Societies grow and change all the time, but it can be tough to think about big-picture shifts when you’re living through the practical details of the day to day. Take the recent popularity of large language models (LLMs). In the short term, we face important sociological questions about how they fit into the norms of everyday life. Is it cheating to use an LLM to help you write, or to generate new ideas? How will new kinds of automation change work, or will they take jobs away?

These are important questions, but it is also useful to take a step back and think about what rapid developments in technology might do to our foundational social relationships and core beliefs. I was fascinated by a recent set of studies published in PNAS that suggest automated work and LLMs could even change the way we think about religion.

“draw an illustration of a church slowly dissolving into a series of zeros and ones, like computer code in The Matrix”

In the article “Exposure to Automation Explains Religious Declines,” authors Joshua Conrad Jackson, Kai Chi Yam, Pok Man Tang, Chris G. Sibley, and Adam Waytz review the findings from five studies. In one, their analysis of longitudinal data across 68 countries from 2006 to 2019 finds nations with higher stocks of industrial robots also tend to have lower proportions of people who say religion is an important part of their daily lives in surveys.

Figure 1 from Jackson et al. (2023) demonstrating nations with a higher stock of industrial robots also express lower rates of religiosity, on average. You can read the full notes at the open-access article here.

I was most surprised by the results of their fifth study—an experiment teaching people about recent advances in science and AI. Respondents who read about the capabilities of LLMs like ChatGPT showed “greater reductions in religious conviction than learning about scientific advances” (8).

The authors suggest one reason for this pattern is that “people may perceive AI as having capacities that they do not ascribe to traditional sciences and technologies and that are uniquely likely to displace the instrumental roles of religion” (2). This is important for us, whether or not you’re personally religious, because religion is a socially powerful force – people use shared beliefs to accomplish things in the world and solve problems, even to cope with hardships like losing a job.

But these results show that new changes in technology, like the advent of LLMs, might be expanding people’s imaginations about what we can do and achieve, possibly even changing the core beliefs that are central to their lives over the long term.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.

How are borders made? State borders are the product of political conflict, nationalist discourse, unequal economic systems, and, as this essay shows, significant public financial investment. Public policy and political narratives naturalize state borders, often hiding how their origins are arbitrary and violent. State borders often mark space following war and conflict, but they also perform additional social functions like maintaining distinct political systems and differentiating between insiders and outsiders. Borders also construct economic difference by maintaining unequal trade relations, national currencies, and disparate value regimes across states and regional zones.

States create borders by dedicating public funds to construct and uphold them. In the post-9/11 United States, state officials juxtaposed the discourse of anti-terrorism with that of border regulation, contributing to the securitization of the US-Mexico border. President George W. Bush’s administration founded the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are two key agencies under DHS, responsible for apprehending, detaining, and deporting immigrants. CBP touts itself as “one of the world’s largest law enforcement organizations” (CBP, 2020) and states that its primary mission is “to detect and prevent the illegal entry of individuals into the United States” and “maintain borders that work” (CBP, 2021). ICE states that its “mission is to protect America from the cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety” (ICE, 2022).

Data visualization by the Author. Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Budget in Brief Reports, FY2006 to FY2024, inclusive (Reports not adjusted for inflation).

The chart above illustrates trends in federal spending on immigration enforcement and border security in the image of a fenced border wall (these figures are not adjusted for inflation). The brick wall represents the annual budget of CBP. The fence above the brick wall represents the annual budget of ICE. Graffitied sections of the wall represent the six presidential terms since 2002, namely, Bush 1, Bush 2, Obama 1, Obama 2, Trump, and Biden. The red and blue barbed wire represents the sum of annual budgets for CBP and ICE. Red sections of the barbed wire indicate budgets approved by Republican presidents, while blue sections indicate budgets approved by Democratic presidents. Numeric labels above the barbed wire represent the combined budget for CBP and ICE at the beginning and end of each presidential term.

