Sunday, December 23, 2012

Eating Culture Shock

As an anthropologist, I am pretty well-versed on the intellectual side of culture shock.  Just about every ethnography begins with the story of how the writer came to be in the field.  Mine did.  But in ethnographies, it becomes part of the narrative device.  Culture shock is proof that one has been immersed in the field.  Sometimes, though, I think it is a fancy way of saying being homesick.  I've moved from Texas to Ohio this month.  It is disconcerting to move within the US, in part because it is assumed that we share some national culture.  As an English speaker (with a smattering of Spanish), it is reassuring to have relocated to another Anglophone area.  I don't have to struggle to ask for the bathroom or question the nature of the soul.  On the other hand, things are just similar enough to disturb expectations.

In Belize, I learned that as much as I might miss pizza, I was better off eating hudut (a type of fish stew) that risking the local interpretation of Pizza Hut.  I didn't know what to expect from hudut but I had ideas about pizza firmly in my head.  The sauce was oddly spicy, the texture of the cheese was somehow squeaky, and the bread ingredients included coconut milk.  If you squinted, you could see how this product resembled pizza from the US, but the mismatch between my desires and the reality led to some discomfort.  I was also limited in my control over my food in Belize, as I was staying in a guest house with no kitchen.  I ate breakfast at the market and usually had lunch with the women I worked with.  Although at that point in my life I did not eat red meat, it was a point of anthropological pride that I ate what was offered me.  I had pig tail in beans and cow hoof soup.  Unfortunately, my cultural relativism only went so far: I hate potato salad with a passion.  Like many former British colonies in the Caribbean, Belize has plantations of citrus but relatively little amounts of other agriculture (excepting the small Mennonite population).  Many of the prestige foods are canned imports.  Other than that, the area I lived in relied on the sea for major sources of protein (it was lobster season while I was there, an entirely novel experience for me) and coconuts.  Leafy greens were scarce.  A fresh tomato was crazy expensive.  The entire summer, I did not see one piece of broccoli.  So I might be forgiven for jumping at the chance when my friend first offered me "salad."  I expounded on how much I'd missed salad and how hungry I was.  I was puzzled when she brought out a plate of what looked like potato salad.  I tried to set aside my prejudices.  I thought maybe it was a cassava dish.  I tucked in and ended up with a mouthful of warm mayonnaise and grainy potatoes.  This is not to malign my friend's potato salad - I feel this way about all potato salad.  Growing up in the South, I was subjected to this at least once a summer by friends' parents who simply could not believe I didn't like potato salad.  I swallowed and grinned and managed to choke down a few more bites before I confessed that I just couldn't eat it.  My friend thought it was funny that I tried and passed on my plate to one of the small children running around.  It would simply be an amusing anecdote if it had happened once, but like idiot, I found myself in the same position repeatedly.  Women would ask if I liked salad, I would question whether they meant potato salad, they would assure it was "just salad" and like a fool, I would end up with another plate of the dreaded tubers drenched in mayonnaise.  I'm not proud to admit that once I actually fed my salad to one of the potlickers (dogs who hang around the town and eat any leftover food).  Malnutrition was not an apparent problem, but people were often hungry.  Respect for people's food supply won out over my misguided anthropological politeness and I started declining salad.  It seemed a first-world problem to just say I hated it, so I usually explained it had made me sick as a kid.  I continued to eat pork chops and Spam, although in very small amounts.  Many women worried I was either sick or pregnant because I didn't seem to have a healthy appetite.  When I found foods I truly enjoyed (like fry jack, because who doesn't love fried bread?), I didn't eat much because even the coconut oil used to cook it was strange on my palate.

Culture shock can stem from major differences between different worldviews, but just as often, it is the sum of small things - how close people stand, how much eye contact is expected, unfamiliar urban or rural sounds, the smell of the sea (for me) - that are constantly occurring.  There is no relief from these instances until one becomes acclimated.  Then it is easy to forget it had ever been any other way.

In my gustatory education, many people don't believe that I grew up in New Orleans without absorbing through osmosis the city's incredible food culture.  My parents were transplants and my mother was a terrifically terrible cook.  I didn't know you could get peas or green beans outside of a can until I moved out of the natal home.  I have a dear friend who is an excellent chef but I would hesitate to eat anything she made me since my family was suspicious of unfamiliar food.  I didn't have any experience trying new things and automatically assumed that if I hadn't eaten it before, it must not be good.  It also didn't help that I stopped eating red meat around the age of 14, thereby ruling out anything with sausage, pickled pork, roast, or any number of other New Orleans delights.  It was only after I moved to Texas that I became interested (and eventually obsessed) with eating tasty food.  Luckily, it was easy to find excellent food, even as I began my descent into true vegetarianism.  I learned that spiciness was not an indication that I was dying (weird, but true. I thought that burning sensation I had experienced on the rare occasion was a sure sign that something had gone horribly wrong.).  Somehow, Texas grew on me, and I found out that you can make a taco out of anything! Breakfast tacos, fish tacos, greek tacos.  And salsa, on just about everything.  I started pickling, and then started adding jalapenos (sorry about the lack of tilde) to all of my pickles.  I also started juicing and then began making soups and stocks from scratch.  I figured out that people like to eat because food tastes good.  Took me most of three decades to catch on, but I think my new outlook on food experiences would make Belize a different experience for me today than it was in 2004.

So, now, Ohio.  I am still trying out the new foods.  My first week here, I experienced a food panic.  The restaurants I ate at (while my pots and pans were in transit for two weeks) had a ton of fried food and a lot of cheese.  The portion sizes are insane.  I have yet to finish any meal I've ordered.  The bread was not great.  Even the water tasted funny.  Now that I've had time to explore the city some, things are settling down.  After five grocery stores, I've found a few of the brands I'm familiar with.  In my more shock-y moments, I bless standardization.  If I can find De Cecco pasta and Rao's marinara sauce, I know exactly what I am getting.  I try to eat locally, but sometimes my soul's cry for comfort outweighs my conscience on carbon footprints.  I'm extraordinarily lucky to have a farmer's market (year-round! winter market indoors!) five minutes from my new apartment.  Yesterday was the first day I've been able to make it but it has made a world of difference in my outlook.  By last night, I had a soup of parsnips, potatoes, brussel sprouts, and shallots.  A loaf of fresh rosemary bread and a glass of whole milk.  These things make me believe that Ohio will work out.  My work is important and the people I've met so far are welcoming, but food is where I start.  I will eat my way out of culture shock.

Now I just need to find some decent tortillas.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

No Phthalate Phalluses, Thanks

All of my personal shenanigans aside, I'd like to get back to the more of the art of anthropology than the process. Job offers, relocations, and conferences all impact me as an anthropologist but aren't my passion when I think about my discipline. In the last week, I've run into a couple of stories that touch on the intersection of sexuality and social justice. In my own work, I approach sexuality as an individual or collective practice that is used to cement or create identities and relationships. I sometimes lose sight of the fact that sex is densely connected with larger economic and environmental forces. So here is what I've been thinking about.

