Queering Romance

By Ellen Lamont

For the last couple of decades, debates over same-sex marriage dominated the national political conversation on gay rights. Slogans such as “love is love” and other mainstream narratives proclaimed the right to wedded bliss for same-sex couples, and movement leaders worked to normalize certain LGBTQ relationships by emphasizing their similarity to straight couples. Yet not all LGBTQ individuals were on board, and many asserted that liberation was not about gaining access to a government sanctioned institution or mimicking the practices of heterosexual couples. Instead, they argued, the appeal of queer life was in making life choices, and defining relationships, on one’s own terms. Only in doing so could one radically transform the sexist, heteronormative practices that structure romantic relationships.

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/the_justified_sinner/33880564722/in/datetaken-public/

            Normative dating and courtship practices are widely accepted in the U.S. because they reliably communicate interest and facilitate relationship progression. Men are expected to ask for, plan, and pay for dates, progress the relationship, and propose marriage, while women are expected to simply react. Given that these norms are predicated on assumptions of heterosexuality and are deeply gendered, I wondered how queer individuals navigated the early stages of romantic relationships, a time when people are more likely to fall back on well-established practices as a way to deal with uncertainty. In order to explore this question, I interviewed 40 LGBTQ-identified young adults in the San Francisco Bay Area about their dating practices. Given their young ages, geographic location, and extensive contact with queer community organizations and friend networks, my respondents were well-situated to remake romance outside of the standard Hollywood script.

            Contrary to the voices of liberation through assimilation, my findings show that some LGBTQ-identified individuals – particularly those in more radical, politicized queer spaces – reject the presumption that they should mimic heterosexual relationship practices, which they saw as constraining, unimaginative, and heavily gendered. Instead, respondents argued for dating practices built on reciprocity.

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They emphasized how both partners (or more, if in polyamorous relationships) should ask and pay for dates, communicate interest, and facilitate relationship progression. In addition, they aimed to construct relationships free from societal constraints and instead based on the individual needs of each partner. They viewed this approach as more honest than those that draw on cookie cutter assumptions about what people want and need in their relationships.

            This approach spilled over into their committed relationships, as respondents emphasized egalitarian, flexible, and non-gendered care work. They sought to engage in high levels of communication and negotiation so that each person’s individual, and often changing, needs would be consistently honored. Thus, my findings show how a deliberate rethinking of dating and courtship practices may set the stage for people to do the same in their long-term relationships, indicating that changing how people date may be important to building more equal, and less gendered, relationships.

            But while my respondents emphasized their desire to “write the scripts themselves” based on individual needs and wants, they faced emergent community-level norms that restricted the range of “acceptable” relationship practices. Given the queer community’s focus on resisting gendered and heteronormative practices, the people I spoke with discussed anywhere from mild to heavy pressure to avoid these practices in their own relationships. As a result, people worked hard to be appropriately radical and resist falling back on normative conventions. Those who fell back on heteronormative practices were either shamed or compelled to create narratives in which their adherence to such practices was explained away in order to undermine potential critiques. While my findings show the potential embedded in building relationships based on the expressed needs and desires of each partner rather than on default expectations, they also demonstrate that queer people struggle with the paradox that liberation can itself become a constraining norm, as the pressure to contest societal level norms translates into a pressure to always be radical.

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Ellen Lamont is an assistant professor  of sociology at the Appalachian State University. Her research examines how gender and sexuality shape young adults’ hookup, dating, and courtship practices.

 

 

 

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The Trump Effect on Sexual Health in Africa

By Robert Wyrod

As the Trump presidency enters its third month, we are beginning to see the implications for the U.S. role in promoting global sexual health. Trump’s reinstatement and expansion of the Mexico City Policy, aka the global gag rule, has rightfully received much attention. By prohibiting U.S. foreign aid from funding any organization providing or promoting abortions, it severely limits America’s ability to improve sexual health in the Global South. For the many health clinics across Africa that rely on U.S. funding for reproductive health and family-planning services, this may likely mean dramatically scaling back services or shuttering clinics.

