Professor Jodi O'Brien

Last month Marquette University –a Jesuit University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — offered esteemed Sociologist Jodi O’Brien the position of Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. After carefully weighing the vast professional and personal transitions that such a move would entail, O’Brien accepted the offer. She signed the contract and mailed it back to Marquette. She and her partner were preparing to put an offer on a house in Milwaukee. But early last week, after pressure from unnamed sources, Marquette backtracked. The official reason? As Marquette President Father Wild told the New York Times,“We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family.”

This abrupt turn away from O’Brien — a job candidate actively pursued by search committees at Marquette for the past TWO years — has left O’Brien’s extensive and loyal network of colleagues, friends, and students vacilliating between complete disbelief and rage. Hundreds of her would-be Marquette colleagues and students are also shocked by this news and have organized several protests. Two Facebook support groups have emerged, one originating from Marquette, one from Seattle University. Marquette Professor of Theology Daniel C. Maguire has written a scathing open letter to Marquette President Robert Wild and Provost John Pauly, calling for Wild’s resignation and for Wild’s successor to re-offer the job to O’Brien.

In this post we will simply list some of the facts of this case. We will provide an overview of O’Brien’s scholarship, as well as the legal and social implications of Marquette’s actions in a follow-up post.

  • Jodi O’Brien has been a leader at her home institution of Seattle University (a Jesuit University) since she arrived as an Assistant Professor in 1995. She quickly became promoted to Associate Professor and has served as Chair of the department of Anthropology, Sociology, and Social Work for seven years. O’Brien was promoted to Full Professor since 2005. In 2007 she received the honor and responsibility of being named the Lewis B. Gaffney Endowed Chair, a two year rotating position that carries with it the mandate of connecting academic and community life with the Jesuit mission.
  • Dr. O’Brien has a long history of leadership positions in national professional organizations including the American Sociological Association and the Pacific Sociological Association. From 2008-2009 O’Brien served as President of the Pacific Sociological Association.
  • O’Brien is the author of dozens of articles and the author and editor of several books, including Everyday Inequalities, and The Production of Reality (now in its 4th edition),  a leading textbook in the field of Social Psychology.

Marquette’s excuse for reversing their offer is not sitting well with many, including those deeply committed to the Catholic and Jesuit mission. In his letter to Marquette University President Father Wild, Professor Maquire is incredulous that although Father Wild and Provost Pauly based their “decision on an interpretation of what was or what was not compatible with Catholic teaching,” they did not consult Catholic theologians in their decision. Maguire scolds:

(Y)ou did not consult the faculty experts on Catholic moral teaching on this campus.  The Theology Department is one of the major theologates in North America, just a few yards away from your offices.

As well, Maguire reminds Father Wild and Provost Pauly that they also “ignored teachers of ethics in the Philosophy department and professors in Sociology, Dr. O’Brien’s field.”

As professors in Sociology and long term colleagues of Dr. O’Brien, we are most happy to offer our assessment of O’Brien’s scholarship on religion and sexuality. Stay tuned.


Referenced news articles:

Dillon, S. “Marquette rescinds offer to Sociologist.” New York Times. May 6, 2010.

Durhams, S. and K. Ferral. “Marquette on hot seat for rescinding job offer to Lesbian.” Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Wisconsin. May 6, 2010.

Finnegan, L. “Marquette Withdraws Job offer to Lesbian Dean Candidate Jodi O’Brien.” Huffington Post. May 7, 2010.

How to not hire a dean.” Editorial. Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Wisconsin. May 7, 2010.

On Thursday, January 28, 2010, Fox News published a news article titled “Afghan Men Struggle with Sexual Identity” and made the absurd claim that an entire ethnic group (at at times, the article suggests that the whole “country”) is “coping with a sexual identity crisis:”

“As if U.S. troops and diplomats didn’t have enough to worry about in trying to understand Afghan culture, a new report suggests an entire region in the country is coping with a sexual identity crisis. An unclassified study from a military research unit in southern Afghanistan details how homosexual behavior is unusually common among men in the large ethnic group known as Pashtuns — though they seem to be in complete denial about it.”

The article goes on to describe the “study” which was “obtained by Fox News” which:

“found that Pashtun men commonly have sex with other men, admire other men physically, have sexual relationships with boys and shun women both socially and sexually — yet they completely reject thelabel of “homosexual.” Fox news reports that the “research” was conducted as part of a longstanding effort to better understand Afghan culture and improve Western interaction with the local people. The “research unit,” which was “attached to a Marine battalion in southern Afghanistan, acknowledged that the behavior of some Afghan men has left Western forces ‘frequently confused.’ ”

According to this “study” of unknown authorship, the men do not perceive that they are at risk for STDs (HIV is not mentioned in the article) because they do not relate to the Western category known as “homosexual.” The article relays this information by reporting that “in one instance, a group of local male interpreters had contracted gonorrhea anally but refused to believe they could have contracted it sexually — “because they were not homosexuals.” (Hmm, this sounds similar to U.S. men who have sex with both women and men.)

The article does not clarify who ran the study or collected the data (we sure would love to see it!) nor is it clear why FOX news —or the US troops—are confused; the Afghan men themselves likely have a fairly clear idea about what is going on. The report even underscores that “One of the country’s favorite sayings, the report said, is “women are for children, boys are for pleasure” and that “widespread homosexual behavior stems from several factors, including the “severe segregation” of women in the society and the “prohibitive” cost of marriage.”

