This Valentine’s Day, I’ve already posted on my own blog about a frustrating tendency for those writing about feminism and dating to focus on heterosexual relationships.  The idea seems to be that most of the problems with modern romance are focused on gender differences and the tension created by struggles for gender equality.  Researchers and popular writers alike are concerned by the differences between men and women, how women’s successes affect their ability to start families, the impact of gender equality on inherently unequal dating scripts, and whether men or women want, do, or think X more.

Perhaps queerness is simply a complicating variable that a lot of researchers don’t want to get into, particularly when asking questions about male/female difference in dating and romance.  Certainly there are some researchers working on queer relationship issues, particularly on the difference between queer and straight couples, but for this Valentine’s Day “Relating Radically” column, I really want to focus on some questions that might get to the creative and radical core of queerness–something that isn’t exclusive to same-sex relating, and doesn’t appear in every same-sex relationship, but is a valuable object of study.

Sample Questions for Further Study:

  • How do romantic or sexual partnerships relate to friendships and chosen family relationships in a given queer community?
  • How do queers find relationship education in adolescence and adulthood?
  • What is the relationship between interpersonal relationships and queer activism?
  • What is the role of sex and romance in the life of a queer community?
  • How does public and semi-public space function in queer dating?
  • How do queers resist romantic scripts of the dominant culture?
  • How do transgender identities impact sexual scripts or sexual assumptions?
  • How do queer people see their own sexual or relational roles?
  • What are community values around relationships and how do they differ between different queer communities?
  • How common or normative is monogamy in queer communities and how is it understood?
  • How are queer “chosen families” formed?

Similar questions might also be brought up in the classroom where relevant.  Though it may not often be appropriate to question students on their personal romantic experiences, questions about queer romantic values, norms, and practices may come up in the context of certain discussions.  For example, the relationship between the personal and political around the rise of AIDS activism in the 1980s is a particularly interesting example where sexual practice, chosen families, public health, race, activism, and art all intersected at one political moment.  A sociology class might be interested in examining particular sexual or relationship-based queer subcultures.  A women’s studies course looking at the modern family should certainly consider queer families, and perhaps look at alternative family models such as the queer commune or polyamorous relationship structure.

Though the queer dating world is far from idyllic, it does offer some interesting opportunities for discussion.  It is also not hard to see a relationship between feminist and queer values.  One might consider the difference between heteronormative, capitalist-tied gay cultures on the one hand and more creative queer cultures on the other.

Sometimes, I think it would do academic feminists good to read a little more about sex.

Big Big Love, Revised: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them) by Hanne Blank (Celestial Arts 2011), recently released in its second edition, is written and marketed as a sex manual for fat people and their partners.  And as a sex manual, it’s quite good.  But the reason why I’m reviewing a sex manual on an academic feminist blog is that the book offers a perspective on fat sexuality that you’re unlikely to find in any academic text, and it’s a perspective worth reading.

Blank’s tone is cheeky, sharp, and irreverent–she dismisses criticisms of fat people and fat sexuality with a quick blast of facts and a reframing of the question.  By placing fat sexuality as a positive thing, and looking directly at the issues surrounding it, she sets an example to academics working in the areas of relationships, sexuality, feminist studies, and fat studies.

Too often in academic research, it’s easy to become ensnared by groupthink.  Obesity is an epidemic, for example, and can only be viewed as a problem.  Fat stigma is bad, but the solution is to attack the fat.  Why not celebrate fat people and fat sexuality instead, and attack stigma and discrimination?  Blank, who comes from an academic background, doesn’t live in a fantasy-land when discussing fat sexuality, and she recognizes the problems that can arise around health, fetishism, and negative self-image, among other things.  But she’s also careful to avoid the trap of generalizing.

Health, for example, is addressed in the book as an issue.  Nobody should be practicing sexual gymnastics without a warm-up.  But Blank points out the fallacy of myths about fat people crushing skinnier partners, or being completely unable to move in coitus.  Whether one can achieve a particular sexual position is related to strength, stamina, and flexibility.  In many cases, it’s not related to body size alone, or volume of fatty tissue.

