Does it matter when popular stories about “sex trafficking” are based on half-truths, junk science, and/or religious beliefs? Given that many people are interested in the issue of human trafficking in general and human trafficking in the sex industry in particular, it is critical that we face the consequences of stories told in the name of rescuing girls and women.

Since the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), stories of human trafficking have been well integrated into the American cultural imagination. While there are now many more reliable scholarly resources on human trafficking today then there were at the turn of the 21st century, many individuals still derive most of their knowledge about human trafficking from sensationalistic media stories about so-called “sex trafficking.” [i]

In the United States, mediated stories of human trafficking of sex workers vary around specific contextual details of who, when, and where, but they consistently portray the same messages about why and how. Hollywood action-adventure characterizations of victims and villains are deployed; complex structural problems are squeezed into personal morality tales; and the stories are then used by anti-sex work politicians and activists to justify heightened forms of criminal punishment. While the stories may have popular appeal, evidence suggests that more criminalization actually hurts all sex workers across the continuum of privilege and oppression.

The argument I will make here is organized around the following interrelated points:

  1. We must critically interrogate dominant stories told about people in the sex industry. (There are numerous examples, but I will focus here on the content and impact of recent feature length film in particular, The Abduction of Eden);
  2. Such stories justify the criminal punishment system via rescue/capture methods as an avenue for social justice (this includes laws being proposed right now in Washington State);
  3. Because the criminal punishment system has a long history of destroying the lives of poor people and people of color — including those of sex workers — academics and activists concerned about people in the sex trade need to rethink this entire set of dominant stories and strategies.

1. Demonizing tales
While there are a plethora of sensationalized media stories about coercion, abuse, and trafficking in the sex industry one recent story – Abduction of Eden (AKA Eden, released 2012) – provides a powerful blend of Hollywood and Biblical tropes. This in combination with the promise that Eden is a “true” story makes it a productive one for understanding the relationship between American cultural storytelling and political policies about sex work and human trafficking.

Eden is a feature length film directed by Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths derived from the allegedly true story of Chong Kim. The protagonist (actress Jamie Chung) – a naïve 17 year old girl with hard working, Korean immigrant, Christian parents – is kidnapped and brought to a warehouse/jail with dozens of thin, young, feminine, cisgender, and (mostly white) girls who are forced to stand obediently in line wearing identical white underwear-tanktop sets. The protagonist’s (now renamed “Eden”) first assignment is on a BDSM porn set; she sobs as her hands are handcuffed and pulled upward. At her next job Eden attempts a dramatic escape; bloody and screaming she runs into a suburban backyard with white women drinking white wine (they don’t call the police and Eden is recaptured). We learn that Eden’s best friend in the prison/brothel was stolen at age 13, and when her friend gets pregnant and gives birth, her baby is also stolen and sold. A message portrayed in Eden is that when girls disobey or simply grow too old for the work (20+ years of age) they are executed. The film also implies that this sex trafficking operation is part of an international network directed from outside the US. Although the external controller is never named, there are Russian men working for the operation and Dubai is frequently mentioned. This includes a scene where the drug-addicted supervisor (Vaughn/Matt O’Leary) threatens Svletlana (Naama Kates), a blonde Russian woman with being sent back to Dubai, where she “can get dicked by donkeys all day.”

If these themes are not enough to convince the average American viewer that the world of sex work is pure evil (relying on enslaved cisgender girls enacting forced BDSM porn and probably dictated by an international network of men from Russia and the Middle East who have sex with donkeys), the film hits home the message with multiple Biblical references and metaphors.

This includes the obvious metaphor about the Garden of Eden. It also includes a scene where God appears in the body of a tall white deputy named Ron Greer (Tony Doupe). When Greer questions the corrupt, murderous federal marshal Bob Gault (Beau Bridges) about his possible role in a double homicide, Gault/Bridges looks upward with fear in his eyes and says: “Lord. How are your leads coming?” When Greer informs him that his cell phone activity was picked up near the scene of the crime, Gault replies: “I’ll be damned.” Greer responds: “Well I surely hope not.

Beau Bridges in a screen shot from Abduction of Eden. Bridges is a devout Christian who reportedly refuses to accept roles that take the Lord’s name in vain, when he says “Lord” and “I’ll be damned” – I think we should assume that he means it literally http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beau_Bridges
Beau Bridges in a screen shot from Abduction of Eden. Bridges is reportedly a devout Christian who refuses to accept roles that take the Lord’s name in vain. So when he says “Lord” and “I’ll be damned” I think we should assume he means it literally.

