This week Michael Douglas’ announced that his oral cancer was caused by a virus (human papillomavirus) likely transmitted through oral sex.  Media coverage, however, has been conflating the virus and the sexual activity with headlines like this:

ABC News:


FOX News:


San Francisco Chronicle:


The day after the story broke, Douglas’ representatives clarified that his cancer wasn’t caused by cunnilingus, but by the virus itself.

This is an interesting example of the way that a practice can be falsely conflated with a disease.  It brings back the fantastical stories of the 1800s that masturbation was the cause of  liver, kidney, and lung disease; arthritis; headache, memory loss, epilepsy, and neurological problems; back pain; impotence; cancer; and death.

Like masturbation was (and maybe still is), cunnilingus is taboo enough that it can be made into the villain in a story about cancer.  Imagine, as a counterfactual, a headline that said that syphilis was caused by sexual intercourse.  This is clearly wrong.  We all know that syphilis is transmitted by unprotected sexual intercourse.  As Douglas’ confession reveals, and the data demands, it’s about time we were as comfortable talking about the risks and rewards of cunnilingus.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

A guiding principle driving the sociological understanding and analysis of deviance is the recognition that behaviors themselves are not inherently deviant; rather it is the social perceptions and reactions to a behavior that makes a particular behavior deviant.  This explains why opinions and attitudes towards different forms of supposedly deviant behaviors regularly change.  A notable change in one type of deviance, using marijuana, is revealed in a report compiled by the Pew Research Center.

According to David F. Musto, a century ago marijuana was an obscure drug used almost exclusively by Hispanics in the Southwest.  Its limited association with this ethnic group is largely why marijuana initially became illegal.  With the onset of the Great Depression, both federal and state governments sought ways to expel nonwhites from the country as their cheap labor was no longer necessary.  Making one of this group’s pastimes illegal was a way to stigmatize Hispanics and rally public support for a population transfer.  With a populace stirred into a moral panic by racism, nativism and propaganda movies like Reefer Madness, there was little resistance to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act which effectively made cannibas illegal.

In the 1960s marijuana experienced a cultural comeback when it became the drug of choice for baby-boomers who saw the drug as a safer alternative to the alcohol and methamphetamine that plagued their parents’ generation.  Marijuana was even legal for a brief period after the Supreme Court found the 1937 marijuana act unconstitutional.  However, because of widespread concern that drugs were corrupting the moral fabric of America’s youth, in 1970 marijuana was one of many drugs outlawed by President Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  Interestingly, marijuana was the only drug targeted by this act that did not include a medical exception.  In the 1980s, President Reagan increased penalties for breaking drug laws, and subsequently the prison population in the United States swelled to a size seemingly unimaginable in a wealthy democracy.

The graph below from PEW’s report captures how federal action came during times of heightened public support to make marijuana illegal.


Yet, the graph also captures how in the early 1990s, support for the legalization of marijuana started to increase.  According to the PEW report, around this time California pioneered using the drug for medicinal purposes; seventeen other states (including D.C.) have since followed California’s lead while six other states decriminalized possession of small amounts.  In 2012, citizens in Colorado and Oregon voted to completely legalize marijuana despite federal law.  This relaxing and even elimination of marijuana laws mirrors favorable opinions of marijuana and growing support for its legalization.

It is difficult to tell if legalization, medical or otherwise, drives public opinion or vice-versa.  Regardless, an especially noteworthy finding of the PEW report is that right now, more than half of the United States’ citizens think marijuana should be legal.  Sociologists always take interest when trend lines cross in public opinion polls because the threshold is especially important in a majority-rule democracy; and the PEW report finds for the first time in the history of the poll, a majority of U.S. citizens support marijuana legalization.

This historical research data on opinions about marijuana reveals how definitions of deviance, and in many cases the ways those definitions are incorporated into the legal system, grow out of shared social perceptions.  Although there have been some notable genetic and cultivation advances, marijuana has changed relatively little in the last forty years; yet our perceptions of this drug (and therefore its definitions of use as deviant) regularly evolve and we can expect opinions, and therefore our laws, to further change in the future.

Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.

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Back in 2010 we featured a post about a segment from the “What Would You Do?” series from abc News that illustrated the way that race plays a role in who is labeled as deviant and who is given the benefit of the doubt.

The producers had teens vandalize a car in public to see what onlookers would do. To see if race played a role, they tried it with a group of White boys and then with a group of African American boys. Only one 911 call was made on the White boys, but 10 calls were made on the African American teens. Moreover, while the White teens were vandalizing the car, 911 received a call to report the African American boys simply for being asleep in a car, which the caller took as a possible sign they were planning to engage in criminal activity.

We see this same pattern in another “What Would You Do?” segment. This time, a young White man and a young African American man try to remove a lock from a bike as the cameras capture the reactions of onlookers.

