Reading Rachel Hills’ The Sex Myth was like reviewing my Sociology of Sexualities syllabus. Application of Foucault’s theory of power and social regulation? Check. Discussion of heteronormativity? Check. Mention Gayle Rubin’s charmed circle of sex? Three checks! Hills offers an analysis of contemporary sexual norms that is rich saturated with sociological research. She touches on many of the issues I unpack with my students at City College, but adds her own journalistic flare, making this book not only an informative but enjoyable read.

Hills argues that in this age of supposed sexual liberation and unprecedented freedom, sex has actually become heavy with significance, warping our perceptions and expectations. For instance, pressure has shifted from not having sex to having sex – and lots of it. Thus, the social denigration of virgins after a certain age or those with few sex partners. Hills finds that people tend to assume everyone around them is having more sex than them, and this becomes a race to keep up. She refers to this as a “gap between fantasy and reality.” One consequence is that folks become pre-occupied with whether or not they are having enough sex. The measurement of “enough” is based on assumptions and occasional check-ins with close friends on how much sex they are having. A better barometer of sexual satisfaction, though, would be asking yourself whether you’re having all the sex that you want. This may vary depending on what else is happening in your life.

This is just one of the many examples Hills offers us of the consequences of “the sex myth” – the belief that sex is all important, powerful, and indicative of how we’re doing as individuals and a society. She also points to the troubles caused by holding too precious ideas of “normality” when it comes to sex as well as the influence of masculinity and femininity in shaping sexual expectations.

Overall I found The Sex Myth to be a great read. I appreciated Hills’ generous use of sociological research to ground her arguments as she weaved in personal narratives from her life and the lives of people she interviewed. It was also refreshing to read many of the concepts I teach in academic settings covered with the delightful writing style of a journalist.

My only critique is the limited age range represented in the stories Hills highlights. One of the lies the sex myth promotes is that your sex life peaks in your twenties and it’s all down hill from there. Unfortunately, Hills inadvertently reinforces this myth by only featuring the stories of twenty-somethings. There were only two interviewees over the age of 30 featured, and one of them was experiencing a lengthy sexless period of their life. Perhaps selfishly, as someone migrating my way through my 30s, I wanted more representation of sexual experiences across the lifespan and how these experiences are shaped by or counter the sex myth. If Hills wanted to focus on sex-pectations for twenty-somethings, that’s fine, but that frame should be made clear from the start.

Other than this age caveat, I recommend without reservation this book to anyone looking for a fun subway read, an introduction to thinking critically about contemporary sexuality, or a book to offer your undergrads in human sexuality classes.

This post originally appeared at Inequality by (Interior) Design on March 15, 2014


HNA7078r1+ToyStories_Jacket_edit1203.inddPhotographer Gabriele Galimberti’s project on children around the world depicted with their most prized possessions was recently published. It’s an adorable set of photos of children with odd collections of items they feel define them. The photos are collected in a volume—Toy Stories: Photos of Children From Around the World and Their Favorite Things.

Initially, I was reminded of JeungMee Yoon’s “The Pink and Blue Project” (here), where she took pictures of girls surrounded by all of the pink things they owned and boys surrounded by their blue clothes, toys, and décor. Some of what struck me was the global uniformity in the objects surrounding children. It’s a powerful statement of globalization to see that children are growing up all around the world with some of the same cultural influences: from characters, to colors, to cars and weapons, and more.

Enea, 3, Boulder, Colorado.But, at a larger level, I think this project reflects one way we like to think about identity: that each of us has one of them and that it is established early on and that it (or elements of “it”) stick, such that we can recognize vestiges of our childhood identities in our adult selves. Indeed, when I’m explaining Freud to students, I often start by summarizing what I take as Freud’s central insight—“Life history matters.” It matters for who we are, who we might become, and more.  But, “life history” is rarely captured in a snap-shot.  We think of it this way–but out identities are projects that unfold in time.  Some things make larger marks than others, but identifying exactly what is important and why is often more difficult than we like to think.

Naya, 3, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica.Galimberti’s project is wonderful and the pictures vividly capture a moment in a child’s life. I’ve often looked for signs of who my first child might become in some of his early interests. For a while, he was much more interested in cooking utensils than toys. We actually brought a pasta claw on a plane once to distract him during a flight agreeing that the pasta claw was our best option at the time. I have all sorts of pictures of my son playing with wooden spoons, spatulas, whisks, and more when he was just learning to crawl. And if he turns out to be a chef some day, I can imagine pulling these out and saying, “You know, he was always interested in this. He was born to be bake.”

