Almost all of the representations of breasts we encounter in the mass media are filtered through the hypothetical heterosexual male gaze. Breasts are objects, things that people desire. Women’s personal, subjective experiences of having breasts is almost never discussed in pop culture. I mean, yes, occasionally two female characters might talk about their breasts, but usually in reference to whether and how they do or fail to attract male attention (e.g., “Is this too much cleavage?” and “I wish I had more cleavage!”). What it feels like to have breasts outside of the context of being a sex object isn’t talked about. There’s a void, a black hole of experience.

The only other common discourse about breasts that comes to mind centers around breastfeeding. In that discourse, the idea that breasts are for men is challenged, but only in favor of the idea that breasts are for babies. In neither discursive context does anyone make the case that breasts are primarily for the people who have them. That the pleasure (and pain) and comfort (and discomfort) that comes with breasts belongs — first and foremost — to female-bodied people.

Last week, I saw something different. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an odd little TV show with a couple musical numbers in each episode and one of the numbers last week was called “Heavy Boobs.” It’s safe for work but… maybe not safe for work.

 

Rachel Bloom‘s song names and describes one subjective experience of breasts. Breasts are “heavy boobs,” she sings, just “sacks of yellow fat” that can weigh on women. In the song, the breast-haver’s experience is centered to the exclusion of what men or babies might want or think or experience. I can’t ever remember seeing that on TV before.

And that’s plenty, but what she and her fellow dancers do with their bodies is even more extraordinary. They defy the rules of sexiness. Their movements are about embodying heavy boobs and that’s it. It’s as if they don’t care one iota about whether a hypothetical heterosexual male will see them. The dance is unapologetically unsexy. No, it’s more than unsexy; it’s asexy. It’s danced neither to repulse or attract men; instead, it’s danced as if sexiness is entirely and completely irrelevant. There’s no male gaze because, in that two minutes, there’s not a man in sight.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Earlier this year Brandy Zadrozny interviewed me for a Daily Beast story about the new CDC guidelines for alcohol consumption by women. It caused an outcry because it advised all women who could potentially become pregnant to completely abstain from alcohol as a way to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Responses across the blogosphere included several objections, including the fact that research shows that alcohol alone is not sufficient to cause fetal harm (enter poverty as a major confounding factor) and paternal drinking prior to conception is believed to contribute to incidence of these disorders, too, despite no advice to men of fertile age to refrain from any alcoholic consumption.

Interesting points, but an argument made by Renée Ann Cramer in Pregnant with the Stars gave what I thought was some interesting historical perspective.

Until feminists fought to make it otherwise, she explains, it was perfectly legal in America to refuse to allow women access to certain jobs because they might get pregnant. If the working conditions were too challenging or involved exposure to dangerous chemicals, women were considered unfit for the work by virtue of their always-potentially-pregnant status. And if they did this work and harm did come to a child, it was considered a failure of the state to adequately protect her.

Feminists fought to make this “protectionism” illegal, demanding that women themselves have the right to decide, alongside men, if they wanted to take occupational risks. And they largely won this fight.

In turn, though, women themselves came under scrutiny. They were no longer excluded from certain jobs, but if they chose to do them, it was reasonable to judge them harshly for doing so. Cramer calls this the “responsibilization” of pregnancy. Now that women had the right to handle their pregnancy (or pre-pregnancy) however they wished, they (and not the state) would be held responsible for doing so in ways that society approved or disapproved.

This is what the CDC guidelines are doing. It’s not legal to “protect” women from harming her not-yet-existing fetus by refusing to serve her alcohol. Women have the same rights as men. But with rights comes responsibilization and if women don’t make the choices endorsed by their communities, the health industry, and even the federal government, they can expect to be surveilled, judged, and possibly bullied into doing so.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

At the history of sexuality blog Notches, Rachel Hope Cleves reminds us that this isn’t the first time the size of an American president’s penis has been politicized.

Thomas Jefferson defended the size of American men’s penises, including presumably his own, in Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785. He was countering a claim made by naturalist Comte de Buffon, who argued that the American climate shrunk men’s genitals and made them asexual and impotent.

