Category Archives: Sociology of Gender

Myra Marx Ferree on Globalizing Universities and Growing Gender Equality

by Rachel Karen 

On Friday, February 16, the Sociology department’s Power, History, and Society (PHS) working group hosted its  PHS Annual Distinguished Lecture featuring Professor of Sociology Myra Marx Ferree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Ferree discussed her comparative work on feminism and higher education in the United States and Germany, and provided an overview of the dialectic inherent in feminism.  She pointed to two major university transformations during the last century.  First, the potential student body is larger and more diverse. Second, the feminist movement went beyond expanding women’s access to education, by enabling women to learn what they want to know, and be able to find employment afterwards.  This access was crucial for women to both join professoriate and institutionalize the creation of new knowledge in the creation of Women and Gender Studies programs. The second transformation driving the restructuring of higher education was decolonization.  Former colonial subjects also want access to knowledge on a more self-determined basis, and technological advances helped facilitate international research.

Ferree then turned to her work on the feminist agenda in American and German universities.  Here, she brought in a discussion of the dialectic in feminism.  She conceptualized two models of feminist intervention based on two characters—Cassandra, who in Greek mythology was cursed to speak true prophesies that no one believed, and Pollyanna, a character from a 1913 novel whose name is now used to describe those who always have a positive outlook. The “Cassandra approach” is combative and critical, and the “Pollyanna approach” holds that by accessing power structures, change can happen from the inside. Dr. Ferree urged us all to recognize both approaches are right, and both are limited. She acknowledged that feminist knowledge production emphasizes change as the only constant. Globalization is not a unidirectional process of modernity: globalization is part of a contested struggle about whose knowledge counts.

For Dr. Ferree, pragmatic feminist advocacy means efforts should be concentrated at the national level, in order to focus on institutionally specific structures to be able to act and make change. Universities are a place of citizenship, and Dr. Ferree believes democratic norms can be used to challenge all academic inequalities. Furthermore, feminists should identify where market leverage exists for specific policy changes, since in this era of academic capitalism, administrators must create a university that can work and compete in the market. Because of this, Dr. Ferree is hopeful that feminists can indeed enact positive change at the university level.

Rachel Karen is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests include state formation in Africa and European responses to the 2008 economic crisis. 

Follow the Thread and Leave Room for Serendipity: Reflections on the PHS Graduate Workshop with Myra Marx Ferree

by Marta Ascherio

Roter faden is the German term for “red thread,” and is used to mean common thread. “Unlike most of German academia, it borrows from sewing,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Sociology Myra Marx Ferree, during UT Austin Sociology’s annual Power, History, and Society workshop. “Women’s practical knowledge.” Whether we intend it or not, there is always a red thread in what we study. It’s about what we do with the red thread that matters.

The red thread that runs through Dr. Ferree’s work is now emerging as a network, called the Society of Gender Professionals. This society will set professional standards, share job opportunities, and work to institutionalize the legitimacy of gender experts. She is particularly interested in how expertise gets used, and how certain types of expertise are credited or discredited. For instance, one of her students researches family law reform in Chile, and finds that gender experts are discredited, with economists being perceived as a more legitimate form of authority.

Dr. Ferree also discussed the debates that took place in the 1980s about whether Women’s Studies should be its own discipline or a sub-specialty in another discipline. “Both ways actually succeeded beyond the expectations of anyone on either side of that debate,” Dr. Ferree told us, which is refreshing to hear in a moment when it seems like the only constant is the reproduction of inequality, and even progressive social movements often re-package existing power relationships.

In the first few minutes of Dr. Ferree’s arrival, as we set up food, she engaged every single graduate student, as attentively as if we were her advisees, commenting on the relevance of our research topics, suggesting literature, and offering introductions.  She leaned back in her chair, so much at ease. Here is some of the advice she had for graduate students:

Keep track of your ideas. C. Wright Mills kept all his ideas on notecards, said Dr. Ferree, and Charles Tilly kept a filing cabinet full of all the topics he would write about if he lived to be 150. She advised us to do the same. “You can’t pursue every idea, so you have to cut them off, but don’t throw them away!”

