Sociologist Katie L. Acosta explores the centrality of family in lesbian, bisexual and queer Latinas’ lives and the efforts they make to integrate their families of choice and origin into one supportive kin network.
Sociologist Katie L. Acosta explores the centrality of family in lesbian, bisexual and queer Latinas’ lives and the efforts they make to integrate their families of choice and origin into one supportive kin network.
Among the many valuable lessons that feminists of the 1970s and 1980s taught us was to watch our mouths—not in the way our parents might have told us to do, but because language matters. Terms like “womyn” and “wimmin” have fallen mostly by the wayside, but contemporary cultures carry the legacy of that feminist wisdom in words like “firefighter” and “police officer,” and in social psychological research showing that words do, in fact, make a difference in how we think about social roles. It was in this environment, and in response to tensions within the nascent gay liberation movement, that what some call the “alphabet soup” of contemporary sexual and gender identity terms first got its start. The full story, though, goes back much further.
The concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality, as we know them today, were invented in the nineteenth century by practitioners of the new field of sexology. Influential sexologists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Albert Moll linked homosexuality to “sexual inversion,” suggesting that same-sex desire in the “true homosexual” resulted from a disjuncture between socially assigned gender and gender identity. This idea made its way into popular culture by the turn of the twentieth century. It would take another century, and a vibrant transgender rights movement, to begin to disentangle gender identity from sexual attraction in the popular imaginary.
As the concepts of homosexuality and inversion traveled from the realms of academic discourse to the popular sphere, and especially as people with nonconforming gender identities and/or same-sex desires encountered these terms, alternatives began to spring up. Some sexologists suggested terms like “urning” or “uranian” for men, drawn from a term for the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Though the parallel term “urningin” was developed for women, women came to be called (and sometimes to call themselves) “Sapphic” after the ancient Greek poet. The term “lesbian,” which derived from the name of Sappho’s home on the island of Lesbos, also developed during this time, as did the new use of the already-existent term “gay” to refer to same-sex attracted people, especially men.
While people with same-sex attractions and/or nonconforming gender identities sometimes used the term “homosexual” for themselves, they often sought alternative terms that bore fewer negative and clinical overtones. In the 1950s, U.S. activist Harry Hay suggested the word “homophile” in order to shift the terminological emphasis from sex In the 1960s, radical homosexuals began to use the term “gay.” to love, and the movements sparked or inspired by Hay in the 1950s and 1960s came to be known by this term. But when activist tactics shifted in a radical direction in these communities, one word came to the fore: gay.
The radical activist organization that arose from the flames of New York’s Stonewall Riots in 1969 called itself the Gay Liberation Front, or GLF. At the time, although the term “bisexual” was known and used, and although some in the movement identified as transsexual and some would later come to identify as transgender, many in the movement were still more likely to call themselves “gay.” And so it seemed, for a brief moment and only to some, that there was one simple word by which to call same-sex-attracted and gender-nonconforming people.
Within a few years of the GLF’s founding, it became clear to some of the women involved that “gay” might not really include them. Tired of facing sexism in the movement, and of being told that some of the issues they wanted to work on were “women’s issues” and not “gay issues,” women began to leave. Some, battling not only sexism in the GLF but also homophobia in the women’s movement, created their own space in lesbian feminism. These women made it clear that any movement or organization that truly intended to address the needs of same-sex attracted women as well as same-sex attracted men needed to include both in name as well as in intent. Thus, the 1980s in particular saw a growth in the use of the term “gay and lesbian,” or, to list the less socially empowered group first, “lesbian and gay.”
Also critical at this time in the movement was the power of naming to include or exclude U.S. people of color, and people from cultures other than the dominant U.S. mainstream. While some people from non-dominant cultures were involved in the gay rights movement, lesbian movements, and lesbian feminism, and while some actively chose the terms “gay” or “lesbian” for themselves for a variety of reasons, others preferred different terms. One example is the Two-Spirit movement, which grew in the early 1990s out of earlier organizations such as Gay American Indians. Because they wanted to work simultaneously on fighting settler colonialism and its effects, on strengthening traditional Native identities and knowledge around sexuality and gender, and on challenging contemporary resistance to those traditional identities in Native communities, the members of these organizations did not want simply to be a part of broader gay and lesbian activism. While some did, and some continue to, use terms such as “gay” or “lesbian” to refer to themselves, many have also or alternatively chosen terms from their own traditions or the pan-Indian term, Two-Spirit.
The move toward acknowledging lesbians’ choice of terminology, rather than subsuming everyone under the term “gay,” sparked further questions around inclusion. Bisexuals were the first to have their demands for inclusion answered in the affirmative, and over the course of the 1990s it became increasingly common to see or hear the term “gay, lesbian, and bisexual” as a description of a community or an organization. Some, unhappy with having to use three words and also dissatisfied with the new acronym (usually GLB), began to experiment with blended terms such as “lesbigay,” but before those terms could gain much of a foothold the names by which these communities were called changed again.
Gender-nonconforming people, particularly those attracted to the same biological sex, had been a part of these movements from their earliest days, in part because of the fusion of sexual and gender identity in nineteenth and early twentieth-century concepts of homosexuality. When research on sex reassignment procedures began to take hold in Europe between the World Wars, a separate transsexual identity began to emerge. Because of the limited number of people who could access such procedures, however, and because of the rise of World War II and the subsequent cultural conformity in countries such as the United States, this identity sparked important local activism but did not yet result in a unified national or international movement. That movement began to coalesce by the end of the 1980s, under the term “transgender.” As the word has come to be used, “transgender” (some also use “trans,” or, more recently, “trans*”) encompasses a wide variety of identities and lived experiences, including those who choose (and have the resources) to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically, those who do not (or cannot) alter their bodies but whose everyday gender expression diverges from their socially-assigned gender, and those whose nonconforming gender presentation is more occasional than regular.
Because a number of people who came to claim transgender identities in the decades after the Stonewall Riots had at one time identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (and some continued to do so in addition to identifying as transgender), and because those outside of either trans-gender or LGB communities continue to assume an intrinsic connection between gender identities and sexual identities, transgender activists and lesbian, gay, and bisexual activists have found themselves in the same communities time and again. Sometimes the shared community results in alliance; more frequently, for transgender people, it has resulted in betrayal. The move to include transgender people in the increasingly-long acronym for these communities, then, held multiple meanings. On the one hand it was a gesture of inclusion, and an acknowledgement that transgender people are a part of these communities. On the other hand, to some transgender people the nominal inclusion seemed to be too little and too late. All too often, as happened frequently for bisexuals as well, an organization would add “the T” (or “the B”) to its name without actually shifting its policies, goals, vision, or practices to be more proactively inclusive.
Similar challenges arose with the term “queer.” Reclaimed from its derogatory past in the late 1980s by the activist group Queer Nation, the term was almost simultaneously but separately introduced into academia to prod what was then called “gay and lesbian studies” into greater inclusivity and a more radical analysis. “Queer” began its new life as a term connoting radical activism around sexual and gender identity; it also began as a term used mostly in white communities. By the early 2000s, though, “queer” had become less radical and more fashionably edgy, appropriate even for the title of a hit television show (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). Yet, it also became the term of choice for a number of organizations founded by people of color, and the term “queer of color” began to appear commonly in the descriptions and names of organizations.
