Mothers and Moneymakers: How Gender Norms Shape U.S. Marriage Migration Politics

By Gina M. Longo

Sarasusan, a white divorcee and single mother of two from Virginia, and Hicham, an Arab factory worker living in the desert town of Tan-Tan, Morocco met on MySpace in December 2009, and immediately hit it off.  In June of 2010, Sarasusan traveled to Morocco to meet Hicham for the first time.  Over the course of three years, Hicham traveled to internet cafés daily to talk to his future wife and stepdaughters. In January 2013, she finally could afford to bring her daughters to Morocco to meet Hicham in person. Upon her return to the U.S., she filed for a K-1 (fiancé) visa petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

While they began dreaming of the day they could marry, they didn’t realize their nightmare had already begun. After a year and a half, the first petition and subsequent appeal were denied.  At his interview, the U.S. consulate officer in Morocco told Hicham that their relationship appeared fraudulent or strictly for immigration papers. He was given no further explanation.  In July 2015, Sarasusan married Hicham in Morocco, but her daughters, due to high airfare costs were unable to come. Upon returning home, Sarasusan saved money to start a new immigration petition for her husband. Sarasusan began seeking advice from other petitioners online, and crafted her evidence package based on much of this advice.  It was not until September 2016 that Sarasusan and her daughters were able to embrace Hicham on U.S. soil.

Foreign nationals who marry U.S. citizens have an expedited track to naturalization, so immigration officials worry that some will use fake marriages to obtain a green-card.  Early U.S. immigration and citizenship policies addressed these concern by blocking white women in racially mixed relationships. Native-born women citizens lost their citizenship status if they married foreign nationals, and could not initiate immigration petitions for foreign-born husbands. Consequently, this enabled a gendered and racialized citizenship model that defined white, native-born men as full citizens and women as second-class citizens.

Today, these policies have been replaced with preferential processing for immigrants with U.S. family ties.  So, U.S. immigration officials require that “green card” petitioning couples demonstrate that their relationships are “valid and subsisting” (i.e., for love) and not fraudulent (i.e., for immigration papers). Immigration officials warn U.S. citizens in such relationships to beware of red flags, or details about a couple’s relationship that raise suspicions of marriage fraud, such as large age differences, short courtships, or requests for money.  These requirements and red-flag warnings are supposedly gender- and racially-neutral, but migration itself is not.  Thus, like Sarasusan, men and women petitioners with foreign partners from different world regions often seek advice from experts and other petitioners about how to overcome potential obstacles to their petitions’ success.

In my Gender & Society article, “Keeping it in ‘the Family’: How Gender Norms Shape U.S. Marriage Migration Politics,” I used an online ethnography and a text analysis of conversation threads on a large online immigration forum where U.S. petitioners exchange such advice.  I compared two of the sites’ sub-forums, the Middle East/North African forum (MENA), where members are predominately white U.S. women coupled with MENA-region men; and the Belarus/Russia/Ukraine forum (BRU), where white U.S. men pair with BRU-region women, and analyzed how forum-members define red-flag warnings and the requirements for a “valid and subsisting relationship” to label a relationship “real” or “fraudulent.”  These conversations reveal members’ own experiences with immigration officials and their understanding of genuine marriages for immigration purposes.

I found that petitioners connect generic relationship criteria and warnings in U.S. immigration policy with racialized and classed gender ideologies and expectations surrounding an idealized image of the white, Middle-class, “American family.” Women should be mothers and caretakers, and men should be breadwinners.  Both men and women petitioners use sexual and gendered double standards surrounding women’s sexual agency, fertility, and desirability to determine which red flags will concern immigration officials and for whom.  Women’s sexuality and gender differentially structure the process of negotiating red flags for men and women petitioners, and the right to confer citizenship onto a foreign partner. This provides privileges to men citizens, allowing them to pursue of foreign women abroad and to bestow their citizenship status more freely upon their chosen mates. However, women citizens with the same intentions are considered desperate fools, incapable of controlling their emotions or the border. Consequently, citizen-women’s relationships appear more suspect and in need of policing.