Leave room for serendipity. “I don’t pick projects. Projects pick me,” said Dr. Ferree. “When we do our dissertations, we often think that we choose them, but when we dig a little bit deeper, we see that it has to do with where we are located in time and space.”

Avoid identifying with one particular method. More than using quantitative or qualitative methods, Dr. Ferree observed, scholars seem to have “quantitative or qualitative identities.” She believes this quantitative/qualitative binary is a barrier to being relevant. Prioritize staying relevant, she said, and learning new methods. Methods are not something you learn once and set aside. You will be learning methods for the rest of your life.

Remember that methods and theories can be subject to trends. Dr. Ferree explained that sociological methods and theoretical approaches can fall in and out of fashion. For instance, while she was writing her dissertation, multi-dimensional scaling was all the rage, but the way she learned it became obsolete shortly after she spent a year grappling with it. If you are interested in getting a job, consider learning or using trendy methods, but do not forget that they may be subject to change. You have to see what works for you.

Marta Ascherio is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and a graduate fellow of the Urban Ethnography Lab. Her research interests include immigration, crime, and social control.

UT Austin Sociology at SWS in Atlanta

by Jamie O’Quinn and Katie K. Rogers

Feminist sociologists from UT Austin and members of the department’s gender working group, Fem(me) Sem, were well-represented at the annual winter meeting of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) this year in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference offered presentations, sessions, and workshops that engaged the theme of “They Persisted: Feminism, Work, Activism, Resistance.”

This year’s meeting addressed pedagogy and academic freedom in the age of hate speech and “fake news,” and tackled ongoing issues of race and racism in the academy, the discipline of sociology, and SWS as an organization. SWS President Adia Harvey Wingfield of Washington University in St. Louis convened plenary sessions on topics such as gender and precarious labor, feminism in the academy, and race, gender, and feminist activism.

(Left to right) UT-Austin PhD Kirsten Dellinger (now Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi) with current graduate students Jess Goldstein-Kral and Caitlin Carroll

Plenary sessions and workshops spotlighted the voices of faculty and activists of color who, in addition to sharing critiques of existing systems, offered strategies for the path forward. They urged feminists to make careful decisions about how to reform and transform their departments without experiencing burnout. They reminded young scholars that joy exists in research and teaching, even within institutions that can feel impossible to change. They also pushed white feminists in the audience to reflect on their own politics of solidarity, and consider how they might show up more effectively to build coalitions with feminists of color in their institutions, organizations, and networks. Ultimately, they challenged all feminist scholars to, as stated by sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom of Virgina Commonwealth University, “figure out the difference between performance politics and solidarity.”

Sociologist Kimberly K. Hoang asks a question during a plenary session on feminism in the academy

A contingent of feminist sociologists from UT Austin represented the department, with presentations that centered gender in varying ways. One highlight was a session that grew from Fem(me) Sem‘s Spring 2017 conference, “The Gender of Ethnography and the Ethnography of Gender,” which was organized by a group of  sociology graduate students who were interested in using feminist methods in their research. The session, called “Feminist Ethnographies: Dilemmas from the Field,” featured Professor Christine Williams as a discussant, and UT Austin graduate students Shannon Malone, Vrinda Marwah, Ruijie Peng, Beth Prosnitz, and Katie K. Rogers as panelists. They grappled with a number of questions related to feminist methods, including what exactly makes a research design “feminist,” how to manage demands for “proof” in response to situated knowledge, what it means to “gain access,” and how to reckon with accusations of “bias,” particularly with respect to projects that center a researcher’s own community (“me-search”) or emerge from explicitly feminist commitments.