Shotaro, 5, Tokyo, Japan.I caught myself wondering what my son would have pulled off the shelf to display were he included in Galimberti’s project—or, indeed, what I’d pull off the shelf for him if I were asked to identify his most prized possessions. Today, for instance, I think I’d select a truck or two, his heart wand, a blown-up balloon, a rubber spatula, his grocery cart, an assortment of rainbow colored wash clothes, a few of his stuffed animals, a toy train, perhaps one of his dolls, and I’d probably include a hodge-podge of his favorite books. But, the most important word in the last sentence isn’t one of the objects I selected; it’s the word “today.” If you asked me a week ago, I’d have a slightly different answer—a month ago, I might have had a completely different answer.

Mikkel, 3, Bergen, Norway.The photo series reflects a bias against an understanding of identities as flexible projects—an issue that is, perhaps, best illustrated in childhood. Every morning, I have a discussion with my partner about what we’re having for dinner that evening. We’re both mentally planning on what the end of the day is going to look like. But, our son has picked up on this and loves talking about dinner each morning as well. Sometimes he asks me what our evening meal will be when I get him up in the morning. But, often, when we get to the meal, he declares: “I love ____________. ____________ is my favorite!” Not every dinner (or book, or toy, or experience, or…) is his “favorite,” but it’s more often the case than not.

One way of explaining this would be to say that he doesn’t understand what “favorite” means—we like to think you can have lots of things you like, but only one “favorite.” But, I think if he could articulate it, he’d either say that he has more than one favorite, that everything is his favorite, or that his “favorite” is, like mine, a continuously evolving category that changes depending on his mood, the time of day, what he’s wearing, how he feels, who he talked to that day, what he’s reading right now, and more. His identity is no different from the rest of us. It’s a work in progress—and that is a beautiful thing.

Gabriele Galimberti came up with this project, not the children he photographed. I love the pictures. He asked them to select their most prized possessions; they didn’t ask themselves. Galimberti has a talent for capturing these children’s spirits—at least in that moment. But, how to read these photos or what these photographs actually mean about the children they depict is another question entirely.

When we create our own narratives, thinking through the people we “know” ourselves to be, it’s not uncommon to say, “Well, I’ve always liked ______________” or “Ever since I can remember, I was a _________________ person. It’s just who I am.” But, for every instance of identifying moments in childhood we feel like stand out as representative of who we are are a series of moments that might have been identified as meaningful had we turned out to be someone different altogether.

I grew up with two sisters. So, it wasn’t uncommon for the three of us to play games together, organized primarily by my eldest sister. We’d play dress-up and I can remember wearing tutus, dresses, and all sorts of feminine attire. My parents took a great picture of the three of us in our back yard—all in “girl” one-piece bathing suits. I’m sandwiched between them. My dad has the picture in a photo album at home with the caption “My son the gender scholar!” next to it. I imagine if I’d gone on to later identify as a woman, this picture might have been intensely meaningful to me.  Indeed, the blog “Born this Way” collects childhood pictures of gay men and lesbians who identify their sexual identities as shining through when they were children–often in the form of some gender transgressive outfit, haircut, pose, or activity.  Today I like the photo of my sisters and me in “girl” bathing suits because I like to think it represents my spark and my passion for questioning boundaries. But, there are many more photographs of me playing with sling shots, water guns, and all manner of “boy” toys that my parents and I might not identify as important parts of my identity today—though perhaps we should.

We allow children to “play” with identity much more than we allow others.  But, even children’s identity play is limited and limiting when we ask them to take a stand for who they are early on.  Perhaps there’s something important about having 17 “favorite” dinners that we ought to preserve–it allows kids to recognize their various selves and acknowledge their capacity to change, shift, and change back again.

When I haphazardly label my son lately, I always get called out.  If I say, “Look at you.  You’re a dancer” when we’re jumping around in the evenings, Ciaran looks at me and says, “I no dancer, Dada.  I Ciaran.”  He might think I’m suggesting “Dancer” is his name.  But, maybe he’s just resisting being boxed in, and maybe I should be listening.

Women – and black women in particular – have seen significant improvements in high school completion rates since the turn of the century, almost cutting in half the black-white gap for women during that time, as I shared last month. But has that meant an increase in college entry and completion – especially since a college degree should demand higher wages in the labor market?

The second report in my Young Black America series of reports examined just that. I found that Figure 1young black women and men are entering and completing college at higher levels than in the past. Yet, these gains haven’t been enough to noticeably close the gap between them and their white counterparts.

From 1980 to 2013, women had higher college entry rates than men, with white women having the highest entry rates of all (see Figure 1). In 1980, 46.9 percent of 19-year-old white women had entered college (including community college). The college entry rate for white men was 41.0 percent and the rate for black women was 40.0 percent. Black men had the lowest entry rate of 25.9 percent, 14.1 percentage points lower than that of black women.

Since then, college entry rates have significantly increased, with most of the increases occurring between 1980 and 1990. During that time, entry rates for both black and white women increased about 20 percentage points, and rates for white men increased 22 percentage points. College entry rates for black men increased the most, rising 29 percentage points from 1980 to 1990.