In a recent article on toxins in sex toys, Emily Gertz discusses how harmful substances are used to make a variety of sex toys. Many use polyvinyl chlorides and are softened with phthalates. Studies in rats suggest this class of chemicals are linked to cancer and damage the reproductive system. It's difficult to be a conscious consumer of sex toys, since they are unregulated as "novelty" products not intended to be used near or in mucous membranes. It's hard to pin down exactly how a product is made. Aside from the health risks posed to the consumer, one has to wonder about the working conditions of the people making these questionable products. How does their exposure to these chemicals affect them? Are they being paid a fair wage? Compounding the problem is the shame around buying sex toys. Many people feel at least awkward in adult shops, although some of the women and couple friendly chains go out of their way to put people at ease. When a person struggles with the basics of communicating desire (perhaps because the person just doesn't know what type of vibrator would be best suited for their individual taste), it is difficult to follow up with questions about the conditions of production. Also, as consumers, Americans like to believe an object's history begins at point of purchase. Finally, most people don't purchase enough sex toys to require deep consideration. You find a rabbit that works for you, then banish that slightly uncomfortable Megaplexxx experience from your thoughts. Manufacturers and retail shops know that most people will not agitate for better sex toys. We are being held hostage by low-quality, over-priced sex toys. There are a few solutions to some of the problems. First, you can use a condom with your sex toys. The extra step is a hassle if it's just you and your toy playing, but this is a particularly neat trick for toys that will be shared (new condom for each person!) that has the double protection of cutting back on chemical exposure and preventing the spread of potential disease. Second, you can go the organic route. Zucchinis and melons can be re-purposed to serve sexual desires. It is important to make sure these items are pesticide-free. No sense trading phthalate exposure for pesticide exposure. The downside of this option is that each fruit or vegetable can only be used once and your produce drawer has to be continuously stocked, depending on your libido. Also, no battery power, so vibration is out. But, no batteries to throw out, either. Third, you can shell out the extra money for a toy with a pedigree. Babeland, Smitten Kitten, and Good Vibrations offer a line of green products. If you are lucky enough to live in New York, Minneapolis, or San Francisco, you can visit the store in person to see the toys in action (although on the shelf or in your hand, not the business end of the experience). Otherwise, you can order online. As a further permutation on high-end toys, consider hardened glass or metal dildos. Most can be washed in the dishwasher and gently warmed or chilled for varied experiences.

Sex toys are the intersection of sexuality and consumerism. We should consider how these products are made and what effect they have on our persons and the environment. The internet has freed consumers from reliance on the one or two brick and mortar stores in their immediate area, although it is also a way to take advantage of naive buyers. For most people, a few toys will probably be enough to satisfy most of their desires. Try to think of that pricey tickler as an investment rather than a novelty. Unless you only bought that anal plug as a joke for a friend (seriously?), we all know that these toys will be used in intimate ways. We demand high quality from medical devices that are inserted in the same vicinity. We expect that children's toys will be safe, in large part because kids put them in their mouths. If you won't put something in your mouth for fear that it will poison you, you probably shouldn't insert it elsewhere. The silence around sex toys allows manufacturers to profit from shame by selling poorly designed, over priced, health risking devices to consumers who don't feel entitled to better products.

Stand up for better sex toys. Being a consumer can be a political act. Use that dildo to support the ideals you believe in.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


 I've just returned from the American Anthropological Association meeting, my discipline's national conference.  This was my first conference since I graduated and attending as something other than a student was crazy.  It has caused me to think about the meaning of "profess," as in "professional" or "professor."


  [pruh-fes]  Show IPA
verb (used with object)
to lay claim to, often insincerely; pretend to: He professed extreme regret.
to declare openly; announce or affirm; avow or acknowledge: to profess one's satisfaction.
to affirm faith in or allegiance to (a religionGod, etc.).
to declare oneself skilled or expert in; claim to have knowledge of; make (a thing) one's profession  or business.
to teach as a professorShe professes comparative literature.
I often feel my allegiance to anthropology is a sort of vocation.  I remember the first cultural anthropology class I took with Christine Pettit at UNO.  All of a sudden, the patterns I could make out on the edges of things were cast into stark contrast.  What first drew me to anthropology was that there were answers to questions I had about why things were they way they were.  Little did I know it was all illusion.  The more profound truth was that anthropology is all about questions.  It satisfies the two-year-old in me that insists on asking "Why?" all the time.  Over time, I learned to be wary of the easy answers (no, the answer is not always evolution).  But I still loved (love) it.  And now I profess it, usually a la definitions two and four, although sometimes conferences can look a lot like meaning three.

Prior to this round of AAAs, I held conferences in very little regard.  I am pretty good at writing abstracts for papers I haven't written yet.  I remembered being shocked at this practice when a professor told me to submit for a conference based on what I thought I might talk about in a general sort of way.  It is common practice for people to write papers up to the very hour before their presentations.  As a student, I felt like this was cheating.  I have sat through some truly terrible talks where it was obvious that the speaker had not prepared.  But this time around, I realized that the goal of the presentations is not a verbatim transfer of revealed truths, but rather a dialogue around shared interests.

For those unfamiliar with the strange ritual of academic conferences, it begins with the abstract, usually required months before the conference.  (On the economic side of things, you cannot submit an abstract unless you are a member (hello, membership fee) and, in some cases, you have to pay for the conference at the time of submission, not knowing whether or not you'll even go.  As a student, you are expected to pay less, but still a substantial investment for a TA.  This year, as a professional (non-student) member, the cost was a shock.  My friends with affiliations were able to defray the cost through institutional support, but as an "applied anthropologist" (outside of the university system), it was all on me.)  The conference organizers decide whether your paper is accepted or not and let you know a couple of months ahead of time.  Whether or not a paper is accepted has a lot to do with how you market it.  I don't feel like my professors sufficiently stressed how important key words are, or perhaps I just wasn't paying attention.  Based on your 300 word abstract, organizers try to fit you into an appropriate session (a collection of papers usually united by a theme).  At massive conferences, it is also important to decide which section would be best situated to review your abstract.  I have had luck with the feminist anthropologists, the linguists, and the student association.  This time, I asked for the Association of Queer Anthropologists to review my submission and I think that I finally found a good fit.  Upon acceptance, you are given your time and location (super important for practical things, like booking a hotel that doesn't cost $300/night anywhere near the conference).  Then you have to go back to your abstract and figure out how to write the paper.  Given the way that students write research papers, I did not grasp the shifting nature of long-term research.  At the end of the semester, you wrapped up what you were working on and that was the end. Although I finished my fieldwork more than a year ago, my ideas about it are still evolving as I do more writing.  The data is the same, but the interpretations shift in response to new literature or feedback or popular culture.  The abstract I wrote in April for this year's meeting still made sense, although the focus was different than my current obsession with liminality.  At the conference, you are given a program and expected to identify sessions you would like to go to.  In some cases, this information is available online ahead of time, making things more productive.  Ideally, you attend sessions (or individual papers) that you find interesting or pertinent.  In addition to presentations, there are also poster sessions that present research.  At the same time, the exhibit hall is crammed with publishers promoting new or re-released books in hopes of a professor adopting a book for a course.  Editors are sometimes available to discuss publication opportunities.  Months of waiting are boiled into three or four days.

In February, I presented at the Eastern Sociological Society on responses to state intervention in sexual practices on an invited panel (where all of the participants were coordinated ahead of time on a particular topic).  The session was on the subjective experience of researching alternative sexualities.  At the AAAs, my session was on Queer Sexualities, Queer Subjectivities.  It has made all the difference in the world to be on panels that are pertinent to my work.  Previously, I was on panels with people discussing scrap booking and ordering sushi and Mayan pottery.  These papers were actually rather interesting, but not a lot of chance for cross-fertilization when I am talking about sex in Texas and they are talking about weaving traditions.  Disjointed sessions led to a lot of in and out as people dropped by for individual papers.  At this AAA, much of the audience stayed for the entire two hours.  There were papers about the ex-gay movement in Africa, the role of race in the experience of Asian-American gay men, stuff on Haiti, Egypt, Canada, Mexico.  But despite the regional variation, it was possible to trace themes that emerged that weren't even alluded to in the abstracts, such as the notion of generations or genealogy among queer families or the pressures of the re-medicalization of sex.

One of the most exciting things about presenting is the opportunity to talk to people about your work afterwards.  It's one thing for classmates to be interested in your work, because you talk to them all the time and they are usually forced to pay attention to the particular shade of culture that you are obsessed with.  It's very cool when strangers come up to talk about your work.

