Bridgette A. Sheridan is a historian of sexualities at Framingham State University. When Karen Owen’s PowerPoint became news–she’s the Duke student who sent her friends a faux presentation based on her “sex research” on a sample of men whom she’d slept with–Bridgette followed the story with curiosity and then dismay. I had a conversation with her today in her kitchen in Cambridge. Here’s what she said.

VR: So, tell me again what’s your problem with the Karen Owen/Duke Faux Thesis Controversy?

BAS: Yea, I don’t get it. Why is this news? A white woman at an elite college reports in a mildly witty way her sexual adventures—her “dirty sex.” The story gets attention because people are shocked! shocked! shocked! by this “role reversal.” They puzzle over whether this is “good” or “bad” and speculate about its value as a “feminist turning point.”

VR: So that’s not really news?

BAS: This is like stories we’ve been told for a long time, particularly about white middle class women and sexuality. It is an old story about gender, about sex, about race, about class. The story is that “these girls are dirty too.” And then much excitement, worry, and titillation follows. Even though being naughty has been a familiar part of the sexual landscape in America for a long time, we keep getting especially worked up about it when we hear about it from yuppy women.

VR: What is dirty sex?

BAS: Hmmm. For white elite girls it is sex without commitment. It is sex focused on her own pleasure, rather than on her emotions about the person with whom she was having sex. Blow jobs rather than intercourse. Talking dirty rather than keeping the lights out. Sexting rather than sending flowers.

I love the question “what is dirty sex” because it draws our attention to how much sex is coded through social class, not just gender.

When I first started reading about the Duke episode, what I thought of immediately was the Milton Academy sex scandal of a few years ago, and it even took me back to Katie Roiphe’s commentary on date rape in the early 1990s.

VR: What happened at Milton?

BAS: Through an expose (Restless Virgins [!]) published in 2007 by young women from Milton Academy we learned about the fabulous, terrible sexual underworld at Milton after news broke of a 15-year-old female student giving blow jobs to five male athletes in the locker room at Milton.  According to Time, the charge about the book was that it read more like soft porn than sociology.

I would argue that the shocking and fascinating part for most people was “this is happening at an elite institution” – “these girls have so much to live for.”

VR: What’s the Katie Roiphe link?

BAS: Way back in the 1990s Roiphe wrote a book, The Morning After, based on her experiences at Harvard and Princeton, and her skepticism about the “campus rape crisis.” She came to the conclusion that all the (then) new dialogue on campus about date rape was overhyped and that women were full, knowing participants in the sexual dramas that unfolded on campus.

Here’s the link: For Roiphe, the story was women are just like men; for Milton, the worry was sure boys will be boys but a sexual revolution might mean that girls are like boys too. And now with the Duke story the case is, again, something about (elite, privileged) women taking on the characteristics of men.

VR: Wait, you mean the double standard isn’t being violated in these stories?

BAS: This Duke story doesn’t indicate that the double standard has gone away, or that women have more sexual privilege than men. What I mean is, really, for this to be a story at all the double standard has to be in place! That is all it is about. While there is so-called positive commentary such as “Karen Owen reaches the inner feminist in me” … ultimately the kind of shock at and condemnation of Owen and what she has done is always present, and reconfirms our sense that men’s and women’s sexual experiences are fundamentally different, and that this difference is a valuable cultural resource that ought to be protected.

Let me walk you through this: when the story broke, ever so briefly there was concern about the fact that men’s names and images were used in her “sex survey”; the concern about the humanity of those subjects was eclipsed quickly by the interest in the “role reversal.” And how was the issue of men’s names and images resolved? The concern for the men focused on how this would make them seem callous toward women. They wouldn’t be gallant men. There was no fear that they would be slutty men, because the very idea of men being “put down” for their sexual desires is unheard of.

Some online comments from readers at various sites pointed to how, if Karen rated a guy highly that he would have benefited, and that it was only harmful if he didn’t receive high ratings. Do you see how that constitutes a double standard? If you don’t, then think about what it means when someone argues that when a sixth grade boy is seduced by his (woman) school teacher that maybe he is just “luckier” than all the other boys. This is another version of that kind of thinking. This is not feminism.

VR: If this isn’t one, then what would be a feminist turning point?

