Until as late as the 1950s, there was no widely accepted set of terms that referred to whether people were attracted to the same or the other sex. Same-sex sexual activity happened, and people knew that, but it was thought of as a behavior, not an identity. It was believed that people had sex with same-sex others not because they were constitutionally different, but because they gave in to an urge they were supposed to resist. People who never indulged homosexual desires weren’t considered straight; they were simply morally upright.

Today our sexual object choices are generally believed to reflect more than a feeling; they are part of who we are: as a static, essential identity, one that it inborn and unchanging. And we have a plethora of language to describe one’s “sexual orientation”: asexual, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, demisexual, and more. It has been, as Michel Foucault put it, “a multiplication of sexualities.”

Undoubtedly, this has value. These words, for example, give a name to feelings that have in recent history been difficult to understand. They also enable sexual minorities to find community and organize. If they can come together under the same label, they can join together for self-care and the promotion of social change.

These labels, though — and the belief in sexual orientation as an identity instead of just a behavior — also create their own voids of possibility. It’s significantly less possible today, for example, for a person to feel sexual urges for someone unexpected and dismiss them as irrelevant to their essential self. Because sexual orientation is an identity, those feelings jump start an identity crisis. If a person has those feelings, it’s difficult these days to shrug them off (but see Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men). Once one comes to embrace an identity, then all sexual urges that conflict with it must be repressed or explained away, lest the person undergo yet another identity crisis that results in yet another label.

This train of thought was inspired by this anonymous secret sent into the Post Secret project:

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“Even though I’m a gay man,” he says, “I still sometimes think about women’s breasts.” I AM, he says, a GAY MAN. It is something he is, essential and unchanging. Yet he has a feeling that doesn’t obey his identity: an interest in women’s breasts. So, “even though” he is gay, he finds himself distracted by something about the female body. It is a conundrum, a identity problem, even a secret that he perhaps confesses only anonymously. To be open about it would be to call into question who he and others think he is, to embark on a crisis.

But none of this is at all necessary. It is only because we’ve decided that our sexual urges should be translated into an identity that thinking about women’s breasts seems incompatible with a primary orientation toward men. In a world of no labels at all, one in which sexual orientation is not an idea that we acknowledge, people’s sexual urges would be nothing more than that. And if that world was free of homophobia and heterocentrism, then we would act or not act on whichever urges we felt as we wished. It wouldn’t be a thing.

Most people think that the multiplication of sexualities is a good thing. From this point of view, language that can describe our urges, however imperfectly, makes those urges more visible and normalized, especially if we can make a case that they are inborn and unchanging, just a part of who we are. I don’t disagree.

But I see advantages, too, to a different system in which we don’t use any labels at all, where the object of one’s sexual attraction is an irrelevant detail or, at least, just one of the many, many, many things that come together to make someone sexy to us. In this world, we would be no more surprised to find ourselves attracted to a man one day and a woman the next than a construction worker one day and a lawyer the next, or a tall person one day and a short one the next, or an extrovert one day and an introvert the next. It would be just part of the messy, complicated, ever-shifting, works in mysterious ways thing that is the chemistry of sexual attraction. Nobody would have to have angst about it, seek support for it, defend it, or confess it as a secret. We would just… be.

Maybe the idea of sexual orientation was critical to the Gay Liberation movement’s goals of normalizing same-sex love and attraction, but I wonder if sexual liberation in the long run would be better served by abandoning the concept altogether. Perhaps a real sexual utopia doesn’t fetishize privilege genitals as the one true determinant of our sexualities. Maybe it simply puts them in their rightful place as tools for pleasure and reproduction, but not the end-all and be-all of who we are.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

TSP_Assigned_pbk_978-0-393-28445-4Assigned: Life with Gender is a new anthology featuring blog posts by a wide range of sociologists writing at The Society Pages and elsewhere. To celebrate, we’re re-posting four of the essays as this month’s “flashback Fridays.” Enjoy! And to learn more about this anthology, a companion to Wade and Ferree’s Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, please click here.