It’s funny that a sex manual would run into the classic academic problems of correlation versus causation, science versus assumption, but in a way it makes sense.  Bad science often evolves into popular myth.  And here, the scientists might be able to learn a little from the popular sex guide.  Feminist academics were quick to lambast recent studies claiming that black women are less attractive, or that women are naturally submissive, but many of the same academics remain on the “your fat is killing you” bandwagon.  Fat is a subject that’s uncomfortable because for many it’s personal, and linked strongly with shame and personal history.

Big Big Love reminds us that any topic can be discussed rationally if we bring it into the light and speak its name.  Part of why it was such a big deal when it was first released is that fat sexuality wasn’t a topic for positive, rational discussion.  Not among doctors, or researchers, or academics, or most everyday Joes.  Unfortunately, not much has changed outside the fat positive blogosphere.  So maybe a fat sexuality manual has nothing to do with your research, but reading it might be good for you.  It’s a reminder that we study living, breathing people, and that research is not immune from popular myth.

Body Politic is a new co-authored column at Girl w/ Pen on queer bodies, law, and policy.  Avory will be writing this column along with Kyla Bender-Baird, our newest editor.  Kyla is a writer, researcher, and activist currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center.


When interviewing self-identified transgender people for my book, Transgender Employment Experiences, I had several conversations about the intersections of visibility, passing, and discrimination.  These conversations were particularly striking in regards to transmen who transitioned from a highly visible, queer identity to a passing male identity (whether or not that’s how they experience their gender).  These experiences illuminate how privilege works and underscore the importance of providing protection for gender expression in addition to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Visibility was a key element in the interviewee’s stories of harassment.  For instance, Carey—a queer white transman in his mid-20s living in New York—had this to say during our conversation: “A lot of what being trans is, especially if you go on hormones and have surgery, is becoming an identity that, although it’s a stigmatized and oppressed identity, it’s not a visible identity anymore.”  Carey was far from alone in this analysis.  Several of the folks I interviewed brought up how their experiences of harassment related to how visible their trans and/or queer identity was. Dante, a queer South Asian transman in his early 30s also living in New York, reported that he experienced more harassment as a butch than as a transman.  Dante now passes as a gender normative, non-trans man whereas before his gender expression as a butch signaled “difference” and triggered harassment.

From these experiences, a strong connection between visibility, homophobia, and harassment can be drawn. As trans men’s identities became less visible, they faced less harassment. Being able to blend into society, therefore, sometimes protects one from discrimination. Professor Kristen Schilt’s research on trans men in the workplace confirms this trend: “as they become men, some FTMs in blue collar jobs report that their work relations became more collegial than they were when they worked as ‘butch’ women.”  Schilt attributes this change to the movement of trans men from a stigmatized identity (butch) to a valued and privileged identity (man) with many workplace benefits. While I agree with Professor Schilt, I would like to push this analysis further, suggesting that it is the move from gender nonconformity to gender normativity and thus the erasure of a visible queer identity that also leads to the lessening of harassment.

The trans women I interviewed also reported on the relationship of harassment and visibility, only they used the language of “passing.”  For instance, Zoe—a straight white trans woman in her 50s living in Texas—reported instances of harassment, which she attributed to her “unconventional gender presentation.”

While harassment caused by a visible, non-normative gender or sexual identity can happen to folks anywhere in the gender galaxy,  the experiences of the transmen I spoke with are particularly telling due to the interplay of gender identity and sexual orientation and how changes in these identities were followed by changes in visibility and subsequently occurrences of harassment.

All but two of the people I spoke with on the trans feminine spectrum transitioned from a straight male identity to a female identity; one experimented with a gay male identity prior to transitioning and the one bigender-identified person still maintains a masculine presentation on some days. For those on the trans masculine spectrum, the transition was from a lesbian or bisexual female identity to a more masculine identity. The affirmed gender identity and sexual orientation of the participants on the trans masculine spectrum post-transition was split between three straight men and three queer transmen. Thus, participants on the trans masculine spectrum articulated not only their experiences with transphobia but also homophobia—particularly pre-transition.  Chris and Courtney, both young white straight trans men living on the east coast, related their experiences of homophobic harassment prior to transitioning or coming out as trans. Going from a visible lesbian identity to an invisible straight identity has decreased the homophobic harassment both men have faced. Their experiences demonstrate that it is often the visibility of queerness that triggers harassment.

