This year’s top ten sexual stories: an incomplete list from our subjective, North American perspective, containing a mixture of disturbing, entertaining, and hopeful developments.

10. Katie Perry got kicked off Sesame Street

“Thursday morning, the PBS children’s show announced that a scheduled appearance by Perry, queen of the most inappropriate whipped-cream bra ever, had been canceled. On Monday, a clip of Perrywearing a sweetheart-cut dress, singing a G-rated version of her hit “Hot N Cold” and begging to “play” with Elmo, was leaked on the Web. Parents, outraged by Perry’s C-cup-accentuating dress,immediately protested. “You’re going to have to rename [Sesame Street] Cleavage Avenue,” wrote one commenter, while another simply joked, “My kid wants milk now.” (LA Times, Sept. 23, 2010).

Anti-gay activist George Rekers and his "rentboy"

9. George Rekers got caught with “rent boy”

“Reached by New Times before a trip to Bermuda, Rekers said he learned Lucien was a prostitute only midway through their vacation. “I had surgery,” Rekers said, “and I can’t lift luggage. That’s why I hired him.” (Medical problems didn’t stop him from pushing the tottering baggage cart through MIA.)” (Bullock, P. and Thorp, B., Miami New Times, May 6, 2010).

8. Constance McMillen barred from her prom, becomes a Glamour Magazine “Women of the Year

“Constance McMillen has been named one of Glamour Magazine’s ‘Women of the Year’ for 2010.  We came to know Constance through her personal ordeal with Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi.  The school board rejected her request to bring her girlfriend to the prom as her date, and even further, didn’t allow Constance to wear a tuxedo as she had planned.” (Sledjeski, J. GLAAD, Nov. 5, 2010).

7. This one is a tie between: a) Republicans got caught at W. Hollywood Strip Club

“The “family values” Republican National Committee spent almost $2,000 last month at an erotic, bondage-themed West Hollywood club, where nearly naked women – and men – simulate sex in nets hung from above.” (Bazinet, K, and Saltonstall, D. Daily News, March 29, 2010).

and b) Strippers protest Ohio church

“For the past four years, Pastor Dunfee and some of his New Beginnings church members have picketed and protested the strip club in their local community; they’ve even videotaped visitors to the club and posted the videos online in an attempt to hold them accountable for their actions. Pastor Dunfee said the regular protests were to avoid “sharing territory with the devil.”

Irritated by the protests, employees of the club have decided to protest the church—they arrived early in the morning Monday wearing swimwear and toting barbeques, picnic food, sunscreen, and lawn chairs, along with signs reading Matthew 7:15: Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing and Revelation 22:11: He that is unjust, let him be unjust still. ” (Aug.16, 2010;

6.  European Court of Human Rights Rejects Irish Ban on Abortion

“In December, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion violates the rights of pregnant women to receive proper medical care in life-threatening cases. Each year, more than 6,000 women travel abroad from Ireland to obtain abortion services, often at costs of over $1,500 per trip. In a statement on the ruling, the Irish Family Planning Association—the IWHC partner that helped bring about this decision—said the court sent “a very strong message that the State can no longer ignore the imperative to legislate for abortion.” (Top Ten Wins, International Women’s Health Coalition, December 23, 2010).

5. Millions searched for their G-spot

“Asking if the “G-spot” exists can be a bit like asking if God (the other G-spot) exists: It depends on who you ask. And in both cases, science is (thus far) ill equipped to adequately measure either G-spot. ”

(Lerum, K. Sexuality & Society, Jan 6, 2010).

4. The Pope OKs condoms in some circumstances

“In a break with his traditional teaching, Pope Benedict XVI has said the use of condoms is acceptable “in certain cases”, in an extended interview to be published this week.”

“After holding firm during his papacy to the Vatican’s blanket ban on the use of contraceptives, Benedict’s surprise comments will shock conservatives in the Catholic church while finding favour with senior Vatican figures who are pushing for a new line on the issue as HIV ravages Africa.” (Kington, T., and Quinn, B. Guardian UK, Nov. 21, 2010).

3. Microbicide Research offers hope for HIV prevention

“More than 20 years ago, the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) convened 44 women from 20 countries who conceived of a substance, like contraceptive foam or jelly, which could be inserted vaginally to prevent HIV infection. We named it a “microbicide,” and set out to find scientists and money to develop it. Until recently, progress has been slow, but in July, results from a clinical trial in South Africa found a new gel to be nearly 40 percent effective in protecting women against HIV during intercourse.” (Top Ten Wins, International Women’s Health Coalition, December 23, 2010).