“Poppycock!” wrote Jefferson (I’m paraphrasing), but literally, he said, the Native American, as well as transplants to the continent, was “neither more defective in ardor, nor impotent with his female.”

Jefferson’s penis would later become the subject of political scandal after America learned that a woman he enslaved, Sally Hemings, had given birth to several of his children. A cartoon portrayed him as a cock — and Hemings as a hen — this time suggesting that Jefferson was too virile to be president.

Cartoon from American Antiquarian:

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Whether Trump is too virile, or not virile enough, is still up for debate.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)In Greco-Roman wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts, there is a rule that you never hit “below the belt.” The area of biggest concern is the testicles. As the Ultimate Fighting Championship rules specify, “groin attacks of any kind” are a foul. This is probably because groin attacks might make for short fights or ones where everyone just goes around protecting their balls. In any case, the skills being tested are of a different kind. But, even aside from that, this seems like a good idea and very civilized. I do not advocate for testicle kicking, not groin attacks of any kind, for what it’s worth.

I do think it’s somewhat odd, though, that men who fight each other outside of controlled conditions—men in street fights, bar brawls, and parking lot scuffles—also usually avoid hitting below the belt. These fights aren’t about training or skill, like those between professional athletes, they’re real attempts to do some damage out of anger or defensiveness. So, why no hits to the balls?

The question was posed by a woman on Yahoo! Answers: “If you dislike each other enough to want them to get hurt,” she asked, “why not do the worst?”

The answers, admittedly unscientific, were interesting. One of the common responses involved the idea that not hitting below the belt was “an unspoken rule.” Maybe it’s the Golden Rule—do onto others as you would have them do unto you—and some men mentioned that, but others suggested that it was a rule specific to manhood. It’s a “cheap shot,” said one. A “low blow,” said another.

But why? Why do men agree not to kick each other in the balls? Why is that part of the code?

I think it’s because it serves to protect men’s egos as well as men’s balls.

What would street fights between guys look like—or professional fights for that matter—if one could go below the belt? For one, there’d be a lot more collapsing. Two, a lot more writhing in pain. Three, a lot less getting up. All in all, it would add up to less time looking powerful and more time looking pitiful. And it would send a clear message that men’s bodies are vulnerable.

 

Not hitting below the belt, then, protects the idea that men’s bodies are fighting machines. It protects masculinity, the very idea that men are big and strong, pain- and impact-resistant, impenetrable like an edifice. So not hitting below the belt doesn’t just protect individual men from pain, it protects our ideas about masculinity.

When a man hits below the belt, he is revealing to everyone present that masculinity is a fiction. That’s why one guy said: “For ‘alpha male’ fights, nut shots are just wrong.” Alpha male fights are about figuring out which male is alpha, while preserving the idea that the alpha male is a thing that matters.

This is why men are quick to criticize other men who break the code. One of the best ways to control men is to threaten to kick them out of the man club. “If a guy kicks another guy in the balls on purpose during a fight,” one replied to the question on Yahoo, “he will forever be banished from manhood.” Another said: “Winning like this means that you cannot beat up the other guy by ‘real’ fighting.” It’s a matter of one’s own reputation: “A man who kicks another man in the balls,” said a third, “immediately loses all manliness and respect.”

So, men generally agree to pretend that the balls just aren’t there. The effect is that we tend to forget just how vulnerable men are to the right attack and continue to think of women as naturally more fragile.

I still don’t want anyone to get kicked in the balls, though, just to be clear.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Sociologists Martin Weinberg and Colin Williams wanted to know. They and their team interviewed 172 college students about their habits and concerns about farting and pooping. They published their results in an article called Fecal Matters. They discovered that everybody farts and everybody cares, but not everyone cares all the time or equally.

They separated their results by gender and sexual orientation. When they asked people if they were worried that the hearer would “feel disgust,” heterosexual women were most likely to agree and heterosexual men the least, with non-heterosexual men and women in the middle, but flipped such that men were more worried than women.