What Eden viewers may not be aware of is that there are many counter-narratives to the “truth” claims of such messages. For example:

  • While there are certainly degrees of coercion or lack of choice found in all jobs especially unregulated or informal economy labor including the sex industry, the portrayal of a warehouse of dozens of kidnapped teenage girls being forced to be prostitutes is simply not consistent with reliable data about the experiences of contemporary sex workers, especially as practiced in the U.S.
  • Individuals representing a spectrum of genders, sexes, races, ages, social classes, sexual orientations, and body types work as sex workers.
  • BDSM is a consensual sexual lifestyle choice for many people as is participation in pornography – but both of these activities have long been demonized by conservative feminists and religious groups. The stigma and fear of BDSM and porn can thus be used as an easy tool to invoke shock and horror from people who are morally opposed to both.
  • Despite narratives about international “sex trafficking rings,” critical criminologists describe trafficking in the sex industry as better described as “crime that is organized” (rather than “organized crime”).[ii]
  • Eden was produced and consumed within a broader U.S. cultural context where fictitious claims about “sex trafficking” are common, ranging from grossly inflated and unreliable global estimates, to debunked claims that the Superbowl creates an uptick in sexual slavery, and statistically untenable assertions that the “average age” of women entering prostitution is 13-14.[iii]
  • As it turned out, none of the content of Eden was based in truth. In June of 2014 multiple investigators into Chong Kim’s story found that she lied about the everything.[iv] Kim was investigated and charged for fraud by a variety of anti-trafficking organizations.[v] But Eden still had several years of celebrity adoration before this news broke.

Initial mainstream responses to Eden
Even before its official release, mainstream (non-sex worker and non-allied) audiences and critics went wild over the story of Eden. While many found the performances impressive and the action-adventure storyline gripping, what sealed Eden’s critical success was that people believed that this story was true. Feminist and women’s groups, churches, and film festivals sponsored screenings; awards were given, local anti-sex work/trafficking politicians were featured, people became enraged en masse and were motivated to join the crusade. The text of Eden folded seamlessly into the curriculum of U.S.-based anti-sex trafficking efforts with its images of taped mouths, chained wrists risen toward the heavens, “in our own backyard” and “stolen innocence” messages, and the idea that the average age of sex trafficked girls in the U.S. is age 13. The true story of Eden appeared to be an American anti-sex trafficking activist’s dream come true.

Even mainstream/secular journalists converted to Eden’s cause, infusing their reviews with Judeo-Christian language and imagery. David Schmader of the progressive Seattle based periodical The Stranger called Eden “a miracle.”[vi] James Rocchi of MSN Entertainment described Eden as “a rewarding, righteous example of how fiction can tell the truth.”

In June 2014, the “true story” sex trafficking film, Eden, was exposed as having no basis in truth. In September 2014 the official website for Eden was still claiming that the film is based on a true story. By at least early February 2015 the website had completely vanished. Director Megan Griffiths, Producer Colin Plank and others affiliated with the film have given no public explanation or apology for the fraudulent story, their strange silence about the controversy, or the disappearance of their website.

Anti-sex work apologists may try to explain away the embarrassment around Eden (as well as other high profile “sex trafficking” stories)[vii] as just an anomaly, or as a few people stretching the truth for a good cause. But Eden is just the visible cultural iceberg of a story that has already become embedded into U.S. policing practices.

2. Context of U.S. policing & criminalizing policies
Part of the reason for the success of Eden is that it was preaching to an American choir that already had the why and the how part of the story in place. It also complemented dominant approaches to end trafficking in the sex industry that feature coercive “law and order” methods where participants are either forced to be rescued/reprogrammed or captured/incarcerated. The rescue side is led predominantly by well-meaning (and mostly white) middle-class women and men (Christians, social workers, feminists) attempting to “save” cisgender girls and women from sex work. The capture side is directed by (predominantly white) men in policing agencies (police, FBI, Homeland Security) who capture girls and women for rescue and men for punishment.

The dynamics between the rescuers/rescued and capturers/captured can also underscore racist power relations. To borrow from Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase, “white men are saving brown women from brown men”[viii]: Anti-sex trafficking crusaders are often white men and women saving (all cisgender) women from (black and brown) men.

However, we are now in a cultural moment – thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement – where many white middle class people are collectively and finally having an epiphany around the reality of police brutality, mass incarceration, and criminalization of everyday life for poor communities and communities of color.[ix] But what many people have not yet made the connection on is how these same principles need to be applied when evaluating the war on trafficking.[x] This war combines many of the same strategies from the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” (targeting “urban gangs,” people of color and immigrants) to create even more invasive policing and surveillance mechanisms of marginalized people’s everyday lives.