Despite making the most progress in entry rates, young black men still lag behind black women and whites. In 2013, the entry rate of black men was 60.0 percent, 34.1 percentage points higher than their entry rate in 1980. However, this rate was still 6.6 percentage points less than black women, 9.0 percentage points less than white men, and 17.9 percentage points less than white women.

Figure 2But entry is different from completion. The data on racial gaps in college completion rates were even more striking. Although my analysis of high school completion rates showed a significant convergence between black and white women, the exact opposite is the case with college completion rates (see Figure 2). In 1980, 11.5 percent of 25-year-old black women had completed college with a bachelor’s degree or higher. During the same year, the college completion rate of white women was 21.3 percent, for a black-white gap of 9.8 percentage points.

Things got worse not better: In 2013, the gap in college completion rates between black and white women was 21.4 percentage points, with completion rates of 19.7 percent and 41.1 percent, respectively. The same is true among men. In 1980, the black-white gap in completion rates for men was 12.9 percentage points, and it increased to 17.6 percent in 2013.

These growing rather than shrinking gaps confirm that there’s more work to be done. Young blacks are 30 percentage points more likely to enter college than in 1980, with entry rates increasing 26.6 percentage points for black women and 34.1 percentage points for black men. These are significant improvements, but remain far behind their white counterparts. Young blacks also still lag almost 20 percentage points behind young whites in college completion rates.

But the growth—rather than continued decline—in black-white gaps highlights the need to examine why these racial gaps persist, and in the case of completion rates, continue to widen.

Increases in educational attainment are important, but not just for their own sake. College degrees should lead to higher employment rates, wages, and other labor market outcomes. However, large gaps in completion rates are likely to result in sizable racial disparities in these outcomes. Upcoming installments of my Young Black America series will examine whether that is in fact the case.

Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America. Follow her on Twitter @CherrieBucknor.

 August already? The summer has sped by. Each time a new atrocity hits the airwaves—anti-voting legislation, another police shooting of an unarmed black citizen, new measures to curtail access to women’s reproductive health care—I pause. What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said by others as sick at heart as I am? So many eloquent voices have been raised and yet new assaults on citizens’ rights continue.

Ninety-five years ago this month women won the right to vote. Fifty years ago, August 6, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act . Those of us who witnessed the passage of the 1965 legislation hoped that finally we had a way to overcome many of the barriers racism had built. Racism remained virulent, as the Watts riots—the very same August of 1965—revealed. But with more equal voting rights, I along with many others, hoped further progress could be made. Often people speak as if the 19th amendment was ‘for women’ and the Voting Rights Act was for ‘minorities’ as if Black and Hispanic women aren’t hampered by racism every bit as much as they are by sexism.

And during the last fifty years we made progress on a second critical aspect of the struggle for women’s equality—the right to control our own bodies. Without access and choice in matters of birth control and reproductive health, even the right to vote leaves women caught in a world where biology too often equals destiny. The birth control pill was a major breakthrough—by the mid 1960s more than five million American women were using ‘the Pill’. And by 1972 the Supreme Court had overturned state laws prohibiting the use of contraceptives by unmarried people . The 1973 Court decision in Roe v Wade protected a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy at any point during the first 20 weeks.

But the path forward for women’s equality and reproductive rights soon twisted. Opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which had seemed headed for passage in the 1970s, stalled and although the deadline for ratification by the required thirty-eight states was extended to from 1979 to 1982, the Constitutional amendment failed.

Today’s reality is shaped by decades of work by anti choice activists with little concern for the health and self-determination of women. They have campaigned relentlessly to overturn Roe v. Wade. They threaten abortion providers; even murder staff and doctors. And they spread all manner of false information on the ‘terrible consequences’ and ‘life long regrets’ of abortion procedures. All this goes along with strengthened opposition to sensible sex education.

Today women, especially poor women without the financial resources to travel and to pay for medical advice and assistance, are no longer able to count on controlling our own bodies. Under the guise of saving unborn babies, and ‘protecting’ the health of women, conservative legislators are proposing and passing wildly expanded restrictions on access to sound reproductive health care. Programs such as Colorado’s that clearly lower rates for teen pregnancy and abortion by providing access to effective birth control are denied public funds. Using misleading data and heavily edited videos they demand the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the critical health services the organization provides.

It is no coincidence that these campaigns often go along with opposition to equal pay legislation and increases in the minimum wage, opposition that keeps the poor, poor. Meanwhile, the conservative agenda has muted potential pro-choice advocates. Many choose to ignore the threats to women’s rights, convincing themselves that they are not personally affected.

Reproductive rights can never be separated from the struggle for women’s equality. They are a central component. So let’s get busy and understand what’s at stake. In a recent New York Times opinion piece Katha Pollitt said it best:

“[The stakes are] about whether Americans will let anti-abortion extremists control the discourse…Silence, fear, shame, stigma. That’s what they’re counting on. Will enough of us come forward to win back the ground we’ve been losing?”