We are not sure why Fox news is using a particular locale or one ethnic group to make a claim that the entire country (see below about favorite sayings in the “country”) of Afganistan is “coping with a sexual identity crisis.”

When I’m done shaking my head with shock at the way that Fox news framed this story, I’ll try to write something more.

For now, let’s just say that it seems that Fox news and the U.S. soldiers interviewed for this study haven’t heard of the idea that sexuality comes in many forms. Indeed, the world includes not just homosexuals and heterosexuals—or transgendered—or transsexuals—but also bisexuals. And there are also all sorts of other sexual systems and sexual classifications that don’t fit those too. The ancient Greeks organized their sexual system in a very similar way to what the men describe in this article. Sex was structured based on public status, and well, women and young boys had lower status than men. Sexual desire and sexual object choice was not set up by the gender of the participant, but rather, on the role that each participant played in sex (boys and women were more submissive, and high status men were active penetrators).

Thomas Almaguer’s work (1991) on Latin American sexual systems has shown us that the more masculine “macho” who penetrates the more submissive man known as “jotos” are also not in denial or confused, but work within a different sexual system. Machos do not necessarily identify as gay, and they often have sex with both women and men. Walter Williams (The Spirit and the Flesh, 1986) has written about the Native American Berdache, biological men, who take both husbands and wives—and they are revered as a third gender. They’re not confused. And quite a large number of men who have sex with both women and men are in the US—they too do not identify as gay (See Brian Dodge, 2008a, 2008b). They are not particularly confused and enjoy having sex with both sexes. In fact, some argue that heterosexuality itself is constructed, for example, Johnathon Katz (The Invention of Heterosexuality, 2007)  shows that “hetero” used to mean what we now understand in the U.S. as “bi” sexual. Heterosexuality did not even come to mean the nuclear family and opposite sex partner relationships (with child bearing as  the pinnacle goal) until the turn of the 19th Century. This was when work-family institutions were restructured according to the fault lines of white middle class privileges.

I could go on and on with nice citations to read up on that explain all sorts of people who are not confused across all kinds of sexual systems around the globe. However, Fox News and some U.S. soldiers sure sound confused to me. The best thing to do right now it seems would be to ask what purpose this kind of news coverage serves. Indeed, in times of war, the US has long been known for making muscular claims about the type of masculinity we produce in the US military (see Montez de Oca 2005, and Armitage 2005) when seeking victories while “feminizing” and sexualizing (as other) the troops of other men. This is particularly the case in the war on terror, where authors such as Jasbir Puar in her 2007 book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times argues that  “ ‘homonationalisms’ are deployed to distinguish upright ‘properly hetero,’ and now ‘properly homo,’ U.S. patriots from perversely sexualized and racialized terrorist look-a-likes—especially Sikhs, Muslims, and Arabs.” She argues that such dichotomies help to justify when the US decides to capture, cordon off, or detain “other” men in the war on terror. Such work reveals the ways in which heterosexuality is deployed as a weapon to feminize and exoticize “other” men during times of war. At least we’re not confused by that.

Bibliography/Recommended reading:

  • Almaguer, Tomás. (1991). “Chicano Men: A Cartography of Homosexual Identity and Behavior.” Differences 3, no. 2: 75–100.
  • Armitage, J. (2005) Militarized bodies: An introduction. Bodies & Society, 9, 1-12.
  • Dodge, B., Reece, M., & Gebhard, P. H. (2008a). Kinsey and beyond: Past, present, and future considerations for research on male bisexuality. Journal of Bisexuality, 8(3/4), 177-191.
  • Dodge, B., Jeffries, W. L., & Sandfort, T. G. M. (2008b). Beyond the Down Low: Sexual risk, protection, and disclosure among at-risk Black men who have sex with men and women (MSMW). Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37(5), 683-696.
  • Katz, J. (2007). The Invention of Heterosexuality. Chicago: Unversity of Chicago Press.
  • Montez de Oca, Jeffrey. (2005). “‘As Our Muscles Get Softer, Our Missile Race Becomes Harder’: Cultural Citizenship and the ‘Muscle Gap’,” Journal of Historical Sociology 18, no. 3, 145-171.
  • Puar, Jasbir (2007). Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke University Press.
  • Williams, Walter. (1986). Spirit and the Flesh. Boston: Beacon Press.

Recent media coverage of Tiger Woods’ marital “transgressions” is overflowing. Some argue that Tiger is sex obsessed and has a “sex addiction” given his high sex drive and desire for sex tiger woods pixwith many women over time. Others argue that any sports star who is on the road and away from home so much has a huge chance of being unfaithful to their wife. (Some media reports argue that it is jan22_woods2_427x600“rare” to find a faithful male sports star). Still others argue that Tiger Woods’ late father pressed him down under his thumb too much as a youngster and upon his death, Tiger unleashed his “wild side.”  Finally, some news reporters offer that Tiger was “traumatized” as a child when his father cheated on his mother, and that he must just be paradoxically following in dad’s footsteps.

But very little media coverage attempts to press beyond an individual level and not many articles offered a much needed broader analysis of masculinity, race, sport, sexuality, and media.  Here, my own previous research might shed some light on these media events. Awhile back, I wrote an article titled “The Morality/Manhood Paradox” with Faye Linda Wachs that was published in a book titled Masculinities, Gender Relations, and Sport. In that article, I underscored how media coverage frequently packages these types of media events into familiar frames of individual morality and they do so through frames of sin and redemption. To be sure, media reports do not offer redemption to everyone. Media coverage only offers redemption to certain athletes while others do not enjoy this privilege. For example, basketball Magic Johnsongreat Magic Johnson openly admitted to having hundreds of sex partners in the early 1990s and stated that he acquired the HIV/AIDS virus due to his lack of sexual protection. He was forgiven in media coverage and by the public, and was even repeatedly deemed a “hero” for his announcement. At the same time, another male athlete, Greg Louganis, who self identifies as gay, was not offered any media redemption. This was the case even though Greg Louganis was monogamous with his long-term partner and his long term partner cheated on him.

