frustrated at the way I was treated because of my gender, both at home (I had two brothers who lived much less protected lives) and at school (I was an athlete and the differences between the support and resources available to boys’ and girls’ teams at that time were startling). As I look back, I see I was also naming injustices that arose at the intersection of gender and social class–the ways my experiences were dismissed relative to other girls or times when I was not seen, heard, or taken seriously because I was a working-class girl.

I read a lot. I asked for a gift subscription to Ms. Magazine in high school. I read Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions in college. I took Women’s Studies classes, and was introduced to In a Different Voice, This Bridge Called My Back, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Reading Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice was an epiphany, an “a-ha” moment. I saw how the field of psychology was not all that different from my high school in the ways it privileged the experiences of boys and men. I applied to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to work with Carol and could not believe my luck when I was accepted and later asked to join her research team of graduate students and post docs. We became, collectively, the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development. For years we interviewed girls and young women in schools and community organizations–our goal was to learn about girls by listening to girls. We saw girls as experts on their own diverse experiences. Our goal was to insist that psychology as a discipline do the same.

Powered By Girl has its roots in this early work at the Harvard Project. We were developing a way of listening, a way of being in relationship that centered girls. As I moved into my career, I explored more deeply girls’ lives at the intersections of gender, race, and class.

The book also has its roots in community and online activism. For me, it’s never been enough to write about these issues. I really wanted to work with girls to make the world a better, more just place. In 2000, I joined with community activists to create a local feminist nonprofit, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, and then later with colleagues to create SPARK Movement. SPARK, especially, has become a platform for girl-fueled activism. The SPARKteam taught me so much about what girls need to effectively engage in youth organizing and develop social change campaigns.

So I wrote the book as a way to share what I have learned with more people, including my undergraduate students, and in celebration of girls and the power of intergenerational activism.

LILLY: I can definitely relate to the being-treated-differently-than-brothers thing; it’s frustrating to say the least. Your experience sounds a lot like mine. I’ll have to look up some of those books 🙂
I was also wondering, how would you suggest youth activists get involved and active, and be taken seriously? It can sometimes be hard for young girls to be listened to, as I’m sure you know.

LYN: I think it’s so important for youth activists to seek out allies, to find people and groups who share their passion about issues. I also think it’s important to read about the issues they most care about–to move beyond the surface and better understand the root causes of problems. Youth who have researched and explored issues and who can talk with some authority about why a cause matters are much more likely to be taken seriously. They’re also more likely to attract others who share their concerns. And because they see things more complexly, they are more likely to understand how their concerns intersect with others’, which means they recognize opportunities for coalition building.

I also think it’s important to seek out adults who respect youth as change-makers. They can offer perspective, as well as connections with others who have resources and connections. I know this is tricky–it’s an unusual adult who really listens and supports and doesn’t try to take over. So when you find such a person, take full advantage of what they can offer.

LILLY: I agree totally. Lastly, what do you think will change about feminism in the next few years? What new or old issues do you think will come up?

LYN: Given the presidential election and the rise in racism, homophobia, sexual harassment, toxic masculinity, and the assault on reproductive rights and the environment, I think we will experience a new era of feminist activism. In recent years we’ve made progress on these fronts, but there’s clear indication that these gains can be taken away if we are not vigilant and prepared to fight.

We are facing wicked problems—problems that are widespread, complex, and interconnected—and finding solutions will require us to work across our differences and in coalition. It will require organization and participation on all fronts. In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, activist Jamia Wilson writes, “history has shown us that power is taken, never given, so resistance is critical if we don’t want our freedom eroded.”

I think we are facing a real challenge to our basic rights as human beings and we will be tested.

