Response to Adrienne Rich’s reading on Compulsory Heterosexuality

In her essay, Adrienne Rich states that “Heterosexuality has been both forcibly and subliminally imposed on women”. Is it actually true? Could it be that heterosexuality is not a default, natural state that we presume it to be but rather something that we believe is “natural” just like we think of pink as a default feminine color?

One of the most common arguments against the compulsory nature of heterosexuality is that it is prevalent in all human populations.  This argument suffers from internal logical inconsistency because the most likely outcome of a compulsory practice is its prevalence.

Another common argument is that heterosexuality must be natural because reproduction and, therefore, the very survival of the species depends on it.  But does it? For humans (and also for many animal species) reproduction is the least frequent reason for engaging in sexual behavior. Instead, we are sexually active for many other reasons, social bonding and intimacy being the most important ones.

So, perhaps heterosexuality is not as natural as we think, but is it compulsory? I think that today it may not be “forcibly” imposed as Rich states, but it is definitely still “subliminally imposed”.  We are raised to believe that it is most natural, most common and most desirable state of being since we are very very young.  It is imprinted in the toys we play with, images we see all around us, in the conversations we hear, in the books we read.  It is the unmarked state that we all subconsciously strive for, and it is hard for us to imagine the world where heterosexuality is less common.

Even today,  even if you live in the most tolerant place in the world, being heterosexual is a lot easier on many levels than being anything else (i.e. homosexual, bisexual). We all instinctually strive for normality because our society tends to punish those that are different in a variety of ways. We also have an inherent degree of both biological and psychological flexibility, which often leads us to gravitate towards outcomes that we evaluate as most favorable. Anyway, most of us do.

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Response to Discussion on Gender and Prison

While most of the dominant discourse on prison is around men and specifically black men, it is important to point out that female prison population is also growing

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Since women are generally omitted from most of the scientific and social inquiries, I wonder if anyone looked into why that is, what are the special needs and challenges that women in prison face and what got them there in the first place.

As far as prison system being used as a new form of slavery, I want to again mention Foucault and his book called “Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison“. Foucault believes that we now live in a disciplinary society where several forms of practices that shape us in who we are have replaced other direct forms of control such as slavery. He believes that is a modern rational society “the disciplines became general formulas of domination”, instead of being forced into a position of domination we are instead trained to exist in a state where we are not aware of being in this position.  Foucault describes how discipline while increasing the forces of the body in a physical sense, diminishes them in the form of obedience (hence the term “docile bodies”). We are raised not to challenge the way things are, we are trained to frame and perceive reality without questioning it and this results in several serious issues – it enslaves us, misleads us, eliminates freedom of thought and, as a result, stops real progress in society.  This lack of internal evaluation is what Foucault believed discipline ultimately produces. Foucault states that discipline ultimately creates “docile bodies,” referring to individuals that are subjugated, obedient, and exploited. Foucault explains how sovereign government that we mentioned in class (let live or make die) was replaced with the biopolitical system (make live/let die) that targets populations rather than individuals.  In the past, when we had public executions, everything that was done to individuals, although viewed today as barbaric and inhumane, it was all out in the open and can spark protest and unrest. Today, however, we are not aware of what is really going on in our prisons. We may believe that we treat prisoners more humanely, but do we really know it from experience?  Foucault points out that by creating a veil between public and those imprisoned,  the government has more control over populations than it ever had.

 

 

Response to Murray Davis’s reading

There are several interesting ideas in Davis’s book that are worth exploring:

  1. When we experience “erotic reality”, we shift into a different cognitive state that is marked by extreme focus of attention away from everyday life
    • There are two ways one can transition between the two realities
      • The shock – sudden transition that is forced upon those involved, often unwelcome and offensive
      • The slide – a more gradual and slow transition that involves consent
  2. Our sexual desires are diverse unless socially channeled
  3. In order to shift from mundane reality to erotic reality, we designate special places that are bounded and kept separate and private (i.e. bedroom)
  4. We must learn as children that there are “unsexy” things, settings and people, for example, our family members, coworkers, professors, public spaces, religious and medical settings, etc.  All of these must be removed from erotic reality.  “No sexual activity is obscene in itself, but only in relation to a particular ideology”
  5. Fetishes arise as a violation of the above cultural norms, where normally “unsexy” things and settings are sexualized.