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Why is this important? Although media coverage on U.S. immigration often centers on issues surrounding DREAMRs, refugees, and undocumented people, approximately 50 percent of the one million-plus immigrant visas issued in 2015 (i.e. “green-cards”) were for U.S. citizens’ immigrant spouses/fiancés (Department of Homeland Security 2015). These rates have remained consistent since 1908 (Lee 2013), making these beneficiaries the largest groups of visa-holders with a pathway to citizenship. These immigration cases largely shape the nation and conceptions of citizenship.  Through this online forum, members become unofficial border police before cases ever reach an immigration officer.  Although, discriminatory U.S. immigration and citizenship laws of old have been abolished, I find that when citizens use ideological understandings about gender and family themselves to give each other petitioning advice, explicitly discriminatory policies are not necessary to uphold and legitimize racialized and gendered citizenship hierarchies.  My findings highlight how conversational negotiations in virtual spaces are consequential for re-imagining intersectionally gendered citizenship and the policing of national identities and borders.

For an even further in-depth look at this research please also listen to the recent SAGE podcast on this article.

Gina Marie Longo is a PhD Candidate of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes in the sociology of gender, race and ethnicity, immigration, and digital sociology.  Her current research focuses on how the U.S. spousal reunification system (re)constructs and polices citizenship and nation.

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Sex and Gender Diversity is Growing Across the US

By Georgiann Davis

Cross-posted with Permission from The Conversation 

Across the United States, more people of all ages are identifying as something other than male or female.

According to the Williams Institute at UCLA, which studies sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, the percentage of trans adults — an umbrella term used to describe those whose gender does not match with the sex they were assigned at birth — has doubled in the last 10 years from 0.3 percent to 0.6 percent.

In 2006, a survey discovered that 1.2 percent of Boston high school students identified as trans.

And in a recent issue of the journal Pediatrics, researchers showed that 2.7 percent of Minnesota’s youth identify as trans and gender-nonconforming. Similar to trans, gender-nonconforming describes those who reject gender expectations that assume only females can do femininity while only males can do masculinity.

I’m a sociologist and for more than 10 years, I have been studying sex- and gender-diverse people in the United States. I’ve witnessed researchers analyze everything from brain differences to the hormones a fetus is exposed to during gestation to explain the growth of sex and gender diversity.

Looking to human anatomy and physiology alone is inadequate in explaining the demographic sex and gender changes that are rapidly occurring throughout our society. Does culture also play a role?

Evolution? Not so fast

Historical accounts of sex- and gender-diverse people date as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries in the U.S. and elsewhere.

But why is it that we are now witnessing a growth in the percentage of people publicly identifying as sex- and gender-diverse? Did human anatomy and physiology change overnight? Or is it that people are now more comfortable rejecting the simplicity of “We’re all just male or female”?

What the rising statistics likely reveal is that thanks to activists and their allies across various movements, more people, especially millennials, are now aware that people are more complex than male or female. And they are embracing this complexity by not only choosing sex- and gender-diversity for themselves, but by also sharing their life experiences in stories across print media and on television.

New York’s annual gay and lesbian pride parade, 1989. AP/Sergio Florez

Activists are organizing in the streets and fighting in the courtroom for rights. This is not recent news: For example, earlier generations of activists demonstrated against police brutality in the 1960s in what is now known as the Stonewall Riots. But the activism has accelerated and spread.

Pride celebrations seem to be everywhere these days. And in the courtroom, transgender teenager Gavin Grimm is currently in the middle of a lawsuit against his Virginia high school that wouldn’t allow him to use the boy’s bathroom. That suit has raised Grimm’s profile and put him at the “center of the national debate,” according to The Washington Post.

This activism lets the public know there is life beyond male or female.

People now have customizable sex and genders to choose from on everything from Facebook to the dating site OkCupid. On OkCupid, one can identify as male, female, transgender, nonbinary, genderfluid or genderqueer, or choose up to five categories from many other options.

Which gender best describes you?

It is not a coincidence that sex and gender diversity is also flourishing in the media. There is “Transparent,” the popular award-winning dramedy series about a family patriarch who gender transitions from man to woman. And then there is the critically acclaimed film “Tangerine,”where we see a transgender woman navigate relationship turmoil.