At the same time, it began to seem to some people that “queer” might be the answer to the growing difficulty of naming their community in fewer than ten syllables. By the early 2000s, acronyms often included not only gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, but—among others—transsexual, Two-Spirit, asexual, ally, queer, questioning, and intersex (people born with ambiguous or mixed genitalia). Intersex activists, like transgender activists, disagreed about whether they were or wanted to be a part of this community, since their goals and priorities were different from those of the movement as a whole. The acronym had multiplied beyond expectation, yet even with all of this specificity not only were people still feeling left out, but some people were included who really did not want to be.
Interestingly, for those who chose it to name their identity, the strength of the term “queer” actually lay in its lack of specificity. Resistant to being “boxed in” yet also not willing to identify solely as heterosexual and/or as cisgender (that is, normatively gendered), some people chose “queer” because it expressed the fluidity they saw in their own sexual and gendered selves. The term “genderqueer,” for instance, came in the 2000s to indicate a gender identity that refused allegiance to either femininity or masculinity, expressing itself instead through nonconforming gender performances that resisted and confounded social assumptions about gender and anatomy. Likewise, some who claimed “queer” as a sexual identity refused the binary between “straight” and “gay,” and resisted the ways in which “bisexual” reinforced that binary. “Queer,” then, came for some to indicate sexual and gender identities that refused to conform with established gender or sexual identities in heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and cisgender cultures.
In the end, though, for a number of reasons “queer” failed to achieve full acceptance as the term of choice for all communities of gender-nonconforming and same-sex attracted people—this, despite its near-ubiquity among the members of Generation X and the Millennial generation. The most common term used today to describe same-sex attracted and gender non-conforming people is “LGBT” or “LGBTQ.” Where possible, though, many avoid the naming issue entirely now, preferring instead to refer simply to “sexual and gender identities.”
The show was staged to coincide with the fashionista gathering in order to make a point: the fashion industry expects “absolute flawlessness,” in the words of feminist media activist Jean Kilbourne. While we generally believe that these beauty standards derive from nature, models and beauty queens increasingly use plastic surgery and digital enhancements to achieve unattainable ideals in terms of body type, facial features, skin complexion and eternal youth.
A model’s value depends on her ability to achieve and maintain flawless beauty. Sociologists Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wissinger, writing in The Sociological Review in 2005, argue that since models’ sense of identity and self-worth are closely linked to their value in the industry, those who deviate from any of these rigid standards are devalued both professionally and personally.
But in a beauty commercial parody that recently went viral, blogger Jesse Rosten said it best: the only way to look like a “real” cover girl is to use Photoshop.
During the Great Recession that began in 2007, news reports portrayed housing foreclosure as an equal opportunity crisis, overlooking the fact that women—especially women of color—were disproportionately affected.
Lise Saugeres, a sociologist who authored the 2009 article, “‘We Do Get Stereotyped’: Gender, Housing, Work and Social Disadvantage” (Housing, Theory, and Society), argues that gender ideology still controls men’s and women’s housing experiences. African American women, Latinas, single mothers, and the elderly were targeted during the subprime lending boom by eager lenders, who viewed them as less financially savvy. These groups were more likely to get loans that had balloon payments, high fees, and adjustable rates, and 80 percent of these loans resulted in default.
The most vulnerable women lived in racially segregated neighborhoods. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Jacob Rugh, in a 2010 American Sociological Review article, “Racial Segregation and the American Foreclosure Crisis,” found that African American neighborhoods in 100 U.S. cities were targeted for risky loans, leading to unusually high foreclosure rates in these communities. Since black women are the primary homeowners in their families, they suffered particular hardship. Not only did African American women become subprime prey, they were also more than twice as likely to be offered such loans as white men with equivalent incomes.
These discriminatory practices placed the groups most threatened by poverty—women of color and female-headed households—at additional risk.
But the “new normal” these shows create looks very white, male, and middle class. In many of these gay-affirmative shows, lesbian characters are still confined to side plots or coming out stories.
Writing in Journal of Homosexuality in 2009, scholar Noelle Collier and her colleagues explain that television is an important source of self-mirroring images that validate the experiences of lesbians in the early stages of identity formation. Citing examples like Willow and Tara (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Xena and Gabrielle (Xena: Warrior Princess), they argue that lesbian characters enhance lesbian viewer’s self-esteem and help them to see their own desires and relationships as normal.
But the primetime representations that queer female viewers can draw on remain limited. Fan forums for shows like Rizzoli and Isles and Once Upon a Time call for better representation of lesbian characters, arguing that dynamic female couples shouldn’t be confined to HBO and Showtime. Some shows, such as The Fosters and Pretty Little Liars, are beginning to break the primetime mold by presenting well-rounded characters who happen to be lesbians. Still, we have a long way to go before television shows are reflective of the diversity of the LGBTQ population.
Dean Peacock is co-founder and Executive Director of the Sonke Gender Justice Network, a South African NGO working to promote gender transformation, human rights, and social justice across Africa. Dean’s work and activism over the last 20 years have focused on issues related to gender equality, men and constructions of masculinities, HIV and AIDS, and social justice. He is a co-founder and co-chair of the Global MenEngage Alliance, a member of the United Nations Secretary General’s Network of Men Leaders (formed to advise Ban Ki-Moon on gender-based violence prevention), and serves on the Nobel Women’s Advisory Committee on ending sexual violence in conflict settings. An honorary senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s School of Public Health and an Ashoka Fellow, Peacock’s writing has been published in numerous books and peer-reviewed journals. He holds a BA in Development Studies from the University of California Berkeley and an MA in Social Welfare from San Francisco State University. Shari L. Dworkin, Vice Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California at San Francisco, talks to Peacock about his work and activism.
Shari L. Dworkin: Why did you go into work that attempts to reshape norms of masculinities to improve gender inequalities, violence, and HIV?
Dean Peacock: My earliest engagement with issues of men, masculinities, and violence was through my connection with the End Conscription campaign when I was in my final year of high school in South Africa. The campaign was focused on getting white men to challenge apartheid militarism by refusing to serve in the army. That was in 1985, the year that the state of emergency was imposed in South Africa and a lot of young white men like myself were finishing high school and then serving in the army (either in the covert war that was being fought against Cuban and Angolan troops in Angola, or in the townships in South Africa itself). I lived on the campus of the University of Cape Town, and I was introduced to activism there.
I began to think about the kind of deliberate targeting of men for a particular set of gendered roles. In that case, participation in militaries—a military that was overtly and explicitly oppressive, as most militaries, of course, are. So that was my very earliest exposure to the work. The other trajectory to this work was from the relationships I had with women who were feminist activists concerned about a range of different human rights and social justice and women’s rights issues.
SD: So does the work resonate not just politically, but on a personal level?
DP: Yes, definitely. In my early 20s, my partner was working at a battered women’s shelter as a volunteer, and she came back one day from a volunteer training that had been done by the then-director of an organization I hadn’t yet heard of: Men Overcoming Violence (MOVE). She was visibly energized by the training at MOVE and urged me to check it out. When she talked about the work of men engaging men to end men’s violence against women, I immediately thought, “Wow, that’s something that I actually do have a very direct connection to.” I made a commitment to myself that I would learn more about that work and what I could do. So I checked out MOVE, and I had this incredible experience. I was invited to observe a group with perpetrators of domestic violence who were there either because they’d been arrested or because they identified violence as a problem they had to deal with. I listened in, and I was moved by the stories that I heard of men grappling with their own violence, trying to understand it, figure out how stop it, and deal with the aftermath of the destruction caused by violence in their relationships and in their families. I remember the facilitator asking a man how he felt, and he replied, “Well, I think that…” The facilitator stopped him immediately, and he said, “I’m not asking you what you think, I’m asking you how you feel.” At that point in my life, I’d never made that distinction before. Just like the men in the group, I was being exposed to a whole new vocabulary and a set of experiences and insights that my male socialization and socialization of so many men had been deprived of.