The centrality of visibility in the experiences of trans, queer, and gender non-conforming folk confirms the importance of including gender expression in legal protections as it is often gender expression that triggers harassment and discrimination.  The interplay of gender identity and sexual orientation also confirms the importance of working in coalition for broad social recognition.  Our social movements must reflect the complex identities of the people they claim to represent if we are to make any progress.


What you’re saying about queer visibility here really strikes home for me, and I do think that a lot of it stems from the professional context, what’s seen as “professional.”  Of course, that varies from workplace to workplace, but most of what I’ve read in international law publications about workplace discrimination, and what I’ve seen among peers, really boils down to perception rather than a professed identity.  If someone is perceived to be queer (gender-wise or sexuality-wise), there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to push that person out of the professional circle, to stigmatize queer presentation as unprofessional.

Saying that someone is “unprofessional” can be a convenient mask for discrimination.  It disproportionately happens to people who present a certain way—visibly queer, not conforming to gender norms in terms of hair and clothing, but also “punk” or “urban.”  There’s a clear intersection with class and race.  While it’s reasonable to set a dress code for a professional environment, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that’s gender-neutral.

Legal protections against discrimination get at the heart of the problem with “unprofessional” serving as a proxy for “queer in a way that makes me uncomfortable.”  If an employer wants to claim that disciplinary action is being taken due to a violation of professional standards under the kind of protections you’re talking about, that person can do so, but has to prove that the standards are actually reasonably related to a business interest—not just arbitrary discrimination based on “non-conforming” gender expression. These laws are a definite step in the right direction against workplace discrimination based on queer visibility.


I’m so glad you brought up dress codes!  In the fall of 2007 (yes, the very weekend that the first trans-inclusive ENDA was split into two bills), I attended HRC’s Out for Work conference.  During the conversation, several young, visibly queer students repeatdely brought up concerns about how to navigate conservative workplace dress codes while still maintaining their queer identity. For them, their identity was written on their body.  But how would that work in the job search process?  Unfortunately, panelists skirted the issue by pointing to all the companies listed in HRC’s annual Corporate Equality Index.  This oversight continues to haunt me. In fact, I write about it in my introduction to the section on dress codes in Transgender Employment Experiences.  In addition to passing laws and policies, we also need to do a better job as a community of helping each other navigate these often hostile spaces that don’t deal well with visible “otherness.”

Confession: When I saw the teaser Bisexual Men Do Exist, Study Finds on the New York Times home page last week, I laughed.  Bi erasure is a real, frustrating cultural phenomenon―at times it seems that we are simply incapable of imagining more than one kind of erotic desire happening in a human being at the same time―but there was just something about seeing that featured on the website for the paper of record that seemed ludicrous.

Unfortunately, it’s not really a laughing matter.  The study in question follows a 2005 study that was unable to show that bisexual attraction exists in men, and the current study supposedly provides reassuring proof that such attraction can be found.  How?  Well.  Porn.

For the methodological issues, see this piece in the Guardian.  More generally, I would just point out that it’s silly to base an answer to whether a sexuality exists on whether a sample of men who claim that sexuality experience erections in a lab setting while viewing a narrow range of pornography.  I found it interesting, especially, that the pornography was either male-male or female-female―while heterosexual porn would make it more difficult to know which actor the subject was reacting to, I find it a bit problematic that we seem to be operating on the “men who like women enjoy watching lesbians having sex” assumption.  Of course, we’re also ignoring the possibility that bisexual men might not be turned on by the sex acts being portrayed, the actors, the scenario, or any number of other factors.

The big thing that bugs me, though, about research like this, is that it’s so incredibly reductive about sexuality and claimed sexual identity.  Amy Andre put it beautifully on the Bilerco Project:

Bisexual identity is as much about language as it is about sexuality. If someone says he is bisexual, he is bisexual. He is bisexual as soon as he says he’s bisexual, because that is the word that he uses to describe his sexuality. As long as the word bisexual has been accessible for people to use to describe their sexuality, there have been men who did so.

It is crucial for researchers and academics to understand that someone is a given sexual or gender identity because they say so.  Studies like this get away from the fact that people experience their sexuality in a myriad of ways, which makes sexuality interesting.  Bisexual people may be attracted to a narrow group of people in a given gender, or may experience attraction to one gender differently than the other.  They may claim an identity for political reasons, or based on past experience.  They may tend to be sexually attracted to one gender more quickly (for example, watching porn) and develop attraction towards a member of the other gender more slowly, through getting to know a person.  (Of course, I’m leaving out a big chunk of people here that identify as neither male nor female, and I cringe using terms like “the other” gender, but I want to respect the use of the term bisexuality here.)

