Tag Archives: Sexuality

The Limits of the Virtuoso

Via @jbouie
Via @jbouie

Pierre Bourdieu, in his famous critique of structuralism from Outline of a Theory of Practice, says:

only a virtuoso with a perfect command of his “art of living” can play on all the resources inherent in the ambiguities and uncertainties of behavior and situation in order to produce the actions appropriate to each case, to do that of which people will say “There was nothing else to be done”, and do it the right way.

Two recent headline-grabbing stories, Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and Rachel Dolezal getting outed by her parents as “white,” have served to highlight the limits to virtuoso performance: the boundaries our society places over the individual’s ability to perform gender and ethnicity. Continue reading

The Soul of Anime [book review]

What happens when dedicated people come together to work on a project they care about? Where do good ideas come from? How is it that some creations start off in niche markets and grow into global brands while others fade into obscurity? In his latest foray into Japanese popular culture, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story, Ian Condry offers ethnographically grounded theory for the study of creativity. The work can be read as a synthesis of the best practices in the field of pop culture studies from anthropology and cultural studies.

Soul of Anime

Condry describes the efforts of dedicated artists and producers working in a “crucible” atmosphere of “collaborative creativity.” Their collective social energy is the “soul” of their shared engagement with the project. Therefore this study offers something other than a follow-the-money investigation, anime as Japanese national culture, or an interpretation of the content of anime, reading the text. Rather Condry seeks to follow-the-activity and commitment of small groups of people (mostly men) as they exercise creativity. It is the dynamic social relations, the connections between people in a working group that shine through here. Anime is emergent from the social practice of creativity and the collective values of that group as they define the importance of their own actions within a context.
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Unpacking an Erotic Icon: The Sexy Librarian

I recently came across the blog post Naughty Librarians and the Eroticism of Intellect, which purports to explain the enduring appeal of the image of the “sexy librarian” in modern life. Aside from the post’s dismissable evolutionary psychology conclusions, the author raises some interesting points about the ways the image of the librarian in our culture intersects with and embodies certain aspects of modern eroticism, grounding his or her (the author is identified as “J.M. McFee” with no bio) argument in a highly individualized literary psychological approach.

The trope of the sexy librarian as an aspect of the American sexual psyche has interested me for a long time — in fact, it was what triggered my academic interest in sex in American culture and eventually drove me into Women’s Studies. So I was quite interested to see what this J.M. McFee had to say. Unfortunately, in the absence of any sort of historical or cultural context, I found McFee’s musings rather toothless. For example, the contention that “eyeglasses and print media are already sufficiently antiquarian to have become as fetishized as garter belts and riding crops” could be true (though I rather doubt it, since eyeglasses and books are very much part of our daily lives in a way that garter belts absolutely aren’t) but even so, it doesn’t tell us very much about why librarians have become so idealized and not, say, book store clerks, editors, or opticians.

The sexualization of the librarian does not stand alone in our cultural erotics, nor can it be cleanly separated from the whole structure of American (possibly Western) sexuality. While I can’t profess to have the whole story, I hope here to give at least an outline of what the whole story might look like. Continue reading

The Anthropologist in the Museum: What Is Burlesque?

Photo of Burlesque Hall of Fame by Mimi Hyland

As Kerim noted a few weeks back, I am currently the director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, a museum located in Las Vegas committed to preserving the history and legacy of burlesque as an artform and cultural phenomenon. If you had asked me a few years ago what direction I expected my career to develop in, I’d have never said “Museum Director.” Sure, I’d taken some museum studies courses in grad school and have worked in a couple of museums, but I always thought I’d help out with an exhibition here and there and that would be the extent of my involvement in museums.