SD: Sonke’s work is not only focused on reducing men’s violence against women and men, but also on reducing the spread and impact of HIV.DP: Yes. It’s critical to understand that intimate partner violence is common in South Africa, with studies showing that between 25 to 55 percent of women have experienced violence from a male partner. The rate of female homicide by male partners is six times higher than the global average. Studies also show that a large number of men admit to raping women and girls.
In terms of HIV, South Africa has the largest epidemic in the world. And young women’s rate of HIV is far greater than young men’s, though young men do face tremendous HIV vulnerabilities in South Africa—lots of pressure to drink, to have sex, and to not reveal any vulnerabilities or confusions about sex. Models of manhood in South Africa and across the world are a recipe for men acting in sexual ways that put themselves and their partners at significant risk.
Our work at Sonke goes “upstream.” Our work is primary prevention of violence and HIV—to change national laws and policies, to change social norms at a societal level, and to engage men and boys. Our conversations with men help them recognize the harm that contemporary models of masculinity do to everyone. We want them to become active in efforts to change that for their own good and for the health and human rights of women in their lives.
SD: Are these are difficult conversations to have with men?
DP: There are assumptions that men in South Africa (and men generally) would be very resistant to having conversations about masculinity and power and gender equality. But, it doesn’t take much for men to say that they feel tremendous pressure about norms of masculinity and that many of those pressures are quite unbearable and certainly very unrealistic.
We use a number of different strategies to reach men, including media, community mobilization, and workshops. When we run workshops and do dynamic activities, it’s not hard to get the men to feel a sense of outrage about human rights violations, women’s rights, and violence in South Africa. Our task is to turn that outrage into action. We get men to reflect on the invisibility of patriarchy to men and the overt experience of patriarchy that women have all the time. Then we strategize with those men about what they’re going to do to challenge men’s violence.
SD: How has social science thinking influenced the work of Sonke Gender Justice?
DP: I think Raewyn Connell’s work highlighting the plurality of masculinities and Judith Butler’s work around the performativity of gender is very helpful in our work. Michael Messner’s work around the costs to men of masculinity is a very useful entry point to talking with men in South Africa about what contemporary notions and norms around manhood mean for men and to help them understand their significant personal investment in challenging norms about manhood that come at such a high price for women—but also for them as men. This and other gender theory has helped us be more nuanced and more optimistic about what’s possible.
For us, part of our theory of change is that it’s not enough to simply run workshops and get men to reflect on their own process of socialization and consider making changes in their own relationship. With a problem as enormous as gender-based violence in South Africa, you then have to get men to think about what they’re going to do at the community level. We help them to figure out how to engage their duty-bearers (local government, provincial government, national government) to make sure that elected representatives are properly implementing the law, whether that’s the Sexual Offenses Act, the Domestic Violence Act, or any number of other laws that are related to ending domestic and sexual violence in South Africa.
SD: Part of what impresses me about the work of Sonke is that violence in the streets and violence in intimate relationships are intertwined, and working on masculinities is the point of intervention for both. Can you comment on why and how you intervene on these simultaneously?DP: If a significant part of our strategy is to get men to recognize the costs that men pay for contemporary notions of manhood and for living in a patriarchal society, then of course we want men to reflect on their own experiences of violence at the hands of other men who adhere in particularly rigid ways to those social norms about manhood, right? So, in South Africa, the conversation with men about the costs to men of manhood and the pressures that men face to live up to those notions is an easy one.
This is because the relationship between HIV risk and contemporary ideas about manhood is so clear. If you grow up being told, “As a man, you’re going to have lots of sexual partners, you shouldn’t really be negotiating sex with people, you shouldn’t be exhibiting any kind of fear that you might be exposed to risk,” and you put together the mix of alcohol, ignorance, and pressures to have lots of sexual partners, it’s easy to get men to recognize the ways in which manhood is set up for HIV infection and, subsequently, for not accessing critical health services (testing, treatment, support groups, and the like). The same applies to men’s experiences of or fears of violence. In South Africa, men kill men at seven times the rate that men kill women. So it’s not hard to get men to see these connections.
SD: As you’re talking, I am reminded that you are not just talking about programs but are increasingly becoming active in the policy realm. Give me a sense of some policy work that you’re most proud of at Sonke Gender Justice?
DP: One example of work we’ve done at a policy level was to stop the passage of the Traditional Courts Bill. It would have reinscribed patriarchal powers for tradi tional leaders in rural parts of South Africa and would have affected about 20 million people living mostly in areas that were formerly homelands. It would have essentially created two separate and unequal legal systems: a constitutional democracy, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a traditional legal system, presided over by unelected traditional leaders, many of them apartheid-era leaders put in place by the apartheid government and not “traditional” in any real sense (and, of course, I think anyone who claims things are “traditional” needs to be asked quite a few questions—“tradition” is so misused and manipulated in many post-colonial settings).
In existing traditional courts, women are usually not allowed to represent themselves or even to speak. Quite often, women are not allowed to be in traditional courts at all. And so we and many of our women’s rights partners were very concerned about what [legitimizing these courts at the national level] would mean for gender equality in South Africa. We saw it as a very dangerous potential erosion of women’s rights as they are enshrined in the South African Constitution and as a reassertion of patriarchal power. We did a lot of work connecting to our partner organizations to educate men and women in rural communities about the bill and to get men and women to speak out against it together. (I think symbolically it was important that men and women be doing this work together—to speak out against the bill in their local communities.) Then, when provincial consultations were held to seek local input and opinion on the bills, we supported and mobilized and encouraged community members to attend those meetings and to speak up forcefully against the bill.
That’s the piece of work I’m really excited about. It’s one of those things that could easily go unremarked upon because we stopped a bill, rather than passed a law, but I think in some parts of the world, that’s the most important work you can do—to resist the encroachment of conservatism and of patriarchal politics.
SD: Dean, you’ve done more work from your 20s to your 40s than most people do in a lifetime. What is your next set of aspirations at Sonke?
DP: At Sonke, we serve as the global co-chair of an alliance made up of organizations like ours that work with men and boys, and we’re now active in 41 countries at last count. Forty-one countries are working to increase men’s and boys support for gender equality! This is an incredible accomplishment and something to really celebrate. Part of what we’re now trying to figure out is how we use the power of a global network to advance shared policy positions.
And now, we’re moving into an interesting period—the Millennium Development Goals have the target of 2015, so we’re fast approaching 2015, and we’re in the middle of the post-MGD deliberations at the moment as to what the next set of indicators should be to measure gender equality. We want to be involved in some of those global discussions—around the first MGDs— about the Beijing Platform for Action 20-Year Review that’s happening in 2015 as well—the ICPD or Cairo Declaration deliberations—the Security Council Resolution 1325 plus 15 deliberations—and figure out how we get networks of organizations working with men and boys to support, in very real ways, the women’s rights agenda in those global deliberative processes.
Peacock, D. (2013). South Africa’s Sonke Gender Justice Network: Educating men for gender equality. Agenda: Empowering women for gender equity.
Peacock D, Khumalo B and Mcnab E (2006) Men and gender activism in South Africa: observations, critique and recommendations for the future, Agenda, 69, 71-81.
Peacock, D. (2005) “We Exist! Voices of Male Feminism.” In Defending Our Dreams: Global Feminist Voices for a New Generation edited by Shamillah Wilson, Anusaya Sengupta and Kristy Evans; Zed Books, London.