Democratic and Republican presidents have expressed rhetorical differences in immigration policy, with Democrats articulating a more pro-immigrant stance compared to their Republican counterparts. The chart above gives the lie to the political performativity of partisan differences on immigration policy. In practice, Democratic presidents appear no less enthusiastic than their Republican counterparts in funding the border policing. In a period of 21 years, Democratic and Republican governments have spent a staggering total of $409.4 billion of public funds on immigration enforcement. $178.9 billion has been spent by Republican Presidents, averaging to $17.9 billion annually. $230.5 billion has been spent by Democratic Presidents, averaging to $21.0 billion annually. In total, $275 billion has been spent on CBP and $134.4 has been spent on ICE. Overall, federal expenditures on immigration enforcement have nearly tripled from $9.6 billion (FY2004) to $28.7 billion (FY2024) in unadjusted dollars. Adjusting for inflation to 2024 dollars still suggests an increase from about $17.5 billion to $28.7 billion.

When it comes to immigration, Republicans put their money where their mouth is, while Democrats do not. What explains this? The contrast between the partisan difference in immigration rhetoric and partisan consensus on immigration policy is rooted in the fundamental contradictions of bourgeois liberal democracy. While elected representatives are supposed to represent the will of the working people, in actuality they represent the interests of the ruling economic, political, and racial elite. Substantive progress towards de-carcerating the United States and de-securitizing the US-Mexico border might have been possible if progressives exercised greater power in Congress and if, in turn, Congress exercised greater power over the budget and immigration enforcement. In the current context, however, this is unlikely. In October 2023, President Joe Biden’s administration waived no fewer than 26 federal regulations to construct a border wall between the US and Mexico in Texas (Gonzalez, 2023), seemingly mimicking his Republican predecessor Donald Trump in advance of the 2024 presidential election. In the gaping void left by the abandonment of any commitment to a progressive ideological agenda in the Democratic Party, anti-immigrant violence fills the void.

Sources and Additional Reading

  • Ackleson, J. (2005). Constructing security on the US–Mexico border. Political Geography24(2), 165-184.
  • CBP 2020. Customs and Border Protection. 2020. “About CBP.” Washington, DC: Customs and Border Protection. Retrieved November 17, 2021 (
  • CBP 2021. Customs and Border Protection. 2021. “Border Patrol Overview.” Washington, DC: Customs and Border Protection. Retrieved November 17, 2021. (
  • Gonzalez, V. (2023, October 6). The Biden Administration says it is using executive power to allow border wall construction in Texas. AP News. 
  • ICE 2022. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 2022. “Keeping America Safe.” Washington, DC: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Retrieved November 17, 2021. (
  • Reinke de Buitrago, S. (2017). The meaning of borders for national identity and state authority. Border politics: defining spaces of governance and forms of transgressions, 143-158.
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Budget in Brief Reports, FY2006 to FY2024, inclusive.

Dr. Ghazah Abbasi is a Postdoctoral Associate in Public Engagement at the Cornell Brooks School of Public Policy

A recent photo from Dina Litovsky showing a model’s inflamed feet in slingback heels went viral, with reposts from National Geographic and a whole host of Instagram influencers. The photo garnered just over 500k likes and comments criticizing the prioritization of beauty over pain. This is not the first time these images have gone viral. In Louis Vuitton’s 2012 show in Paris, photos of runway models’ battered and bruised feet made the rounds.  

Photo by Dina Litovsky – see reflections, and even more images of the modeling industry, on the Substack here

Models can and have refused to wear outrageous shoes, but they risk paying the price by being judged as unprofessional, especially models with low status and prestige within the industry. The industry often praises models for their ability to endure long shoots and poses overtly or subtly contortionist. Yet measuring professionalism by a model’s willingness to endure pain demonstrates the toxicity of professional status at the cost of one’s wellbeing. Phrases like “beauty is pain” and “look good, feel good” link one’s appearance to their inherent value and capabilities. On the catwalk, the consequences of professional norms skew models’ agency, and prices of pain are paid to justify, uphold, and maintain a professional image.

