Christine Williams is among those interviewed by Kaleigh Rogers for Motherboard about Sexual Harassment in STEM fields:
“There’s no evidence that the incidences of harassment and discrimination are increasing. In fact, some of the senior women scientists I’ve interviewed insist that sexism was much more entrenched and blatant 20 years ago than it is today,” Christine Williams, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches workplace sexual harassment, told me via email. “However, what is increasing is public acknowledgment of these problems—more people are aware of these issues.”
Earlier this month, an Australian CrossFit athlete named Khan Porter posted a video to his Facebook page. The video opens on Porter in a gym. He sashays to the Beyoncé hit “Single Ladies.” Suddenly, mid-routine, Porter performs a 264 lb snatch: He lifts a cartoonishly huge barbell above his head in one swift motion, then drops it with a triumphant thud and picks up dancing where he left off.
The video has more than 1.7 million views. Porter has since followed up with a second post, saying, “I posted my video because I think the way the public reacted reflects a pretty cool shift in preconceived notions of masculinity and think that’s grounds for starting some more positive conversations about what it means to be ‘a man.’” The post goes on to address the connections between masculinity, mental health, and suicide.
Porter’s video and follow-up post have both received an outpouring of support online, from comments on Facebook to features and praise on Buzzfeed, Bustle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and espnW. Many commenters—including Porter himself—have likened the video to actor Channing Tatum’s recent appearance on the reality series Lip Sync Battle, in which Tatum performed a drag rendition of Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls).” The video of Tatum’s performance went viral, too.
It is tempting to embrace Porter’s hope that the widespread love for his video reflects a sea change in contemporary conceptions of masculinity—a move from rigid, fragile identities to more flexible, durable ones. But while it is true that masculinities are always in flux (Kimmel 1996), masculinities scholars debate the extent to which these changes are liberating for women and marginalized groups of men. Is the response to Porter’s video as revolutionary as these media outlets profess, or is it a mirage, tricking us into believing that patriarchy has fundamentally changed? Masculinities scholarship suggests that the video reveals the elasticity of an institution like patriarchy. It can stretch to change form or appearance, but its hierarchical structure and resulting inequality stays the same.
Sociologists Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe (2014) have devised a useful concept for understanding the continual shifting of masculinities. For Bridges and Pascoe, hybrid masculinities refer to the “selective incorporation of elements of identity typically associated with various marginalized and subordinated masculinities and—at times—femininities into privileged men’s gender performances and identities” (2014:246). In other words, men enact hybrid masculinities when they include bits and pieces of identities associated with marginalized “Others” into their own identity projects. These Others can include men of color, working-class men, rural men, queer men, and women, among others. Bridges and Pascoe argue that even though all kinds of people use hybrid masculinities, it is men who have the most privilege (i.e., white, straight, wealthy, cisgender) who are freest to enact these identities while still being seen as appropriately masculine.
Porter partially acknowledges this when he points out that gay men are not allowed the same flexibility in constructing hybrid masculinities as straight men (though it should be noted that this point also serves—intentionally or otherwise—to stress that Porter himself is straight). However, two additional privileges help make Porter’s hybrid identity “acceptable” to a broad audience. First, he has what Pascoe calls “jock insurance” (2003:1427), meaning he conforms so closely to the standards of hegemonic masculinity that he can behave in conventionally nonmasculine ways without having his masculinity questioned. These standards include traits like athletic prowess, attractiveness, and sexual skill. Porter’s website states that he is a professional CrossFit athlete. His Instagram account is filled with photos and videos that showcase his athletic ability, muscled build, and signifiers of wealth (e.g., a BMW, an expensive watch, vacation photos). Articles describing the viral video tend to mention Porter’s sexual desirability, calling him “super hot” “eye candy” with a “flawless” physique and “all-too-perfect upper body strength.” These elements of Porter’s performance and its reception work together to ensure that his dance moves do not detract from his manliness.
Second, Porter is a white man. Compare Porter’s experiences with those of Odell Beckham, Jr., star wide receiver for the New York Giants, to understand the advantage his race affords him. Beckham, who is Black, is also known for dancing. He grooves in the end zone after a touchdown and in videos posted online. He also posts photos on his Instagram account that show displays of tenderness and affection toward other men. These behaviors seem aligned with what Porter sees as a transformation in socially-accepted performances of masculinity. However, the response to Beckham’s hybrid masculinities differs dramatically from the response to Porter’s. Rather than celebrate Beckham’s identity, online commenters and media organizations have responded by interrogating his heterosexuality. Streams of comments on Beckham’s Instagram describe his sexuality as “suspect” and explicitly insist that he’s gay.
