Relating Radically

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.

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.


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.