(Left to right) “Feminist Ethnographies” graduate student panelists Vrinda Marwah, Shannon Malone, Katie K. Rogers, Ruijie Peng, and Beth Proznitz
(Left to right) Professor Christine Williams and panelists

UT Austin also exhibited a presence among the individual paper presentations, with graduate scholars sharing feminist research on topics that ranged from intimate relationships to the gendered state to issues of gender, race, and labor.

A list of individual papers by UT Austin graduate students is as follows: 

Caitlin Carroll
“Antiviolence Organizations in Sweden and the Reproduction of Gender Regimes”

Jess Goldstein-Kral
“The Relationship Dynamics of Polyamorous Triads: Resisting and Reproducing Inequality”

Jamie O’Quinn
“Emerging Sexualities: Girls’ Sexual Agency and the State”

Katie K. Rogers
“Gender, Race, and Class in the U.S. Legal Cannabis Industry”

Kara Takasaki
“Racialized Masculinities: How Work Shapes the Lives of Asian American Men”

All told,  the feminist scholarship and engagement of graduate students, alumni, and faculty affiliated with UT Austin Sociology helped make this year’s SWS conference an event to remember.


Jamie O’Quinn is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests center around sexuality, gender, race and ethnicity, and social inequality. She is currently researching state efforts to regulate young people’s sexualities.

Katie K. Rogers is a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her current research examines how women who work in the U.S. legal cannabis industry reconfigure the meanings of “dealers” and “users” during legalization.


Gloria González-López in Ms. Magazine

Gloria González-López, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, has published a piece in which she asks what the #MeToo movement can do for survivors of sexual violence in intimate spaces, such as the family. In the piece, she draws on research from her recent book Family Secrets:  Stories of Incest and Sexual Violence in Mexico (2015, NYU Press) to articulate a vision for dismantling gender inequality and sexual violence within the family. 

She writes:

What does it mean that uncles are the most frequent perpetrators of sexual abuse? Hollywood moguls aren’t the only ones who feel entitled to girls’ and women’s bodies—men in familial settings sadly often do as well.

One of the most important feminist revolutions has to take place at home. How could the #MeToo movement prompt a reckoning in our most secretive, intimate sector?

Sexual violence against girls and women in the context of family life is deeply rooted in gender inequality. The women who shared their lives with me were socially trained to serve the men in their families—in the most extreme case, an eight-year-old girl was cleaning, sweeping and mopping the room of an uncle in his forties. In these family patterns of gendered servitude, men who are expected to be served by the girls and women in the family may feel entitled to be sexually served by them as well.

Read more at Ms. Magazine.

Angela Stroud on Race, Gender, and Concealed Carry

by Katie Kaufman Rogers

Angela Stroud
Angela Stroud, UT-Austin PhD and Assistant Professor of Sociology & Social Justice at Northland College

This October, the UT Austin Department of Sociology and Fem(me) Sem welcomed sociologist Angela Stroud for a public talk and discussion with graduate students about her new book, Good Guys with Guns: The Appeal and Consequences of Concealed Carry. Dr. Stroud completed her PhD in sociology at UT Austin in 2012 and is now an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Northland College in Wisconsin.

Dr. Stroud opened her presentation with graphs showing rates of American gun ownership. Despite an overall decrease in gun ownership since 1970 (rates have fallen by nearly 20%), the Obama Era has seen a sudden proliferation of concealed handgun licenses. In 2007, she said, 4.5 million Americans held such licenses. But since, more than 6 million additional licenses have been administered, bringing today’s total to a staggering 11 million. But why? To better understand the explosion of firearm sales and spread of concealed carry legislation, Dr. Stroud sought to uncover what motivates Americans to attain permits and buy guns.

University of North Carolina Press
SOURCE: University of North Carolina Press

During the talk, Dr. Stroud shared insights from her fieldwork in gun licensing courses, as well as excerpts from the in-depth interviews she conducted with gun permit holders. The title of the book plays on an old maxim in pro-gun discourse (“only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun”), but as Dr. Stroud explained, it also highlights a key finding: the cultural relevance of the “good guy” trope. She unpacked the construction of the “good guy” identity, arguing that its conflation with whiteness and hegemonic masculinity helps explain the appeal of concealed carry as a symbolic practice for men. She drew on elements of critical whiteness theory and Raewyn Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity to analyze participants’ narratives about the protection they perceive guns to offer.

