Gender & Sexuality

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I’ve been meaning to post about various things lately; some of my post ideas include why I’m okay with being an angry feminist, some thoughts on education, and things along those lines. I’m working on a few papers for publication, too. One is on sacred and spiritual belly dancing in America, and I’m quite excited about it. My interview material is a few years old but those dancers I’ve been in contact with recently are also really enthusiastic about participating. I hope to have more information about when and where that essay is coming out soon.

However, I’ve been really bogged down with wedding planning among other things. Yep, I’m getting married, though it’s not something I talk about a lot in public webspace for a number of reasons. For one, as I discuss in this MySexProfessor post, women tend to be judged by whether or not they’re single, and that’s something I want to avoid. For another, I feel that navigating wedding planning as a feminist is really complicated. Does it make me a bad feminist to want to get married? I mean, the institution is based on the idea that women are property, and though it’s changed a lot, it’s not perfect. I also don’t want to give the impression that wedding planning (or being married) is detracting from my ability to do research or be a good academic.

However, I do have admit it: wedding planning is tough. It takes a lot of energy, and I’m not even doing the bulk of the logistics (thank goodness for my family being so on board). I find it especially draining since I don’t buy into a lot of gender normative ideas, but that is like ALL there is to wedding advertising and crap these days. It’s really frustrating. So I can spend a few hours each day doing wedding-related stuff, and a few hours each day doing research, and then since I’m visiting my family in L.A. we also have to see relatives and go out and do stuff. And since my family is full of foodies that also means we’re spending a lot of time at farmers markets and gourmet restaurants, and in the kitchen preparing lovely meals. And since I am eating so much I’m also making sure to exercise a lot; I might as well take advantage of the beautiful hills to run in while I’m here.

All of which is to say that I’ve been on a semi-vacation, trying to relax after finishing my PhD, giving myself some space in which to work on various projects and also get my life together.

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Again, normally I save the sex posts for … but this is a little more, hm, shall we say, political than my blogging there tends to be.

What sparked this rant? This Feministe post about an American Christian evangelical group that is sending missionaries over to Thailand to “save” the bar girls there.

I don’t even know where to begin. Go click on the link and watch the video if you have the stomach for patronizing, classist, colonialist, sexist propaganda.

First? It is beyond me how a bunch of American, privileged-enough-to-travel-to-Thailand women can claim to understand where Thai sex workers are coming from. How can they talk about morality and sin when these women are working in the sex economy in order to survive? How dare these privileged American women project their sexual norms onto women from another culture, and women who are most likely disadvantaged at that? What’s their solution – are they going to pay for the Thai women to come to the US, learn English, and learn vocational skills? Because anything less than that is bullshit. Anything less than that is a misinformed (at best) attempt to tell other people to prize morals over food. And anyone who tells you that has probably never been hungry or poor.

Next: these women are saying masturbating is a sin. NO. NO. NO. I cannot believe there are still doctrines that say that. Becoming acquainted with your body can only be a good thing. It will only benefit your future partners (or partner if you’re saving yourself for “the one”) and your children and your community. Your body is not sinful. Your body is just your body. It just is. It’s a part of you. Like, maybe you shouldn’t masturbate so much that you rub yourself raw or miss important commitments. Moderation in everything, my dears. But seriously. People who say that masturbation is wrong should be taken to fucking court as far as I’m concerned BECAUSE THEY ARE WRONG. We have empirically proven that it’s normal and healthy. Even bloody Fox News agrees on this.

(if I believed in hell, I would say that there is a special hell reserved for people who tell teens that masturbation is immoral and sinful, just as I think there should be a special hell for people who instruct schoolchildren that abstinence is the only way to go because condoms don’t work and will give you diseases anyway… but since I don’t believe in hell, I can only hope that these people become enlightened enough to realize that they’re inflicting unnecessary harm on young minds)

Finally, the “When I’m With My Daddy” song playing in the video, along with all the He/Him/Christ stuff? Is downright creepy. It is patronizing and creepy to show these young women subjugating themselves to Him and His stuff and so on as the only way to deal with sexuality. Would they make a video showing young men doing the same? Nope, that would be deemed homoerotic. It’s uncomfortable for me to watch these young women saying how pure they feel because of Him, how cleansed of sexual anything… and yet they’re in a position to “rescue” other women who are quite possibly undergoing trauma these girls have never imagined?