For instance, a photo of Beckham hugging longtime friend Jarvis Landry (a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins) drew dozens of comments like the following:
blessings_catchings He’s really gay people and it’s not because of this pic.
alexryansanch Looking very suspect.
marley_chapo He kissn his neck
Compare this response to the praise heaped on high-profile friendships of white celebrities. The so-called “bromance” of Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon, for example, has been celebrated by the media for years at no cost to public understanding of their manliness or heterosexuality.
These attacks on Beckham’s identity have taken a toll on the football field. Numerous sources including the Giants organization have stated that players have targeted Beckham with homophobic language all season, occasionally spurring confrontations with other players. Before a December game against the Carolina Panthers, players reportedly taunted Beckham with “gay slurs” during pregame warmups. Beckham went on to strike Panthers cornerback Josh Norman repeatedly on the head during the game, resulting in a one-game suspension. Panthers players continued to undermine Beckham’s masculinity after the game, publicly feminizing him with words like “bitch” and “ballerina.”
American culture regards NFL football players as paragons of masculinity and toughness. If anyone should be able to leverage “jock insurance,” it should be an NFL football star. Yet when we compare the radically different responses to Porter’s and Beckham’s enactments of hybrid masculinities, we can see racial disparities in the effectiveness of jock insurance. White men, it seems, have more space to construct hybrid identities (e.g., showing affection to other men, dressing in drag, dancing to Beyoncé music) than men of color.
Though well-intentioned, Porter’s “strategic borrowing” (Bridges & Pascoe 2014:252) of elements of black femininity may actually work to obscure and reinforce systems of patriarchy and white supremacy rather than dismantling them. Bridges and Pascoe write:
By framing middle-class, young, straight, White men as both the embodiment and harbinger of feminist change in masculinities, social scientists participate in further marginalizing poor men, working-class men, religious men, undereducated men, rural men, and men of color (among others) as the bearers of uneducated, backwards, toxic, patriarchal masculinities. Even as young White men borrow practices and identities from young, gay, Black, or urban men in order to boost their masculine capital, research shows that these practices often work simultaneously to reaffirm these subordinated groups as deviant, thus supporting existing systems of power and dominance. (2014:253)
Applauding Porter’s identity while criticizing Beckham’s reinforces racial disparities in public conceptions of manhood: Porter appears bold and enlightened for engaging in behaviors for which Beckham is painted as deviant. Porter’s video and accompanying statement celebrate the freedom of white men to play with masculinity, but they will do little to dismantle systems of oppression that punish men of color for the same behaviors. Rather than subvert the structural inequalities of patriarchy and white supremacy, Porter’s appropriation of elements of femininity and black culture amount to—in the words of sociologist Michael Messner—“more style than substance” (1993:724).
Bridges, Tristan and C. J. Pascoe. 2014. “Hybrid Masculinities: New Directions in the Sociology of Men and Masculinities.” Sociology Compass 8(3):246-258.
Kimmel, Michael. 1996. Manhood in America. New York: The Free Press.
Messner, Michael. 1993. “‘Changing Men’ and Feminist Politics in the United States.” Theory and Society 22(5):723-37.
Pascoe, C. J. 2003. “Multiple Masculinities? Teenage Boys Talk About Jocks and Gender.” American Behavioral Scientist 46(10):1423-38.
Katie Rogers is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests focus on the areas of gender, sexuality, and youth. You can follow her on Twitter at @katiearog.
On October 30th, 2015, the Power, History and Society (PHS) working group hosted Professor Bruno Frère for a lecture on resistance to domination, French pragmatism, and phenomenology. Frère’s work is concerned with finding adequate ways of making sense of new forms of resistance to domination, such as those embodied by the anti-austerityindignados, the hacktivist group Anonymous, the international women’s movement, Femen, or the practitioners of “solidarity economy.” As a French social theorist, Frère is particularly interested in the ability of certain theoretical currents to account for these forms of contestation and their potential for emancipation from alienating forces.
Frère proposes that we utilize French pragmatist sociology in addition to, or in place of, Bourdieusian critical sociology. Frère suggests that Bourdieu’s work rests on the assumption that capitalism and modernity have robbed social actors of their original purity and of the consciousness of their dominated condition. Bourdieu argues that social actors are not equipped to identify and critique their alienation, positioning sociology as the discipline that will save social actors from the alienation of their habitus.
Frère claims that French pragmatism’s phenomenological foundation provides a superior comprehensive model to understand social action and its justification. He suggests that the pragmatist notion of grammar is useful to express the normative macro-elements that motivate local actions and their justifications; phenomenology helps us understand those actions and justifications as fundamental ways of relating to the world that can contradict the lived situation.