These runway shoes teeter between symbols of empowerment and oppression, as models embody cultural ideals of gender, race, class, and sexual identity. Simultaneously, their personhood is commoditized as “aesthetic laborers.” Empowered by the high fashion industry’s exclusivity and idealism, models experience dogged yet isolating work conditions. These images serve looks, but also serve as reminders of social expectations of beauty that reinforce of cultural standards shaped by power, race, and status. Sociologist Ashley Mears’ ethnography of models, Pricing Beauty, argues these ideals become prescriptive shaping cultural expectation of how people should look and be.

The struggle spreads from the fashion industry to the everyday consumer. In her essay “Always Be Optimizing,” Jia Tolentino connects pain and suffering to self-optimization. Narrating her experience and research on intense Pilates and barre workouts, Tolentino argues that gendered beauty ideals have transformed into a pursuit of optimization that hides oppressive cultural beauty standards. These painful practices are obscured as self-care, sweating it out, and getting a toned and sculpted body. Important here is the illusion of “agency” in doing “self-care” and choosing to “optimize” or improving one’s womanly figure. These lures of “look good feel good” and cultural expectations of beauty and that “beauty is pain,” justify the aches and pains from working out. Shoes are both a vehicle for our feet and for gendered cultural and societal expectations, standards, and ideals worthy of praise.

Rachel Bickelman is a MA and PhD student at University of Massachusetts Boston.

Over the course of the past year, M&M’s have been plastered all over the news, social media, and even Super Bowl commercials. In January 2022, Mars Wrigley gave the brown M&M shorter heels and replaced the green M&M’s boots with sneakers in a push toward more inclusive marketing. 

What resulted was outrage. Tucker Carlson became the face of the backlash, stating, “M&M’s will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous.” Carlson was not the only one speaking out. In a Rolling Stone article titled, “Let the Green M&M Be a Nasty Little Slut,” senior writer EJ Dickson argues, “The green M&M has spent decades building her brand as a horny, sexy bitch, and for what? For her creators to give her Larry David footwear in the name of feminism?”

By September, the purple M&M had made her debut. Carlson soon reignited the war, leading to Mars’ temporary suspension of their spokescandies. On FOX News, he remarked, “The green M&M got her boots back, but apparently is now a lesbian maybe? And now there’s a plus-sized, obese purple M&M.” While all of these comments are nonsensical, they point to the pressure placed on women to conform to gender norms and accommodate men’s sexual desires.

Sexualization of Women in the Media

M&M’s were not the first nor the only gendered commercial food product. In the 1940s, the Chiquita Banana, the world’s first branded fruit, made her debut. The original Miss Chiquita Banana was racialized and sexualized in order to appeal to the American market. Her femininity, specifically, was oversexualized through her flirtatious winking and eye-rolling as well as her frilly dresses and lipstick. 

Smithsonian Magazine, Chiquita Banana’s Recipe Book, 1947
Photo courtesy of Christina Ceisel

M&M’s has long employed the same strategy by sexualizing their female spokescandies. Their hypersexualization not only appears in their dress, but the erotic nature of the commercials in which they have been featured. The green M&M has been pictured pole dancing, stripping, and fondling chocolate, among other overt sexual acts. What’s more, the male M&M’s can be seen ogling her in the background, reinforcing the pervasiveness of the male gaze, in which men actively view women as passive ‘objects’ of their sexual desires.

Emphasized Femininity

Emphasized femininity refers to a range of traditional feminine norms that encourage women to accommodate men’s sexual appetites and desire for control. It legitimizes the gender hierarchy and upholds various forms of oppression. 

As women step away from the “stereotypical cultural notions” of emphasized femininity, men must “negotiate the dilemma of incorporating women’s resistance into their masculine identity projects.” Therefore, when the female M&M’s became less conventionally attractive and “sexy,” those that subscribe to the ideals of hegemonic masculinity felt threatened. They became angry that their sexual desires were not being satisfied, even with regard to a candy mascot.

This outrage reveals that women face the prospect of being labeled “socially undesirable” when they possess masculine characteristics.

In Carlson’s words, “When you’re totally turned off, we’ve achieved equity.” In our patriarchal society, when a woman exhibits defiance or authority, men feel threatened unless they can stigmatize and feminize their behavior.