These studies are just as silly as the ones that try to claim some evolutionary or biological reason for how men and women relate to one another.  Sometimes, searching for deeper meaning in a scientific way is actually incredibly limiting.  The reporting of a study like this in the media further contributes to narrow ideas of what sexuality means and what possibilities are available.  It creates a self-reinforcing narrow idea of sexuality, and turns bisexual people into the unicorns of the LGBT movement.  It doesn’t really do a service to anyone.

Who are bisexual men?  Men who say they are bisexual.  Period.


Okay folks, it’s time to put on my legal hat.

I recently came across a case that brings up some really interesting questions about law, feminism, and relationships, and I’d like to share some of the issues with you.  This is a case about marriage, sort of, but not same-sex marriage.  It’s a case about a law that interferes with privacy in the bedroom, but it’s not a sodomy law.  It’s a case that’s going to make the parade of horrible folks really, really nervous.

The case in question involves a polygamous family suing the state of Utah in hopes that an anti-bigamy law will be overturned.  This family isn’t asking for the right to legal marriage, but rather that the state not interfere in their personal relationships by making an additional purported marriage or marriage-like relationship illegal when someone is already legally married.

When we think about privacy law, we think about rights to do things versus freedoms from government intervention.  The latter are usually easier to claim, because they require no resources.  The government just has to stay out.  If it doesn’t have some compelling state interest that allows for intervention, then we end up with a result similar to Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which is the case being used as precedent here to challenge the Utah law.

Of course, feminist lawyers and legal activists tend to have some difficulties when polygamy gets involved, and understandably so.  I’ve seen several recent feminist critiques of polygamy, pointing to its misogynist history and relationship with the Mormon church.  But this isn’t the only context for polygamous or polyamorous relationships.  In my opinion, the government has no business regulating relationships between consenting adults when those adults are making no claims to legal rights based on the relationship.

There is no one true feminist position when it comes to what relationships should be “allowed,” but I tend to believe that one of the most important tenets of feminism is the freedom to develop relationships in whatever way one chooses.  There are many polyamorous feminists, just like there are many queer feminists, many religious feminists, many married feminists and unmarried feminists and child-free feminists and feminists with children.  There are all sorts of way to create a family outside those that are legally recognized and supported.  The lead counsel in this case has it right when he describes the irrational way we pick and choose among those family types to determine public policy and law.

Eventually, I hope that the legal recognition scheme for marriage will become more sensible, but until that point, I hope that cases like this one succeed.  At the very least, adults should be able to form relationships in whatever way they choose, and cement those relationships with religious ceremonies, cohabitation, or whatever else they feel is appropriate.  Utah is simply out of line.

Photo by Orin Zebest

There’s been a bit of buzz in the media in the past week about a study published in April in the Journal of Marriage & Family that finds some correlation between women having sex as a teenager and divorcing later in life.  So far, most of the coverage seems to imply that the data supports parents telling teens to hold back and wait until they’re adults to have sex–but is that conclusion really supported?

First, the study doesn’t necessarily say that all women who have sex under the age of 18 are more likely to divorce.  Those who have sex before the age of 16, and especially those whose first sexual experiences were unwanted or negative in some other way, are much more likely to divorce than those who have a consensual sexual experience as an older teen.  The study author suggests that negative experiences, especially, may impact a woman’s views on sex and relationships and make divorce more likely later on.

However, what I find interesting is that none of the articles about this study, even those that point out possible sex-positive interpretations of the data, question the positioning of divorce as a “risk” for women, a negative occurrence that we should try to prevent in any way we can by adjusting the messages we send teens.

I’m not saying that divorce isn’t unpleasant.  Very few people enjoy getting a divorce, but it is worth questioning whether divorce reduction is actually a policy goal that makes any sense.

