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Homophobia, Biphobia, And Transphobia As Sexual Violence

A few weeks ago, I watched (and loved) the film, Gun Hill Road.  One scene of the film hit me in the gut, hard.  The film’s lead character, Vanessa Rodriquez (played by Harmony Santana), a young Latina transwoman, was coerced into having sex with a woman sex worker by her father, Enrique Rodriquez.  Her father pressured her to do so in attempt to “cure” her gender identity, making her the heterosexual cisman he preferred as his child.  “Wow,” I thought, “that’s a form of sexual violence!”

Oh, wait… that happened to me.  When I was 17, just a week shy of my 18th birthday, a family member guilted me into being with a sex worker.  I identified as bisexual then, so the pressure was on to finally give sex with a woman a try – of course, with the implied intention to “cure” me of my sexual attraction to men.  I resisted, saying I was not interested, and did not want my first sexual experience to be with a sex worker in a hotel room.

Eventually, I caved to the pressure.  The sex worker arrived and explained that for the amount of money I had, she could only provide an erotic dance.  I was uncomfortable and wanted her to leave immediately.  While she danced, I asked how business was, and she asked how school was coming.  Ten minutes later, she was gone and I was both relieved and disgusted.

I later came out as gay, and now identify as queer.  And, fortunately, my family has come around to accepting me as a whole human being.  But, I will live with the memory of being coerced into any sort of sexual activity with a woman for life.  So, too, will every other instance in which I was asked an inappropriate question about my sex life or relationships, or been subject to comments that aimed to shame me for being a sexually active queer man.  “You don’t take it up the butt, do you?”  “I hope you are using condoms.  You can die from AIDS”  “Which one of you is the woman in the relationship?”

Sexual Violence Against LGBTQ People

As a scholar, my perspective – informed by my research and personal experiences – has shifted to see sexual violence as the sexualized manifestation of any system of oppression, not merely of sexism or misogyny.  In the ugly racist history of the US, Black people and other people of color have been raped, lynched and castrated, sterilized, and exotified; we have been demonized as jezebels, savages, whores, and temptresses.

Homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, too, are regularly expressed in sexualized ways.  The subtle and explicit shaming of LGBT people for existing, being sexual, and having loving relationships is widespread.  Transwomen are harassed on the streets by police who assume that they are sex workers.  Manufactured lesbian sexuality is exploited for cis, heterosexual men’s desires, while authentic lesbian relationships remain invisible or stigmatized.  Lesbians are subject to “corrective rape” in South Africa (and worldwide), while gay men are punished with extreme violence, including rape, for being gay.  Even as the US has become more tolerant of LGBT people and same-gender relationships (that mirror the acceptable, heteronormative and cisnormative standard), queer sexuality remains demonized, despised, and closeted.

Ironically, queer people are punished, sometimes through sexual violence, because of our sexualities.  While the cis heterosexual dominated society is obsessed with our sex lives and our sexual desires, we are the ones who are seen as perverts.

What Is Queer Sexual Empowerment?

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I have been thinking about Miley Cyrus a bit lately.

I never thought I would start off a post that way — particularly one about queer sexuality and queer people.  She … I don’t even know what to call it… at MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks ago.  And, became the talk of the town once more, this time swinging in nude on a wrecking ball.  When I finally saw the video for that single, “Wrecking Ball,” I was so disappointed.  Such a lovely, heartfelt song; in no way had I imagined seeing her naked, especially not sexually licking other construction equipment.  It just seemed unnecessary.  And, really, unnecessarily vulgar.  Must every video be an opportunity to sell sex?

I depart there from the conversations about Miley Cyrus and her public and private sex lives.  (I’m late, anyhow.)  But, I am intrigued by the conversations that speak more broadly about sexuality, gender, and empowerment.  Yes, Miley Cyrus is just one woman in our sexist, sex-obsessed, sex-negative society — even within the music and entertainment industry that suffers from those same characteristics.  (Really, just look at Rihanna’s new video…)  Good; let’s think sociologically!

But, what troubles me is we have not walked away from these conversations with any clear answers.  Is Miley Cyrus a sexually-empowered feminist iconOr, is she yet another pawn of the music industryApparently, the line between one’s sexual objectification and one’s sexual empowerment is too thin.  Fuck.  That is a really disturbing revelation.