Davis describes three types of “erotic thought” communities

  1. Jehovanists” – they see anything sexual as threatening and enforce the strict separation of the erotic from everything else, value purity
  2. Gnostics” – see moral order as oppressive and push the erotic into everyday life, value rebellion and violation of traditional rules surrounding sex and sexuality
  3. Naturalists” – don’t see sexuality as threatening and don’t view the body as inherently sexual, don’t stress the separation of erotic from the mundane

Here is an excerpt from Murray Davis’s obituary written by Dan Ryan:

“Murray’s second book, Smut: Erotic Reality/Obscene Ideology, transformed the way readers think about the erotic domain. It manages to be both funny and learned, attending to the phenomenology of the drift, slide, or skid that Consciousness rides with the Other into erotic reality. Ostensibly about sex, it is an exemplary work of phenomenological sociology. It also makes important contributions to the (macro)sociology of knowledge with its analysis of the “Jehovanist,” “Gnostic,” and “Naturalist” approaches to sex as multiple, competing worldviews”

Response to Asia Friedman’s reading

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Tacit norms of perception, attention, and inattention are unintentional yet still distinctly cultural.  One example of such norms is sex/gender attribution

It wasn’t until late 18th century (around the time of enlightenment) that we started to think about male and female bodies as different. Power distribution came in to question at that time – right to vote for example (women were too emotional and not rational enough to vote), women could not inherit wealth. Hence, different discussions of anatomy, brain, etc.

We take this difference for granted now and only some things pass through our cognitive filter.

“dominant cultural conceptions of sex as ‘obvious’ or ‘self-evident’ reflect a sensory reality that privileges visual perception” (284)

How do blind people determine the sex of people they meet? They use non-visual sex attribution – auditory, olfactory, tactile. Asia Friedman, based on her work with the blind, describes how it is done without visual capacity.  Blind seem to have a slower and more deliberate sex attribution, it requires attention.

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There is “perceptual work underlying the social construction of reality in general…” (284)

Socialization shapes the mind. Berger and Luckmann’s in their book  “Social Construction of Reality”, argue that reality is actually created by us in cooperation with one another. We take for granted that reality is objective, but the notion that reality is objective may be in itself a social construct.

“In the case of sex, this means questioning why breasts and facial hair seem more salient than elbows, eye color, noses, and earlobes, when all are technically equally visually available, or why the differences between males’ and females’ skin and body hair are noticed more often than the similarities.” (285)

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Non-visual sex attribution can include voices – male vs female, we think of it as being gendered, height and steps (footfall),  smell -we construct our smells according to gendered norms that are not natural (perfumes, colognes)  as well as natural (body odor), touch – face touching is a stereotype, but arm holding does communicate information.

 

Response to Discussion on Advertising

Our discussion on advertising reminded me of the Culture Industry and its role in gender socialization and gender advertising.

Culture Industry is the term first coined by Adorno and Horkheimer is their book “Dialectic of Enlightenment”, published in 1947.  The authors expand the ideas of Marx and Weber on alienation and rationalization, they state that alienation underwent a transformation in the 20th century to take a form of the production of culture that is designed to keep us consuming and alienated.  The culture of consumerism, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, is designed to make the consumer happy.  We produce products that are the same (rationalization idea that was taken from Weber) and we express our individuality by consuming virtually the same products, this leads to lack of fulfillment and keeps us alienated. This lack of fulfillment and the fact the most of the products produced are disposable ensures that we keep consuming. The sameness of the products produced perpetuates stereotypical thinking – we know what we are getting and this eliminated the need for thinking and choice.  The culture industry is designed to keep us away from each other (we need to communicate less and less), creates false identity defined by the products we consume and often don’t need.

culture industry

Although not explicitly stated in their book,  the same ideas can be applied to “Beauty Industry” that keeps women focused on how they look and what products they need to buy instead of sexism, patriarchy, and inequality.

beautyindustry

Adorno, Horkheimer and other thinkers of the Frankfurt school (writing in 1940s-1960s) often criticized various forms of media (such as film, magazines, visual art) for being the carriers of the Culture Industry and they considered other forms of expression “pure”. For example, in his essay “Note on dialectic” Marcuse wrote the following about poetry: “Poetry is thus the power ‘de nier les choses’ (to deny the things) — the power which Hegel claims, paradoxically, for all authentic thought”.  Was he right about poetry being somehow purer than other art forms in that it cannot be corrupted, presented outside of its original context and used for manipulation?  I think the world of advertising advanced and polluted all forms of expression.