This brings me to the current legislative climate in Washington State: the location where Eden was produced. Washington is currently facing several new state legislature bills intending to create more criminal penalties for clients of sex workers[xi]. The bills are largely generated and coordinated from the desk of Washington State senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who is a long time supporter of state level anti-trafficking legislation.

An earlier anti-trafficking bill (also sponsored by Kohl-Welles) resulted in harsh felony punishment for domestic “traffickers” in Washington State. The first individual sentenced under this new law in 2009 was a 19-year-old African American man working as a pimp/manager/boyfriend to a group of young African American women in West Seattle.[xii] He sits now with many other young men of color in prison, many of whom were first incarcerated under the failed and racially discriminatory “war on drugs,” and now also increasingly incarcerated in the name of the war on “sex trafficking.”

With Federal and State punishments now locked in for “traffickers” in Washington State, the new set of proposed state laws are now set on the clients as part of the “end the demand” approach (AKA the “Nordic Model”). The idea is that if men are given harsh enough criminal and social punishments for buying sex, then they will stop trying to buy it. This is a popular idea with contemporary anti-sex work activists despite the fact that:

  • there is no reliable empirical evidence to support that this approach is helpful for reducing harms to sex workers,[xiii]
  • leading global health experts oppose any form of criminalization in the sex industry due to the health harms it poses for sex workers,[xiv]
  • sex worker activists and advocates have consistently documented the harms of criminalization and policing on the well-being and human rights of people in the sex industry,[xv]
  • these policies criminalize sexual interactions between consenting adults, and:
  • more criminalization ≠ social justice.

Is there a connection between sensationalist “sex trafficking” stories such as Eden and policies that hyper-criminalize the sex industry? I think there is. Not only do these stories serve as a popular master narrative around the sex industry; in this case the critical acclaim for Eden (and its director, Megan Griffiths) is also intertwined with the success of Kohl-Welles’s push for increasingly harsh anti-sex trafficking legislation in Washington State. At a May 2013 screening of Eden, Kohl-Welles was featured as an expert on sex trafficking; Kohl-Welles subsequently supported the Motion Picture Competitiveness Bill in Washington State, which directly benefits filmmakers like Griffiths. In October 2014 Griffiths spoke in support to Kohl-Welles’ re-election.

3. Work with sex workers, not against them
Many progressive individuals and communities aspire to support the war against trafficking, and want to trust that laws that criminalize men actors will help girls and women who are coerced, abused, or trafficked in the sex industry. However, evidence from global health and human rights researchers consistently show that more criminalization hurts all sex workers across the continuum of privilege and oppression.

Because of the harms of criminalization:

  • We must insist that the voices of a diverse range of sex workers be included in all panels and policy discussions that impact them.[xvi]
  • It is time for class- and race-privileged individuals to examine their own complicity in supporting sensationalistic stories and moralistic rescue/capture policing strategies.
  • People concerned about exploitation in the sex industry should join activists working for the labor and human rights of people working in the sex industry. This includes opposition to criminalization of consensual adult sexual exchanges.
  • Rather than seek to punish individuals who are already marginalized, and/or punish people for engaging in adult consensual sex, it is time to work with sex workers against systemic punishment, criminalization, and institutional exclusion of women, people of color, poor people, trans* individuals, undocumented people, and homeless youth – many of whom rely on the informal economy including sex work.

If you care about improving the lives of people in the sex trade it is time to advocate for a greater diversity of sex worker stories and perspectives on how to first discuss and then solve coercion and abuse in the sex industry. There may certainly still be space for religious beliefs and metaphors in this wider diversity of stories and plot lines. However, if one truly listens to the bottom line perspectives of sex workers around the world, it will become clear that we need to look beyond the criminal punishment system for solving social justice issues.


References and further readings:

This essay is an extension of an argument that I made in an earlier publication, which was featured as a dialogue/debate amongst experts on human trafficking: Lerum, K. 2014 (Winter). “Human Wrongs vs. Human Rights.” Contexts.

Sexuality & Society welcomes this guest post from Karen Rosenberg, who holds a Ph.D. in Women Studies and directs the Writing Center at the University of Washington Bothell.


It has been more than 15 years since The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Since becoming law on Sept. 13, 1994, VAWA has provided billions of dollars to bolster the criminal legal response to violence against women, provide services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, and increase protections for battered immigrant women. 