Dworkin, S.L., Hatcher, A. Colvin,C., Peacock, D. (2013). Impact of an anti-violence and HIV program on masculinities and gender ideologies in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. Men and Masculinities, 16, 181-202.
Dworkin, S.L,. Kagan, S. & Lippman, S. (2013). Gender-Transformative Interventions to Reduce HIV Risks and Violence Among Heterosexually-Active Men: A Review of the Global Evidence. AIDS & Behavior.
For now, “the love that dare not speak its name” won’t be silenced in Tennessee. Since 2008, Republican Senator Stacey Campfield has been trying to pass a bill to limit speech about homosexuality in schools. The law would require that school staff notify families when students receive counseling about sexuality. The legislation, thus far a weak threat, plays mostly for laughs, with irresistible headlines like “Don’t Say Gay—Seriously.” As Jon Stewart quipped, “[It] isn’t like Beetlejuice: if you say it out loud too many times, you’re gay.”
Since the proposed legislation died in committee for a second time this spring, should we just file it under “L” for “ludicrous” and leave it at that?
Maybe not. Building on Adrienne Rich’s concept of “compulsory heterosexuality,” sociologist C.J. Pascoe argued in her book Dude, You’re a Fag that school culture can be characterized by “compulsive heterosexuality”: a “constellation of sexualized practices, discourses, and interactions” through which students (with the tacit approval of school staff) reproduce gender inequality and homophobia. The implications of such practices can be profound: in Pascoe’s study, a gay student was harassed so frequently that he dropped out of school.
Compulsive heterosexuality makes creating a respectful environment challenging, and yet Campfield’s legislation, the “Classroom Protection Act,” would make compulsive heterosexuality the only game in town. It would leave teachers and students disempowered to speak back to homophobia and sexism.
It’s hard to say whether the “Classroom Protection Act” could pass, nor
what its real effects might be. No state has passed comparable state-wide legislation. In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, part of Michele Bachmann’s (R-MN) district, though, a similar school district policy was tied to nine suicides in just two years.
Campfield and a counterpart in the House of Representatives, John Ragan (R-TN), have vowed to get versions of this bill passed in the next session, but there’s no evidence they’ll be any more successful than previous iterations. While Tennessee voters overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, polls show they oppose “Don’t Say Gay” almost as vigorously. Maybe they all watch The Daily Show.
KICK ASS AND TAKE NAMES!
You were **BORN** for violence my fellow MAN.
Take up that stick knowing in your heart of hearts that every fiber of your being has either evolved through fighting and death or was simply created
— e-mail from Fight Club member two days before my first fight
“Do not cripple your friends. Do not bring them to tears,” says the organizer.
“If it’s your first time at Fight Club,” he adds, turning to face me, “you fight first.” He hands me a dulled, rounded 9-inch training knife, padded gloves, and a fencing mask. My opponent, Mike, is about the same size as me. He has a knife, too. Unfortunately for me, Mike actually knows how to use his. I have no fight training or experience, and it’s about to be painfully evident.
I try not to think about the language in the release form I just signed. “I the participant, am knowingly risking injury, which typically includes bruises, bumps and scrapes but can include serious injury and death from either fighting or watching.” Bruises. Bumps. Scrapes. Death? It’s unlikely anybody will come close to dying today—at least not of anything more than humiliation.
Mike and I are fighting under the auspices of The Gentlemen’s Fighting Club—a San Francisco Bay Area group formed in the late 1990s. In GFC’s history, there have been few serious injuries. This fact, along with the thickly padded gloves and sturdy mask, alleviate most of my concerns. Still, I am tempted to repeat the pre-fight instructions to Mike: Please do not cripple me or bring me to tears. “Fighters ready?” the timekeeper asks. I tighten my fingers around the handle of the training knife and square off with my opponent. “Fight!”It’s Fight the Professor Day at GFC, a one-time gathering organized at my request. It’s a comforting sign of the GFC philosophy that my original title—“Punch the Professor”—was rejected. While typical GFC novices fight in a suburban garage, this event is being held on a concrete patio and grass in a fenced-in backyard. First-timers and longtime members alike fight in a rotation of among five to ten people, usually friends and acquaintances, almost always only men. A few hundred people have fought at GFC, and most fight only a few times. Only a couple dozen were regulars at the club’s peak, when they fought biweekly.
Almost all the men have a martial arts or fighting background. None are amateur or professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters. Sanctioned, refereed MMA fights are short, violent exchanges that typically end with a knockout or forced submission. GFC provides a more authentic combat experience than martial arts sparring and less risk of injury than MMA, as well as an especially varied and creative array of weapons. In addition to the grappling and hitting that is part of martial arts and MMA, these fighters use brass rods rolled-up into magazines, unopened soda cans or soap bars wrapped in pillowcases, small purses filled with buckshot, folding chairs, cookie sheets, computer keyboards, and even metal chains.
Fighters wear just about any protective gear they choose, or none at all. Bruises, cuts, blood, and pain are routine. Broken fingers happen. The stakes are higher than a schoolyard fight, but only rarely does someone get badly injured. They have to go home to their families and to work the next day, and they want their friends and foes to leave intact, so they can return to fight another day.
They’re crazy! It’s fake! A Geek Fight Club!? More like cubicle jockeys desperate to feel something real.
When the media first discovered the Gentlemen’s Fight Club, reporters, fighters, martial artists, academics, and others joined in laughter, scorn, and skepticism. What motivated these guys to take up arms and fight? To answer that question, I observed fights, participated in one afternoon of combat, and interviewed 13 GFC fighters on their own and three in a group setting. I found that these men fight to test their skills and toughness, to conquer their fears, and, in some cases, to restore a sense of masculinity and control they lost during experiences of boyhood emasculation.
GFC is a democratic institution. Occupation and social class aren’t used as filters for entry. Although members joke about excluding “yuppie punchers’’ and the “Gentlemen” moniker harkens to upper-class British pugilists, no interested fighter has been turned away. Landscapers, marketers, police officers, community organizers, students, and even a couple self-identified gang members have fought at GFC. Social class and status disappear behind the headgear and weapons.The media has portrayed the club as primarily for geeks— software engineers and computer programmers—trying to escape their cubicle existence. The high proportion of middle- and upper-middle class tech professionals is primarily due to the Bay Area location, the founders (who came from those fields), and the members’ own personal and work networks. More than their profession or economic status, it is a background in martial arts—and some frustration with the limits of their training—that draws men to GFC.
The fighters I chose to interview are a racially and ethnically diverse group in their 20s, 30s and 40s, single or with children, and mostly college-educated. Like most GFC regulars or visitors, they are unlikely to find themselves fighting in a bar or anywhere other than GFC. Of course, each fighter brings a different biography and life experience to the club. But they share a similar cultural upbringing: longtime American attitudes towards men’s violence and combat that transcend divisions of class and race.
American culture simultaneously expects, celebrates, and punishes violence in boys and men. Despite the contradictions, and without a formal rite of passage from boyhood to manhood as found in cultures throughout the world, our society produces the unofficial, nearly universal boyhood ritual of fighting. American educators, parents, and law-enforcement authorities have been trying to discourage fighting, violence, and bullying, now broadly defined to include physical and verbal intimidation.
But real-life fighting continues to be the way most boys prove themselves physically, testing themselves and one another. For some men, GFC is simply an extension of their lifelong fascination with fighting—from vicariously experienced cartoon violence to actual schoolyard clashes and martial arts training. Another inspiration for the GFC was the rise of mixed martial arts, in which fighters use all disciplines; the first Ultimate Fighting Championship was held in 1993.