Frère points to four main categories of moral values that solidarity economy (SE) actors deploy: conviviality, self-management, creativity and political activism. Frère calls these values and the discourse around them the “grammar” of the movement. Solidarity economy activists use this grammar to set themselves apart from other groups including leftists, trade unions, or political parties. They avoid terms like “structures of representation,” “hierarchy,” “vertical federations” and “verbal claims” to emphasize their apolitical, non-hierarchical nature.
Solidarity Economy groups often commit “grammatical mistakes” that could threaten their legitimacy. For example, Le Movement Pour L’Economie Solidaire and Les Pénelopes are the two main SE groups in France. They compete for national and international recognition and often make these mistakes during public disputes that highlight their desire to monopolize power and represent the movement as a whole. They quickly recover from public mistakes and revert back to their discourse where they use terms such as “horizontal development,” “anti-authoritarianism,” “political economic practices,” and “direct democracy.”
Frère suggests Le Movement Pour L’Economie Solidaire and Les Pénelopes focus on the “self management” aspect of the moral values discussed above in order to avoid grammatical mistakes and remain “authentic.” They may use politics as a solution to correct their grammatical mistakes. Perhaps there could be a rotation within group leadership or perhaps they need to consider the possibility of completely removing representation and having an egalitarian, leaderless movement instead.
Frère’s use of French pragmatist theories that focus on the every day life of the individual and his decision to refrain from using Foucauldian or Bourdiesian theories in his research is unexpected but welcomed. His rejection of Bourdieusian theories of domination gives the actors in social solidarity movements and solidarity economy groups more agency and credit for reflexivity since they are aware of their location in the structure. Frère does not completely dismiss traditional contemporary French theorists work. Instead, he urges scholars to continue to use Pierre Bourdieu’s work to understand managerial domination.
Several weeks ago, I attended a conference of the founders of the Commission for the Study of the History of the Church in Latin America (CEHILA) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. This year, CEHILA brought together academic scholars to “decolonize” the ideology, practice, and worship of Christianity that has characterized Christian churches in Latin America for centuries, as well as to address the present situation of Christian churches in Latin America and to determine how CEHILA could respond to the present poverty crisis. José A. G. Moreira invited me to the conference because of my interest in Liberation Theology from a sociological perspective. My dissertation focuses on the Mayan K’iche’ of the Western Highlands of Guatemala, so I gave a presentation on the migration of Guatemalans to the United States as a case study to understand the demographics of migration and the influence of migrants on the attitudes of relatives in their home country. Though the conference featured a variety of presentations, I will focus here on just a few.
I begin with a painting by Adélia Oliveira de Carvalho, a Brazilian artist, whose work is featured on the CEHILA brochure, poetically expressing the overarching themes of the conference. The indigenous woman in the middle symbolizes the strength of humanity in Latin America, which has withstood centuries of struggles against unjust social structures, organized violence, and institutionalized racism. Around the main figure, Adélia paints various aspects of the Latin American reality, including agriculture, industrialization, war, and assassinations.
One of CEHILA’s founders and most prolific writers is Enrique Dussel, who is currently editing a volume of his collected works. Of the many challenges facing Christianity in Latin America, Dussel focused on the need to re-examine the work of Karl Marx, specifically his main work, Capital. He openly questioned why liberation theologians have not quoted from Marx’s main book for more than twenty-five years. Rather than seeing the end of liberation theology, Dussel sees the downturn in the fortunes of liberation theology as a temporary win for the social forces of neo-colonialism, neo-imperialism, and neo-liberalism. Inequality and various forms of stratification continue to be extreme in Latin America and Dussel sees the need to strengthen liberation theology by sociological analysis. Moreover, he stated that the future of Christianity is tied to its ability to synthesize with the advances in sociology, specifically in its ability to advance the ethical, philosophical, and economic work of Marx.
Johannes Meier, Paulo Suess, and José O. Beozzo described alternative explanations of the meaning of Christianity, which contrasted with colonial and neo-liberal explanations of Christianity’ meaning. They focused on the point of view of the oppressed, which has been obscured. They asked how have Protestant and Catholic institutions been a part of the oppressive structures of society, and how can that change today? As Pablo Moreno (First Baptist University in Cali, Colombia) argues, Evangelical theology has not synthesized its belief system with social policies that benefit the poor.