The dissolution of a relationship is a choice, like the decision to have consensual sex as a teen is a choice.  I can’t help but wonder whether one explanation of the data, particularly for those women who had a consensual sexual experience as a teen and then divorced later on, might be that those women were more likely to make autonomous, informed choices about their sexuality and their relationships than their peers.  I’ll concede that I don’t find this very likely as historical fact–unfortunately, most kids growing up in this completely skewed and destructive sexual culture don’t have the skills needed to make informed choices about sex–but I think it is one explanation we should consider going forward.  Might parents not embrace a scenario where a daughter is informed and positive about sex as a teen, and then goes on to end her adult relationships when she is no longer happy maintaining them?

Given the history of “til death do us part” and lifelong marriage as the norm, we’ve been conditioned to think of divorce as a bad, negative thing, a sign of failure in a relationship.  But is it realistic to expect a relationship to last forty, fifty, sixty years?  Many relationships do end, and that’s okay.  I think we should raise our children with the skills to negotiate in a relationship and recognize when the dissolution of the relationship is the best solution for everyone involved.  As the child of two people who divorced amicably after a 12-year marriage, and have spent the next 18 years after that as best friends, I may be a little bit biased.  But I think this kind of attitude towards divorce is healthier than seeing it as a familial apocalypse, a consequence to be avoided at all costs.

I think it would be interesting to ask, for further study, what correlation the age of a woman’s first sexual experience has with marital happiness.  Are all those “successful,” not-divorced women satisfied with their marriages?  Have they experienced physical, verbal, or emotional abuse?  What are their attitudes towards divorce?  This study isn’t a bad start, but I think we need to know more to get a clear picture.

Last month, the CDC released a report that I’m going to pick on a little bit, though I’ve seen numerous researchers make similar faux pas in surveys I’ve taken and studies I’ve read.  The report, Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States, uses data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth to summarize findings on these topics.  I’m just going to harp on a tiny bit of the survey design, because I think it’s illustrative of a broader point about how survey design can reflect and even shape attitudes about what is and isn’t a sex act, and what is and isn’t a sexual relationship.

Now, to be fair, the NSFG is primarily about addressing things like pregnancy, marriage, and STIs.  The portion of the survey that focuses on sexual acts includes same-sex partners but it’s still geared towards things like STI risk, and thus focuses on sex acts that have a high STI risk like penetration and oral sex.  But there’s still a big problem in the way it describes the possible sex acts for males and females.

Note: The portion below the cut may not be safe for work due to frank descriptions of sexual acts.

Women and men who take the survey both get the same set of three questions about sexual history with members of the opposite sex–one about penis-in-vagina (PIV) intercourse and two about oral sex, giving to or receiving from an opposite-sex partner.  However, the section on same-sex behavior is different.  The differences begin with the instructions:

The next questions ask about sexual experiences you may had with another female.

The next questions ask about sexual experiences you may have had with another male.  Have you ever done any of the following with another male?

Ignoring the typo, the only difference is in the second question, which females don’t get.  It seems to me that the ever might encourage men taking the survey to think harder about whether they’ve done anything might qualify, while the women who don’t receive that directive could conceivably write off behavior they’re not sure about, which they might have included if they’d been given the second sentence.

More troubling, to me, are the questions themselves.  Women are first asked two questions about oral sex, giving or receiving.  Then, if they answer “no” to either of those questions, they get a third question, “have you ever had any sexual experience of any kind with another female?”

The justification for this method is that when the last question was used alone, it was too vague.  The researchers presumably still use it in order to catch sexual activity that doesn’t fall under oral sex, but to me this seems sloppy.  If they’re only looking for activities that they consider risky, why not define and ask the specific questions?  Using a vague definition might lead to inclusion of activities (clothes-on grinding or fingering, for example) that are very low-risk, skewing the numbers.

Men don’t get a question like this, but instead four specific questions about specific activities: oral, giving or receiving, and anal, giving or receiving.  This is going to be more clear when it comes to risk; however, my problem with the way the questions are worded is less about the results and more about how they both reflect our perceptions of “normal” activity and communicate what is “normal” to survey-takers.

There are plenty of sex acts not covered by the survey, and some of those do carry an STI risk.  The researchers could do two things to avoid alienating those whose sexual practices are different.  First, they could state that the following questions are being used to find out about STI risks, and therefore the acts described do not include very low-risk behaviors.  In that scenario, a more exhaustive list should be given (for example, rimming or mouth-to-anus contact, vaginal or anal penetration with toys, frottage without clothes on).  Second, they could list a wider variety of acts in order to include everyone, presenting all the options as normal, and simply not use the answers about low-risk activities in the work on STIs.  Either way, it would make sense to evaluate the results and use them in the context of STI prevention based on sex act, not on the broad category of “same-sex” activity that includes acts carrying varying degrees of associated risk.