Queer Sexual Empowerment

In deluding myself that there is a clear distinction, I am able to come up with clear examples of women’s sexual empowerment.  It’s women who refuse to hide that they are sexual, want sex, and like sex.  Right?  It’s “girl groups” like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Salt ‘n Pepa, right?  It’s older women artists and actors who refuse to cave to the expectations that they should cover up, stop having sex, or just disappear completely, yes?

My thought process eventually turned to queer sexuality — including, but not limited to, gay men’s sexual empowerment.  My mind drew a blank.  What would queer sexual empowerment look like?  In some ways, merely existing as queer people, especially as sexual and loving queer people, is a political act.  Fuck you homophobia.  We exist.

For some, that empowerment entails a more heightened expression of queer sexuality.  Yes, gay pride regularly reflects the very public display of queer sexuality.  We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re scantly clad.  I have to remind the prude in me that homophobes and transphobes dismiss queer people whether we are dressed in gender normative ways or donning a rainbow boa, 6-inch-heels, and 5 o’clock shadow.  So, while I do not personally embrace the joy of public queer sex and sexuality in this way, I refuse to rain on fellow queer folks’ parade.

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But, I do grow tired of the conflation of gay with gay sex.  I suppose the final straw was seeing yet another men’s sports team gone nude for a calendar to raise money for an LGBT-related cause.  First, this story implies that all of the players are cisgender and heterosexual.  It also ticks me off because — duh! — white muscular cis masculine men without disabilities are always sexy.  The pervasive sexualization of these kinds of bodies in the context of queer pride has gotten to the point that it no longer registers as empowerment, at least in my opinion.  These kinds of bodies are now used for more than sexual desire — ranging from political LGBT events, to businesses’ advertisements to LGBT communities, to any general nod that something is queer.  That’s not empowerment.

Even if that was empowerment, when do queer people like me get to be sexually empowered?  Why do brown queer bodies still serve the taboo sexual desires of white audiences?  Why are fat queer bodies only celebrated in subcultures within LGBT communities, while otherwise invisible or used to repulse or for humor?  And, what about gender expression — can I be sexy, sexually desired, and sexually empowered while defying society’s expectations for male-bodied individuals?

As an aside, I think that being sexual or having sex in public is only one way to be sexually empowered.  Yes, I do believe queer people should have the freedom to be sexual beings in their public, everyday lives without worrying about threatening cis heterosexuals.  But, not everyone wants that.  Speaking for myself, I would feel more sexually empowered if I could be a loving, whole person in public.  I hate being on guard during the few times my partner and I even hold hands in public.  I hate having to monitor how I interact with other men — especially cis heterosexual men, especially other queer men.  Even how I interact with people with whom I do not want to or actually have sex with is constrained because of the disempowering force of homophobia.

Concluding Thoughts

I suppose, like cis women’s sexual empowerment, the bounds of queer sexual empowerment are difficult to define.  For queer people, it is their sexual relationships, behaviors, and desires that are the primary targets of homophobic and biphobic hatred.  Sex is often used to evoke panic around trans* issues.  To embrace one’s sexuality as a queer person in this homo-, bi-, and transphobic society is a political act.  But, only to an extent, it seems.  We have gained political ground by convincing the cis straight dominated society that we can be in loving, monogamous relationships, and thus deserve access to marriage and other important institutions.  Don’t worry, all of that kinky public sexuality stuff is just a phase until we are ready to have real relationships.Were Just Like YouIn a way, I worry the sexual empowerment of cis heterosexual women and of queer people is not 100% on their terms.  A cis woman’s public expression of being a sexual person is valued if it gets heterosexual men off.  The flip side of that is that women’s sexuality serves as a source of power — sometimes their sole source of power in this misogynistic society of ours.  Queer people’s sexualities are acceptable to the extent that cis heterosexual people do not have to witness it.  We gain power by presenting ourselves as “Good As You.”

Empowerment on the dominant group’s terms… that’s not empowerment.  Ugh.

A Gay Guy’s Guide To Feminism – A Brief Introduction

With the start of Women’s, Womyn‘s, and Womanist Herstory Month this past Friday, I have been wondering what more I can do to challenge sexism — including my own.  As I have noted in previous posts, I have an evolving awareness that my own disadvantaged social location as a brown queer man does not make me immune to sexism, nor any other system of oppression.