Trans issues are at the center of these scripts, but the filmmakers also skillfully give us more. The main characters are trans, but the trans aspect of the characters are only one part of the storyline. This is a shift in popular culture.

There is no question that the internet’s expansion has also fueled the transgender movement and other similar sex- and gender-diverse movements.

The internet makes it easier for people to identify as something other than what they were assigned at birth. A teenager in the rural Midwest can use the internet to connect with similar people around the world. And they can learn strategies about how to navigate medical care, school, and even disclosing to their family if they choose to change their sex and/or gender identity.

The parents of sex- and gender-diverse youth who support their child are also able to find community and resources on the internet from home. New sociological research published by Ann Travers with New York University Press as well as by Tey Meadow with the University of California Press shows supportive parents do exist. They affirm their child’s gender identity by, for example, using their child’s chosen pronouns and new name if applicable, enlisting gender-affirming medical care and more.

This is not to say that those who identify as something other than a typical male or female person will have an easy road ahead of them.

Navigating oppression

It is possible the number of sex- and gender-diverse people in the population is underestimated. Not all will feel it is safe to identify as something other than male or female. Many sex- and gender-diverse people are emotionally harmed by societal rejection. And, as sociologists Lisa R. Miller and Eric Anthony Grollman documented, there are “social costs of gender nonconformity.”

One study specifically reported that 41 percent of sex and gender diverse adults have attempted suicide compared to 1.6 percent of the general population. Similarly, a 2016 study published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, found that 30.3 percent of transgender youth between the ages of 12 and 22 years had attempted suicide, with nearly 42 percent reporting they had tried hurting themselves, such as deliberately cutting their skin.

Sex- and gender-diverse people are at the battleground of political and legal debates across the country. Their access to public bathrooms has been challenged from North Carolina to Texas. It is not easy, or in many cases even legally possible, for sex- and gender-diverse people to obtain driver’s licenses, birth certificates or passports that match their sex and gender identities.

Despite the challenges sex- and gender-diverse people face navigating their lives, I believe their numbers will keep growing.

This will happen as sex- and gender-diverse movements get stronger. More people will gain access to the internet and connect with other marginalized sex- and gender-diverse people. And with such demographic shifts, there will likely continue to be a growing representation of sex and gender diversity in popular culture.

There is no way to predict how large the sex- and gender-diverse population will get. But there is evidence that society is changing from the simplicity of male or female.

DEALING WITH MOTHERHOOD

By Heidi Grundetjern

Mothers who use and deal illegal drugs find themselves in particularly complex gendered situations. For these mothers, by being involved in crime and being perceived as failing to live up to normative gender expectations, they are stigmatized two-fold in society. In addition, they operate in a gender-stratified drug market supported by masculine “rules of the game.” Men often exclude women from accessing lucrative positions because of presumed dedication to caregiving.

Maternal Identities among Women in the Illegal Drug Economy

In my research, I examine motherhood among women who are part of the hard drug economy in Norway. Although such mothers have in common having little access to normative motherhood, I found vast variation in maternal identities among the mothers in this study. I identified four maternal identities, patterned by their gender performances and work situations: grieving mothers, detached mothers, motherly dealers, and working mothers. Timing of pregnancy, time spent with children, control over drug use, and place in the drug market hierarchy contributed in explaining their maternal identities.

Grieving Mothers

For the grieving mothers, motherhood was vital to their identities despite having lost custody of their children and having limited contact with them. Their strong embodiment of femininity suggested that motherhood fit neatly with their identities. The lost opportunity to engage in mothering on a daily basis brought them seemingly endless grief, which had pushed them into heavier drug use. In the drug economy, they held lower positions in the hierarchy. Holding on to motherhood as pivotal to their identities continuously fueled their grief, yet their sadness was important for negotiation of the stigma they faced.