Why the difference in access to forgiveness by the media and by the public? At the time, Faye Wachs and I argued that sexuality and sexual identity was a key reason. Self-identified heterosexually active Magic Johnson was discussed as “doing what any normal man would do” and as having kindly “accommodated” the hundreds of women who “wanted him.”  Women were presented as sexually desirous and out of control and men were presented as  doing what “boys” do  to be “boys.” There was no mention of Magic Johnson’s own sexual agency in those media framings, and the women he was with were framed as having all of the wild desire. The women were described as uncontrollable groupies who were anxiously awaiting Magic and numerous other ball players after the big games were over and the athletes swaggered off the court.

In the media events surrounding Tiger Woods’ circumstances, media coverage couldn’t be more different. Tiger Woods’ sexual agency is the primary frame of news media. Articles discuss his “preference” for blondes, his “big appetite” for sex, his enjoyment of “girl-on-girl sex” and how he “wanted to be with them together,”  his “endurance,” the difficulty some of his mistreses had in  “keeping up with him,” in bed and his wish to party 24/7 on the weekends with a large number of women. Some news articles discuss his “kinky” sexual desires, some discuss his willingness to pay for sex, and some describe how he would “ask for” the type of women he liked in advance before he arrived at bars and clubs, and he would have a table of “his type” women-of-tiger_537x409waiting for him when he arrived. All of the articles discuss the physical beauty of the women he was with and news media features them as “gorgeous” or “hotties.” Without question, Tiger is framed as wanting sex–needing sex–and is even frequently cast as a sexual addict.

Not only is the current coverage different from previous married athletes who are unfaithful through multiple extramarital partners, but it is also different from the sexist ideologies that are often used by media to blame women for men who stray. For example, George Gilder, a conservative and major player in the Reagan Administration underscored that:

“In a world where women do not say no, the man is never forced to settle down and make serious choices. His sex drive–the most powerful compulsion in his life–is never used to make him part of civilization as the supporter of a family. If a woman does not force him to make a long-term commitment to marry–in general, he doesn’t. His sex drive only demands conquest, driving him from body to body in an unsettling hunt for variety and excitement in which much of the thrill is in the chase itself” (Gilder, 1986, p. 47).

Using this conservative logic, one would think that media frames might discuss the women who “tempted” Tiger as being at fault or “making” him stray. But no. Given the history of media frames of this kind, there is a rather shocking media silence on women’s sexual agency in this story (this fact is not being stated to suggest that the women should be analyzed for this reason–we are simply pointing out that the coverage is different from other unfaithful male athletes). The sexual “problem” is all on Tiger. And Tiger is viewed as a sex addict. Why?

To be sure, male athletes who participate in sports at very high levels in US society are often highly culturally valued. They are framed as heros and they are often associated with an unusual dose of moral superiority. Yet, simultaneously, given their cultural fame and popularity, they also enjoy numerous economic and social privileges. One of those privileges is the highest valuation of masculinity which brings with it access to numerous women’s bodies. Hence, male athletes in particular are faced with a “moral paradox:” athletes are viewed as moral role models but being a successful sports star is often equated with the pinnacle of masculinity and sexual prowess. What typically happens is that the public will use this paradox to  stigmatize subordinated masculinities when the men “fall.”  Men of color and gay men have historically paid that price in terms of denigrating tropes of promiscuity. Tiger Woods is now linked to other men of color in team sports who are said to have shown him the ropes of how to access large numbers of women.  News media report that Woods “was always palling around with Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan.” As one woman said: “They’re the ones who showed him the way.” Charles Barkley has stated that he can’t even get in touch with Tiger and is quoted by media as saying that Tiger “…is a 33-year-old grown man. He did something wrong to his wife. He has to answer to her and his kids. That’s it.”

I think that the quantity of media coverage and the sexual addict frames of Tiger Woods’ story make it different from the media coverage of Magic Johnson and other male athletes who “step outside of their marriages.” Here are a few reasons why I think this is the case:

  • First, there are the class and race dynamics of golf. Media have not cast their high surveillance eye on the sport of golf, likely because iJack Nicklaust is dominated by upper class and white players who are assumed to be more moral. Yes, the men of golf are assumed to be more moral than men who participate in hegemonic sports such as basketball, baseball, and football–who are often men of color–and are often stereotyped as violent, promiscuous, or both.
  • Second, Tiger Woods is  a man of color who is married to a white woman and he frequently selects white women as his sexual partners. The U.S. has a long and unforgiving history of lynching, anti-miscegenation laws, rape and violence accusations, and more when it comes to Black men being with white women (during slavery, and post slavery, black men  could not even look at a white woman without being accused of rape). Tiger Woods is a mixed race man who is playing a sport that is not dominated by men of color and hence his behavior as a token person of color is being explosively explored. The current media coverage runs the risk of essentializing men of color as sexually exotic and sexually obsessed just as racist ideologies of sexual excess always have (there are many works on this, but 2 excellent ones are Patricia Hill Collins’ 1990 book titled Black Feminist Thought, or Frantz Fanon’s, 1967 work titled Black Skin, White Masks).
  • Finally, male athletes’ sexuality itself is constituted differently in different sports. Men who participate in sports that constitute hegemonic masculinity (football, basketball, baseball) are team sports that require high degrees of aggression, physical contact, musTigerWoodscularity and explosive physicality, all of which get marked as masculinized and as highly valued sex objects (some scholars argue that these particular sports and their participants are disproportionately responsible for sexual assaults and rapes. For work on these claims see Jeff Benedict’s book titled Public Heros, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes Against Women) . Golf is not only less sexy because of the polo shirt, action-ball-cartoon_~u14839428goofy shoes, and white grey hair, but because it is an individualized sport rife with controlled skills which do not frequently allow for sports performances that take visible muscularity and power. The media coverage of Tiger’s behavior then—explodes because it takes the mask off of the assumed to be more moral realm of upper class golf. Tiger Woods’ younger age, good looks, and muscular body helped to change the stiffness of the sport (no pun intended).

Current media coverage doesn’t just tell us that sport can be sexist or that women get betrayed with age old stories of infidelity (or thinking they’re the only mistress). It also tells us that Americans may feel betrayed because they thought they were getting a squeaky clean man of color in a white sport.  They didn’t get that man. Media reports now state that white quarterback Peyton Manning, who also has a “squeaky clean image” in football will be checking his phone to ensure that he isn’t guilty of any racy text messages.  The unrelenting nature of the media coverage of Tiger Woods doesn’t just expose the hypocrisy of Tiger Woods–it exposes the hypocrisy of media and of Americans. Tiger Woods needed tiger-woods2a squeaky clean image to make him acceptable in golf as a man of color and yet we fault him more than other athletes for trying to uphold this image and failing at it.tiger_woods3tiger-woods

worldaidsday400_558On December 1, 1988, the World Health Organization declared its first observance of World AIDS Day. Since that day 21 years ago, every December 1st has been used to raise awareness about the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.  In 2006, the Political Declaration on AIDS set a goal to have “universal access to comprehensive prevention programmes, treatment, care and support by 2010.” While progress has been made, we are very far away from being able to trumpet that successes have been fully reached. For the year 2009, the theme of World AIDS Day is Universal Access and Human Rights.

Currently, approximately 33 million people are living with HIV/AIDS (for a full set of global epidemiology slides, click here). Women constitute one half of the people living with HIV/AIDS, and this percentage has risen rapidly from 35% in 1985 (for a slide on the percentage of women in the epidemic around the world, see the UNAIDS epidemiology slides above). Shockingly, young people constitute one half of the new infections each year. While there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, anti-retrovirals have offered hope, newfound possibilities for health and well-being, and added years of life to millions of individuals, households, and communities around the globe. In the case of treatment, while many (but certainly not all) in the United States have access to life saving anti retroviral therapies, the availability of treatment is widely variable around the world. Unfortunately, only a small proportion of those with HIV/AIDS have access to anti-retro viral therapy. (For more details on the prevention, treatment, and care dynamics of the epidemic around the globe, see the UNAIDS 2008 Report on the Epidemic.)

Universal access as a theme is pointing to the need to ensure that populations have access to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and care.  This is easier said than done—in 2007 only 31% of people who needed treatment received it—and the rate of infection is far outpacing the increases in the number of people who are receiving treatment. Economic retractions around the globe threaten the progress that has been made and there are some reports that treatment programs are being halted or scaled back substantially given economic constraints (UNAIDS 2008 Report).

Because of the way that the number of infections is far outpacing those who have access to treatment, and because the epidemic is largely spread through drug use and sexual contact, the importance of prevention cannot be overstated. Prevention is well recognized as a key factor in slowing the pace of the epidemic—and this is not simply a matter of getting people much needed information and skills about condoms. Prevention is also about tending to the root causes of the epidemic, which involves issues related to social inequalities, homophobia, poverty, gender inequality, the criminalization of drug use and sex work, violations of human rights, and lack of health care access and infrastructure. And, then of course there are the complexities of culture and human behavior, and the fact that many prevention programs work for a short time, even up to a year, but these behavior changes are not often maintained in the long run. There is a great deal of promise in structural, interpersonal, cultural, and group level behavioral prevention interventions. However, the promise of these prevention interventions will not be fully realized without attention to social inequalities and human rights issues.


This brings us to the second aspect of the theme of World AIDS Day 2009: human rights. While it may not be obvious to many, violations of human rights shape HIV/AIDS risks and access to prevention, treatment, and care around the world.  Men who have sex with men, sex workers, and drug users experience stigma and discrimination throughout the world. Many countries attempt to make HIV/AIDS a public health issue, but far too often, it is treated as a moral issue where populations are blamed for their fate (particularly sex workers, drug users, and men who have sex with men). Some countries do not even count “men who have sex with men” as a category in their surveillance systems and men who have sex with men have the lowest coverage of HIV prevention services of any category (UNAIDS, 2008). In numerous countries, women who are known to be HIV positive are thrown out of their homes  when they test positive for HIV/AIDS and do not have adequate access to education, property rights, or income generation to help them to survive (and these factors shape their risks to begin with)—this is the case even when their partners may have infected them. In my own travels and research in South Africa and Kenya, it is clear that many women will not bring their children back to health care centers or clinics to be treated with ARVs for fear of being thrown out of their households and families by their male partners, relatives, or community members. Many men do not come to clinics to be tested because of HIV/AIDS stigma and because of perceptions that clinics are women’s spaces. Men also do not test because of ideals of masculinity which teach men to avoid signs of “weakness” or need. In many countries HIV positive women and men are subject to forced sterilization. Sex workers and drug users are often arrested and viewed as criminals, and prisons do not have adequate access to drug rehabilitation, condoms, or ARV’s, exacerbating the epidemic among “high risk” populations. And the U.S. has been known to stop funding prevention programs that take comprehensive sex education and condom use into account, arguing (against a very strong evidence-base) that abstinence and be faithful approaches work best (for studies that show that comprehensive sexual education and condoms work better than abstinence only programming, there are too many to list, but see this for one). The list of the links between social inequalities, rights, and HIV/AIDS risks goes on and on.