I’m all for the message of acceptance in the video, and that message in Christianity in general. When people fulfill the teachings of Christ, I think that’s awesome. But I find this evangelical brand of Christianity offensive, patronizing, and creepy. Like, how is this not about controlling women’s sexuality? I just… ugh. I need to go cleanse my palate now that I’ve gotten this rant out of my system.

(I’m not trying to imply that all of Christianity is creepy, and I hope I haven’t given that impression… but y’all need to reevaluate what you’re doing if some parts of your religion come off as creepy to non-Christians, especially if you’re an evangelical religion, which I gather Christianity is)

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For over a month now, I have been thinking about the intersections between issues of interest to Digital Humanities (DH) scholars, feminists, and sex educators/researchers. I’m not the only one to consider these connections, but my positioning as a scholar who does DH and gender/feminist studies, while also writing for a Kinsey-affiliated sex blog, might help me see some novel patterns.

On the scholarly side, the DH community has written a lot about gender and our particular area of academia. Kicking off a large debate, Miriam Posner’s Some things to think about before you exhort everyone to code acknowledges the intersectionality of identities in academia, such that yeah, it is often harder for women to get into coding than men. Bethany Nowviskie’s response Don’t Circle the Wagons cautions us not to put up gender barriers where unnecessary, and she also makes the canny move of contextualizing this whole discussion in current US politics, which are, to say the least, not very woman-friendly. Among the many responses (so many of which were really wonderful, and I wish I could go into more detail about them; Miriam links some here), A spot of mansplaining by Hugh Cayless also helps contextualize coding as an exclusionary field, one which has ingrained social dynamics ensuring that women (also the elderly, and other groups not privileged with certain kinds of education or access) will have to fight for the opportunity to learn at all.

And, of course, there’s Tanya Clement’s I am a woman and I am a mother and I do DH that heart-rendingly exposes some of the sexism at the core of our field, as well as in academia and society in general. Her “fear that someone will find out all of the ways in which my identifications as a woman, a friend, a mother, and as a DH academic do not follow the way everyone else who has identified themselves as such might define those same identities” really resonates with me, as a shy/introverted but obstinate woman determined to make my own life and my own choices even if they’re not the norm.

While I don’t intend this to be a post about gender and coding in DH – as plenty of others have already covered that ground – I will say that I view coding like any other tool in my scholarly toolbox. I’ll learn it if it’s going to help me in some concrete way, but otherwise, I’ll leave it until later. I mean, to draw a parallel, given my scholarly interests in north-east India, I should totally get on learning some of those languages ASAP, but as I haven’t narrowed down which ethnic groups I want to work with, I can’t yet make an informed decision about which language to learn. Besides, English will get you pretty far in India. And if you have colleagues who will translate for you on field excursions, leading to a fruitful collaboration… well, you see where I’m going with this. This approach tends to work in DH too.

But back to cultural context (I am a folklorist; we really like talking about context). The DH Twittersphere discussions about open access really intrigued me. As much as the DH community seems to love to debate various minutiae, open access seems to be one of the significant themes connecting our discourse and our activism. I feel very strongly that we should make as much of our research as accessible to the public as possible. I recognize that there are some constraints on how much of that we can feasibly do right now, while still retaining enough value in the eyes of our institutions. Most of us agree, however, that closing down avenues of access is generally a bad idea; it tends to be motivated by power, money, and a desire to control.