Detached Mothers

Like the grieving mothers, the detached mothers had lost custody of and had limited contact with their children. Yet, their identities stood in stark contrast, as they did not attempt to present themselves close to normative motherhood expectations. They were young and still adjusting to their adult identities when they had children, all of whom were unplanned. After losing custody they (re)turned to embracing their masculine identities as “one of the guys,” an identification that had emerged as an adaptation to the male-dominated context they were in. This enabled them to partly mitigate some of the emotional stress of losing a child and navigate the drug economy more successfully than did the grieving mothers.

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Motherly Dealers

The motherly dealers had significantly more contact with their children. They constructed uniform identities that accommodated being both mothers and dealers. These mothers were relatively successful dealers, had their children prior to entering the drug economy, and had previously lived conventional family lives. They drew on maternal responsibilities when accounting for their involvement in the drug economy, and emphasized care and sociability as business strategies. Although they could not escape the stigma of failing to living up to normative motherhood expectations, they created leeway for themselves by widening such ideals.

Working Mothers

The working mothers took sole care of their children despite being active dealers. They differed from the others by not only combining mothering and paid work (i.e., drug dealing) but also by separating the two. By coming close to the normative mothering ideals, they reduced the stigma of being mothers and users/dealers. Still, other challenges surfaced as they faced the paradox of performing according to expectations of two highly different domains. For these mothers, such expectations were likely heightened, as the gap between work and home domains were more substantial than what occurs in most legitimate occupations.

 The Constraint of Motherhood Ideologies

Scholars have argued that mothers cannot escape the presence of normative motherhood in their constructions of maternal identities. The detached mothers were the exception that confirms this rule. Rejecting dominant motherhood norms seemingly also required rejecting femininity. Their experiences, as with the experiences of the rest of the mothers in this study, are a powerful reminder of the omnipotence of motherhood ideologies, and how those ideologies constrain mothers whose social positions make them unattainable.

Heidi Grundetjern is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Her research focuses on the role of gender in illegal drug markets, with a specific emphasis on the experiences of women who deal drugs.

Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion

By: Helana Darwin

One night while I was watching Transparent, a particular scene caught my attention. The young female rabbi is explaining how difficult it is to be in a masculinized profession without losing her sense of femininity and sexiness. To demonstrate her point, she takes off her kippah (a small skullcap that is traditionally worn by Jewish men, otherwise known as a yarmulke) and proclaims “Sexy!” Then she places the garment back on her head and makes a face, announcing “Not sexy.” The other character smilingly assents to her point.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this scene. My thoughts drifted to all of the women pursuing rabbinic ordination at the seminary where I had just earned my Master’s degree in Jewish Studies. Most of them wore kippot (plural of kippah), like the rabbi in Transparent. Did they similarly struggle with feeling like their kippah cancelled out their femininity or sexiness? Could this possibly explain why more women do not wear kippot , despite the transnational Jewish feminist push to embrace masculinized Jewish practices? Since the 1970s, Jewish women have boldly fought for their right to full inclusion within Judaism, and yet the sight of a woman in a kippah remains rare. Why?

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I couldn’t find an answer within academic databases. The vast majority of feminist head-covering research focuses on whether or not the hijab is oppressive or empowering to Muslim women who wear it. The general consensus among feminist scholars today seems to be that this is a false dichotomy; in reality, the hijab has different meanings to different women, depending on a number of factors including their nationality, parentage, local culture, and age. While this academic debate has been fruitful, it has rarely extended beyond the gender-normative case study of the hijab. This trend within the literature struck me as regrettably limited.

How, I wondered, do women who wear kippot reconcile their seemingly contradictory religious and gender scripts? Given my connections within the Jewish community, I realized that I was well-positioned to conduct this research. Indeed, within 24 hours of sending out my survey link, I had already received more than 400 responses. Additionally, I was also flooded by effusive emails, from respondents who wished to thank me for giving them a chance to clarify the meanings of their practice. In total, I collected responses from 576 Jewish women across the globe who wear kippot. I have derived two articles from this data so far. The first article focuses on the religious meanings of women’s kippah practice. It is called “Jewish Women’s Kippot: Meanings and Motives” and it is published in the journal Contemporary Jewry. The second article is significantly more theoretical and focuses on the extra-religious meanings associated with the practice. It is called “Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion,” and is in the current issue of Gender & Society.

“Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion” illuminates a new angle of the gender/religion nexus through this open-ended survey data, demonstrating how these two axes of accountability are intertwined. Jewish women have historically been exempt from the majority of Jewish ritual practices due to an anachronistic assumption that they are too busy with child-rearing and other domestic tasks. As a result, practices and customs such as wearing the kippah have become masculinized. When women assume such a historically masculinized practice, they render themselves vulnerable to gender-policing and a parallel process that I call “Jewish-policing.” According to those who hold themselves (and others) accountable to the patriarchal tradition, these women are neither “doing femininity” properly, “doing Jewish properly,” nor “doing Jewish womanhood” properly. Although some Jewish cultural fields embrace a shift towards egalitarianism, the women remain accountable to their more traditional coreligionists beyond the confines of these progressive spaces.

            The women in this study utilize a range of strategies to internally reconcile the tensions between the traditional script of gendered Judaism and their egalitarian values: some feminize the kippah so as to affirm their gender-normativity while doing Judaism differently; others utilize the kippah’s masculine-encoding to do Jewish womanhood differently. However, regardless of the women’s efforts to internally legitimize their practice, they remain externally accountable to their traditional coreligionists, who perceive their practice as a politically motivated statement. In response, some women go to great lengths to discursively distance themselves from feminism, insisting that they desire inclusion within tradition rather than an end to Jewish tradition itself. Others embrace their association with feminism, using their hypervisibility to begin conversations with coreligionists about gender equality within Judaism.

            These results lend new insight into how gender and religion function as mutually constitutive categories: while men can simply “do Jewish” by wearing the kippah, women are not afforded such a gender-blind privilege. Rather, coreligionists perceive women who wear kippot as automatically doing something other than Judaism, something that is inherently gendered and political—such as “doing religious feminism.” It appears that these two systems of accountability (gender ideology and religious ideology) remain inextricably linked to one another, despite evidence of an egalitarian shift within certain Jewish fields. Future research about gender norms/ideologies should consider religious background along with the more commonly included variables, given this evidence.

Helana Darwin Sociology doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University who is on the market. Her research highlights the regulatory impact of the gender binary system through a wide range of case studies. Recent publications include “Doing Gender Beyond the Binary: a virtual ethnography,” published by Symbolic Interaction and “Omnivorous Masculinity: gender capital and cultural legitimacy in craft beer culture,” published by Social Currents. Learn more about Helana’s research at helanadarwin.com.

 

Young Men’s Involvement in Hormonal Contraception: Paradox or Possibility?

By Ann M. Fefferman and Ushma D. Upadhyay

It may seem like a no-brainer that women tend to take care of hormonal contraception.  They should have the right to choose a method, use that method, and manage side effects in a way that works best for them. Women have a wide range of methods to choose from, including the pill, patch, vaginal ring, implant, and intrauterine device. These methods allow people to ditch the condom and enjoy increased sexual pleasure and spontaneity with lower chances of having an unintended pregnancy.

But does the fact that these contraceptive methods affect women’s bodies mean that men don’t see a role for themselves in pregnancy prevention?   No. Some men do see themselves as partners in contraceptive use and management. Our research identifies how young men are involved in contraceptive management in helpful and supportive ways. Our research focuses on young low-income men and women of color and the ways they work together to manage contraception without restricting women’s choices. We show examples of men helping with contraception, such as coming to appointments with their partners, discussing risk of pregnancy with partners, helping to choose a method, and reminding partners to take pills or to remove the vaginal ring. We also note how men and women work together to prevent pregnancy despite the different circumstances constraining their choices, such as immigration laws, gang membership, neighborhood violence, and poverty. In this way, our research works against the stereotypes often applied to young low-income men of color when people talk about unintended pregnancy.

While our research shows these positive examples of how young men can work within or against difficult circumstances to support women with contraception, we also show how they aren’t as “feminist”, or “egalitarian”, as they might think. Even though the men in our study were really involved in choosing and using contraception, they still thought women were the ones responsible for contraception and its effective use. Men were just helpers, much like many men “help” in the kitchen or “help” with taking care of the kids. Men used language that seemed equitable, saying that they were not responsible for contraception because they did not want to undermine women’s ability to make choices about their own bodies. Even women we interviewed agreed with these ideas.