Journalists’ fixation on objectivity resulted in an embarrassment of deceptive comparisons during the election. Reporters’ use of false equivalencies, oversimplifying one shared trait to compare issues, bears a remarkable resemblance to reporting practices that have impeded progress for women. For example, the myth that women abuse their partners at comparable rates as men is partly attributable to false equivalency reporting, distorting what people believe causes domestic violence and how they imagine solving it.

false-equivalences

The parallels don’t stop there. Attempts to undermine mainstream news are emblematic of the ways men discredit women’s voices. Russian internet trolls spread propaganda during the election, using similar tactics as virtually organized “fathers’ rights” groups who denounce biased child custody cases—despite research showing alleged abusers are twice as likely to be awarded custody than protective parents. Pervasive faux controversies during the election distracted from policy debates, resembling the way the decades-long preoccupation with “mommy wars” delegitimized discussion of policies designed to help women meet work and family demands. The problems of both-sides reporting is akin to comparing ill-informed men’s opinions on reproductive health policy to health providers’ expert recommendations.

Amid the post-election disappointment that another glass ceiling would not be shattered, there is a silver lining in increased demands for better journalism. New research is asking why people believe lies. The commentary generated by a Teen Vogue article and the cancellation of the television show Good Girls Revolt spotlighted the importance of bringing underrepresented groups to the table. And there is hope that changing how news is reported can alter public opinion. After journalists began reporting climate change denial as misinformation, almost 10 percent more Americans acknowledged the seriousness of global warming than the previous year. Mainstream pleas for quality journalism offer an opportunity to improve reporting important to our democracy, and to women’s equality.

Joanna Rae Pepin (@CoffeeBaseball) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland. Her research examines the intersection of the transformation of families and progress towards gender equality. Her current projects investigate the mechanisms behind the way couples share money within their families, and how these in turn shape power dynamics within romantic relationships.

 

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Today, the black woman has been sexualized and objectified in more ways than one. With the degradation of the black woman, the value and uniqueness of them has been ignored. The media offers a made-up truth about black women, and society has swallowed this stereotype. This means Hollywood has a narrow perspective of black women, and only represents a select few. In movies and TV, black women are either a struggling single mom or a successful strong business woman who can’t find love anywhere. Issa Rae, the creator of the hit HBO show Insecure, has come to not only change this narrow-minded portrayal of black women but to also show the many types of women within the black community alone. We are all different.

Insecure is a sequel of the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl that follows Issa, played by Issa Rae. Issa is a 29-year-old “insecure” woman who struggles with everyone’s depiction of her. Although she tries to defy them, stereotypes seem to follow her and ignorant questions become the norm of her everyday life. Issa Rae’s content follows the different sides of women of color and how multidimensional Hollywood’s depiction SHOULD be. Insecure is just what we need in today’s Hollywood and so I looked for a TV fan who could offer some analysis. I found Janelle Jones, whose work I read as a student of inequality. Janelle Jones is an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. Her work focuses on unemployment, job quality, racial inequality, and economic development. She is an alum of Spelman College, where of which she received her BA in Math. She has an MA in Economics from Illinois State University.

Here’s my conversation with Janelle:

Q: Issa Rae believes that Hollywood’s representation of black women isn’t relatable. Do you think Issa Rae is achieving her goal to change that representation?

JJ: I think Hollywood representations of black women are incredibly narrow, and that makes them not relatable to so many. There are three common depictions that have even the slightest focus on black women: some kind of tragic tale about struggle and redemption, black women as the sassy best friend, or black women in the strict position of service. The thing I love the most about Issa Rae and Insecure is this complete human story that centers on a black woman. The HBO series is an extension of her popular web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (great title). The ability for black women to be silly and awkward is not something we get to see on mainstream television.

Q: What direction can we go in (what else needs to be done) for Hollywood moving forward?

JJ: Shows like Insecure (and Atlanta) are taking huge steps forward by showing complete stories centered on very normal aspects of black life. Another huge step would be more people of color behind the scenes, as directors, writers, producers, etc. Part of telling a genuine black experience on TV is making sure that story is in black hands throughout the process, from conception until it reaches the audience. This is particularly hard to do when only certain aspects of the production process are entirely white. The fact that four blacks, Issa Rae, Prentice Penny, Melina Matsoukas, and Larry Wilmore, are in charge of every part of Insecure is obvious, from the dialogue to the fashion to the soundtrack to the locations.