Efforts are underway to challenge the reinstatement, most prominently the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act led by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). But there is another, less-discussed issue that could have an even greater impact on sexual health worldwide, especially in Africa. Will Trump defund the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief? The PEPFAR program, launched in 2004 during the George W. Bush administration, is the largest health initiative in history focused on fighting a single disease. To date, over $70 billion has been spent on PEPFAR programs, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. This makes PEPFAR a tempting target for the current administration, especially given Trump’s deep skepticism of foreign aid. In mid-January, the Trump transition team sent a series of pointed questions to the State Department about U.S. aid to Africa, asking “Is PEPFAR becoming a massive, international entitlement program?” Continue reading “The Trump Effect on Sexual Health in Africa”

Bud-sex: Sex between rural straight men

By Tony Silva

Scholarly interest in straight men that have sex with men has increased in recent years, and for good reason: the narratives of men in this population highlight the social construction of sexualities and masculinities. How individuals identify, understand, and express their sexuality and gender reflects culture, time period, social structures, and personal interpretations. My ongoing interview research project explores how rural straight men that have sex with men understand their gender, sexual practices, and sexual identity. While there is a framework to describe women’s sexual flexibility—“including straight women kissing each other (Hamilton 2007; Rupp and Taylor 2010) or having sex with other women (Budnick 2016)—there is no such framework for men. As my Gender & Society paper details, the narratives of my participants demonstrate the flexibility of male heterosexuality, the centrality of straightness to rural masculinity, the importance of geographic location for how individuals identify and express their sexuality and gender, and how similar sexual practices carry different meanings across contexts and populations.

Consider the narratives of a few of these straight men, who interpret their sex with men as compatible with straightness and rural masculinity. Jon describes himself as “pretty much masculine” because “I’m a… straight guy that likes to hunt, fish, camp, and I raise cattle for a living.” He loves his wife, raises several children with her, and occasionally meets men on Grindr and has sex with them in his barn. Marcus is not sexually attracted to men, but has oral sex with them to satisfy a specific “craving.” He seeks particular male sexual partners on Craigslist: “A guy that I would consider more like me, that gets blowjobs from guys every once in a while, doesn’t do it every day. I know that there are a lot of guys out there that are like me… they’re manly guys, and doing manly stuff, and just happen to have oral sex with men every once in a while.” David is retired and describes himself as a respected and visible figure in his community, and has sex with his male “friend with benefits” to maintain his sex life as he and his wife grow older: “I’m not getting sex at home, and I want sex… older men are a lot more receptive to sex, they’re more enthusiastic,” because “senior women have kinda lost their desire to do much of anything.” While their reasons for having sex with men are diverse, the participants share an identification with straightness and masculinity, as well as interpretations to reinforce both.

silvaThe men in this study engaged in what I call bud-sex to reinforce their straightness and rural masculinity, which distinguishes them from other groups of straight men who have sex with men. They reinforced their straightness through unconventional interpretations of same-sex sex: as “helpin’ a buddy out,” relieving “urges,” acting on sexual desires for men without sexual attractions to them, relieving general sexual needs, and/or a way to act on sexual attractions (see also my forthcoming paper in Sexualities). They reaffirmed their sense of themselves as “normal,” masculine rural men through their choice of male sexual partners on the axes of masculinity, race, and sexual identity, as well as through the type of sex they prefer. By having sex mostly with other men like themselves—conventionally masculine, white, and straight or secretly bisexual—and by enjoying secretive and romance-free same-sex sex, the participants framed their encounters as straight and masculine. “Bud-sex” captures the participants’ unique interpretations of their sexual practices, as well as how they had sex and with whom they partnered. Through complex interpretations, the participants reframed sex with men, usually not compatible with heterosexuality or rural masculinity, to reinforce both.

The implications of straight, masculine men open to sex with other men are complex. On one hand, unconventional expressions of heterosexuality and masculinity demonstrate that normativity can be challenged, though unintentionally, from within dominant identities. Relatedly, it is encouraging that some straight men are willing to enjoy sex with men despite the “one-act rule of homosexuality,” the widespread perception that any man who has sex with men is gay. On the other hand, the participants’ masculinity reinforces inequality. All nineteen maintain straight privilege by publicly identifying as straight and keeping secret their same-sex sexual encounters. All of the straight men avoid effeminate men, and several insulted male effeminacy, contributing to the widespread devaluation of femininity. Moreover, thirteen were married and had extramarital sex without their wife’s knowledge, underscoring their male entitlement and unwillingness to consider ethical non-monogamy. The participants enjoy marginalized sexual practices, but they are unwilling to challenge heterosexism or other forms of domination, maintaining numerous systems of inequality.

Tony Silva is a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of Oregon. His primary research interests include sexualities, gender, rurality, and qualitative and quantitative methods. His dissertation includes interviews with rural straight men that have sex with men to explore how they understand their identity, practices, and gender. His article,”Bud-Sex: Constructing Normative Masculinity among Rural Straight Men That Have Sex With Men,” can be found in the February 31 (1) issue of Gender & Society here.