BAS: I think a feminist turning point would be when this wouldn’t be a story at all. Sexual freedom will exist when there is no such thing as “role reversal” — that is, when there wouldn’t be roles of privilege or statuses of disadvantage. Sounds nice, huh?

-Virginia Rutter

I am pleased to share a guest column by Afshan Jafar. Afshan is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She studies and teaches about cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women’s movements. Her forthcoming book, Women’s NGOs in Pakistan, uncovers the overwhelming challenges facing women’s NGOs and examines the strategies used by them to ensure not just their survival but an acceptance of their messages by the larger public.

I am horrified by the August 9th 2010 Time magazine cover which shows an 18 year old Afghan woman, Aisha, without her nose. We are told that she fled her abusive in-laws, only to be dragged out of her home and taken away by the Taliban. She then had her nose and ears sliced off by her husband—while her brother-in-law held her down. The cover brings up a range of emotions in me – rage, grief, terror, but also resentment, irritation, and bitterness.

What bothers me about this image? Shouldn’t the world see the atrocities of the Taliban? When the people at Time decide to bring this image to the world, aren’t they giving voice to these women by telling their story? I wish it were that simple. Instead, I can’t help but wonder why is it that Time chose Aisha’s face for the cover rather than any of the other Afghan women’s whose pictures are found inside the issue–pictures of women who did not fit our stereotypes: an Olympic athlete, a talk show host who could belong to any television network in America, a former deputy speaker of parliament. But I suppose that wouldn’t sell as much as the picture they chose.

When Time publicizes this image, or when Jay Leno’s wife, Mavis Nicholson Leno, parades women in burqas on talk shows, or when Laura Bush talks of “liberating Afghan women”, what is left unexplored is that “Western” media attention can sometimes undermine the internal critiques generated by local women, activists, feminists, and academics. Our critiques are then seen, especially in our local contexts, as being complicit with Western interests, and we are seen as mere extensions of the Western media empire.

There is another possible outcome of the (often sensationalistic) coverage of Muslim women by Western media. Because of the stereotypical and one-dimensional image of the Muslim woman as oppressed, unaware of her rights, and really no more than a shadowy figure gazing out from behind the veil (always the veil), and the analogous image of the Muslim man as the oppressor—“backward,” pre-modern, uncivilized, evil, and anti-woman—Muslims, including academics and activists, have been put on the defensive.

A women’s rights activist in Pakistan once said to me, “you know, we shouldn’t wash our dirty linens in public”. But if activists, feminists, and academics, aren’t willing to “wash our dirty linens in public” then we might as well find some other profession for ourselves—preferably one that does not burden us with the task of questioning the existing social order. When we ignore the plight of people in the name of honoring or respecting a particular culture or tradition, we fail to ask some crucial questions: How was this particular tradition or practice “invented”? Who does it benefit? Exactly whose rights, and which systems of privilege and oppression, are we upholding when we honor the rights of a culture over those of its individuals?

And this is the burden of the social and cultural critic who belongs to an under-represented, and often times, misrepresented group of people. We spend much of our time fighting the stereotypes, telling the story from the other side, or highlighting the neglected accounts. And at the same time we have the responsibility of questioning our own cultural practices. It is a marginalized existence no matter how you look at it. To insiders we seem like traitors who dare expose the weaknesses—the “dirty laundry”—and to “outsiders” we are often a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

Perhaps this is why I respond to the Time cover the way I do. It reminds me of all the work that needs to be done—on the inside as well as the outside—and it confronts me with the reality of how little things have changed—on the inside as well as the outside. I doubt these emotions are unknown to anybody who has felt the burden of simultaneously representing and critiquing one’s culture, of giving voice to those who aren’t heard very often, while at the same time being urged not to speak too loudly for fear that the rest of the world might hear us.

-Afshan Jafar can be reached at afshan.jafar@conncoll.edu

Here’s something we don’t need a piece of research to tell us (though I’m going to tell you about a really good example): men with MBAs earn a lot more than women with MBAs. Most of the gap is explained by having children – which costs women but not men. Most of that parental-status tax costs women because they have to give up time at the office.

According to a recent article by economists at the University of Chicago and Harvard, who used data on UC Booth School alumni, men and women MBAs start earning about the same at the end of graduate school. But the earnings diverge over time. Nine years after MBA, men average around $400K; women, $250K.