The onlooker interviewed toward the end says race played no role in his reaction. But the extremely different reactions to the two teens indicate differences in who is perceived as likely to be engaged in criminal activity, and whose criminal activity we may think deserves being reported to the police, rather than given a disapproving tsk-tsk as we walk on by.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

In “Rule Enforcement without Visible Means,” Theodore Caplow discusses conformity to the norms that guide the practice of celebrating Christmas. These norms are informal — that is, they aren’t enforced in any official way and aren’t encoded in policy — yet Caplow found consistent agreement on expectations, as well as conformity to them. Some of these are easily identifiable, such as the Wrapping Rule, which requires that gifts be wrapped in Christmas-appropriate wrapping paper (or at least marked with a bow if they’re too large or irregularly-shaped to be wrapped).

Others aren’t so readily apparent. For instance, Caplow discusses the Scaling Rule, which guides our purchases of gifts based on the relationship with the recipient. Everyone agreed that a spouse should get the single most valuable gift you buy; kids come next (and should have equal amounts spent on them), then parents/in-laws (who should get similarly valuable presents), and so on. There is a widely-accepted unspoken hierarchy for giving gifts. While we say “it’s the thought that counts,” we also believe that the gifts we give carry social messages about how much we care. Regardless of intent, giving a gift that is perceived as nicer or more expensive to a coworker than to your spouse, or spending more on friends than your kids, would likely be taken as a sign of inappropriate or misplaced loyalties.

Caplow’s point is that social interactions are highly regulated by informal norms, ones we learn and follow often without ever openly recognizing them. Will LaSuer sent in a video that illustrates this point. The video explains etiquette in men’s restrooms: proper spacing when selecting a urinal, flushing, making eye contact or speaking to others in the restroom, and so on. It’s an explicit discussion of the usually taken-for-granted norms of daily life.

One note: The first 4:40 of the video covers these basic norms. After that, it goes on to a long scenario that you may want to skip. While, as Will says, the language and imagery is nothing you wouldn’t see in, say, South Park, if you’re thinking of using the clip in class to illustrate norms, I’d definitely stop at the 4:40 point, both because of the content and because I don’t think the rest of the video contributes anything to the basic sociological point.

Will suggests using the video along with John Paul’s “urinal game” to help students grasp the concept of informal norms.

Caplow, Theodore. 1984. “Rule Enforcement without Visible Means: Christmas Gift Giving in Middletown.” American Journal of Sociology 89(6): 1306-1323.

Paul, John. 2006. “‘Flushing’ Out Sociology: Using the Urinal Game and Other Bathroom Customs to Teach the Sociological Perspective.” Electronic Journal of Sociology. ISSN: 1198 3655.

In Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance, Kai Erikson states,

 …the agencies built by society for preventing deviance are often so poorly equipped for the task that we might well ask why this is regarded as their “real” function in the first place. (p. 14)

He notes that the amount of deviance and crime found in a society is largely related to how many resources we commit to looking for it. And once we’ve created institutions and industries to deal with particular types of deviance, we tend to continuously find enough deviance to continue to justify the system’s existence. If we’ve built a large criminal justice system, that system takes on a self-sustaining life of its own. Even if we eradicated all major crime as we know it, Erikson suggests, the agencies would turn their attention to behaviors we’ve previously ignored or treated as relatively unimportant, finding a new reason for the system’s existence and access to resources.

In the past several decades, fighting the War on Drugs has become an important role of the U.S. criminal justice system. Drug infractions are a major cause of the growth in imprisonment rates and, especially, the racial gap in incarceration.

I thought of Erikson’s insights when I recently saw the trailer for The House I Live In, an upcoming documentary about the impact of the War on Drugs. The trailer highlights the way that low-level drug dealers and addicts are fed as raw material into the criminal justice system. Law enforcement agencies often benefit directly from seizures of cash or property during drug busts, which then becomes property of the agency; additionally, agencies that design programs to target drug use/sales often get access to federal funds for training and equipment that they’d have no way to purchase otherwise:

The War on Drugs is an industry, one with vested interests with a powerful motivation to ensure its continued existence and expansion, regardless of any objective cost-benefit analysis of the consequences of incarcerating such a large proportion of the population or even of the effectiveness of our policies for actually decreasing drug use.

Well, crap. It turns out I might be a terrorist. I wasn’t aware of this, but then Dave A. sent in a video from Houston’s Make the Call anti-terrorism initiative, and it isn’t looking good.

The evidence:

  • I sometimes walk off and leave bags unattended in public spaces.
  • I gather information about routines in public spaces, often sending operatives out to stand by entrances and exits. They covertly take notes, and I specifically tell them not to draw attention to themselves. Occasionally they even take photos of the layouts of public places or ask employees detailed questions about the inner workings of the organization. I have cleverly disguised these surveillance activities as sociology assignments.
  • I sometimes carry small electronic gadgets that might not be immediately recognizable to every single person sitting at a cafe.
  • I get cold easily and often wear sweaters or bulky hoodies in summer, even in Vegas.
  • I can be kind of hyper and nervous-acting, which probably makes me “sketchy”.
  • I always forget the security code at my friend Robin’s housing complex, so I usually just sneak in behind someone else.
  • I have been known to park in prohibited areas.

Watch the video and see for yourself:

This method of fighting terrorism is extremely unrealistic. The behaviors listed in the video are things people do all the time, in a variety of contexts. If every citizen of Houston reported every incident they see that is mentioned in this video, the Houston PD would be overwhelmed and unable to function because of the number of calls they’d have to investigate. I’d have to call the police every time I saw a woman wearing Ugg boots in Vegas, because it’s never cold enough here to justify them.

The video tells viewers not to ignore their “instincts.” But do we have an instinct for detecting “sketchy” people or behavior? Given what we know about stereotyping and selective perception, the reality is that people will view behavior through their pre-existing beliefs. Their interpretations of behavior as unusual or inappropriate will be influenced by how comfortable they otherwise are with the person engaging in it, which is impacted by race/ethnicity, class, and many other social categories. A guy leaving a backpack unattended is scary if that guy has a mohawk or, you know, looks scary and stuff, but when I do it, no one bats an eye. This video basically legitimizes turning anyone who makes you at all uncomfortable in public in to the police, on the argument that you are simply following your “instinct.” When you ask every citizen to become an intelligence agent, reporting every incident they perceive as odd, the result is the increasing stigmatization and semi-criminalization of those who can’t or won’t conform to pretty narrow standards of physical appearance, dress, and behavior.

UPDATE: There’s an interesting discussion in the comments about how you balance the need to avoid paranoia with the fact that, for instance, some rapes on college campuses would be prevented if people didn’t leave dorm doors ajar or let people in without knowing who they are, and that’s a conversation worth having. However, I’m also interested in the issue of feasibility here: If all the citizens of Houston literally did what this video suggests, law enforcement would grind to a halt and response times would slow for everyone.

As for why I sometimes leave bags unattended in public…Because there’s nothing of value in it and I left it on an outside table while I go inside to order, or because I’m gathering a lot of books at the library and I get sick of lugging my bag while I do this and leave it on a table while I go into the stacks, or because I realize I forgot to grab something on another aisle at the grocery store and I run around the corner to grab it without thinking to grab my bag. My point isn’t that any of the things I do are laudable or even smart, but rather that people do these things, sometimes on purpose, sometimes because we get distracted or make mistakes, and it’s going to take a massive increase in law enforcement if we really want citizens to start vigilantly reporting them.

Elizabeth sent in a link to a long and judicious New York Times article about biologically-male, gender-variant children, written by Ruth Padawer.  It’s well done, laying out the struggles even liberal-minded parents go through, including the mixed messages they get from “experts.”  It also briefly addresses the hormonal and genetic research, but acknowledges that the measures of femininity and masculinity used in these studies — and in daily life — are socially constructed.  That is, what is considered masculine or feminine is different across cultures and changes over time.

The picture of three boys at a camp for gender-variant children, waiting for their turn in a fashion show, was particularly interesting (photo by Lindsay Morris). I was struck by not just the emphasis on the dress/skirt, but the nail polish, jewelry, and high heels (on at least two of the children).  Their poses are also striking, for their portrayal of not just femininity, but sexualized femininity. It’s hard to say, but these boys look pretty young to me, and yet their (or their camp counselors?) idea of what it means to be a girl seems very specific to an adult hyperfemininity.  (After all, even most biological girls don’t dress/act this way most of the time and lots of girls explicitly reject femininity; Padawer comments that 77% of women in Generation X say they were tomboys as kids.)

In contrast, girls, when they enact a tomboy role — and now I’m off into speculation-land — don’t seem to go so far into the weeds.  We don’t see girls dressing up like lumberjacks or business men in suits and ties.  They don’t do tomman, they do tomboy.  There’s something more woman about how some of these boys perform femininity.

Some research on tomboys shows that girls who adopt it are sometimes, in part, trying to put off the sexual attention that comes with growing up.  So perhaps tomboyism is a way of rejecting one’s maturing body.  In contrast, perhaps femininity appeals to some boys because we adultify and sexualize young girls; it’s a form of grown up play as well as gender deviance?

Who knows.  The truth is — and the article does a good job of communicating this — we have no idea what’s going on here.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Wired describes the new documentary, The Mechanical Bride, as a “moving, weirdly human exploration of artificial companionship.”  Directed by Allison de Fren, explores the range of mechanical brides, from robots to Real Dolls (NSFW), and the “technosexuals who love them.” I can’t wait to see it.


Bonus clip:

The Mechanical Bride will be screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal (July 19-August 7).

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.