Q: As a Spelman alumna, you’ve probably met women of color from different walks of life. Do you agree with Issa Rae about Hollywood’s representation of black women?

JJ: The first and most lasting lesson I learned at Spelman is that black women are not a monolith. At times there feels a societal need to put us in very rigid boxes: strong, maternal, angry, loud, etc. To me, Issa is saying that black women are those things but also friends and lovers, and awkward, and ambitious, and flawed. And because Issa is the creative force behind the show, and not just the main actor, it feels very real. The experiences of black women filtered through the white gaze feel very different than Insecure. It’s that authenticity that I think black women specifically recognize, respect, and enjoy it.

My second favorite thing about the show is the representation of black female friendship. I can’t think of another show (other than Girlfriends) that illustrates only black women who are true friends. When asked about this aspect of the show in an interview a few months ago, I love Issa’s response: “It’s so important to show that black women do have friends,” Rae says with a sarcastic edge. “We’re not all just fighting and punching each other and cursing each other out and ending up on the Shade Room together.”

Eunice Owusu is a sociology major at Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs intern.

 

Is refusing to wear a corset really breaking news in 2016? As multiple news, fashion, and entertainment sites have discussed over the past week, Emma Watson, the actress playing Belle in Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, will not be wearing a corset in the film. Articles covering this phenomenon state that Watson worked closely with costume designer Jacqueline Durran to recreate Belle’s iconic yellow gown to be “light” with a “lots of movement” because Belle is being reinterpreted as an “active princess.” The dress does hide a cage underneath layers of silk, satin, and organza, and Watson is wearing high-heels, but apparently these features of the dress will not impede the new Belle’s activity level.

Masking the absence of corsets as a major coup for gender equality is like hiding a wolf (or should we say beast?) in sheep’s clothing. It gives the illusions of progress, and generates praise and profits for Disney, without changing anything. Girl’s are already active; their participation in sports is at an all time high. Let’s keep encouraging female physicality. But we really need to stop insisting girls and women look hot while running, dancing, or or leading the free world.

Another major news story this week, at least according to our facebook feeds, is the “huge” decision Victoria’s Secret made regarding their 2016 fashion show. The models will be “embracing” their natural hair. Strangely, Victoria’s Secret’s vision of natural hair doesn’t actually involve letting hair remain natural. Models’ natural texture will be “enhanced” (read: styled) by professionals using a host of products and appliances. But in what is being reported as a major break from the past, every model’s hair will not look exactly the same.

It’s not that refusing corsets or presenting more than one hairstyle isn’t a step forward. But it’s ridiculous to call these decisions a momentous move toward a more inclusive beauty standard. If we’re going to cover this, let’s call it what it is: the teeniest, tiniest tip-toe toward progress.

Victoria’s Secret got the message that they shouldn’t dress white models in racially offensive costumes to sell bras. The lingerie corporation has been featuring more black and brown models in recent years. But skin color is the only way these women deviate from the standard lingerie model “look,” making Victoria’s Secret about as progressive as the Miss World pageant. At least at Miss World the contestants are permitted to talk and wear clothes.

Sustainable social change is often incremental. It doesn’t ever happen as quickly as the people demanding it want. It is partial and provokes backlash. But there’s incremental advancement and then there is recasting the most diminutive wobble toward progress as “making history.” Let’s not reward corporations for exchanging the pink bow on the same old narrowly restrictive beauty standards for a blue one.

Some might see looking to Disney or Victoria’s Secret to model a more inclusive gender or beauty ideal as a lost cause. Both are giant corporations, in the business of selling stuff and generating profits. Unless it leads to more money, they don’t have an incentive to challenge the status quo regarding gender stereotypes or cultural beauty standards.