Arguably the most significant moment for Christian churches in Latin America has been during the changes made by the Catholic Church’s Vatican Council II, 1962-1965, and Medellín Scholars Ana María Bidegain, Silvia Scatena, and Mauro Passos discussed how those committed to the poor can use the documents of the Council to advocate for improving the social conditions of the poor. Bidegain focuses on the continued challenges of decolonization, racism, and gender within societies and Christian denominations, while María Luiza Marcílio and Pablo Richard developed themes of de-colonialization in Central America, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America.
Overall, the CEHILA conference expanded my understanding of the work of Latin American scholars. My own sociological research complemented the work of Latin American liberation theologians, anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers and their work complemented mine. A take-away from this conference is that a common commitment to see the world through the eyes of the poor, across different disciplines, may be the best chance to build a unified coalition to build a civil society based on humanism.
On November 16, 2015, Dr. Gloria González-López participated in an author-meets-critics panel discussion about her new book Family Secrets: Stories of Incest and Sexual Violence in Mexico. The event was hosted by the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and Erin Burrows, the Prevention and Outreach Specialist for Voices Against Violence, moderated the panel. It was a lively and necessary discussion where three panelists – Dr. Angela Valenzuela and UT Sociology doctoral students, Erika Grajeda, and Juan Portillo – offered their “compassionate critiques” of Dr. González-López’s work.
The discussion began with Dr. González-López describing why she studied incest in Mexico. She wanted to do something to help her community in Ciudad Juárez, and so she asked people in the community what type of research was urgently needed. A great deal of research had been done on the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, but nothing had really been studied about incest within Mexican families. Heeding this advice and wanting to engage with a community that she cares about, Dr. González-López decided to conduct 60 interviews with women and men who live in four Mexican cities (Ciudad Juárez, Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Monterrey) and who had experienced incest. She also interviewed 35 professionals who work on this issue. After gathering these stories, Dr. González-López found it ethically and politically important to tell these stories as they were told to her and to not sanitize the stories. For this reason, she writes Family Secrets through the method of storytelling, where she presents the stories together in each chapter before offering any structural analysis. This method captures the complexities and gray areas of people’s lives, revealing how theories and concepts can never fully encompass the nuances of people’s lived experiences.
After Dr. González-López gave this brief overview, Dr. Valenzuela was the first to offer her comments on the monograph. She commended Dr. González-López for her emotionally engaged research and for her provocative concepts. She also expressed her fear of what this book might look like in the hands of someone like Donald Trump, who may use this book to pathologize Mexican people. However, Dr. Valenzuela believes that not telling these stories is a greater cost, and that Dr. González-López does an amazing job of analyzing the stories, giving the reader a way to contextualize and understand incest in Mexican society. Dr. Valenzuela also read what she thought was one of Dr. González-López’s provocative ideas: “Thus, the undercurrent or continuum that flows through a woman’s unique subjective experience and all women’s commonly shared experiences of sexual violence seems to suggest that consensual heterosexual sex and rape may have more in common than what one may want to accept” (pg. 110-111). Given this finding, Dr. Valenzuela raised the question of what is a healthy sexuality? And what are the solutions to ending incest?
Following Dr. Valenzuela, Erika Grajeda offered her thoughts on Dr. González-López’s book. Erika found the book to be brave, especially in Dr. González-López’s challenge to take on the family as an institution that reproduces incest and patriarchy. Erika also appreciated Dr. González-López’s analysis of internalized sexism, where women in the family may also be complicit in these incestuous arrangements and reproduce patriarchy as well. Erika raised some poignant questions that really made the preceding discussion engaging. She asked Dr. González-López: How is her conceptualization of consent and rape different than radical feminists? How do sexual scripts shape how women and men describe their sexual experiences, especially when discussing consent and coercion? And what is the difference between incest and abuse and what is the role of the state in perpetuating and/or solving these issues?
After Erika’s insightful comments and questions, Juan Portillo gave his reflections and comments on Family Secrets. Juan saw Dr. González-López’s two biggest contributions as her ethical methodology and her feminist standpoint, which combined gave a nuanced explanation of sexual violence. As life is more complicated than our concepts and theories, Juan pondered how do we make sense of sexual violence when the same logics that we use to try to end it are potentially the same logics that reproduce it. Given that we live in a society structured by inequality, Juan asked Dr. González-López if sex is ever completely consensual. He also wanted to know more about Dr. González-López’s choice of language – in her not wanting to use “survivor” or “perpetrator” and her writing about a gender non-conforming participant.
