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.