Without more explanation, those taking the survey are likely to feel like certain acts are “standard” and others are “deviant.”  Women who have not had oral sex with a female partner are likely to be confused by the vague question about same-sex activity and any responses given there are pretty much useless, since everyone’s definition would differ.  It also contributes to the idea that same-sex activity between women is pretty much a mystery, that we have no idea how women can have safe sex, and we kind of want to avoid the topic if at all possible.

This isn’t the only survey I’ve seen that does this, by far.  I think, in most cases, researchers have good intentions.  They want to get accurate results, focused on whatever they’re studying, be it STIs or pregnancy or relationship behaviors or whatever else.  But it’s important to think about the impact the survey design may have on those taking it, and also what you might miss when designing a survey to reflect cultural norms about sex acts that might not mirror reality.

We all receive daily cultural messages to remind us that a particular series of acts is normal: possibly manual contact (entirely optional), followed by oral sex (more important for men than women, perhaps), followed by PIV sex.  Same-sex couples now hear similar messages: men are expected to have oral or anal sex, and for women oral sex should be the be-all-end-all, possibly with a side of fisting (thanks, Chasing Amy!)  Other forms of sexual contact, such as manual contact for its own sake or using sex toys may not come up.  The erotic potential of massage, kissing, or “non-sexual” kinky activities is pretty much ignored in most mainstream conversations.  This idea of a linear progression, or sex as drawing from a particular list, is an insult to our imaginations.

A good survey should be specific about the acts it’s describing, and be honest about limitations.  There’s always the “other” box option where participants can describe things not on the list, but the vague yes-or-no question about sexual activity doesn’t communicate much to the researcher and makes the participant feel like her sexual activity is mystical or unusual without giving her an opportunity to actually say anything about it.  Researchers shouldn’t make assumptions–for example, in the CDC survey, if someone says that they are married to or cohabit with an opposite-sex partner, history of PIV sex is assumed.

The whole approach smacks to me as ableist, gender-biased, and just kind of puritanical.  Let’s try not to assume what anyone does in their sexual relationships.  When writing a survey to find out about sexual behavior, do the terribly radical thing and… ask about sexual behavior.

Calling all young scholars, students, and feminist research mavens!  We’re looking for contributors for a new rotating-authored column called “The Next Generation.”  (Apologies to the Star Trek franchise.)  This column is geared towards would-be Girl w/ Pen contributors who may not yet established as feminist scholars, but still have a lot to say about bridging the gap between feminist research and popular reality.  We’re looking for contributors under 30 to submit guest posts to this monthly column, which will include a range of topics.  You can find general criteria for contributions on our Submit Your Ink page.  If you’re interested, just submit a short pitch to me (Avory) via the contact form.  Please spread the word widely and if you know any promising young feminists who might like to submit a post, pass it on!

woman showing regret
photo by grau codrin

I was surprised this month when a small study came out with a conclusion related to relationships and the major news sources actually reported it, well, somewhat accurately.  Lately, there’s been no shortage of misleading reporting on relationship-related studies, and particularly studies related to how men and women are different.  I’m getting pretty sick of hearing the old, tired line about how young feminist women are finding themselves dissatisfied in relationships, combined with the implicit “I told you so” in the journalist’s tone.

This new study, to be published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, focused on regret.  Among other things, the researchers asked a random sample of the American population to describe a major regret in their lives and then categorized those regrets into life areas.  The takeaway that reporters chose to lead with was the finding that romantic regrets are the most common, and that women are more likely to have romantic regrets, while men are more likely to have regrets about their careers.  I found the news stories to be pretty accurate as far as how they reported the study–the problem, this time, comes from how we’re trained to read the media.

Headlines like “Bad Romance: Women Regret Love Failures More Than Men” and “Most Women Regret Failed Relationships More Than Anything Else” might as well read “Breaking News: Gender Binary Still in Tact!”  For people who tend to skim, or just read the first paragraph of a story, the quick takeaway from this study is not only that women care more about romance and tend to be disappointed, but that there is a clear divide between how men and women think about relationships and about their regrets.  In fact, the study actually left a lot of questions, and doesn’t really prove that this is true.