Well, life, as they say, happens, and here I am today, responsible not just for an exhibition here and there but for a budget, a nation-wide volunteer network, a collection of 4,000+ artifacts, and a whole slew of legal, professional, and ethical concerns I’d barely even imagined 5 years ago. Since a) anthropology as we know it today grew out of museum practice, and b) the perspective of a museum worker has rarely been seen on Savage Minds, I thought I’d write up a few posts detailing some of the things that occupy my thoughts and time. I won’t be aiming for any grand theoretical statements here, just some musings on what constitutes life in the museum for this particular anthropologist.

And since it’s the question I deal with most, I thought I’d start with a discussion of what burlesque even is in the first place. Defining the field of study, so to speak. Easier said than done, I suppose — burlesque as an art form grades into and branches off from a lot of other theatrical traditions, and has been in a state of near-constant change for at least the last century-and-a-half.

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Illustrated Wimmin, #4 – The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

In this occasional series, Illustrated Man, I will explore the intersection of anthropology and comic books, graphic novels, comic strips, animation, and other manner of popular drawn art.

Alison Bechdel crashed the party on American literature’s main stage with Fun Home (2004) a stunning graphic memoir about coming of age, coming out, and discovering her father’s own closeted gay identity. It received rave reviews and was featured at the top of a number of end of the year best book lists and, with the close of the ’00s, reappeared on some best of the decade lists. And rightfully so, there wasn’t a more monumental nonfiction comic book in a decade that will be remembered for an explosion in top notch comic output. There hasn’t been a more significant comic memoir since Maus (1986).

My own encounter with Fun Home began on the Eastern Band Cherokee reservation as I was conducting the ethnographic field research for my dissertation. I was cast in a theatrical production as a soldier in Andrew Jackson’s army and one of my fellow Indian killers was a bohemian epileptic artist named Pat working his way back to Florida from Knoxville. Like Capote’s villain from In Cold Blood he traversed America’s highways with a library in his trunk: Zizek, Baudrillad, and a borrowed copy of Bechdel’s novel.

After I settled in Newport News I discovered Fun Home in the stacks at my public library and got hooked on Bechdel’s beautiful ink lines, hyper-literary self reflection, and slightly neurotic gallows humor. I was anxious to get my hands on more of her work and I soon learned I had a lot of catching up to do. Before achieving celebrity status Bechdel was already a star in the gay and lesbian community for her biweekly strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, first published in 1983. A nearly 400 page retrospective was released in 2008 as The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For.

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Why Thin Is Still In

Here is a guest blog by Ashley Mears, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University:

Why Thin is Still In

In her new documentary, Picture Me, Columbia University student Sara Ziff chronicles her 4-year rise and exit through the fashion modeling industry, zooming her personal camcorder onto supposedly systemic abuses—sexual, economic, and emotional—suffered by fashion models.  Among the many complaints launched in the film is an aesthetic that prizes uniformly young, white, and extremely thin bodies measuring 34-24-34” (bust-waist-hips) and at least 5’10” in height.  It’s an aesthetic that many of the models themselves have a tough time embodying, pushing some into drastic diets of juice-soaked cotton balls, cocaine use, and bulimia—in my own interviews with models I discovered similar, but not very common, practices of Adderall and laxative abuse.  It’s also an aesthetic that has weathered a tough media storm of criticism, set off in 2005 with the anorexia-related deaths of several Latin American models, and which culminated in the 2006 ban of models in Madrid Fashion Week with excessively low Body Mass Indexes (BMI).  And yet, as a cursory glance at the Spring 2011 catwalks will reveal, thin is still in.  In fact, bodies remain as gaunt, young, and pale as they did five years ago, and it’s entirely likely that in another five years, despite whatever dust Picture Me manages to kick up, models will look more or less the same as they do now. Continue reading

“Homophobia in Africa is not a single story”

Not a topic I know much about, but Keguro Macharia’s criticism of Madeleine Bunting’s Guardian post about Malawi’s conviction of a gay couple to 14 years’ hard labour, jibes with the gut-anthropological-reaction I had when I read her piece. (He also links to what look like some interesting books on the subject.)