2. Gay Teen Suicide & Bullying as a Social Problem

“The recent rash of high profile suicides by boys who were bullied for gender and sexual non-conformity has created a wake up call for parents and school administrators in the U.S. To create a broader base of support from heterosexual allies, as well as to reach out to GLBT youth themselves, a number of new educational and activist initiatives have emerged. Dan Savage created the “It Gets Better”video project, directed at GLBT youth in despair over hostile treatment and at risk of killing themselves. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) declared Oct. 20, 2010 Spirit Day to call attention to and memorialize the recent suicides. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even released her own version of an “It Gets Better” video. ” (Lerum, K. Sexuality & Society, Nov. 18 2010).

1. The Repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

WASHINGTON — “The military’s longstanding ban on service by gays and lesbians came to a historic and symbolic end on Wednesday, asPresident Obama signed legislation repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the contentious 17-year old Clinton-era law that sought to allow gays to serve under the terms of an uneasy compromise that required them to keep their sexuality a secret.” (New York Times, Dec. 22, 2010).


Related Story:  Top Ten Sexual Stories of 2009

I’m happy to say that I’m now also a contributer to Ms. Magazine‘s blog. My first article there is a review of Burlesque, the musical film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. The original article can be viewed at this link. I’ve also inserted its text below (without the internal links and Ms. Magazine‘s pretty formatting):


Burlesque Is So Gay. And That’s A Good Thing.

December 2, 2010 by Kari Lerum

When I worked as a strip club waitress, part of my job was to look out for troublemakers: people entering the club with an intention to harm the dancers. OK, it wasn’t officially my job (that was up to the managers and bouncers), but as a feminist, an ally, and also friend to some of the dancers, I felt it was my unquestionable duty. The worst of the troublemakers? Undercover cops–guys who would enjoy a lap dance and then slap their pleasure provider with a ticket for indecency.

Now, more than 10 years later, as a tenured professor, my job has expanded to analyzing sexual-social systems and all forms of sexual policing. This is why I’m interested in not just Burlesque itself, the new musical film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, but also the film’s sociocultural context, including the chorus of negative reviews.

Even before Burlesque’s Thanksgiving release, reviewers were sharpening their knives, eager for a kill. Not since the mid-90s releases of Showgirls and Striptease–both of which were given Golden Raspberry Awards for the worst in cinema–have reviewers been so eager to tear a movie and its (sexually unapologetic, dancing, woman) protagonist to shreds.

Post-release, most reviewers have followed a standard formula: Compare Burlesque to Showgirls; make fun of Christina Aguilera; declare the film a miserable failure. Below is a sampling:

• The headline for Marshall Fine’s review in Fox News exclaims: ‘Burlesque’ not just Bad, it’s ‘Showgirls’ Bad.’ Fine organizes his review around ridicule of Christina Aguilera:

There’s nary a surprise to be had, except for Aguilera’s apparent misconception that she has acting talent.

• Catherine Shoard’s review in the Guardian concludes “Two divas, one stage – you do the maths,” with the apparent assumption that no stage, or film, is big enough to fit more than ONE larger-than-life female (and unapologetically sexual) protagonist.

• Mary Pols’ review in Time judges Aguilera not against her co-star, but against other women who have played similar roles:

Aguilera, making her dramatic debut, is far from a great actress, but compared to Elizabeth Berkley [Showgirls] or Spears [Crossroads], she is a veritable Nicole Kidman [Moulin Rouge].

(Note that of the three films, only Moulin Rouge, which ends with the death of the prostitute/dancer protagonist, is implied to be “good.”)

• Finally, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune ridicules not just the plot and the acting, but delivers the final cut: “The whole movie amounts to an I-will-survive anthem.” A curious denigration, as Gloria Gaynor’s mega-hit single “I Will Survive” is a recognized anthem for the women’s movement, the gay movement and HIV/AIDS survival.

With these critiques in mind, I took my partner and brother-in-law to see Burlesque on Thanksgiving weekend. Burlesque has a familiar plot for US audiences, full of underdog themes: A sweet, talented small-town protagonist moves to Hollywood to pursue her dreams. She faces initial hardships (can’t get a job as a singer or dancer), but her path is altered when she meets an intriguing character (in this case the character is a place, a magical neo-Burlesque theater). The protagonist meets opposition from the theater’s boss (Cher) and a rival performer, but through her determination and raw talent works her way into a top singing/dancing position.