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The assumption here is that men cannot respect women’s bodies and choices while still taking responsibility for the possibility of an unintended pregnancy.  Following this logic, men then can use their secondary place in contraception as a justification for assigning blame or shame to women when contraception fails. We aim to show in our research that m en’s involvement in contraception and men’s accountability for unintended pregnancy are not mutually exclusive. Men can help with contraception and also share in contraceptive responsibly (including when contraception fails). Men and women can work together to change these norms and help sustain a positive, respectful place for men in contraceptive management.

Ann M. Fefferman, MA is a PhD candidate in Sociology at University of California, Irvine. Her research interest focus broadly on gender, masculinities, reproductive health, the family and inequalities.  Currently, she is working on her dissertation, which investigates and compares masculinities in different stages of reproduction, with a focus on contraceptive management, pregnancy intentions, and abortion decision-making. In particular she intends to further her studies in medical sociology.

Ushma D. Upadhyay, PhD, MPH is an Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco and Director of Research for the University of California Global Health Institute’s Center of Expertise in Women’s Health, Gender, and Empowerment. She holds a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award to study gender-based power among young men and women and its effect on contraceptive use. Her current research focuses on the development and validation of the Sexual Health and Reproductive Empowerment for Young Adults (SHREYA) Scale.

THE HIDDEN TERMS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN MEN’S GUN LICENSES

By Jennifer Carlson

In July 2016, Philando Castile, one of 16 million-and-counting Americans with a license to carry a firearm concealed, was pulled over by a police officer in a Minneapolis suburb. Earlier that day, Castile recognized that as an armed African American man, he foremost had to “comply” with police. As his mother recalled, “That’s the key thing in order to survive being stopped by the police”. His sister was apprehensive: “I really don’t even want to carry my gun because I’m afraid they’ll shoot me first and then ask questions later.” During the stop, Castile disclosed his status as a licensed gun carrier to the officer. Castile was then shot several times, dying on the scene as he gasped, “I wasn’t reaching for it.” Almost a year later, a jury found Castile’s killer not guilty of manslaughter and other charges. Commentators across the political spectrum questioned the verdict, often situating Castile’s killing alongside other highly publicized police killings of African American boys and men.

Alongside police violence, the Castile case—particularly his conversation with his sister about “compliance”—also suggests subtler ways in which the state punitively disciplines men of color looking to carry guns legally. In my article, “Legally Armed but Presumed Dangerous,” I examine this punitive discipline by using observations of now-defunct Michigan’s county-level gun boards to detail the gendered and racialized terms on which African Americans are licensed by the state to carry firearms.

The gun board meetings I observed were staffed almost entirely by law enforcement and served as public forums for claimants with denied, suspended, or revoked concealed pistol licenses to contest their cases. I learned from my observations that African American men were not just disproportionately represented among claimants with suspended, denied or revoked licenses; they were also subject to a different kind of treatment. For example, administrators disproportionately lectured them (as compared to white men) regarding their behaviors during police stops; their relationships with their girlfriends, wives and fiancés; and their financial responsibilities to their families.

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Rather than coercive social control, I analyze these public admonitions as examples of punitive discipline: African American men who are called to gun board are held accountable to controlling images of Black masculinity in both the public sphere (i.e., the Thug) and the private sphere (i.e., the Deadbeat Dad). Arguably, a parallel can be drawn between African American women’s experiences with the welfare state and African American men’s experiences with the gun board: as a “price” of provision (whether consumable goods or the means of protection, respectively), claimants become accountable to racial/gender stereotypes and expectations in the public forum of gun board. These dynamics resonate with other scholarship—such as Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve’s excellent Crook County—that documents how due process procedures double as racial/gender degradation ceremonies for people of color.