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Is the “Mrs. Degree” Dead?, by Laura Hamilton, PhD

In 1998 I was a first-year student at DePauw University, a small liberal arts college in Indiana. A floor-mate of mine, with whom I hung out occasionally, told me over lunch that she was at college primarily to find a “good husband.” I nearly choked on my sandwich. I had assumed that the notion of the “Mrs. Degree” was a relic of my parents’ era—if not my grandparents’. Surely it had gone the way of the home economics major and women’s dormitory curfews.

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Photo via clemsonunivlibrary flickr creative commons

Years later, I — along with my co-director, Elizabeth A. Armstrong — would embark on a five year ethnographic and longitudinal study of a dormitory floor of women at a public flagship in the Midwest. As part of my dissertation, I also interviewed the women’s parents. What I found brought me back to my first year of college. A subset of parents wanted their daughters to be “cookie-baking moms”—not successful lawyers, doctors, or businesswomen. They espoused gender complementarity—a cultural model of how women should achieve economic security that relied on a co-constructed pairing of traditional femininity and masculinity. That is, men were to be economic providers and women supportive homemakers. This was a revised “Mrs.” Degree, in the sense that marriage during college, or even right after, was not desirable. College women were to build the traits and social networks that would hopefully land them a successful husband eventually, but it was assumed best to wait until men had proven themselves in the labor market before entering a marriage.

This was not the only cultural model to which women on the floor were exposed. In fact, those coming in primed for complementarity were in the minority. However, as I show in my article, “The Revised MRS: Gender Complementarity at College,” far more women left college leaning toward gender complementarity than their previous gender socialization suggested. Something was happening on the college campus — where women were, ironically, out-achieving men — that shifted them toward performing an affluent, white, and heterosexual femininity, marked by an emphasis on appearance, accommodation to men, and a bubbly personality.

I argue that gender complementarity is not just a characteristic of individual women, but is actually encouraged by the institutional and interactional features of the typical, four-year, public state school. Midwest U, like other schools of its kind, builds a social and academic infrastructure well-suited to high-paying, out-of-state students interested in partying. The predominately white Greek system — a historically gender-, class-, and racially-segregated institution — enjoys prominence on campus. An array of “easy” majors, geared toward characteristics developed outside of the classroom, allow women to leverage personality, looks, and social skills in the academic sphere. These supports make it possible for peer cultures in which gender complementarity is paramount to thrive. Women who want to belong and make friends find it hard — if not impossible — to avoid the influence of the dominant social scene on campus, located in fraternities and Greek-oriented bars.

This structure of campus life is not incidental. In recent years, cuts to state and federal support for higher education have led mid-tier public institutions like Midwest U to cater to the socially-oriented and out-of-state students who arrive with gender complementarity interests. These class-based processes have implications for the type of social and academic climate that all students find upon arriving at Midwest University.

The problem is, however, that most women need to accrue the skills and credentials that translate into a solid career. An institution supporting gender complementarity does them a serious disservice — potentially contributing to gendered differences in pay after college. The situation is particularly problematic for students not from the richest of families: Affluent women espousing complementarity form the type of networks that give them reasonable hope of rescue by a high-credentialed spouse, and heavy parental support means that they can afford to be in big cities where they mix and mingle with the “right” men. Women from less affluent backgrounds lack these resources, and are often reliant on their own human capital to make it after college.

The gradual shift from higher education as a public good — funded heavily by the state — to a private commodity — for sale to the highest bidder — has significantly stalled not only progress toward class equality, but certain forms of gender equality as well. Change is going to require unlinking the solvency of organizations like Midwest U from the interests of those can afford, and thus demand, an exclusionary and highly gendered social experience.

Laura T. Hamilton, PhD is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her recently published article, “The Revised MRS: Gender Complementarity at College,” appears in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society; this post originally appeared at their blog. She is the author of Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matter’s for College Women’s Success and, with Elizabeth Armstrong, Paying for the Party: How Colleges Maintain Inequality.

