Reproductive Practice

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Reproductive Practice

Organized by: Katrina Kimport, University of California, San Francisco

Reproductive practice is a key element of gender construction and normative feminine identity.  Here, I conceptualize “reproductive practice” broadly to include sex-related behaviors (e.g., virginity loss, contraceptive use) as well as social rituals and constructions that have emerged around the biological experiences related to reproduction (e.g., breastfeeding, menopause), regardless of whether or not the associated bodies are actually procreative (e.g., reproductive practice matters for parents as well as the intentionally childfree, for lesbian and gay individuals as well as heterosexuals).  The articles are organized by theme, with the themes progressing roughly according to how they might be engaged over the life course, from menstruation rituals to post-fertility sexual experiences.  Within each theme, articles are ordered alphabetically.  There are, of course, some gaps in this list.  Notably, these articles almost exclusively focus on the impact of reproductive practice in women’s lives, with only a few studies of men’s experiences, and there are no accounts of adoption or surrogacy.  There is also a trend toward studies of white, American, heterosexuals’ experiences.  Nonetheless, together these articles illuminate the complexities of reproductive practice, intersecting with different racial identities, classed experiences, religious practices, bodily experience, and social norms.  Reproductive practice is an area where (normative) gender is actively constructed and, at times, resisted.

Wilkinson, Lindsey and Jennifer Pearson. 2009. “School Culture and the Well-Being of Same-Sex-Attracted Youth.” Gender & Society 23(4): 542-68.

This study examines the well-being of same-sex attracted youth within the heteronormative culture of high school. The authors seek to understand how heternormativity may further marginalize homosexual adolescents by using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescents. The results show that same-sex-attracted youth are at a greater risk for decreased well-being, these youths are at a higher risk in nonurban schools and in schools were football and religion have a larger presence.

Mann, Emily S. 2013. Regulating Latina Youth Sexualities through Community Health Centers. Vol. 27, 5: pp. 681-703.

This article examines the regulation of Latina youth sexualities in the context of sexual and reproductive health care provision. In-depth interviews with health care providers working in two Latino-serving community health centers are analyzed for how they interpret and respond to the sexual and reproductive practices of their low-income Latina teen patients. The author finds that providers emphasize teenage pregnancy as a social problem among this population to the exclusion of other dimensions of youth sexualities and encourage Latina girls’ adherence to a life course trajectory that conforms to middle-class, heteronormative ideals as a solution to this problem. By relying on such understandings, providers construct meanings of sexual citizenship that require participation in bourgeois heteronormativity. These findings suggest that Latino-serving community health centers, their providers, and their teen patients could benefit from questioning the assumptions that inform providers’ appraisals of Latina youth and developing a more inclusive approach to Latina youth sexualities beyond a discourse of pregnancy prevention. Such efforts could allow community health centers to actively participate in disrupting the structural inequalities that shape their young patients’ lives.

Agadjanian, Victor. 2002. Men’s Talk about “Women’s Matters”: Gender, Communication, and Contraception in Urban Mozambique. Gender & Society 16(2): 194-215.

The author investigates how men in Mozambique talk about their role in contraceptive and reproductive decision-making.   He finds, using data from 8 focus groups and 60 interviews, that, although men have comparatively less communication about these issues, they nonetheless form preferences and make decisions.  The preferences and decisions are tied to their gender ideology, with more restrictive ideologies associated with less acceptance of contraceptive use.

Martin, Karin A. 2003. Giving Birth Like a Girl. Gender & Society 17(1): 54-72.

Martin’s exploration of how white, middle-class, heterosexual women internalize gender expectations that they will be nice, polite, etc. even during labor and child birth identifies an additional way in which women’s bodies are controlled, in this case, by the women themselves in order to be in accordance with normative expectations of femininity.  Her work focuses on high status women and uses interviews as data.

Gillespie, Rosemary. 2003. Childfree and Feminine: Understanding the Gender Identity of Voluntarily Childless Women. Gender & Society 17(1) 122-136.

Feminine identity is historically tied to motherhood.  Gillespie uses interviews with 25 intentionally childfree women to explore their decision to eschew the identity of motherhood and considers whether and how these choices represent a rejection of motherhood.  She closes with discussion of how femininity can be alternatively understood without a focus on motherhood.

Winterich, Julie A. 2003. Sex, Menopause, and Culture: Sexual Orientation and the Meaning of Menopause for Women’s Sex Lives. Gender & Society 17(4): 627-642.

Winterich uses interviews with 30 women, both heterosexual and lesbian, to analyze the effect of menopause on women’s sex lives.  She finds that the social circumstances around menopause, including relationship status and health, matter more to women in discussing their post-menopausal sex lives than the biological changes that accompany menopause.  Her study serves as a call to situate studies of reproductive experiences in women’s lives, rather than simply in biological changes.