One important task of my anti-sexist advocacy is to become aware of the ways in which I am privileged as a man.  I know this to be a particular challenge for queer men because of our awareness that we are disadvantaged among men.  So, I was disappointed to find little beyond a few personal reflections from feminist-identified gay men to guide me and other queer men to understand and appropriately fight sexism.  The Guy’s Guide to Feminism seems like a good start, but I find it useful to engage gay men from their unique relationships with sexism, women, and male privilege.

Feminism For Gay Men 101

Though I am just at the beginning of a lifelong journey to understanding sexism and my own male privilege, here are a few lessons I would like to impart to my fellow gay men:

  1. We are men.  We hold male privilegePeriod.
  2. Yes, number 1 is true despite our sexual orientation and despite our gender expression (no matter how feminine, androgynous, or queer).  Though gay masculinity is devalued relative to hegemonic masculinity (i.e., white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied young/middle-age masculinity), it is still privileged over all femininities.
  3. Systems of oppression are linked including — particularly relevant to this discussion — sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism.  As such, our liberation is tied to the liberation of ciswomen and trans* people.
  4. While number 3 is true, we are not immune to sexist attitudes and behaviors.  And, most importantly, being gay does not make us anti-sexist.  Our marginalized status among men may make it easier to understand sexist oppression, but it does does not preclude us from it.  Just like heterosexual cisgender men who engage in anti-sexist activism, we must be active in challenging the prejudice, discrimination, and violence against women, and to keep our male privilege in check (i.e., give it up or use it for good).
  5. Though we generally are not sexually attracted to women, we are just as capable of sexually harassing or assaulting women.  The root of sexual violence is power, not sexual attraction.  I must point out here that too many of us have sexually harassed or assaulted women and naively excused the behavior as innocent because we are gay.  Sexual violence by any perpetrator is wrong.  But, that of gay men has the added element of placing our women friends and allies in the difficult position of questioning whether to feel violated or upset.
  6. Related to number 5, we must stop treating the women in our lives as objects or accessories.  Yes, many heterosexual women are guilty of doing this to us — the gay BFF, every girl’s must have! — which is also wrong.  Friendships that exist because of her gender or your sexual orientation are forms of exotification.
  7. Attraction to male-bodied individuals, men, and masculinity must be stripped of the presumed aversion to female-bodied individuals, women, and femininity.  We need not be repulsed by female bodies just because we are not sexually attracted to (cis)women.  Even when joking, this is no less problematic than (cisgender) heterosexuals who proclaim to be repulsed by people of their same sex.
  8. Certain aspects of gay men’s culture that promote pride and empowerment among us come at the expense of women’s empowerment.  To call a fellow gay man “bitch,” “cunt,” and, more commonly in the drag scene, “fish,” is to use a term that derogates women.  Though they may be positive in intent and meaning, these are not instances of reclaiming pejorative terms used against us: self-identifying as queer is; “servin’ up fish!” isn’t.  Just think how outraged we would be if women decided to adopt “faggot” as a term of endearment among themselves.
  9. Our queer, bisexual, and lesbian sisters are oppressed by heterosexism and sexism.  We, as LGBT and queer people, will not be fully liberated by addressing homophobia and heterosexism alone.
  10. Related to number 9, we must recognize that LBQ women are often subject to our sexist prejudice and behavior, ranging from anti-lesbian jokes to outright exclusion (often disguised as innocently bonding with other gay men or even the product of our exclusive attraction to men).
  11. The way that we devalue femininity among ourselves is another arm of sexism.  The “no femmes” sentiment, aptly called femmephobia, is nothing more than the hatred of femininity, which is associated with women.  Beyond eliminating this silly prejudice in our anti-sexist efforts, we do ourselves the favor of freeing the constraints on how we can behave and express our gender.
  12. We owe it — yes, we owe it — to the ciswomen and trans* people who have fought against the injustices we face to fight against those they face.  Even when kept at the periphery or outright excluded, transpeople have fought for equal rights and status for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Many lesbian and bisexual women served as caregivers to gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s, while also fighting along side those who worked for better HIV/AIDS health care.  Feminists of all walks of life have advocated for our protection from prejudice, discrimination, and violence, seeing it as important in (and linked to) activism against sexist discrimination and violence against women.

We owe it to our ciswomen and trans* friends and allies — and ourselves — to be better feminists.

In Defense Of Femininities — All Of Them

Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month!  Yep, it is March already.  A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world.  Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”

Comprehensive Gender Equality

Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender.  By no means have we achieved gender equality.  And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.

Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.”  In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex.  This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.

There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality.  First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group.  The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked.  Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general.  Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.

Gender Diversity

There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.

Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability.  It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.  Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism.  Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.

Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.”  Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen.  Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).

Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions.  In reality, there is no universal femininity.  Rather, there are multiple femininities.  Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed.  This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.

Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased.  “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin.  There is no singular status or identity of woman.  As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.

In Defense Of Femininities

Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued.  In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity.  Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men.  You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.

My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field.  Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.

Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self.  On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!”  I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!”  (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)

These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level.  In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home.  Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded.  Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.

Liberating Femininities

As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.

For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity.  Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued.  Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat.  As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves.  (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”)  True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.

It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future.  Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women.  We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class.  And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities.  For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.

Preventing Sexual Violence And Supporting Survivors Is A Community Responsibility

The title of this post sums up the position that many have taken in efforts to prevent sexual violence (e.g., rape, sexual assault, incest, stalking, sexual harassment) and to support survivors of violence.  Such a stance goes against two problematic positions, one hostile and one supportive to survivors of violence.

  1. Hostile Victim-Blaming: Unfortunately, many people lay blame for sexual violence in the hands of victims of violence themselves.  Violent acts, such as sexual assault, are seen as incidents that are preventable simply by changing one’s behavior, interactions with others, appearance, and mentality.  First, survivors of violence, especially women, face the dilemma of providing proof that they have been victimized.  Second, if they are believed, they must provide enough evidence to convince others that such violence was not somehow the result of being sexually promiscuous, dressing in revealing clothing, giving “mixed signals” in interactions (sexual and non-sexual) with one’s attacker, drinking too much, and so forth.
  2. Supportive Victim-Blaming: Indeed, many are concerned with eliminating sexual violence for good.  But, efforts to prevent violence, like the above, center on the victims of violence themselves.  As an online op-ed at Ebony magazine points out, too much sexual violence prevention work provides potential and past victims of violence suggestions to protect themselves: don’t walk alone at night in unfamiliar places, tell a friend where you are going, watch your drinks at parties, don’t go home with strangers.  While this position differs from the above in its concern for survivors of violence, it too lays responsibility for sexual violence on the victims themselves.

Sexual Violence As A Social Problem

With estimates denoting that 17-25 percent of women and 3 percent of men are survivors of violence (experiencing sexual violence at least once in their lifetimes), it is undeniable that a substantial portion of the US population is directly or indirectly affected by violence.  The numbers alone point to a larger, systemic problem that cannot be reduced to the individual motivations and actions of every instance of sexual violence.  Yet, there are many other social factors that contribute to making sexual violence a standard component of our social world, as well.

