sex

Screenshot_2If you haven’t watched Robin Thicke’s disaster of a music video for Blurred Lines, you absolutely must.  But first, feast your eyes on this quote by Virginia Woolf:

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses… reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

It’s women’s work to prop up male egos the idea of male superiority.  To me, that’s exactly what’s going on in this video.  It’s actually quite funny when you look at it that way; it makes the men look so desperate.

Anyhow, I’m glad smart, feminist, fearless women and men are fighting back:

An exercise in gender bending helps expose the ridiculousness as well. Why does it seem silly when men do it, but not when women do?  Because it’s women’s job to be fans of men.

Also, because I can’t help but add a little more snark, how does someone with ZERO charisma end up a pop star?  There’s got to be a story here about money and connections.

Thanks to Marie N., Bronwyn L., and Natalie S. for sending in the videos!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Miley Cyrus performance at the VMAs has received quite the reaction.  She appears to have shocked celebs as well as the media, and has even been blasted by a group of angry parents. The Internet outrage over her performance has spawned multiple offshoots, including a backlash against people slut-shaming Miley, as well as criticisms about her appropriation and exploitation of black culture.

What has been largely been missing from the conversation (with a few notable exceptions) is the lack of outrage at the 36-year-old man who ground up on Miley’s 20-year-old ass while singing his summer megahit rape culture anthem.

Far fewer people are expressing concern about the catchy song in which a husband and father outlines with complete confidence his ability to infer when “good girls” “want it.”  The same guy who, when discussing the lyrics to his song, tells an interviewer:

Even very good girls have a little bad side. You just have to know how to pull it out of them.

The guy who boasts that he based his hit song on the time-honored masculine performance of hollering at bitches:

We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, ‘Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!’ That’s why, in the video, we’re doing all these old men dances. It was great.

That does sound pretty great, Robin.

Overall, the 2013 VMA debacle provides a painfully accurate example of the sexual double standard we have for women and men.  A woman who performs sexuality (for whatever reason) is to be castigated, while a man who engages in the exact same performance (and who has unabashedly doubled down on his support for the rape myth that no means yes) hardly raises an eyebrow.

Brett Wheeler is a part-time psychology professor who is pursuing a PhD in positive psychology. His research interests include human sexuality, humor, and how these variables contribute to well-being.

Here and there the media becomes interested in the sexualization of little girls and, when they do, I often get a call from a reporter or two.  I’ve yet to see any of them pick up on what I think is the really interesting story.  They want to talk about child models, little girls in beauty pageants, and the transitional tween years for Disney star prodigies, but I always want to add into the mix the infantilization of adult women.

The sexualization of girls and the infantilization of adult women are two sides of the same coin.  They both tell us that we should find youth, inexperience, and naivete sexy in women, but not in men.  This reinforces a power and status difference between men and women, where vulnerability, weakness, and dependency and their opposites are gendered traits: desirable in one sex but not the other.

Now, thanks to @BonneZ, I know that this has something interesting to do with Mickey Mouse.

The original Mouse, Stephen Jay Gould has observed, was a kind of nasty character.  But, as he has evolved into the “cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom,” he has appeared increasingly childlike. This six figures below indicate Mickey’s evolution over time:

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Childlike features, Gould argues, inspire a need to nurture: “When we see a living creature with babyish features,” he writes, “we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness.”   Allison Guy observes that we see a similar trend in recent toy makeovers — larger eyes, bigger heads, fatter stumpier limbs — but we see this primarily in toys aimed at infants and girls, not boys:

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Guy interprets this trend as the “result of a cultural imperative for women to embody both the cute and the sexual.”  So, women don “cute” clothes with colorful patterns associated with children and wear “flippy skirts” and “baby doll” t-shirts. They wear eyeliner to give the illusion of the large eyes of childhood, foundation to hide the marks of aging on the face, and pink on their cheeks to mimic the blush of youth.  They are taught these imperatives from an early age.