In introducing the awesome initiative Open Folklore, my colleague Jason Jackson makes some incisive remarks, situating the project “in the context of the serials crisis, the corporate enclosure of society journal programs, the erosion of the university press system, the development of open source software for scholarly communication, and the rise of the open access movement as a progressive response to these changes.” The scholarly open access movement, in short, is a multifaceted response to a whole slew of social, economic, and political issues.

Further, Jackson (among others) has contextualized the open access issues within the larger cultural framework of the Occupy Movement, which has been drawing attention to the inequalities that riddle our society. While the Occupy Movement casts a broad shadow, one notable topic it includes is health care, specifically for women. Occupy Birth Control argues: “Just like the vast majority of Americans want an economic system that is just and want banks held accountable for predatory lending and other amoral (and sometimes illegal) practices and the government held accountable for enabling these practices, the vast majority of women—and the men who care about them—believe access to birth control is a right.”

The battle for women to have, essentially, open access to their bodies is growing increasingly bitter, with women wanting birth control called sluts or pregnant women told to just carry their non-viable fetuses to term like livestock do (references here). So we’ve got links between the movement for birth control and the Occupy movement, and links between the Occupy movement and the open access movement, which is of interest to DHers… I don’t think I’m mistaken in thinking “if A equals B, and if B equals C, then A equals C.”

Since I’m trained to see larger social patterns (again, yay folklore!), here’s my argument: that the same conservative, power-oriented cultural forces that want to close off our intellectual access are the same forces wanting to close off our sexual access. No, I’m not saying it’s one Mr-Burns-like figure in some global conspiracy to make everything suck for professors and sex-positive folks (I’ve read too much Foucault for that kind of view to be believable). Rather, I’m saying that there are large trends in our culture (mostly America, but the rest of the West to a degree) that are anti-intellectual and anti-feminist and anti-progressive, and a lot of these trends overlap, perhaps sharing funding by large corporations and churches and politicians. In a similar vein, I could ask: do you know who benefits from open-access everything? Everyone does… but who benefits from closed access stuff? Only some people… but they are going to fight to retain their power over access issues.

In short, I think a lot of the same people and ideologies that don’t want our research to be freely available also don’t want us to have knowledge about our bodies and sexualities. Obtaining accurate information about pregnancy and STIs, not to mention affordable birth control, is getting harder and harder in some places. An uninformed population that is constantly occupied (deliberate word choice there) with childcare (perhaps wanted, perhaps not) and student loan bills is an easily ruled population. And this is where I think scholars and sex activists really share common ground, even if we don’t always think of it that way.

I have a friend who is fond of saying: “All forms of oppression are connected.” Perhaps the connections are subtle, or perhaps you need to don your bell hooks goggles to see them better. Either way, I hope this post was at least a little thought-provoking.

Obviously, I’d love to see more DH scholars doing gender-aware work and advocating for access to better sex education (which our country really needs; our teen pregnancy and STI transmission rates blow in comparison to much of Europe). I’d also love to see more sex researchers and educators taking advantage of our cool digital tools and progress in the fight for open access publication. But I know that everyone has time constraints and obligations and we can all only do so much. So mostly, I’m writing this post to help spread awareness.

I also want to put my money where my mouth is, of course. Since I’m now Jeana Jorgensen, Ph.D., but I’m not yet certain which distinguished institution will hire me to do awesome stuff, I don’t know what kind of funding or research time I’ll be looking at for a study that applies DH strategies to understanding (and perhaps solving) a pressing sexuality issue of our day. I’d love to hear from the feminist/sex-ed blogosphere on this and maybe find someone with whom to collaborate.

In the meantime, feel free to go read What can I do for feminism? over at the always-fabulous Feminism 101. And for sex-positive folks that wandered over from the interwebs and want to get a sense of what this DH stuff I’m talking about it, feel free to read my DH lecture notes which contain links to a bunch of other resources that explain what we’re all about. transformdh (here on Twitter) is also a movement I’d like to get more involved with now that I’m more or less done with my dissertation. I think we could all have some really awesome conversations together.