I spent much of this conference on professional pursuits - networking (also known as catching up with old classmates and professors), attending talks, and making new contacts.  Conferences serve as a snapshot of where the discipline is at any given moment.  It's easy to be caught up in the literature from 5 or 10 years ago, as an artifact of what was being taught while you were in school.  Collecting anthropologists and publishers in one space creates an exchange of current ideas.  It is exciting to know that I am not the only one studying what I study and that I'm not just talking to myself (although that happens often enough).  In the past, as a student, I usually gave my talk and spent the rest of my time on vacation, visiting whichever city with my partner or friends.  Attending a conference as a professional was a different experience.  Maybe I should have been doing this for years, but it is only now that these activities seem like good strategy rather than odious obligation.  The AAAs can be like vacation Bible school - a set-aside period where faith in the enterprise in affirmed and intensified.  I left the conference excited about more anthropology and feeling like an adult.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


I have just accepted a position with Case Western Reserve University.  I am pretty flippin' excited.  I've been in interviews and negotiations the past three weeks and so have been unable to say anything.  I interviewed at New Mexico Tech two days after my interview with Case Western.  As anyone who has graduated recently can attest, the job market is crazy tight for anthropologists.  Before signing my acceptance letter this morning, I had applied for 31 academic jobs since graduation, predominantly as a professor.  Since grad school, I had assumed I would go into teaching.  I love making connections with students and spreading the good news of anthropology.  I think what landed me both of my interviews, however, was my willingness to consider non-teaching positions.  The two jobs could not have been more different aside from the fact that they were both at higher education institutes.

The process has been surreal.  During grad school, I was indifferent to the hiring process, which added to my stress when considering applying for jobs after graduation.  I just remember the horror stories of candidates who didn't get jobs because they rubbed a faculty member the wrong way (for example, listing Applebee's as your favorite restaurant is apparently a deal-breaker).  I offer my experiences for those in the job market.

I struggled with how to handle my dissertation topic.  My advisor has been very clear that s/m is a touchy topic and would make people less inclined to hire me, given my incendiary topic.  Sometimes I think she overreacts, but I do feel I get the wrong sort of attention occasionally.  However, in my interviews, we barely talked about my research (although at the end of one, I was asked my opinion of Fifty Shades of Grey... I don't think they expected me to hold forth at such length).  It was less of an obstacle than I had imagined.  So, a tale of two jobs:

Case Western Reserve University advertised for a research associate/program coordinator for a new project for their Social Justice Institute.  I applied at the end of July.  I got a call in September to schedule a phone interview.  Although I had had interest from a couple of other universities at that point, I never got to the interview point.  I tried to play it all cool, like this happened every day.  I studied my panel for the phone interview extensively.  The best bit of advice for interviews I received was actually offered after my first interview, but it was helpful.  When someone asks a question, frame your response as situation-action-result.  This keeps you from talking in circles.  I finished the interview feeling really positive and intrigued by the job. Race has not been my academic focus, but I felt I could bring a powerful anthropological perspective to the table.  It's weird, but being approached as a colleague is completely different than interactions as a student.  I had heard of this phenomenon, but to experience it was pretty cool.  After a day or so, I began over-analyzing everything and convinced myself that nothing would come of it.  They called back in ten days to ask me for an on-campus interview.  To say I was thrilled was an understatement.  Unfortunately, I couldn't match my schedule to theirs until the middle of October, so I had an agonizing two weeks to plan the encounter.

In between my phone interview and invitation to come to campus with Case Western, I had a response to a position I applied to at New Mexico Tech for a Living/Learning Community Specialist.  A living/learning community is an integrative learning community generally for freshman who live in the same dorm and take one or more classes together as a cohort.  When the director called to ask for an interview, I agreed but didn't think my chances for the position were exceptional.  I prepared less but was also much less stressed about the interview.  Again, I felt it went well and finished the interview interested in the position.  The director called that night to invite me to campus.  Not one but two interviews!  Scheduling this interview was trickier, as I had already requested off for 3 days from my day job and the only time our schedules matched was the same week I was interviewing at Case Western.  Luckily, my bosses are very supportive and let me take an entire week off.

I flew to Cleveland on a Sunday and back to Texas on Tuesday then flew to Socorro, New Mexico on Thursday and back to Texas Friday night.  In Cleveland, I got the chance to check into the guesthouse after I landed with no commitments that night.  I also had a driver (! not a grad student, which is what I expected).  I got a chance to ask him things about the town that might not be appropriate for a formal interview (my questions: how is the water quality? do people recycle often? how dog friendly is Cleveland?).

My interview began the next morning at 8:30.  (As a side note, I spent a ridiculous amount of money on a suit, but it really did help me feel confident.  Although the miser in me cringed at the cost, I think the investment was worth it.)  I met the administrator and she was warm and welcoming (Another bit of advice, always be nice to the administrators, for they have a lot of power.  Include them in thank you notes.  They are the people who make your visit happen).  I met with a community member for a tour of the neighborhoods I would be working in.  Having prepared questions was really helpful.  It also helped that we bonded over Octavia Butler and food safety.  Afterwards, I was given a set of questions to prepare answers for a panel interview later in the afternoon.  I had about an hour and a half to work on them.  Given a computer and a set of questions, I did the only thing reasonable - made a powerpoint.  The wow factor of this trick was more than I expected, so I recommend it if you have the opportunity.

I then had lunch with a sociology major involved in the technical aspects of the program and the woman who coordinates volunteers and community members.  Reaching the community is an important focus of this program.  My geographic background worked well to my advantage, as the senior was from Idaho, so we talked about the Inland Northwest (not to be confused with the Pacific Northwest) and the volunteer coordinator works in New Orleans, my home town.  You know all those dire warnings you hear about not ordering anything messy for an interview meal?  I was lulled into a false feeling a safety when I ordered the pasta of the day, thinking I could satisfy my vegetarian tendencies without making a big deal of them.  Imagine my dismay when the waiter brought out a giant plate of spaghetti.  In a suit that cost more than my wedding dress (which probably says more about my wedding than anything else), I was trying to keep my noodles from spinning out of control.  I ate a total of four bites.  Luckily I had squirreled away snacks from the plane, which I ate during the break between lunch and my panel interview (good advice, MF!).

My panel interview was a little weird.  Everyone sat around a square group of tables, with someone to my immediate right.  I had a hard time remembering to make eye contact with her and she was quiet, so I had to make an effort to address her as well.  This is where the powerpoint really helped; it gave me the opportunity to stand a bit back and look all of them in the eye.  One interesting fact only occurred to me part way through the interview - all of my panelists were women.  It was pretty cool.  Women communicate differently in the absence of men and the interview was a lot of give and take rather than a grilling, although there were some uncomfortable moments.  I had really solid answers for the first two scenarios (researching in a group environment/managing a project and qualitative analysis) but the third was a challenge.  I was asked how I would stage a theater production presenting the results of the project to the community.  I had an entire multi-media, live documentary a la the vagina monologues planned out.  For me, it was important that people tell their own story.  And then director asked me, "But what if it was a full blown play, with actors and a script?" In my infinite wisdom, I replied, "That would be weird."  Then I realized that this was her concept.  I feel like I recovered well, as my canned answer turned into a dialogue about what community resources could be used to bring this vision to fruition, but that was the moment I thought I had blown it.  I left there feeling pretty positive but regretting my lack of filter.

Immediately following the panel, I had a final interview with the director, one on one.  This was actually the most exciting part of the day.  I could tell she has a lot of passion for the program and it helped put things in perspective as to what my potential role would be and what would be expected of me.  At the end, she asked if I had any questions.  I *know* you are always supposed to have questions, but I was exhausted by this time.  It was 5 pm and I hadn't stopped all day.  I said something about having asked questions all day and that I was sure I'd think of something after I left.  She encouraged me to follow up with an email if I had any questions.  I feel blessed that she had the empathy to not schedule a dinner interview, so after our coffee I was able to return to my hotel room and lay in bed reading for an hour before I had dinner at the swanky restaurant next door.  I left before dawn the next morning.

In my travel weary state, I knew I had to get my thank you notes in the mail before I left home again, so I spent a couple of hours writing them out by hand and tracking down physical addresses for people.  I made sure I included something specific to each person and reiterated the perspectives or experiences we shared.  I think thank you notes are a brilliant idea, although they require some effort.