I got into anti-violence work in VAWA’s infancy and continue to wrestle with the questions that brought me to the movement in the first place. These questions include: Why is there so much violence in intimate relationships? What kinds of activism are most effective for reducing this violence? What role should the state play in regulating (reducing violence in) romantic relationships? What role should the criminal legal system play? What role should our communities play?

Working as a legal advocate in a mainstream anti-domestic violence program in the mid-1990s, I saw VAWA as unquestionably good. Finally, there was federal recognition that violence against women is pandemic, and serious, and worthy of public attention. Federal dollars–billions of them—were going to every corner of the country.  

I worked on several projects funded with VAWA dollars. I collaborated with cops and prosecutors to design trainings and improve the criminal legal response to domestic violence. I began to see fewer cops saying “we don’t get involved in domestics,” or telling violent husbands to “take a walk around the block to ‘cool off.’” I helped women navigate the legal system and advocate for their interests and the interests of their children. I brought the concerns of battered women to policymakers. And every few years, when VAWA came up for re-authorization, I contacted my senators and urged them to continue funding VAWA. I saw these changes in the criminal justice and legal systems as the unquestionably sweet fruits of feminist activist labor.

It wasn’t until I interviewed feminist activists in the course of my dissertation research on responses to violence against women in Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia, that I realized that the larger social justice picture was quite a bit more complicated. One activist I interviewed had a particularly powerful critique of VAWA:

“…At first we’re like VAWA has both good things and bad things.  But then I really understood the bad things about VAWA and understood that it was part of…this big, gigantic, monstrous crime bill and inside of this crime bill was where we got…the bullshit around three strikes and mandatory minimums and things that were devastating to our communities.  So if you ask me now whether or not we should have supported VAWA given the money that came to programs and given the general attention that was put on violence against women, both of which are good, I say ‘no.’ (Seattle feminist activist)

Soon after transcribing these words, I began to do some homework. I learned that VAWA, indeed, was part of a massive crime bill. Though then-Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) initially introduced VAWA as a stand-alone bill in 1990, it did not command the necessary support to pass. After 4 years of lobbying and revising the legislation, Congress folded it into a comprehensive crime bill. As legal scholar Rachelle Brooks explains, embedding VAWA into a comprehensive crime bill “…placed many feminists in the awkward position of mobilizing around a measure with which they did not agree.” She goes on to say that:

“…the symbolic act of consolidating VAWA in the Crime Bill means that the legislative system grouped domestic violence with other violent crimes and has framed it as a criminal problem.  By associating domestic violence against women with other criminal acts the state can ignore the many other roots of this violence” (Brooks 1997: 79).

Indeed, a look at the budget for the initial VAWA legislation reflects this commitment to the law and order response: over half of the funding—almost one billion dollars—was allocated to criminal legal system remedies. This was a significant infusion of money into criminal legal organizations and contributes to the perception in the US that cops and courts are intimately involved with and the primary responders to domestic violence. The budget also gave significant funding to social service remedies, most notably battered women’s shelters. However, even this funding helped bring the CLS into women’s lives and communities. Much of the VAWA funding required women’s anti-violence organizations to work collaboratively with CLS agencies (such as many of the projects I have worked on).

Another problematic aspect of feminist support for VAWA—which has received even less attention than the problems with the de facto support of a far reaching crime bill—is the removal of the Racial Justice Act from the final version of VAWA. The proposed legislation would have given inmates of color additional avenues to appeal death sentences. Feminist acquiescence to the removal of the Racial Justice Act led to the all-too-familiar feminist prioritization of gender over race. As Brooks comments, by supporting the final version of VAWA embedded in the crime bill “…feminists implicitly endorsed both the removal of the Racial Justice Act…” as well as the racism in the CLS (Brooks 1997: 80).

Where does this leave us now, nearly 16 years after the initial passage of VAWA? While I am acutely aware of the limits of advocacy within the criminal legal system, I do think it makes a difference that the key players in the criminal legal system receive training and tools to intervene in cases of intimate partner violence. As a result I do not regret my support for VAWA.  I doubt that so much attention, and so many resources, could have been dedicated to address violence against women in the 1990s outside of a law and order frame. 

However, as we approach the 16th year anniversary of VAWA, I believe that activists should continue to rethink violence against women outside of a law and order frame, and make connections between interpersonal violence and other forms of violence (the 2001 Incite!-Critical Resistance statement is a powerful expression of the connections between interpersonal violence and state-sponsored violence). I am inspired by the work of local activist groups exploring community-based responses to violence against women that deemphasize the role of the CLS. This work has included, for example, organizing groups of friends who share information about what’s going on in their intimate relationships to counteract the isolation that often accompanies abuse and creating community dialogue about the impact of specific acts of abuse. Here in Seattle, two groups at the forefront of this work are Communities Against Rape and Abuse and the Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse.

