Review of Fat Gay Men by Jason Whitesel

While we expect marginalized peoples to band together towards a common fight for universal liberties as a result of their shared stigmatizations, minorities are often splintered further as people embody multiple “deviant” identities. In this way, those who are both African American and asexual, lower class and lesbian, or Muslim and paraplegic confront ostracism not only from their race, class, and religion, but also from their sexual and disabled peers. As Jason Whitesel exposes in Fat Gay Men, the same can be said for homosexual men, facing heteronormative isolation, who are fat, confronting more stigma still within the gay community

In fact, America’s preoccupation with weight as a measure of worth, sexuality, and capability is so pervasive that overweight, gay men created a niche community separate from their skinny gay counterparts in pursuit of much-desired comfort, sexual freedom, resignification, and normalcy. Jason Whitesel analyzes, through his own personal research, discussed in Fat Gay Men, how society injures big, gay men and, in turn, how they respond to their isolation. More importantly, however, Whitesel observes and comments on how the “Girth and Mirthers”, members of the fat gay society he studies, redefine what it means to be chubby and homosexual to reflect value as opposed to worthlessness.

Whitesel, who also identifies as gay (but thin), is a sociologist who earned his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 2009. Now, while writing to incite intersectional interventions that expose the multiple layers of stigma existent in American society, he works as an Assistant Professor at Pace University. His work as an LGBTQ educator has earned him status as 2016’s LGBTQA Educator of the Year, for his tireless devotion to guiding students’ introspective analyses of their own privileges and powers relative to others has sparked change in the minds of our youth. Through Fat Gay Men, Whitesel extends his instruction to the general public, working to undermine the conventional wisdoms equating fat with disease and homosexuality with deviancy.

Before delving into the research Whitesel conducted, he finds it essential to discuss his methodology. Unlike a controlled scientific experiment, in which a researcher manipulates an independent variable and controls for all others in an effort to draw conclusions about the effects of a treatment on a test subject, Whitesel conducts an observational, ethnographic analysis of a society he becomes a part of. Not only does he study the Girth and Mirthers, as they are so affectionately and proudly named, he becomes a “dues-paying member” serving “functional roles” for the group, all the while divulging his researcher status to fellow members (Whitesel 4). As a result, his dual role as participator and investigator allowed him entry into many private lives, earned him companionship and friendship, and thus shaped the nature of his findings; he listened and empathized with honest confessions of hardship and shame, donning both his researcher and friend caps simultaneously.

Once Whitesel commits himself to his readers as both an objective observer and loyal confidante to the Girth and Mirther community, he sets the stage for the direction of the rest of the study. With conviction and transparency, Whitesel promises to “lend legitimacy” to the Girth and Mirth culture placing fat studies in direct communication with disability and sexuality studies over the course of his analysis (5). For, it is the intersectional nature of the various stigmas attributed to fat gay men that drove his study in the first place. Then he sections the feast of knowledge accumulated over the course of his three-year immersion into the fat gay community into five, bite-sized chunks and delves into each chapter in turn.

First, Whitesel defines the term Girth and Mirth, which will be discussed at great length throughout the study. The name in and of itself attempts to reconfigure the shame productive power dynamics produce within fat gay subjects; in laymen’s terms, the phrase means fat and happy–two ideas heteronormative persons rarely join hand in hand. Thus, the fat gay men who join together under the Girth and Mirth umbrella seek or already identify with the sentiment of happiness not always in spite of, but often as a result of, their weights. Why? The Girth and Mirth society provides large homosexual men with a make-shift kin, complete with coffee-groups, pot-luck dinners, and life-long friendships that help these doubly marginalized men confront and alleviate shame. Moreover, the group “draws big gay men out of social isolation” through multiple community-based activities, offering the men a sense of membership and inclusion they never experienced before (Whitesel, 10). Through testimonials, Whitesel supports the above claims with evidence that, indeed, the Girth and Mirth community provides members with sanctuary, society, and family—three facets of social interaction essential to human survival and prosperity.

Next Whitesel backtracks, discussing the various injustices dealt to the big gay men who ultimately seek the Girth and Mirth membership discussed in the previous chapter, ranging from desexualization and dehumanization to “marginalization and shame” (29). In the same ethnographic style as before, Whitesel employs testimonials to provide evidence for the institutionalized discrimination against fat gay men. Some of the systemic wrong-doings include denying health care to overweight, gay patients and, in a Pretty Woman-esque scenario, denying service to overweight, gay customers. For example, one man describes walking into a retail store and failing to flag down a sale’s rep. Despite his efforts, he appeared “invisible” to the salesmen, for fat is often equated with sloppy and poor; how could a man with such disregard for his appearance afford much less desire a crisp, clean suit (Whitesel, 30). Only when dressed in business attire did this large man receive the service he deserved. In this way, Whitesel not only frames the plight of fat gay men, but he illustrates it in such visceral detail his readers are left cringing with embarrassment as they empathize with the overweight customer.

Nonethelesss, Whitesel notes how this sort of fat-profiling often causes more pain when the source is a member of the gay community. For, when gay, fat men seek refuge from the discrimination they face from heteronormative society on the basis of their sexuality, the majority of gay men turn them away, only seeing “‘a bunch of big guys’” (Whitesel, 35). This experience of feeling fat and simultaneously unattractive is one heterosexual women have grappled with for decades. However, Whitesel notes once more how fat, gay men cannot commiserate and work through their shame with heterosexual female counterparts on account of their sexual deviancies. Thus, Whitesel structures the true plight of two-fold marginalization that inevitably relegates fat, gay men to the furthest outskirts of society, and forces readers to understand how and why the Girth and Mirth community came to be.

Over the course of the next two chapters, Whitesel compares and contrasts two national Girth and Mirth events not only in their structure, but in their methods of resignifying fat, gay shame. Every year, fellow Girth and Mirthers look forward to two fat, gay holidays: the Super Weekend and Convergence, with the former occurring in July and the latter over Labor Day weekend. While the Super Weekend is known for its “campy queer” events, which depend on sexual absurdity and perversion to re-establish fat, homosexual men as attractive, Convergence relies on organized programming dedicated to the imitation of “high class” so as to “raise their own status” (Whitesel, 93). In this manner, both events share the same goal: to redefine what it means to be fat and gay. However, the events tend to attract slightly different demographics due to the different methods they employ to achieve a higher social status. While Super Weekend guests partake in casual sexual encounters and perverse sexual performances, Convergence attendees work within the framework of heteronormative society, visiting museums and sculpture gardens in order to emulate skinny, straight peers. Thus, Whitesel’s experiences at both conventions were quite different, but the sentiment he observed and reported upon was the same: an overall desire for inclusion, value, and sexual validity.

Finally, Whitesel discusses alternative methods for coping with shame. Thus far, he discussed how many choose to perform their bodies while others seek status through emulation of the elite, but still others manage their personal shame discourses simply by “weathering” the storm (Whitesel, 111). As Whitesel notes, many fat, gay men meet with their local Girth and Mirth chapters and engage in family-style dinners to escape the ostracism they would otherwise face alone in public. Others choose to confront their shame, with one man submitting nude photos of himself to a magazine in order to deconstruct his body discomfort and replace it with body appreciation (Whitesel, 112). This narrative is important as it acknowledges the tendency of many fat gay men to have a second “coming out”—as fat (Whitesel, 111) .

Those who read Fat, Gay Men will note how Whitesel adequately places his own findings in conversation with other established authors and academics in fat studies, sexuality studies, and disability studies. For example, in Chapter 1, Whitesel not only puts Erving Goffman, an academic expert in stigma, and Eriche Goode, a sociologist specializing in social deviance, in conversation with himself, but in conversation with each other. He demonstrates how Goode’s comment on the tendency of “normals” to “focus on a negative trait” directly plays into Goffman’s concept of “nonperson treatment”, which describes the tendency for heteronormative folk to treat stigmatized people as though they do not exist (Whitesel, 31). Then, he relates both concepts to the experience of the Girth and Mirther who is refused service at a retail store as a direct consequence of his size and appearance, connecting key concepts of disability studies, as obese folk are deemed incapable and undesirable, with fat studies.

Nonetheless, Whitesel’s study design carries a key flaw: his role as an honest researcher and disguised participant switched throughout the three-year investigation. While Whitesel was open with his local Girth and Mirth chapter and attendants at Convergence of his status as a researcher, he concealed that valuable information from participants at the Super Weekend, which may have changed the nature of his conversations with various fat, gay men. For example, while Super Weekenders might have felt comfortable engaging in sexual play with Whitesel, assuming he was one of their own, Convergence attendees might have engaged in more reserved interactions with Whitesel for fear of judgement and perpetuation of the shame discourse that propelled them towards the Girth and Mirthers in the first place. The nature of power dynamics is such that we inherently act differently towards members of authority than others within our own class. Thus, it is entirely possible Whitesel’s encounters with fat, gay men at Convergence were skewed, such that he only saw their efforts to achieve sophisticated class while casual, campy interactions were occurring behind the scenes. Standardization of Whitesel’s behavior may be deemed necessary in order for his findings to merit validity.