After these three wonderfully engaging compassionate critiques, Dr. González-López gave her brilliant responses to each of the three panelists. In response to Dr. Valenzuela, Dr. González-López pondered, what do we mean by healthy? Who defines healthy? Who is privileged enough to even have sex or be sexually healthy? As for solutions, Dr. González-López discussed that laws around sexual harassment in Mexico may expand to include relatives. She also talked about a research participant, whose mother believed her when she disclosed being raped by her father. This mother believing her daughter was a form of family justice and feminist practice that protected this woman from experiencing emotional damage. Other interesting topics that were discussed during Dr. González-López’s responses were that women are sophisticated, so seeing them as just victims does not capture their full lived realities. Also, life is messy and complicated and our abstract concepts will never fully get at the gray areas of our lives.
All in all, the panel discussion was thoughtful, provocative, and an important discussion. Family Secrets is a painful but necessary intervention into the field of sociology, sexualities, and sexual violence. In not sanitizing people’s stories, Dr. González-López pushes all of us to face the complex realities of people’s lives. Only in facing these messy nuances can we truly begin to find solutions to solving this social problem. It is with Dr. González-López’s compassion and ethical wisdom that makes Family Secrets a timely and important book that will re-shape the field of sociology for the better.
Brandon Andrew Robinson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at UT-Austin. His dissertation is a qualitative exploration of the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth in Texas.
Phyllis Frye, the nation’s first transgender judge, now presides over a Houston municipal courts. Before that, she was a transgender activist, and as a lawyer, represented many people in the LGBT community. In the wake of voters’ rejection of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, and as a 13-year-old Dallas ordinance protecting transgender rights came under fire, she writes:
In 1980 I was a law student at the University of Houston, doing an internship at the Harris County District Attorney’s office. Even though my office was on the tenth floor of the DA building, the only restroom the DA’s staff allowed me to use was on the second floor. Each time nature called, I had to get by a guard, since the second floor was secure, then walk past a long row of secretaries.
So I did not use it. The results were many “accidents” and, by the end of that semester’s internship, blood in my urine from a bladder infection.
As to the current hate campaign of Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, I remain puzzled why few pro-HERO commentators mentioned the then and now, still applicable, city restroom ordinance which reads as follows:
City of Houston Ordinance Sec. 28-20
Entering Restrooms of the Opposite Sex:
It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly and intentionally enter any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex without the permission of the owner, tenant, manager, lessee or other person in charge of the premises in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance.
Clearly each offender depicted in the recent bathroom TV ads did “knowingly and intentionally enter any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex” “in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance” and was in violation of the existing city ordinance.
In the early 1990s, the Houston police were arresting many transwomen for using the women’s restroom. I advised any who contacted me to “set it for a jury trial” and to testify to the jury that they were only entering to urinate in a locked stall and not to cause a disturbance. Each was found not guilty, and the police quit the arresting of transwomen for that offense.
I also remain puzzled why few mention the state criminal statues that made each offender depicted in the recent bathroom TV ads a criminal. The crimes of indecent exposure and public lewdness, and unlawful restraint (especially of a child) range in punishment from 180 days in county jail to two years in a state jail facility.
There is too much hate in the air over a person’s need to lawfully empty their bladders or bowels in a private and locked bathroom stall.
Thatcher Combs, a transgender graduate student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, writes:
The bathroom issue might strike many as a trivial matter, but for many trans people, myself included, choosing which bathroom to use is not trivial at all. This decision usually comes down to whether we “pass.” Every day, those of us who meet or exceed society’s expectations about gendered appearance norms enter public bathrooms without notice. Would anyone bat an eye if Laverne Cox entered the women’s room or Chaz Bono used the men’s room? Of course not.
But for many of us, the choice of which bathroom to use can be a life-or-death decision. Those of us who cannot, or do not, fit into the categories of “male” or “female” are the ones who bear the brunt of the strange looks, outrage and violence. The perpetrators of these acts toward us are not the “perverts” declaimed by the opponents of LGBT rights. They are the people who refuse to accept gender variance and insist that everyone conform to rigid notions of how men and women ought to look and behave.
It is true that violence against women and girls is a real problem in our society. But instead of discriminating against trans people in a misguided effort to protect women, our collective efforts ought to focus instead on why our current social norms for gender, especially for masculinity, victimize women.
The fear of the man in women’s restrooms, misunderstanding of trans people, and the violence women experience in society are all linked. Gender and sex are still understood to be biologically based and naturally given. Thus we say “boys will be boys” and “girls are feminine,” yet these childhood tropes also morph into the right for men to be violent and for women to be ever vigilant about their bodies.
Unfortunately, the defeat of HERO may be a signal that any form of national equality legislation that includes trans people cannot be won by popular vote. More importantly, the “no” vote from Houston should act as a wake-up call for the LGBT movement.