VAWA was born of compromise and the tensions that were present at its inception—the focus on gender at the expense of race, the over-reliance on the CLS—are still very much with us. At the same time, the sustained attention and resources directed toward the problem of violence against women has been genuinely helpful in many ways. The critiques of VAWA that activists and academics have developed over the life of VAWA move us powerfully ahead – pointing us toward the importance of community involvement and the dangers of relying too heavily on cops and courts to change a culture that fosters violence against women.


Karen Rosenberg directs the Writing Center at the University of Washington Bothell and has been involved in anti-violence against women organizing for over 15 years. She earned her doctorate in Women Studies from the University of Washington and her research explores the contradictions inherent in using the criminal legal system to regulate intimate relationships.

Referenced and recommended sources:

  • Brooks, R. (1997).  “Feminists negotiate the legislative branch: the Violence Against Women Act.”  In C.R. Daniels & R. Brooks, (Eds). Feminists negotiate the state: The politics of domestic violence (65-82). Lanham: University Press of America.
  • Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. (2006). Color of violence: The Incite! anthology. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press.

In his book, Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change, and Social Worlds (1995, Routledge), Ken Plummer explains that when individuals narrate seemingly internal and personal stories about their sexuality, these aren’t very individual or internal at all. Rather, such narratives emerge in themes that are made possible due to specific cultural and political conditions; sexual stories are thus part of larger sexual storytelling culture, and can be understood and made meaningful and visible only via existing cultural frames.

In 1995 Plummer documented three kinds of emerging sexual stories: rape stories, coming out stories, and recovery stories. The year of 2009 brought several unique opportunities of its own to tell sexual stories. Some of these stories reaffirmed and revisited familiar plots to “old” sexual stories, while some forged new territory. We have decided to group this year’s stories (which we have selected with a highly subjective and US based lens) into themes; each theme is a compilation of several individual stories, forming what we see as a larger set of cultural stories being told about the pleasures and dangers of sexuality, and the roles of social institutions in regulating and redefining normative sexual boundaries. Thanks to Phil Cohen, Holly Lewandowski, and Amanda Hess for story leads. Also, thanks to RhReality Check’s Amy Newman for her list of top stories from 2009 (from which we borrowed a few).

#10. “Squeaky-clean”-men-who-cheat stories, starring Tiger Woods!Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren

In her recent article on Tiger Woods, Shari Dworkin debunks widespread psychological and “sex addiction” explanations for Tiger Woods’ affairs:

“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 with 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 “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.”

  • images-3Similar structural and cultural analyses incorporating masculinity and institutional/political power could and should also be applied to the other stars of this story, including: Mark SanfordJohn Ensign, & John Edwards.
  • Additionally, a cross-cultural perspective is needed here as well (e.g. why are these stories so powerful and shaming in the US, but not in European countries?)

#9. Gay-marriage-success stories, starring: Argentina!

Argentina Gay Marriage -- first in Latin America
Latin America's first gay marriage, in Argentina


According to The Guardian: “In Latin America policies and attitudes have mellowed over the past two decades and in most countries it is now illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Buenos Aires, Bogota and Mexico City boast gay pride parades and gay-friendly districts where same-sex couples can kiss and hold hands in public. Yesterday Di Bello, 41, and Freyre, 39, became the continent’s first gay married couple. The pair sidestepped a court ruling blocking their wedding in Buenos Aires by holding the ceremony in Ushuaia, capital of Tierra del Fuego province and the world’s southernmost city. They exchanged rings at a civil ceremony witnessed by state and federal officials, prompting jubilation by gay rights activists and consternation from the Catholic church. “My knees didn’t stop shaking,” said Di Bello. “We are the first gay couple in Latin America to marry” (Guardian.co.uk — Dec. 29, 2009).

Gay-marriage- success stories from 2009 also starred: Mexico City, Washington DC, New Hampshire, Sweden, Iowa, Vermont, and Norway. These are just the states, countries, and cities adopting gay marriage in 2009 and doesn’t include the longer list of locales which legalized domestic partnership in 2009. [The appendix to this is the Gay-Marriage-doom-&-gloom story: starring the Catholic Church (Maine) & the Mormon Church (California, from 2008)]

#8. Multiple-birth stories, starring: Angela Suleman (aka Octo-mom!)