This dramatic difference is much smaller for women who don’t have children. The authors opine that the lower-earning situation of MBA mothers is a consequence of “family constraints and the inflexibility of work schedules in many corporate and finance sector jobs” (p. 249).

A little more to the story: Women who partner (and have kids) with lower-earning men do not have dramatically lower incomes than men on average. And women who partner (and don’t have kids) with higher-earning men keep their wages up in a kind of competitive synergy.

So, with all this information, I was thinking, what if we really wanted to reduce gender inequality? What could we do? And here are three ideas. Like all policy interventions, there are costs and benefits; let’s see what they are and who bears the costs….

Idea number 1: no kids How about women not having children? It would be a bit like Lysistrata, except thanks to birth control, or the option to have sex with women instead of men, women could still have sex. This would make women workers earn more like men workers and should more quickly reduce the gender gap in earnings among MBAs.

The downside: No more yuppy kids. Might be hard on private school enrollments, sleep consultants, that kind of thing. So, maybe not having children won’t work.

Idea number 2: marry down How about women marrying down? Unlike the situation of MBA moms who marry up, marrying down means MBA moms work just as much as ever—and don’t decrease work hours except in the brief period around a child’s arrival in their lives. Though it turns out that when women have higher earning spouses they are more likely to take off time, when men have higher earning spouses, they still remain those “ideal workers” plugging along in the workforce. These are the true income maximizers! These couples are more likely to hire a nanny or use day care, while for man bread-winner couples, having their high-powered women stay home to do the day care themselves is another status marker.

The downside: It could be a little tough on some marriages, at least in the short run: Turns out that marriages with higher-earning or higher-status women are less stable (and harder on men’s health for richer people). Limiting people’s freedom to marry, like limiting their freedom to have kids, isn’t particularly appealing, either.

Idea number 3: work flexibility How about creating more flexible workplaces that don’t penalize men or women for time out or reduced hours? If we really wanted to reduce gender inequality, we could do this. We could stop marginalizing men who seek flexibility, and stop putting up barriers to women seeking the same. It would be a way to promote freedom to have children and care well for them, freedom to marry whom we want, and freedom to participate in the market place in ways that leave constraint behind.

The downside: The authors of this study note that many believe that it is in the “nature of the work” of the high-flying banking and investment world that makes this kind of change especially difficult, and report that such changes have come about a bit more in, for example, medicine. I think more sweeping change is possible. And then, there would be no more papers about that puzzling wage and wealth gap between men and women. Because it isn’t really that much of a puzzle.

Virginia Rutter

There’s s a long-lived puzzle about money, gender, and housework. In heterosexual partnerships where men earn more than women, women do more housework (on average). When men and women earn about the same, their housework contributions become more equal (though women still do more). But, and here’s the puzzle, when women earn more than their men, women again do more housework. (See this for a classic on the puzzle.)

If paid work and housework were “gender neutral” you’d expect there to be an equal trade off in households between paid work and domestic work. Women who earn more would do less housework, and men who earn less would do more housework.

But paid work and housework aren’t just about earning money and running the household—look back at this column on lower-earning men and health for a different example. Instead, paid work and housework are also about “doing gender”… they are activities that help to confirm masculinity (through earning for men) and femininity (through housework for women). But, you already knew that. A new international study (abstract only) tells us more about the symbolic meaning of paid work.

First, signs of change: researcher Sarah Thébaud found that men who believe in gender equality and who work fewer hours or earn less than their (women) partners do modify their housework behavior—a little bit. These men do about one and half hours more housework than their breadwinning (male) comparisons. But this modification isn’t enough to counteract what women do when they are in the same situation. Lower-earning women still do about twice as much housework as guys when they are the lower-earning partner. Gender roles are changing, but sticky.

The question is why are lived gender roles sticky and slow to change even when people’s personal gender attitudes appear to be changing? Thébaud used cross-national data from 18 countries to learn whether something in the larger culture could explain why we keep seeing this housework/doing gender pattern.