Our immediate reaction? Pure, easy pleasure. Burlesque is a light, sometimes cheesy, visually gorgeous, sexually tame, feel-good film. A perfect Disneyland-for-Adults distraction for the Holidays. Cher and Aguilera have the kind of voices that make your hair raise, out of not horror but out of delight. Technically, it gets right some elements of both classic burlesque and the neo-burlesque scene, but it’s also a montage of styles borrowed from American Idol, Pussycat Dolls, and Las Vegas showgirls. Worthy of an Oscar? I’ll leave that up to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science–but I won’t be surprised if costume design is in the running.

What then accounts for the cutting reviews of Burlesque and Aguilera? What grand community or artistic standards does this film, or Aguilera, violate? Is there really no place for a fluffy, feel-good, aesthetically pleasing film during the holidays?

Then again, maybe I’m a bad film cop, and Aguilera is just an irredeemable actress, deserving of that ticket for indecency. At least her voice isn’t in question; perhaps her policers would ease up if she simply became the voice of a cartoon character, like the Rapunzel figure in Disney’s new holiday film, Tangled. As it turns out, Burlesque and Tangled have much in common: both were light musical romances released around Thanksgiving, both feature pretty, young, blonde, female protagonists and tall, dark-haired mother figures. Indeed, reviewers like Marshall Fine (who could barely spit out his disdain for Aguilera in Burlesque) seem quite taken by the “tale of the girl in the tower with the long, loooong hair.” According to Fine: “Disney’s new film manages to be romantic, musical, moving–and outstandingly funny. Don’t skip it.”

There is an intriguing similarity between Marshall’s enthusiasm for Tangled and reviews of Burlesque coming from gay or gay-friendly sources. Sara Michelle Fetters from Seattle Gay News writes:

But just because there are no surprises doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of cheesy cornball fun to be had by watching Burlesque. Aguilera is fairly charming as the star-struck ingénue, while Cher and Tucci (playing the requisite Gay best friend with an answer for everything) could do this sort of thing in their sleep and make it somehow worthwhile. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I never felt terrible about sitting in my theater seat. Heck, most of the time I was reasonably entertained, going along with the flow even if every fiber of my being told me not to.

Mick LaSalle, writing for SF Gate, is unabashedly enthusiastic about the film:

Burlesque is irresistible from its first minutes, and over time it creates a whole atmosphere, not only onscreen but within the audience. It’s big, perfectly cast and entertaining in every way, but more than that it feels like a generous public event. See it with other people. See it with a crowd.

Much more can be said about the film’s web of inside jokes and gay cultural references and the fact that Cher and director Steve Antin were (at different times) long-time lovers with media powerhouse David Geffen.

But ultimately, here is where Burlesque goes “wrong”: While trashed for being too predictable, it is actually not predictable enough. Unlike most other contemporary Hollywood (fictional) films about sexual, dancing women, our protagonist is a “good girl” who is sexually expressive but suffers no negative consequences. She is not forced to choose between innocence and sensuality, good girl and vamp. She, and everyone else at the club, gets to have it all. The club is not a hotbed of despair, corruption, and exploitation. The tall dark mother figure, a sexy burlesque dancer herself, is not a villain. Rather, as a club owner she is fiercely loyal to her employees; her club is their family. Women employees ultimately stick together, survive and thrive. Gay employees are loved and integral to the club. No one dies.

I have a strong suspicion that it is all of this–more than the soft dramatic tension and cheesy lines–that most mainstream film reviewers really can’t stomach.

The winning entry for Project Condom Season 2. Designed by University of South Carolina junior Marquis Bias; modeled by USC senior Danielle Watson.

I recently attended the massive American Public Health Association meetings in Denver, where there were a number of scientific sessions on topics related to reproductive and sexual health. One of the more exciting sessions for me was a session on “Sexual Health Issues of Youth,” where Professor Lisa Lindley (Global & Community Health, George Mason University) discussed the philosophy and impact of a creative sex education program called “Project Condom.” This program combines the concept of “Project Runway” with condom couture for the intended impact of promoting safer sex.

Powerpoint slide from Lindley's APHA presentation, borrowed with permission.