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Heterosexual men were the most likely to think it was funny and the most likely to engage in “intentional flatulence.” Almost a quarter said that they “often” did so, whereas only 7 percent of heterosexual women said the same. “Guys would say it’s raunchy and then say ‘Nice one,’” explained one heterosexual guy, “because if it’s strong it’s more manly. You know, because women would not try to clear a room with a fart.” Heterosexual women felt like they were violating gender norms if their farts were stinky: “The worse it stinks,” said one, “the nastier they think I am.”

Heterosexual women were the most concerned that it would affect their relationship with the hearer. They were also the most likely to do things to reduce the likelihood that others would detect their bathroom activities, like go into another room to pass gas or let their stool out slowly to avoid a kerplunk. Two thirds said they would wait until they were alone to poop and only women reported flushing repeatedly to ensure that the sights and smells of their defecation had disappeared.

As a counter example, one of the heterosexual men interviewed said that the only thing he was willing to do to protect others from his bathroom activities was close the door.

Non-heterosexual men were an interesting conundrum. They were as likely as heterosexual men to think that the hearer would think it was funny, but the least likely to engage in intentional flatulence and the most likely to make sure that when they poop, they do so alone.

Non-heterosexual women were also a conundrum. They were the least likely to think the hearer would laugh at a fart, but second only to heterosexual men in the practice of farting on purpose to get a reaction.

This study is a great example of what social scientists call doing gender, modifying our behavior to conform to gendered expectations. Generally, women are expected to have better control of their body, to be more polite, and to avoid offending others. All of these things are consistent with being more discreet with farts and poops.

The interesting data from non-heterosexual men and women may be explained by the conflation of sexual object choice and the performance of gender. It’s not universally this way, but in the U.S. today gay men are feminized and lesbians masculinized. This is a stereotype, but also gives non-heterosexual men and women some permission to deviate from gender rules. As one non-heterosexual man explained:

Only around people that I’m regularly naked with would I be comfortable with them knowing what I was doing in the bathroom. I’m on the self-prescribed “pretty pill”—where you don’t fart, sweat, burp, or use the bathroom… I learned it from my diva friends.

Similarly, some non-heterosexual women may feel a little less pressure to be as girly or girly all the time.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)In 1994, a US immigration judge lifted an order to deport a woman named Lydia Oluloro. Deportation would have forced her to either leave her five- and six-year-old children in America with an abusive father or take them with her to Nigeria. There, they would have been at risk of a genital cutting practice called infibulation, in which the labia majora and minora are trimmed and fused, leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation.

Many Americans will agree that the judge made a good decision, as children shouldn’t be separated from their mothers, left with dangerous family members, or subjected to an unnecessary and irreversible operation that they do not understand. I am among these Americans. However, I am also of the view that Americans who oppose unfamiliar genital cutting practices should think long and hard about how they articulate their opposition.

The judge in the Oluloro case, Kendall Warren, articulated his opposition like this:

This court attempts to respect traditional cultures … but [infibulation] is cruel and serves no known medical purpose. It’s obviously a deeply ingrained cultural tradition going back 1,000 years at least.

Let’s consider the judge’s logic carefully. First, by contrasting the “court” (by which he means America)with “traditional cultures”, the judge is contrasting us (America) with a them (Nigeria). He’s implying that only places like Nigeria are “traditional” — a euphemism for states seen as backward, regressive, and uncivilised — while the US is “modern,” a state conflated with progressiveness and enlightenment.

When he says that the court “attempts to respect traditional cultures,” but cannot in this case, the judge is suggesting that the reason for the disrespect is the fault of the culture itself. In other words, he’s saying “we do our best to respect traditional cultures, but you have pushed us too far.” The reason for this, the judge implies, is that the practices in question have no redeeming value. It “serves no known medical purpose,” and societies which practice it are thus “up to no good” or are not engaging in “rational” action.

The only remaining explanation for the continuation of the practice, the judge concludes, is cruelty. If the practice is cruel the people who practice it must necessarily also be cruel; capriciously, pointlessly, even frivolously cruel.

To make matters worse, in the eyes of the judge, such cruelty can’t be helped because its perpetrators don’t have free will. The practice, he says, is “deeply ingrained” and has been so for at least 1,000 years. Such cultures cannot be expected to see reason. This is the reason why the court — or America — can and should be compelled to intervene.