The sample size was small–only about 76 respondents actually completed the survey, which was done by using random digit dialing to get a representative sample.  (The news articles tend to say only that 370 people were called, but a lot of those didn’t answer or didn’t complete the survey.)  The researchers were hoping to expand on previous studies that used college students as a population, since that group is younger and more educated than the population at large and might tend to experience regret differently.  They decided to look at how different demographic factors influence regret, which I applaud, but they didn’t really report on how those factors interact.

For example, those not currently in a relationship were more likely to have relationship regrets.  Were more of the women surveyed not currently in a relationship than the men, or was it about even?  Similarly, while the results were explained by women’s tendency to privilege social relationships more than men, I wonder if the opposite might be true.  If the women surveyed happened to be very successful in their careers, you wouldn’t expect them to have as many regrets about career.  Regret doesn’t necessarily match up to the area someone is most focused on–you might have more regrets about an area you don’t have time to focus on instead.

Another factor I’d be interested to know more about is the importance of social pressure.  In other words, are women feeling more pressured to care about relationships and do well in the romantic arena, and thus have more regrets when they don’t?  Or could social pressure be acting in a different way, encouraging women to enter into romantic relationships in a way or at a time that’s not right for them?  I would think that kind of pressure might tend to create regret if someone had an opportunity for a relationship style that felt right for them but weren’t able to overcome social pressure to be more “traditional,” or if someone entered into a “traditional” relationship due to societal expectations and later realized a tension between that relationship and personality.  Similarly, it would be interesting to know whether a woman’s family background, education, and hometown have any correlation with her regrets, but the study is simply too small to find anything out about the influence of these factors.

Finally, something you’ll find out about me as this column continues is that I have a bit of a hawk eye for essentializing gender, and for queer erasure.  While I don’t think this study necessarily presumes heterosexuality, there’s no data on the sexual orientation of those surveyed, and the way things are broken down by gender means that the reporting is necessarily going to fall along these lines as well.  Any time you compare men vs. women in the area of romantic relationships, I think there tends to be an assumption that men and women are in relationships with each other, and so the tension is between two competing relationship styles bumping up against each other in a relationship.  This isn’t a critique of the researchers, exactly, but of the way we tend to read research.  I think it’s a challenge to look at that quick headline grab and question the assumptions that pop up, but one worth pursuing.

Dear Girl w/ Pen readers,

You may remember that just before the new year, Deborah posted about some exciting changes coming in 2011. If you do remember that post, you may wonder whatever happened to those exciting changes! Well, they are coming slowly but surely, and I wanted to step in, introduce myself, and tell you a little bit about what’s going to be happening in 2011. My name is Avory, and I’ve recently come on board as Girl w/ Pen’s webmaster. I’ll also be writing a column called Relating Radically, and you can read more about me on my bio page.

We’re excited about changes to the blog in a few areas, and I’d like to take a moment to tell you about them:

  1. Site Design. Bit by bit, I’ll be updating the site design to make it more attractive and easier to navigate.  If you enjoy the Girl w/ Pen site and would like to offer suggestions on how we could improve the site to make it easier for you to use, please let me know using the “Contact” link in the menu above!
  2. Social Media. We want it to be easy for you to get the latest feminist research and our spin on current issues.  To that end, our social media streams are now active and ready for you to subscribe.  You can find us on Twitter @girlwpen or on Facebook via the Girl w/ Pen Facebook Page.  I’ll be updating those streams regularly with new Girl w/ Pen posts, and you can also Tweet us or leave a comment on our wall if you have something you think Girl w/ Pen readers should know about.  And as always, you can also subscribe to our blog using RSS.
  3. New Content. In addition to my new column, Relating Radically, we’ll soon be looking for guest posters to write for a new monthly column featuring young scholars (under 30).  We’ll post the details about that opportunity soon, but in the meantime, if you know anyone who might be interested, ask them to follow Girl w/ Pen for updates!  You can also always contact us (see “Submit Your Ink”) above if you’re interested in writing a guest post.  Be sure to read the guidelines there to find out what we’re looking for.

Thanks for reading, and I’m glad to be on board with this amazing group of writers!