When this happens, a woman is no longer a “good girl,” but a “bitch,” “lesbian,” or “slut.” Evidently, for women to be valued by men, they need to be subservient to the male gaze.

Impact of Hypersexualization

The hypersexualization of women is incredibly harmful to young people. Adolescents’ exposure to a sexualized media environment leads them to recognize women as sex objects. When women and young girls constantly see their bodies objectified, they begin to internalize the idea that the most valuable thing about them is their body. They become acutely aware that they are seen as “sexual playthings waiting to please men’s sexual desires” and begin to feel unworthy if they do not meet society’s standards. It does not go unnoticed when children see that the very candy they eat is sexualized.

When people become outraged when a female M&M’s shoe is changed, what message does that send? Of course, a so-called “culture war” waged against M&M’s is ludicrous, but there is power behind words, and this controversy’s real-world implications must be addressed. The vicious cycle of sexualizing women, mascots or not, for profit must be brought to an end, and prominent figures need to realize that the oppression of others is not a punchline.

Jillian Nord is a sociology student at Hamilton College.

Television distorts, mocks and marginalizes fat people. Fat characters are reduced to caricatures whose stories and identities aren’t developed and don’t matter. In one study by Tzoutzou et al., all 36 compliments about appearance given to women were for thin women. Not one positive message was included for a woman of an average or overweight body type. For men, the same pattern was found: only one overweight character received a positive message. 

Collage by Victoria Lieberman

These TV shows tell the audience that external beauty only resides in thinness and excludes anyone who deviates from this definition of beauty. Viewers can internalize this thin ideal, which in turn can make it difficult for the audience to feel good about themselves, especially if their body doesn’t fit this body standard. Seeing the treatment of fat people on TV can affect how viewers think about their own bodies, especially if their body type doesn’t fit the thin ideal.

Bigger Bodies, Smaller Roles

Not only is the representation of fat people overwhelmingly negative, but fat bodies are underrepresented on TV shows.

Comparison of female body types: television vs reality 1999-2000 (left)
Comparison of male body types: television vs reality 1999-2000 (right)
(Brownell et al. 2003)

This pattern of dehumanizing fat people continues when they don’t get the chance to develop their characters. They are often represented as a comedy sidekick or as villains.

In comedy, we often don’t laugh with fat women, but at them. Overweight women are about twice as likely to be the reason for a joke than thinner women. They also have smaller roles, less romantic relationships, and are in “fewer positive interactions than thin characters”.

Media often represents fat characters as villains as well. One study by Himes and Thompson “found that obesity was equated with negative traits (evil, unattractive, unfriendly, cruel) in 64% of the most popular children’s videos”. Examples of this can be seen in famous children’s movies with characters such as Ursula from The Little Mermaid or The Queen of Heartsfrom Alice In Wonderland. These villains help to draw the connecting line between fat and negative qualities Fat characters become less human than other characters who have full stories built around them. Makers of TV don’t just ignore fatness, they demonize it.

Effects on the Audience

The negative portrayal of fat people in TV shows can lead audiences to internalize negative portrayals of being overweight. This internalization can happen quickly: a study by Fouts and Burggraf found that only 30 minutes of watching TV can affect how a young woman views her body which can result in various external struggles. 

In the study by Tzoutzou et al., girls agreed that the media influenced their desire to be thin and fit the beauty standard. This can cause frequent dieting because many eating problems are due to unrealistic body standards, an image that mass media often transmits.

Not only can these misrepresentations of fat people lead to low self-esteem, but it can lead viewers to believe that they will be treated in the sexist ways that they see on TV if they don’t fit the body norm to avoid this.

All of these aspects have the potential to make a female viewer feel worse about themselves through their appearance and perceived reactions from other people rooted in fictional and distorted depictions on TV.

TV Should be Fun for Everyone

TV is a space that is meant to be enjoyed. But viewers can’t sit back and relax with TV if they feel like their body is being judged by the shows that they put on. All bodies should feel like they have a space within TV shows. All bodies deserve to be seen by a wide audience.

Tori Lieberman is a rising Sophomore at Hamilton college planning on studying Creative Writing and Sociology. You can find examples of her journalism here.