Elson, Jean. 2003. Hormonal Hierarchy: Hysterectomy and Stratified Stigma. Gender & Society 17(5): 750-770.

This article uses interviews with 44 women who had hysterectomies to unpack how gender identity is connected to the possession of specific reproductive organs.  Elson finds the presence of narratives of a hormonal hierarchy wherein the retention of ovaries, regardless of their physiological impact on the woman’s body, are experienced as preserving sexual difference.  Arguing that these are cases where the construction of sexual difference is grounded in the material body, she points to ways these narratives illuminate the crossovers between social constructionist and biological perspectives on gender identity.

Dworkin, Shari L., and Faye Linda Wachs. 2004. “Getting your Body Back”: Postindustrial Fit Motherhood in Shape Fit Pregnancy Magazine. Gender & Society 18(5): 610-624.

Using a content analysis of all issues of Shape Fit Pregnancy magazine through 2003, the authors argue for a “third shift,” of fitness, that women are expected to perform after child birth to restore their pre-pregnancy body.  They show how the pregnant body gains social approval for its visible participation in motherhood but is increasingly depicted as aesthetically problematic, pointing to a contradiction in social understandings of motherhood.

Brubaker, Sarah Jane. 2007. Denied, Embracing, and Resisting Medicalization: African American Teen Mothers’ Perceptions of Formal Pregnancy and Childbirth Care. Gender & Society 21(4): 528-552.

In contrast to feminist criticisms of the medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth, Brubaker finds that medicalized pregnancy can represent a positive in facilitating access to formal medical care for the poor African-American teens she studies, even as it contributes to the social construction of women’s and girls’ normative sexuality.  Like adult women, these teens alternately accept and contest aspects of their medical care, participating in their pregnancy experience.  Brubaker’s article contributes to understandings of the way social location impacts reproductive experiences with its focus on an elsewhere ignored population: poor, African-American, teen mothers.

Kelly, Kimberly, and Linda Grant. 2007. State Abortion and Nonmarital Birthrates in the Post-Welfare Reform Era: The Impact of Economic Incentives on Reproductive Behaviors of Teenage and Adult Women. Gender & Society 21(6): 878-904.

Kelly and Grant analyze the influence of the 1996 welfare reform legislation on women’s reproductive behaviors, legislation that aimed to reduce incidents of abortion and nonmarital births through economic incentives.  They find, looking at state-level data, that these economic incentives have little effect on abortion and nonmarital birth rates in 2000 and suggest that this is evidence that such decisions are impacted by non-economic circumstances more than economic ones.

Avishai, Orit. 2008. “Doing Religion” in a Secular World: Women in Conservative Religions and the Question of Agency. Gender & Society 22(4): 409-433.

Avishai analyzes the practice of religion by 55 Jewish Israeli women to study how these women experience and negotiate religious rules around marital sexuality, specifically rules about when during the menstrual cycle sex (and any physical touch) is permitted and not permitted.  She shows that these practices can serve to control the behavior of women but also offer opportunities for women’s agency, particularly around definitions of authentic religiosity.  She describes women’s behavior as strategic compliance. 

Lampe, Nik M., Shannon K. Carter, and J. E. Sumerau. 2019. “Continuity and Change in Gender Frames: The Case of Transgender Reproduction.” Gender & Society 33(6): 865-887.

In this article, we examine the ways gendered frames shift to make room for societal changes while maintaining existing pillars of systemic gender inequality. Utilizing the case of U.S. media representations of transgender people who reproduce, we analyze how media outlets make room for increasing societal recognition of transgender people and maintain cisnormative and repronormative traditions and beliefs in the process. Specifically, we outline how these media outlets accomplish both outcomes in two ways. First, they reinforce cisgender-based repronormativity via conceptualizations of transgender reproduction as new and occurring in contrast to normative, cisgender reproduction. Second, they create a transnormative reproductive subject, which establishes a new socially sanctioned script for what it means to be transgender and what types of transgender experience may be recognized or accepted in mainstream society. In conclusion, we draw out implications for understanding how social authorities may shift existing gender frames to make room for changes in society while at the same time maintaining normative beliefs. These normative beliefs continue to facilitate societal patterns of gender inequality within such new frames.

Bell, Ann V. 2019. “I’m Not Really 100% a Woman If I Can’t Have a Kid”: Infertility and the Intersection of Gender, Identity, and the Body.” Gender & Society 33(4): 629-651.

