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.