It‘s unclear how many fight clubs exist. There are, of course, media stories about teenagers fighting in front of crowds of fellow teenage spectators. These fights may be staged for fun, for gambling, and sometimes to create homemade movies that are sold for profit. They have little in common, though, with the handful of adult fight clubs I discovered during my research. With the exception of GFC, the adult clubs were either no longer active or deeply underground, and they mostly mirror increasingly popular and mainstreamed mixed martial arts (MMA) events.
Gentlemen’s Fight Club is the only club I located that uses weapons and holds regular fight nights. It is distinct from MMA and other groups in one other significant way: winning and losing is irrelevant. No one scores the fights or keeps track of the number of strikes landed. There’s almost a team spirit, despite the one-on-one nature of combat. The fighters have an interest in helping each other build their skills, but they show no interest in ranking each other, playing out anger, or humiliating anyone. The fighters certainly deliver painful blows and cause injuries to opponents, but there’s no intent to cause serious harm.
In one of my fights, my stronger opponent skillfully delivered painful strikes using rattan sticks, but he didn’t bull-rush or grab me, pin me down, or pummel me. Stronger and more skilled fighters use the weapons to expand their own and their opponent’s skills. They gain nothing by overwhelming smaller, less experienced fighters with brute strength. Winning is supplanted by skill development.
A couple of GFC fighters eagerly spoke of physically dominating their opponents, using aggression and overwhelming force. But as sociologist Michael Kimmel argues in his 2006 book Manhood in America, being a man isn’t really about pursuing domination over others—it’s about evoking a fear of being dominated and controlled. For many GFC fighters, it’s gratifying just to participate, to put oneself at risk and survive, to experiment with losing and establishing control. All this is to say, asserting masculinity isn’t necessarily about inflicting damage. It’s about controlling others, and controlling one’s own reactions and emotions—especially fear.
Many men are motivated to fight because they’ve arrived at adulthood without evidence (at least for themselves) that they’ve passed the “test.” They want to know if their own strength and training would hold up in a real fight, if they have the courage to face an armed attacker. Can they overcome a sometimes paralyzing fear of injury and protect themselves and their families—maybe even kick a little ass if they have to?One subset of this group wants to exorcise particularly painful memories of fear, humiliation, and defeat that continue to haunt them. Several men I interviewed— including Asher, Sammy, and Freddy—have met many of society’s expectations for what men should be and do. Their college degrees, successful careers, and families offset some of the insecurities that arose from their physical shortcomings as boys. They aren’t conquering their childhood demons by committing acts of violence in the streets or using alcohol and drugs to escape their memories. Yet they continue to define themselves in part by those boyhood experiences; these scars aren’t easy to erase, even for men who measure up in most other areas.
Asher is 34, married, and a father. He has a lucrative career in the technology sector. Like several of the men I met, he was bullied and beaten up as a boy and considers those experiences formative: “I felt like a weakling most of my life.” Asher’s father enrolled him in martial arts classes, but he quickly quit and has long regretted not being better at “standing up for myself when I was younger.”
GFC fighter Sammy, 44, spent years training in martial arts and sparring in dojos, but when he heard about GFC he was still asking himself, “Can I really fight?” He is slight of stature, which, not surprisingly, exposed him to more bullying as a child and teen in the occasionally violent and gang-ridden neighborhoods where he grew up. When threatened by gang members, he said, all of his options felt emasculating: crying for help, submitting by begging for mercy, or suffering the pain and failure of being beaten. He chose submission to avoid the physical pain. “Saying ‘Sorry, sorry,’ many times definitely hurts your ego,” he told me, laughing ruefully. It was “powerful, because I was all cocky when I was young and then, ‘Oh, fuck. A few guys come [at] you and then you’re nobody. Definitely, this had something to do with getting me to try to practice [martial arts] and prove my manhood.”
Freddy, one of the long-time GFC regulars, says he got into grappling and wrestling to get the feeling that he could control his own body and others’. Once, when he was in elementary school, two older neighbors pinned him down, stripped him of his clothes, and ran away, leaving him to try to sneak back into the house, naked, in front of some older women relatives. He’d not only lost control of his body, but was exposed, literally and figuratively. When he was in college, some “friends” tried to pull a similar stunt, grabbing him and attempting to strip him naked in a dorm hallway. This time, he says, “I kneed the first guy in the balls; I turned around and grabbed the other guy by the throat and threw him down.”
For these men, Fight Club offers an opportunity to replace the psychological scars of bullying and submission with physical scars they can wear as trophies of manhood. Fighting is therapeutic, and it brings more than understanding. The fighters can confront their feelings of failure directly, as adults. And they restore a sense of control, paradoxically, by choosing to give it up, placing themselves at risk. Even when they lose, by demonstrating an ability to withstand violence, they are reestablishing their masculinity. A fight is a “situation where you just don’t know what’s going to happen,’’ says Asher, “but now, I know what I can do and I know that I’m not going to lose my cool.” It’s not about eliminating fear, he says, “but knowing you’re not a coward.”
“After I got punched enough times [at Fight Club],” Sammy says, “I understand that I can definitely take a [big] punch and then I’ll nail you one.” Sammy doesn’t expect to be bullied by gang members now that he’s an adult, but if he finds himself in that situation, he now has the confidence to deal with it. He expected to reclaim his manhood by beating up his Fight Club opponents. Instead he came to believe that the “true power” was being able to withstand a beating. Getting hit is, in many ways, more important than hitting.
“So, sometimes losing is winning?” I asked him. “Losing is definitely winning,” he said. He now invites and even embraces fights with men at GFC who are stronger and may subject him to countless strikes. The same confidence has helped him handle non-violent confrontations at work, he notes.
Freddy’s extensive GFC experience has translated to an acute self-awareness and sense of control. “Now I think of myself as a hard target. I don’t feel like a mark,” he says. “Only I kill me.” With the skills and confidence he has developed, he believes it’s only his own mistakes that lead him to lose a fight.
Ronnie, another experienced martial artist, says he wanted definitive proof that fear could no longer dominate him. “What I get [from fighting at GFC] is the truth. [To know] that I could protect myself and I’m not scared in any situation.’’ He wavers a little. “[Well] you get scared in a lot of different situations. But I feel, well, it gives me a level of confidence.”
Social science research reveals that men who fall short on some measure of manhood often find other outlets to compensate for their perceived shortcomings. Young men living in poverty and denied access to good jobs may assert themselves through sports, sexual conquests, or risk-taking activities like crime. Adult men who fail as breadwinners are more likely to abuse their wives or girlfriends. Men with physical disabilities may highlight their decision-making skills and authority to offset their inability to live up to men’s body ideals.
GFC offers at least one group of men a direct way to repair and bolster their masculine identities. This may help explain why they don’t reject cultural expectations of physical toughness and control or embrace a different definition of manhood.
In place of recurrent memories of humiliation, some GFC fighters say they have daily fantasies or daydreams in which they are superheroes or doing heroic things. Some confess to harboring fantasies of violence—such as clearing a bar full of people when forced to defend themselves. Even after proving their courage, toughness, and ability repeatedly at GFC, some fighters return again and again, for months or even years. The ritual binds them.
New fighters may feel as if they are undergoing a controlled hazing ritual, but the regulars help create the best of a fraternal atmosphere—camaraderie and bonding—without fear of being judged by other men. The bond is evident in the post-fight hug, an authentic embrace of appreciation and respect. My afternoon of fighting ended, as they all do, with beer and laughter while watching recordings of the fights. (No copies of the videos are made or distributed.)