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Normally I’d post about sex and related topics over at but this topic has gotten me all fired up and talkative. I’m also leaving that option open to Miss Maggie Mayhem, who was one of the main sex work activists interviewed in this Salon piece on sexual assault in the BDSM community and who’s also blogged at MySexProfessor.

If you need some background to the Salon piece I’m discussing in this post, I give a brief definition of BDSM here, and explain how it can be viewed as a sexual orientation. Clarisse Thorn, who is a brilliant feminist writer who discusses BDSM among other topics, narrates her messy initial experiences with BDSM here, in case you want to read about how a really smart, independent, feminist woman comes to terms with how she enjoys pain sexually.

What you really need to know, though, is that BDSM is a subculture that values the agency of adults to make their own sexual choices, no matter how strange or counter-intuitive they might sound. Period. No judgments like “that’s too weird” or “ew how could anyone like that” or whatever. If it’s consenting adults, then it’s fine.

So what really bothers me about the Salon article is how it highlights the abuse that happens in the BDSM community and  gets swept under the rug, explained away as a desire to avoid drama. Because this is a subculture that thrives on consent, and yet some of the practitioners trample on the consent of their partners – that’s what baffles me. I think this is just further evidence that the power tensions that plague a society will permeate it at practically every level: every subculture, every genre of expression, will somehow struggle with those roles and stereotypes and inequalities.

The Salon article notes: “In many ways, the kink scene seems light-years ahead of other sexual communities when it comes to issues of consent. They have checklists that tirelessly detail personal limits and safe words meant to bring things to a screeching halt if ever someone’s boundaries are crossed.” This is why I think it’s a shame that we’re not hearing more about the models of communication as well as the assaults that happen in the BDSM scene. Like other alternative sexualities – non-straight folks, non-monogamous folks, and so on – practitioners of BDSM are learning to communicate honestly and fearlessly as they figure out what they want and how to get it… which, when you have no mainstream role models or narratives to follow, can be pretty tough.

However, I think it’s important to recognize that just because a subculture acknowledges that pain can be an interesting sexual or sensual experience does NOT mean that a practitioner invites every kind of pain. The victim-blaming rhetoric mentioned in the article – make sure you get references before “playing” with someone, make sure you have a safe word, and so on – obscure the fact that the assault is never the fault of the victim, and that it’s perfectly okay for a consenting adult to say “I’d like to explore biting, but no blood drawing, please.” Nobody invites their boundaries to be broken. Nobody asks to be violated. Insinuating otherwise is stupid.

Kitty Stryker, interviewed in the article, says of safety techniques: “But then you find out that you can do those three things and not be safe anyway, and that’s terrifying. You realize how vulnerable you are.” This is true not just for BDSM or other sexual subcultures, but for all culture in a patriarchy. This is an incredibly unpleasant truth to face. As long as we live in a hierarchical culture where some people are deemed less human than others, there will be assault. I think it’s sad that assault is occurring in a community that otherwise is really focused on consent… but I also don’t think assault will go away until we fix larger inequalities in our society.

To end on a more positive note, the bloggers at Yes Means Yes are doing a lot of constructive work evaluating rape culture and how to change it. They make the excellent point that so “what if someone is taking different risks than you? We need to get over the idea that there’s some risk-free way to be sexual, or to more generally pursue pleasure, or to do anything else in life.”

Every lifestyle, sexual or social or whatever, carries some risk with it. This is unfortunate but inevitable. I applaud anyone who acknowledges that openly and honestly, and lives their lives in a constructive and brave fashion. In my mind, any sexual community that foregrounds consent and communication does that, and I hope mainstream cultures can learn something from them.

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It warmed my heart to see this Chronicle piece on gay mentors in modern academe. The column is co-written by a student who came out as gay to his professor who is also gay, and it describes their interactions and their supportive mentor-mentee relationship. Professor Faunce writes, “we need to be on the front lines about this…in a compassionate show of hope for pre-teens and young adults who might otherwise be struggling in silence.” And I utterly agree… but how to manage it?