Below are four examples of Levi’s commercials that use poetry for advertising jeans. You can replace jeans with bras, shoes, lipstick, etc. I chose these because they are very good at what they do – they catch viewer’s attention and elicit a specific emotional state in a way that only a poetry can, by watching these it is easy to understand how we are manipulated by advertising without realizing it.

1. Threads

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This commercial for Levi’s jeans features a poem written by Erin Swanson of the Wieden + Kennedy ad agency. This poem was specifically written for this commercial and it does a great job of provoking a state of support, self-confidence, and reassurance (something that we all seek) while attempting to convince us that all these are manifested in a pair of pants we wear.

This is a pair of Levi’s, buttons and rivets and pockets and cuffs, and the thread that holds it together.

When the road gets rough and the sky gets jumpy and the stars start falling on top of your head and the waves start breaking against your legs;

It’s the thread in your seams that’s tied to your dreams.
It’s the sole in your feet that keep the beat;

You’re gonna be great, you’re gonna be great, you’re gonna be great;
You’re gonna find the cure, you’re gonna be famous, you’re gonna be shameless.
Spittin’ seeds in the wind, tap dancing with your shoe laces pinned, to the back of a bus at the end of the road, at the bottom of the ninth, with a crown on your head

You’re a queen, you’re a king, you’re the solo act in a sold out show at a six-story stadium, and you’re proud, you’re a hero! You got a hero’s grip. Swingin’ by a single stitch. You follow your heart, follow the leader, you’re the leader;

Are you joking, are you breaking, are you shaking? You’re the next living leader of the world. You’re a kid. Holding onto the thread. That holds it together.

This is a pair of Levi’s

2. The Laughing Heart by Charles Bukowski

This is an original poem written by Charles Bukowski in early 1990s. Henry Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was a German –born American author and poet.  In this poem, he tells us to recognize that our life belongs to us and we should overcome passivity and give ourselves a chance.  The poem evokes emotional states of hope, positivity, courage, and empowerment. And,  coupled with the commercial, makes us associate these feelings with … wearing jeans.

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

3. America by Walt Whitman

Directed by Cary Fukunaga for Wieden+Kennedy, Portland using a poem by Walt Whitman. Believed to be an original wax recording of Walt Whitman reading four lines of his 1888 poem “America”. This poem speaks of qualities that most human beings (and Americans)  value and desire – equality, strength, freedom, love, it evokes patriotism and pride.  All we have to do is to wear Levi’s jeans and America will be that perfect idealized country of freedom and equality.

America

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law, and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

4. Pioneers! O, Pioneers! by Walt Whitman

Directed by M Blash for Wieden+Kennedy, using a poem by Walt Whitman. Another poem by Whitman, about pioneers, people that are fearless, that are open to new and exciting possibilities, that are explorers, people that many of us aspire to be. All we need is the right pair of jeans.

Full  text can be found here

Response to Katrina Roen’s reading

On page 49, Roen describes the ‘John/Joan case’.  There are many serious ethical issues surrounding this case, including falsification and misrepresentation of scientific data, which I find particularly disturbing given the fact that this case lead to thousands of similar sex reassignments. I think it is important to understand this case to fully appreciate the damage such surgeries can lead to

David Reimer (aka Joan) was a famous patient of Jon Money, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a pioneer in the field of gender identity. David was born a male but his penis was accidentally destroyed during a routine circumcision when he was seven months old, and he underwent a sex reassignment procedure at Johns Hopkins (surgical castration and cosmetic labia construction) at the age of 22 months. David was raised as a girl after the surgery and was not told about his medical history until he was a teenager.  Despite the fact that this famous case, known as Jon/Joan case, was presented to the scientific community as a success, David had struggled with accepting a female identity as a child and when he was around sixteen he made a decision to undergo several surgeries to reverse his sex reassignment and live as a man.