Picture this. Walking down 135th street in Harlem, you spot a park in the distance. As you walk closer, you hear a basketball bouncing and kids yelling. It’s a small, outdoor court, well-maintained with fresh paint and a sturdy chain-link fence surrounding it. The ball is constantly in motion, being passed, dribbled, and shot from all angles. As the game progresses, the excitement draws in more kids around the court. 

New York City is synonymous with basketball. From Harlem to Brooklyn, basketball has been a part of the city’s culture for decades. But why has basketball become such a staple of African American culture in cities? The answer is complex, but the roots of its popularity among minority groups stem from discriminatory practices like redlining and segregation.

A White Man’s Sport

Basketball was originally invented as a white man’s game

  – Micheal Novack, The Joy of Sports (1946)

Basketball was founded in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian physical education instructor seeking a way to keep his students active. By the early 1900s, it was being played in colleges and high schools across the nation. Colleges like Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Princeton began to play games against each other as early as 1901. The first professional basketball league, the National Basketball League (NBL), was founded in 1937. It was later merged with the Basketball Association of America (BAA) to form the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949. 

The 1950 Minneapolis Lakers basketball team, Wikimedia Commons

For the first 30 years, the majority of participants at the collegiate and professional level were white, as black participants were barred from playing. The first black collegiate player, George Gregory Jr, did not appear until 1928. In the 1949-1950 season Chuck Cooper, Nathaniel Clifton, and Earl Lloyd became the first black players to play professional basketball, breaking the color barrier. Basketball at this time was played mostly at community centers like YMCAs, where white owners refused membership to black people. If black people wanted to play basketball, they would need to build their own. 

NYC’s History Of Racial, Economic, and Athletic Segregation

Redlining and other forms of economic discrimination depressed resources in minority neighborhoods. Redlining is an exclusionary practice that began in 1934 with the implementation of the National Housing Act (NHA). The NHA created government programs such as the Federal Housing Association (FHA) and the HomeOwner Loan Corporation (HOLC) with the intent to improve the housing market. It intended to promote homeownership by providing mortgage insurance to lenders, which would make it easier for people to obtain loans to buy homes. While the FHA improved housing conditions for White people, this support largely excluded black people.

The HOLC wrote dozens of reports to banks which categorized areas with large populations of black residents as “risky” for investors, driving down their property values and scaring off many potential investors. The FHA then used these maps to guide its lending policies, which meant refusing federally insured housing loans for minorities. In addition to this, as more black people began moving to white neighborhoods in northern cities in efforts to escape Jim Crow segregation, white people began to create suburbs outside the city to escape the influx of black people. As more white homeowners fled to the suburbs, the remaining ones agreed to sell their homes at deeper discounts, fearful of falling prices. 

Economic inequality caused by redlining practices also created disparities in the types of sports played by the kids in poorer neighborhoods. Redlined neighborhoods have less green space and have smaller parks on average. According to an analysis by the Trust for Public Land, the average park size is 6.4 acres in poor neighborhoods, compared with 14 acres in wealthy neighborhoods in New York City. 

In addition to available parks, minority children gravitated toward basketball because of the cost of entry barriers that other sports carried. In order to play baseball at a high level, you need money to pay for equipment and travel teams. Basketball did not carry this prerequisite. David C Ogden, a professor at the University of Nebraska who studied race and sport dynamics, wrote that the most common reasons for the lack of racial diversity were the paucity of baseball facilities in Black neighborhoods, and the cost of playing select baseball. As a result:

“More than two-thirds of the 27 coaches said that African-American youth prefer to spend their time on the basketball court rather than on the diamond”

Ogden (2003)

Rise of Black YMCAs

Basketball’s popularity among minority communities flourished because of the development of black YMCA’s. The Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn would be the first fully independent Black basketball team in America in 1907. As more and more YMCA’s appeared in major cities, basketball spread in similar fashion. 