Despite his design flaws, Whitesel’s commitment to the Girth and Mirth community over the course of three years merits his findings, in Fat Gay Men, praise, for he engaged with these men for an extended period of time, developing relationships with a few and interacting on a personal level with many. The use of Girth and Mirther testimonials to engage fat studies with sexuality and disability studies was a powerful choice that inherently evokes empathy in Whitesel’s readers, despite their background; while some readers may not be gay, they might identify with weight struggles and the pursuit of an unrealistic skinny goal perpetuated by American media. In this way, Whitesel’s book serves beginners in the fat studies and sexuality studies realms, for his clear, conversational speak welcomes all readers, effectively opening the door to changing dominant heteronormative ideologies. Thus, Whitesel’s piece inherently promotes change, if not in one’s treatment towards marginalized peoples, at least in their understanding of intersectional stigmatization. This newfound understanding serves many as an ideological stepping stone towards altering the productive discourses of shame that have ruled American society into the present, deconstructing the monolith regarding homosexuality as deviant and fat as worthless.

Works Cited

Whitesel, Jason. Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma. New York:        NYU Press, 2014. Print.

The Color of Wealth

In December 2013, Barack Obama declared that inequality is “the defining issue of our time” (Sargent 1). President Obama condemned national decline in economic mobility as a direct consequence of inequality, rather than lack of mobility itself.

In April 2014, Thomas Piketty released Capital in the 21st Century, a six-hundred-page tome offering a general theory of capitalism. His theory proffered that capitalism will inevitably lead to ever-widening income inequality in the 21st century as it did in 19th century Europe. This rising inequality, Piketty argued, can only be addressed by immediate, heavy taxes on accumulated wealth.

Two months later, as Hillary Clinton traveled Europe promoting her memoir, Hard Choices, she agreed with Piketty, stating that “we have unbalanced our economy too much towards favoring capital and away from labor” (Haberman 1).

Even Pope Francis gave his input, adding a religious facet to inequality in a tweet in April 2014, “Inequality is the root of social evil” (Green 1). We must reject “the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation” or we will never find “a solution for the world’s problems, or for that matter, to any problems” (1).

Before I begin, I must admit that this particular book review pushed me to challenge my personal biases with pure, tangible, economic reasoning, and to engage in active introspection, to identify why I resist arguments against my racial privilege. I am white, male, and what economists term ‘economically disadvantaged.’ I grew up watching my mother forego haircuts or lunch for months at a time to provide my sisters and I with certain opportunities or a better meal. We had little money to spend on tutors or trainers or club fees, and each academic, athletic, and social progressive step we took was hard won. Thus, I grew up hard and proud in my labor, and in the power of discipline and focus and determination. I don’t feel privileged or lucky. Yet the undisputable reality is that despite my social class, my discipline, focus, and determination had such potential because of the color of my skin.

The Color of Wealth lays bare a dirty secret in terms the layman can understand: for the last two centuries, Americans of color have been barred by laws and discrimination from government wealth-building programs that benefit white Americans. Government policy and practice have been the driving force for racial wealth disparity in the United States since the country’s birth. Leveraging the collective histories of Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and White Americans with pure economic diction and calculation, the book shows how exploitation of people of color and programs providing resources to whites systematically established a United States in which wealth is controlled by the white majority.

The Color of Wealth is a collaboration among five women, all members of United for a Fair Economy (UFE), a non-partisan organization dedicated to challenging the concentration of wealth and power that corrupts democracy, deepens the racial divide and tears communities apart. Meizhu Lui is the executive director for UFE and has focused much of her work towards equality in Boston. Rose Brewer is a professor of African-American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, with a Ph.D. from Indiana University. Barbara Robles received her Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Maryland, and writes frequently about Latino/a entrepreneurship, educational attainment, and consumer patterns. Betsey Leondar-Wright is UFE’s communications director and a long-time economic justice organizer and researcher. Lastly, Rebecca Adamson is founder and president of First Nation’s Development Institute and founder of First People’s Worldwide, lending her voice and experiences as a Cherokee.

Our authors tactfully broach the mammoth topic of the racial divide of held wealth with some simple economics. Government policies aimed to improve the end-distribution outcome for dis-enfranchised individuals do little to provide equal opportunity or even open the door to access a different mode of life. The key term is wealth, specifically financial wealth. Wealth is defined as economic assets, including real estate, cars, cash, stocks, pension, businesses, and anything else that can be readily converted to cash. “Income feeds your stomachs, but assets changes your head” (8). That is, individuals act differently when they have a cushion of assets to strategize around important opportunities in life. When an individual must live from paycheck-to-paycheck, they are forced to think about how they’ll make the next day. But when an individual has a set of resources that allows them to think about their future in a positive way, they can strategize about the future, create and take advantage of opportunity. From the outset, the inductive reasoning is simple and relatable, yet with powerful implications.

The Color of Wealth then offers a brief lay-man’s history of household, American historical events and policies that contributed to enormous racial divide. Ranging from government regulations ranging from the 1849 California Gold Rush to Operation Bootstrap and American-Japanese treatment in the 1950’s. In addition, over the last fifty years, the American economy has trended towards providing huge returns on held wealth– disproportionate to returns on income. Thus, the rich get richer at a far greater rate than the poor gain wealth. Our authors argue that government policies, rather than systemized racism among the populace, played the largest role in the intense racial divide. The economy is not Adam Smith’s invisible hand that operates by its own natural laws. It’s a human creation that embodies racial power differences, both caused by and causing discriminatory government policies and individual interactions. By making full restitution to marginalized groups, both whites and people of color will benefit. They argue: “By making a distinction between modest transformative assets and huge fortunes swollen by exploitation even the firmest critics of capitalism can get behind the goal of asset building for all” (29). This formulate listing of government policies designed to repress people of color offers a powerful and humbling series for one like myself, who has studied each of these events in a white classroom, rather than one that considers the marginalization. Their breadth and applicability of their argumentation positions them in the end-distribution arguments of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, contending that a balance of end-distribution (income affecting) policies with policies that offer opportunity can only change the United States’ racial divide—not just one or the other.

Our authors then launch into an analysis of the history of government obstacles to asset building for Native-American, African-American, Latino, and Asian-American people, and then of government boosts to asset building for white people. One of their most powerful examples considers the enslavement of African-Americans, and the enormous benefits of African-American dis-enfranchisement to the rise of America as a super power. Without slave labor, our authors argue, it is unlikely there would have been a successful textile industry. The business profits made off of enslavement were thereby transmitted across generations. Building those great industries on the back of slave labor certainly opened up a space for the incorporation of the white working class, and ultimately the building of the white middle class, followed by a white elite. So whether you were an owner of slaves or not, the process of building this country under conditions of racism and white supremacy opened up a space for all whites—a space ultimately denied to people of color.

So what can we do to close the racial gap? Our authors tell us. The immediate focus ought to be on education. Education has been an important tool in creating white advantage. “It was a crime to teach African slaves to read and write; Latinos have been disadvantaged by English-only classrooms; Native Americans were forced to assimilationist school settings and Asians had to sue to go to school with the whites” (293). [Truly] free public universities will result in a well-educated populace—the very cornerstone of democracy. Subsidized and readily available English classes will allow non-English immigrants enormous upward mobility.

The federal government, too, ought to use public resources to create “wealth-builder starter kits” for marginalized groups (300). These policies fall under four strategies: asset accumulation, asset leveraging policies, asset creation, and asset preservation. Universal will healthcare protects income and assets, as even just one uninsured health issue can wipe out several years of saving.

The Color of Wealth proposes small “trust funds” or “baby bonds” for each new born, where taxes from the wealthy match yearly contributions made by parents, to be available for withdrawal when the child reaches age eighteen. These funds will provide social and financial opportunities for young adults, eager to advance realize their life’s goals. However, social and fiscal capital will not facilitate this realization. The United States needs an “activist government” that invests in people and communities from the bottom up” (306). Trickle-down economics does not work. For example, at the rate of improvement in black income compared to white income, it would take 581 years to reach parity (308). Each of these structures and mechanisms should be paid for via progressive taxation, where those with greater income are taxed at higher rates than those with less financial means. Yet, they write, each of these efforts is ultimately futile unless America takes a step forward in changing public consciousness and recognize that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is not a law of nature, but a man-made choice (312).

The weakest facet of the unifying argument The Color of Wealth’s authors provide is contained in the last chapter, as they present a paradigm on which rests their proposed policy changes. The paradigm is explained via a quote by W.E.B. Dubois, “To be a poor man is hard. But to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardship” (288). Our authors boldly claim that the “economic and social problems in our society today are not caused by poverty per se” but by the “growing inequality between the have-too-muches and the do-not-haves” (300). Thus, their preference would be to systematize poverty rather than increase mobility through the presence of inequality.

Our authors provide an example: “But if your little dinghy is stuck in the mud and Queen Elizabeth comes sailing by and will not stop to give you a lift, then your situation becomes unbearable” (288). Yet this logic seems flawed. The mere fact that ‘Queen Elizabeth’ chooses not to help us is not inherently unjust—in fact, we benefit from her tech companies’ research and advances and her medical research and new cures. Our situation becomes unjust if Queen Elizabeth uses her capital to keep us stuck in the mud, and manipulates the macro-weapons of American politics and the American media to her own advantage.