GFC may be unique in the way it cultivates the most visceral element of American manhood. Unlike MMA competitors, these garage fighters don’t attempt to injure each other to win. And unlike middle school bullies, they don’t try to physically humiliate each other. They push and challenge each other, encouraging everyone to grow as fighters—and as people. As one veteran explained as I prepared for my first fight, your fellow fighters are “there to bring you up, not beat you down.”
Masculinity is elusive and tenuous, always capable of being undermined by a single failure. GFC gives men a venue where they can prove themselves physically, shielding them from the burden of trying to dominate others—and the fear of being dominated.
Canada, Geoffrey. Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America (Beacon Press, 1995). Describes boys’ street socialization, unwritten rules about and informal training in fighting, and violence in tough, inner-city neighborhoods, before and after guns were prevalent.
Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History, 2nd Edition (Oxford University Press, 2006). Exhaustively documents and analyzes culturally ascendant and competing versions of American manhood throughout U.S. history.
Messerschmidt, James W. Nine Lives: Adolescent Masculinities, The Body and Violence (Westview Press, 1999). Examines young boys who have been physically and sexually abused, and who have attempted to overcome their victimization by committing these acts against peers.
Phillips, Debby. “Punking and Bullying: Strategies in Middle School, High School, and Beyond,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2007), 22(2):158-178. Explains how boys use verbal and physical abuse to humiliate and shame other boys in an attempt to demonstrate their own masculinity.
Last year, Katha Pollitt, the longtime columnist at The Nation, received the American Sociological Association’s award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues. One of the country’s leading political commentators, Pollitt is the author of seven books, including two volumes of poetry. She is currently writing a book about the abortion conflict in the United States. Carole Joffe is a professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco and the author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients and the Rest of Us. She regularly blogs on reproductive politics at RHRealitycheck.org, Huffington Post, and elsewhere.
Carole Joffe: Tell us about the pathway that led you to The Nation, where you are, as the American Sociological Association (ASA) award statement put it, “a serious gadfly on the social consciousness of the public!”
Katha Pollitt: Sometimes I feel my career began in the Middle Ages. The other night I was at a book event for about 20 feminist journalists, where I was only one of two people over 40. I was the only one whose career began in paper media and basically stayed there. I started writing book reviews for the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere soon after I graduated from college, and, along with my poetry publications, that led me to The Nation, where I was the literary editor in the early 1980s. I’ve stayed there ever since. Before I began my column, I was an associate editor for the front section.The Nation is a great home for a columnist. I have a great deal of freedom to write whatever I want, to develop my own voice and style, to have fun. At The Nation we assume that readers are intelligent and knowledgeable, writers don’t have to spell everything out every time they write, as if the reader had just awoken from a coma. I have had fantastic editors who make my column better than it would otherwise be. I should always take their suggestions! The balancing of poetry and political prose is a struggle for me. Poetry tends to lose out.
CJ: Speak about your relationship to sociology and the social sciences in general. In your writings, you make periodic use of social science research that you find relevant—but at the same time, you do not hesitate to criticize academic writing you find irrelevant or inaccessible to the general reader. In particular, what is your overall assessment of academic feminism and how useful this field has been to women in the “real world”?
KP: Academic writing is often turgid and jargon-ridden. Sociology is far from the worst offender! At least sociology, like anthropology, is often about real people the author has often actually spent time with. A great ethnographic work is like a wonderful novel: what is it like to be these people and live under those conditions? How does the world look to them? What has made them what they are? What are the concrete effects of social policy? At the ASA, a man came up to me after my little talk where I had praised sociology and said, “The kind of sociology you like has very little status in the profession. These days it’s all about numbers.”
All the social sciences seem to have economics envy these days, don’t they? Feminist scholarship has revolutionized every field: history, literary studies, biography, psychology, medicine, law, biology, theology, philosophy and sociology too. Of course, not every male scholar realizes that! A lot of them trundle along as if nothing has changed.Academic feminism has had practical effects. Think of the way Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight, to choose just one example, has shaped the discourse around body image, gender, eating disorders and obesity, or the way Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body has complicated discussions of foster care and adoption. Feminist theory—or “theory” as it is often called—seems less illuminating to me, partly because it is divorced from other disciplines and from empirical research. For example, can you really understand why we invaded Iraq by studying the masculinist metaphors used to describe it: penetration, domination, dropping bombs being like playing a video game, etc.? Domestic U.S. politics, the economics of oil, and the foreign policy objectives of the Bush Administration strike me as getting us closer to understanding what went on.
CJ: A consistent theme in your writing is the status of the feminist movement, both in the United States and elsewhere. What is your sense of contemporary feminism and its ability to address the longstanding generational and racial tensions?
KP: I actually think the feminist movement is coming back from the doldrums. Thanks to the Internet, young feminists are finding each other: there are dozens of websites, like Feministing, Feministe, and Jezebel. There’s quite a bit of activism, too, especially around sexual violence, reproductive rights, body issues and misogyny in pop culture. Today’s young feminism has an edgy, sexy, sarcastic vibe—think of Slut-walk [covered in this issue of Contexts].
That tone puts off some older women, and some younger women too, but it also draws in women who thought of feminism as dowdy and pleasure-denying. Of course the Republicans have helped a lot here. When candidates talk about legitimate rape and pregnancy from rape as part of God’s plan, when Rush Limbaugh and his ditto heads call women sluts for using birth control, that gets women’s attention.
CJ: Another major focus of your writing is abortion, and you have written (brilliantly, in my view) about the abortion rights movement, the anti-abortion movement and the predicament of abortion providers and patients alike. What have you tried to accomplish in your new book on the topic?
KP: I think the pro-choice movement has been much too defensive for too long. We talk endlessly about the hard cases—rape, incest, life and health of the mother— and it’s important to remind people about them, because anti-choicers want to ban those abortions too. At the same time, those represent maybe 10 percent of the more than 1 million abortions that take place every year. My thesis in a nutshell: we need to talk about abortion as a normal part of reproductive life, and access to it as a positive social good. It’s a good thing that women don’t drop out of school or work because a condom broke or they forgot their pill; that they plan and time their pregnancies; that they stop having kids when they’ve had as many as they feel they can raise well. It’s outrageous that women are expected to be at the mercy of a stray sperm.
Similarly, we need to complicate the way we talk about the abortion decision. Sometimes it’s difficult, sure, but a lot of the time it’s simple. Women shouldn’t be made to feel guilty if they don’t agonize over whether they should have a baby just because they happened to get pregnant.
CJ: Give us your reflections on the 2012 elections, especially with respect to the issues that most preoccupy you in your writing, such as reproductive politics, and the “war on women” more generally. Do you agree with those writers, such as Maureen Dowd, who, in response to the Democratic victories, have proclaimed that “the cultural wars are over”?
KP: Don’t you hate it that what we call “the culture wars” is actually a struggle over social justice, civil rights and civil liberties? It’s like the way news about breast cancer or domestic violence goes in the “style” section, just because it’s about women. Birth control is not some frill. It is as much health care as any other medicine or medical device—a lot more important than some of them! Abortion rights and access are totally bound up with women’s equality, including women’s economic equality, which is not a cultural issue. Gay marriage is about equality for sexual minorities, about social inclusion, and about redefining marriage away from the old patriarchal/religious model. What music to play at the gay wedding—that’s a cultural issue.