In sum, the judge might well have said: “we are a modern, rational, free, good society, and you who practice female genital cutting—you are the opposite of this.”

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I’ve published extensively on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa and elsewhere, focusing on the different ways opposition can be articulated and the consequence of those choices. There are many grounds upon which to oppose FGCs: the oppression of women, the repression of sexuality, human rights abuse, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, harm to health, and psychological harm, to name just a few. Nevertheless, Judge Warren, chose to use one of the most common and counterproductive frames available: cultural depravity.

The main source of this frame has been the mass media, which began covering FGCs in the early 1990s. At the time anti-FGC activists were largely using the child abuse frame in their campaigns, yet journalists decided to frame the issue in terms of cultural depravity. This narrative mixed with American ethnocentrism, an obsession with fragile female sexualities, a fear of black men, and a longstanding portrayal of Africa as dark, irrational, and barbaric to make a virulent cocktail of the “African Other.”

The more common word used to describe FGCs — mutilation — is a symbol of this discourse. It perfectly captures Judge Warren’s comment. Mutilation is, perhaps by definition, the opposite of healing and of what physicians are called to do. Defining FGCs this way allows, and even demands, that we wholly condemn the practices, take a zero tolerance stance, and refuse to entertain any other point of view.

Paradoxically, this has been devastating for efforts to reduce genital cutting. People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is more aesthetically pleasing. They largely find the term “mutilation” confusing or offensive. They, like anyone, generally do not appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.

The zero tolerance demand to end the practices has also failed. Neither foreigners intervening in long-practicing communities, nor top-down laws instituted by local politicians under pressure from Western governments, nor even laws against FGCs in Western countries have successfully stopped genital cutting. They have, however, alienated the very women that activists have tried to help, made women dislike or fear the authorities who may help them, and even increased the rate of FGCs by inspiring backlashes.

In contrast, the provision of resources to communities to achieve whatever goals they desire, and then getting out of the way, has been proven to reduce the frequency of FGCs. The most effective interventions have been village development projects that have no agenda regarding cutting, yet empower women to make choices. When women in a community have the power to do so, they often autonomously decide to abandon FGCs. Who could know better, after all, the real costs of continuing the practice?

Likewise, abandonment of the practice may be typical among immigrants to non-practicing societies. This may be related to fear of prosecution under the law. However, it is more likely the result of a real desire among migrants to fit into their new societies, a lessening of the pressures and incentives to go through with cutting, and mothers’ deep and personal familiarity with the short- and long-term pain that accompanies the practices.

The American conversation about FGCs has been warped by our own biases. As a Hastings Center Report summarizes, those who adopt the cultural depravity frame misrepresent the practices, overstate the negative health consequences, misconstrue the reasons for the practice, silence the first-person accounts of women who have undergone cutting, and ignore indigenous anti-FCG organizing. And, while it has fed into American biases about “dark” Africa and its disempowered women, the discourse of cultural depravity has actually impaired efforts to reduce rates of FGCs and the harm that they can cause.

Originally posted at Open Democracy and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow up on her research about female genital cutting here.

2 (1)Singer-songwriter Hozier played “guess the man buns” on VH1, and Buzzfeed facetiously claimed they had “Scientific Proof That All Celebrity Men are Hotter with Man Buns.” Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth, and David Beckham have all sported the man bun. And no, I’m not talking about their glutes. Men are pulling their hair back behind their ears or on top on their heads and securing it into a well manicured or, more often, fashionably disheveled knot. This hairstyle is everywhere now: in magazines and on designer runways and the red carpet. Even my neighborhood Barista is sporting a fledgling bun, and The Huffington Post recently reported on the popular Man Buns of Disneyland Instagram account that documents how “man buns are taking over the planet.”