  • Myths and stereotypes: One barrier to acknowledging and addressing sexual violence and supporting victims of violence is the inaccurate, and sometimes offensive, “information” that pervades our culture regarding gender, sex, sexuality, and violence.  Sexual violence myths include assuming all victims are women, attacked by a lone stranger (a man) in a ski mask lurking in the bushes.  But, stereotypes outside of sexual violence also contribute to a false understanding of sexual violence: men with uncontrollable sexual appetites (“they can’t help themselves“), women who have or should have little interest in sex, strong and aggressive men and weak and passive women, LGBT people as sexual aggressors, etc.
  • Exclusive focus on victims: Even in prevention advocacy and research, we place so much attention on survivors of violence — who are they, what happened to them, how many are there.  Despite extreme underreporting of sexual violence because of stereotypes, the feeling that no one will believe you, fear of retaliation by one’s attacker, and so forth, we have some sense of the demographics of survivors of violence.  But, we know little about perpetrators of sexual violence, with most information coming from reports about those who have been convicted of sexual violence.  One important fact, surprising to some, is that most perpetrators of sexual violence are not men lurking in bushes at night, nor are they otherwise innocent men who got carried away once in sexual activity; perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders (of both sexual violence and non-sexual crimes) and often know the person they attack.
  • Misplaced responsibility: Too often, potential and past victims of sexual violence are burdened with the responsibility for such violence and any efforts to prevent violence.  We, as a society, generally fail to place such responsibility on the perpetrators of sexual violence.  And, when we do, we narrowly focus on them, while ignoring others’ responsibilities to prevent sexual violence and to support survivors.  Many advocates and researchers are beginning to promote the notion of bystander intervention, which calls upon others who witness violence to intervene.  And, while we must push to never see another case where bystanders stand idly by as someone is attacked, our efforts to encourage bystander intervention also include promoting ways to change the culture that condones sexual violence: challenging gender stereotypes and gender socialization in general; teaching about sexual violence; teaching about sexual violence as expressions of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, xenophobia, ableism, and so on.
  • Exclusive focus on gender: Another barrier to comprehensively understanding sexual violence is focusing exclusively on the role of gender: men rape women.  What is missing from this narrow analysis, besides overlooking male survivors of violence, is attention to the ways that sexual violence intersects with race and ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, class, body size and shape, age, nativity, and ability.  Attending to these systems of oppression does not mean only documenting demographic characteristics of the survivors and perpetrators of violence.  It also means assessing how sexual violence may operate as manifestations of these systems of power, for sexual violence itself is an expression of power over another person.  For example, in many countries, lesbian, bisexual, and queer women are raped by men in an effort to “cure” them of their sexual orientation.
  • Ignoring the role of society: Given the pervasive problem of sexual violence in society, many advocates and academics have argued for thinking about sexual violence more broadly.  As noted above, we too often lay blame on individuals, especially survivors of violence, while ignoring the roles that communities, social institutions, and culture play.  Some have pointed out that we live in a culture that normalizes sexual violence — we live in a “rape culture.”  Various institutions, like colleges, the military, and the medical system, are implicated in their failure to prevent sexual violence, support survivors of violence, and punish perpetrators of violence.  Some have argued that these institutions are structured in ways that make sexual violence invisible and potentially even promote violence.

Indeed, given the complexity and multiple layers and dimensions of the problem of sexual violence, it seems like a tall task to take on.  But, in order to protect everyone from sexual violence and to support survivors of violence, we must address every aspect of the problem.  We can no longer leave the responsibility to prevent sexual violence exclusively in the hands of potential and past victims of violence.

The Importance Of Representation: Voice, Visibility, And Validation In America

For one obvious reason, disadvantaged groups are often called “minorities” — the groups are smaller in size than another group.  In this sense, people of color (or racial and ethnic minorities) and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (or sexual minorities) are numerical minorities.  However, these groups, as well as women, are also minorities by virtue of having less power in society than their majority counterparts: whites, heterosexuals, and men.  Unfortunately, this latter point is often forgotten; look, for example, at the hope that racial equality will be realized once people of color outnumber whites in the US.  Indeed, the history of Apartheid in South Africa serves as evidence that a group’s minority status in terms of power is not the mere product of being a numerical minority.

Minority Status: The Roles Of Size And Power

The size of a minority group is an important component that plays a role in shaping the experiences of minority group members.  In particular, by virtue being a member of a smaller group, minority group members theoretically have a lower chance of seeing other minority group members across various contexts.  Whereas non-Hispanic whites make up two-thirds of the US population, white people have the greatest chance of any racial or ethnic group of seeing other white individuals at work, the grocery store, church, on the street, at the doctor’s office, and so forth.  In these terms, women and men have roughly the same chance of seeing other women and men, respectively.

However, the unequal allocation of power, resources, and opportunities also plays a role in shaping minority and majority group members’ experiences.  In terms of gender, despite slightly outnumbering men in the US, women are often underrepresented in many contexts.  Take as a very important example the US Congress: there are 76 congress women in the US House of Representatives (compared to 362 men), and 17 in the US Senate (compared to 83 men).  Do the math.  Women make up roughly 50 percent of the US population, yet only 17 percent of congresspeople are women!  Though 10 percent of congresspeople in the House are Black, not a single member of the US Senate is Black.  Indeed, other factors play roles in the outcomes of elections, including — I add emphatically — prejudice and discrimination.  But, it is safe to say that something other than a numbers game is at play when there is such a stark underrepresentation of women and people of color in one of the most important institutions in this country.

Representation: Why Group Composition Matters

There are a host of reasons why the extent to which a subgroup is represented matters.  Continuing with the example of the gender and racial and ethnic composition of the US Congress, it is important to note that the House and Senate, with their underrepresentation of women and people of color, is making important decisions that impact the lives of every person in the US.  So, two groups that consists primarily of white middle-class heterosexual men — many whom are only interested in the needs and desires of other white wealthy heterosexual men — are making decisions right at this moment on behalf of people of color, working-class and poor people, LGBT people, women, and other disadvantaged groups.  In fact, the leadership of every organization and institution in the US — most which are also dominated by white heterosexual middle-class men — is making decisions as I write this post that impacts the lives of every person of every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class-standing.  Indeed, the decisions these individuals are making has great influence in guaranteeing that the next generation of leaders will also be white middle-class heterosexual men.