John Money believed that children are born gender neutral and that gender identity is learned early in life, so he saw David’s case as a perfect experiment with a build-in control, his twin brother. Although it is possible that in treating David Jon Money had good intentions and perhaps made a sensible decision based on the scientific knowledge that existed at the time, there are several factors that could have contributed to this experiment’s unexpected results, some of them are biological and some social.

First, David was born a biological male, this means that prenatally and very early postnatally his brain was organized in a typical male pattern. His sex reassignment surgery happened at 22 months of age, and recent MRI studies in human and animal models show that several nuclei of the amygdala, cerebellum and the preoptic area of the hypothalamus have higher neuronal connectivity and/or density in brains exposed to testosterone very early in development. Also, studies in animal models show that not every organized effect has to be activated in order to be expressed, so Davis’s early brain organization could have been sufficient for expression of typical male behavior.

Second, even after his surgical castration, David’s adrenal glands produced testosterone, and there is evidence suggesting that sometimes adrenal glands take over in the absence of testes and produce larger amounts of androgens. For example, there is overexpression of genes responsible for the production of adrenal androgens in prostate and testicular cancer patients that underwent clinical castration. Even if David’s adrenals produced a small amount of testosterone, it may have been sufficient to support his brain masculinization during childhood. Several areas of the brain exhibit elevated levels of aromatase in males, facilitating the conversion of all available testosterone to estrogen and further masculinizing the brain.

Third, David was administered estrogen at puberty to support the development of secondary sex characteristics. Being born as a male, David did not have circulating alpha-fetoprotein, which prevents brain masculinization in females. Therefore, taking estrogen may have further masculinized his brain while feminizing the body.

Finally, there are social factors that may have contributed to the development of David’s gender identity. David was raised as a boy during the first two years of life, this could have established his behavioral patterns before the sex reassignment. For example, as a child David preferred typical “boy toys”, and it has been observed that toy preference emerges between 12 and 24 months. Although he hadn’t retained explicit memories of his early life, David may have known subconsciously that he was a male.

Here is the original article published in The Rolling Stone, December 11, 1997

And another great article called “Ambiguous Sex”–or Ambivalent Medicine? by Alice Domurat Dreger

There is a documentary about David’s life and eventual suicide

There are several other aspects of Roen’s essay that require further explanation. She writes ” Despite the promising claims about girls not needing vaginas, the 2001 survey of European and Mediterranean centres treating children with CAH (congenital adrenal hyperplasia) showed that most centres were still carrying out surgical vaginal construction in early childhood (Riepe et al., 2002: 199). Data from 125 centres showed
vaginoplasty being carried out between the ages of 0.1 and 18 years, with a median
age of 2.5 years. ”

So, what is CAH and why does it require vaginoplasty?

CAH is the most common cause of anomalous sexual differentiation in human females (1 in ~13,000 birth). CAH is caused by several gene mutations and it results in prenatal exposure to androgens (testosterone).  In Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, the adrenal glands produce high concentrations of androgens instead of cortisol which results in moderate to severe masculinization of genitalia in females.  Performing vaginoplasty on these patients in infancy is risky and does not resolve any of the serious health problems these patients actually have. Also, vaginoplasty, despite its name, does not create a functional vagina. Female vagina is a complex organ, it is self-cleaning and self-lubricating, it maintains proper pH and secrets chemicals responsible for  our immune defenses. What vaginoplasty provides is a  surgical opening that can accomodate a penis.

On page 57 Roen discusses Hypospadias ‘Repair’

What is Hypospadias?

Hypospadias is the most common disorder of sex development in males (1 in ~770 birth)

The urethral meatus is located on the underside of the penis, rather than at the tip.

Hypospadias

It does not affect fertility (but a risky surgery to correct it definitely can!) and it is not life threatening.

Frightening statistics:

Total number of people receiving surgery to “normalize” genital appearance – 1 or 2 in approximately 1,000 birth ( source Randy J. Nelson an Introduction to Behavioral Endocrinology; 4th Edition)