I hope so. I am not the only woman who helped friends when they needed an abortion. I am not the only parent whose developmentally challenged daughter would require an abortion if she were to become pregnant. I am far from alone in my outrage and disgust with the current climate, and I am certainly not the only one speaking out.

But there are more women and men still to be heard from. The stakes are high. We need every voice, every personal story that can deepen understanding of the costs to women, their children and families that result when reproductive freedom is curtailed. Impersonal facts alone carry so little of the truth that matters, the truths that touch and sometimes change hearts and minds.   Now is the time to speak up—in public as well as private conversations; to write heartfelt letters; to send a larger-than-usual donation to organizations battling for reproductive rights. Action is required—and it is required now.

Darren, a charismatic program facilitator, scrawls masculinity themes across the white board. The youth, as they get called collectively, fidget in their chairs and rumble with ideas. They are from high schools scattered across this East Coast city, all Black and Latino, and have become friends in this grant-funded program. They call out things they’d like to address in a skit they will perform – “fatherhood,” “dominance,” “violence.” We take a break and the youth retreat into their screens. Ray kicks back, heels up on Shawna’s lap, laughing at a video his friend sent of a scuffle from school that day. “That doesn’t seem like healthy behavior, does it?” I ask. Ray laughs, “Naw. It’s stupid funny though” and he flashes a wide smile. “Does that count as attitudinal change?” I turn to ask Darren.

The Halls
The Halls is a group helping young people navigate healthy relationships. Find them on twitter at:

When we hear about feminist men, we almost inevitably hear the story of how and why they came to identify with feminism. A friend of mine, borrowing language from superhero comics, once called this ritual narrative an origin story. While these stories can be repetitive and self-centered, I understand why men recount them over and over. When men talk about how they became feminists they are, in essence, explaining how they came to identify with a movement of people who work to reduce men’s privileges, their own privileges. Today, for some men their origin involves a washed-out community room, a binder with a violence prevention curriculum inside and a low-paid facilitator.

Scholars have examined men’s pathways into feminism and other forms of gender justice work and found patterns. Often, it is a two-part reaction, some kind of “sensitizing experience” in childhood and a radical spark in young adulthood. While this pattern is no doubt very common, by telling the stories this we way can obscure the larger social and historical architecture in which they occur, and miss the work it takes to grapple with the implications of feminism over the long haul.

In our book, Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women, my co-authors and I look at the life histories of feminist men with a wide angle lens as we try to bring into view the institutional structure and cultural system of the feminist movement at the historical moment at which men became engaged. In short, not only do men’s sensitizing experiences and radical sparks take dramatically different forms depending on the historical moment, but which men are sensitized and sparked also shifts.

Today, in a startling number of ways, feminism is in the water, but more specifically it is in organizations. The White House has a campaign against sexual violence called It’s On Us. During the Super Bowl, a coalition of corporations and organizations, called No More, ran an ad calling attention to sexual and domestic violence against women. The NBA has been running a “Lean In Together” commercial, with star WNBA and NBA players encouraging men to support women’s equality. In the wake of the Ray Rice assault, the NFL brought on Beth Ritchie and has promised more prevention programs. Public health departments and foundations now fund violence prevention programs in many urban communities. If these campaigns provide sensitization or spark, it looks dramatically more mainstream, straightforward and diverse than it did forty years ago.

Violence prevention programs, including those with high school youth, are rarely explicitly feminist. But the women and men who implement them often are. Many young feminist men of color who we interviewed for the book had come to identify as feminist through their work with boys and men of color around community violence or drug abuse and, often guided by women of color, found that feminism helped make sense of connections between power and violence in their lives. We call the perspective that these men provide “organic intersectionality” – a way of connecting violence against women with other systems of power and inequality that bubbles up out of lived experience. But most youth in these programs won’t take up careers in feminism or social justice. They will learn about hegemonic masculinity and empowerment and feminism and then the grant will run out or they will leave the program, and their formal education in this area will end. Their passions will change. Some men I know have left these programs and gone on to college, started a business or worked in a warehouse. How does feminism reverberate through their lives and politics?

The institutionalization of feminism into policies and organizations has opened up cracks for men to find their way to feminism in new ways. We must begin to understand how young men of color living in urban communities, as well as transmen, undocumented immigrant men and others make sense of allyship, consciousness-raising, and violence. Tomorrow’s feminist men are already out there – what stories will they tell?


Sq Prof low 2Max A. Greenberg is a lecturer at Boston University and the author (with Michael A. Messner and Tal Peretz) of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women (Oxford University Press, 2015).
credit: Avl Schwab / Flickr Commons
credit: Avl Schwab / Flickr Commons

Sandy Keenan at the New York Times wonders “Are Students Really Asking?” for affirmative consent. Her premise is that talking about how we want to have sex is some new legal imposition. Whether they support it or not, most of her interviewees see it this way too. The affirmative consent debate seems to turn on whether communicating about sexual desires and boundaries is asking too much, killing the mood, or even necessary when ‘alternatives’ like tacit consent exist.