Faunce notes of coming out to one’s students in order to show oneself a possible ally: “Obviously this can be a contested space for a professor. Where is the line, for instance, of self-declaration regarding sexuality, gender, class, or race?” I think it varies according to the kind of class one is teaching, and the rapport one has with one’s students. While I would find it inappropriate to regale my students with sordid tales of my sex life, I would not find it inappropriate to have a conversation with a student who is questioning her or his sexuality and is looking for a sympathetic listener, or for someone to point them toward some resources.

Another point I like from Faunce is that he feels as academics, we are supposed to be “looking for meaning from a great many sources while also imparting our knowledge and acquired wisdom to our students. As a gay academic, I feel it is increasingly my moral obligation to provide students—not just the gay or questioning ones, but also the straight or straight-questioning students—with a role model of a different sort.” I concur that academics have the potential to be role models for their students in a great many ways: not just as inspiring knowledge-seekers or teachers, but also as a figure that the student can identify with on a personal level. For instance, I can say as a woman that it has been amazing to have female mentors in the academy – to see that Someone Like Me can succeed in an intellectually rigorous environment despite barriers such as misogyny.

How I plan to go about inspiring and empathizing with students is tricky, though. Anyone who talks to me for more than 5 minutes or reads my blogging will have a pretty good idea that I don’t subscribe to a lot of heteronormative thinking. As a grad student, I’ve shared a lot of resources on sex education with friends in my cohort simply because I’ve had the good fortune to work with sex educators and sex researchers at But will that easy, free-flowing exchange of information have to cease once I put some more letters behind my name? Will the conversations containing sexual advice (based on personal experience or gleaned from books – does it matter?) have to stop?

Some scholars don’t think so. Joanna Frueh writes in her chapter “The Amorous Stepmother” in Monster/Beauty: “The stepmother, the female professorial bad body, points out a gap in pedagogical theory, a gap that we must expand by understanding ways in which she contradicts and confuses parent-child and other teacher-student models” (216) whereas “The parent-teacher is disembodied. Representing the university in loco parentis, she or he must be the good body, aesthetically/erotically unobtrusive, for the parent-teacher not only intellectually but also morally guides the student, the latter in conventionally appropriate ways” (225). But any kind of sexually charged academic interaction or identity can be dangerous for the scholar.

I wish I had better ideas and answers. Or, you know, tenure. But hopefully someday I’ll be in a situation where I can let students know that if they ever have any questions about how to navigate sexual identity and other issues of sex and society, my office door is open, and I’ll help in any way I can.

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Yes, you read that right. Last night in conversation with some of my international colleagues, I used the word “douchebag” to describe an unsavory person, and then I had to explain what it meant. I have always been annoyed at the implication that a douche (or douchebag, or my favorite, douche-nozzle) is a bad name to call someone because of its proximity to women’s health, and worse yet, to vaginas.

However, I am heartened to know that the practice of douching is actually quite bad for vaginal chemistry, so calling someone a douche is, from this perspective, actually a comment on what a terrible idea it is to artificially introduce substances to one’s vagina in the misguided search for cleanliness (when in actuality most vaginas have self-regulating ecosystems, and are thus quite healthy and clean even if there are some secretions and  the like). So when I apply the word douche, or any of its variations, to someone, I am critiquing the misogynist assumption that women’s vaginas are unclean.

For an explanation of some of the science behind douching, see Kate Clancy’s blog post about douching practices among sex workers in Nigeria. There’s some really interesting stuff about racism and colonialism, too.

By far, however, my favorite part is this:

“it’s hard to not place lime juice douching within the spectrum of cultural practices enforced to control women, from female genital cutting, to diets, to cosmetics, to scores of other ways women alter their bodies to fit a culturally-sanctioned norm. And just as we can demonstrate the ways in which women may choose these practices, or find empowerment in some of them, I don’t know that it is really possible to parse out a woman’s agency from the institutional inequities that increase her chances of making certain choices. That is, a woman may choose any of these actions and be well aware of the benefits and consequences, but she is still aware of, and sometimes constrained by, a culture that dictates both.”

