Dr. Sharmila Rudrappa featured in ASA’s Contexts magazine

Associate Professor Sharmila Rudrappa has been traveling to India in the summers, interviewing surrogate mothers about their role in the growing industry of exporting surrogate babies from India.

Dr. Rudrappa is featured in this edition of Contexts in an article entitled: India’s Reproductive Assembly Line.

According to Dr. Rudrappa:

India is emerging as a key site for transnational surrogacy, with industry profits projected to reach $6 billion in the next few years, according to the Indian Council for Medical Research. In 2007, the Oprah show featured Dr. Nayna Patel in the central Indian town of Anand, Gujarat, who was harnessing the bodies of rural Gujarati women to produce babies for American couples. Subsequent newspaper articles and TV shows, as well as blogs by users of surrogacy, popularized the nation as a surrogacy destination for couples from the United States, United States, England, Israel, Australia and to a lesser extent Italy, Germany, and Japan.

The Power of the Erotic & a Utopian Future by Brandon Andrew Robinson

In gearing up for the annual American Sociological Association conference this summer in Denver, I have been pondering this year’s theme – “Real Utopias.” This topic, according to the ASA program, is trying to bridge together the empirical and theoretical realities of life with the vision of “… a fantasy world of perfect harmony and social justice.” In dealing with this tension between the practical and the dream, the ASA meeting calls for “… developing a sociology of the possible, not just of the actual.” But what would this type of sociology look like? And where do we even begin to find the tools to forge this novel way of conceptualizing a better tomorrow? I believe one possible undertaking can happen by turning to the root of the erotic in our own personal lives so that we can strive collectively for this utopian future.

In my endeavor to understand the power of the erotic and how it can assist in achieving a better world, I first turned to one of the earliest sociologists Max Weber. In his “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions,” Weber (1946) explored how discipline deals with the irrationality of the erotic sphere. Weber called sexual love “… the greatest irrational force…” that is in constant tension with rationality and discipline (343). Rationality produces legally constituted marriage as the only rational form of romantic economic arrangement, and as seen in The Protestant Ethic (1930), sex is just a calling from God to reproduce. Society has to regulate sexual intercourse to marriage because eroticism can easily produce frenzies that are non-routinized and, hence, irrational. Since rationality and discipline are impersonable and emotionless, society has to control the erotic because it signifies love and emotions. As Weber notes, a person engaging in an erotic relation is “… freed from the cold skeleton hands of rational orders, just as completely as from the banality of everyday routine” (p. 347). The erotic relation, to Weber, “… embodie[s] creative power…” (p. 347) and is hence constructed as a “…loss of self-control…” by the rational cosmos of the societal order (p. 349). Because the erotic relation is predicated on love, emotion, and so forth, it stands in direct opposition to the rational social order and is hence disciplined as being irrational unless done within marriage and only for procreation. Weber, however, saw a great deal of power in the erotic relation as it frees people from the rational, mundane order of life, allowing for a more utopian future outside of the disciplined world of today.

Accordingly, in her piece “The Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde (2007, [1984]) also sees the erotic as a creative power source that can allow one to explore inner possibilities in pursuing genuine social change. She argues that the erotic is a resource in each person, “… which arises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge”  (p. 88). Society tells us to condemn and vilify this resource; however, for Lorde, this resource is a source of power that helps us feel as we do our work, instead of just always routinely and emotionlessly trudging through life. This creative power is born from love, but capitalism has devalued it and constructed it as dangerous. Since the erotic is born of love though, it can help us in understanding others and lessen the threat of differences between strangers and ourselves. For this matter, we must begin to recognize our erotic feelings, so that we can share these deep feelings with others and then re-bridge the gaps that have divided us. As Lorde writes, “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama” (p. 91).  The erotic, for Lorde and similarly for Weber, is a non-rational, creative source of power within each of us that needs to be freed so we can feel life and then develop love and empathy for ourselves, and more importantly, for others.