Existing scholarship on American gun culture, such as Angela Stroud’s Good Guys with Guns and my book Citizen-Protectors, often emphasizes the cultural links between masculinity and protectionism that drive men, particularly white men, to bear arms. The experiences of legally armed African American men revealed a different, but complementary, social reality: gun licensing can be deployed by state agents as a mechanism for placing African American men in a zone of provisional citizenship.

Jennifer Carlson is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on gun culture, policing, and conservative politics. Her book, Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline, was released in 2015 with Oxford University Press. Her next book, Policing the Second Amendment, examines the intersection of public law enforcement and gun politics.

How Do Race and Gender Show Up In Youth Sexual Health Promotion?

By Chris Barcelos

Elizabeth Randolph, a white woman in her late 50s, manages a sexual and reproductive health clinic in “Millerston,” a small, former manufacturing city in the US northeast that is known for its high rates of teen pregnancy among Puerto Rican youth. “Not to sound racist at all,” she told me, “but teen pregnancy really is a Latino cultural issue. It’s just not a bad thing if a kid gets pregnant. It’s just much more socially acceptable within that community.” Although Elizabeth was clear that she didn’t want to “sound racist,” she did frame Latinx culture as a cause of Millerston’s high teen birth rates, and this no doubt informed her professional work. Like other people involved in the city’s youth sexual health promotion efforts, her understanding of the effect of culture on sexuality and health are part of what I call a “gendered racial project,” meaning the ways in which race and gender interact to create social meanings, experiences, and inequalities. In sexual health promotion, the ingrained ways in which race and gender show up are often unnoticed by the people who design policies and programs; in Millerston, these professionals are usually not members of the communities they serve. Ideas about race and gender affect the kinds of youth sexual health promotion that communities implement and can reinforce, rather than fix, gender, race, and health inequalities.

My article “Culture, Contraception, and Colorblindness: Youth Sexual Health Promotion as a Gendered Racial Project,” explores how sexual health promotion aimed at young, low-income Latinas in Millerston can be understood as a gendered racial project. I spent three years interviewing professional stakeholders like Elizabeth and participating in coalition meetings, teen pregnancy prevention events, and provider trainings. I found that youth sexual health promoters understand “Latino culture” as stable and uniform in its approach to sexuality and reproduction. They assume that Latinas are against contraception and abortion, and that Latinx families are silent about sexuality and promote teen childbearing within the family. This understanding allows health promoters to justify their efforts to regulate the sexuality and childbearing of young Latinas, including whether they should have sex, what kinds of contraception they should use, and whether they should become parents.

In places like Millerston, where there are high rates of teen pregnancy among women of color, health professionals heavily promote LARC, or long-acting reversible contraceptive (methods such as the IUD, shot, or implant), while downplaying their undesirable side effects. For example, a white social worker in her 40s shared a story about a young client who she characterized as irresponsible because she didn’t want an IUD, while minimizing the client’s real concerns: “There’s all these reasons – they don’t want something inserted into their body, they don’t want to gain weight [sarcastically], there’s all these things, but in my head those are just excuses.” It’s also important to note, as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains, that many Americans believe we live in a post-racial, “colorblind” society where race no longer matters. Yet, race very much still matters, and imagining that race and racism don’t affect reproductive health allows health promoters to overlook the long history of how LARC has been used to control the childbearing of women of color, disabled people, and others whose sexuality and reproduction are seen as outside the norm.

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Fortunately, there are seeds of racial and reproductive justice being planted in Millerston and in the field of sexual health promotion more generally – for example, in partnerships between reproductive justice organizations and the Black Lives Matter movement. Health promoters in Millerston and elsewhere could contribute to planting these seeds by participating in organizing efforts among white people committed to dismantling white supremacy, such as Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), or  by seeking technical assistance and training from national reproductive justice organizations such as Forward Together.  Shifting youth sexual health promotion to incorporate gender, racial, and reproductive justice frameworks means moving from a focus on paternalistically trying to modify “culture” and promoting specific contraceptives, to focusing on how to dismantle racism and enable a world where people can create the kinds of families they want.

Chris Barcelos is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their research uses ethnography, discourse analysis, and visual methods to interrogate how health promotion discourses both reveal and reproduce inequalities along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, and ability.