Thomas Piketty’s theory follows identical reasoning, with a proposed progressive tax on wealth of five to ten percent for billionaires, two percent for people worth five million Euros or more, and one percent for millionaires; on top of a marginal, confiscatory tax rate of 80%. “If one follows Piketty in assuming a normal return on capital of 4% for the 21st century, a 10% tax on wealth is equivalent to a 250% tax on the resulting capital income. Combined with the 80% income tax, taxpayers would face effective tax rates of up to 330%” (Homburg 1401). This is not surprising, since Piketty, like Lui, Robles, Brewer, Leondar-Wright, and Adamson, argue that the high return on capital in the United States “inextricably intertwines” with “outright theft” (Piketty 446). If we assume criminals face one hundred percent taxation of ill-gotten gains, his favored tax rates are not far off. Unfortunately, this would be next to impossible to uphold at a national level as the rich will inevitably switch to income in untaxable forms.

In addition, The Color of Wealth does not seem to account for the moral dilemma of behavioral economics, namely free-loading or human vice. For example, among the asset leveraging policies our authors advocate for, rotating savings and credit associations (ROCSA) play a vital role. ROCSAs provide funds to be utilized by immigrant households in order to start a small business, purchase a home, or pay for a child’s education. A ROCSA requires participants to pay in a monthly sum agreed upon by the group, to be available to participants to make a request to borrow of the month’s pool of money at any time, withdrawal-tax-and interest-free. This continues until all members have had access to the funds. “The system is based on trust and social pressure. Thus, if members do not return the money at some point, their reputation in the community is tainted, something they are not usually willing to risk” (301). A system based on trust and social pressure seems far too utopian. Immigrants from different religions and ethnicities inevitably stem from different cultures and customs with widely differing mores and social values. A central tenant of modern economics is that individuals will act in self-interest. Utilitarian judgements in sacrificial moral dilemmas do not reflect impartial concern for the greater good. Thomas Murray, in his 2012 Coming Apart, notes the rapid rise of consumer bankruptcies declared within the U.S. as a sign of changing stigmas—where the shame of being unable to repay debts, living outside of your means, or living off welfare no longer exists. Consumer bankruptcies now account for fully 97% of bankruptcies filed in the United States.

Closing the racial economic gap in the United States is not just about dividing the pie into fair shares. The Color of Wealth presents it well: American economy is not a zero-sum game, in which some must lose so that others win and society advances. True progress can only be achieved if we tap the innovative spirit and cultural contributions of people of color, as well as those with white skin. In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize address, Dr. Martin Luther King noted, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that now we have the techniques and resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will” (312). As the twenty-first century progresses, America can choose to increase her consciousness or stiffen her will. We must develop a shared understanding of the roots of the divisions, before we can understand how to overcome them. For me, that means putting aside bias and opening my mind to consider and join the fight for worlds outside my own.

 

Works Cited

 

Green, Emma. The Atlantic: “The Pope Tweeted That ‘Inequality is the Root of Social Evil’: Big

Deal?” 2014 April 29. Web. Accessed November 2016.

Haberman, Maggie. Politico: “Clinton: Piketty Right on Labor.” 2014 July 8. Web. Accessed

November 2016 2016.

Homburg, Stefan. Applied Economics: “Critical Remarks on Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-

            First Century.” Accessed November 2016.

Lui, Mezhui. The Color of Wealth. New York Press: New York, 2006. Print. Accessed

November 2016.

Krulick, Al. “Bankruptcy Statistics.” Debt.org. Web. Accessed November 2016.

Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the 21st Century. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014. Print. Accessed

November 2016.

Sargent, Greg. The Washington Post: “Inequality is ‘the defining issue of our time.’” 2013

December 4. Accessed November 2016.

Foucault and the Ottomans: A Review of Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, Before Homosexuality in the Arab Islamic World, 1500-1800

Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, Before Homosexuality in the Arab Islamic World 1500-1800, as a historical text, helps show how Foucauldian ideas about the construction of the subject, as it relates to sexuality and gender, existed within non-Western frameworks. As El-Rouayheb points out, Foucault argued that El-Rouayheb’s thesis is based on social constructivist ideas, in that he argues that “homosexuality”, as our modern, Western context constructs it, did not exist during the period studied in the book. Rather, many of the distinctions the current idea of “homosexuality” upholds as critical ran together, and, more importantly and saliently, the idea of “homosexuality” does not recognize or does not place the same amount of emphasis on many distinctions that existed in the Arab-Islamic world from 1500-1800.

As presented in the introduction, El-Rouayheb’s methodology is that of a historian. He engages with other historians at times in the book, but the bulk of his evidence comes from his presentation and analysis of primary source texts from the time, most of which are from the culture itself, and which include poetry, legal sources and other writings of the time. El-Rouayheb acknowledges the limitations of his work; by focusing on analysis of written texts, his survey of Arab-Islamic “homosexuality” tends to focus on urban, male members of the educated elite in the Ottoman empire, a group that doesn’t cover all of the Arab-Islamic world of the time as El-Rouayheb notes. Still, his use of primary sources seems to counter many of the misperceptions about what is and was labeled homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic world from Western sources, both contemporary to the period and later.

However, El-Rouayheb seeks to employ the work of other historians, like Foucault, in order to produce a thesis and a lens through which to view his primary sources. In addition to referencing Foucault as a source for the intellectual framework upon which he constructs his thesis, El-Rouayheb also looks at the work of other historians of the Middle East, such as Bernard Lewis and Marshall Hodgson who write about the societal “acceptance” of “what Islamic law prohibits”, but draws distinctions between their conclusions and his own, highlighting the difference between sodomy (liwat) and love (El Rouayheb, 3). He also warns about trying to make broad conclusions about the state of a large region of the world with many varying opinions based on a handful of resources (8- Note: Unless otherwise specified, all citations come from El-Rouayheb). His exploration of the current field is not entirely dismissive; El-Rouayheb cites other authors, such as Arno Schmitt, Everett Rowson and Thomas Bauer, as finding similar conclusion as he himself draws (7-8).

His first chapter, entitled “Pederasts and Pathics”, is an overview of what kinds of relationships or sexual encounters occurred between men and boys at the time. While he does spend some time in the beginning of the chapter discussing penetration as an act of aggression and violence, the center of this chapter are relationships between adult men and boys.

His second chapter, called “Aesthetes”, addresses the phenomenon of love poetry directed towards youths by adult men, in order to highlight the important distinctions and nuances that seem to refute the idea that “homosexuality”, as we conceive of it, existed in Arab-Islamic world of the time. Key to El-Rouayheb’s argument in this chapter are the divisions this culture placed between an aesthetic appreciation of beauty, pining and chaste romantic love and the sin of liwat. Additionally, such divisions sometimes, though not always, lacked the gendered dimensions that a concept like “homosexuality” would necessitate. For example, El-Rouayheb notes that the beauty of women and boys was considered comparable, and expressed through the same sort of language (67). More broadly, love poetry, in El-Rouayheb’s analysis highlights the ways in which romantic and sexual attraction between men and boys not only existed, but was celebrated through praise of boys’ bodies and expressions of the man’s romantic longing for the beloved in this poetry.

Finally, the last chapter of El-Roauayheb’s book, called “Sodomites” focuses on the legal codes that existed at the time, and examines the varying opinions about sodomy across different legal schools of thought.

According to El-Rouayheb, while there were certainly sexual and romantic relationships between men and boys in the pre-modern period within the urban elite of the Arab-Islamic world, to call such behavior “homosexuality” is an oversimplification. The modern, Western concept of the “homosexual” as we understand it today did not exist. Distinctions existed within what we would call “homosexual” behavior existed in the Arab-Islamic world of 1500-1800 that do not exist in the modern West today, or were emphasized much more saliently in this time and place than they are in our modern, Western context. Most important of these was the difference between the penetrator and the penetrated, a distinction that is not as emphasized in a modern Western context.

The distinction between penetrator and penetrated is not a simple one. While the penetrated does seem closer to the modern, Western idea of the “homosexual”, both the penetrator and the penetrated seemed to have different places in society, which in some ways seem to exist as an undercurrent in our own modern society. In many ways, penetrating another person was a sign of everything masculine: dominance, manhood and victory. The rhetoric of penetrating another man was sometimes employed by authors as a way to assert their dominance in quarrels over one another, as El-Rouayheb points out in his first chapter. This is not to say, however, that acting as a penetrator with another man acquitted one of any social stigma tied with sex with another man.