Many are aghast at a cartoon recently released by a well-known right-leaning cartoonist, Ben Garrison. Rightly, commentators are arguing that it reproduces the racist stereotype that African American women are more masculine than white women. I’ll briefly discuss this, but I want to add a twist, too.

The block versus cursive font, the muscularity and the leanness, the strong versus swishy stance, the color and cut of their dresses, the length of their hair, the confrontational versus the compliant facial expression, and the strategically placed, transphobic bulge in Michelle Obama’s dress — you could hardly do a better job of masculinizing Michelle and feminizing Melania.

This is a racist stereotype not only because it posits that black women are unattractive, unlikable, and even dangerous, but because it has its roots in American slavery. We put middle class white women on pedestals, imagining them to be fragile and precious. But if women were fragile and precious, how could we force some of them to do the hard labor we forced on enslaved women? The answer was to defeminize black women. Thanks for keeping the stereotype alive, Ben Garrison.

What I’d like to add as a twist, though, is about Michelle’s expression, purposefully drawn as both ugly and judgmental. Michelle’s face isn’t just drawn as masculine, it’s aimed at Melania and she isn’t just sneering, she’s sneering at this other women.

The cartoon also places women in competition. It tells a sexist story of ugly (black) women who are hateful toward beautiful (white) women. It tells a story in which women are bitter and envious of each other, a ubiquitous story in which women tear each other down and can’t get along. It’s a terrible stereotype, demeaning and untrue (except insofar as patriarchal relations make it so).

And it’s especially reprehensible when it’s layered onto race.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

“[A]n analysis of traffic can enrich sociological theory.” (Schmidt-Relenberg, 1968: 121)

Almost everywhere we go is a “gendered space.” Although men and women both go to grocery stores, different days of the week and times of the day are associated with different gender compositions of shoppers. Most of our jobs are gendered spaces. In fact, Census data show that roughly 30% of the 66,000,000 women in the U.S. labor force occupy only 10 of the 503 listed occupations on the U.S. Census. You’d probably be able to guess what some of these jobs are just as easily as you might be able to guess some of the very few Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as occupational segregation, and it’s nothing new. Recently, I did read about a gender segregated space that is new (at least to me): traffic.

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Photo from kkanous flickr creative commons

When I picture traffic in my head, I think of grumpy men driving to jobs they hate, but this is misleading. Women actually make up the vast majority of congestion on the roads. One way of looking at this is to argue that women are causing more congestion on our roads. But another way to talk about this issue (and the way to talk about this issue that is consistent with actual research) is to say that women endure more congestion on the roads.

Women were actually the first market for household automobiles in the U.S. Men generally traveled to work by public transportation. Cars sold to households were marketed to women for daily errands. This is why, for instance, early automobiles had fancy radiator caps with things like wings, angels and goddesses on them. These were thought to appeal to women’s more fanciful desires.

Traffic increased a great deal when women moved into the labor force. But this is not exactly what accounts for the gender gap. In the 1950s, car trips that were work-related accounted for about 40% of all car use. Today that number is less than 16%. The vast majority of car trips are made for various errands: taking children to school, picking up groceries, eating out, going to or from day care, shopping, and more shopping.  And it’s women who are making most of these trips. It’s a less acknowledged portion of the “second shift” which typically highlights women’s disproportionate contribution to the division of labor inside the household even when they are working outside of the household as well.

Traffic research has shown that women are more than two times more likely than men to be taking someone else where they need to go when driving.  Men are  more likely to be driving themselves somewhere.  Women are also much more likely to string other errands onto the trips in which they are driving themselves somewhere (like stopping at the grocery store on the drive home, going to day care on the way to work, etc.). Traffic experts call this “trip chaining,” but the rest of us call it multi-tasking. What’s more, we also know that women, on average, leave just a bit later than men do for work, and as a result, are much more likely to be making those longer (and more involved) trips right in the middle of peak hours for traffic.