As a queer person (never mind as a sexualities scholar), all of this straight consternation makes me giggle. Silent sex just isn’t possible for us. Same-sex encounters, group sex encounters, encounters involving kink, and encounters involving trans and gender nonconforming people all tend to necessitate discussion between people about what they do and do not like and want before and during sexual activity. For us, much of the communication affirmative consent asks for is routine (which is not to say that LGBTQ folks don’t experience sexual assault and rape–we do).

There’s no obvious sexual script to follow in queer sex (e.g. “man pursues woman, begging to put his penis in her vagina”). Even what may seem like the most obvious case—sex between two gay men—is not obvious. The majority of sexual encounters between gay men in the US don’t involve penis-anus penetration but they usually involve 5-9 different sexual behaviors that occur in over 1,300 unique combinations. Even with anal sex, we still have to talk about who wants to “top” and “bottom.” So for us, communicating about what we want is less of a strange new requirement imposed by decree—Keenan’s word—of state legislature or university president than a normal matter of course.

Lest you write us queers off as weird and complicated, straight sex isn’t as simple as Hollywood would have us believe. Research on women’s orgasms by Elizabeth Armstrong, Paula England, and Alison Fogarty shows that straight college students also perform a wide variety of sexual acts in a wide variety of combinations. And, importantly, they highlight how un-communicated sexual expectations among straight partners lead to misunderstandings, unsatisfying sex, and even sexual assault.

One of the men Keenan interviewed was initially defensive, as if affirmative consent were an attack on men categorically as sexual abusers of women. Again, from my queer perspective this seems a bit silly. When two men have sex, we still need consent, and it has nothing to do with one of us being a “vulnerable woman” or the other being a “predatory man.” Even in heterosexual encounters, men are sometimes assaulted by women (albeit less often than the reverse). This highlights the real target of consent campaigns: people who feel entitled to sexual activity without regard for their partner’s willingness. (Entitlement and willingness are, of course, deeply gendered.)

I’m not trying to say communicating about sex is easy at first or doesn’t need to be learned/taught. But it’s really not so strange or new once we step outside strictly scripted heteronomative roles—roles that are too narrow even for most straight sex (let alone things like pegging). Likewise, concerns that consent campaigns are an attack on men only make sense within those narrow sexual scripts as well. If queer sex has taught me anything, it’s that communication, far from being an onerous burden, is a part of the fun.

Jeffrey Lockhart is the principal investigator of an international study of LGBTQ college students and a graduate student at the University of Michigan. He can be found tweeting at @jw_lockhart.

There’s been a lot of evangelical Christian commentary in response to the Supreme Court ruling last month that legalized marriage for gays and lesbians. Jimmy Carter says that Jesus would approve of gay marriage. Franklin Graham says that God might strike the White House with lightning for its rainbow makeover on the night of June 26.

6-8-2015-11-28-12-AMWhite conservative Protestant evangelicals have been the obligatory homophobes in the political controversy over same-sex marriage in America since its beginning. And for good reason. According to Pew Research polling since 2001, these evangelicals consistently lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to favoring gay unions. The National Association of Evangelicals released a statement on June 26 confirming that, despite the Supreme Court ruling, God defines marriage as a “covenant relationship between a man and a woman.” Yet, there is an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that evangelicals are, in fact, changing their minds when it comes to who should be able to legally marry. Sociologists Lydia Bean and Brandon Martinez analyze national survey data to argue that evangelicals are increasingly ambivalent about same-sex marriage. Evangelicals have become more supportive over the past decade, though they still have lower level of support than all other religious groups. A 2013 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that Evangelical Millennials (18-33 year olds), in particular, seem to defy evangelical stereotypes with 43 percent of whom support same-sex marriage.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the nation, it seems inevitable that evangelicals will continue to increase their support for it. But what does this mean for conservative Protestant evangelicals, whose beliefs are structured around ideas about gender difference and heterosexuality? Will evangelical beliefs fundamentally change by allowing gays and lesbians into the sanctity of marriage? I believe no.

My evidence: pegging. Yes, pegging: the sex act referring to the anal penetration of a man by a woman, usually with some sort of strap-on device (thanks, Dan Savage). In my book, Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet (forthcoming 2016, University of California Press), I examine Christian sexuality websites—online stores, message boards, blogs, podcasts, and virtual Bible studies—that promote the idea that God wants for (straight) married couples to have great sex. For many users of these sites, this can include kinky sex. For some of these users, this includes gender-deviant sex like pegging. Their rationale goes like this: if a couple is straight, married, monogamous and—crucially important—devoted to God, any consensual sex in which they engage is permissible according to the rules of their faith. Godly sexuality, for evangelicals, is personal as much as it is objective. It gives believers a sense of control, autonomy, and choice amidst a belief system that is predicated on limits and boundaries to avoid sin.