In the last game of the season, the 12th Streeters beat the Smart Set in Brooklyn 20:17 in front of more than 2,000 spectators and in this way directly dethroned the reigning champion.” (Domke 2011)

Edwin Bancroft Henderson, an educator working in Washington D.C., introduced the game of basketball to the Black community. Henderson learned the game during summer sessions at Harvard University, and then introduced the game to young Black men in the Wash. D.C. area. Soon the game would be played across the east coast of the United States, mainly in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  

Basketball also became a means for economic upward mobility. The Harlem Globetrotters formed in 1926 and became the most renowned basketball team for black basketball players. For black basketball players, the globetrotters provided the best and only way to make a living while playing basketball. 

Basketball Today

Now, basketball is an important part of NYC culture, regardless of race. Black participation in basketball has soared in the decades after segregation, and has especially soared in NYC. Every summer, minority communities gather for basketball tournaments held in NYC parks, some that even draw national attention. Nike sponsored “NY vs NY” and Slam magazine’s Summer Classic feature the top ranked high school players and have thousands of fans watching every summer. They both have been held in Dyckman park in Manhattan for the past 5 years.

 Significant changes have occurred  in professional demographics as well. In contrast to 1950, 75 % of the NBA is black, with a bunch of black athletes playing abroad in leagues all over the world. Segregation and redlining stifled black participation in basketball in its early history, but the economic conditions it fostered helped basketball become an enduring staple of the community for generations.

Sharif Nelson ‘26 is a student at Hamilton College studying economics. 

Additional Resources:

Aaronson, D., Faber, J., Hartley, D., Mazumder, B., & Sharkey, P. (2020). The Long-Run Effects of the 1930s HOLC “Redlining” Maps on Place-Based Measures of Economic Opportunity and Socioeconomic Success. The Effects of the 1930s HOLC “Redlining” Maps 

Bowen, F. (2023, April 7). In its early years, NBA blocked black players. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from

Centopani, P. (2020, February 24). The makings of basketball mecca: Why it will always be New York. FanSided. Retrieved May 1, 2023, from 

Domke, M. (2011). Into the vertical: Basketball, urbanization, and African American … Into the Vertical: Basketball, Urbanization, and African American Culture in Early- Twentieth-Century America. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from

Gay, C. (2022, January 13). The black fives: A history of the era that led to the NBA’s racial integration. Sporting News Canada. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from 

Gorey, J. (2022, July 25). How “White flight” segregated American cities and Suburbs. Apartment Therapy. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from 

Hunt, M. (2022, October 11). What is the National Housing Act? Bankrate. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from,Loan%20Insurance%20Corporation%20(FSLIC).

Hu, W., & Schweber, N. (2020, July 15). New York City has 2,300 parks. but poor neighborhoods lose out. The New York Times. Retrieved April 21, 2023, from

Ivy league regular season champions, by Year. Coaches Database. (2023, March 5). Retrieved April 24, 2023, from

McIntosh, K., Moss, E., Nunn, R., & Shambaugh, J. (2022, March 9). Examining the black-white wealth gap. Brookings. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from

Ogden, D. C. ., & Hilt, M. L. . (2003). Collective Identity and Basketball: An Explanation for the Decreasing Number of African Americans on America’s Baseball Diamond. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from

Ortigas, R., Okorom-Achuonyne, B., & Jackson, S. (n.d.). What exactly is redlining? Inequality in NYC. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from

Pearson, S. (2022). Basketball origins, growth and history of the game. History of The Game Of Basketball Including The NBA and the NCAA. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from 

Robertson, N. M. (1995). [Review of Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946., by N. Mjagkij]. Contemporary Sociology24(2), 192–193.

Townsley, J., Nowlin, M., & Andres, U. M. (2022, August 18). The lasting impacts of segregation and redlining. SAVI. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from

In recent years, sociologists have given attention to hookup culture and other modern forms of dating. Too often, however, this discussion ignores the experiences of trans people, and occasionally it focuses too narrowly on the college campus, ignoring the current prevalence of dating apps among many age groups.

Rates of dating violence victimization from the video abstract of Garthe et al. (2021)

Focusing on trans experiences is especially important, as a 2021 study found that trans youth are twice as likely as cisgender women to have experienced physical dating violence, and fifty percent more likely to have experienced psychological dating violence. A 2023 study identified common experiences, most notably being fetishized and having to deal with others’ assumptions about trans people. “Because I’m a trans woman, people instantly assume that I must be this massive bottom,” said one participant. Another participant, a trans man, reported similar experiences, saying “I just felt like they weren’t talking to me. They were talking to an idea they had about me.”