Despite establishing the gendered construction of infertility, most research on the subject has not examined how individuals with such reproductive difficulty negotiate their own sense of gender. I explore this gap through 58 interviews with women who are medically infertile and involuntarily childless. In studying how women achieve their gender, I reveal the importance of the body to such construction. For the participants, there is not just a motherhood mandate in the United States, but a fertility mandate—women are not just supposed to mother, they are supposed to procreate. Given this understanding, participants maintain their gender by denying their infertile status. They do so through reliance on essentialist notions, using their bodies as a means of constructing a gendered sense of self. Using the tenets of transgender theory, this study not only informs our understanding of infertility, but also our broader understanding of the relationship between gender, identity, and the body, exposing how individuals negotiate their gender through physical as well as institutional and social constraints.

Hovav, April. 2019. “Producing Moral Palatability in the Mexican Surrogacy Market.” Gender & Society 33(2): 273-295.

Scholars have long debated the relationship between morality and the market. Some argue that morality tempers market interests, while others argue that the market has its own moral order. Meanwhile, feminist scholars have argued that a false binary between altruism, family, and intimacy on the one hand, and the cold calculus of the market on the other, is based in gender ideologies. Norms around motherhood, in particular, emphasize self-sacrifice, love, and altruism in opposition to self-interested market logics. Commercial surrogacy blurs the line between family and commerce and is therefore an ideal setting for studying tensions between altruism and profit. Drawing on ethnographic research and interviews with 114 actors in the Mexican surrogacy industry, I demonstrate that treating altruism and commercialism as dichotomous can further market interests by preserving the moral palatability and profitability of the industry while perpetuating power asymmetries rooted in gender, race, class, and nationality between surrogate mothers and intended parents.

Fefferman, Ann M. and Ushma D. Upadhyay. 2018. “Hybrid Masculinity and Young Men’s Circumscribed Engagement in Contraceptive Management.” Gender & Society 32(3): 371-394.

This research explores how gender shapes contraceptive management through in-depth interviews with 40 men and women of color ages 15 to 24, a life stage when the risk of unintended pregnancy is high in the United States. Although past research focuses on men’s contraception-avoidant behaviors, little sociological work has explored ways men engage in contraception outside of condoms, such as contraceptive pills. Research often highlights how women manage these methods alone. Our research identifies how young men of color do help manage these methods through their engagement in contraceptive decision making and use. Men accomplish this without limiting their partners’ ability to prevent pregnancy. This is despite structural barriers such as poverty and gang-related violence that disproportionately affect low-income young men of color and often shape their reproductive goals. However, men’s engagement is still circumscribed so that women take on a disproportionate burden of pregnancy prevention, reifying gender boundaries. We identify this as a form of hybrid masculinity, because men’s behaviors are seemingly egalitarian but also sustain women’s individualized risk of unintended pregnancy. This research points to the complexity of how race, class, and gender intersect to create an engaged but limited place for men in contraceptive management among marginalized youth.

Balasubramanian, Savina. 2018. “Motivating Men: Social Science and the Regulation of Men’s Reproduction in Postwar India.” Gender & Society 32(1): 34-58.

This article analyzes efforts to govern men’s reproduction in postwar India’s population control program from 1960 to 1977. It argues that the Indian state’s unconventional emphasis on men was linked to a gendered strand of social scientific research known as family planning communications and its investments in reframing reproductive control in behavioral terms. Communication scientists’ goal to understand the role of mass communications in shaping “reproductive decision-making” dovetailed with prevailing cultural ideologies of masculinity that readily associated men with economic rationality and calculative reasoning. Consequently, scientists cast Indian men as indispensable targets of behavioral interventions into reproduction due to their ostensible status as familial and social “decision-makers.” This reframing prompted Indian family planning officials to create novel interventions into men’s reproductive bodies and beliefs, exhorting them to use contraception and desire fewer children. The study thus offers new approaches for theorizing how men become framed as legitimate subjects of reproductive control.

Myers, Kit. 2017. ““If I’m Going to Do It, I’m Going to Do It Right”: Intensive Mothering Ideologies among Childless Women Who Elect Egg Freezing.” Gender & Society 31(6): 777-803. 

Researchers have documented the dominance of intensive mothering ideologies and their impact on mothers and their families. However, the effect of these ideologies on childless women has received little attention. I draw on interview data to examine the parenting ideologies of childless women with electively frozen eggs. I demonstrate that incorporation of and commitment to intensive mothering ideologies affect fertility decision making among these childless women. I find that concerns about the heavy burdens of intensive motherhood, coupled with unsupportive partners and workplaces, produce ambivalence toward childbearing and a strategy of fertility postponement. I extend the literatures on intensive mothering, reproductive decision making, assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), and elective egg freezing by identifying egg freezing as an expression of the gendering of fertility risk and as a means of “doing security.” Participants view egg freezing as a means of managing risk in two primary ways: as a means of securing access to biogenetic motherhood by managing biological risks of infertility and fetal genetic abnormality, and as a means of enabling intensive parenting by managing temporal risks inherent in coordinating careers, relationships, and childbearing.