I find that when engaging in sex that removes them from their role as active penetrator, Christian men must find other ways to construct their masculine identities. They draw on the sense that their relationships with their wives and with God are spiritually exceptional, and that these relationship, more than anything else, are what construct their identities as Godly men. I call this gender omniscience, which defines gender through a spouse and God’s unique ability to know the unknowable: a man’s “true” gender. This renders even non-normative sex quintessentially heterosexual and gender normal.

An optimistic reading of evangelicals’ sense of permissible sex might suggest that they are on a trajectory toward acceptance of multiple kinds of sexual expressions and identities. At what point does the technically heterosexual sex between a woman penetrating a man with a strap-on dildo lose its “straightness?” Or to put this another way, at what point does a gay man penetrated by his husband become a part of what evangelicals deem Godly sex? It is a blurry line. Evangelicals see gender as predetermined, natural and mutually exclusive between men and women, but malleable enough to accommodate a diverse array of actions and behaviors. They see heterosexuality as a clear line in the sand distinguishing right and wrong but make the boundaries of heterosexuality expansive enough so as to incorporate a diverse arranging of men’s and women’s bodies to engage in sex acts other than penile-vaginal intercourse.

Yet as I think about some Christian sexuality website users who guiltlessly engage in pegging, I become increasingly convinced that their logic actually reinforces and bolsters sexual boundaries, not diminishes them. Relying on the relationship between a believer, spouse, and a God who is presumed to condemn homosexuality, evangelicals make claims about who gets the Godly advantage of limitless sexuality, and who is stuck outside this charmed circle. If the prediction is correct that a majority of evangelicals, like the broader American public, will eventually support same-sex marriage, my research suggests that they may do this while still excluding gays, lesbians, and other queers from Godly sex.

Recently a video went viral depicting a woman named Toya Graham hitting, slapping and dragging her son from the streets of Baltimore with the goal of preventing him from participating in the civil unrest that began after the death of Freddy Gray. Mr. Gray was a young African American man who was dragged into police custody by six officers. News reports say that within an hour of his arrest he fell into a coma and was taken to the hospital where he died a week later. His name is now added to the list of countless African American boys and men who have died under questionable circumstances during interactions with law enforcement and private citizens. Gray’s death rightly sparked outrage, and in some instances convulsions of anger.

Many in the media have applauded the actions of Toya Graham who they describe as appropriately taking swift action to constrain her son’s participation in the public outcry—what some called a riot, and others a disorganized protest. Media and pundits seized on the video of Ms. Graham, announcing all could be resolved if we just “Send in the Moms”. However, this simple, dominant narrative is complicated by Ms. Graham’s stated reason for pulling her son from the streets of Baltimore: To prevent him from becoming “another Freddy Gray.” Let’s think about that statement. She feared that his public participation, his expression of justified discontent, could very well lead to his death at the hands of the police. While she may have seen her son participating in civil unrest that included instances of illegal conduct, throwing stones, etc., she believed that the likelihood of these instances being resolved professionally and without the use of deadly force with respect to African Americans, was unlikely. After the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray and many others, we would be hard pressed to deny the fact that African American parents have reasonable concerns about their sons’ safety during interactions with law enforcement, and indeed, in some instances, the broader society.

The media and pundits have played their trick of confounding the real issues of the day with a sensationalist theme: mothers taking a stand, demonstrating their strength and setting their children straight. Police officers killed yet another black male youth under questionable circumstances. Law enforcement and the media seem to view these young boys and men’s lives as disposable and lacking value. It is within this context that the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged with the purpose of reaffirming the value of African American lives. I am troubled by a media that praises the image of a young black man being beaten down, even by his mother, so that he accepts the untenable situation the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to address and refrains from expressing his version of discontent with the way society treats him. These young boys and girls and men and women have every right to be upset by the various systems that have failed them.

American society has a tendency to expect African Americans to be superhuman as they express their discontent. Indeed, the protests we are taught to remember from the 50s and 60s are of the courageous civil right leaders who were able to gain support by having their bodies bludgeoned in full view of American eyes and the world. These activists did not physically defend themselves because they knew any response would be used to justify the barbaric acts committed by their fellow white countrymen and women. These violent images also went viral and forced white Americans to confront the oppressive parts of their culture. As a benefactor of the civil rights movement, I know that one person or one version of activism did not achieve its accomplishments.

And we often forget about the other race riots that happened during the civil rights era. Those led by the white teens that went into the Woolworth Counter to torment and torture the nonviolent protesters simply seeking service. The race riots led by white adults who shouted racial epithets at the young Ruby Ridges who simply sought admission to an all white public school. We refuse to discuss the countless racially motivated killings used to terrorize the African American community. And, for the four little girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham Alabama. And, lastly we don’t discuss the immeasurable restraint the African American community has exhibited in the face of this racial terrorism, particularly after the recent shootings by white supremacist, Dylan Roof, who killed nine church members during bible study at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. There should not be a racial sliding scale of who gets to express their dissatisfaction with the state and how that dissatisfaction is received.