While more women are having multiple-baby births (thanks to IVF technology), not all multiple-birth mothers are viewed the same. Kathryn Joyce from RhReality Check offers an insightful comparison between the highly demonized Angela Suleman (“octo-mom”) and a “Reality TV” family with 18 children:

“Suleman’s newborns were delivered, as it were, into a pop cultural moment of preoccupation with large families. Reality TV shows about families with many children abound on TV’s TLC channel, most notably with the chronicles of the 18-child Duggar family. That the Duggars are grounded in and motivated by the pro-patriarchy Quiverfull movement, with its emphasis on female submission and male headship, is breezily dispensed with in favor of dwelling on the sentimental and zany experiences of life in a 20-person family. “Jon and Kate Plus Eight,” another reality TV show about a large family – this one the result of sextuplets born to a mother who, like Suleman, chose not to selectively reduce the number of embryos that “took” during an IVF treatment – is less burdened by the extremist ideology that undergirds the Duggars’ convictions, but still presents a traditional picture of large family life, with married heterosexual parents and a stay-at-home mother. …. While many observers are concerned with her apparent inability to support such a large family, the fact that she is unmarried has alone been cause enough for others to declare her family a situation of de facto child abuse” (for Joyce’s full article click here).

#7. Homo-hater stories, starring: conservative religious anti-gay activists in Uganda and the US!

Doug Coe, leader of the arch conservative U.S. group, "The Family"
Doug Coe (center), leader of "The Family"


In a recent post on Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill, Kari Lerum wrote that:

“…there is an increasing amount of scrutiny and disgust from many regarding the direct connection between the Ugandan anti-homosexual campaign and a conservative U.S. religious group called “The Family” — which some, including The Observer have called a ” cult” due to the requirement for core members to remain secret about their activities. Regardless of what the group is labeled, it is clear that it has been successful in recruiting high level political leaders including some US congressmen and Uganda’s president Museveni to its core values:  “fighting homosexuality and abortion, promoting free-market economics and dictatorship, an idea they once termed ‘totalitarianism for Christ’ ”

#6. Catholic-priest-cover-up stories, starring: the Irish Catholic Church!

Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern
Irish Justice Minister Ahern at press conference about decades of Priest abuse


As quoted in the LA Times: “Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Dublin engaged in a widespread cover-up of abuses by clergy members for decades, a “scandal on an astonishing scale” that even saw officials taking out insurance policies to protect dioceses against future claims by the victims, a commission reported Thursday after a three-year investigation” (see full article here)

Ross Douthat, a conservative writer for the New York Times and the National Review, describes how a culture of fear around sexuality is precisely the kind of culture that produces sexual abuse — and especially cover-ups of sexual abuse. Douthat concludes that:

“…you can see how it could all go bad — how a culture so intensely clerical, so politically high-handed, and so embarrassed (beyond the requirements of Christian doctrine) by human sexuality could magnify the horror of priestly pedophilia, and expand the pool of victims, by producing bishops inclined to strong-arm the problem out of public sight instead of dealing with it as Christian leaders should. (In The Faithful Departed, his account of the scandal, Philip Lawler claims that while less than five percent of priests were involved in actual abuse, over two-thirds of bishops were involved in covering it up.) I suspect it isn’t a coincidence that the worst of the priest-abuse scandals have been concentrated in Ireland and America — and indeed, in Boston, the most Irish of American cities — rather than, say, in Italy or Poland or Latin America or Asia” (see Douthat’s article here).

# 5. Panic-over-sex/gender/sexuality-fluidity stories, starring: Caster Semenya!

Castor Semenya
18 year old Caster Semenya got a makeover


Mississippi girl fighting for her right to wear a tux for her Senior Class photo
Ceara Sturgis, fighting for her right to wear a tux for her Senior Class photo


Click here for Adina Nack's post on "cross-dress" codes


In her post in Sexuality & Society, Shari Dworkin writes, “While Caster 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). …” (see also sociologist Philip Cohen’s story about Semenya, and an update on Caster’s status in the NYT). Note that in these stories there are never any calls for parallel sex verification tests to see if men they are “too much of a man,”—a man that no other “normal” man can hope to “fairly” compete with. This is because of the specific role that sport has historically played in terms of making boys into men (when women compete, there have been numerous fears that they are masculinized and are not “normal” women).

This year’s sex/gender/sexuality-panic stories also starred: Morehouse College‘s dress code, a high school girl wearing a tux, & a 4 yr. old boy kicked out of preschool for having “long” hair.