Moving to an intriguing application of the erotic, Richard Fung (1991) examines the power of the erotic in his analysis of race within gay male pornographies. Fung traces the ways in which Asian men are depicted as submissive sexual actors and basically as props for the pleasure of white men. His descriptions of these various pornographies and their racist ideologies are unnerving; yet, in his conclusion, Fung talks about the power of the erotic in certain moments of these films. In these moments, Fung believes that these racist ideologies are suspended or eclipsed by the power of the erotic. For him, these “genuine” moments typically happen when he sees the bodies caressing one another. The actors stop pretending to be in their racist roles, and, instead, the porn actors “… appear neither as simulated whites nor as symbolic others” (p. 161). The power of the erotic interrupts or supersedes racism within these ephemeral moments, where the creative source of feeling takes over from the racist roles being presented.

Weber, Lorde, and Fung – all seem to find great life-changing power within the erotic. This life source challenges the routinized, disciplined ways of society. It pushes us to love and feel, and in that, it advances us towards a new form of intimacy with strangers. It also has the capability to transcend (at least temporarily) hegemonic ideologies, granting new ways of relating between the other and the self. How then can we tap into this source of the erotic in each of ourselves in order to form a collective strategy to achieve a more perfect future? The erotic appears to have the potential to bring about more equitable ways of relating and new visions for the possibilities of sociology. However, we all must begin to feel the erotic inside of us, and then we can start imagining and striving for this harmonic future that the ASA theme has called on all of us sociologists to delve in and investigate this year.

Fung, Richard. 1991. “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn.” Pp. 145-168 in How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video, edited by Bad Object-Choices. Seattle: Bay Press.

Lorde, Audre. 2007 [1984]. “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Pp. 87-91 in Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader, edited by Karen E. Lovaas and Mercilee M. Jenkins. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.

Weber, Max. 1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Routledge.

Weber, Max. 1946. “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions.” Pp. 323-359 in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. Gerth and C. W. Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brandon Andrew Robinson is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include sexualities, queer spatialities, and intersectionality. His newest project will be examining how the Internet impacts sexual behavior and desire for men who have sex with men.

Remembering Sarah McKinnon

Sarah McKinnon was a bright light at UT Austin, a talented Demographer and a devoted mother who passed away at the tragically young age of 37. She will be sorely missed by her family and friends and is remembered below in a memorial given by Dr. Joe Potter at the Population Association of America’s annual meeting in San Franciso, California this May. Sarah’s family will hold a memorial for her on June 24th at the turtle pond by the Main building at UT. Please join in celebrating her life.

Sarah McKinnon died three weeks ago of cancer at age 37. Between 2001 and 2009, I had the privilege of being her advisor, colleague and friend while she was a graduate student and researcher at the University of Texas in Austin. Sarah grew up in western Massachusetts, was valedictorian of her high school class, spent a semester at UMass-Amherst, and then went to El Paso to join her mother and attend the University of Texas in El Paso where her mother was teaching Epidemiology. Sarah made the best of a less than challenging academic situation, and graduated at the top of her class. She then went on to get an MPH from the UT School of Public Health, studying both at the main campus in Houston and later at the satellite campus in El Paso. She then worked for a year in El Paso where in addition to other duties she served as a translator for doctor for low-income patients. From El Paso she went to Atlanta where she had a year-long internship at CDC in Maternal and Child Health.

When she applied to enter the graduate program at UT-Austin, I quickly recognized that we had many interests in common and that her background and skills would be wonderful assets for several of the projects I was involved with or had in mind. I begged her to accept our offer of admission.

While in Austin, Sarah studied, taught, worked as a programmer, and was involved with four main research areas:

1. Sarah was a pillar of the Border Contraceptive Access Study—a project based on the natural experiment that cross-border procurement of oral contraception provided in a border setting. Sarah brought much energy, deep familiarity with the low-income population of El Paso, and wonderful skills with data collection and management to this enterprise. She was also responsible for a great deal of the analysis and programming that was involved in many of the papers from that study, and was an author of three of them. And almost singlehandedly she prepared the documentation, and completed that the data cleaning that was a prerequisite for a public release of the data we collected.