But Disney and Victoria’s Secret are big business. The Beauty and the Beast trailer was viewed 127.6 million times in 1 day, making it the most watched trailer in a 24 hour period. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show will be broadcast to 800 million viewers in 190 countries on December 5. On the off chance either wants to put their money where their mouth is and “embrace” some real diversity or approach any type of action that could semi-reasonably be referred to as “making history,” here are a few suggestions for Victoria’s Secret:

  • Use a range of models with a variety of body types that average out to the height and weight of the average US woman.
  • Put on a fashion show in which none of the models have had cosmetic surgery.

And for Disney:

  • Make a movie with Emma Watson (who has proved her feminist bona fides on numerous occasions) that isn’t called “Beauty and the Beast.”
  • Cast a Belle who isn’t white, thin, and perfectly in line with conventional beauty standards. Unlikely, we know, but in a world where candlesticks and teacups can talk anything is possible.
  • Clarify what it means for a princess to be “active” (hint: it should involve more than not being a passive damsel in distress). Then make sure this active role model isn’t half the size of her male counterparts.

Let’s stop spreading the pseudo-progressive message that girls can do anything they want as long as they stay thin, tiny, and beautiful while doing it. Until Disney, Victoria’s Secret, or other corporations are interested in making meaningful changes that lead to more inclusive gender and beauty ideals, let’s hold off on all the “celebrating” and “embracing.”

Alexa Trumpy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at St. Norbert College. She studies gender and social movements. Marissa Elliott is an undergraduate student at St. Norbert College. She is double majoring in sociology and psychology and plans to attend graduate school.

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My desk top

Sex gets used a lot of ways–and a number of them are not about shared pleasure and connection. I have written about political sex scandals and the way generations of youth get shamed about their sexual norms. Though it may be facile, I find myself noting “the more things change, the more they remain the same” — the issues change a little bit but the use of sex as a tool of power and control, not so much.

This is sex as political football. Sometimes the games have the veneer of lightness, like a game you play after Thanksgiving dinner. Today, though, I was writing about the use of rape as tool of war.

In 1996 the International War Crimes Tribunal focused on rape  in the Bosnian war, and prosecuted people involved. Discussion of one of those prosecutions was here, and this quotation gripped me:

In a reply to his accusers, Mr. Mejakic, who along with others under indictment remains safely in Serb territory, described Ms. Cigelj as being old and unattractive; he added that he wouldn’t have leaned his bicycle against her, much less raped her.

And then I looked at this, from 20 years later, last month:

Donald Trump on Thursday adamantly denied claims he forced himself on a People Magazine journalist more than a decade ago, responding to her accusation of sexual assault by saying, “Look at her … I don’t think so.”

That’s today’s brief reflection on normalization, 1996-2016.

My undergraduate students and I were recently considering the importance of trauma-informed theory for youth with past experiences of neglect and abuse. While discussing the effects of sexual assault on young women and men in contact with the juvenile justice system, one of my students reacted: “I don’t understand how boys can be raped by women. I mean, how would that even be possible?” I noticed some of the other students nodding their heads in agreement. I’ve had questions like these many times before, mostly from students in my sexual offenses course, when we address rape culture and myths of masculinity that boys, to varying degrees, are pressured to adhere to. This cultural “boy code” insists on invulnerability and dominance through the use of talk like “be a man,” “boys don’t cry,” or “don’t act like a wimp/sissy/fag.”

So I asked my students: “What is it about our culture that allows us to normalize sexual harassment and violence of women, but have such a difficult time understanding men as survivors of violence?” They chatted about socialization and hegemonic masculinity in a culture that so often encourages male power and aggression over women and other men. They offered Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” as an example of rape culture. A culture where, because “boys will be boys,” (some) men are not held accountable for aggressive, harassing, and criminal sexual conduct (Brock Turner and Owen Labrie). Other students shared that their younger siblings in local Milwaukee area high schools were amused by recent sexual assaults by teachers, claiming: “the boys were lucky” and “you know they loved it.”

