Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People

We-Wah, a Zuni Berdache, from New Mexico, who was born biologically male but lived as a Two Spirit woman. via Chicago Whispers

We-Wah, a Zuni Berdache, from New Mexico, who was born biologically male but lived as a Two Spirit woman. via Chicago Whispers

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

Sociology and anthropology have long used the experiences of “third sex” cultures, such as the Native American Two Spirit people, to teach students about the social construction of sex and gender. In many cultures around the world, people are allowed to live their lives beyond conventional binaries; they need not adhere to the biological sex they were born into. These people are usually revered and there are special circumstances where individuals are allowed to shift their gender position. These groups, including the Two Spirit people, are used as examples in the sociology of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersexual (LGBTQI) issues. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned this practice, demonstrating that social scientists are applying Western concepts to misappropriate the Two Spirit phenomena.

My post gives a broad overview of the social science concepts of gender and sexuality. I then discuss the spirituality, gender and sexuality of Two Spirit people as well as the history and culture that informs their social position. Let me put my analysis in context: I am not Native American nor am I a transgender person. I identify as a non-white, cis-woman (that is, my biological and gender identity align). As a sociologist who has researched, published on and taught gender and sexuality courses, I seek to explore how Western social scientists, queer theorists and other social activists have misappropriated the Two Spirit experience to highlight social causes.

I propose that social science needs to move forward from our dominant understandings of the Two Spirit experience. My aim is to start a conversation about how we might expand sociological understandings of gender and sexuality using this case study. How do we best communicate the social construction of gender and sexuality to students and to the public? I argue academics and activists need to be mindful that, even with the best of intentions, misappropriation of cultural traditions of minority groups is dangerous. This perpetuates historical practices that have silenced Indigenous experiences. There are better ways to appreciate and form solidarity with Other cultures. This begins by listening to the way minorities speak about their own experiences, rather than projecting our seemingly-progressive perspective onto Others.

I begin by giving a background on what inspired this post as an example of public sociology. Public sociology describes how we produce sociology for mass audiences outside academia. My focus here is on how we use sociology in the classroom and in social media. It is vital to the longevity of our discipline that sociologists explain our key concepts to general audiences. At the same time, I see it important that we publicly own up to, and invite a public discussion about, the changing dynamics of power which influence social theories. We also need to take responsibility for the way we teach and publicly discuss social science ideas. This means being more critical about the ways in which social science ideas are produced and disseminated, especially via social media.  Continue reading

From “Anti-Rape Underwear” in India to Sexual Harassment in Australia: Social Complicity in “Rape Culture”

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD.

Trigger Warning: Rape.

A couple of weeks a go, a new, so-called “anti-rape” underwear device got quite a bit of international attention. It was invented by a team of Indian students, including two women. The device was designed to give rapists an electric shock. It is also reportedly equipped with a GPS tracking device to alert the women’s parents and police that she is being assaulted. The underlying attitudes that led these engineers to make this device are representative of the problem of rape not just in India, but in other parts of the world. Rape and harassment are not seen as public issues that require social intervention, but rather these are perceived as personal problems that individual women must navigate and manage in their day-today lives. In Australia, women’s public safety is also positioned as a personal issue. Both the Jill Meagher case and the public sexual harassment of Prime Minister Julia Guillard exemplify that women are ultimately forced to fend for themselves, while society does little to acknowledge rape culture as a societal responsibility. Continue reading

What The Sociology of Shoes Says About Gender Inequality

17th Century Persian Men's Shoe. Via BBC

17th Century Persian Men’s Shoe. Via BBC

By Zuleyka Zevallos

High heel shoes were once a status symbol for powerful men, from horse riding soldiers in 16th Century Persia, to European aristocrats in the 17th Century. Since the Enlightenment period, heels became associated with “irrational” fashion and pornography, and so “impractical” shoes became a symbol of femininity. What changed? Today’s post examines how history and fashion trends related to high heels help us to see how gender is a performance that entrenches inequality. Continue reading

Challenging the Social Value of Child Marriage

Photo by Stephanie Sinclair for National Geographic. Two child brides are pictured with their older husbands in Yemen.