The 2012 election was a real rebuke to the Tea Party ultra-right and to the flagrant misogyny of the Republican “war on women.” But let’s not go overboard: Claire McCaskill [of Missouri] might well have lost to a more circumspect anti-choice right-winger than Todd “legitimate rape” Akin; she might even have lost had he not made that much-publicized unfortunate remark. The same was true in conservative Indiana, where a Democrat given little chance of winning took the senate seat after Republican Richard Mourdock said pregnancy from rape was part of God’s plan. For the presidential contest, the gender gap was the biggest ever. But let’s not forget Republicans still control the House and enough Senate seats to filibuster and otherwise block much legislation. Just the other day Senate Republicans, led by Rick Santorum, blocked confirmation of the UN treaty on disability rights on the non-sensical grounds that it might someday prevent home schooling.
On abortion rights, as you recently wrote, much of the action is in the states. Anti-choicers have done a very good job of making abortion hard to get in much of the South and Midwest: in five states there is only one abortion clinic. Republicans did well at the state level in 2012. They now control 24 state legislatures and 30 governorships. Where they control both, they can really go to town.
In the long run, I think liberal social policies will win. Young people are less racist, less religious, more gay-tolerant, and even, according to some polls, more pro-choice—although not as much as you would expect, given that it is mostly young women who have abortions and young men who impregnate them. The country is becoming more diverse: a party that caters to older white Christian men and their wives may do fine in Wyoming, but it’s going to be shut out of national power. Of course the Republicans know that—they are having battle royales behind the scenes as they try to figure out how they let victory slip from their grasp in 2012. They will surely try to jigger their image and modify their policies around the edges to appeal to Latinos, single women, young people and that famous 47 percent of the nation that relies on government programs to survive. Not black people though—I think they’ve given up on them. The problem is, the Republican base—rightwing evangelicals and fundamentalists, anti-choicers, extreme right-wingers, and xenophobes—may not let them move in a more centrist direction.
CJ: Finally, can you speak about the range of reactions you get from readers? As was evident from your appearances in two sessions at the ASA, you clearly have a very devoted group of followers—one might even say “groupies”—but obviously not all your mail is positive. In one of your books, you mention the amount of negative responses you got to an essay in which you explained your hesitation to fly the American flag after 9/11. What else has provoked your readers besides that essay?
KP: It’s very sad. These days I don’t get a lot of hate mail. What am I doing wrong?
I first met Tram in 2006 in a tiny bar on Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in a neighborhood frequented by backpackers from abroad.
Tram and other sex workers in the bar, disguised as bartenders, catered to Western budget travelers seeking brief encounters or longer relationships-for-hire. They were the bar’s key attraction, but the women received no wages from the owner; they were independent entrepreneurs in a niche of the sex trade.
Tram, 27 years old and adorned with bracelet, rings, and a diamond necklace, was a model of success and economic mobility. She lived in a brand-new luxury condo with two servants, a full-time housecleaner and a cook who prepared Western foods for her new American husband. Tram had come from a poor village, she told me, where the only jobs were in the rice fields. In Ho Chi Minh City, she worked first as a maid and then in a clothing factory. But after two years of earning no more than the equivalent of US$70 a month, Tram had saved no money, could barely cover food and rent, and saw no hope for improvement. “Life in the city is so expensive,’’ she said. She saw sex work as her best route out of poverty.
Tram met William, 70, as a client, and quickly began to develop a more intimate relationship with him, hoping that her emotional labor might lead to ongoing economic support—in a remittance relationship, or marriage. Many Western men come to Vietnam seeking wives, or they become attached to women they hired once there, sympathizing with their plight, and wanting to take them out of the sex trade and care for them. Six months after they met, William asked Tram to marry him and move to North America. They were married in 2007.In 2009, I reconnected with Tram, along with William and their three children at an airport outside of Montreal, Canada. As we drove the three hours to their home, passing lumber farms, acres of undeveloped land, and pastures sprinkled with sheep, I commented on its beauty and tranquility. But Tram expressed no such sentiments. She had never intended to escape small town Vietnam, she said, only to end up in another small town in rural Canada. She had hoped to move to the United States, and had dreamed of living in Los Angeles or New York, “a big city, like the movies.”
Instead, she found herself isolated, in a cold climate and working long hours. Williams’ savings had dwindled, thanks to the expense of immigration, and they had arrived in North America smack in the middle of a global recession. For a year and a half, she worked nights and weekends for her brother in-law’s lumber company. She did see progress: By June of the year I came to visit, she had saved over US$20,000 and, with her sister in-law, opened a small shop selling local produce. But she was now the primary breadwinner, while William, retired but without much of his savings, stayed home with the children. “This is not what I thought my life would be like,” she lamented.The story of Tram and William, like that of other couples in my study, suggests a reversal of the usual trajectory of marital journeys. Ethnographers Denise Brennan and Amalia Cabezas have shown that sex workers often feign love as a strategy to obtain visas to migrate abroad. In Vietnam, the opening to the West in recent decades has inspired some women, usually between the ages of 17 and 32, to seek strategic marriages with Western men through sex work. Of the 71 sex workers I interviewed, 30 got married, and of the 30 just 12 women were able to obtain visas and emigrate. While 12 may not represent a large sample, I followed them for three to six years, spending as much as a week at their homes after they landed in the United States, Australia, France and Canada. While women who traveled from Vietnam to Western countries to be with their husbands did not intend to seek out employment, two-thirds of the women in my study ended up becoming their family’s primary breadwinner—reversing typical expectations.
William, like most men in my study, had come to Vietnam deliberately seeking a wife, while others discovered these opportunities once they arrived on visits. Either way, they were eager to find women who would enter a marriage with traditional gender roles that were fast disappearing at home. Their expectations were simple; the men would provide the economic support and the women would provide care, housekeeping and emotional labor.
What happened instead was a classic case of “gender vertigo.” Sociologist Barbara Risman used this term to describe the dizzying effect on people who adopt, or find themselves having to embrace, a radical and unfamiliar social role that upends their ideas of how family structures and society work. Dating back to the 1970s at least, this vertigo hit couples engaging in egalitarian role sharing, where husband and wife occupy both roles—breadwinner and nurturer. But in recent years, especially since the Great Recession that began in 2007, this model has shifted 180 degrees. In my study, most of the women had expected to end their working days once they reached their destination. Instead, most of them quickly ended up finding jobs, looking for income to supplement their husbands’ and hoping to send some home to family in Vietnam, and 8 of the 12 women quickly became the main breadwinner, often working double shifts, with husbands working less lucrative jobs or at home doing childcare.
In Tram’s case, she was able to move beyond the daily grind to open her own business. Others struggled more—and longer.
Thy, then 28, had met her future husband, Mitchell, in 2007. “When I first met him I did not really love him,” she explains. But “life in Vietnam was hard, and I was looking for a way to get out. Even after we married I had other boyfriends because I did not think that he would get me out [of Vietnam].” But after two years of visits back and forth, and paying fees to immigration lawyers both in Vietnam and Australia, Thy was finally able to migrate.
In the mid 2000s, stung by marriage scandals, and wary of enabling sex trafficking, more visas were denied by the United States, and the emigration process became increasingly long and arduous, taking an average of two years after a couple married. Most of the men in my study depleted their savings on attorney fees, on the cost of flights back and forth, and by sending money from the United States to support wives or fiancés waiting in Vietnam. The uncertainty in turn could complicate the marriage dynamic; many women hesitate to make the commitment unless it came with some kind of assurance that they would be supported; nor did they want to drop out of the sex business if they weren’t assured support.
Thy landed in Melbourne in 2010. Using Skype, she walked me through her and Mitchell’s modest apartment, joking about how her standard of living in Australia was much lower than the one that she had in Vietnam. “The first time I went to the grocery store was a shock,” she remembered. “Eggs were $4 (Australian dollars) and a whole chicken was $15. Mitchell just kept filling the cart. The bill was $150. It was so expensive.” Soon both spouses were working just to cover the necessities.