Without a locally based understanding, rooted in a history of Malawi and a grasp of its cultural politics, we cannot comprehend what is at stake in the case. Discussions that frame the case as Malawians opposing westernisation tell only a very partial story.

Read more.

(via Ennis)

Sexual Revolution, Social Change, Political Reform in Iran – Complicated Intersections

(an occasional piece by Pardis Mahdavi)

Exactly one year ago this week, my first book, Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution was published. The book, based on fieldwork conducted between 2000 and 2007 with Tehrani youth, looked at ways in which the discourse on sexuality was changing and how these changes in sexuality were linked to a larger social movement as articulated by the Iranian youth themselves. When I began reading the reviews of my book (not recommended for the thin-skinned first time author), my stomach churned. “Is sexuality really political?” some reviewers asked, “do the sartorial changes in youth fashion or behavior have deeper reaching impact?” others wrote, “how deeply do these sexual behaviors penetrate Iranian society?”, “could sex unseat the Mullahs?”  while still others asked (on Savage Minds in fact) “is ‘pretty’ the new protest?”. When I talked about my research with my students, some of the same questions came up. At first, I was frustrated, angry even. What part of my clarifications and caveats had readers and students missed? Then I realized, my mistakes were twofold: 1) I had conflated the idea of a sexual revolution (think sexual revolution a-la 1960s Greenwich Village) with the social movement that was inspiring young people to lobby for social change, and 2) I was describing only a few appendages of a larger “body that was then searching for a head” (as Robin Wright has said) – which it found this past summer in presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mussavi. But let us start with the first problem.

The phrase “sexual revolution” or enqelab-i-jensi (in Persian) was one that came organically from my interlocutors, and was not one that was placed on them by me or any other academic or journalist. Young people and their parents would talk about a change in the discourse around sexuality and heterosexual and heterosocial relations. This was referred to as their sexual revolution. Thus, when talking about “Iran’s Sexual Revolution” the focus must remain on the phrase ‘sexual revolution’ without detaching the words to ask “is sex revolutionary?” Sex, in itself, is not leading to a revolution. Neither I, nor my interlocutors were trying to claim this, however, a “sexual revolution” refers to a revolution, or perhaps more accurately put, a change, in the way in which we think, act, or talk about sex. To that end, young people and many others in Tehran had achieved their goals in that sex was talked about and thought about in different ways than it had been in the decades before. What is important to note, however, is that this sexual revolution was just one part of a larger movement that my interviewees referred to as a sociocultural revolution or enqelab-i-farhangi. This social movement encompassed behaviors such as pushing the envelope on Islamic dress, sexual behaviors, heterosocializing, driving around in cars playing loud illegal music, partying, drinking, dancing, the list goes on to include basically, young people doing what they aren’t supposed to do under Islamic law. But, many people ask, don’t youth everywhere do these things? What sets youth in Iran apart from their counterparts say in Texas? The answer is this: 1) the stakes are much higher – in Iran, you could get arrested for engaging in these behaviors and the consequences could include long term imprisonment, lashings and other abuse, 2) engaging in these behaviors are often a step for many to becoming politically active. Everything in Iran is political and politicized. The regime in power has politicized Islamic dress, certain types of music, even certain websites. Those violating its rules are harassed, punished, sometimes forced to leave the country. Many young people in Iran have become inspired to engage in political activism through their involvement in these social movements.