There have been gains, and there have been many of them. The number of people on anti-retroviral therapy has increased 10 fold in the past 6 years alone (UNAIDS, 2009). Recognition of the role of gender inequality and homophobia in shaping HIV/AIDS risks is increasing, as has prevention programming which is increasingly gender-specific and transformative for both women and men. Defining ‘human rights’ and implementing changes in rights has newfound momentum and if this continues, may provide marginalized populations with increased protections, resources, legal recourse, and access to prevention, treatment, and care. The US has a centralized dissemination program to diffuse evidence based successes to community based organizations. There is global mobilization to eradicate mother-to-child transmission. The economic contributions to prevention and a global scale ups in treatment have been a stunning testament to the fact that the global community can rally much needed support.

Still, there is much work to be done both domestically (U.S.) and globally. The incidence rate of HIV/AIDS in Washington DC is similar to that found in Western Kenya. The age distribution in some countries on the African continent has shifted life expectancy downward by several decades in several countries due to the epidemic. AIDS is the leading cause of death right now among African American women aged 25-34 in the United States and African-American women are 21 times more likely to die of HIV/AIDS than Caucasian women. There are millions of orphans due to HIV/AIDS. Sub-saharan Africa constitutes 10 percent of the world’s population and over 65% of the cases of HIV/AIDS. Anti-poverty efforts and food security efforts have been slow to link up with HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and care and are much needed. National policies have been hampered in their implementation by a lack of coordination, technical skill, and competing economic and health needs. Young people need prevention efforts more than ever before and prevention efforts reach adults the most. To achieve universal access and human rights within the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a goal that all social sectors and countries must all strive for. At the same time, all must be mindful that recalcitrant issues such as social inequalities and social justice shape the epidemic profoundly and must be dealt with head on in action and not in rhetoric.


For more information on the AIDS pandemic and how you can get involved in advocacy, research, or activism see the following links:

Morehouse CollegeMorehouse College is a small all-male college in Atlanta Georgia with 2,700 students. It has recently instituted a ban on women’s clothing, high heels, and carrying purses within its student body. Dr. William Bynum, vice president for Student Services reported that “We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men.” CNN reports that the college has stated that those who are found breaking the policy will not be allowed to go to class unless they change. The school also reports that “chronic dress-code offenders could be suspended from the college.”

The policy details 11 expectations of students, including:

  • 1. No caps, do-rags and/or hoods in classrooms, the cafeteria, or other indoor venues. This policy item does not apply to headgear considered as a part of religious or cultural dress.
  • 2. Sun glasses or “shades” are not to be worn in class or at formal programs, unless medical documentation is provided to support use.
  • 3. Decorative orthodontic appliances (e.g. “grillz”) be they permanent or removable, shall not be worn on the campus or at College-sponsored events.
  • 4. Jeans at major programs such as, Opening Convocation, Commencement, Founder’s Day or other programs dictating professional, business casual attire, semi-formal or formal attire.
  • 5. Clothing with derogatory, offensive and/or lewd messages either in words or pictures.
  • 6. Top and bottom coverings should be work at all times. No bare feet in public venues.
  • 7. No sagging–the wearing of one’s pants or shorts low enough to reveal undergarments or secondary layers of clothing.
  • 8. Pajamas, shall not be worn while in public or in common areas of the College.
  • 9. No wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events.
  • 10. Additional dress regulations may be imposed upon students participating in certain extracurricular activities that are sponsored or organized by the College (e.g. athletic teams, the band, Glee Club, etc).
  • 11. The college reserves the right to modify this policy as deemed appropriate.

Cameron Thomas-Shah,  the student government co-chief of staff, has said that “The image of a strong black man needs to be upheld,” on the campus. And Bynum declares with certainty that the policy is needed by reporting that:

“We know the challenges that young African-American men face. We know that how a student dresses has nothing to do with what is in their head, but first impressions mean everything.”

Oh, gosh, where to begin with this one…

Stuart HallStuart Hall, in his seminal work on social inequality and culture (titled Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices), defines how a sense of “othering” develops among more powerless groups when marked as “different” from (and often inferior to) dominant groups. “Othering” as you can see is a verb and refers to how powerless groups are marked and viewed as different and then frequently treated differentially by dominant groups on the basis of such markings. Marginalized groups, in turn, frequently come to see themselves as “different from” dominant groups and, at times, take on the qualities of dominant groups so as to assure that the possibilities for acceptance and upward mobility are not squelched within “mainstream society.” For African-American men in particular, as a response to having a lack of access to traditional means of masculinity (e.g. the occupational structure and mobility within it), scholars have further suggested that many African-American men adopt a “cool pose” that exaggerates attributes of masculine prowess (physicality and sexuality) to compensate for the lack of empowerment in other areas of their lives (Staples, 2006; Majors & Bilson, 1993; Messner, 1997). This process is said to be due to institutional and personal racism and discrimination which deny many African-American men traditional opportunities for masculine affirmation (e.g., education, employment, etc.). Behaviors to constitute hegemonic masculinity (the most dominant form of masculinity in a given period–often middle class and heterosexual), often include those that conform to gender role expectations that signify masculinity not only in the African-American community but broader society more generally.