Sad boyThis kind of talk is not harmless; it is toxic. The effects include normalization and acceptance of objectification, harassment, coercion, aggression, and violence against women. It affects boys’ and men’s relationships with one another as well. The boy code is evident among middle school boys and high school boys, and continues into college. And it impacts how boys and men make sense of sexual violence when they are survivors, rather than perpetrators.

My research on young men experiencing sexual assault demonstrates the grave effects that such cultural discourses can have when boys hear, and attempt to measure up to, expectations of toughness, bravery, invulnerability, and detachment. This false bravado is a barrier for boys when they are deciding whether or not to tell someone about their experience of sexual assault. Rather than risk exposure and scrutiny, many young men in my research chose to remain silent. They believed the abuse was their fault because they failed to defend themselves. Many, like 14-year-old Derek, felt that they should “fight or be strong enough” to have stopped their assault from happening. As 11-year-old Sam explained, real men cannot be victimized because they “hit, and punch in the face.” The boys in my study emphasized a perceived lack of masculinity coupled with their fear of being called gay. Being labeled a victim, especially of sexual assault, was shameful and stigmatizing for many young men because it went against real man talk. Being assaulted meant they did not live up to masculine ideals.

When young men were sexually assaulted by women, they worked to normalize their experience; they described their assault as inconsequential. They were supported by others who helped them understand their victimization to be at least partly reciprocal and certainly less harmful than abuse by a man. This talk reinforced codes of masculinity that men should always want to have sex with women, and are expected to demonstrate sexual dominance. 6-year-old Brent was told by his mother, “That’s what boys do with girls.” And just like my undergraduate student,14-year-old Ken asked, “Can boys be sexually abused?” This discourse of boys and men being perpetually ready for sex hurts these boys, too.

There is little room for young men’s experiences of sexual assault in cultural discourses because we rarely recognize boys’ vulnerability, or provide space for their emotional lives. Indeed, our “be a man talk” has influenced the rates of under-reporting of male sexual victimization across the globe. And this talk is dangerous in that boys must contend with relentless messages encouraging them to disconnect from their emotions, objectify and degrade women, debase homosexuality, and resolve conflicts with violence. It perpetuates a rape culture in which many common forms of harassment and assault remain under-reported, unidentified, silenced, and shamed. These effects are serious, and they affect us all.

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hlavka-picHeather Hlavka is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University.  Her research focuses on sexual violence, gender, law, and social control.

During last night’s debate presidential candidate Donald Trump doubled down on his 2005 conversation with Billy Bush about “grabbing” women “by the pussy,” making moves on one woman “like a bitch,” and the apparent pride he takes in sexually assaulting women: “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” Answering moderator Anderson Cooper’s question, Trump claimed, “It’s locker room talk – it’s one of those things.”

From 2003-2005, right around the same time Trump bragged about his skill at sexual assault, I was studying how teenage boys at a northern California high school, River High, talked about girls and sex. Indeed, much of what they said sounded just like the “locker room talk” Trump refers to. Here are some examples:

In talking about their plans for Winter Ball Josh told Reggie, “I’ll be fucking pissed if I don’t get some.” Reggie advised him “That’s why you take a girl whose gonna do something. I got Jack Daniels!” Josh countered, “I got a big bag of marijuana…the sooner I get her drunk the sooner I get laid.” Reggie triumphantly bragged, “I can get laid any time, anywhere.”

Jerome complained that he was not “gonna get laid at Winter Ball.” Josh admonished “That’s why you gotta go for the younger ones fool! Like 12 years old!” Josh then claimed he was “so good” at sex that he couldn’t “control the girl from thrashing around on the bed and hurting herself on the headboard.”