What does it mean that feminine beauty is conflated with youthfulness, but masculine beauty is not — that we want women to be both cute and sexual?  It means that we feel comfortable with women who seem helpless and require taking care of, perhaps we even encourage or demand these traits from women.  Perhaps these childlike characteristics are most comforting in women who are, in fact, the least needy; I submit that we are more accepting of powerful women when they perform girlish beauty.  When they don’t, they are often perceived as threatening or unlikable.

So, yes, the sexualization of girls is interesting — and no doubt it’s no good for girls and likely contributes to older men’s sexual interest in young women — but it’s not just about sexualizing kids early.  It’s about infantilizing adult women, too, as a way to remind women of their prescribed social position relative to men.

Cross-posted at Jezebel and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Screenshot_1This 4:15 minute video features women recounting instances of sexual harassment and battery by strangers. It’s a wake up call for the kinds of treatment that women routinely receive just by virtue of daring to be in public spaces.

Made by Laura Bates for the The Everyday Sexism Project. Thanks to Mytch for the tip.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The reproductive health police are at it again, and this time they’ve got the gender and sexuality cops with them.  Despite the CDC reporting a decline in teen pregnancy across ethnic groups, public health and privately funded campaigns are popping up across the U.S. aimed at chastising, shaming, and blaming teenage mothers.

And now, the city of Chicago has gotten in on the act. Not satisfied with the traditional images of cheerleading teenage mothers with babies strapped to their chests, or wailing toddlers scolding their mothers for being too poor or too single, or even pop music icons who assure young women that motherhood ‘sucks’ even more than high school, the city of Chicago has decided to get creative. The Chicago Department of Public Health has created a series of posters featuring shirtless young men with apparently pregnant bellies – below the caption “Unexpected?”

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Ok, I get it. The campaign was designed to communicate the fact that most teen pregnancies are, yes, unexpected, and that teen fathers should bear an equal responsibility for said pregnancies. But as someone working at the interstices of narrative, health, and social justice, I am less concerned with wondering if teen pregnancy is ‘bad’, or even if shame and/or shock are effective motivators for behavior change (which I would argue they are not, check out Brené Brown’s eloquent argument). What concerns me is what other work such images are doing. In other words, what additional cultural stories is this campaign telling, and are those narratives socially just or unjust?

As this fantastic take-off from the Media Literacy Project shows, the primary problem with the Chicago campaign is its deeply trans-phobic narrative:

In the frame of the advertisers, the pregnant bellies in the ads are solely female while the rest of the body is solely male. The contrast is supposed to cause discord in the viewer, yielding feelings that the image is “disturbing” or “unexpected,” as the ads say. However, sex and gender are much more complicated than the advertisers understand. Transgender boys and men can become pregnant. Calling their bodies disturbing perpetuates a culture of ignorance, prejudice, and violence against transgender people.

The truth is, bodies which do not look traditionally ‘female gendered’ can and do become pregnant (consider the much publicized story of Thomas Beattie, for instance, a transgender man who bore three children) while bodies which do look traditionally ‘female gendered’ sometimes can or do not.

Philosopher Judith Butler asserted that gender is nothing more than a series of repetitive performances; behaviors which, in cis-gendered (not transgendered) people, are often so subconscious as to feel ‘natural.’ But simply consider that the gender-coding of many such behaviors have changed over time. Hairstyles, clothing, and work-home-balance are all easy examples. Requiring at the very least a working uterus, pregnancy is one type of public ‘performance’ that still appears ‘naturally female.’ Therefore, ‘male pregnancy’ can be a subversive act, as with the work of cyber-artists Virgil Wong and Lee Mingwei, where, as feminist science scholar Donna Haraway would say, one ‘queers what counts as nature.’