Sure enough, in countries where breadwinning, paid work, and earning a good income are more highly valued (as measured by a “work culture index”), even lower-earning men are more likely to resist doing housework. It wasn’t that the men were necessarily personally invested in any kind of gender stereotype, but where the larger culture emphasized the importance of earning and paid work, men did less housework no matter what. So, for example, the Netherlands had a lower work culture index and Dutch men who earned less than their (women) partners added more housework hours. Meanwhile, in Slovenia, which has a higher work culture index, the men performed no additional housework when they earned less than when they earned more.

The way Thébaud explains it, “Although men may do more housework on average in contexts where women have a stronger presence in the labor market…my results suggest that the ongoing pressure for men to live up to breadwinning expectations remains strong and has the power to considerably restrict the degree to which they engage in unpaid work.”

In case you were wondering: countries that were higher on the work culture index weren’t higher on productivity or GDP. But, other aspects of cultural context are more encouraging. Studies, like this one, have shown that men in countries where more women are in the workforce do more housework.

Virginia Rutter

Jeeze. Just read this at Talking Points Memo. I don’t want to talk about it. Just swear. WTF?!

-Virginia Rutter

Here’s how it works: if you call it a “diversity initiative” or a “work family intervention” or stuff like that there’s the chance that you will see resistance to the project of, well, promoting diversity, or creating a family-friendly work place. On campuses, all the earnest and the marginalized check it out and everyone else goes, “what? Oh, I don’t think I got that email.”

You already know this intuitively, but a study in the current issue of Gender & Society (abstract only) tells the story of a workplace initiative that starts with the notion that framing matters.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota hung out at Best Buy corporate headquarters while Best Buy instituted a program that is not called “let’s try to reduce the sexism in our every day practices at work” — instead it is called “Results-Only Work Environment” (ROWE) : On the ROWE website they explain their project like this:

“Results-Only Work Environment is a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence. In a ROWE, people focus on results and only results – increasing the organization’s performance while cultivating the right environment for people to manage all the demands in their lives…including work.”

The program was created by Jodi Thompson and Cali Ressler , and it has gotten positive recognition in BusinessWeek (twice!) and you can also hear about it on a recent NPR segment. It basically involves a flexible workplace.

The UM researchers (including Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen at the Flexible Work and Well Being Center) explain in their article how the focus on results reduced resistance. “ROWE was not presented as a work-family initiative or a gender equity initiative; rather it was strategically framed as a smart business move… [the founders] felt that a gender or work-family framing would lead to the initiative’s marginalization.”

You see, ROWE is about achieving excellence. This isn’t (merely) Foucauldian. This is what any diversity project of any sort is all about, right? ROWE–which has has been adopted by other companies, too–reports a 35 percent reduction in waste and a 90 percent reduction in voluntary worker turnover.

But here’s the other part of the story: The program didn’t reduce resistance completely–especially among men managers. But it created a different kind of conversation because the analysis wasn’t explicitly about gender or diversity or accommodating people with exceptional needs. It was about an alternative approach to  work that relied less on conventions of time use and more on outcomes. The resistance heard by the researchers was to the ways that the program was challenging what’s called the ideal worker norm.

What is the ideal worker norm? Well, you know what it is, it is the way you were brought up to work. You’re there or feel you should be there as much as possible (long hours). You are busy all the time, doing doing doing (look busy!). You are ready to drop everything when someone says there’s a panic (excel at “fire drills”). Thing is, this way of working is (1) not necessary for success and (2) damaging to people’s ability to balance work and other aspects of their lives. Joan Williams writes about the ideal worker norm wonderfully in Unbending Gender (2001). She shows us just how gendered this approach is, as it builds on an outdated model of family life.

By saying (as ROWE does), oh this norm of how we work (excessive hours, fire drills, et c) is a “choice” it says we can make other choices. This means that we can de-naturalize the sneaky connection of men as superior workers (especially men who can hide or evade their other personal responsibilities). And we start to allow men as well as women to make contributions and be achievers in all the domains of their lives.

Virginia Rutter

Heard from Jeremy Adam Smith: “just tried to google ‘profeminist fatherhood’–to which google responded, ‘Did you mean profeminist motherhood’? As in, what the hell are you talking about?” (Read Jeremy’s blog and his book The Daddy Shift.)

