My PhD compatriot, Jens* leans over to me, a glint in his eye and a bemused smile on his face that makes it difficult to work out whether this will be a joke, a statement, or something to deliberately challenge me. Past history tells me probably a combination of all three, but lets see.

“Can I ask you a question, before you go?” (I am just on my way out of the PhD office** we share, coat on, mug washed, ready).

He continues; “I know you are something of an expert on the subject…”

Oh here we go. This means one of two conversation topics are about to be raised: headhunting, or gender. Which means gender is about to be raised. I put on my metaphorical*** ‘Will Dispense Pertinent Gender-Related Critical Analysis For Food” T-shirt, and wait.


**Please note that this post has illustrations of sexual acts.**

Recently, and for the first time ever, Cosmopolitan Magazine published a list of sex tips and positions for “lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, queers- all lady-loving ladies in the crowd.” At first, as a member of the LGBTQQIAA community, I was shocked and excited at the seemingly legitimate public recognition of my sexual practices by the “sex gurus” themselves over at Cosmo. At a closer glance however, this list is a comical illustration that is not titillating to say the least, but ultimately is quite exclusionary in the understanding of lesbian sex. Needless to say, the lesbian sex Cosmo describes is not my sex, let alone a realistic portrait of most “lady-loving” relationships.



By r.f.m II from Colora Maryland, United States (Self-Portrait #26) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A recent article by editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, highlighted an interesting set of trends among young people in the UK. Young people are having less sex, drinking less, and taking fewer drugs than older generations. Nelson invoked the 1990s BBC sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, where the mother – binge-drinking, hedonistic, promiscuous fashionista Edina – was consistently disappointed by the celibacy, abstinence and downright sensibleness displayed by her daughter Saffron.  Saffie would chastise her mother for disturbing her homework when she arrived home drunk on champagne and vodka following a gallery opening or a fashion show, while Edina would complain about her daughter’s sexual restraint: “I don’t want a moustached virgin for a daughter, so do something about it!” more...


Following on from a report from the White House on student sexual assault, the Obama administration has recently released an anti-rape PSA to launch the ‘1 Is 2 Many’ campaign to address the issue of sexual assault and rape. If you haven’t already watched it then do: it has a refreshing and positive rhetoric, placing the focus on the perpetrator and not the victim. “If I saw it happening I would help her, not blame her”, Daniel Craig states. It follows an argument that is entirely reasonable but often forgotten, that it is more effective to teach people not to rape than it is to teach people not to get raped.

I like this advert for a number of reasons. It is clear and concise, moving and inspiring without being patronising, and doesn’t rely on ‘misery porn’ or fear to get its point across. It has a sense of hope and optimism, a “we can do this!” attitude. It is encouraging rather than threatening and manages to discuss rape whilst being approachable. I say all this because I don’t want to fall into the sociological trap of jumping straight into criticism without saying positive things, or to belittle how progressive this perspective is. This advert is a significant improvement on anti-rape campaigns that blame the victim, and I hope for more. However, there are overarching themes that this video throws up that I have to acknowledge, because despite liking this advert, it still has discursive effects and impact beyond simply preventing rape.


In case you were the only person who didn’t realise, last Friday was Valentine’s Day. I hate Valentine’s. Its ever increasing prevalence, its cloying, creeping appearance that infiltrates perfectly normal looking things and makes them red or pink, and the way the world suddenly becomes full of people perpetually and disgustingly in love, or stressed, or miserable and alone, or a combination of all three. If I sound bitter, please know it is definitely intentional. I am bitter, but not for the reason you might think.  more...

Source: feministninja.tumblr.com

This post was borne out of a recent discussion with a good friend of mine, Harriet, who is a self-identified lesbian. (I include the phrase self-identified here deliberately: I realise her propensity to prefer the company and sex of woman does not categorise her as a lesbian, but it is a term she very comfortably uses herself). She was talking about going to a sex party, and I, in what I perceived to be ignorance, asked her what her interest could be in going. “Would it not be far too full of men?” I asked naively.