# 4. Harsher punishments for-sex-with-minors stories, starring: Roman Polanski!

Roman Polanski

Filmmaker Roman Polanski was arrested in 1977 for the sexual assault of a 13 year old girl. He spent 42 days in a California prison and was released. Upon hearing of  a judge’s plan to have him serve more time and possibly deport him, Polanski fled to France. In 1988 Polanski was sued by the girl he assaulted and in 1993 settled with a payment reported at around $500,000. In the  years that have passed Polanski also married (in 1989), had two children, and continued on as a prolific and well regarded film maker.  For reasons that are still murky in terms of timing, Polanski was arrested on Sept. 26, 2009 (32 years after the crime) at the Zurich, Switzerland airport at the request of US authorities. Polanski’s case, spanning decades and continents, offers an insight into how laws and attitudes about sex with minors has changed in the US:

The LA Times reports that “(s)tatutory rape convictions similar to Roman Polanski’s typically result in sentences at least four times longer today than the 90-day punishment a judge favored before the director fled the United States in 1978, a Times analysis of Los Angeles County court records shows. Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland on an international fugitive warrant — and his pending extradition proceedings — have sparked transatlantic debate about whether the 76-year-old Academy Award winner should serve additional time behind bars for having sex with a 13-year-old girl….The Times analyzed sentencing data to determine how L.A. County courts today handle cases in which men admit to statutory rape — also known as unlawful sex with a minor — in exchange for the dismissal of more serious rape charges, as Polanski did. The findings show that those defendants get more time than Polanski has served — even factoring in his 70-day stint in Swiss detention — but less than his critics may expect. … “Thirty years ago, sexual assault — rape and sex crimes — were treated differently,” said Robin Sax, a former sex crimes prosecutor for the L.A. County district attorney’s office. “Time and education haven’t worked for Polanski’s benefit.”

Sociologist Barry Dank, founding editor of the Journal Sexuality & Culture, has blogged extensively about the Polanski case. Dank writes:

“There is no question that what Roman Polanski did to a 13 year old girl in the 1977 was wrong, and illegal. But it is also wrong to drag Polanski back to the US 31 years after the crime and have him spend an unspecified amount of time in prison. What possible good would come about by Polanski doing time for the crime? Obviously, it would not function to rehabilitate him or change him in some way. The fact that Polanski has had a stellar film career and apparently lived a law abiding life for 32 years after the crime is indicative that the case for changing Polanski is simply irrelevant.”

The details of Roman Polanski’s case lies in stark contrast to the case of Phillip Garrido, a registered repeat sex offender who was arrested earlier this year for kidnapping 11 yr old Jacee Dugard, and holding her captive and sexually abusing her for 18 years (from 1991-2009). The young Dugard bore two children out of Garrido’s abuse (now ages 11 and 15).

Despite today’s more stringent punishments for statutory rape, we hope that US jurors and judges will be able to distinguish the vast differences between the sexual crimes of Polanski and Garrido.

# 3. No-condoms-for-those-who-need-it-most stories, starring: Pope Benedict XVI!


While HIV/AIDS rates in sub-saharan Africa continue to soar, and condoms are very effective in fighting HIV/AIDS (when used correctly and consistently) Pope Benedict told Africans that it was wrong to use condoms.

The Pope’s message was also heard in the US, at least among some US Catholic college students. Amanda Hess, writer for the Washington City Paper highlights how all 3,000 students at Catholic University are now prohibited from having sex that is “disruptive”  (defined as “ANY” sexual expression inconsistent with the Catholic Church including premarital sex and same sex sexuality). These rules are written into the code of student conduct. Hess states that:

Deference to the catechism spares Catholic administrators from the awkward enterprise of referring to masturbation, condoms, or any other specific of a typical undergraduate’s sex life” … “violations to the student code can’t be absolved in typically Catholic fashion, with forgiveness administered privately after confession to a priest. At the Catholic University of America, your sins are subject to judicial review” (click here for full article).

Clearly, if the Catholic church cannot discuss sex outside of sex within marriage, they cannot discuss condoms very effectively.

#2. Backlash-against-sexual-&-reproductive-justice stories, starring: the murderer of  Dr. George Tiller!

Gosh, this story is soooo last century (the 80s and 90s were full of anti-abortion terrorism stories), but unfortunately it’s still a story in 2009.