But that’s not what is going on here. As with the broadly comic absurdness of male pregnancy in films like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Junior, this anachronistic Chicago campaign actually reinforces a traditional gender binary while essentializing pregnancy as a function of only cis-gendered female bodies. In doing so, the campaign defeats its own stated purpose. By looking at these posters, cis-gendered boys won’t feel like pregnancy can happen to them. Rather, they will scoff, or laugh at the ‘absurdness’ of male pregnancy, reassured that their (utterly and fixedly ‘masculine’) bodies are ‘safe’ from such conditions. More devastatingly, the cis-gendered general public looking at these images will have their own prejudices and expectations about male pregnancy reinforced: as something ‘unexpected,’ shocking, and ‘unnatural.’

Additionally, like other individual-level ‘shaming and blaming’/’shocking’ campaigns, this Chicago anti-teen pregnancy series deflects attention from more systemic understandings and structural changes: from finding funding for affordable and accessible reproductive health care, to anti-poverty work, to programs which support LGBTQ youth. While they may satisfy the need for a ‘moral panic’ among us middle-aged people as we ‘clutch the pearls and think of the children,’ what such anti-teenage pregnancy campaigns don’t do is actually increase the well being of our young people – be they male or female, cis- or trans-gendered.

Cross-posted at Adios Barbie.

Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies,  co-authored The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales, and authored Her Own Medicine: A Woman’s Journey from Student to Doctor.

Earlier this year I wrote about how truly disturbing it is that so many of our insults have sexual connotations.  “Fuck you,” is a choice example, but I give lots more in the original post (read at your own risk).  I concluded:

…it’s interesting, right, to notice how often attempts to hurt other people come in the language of sexuality.  This reveals why sex can be scary, especially for women who are so often positioned as the one who “gets fucked”…  It’s also part of how we demean and marginalize gay and bisexual men.

This post came to mind when I saw this confession at PostSecret:

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Let me put this in black and white: this person expressed “hate” by exposing another person to his penis.  So he considers his penis a thing that can defile.  This is the same penis that he puts (presumably) in his wife who he (presumably) doesn’t hate.  If I were his wife, I would wonder how exactly he decides when putting his penis in things is a loving thing to do and when it’s a way to harm or humiliate someone.

I don’t mean to pick on this individual.  The idea that it’s funny (“LOL”) to expose this woman to his genitalia without her consent is widespread.  This confession is just a manifestation of our cultural belief that men can hurt people with their penises.  And that it’s funny when they do.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, and BlogHer.

In an Op-Ed article on hookup culture in college, Bob Laird links binge drinking and casual sex to sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, confusion, low self-esteem, unhappiness, vomiting, ethical retardation, low grades and emotional inadequacy. “How nice of The Times to include this leftover piece from 1957 today,” snarked a reader in the online comments.

Fair enough, but Laird is more than out of touch. He also fundamentally misunderstands hookup culture, the relationships that form within it and the real source of the problems arising from some sexual relationships.

Laird makes the common mistake of assuming that casual sex is rampant on college campuses. It’s true that more than 90% of students say that their campus is characterized by a hookup culture.  But in fact, no more than 20% of students hook up very often; one-third of them abstain from hooking up altogether, and the remainder are occasional participators.

If you do the math, this is what you get: The median number of college hookups for a graduating senior is seven. This includes instances in which there was intercourse, but also times when two people just made out with their clothes on. The typical student acquires only two new sexual partners during college. Half of all hookups are with someone the person has hooked up with before. A quarter of students will be virgins when they graduate.

In other words, there’s no bacchanalian orgy on college campuses, so we can stop wringing our hands about that.

Laird argues that students aren’t interested in and won’t form relationships if “they are simply focused on the next hookup.” Wrong. The majority of students — 70% of women and 73% of men —report that they’d like to have a committed relationship, and 95% of women and 77% of men prefer dating to hooking up. In fact, about three-quarters of students will enter a long-term monogamous relationship while in college.