2. Sarah was also an active, energetic, and wonderful collaborator with the group at UT Austin working on issues of racial and ethnic disparities in US health outcomes. Working with Parker Frisbie, Bob Hummer, and others, Sarah co-published several chapters that summarized current patterns of US health disparities, with a particular focus on infant and child outcomes. In Bob’s words: “Her work in this area was characterized by great expertise with data and methods and keen insights on the explanations underlying the disparities. And of course, Sarah’s great energy and sense of humor characterized her involvement with this research group as well.”

3. While at UT, Sarah became interested in Brazilian demography, learned some Portuguese, and took advantage of the last tier of Mellon money to spend a few months in Brazil. Together, we tackled the question of how to use the large trove of Brazilian census microdata that had been assembled at UT for the purpose of analyzing the growth of Protestantism in Brazil and its possible effects on reproductive and other behaviors. Sarah was the first author of a nice paper published in Population Studies in 2008 on “Adolescent Fertility and Religion in Rio de Janeiro”.

4. For her dissertation topic, Sarah eventually chose to learn and apply some of the Bayesian spatial statistics methods that my colleagues Renato Assuncao and Carl Schmertmann were proficient with to the task of estimating child mortality rates for all 5000 plus municipalities in Brazil. This was a daunting task that required learning a new type of statistics, mastering the use of Monte Carlo Markov Chain programs, and as well as modifying the underlying technology of Brass estimation for this purpose. But Sarah did it all, going to short courses on Winbugs at other universities, bugging Carl and Renato for help making Winbugs do what it had to do, and producing and interpreting the results. It is a pity that Sarah, Renato and Carl and I were not able to send a paper based on this work off to a journal before Sarah’s passing, but getting that done is now on our shoulders.

Shortly before she defended her dissertation, Sarah was hired by the CDC/Division of Reproductive Health in 2009 as a Statistical Data Analyst/Programmer. Sarah’s position was originally envisioned as providing programming support to CDC epidemiologists in the Maternal and Infant Health Branch, assisting them with the organization and management of complex analysis data files for various projects. Within months of being hired, Sarah became an expert on U.S. birth and death certificate files, hospital discharge data, and longitudinally linked vital statistic and administrative databases for mothers and children.

In the words of her CDC colleagues: “Sarah brought a unique mix of analytic and programming skills to the Division, and was a brilliant analyst in her own right. She not only supported projects as was originally envisioned, but she also enriched the analytic projects in which she participated. Her CDC colleagues quickly realized Sarah’s great potential. Only a year into her stint with CDC, she began participating as an advisor in numerous DRH studies.”

It is very sad for me to stand before you reading these words. Sarah was an extremely smart, dedicated, and efficient demographer, and a lovely person. I owe a great debt to her for all that she did for the projects I was involved in, and for the opportunity to work alongside her analyzing demographic data. She had a promising career in front of her, and I expected to be her colleague for many years to come. I, and many others at the PRC, CDC, and PAA will miss her greatly. When I last saw her at her mother’s home in Tampa on March 25th, she said she was sorry she would not be at PAA this year, and I am glad that we all have this opportunity to remember her tonight.

Dr. Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez receives Women’s and Gender Studies Gilbert Teaching Excellence award

Dr. Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez was presented with the Lucia, John, and Melissa Gilbert Teaching Excellence Award honoring her outstanding record of undergraduate and/or graduate teaching in Women’s and Gender Studies courses. One award is given each year, alternating between non-tenured faculty members (Assistant Professor or Lecturer) and tenured faculty members (Associate or Full Professor). Dr. Lopez-Gonzalez is well known for her compassionate mentoring of Sociology graduate students and for her research in the areas of gender and sexuality. Congratulations for this well-deserved award!

In addition to receiving recognition for her outstanding contribution to undergraduate and graduate mentoring and teaching, Dr. Gonzalez-Lopez’ graduate student, Lorena Siller, received the 2012 Women’s and Gender Studies MA Thesis Award. Lorena recently finished her MA Thesis, “Ni Domésticas Ni Putas: Sexual Harassment in the Lives of Female Household Workers in Monterrey, Nuevo León” under the supervision of Dr. Gonzalez-Lopez and will be graduating in May 2012.