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At first glance, the man bun seems a marker of progressive manhood. The bun, after all, is often associated with women—portrayed in the popular imagination via the stern librarian and graceful ballerina. In my forthcoming book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, however, I discuss how linguistic modifiers such as manlights (blonde highlights for men’s hair) reveal the gendered norm of a word. Buns are still implicitly feminine; it’s the man bun that is masculine. But in addition to reminding us that men, like women, are embodied subjects invested in the careful cultivation of their appearances, the man bun also reflects the process of cultural appropriation. To better understand this process, we have to consider: Whocan pull off the man bun and under what circumstances?

I spotted my first man bun in college. And it was not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American guy rocking the look in an effort to appear effortlessly cool. This bun belonged to a young Sikh man who, on a largely white U.S. campus, received lingering stares for his hair, patka, and sometimes turban. His hair marked him as an ethnic and religious other. Sikhs often practice Kesh by letting their hair grow uncut in a tribute to the sacredness of God’s creation. He was marginalized on campus and his appearance seen by fellow classmates as the antithesis of sexy. In one particularly alarming 2007 case, a teenage boy in Queens was charged with a hate crime when he tore off the turban of a young Sikh boy to forcefully shave his head.

A journalist for The New York Times claims that Brooklyn bartenders and Jared Leto “initially popularized” the man bun. It’s “stylish” and keeps men’s hair out of their faces when they are “changing Marconi light bulbs,” he says. In other words, it’s artsy and sported by hipsters. This proclamation ignores the fact that Japanese samurai have long worn the topknot or chonmage, which are still sported by sumo wrestlers.

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Nobody is slapping sumo wrestlers on the cover of GQ magazine, though, and praising them for challenging gender stereotypes. And anyway, we know from research on men in hair salons and straight men who adopt “gay” aesthetic that men’s careful coiffing does not necessarily undercut the gender binary. Rather, differences along the lines of class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality continue to distinguish the meaning of men’s practices, even if those practices appear to be the same. When a dominant group takes on the cultural elements of marginalized people and claims them as their own—making the man bun exalting for some and stigmatizing for others, for example—who exactly has power and the harmful effects of cultural appropriation become clear.

Yes, the man bun can be fun to wear and even utilitarian, with men pulling their hair out of their faces to see better. And like long-haired hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, the man bun has the potential to resist conservative values around what bodies should look like. But it is also important to consider that white western men’s interest in the man bun comes from somewhere, and weaving a narrative about its novelty overlooks its long history among Asian men, its religious significance, and ultimately its ability to make high-status white men appear worldly and exotic. In the west, the man bun trend fetishizes the ethnic other at the same time it can be used to further marginalize and objectify them. And so cultural privilege is involved in experiencing it as a symbol of cutting-edge masculinity.

Kristen Barber, PhD is a member of the faculty at Southern Illinois University. Her interests are in qualitative and feminist research and what gender-boundary crossing can teach us about the flexibility of gender, the mechanisms for reproducing gender hierarchies, and the potential for reorganization. She blogs at Feminist Reflections, where this post originally appeared.

Flashback Friday.

Labiaplasty, a plastic surgery in which the labia is reshaped, is on the rise in many Western countries. Usually this means trimming the labia so that it is less “obtrusive” and social pressure, especially from increased exposure to pornography, is blamed for the rise. For reference, see our post on the natural range of labia shapes and sizes (nsfw).

The report below is about the rise of labiaplasty in Australia. It offers some fascinating insight into why it is that porn stars have such “tidy” labia. It turns out that the aesthetic has nothing to do with the preferences of men, women, or porn producers. Instead, pornography features vulvas reduced to a simple “slit” because rating boards require that soft-core porn show “only discreet genital detail.”

Brad Boxall, Former Editor of Picture Magazine, explains:

The only acceptable vagina [sic: vulva] as far as the Classification Board is concerned is one that is ‘neat and tidy’ in their eyes. They basically consider the labia minora “too offensive” for soft core porn.

Accordingly, porn stars themselves sometimes have surgery and/or their vulvas are re-touched to make their labia minora disappear. This practice may have far-reaching consequences if non-porn stars all over the Western world are suddenly feeling like they have freakishly large labia… all because the ratings board has decided that the true range of bodies is unacceptably crass.

In the video you will see actual footage of labiaplasty and genital re-touching, so it’s not safe for work or the squeamish.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.