The penetrated was, in many ways, closer to the social idea of the “homosexual” developed in the late 1800s in Europe and persisting into the twentieth century. Like “homosexuality”, the desire to be anally penetrated in the Arab-Islamic world was sometimes treated as an illness (ubnah) and conceptualized as such (19). While a term for “sodomy” does seem to exist in the Shari’a (or legal guidelines based on the Qu’ran and hadith) and is prohibited, this term seems to imply that the burden of sin of this practice is placed on the penetrated. It is also important in this context to emphasize another important feature of Arab-Islamic “pre-homosexuality’: the relationship between man and boy. El-Rouayheb points out that much of the behavior that we would deem nowadays as “homosexual” occurred between grown men, assumed to be acting as penetrator, and boys, assumed to be the penetrated. El-Rouayheb complicates this simplistic notion, noting that there’s no way to predict what kind of sexual behavior occurred between men and boys behind closed doors, but does emphasized that the underlying assumption of the society was, should sex occur between the two, the boy would act as the more “passive” partner, and that the rhetoric of romantic poetry written for boys by adult men in this context does place the “beloved” in a feminized and more submissive role than the adult man pursuing him.

However, penetrator and penetrated was not the only distinction that is key to an understanding of the ways in which relations between males in this context can’t simply be boiled down into a homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy. For example, he notes the importance of the difference of the chaste desire of most love poetry in contrast to sodomy, in the second chapter (89). Even beyond the important distinction of chaste romantic love vs. the perceived lust of sodomy, some of the sources of the time suggest that some men chose to write romantic love poetry for fictional beloveds, reinforcing the difference between thoughts and actions that make “homosexuality” a problematic term in this case (110-111).

Certain distinctions that we hold as clear, too, may be different in the differing cultural contexts. For example, in El-Rouayheb’s last chapter, he discusses how many legal schools considered sodomy between both unmarried men and women and between men and boys equal under law, and many lesser sexual acts between men and boys (such as intercrural sex or fondling) weren’t even near the same level of punishment as unmarried fornication between men and women (138).

Overall, El-Rouayheb’s book is thorough and is well-supported. He effectively applies the idea that sexuality, like gender, is constructed, and supports this claim using a wealth of primary source documents and fellow historians’ work. He notes the limitations of his work, and seeks to avoid making broad generalizations based on limited sources. Despite the limitations he notes in his work, he is able to make a good, well-rounded argument by using a diverse set of sources such as poetry, first-person accounts and legal documents in a way that notes the nuances across the Arab-Islamic world but also is able to extract key conclusions.  El-Rouayheb’s book is not perfect, however. El-Rouayheb argues that many of the distinctions, like penetrator/penetrated and romantic love/sodomy, were indicative of a lack of the concept of homosexuality in this concept, because these distinctions do not exist in our modern, Western context. I would argue, instead, that some of them do exist, but have served to more clearly define gender categories do exist in the modern, Western world. For example, in the film “Three to Infinity: Beyond Two Genders”, the idea of penetrator vs. penetrated is broached in relation to gay men in the West. Almost all of the men asked identified themselves as “tops” as opposed to “bottoms”, not because they thought it made them any less gay men, but because it solidified their more masculine role in the relationship. Similarly, modern Western society does seem to recognize a difference between romantic love and sexual desire, but tends to ascribe romantic love as a “feminine quality” rather than the more “masculine” desire to have sex. While drawing parallels between the Arab-Islamic pre-modern world and our modern Western context, El-Rouayheb does help situate the topic in relation to a modern, Western reader. While this comparison is not always perfect and can ignore nuance, it does help remind us of the cultural relativity of our own context, even when El-Rouayheb’s conclusions about the modern world are not always completely crystallized. Despite this caveat I would place on El-Rouayheb’s work, his work is an insightful addition in the academic area of gender and sexuality studies.

Redefining Sovereignty

The Erotics of Sovereignty by Mark Rifkin interprets native american writers by illustrating the clear impacts of heteronormative white society on indigenous ways of life. The constraints of white society are best shown through the interpersonal lives of native americans. By closely working with excerpts of writings by: Qwo-Li Driskill, Deborah Miranda, Greg Sarris and Chrystos — Mark Rifkin reveals the extent of native america suppression and explains one form of liberation from conservatism through homosexual erotica. Mark Rifkin explores the intersection of sexuality and controlling power.  

The Erotics of Sovereignty illuminates how white patriarchal society has systematically denigrated and infiltrated indigenous society. This monograph particularly focuses on erotica and intimacy as a lens that reveals the extent of suppression within native tribes. The Erotics of Sovereignty expresses empowerment, specifically of queer native american women, through pushing away  homophobic western society. The physicality of this monograph is all about taking back the sovereignty over one’s own body.  Mark Rifkin deconstructs the writings of Qwo-Li Driskill, Deborah Miranda, Greg Sarris and Chrystos to articulate different specific ways white society has infiltrated native society and identity. In the first chapter “the Somatics of Haunting: Embodied Peoplehood in Qwo-Li Driskill’s Walking with Ghosts” Mark Rifkin addresses how the Cherokee have dispelled non heterosexual couples and African Americans, who were former slaves, within their communities. These exclusionary actions were pressured by the American government, they were pressured to keep a pure blood line for continued government recognition. Governmental pressure to prove native heritage is an overarching theme that ties into Native American self identity. Within the last chapter Chrystos writes about trying to maintain her identity even in an urban white society. She shows some of the real social damages American society and government have caused. Also revealing some of this suppression is Deborah Miranda who focuses on the displacement in place because even though her people are still on their land, emotionally they have become disconnected with each other and the earth. Mark Rifkin explores Deborah Miranda’s expelling of white normative constructs in his second chapter  “Landscapes of Desire: Melancholy, Memory, and Fantasy in Deborah Miranda’s The Zen of La Llorona,”.  Mark Rifkin interprets her words about nature and homoerotic sexs as her way to combat the heteronormative society constructed during colonialism. In Mark Rifkin’s chapter “Genealogies of Indianness: The Errancies of Peoplehood in Greg Sarris’s Watermelon Night” he investigates how white governmental suppression has shaped modern native society, particularly the Pomos. Focusing on the constraints and violence that were brought by white American pressures. Mark Rikin’s view of those encapsulates how the laws and formation of society have effected there tribals people’s identities, mental states, protection for those who are vulnerable and their tribes connection with the earth. However, he also shows that by breaking the societal sexual boundary some native americans are able to feel empowered.

Mark Rifkin has a PHD from the university of Pennsylvania and is a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at University of Greensboro. He is well known for his books Manifesting America: The Imperial Construction of U.S. National Space, When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty, The Erotics of Sovereignty: Queer Native Writing in the Era of Self-Determination and other essays in the area of Native american suppression. Through Mark Rifkin’s extensive work in the intersective fields of gender and sexuality and native american culture, he has established the background to delve into complicated issues of identity and sexuality in The Erotics of Sovereignty.

Mark  Rifkin’s uses the words of Qwo-Li Driskill, Deborah Miranda, Greg Sarris and Chrystos in their personal accounts to support his concept of native american suppression. Excerpts from Walking with Ghosts, The Zen of La Llorona, Watermelon Nights, and Chrystos’s Poetry provide a structure for Mark Rifkin to drape his arguments upon. Also pulling from legal and state documents he is able to provide historical background in an introduction that grounded the true atrocities committed against native people.

One Clear strength of Mark Rifkin’s work is how he found different elements of native society to consider the extent of native suppression. Through the text of four native american writers his is able to add additional dimension to each of their writing styles and perspectives. Through deconstructing small portions of text at a time he is able to articulate and bring finesse to each of his arguments with grace. Even the organizational method of his monograph is well founded. By giving historical background and a thorough introduction Mark Rifkin’s is able to present his argument well, before even diving into the details of his analysis. Even stronger still is his premise for the book that holds the intersection between the interpersonal realm of sexuality and the external power realm of society. By framing personal with societal Mark Rikins is able to imbue The Erotics of Sovereignty with just how deeply white heterosexuality society has been ingrained in current native american lives, all the way down to the erotic itself. By intertwining the two he is able to show how native american women reclaiming their sexuality is a form in which they reclaim their power.

The only weakness that Mark Rifkin’s work holds is that some pieces of his argument are speculative. The inclusion of speculation in The Erotics of Sovereignty is because this monograph is at the forefront of exploring native american society through the lens of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Mark Rifkin has framed this exploration by looking into queer writers personal experiences of suppression. Though immaculately framed and structured there is a strong basis in metaphor and interpretation that goes along with the inclusion of the interpersonal.

Mark Rifkin brings to light the true severity of american laws and societal pressures. By working with the text of four queer native american writers, he is able to examine independence of native culture and sexuality. One element addressed in the introduction is the loss of land and continual violation of promises by the government around rights, even just reconnection, if these indigenous people. Because native americans have such strong ties to the earth it would be interesting to examining how conservative western society effects health and healing practices, especially in relation to women’s health. Honing in on native americans disconnect from the earth, I would be fascinated to understand other ways, beyond sexuality, that native americans have been able to reconnect with the earth and find interpersonal empowerment. Nature is more than aesthetic value, it is what sustains, heals and provides context for an indigenous way of life.

Work Cited

Rifkin, Mark. The Erotics of Sovereignty: Queer Native Writing in the Era of Self-determination. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2012. Print.