“Project Condom” is the creative brainchild of Ryan Wilson, who works in Student Health Services at University of South Carolina. Together with Lindley (who was then a professor at USC) and a team of USC faculty, staff, and students, Wilson has now seen Project Condom through its third season. (In addition to being inspired by Project Runway, Wilson’s team was also extending the work of Adriana Bertini, a designer/activist credited for creating the idea of condom couture.)

Student groups participating in Project Condom are provided with 1,000 condoms in assorted colors. Each group develops a PG-13 theme for their design (e.g. pregnancy prevention, STI/HIV protection, abstinence). The judges (most recently including Santino Rice from Project Runway) rate the designs on 5 criteria: Overall concept and theme, use of condoms or abstinence symbol, creativity, stage presence, and interview justification. To see video footage of Project Condom click here: Project Condom, Season 3

Besides offering a forum for artistic expression, there is evidence that Project Condom is increasing both awareness of sexual health and propensity for using condoms amongst USC students. (Evidence based on surveys of audience members of Project Condom as well as increased volume of free condoms being taken on campus).

Project Condom is now being replicated at George Mason University as well:

We at Sexuality & Society applaud Wilson, Lindley, and the Project Condom team for this promising Sexual Health approach!

ABC news recently featured a story about “Pure Fashion,” a U.S. faith-based program that leads 14-18 year-old girls “through an eight-month course in which they are encouraged to ‘dress in accordance with their dignity as children of God.'” The eight month course ends with a “‘purity preserving’ fashion show.”

The obsession with, monitoring of, and handwringing over girls’ (sexualized) appearance is of course not new, but this particular iteration comes from an ironic source: a fashion model and former Miss Georgia, Brenda Sharman. Sharman may be preaching “purity” but she also understands that her message will be considered more hip if she can dissociate from conservative and/or mainstream culture. Hence, Sharman is on a mission to reframe “pure” girls as “radical” girls:

Brenda Sharman: model, former Miss Georgia, and founder of Pure Fashion.
Brenda Sharman: model, former Miss Georgia, and founder of Pure Fashion.


“The idea with Pure Fashion is very countercultural,” said Brenda Sharman … “It takes a girl who is brave and gutsy…This is not for the weak and wimpy girl … to say, ‘I’m different, and I’m going to preserve my innocence and virginity,’ that’s a girl who’s radical!”

Scene from the Pure Fashion catwalk
Scene from the Pure Fashion catwalk


The problem is, radical, counter-cultural movements are supposed to challenge and pave new ground. In contrast, the leaders and proponents of Pure Fashion look to conservative established models for their inspiration. They are mothers, fathers, and church leaders who are deeply disturbed by the sexual displays (assumed to be impure) of their unmarried daughters. This may be a radical backlash to signifiers of sexuality or the de-coupling of sexuality and reproduction, but it’s not radical.

Concerns about sexually expressive girls and women is common amongst groups whose cultural and religious norms privilege men and/or believe that men and women have naturally different physical capabilites and personalities. As Shari Dworkin and I argued in a recent article,

“(c)ultural and religious traditions that privilege men always require intense regulation and surveillance of girls’ and women’s sexuality. In these contexts, the moral and social ‘worth’ of girls and women is based on their sexual availability, creating a good virgin-bad whore dichotomy. This tradition is thriving in many aspects of U.S.  culture, including the movement for abstinence-only education, virginity pledges, purity ball, and so on” (Lerum and Dworkin, 2009b).

It is clear that “Pure Fashion” can be added to the list of cultural institutions that support a hierarchical segregation between “virgins” and “whores.” For example, one mom who sent her daughter to “Pure Fashion” expressed her desire for men to look at her daughter in the same way that she looks at her daughter, as “pure and beautiful and innocent”:

“I don’t want her to be distracted by men. So I kind of don’t want men to look at her at all, not notice her,” Tina said. “But I recognize that they will, so I just want to make sure they look at her in the way that I see her, which is pure and beautiful and innocent.”

But conservative religious parents aren’t the only one sounding the alarm horns; many feminist and feminist-leaning academics and professionals are also concerned about sexy and sexual girls. This is because mainstream media appears to create the opposite problem of conservative religion: that is, rather than telling girls and women that their worth is based on their lack of sexual availability, the media appears to “tell” girls and women that their worth is based on their widespread sexual appeal and availability. They may leave God and purity talk out of it and they may not send their daughters to Sharman’s fashion reeducation program, but secular, feminist, and academic critics are still dismayed by girls who dress “sexy.” Indeed, it has become common for people across lines of politics, religion, and profession — at least in the US — to shake their heads in dismay over the increasing “sexualization” of girls, women, and of culture. This perceived shift in mainstream US culture is almost uniformly seen as harmful, something to critique and work against. It is in this cultural context that the American Psychological Association formed a task force on the Sexualization of Girls and wrote a highly publicized report (APA Task Force report on the Sexualization of Girls 2007).  (See below for the APA’s definition of “sexualization”).