This response may not be surprising given that historically, African-American manhood has been portrayed in racist ways as “problematic,” characterized by deviance, having a lack of social and familial responsibility, poverty, and sexual promiscuity. Concurrently, African-American sexuality has often been conceptualized as hypermasculine, hyperheterosexual, and aggressive (Ford et al., 2007) even when studies show that men frequently act in the opposite manner.

In the case of this particular news story, the response of the school represents precisely what the above scholars delineate. First, the school is “othering” classed signifiers of urban youth and the urban underclass (no “sagging pants” no “do rags,” no “shades”). It is also “othering” men who are (supposedly) not masculine, men who are not heterosexual, and men who dress casually (e.g. “unprofessionally”) at college events or common areas. In this way, dominant forms of masculinity are being embraced while “subordinated masculinities” (urban underclass, gay men) are being rejected and surveilled. The school is likely responding in this way because they want to ensure that African-American men, who have often been denied access to traditional structures can work within the current system and succeed (e.g.  this is clear from the quotes from the administration such as “we know the challenges that African-American men face,” “first impressions mean everything,” and “the image of a strong black man needs to be upheld”). Simultaneously, however, the school is rejecting signifiers of “other” men so as to ensure that the privileges associated with dominant norms of masculinity are not lost on African-American men as a group. To accomplish this, the school is attempting to use clothing policies to erase signifiers of marginalized masculinities as a way to shore up access to the privileges that arise from “good impressions.”

While it is important for African-American men at this university or any university to succeed, these policies are discriminatory against feminine men, gay men, and men who signify non-dominant aspects of class relations. Other African-American scholars have shown how racist and classist ideologies are used to surveil the dress and actions of Black male basketball players in the NBA (Todd Boyd’s book Am I Black Enough For you?), the hair of African-American newscasters, and how homophobia is alive and well both inside of and outside of the African-American community.

Recently, David Love posted a follow-up article to the policies enacted at Morehouse College online titled “Morehouse dress code is more about homophobia than decorum,” and underscored that “the ban on women’s dress is, however, little more than a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay students. At best, it is a misplaced policy. At worst, it’s pure homophobia cloaked in official college stationery.”

Love goes on to report that “At a time when President Obama has announced his intention to repeal the military’s ban on openly gay servicemen and women, the school’s timing couldn’t have been more awkward. And in light of Congress recently passing a Matthew Shepard hate crimes bill to protect gay victims of violence, the Morehouse dress code is insensitive and anachronistic.”

It appears that Morehouse College can and should reconsider its othering and policing practices (despite its long list of classed signifiers that are on the prohibited dress code list, the school seems to then hone in on the fact that “we are talking about five students that are living a gay lifestyle”). Supporting dominant forms of gendered, racialized, and sexualized masculinities (heterosexual masculinities, middle class masculinities) and erasing subordinated masculinities (gay, working class, or urban underclass) whether this is through dress codes, hair styles, speech, or other social practices simply does not recognize that there are many acceptable ways to be a man–and many acceptable ways to be an African-American man in the United States. If stigma and discrimination are what Morehouse College wanted to teach its students about manhood through its public statements and its dress code policies, then they succeeded without question.


  • Ford, C.R., Whetten, K.D., Hall, S.A., Kaufman, J.S., & Thrasher, A.D. (2007). Black sexuality, social construction, and research targeting “the down low” (the “DL”). Annuals of Epidemiology, 17, 209-216.
  • Hall, S.(1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. New York: Sage Press.
  • Majors, R., & Bilson, J.M. (1993). Cool Pose: The Dilemmas Of Black Manhood in America. NewYork: Touchstone Press.
  • Messner, M.A. (1997). Masculinities: Men in Movements. Lanham, Maryland: Altamira Press.
  • Staples R. (2006). Exploring Black Sexuality. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.








By Shari Dworkin and Kari Lerum

In a recent post, we discussed the case of a Louisiana justice of the peace who refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple. In the words of the Justice, he “just doesn’t believe the races should mix that way.”  The Justice explained that since, in his mind, neither “black society” nor “white society” readily accepts offspring of such relationships, his refusal to marry black/white couples was purely out of concern for the couple’s future children. In that post we suggested a connection between this case and the “one drop rule,” an historical justification for race-based slavery in the U.S.

In this post we elaborate on the history of this rule, how it underscores the social construction of race, and how this rule provides an historical basis for intertwining racial and sexual inequality. We will also briefly elaborate on assumptions undergirding the “mixing of races” and “harm to children” comments.

“One Drop” and Racial Categories drops of blood

For readers unfamiliar with the “one drop rule,”  this refers to how U.S. courts and law books historically declared that a mixed race person with “one black ancestor” or “one drop of black blood” should be categorized/viewed/treated as black. The rule shows us the arbitrary nature of racial classifications. In their  book,  Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960’s to the 1990s, Michael Omi & Howard Winant describe how even a “drop” of “black blood” was difficult to define (is it 1/32 of “negro blood?” 1/20th? less? more?):

“…in 1982-1983, Susie Guillory Phipps unsuccessfully sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records to change her racial classification from black to white. The descendant of an 18th century white planter and a black slave, Phipps was designated as “black” on her birth certificate in accordance with a 1970 state law that declared anyone with at least 1/32 “Negro blood” to be black.”

Omi and Winant go on to say that:

“The Phipps case raised intriguing questions about the concept of race, its meaning in contemporary society and its use (and abuse) in public policy…Phipps’ attorney argued that the assignment of racial categories on birth certificates was unconstitutional and that the 1/32nd designation was inaccurate. He called on a retired Tulane professor who cited research indicating that most Louisiana whites have at least 1/20th “Negro” ancestry” (1994, p. 53).

It is fascinating that this interracial marriage case originates from same state as the Phipps legal case. It is clear that Justice of the Peace Bardwell is assuming that there are two distinct, dichotomously different biological races. Perhaps he doesn’t come out and say it, but he may also be assuming that the value of the races are not equal (otherwise what blood mixing is there to fear?). His assessment of “racial mixing” and “black” and “white” groups isn’t even an accurate assessment of the “purity” of groups that actually exist biologically, nor does it recognize the very strong role of the social realm in shaping these (see Omi and Winant’s book for several other examples of how race is immanently social). Biologists now agree, in many cases that there is little to no biological basis for race.  Social scientists share this view, and Lewis (2006) reports that “it has been demonstrated that 85.4% of genetic variation occurs within racial groups and 8.3% occurs between population groups within a race; only 6.3 % of genetic variance occurs between racial groups” (he cites Braun, 2002; Lewontin, 1972).

“One Drop” as a tool of Racism

The second issue we’d like to underscore is how the one drop rule was deployed during slavery to classify anyone with one black ancestor as “black” and hence, a “slave.” What’s the link to sexuality? Let’s return to the discussion of miscegenation laws prohibiting Black-White marriages.

As noted by Lewis (2006, p 238):

“Although these laws were largely found in the South and were enforced largely among Black-White unions, they were more often enforced when Black men attempted to marry White women.”

In the contemporary case that we are examining, isn’t it interesting that we’re discussing the desire for a Black man and a White woman to marry? The reason for the sexual policing of couples by deploying the boundaries of race is due to ideologies of racial inferiority and the ways that whites enforce racist control. Again, citing Lewis (2006, p. 238):

“Explanations of the evolution of the black race and social policy based on these explanations fell into two broad streams during this [the anti-miscegenation] period: accommodationist racists, who believed that blacks were at a lower stage of evolutionary development and, with proper caretaking, could progress and eventually join (white) society; and competitive racists, who believed that change was not possible for blacks and segregation was necessary to preserve the achievements of the white race” (parenthesis added).

Another connection between deploying the boundaries of race (and racism) and sexuality is this: During slavery, when white masters and their sons regularly had sexual access to black female slaves (e.g. often rape, but sometimes consensual)-the mulatto children that resulted from these sexual encounters–were frequently considered black– and in turn, the masters often declared these children slaves.

Indeed, the courts have ebbed and flowed on the definition of “black” and firmed up the definition of black when they experienced fears of slave rebellions. In fact, without fears of slave rebellions, mulattos were set free from the institution of slavery in some instances. However, when fears emerged that slaves might rebel, support faded for defining mulattos as “in between black and white” and support rose to define mulattos as black. Similar debates related to “racial mixing” were also raised during Nazi Germany and during the Apartheid Era in South Africa.

Racial definitions/classifications and their relationship to sexuality and social oppression continue to haunt American history. As do fears of the “offspring” that result from inter-racial relationships. The Louisiana Justice of the peace doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the times in an endless number of ways. Jay Leno hit it on the head with his recent joke about this case:

“What are people afraid of? That mixed race kids will become President of the United States?”


Braun, L. (2002) Race, ethnicity, and health: Can genetics explain disparities? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 45, 159‑174.

Omi, M. & Winant, H. (1994). Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.

Lewis, L. (2006). Race and Sexuality. Pps 229-264 in  R.D. McAnulty & M.M. Burnette (Eds.), Sex and Sexuality: Trends and Controversies. Westport: Praeger.

Lewontin, R. C. (1972). The apportionment of human diversity. Evolutionary Biology, 6, 381-98.

Caster SemenyaWhile Castor Semenya’s recent “news” seems to have shocked the world, the concern about “gender verification” in sport has taken place for quite some time. The tests have changed over time…but the point has not (e.g. when women are “too good,” they must not be women).

Some examples of other intersex track athletes include:

  • Stella Walsh, a 2 time Olympic medalist in the 1930s, running for Poland. She won a gold medal in ’36 in the 100 meter dash during the Berlin Olympics. It was only when she died that an autopsy revealed that she had male genitalia, XX chromosomes, and XY chromosomes as well.
  • Eva Klobukowska, a Polish sprinter who won a gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics failed a sex chromosome test in 1965. She was banned from competition. (She gave birth a few years later).
  • Maria Patino from Spain was a sprinter and failed a “gender” test in 1985—she was banned from sports competition but was reinstated later when it became clear that she was resistant to testosterone. Since she was deemed resistant to testosterone, the fear that she had an “unfair advantage” or was “a man unfairly masquerading as a woman” was squelched.
  • Santhi Soundarajan, an Indian runner who failed a gender test in Doha in 2006 and was stripped of a previous medal.maria patinoSanthi SoundarajanStella Walsh
    Eva Klobukowska

The list goes on and on. And then, most recently, there was South African Caster Semanya.

