Category Archives: Sexualities

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?”

In a strange twist of fate, however, it seems the PEPFAR program may dodge the budget ax. This is due in part to PEPFAR’s unusual origin story. The program was conceived in an alliance between conservative evangelical Christians and their political allies, including Jesse Helms, who convinced George W. Bush to act decisively to “save” Africans from the scourge of AIDS. This backstory has made PEPFAR a darling of the religious right—a constituency that Trump is eager to keep in his orbit. To date, the Trump administration has said nothing about the fate of PEPFAR but it is a rare program in which an Obama-appointed director, Deborah Birx, has been allowed to stay at her post. And the fact that Birx is a lifelong evangelical Christian may have played a role in her retention.

PEPFAR has been rightfully heralded as a success in addressing AIDS in Africa, in particular the crucial funding it provides for AIDS drugs across the continent. PEPFAR’s HIV prevention programs, however, have had a much more checkered history. The conservative Christian influence strongly shaped the first iteration of prevention programs, notoriously reserving one third of prevention funds for programs promoting abstinence and “being faithful,” relegating condoms to a maligned fall-back strategy for the morally suspect. Recent studies, including one examining 22 African countries, have shown that these prevention programs, and the roughly billion-and-half dollars spent on them, did nothing to prevent new HIV infections.

These controversial prevention programs were largely phased out in the Obama years. But the question remains if they will gain new-found favor under a Trump presidency. This would indeed be a tragedy for the sexual health of millions of Africans. The science of HIV prevention has now firmly moved away from such puritanical approaches to fighting AIDS. The emphasis today is on addressing HIV prevention more holistically, including ameliorating the effects of broader social-structural drivers of infection, from gender-based violence to unemployment. Even more central to current efforts is the emphasis on getting AIDS drugs to people as soon as possible because that dramatically reduces their ability to pass on HIV to their sexual partners.wyrod_kampala-uganda-condom-billboard

In my own research on AIDS in Uganda, I’ve seen firsthand the negative impact of prevention strategies focused on abstaining and being faithful. These approaches only serve to make sexual health issues more morally charged, and their simplistic focus on individual behavior change can shame HIV-positive people, fueling AIDS stigma. More crucially, exhortations for a person to “choose” abstinence or monogamy do nothing to address economic inequality and gender inequality, both of which are central to women’s and men’s vulnerability to HIV infection in Africa.

While PEPFAR’s emphasis on abstaining and being faithful has declined, about $50million per year is still being spent promoting abstinence and faithfulness programs. This is hardly a trifling amount and increasing it would squander scarce resources for fighting AIDS. Trump needs to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to PEPFAR but not at the expense of returning to ideologically-driven HIV prevention programs that have been resoundingly discredited.

The fundamental roles the twin axes of economic and gender inequality play in the AIDS crisis were glaringly evident in my decade of fieldwork in one community in the Ugandan capital Kampala. Unemployed men would sometimes try to compensate for being failed family providers by having multiple sexual partners. At the same time, some more-successful men would exhibit their economic status by also having multiple partners. Women, however, were stigmatized if they had multiple partners, even if such partners were economic survival strategies. Monogamous women, in turn, often had little ability to challenge their male partners’ sexual behaviors, making them more vulnerable to HIV infection. Addressing these inequalities is key to a true solution to the AIDS crisis in Africa, something well beyond PEPFAR’s simplistic, puritanical preoccupation with changing an individual’s sexual behavior.

Robert Wyrod is an assistant professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department and the International Affairs Program at the University of Colorado Boulder. His first book, AIDS and Masculinity in the African City: Privilege, Inequality, and Modern Manhood, was recently published by the University of California Press.

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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.


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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.

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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.


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

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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

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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?”

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Queer Eye for the…Affirmative Consent Debate?

credit: Avl Schwab / Flickr Commons
credit: Avl Schwab / Flickr Commons

Sandy Keenan at the New York Times wonders Are Students Really Asking? for affirmative consent. Her premise is that talking about how we want to have sex is some new legal imposition. Whether they support it or not, most of her interviewees see it this way too. The affirmative consent debate seems to turn on whether communicating about sexual desires and boundaries is asking too much, killing the mood, or even necessary when ‘alternatives’ like tacit consent exist.

As a queer person (never mind as a sexualities scholar), all of this straight consternation makes me giggle. Silent sex just isn’t possible for us. Same-sex encounters, group sex encounters, encounters involving kink, and encounters involving trans and gender nonconforming people all tend to necessitate discussion between people about what they do and do not like and want before and during sexual activity. For us, much of the communication affirmative consent asks for is routine (which is not to say that LGBTQ folks don’t experience sexual assault and rape–we do).

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Gay Pay for Straight Work

By Sean Waite and Nicole Denier

Over the last two decades there has been a growing interest in the labor market outcomes of gay men and lesbians. It has long been acknowledged that labor markets are stratified along multiple dimensions, such as gender, race and nativity. More recently new data has shed light on how labor market opportunities and rewards may also differ by sexual orientation. So far research has generally found that gay men earn less than straight men and lesbians earn more than straight women (in our work we show that this still means earning less than all men).

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Researching Magical Lesbians

by Penelope Dane

SuccubusIn mythology, a succubus is a woman demon who seduces men and sucks away their vitality. On Lost Girl, a Canadian supernatural drama, shown on Syfy and Netflix in the US, the heroine Bo is a succubus who belongs to a magical race called the Fae who often exploit humans. However, Bo uses her powers to protect other women from rapists, to fight for the rights of humans, and to restore life. Continue reading

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The Glass Runway

by Allyson Stokes

Fashion design is an occupation where women far outnumber men, yet there is a widespread perception that gay men are the most successful. Scholars, journalists, and industry insiders have all commented on how gay men (e.g. Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs) are “media darlings,” win more awards, and have more prestigious jobs. Why is this the case?Stokes_image2

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