“I feel like a machine,’’ Thy said, tears welling in her eyes. Everyday we wake up at 6:30 to make breakfast and pack lunch. He leaves, and then around 8:00, I walk to his mom’s house,” where she works as a maid for neighbors. Mitchell’s mother had introduced Thy, and spent three weeks working alongside her to instruct her on how to meet each homeowner’s personal expectations. “I work [all day] in empty houses when everyone goes to work, and when I come home, Mitchell is all I have,” said Thy. She has come to love Mitchell and to be grateful for all he sacrificed to bring her to Australia and in his work there. “Everyone in his family is very nice to me,” says Thy. “His mom buys me clothes in the winter, and she always tries to make me feel welcome. But it is very lonely.”
None of the 12 women thought of returning to sex work. Most held typical working-class jobs, although one told me in confidence that she worked in a local massage parlor that offered a number of erotic services (but not sexual intercourse). Her husband didn’t know this about the spa. She agreed to perform some of these services in order to earn more money, but she drew clear boundaries for herself around the kinds of sexual practices she would perform. What she did like about the job was that she didn’t have to struggle to speak English to colleagues or customers. “I don’t have to talk to anyone. It is mostly body language.”
For their part, many of the men in these relationships felt great anxiety and guilt that they couldn’t provide for their wives as they had promised. Most of the couples had arrived in the men’s countries in the middle of the worldwide financial crisis, and many found that they had lost their savings or retirement funds in the faltering markets. If they wanted to keep working, or to come out of retirement, they had trouble finding jobs, especially the older men.
Lawrence, in his 60s, living with his wife Nhi in Florida, told me that she “didn’t know much about life in the United States—except that I promised I would take care of her and provide her with a better life than the one she had in Vietnam. She wants so many things, and it’s hard to say no when she asks for things.” Brian, who spends idle days in Vermont, just says he’s afraid to turn on the TV to hear more news about how bad the economy is doing. His 401(k) fund is nearly gone and his $1200 a month Social Security payments are “barely enough for us to just get by.”
Younger husbands too had been through futile and humiliating job searches; 3 of the 12 were unemployed. Even for couples lucky enough to have two jobs, money was tight. Jeremie, a French man in his early 40s, had traveled to Vietnam as a tourist, and found that he and his lover, Quyen “could live it up.” Food was cheap, housing was cheap, and labor was cheap. Western men also had more opportunity; they could take up jobs as English teachers or as editors or translators for local Vietnamese companies. Back in the West, the exchange rate and status they had enjoyed in Vietnam evaporated.
But it didn’t help many of the couples to seek out other Vietnamese immigrants abroad. Some of the women found jobs in the Vietnamese ethnic enclaves, in nail salons, restaurants, or coffee shops. But when the details of their marriages were revealed, they suffered new isolation. The stigma associated with being a young Vietnamese woman married to a Western man made it difficult to establish trust or social bonds with them.
Hoai told me, “When the [Vietnamese] owners [of a nail salon] found out that I was married to an older white man, they started to trust me less with the money. They look at me like I might steal something from them because I was a bar girl in Vietnam. The female boss always watches me around her husband.”
As I heard more stories of struggle and isolation, I began to wonder—and ask—why some of the women didn’t leave their husbands, either to live on their own, in different locations or communities in their new countries, or to return to Vietnam. Most of the women in fact, believed that they could easily escape their marriages but remain in their new countries if they claimed that their husbands were abusing them; authorities would believe they were victims of human trafficking. But none wanted to do this, and none wanted to return home.One reason was pride. Like many immigrants who boldly leave home, full of grand expectations, some of the women hid the truths of their new lives from family at home. Thanh Ha, age 26, was painfully reluctant to reveal what she was doing to earn a living in the United States. She told me at first that she had found work in a tortilla chip factory. I spent nearly four days with the family in their cramped apartment before she finally revealed what she was doing. “I work in a chip factory,’’ she said, haltingly. “But I don’t work on the line.” She hesitated. “My job is to collect garbage.”
Struck by her emotion, I tried to reassure her that this kind of job could be a stepping-stone to better things. Shaking her head, she said, “When I was in Vietnam, my first job [in a wood factory] was a step-up from my village; the bar was another step up. I was making more money. Picking up trash in America is both a step up and a step down.”
When Jeremie suggested returning to Vietnam to live, his wife Quyen was unwilling. She couldn’t imagine returning without enough money or Western luxuries to display. One of the reasons the women wanted to send money home, in fact, was to maintain the veneer of upward mobility.
But perhaps the bigger surprise in these developments is the way the women and men began to acclimate to their vertiginous situations. One pleasure for the women was how supportive their husbands were about their earning money—even when they out-earned the men. Thu was surprised by her husband Roger’s approach to the money she earned. “He never tells me how to spend it. If I was married to a Vietnamese man, it would probably be hard for him to accept. But Roger is proud; he calls me superwoman.”
“I’m lucky because Thomas lets me work,’’ says Xuan, 26, “and he never asks me how I spend the money I earn.” Xuan’s Vietnamese co-workers who are married to Vietnamese men “always have to ask their husbands if they can send money to Vietnam.’’ These immigrants may “look down on me for my past life in Vietnam, but I have more freedoms, and I live a more carefree life than they do.”
Not only were many of the men supportive, they were comforted to know that their wives would be self-sufficient without them. Stanley, a man in his late 70s, said, “She is young, and I want her to be able to take care of herself when I pass away. I had my whole life to work and build my career. She should get to do that too.” The women, meanwhile, seemed to have developed affection, even love for their husbands, and certainly a sense of loyalty, a belief that they owed their husbands a great deal. “When I married Jeremie he took care of me and paid for everything,’’ said his Quyen. “When you marry an older man you will have to pay back your debt to him and take care of him too.”
Several of the women were still optimistic about their economic prospects, and they maintained the pragmatism that had made them marry these men in the first place. Van explained to me, “We are saving money to open a small shop together. He knows English and can handle the paperwork, and I can run the shop.”
Seeking economic security and a pathway out of Vietnam, the women in my study found themselves, thousands of miles away, in marriages where they became the breadwinner. Although they wanted women whom they could support financially who would offer them emotional security, the men found themselves in non-traditional relationships they had not bargained for. This experience of transnational gender vertigo reframes our understandings of sex work, migration, and gendered relationships across transnational spaces.
These couples stayed married, for better or for worse, as the transformation of marriage, migration, and love gave rise to new and different dreams for the future. As Van said, “Do Tinh Den Bac,” a phrase that means when you have luck with love or romance, your economic luck may decline. While she and the other women I studied embarked on migration journeys believing that they were sacrificing love for economic fortune, many ended up struggling economically—and some found love along the way.
Brennan, Denise. What’s Love Got to Do with It? Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic (Duke University Press, 2004). An ethnographic exploration of how sex work- ers strategize to get married and migrate.
Cabezas, Amalia. Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic (Temple University Press, 2009). This book examines the emotional labors that sex workers perform in their relations with Western tourists.
Cheng, Sealing. On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). This book examines Filipina migrant sex workers relations with American GI’s in South Korea.
Kempadoo, Kamala. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race and Sexual Labor (Routledge, 2004). This ethnography examines the racialized and gendered relations in the Caribbean’s sex tourism industry.
Schaeffer, Felicity. Love and Empire: Cybermarriage and Citizenship across the Americas (New York University Press, 2012). This book looks at the commercialization of intimacy in marriage tourism between the United States and Latin America.