I had expected her to laugh at me, which she did. My question displayed an assumption that I hadn’t realised I held, that lesbian women must only be interested in seeing women have sex with other women. Being the tolerant and long-suffering woman she is, she challenged my assumption. Sex parties often include lesbian sex, she pointed out, and just because she is a lesbian doesn’t mean she is repulsed by men or their sex, any more than a straight person should be repulsed by lesbians. Heterophobia is no more acceptable than homophobia. However, she went on to explain that actually lesbians quite often found men sexually attractive, and, slightly more unusually, they are often interested in watching men have sex with men, in the form of gay male pornography. more...

In Tearoom Trade (1970/1975), Laud Humphreys’ writes about the homosexual relations that took place in various “tearooms” (i.e., public bathrooms) in an unidentified American city during the mid- to late 1960s. By pretending to be a simple voyeur, Humphreys explains that he systematically observed these activities and even recorded the license plate numbers of a sample of tearoom participants. While the systematic observation part of his study permitted an understanding of the rules and roles, patterns of collective action, and risks of the game associated with impersonal gay sex in public restrooms, his tracking down and interviewing a handful of the subjects allowed Humphreys to better understand the identity, lives, and rationality of those men involved in the so-called tearoom trade. While the author defended the ethics behind his research early on, he was still stunned by the backlash it received. Yet, even years after Humphreys’ death, the ethical issues that his study provoked continue to reverberate in the social research community. In response to such issues, I will use this post to critically evaluate the strong and weak points of his book. more...

The New York Times recently ran an expose on teen “sexting” as a part of a slew of recent articles on the topic. Unfortunately, this article failed to take into account the fact that teens, especially girls, have sexual desire. A couple of quotes from the article:

“Having a naked picture of your significant other on your cellphone is an advertisement that you’re sexually active to a degree that gives you status,” said Rick Peters, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for Thurston County.

Perhaps, but what about the fact that the teen might want to enjoy the photo for themselves, too? Inner-desire is continuously ignored in the article in favor of the view that teens (again, especially females) engage sexually in order to please others.

“You can’t expect teenagers not to do something they see happening all around them,” said Susannah Stern, an associate professor at the University of San Diego who writes about adolescence and technology. “They’re practicing to be a part of adult culture,”

Teens do not need anyone to tell them to play show-me-yours. More than practicing for when they get older, teens are also attempting to explore and enjoy their sexuality in the present. It is not just adults who have sexual desire. In fairness, the New York Times did run another article that quotes teens on the topic, who are clear that sexting is the result of desire. So, why do most articles dismiss this fact?

I can accept that culture influences sexual behaviors, I am a sociologist, but to not even bring sexual desire into a conversation about sexting is erroneous. Acknowledging teen sexual desire should be at the center of how to deal with the issue of sexting moving forward. We should be promoting sexual agency, not dismissing it. Better than shaming teens is to start a conversation around how to best express themselves sexually at their age.

There are consequences to this perspective that views teen sexual behaviors as not stemming from desire but instead only as something taught. Adults too often feel they can simply squash teen sexuality through shaming and even criminalization. A scenario described in the article and that is occurring all too often is that teens are being escorted from school in handcuffs, locked up and forced to register as sex offenders simply because they shared nude photos with a significant other their own age. This over-reaction demonstrates Michel Foucault’s point: that by seemingly ignoring teen sexual desire, we’ve only succeeded in turning it into an obsession.

I was recently in a heated conversation about how to address sexual violence against women. During this chat, I was reminded that girls are almost always the focus in these kinds of discussions.  Increased attention has been paid in the last several decades to men who commit crimes against women, particularly rapists, (most of the public discourse is about heterosexual relationships) and yet, when it comes to solutions, there is very little talk about boys and men. While we tell girls to be careful – not to wear certain clothing, not to walk around alone at night and even how to fend off attackers – attacks still occur and far too often, at that. We also blame girls and women for the violence that is perpetrated against them – they weren’t careful enough, they wore the wrong clothing, they went to the wrong place at the wrong time, said the wrong thing, etc.  What about the boys? Girls are exposed to much more information about sexual violence and how to protect themselves than in the past (though in most cases still not enough), but what do we do to teach boys not to victimize women? Rape is about more than sex – it’s about power – and this desire for/misuse of power is condoned or, at the very least, mostly overlooked outside of academia/the mental health professions.