Other research has looked at trans people’s decisions to disclose their trans identity to prospective partners on dating apps. Most participants proactively and explicitly disclosed their identity, citing concerns about violence. One participant, who was genderfluid and lived in a rural area, mentioned that when meeting someone face-to-face from a dating app, they always thought, “that person could be the person that kills me.” Others, however, will engage in softer disclosure methods, such as showcasing different facets of their identity on apps that allow multiple profile pictures.

An example of using multiple profile photos on Tinder

Who is most vulnerable within the trans community? Another 2021 study found that BIPOC, queer, and transfeminine people are the most likely to have experienced dating violence. A 2022 study looked at the dating experiences of BIPOC trans women, finding their cis male partners would often conceal their relationship from the public. Consequences of this stigma included physical violence and psychological trauma. “We getting killed just because of the guys here were scared that they secret would come out,” said one woman. They also mentioned engaging in “survival strategies,” including hypervigilance, dressing to avoid being “found out,” and avoiding certain men.

The authors of these studies suggest several remedies to the problems they discussed. First is comprehensive trans-inclusive education, whether in the form of school curricula, sex education, or violence prevention training, which have been shown to make trans people and their partners more comfortable. Second, dating app users wanted better filtering options, with one person saying, “The majority of the interactions I have with cis men on dating apps are just shit, full stop . . . can I have less of them pop up?” Finally, some study authors recommended the prohibition of “trans panic defenses,” which allow perpetrators of violent crimes to justify their actions as a loss of control after learning their victim is transgender.

As trans people are reaching new levels of visibility and coming under fire in unprecedented ways, social science research shows us that it is important to look for ways to make for a safer and less anxious future for trans people as we look for romantic and sexual partners.

Leah Long is a history and sociology student at Macalester College who researches and writes about trans history and politics.

Lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on all kinds of social behaviors, from discrimination to civic engagement and protests. What effect has the pandemic had on more extreme behaviors, like terrorist attacks from groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? Many armed actors, such as ISIS, threatened to use the pandemic to advance their goals. In its propaganda, ISIS even referred to COVID-19 as the “smallest soldier of Allah on the face of the earth.”

Empty streets in Kirkuk, Iraq in 2020. Photo Credit: Middle East Monitor licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, photo here 

In some ways, the pandemic presented an opportunity to armed groups like ISIS. The pandemic threatened to divert resources away from fighting extremism because it overwhelmed countries’ budgets and placed demands on some countries’ security forces to deliver public health care services.  

In our research, however, my colleagues and I found that the pandemic did not generally increase ISIS attacks. Instead, we found that lockdown measures adopted during the pandemic reduced attacks in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. The effects were especially large in densely populated areas, where the population provided physical cover for ISIS’s activities, and in areas outside ISIS’s base of operations, which were harder to reach due to travel restrictions.

In taking people off the streets, the lockdowns removed the physical cover ISIS relies on for its operations, especially in urban areas, and eliminated many high-value civilian targets, such as markets. In shutting down businesses and reducing travel, the lockdowns also reduced ISIS’s revenue.  However, the lockdowns were not in place long enough to significantly deplete the group’s reserves.

Even though the impact of the lockdowns on ISIS was significant, the lockdowns posed less of a challenge to ISIS than most other armed groups. ISIS has large financial reserves, operates in largely rural areas, and does not extensively target civilian populations. Most other armed groups have much smaller financial reserves than ISIS, operate in urban areas, and target civilians much more heavily.  The effect of the lockdowns of these groups was likely even greater than it was on ISIS.

Our research shows us how much social context and opportunity matter to extremist violence. Despite the propaganda, even a terrorist group such as ISIS was locked down by the pandemic like everyone else.

Dr. Dawn Brancati is a senior lecturer in political science at Yale University who researches peacebuilding, especially as it relates to democracy and democratic institutions.