So, in a big way, what a group produces is shaped by the composition of the group.  Since individuals can only truly speak from their own experiences, the contributions of women and people of color systematically excluded from important decision-making processes.  But, the composition of a group also shapes the interactions among the groups’ members.  For example, a recent study on the gender composition of small groups found that the presence of fewer women is associated with less contribution from women group members:

When voting by majority decision, women deferred speaking if outnumbered by men in a group.  However, when voting unanimously, the researchers found that women were much more vocal , suggesting that consensus building was empowering for outnumbered women. The researchers also found that groups arrived at different decisions when women did participate. These findings, however, are not simply limited to business settings.

In this case, when women are underrepresented in a group, especially where reaching a consensus is the primary goal of the group, they are less likely to contribute to group decision-making.  And, the group loses out on what could be a unique contribution and voice not offered by male group members.  Because so many important, powerful groups include few or no women, the contribution of women is systematically excluded in important decision-making.  I would say the most shameful of these exclusions is the absence of women in important conversations about women’s health (e.g., contraception for women!).

Unfortunately, it seems that the challenges that arise from being a member of a minority group are sometimes exacerbated when one is also in the numerical minority in a group.  I would suggest one factor that contributes to women’s underparticipation in groups that are dominated by men is the stress associated with being the token woman. Social scientists, including professors Cate Taylor , Pamela Braboy Jackson, and Peggy Thoits, in Sociology at Indiana University, have examined the stressfulness (and resultant problems for health) of being “the only X” or token in groups and organizations that are heavily white and/or male.  The uneasiness one may experience as the token woman, token Latino person, or token lesbian, can contain so many different concerns and feelings, ranging from the discomfort of always being evaluated as a woman, Latina, or lesbian, to the discomfort of feeling that one is perceived as speaking on behalf of their entire group, to feeling that one has to contribute the perspective of a member of one’s group.  I can think of many discussions where I have been overwhelmed by anxiety that stemmed from being the only person of color or queer person present or, more often, from feeling the urgent need to interject that the group has systematically overlooked the importance of race, sexuality, and/or gender.

Seeing Yourself

The importance of representation extends beyond small groups and decision-making processes.  The visibility of minorities in the media is an extremely important arena of representation, one that has been extensively studied and debated.  For example, each year the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) analyzes the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in film and television each year.  The positive portrayal of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, same-gender couples, interracial couples, working-class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so on is crucial so that people are aware of diversity, but also appreciate and celebrate that diversity.

Specifically for the members of minority groups, seeing oneself reflected in the media is crucial, particularly in the face of prejudice, discrimination, and the constant barrage of invalidating comments and actions.  In fact, there was a recent study featured in the media this summer that finds evidence of a self-esteem boosting effect of television for white boys, but self-esteem damaging effects for white girls, black girls, and black boys.  One primary reason?  White boys see lots of white boys and men in the shows they watch.  And, not just that, but they regularly see these characters and actors in positive, powerful, and central roles.  This is less so the case for other kids.

Though less frequent for members of minority groups, to see a face or body that looks like your own is powerful in its effect to simply validate you as a worthy human being.  I can think of the range of emotions I saw or heard about in people of color, especially Black Americans, when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008.  Some had tears streaming down their faces simply because they were overwhelmed with joy, hope, and likely some sense of relief.  I am not ashamed to admit that I get this feeling in terms of race and ethnicity in the media, but also sexuality.  To not only see LGBT people on my television screen — again, I emphasize positive portrayals — but to see them loved by others, or in love, is sometimes emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me.  I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm and, as a result, their presence is treated as the default.

Though things have changed, and are continuing to change, there is still much work to be done until we stop seeing systematic underrepresentation and hearing about “the First African-American X” or “the First Woman to Y.”