Two days later, I was on my way to New Mexico.  I flew into Albuquerque and rented a car to drive to Socorro (75 miles south).  The drive gave me a chance to see the desert.  The sky was huge and very blue.  The landscape was striking but I felt like I was on another planet, maybe one that was not hospitable to human life.  There was a mix up about my schedule.  Originally, I was supposed to interview Friday morning until the afternoon but there was a misunderstanding, leading me to believe the director wanted to meet me Thursday afternoon.  Once we straightened that out, she decided to take me on a tour of the town.  It was tiny.  I thought I was prepared for this, since I lived in a small town in Washington State, but I was not.  The population of the entire town is 9;000.  On the plus side, the university owned the mountain immediately behind them, where students and professionals get to blow things up.  I was intimidated by the lack of green in the town.  I know I live in Texas, but I'm on the river and things are usually green 8 or 9 months of the year when it's not blisteringly hot.  Despite my hesitation about the town, the director was the very soul of hospitality.  We started talking during the drive, which led to an impromptu interview for an hour and then turned into dinner.  Again I met a woman very passionate about her mission.

Although I participated in a living/learning community as an instructor in graduate school, it is not my specialty.  I had spent time prepping for the interview by talking extensively with the woman who directed that program and reading everything I could on llc's.  I was not clear exactly what they were looking for, so I employed my anthropological background and the informal nature (don't be fooled, nothing is informal) of the dialogue to get a better grasp on the exact nature of the job.  After a while, I became confident that I could actually add positively to the existing program.  NMT is a STEM school, only offering science degrees, so approaching the problem from a social science/humanity perspective could bring a different perspective.  I left dinner feeling exhausted (I had been up since 4:30 am) but better about the position.

The next day, I had a series of mini-interviews with people involved in the program - residential life, the registrar, a faculty advisor, academic affairs.  All of them had interesting ideas and I got along well with all of them.  I did, however, sense that the administration was not fully behind the idea of llcs, which kind of complicated the picture of what I would be responsible for.  I think one of my biggest assets, to my academic chagrin, was the fact that I've worked in municipal government for four years while finishing my degree.  If you have any administrative background, people *love* to hear that you are good a paperwork.  I did not set out to expand my ability to handle bureaucracy, but it certainly makes me more appealing as a potential employee.  I felt pretty good about the job and then someone mentioned that I might be able to teach once I settled into my role with the llcs.  Here was my opportunity to teach the Videogames and Culture class that I've been secretly developing.  A job that looked pretty interesting now became intriguing.

We wrapped up the interview process with lunch.  This time I thought I'd be safe with a salad.  Also dangerous (and I was wearing my fancy suit again).  So once again, I ate a few bites before nerves got the best of me and I gave up eating.  I think someone should publish a list of foods that are safe to order, because it seems to me that everything on the menu could easily end up in my lap.  We finished lunch around 1 pm and I drove back to Albuquerque.  I had the entire drive to ponder the experience.

The vibe at NMT was entirely different than at Case Western.  The campus and number of students was much smaller.  People seemed to work cross-discipline out of necessity.  The interview process was more relaxed.  They gloried in their academic rigor and general nerdiness.  It really appealed to the side of me that makes jokes about Schrodinger (forgive the lack of umlaut, but I can't find it on here) and watches Dr. Who obsessively.  I got the feeling, however, that students might question whether I was *really* a doctor since my degree wasn't in a STEM discipline.  I hate to perpetuate the stereotype about soft social science, but I haven't taken a math class since I was an undergrad, so it was hard for me to grasp the goals of a mathematical modeling class and how that could be integrated with soil sciences.

In the end, I was offered both jobs, about four days apart.  It is a crazy position to be in.  I really enjoyed meeting everyone at both campuses and was leaving it up to the universe as to which position I would take.  I didn't expect to have to make a choice.  I've never negotiated anything so having to call people and ask for more salary or other accommodations was stressful. (As a side note, it is not appropriate to say "wow" when offered a salary.  It didn't seem to hurt in the long run, but it belies a certain coolness one is supposed to project in these situations.)  The worst was waiting.  After a while, I just wanted to be sure of something, and a week going back and forth between the two was nerve-wracking.  It wasn't until the day before I accepted the offer from Case Western that I was sure what I wanted.  I could envision myself in both positions - one research, the other administration; one without any teaching, the other directly involved in all aspects of  student life.  It came down to quality of life.  I would rather live in a city than in a rural town.  I need green growing things and am willing to brave the snow to live near a body of water.  It also came down to challenge.  I don't want to be a big fish in a small pond.  I want to be pushed intellectually and being one of a handful of non-STEM faculty at a STEM university probably wasn't going to do it.  I've spent the last four years researching and writing outside of a university system and I get tired of accosting people with guerrilla anthropology, bludgeoning the unsuspecting into a critical analysis of gender.  I think I could have been content with NMT but the opportunity to work on social justice issues and community movements was just too perfect.

Telling the director of NMT was difficult.  She is such a genuinely nice person who cares deeply about her students, I couldn't help feeling like a bully telling her I had accepted another position.  She was gracious and I am confident she will find someone for the job that enjoys the things that freaked me out (the size of the town and the whole desert-thing).  I find it difficult to say no to anything.  This is the first job I've ever turned down.

Despite my weird guilt about declining NMT's offer, I am excited to be moving to Cleveland and beginning with Case Western.  I leave for my discipline's national conference next week and it feels great going there knowing I have a job.  This whole process has been intense and sometimes confusing.  I am glad to have a direction and that things have worked out well.  For those of you still on the market, keep faith.  And I'm here if you'd like to kvetch.

Friday, October 26, 2012


One of the first concepts taught in anthropology is that of kinship.  It is the bane of most undergrads.  As taken as I was with the discipline, I could not bear to sit through the endless charts and could not, for the life of me, grasp what was so riveting about Hawaiian descent patterns.  After years of study, I realized what my professors were so excited about:

It doesn't have to be like this.

The idea that there is one correct way to be related to people is bullshit.  People all over the world, in different times, have defined their relatives differently.  What is really interesting is that these definitions are not willy-nilly but reflect the material circumstances of particular societies.  When I hear politicians holding forth on the "traditional" family or "traditional" marriage, I want to scream.  This always means they are promoting the one-man-one-woman model.  There are some cute graphics illustrating how the Bible defines marriage in the hopes of demonstrating how fallacious this notion of a traditional marriage is.  I think it is the height of ethnocentrism to limit a discussion of traditional marriage to the dogma of one particular faith.

According to Haviland, "While monogamy is the most common marriage form worldwide, it is not the most preferred.  That distinction goes to polygamy (one individual having multiple spouse) - specifically to polygyny, in which a man is married to more than one woman.  Favored in about 80 to 85 percent of the world's cultures, polygyny is practiced in parts of Asia and much of sub-Saharan Africa."  This also includes the splinter group of Mormons who practice polygyny in the United States.

That seems to be an overwhelming argument against the "naturalness" of monogamy.  As a feminist, however, I feel compelled to point out that the 80-85% figure is probably male preference, as many women in polygynous societies prefer to be the only wife.  Entering a marriage as a second or third wife is less prestigious, although generally preferable to spinsterhood.  

Much rarer is the practice of polyandry, where a wife has multiple husbands.  The best known example of this comes from Tibet, where arable land is scarce and passed down through the male line.  By practicing fraternal polyandry (brothers marrying the same woman), land is not repeatedly subdivided.  

On top of these variations, there are other combinations.

Co-marriages - several men and women have sexual access to one another

Ghost marriages - a woman is married to a man who died without heirs and the man's brother acts as his proxy.  Any resulting children are considered the dead man's offspring, with the rights and obligations thereof.

Female husbands - in parts of Nigeria, a woman who has been married for a number of years without having children is sometimes allowed to marry another woman, making the first woman a husband and the second a wife.  The wife's children are considered descendants of the husband.

Polyamory - in certain parts of the US, there is a movement to accept multiple, simultaneous, long-term romantic and sexual relationships.

Although this may be the exact argument that some conservatives are making, women generally have more autonomy in sexually permissive societies.  Where divorce is easier to attain, women have more rights.  The hegemonic ideal of heteronormativity (one man, one woman, engaged in procreation) as the only appropriate sexual, generative relationship has a lot to do with material circumstances of inheritance and power rather than some divine dictate.  

I just read that Mitt Romney refused to alter the birth certificate form in the state of Massachusetts after same-gendered marriage was recognized in the state to reflect the fact that some children are born to same-gendered parents.  If other societies can grapple with the fact that a dead man can sire children, how hard is it to come to grips with the idea that both (or all) parents have the right to declare their legal relationship to a child?  Isn't it a good thing to have people willing to accept responsibility for a child?

After becoming sufficiently self-righteous, I find myself fondly remembering Linda Stone's (one of my WSU profs) obsession with Tibetan descent groups and the anthropological truth that there is no one, absolute, irrefutable way to make a meaningful life.  My family is my own and politicians do not get to define it.  They still have the power, however, to impact the material and cultural circumstances of non-"traditional" families.  So go vote.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

In Between States

One of my all time favorite anthropological concepts is that of liminality.  It is the space, generally created by ritual, where one is "betwixt and between" states, usually in a rite of passage.  Victor Turner popularized this concept, although he owes a great debt to Van Gennep for the structure of ritual.  Classically, a person involved in a ritual as the focus goes through three stages - separation from normal life, liminality, reincorporation into society.  The ritual signifies the person's change in status, from child to adult, single to married, alive to dead.  In a world that is obsessed with digital states, where a person is either one thing or another, it is refreshing to think of the process of becoming.  A cusp, a doorway, a penumbra.

There are other types of rituals, such as rites of intensification, where liminality also plays a role, although participants are not shifting from one state to another permanently.  During a liminal phase, communitas takes place, where participants' social status is leveled and normal rules are suspended.  Power can be inverted, placing significance on the words of fools.  My participation in Vodou ceremonies have been marked by the sense of communitas and liminality.  These were some of my formative experiences as an anthropologist, so it's no surprise I look for the liminal in everything I do.

Just this week, I've traveled to both Ohio and New Mexico.  Two entirely different professional experiences and the contrast in weather was startling.  Since there are no direct flights from Texas to either of the places I went, I have spent a lot of time in airports this week.  I was struck that travel becomes its own ritual.  People are literally betwixt and between.  However, there was very little joy in the process.  People looked grumpy and exhausted.  There was some loosening of strictures, as people casually struck up conversations as opposed to the general reservations American have about interacting with strangers.  But there was no sense of "we're all in this together."  It was as if something was being done unto them and they had no choice but to endure.

Now, one could argue that this is just the nature of American culture - that there is no space for mass liminality.  However, I am from New Orleans and I beg to differ.  Mardi Gras lends itself to the obvious argument about public ritual, but I was more often struck by the way people in the city responded to the threat of a hurricane.  I left NOLA prior to Katrina, so I can't speak to how that devastation affected how people currently prepare for a storm, but when I was growing up, it was as if the more dire the forecast, the friendlier people became.  All of a sudden neighbors who never spoke helped one another board up windows and people took care of one another in shelters.  The sense of communitas made living through the threat of devastation bearable.  So I know that mass liminality, a collective holding of breath, is possible.

By the time I was flying back to Texas for the second time in four days, I was tired and a bit harried, but it seemed to me that people were missing out on the magic of the experience of being in between.  For those few hours, we were all the same, subject to the same vagaries of the all-powerful airport gods, weather and labor organizing and standby flights.  Communitas is often marked by a lack of social power on the part of participants; status, ascribed and achieved, no longer counts.  I feel like travelers miss the fact that the lack of secular power can be counterbalanced by ritual power.  Betwixt and between, we have access to spiritual insights and, in some cases, supernatural powers.  If nothing else, being able to suspend quotidian life offers perspective on our daily expectations for ourselves and others.

I will be traveling again soon and rather than being impatient to just get there, already, I intend to think deeply on what it means to be liminal, in between states, neither here nor there.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Coming Out

It's National Coming Out day.  Queer pride is a wonderful thing.  People should celebrate who and how they love or even how they want to get dirty if love doesn't enter the picture. Queerness can be a source of destabilization, a perspective from which to question the status quo.  Sexuality shapes lives in powerful ways, however you experience it (or if you don't experience it).  Partner choice, while related in some ways to sexuality, is not the same thing.  I tend to think National Coming Out day focuses on who you make a life with rather than what gets you hot.  Both have their value but I sometimes regret that the former dominates the latter in public discourse.

That being said, I am interested in the narrative structure of "Coming Out."  In popular parlance, a person either is or is not out.  Coming out, however, is not usually a one-time experience.  A co-worker was telling me about how her niece and her friends gently scolded a male classmate for saying "That's so gay."  He responded by saying, "Sorry.  I didn't mean that.  I'm on the spectrum."  The girls thought he meant the autism spectrum, so there was much confusion.  My co-worker told me the story to reinforce how attitudes have changed.  But neither she nor the girls realized the boy might have been testing the waters.  This bit of the story was included as a side note about kids' perceptions of adult matters, since a mother of one of the girls worked with autistic children.  In that moment, he had the option of making his intentions clear or leaving them unresolved.  This doesn't just happen once.  In some cases, people come out little by little.

I find the older I get, the less these paradigm-shifting opportunities occur.  I am not sure if I am just more comfortable with who I am or if it's part of a general mellowing with age.  It's no longer a pressing secret I have to keep or a fact I need everyone to be aware of.  In most instances, it just doesn't come up.  Of course, I have loved ones who live very out and proud and I support them.  I'm just not sure I'm up for my personal being political.  I can pass and a lot of the time, I do.

In the kinky community, people are very clear about whether and to whom they are out as kinky.  It is a somewhat risky proposition.  On the one hand, people in general are somewhat more tolerant about individualized sexual behaviors (hurray!).  Even mainstream writing dabbles in the kinky, although usually with disturbing implications for the women involved.  On the other hand, people judge you.  People in power - employers, judges, friends and family - can decide based on this one aspect of your life whether you are a moral person deserving of dignity and respect. In many cases, people decide that the risks outweigh the benefits.  In some ways, the kinky discussions about whether to be out resemble the narratives found in the queer community.  People vary and their approaches to sexuality can be more or less radical.  For people whose primary relationships resemble hegemonic ideals (you know, one masculine man and one feminine woman), it is easier to stay quiet in mixed company because your partner at least looks like the heteronormative ideal.  For people in same-gendered relationships, bringing a partner to a social function automatically marks them.  So it's not the same experience.  Of course, there are people who are both kinky and queer and their out-nesss is not all or nothing.  For some aspects, to some people, they may be completely out, or not.

On this National Coming Out day, I invite you to be proud - whoever you love, whatever gets you hot - and if that inspires you to share, great.  If not, I'm ok with that too.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fruits of my labor

I have finished my study on LGBTQ community members' perceptions of the local health department.  I'll hold forth at length at a future date, but here's the report in full for anyone with some time to kill.  The goal of the paper was to offer insight to the health department on how and why (or why not) LGBTQ folks access local services.  A big thanks to my co-author and editor, Michelle Y. Fiedler.  We are for hire.  You'd be amazed what qualitative research can do for you.

I am interested if anyone, particularly people in the queer community or in healthcare, has any comments.  Happy Friday!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Standing Age on Its Head

My birthday has come and gone.  I don't feel thirty-five.  Part of that stems from just graduating, I am sure.  Of course, I am not sure what thirty-five is supposed to feel like.  I don't have children, so I can't measure it in generations.  My career is just starting (keeping fingers crossed).  My body is still responsive.  According to popular culture, it's mostly downhill from here.  But what if age was disarticulated from the amount of time one has spent breathing?

In evolutionary theory, neoteny is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood.  Supposedly, this explains why men find women with large eyes and shiny hair more attractive.  In the US, attractiveness is a weird mix of childishness and maturity, pinning the standard for female beauty sometime around the age of twenty (skin color, hair type, body size, and physical ability not withstanding).  As a woman, I've felt pleased when people avow I do not look my age, as if somehow looking younger is always positive.  One can never be too young or too thin, right?  In my time in the kinky community, I learned to evaluate age differently.  I will discuss two approaches in the kinky community which disturb accepted beliefs about age and desirability.

Probably the more spectacular of the two is the phenomenon known as "age play."  This involves one partner taking on the role of a pubescent or even prepubescent child while the other partner acts as an older person in authority - teacher, nanny, daddy (although some people explore themes of incest, this term is probably not how you imagine it).  For some, the play is explicitly sexual, while for others it is experiential.  Age play allows for an explicit engagement with power.  There are few people less powerful in our culture than children.  Part of the appeal of kink is that it violates taboos, and despite the sexualization of children, even playing with the idea of pedophilia is transgressive.  It is important to note that no one under the age of eighteen was allowed at the parties I attended and the people I asked were appalled at the idea of involving actual children in play.  So it's not as if this was some finishing school for child rapists.  In the community I worked with, feminized people generally take on the younger role, sometimes referred to as the "little."  The authoritarian roles were generally held by more masculine people.  Note that I do not say women or men; like many things in the kinky community, gender was not always tied to a person's physical body.  The people I interviewed who played as littles enjoyed the sense of freedom it created.  It is a way to remember the wonders of childhood, when everything was new and exciting.  It is also a way to recall the terrors of childhood (not necessarily personal child abuse, but the sense that everyone has more power than you and can wield it according to rules you cannot fathom).  The person in the authority role (the "big") gets to experience control and power.  Many, although not all, scenes revolve around the little misbehaving and the big disciplining them.  It is a way to shift perspective, radically imagine and inhabit a different way of being.  We were all children once and have morphed into these strange beings.  Age play allows people to experiment with both childishness and childlike-nesss.  At the end of the scene, everyone goes back to being adults.

A less recognized method of resisting hegemonic ideals, even among those in the community, is the model of female desirability that extends past nubility.  My advisor found it hard to credit that parties were well attended by women over fifty or even sixty but it happened.  The interesting thing, to me, is that these women were not attempting to look younger.  Their attractiveness was based on their experience, generally as dominants but sometimes as submissives as well.  In tones of awe, people would whisper about how "scary" the dommes were.  They never lacked for partners and usually drew a crowd when they played.  They relied less on technique than their male counterparts, instead evoking fear and desire through their presence.  It was a revelation to discover a model of female desirability that not only transcended age, but actually valued it.  There was also a space for older men to be viewed as sexually attractive, although the contrast was less stunning than with women.

At both ends of the age range, then, people are contesting the meaning of age.  An interesting side effect of all of this age play is the treatment of young adults (18-24).  Few people had exposure to kink prior to turning eighteen, so neophyte status complicated their desirability.  New people (referred to as "fresh meat") could be excited by all the novel experiences and shared that energy with others.  This made them attractive. However, their lack of experience usually counted highly against them.  Experienced people felt newbies could not be trusted to know what they wanted or needed.  This could lead to drama and misinterpretation.  In a mainstream culture that places the pinnacle of desirability (for women, anyway) at that age, it was fascinating to see a subculture in which there was serious consideration given to the drawbacks of being a young adult.

Like gender, we are wedded to the notion that age has some sort of objective reality, that it expresses a biological fact about ourselves.  In the kinky community, these assumptions are tested and often found wanting.  So, thirty-five?  It's probably whatever I make of it.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nuts and Bolts

Up until recently, all of my ethnographies have been rather leisurely affairs.  My PhD work in the kinky community took upwards of twenty months, not to mention the year it took me to write.  In my defense, I was working full-time.  My Master’s work, although more compressed, was the result of two months in the field followed by two semester’s writing.  I had a class on rapid anthropological assessment but never the opportunity to apply it.  This recent grant, while much smaller in scope, spanned from August 17 to October 1.  I went quickly through the development-to-product cycle.  It acted as an abstract of what I love (and hate) about fieldwork.  Non-anthropologists might be interested in the actual research process, as it is often a black box, obscuring the details of how conclusions are formed.  Anthropologists may compare my experiences to their own.  I’m interested in how other people feel about fieldwork.

This was relatively easy for this grant, as the health department approached me about doing some sort of study involving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (and whatever other designations seem appropriate) community and the health department.  This particular department does not normally consume qualitative research, so they weren’t entirely sure what I could offer them.  In our initial meeting, I threw out several ideas about how to measure cultural competence.  Then they told me they needed a report in six weeks.  Yikes!  Realistically evaluating my options (and still working full-time), I told them I could give them eight interviews and a few hours of participant observation.  The time limit constrained the scope of the project.  We decided to explore some community members’ perceptions of the department and to gauge knowledge of the services offered.  I have never had such a laser focus.  Like writing a sonnet, the constraints inspired creativity while lending structure to the process.

Archival Research:
Although I had worked in public health previously and I am a cultural anthropologist, I was not overly familiar with the literature on LGBTQ people’s experience in healthcare settings.  This was a crash course in provider toolkits, academic literature, activist perspectives, and popular websites.  It left me a little breathless.  (As a side note, over the course of this grant, I began tutoring a high school junior in American history.  I taught her how to use the index of her text book and she was excited.  I remember that magical moment when I realized I could look up anything I wanted.)

Research Plan:
I knew what question I wanted to answer, but how to go about answering it?  I am a huge fan of grounded theory analysis.  This is the process by which you interview people about general topics and transcribe their answers.  The transcriptions are then coded freely in the first stage to see what themes emerge.  This allows for analyses of correlation and subtext.  The silences are often as intriguing as the explications.  Knowing I wanted to use grounded theory analysis, interviews became central to the project.  Relying on my research blitz, I formulated general questions to guide the interview, but I always find the tangents to be more revealing once specific topics are introduced.  I didn’t have a lot of time for good old-fashioned participant-observation, the quintessential anthropological process of hanging out.  I scheduled some time to check out the STD Clinic and attend the Pride Festival.  This was to take a brief snapshot of the community and the best-known health department service.  There are a lot of political implications of relying solely on Pride, but I think by specifically recruiting people on the queer fringes of the mainstream LGBT community, I could offer different perspectives.  The serendipity of Pride occurring smack dab in the middle of my small window made it too important to pass up.  Of course I would rather more participant-observation in multiple settings, but I felt like the little I had added some depth to the overall study.

This is definitely my least favorite part of the process.  Since this was a grant, I was able to pay some connected individuals to recruit for me.  I still had to be involved in the selection process and had to manage the demographics.  I paid particular attention to include people of color and at least one transgender person, as these perspectives can be overwhelmed by the strong white gay male voices in my city.  Of course, my initial recruiting efforts were strict but once my deadline was coming up, I got a little more lax.  Recruiting is always feast or famine, especially with convenience samples.  No one for days and then three at once.  Since I had a little money to compensate people, it was easier to ask for their time.  That was a novel experience for me and one that I would like to repeat.

The fifteen minutes before an interview are nerve wracking for me.  I have learned to be compulsively early, as I almost always end up getting lost.  After much practice, this doesn’t fluster me as much as it once did, but it’s still annoying.  This project was challenging because I hadn’t met anyone I interviewed prior to sitting down with a tape recorder.  I met people at home, at coffee shops, at bodegas, at recovery centers.  Despite my worries, I was always able to judge who my intended interviewee was.  I forget that people are generally lovely and self-aware.  People are the experts on their own lives and usually want to share that expertise, if approached in the right way.  Many people offered to participate further with the health department in training or outreach efforts.  I felt like I was asking about something that mattered to them.  The interviews were short, maybe thirty minutes.  My favorite was held mostly in English, but with a good sprinkling of Spanish as both of us worked to make ourselves intelligible.  Less pleasant was an interview I had with someone who used the process to spin tales.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but listening to our conversation again, this person constantly contradicted what they (the singular they!) said for no reason I could discern.  I’m not saying that this is the first time I’ve been lied to during an interview, but it’s the first time I’ve had reason to doubt everything a person said.  The lack of larger context provided by lengthier fieldwork and participant-observation was a drawback.  It also disappointed me a little.  Of course, this project matters to me more than it matters to probably anyone else, so I have to accept that people participate for their own reasons. “Understanding the plight of humankind” may not be on their agenda.

There’s nothing for it but to do it.  It eats up time.  I’m not a fast typist (although I am much faster than I used to be, thanks to hours of quality time with the transcription pedal).  However, it is also a way to spend time with the data.  Coding really begins here, when you are truly listening to the words people use. And since I use qualitative analysis software, it is a necessary evil.

This is simultaneously frustrating and pleasing.  It is like a huge puzzle.  Depending on what you are looking at, each segment can be coded in different ways.  Whole paragraphs may refer to “positive associations” with sentences, or even fragments of sentences, coded as “STD Clinic,” “insurance,” or “gender.”  Even having transcribed the interviews, the codes sometimes magically appear.  I had no idea that themes of addiction would occur as often as they did, yet there they were.  Less wonderful is the process of recoding.  Categories morph, expand, break up, over the course of coding.  So I go through all the interviews once and generate all the codes I can think of, then go through again and apply them more selectively.  Then I can begin to look for correlation or themes.

This is actually my favorite part.  I love to think deeply about things, to see the connections that are left unspoken.  Why is it that the women in this study approach gender with less surety than the men?  Who uses the term queer and who uses the term gay?  These questions are outside the general purview of this specific study, but point to larger social issues I think about all the time.  Much of my analysis goes hand in hand with my writing.  It’s only spilling it onto the page that I can see whether something is working or not.  I think one of the most interesting things I learned in this study was that people have a cultural model of the health department as reactive rather than proactive and therefore do not associate preventative care with the department, despite the plethora of programs offered.  I like analysis because I carry it around with me, talking it out with random people, trying it on for size, and sometimes the “aha!” moment while I’m doing dishes.  It is what keeps me returning to anthropology like a drug addict.

Absolutely necessary, but often boring when it has to be plowed through.  I want to share my results with others, but I sometimes fall into the trap of French philosophers (although less graceful than they) of presenting the data and the conclusions and letting the reader figure it out for herself.  Luckily, I’ve been able to work with a good friend and keen editor on this project who calls me out on my laziness and makes me a better writer.

I am not sure I am going to present this work to the health department.  I don’t really know what they plan on doing with this report.  It bugs me that I may just be a cog in some giant grant wheel, just a box to check that they have completed x widgets.  But I plan on presenting my findings at a professional conference soon.  I enjoy presenting, which is a lot like teaching, except you get to use slightly more jargon.  I particularly love the post-presentation conversations that happen organically when someone responds to the work.

That has been this research cycle, in its intense, hectic distillation.  I am not sure how it compares to years-long ethnography yet.  I think I’ll have to get through the final stage.  The final report is due on Monday.  I think it will be a long weekend for me.  But it’s my first paid gig as an anthropologist, and on the whole, I feel competent.  I know how to do this.  And it makes me happy.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


I learned this morning that my dissertation has been published to the internet.  I don't expect most people to slog through 317 pages, but it thrills me nonetheless.  It's open access, so anyone can see it.  So, for the first time, I present you with In the Habit of Being Kinky: Practice and Resistance in a BDSM Community, Texas, USA.  

I am going to go do a happy dance now.

Race and Kink

Recently, I have interviewed for a position where race is perhaps the salient category of analysis.  As an anthropologist, the party line is that we don't believe in race but we believe in racism.  Race as a biological construct doesn't hold water.  There is more variation within a given "race" than between different ones.  Deconstructing the concept of race by disarticulating it from naturalizing rhetoric is supposed to be empowering, at least for people oppressed by racism.  Instead, as a discipline, we rely on ethnicity to account for cultural differences.  Often, this is simply a one-to-one swap, using ethnicity to indicate the same things race does in other settings.  I appreciate the focus on cultural transmission of identity and think it is imperative to avoid biological determinism, but "race" exists as an emic category, especially as pertains to the African-American/white divide.  It is almost impossible to address some of the structural inequalities that exist in the United States without taking account of race.

That being said, race has not always been my go-to point.  In my PhD work, the kinky community in my part of Texas is overwhelmingly white.  When I worked in Belize, the community was truly multi-ethnic.  Ideas of race played out on a global field but on a local level concern was on cultural groups.  Ancestry was important but fluid in a way that is not recognized in the US.  In my current work with LGBTQ population, I have gone out of my way to include people of color in my interviews.  But in all of this work, I took race (or ethnicity) to be a congruent relationship to gender or sexual orientation, not as a primary category on its own.  Interviewing for this job has led me to question how my work would be different if framed in terms of race.  All of a sudden, realms of exclusion function differently.  Many times in Texas, especially in my own progressive burg, I have been confronted with the belief we live in a post-racial society (always by white people), the reasoning being something along the lines of  "well, the president is black..."  People of color do not share this perception.

This leads me to the experience of race in the kinky community.  One African-American woman I interviewed said this:
I find that some people in the scene that do approach me, do so because they have a fetish for black women, which is not really my thing.  I don’t want my race to be fetishized.  I want to be seen as attractive, of course.  I don’t know who wouldn’t but I don’t want someone to say, I like you because your skin is dark.  That doesn’t really work for me.  I have a couple of other things working for me and if they can’t see that, I’m not wasting my time.  There are a couple of people who their big thing is race play and that’s a huge trigger for me.  It may just be some of my personal experiences bleeding into that.  I know that they probably see what they do as incredibly hardcore and edgy, and it is, way too hardcore and edgy for me.  I’m not at all interested.  I run into a lot of people who fetishize race or ignore it.  Like it’s not really an issue, we treat everyone the same, and they don’t really. 
Race play involves using stereotypes of race to create a scene.  This can involve the "plantation slave girl" or "the black stallion."  It calls on the history of African-Americans as slaves or the hyper-sexuality of African American masculinity.  Many white people see this as another form of exoticism, disconnected from material and social reality of racism in the United States.  It is forbidden, therefore sexy.  The woman I quoted went on to say,
 It would feel very progressive and edgy, if it wasn’t like these people had come full circle, at all.  It’s like this is how they see, this is truly how they feel about black men, that their goal is to find all of the vulnerable white women and rape them.  It perpetuates this idea of what black men are.  The same thing is true of black women being depicted as dominatrixes or slave girls, very plantation slave girls.  It irritates me.
In a community that prides itself on being extreme, race play is one of a few things that press people's buttons.  But it seems as if any time African-Americans play with people of another race in public, there is always an undercurrent of race play.  Part of the allure of kink is the idea of exchanging power.  Race always has aspects of power.  The reality of racism makes it harder to maintain the illusion that power is something derived from oneself, making that play uncomfortable for many people watching (or participating).  Part of this woman's frustration is that she is cast into one of these roles on a regular basis without the opportunity to represent positively what it means to have different experiences.  This shifts in groups where she knows people personally, but not entirely.

Racism, both ideological and structural, still shapes the experience of many people in the United States.  I believe the kinky community is a microcosm of wider American society, perhaps confronting (but not alleviating) hegemonic ideals of race.  I wish I had pursued this line of inquiry more deeply in my time in the field.  The idea of a man beating a woman squicks many people.  Things get even more complicated when you picture any combination involving an African-American and a white person.  In an analysis of sexuality (radical or otherwise), ideas about race have to be accounted for.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Thin Motives

I'm working on a grant examining lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning community members' perceptions of the local health department.  It is a very small study using qualitative methodology to situate people's understandings of the services provided.  The long term goal is to make the health department more welcoming for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.  To that end, I've been doing a lot of public health reading, both academic and practitioner focused.  On the whole, the literature points out there is a problem and offers commonsense solutions (ask about a person's gender rather than assuming, ask everyone in a medical practice about sexual behaviors without labeling them as necessarily hetero- or homo- sexual, etc.), or some more profoundly basic human rights, like everyone deserves to be treated decently and define for themselves what "family" means.  I agree with all of these things, although it's hard not to read public health literature as somewhat patronizing.  

For example, the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association's Guidelines for Care of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Patients notes,
"There is evidence that lesbians are more likely to be overweight than their heterosexual counterparts, possibly because of cultural norms within the lesbian community and because lesbians may relate differently to, not accept or not internalize mainstream notions of ideal beauty and thinness. While lesbians as a group tend to have better body image than heterosexual women—a positive health characteristic—they may consequently be less motivated to avoid being overweight."  

This somehow assumes that who one has sex with inoculates one to hegemonic ideals of beauty by ascribing this effect to mysterious lesbian culture.  In my experience, it is true that lesbians have a different relationship to their bodies, although not any less complicated, than heterosexual women.  Sometimes, it is difficult for me to judge, since I have a foot in each camp.  I spent my entire Master's work on how beauty ideals are structured by gender, ethnicity, physical ability, socio-economic status, and nationality.  In Belize, one of the most powerful lessons I learned relied on women answering the question "Who do you think is beautiful?" by saying, "I am."  These women primarily had male partners so lesbianism isn't the only variable in the equation for a positive body image.  Many of the women I know (both lesbian and not) in the United States have worked long and hard to accept themselves as beautiful despite their internalization of  hegemonic ideals of beauty.  Additionally, many of the women (and men) in the heterosexual kinky community tend to be larger than mainstream ideals.  Is sexual desirability and fulfillment not based on the constant fear of rejection antithetical to having a "normal" weight?  It sometimes seems to me as if people believe the only thing keeping us as a nation from devolving into slovenly slugs is intense sexual anxiety.  People who decide to check out of this rat race are castigated for not being concerned enough with their physical appearance under the guise of health.

In the same report, the GMLA states,
Gay men are more like to have body image problems and to experience eating disorders than heterosexual men. On the opposite end of the spectrum, overweight and obesity are problems that also affect a large segment of the gay community
I get that this is a toolkit meant to encourage healthcare providers to be sensitive to the needs of members of the LGBTQ community and not a treatise on the genesis of body image issues.  But there is no reason given for why gay men may have more eating disorders than their heterosexual counterparts.  The implication is again that people who are concerned with body image will be thinner, although walking the line between healthy and pathological.  It seems as if one can have a positive body image or thinness, but not both, and somehow sexual orientation makes one extra vulnerable or super resistant to vagaries of American ideals of beauty.

Unstated and unexamined is the claim that it is the male gaze that demands beauty in the form of thinness.  In most of the United States, beauty is performed for a specific audience, namely men.  Women who are not invested in male evaluation tend to be heavier.  Men performing beauty for other men run the risk of eating disorders.  Body image disorders are internalized patriarchy.  Constant self-monitoring for violations of beauty standards are a method of social control.  On a theoretical level, hegemony needs to be deconstructed to be thwarted.  Passing along glib answers as to why some people avoid the beauty trap and then linking that avoidance to pathology (obesity) perpetuates the existing structure, regardless of sexual orientation.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Nuance trumps slogans

In my last post, I pondered the possibility of shifting from "no means no" to "yes means yes" with regards to sex.  As was pointed out to me, the legal ramifications of such a shift may be untenable.  The point of that post was mostly to talk about how the black and white rhetoric of rape ("rape is rape.") silences people whose experience deviates from the classic concept of a woman raped by a male stranger violently or with the threat of violence.  Once access to vital healthcare is thrown into the mix, such as abortion, rape becomes a test that must be passed in order appease the morality of those who otherwise condemn a woman's right to make reproductive choices.  Pregnancy is not the only devastating effect of rape, yet in this discourse, it is treated as the canary in the coal mine.  This ignores rapes that do not result in pregnancy, for example, the epidemic of rape in imprisoned populations.

The structure of rape is built upon power inequalities.  In cases that match the extreme standard, the perpetrator has the power to ignore the obvious dissent of the person being raped, whether that has to do with power deriving from violence or from authority, such as an adult over a child.  In other less clearly defined cases, my own in particular, I felt as if the person who was acted upon me relied on a narrow definition of consent, taking my silence to mean that I actively desired the attention.  Looking back, I wish my awkward, teenage self had felt confident enough to demand a stop or had been wise enough to leave, but there it is.  I didn't feel that I could do either of those things.  Passive and revolted, I endured.  In retrospect, it makes sense that I would zero in on the notion of consent, as if were that in place what had happened to me would not have occurred.

Having been in an established relationship for so many years, I have forgotten the tricky negotiations that take place in vanilla settings, the back and forth of yes/no/maybe.  I have been fortunate to have deliberately studied the phenomenon in the kinky community, in part because (usually) the negotiations are explicit and people are very reflexive and articulate.  The beginning of an interaction ostensibly relies on affirmative consent.  This is the ideal, and though not always practiced, it speaks to the intention of the actors.  They believe that with enough information, one can make an appropriate choice of what will be satisfying and positive for oneself.  Hand in hand with affirmative consent is the all important safe word.  This word has the power to stop any activity cold.  This acknowledges that not every situation or reaction can be predicted before the action starts.  So in this case, it is a dance between "yes means yes" and "no means no," each strengthening the other.  In the kinky community, there is a hyper awareness of how easily sex and violence become problematic when consent is lacking.  With my rosy glasses, it seems to me that most people would benefit from acknowledging sex is powerful and has the potential to be damaging.

That being said, there are several structures in place that make consent possible in the kinky community, beyond the obvious negotiation and people embracing the ideal.  This group is not radically different from mainstream American society in many aspects and in some ways mirrors the larger mores with surprising clarity.  On a fundamental level, people in the kinky community have more equality than one might think.  In this case, I am only speaking about the heterosexual group I worked with.  Although I worked with a lesbian group, the kind of sexual exploitation I am discussing was not obvious.  I didn't work with the men's group, therefore cannot posit how gender would impact their experiences  The  actual income of men and women, when controlled for age, shows little difference.  Traditionally, one of the ways women are forced into sexually exploitative relationships is based on the fact that they are not economically independent.  Additionally, women had control over their reproduction, choosing whether or not to risk pregnancy from any particular sexual encounter.  When I first learned about feminism, I was puzzled by the fact that this was such a big deal. With easy access to effective birth control, I didn't realize how the powerful spectre of pregnancy shapes women's sexual options.  Finally, there is the public nature of some play.  Rather than public sex being degrading, it may in fact ensure people's safety.  With witnesses, people feel comfortable exploring possibilities that might otherwise be considered too personally dangerous.  It gives more credence to the enforcibility of a safe word if there are others there to hold the players accountable.

Even given these positive structures (which may not be reproducible in other settings, given their structural nature or the hesitance of most Americans to have sex in public), power inequalities still exist and lead to sexually exploitative relationships.  In my work, almost every woman I met had a less than positive introduction to the kinky community through a man who exploited her lack of knowledge.  Let me rush to say that none of them would qualify anything that happened as rape.  But it points to one of the major points of weakness in the system.  By necessity, my sample was self-selected, since these women remained in the kinky community despite the rocky start.  I don't know about the women who had experiences that caused them to leave.  This leads to another mark against consent as a panacea.  It doesn't matter how explicitly behaviors are discussed ahead of time, people just don't know until they have experience.  In the heterosexual community, the men willing to endure the volatility of newbies were likely to exploit their role as keepers of wisdom, usually not out of malice, but because it is a powerful and desirable feeling to be treated as a font of knowledge.  That frisson new converts bring to the practice reinvigorates what may have become habit.  One of the mitigating factors for women new to the scene was whether they had a same-gendered mentor, whether formal or not.  This leads me to believe that it is a combination of gender and experience, not experience alone, that creates the potential for exploitation.

Affirmative consent alone is not the answer to the complex issues surrounding sexuality and power.  I think any solution that can be summed up in three words will, by necessity, lead to more harmful rhetoric and dangerous policies.  A nuanced view, while harder to chant, may in the end be more productive.  In the end, I think reducing sexual exploitation is about honesty, education, and power.  I don't think they will wipe rape out but it would be a positive first step toward creating sexual justice.