This leads us to the second problem, the body looking for the head. During the time I conducted my fieldwork in Iran, a generational shift was taking place. The momentum was building for something, but none of us could quite put our finger on what. Young people seemed to be coming together, deploying 21st century tools around them such as the internet, facebok, Twitter, and seeking to organize through networks around the world. But no one knew exactly what they were organizing for, and what kind of social/political movement they were constructing. What we knew was this: the majority of Iran’s population – urban, educated youth – was disenchanted with the regime. Whether they came to this sentiment through their frustration at not being able to wear what they want, socialize with who they want, prey how they want, or engage in civic society the way they want, they had all come to the conclusion that the current regime was: 1) not representative of them, and 2) was not always acting in their interest. “Why don’t they work on solving this horrible unemployment problem instead of cracking down on what we wear?” asked one of my interlocutors, articulating a sentiment shared by many young Tehranis with whom I spoke. People were frustrated. Educated, restless, youth began turning to the tools they had around them, honing their skills, looking to communicate their sentiments to each other and the world around them through blogs, music, films and a presence in cyberspace. Those of us writing about this large body of Iranian youth focused on different appendages. Some wrote about Iranian bloggers and the blogosphere (Alavi 2005), some looked at music (Levine 2008), some, astutely, tried to look at larger social change amongst the youth (Molavi 2005, Khosravi 2007) For me, I wrote about the sexual revolution, just one part of a larger movement for social and political change.

This past summer, in June of 2009, the body of social change that had been searching for a head finally found one: the fraudulent election of Ahmadinejad, and the figurehead of Mir Hossein Moussavi. Young people (the same ones that spoke of sexual and social revolution a few years ago) began organizing, pouring into the streets in an organized fashion, using their bodies and strategically deploying technology such as camera phones, twitter and facebook to both organize and to speak to the Iranian regime and the rest of the world. Earlier today thousands of protesters marched the streets of Tehran, pumping their fists into the air and chanting “Coup! Government resignation”. Some wore green (to indicate their allegiance to Mir Hossein Moussavi) many did not. Up until now, much of the recent media depictions of the situation in Iran paint a picture of a stolen election, and a discontented public demanding a recount at least, and the installation of their preferred candidate. While the election has presented frustrated Iranians with a catalyst and a reason to protest, what we are witnessing in Iran is not a simple protest over election fraud. Rather, disenchantment with the regime, and the desire to mobilize a civil rights type movement in Iran has been building for many years, encompassing, but not limited to movements such as the sexual revolution, internet revolution and . This election, the overt nature of repression and fraudulent behavior has given many people the window they were looking for to mobilize a movement that goes beyond election politics. While some protesters are in fact expressing frustration at the election fallout, many are asking for an entire overhauling of the system. Would they be happy if Moussavi were installed? Perhaps. But many want more than this, they want to change the system of Islamic jurisprudence, and fundamentally, they want their rights back. While some might see the protests as “calming down” or “dying down”, the reality is that people have tasted the sweetness of voicing their discontent, and they have no plans of backing down easily. We need to listen to the calls made by the chanting protesters, “Coup! Government resignation”.

So, reflecting on the questions “is pretty the new protest?” or “could sex unseat the Mullahs?” some might say no, but a macro look at the situation reveals that this is all part of a process. It is unclear what the future will hold for Iran. What I do know is that these avenues of pushing for social change are roads that lead to networks pushing for political change. I don’t know what the outcome of this post-election aftermath will be, but what I do know is that I need to look more at the big picture, and I need to learn to ask bigger and better questions.

“Pretty” is the protest?

Jezebel has an interesting post, entitled “In Iran, “Pretty” Is Sometimes The Protest.” She writes:

So, when you see this woman with red fingernails, she’s not just risking arrest for holding that sign, she’s risking it for the shade of her nail polish.

It relates to a Juan Cole piece, “Class v. Culture Wars in Iranian Elections” in which he pointed out that “the Iranian women who voted in droves for Khatami haven’t gone anywhere…”

I don’t know enough about class and gender politics in Iran to say much about this. The fact that the women in these pictures often conform to Western notions of glamor, including fair skin, had struck me in the media coverage about the elections, but I hadn’t thought about it beyond that until I read Jezebel and Juan Cole’s posts. What do you think?