The Concept of Double Jeopardy: A Look At The Lives Of Multiply Disadvantaged Individuals

Black Feminism Symbol

To my surprise, I came across an article posted on Huffington Post yesterday that mentions “double jeopardy” — here, in the academic sense.  The article reviews a study published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found that leaders of unsuccessful companies in a fictitious news story were more harshly criticized when they were Black women.  That is, Black women faced more penalties (in this case, criticism) than Black men, white women, and white men:

In a study conducted by Rosette and Livingston, 228 participants read fictitious news articles about a company’s performance, including permutations in which the leader was black or white, male or female and successful or unsuccessful. What they found was that black women who failed were viewed more critically than their underperforming white or male counterparts — even those of the same race.

What Is “Double Jeopardy”?

I say, “to my surprise,” because a quick search for “double jeopardy” on Google yields site after site about the movie, Double Jeopardy, featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd; a search on Wikipedia also yields a page about the film, as well as a few pages about the legal concept of double jeopardy.  Ironically, the legal meaning of double jeopardy, in which a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime, somewhat counters the academic meaning of the term.  In this sense, double jeopardy refers to the additional barriers and burdens faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses (e.g., Black women) compared to their singly disadvantaged (e.g., white women and Black men) and privileged counterparts (e.g., white men).

As early as the late 1960s, the term double jeopardy came into use to highlight the unique experiences of Black women, particularly their simultaneous exposure to racism and sexism (and classism). As the second wave feminist movement made progress through the 1960s and 1970s for women’s rights, calls from Black, Chicana, and multicultural feminists, lesbian feminists, and other women who faced other forms of oppression other than sexism to attend to the diverse needs and experiences among women grew louder.  Various feminist activists and scholars worked intensely to draw attention to the fact that the category of “woman” and all of its associated experiences and obstacles is not universal; many advocated for a perspective that considers the intersections among sexism, racism, and classism.

Double Jeopardy Versus Intersectionality

Over time, awareness of the full array of systems of oppression that operate simultaneously has evolved to include heterosexism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, xenophobia, and so forth.  Obviously, one can be disadvantaged in multiple ways or face “multiple jeopardy,” for example, as a lesbian, woman, Latina, and working-class person.   In fact, in my own research, I have found just that: among 15-25 year olds, the more disadvantaged statuses an adolescent or young adult holds (among race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class), the more forms of discrimination one faces (e.g., race and gender and sexual orientation discrimination).  And, as a result, these multiply disadvantaged individuals face double or multiple jeopardy in mental and physical health; that is, partially because of their disproportionate exposure to discrimination, they face even more depressive symptoms and worse physical health than more privileged youth.

While the notion of multiple jeopardies — almost easily counted based on the number of disadvantaged statuses one holds — is still used in some research, especially in sociological work on health, it has fallen out of favor among scholars who study the intersections among race, gender, and class.  This is, in part, because the idea of adding up one’s statuses, essentially adding one’s exposure to sexism to one’s exposure to racism and so on, misses the ways in which these identities and systems of oppression intersect.  Or, said another way, racism + sexism + classism misses how one experiences the world as a working-class Black woman, an experience that is not merely the sum of working-class experiences + Black experiences + woman experiences.  These systems of oppression intersect and mutually reinforce one another in such a way, for example, that homophobic policies like the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy harm Black women more than any other group.

Should We Do Away With Double Jeopardy?

Well, if we meant the literal experience of multiple systems of oppression — yes, we should do away with it.  But, what I mean here is, if it seems the notion of “double jeopardy” misses the ways in which systems of oppression intersect, should we stop using it in the way that we understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals?  Having used the concept in past and current research, it might seem I have a vested interest in calling for the continued use of the concept.

Like any good researcher, I would say the appropriateness, relevance, and usefulness of the concept depends on your research question.  In health research, documenting whether multiply disadvantaged groups are at elevated risk for illness and disease necessarily calls for a comparison with singly disadvantaged and privileged groups.  For example, lesbian and bisexual women’s elevated risk for obesity is identified by comparing them to heterosexual women, gay and bisexual men, and heterosexual men.  But, what causes that elevated risk — factors brought on or exacerbated by sexism and heterosexism — can be said to be evidence of double jeopardy (sexism + heterosexism) and intersectionality (the intersection of sexism and heterosexism).

As such, in general, I would recommend that we need both perspectives — multiple jeopardy and intersectionality — to fully understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals and their more privileged counterparts.  Even if you use only one of these two perspectives, you are contributing to what little we know about the lives and experiences of, and challenges faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses.