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.

Historian Molly Worthen is fighting tyranny, specifically the “tyranny of feelings” and the muddle it creates. We don’t realize that our thinking has been enslaved by this tyranny, but alas, we now speak its language. Case in point:

“Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida.

Why the “linguistic hedging” as Worthen calls it? Why couldn’t the kid just say, “Sanders is too idealistic”? You might think the difference is minor, or perhaps the speaker is reluctant to assert an opinion as though it were fact. Worthen disagrees.

“I feel like” is not a harmless tic. . . . The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument — a muddle that has political consequences.

The phrase “I feel like” is part of a more general evolution in American culture. We think less in terms of morality – society’s standards of right and wrong – and more in terms individual psychological well-being. The shift from “I think” to “I feel like” echoes an earlier linguistic trend when we gave up terms like “should” or “ought to” in favor of “needs to.” To say, “Kayden, you should be quiet and settle down,” invokes external social rules of morality. But, “Kayden, you need to settle down,” refers to his internal, psychological needs. Be quiet not because it’s good for others but because it’s good for you.

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Both “needs to” and “I feel like” began their rise in the late 1970s, but Worthen finds the latter more insidious. “I feel like” defeats rational discussion. You can argue with what someone says about the facts. You can’t argue with what they say about how they feel. Worthen is asserting a clear cause and effect. She quotes Orwell: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” She has no evidence of this causal relationship, but she cites some linguists who agree. She also quotes Mark Liberman, who is calmer about the whole thing. People know what you mean despite the hedging, just as they know that when you say, “I feel,” it means “I think,” and that your are not speaking about your actual emotions.

The more common “I feel like” becomes, the less importance we may attach to its literal meaning. “I feel like the emotions have long since been mostly bleached out of ‘feel that,’ ” …

Worthen disagrees.  “When new verbal vices become old habits, their power to shape our thought does not diminish.”

“Vices” indeed. Her entire op-ed piece is a good example of the style of moral discourse that she says we have lost. Her stylistic preferences may have something to do with her scholarly ones – she studies conservative Christianity. No “needs to” for her. She closes her sermon with shoulds:

We should not “feel like.” We should argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.

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Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog. Graph updated 5/11/16.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Pregnancy wasn’t always something women did in public. In her new book, Pregnant with the Stars, Renée Ann Cramer puts public pregnancies under the sociological microscope, but she notes that it is only recently that being publicly pregnant became socially acceptable. Even as recently as the 1950s, pregnancy was supposed to be a private matter, hidden behind closed doors. That big round belly was, she argues, “an indicator that sex had taken place, [which] was simply considered too risqué for polite company.”

Lucille Ball was the first person on television to acknowledge a pregnancy, real or fictional. It was 1952, but it was considered lewd to actually say the word “pregnant,” so the episode used euphemisms like “blessed event” or simply referred to having a baby or becoming a father.

Almost 20 years later, in 1970, a junior high school teacher was forced out of the classroom in her third trimester on the argument that her visible pregnancy would, as Cramer puts it, “alternately disgust, concern, fascinate, and embarrass her students.” So, when Demi Moore posed naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair just 21 years after that, it was a truly groundbreaking thing to do.

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Today being pregnant is public is unremarkable. Visibly pregnant women are free to run errands, go to restaurants, attend events, even dress up their “baby bump” to try to (make it) look cute. All of this is part of the entrance of women into the public sphere more generally and the pressing of men to accept female bodies in those spaces. The next frontier may be breast feeding, an activity related to female-embodied parenting that many still want to relegate to behind closed doors. We may look back in 20 years and be as surprised by intolerance of breastfeeding as we are today over the idea that pregnant women weren’t supposed to leave the house. Time will tell.

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

One word in the headlines last week seemed like a throwback to an earlier era:

As Trump moves to soften his image, Democrats seek to harden it

The Washington Post

Donald Trump to reshape image, new campaign chief tells G.O.P.

The New York Times

Trump surrogates say GOP front-runner “projecting an image” during primaries

— Fox News

It was in the 1960s that politicians, their handlers, and the people who write about them discovered image. The word carries the cynical implication that voters, like shoppers, respond to the surface image rather than the substance – the picture on the box rather than what’s inside.  A presidential campaign was based on the same thing as an advertising campaign – image.  You sold a candidate the same way you sold cigarettes, at least according to the title and book jacket of Joe McGinnis’s book.

Then, sometime around 1980, image began to fade. In its place we now have brand. I went to Google N-grams and looked at the ratio of image to brand in both the corporate and the political realm. The pattern is nearly identical.


The ratio rises steeply from 1960 to 1980 – lots more talk about image, no increase in brand. Then the trend reverses. Sightings of image were still rising, but nowhere nearly as rapidly as brand, which doubled from 1980 to 2000 in politics and quadrupled in the corporate world.

Image sounds too deceptive and manipulative; you can change it quickly according to the needs of the moment. Brand implies permanence and substance (not to mention Marlboro-man-like rugged independence and integrity.) No wonder people in the biz prefer brand.

Decades ago, when my son was in grade school, I met another parent who worked in the general area of public relations. On seeing him at the next school function a few weeks later, I said, “Oh right, you work in corporate image-mongering.” I thought I said it jokingly, but he seemed offended. He was, I quickly learned, a brand consultant. Image bad; brand good.

In later communications, he also said that a company’s attempt to brand itself as something it’s not will inevitably fail.  The same thing supposedly goes for politics:

“One thing you learn very quickly in political consulting is the fruitlessness of trying to get a candidate to change who he or she fundamentally is at their core,” said Republican strategist Whit Ayres, who did polling for Rubio’s presidential campaign before he dropped out of the race. “So, is the snide, insulting, misogynistic guy we’ve seen really who Donald Trump is? Or is it the disciplined, respectful, unifying Trump we saw for seven minutes after the New York primary?

These consultants are saying what another Republican said a century and a half ago: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

This seems to argue that political image-mongers have to be honest about who their candidate really is. But there’s another way of reading Lincoln’s famous line: You only need to fool half the people every four years.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

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Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

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

Jay Livingston is our regular baby name analyst, but I’m gonna give it a go just this once. Over at Baby Name Wizard, Laura Wattenburg published a chart showing that vowels are on the rise. Both girls and boys names have more vowels in them relative to consonants than they have in the last 150 or so years, and more vowels than the English language overall.

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Based on the yellow line alone, it’s clear that people think that names with more vowels are more appropriate for girls than boys. So, how to explain the uptick, especially among boys?

For boys, the uptick begins during the revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s. Feminists at that time wanted women to be able to embrace the masculine in themselves, but they wanted men to embrace their feminine sides, too. They got the first thing but not the latter and, ever since, the personalities of both men and women both began measuring more masculine, with women changing more than men.

But then both men’s and women’s names should be becoming more masculine. So, maybe baby names are a special case. I googled around and found a survey (of uninterrogated quality) that found that dads have substantially less influence over a babies’ names than moms do. Accordingly, perhaps baby-naming resists some of the stronger influences toward masculinization that come from men. Maybe mothers, especially in that warm moment of naming their babies, are holding out for that half of the feminist revolution that has proven thus far elusive: the valuing of the feminine in all of us.

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

2 (1)Hey, they did a study.

Psychologist Paul Thibodeau and three colleagues decided that it was time to take a closer look at the word “moist,” writing:

The word “moist” … has been the subject of a Facebook page (called “I HATE the word MOIST”) with over 3,000 followers and was rated as the least liked word in the English language by a Mississippi State Poll … ; feature articles have been written in Slate Magazine … and The New Yorker … ; and popular TV shows like“How I Met Your Mother” (“Stuff”) and “The New Girl” (“Birthday”) have devoted entire plot-lines to the comic consequences of word aversion.

Now it’s not just anecdotal. Thibodeau found that between 13 and 21% of people have an aversion to the word.

But why?

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Is it just a gross-sounding word? If so, then people who hate moist should also hate foist and rejoiced. Verdict: No. Hating the sound moist is independent of one’s appreciation for words that rhyme.

Is it because it makes people think of sex? Verdict: Yes! Priming people to think of sex versus, say, cake, makes people dislike the word more. Bonus: People who scored higher on a measure of disgust for bodily functions were more likely than those who scored lower to claim an aversion to the word.

So, if you don’t like the word moist, get your mind out of the gutter. And, if your aversion is severely hampering your life, just think about cake!

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

This November, a wave of student activism drew attention to the problem of racism at colleges and universities in the US.  Sparked by protests at the University of Missouri, nicknamed Mizzou, we saw actions at dozens of colleges. It was a spectacular show of strength and solidarity and activists have won many concessions, including new funding, resignations, and promises to rename buildings.

Activists’ grievances are structural — aimed at how colleges are organized and who is in charge, what colleges teach and who does the teaching, and what values are centered and where they come from — but they are also interpersonal. Student activists of color talked about being subject to overtly racist behavior from others and being on the receiving end of microaggressions, seemingly innocuous commentary from others that remind them that they do not, as a Claremont McKenna dean so poorly put it, “fit the mold.” That dean lost her job after that comment. Many student activists seem to embrace the policing of offensive speech, both the hateful and the ignorant kind.

Negative reactions to this activism was immediate and widespread. Much of it served only to affirm the students’ claims: that we are still a racist society and that we, at best, tolerate our young people of color only if they stay “in their place.” Other times, it was confusion about the kind of world these young people seemed to want to live in. Why, some people asked, would anyone — especially a member of a marginalized population — want to shut down free speech?

Well, it may be that the American love of free speech is waning. The Pew Research Center released data measuring attitudes about censorship. They asked Americans whether they thought the government should be able to prevent people from saying things that are “offensive to minorities.” Millennials — that is, today’s college students — are significantly more likely than any other generation to say that they should.

In fact, the data show a steady decrease in the proportion of Americans who are eager to defend speech that is offensive to minorities. Only 12% of the Silent generation is in favor of censorship, compared to 24% of the Baby Boomers, 27% of Gen X, and 40% of Millennials. Notably, women, Democrats, and non-whites are all more likely than their counterparts to be willing to tolerate government control of speech.

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Americans still stand out among their national peers. Among European Union countries, 49% of citizens are in favor of censorship, compared to 28% of Americans. If the Millennials have anything to say about it, though, that might be changing. Assuming this is a cohort effect and not an age effect (that is, assuming they won’t change their minds as they age), and with the demographic changes this country will see in the next few decades, we may  very soon look more like Europe on this issue than we do now.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

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