Breaking from the Confines of Normalization

“Never judge a book by its cover” – a seemingly simple phrase that surely every child has heard growing up, whether it is at school, at church, or at home.  This humble, concise phrase has taught children for decades that what is on the inside of a person is what truly matters, not what one sees in a person’s appearance.  However, this well-intentioned phrase is made up of multiple philosophical layers that address two parts of the self: the outer self and the inner self.  According to the common phrase, “Never judge a book by its cover,” only one of these entities of the self should be used as an indication of who one truly is; nevertheless, society also insists that individuals make the inner self known through changes in the body and one’s appearance.  In other words, according to society, the inner self is what truly matters, but this inner self can only be fully known and represented with changes to the outer self, or the physical body.  This idea of changing one’s body to represent the inner self is exactly what Cressida J. Heyes is challenging and objects to throughout her scholarly monograph Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, along with numerous other topics and ideas that relate to the body and one’s identity.  She discusses the idea that importance should not be placed on the body as a representation of one’s inner self and challenges these Western norms and expectations of appearance.

Plastic surgery is a perfect example of society’s normative culture that places emphasis on the body as an expression of the inner self.  More and more “average” individuals go under the knife every year in hopes of creating the outer self they have always imagined reflects how they truly feel on the inside and how they wish others to see them.  Heyes addresses this increasingly popular phenomenon of bodily changes in varied examples of cosmetic surgery, from discussing breast augmentations and nose jobs to forms of weight loss surgery.  She analyzes individuals’ desire for these surgeries and talks about how these desires for surgeries (and the surgeries themselves) are normalizing the process of identity representation or even transformation through changes to the outer self.  As the title of the book implies, Heyes places focus on breaking from the confines of normalization and suggests how individuals can change themselves in order to discover one’s authentic self while avoiding conforming to what society expects one to be.  She explores this idea by objecting to two main claims: the claim that the inner self has a “unique authenticity; that to know oneself… is to know the nature of this individual” (3), and second, the claim that the authentic self “must be made visible through changes to the body” (4).  She is objecting to society’s expectations that one’s true self must be made known through physical appearance, especially because the Western world has expectations of how the body should appear, placing emphasis on changing the “flaws” of the body so that one can express one’s true and “flawless” self, which is in itself conforming to society’s expectations of perfection.  In discussion of these expectations, Heyes discusses the technologies that are now available that give individuals access to processes that will change the body in order to supposedly bridge the gap between one’s inner self and outer self, such as plastic surgery, but also mentions the complexities of these ideas in procedures such sexual reassignment surgeries.  She questions where the line exists between necessary medical intervention that is needed to restore normal function and bodily enhancement that is aimed at making the individual closer to perfection and beyond normal capacities.  In arguing that one should resist society’s emphasis on the body as a reflection of one’s authentic self, Heyes insists that docility must be resisted, and frequently employs the use of “docile bodies” in her objections to conformity and in her support of breaking out of the confines of normalization and into the liberation of freedom.  The overall aim of the book, which Heyes states in the introduction, is to “recognize the moments of truth in such assessments, while offering a framework for ethics, in which not moral judgment but askeses of freedom are the primary goal of analysis” (8), with askesis being defined as a Foucauldian term referring to the “forms of care of the self that underwrite our art of living” (8).  The “assessments” she refers to in this context are evaluating the body as an expression of an inner self.

In order to demonstrate her credibility and both academic and personal experience which give her valid insight into these philosophical ideas, Heyes explains her world travels, research, and academic experience which lead her to write the book in her acknowledgements section prior to the introduction.  She explains how her education attained at Oxford University (where she obtained her undergraduate degree) and McGill University (where she earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy), along with her experience as Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Alberta and travels around the world, have allowed her to see the issues she discusses from numerous perspectives, thus allowing her to come to a educated and valid conclusion herself about such matters.  The book is only one among many books she has published, along with numerous journal articles, book chapters, and reviews she has published both before this book and since then.

In order to incorporate this experience throughout the book and to more effectively provide her own insight into the arguments of other scholars and experiences, Heyes uses the first person perspective.  She specifically addresses this method in her introduction, stating that her “ethical commitment to situating the author as a partial, prejudiced, and invested theorist” is the motivation behind why she wrote the book “self-consciously” in the first person (13).  She discusses how she includes her own personal experiences and personal disclosure about her own embodied identity, despite its possible contradictory effects.  Heyes explains how publicly displaying personal experience can invite other individuals’ critique or disappointment, but she is willing to do this because of the possible positive ramifications, such as others being able to identify with her.  She also explains how she takes pride in her use of first person because her goal is also to stand in solidarity with others who are afraid to speak up and be wrongfully judged and misunderstood.  This courageous yet plausibly risky technique is in the end successful because it empowers both the author and the reader because of the boundaries broken and criticisms ignored.  This method perfectly displays Heyes’ intention to teach others how to break away from conformity and to discover how to freely express one’s inner self.  Personal experience is certainly not her only method of demonstrating the legitimacy of her research and exploring the material she covers.  Another very effective and substantially more valid manner she utilizes is analysis and incorporation of the work of numerous authors, including renowned philosophers.  As mentioned in the title of the monograph, Foucault is central to a lot of Heyes’ analysis, but she also includes the arguments of philosophers such as Charles Taylor, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Kathy Davis.

The book in its entirety contains numerous strengths, whether one examines the methods Heyes utilizes throughout the book, the content itself, the dense philosophical analysis, or simply the topics themselves.  I think the use of the first person is especially successful and is definitely a strength of the book.  The use of Foucauldian rhetoric and philosophical analysis are also especially effective; Heyes’ use of excerpts from Foucault’s famous works (and from numerous other philosophers and authors) gives the book a depth which simply would not be attainable without its presence and the critical analysis which Heyes provides.  These strengths of the book allow each page to contain such densities of ideas that it most definitely takes an educated and experienced reader to fully comprehend the concepts presented.

All of these immense strengths of the book leave few weaknesses; the only area which could be supported or explored a bit more thoroughly is intersectionality when it comes to the topics she discusses.  For example, Heyes does discuss the intersection between socioeconomic class or race and normalization of the body, but does so most specifically in chapter two: “Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory: The Case of Transgender.”  Here she rejects the idea that there is no demand for transracial medical interference, citing examples of cosmetic modifications that are used with the intent to make identifying ethnic features less noticeable or different from the white majority, next mentioning how socioeconomic class can also be brought into this picture of changing the body in hopes of reducing telling signs of belonging to a lower class.  Heyes’ incorporation of these intersectional ideas in this chapter is exceptional and critical in fully exploring the norms she is rejecting, yet I think that she can incorporate this intersectionality for frequently throughout the book, such as in her chapter on weight loss and her experience with Weight WatchersÒ.  I am curious as to how race and socioeconomic class intersect with programs such as Weight WatchersÒ, so I think that there is a small weakness in Heyes’ exploration of intersectionality in some parts of the book.

In conclusion, Heyes’ analysis of and objection to normalization in her book Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies is rich in complexity and vastly intellectual in density, thus a highly-educated academic audience with experience in philosophy and sexuality studies would benefit most from reading this book.  Overall, the monograph has far more strengths than weaknesses, and Heyes’ exploration of cultural norms and bodily change through the use of her own experiences, along with her analysis of renowned philosophers’ views, causes her arguments to be highly credible and valid.  Her argument against focusing on appearance and her questioning of Western norms truly makes the reader think about the inner self and how one can be authentic without adhering to societal norms, which is an idea that can be universally beneficial to all who delve into the pages of this scholarly monograph.

Works Cited

Heyes, Cressida. Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Exerting Power through Porn: “Smutty Little Movies” Book Review

“If it exists, there is a porn of it,” claims the infamous internet meme. This simple statement provides a lot more value than perhaps its intended shocking effect, which we can see in Peter Alilunas’s Smutty Little Movies when adult content disseminates into any new avenue of technology or thought. The academic monograph examines both the adult video and the societal struggle to regulate and contain pleasure as pornography transitioned from the public to private sphere, new technologies developed, and capitalism and the traditional family model confronted sexual pleasure and a lack of social control. Alilunas gathers research and evidence from a wide spectrum of sources, mostly non-academic in nature, to analyze the codependency of the home video industry and adult film.

Alilunas introduces Smutty Little Movies with several key themes and questions surrounding the movement of explicit material from the public to the private spheres (especially from the big screen and the 1970s Golden Age of adult film to private adult video) and how pornography could be defined as an thought structure, allowing dominant classes to exert power in controlling what was considered “pornographic” and off-limits or inappropriate in any way to other classes or groups. The book is structured into four distinct parts that are tied together through the pornography-as-power ideology. Alilunas first chronologically examines changing technological, cultural, and industrial perspectives, beginning with the invention of the Panoram, a visual jukebox found in public places like bars and drugstores, that eventually turned into a “Solo-Vue” with curtains or walls and displayed images of female nudity. As the Panoram provided more privacy in public, motels, in realizing the economic potential of showing adult films, became the liminal space between the public theater and the private home. The underground film piracy economy was key to this transition since adult content was still made for the big screen only, though some motel owners did start filming their own content. Peep-show booths like the Panoram and motel viewing were outdone by George Atkinson who eventually became known as the father of home video rental after he realized that he could provide adult videos in the security of the home for a major profit. At this point, quantity of adult content became much more important than the quality, and so Alilunas argues that capitalism became one of the driving factors for the quiet and private spread of pornography.