George Tiller

Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who provided late term abortions in Wichita, Kansas, was shot dead while attending Sunday Church services. Jodi Jacobson, Editor of Rh Reality Check explains the importance of Dr. Tiller’s work, as well as the cultural context for how perceptions of his work are widely inaccurate:

“In all the extensive coverage of the assassination in his church of Dr. George Tiller by a murderer affiliated with extremist right-wing groups, little has been said to shed light on what late-term abortions are, who has them and why. Instead, much of the media and talking heads pontificating on this subject have constantly focused on Tiller’s being “one of the very few doctors who perform late-term abortions,” without providing any context as to why he did so and under what circumstances. As a result, the dominant narrative is one which perpetuates an assumption that people are electing to have late-term abortions for the sake of convenience.”   (To read Jacobson’s entire analysis, click here).

And finally, we’d like to end on a positive note, with a list of sexual and reproductive justice stories from 2009:

1. Sexual-&-reproductive-justice stories, starring Barack Obama!

Obama signed and/or was involved in the following sexual health and justice developments:


And although this last bill still needs to be signed, we are expecting Obama to:

  • fulfill his promise to fund evidence-based, scientifically based sex education.

As Kari Lerum noted in a recent post, the movement toward more abstinence-only approaches is driven almost entirely by conservative religious ideology, not scientifically reliable evidence.” Because of the lack of scientific credibility for Abstinence-only sex education, we are hopeful that all funding for abstinence-only sex education will finally be eliminated from the US Federal budget.

We are intrigued by many of this year’s sexual stories, saddened by some, and encouraged by others. May 2010 be filled with opportunities to reframe old (sexist, racist, homophobic, and sex-negative) stories into sexual stories that involve measured discussion of sexual health, sexual justice, and sexual rights.


Kari Lerum & Shari L. Dworkin, Eds. Sexuality & Society.

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

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.

By Kari Lerum & Shari Dworkin

For the last several years in the U.S., political discourse around marriage has been dominated by the issue of  same-sex couples (both the push to allow same sex couples into the institution of marriage, and the conservative religious push to keep them out). Two days ago the “gay marriage” issue was briefly upstaged in the news with a much older (now considered embarrassing) version of the not so distant U.S. marriage politics: “mixed race” marriages.

image from the Richmond ExaminerIn 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court declared that laws against “miscegenation” (referring to a mixture of “racial” genes, assumed in that context to have negative reproductive effects) were unconstitutional. The overturning of all anti-miscegenation laws was part of a much larger cultural/social/civil rights shift toward more tolerance for (and even support of!) equality between whites and non-whites. Of course, this didn’t and doesn’t eliminate racial discrimination, but the Supreme Court ruling was key in writing anti-racial discrimination around love and marriage into law. Thus, the news that surfaced on Thursday was received by many as a shock:

NEW ORLEANS – A Louisiana justice of the peace said he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children the couple might have. Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, says it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long.

“I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way,” Bardwell told the Associated Press on Thursday. “I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else.”

Bardwell said he asks everyone who calls about marriage if they are a mixed race couple. If they are, he does not marry them, he said.

Bardwell said he has discussed the topic with blacks and whites, along with witnessing some interracial marriages. He came to the conclusion that most of black society does not readily accept offspring of such relationships, and neither does white society, he said.

“There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage,” Bardwell said. “I think those children suffer and I won’t help put them through it.

(emphases mine)

Certainly this isn’t the last we will hear of this case. The couple is considering filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. It is clear that Justice of Peace Bardwell was breaking the law. I expect (hope) that Bardwell will be censored in some way.

In addition to providing an example of contemporary racial injustice, and how love is always political, this judge’s reasoning harkens back to an ancient “one drop rule” belief — which was a justification for race-based slavery in the United States.

This story also bears some important and striking similarities with conservative religious arguments against same-sex couples becoming parents: We have heard versions of “ I think those children suffer” before, such as in Anita Bryant’s infamous “Save the Children” campaign in the late 1970s. Bryant’s claims about the harm toward children were reiterated — despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary — by Florida legislators banning same sex adoption for 30 yrs (just overturned last year), and countless other anti-gay political campaigns. States such as Utah and Mississippi simply bar adoption from unmarried couples (conveniently coinciding with laws against same-sex marriage).

When Proposition 8 was passed (striking down gay marriage in California) on November 4, 2008, some gay rights activists invoked the 1967 Supreme Court ruling as a lesson in how social justice matters should not be subject to popular vote. This is because cultural attitudes often lag behind social justice. In the words of ACLU attorney Katie Schwartzmann (quoted in the story above): “It is really astonishing and disappointing to see this come up in 2009,” …. this, in spite of the 1967 ruling “that the government cannot tell people who they can and cannot marry.”

As least for this couple, let’s hope they get justice from the law.



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.