In weightlifting class, Pedro proceeded to act out his previous night’s sexual adventures, “Dude I had sex with my girlfriend last night. She tied me to the bed! I was like damn!” Josh chimed in, shaking his head knowingly, “never let a girl tie you up.” Pedro laughed and continued to say proudly “I did her so hard when I was done she was bleeding. I tore her walls!”

In autoshop Jay talked about a girl he thought was “hella ugly” but had “titties:” “She’s a bitch. I might take her out to the street races and leave her there so she can get raped.” All the other boys in auto-shop, as usual, responded in laughter.

While Trump framed this sort of sex talk as “just words,” as “things that people say,” this sort of talk undergirds what feminist scholars call “rape culture” in which symbolic violence, especially humorous symbolic violence, dehumanizes women, reducing them to sexual objects. It is precisely the joking quality of many of these instances that make them so hard to see as serious endorsements of violence against women. The line between talk and action, however, is much less clear than Trump claims. For instance, Jay, the boy who talked about raping the “hella ugly” girl who was a “bitch” but had “titties” regularly harassed the only girl in his autoshop class:

One afternoon Jay walked up to Tammy and stood behind her deeply inhaling, his nose not even an inch away from her hair. Clearly uncomfortable with this, she moved to the side. He asked her if she was planning to attend WyoTech (Wyoming Technical College, a mechanic school). She responded “yes.” He said “I’m going too! You and me. We’re gonna be in a room together.” He closed his eyes and started thrusting his hips back and forth and softly moaning as if to indicate that he was having sex.

Girls at River High suffered from this kind of physical sexual “joking” on a regular basis:

Walking between government and drama classes, Keith yelled “GET RAPED! GET RAPED!” as he rhythmically jabbed a girl in the crotch with his drumstick. She yelled at him to stop and tried to kick him in the crotch with her foot. He dodged and started yelling “CROTCH! CROTCH!”

Locker room talk is not “just words.” It is not funny. It is not harmless. And it is certainly not limited to the locker room. This kind of sex talk is a central part of normative masculinity in the global West. It is a way in which some men simultaneously endorse and dodge such endorsement of sexual assault. It is a way in which violence against women and women’s bodies are rendered “just jokes” or “guy talk.” In fact, the girls in my study were often used by young men as props in their competition for status and recognition from one another.

As feminist scholar Adrienne Rich powerfully argued, heterosexuality not only describes sexual desires, practices and orientations; it is also a “political institution.” The “enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economic and emotional access” is a central component of gender inequality. The locker room talk examples of “mythic-story telling” in which boys and men tell humorous larger than life tales about their sexual adventures, their bodies, and girls’ bodies are an important way in which men maintain sexual dominance over women. And dominance is central to contemporary American masculinity – dominance over other men, dominance over other countries, dominance over one’s political opponent, and yes, dominance over women.

So, sure, let’s use Donald’s locker room metaphor. But let’s also remember that Donald was not actually in a locker room when he claimed to have participated in sexual violence and assault to barter for status with another man. He was on a tour bus. He could have just as easily been in a board room, the men’s restroom at a corporate law firm, a strip club, a fraternity, an internet forum, a workplace, a school, a family picnic. Having people claim that he “did not really mean” what he said, or that those comments are inconsistent with “the man they know” does not actually undo the power of the words. Trump’s “locker room talk” is more than locker room talk; it’s an interactional ritual in which boys and men participate. They do it to establish status amongst one another. And just like the high school boys I studied, women often play the “role” of prop in this dramatic performance.

So, yes, it may very well have been “just locker room talk.” But there’s actually a science of locker room talk, Mr. Trump. And it suggests that your “talk” is and was related to institutionalized forms of inequality that make life dangerous for girls and women (and, yes certain men). These “jokes” and “words” are not unique to one time or place and they are not without consequence; rather they are part of, and indeed central to, persistent gendered inequality and violence.

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*A big thank you to Sarah Diefendorf and Tristan Bridges for their feedback on this essay.