Magazines were also a major marketing arm for the adult video industry. Alilunas looks at a variety of publications. Initially the content was the product, meaning magazines focused on sampling of still images and stories. When Adult Video News (AVN) entered the industry, a strategy for quality and taste further pushed pornography into the private sphere. Rather than sampling, AVN acted almost as newsletter foreplay for the actual videos and presented the idea and context rather than the content. This push for seeking out quality content also further reinforces the problematic gender narrative in which women must be “protected” but also might only be interested in “tasteful” pornography. Alilunas goes on to describe two key women in the rise of the adult video industry, though he acknowledges that neither received the credit they truly deserved, which proves how it is “a male-dominated industry built on women’s bodies” (130). Ginger Lynn made her mark as an adventurous girl-next-door actress around whom the Vivid Video company’s marketing strategy was built, though the male owners did not later acknowledge their combined effort. Candida Royalle stepped behind the camera in order produce real change for women and focused on reestablishing female control rather than submission in sexual pleasure. However, even Royalle’s own production company was backed by male investment. Further, she reinforced the pleasure-in-quality narrative, falling into the same categorical traps that places value on individual pleasure. Finally, Alilunas explores external regulation of adult video, which he claims as being rooted in a fear of changing societal morals and the disruption of the traditional family unit. Regulation took place both legally (e.g. investigations, trials, governmental studies) and through grassroots movements (e.g. religious groups, antiporn feminist groups, and corporate video rental companies refusal to stock adult content).

Alilunas ultimately concludes that although adult video saved the adult film industry, it is only one player in the ongoing discourses of power and controlling pleasure. Whether explicit external regulation or decentralized and constantly shifting discourses around what pornography should be, there will always be something new to discuss, reconcile, and push beyond, such as the Internet, which viewers of the Panoram would not have been able to fathom.  

Peter Alilunas, an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oregon, grew up in America in the 1970s and 80s, a time when pornography seemed to be taking over the nation. He explains though that his memories of pornographic images and encounters were fleeting and confusing, which is reflective of his later discovery that academia surrounding the dissemination of pornography is severely lacking. Alilunas’s background in Media Studies is especially relevant since he argues that pornography was a crucial part of the home video’s history (and vice versa) rather than just a consequence of the home video. He received the Society for cinema and Media Studies Dissertation Award of Distinction for Smutty Little Movies in 2014.

Alilunas, despite the lack of literature in pornographic studies and the adult film industry, works to fill in at least some of those gaps on a broad scale, which is also his greatest strength in creating Smutty Little Movies. Rather than pulling together academic content, Alilunas investigates history of the adult video industry and the context surrounding the proliferation of pornography over the years. He is not so media-heavy that he analyzes specific pieces of media but rather pulls from a variety of contextual sources to understand the motivation, process, and outcome of technological, cultural, and industrial changes. More specifically, he pulls from catalogues, magazines, brochures, advertisements, autobiographies, blog posts, fan websites, newspapers, zoning laws, court rulings, etc. to form his own understanding of how society affected pornography and vice versa.

Smutty Little Movies acknowledges many areas in which it could go into more depth, such as queer and race dynamics or even further criticism of problematic gender narratives, but as Alilunas notes at the beginning, his “decision is an effort to limit the scope and scale of the research to a particular industrial history that has not yet received much scholarly interest while simultaneously occupying a massive historical footprint” (31). Having said that though, his ultimate arguments about the power of pornography and societal control could be further grounded in theory, such as Foucault’s thought on the relationship between power and oppression.

As intended, Smutty Little Movies fills in a wide gap in the vast pornographic history, though it’s important to keep in mind that it’s only one gap of many. Observing cultural thought through technology and industry provides a fascinating view of how we are able to both gain control and lose control of our own individual identities. This book is especially relevant for those who grew up in the so-called Golden Age of adult film in the 1970s and the rise of the home video in the 1980s. This study is also important for current college-level students as gender and sexuality disciplines expand and open us up to hidden narratives in our past.

Works Cited:

Alilunas, Peter. Smutty Little Movies. Oakland: University of California, 2016. Print.

Between Women: The Diversity of Same-Sex Relationships of Women in Victorian England

Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England by Sharon Marcus is a convincing, captivating, and original analysis that uncovers the importance and significance of the relationships between women in typical Victorian life. Marcus discusses how not many women in Victorian England had sexual relationships with each other or lived together in long-standing relationships like marriages. However, she also examines how women in Victorian England were involved in close and intimate relationships, which people at the time “believed cultivated the feminine virtues of sympathy and altruism”—that often had an element of objectification and closeness and affection (in a sexual manner). Marcus’s assertion that female bonds were “not only tolerated but promoted as necessary elements of middle-class femininity” (259) proposes an essential counteracting to the domineering opinions today that people in Victorian England saw all same-sex relationships as disgraceful and appalling.

Marcus goes on to argue that the wishes and needs of women at the time were motivated by consumerism and capitalism, and their friendships were recognized, reinforced, and strengthened by their “families, societies, and churches.” As she explains across a sequence of close readings, same-sex relationships and intimacy occurred in tandem and agreement with and even often promoted heterosexual relationships. Therefore, of course the people around women would support these same-sex relationships because these relationships in turn promoted heterosexual relationships, which led to reproduction and other societal expectations of women at the time.

Marcus goes on to support that images of women in the media at the time did not turn women into submissive and passive people, but on the contrary, represented the “erotic appetite for femininity” of women at that period. The appeal for femininity and fulfilling the ideals and expectations of being a woman in Victorian England drove women to this “erotic appetite. ” Marcus also showed how the relationships between women were a vital and central element of femininity through the analysis of literature, memoirs, letters, and more, and her immense collection of evidence further proves her argument.

When exploring the array of different types of female friendships, she focuses on how in many cases, female friendships just meant regular friendships, and how other times it meant lesbian relationships. Marcus goes on to describe how when same-sex “female marriages” were formed, that to her, they were not the controversial topic that same-sex relationships are today or that people thought they were. Even though these marriages were not legally formed, they were acknowledged in more wide scale social groups. Marcus also writes about a different sort of same-sex relationship between women and that is the relationships between mothers and daughters, and daughters with their dolls that were depicted in illustrations, and how these images had deceptive masochistic and sadistic insinuations and implications.

Sharon Marcus is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her area of study is 19th-century British and French literature, specifically, she focuses on “performance studies, theater, and the novel; literary theory; gender and sexuality studies.” (Columbia U. Website) She is the author of Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London (University of California Press, 1999) and also won the Perkins Prize for best study of narrative for Between Women, along with several other awards for this book. Her essays have appeared in The Blackwell Companion to Comparative Literature, The Cambridge History of Victorian Literature, and more. Marcus has also written for The Boston Globe, The Chronicle Review, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times Book Review. Marcus was also the recipient of Fulbright, Woodrow Wilson, and ACLS fellowships, and a Columbia Distinguished Faculty Award. In 2014, Marcus was appointed Dean of Humanities at Columbia University.

In conclusion, Between Women by Sharon Marcus is a persuasive and unique examination that unearths the meaning and substance of the interactions between women in standard Victorian life. Very few women in Victorian England had sexual or long-lasting relationships like marriages. Marcus discusses how women in Victorian England were often involved in close and intimate relationships, which they thought encouraged the feminine features of compassion and selflessness. Her claim that female relationships were not only allowed but encouraged and endorsed as necessary for conventional femininity suggests an fundamental response to the widespread opinion that the people in Victorian England saw all same-sex relationships (no matter the degree of sex or sexuality played in the relationship) as outrageous and horrifying.

A Body Not Her Own: The Role of Policy in Limiting Women’s Reproductive Rights

On the morning after Thanksgiving in 2015, a gunman attacked a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, eventually killing a police officer and two civilians while injuring nine more before surrendering. In the following court hearings, the attacker, Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., expressed his anti-abortionist and anti-Planned Parenthood opinions, identifying himself as a “warrior for the babies” (Turkewitz and Healy, 1). This attack followed similar violent assaults on clinics or doctors’ offices where abortions are performed, adding to the aggressive climate brought by protestors who harass women and professionals outside of these facilities daily. The topic of abortions and, more generally, women’s reproductive rights has divided Americans, prompting some to execute what they believe is vigilante justice to protect the unborn, while allowing women to suffer physically and emotionally. Women’s reproductive rights, however, go beyond pro-life and pro-choice arguments. When lawmakers begin to judge who should be allowed to get pregnant and see pregnant women as merely a vessel that carries the valuable life of a fetus, as opposed to cherishing the already-existing life of the woman, women effectively lose any bodily integrity. These policies degrade all women, but also disproportionally affect minority, poor, and young women.

