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.