Yes, yes, and yes. Feminism has always maintained an active dialogue about agency – where does it come from? How do we obtain and exercise it? And while it’s lovely to think that all human beings are automatically granted agency simply by virtue of our subjectivity (another tricky concept), our choices are always made within the context of the groups we inhabit, both institutional/official and folk/vernacular (not to imply an exclusive dichotomy). Our cultures constrain us even as they permit some sorts of agency and choice within their confines. We don’t even know what an individual looks like outside culture; for while individuals may consciously reject some aspects of a culture, that same individual was irrevocably shaped by her culture, to the point where it may be impossible to disentangle the threads of identity formation.

I think this is a deeply uncomfortable concept for feminists and other activists to sit with and think about, especially for those of us who are Westerners and have been brought up with the “you are a unique snowflake” brand of individuality. I think the best we can hope for, right now at least, is to point out cultural norms and constructions when we see them, in order to expose the ideologies that hide as “natural.” Perhaps, when faced with the realization of how much of culture is constructed and naturalized, people can expose a little more wiggle room in order to explore and make choices?

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Now that I’ve finished my dissertation, I feel that I can begin to blog in earnest.

Yes, it’s only a first draft, and yes, no doubt there’ll be revisions, but getting all those words down on the page was an important step in ushering in the beginning of the end. And even though I have academic papers to be writing for conferences and publications, having a first draft done frees up a lot of mental and creative energy for this kind of writing.

I’ve always loved writing. Yet I find myself strangely hesitant to commit words to paper in this blog. It’s taken a bit of pushing to get myself to make this first post-dissertation post. Reminding myself that writing is something I do whether I’m publishing it or not has helped. Reminding myself that this isn’t writing for a grade or for an editor has also helped – this blog is my venue to share my thoughts (scholarly for the most part) with the rest of the world. Reading this irreverently funny blog post 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing has also helped give me the kick in the pants I need to start committing words to the screen NOW instead of the day after tomorrow.

So, since I mentioned finishing my dissertation at the outset of this post, I wanted to briefly discuss one of the issues to which I devote a full chapter of my diss: dualism. I explain what dualism is over at, linking it to gender identity and sexual stereotypes, but there’s a lot more to be said about dualism.

In particular, I’m really fascinated by mind-body dualism, especially its gendered dimensions (in most  Western philosophical constructions, men=mind while women=body). I found evidence for this in my study of classical fairy tales, in which women were more likely to be linked with body description adjectives, particularly those evaluating beauty and those having to do with skin, while men are more likely to shed their bodies through physical transformations in the tales I evaluated. It seems clear to me that fairy tales contain elements of gendered mind-body dualism, and this is possibly one reason for the enduring popularity of fairy tales in the West: they reinforce existing cultural paradigms, and are thus perceived as important and pleasing.

There’s probably more I could’ve done with dualism in my dissertation, but I really had to wrap the thing up at some point. I would, however, like to see more research done on gendered dimensions of dualism in the future. For example, @kinseyinstitute linked to this article on placebos, which gives a number of instances in which the “mind over matter” attitude works wonders. Some of these cases studies were gender-specific, as when “Fertility rates have been found to improve in women getting a placebo, perhaps because they experience a decrease in stress.” I would be really curious to know how placebos hold up when filtered by gender, since they represent such an interesting aspect of the mind-body relationship; do placebos tend to work better for men or women under certain circumstances? Does it matter whether women perceived themselves as more embodied than men do, according to dualistic doctrine? Or is gender not even a factor in the effectiveness of placebos? Perhaps dualisms are prevalent in some elements of our lives, but not others?

Anyway, hopefully this is the first of many blog posts to come. We’ll see if I can maintain momentum!

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