UPDATE: Thanks to Gregory Starrett for mentioning Pardis Mahdavi’s new book, Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution. Here is an interview with her:

Gender, Fieldwork, Asia

I’m in the midst of assembling my ‘ethnographic research methods’ syllabus, and one way that it is structured is that, in addition to the normal reading we are also reading a short piece in which people describe their field experiences. That way, students will have a chance to get a sense of what can happen during fieldwork. In the course of cruising around for examples, I came across an interesting piece by Sharon Chalmers entitled “My Queer Career: Coming Out As A ‘Researcher’ In Japan”:http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue7/chalmers.html. The piece charts out the history of her involvement in Japan as a fieldsite as the country and herself move through various phases of awareness/acceptance/engagement with queer identities, only to have the fieldwork go through a crisis as Chalmers stops being someone who shares a lesbian identity with her informants and starts being someone who studies them.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’ll teach it because I already have too much sex on the syllabus, but I thought I’d mention it here since it’s open access — in fact “Intersections”:http://intersections.anu.edu.au/, the journal it appeared in, is all open access, and it looks like it has some nice stuff in it if you study gender and sexuality in the Asia-Pacific (I don’t, so I’m just guessing). But I just thought I’d share.

Viagra soup: a photo essay

In an earlier post, I wondered: Why are there a dozen local brands of sildenafil (the generic name for what’s in Viagra) available in Egyptian pharmacies, and only one brand of emergency contraceptive pill (ECP)? I’m not sure that I have a wholly convincing answer to this question, but I’ll lay out some parts of the puzzle. Jump in with a comment if you have other ideas.

Some Egyptian brands of sildenafil: Viagra, Virecta, Erec, Kemagra, Vigorama, Phragra, and Vigorex

Local brands of sildenafil available in Egypt, including: Viagra, Virecta, Erec, Kemagra, Vigorama, Vigoran, Phragra, and Vigorex. Photo by Lisa Wynn

First, Americans might think of erectile dysfunction drugs (EDDs) as somewhat shameful (think about mocking attitudes towards Bob Dole’s decision to do Viagra ads), but they have a more positive connotation in Egypt. Two reasons:

  1. As I’ve written elsewhere, in Egypt these drugs seem to be associated as much with the promise of exuberant, excessive sexuality rather than a shameful lack of erection. Maybe it would be more accurate to call them erection enhancement drugs rather than erectile dysfunction drugs. Continue reading

Why is there no official EC fatwa in Egypt?

Now in the last post on the topic, I mentioned that EC website that Princeton runs, http://ec.princeton.edu. There’s an NGO in Cambridge, MA called Ibis Reproductive Health that got a grant to make EC information and educational materials available in Arabic. A significant chunk of that grant was dedicated to creating an Arabic language version of the EC website. At Ibis, Angel Foster led this project and I took on the job of putting up the Arabic text that she created (with translator Aida Rouhana) online.

These days it’s not that hard to do websites in Arabic, but six years ago, it was a real puzzle. I couldn’t find any Arabic language plug-ins for DreamWeaver or FrontPage, so as I cut and pasted the Arabic text into the HTML programs, it wouldn’t display the Arabic properly, so it was really hard to do the links on specific words. The Arabic phrase for emergency contraception, which looks like this in Arabic:

منع الحمل الطارئ

looks like this in HTML code:

منع الحمل الطارئ

So I just had to muck around, highlighting different phrases, counting off letters or doing searches for strings of HTML code like that above, putting in links and then seeing where the links showed up in the Arabic texts, and then shifting the links around accordingly. It was a stupidly slow process. There was probably a better way to do it, but I wasn’t able to figure it out, so I slogged through the slow way.

Translation vs adaptation
I’m getting off the topic. Angel had decided that we couldn’t simply translate the existing website into Arabic. It had to be adapted to fit the social and cultural context of the Arabic speaking world and meet users’ needs. So, for example, she decided to include specific questions in the FAQs section on the interpretation and acceptability of EC in Orthodox Christianity and in Islamic jurisprudence. We hunted around for any fatwas on EC, both in published compendia of fatawa as well as in online databases, but we couldn’t find any. In fact, in the past 5 years, I have only found 1 fatwa on EC in an one of the many online fatwa databases.