As a sociologist, author Jeanne Flavin takes an interesting choice by analyzing policies and other qualitative data, as opposed to gathering her own data. This choice, however, allows for a synthesis of many pieces of information, not yet put together in one place. Flavin, who worked in a prison as a young woman, admits her bias toward protecting women in the criminal justice system. She also hints that she does not intend to have children of her own. This creates a new perspective on the topic: from a woman who has personal experience with mothers in the criminal justice system and, while not planning to become a mother herself, wants to share the importance of supporting these women.

The monograph follows the same timeline of reproduction, focusing on the government’s involvement in women’s lives and bodies before, during, and after pregnancy. The first section “Begetting,” discusses sterilization laws, like those upheld under Skinner v. Oklahoma, that some states use to control “who” has the right to reproduce. Again, these unjust and invasive laws disproportionally affect women of color or of a lower socioeconomic class. The lawmakers justify this by saying these women are not in a position to raise a child to be a productive member of society. Instead of fixing the injustices in government and social institutions that unfairly keep people of color and lower income levels in these positions, the government at every level consistently chooses to punish these women and control their bodies.

This section also discusses the most prevalent reproductive rights issue: abortion. Often the argument of abortion focuses on a choice: whether to end an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy or carry to term and raise the child or give it up for adoption. The famous Roe v. Wade case established a woman’s right to choose, but since this decision, states have tightened their laws as far as they can to render this landmark case relatively ineffective. While this affects all women, Flavin notes that for most minority women, there still is no “choice.” Because of a lack of information, money, transportation, and, on a larger scale, education, women with an unwanted pregnancy cannot often obtain an abortion. This incredibly hypocritical statement by the government – that minority women should not be able to raise children, but if they do get pregnant, they shouldn’t be allowed to have an abortion – puts these women, and their future children, in a dangerous situation. In this section, Flavin flawlessly brings the discussion of abortion out of a pro-life/pro-choice argument, so readers realize the more damning effects these policies have on women without a choice, women who have been betrayed by their own government in many ways and now must give over control of their own bodies.

In the second section, “Bearing,” Flavin examines the discriminatory policies that turn pregnant women into second-class citizens. As soon as a woman becomes pregnant, her fetus becomes the one who must be protected, and she is simply a body, which the government can control in order to protect her future child. Again using policy to enhance her argument, Flavin notes how “fetus-centered laws” such as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), which claims a fetus as a second victim in domestic violence cases, leaves the pregnant women out of the realm of security. These kinds of laws do little to protect the woman, a victim in this violence, from the perpetrator, and instead only emphasize the harm done to the unborn child. Here, Flavin brings in an argument about drug uses, explaining how they have not made a choice to do drugs and instead institutional racism has driven them to this decision. Therefore, these women should not be further punished and deemed unfit to be a mother. While I follow this argument, as I note later, this segue may take away from Flavin’s strong argument.

In this section, Flavin also begins to note how the criminal justice system, not just government policy, devalues pregnant women. These women do not receive proper medical attention for diseases like HPV or even access to an abortion if impregnated by a guard. Flavin again notes the hypocrisy in the viewpoints of lawmakers who fear for the future lives of fetuses, but do not give the proper health care for imprisoned women, which will inevitably have public health consequences.

Lastly, Flavin delineates how, even after a child is born, policies subjugate the mother to high levels of scrutiny, continuing to impede on her rights to her body and her children. First, for women in the criminal justice system, the government strips them of any rights to motherhood. While Child Protective Services policies tend to deter child visitation to their incarcerated mothers, Flavin notes how important the relationship between a child and mother is to their future growth, and by taking that visitation away, children may be sucked back into a dangerous world. Going beyond just the benefits to the child, a mother who has the chance to build ties to her child will be more motivated in her own rehabilitation, better prepared to re-enter society. While not incarcerated, battered women also must battle for custody of their children if they speak of their abuse, as again, ineffective policies, like the flawed Violence Against Women Act, tend to protect the children over the mothers. While the children should certainly be safe, this fear of losing their children, silences many women who stay in abusive situations which continue to harm them and their children. Laws must defend the mother and the child and ensure they will not be separated.

          Our Bodies, Our Crimes fits most easily into feminist studies, as it highlights the impediment of women’s citizenship and their place in society. This monograph also fits into legal studies as Flavin uses myriad court cases and policies as examples in her argument. Notably, this book does not incorporate queer studies. While some queer populations cannot become pregnant, they can still be subjected to the same discriminatory treatment in sexual assault or parenting cases that infringe on their own rights to their bodies and their privacy.

The strength of this monograph lies in its organization. It clearly separates the information into pre-birth, during birth, and post-birth consequences of governmental interference into women’s bodies and lives. As the book proceeds, the reader realizes how extensively policies have been enacted to keep women under governmental control and to place the life of a fetus above that of a woman. The breath of research, legal and academic, Flavin performs roots her argument in evidence, giving more credibility to her case, that at times, can be controversial. She also redirects the conversation at certain points to make readers re-consider their perspectives on the age-old issue of reproductive rights. She does not focus on the pro-life/pro-choice debate as she points out that many women do not really have a choice even if the laws say they do. She also notes the implications of a discriminatory criminal justice system that gives up on its inmates, automatically assuming they cannot and should not be pregnant or mothers. These topics are largely overshadowed in the discussion of reproductive rights, which often focuses on the plight of upper-class white women, which while still relevant, as most social movements, leaves out many other affected women.

While Flavin fills Our Bodies, Our Crimes with an abundant amount of relevant citations from other legal and academic work, in order to make her argument more coherent, I would have left out her interlude into drug users. While after careful thought, I understand her point about the institutional racism that inevitably can cause women to take drugs but should not determine her ability to have a child and mother, this argument may not be easily accepted by other readers. For a more conservative reader, it is difficult to believe that drug users, whose habits may harm the child – a detail she dedicates only a few sentences to – should be able to raise their children away from government agency surveillance. While Flavin may not be targeting this more conservative group of readers, in order to spread her well-thought-out and developed argument to more people, she should tailor her argument a little more. This added point complicates the details of her argument even more, so leaving it out could make for an even more definitive conclusion.

In all, Our Bodies, Our Crimes, opens up the discussion about reproductive rights – moving away from just a debate between pro-life and pro-choice – and toward an inclusion of all intersectional backgrounds. While I would implore everyone to read this book, I believe at least white, liberal-minded people must pick it up. Flavin’s research shows that this group, while often well-intentioned, tends to mistake their rhetoric as improvement for all. Many liberals center themselves in the pro-choice debate, not recognizing how many other people lack the fundamental right of a choice. Institutional racism and classism often place women at a position where they do not have the means of information to make the same decisions upper-class, white women can, and their doubled struggles should be brought to the forefront. This book outlines the effects of infringing reproductive laws at every stage of a pregnancy – from conception to motherhood – with an eye, not just on the effects on upper-middle-class white women, but on those from a lower-socioeconomic or minority background. While these laws burden less-privileged women even more, laws that limit any woman will have a lasting negative impact on the lives and opportunities of all women.

 

Works Cited

Flavin, Jeanne. Our Bodies, Our Crimes. NYU Press : 2009.

Turkewitz, J. and Healy, J. “3 Are Dead in Colorado Springs Shootout at Planned Parenthood Center.” The New York Times, 27 Nov. 2015.

 

 

Beyond Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law

“A woman married to a man for nine months is entitled to Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies; a woman living for nineteen years with a man or woman to whom she is not married receives nothing.”[1] The debate over marriage equality for same-sex couples was one that took over the country’s social and political agenda in the early 2000’s. Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage challenges this agenda by asking both straights and gays alike to consider a broader definition of what constitutes a family and how this structure should be protected under the law. Those protected by the institution of marriage have privileged status in regards to tax benefits, estate benefits, government benefits, employment benefits, medical benefits, and death benefits among others. Polikoff calls for a revamping of family law; one that takes into consideration the changing nature of family units while also deemphasizing the status of marriage in our society.

Nancy Polikoff is a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. She teaches Family Law and a seminar on Children of LGBT Parents and has been writing about, litigating about, and speaking about cases involving LGBT families for the past thirty years. Her accomplishments include co-founding the Washington, DC Feminist Law Collective, supervising family law programs at the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and co-authoring one of the first law review articles on the custody rights of lesbian mothers. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage is Polikoff’s first book. She has a daughter in her twenties and lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

The first half of the Beyond Marriage gives the reader historical context as to how we got to the position we are in with marriage today. It begins with the advances made by the second-wave feminist movement in the context of marriage, and then describes how those advances have been attacked since the 1970s by the religious right. Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem and others are cited in this section, along with groundbreaking legislature like Title IX. From there, she moves into the gay rights movement and the intersection of lesbianism and feminism. Eventually she delves into the marriage movement of the conservative right and the how the push for preserving marriage as an institution for heterosexual couples strengthened marriage’s societal status. She then brings the reader to the contemporary fight for marriage equality, the most thorough part of the first half of the monograph.