In contrast to the APA task force and conservative religious groups, we think it is a mistake for scholars and activists to automatically assume that sexualized images and appearances are harmful to girls and women. We critique the methodological, empirical, and epistemological foundations of this argument in great depth in a recent article (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009a), but here I focus on just one point: how the concern about “sexualization” misses the boat on sexual health. While the APA task force briefly discusses what they consider to constitute “healthy sexuality,” we argue that the term “sexual health” is much more useful for social justice, feminist, and public health scholars/activists:

… we suspect that an ideological gulf may exist between the APA’s (2007) concept of healthy sexuality and the more widely recognized concept of sexual health. For one, the APA’s version of healthy sexuality seems to rely on the existence of a sexual partner: (‘‘intimacy, bonding . . . shared pleasure . . . mutual respect between consenting partners,’’ p. 2). In contrast, the concept of sexual health is often explicitly tied to a rubric of individual sexual rights (some of which may apply to both children and adults). Originally developed by the World Association for Sexual Health and now widely recognized (and modified) by other organizations including the World Health Organization, the concept of sexual rights may include the right to sexual pleasure (not necessarily with another person), the right to emotional sexual expression (including self-sexualization), and the right to sexually associate freely (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009, p. 259).

We further argue that “(s)ounding the alarms on sexualization without providing space for sexual rights results in a setback for girls and women and for feminist theory, and is also at odds with the growing consensus of global health scholars (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009, p. 260).

While the APA task force report virtually ignores sexual health, statistics about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are widely embraced and utilized by conservative religious groups. The following quote comes from Brenda Sharman, director of “Pure Fashion”:

“If you are too steamy in your bikini, you will become a part of a statistic,” Sharman told a roomful of 40 girls at the Atlanta conference. “By the age of fifteen, 76 percent of teens are involved in a sexual relationship. What do we expect, really, when so many girls have displayed their bodies to the world? … For the first time teen girls have the highest gonorrhea rate in the nation, teen boys have the second. Approximately 400,000 teens have abortions every year. And according to UNICEF, half of all new HIV infections occur in young people 15-24.”

Of course, Sharman’s use of these statistics is alarmist and conflated (e.g., the UNICEF statistics are GLOBAL, reflecting more about conditions of access to contraception, early marriage, and/or extreme poverty than whether or not a girl has access to a bikini!), but it is also clear that conservatives are using them to shore up a particular theory of sexuality (i.e. bad things happen when girls get sexy). For critical scholars of sexuality, justice, health, and inequality, these statistics illustrate points and questions around a very different set of assumptions. We leave these interpretations to the conservatives at our own peril.


The APA task force defines sexualization as a condition that occurs when a person is subjected to at least one of the following four conditions:

  • 1) a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics,
  • 2) a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy
  • 3) a person is sexually objectified – that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making, and/or
  • 4) sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person          (APA Task Force, 2007, p. 2)


Bibliography/Recommended Reading:


Shari Dworkin and I are happy to introduce our first official guest post, from Adina Nack, Associate Professor of Sociology at California Lutheran University:


By Adina Nack

What are the overt and covert goals of school dress codes? Are these dress codes developed to ensure that students meet norms of professionalism, or do these serve as tools for schools to enforce heteronormativity and stigmatize transgenderism? Are schools citing safety concerns, warning parents about how to protect youth from harm, or do these intend to distract us from the ways in which dress codes serve to reinforce heterosexist norms? How well can we predict the unintended consequences of dress codes – both the more ‘traditional’ and more ‘progressive’ policies?

These are the questions I found myself asking after reading Shari Dworkin’s recent post about Morehouse College’s dress code and a recent New York Times article by Jan Hoffman that asked, “Can a boy wear a skirt to school?”: (see High Schools Struggle When Gender Bends the Dress Code).

articleLargeThis NYT piece focused on the number of U.S. high schools who have created dress codes that explicitly classify “unconventional gender expression” as violations warranting disciplinary actions. Hoffman also mentioned some high schools whose dress codes are more accepting of “gender-blurring clothing.” Hoffman’s recent NYT article includes arguments for and against dress codes that allow for a diverse range of gender and sexuality expressions, noting safety as “a critical concern.”

To exemplify this point, Hoffman mentions Lawrence King’s 2008 murder. Living and teaching near Oxnard, CA, I had immersed myself in the news coverage of this school shooting. Journalists often discussed King as a 15-year-old student who sometimes cross-dressed and who had talked about being gay. For example, Ramin Setoobeh’s 2008 coverage of King’s story in Newsweek included detailed descriptions of the clothing, make-up, and accessories that the 15-year-old often wore to school. At the time of the murder, many local residents – ranging from the socially conservative to the socially progressive – were shocked when reports revealed that King had been allowed to ‘cross-dress’ at his middle school. According to MSNBC, his school’s leniency became the reason for Lawrence King’s family to file a personal injury claim against the school district: “for not enforcing the dress code.”

When it comes to questions of school safety, it is not appropriate to posit any dress code as the solution. Blaming a school – for having a “lenient” dress code or for not enforcing a dress code – is a simplistic and unjust conclusion to reach. Following this line of reasoning, we should not question a dress code which privileges a narrow definition of masculinity. Codes and policies rooted in social inequalities serve to elevate oppressive norms – we can and should be critical consumers.

In an SWS listserv discussion inspired by last week’s NYT article, sociologist Joan I. Biddle, raised interesting points that illustrate why a context-sensitive analysis is key. I followed up with her by email, and she clarified her perspective:

“The degree to which the faculty become involved with these students may have a lot to do with how the student behaves at school. Is the student doing things which disrupt the learning of other students? Also, how does the student present her/himself to the others in the school setting? And, is this presentation compatible with the flow of things in the social/educational environment at the school?”

Several questions arise here: How does heteronormativity influence teachers’ and administrators’ definitions of ‘disruptive’ behavior? Do longstanding stereotypes about homosexual males – as those who seek to ‘convert’ heterosexuals or as supposed perpetrators of sexual crimes – make it more likely for a cross-dressing male student to be labeled as deviant and aggressive?

Biddle’s point about the social significance of a student being perceived as ‘disruptive’ is illustrated by a line in Setoobeh’s article about King’s murder: “Larry King was, admittedly, a problematical test case: he was a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon—it was often his first line of defense.” In U.S. schools, are heterosexual students ever accused of ‘flaunting’ their sexuality? Are heterosexual boys who flirt with girls likely to be cited for having used their sexuality as a weapon?  Setoobeh’s use of a ‘sexuality-as-weapon’ metaphor likely referred to reports of King being accused of ‘sexually harassing’ several male students, including the student who ultimately killed him. However, framing King as the one wielding “a weapon” distracts from how we problematize any sexual agency on the part of minority sexualities and the numerous reports about King having been the victim of homophobic bullying.

A year and a half after this tragedy, mainstream media coverage of school dress codes fails to bring sufficient attention to underlying inequalities reinforced by these institutional policies which codify heterosexism. If we want to focus on safety concerns, then what about holding all U.S. schools accountable for not allowing any type of bullying or sexual harassment to take place on their campuses? Reframing the social problem in this way would require a nationwide crackdown on the most prevalent and normalized type of sexual harassment – that of boys/men harassing girls/women. We would also have to address the far too common harassment and bullying of LGBTQ students, heterosexual female students, and students who are marginalized for their ethnicity, social class, abilities, or religious beliefs.

I agree with Dworkin, who concluded her post with, “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….” It’s time to de-stigmatize ‘boys in skirts’ and keep issues of power and privilege in mind when we discuss students’ expressions of sex, gender, and sexuality.


Suggested Readings:

  • Hand, Jeanne Z. and Laura Sanchez. 2000. “Badgering or Bantering?: Gender Differences in Experience of, and Reactions to, Sexual Harassment among U.S. High School Students.” Gender and Society, Vol. 14, No. 6:pp. 718-746.
  • Meyer, Elizabeth J. 2008. “A feminist reframing of bullying and harassment: Transforming schools through critical pedagogy.” McGill Journal of Education, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Winter): 33-48.
  • Pascoe, C.J. 2007. Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley, CA: UC Press.
  • Whitelaw, Sarah, Laura Hills, and Julia De Rosa. 1999. “Sexually Aggressive and Abusive Behaviors in Schools.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1/2: pp. 203-211.

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.