Virginia Rutter

Pink viagra (chemical compound to the left!) was voted down, 11-0, by the federal advisory panel that was reviewing it last week (background here). The recommendation goes to FDA to make the final decision. Meika Loe recommended this article by Susan Perry titled, “Hunt (and hype) for a ‘pink Viagra’ continues despite advisory panel’s rejection of flibanserin.” The article offers details of the comments from Amy Allina, program director of the National Women’s Health Network, but one highlight is here:

The “failure to show that [flibanserin] increases desire highlights the trouble with the push to put a label of disorder, dysfunction or disease on women’s problems with sex,” said Allina in her statement to the FDA’s panel. “There is no empirical evidence to establish a single, normal level of sexual desire for women….

Virginia Rutter


Kristen Springer, a sociology professor at Rutgers, presented some very cool research on men’s health at the recent Council on Contemporary Families conference, and a related paper in the journal Gender & Society (abstract only) is out now. She was looking at men who earn less than their wives. You need to know what she discovered next time you are trying to figure out what to make of those articles in the New York Times or wherever about the “troubling impact” on the changing economic status of men and women. See this post for background in the “new economics” of marriage.

Springer asked if men who earn less (specifically less than half) than their wives have worse health than men who earn the same or more. The simple answer: yes. But hold up! Don’t go yet. There’s more, and it is important.

Because Springer asked why. She looked at whether it was because of who gets to make decisions in the couple, and came back with the answer NO.

She looked at whether it was because of marital unhappiness among these couples, and came back with the answer NO.

In other words, there weren’t couple issues or any kind of home front “war between the sexes” being played out here.

No, it looks like, instead, there is a war within the sexes going on.

She looked at a high fallutin’ but also very powerful concept that folks in the biz call “hegemonic masculinity” — that is, the “most honored way of being a man” in a given society (see Connell and Messerschmidt 2005 if you wanna read up).  In the US, men’s breadwinning is a central component to this. This means that men’s earnings puts them on top of the heap, over other men (as well as over their women).

Here is what she found: For men who were not earning less, the more money he and his family earned, the healthier he said he was. This is your basic wealth equals health situation. (In the figure below, this means the blue bars are higher at the rich end, lower at the poor end.)

But for men who were earning less than their wives, the guys at the top of the heap were the only ones to report significantly worse health relative to guys earning the same or more than their spouse. The guys at the top, for some reason, were especially stressed by the inequality. The study didn’t have direct measures of men’s beliefs about the situation, but it looks a lot like only for men of the upper ranks is there a sense that earning less than their wives constitutes a failure. (In the figure the red bars are lower for the rich guys.)

Springer’s key graph looks like this:

(click here for the full version)

What’s the take home from this? First, beware of stories that bemoan what is happening to men in the face of women’s growing presence in the job market and the economy. The health hardships for the men at the bottom of the ladder are not about gender inequality, they are about the hardships of inequality, full stop (the blue bars). Second, recognize that when we are anxious for men (or they are anxious for themselves) about being breadwinners this isn’t about being a man; it is about social class. It is almost as if the better-off can “afford” to have gender strife, just as in decades past they could afford to have a stay-at-home wife when everybody else required two earners. Finally, don’t be taken in by the notion of the immutable organization of gender in families (nor by the notion that social class doesn’t exist or doesn’t have a meaningful cultural as well as economic impact).

Springer recommends a whole bunch of policies that create more economic justice for all by creating more family friendly policies that can in the end help to eradicate “hegemonic masculinity.” Well that won’t be a slogan you’ll use with your Member of Congress, but just wanted to call it what it is.

Virginia Rutter

A long time ago I got a call from a reporter asking what I thought of “viagra for women.” I said a bunch of different stuff, but mainly I pointed out that any clinical trial on interventions for women’s orgasms really ought to include a men-doing-housework control group. My how times have not changed.

Meika Loe To wit: Meika Loe–a sociology professor at Colgate–posted at Ms. on “Female Viagra” Up for FDA Review.  Loe, author of The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America, has followed the search for pink viagra since 1998 when Viagra was first approved by the FDA. Read her post: it gives background and context and a powerful argument about what this all means.

Want to learn more? Visit newviewcampaign.org. They are an organization founded in 2000 to counter drug industry efforts to simplify and distort women’s sexuality in order to sell drugs.

You can read/sign a petition against FDA approval here.

Virginia Rutter