And it’s by hooking up that many students form these monogamous relationships. Roughly, they go from a first hookup, to a “regular hookup,” to perhaps something that my students call “exclusive” — which means monogamous but not in a relationship — and then, finally, they have “the talk” and form a relationship.  As they get more serious, they become more sexually involved (source):

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Come to think of it, this is how most relationships are formed — through a period of increasing intimacy that, at some point, ends in a conversation about commitment. Those crazy kids.

So, students are forming relationships in hookup culture; they’re just doing it in ways that Laird probably doesn’t like or recognize.

Finally, Laird assumes that relationships are emotionally safer than casual sex, especially for women.  Not necessarily. Hookup culture certainly exposes women to high rates of emotional trauma and physical assault, but relationships do not protect women from these things. Recall that relationships are the context for domestic violence, rape and spousal murder.

It’s not hooking up that makes women vulnerable, it’s patriarchy. Accordingly, studies of college students have found that, in many ways, hookups are safer than relationships. A bad hookup can be acutely bad; a bad relationship can mean entering a cycle of abuse that takes months to end, bringing with it wrecked friendships, depression, restraining orders, stalking, controlling behavior, physical and emotional abuse, jealousy and exhausting efforts to end or save the relationship.

Laird’s views seem to be driven by a hookup culture bogeyman. It might scare him at night, but it’s not real.  Actual research on hookup culture tells a very different story, one that makes college life look much more mundane.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Teen pregnancy, like obesity, is often framed as an “epidemic.”  As such, both the “epidemic” of teen pregnancy and the “epidemic” of obesity can be understood through the lens of what sociologist Stanley Cohen popularized as a “moral panic.” In Cohen’s words, moral panics are “condensed political struggles to control the means of cultural reproduction”; additionally “successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with wider anxieties.”

“The Real Cost of Teen Pregnancy” — a public health information campaign launched by the Mayor and Human Resources Administration of New York City in March 2013 — features babies and toddlers, primarily children of color, chastising their teenage mothers. Launched at a time when teen pregnancies have actually declined, primarily due to the availability of safe and affordable reproductive health care, the accusatory “shame and blame” narrative of these images is not only out of proportion to the “problem” it seeks to address, but is weighed down by its obvious cultural narratives about teens of color, poverty, gender and sexuality.

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Having a pensive toddler of color next to the slogan “Honestly Mom… chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” and a weeping boy of color next to the words “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen,” serves to re-stigmatize single teen mothers, encouraging wider social senses of moral outrage, hostility and volatility toward young, predominantly impoverished girls of color. Not unlike cultural narratives about “welfare queens,” the campaign plays into racist and classist fears about sexually active girls of color and teenage mothers who use social services. The message just under the surface here is about the need for social control of “unruly bodies.”

These 4,000 posters, put up in buses and subways, cost a reported $10,000 per year for the city, and have already drawn harsh critique from many. Haydee Morales, vice president for education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City, for instance, has reportedly suggested the campaign has got it backward. In her words, “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy.”

According to Samantha Levine, a spokesperson for New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, “it’s well past the time when anyone can afford to be value neutral when it comes to teen pregnancy.” Public health campaigns are never value neutral. They communicate social beliefs about normalcy, productivity, desirability, and cultural worth.

An additional cost of the unexamined acceptance of this new teen pregnancy campaign is accepting yet another narrative about individual choice over systemic change. Placing responsibility on the shoulders of the individual, such campaigns silence more complex conversations about accessible and affordable reproductive health care, anti-poverty campaigns, and gender and social justice work. Instead of buying into the “moral panic” of teen pregnancy, perhaps the mayor’s office might look into more long lasting and less stigmatizing possibilities of structural change to improve the lives of young women in New York City.

“Shame and blame” has rarely gotten public health anywhere. In the words of researcher and speaker Brené Brown, “Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies,  co-authored The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales, and authored Her Own Medicine: A Woman’s Journey from Student to Doctor.