With the nearly daily stories of black male killings—our contemporary version of strange fruit—there is no wonder that mothers and parents are resorting to self-help measures to protect their children, and their sons in particular. In my own research examining African American middle and upper-middle-class mothers’ parenting approaches, ensuring the physical safety of their sons is a continuous and pervasive concern. Unfortunately, I believe Ms. Graham’s actions play an unfortunate part in reinforcing the idea that African Americans, and boys and men in particular, must behave differently in order for society to recognize their humanity. I disagree with the charge to “Send in the Moms” to tame the legitimate anger of their children about the continuous disgraceful and discriminatory treatment they confront from institutions and individuals within the broader American society. This broader society includes law enforcement officers, teachers, principals, shopkeepers and members of the general public- people that the average white child is taught to view as a source of support and protection. The mothers in my research who have far more resources than Ms. Graham are similarly worried about how their sons will be treated by this broader society. These mothers out of necessity teach their children to be fearful of and deferential to law enforcement officers who are meant to protect and serve us all but do so selectively. I understand Ms. Grahams’ fear for her son, her impetus to keep him out of harms way and her desire to prevent him from becoming “another Freddy Gray.” I am also afraid of the long-term consequences of preventing him and others like him from publicly expressing their discontent.


Dow, DawnDawn M. Dow is an assistant professor in the sociology department of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Professor Dow earned a Ph.D. in sociology from University of California, Berkeley, a J.D. from Columbia University, School of Law and a B.A. in sociology from Bryn Mawr College. Professor Dow’s research focuses on the intersection of gender, race, and class within the context of the family, the workplace and the law. She is currently writing a book that examines the theoretical and practical implications of the structural, cultural, and economic exclusion of African-American mothers from dominant ideologies and practices of motherhood. She is a frequent presenter at academic conferences including the American Sociological Association, Eastern Sociological Society and the Pacific Sociological Association. Professor Dow’s work has been published in Sociological Perspectives and is forthcoming in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Often, when we see improvements by all (be it in educational attainment, income, health, etc.), we overlook the fact that gender or racial gaps still persist or have even gotten worse. There has been much attention given, and rightfully so, to all of the progress that women, and black women in particular have made. But, what about where women stand in relation to men? Or where black women stand in relation to white women? If significant gaps still persist, can we be satisfied with the progress we’ve made? Or is there still work left to be done?

As a young black woman, sociologist, and researcher at an economic policy think tank, I am particularly sensitive to this and make a point to address these issues in my work at CEPR (Center for Economic and Policy Research). It’s part of the reason why I began my Young Black America series of reports that strive to answer the question, “What’s going on with young blacks today?” An important goal of the series is to explore the intersection of race and gender while tackling the issues facing young people today.

From "Young Black  America" part 1, Center for Economic and Policy Research
From “Young Black America” part 1, Center for Economic and Policy Research

The first report in the series found that there is positive news on both the gender and racial dimensions in regard to high school completion rates. After decades of mostly stagnant and depressing numbers, both women and men have seen marked improvements in high school completion rates since 2000. Furthermore, throughout the entire period I looked at (1975-2013), women overall have achieved higher completion rates than men.

But, what I found most interesting was what happens when you throw race into the mix. In 1975, 88.7 percent of white women between the ages of 20 and 24 had completed high school with either a high school diploma or a GED. During that same year, the rate for black women was only 76.9 percent, for a black-white gap of 11.9 percentage points. Since then, white women have maintained this sizable advantage, which averaged about 11 percentage points through 2000. In 2000, the completion rates for black and white women were 79.0 percent, and 90.6 percent, respectively.

Fortunately, since 2000 there has been a significant convergence in completion rates for black and white women. The completion rate of black women has increased 10.4 percentage points since the turn of the century, reaching 89.4 percent in 2013. During the same time, the completion rate of white women increased at a slower pace and stood at 94.5 percent in 2013. The result was a much smaller black-white completion gap of 5.1 percentage points – 57 percent less than the gap in 1975.

Closing achievement gaps should be an important part of any economic agenda. While a lot of attention is given to racial and gender achievement gaps separately, the double burden of being both a woman and a racial minority can present a unique problem for black women.

So, yes, we should take a moment or two to celebrate these accomplishments. The high school completion rates of young women are at their highest ever, and remain higher than the rates of men. Although black women still lag behind their white counterparts, this gap has been trending downward for more than a decade and hopefully will continue to do so.