Semenya was subject to a “gender verification test” (it is a sex test not a gender test). She was born female, raised as a woman, identifies as a woman, and has no ovaries or uterus. She also has undescended testes. It was also found that while she produces “10 times less” testosterone than “most men,” she has exceeded the average of women by “3 times.” (Why are we comparing elite athletic women to “average women” who may not train as rigorously or build muscle mass as much)? Unlike many other countries which stand by and allow international governing bodies to carry out these tests and toss their athletes out of sports competitions forever more, the South African parliament filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The International Association of Athletics Federation wants her to be disqualified from future events and has suggested to her that she should have “immediate surgery” because of the “grave health risks” of her “condition.”

This is a complicated issue, but I will be brief here and spread my thoughts over a number of posts.

Let me at least say this: The International Olympic Committee mandated “gender verification” of women since the mid 1960s but in 1990, the International Amateur Athletics Federation called for the abandonment of gender verification. A working group was developed, and the Women’s Sports Foundation website reports that the working group concluded that:

  • women with birth defects of the sex chromosomes did not possess an unfair advantage and should be permitted to compete as females; the only purpose of gender verification was to prevent men from masquerading as females;
  • people who have been both legally and psychosocially female since childhood (including pre-pubertal sex re-assignments) should be eligible for women’s competition regardless of their chromosomal pattern;
  • post-pubertal sex re-assignments should be handled on a case by case basis; and women athletes should undergo pre-participation health examinations.

Unfortunately, at IOC events, the IOC continues to sex test despite the discrimination it entails and the harm it causes to athletes.

What I would like to see is parallel gender verification treatment of male athletes:

Let’s determine the normal range of testosterone for men and if there are male athletes who naturally produce more than other male athletes—ban them from competition for being “too much of a man”? (Unnatural advantage).

The other men just don’t have a chance against them, do they?

All of the above trends are of course, contextualized in sport as a social institution, which, since its inception was formed by and for men, in order to make boys into men (for a history of these claims, see the following books: Michael Messner, Power at Play, Susan Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in 20th Century Women’s Sport, or Varda Burstyn’s, The Rites of Men. Another important piece of context: recognition that sport is constructed to explicitly segregate the sexes into two dichotomous beings who don’t compete with one another and to support ideologies of “the two sex system” (Ann Fausto-Sterling’s term, in her book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. She is a biologist, by the way). This is the case even though sport as an institution could be set up to reward the best sports performances (no matter where sex or sexes land).

For excellent work on the two sex system in sport (and for the inspiration for the title of this post), check out Ann Travers’ piece in Studies in Social Justice (2008, Volume 2, #1) “The sport nexus and gender injustice.”

…and don’t miss Mary Jo Kane’s 1995 “seminal” work in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues titled “Resistance/Transformation of the Oppositional Binary: Exposing Sport as a Continuum.”

Finally, if this topic is one that you just plain enjoy, I have a few of my own books on this topic, such as, Leslie Heywood & Shari Dworkin’s (2003): Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon (University of Minnesota Press), and Shari Dworkin and Faye Wachs (2009). Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness (NYU Press).

On August 24th, 2009, CDC representatives at the National HIV Conference in Atlanta, Georgia reported that gay men and other MSM (men who have sex with men) are 50 times more likely to have HIV than heterosexual women or straight men. The report is not yet available at the CDC website and interestingly, only the “gay” newspapers have picked it up as a worthy news story (thus far).

This statistic is reported as confirming, in emphatic terms, the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS on gay and bisexual men of all races and ethnicities. It also recognizes that the highest impact is on African-American men. This announcement is crucial in a few key ways:

First, while there is no cure for HIV or AIDS (and a partially effective vaccine–soon to be another post), many in the US have had access to anti retroviral medications (ARVs) for decades. Many people therefore assume that HIV prevalence has leveled off and that there are very few NEW HIV cases in the US. This is simply not the case. We have a truly problematic epidemic here in the US, and the numbers clearly show us that certain populations are even more at risk than we knew.

This leads me to my second point: Our resources should be aligned to reflect where the risk is. It is not clear that this is happening, particularly in communities of color.

This new announcement tells us, in a convincing and unrelenting way that there is a disproportionate impact on MSM.

So, it’s clear that there’s a huge problem here. Still, I have some critical questions about this report.

1)  First, is there a differential risk between gay men, bi men, and MSM who may not identify as “gay” or “bi” ? Why not report the difference in risk between gay men, bi men, and MSM?

2)  Second, what is the difference between:

a) the risk among gay men, bi men, and MSM (as a category and separately, since they lumped them all together) compared to risk among heterosexual women and b) the risk among gay men, bi men, and MSM (as a category and separately) compared to risk among heterosexual men?

If there is a difference there, shouldn’t we also report that? If we don’t separate out analyses (a) and (b), don’t we unnecessarily set up a “heterosexual” and “minority sexuality” binary?

3)  Further, given that (a) and (b) were not analyzed and presented and given that heterosexual women are experiencing rapid increases in risk in some populations, how can we assure that resources aren’t needlessly pulled from them due to the way the data is being presented?

I have more thoughts, but I’ll stop there for now. There are many interesting framings of data that we can offer that rely on categories of gender or sexuality. We should do both at once. I am proud of my Centers for Disease Control for coming out, so to speak, with these newest figures, and as usual, I look forward to even more figures if these are also bravely revealed. Nuance, not simplicity helps—just as we find in media sound bites.