In the past, gays and lesbians fought under the slogan of “Just like you,” emphasizing their conformity to society’s mainstream values and beliefs. If the LGBT movement is to work toward bettering trans lives, it might be time to change tactics and fight for loosening gender norms that restrict all people.
Fifth-year doctoral candidate Shantel G. Buggs takes on Modern Romance‘s lacking analysis of the role of race in “modern” dating:
Modern Romance assumes a consistency of dating experience across race that is problematic. Assuming that people of color have had the same experiences as, or with, white people with online dating is critically irresponsible and is contradicted by the research. White millenials in particular have proven time and time again they are not as progressive as they are assumed to be, including in who they choose to date (or exclude from dating).
Even best-selling author and OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder notes the continued role of racism in the chances of finding a partner online in his book Dataclysmand on the blog OKTrends. He reiterated this fact again during a Q&A at the 2015 meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago that I attended. When Helen Fisher of Match.com suggested that online dating had wiped out prejudice, he was quick to correct that misperception. Given the widely known and easily available data on race and online dating, the disappearing of race from Modern Romance’s analysis is all the more curious. This colorblind approach does little to help us understand contemporary intimacies that begin online and does even less to advance sociological understanding of modern romance.
South by Southwest (SXSW)—a music, film, journalism, and tech festival held annually in Austin—came under fire last week for a decision to cancel a scheduled 2016 panel called “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” as well as one other panel related to the gaming community. SXSW cited threats and harassment targeting the panel as its reason for cancelling.
Since the cancellation announcement, criticism has poured in on Twitter. Major media outlets such as BuzzFeed and Vox Media have threatened to pull out of SXSW altogether. Critics have described the cancellation as “clueless” at best and “craven” at worst. Some accuse the festival of “providing the blueprint for harassers and hatemongers as to how they win.” Clearly feeling the heat, festival organizers stated on Friday that they had “made a mistake” and outlined a new plan for a “day-long summit” on online harassment.
Some heralded this new event as a victory for anti-harassment activists. Former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, for example, praised SXSW’s handling of the situation in a Facebook post:
This week, Austin’s SXSW faced well-deserved criticism after a decision-making misstep to cancel panels on women in gaming and digital harassment. In the last day, SXSW leadership have actively sought to correct course. People will make errors in judgement and will face consequences. It is important that we applaud when organizations realize their mistakes, and actively seek remedies. To that end, I gladly accepted an invitation to participate in the newly announced day-long Online Harassment Summit at SXSW. See you Austin to talk about how we must respect all people, all genders, in both the real world and the digital world. Thank you SXSW and all those who will be a part of this great new day!
However, not everyone has been so satisfied with this fix. For one, critics have pointed out that the new summit on harassment will include speakers who are affiliated with online harassment movements. “Level Up” panelists Katherine Cross, Caroline Sinders, and Randi Lee Harper say this raises serious “security concerns” for the summit. When Sinders expressed these concerns to SXSW, organizers responded by stating their commitment to preserving a “big tent” that encompasses a diversity of opinions. “If everyone shared the same viewpoint,” wrote SXSW, “that would make for a pretty boring event.”
Sinders stresses that any “big tent” has less to do with specific topics covered and more to do with creating a safe space for conversation. She argues that SXSW could have provided enhanced security for the “Level Up” panelists, rather than simply cancel their event. Others add that framing the situation as comprised of two parties with equally valid “ideas and opinions” implies that the issue of online harassment is something that is up for debate. Instead, they say, harassers give up their claims to credibility and legitimacy the moment they harass.
Needless to say, emotions are running high. But a strong emotional response to issues of online harassment makes sense given recent debates in the tech industry. While neither panel description mentioned it explicitly, one extremely controversial subject has been consistently associated with the SXSW debacle, resurfacing almost immediately in headlines following the cancellations. That subject is GamerGate.
What is GamerGate?
In August 2014, an anonymous group of internet users began a coordinated and ongoing online harassment campaign against people—primarily women—who condemned sexism in the video game industry. This amorphous hate mob came to be associated with the Twitter hashtag #GamerGate. The movement targeted female video game developers, journalists, actresses, academic theorists, other professionals. The targets shared one thing in common: Feminism.
Online attacks have included rape threats, death threats, threats of mass shootings, and the creation of online flash games that allow players to beat up feminist critics. Many targets have also been doxed, meaning personal information like home addresses, phone numbers, employer information was found and publicly posted online. Doxing moved the harassment offline, forcing several targets to flee their homes when violent, detailed threats showed up online alongside their addresses.