By Zuleyka Zevallos

The 11th of October 2012 was the inaugural Day of the Girl. This year, the focus was on the eradication of child marriage. Around the world, 70 million girls were married before they reached the age of 18. My post today explores how the interrelated issues of gender, education and child marriage might be addressed by sociology. My focus is primarily on girl brides. While young boys are also married, the research I review shows that the adverse effects of child marriage have chronic health and socio-economic impact on young girls. The “value” attached to child brides refers to the cultural and economic issues underlying child marriage. Young girls are married off according to dominant beliefs about preserving women’s “honour” (that is, ensuring virginity before marriage), as well as the costs of raising girls. Child marriage has been linked to people trafficking in extreme situations. In most other cases it maintains the status quo in poor or underdeveloped areas, where economic deprivation is used to justify men’s dominance over young women’s reproductive and life choices. In order to eliminate child marriage, communities need to be shown practical demonstrations that delaying marriage increases everyone’s welfare. Continue reading

Unpacking the Gendered Symbolism of the Sistine Chapel

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Today I spent a great deal of time playing around with the Vatican’s virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. For an art and sociology of religion nerd such as me, the 360 degree view of the Chapel was loads of fun. Nevertheless, this got me thinking about the history of Christian art and, in particular, Michelangelo’s contribution to Western ‘high art’ culture. I am interested in how Western European art of the Renaissance period set up women as The Other of men, and how this gender binary continues to influence dominant discourses of divinity within mainstream Christianity.

Elizabeth Dodson Gray offers a feminist critique of the history of patriarchal depictions of divinity. She argues this form of patriarchy is best exemplified by the system of meaning behind Michelangelo’s design of the Sistine Chapel. Dodson Gray’s central point about ‘the process of naming the sacred’ helps to unpack the narrative behind the Sistine Chapel’s most famous work. Dodson Gray argues that throughout most of modern history, men had greater power in constructing discourses of The Sacred. As a consequence, symbols of God were constructed as synonymous with being Male. Until women began offering feminist critiques of religious signs and texts, religious imagination largely ignored women’s knowledge.  Continue reading

Telling Other Stories of Climate Change in Africa and Around the World

Danger of a single storyA couple of weeks a go, in her CNN opinion column, Mary Robinson wrote her praise for women’s leadership in sustainable environmental progress. The piece was titled: Why women are world’s best climate change defence. Robinson is the former President of Ireland and she is now the head of the Mary Robinson Foundation (a ‘climate justice’ organisation). Robinson puts forward a call to action on the ‘gendered dimensions’ of climate change – but she doesn’t really say what this means. While the title of her paper talks about ‘women’, her commentary focuses on rural women in developing nations, especially in Africa.

Today I unpack the ideas that Robinson presents with respect to gendered environmental practices in African countries and developing nations. I contrast these with practices in advanced nations. I refer to Chimamanda Adichie’s writing about the dangers of telling ‘a single story’ about developing nations, specifically about ‘Africa’.

Different parts of the world face unique environmental challenges due to their national landscape and population distribution. Painting a singular picture about the gendered dimensions of climate change in developing nations narrows the scope of environmental progress.

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The Legal and Social Plight of ‘Gulnaz’, the now-freed Afghan rape survivor

Gulnaz. (Via CNN)

Two years a go, a then-19 year-old Afghan woman known only as ‘Gulnaz’ was charged with adultery and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment after she reported that she had been raped by her cousin’s husband. Gulnaz became pregnant from the rape she endured. She gave birth in prison. Gulnaz and her child lived behind bars for two years until the international community heard about her plight. Her case became known when the European Union announced it had banned a documentary about Gulnaz and other victims of gender crimes, citing a fear for the women’s safety should their story become public (CNN).This rationale drew international criticism. Five thousand people signed a petition for Gulnaz’s release in late November.