Though the manifestation of the problem may take a particular form in contemporary society, none of this is a new trend, as is evidenced by the artwork seen above, the Rape of Philomela by Tereus, an engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid’s Metamorphoses and below, by Francisco Goya. While we pride ourselves on living in a “civil” society, one that is less violent than others and more progressive than our own once was, rape and violence against women more broadly remain a significant problem and we do very little to change the way men think about women as sexual objects. Accurate statistics are hard to come by due to under-reporting, but a conservative estimate of number of rapes per year in the US seems to be somewhere around 300,000, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. It is likely significantly higher than that.

Last week, Maureen Dowd broached this subject in her op-ed piece in the New York Times. As a society, we do a horrendously poor job of teaching boys that women are not “prey.” In her piece, Dowd addresses a frightening trend at a prestigious private school outside of D.C. where boys were ranking girls and duping them into having sex, sometimes with multiple partners in the same night, to score points in a game. Dowd writes, “the mission was to invite the drafted girls and, unbeknownst to them, score points by trying to rack up as many sexual encounters with the young women as possible.” One of the parents of a “recruited” girl reports, “‘They evidently got points for first, second and third base…They were going to have parties and tally up the points, and money was going to be exchanged at the end of the season.’” Where is the education for these boys, who are no more than a few years away from manhood? Perhaps if boys were socialized to think of women differently, girls and women would have a lot less to be afraid of in society more generally. Most importantly, this would address the cause of the problem much more directly than telling girls how short their skirts are or how low their necklines should be, which has been a large part of the education about rape in the last few decades. And our lack of attention to this kind of problem is exemplified by the relative lack of coverage of this event at this private school – Dowd’s op-ed piece is the bulk of the national media coverage.

How we perceive a problem has serious consequences for what we consider the solution to be. If we identify the problem as girls dressing a certain way, etc. then the solution becomes training them to be more careful and wary of boys. None of that really solves the problem. If we accept the fact that boys will be boys and that some men are violent, then we are condoning that violence and ultimately training boys to think that it’s OK to victimize women. All of this is expressed quite acutely in the “rape culture” argument, summarized in the article below. For instance, Williams cites  Buchwald (1993) who explains that it is “…a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women … a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent.”  This blaming women, condoning rape, and lack of major changes to the way boys are socialized exists in a deadly (sometimes literally) combination with larger issues of violence in American and Global society.  Ultimately, we exist in a world where boys far too often act in violent ways towards girls and where rape is not an uncommon crime. There are many levels at which to address this problem, but socializing boys (not just girls) differently certainly seems like an important place to focus some (any!) energy.

Their Dangerous Swagger in the NY Times, Dowd

Rape Culture, Williams

I recently came across a tool that has been around for a couple of years. GenderAnalyzer claims that it can determine the gender of the author of any text that you point it to. It learns to do this by looking at thousands of blogs and the corresponding gender of the author.

Give it a try: genderanalyzer.com

As of today, it looks like it has a 63% success rate; not impressive but better than chance. Leaving aside how serious we should take this particular tool, many feel that men and women write differently. These different performances of gender through the creation of text can be documented and predicted. This study concludes,

[…] females use many more pronouns and males use many more noun specifiers. […] female writing exhibits greater usage of features identified by previous researchers as “involved” while male writing exhibits greater usage of features which have been identified as “informational”.

All of this made me think of how Wikipedia strives for a “neutral point of view” in its articles. That is, “without bias.” For fun, I picked some Wikipedia articles and ran them through the GenderAnalyzer to see if they were deemed male, neutral or female. Results indicate a strong male bias in my very small and non-random sample:

  • Male: Coffee; bell hooks; oil; love; hip hop; rugby football; philosophy; sex; web 2.0; sexism; feminism; WNBA; Ani DiFranco; men’s health; welding; women’s suffrage.
  • Gender neutral: Childbirth; bread; donuts; gravity.
  • Female: Quilt; knitting.

Whatever the validity or reliability of GenderAnalyzer, the research cited above begs the question of how Wikipedia would best be organized given different male and female writing styles. Would the ideal Wikipedia contain only the gender neutral voice? Or would it strive for a more even distribution of male and female voices throughout?

Finally, is Wikipedia’s effort to achieve a “neutrality” a male endeavor? Some feminist epistemologists (Gilligan, Harding, etc.) have argued that objectivity and value-disinterestedness are inherently male. Thus, is the neutral voice actually quite gendered? ~nathan