Some self-identified members of GamerGate (called “GamerGaters” or “gators”) allege that the movement is not about harassment. They claim that harassers constitute a vocal minority. Instead, they define GamerGate as a movement about improving “ethical standards of video game journalism.” They accuse journalists of collusion with feminists and “social justice warriors,” saying these so-called conflicts of interest have contributed to a political correctness in game reviews.
Commentators have widely questioned this “ethics” narrative, with many dismissing it as a conspiracy theory. They argue that GamerGate’s true motivation is to police the boundaries of gaming culture—to exclude women, people of color, queer people, and trans people and to silence their criticisms. Ultimately, they argue that data and the movement’s origins reveal that this concern for “objectivity” and “ethical journalism” masks an effort to keep gaming white, male, heterosexual, and cisgender.
If this is indeed the case—if the root motivation of the GamerGate movement is white supremacism, heterosexism, cissexism, and misogyny rather than journalistic ethics—an obvious question follows: Who are these men, and why do they hate the people they see as outsiders?
Gender, Boundary Policing, and the “Gamer” Identity
Jeopardy! champion and cultural critic Arthur Chu describes GamerGate as follows:
Who are GamerGate? It’s one part entitled white guys claiming ownership over a subculture they feel is being invaded by outsiders. It’s one part entitled people who aren’t white guys who have, for one reason or another, made peace with being part of a white-guy-dominated culture and now enthusiastically join in trashing people who try to change it, for various complicated reasons. […] And it’s of course one part brazen opportunists with no prior interest in gaming seizing a chance to draw clicks while striking a blow against the left in the culture wars.
Here, Chu makes two critical points: (1) that gaming culture has historically been dominated by white men[i] and (2) that the harassment is less a result of GamerGaters’ sheer hatred of women than it is a violent defense of what they see as an existential threat to the “gamer” identity.
A number of journalists and feminists have described GamerGate as an outgrowth of a broader culture war about sexism and media, in which GamerGaters take issue with increasing racial and gender diversity in video games and in gaming culture. They say GamerGaters fear that this “bias” (read: writers calling for more diverse representation of characters in games) will change the games they love, the culture they identify with, and the social cohesion they depend on for feelings of belonging.
Katherine Cross, a feminist gaming critic and sociology PhD student at City University of New York (CUNY), posits that “GamerGate styles itself as a perverse kind of social justice movement for all gamers, constructing ‘gamer’ as an oppressed class unto itself.” Cross goes on to write that GamerGaters “claim to speak for the forgotten and bullied nerd, the outcast and misunderstood hobbyist who just wants to play video games yet is scapegoated for various and sundry evils.” On its face, this script makes logical sense: Raewyn Connell (1995) might conceive of “geek” or “gamer” masculinities as marginalized when compared to hegemonic masculinity, the dominant form of masculinity in society.
However, as Cross goes on to point out, “What this tidy narrative has always deliberately ignored is that all of GamerGate’s targets have been nerds and gamers.” That is, the very group of people that GamerGate purports to protect—gamers—include the very same people it attacks: women gamers.
If male gamers consistently considered women gamers to be genuine, authentic members of gaming culture, Cross’s point would clearly illuminate the contradictory logic of this narrative. But often times, they don’t. A common accusation levied against feminist gamers to undermine their criticisms is that they are not “real,” authentic gamers. For example, entire Reddit message boards, YouTubevideos, and blog posts have been devoted to “outing” feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian as an imposter. They aim to discredit her words by showing that she isn’t truly a gamer.
The popular trope of the fake geek girl offers another clear example of this. According to a CNN blog post by Joe Peacock, fake geek girls are “pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention.” Peacock elaborates (emphases mine):
What I’m talking about is the girls who have no interest or history in gaming taking nearly naked photos of themselves with game controllers draped all over their body just to play at being a “model.” I get sick of wannabes who couldn’t make it as car show eye candy slapping on a Batman shirt and strutting around comic book conventions instead. I’m talking about an attention addict trying to satisfy her ego and feel pretty by infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street. […] I hate poachers. Pure and simple.
This definition of the fake geek girl is twofold, involving (1) a heightened performance of femininity and (2) cultural incompetence. For Peacock, fake geek girls have highly feminine, sexualized expressions of gender—they wear little clothing and “strut” around at comic cons. They are also “wannabes” who pretend to know about gaming to gain the attention of men, but really have little more than a superficial knowledge of the culture. The conflation of these two attributes in the fake geek girl trope exemplifies larger gender dynamics at play in gaming culture: incompetence is considered feminine. Thus, women must constantly perform their gaming knowledge to cast off the “fake” label and prove their authenticity as gamers.
Masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel (2008) observes a similar process in college student cultures. In college culture, he argues, competence is also considered masculine, which traps college women in a double-bind: Expressing competence might afford women some legitimacy, but “to be taken seriously as a competent individual means minimizing, or even avoiding altogether, the trappings of femininity” (252).
In a response to a critique of his original piece, Peacock adds (emphases mine):
For the record: I feel the same way about men who poach women. My wife is a marathoner (and I’ve even run one myself, and OH MY GOD I’ll never do that again). She participates in lots of female-specific events, like Iron Girl and the Nike Women’s Marathon. There are men who attend the expos and conferences for these events specifically to hit on women. I feel the same way about them. They’re gross.
Here, Peacock aims to prove his point—that he is an equal-opportunity despiser of cultural “poaching,” which he seems to understand as a hostile intrusion into a gendered social field[ii] by someone whose gender doesn’t belong. But for his comparison of gaming culture to women’s marathons to hold water, gaming would have to be analogous to a men’s-only marathon. Such a comparison reveals a belief that gaming culture is a fundamentally male space, designed to exist specifically and exclusively for men.
When Harassment Silences Discussion of Harassment
“Level Up” panelist Caroline Sinders says enhanced security would have made her feel safe enough to participate, but SXSW did not give her the chance to request it. To be fair, there is some precedent for opting for cancellation over risk of harm. Sarkeesian once cancelled a speaking engagement at Utah State University in light of a mass shooting threat. She had requested that metal detectors be used at entrances for the safety of attendees, but police declined to prohibit concealed weapons per state law.
Even so, SXSW’s navigation of this situation is confusing. GamerGate was one of the most widely covered, controversial tech debates of the past year. Given the mainstream media’s coverage of GamerGate (let alone the Twitter discussions), one might wonder how SXSW’s organizers could possibly not have anticipated such a response. It seems unbelievable that the organizers of an event billed as an “incubator of cutting-edge technologies” would be so out of touch as to simply not have anticipated backlash to a panel on online harassment. It seems so unbelievable, in fact, that I don’t believe it.
Could providing additional security for the “Level Up” panel have been financially or logistically impossible? This seems unlikely. SXSW is staffed primarily by volunteers—not paid employees—and regularly features celebrities, some of whom almost certainly require beefed-up security. It seems reasonable to expect that enhanced security measures would be possible at SXSW, and so I wonder: why did the organizers cancel the panel without consulting a single panelist? Why was that decision made behind closed doors? And why is “online harassment” a justification to silence a discussion of that very subject? It could be that SXSW genuinely and naively miscalculated. But it could also be possible that the organizers knew exactly what they were doing—and they chose to reinforce the gendered boundaries of an industry to avoid rocking the boat.
[ii] The concept of the gendered field comes from feminist interpretations of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1990) theories of social reproduction (see Laberge 1995, McCall 1992, McNay 1999). Bourdieu (1990) conceives of social life as a series of games, simultaneously played out in a social landscape divided into collective spaces he calls social fields. Each field has its own set of rules and a particular hierarchical dynamic, wherein social actors compete to occupy dominant positions. A gendered field, then, is a field that is socially marked as masculine or feminine, thus benefiting participants who behave in ways that conform to the gendered coding of the field.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. “Structure, Habitus, Practice.” Pp 52-66 in The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Connell, R.W. 1995. Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Kimmel, Michael. 2008. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Laberge, Suzanne. 1995. “Toward an Integration of Gender Into Bourdieu’s Concept of Cultural Capital.” Sociology of Sport Journal 12: 132–146.
McCall, Leslie. 1992. “Does gender fit? Bourdieu, feminism, and conceptions of social order.” Theory and Society 21: 837–867.
McNay, Lois. 1999. “Gender, habitus and the field: Pierre Bourdieu and the limits of reflexivity.” Theory, Culture, and Society 16 (1): 95–117.
Katie Rogers is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests focus on the areas of gender, sexuality, and youth. You can follow her on Twitter at @katiearog.
Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement train with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Arizona
Over at the London School of Economics blog, 5th-year doctoral student, Carmen Gutierrez, and former-UT professor David Kirk write on the relationship between immigration and likelihood of reporting violent crimes. Their research challenges the notion that increased immigration leads to increases in crime, instead suggesting that anti-immigration rhetoric may, in fact, be undermining public safety. Gutierrez and Kirk argue that restrictive immigration policies “create potential mistrust of legal authorities who have the power to exercise immigration enforcement, such as deportation. As a result, immigrants may avoid the police—even to report crime and victimization—due to their fears of arrest and expulsion.”