Who knew? It’s an under-acknowledged gendered space that deserves more attention (at least from sociologists). Traffic is awful, and if we count up all that extra time and add it to the second shift calculations made by Arlie Hochschild, I think we have a new form of inequality to complain about.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a sociologist at the College at Brockport (SUNY). With CJ Pascoe, he is the editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change. He blogs at Inequality by (Interior) Design, where this post originally appeared. You can follow Dr. Bridges on Twitter.

TSP_Assigned_pbk_978-0-393-28445-4Assigned: Life with Gender is a new anthology featuring blog posts by a wide range of sociologists writing at The Society Pages and elsewhere. To celebrate, we’re re-posting four of the essays as this month’s “flashback Fridays.” Enjoy! And to learn more about this anthology, a companion to Wade and Ferree’s Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, please click here.

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Compulsory Monogamy in The Hunger Games, by Mimi Schippers, PhD

NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote a great article about the gender dynamics in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and concluded, “…you could argue that Katniss’ conflict between Peeta and Gale is effectively a choice between a traditional Movie Girlfriend and a traditional Movie Boyfriend.”  I do love the way Holmes puts this.  Gender, it seems, is not what one is, but what one does.  Different characteristics we associate with masculinity and femininity are available to everyone, and when Peeta embodies some characteristics we usually see only in women’s roles, Peeta becomes the Movie Girlfriend despite being a boy.

Though I find this compelling, I want to take a moment to focus on the other part of this sentence… the part when Holmes frames Katniss’ relationship to Peeta and Gale as a “conflict between” and a “choice.”  I think that, in some ways, the requirement to choose one or the other forces Katniss’ to, not only “choose” a boyfriend, but also to choose gender—for herself.

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Depending on whether she’s relating to Peeta or Gale, she is either someone who takes charge, is competent in survival, and protects her partner (traditionally the masculine role) or someone who lets another lead and nurtures instead of protects (the feminine role).  As Candace West and Don Zimmerman suggested many years ago in their article “Doing Gender,” we do gender in relationship to other people.  It’s a conversation or volley in which we’re expected to play the part to the way others are doing gender.

When Katniss is with Peeta, she does a form of masculinity in relationship and reaction to his behavior and vice versa.  Because Peeta “calls out” protection, Katniss steps up.  When Gale calls out nurturing, she plays the part.  In other words, not only is gender a “doing” rather than a “being,” it is also an interactive process.  Because Katniss is in relationship to both Peeta and Gale, and because each embodies and calls out different ways of doing gender, Katniss oscillates between being the “movie boyfriend” sometimes and the “movie girlfriend” other times and, it seems, she’s facile and takes pleasure in doing all of it.  If Katniss has to “choose” Peeta or Gale, she will have to give up doing gender in this splendid, and, dare I say, feminist and queer way in order to “fit” into her and her “girlfriend’s” or “boyfriend’s” relationship.

Now imagine a world in which Katniss wouldn’t have to choose.

What if she could be in a relationship with Peeta and get her needs for being understood, nurtured, and protective while also getting her girl on with Gale?  In other words, imagine a world without compulsory monogamy where having two or more boyfriends or girlfriends was possible.

I’m currently working on a book on monogamy and the queer potential for open and polyamorous relationships. I’m writing about the ways in which compulsory monogamy fits nicely into and perpetuates cultural ideas about masculinity and femininity and how different forms of non-monogamy might open up alternative ways of doing, not just relationships, but also gender.

Forcing Katniss to choose is forcing Katniss into monogamy, and as I suggested above, into doing gender to complement her partner.  Victoria Robinson points out in her article, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” that monogamy compels women to invest too much time, energy, and resources into an individual man and limits their autonomy and relationships with others.  What Robinson doesn’t talk about is how it also limits women’s range of how they might do gender in relationship to others.

It also limits men’s range of doing gender in relationships.  Wouldn’t it be nice if Peeta and Gale never felt the pressure to be something they are not?  Imagine how Peeta’s and Gale’s masculinities would have to be reconfigured to accommodate and accept each other?