Ultimately, she found that cultural definitions of “good” gun owners rely on a classed and racialized dichotomy of masculinities. Respondents saw themselves as “good guys” who earned the right to own guns through training and civic service, as opposed to to “bad guys,” whose gun ownership threatened the safety of “good” families and communities. Dr. Stroud argued that this binary paints white men as responsible heroes while casting Black and Latino men as dangerous criminals. Additionally, the trope displaces deviant whiteness onto working-class men (whom her participants dismissed as uneducated “Bubbas”). She also touched on how geographical space is invoked in “good guy” discourse, pointing to respondents’ racialized conceptualizations of sites like the highway, the ghetto, and the home.

Dr. Stroud’s work has a particular resonance within the context of the University of Texas at Austin. Texas’ new campus carry legislation, which took effect this past August, gives students and faculty members the right to carry concealed handguns in university buildings such as classrooms and dormitories. The law has added fuel to an already blazing national controversy about guns. It has also galvanized the UT community, sparking petitions, protests, resignations, lawsuits, several faculty op-eds, and a slew of cancellations from scheduled visitors ranging from famous musicians to guest lecturers.

Good Guys with Guns critically intervenes in gun control debates by illuminating an understudied facet of American gun culture: How gun owners understand the necessity of guns is tied to how they see themselves and their place in the world. Dr. Stroud’s talk added an important voice to the campus conversation about concealed carry, showing how both pro- and anti-gun advocates misunderstand the deeper issues of race, class, and gender that shape how Americans understand guns.

Good Guys with Guns is available through the University of North Carolina Press. You can follow Dr. Angela Stroud on Twitter at @astroud.

Katie Kaufman Rogers is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the areas of gender, race, and sexuality. You can follow her on Twitter at @katiearog.

On Jane Ward’s “NOT GAY”

On February 25th, the Department of Sociology and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies had the pleasure of hosting Professor Jane Ward for a public job talk on her most recent book, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight Men (New York University Press, 2015). The talk entitled “NOT GAY: The Homosexual Ingredient in the Making of Straight White Men,” traced the historical relationship between same-sex behaviors and practices and the construction of (white) masculinity, particularly addressing arguments around the increasingly more common phenomenon of “heteroflexibility.”

Her entire talk is available on YouTube via the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies:

As evidenced by the packed room (with undergraduate and graduate students spilling out the door!), Dr. Ward’s work has inspired a lot of excitement, thoughtfulness, and reflection. Additionally, Dr. Ward shared some of the reactions to her work, with critiques (surprisingly) mainly being directed at her by self-identified gay men. Overall, the talk and subsequent discussion were a useful and important intervention in how to think about white “heterosexual” masculinities and what implications and/or possibilities might exist for men of color’s sexual identities.


Why Are So Many Scientists Harassing Their Students?


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.”

Read the full article on Motherboard

Toward a Feminist Sociology of Incest in Mexico  

By Brandon Andrew Robinson


 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.

Transgender people and Texas bathrooms: the ’80s and now

By Phyllis Frye and Thatcher Combs, for the Houston Chronicle


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.

SXSW, #GamerGate, and Gendered Boundary Policing

by Katie Kaufman Rogers

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.

Twitter commentary on whether online harassment is “debatable”

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.

“Pyramid of Modern ‘Capitalist’ System”: A graphic circulated online by supporters of GamerGate.

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, YouTube videos, 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.


[i] Extensive evidence has been documented in support of this argument, such as in the Feminist Frequency web series Tropes vs Women in Video Games and on the website Fat, Ugly, or Slutty.

[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 Kaufman Rogers is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the areas of gender, race, and sexuality. You can follow her on Twitter at @katiearog.