Generally, there are two dominant perspectives in the contemporary marriage debate. First, there are those who support the institution of marriage and believe that opening it up to non-heterosexual couples will undermine social structure. Second, there are those who support equal access to marriage for LGBT individuals since they deserve the same access to benefits as married heterosexual couples. Throughout the book, Polikoff makes reference to groups on both sides of the argument. Frequently mentioned supporters of the marriage movement include The Institute for American Values, the Alliance Defense Fund, and the Liberty Counsel. Those often mentioned on the side of marriage equality include Lambda Legal, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. All of these groups fight for legislation supporting their side of the argument or represent individuals in relevant court cases. Polikoff separates herself from these prominent groups by taking a third stance. She questions the legitimacy of marriage as the necessary qualification for receiving legal benefits and questions whether it is fair to exclude so many other family forms by limiting such benefits. This allows her to reframe the debate over marriage by making the point that the benefits associated with marriage are not inherent, they have been constructed over time and have increasingly drawn a line between families formed through marriage and families formed through other means. By fighting for the right to marriage for LGBT couples, dominant organizations like the Human Rights Campaign are reinforcing the place of marriage in our society as cultural institution that unfairly awards rights to the married and leaves those who are unmarried out to dry. She enforces the argument that marriage is outdated and the benefits that accompany it were developed decades ago when having sex outside of marriage was taboo, illegitimate children were considered outcasts, and marriage had gender roles legally entwined within it. Through the examination of historical movements, she determines that people have changed the way that they view and structure their lives and the current marriage equality movement does not reflect this change.

The second half of the book is dedicated to describing specific aspects of her proposed approach, called “valuing all families,” to make marriage matter less. The most important aspect of this approach is identifying the purpose of specific laws that currently grant marriage-specific legal consequences. By understanding the specific objectives of these laws, relationships can be identified that would further the law’s objective without creating a specific special status for married people. In regards to this approach, she addresses health care, medical leave, medical care, domestic partner benefits, the dissolution of relationships, death, and economic compensation. Polikoff argues that by taking this approach, our society can move more towards a legal system based on the nature of care and dependency in relationships, not just the relationship’s specific name. Her solutions are not only for same-sex couples, they are also for people non-conjugal relationships, like unmarried elderly people, caregivers and the people they help, or friends living together. For instance, through this approach she examines the current family and medical leave practices of businesses across the country, supported by anecdotes of those who were not allowed such leave to care for an ill family member. Many medical leave policies are limited to caring for a spouse or child with serious illness and are often unpaid. Polikoff proposes support of the “Healthy Families Act,” a bill that provides seven days of paid leave per year “to care for a child, a parent, a spouse, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”[2] This kind of reform breaks down barriers and helps to redefine the law’s narrow definitions of family that do not accurately reflect today’s society.

Polikoff’s breadth of knowledge of her field is evident as she provides a comprehensive overview of legal history as it applies to social movements throughout the decades. This method is extremely effective in giving the reader context into the foundational aspects of marriage and establishing the true dividing line that it has become. By making interdisciplinary links through feminism, sexual liberation, class, and justice, her argument is multidimensional and looks at marriage through the views of different legal lenses. The inclusion of a significant amount of laws and court cases is appropriate since the nature of her “valuing all families” solution focuses on reforming these laws. In contrast to the formality of the included law, Polikoff includes many anecdotes and case studies throughout the monograph to explain how the law has failed certain families because of the marriage dividing line. These short stories help to break up the dense law material and make it easy to envision why her reform needs to be implemented in real world situations.

Although at first the idea of diminishing and eventually removing the significance of marriage in a society may seem radical to the general population, Polikoff’s presentation of her argument makes it seem truly possible and reasonable. She provides concrete solutions for reforming laws, many based at the state and local level, and also provides several examples of places where similar laws have been successfully enacted. Even with the abundance of case law, the Beyond Marriage is very much readable by those without Polikoff’s extensive background. This monograph is meant to reach a broad audience due to its increasing relevance, however, due to its connectedness with the marriage equality movement and gay rights, the audience becomes more limited.

Polikoff reinforces in Beyond Marriage that people should have the choice to marry based on their individual beliefs, whether they be cultural, spiritual, or religions in nature. It should not be a choice that people are forced into to obtain unique legal benefits that are specific only to marriage. The end goal of her efforts is a system in which marriage is not the rigid dividing line between who is in and who is out regarding family law, through her “valuing all families” approach. This monograph is a valuable resource for people in all family structures and can help our society move towards a legal system that helps improve the lives of all individuals and families.

Works Cited

Polikoff, Nancy D. Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

[1] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), Cover page.

[2] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 172.

Breaking Down Another “Normal” in Mimi Schippers’s Beyond Monogamy

 

Traditional stories tell tales of a princess finding her prince, and more recently the narrative has accepted princesses finding princesses or princes finding princes. But what happens if finding “the one” turns into finding the two? Or three? Mimi Schippers’s Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities addresses the “compulsory mononormativity” that steers the search for “the one” and silences conversations about non-monogamous relationships.

Schippers has degrees in sociology from Northeastern Illinois University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is currently a professor of both sociology and gender and sexuality studies at Tulane University. Much of her recent research is on polyamorous relationships across cultures and time and how polyamory intersects with race, gender, and sexuality. Beyond Monogamy is her second book and the culmination of a decade’s worth of research and writing about polyqueer relationships (Shippers, web).

The author establishes mononormativity as an institutionalized ideal that intersects with race and gender and attempts to break down the associated hierarchies of “polyqueer” sexualities (Schippers 25). She compares mononormativity to the more well-known heteronormativity as a example of silencing social practices that ostracize groups of people, in this case people who consensually take part in romantic or sexual relationships with multiple people. By looking at a variety of polyqueer situations that take place across gender, race, and class, Schippers calls various power dynamics into question. For example, in a monogamous heterosexual relationship, how would each partner be seen if they were to “cheat” on their partner? A man is assumed to be unsatisfied with his partner, and in the face of an exciting opportunity, is “less likely to control himself (44).” However, a woman who cheats is making a careful decision which “reflects a fundamental character flaw such as selfishness or materialism (45).” In this situation there are gender-based assumptions that place the man in a position in which he can cheat with limited repercussions, meanwhile the woman who cheats is fundamentally flawed. This ideology establishes what it takes to be a “good” woman: being loyal to her partner no matter what. Schippers presents similar arguments applying to black men and bisexual men whose identities are often culturally defined in order to promote certain expectations of respectability, i.e. a relationship with a single woman.

Beyond Monogamy begins with an extensive introduction to the topic of the polyqueer sexualities to situate them within the already established theories of queer sexualities and normativity. Schippers claims that until this point there have not been critiques of mononormativity, a gap she intends to fill with this book (Schippers 10). She address research into incidental cases of non-monogamy within both the straight and queer communities such as male-dominated polygamy, but the author notes that these are examples of isolated exceptions to monogamy (16). Schippers proceeds to identify four situations that take place specifically between two men and one woman that reflect the effects compulsory mononormativity: open-relationships, standards of respectability, competition between men, and a fear of non-heterosexual relationships. Each of these issues is dedicated a chapter in which the author explores the complexities of polyqueer relationships more closely. To do this, she uses research and theory established in the introduction to critically examine fictional narratives that exemplify the relationship at hand. Some of these narratives are creations of the author while others are taken from scenes of movies and play so as to provide concrete examples of non-monogamous relationships that are accessible to a more general audience.

The balance of academic theory and research with analysis of tangible examples is one of the greatest strengths of Beyond Monogamy. Presentation of other research clearly positions Schippers in the academic conversation and helps frame her theory. The conversation with other respected academics and theorists such as Michael Foucault legitimizes her argument and asserts her authority to critique mononormativity. At the same time, the use of concrete narratives caters to both academics and non-academics as a point of entry to her argument. Examples substantiate vocabulary and concepts that are otherwise very specific and theoretical. Even though the introduction is rather dense, the following chapters strive to actively engage a variety of readers who can relate to different situations. This increased accessibility to her book opens up a wider audience who can read and appreciate it.

At the same time, the wider audience that Schippers can attract has its limits. She intentionally limits her discussion to polyqueer relationships between one  cisgender woman and two heterosexual men because, she claims,

“This relationship configuration… is particularly instructive not just in terms of the role of monogamy in hegemonic gender relations, but also in the queer and feminist potential for polyqueer sexualities and relationships to disrupt the meanings and embodiment of racialized masculinities and femininities.” (31)

However, throughout the book she refers tangentially to other polyqueer relationships such as gay men who choose to have a variety of partners at the same time without justifying the importance of these relationships and explaining how they are less relevant than the specific relationship-structure she is examining. Using one specific structure as an ideal of sorts produces a tone of othering of different polyqueer situations that do no follow this pattern. Therefore, even though Schippers produces an argument that is accessible to a non-academic audience, her narrow scope is a severe limitation in terms of who can relate to the theory that she presents.

Overall, the book is a very enlightening introduction to the concept of mononormativity. It clearly presents a variety of instances in which the ideal of monogamy unjustly smothers polyqueer relationships. Her critique of controlling power structures explains the construction of the monogamous “normal” while asserting that those same power structures to more harm than good. The narrow focus of the book leaves room for further inquiry into more diverse polyqueer relationships and serves as a stepping stone to more developments of mononormative  theory.

Works Cited

Schippers, Mimi. Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. New York: New York University Press, 2016. Print.

http://www.mimischippers.com