Elisabeth Sheff, in her groundbreaking research on polyamorous people, found that both women and men in polyamorous relationships say that the men have to rethink their masculinities to be less possessive, women have room to be more assertive about their needs and desires, and men are more accommodating.

What this suggests is that monogamy doesn’t just limit WHO you can do; it also limits WHAT you can do in terms of gender.  Might I suggest that Katniss is such a well-rounded woman character precisely because she is polyamorous?  She’s not just the phallic girl with the gun… or bow in this case… or the damsel in distress.  She’s strong, vulnerable, capable, nurturing, and loyal, and we get to see all of it because she does gender differently with her boyfriends.  And therein, I believe, is one way that polyamory has a queer and feminist potential.  It can open up the field of doing gender within the context of relationships.

I don’t know how her story ends, but I for one, am hoping that, if there is a happily-ever-after for Katniss, it’s not because girl gets boy; its because girl gets both boys.

Mimi Schippers, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Tulane University.  Her new book on the radical potential of non-monogamy is called Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. You can follow her at Marx in Drag.

Originally posted in 2013 at Marx in Drag. Cross-posted at Huffington Post, and Jezebel. Images from IMDB

Polygraph‘s Hanah Anderson and Matt Daniels undertook a massive analysis of the dialogue of approximately 2,000 films, counting those characters who spoke at least 100 words. With the data, they’ve producing a series of visuals that powerfully illustrate male dominance in the American film industry.

We’ve seen data like this before and it tells the same disturbing story: across the industry, whatever the sub-genre, men and their voices take center stage.

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They have some other nice insights, too, like the silencing of women as they get older and the enhancing of men’s older voices.

But knowledge is power. My favorite thing about this project is that it enables any of us — absolutely anyone — to look up the gender imbalance in dialogue in any of those 2,000 movies. This means that you can know ahead of time how well women’s and men’s voices are represented and decide whether to watch. The dialogue in Adaptation, for example, is 70% male; Good Will Hunting, 85% male; The Revenant, 100% male.

We could even let the site choose the movies for us. Anderson and Daniels include a convenient dot graph that spans the breadth of inclusion, with each dot representing a movie. You can just click on the distribution that appeals to you and choose a movie from there. Clueless, Gosford Park, and The Wizard of Oz all come in at a perfect 50/50 split. Or, you can select a decade, genre, and gender balance and get suggestions.

Polygraph has enabled us to put our money where our principles are. If enough of us decide that we won’t buy any movie that tilts too far male, it would put pressure on filmmakers to make movies that better reflected real life. This data makes it possible to do just that.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Way back in 1996 sociologist Susan Walzer published a research article pointing to one of the more insidious gender gaps in household labor: thinking. It was called “Thinking about the Baby.”

In it, Walzer argued that women do more of the intellectual and emotional work of childcare and household maintenance. They do more of the learning and information processing (like buying and reading “how-to” books about parenting or researching pediatricians). They do more worrying (like wondering if their child is hitting his developmental milestones or has enough friends at school). And they do more organizing and delegating (like deciding when towels need washing or what needs to be purchased at the grocery store), even when their partner “helps out” by accepting assigned chores.

For Mother’s Day, a parenting blogger named Ellen Seidman powerfully describes this exhausting and almost entirely invisible job. I am compelled to share. Her essay centers on the phrase “I am the person who notices…” It starts with the toilet paper running out and it goes on… and on… and on… and on. Read it.

She doesn’t politicize what she calls an “uncanny ability to see things… [that enable] our family to basically exist.” She defends her husband (which is fine) and instead relies on a “reduction to personality,” that technique of dismissing unequal workloads first described in the canonical book The Second Shift: somehow it just so happens that it’s her and not her husband that notices all these things.