Reconsidering Gendered Sexualities in a Generalized AIDS Epidemic

By Christie Sennott and Nicole Angotti

In the rural area of Mpumalanga Province, South Africa that we study, HIV is estimated to infect 1 in 5 people. Many researchers have studied the social, biological, and behavioral factors that contribute to HIV infection and the consequences of high mortality from AIDS-related diseases. Yet, less attention has been paid to how people actually living in communities affected by HIV/AIDS talk about the epidemic in everyday life—a useful way for understanding how men and women experience a significant threat to their lives and the lives of those around them.

HIV/AIDS is a unique type of threat: it is transmitted sexually, potentially fatal, and therefore has wide-reaching consequences for men and women’s sexual lives. Whereas several studies have found that individuals work to “reaffirm” or recuperate long-standing norms governing gender and sexuality when those norms are threatened, we find that HIV/AIDS – which threatens not just individual lives, but also relationships, families and communities – provokes reconsideration of gendered sexualities at the community level. We define reconsideration as the processes through which men and women debate, challenge, make sense of, and attempt to come to terms with the social norms circumscribing gendered sexual practices. Our focus on reconsideration shows the multiple voices and commentaries on HIV/AIDS that are circulating in the community, and that ideas about masculinity and femininity are complex, contradictory, and evolving in everyday conversation and interaction.

Our data are ethnographic and collected by men and women from the community. Over several months in 2012, a local team of “insider ethnographers” wrote field notes capturing conversations about HIV/AIDS that they encountered in public settings, such as large community events like village meetings, and other venues where interaction is commonplace, such as at bus depots and at church. These data are ideal for understanding local ideas about threats like HIV/AIDS because they are captured in real time and show the multiple perspectives that come to bear on the social experience of living amid an HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Continue reading “Reconsidering Gendered Sexualities in a Generalized AIDS Epidemic”

Straight girls kissing? Not on stage or on the dance floor, but off campus and at home

By Jamie Budnick

There are a lot of words used to describe women who hook up with other women. Even if they do not identify as lesbian or bisexual, the media might label them “straight girls kissing” and social scientists might study their “sexual fluidity.” A generation ago, they might have been called a LUG – that is, “lesbian until graduation.” What do all of these labels have in common? They usually refer to a narrow group of women: white, middle-class, and living on the progressive campuses of selective universities.

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Image: Berkeley college campus

The New York Times acknowledged this stereotype of college as “a hive of same-sex experimentation” when it reported a puzzling research finding: in a national survey, women with the lowest levels of educational attainment reported the highest lifetime prevalence of same-gender sex. How could that be? If non-college attending women (or women working on associate’s or vocational degrees) also have a high prevalence of same-gender sexual behavior, then we need new research to understand their lives and sexual identities. Continue reading “Straight girls kissing? Not on stage or on the dance floor, but off campus and at home”

My Boyfriend’s Beef with My Drag Queen Crush

By Daniel Bartholomay

Last weekend, my partner and I (both cisgender gay men) took a friend of ours to a drag show at a local restaurant. After a fierce closing act featuring a Tina Turner impersonator, my partner, my friend, and I got into a heated discussion about the complicated relationship between gender, sex, and sexuality.

The debate started when I made a comment that I found one of the queens sexually attractive while she was in drag. My confessed drag queen crush threw my partner into a tizzy. Given our shared gay identity, my partner became defensive and questioned how I, as a gay man, could be attracted to an individual that was impersonating a woman. “So what, you’re bi now?” he half-jokingly asked. Continue reading “My Boyfriend’s Beef with My Drag Queen Crush”

Bathroom Battlegrounds and Penis Panics

The Massachusetts Family Institute campaign against a
The Massachusetts Family Institute campaign against a “bathroom bill.”

By Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook

Originally posted at Contexts (here). Cross-posted with permission.

In January 2008, the city commission in Gainesville, Florida passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “gender identity and gender expression” in employment and public accommodations (such as public restrooms and locker rooms). Advocates argued that the legislation was a key step toward addressing discrimination against transgender and gender variant people. However, 14 months later voters were considering a ballot initiative to overturn the law.

Even though there had been no reported problems, those that were pushing for the repeal of the new ordinance suggested that such protections had unanticipated, dangerous consequences for women and children. Citizens for Good Public Policy ran a TV ad (below) that featured a young, white girl on a playground. She jumps off a merry-go-round, and, alone, enters a doorway clearly marked “Women’s Restroom.” A moment later, a White man with a scraggly beard, dark sunglasses, and baseball cap slung low on his forehead approaches the door, looks around furtively, and enters. As the door swings shut, the ad cuts to black and the message appears: “Your City Commission made this legal. Is this what you want for Gainesville?”

Continue reading “Bathroom Battlegrounds and Penis Panics”