That’s where interest in this Egypt research project came from. What did it mean that there were no fatwas on EC? Either it meant that EC wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen and was so totally unknown that nobody was asking about its status in Islam – hard to believe since there were dedicated products available in several Middle Eastern countries (including Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon) – OR it meant that EC was just wholly uncontroversial and subsumed under jurisprudential discussions about pre-coital hormonal contraceptives. Continue reading

Why is emergency contraception interesting to think with?

[UPDATE: Formatting issues preventing this article from displaying properly have been fixed! – Ed.]

I promised that the next post would be about emergency contraception in Egypt, but I couldn’t resist first writing about EC more generally and describing debates about EC in the U.S.

From rape treatment to mainstream contraception

For more than four decades, medical researchers have known that there are methods you can use after sex to prevent – not terminate – pregnancy. Emergency contraception (EC) was first researched in the 1960s by physician-researchers trying to find a way to prevent pregnancies in survivors of sexual assault. They experimented in giving rape survivors high doses of regular oral contraceptive pills (OCPs). Later it was established that inserting a copper-bearing IUD after sex was even more effective at reducing pregnancy risk.

Remember that this was during the pre-Roe v. Wade era so there were political reasons for looking for a way of preventing pregnancy, rather than expecting to be able to resort to abortion, for women who got pregnant after sexual assault. But of course there are also enduring religious and public health reasons for wanting to find ways to prevent pregnancy, rather than end it with abortion.

Increasingly, knowledge about this contraceptive technique filtered out to a wider public and in the 1970s through the 1990s, there was an underground movement of women and doctors spreading the word about do-it-yourself emergency contraception. You just take several pills from a regular pack of birth control pills within 5 days after sex.

(There’s a website run by Princeton University’s Office of Population Research that tells you exactly how many pills to take depending on what brand of Pill you’ve got, and as far as I can tell, this website was actually the first health information website on the Internet.)

Even though this form of contraception has been known for decades, it’s only in the past ten years or so that emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) have become more widely known and marketed as a contraceptive option for all women, not just rape survivors. There’s been a global movement to introduce “dedicated products” worldwide and to lobby for them to be made available without prescription. (A “dedicated product” is when emergency contraceptive pills are packaged and marketed specifically for that purpose. Activists have long argued that this is an important improvement on the DIY culture of cutting up packets of pills because it increases awareness of EC and lends the method popular legitimacy.)

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New Reproductive Health Technologies in Egypt

Thanks to Kerim and Savage Minds for inviting me to contribute. I thought I’d write something about a new research project I’ve recently started on new and emerging reproductive health technologies in Egypt. This project looks at Egyptian interpretations of four technologies: emergency contraception, medication abortion, hymenoplasty, and erectile dysfunction drugs.

Some interesting paradoxes to contemplate:

  • Why are there at least a dozen local brands of sildenafil available from Egyptian pharmacies, and “Viagra sandwiches” or “Viagra soup” is on the menu at almost every restaurant that specializes in seafood, but there is only one brand of emergency contraceptive pill in Egypt, which is sold by an NGO because it’s not considered commercially viable enough for the mainstream pharmaceutical companies to bother with it?

The tap in the bathroom of the apartment where I stay when I’m doing research in Egypt. My roommate and I have often wondered where these came from. Was it a marketing campaign by Pfizer during the era when they weren’t allowed to engage in direct-to-consumer advertising for their product? Or did some sink manufacturer just think it would be cool to put Viagra on the handles?

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SELECT explanation FROM gay-marriage ORDER BY awesomeness

This has got to be the single best explanation of why gay marriage will bring an end to our civilization, starting with our databases. You can actually learn a lot about database theory from this post, to say nothing of the deeply structuring heteronormativity of our bureaucratic culture. There must be some way to use this post to invalidate California prop 8 in court… I just haven’t figured it out yet.