But I’ll politicize it. The data suggests that it is not an accident that it is she and not her husband that does this vital and brain-engrossing job. Nor is it an accident that it is a job that gets almost no recognition and entirely no pay. It’s work women disproportionately do all over America. So, read it. Read it and remember to be thankful for whoever it is in your life that does these things. Or, if it is you, feel righteous and demand a little more recognition and burden sharing. Not on Mother’s Day. That’s just one day. Everyday.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

TSP_Assigned_pbk_978-0-393-28445-4Assigned: Life with Gender is a new anthology featuring blog posts by a wide range of sociologists writing at The Society Pages and elsewhere. To celebrate, we’re re-posting four of the essays as this month’s “flashback Fridays.” Enjoy! And to learn more about this anthology, a companion to Wade and Ferree’s Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, please click here.

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“Tits,” by Matt Cornell

Of the many nicknames I’ve acquired over the years, there’s one I’m reminded of today. The name was given to me by a bully shortly after I entered the sixth grade. I had been a fat kid since elementary school, but as puberty began to kick in, parts of me started growing differently than expected. The doctors said I had gynecomastia. “Man boobs,” or “moobs” in the jeering parlance of our popular culture.

But my bully simply called them “tits.” And so this also became my name in the school hallways.

I was Tits.

He would pass me in the hall and catcall “Hey Tits!” and his buddies would laugh. Sometimes, if he was feeling extra bold, he might actually grab one of my breasts, and squeeze it in front of the other kids. Not everyone laughed. But many did.

As direct as this bullying was, growing up with gynecomastia was characterized by smaller insults. Most kids would just ask “Why don’t you wear a bra?” Even adults could be cruel. “Are you a boy or a girl?” I was often asked.

When wearing shirts, it was crucial that they be loose fitting. If a T-shirt had shrunk in the dryer, I would spend hours and days stretching it out, so that it didn’t cling to my body. You can see fat boys do this every day. Pulling at their shirts to hide the shape of their bodies, but particularly their breasts.

As a fat kid, and one who hated competition, I learned to loathe sports, and especially, physical education. The one form of exercise which I enjoyed from childhood was swimming. Unfortunately, as my breasts grew, so did my shame about removing my shirt. At summer camp, I never set foot in the swimming pool. I knew that taking off my shirt would bring ridicule, and that leaving it on while swimming would show that I felt ashamed of my body. So, I pretended that I was above swimming — that I was too cool for the pool.

By high school, I had developed remarkable powers of verbal self defense. I absorbed cruelty and learned how to mete it back out in sharp doses. There’s no doubt that this shaped the person I became, for better and for worse. In high school, I managed to carve out a social niche for myself. The bullying stopped. But the shirts stayed loose-fitting. I rarely went swimming.

The doctors thought that perhaps I suffered from low testosterone. I found this funny, since my sex drive had been in high gear since the time I was a sophomore. I assured them that this was not the case. Finally, the doctors said that my excess breast tissue was probably just a result of being fat. Lose the weight and the breasts will go away.

So I lost weight. I don’t remember how much. But by senior year, I was slender. Girls were starting to talk to me. I was more confident. And I still had breasts. After graduation, the doctors congratulated me on my thin body. Now it was time to get rid of my breasts.

In the first surgery, I was placed under general anesthesia. The doctor made a half moon incision under each nipple and cut out the excess breast tissue, finishing the job with some liposuction. Unfortunately the surgery wasn’t a complete success. My breasts were smaller, but lumpy, and my nipples were puckered. It took a second surgery to make everything look “normal.”

I was nineteen. On New Year’s Eve, I went to a party and got drunk for the first time in my life. There, I met a girl who took my virginity. She was too drunk to insist on taking my shirt off. This was a relief, because under my shirt was a sports bra, and under that layers of gauze. My chest was still healing from the second surgery. In many senses of the word, I was still becoming a man.

I’m reminded of this recently, oddly enough, after reading one of those “humorous” snarky news stories that pop up in the right column of The Huffington Post. Perhaps you’ve seen the photo making the rounds. It’s of Barney Frank’s “moobs.” The photo inspired similar stories at gay culture site Queerty, Gawker and Slate, which used the incident as the pretense for a scientific column.