But as we all know, in order to realize racial and gender economic equality, education is just one piece of the puzzle. Increases in high school completion rates are important because they widen the pool of potential college entrants and graduates – with a college degree becoming increasingly necessary in today’s economy. However, even a college degree doesn’t guarantee labor market success, as my former colleagues Janelle Jones and John Schmitt at CEPR have shown. We must not ignore issues of racial and gender discrimination, or other structural issues that are at the root of many of the economic problems we face in this country. Subsequent reports in my Young Black America series will address these and other issues facing young blacks.

Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America.@cherriebucknor

SomeMenA book should never be treated as a statement of some final Truth. Instead, a book is best put to use as moment of condensed insight that focuses and clarifies ongoing conversations. Still, when you are the author of a book, and engaging in such public conversations, you sometimes learn things in the give-and-take that you wish you had known while writing. This has been so in my recent talks with groups of feminist academics and antiviolence activists about Some men: Feminist allies and the movement to end violence against women, my recent book with Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz.

In my presentations, I outline a central story in Some Men: Inspired by the women’s movement, the field of men’s anti-violence work was constituted in the late-1970s primarily by white men (many of them Jewish), whose work with boys and men was limited by their white and middle class origins. As anti-violence work became increasingly institutionalized in the 1990s and beyond, women activists welcomed men’s growing participation, but the growing visibility of men in the field risked eclipsing feminism, and rendering women less visible. On the other hand, the field was expanding to include more men of color, in part due to a public focus on targeting anti-violence programming to “at-risk youth” (often code for boys of color). The young men of color bring to the field different experiences with race and social class, with man-on-man street violence, and with police and other institutional violence against men of color. As such, they introduce to gender-based violence prevention what we call “organic intersectionality,” an approach that helps to re-infuse social justice values into a field that has become increasingly flat in its politics.

On more than one occasion, African American women have asked questions that challenged the assumptions underlying my genealogy of the field of gender-based violence prevention. Following one talk, an anti-violence worker asked me if my historical outline included African American women who may have felt excluded from the feminist movement, and who defined themselves as Womanists? At another talk, a scholar asked me, “I wonder, how do you define ‘the field’? Women of color have been engaged with anti-violence activism since well before the 1970s.” She mentioned Jim Crow era anti-lynching activism, for instance, as resistance to race/gender-based violence. My mind immediately jumped to mid-Twentieth Century resistance against the forced sterilization of poor and incarcerated women in the U.S. and Puerto Rico as a form of resistance against state violence against the bodies of (primarily) women of color.

This same critic sharpened her point with a reference to a slide in my presentation: “You showed a slide that expressed your concern that men’s movement into anti-violence work might result in ‘feminism without women’. My concern is that your definition of ‘the field’ risks positing an ‘intersectionality without women of color’.”

I believe that my co-authors’ and my efforts to deploy an intersectional analysis in Some Men was successful—possibly even insightful—but only, I see now, within the parameters of how we defined “the field.” When we take into account this womanist critique, we can see how our very definition of “the field” had an unintended consequence. Of course, we duly noted the academic roots of intersectionality, citing foundational works of scholars like bell hooks and Maxine Baca Zinn. We quoted Patricia Hill Collins referring to violence as “a saturated site of intersectionality.” But our definition of “the field” also worked to elide activist work over decades (centuries?) by women of color as the front edge of resistance to interpersonal and institutional gender/race/class-based violence.

Our narrow definition of “the field”—likely grounded in our experiences as three white male feminist academics—is not unusual in feminist scholarship. Sociologist Benita Roth argues in her book Separate Roads to Feminism that the common story about second wave feminism—that white feminism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, with women of color joining in the 1980s and adding race and class to feminism—is wrong. Roth shows that multiple feminist movements arose “roughly simultaneously,” including Black and Chicana feminisms that, even if not integrated organizationally with mostly-white feminist groups, were in critical dialogue with them. As Roth observes of conventional scholarship on the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, “…looking for feminists of color in white feminist organizations, not finding them, and then explaining their absence makes feminists of color invisible: Not only were they not in white feminist organizations; there is no sense in these explanations that they could have possibly been organizing on their own.” (p. 8).

Defining the parameters of a “field” is an issue in every academic book. However, one must also take pains to think about the implications of those decisions. In the case of Some Men, it would not have changed our book much to have included a short, critical-reflexive discussion of how we were defining “the field” of men’s work to stop sexual assault and domestic violence, and then pointing to what might be left out of this picture and how it might distort the historical story we were telling. The fact that we did not do this is ironic, especially given a central message we learned from many of our interview subjects—Being a man who is a feminist ally means, at base, listening to women. But the devil is often in the details; the question of which women to listen to can never be answered finally, with some set formula. Instead, it requires an ongoing process of reflexivity that includes interrogating the ways that one’s own privileged standpoint, however “progressive” or “intersectional” its intent, will retain some blind spots if it is not in continual dialogue with differently situated people.


Messner2013bMichael A. Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California, and author (with Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz) of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women (Oxford University Press, 2015).