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Global Connections: What ‘Eve Teasing’ in India, the ‘Slutwalks’ in North America and Sexual Assault in Australia Have in Common

Eve teasing – an evil. (Via Critical Thinkers)

Public harassment of women in India is known as ‘Eve teasing’. I’m using this as a case study to highlight the ‘Western’ media’s divergent constructions of sexual harassment at home and abroad.

In Australia and in Western countries such as the USA, the mainstream media tend to portray sexual violence and gender oppression as a barbaric practice that are culturally entrenched in developing countries. Gender violence is the stuff of others – it is something that members of ‘less civilised’, less enlightened societies do. In comparison, the Western media depict sexual harassment and rape in their own societies as fear-mongering events involving individuals, rather thananindictment of an entire culture. (See my discussion of the sociology of crime reporting in an earlier post.)

Today’s post begins with a case study of Eve teasing in India before moving on to discuss sexual violence on a global scale, including the ‘Slutwalk’ movement. I provide more detail on the USA and Australia to illustrate that gender violence against women is widespread in advanced, liberal democracies, as it is in other parts of the world. As today’s discussion is focused on women, I talk only briefly about sexual violence against men but I will return to this issue in the near future. Here, I will argue that the situation in India is one public expression of broader global patterns of sexual assault.

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Beauty-Based Discrimination

Several recent articles recreate the ever-popular idea that beauty aesthetics are based on biological imperatives. The premise of this argument is false – beauty, sex, gender and the social consequences of their related biological processes are not pre-determined. This line of thinking lumps the complexity of human experience and sexual expression into a uniform category and it provides the false impression that nothing can be done to change human behaviour. Sociology can help unpackage how and why so-called “common sense” ideas about beauty become established as commonplace knowledge. Contrary to what mainstream culture may have us believe, beauty ideals can be challenged and transformed. Beauty-based discrimination is not natural nor is it unavoidable.

We need to theorise the meaning of beauty in our lives so that we can educate for critical consciousness. - bell hooks

We need to theorise the meaning of beauty in our lives so that we can educate for critical consciousness. – bell hooks

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Erotic Capital & Beauty: How Sociology Can Help Explain Desire & Sex Appeal

Catherine Hakim’s latest book, “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” argues that women should use their sex appeal to get ahead in life. The book continues to generate press in the UK, USA and in my homeland of Oz, in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald.  The latter alludes to the fact that Hakim’s work distorts French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. The reality is that Hakim misappropriates the sociological ideas that would otherwise make the concept of erotic capital a useful way of thinking about sexuality. My review of Hakim’s work as well as another study on beauty will show that this type of research simply replicates taken-for-granted ideas about sex and gender. Sociology is useful only when it takes apart everyday ideas to help people better understand the social consequences of behaviour; in this case, sexuality, desire and what is considered ‘attractive’.

Bourdieu argued that economic and life outcomes depend upon intangible social processes, such as cultural knowledge (for example, the type of school someone attends) and social networks (the people we know who might help us to get ahead in life). Sexual capital and erotic capital are concepts that have been used to study the social, symbolic, economic and physical resources that affect the way in which sexual desire is constructed in different societies, and the social hierarchies that affect the sexual power and sexual enjoyment of different groups. This is not the way Hakim applies this concept.

Sexual properties are as inseparable from class properties as the yellowness of lemons is inseparable from its acidity: a class is defined in an essential respect by the place and value it gives to the two sexes and to their socially constituted dispositions. -  Pierre Bourdieu

Sexual properties are as inseparable from class properties as the yellowness of lemons is inseparable from its acidity: a class is defined in an essential respect by the place and value it gives to the two sexes and to their socially constituted dispositions. – Pierre Bourdieu

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