While all of these nominally liberal sites pay lip service to the dignity of gay and transgender people, they miss one thing that is very clear to me. Aside from the obvious fat shaming in these stories, the fixation on “man boobs” reveals our culture’s obsession with binary gender. As I noted on The Huffington Post’s comment thread, before a moderator whisked my comment away, “the only breasts The Huffington Post approves of are those of thin, white female celebrities.”

Here’s one of the many comments Huffpo didn’t delete:

It’s culturally ubiquitous. PETA, for example, is a habitual offender:

Men are supposed to have flat chests, hairy bodies and big penises. Women are supposed to have large breasts, thin hairless bodies and tidy labias. (If a woman’s labia are too big, it just might remind us that, with a little testosterone, the same tissue would make a penis.)

We have all the evidence we need that biological sex and gender are not as rigid or fixed as we imagine. There are intersexed people. There are transgender people and genderqueer people. There are millions of men and boys like me, who also have large breasts, or gynecomastia, a medically harmless (though socially lethal) condition that your insurance just might pay to correct. The prevalence of gynecomastia in adolescent boys is estimated to be as low as 4% and as high as 69% . As one article notes: “These differences probably result from variations in what is perceived to be normal.” You think?

We’re so entrenched in that snips ‘n snails bullshit, that we can’t accept bodies which don’t fall on either extreme of the gender continuum. Transgender men and women encounter these attitudes in direct, and sometimes life-threatening ways. And, given the misogyny that pervades our society, these pressures are even harder for women and girls, whether they’re cisgender or transgender. Their bodies are hated and desired in equal measure. When my bully grabbed my breasts and called me “Tits,” he was taking what he wanted. He was also reminding me that I was no better than a girl. I was beneath him.

With the explosion of social media and the surveillance society, body policing has gotten much more intense. We live in an age of crowdsourced bullying. I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up as a boy with breasts in 2011. I suppose I’d spend hours in Photoshop digitally sculpting my body, to remove fat from my face, belly and chest before uploading my profile photos. If I were a fat girl, I might become very skilled at using light and angles to disguise my less than ideal body, to avoid being dubbed a “SIF” or “secret internet fatty,” by my tech-savvy peers. I would probably become vigilant about removing tags from unflattering photos and obsess over remarks people made about me on comment threads.

Twenty years have gone by, and I miss my breasts. As a chubby adult male, I still have a small set of breasts, but not the ones I was born with. The two surgeries also deprived my nipples of their sensitivity.

I’ve often joked that if I knew I was going to become a performance artist, I would have kept my breasts. The breasts I have now are smaller, but still capable of stoking the body police. I once scandalized a fancy pool party in Las Vegas simply by taking off my shirt. I realize that, as a man, it is my privilege to do so. In most parts of our society, it is either illegal or strongly frowned upon for a woman to go topless. (Female breasts are either for maternity or for male sexual pleasure, not for baring at polite parties.) Perhaps my breasts, which remind people of this prohibition, invite a similar kind of censure.

I’ve performed naked enough in my adult life to know that the body police can always find a new area to target. I was recently stunned to hear porn actress Dana DeArmond describe me during a podcast interview as a “fat lady” while her host Joe Rogan openly theorized that my small penis was somehow connected to my feminism. Rogan’s view of gender is so restrictive that he can only conceive of male feminism if it is in a feminized body. (This is probably also why men who support feminism are often dubbed “manginas” by misogynists.)

There might actually be tens of thousands of words devoted to describing my fat body and small penis on the internet. It’s almost a point of pride. Now, I don’t just use my sharp tongue for self defense. I also use my body itself, as an argument, and as a provocation.

I am Tits. Got a problem with that?

Originally posted at My Own Private Guantanamo. Posted at Sociological Images in 2012. Cross-posted at Adios Barbie and Jezebel

 Matt Cornell is an artist, performer and film programmer who lives and works in Los Angeles. You can follow him on twitter at @mattcornell.