Do we have a campus rape crisis?

—Sameena Mulla

Let me begin with my conclusion: there is not only a campus rape crisis in the U.S; rather, there is a rape crisis in the U.S. and college campuses are symptomatic of this broader issue. In the days since the campus rape crisis has been in the news, the discourse around sexual assault has begged the question as to whether sexual assault victims on college campuses are worse off than those who are raped beyond the institutional confines of a college campus. No one is explicitly arguing this, but the innuendo, the outrage, and the concern has attached itself to the university in a way that it eludes rape at large.

The first question worth asking is whether there is more rape on campuses than off campuses. Incidence data on the prevalence of sexual assault has, to date, demonstrated the same rate of sexual assault on campuses and in the general population. The latest survey from the Centers for Disease Control resulted in a victimization rate of 1 in 5 for women and girls, and 1 in 71 for men and boys. In this sense, the prevalence rates of sexual assault on campus are continuous with broader cultural trends.

Second, do on-campus rape victims fair worse in adjudication processes than those who navigate the criminal justice system? The preponderance of evidence standard that must be met during campus student conduct hearings is technically a lower standard than the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” that defines criminal adjudication, as it should be. This means that in theory, universities are in a position to hold anyone adjudicated guilty responsible for their actions; in practice, however, the consensus seems to be that there are few consequences for students who engage in sexual misconduct.

Victims participating in criminal adjudication are also challenged by the criminal justice system, and are unlikely to see the verdict that they desire. The criminal justice system privileges student defendants in that their class position is likely to align with “prosocial” elements weighed by the court during adjudication. Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the court of law is no more likely to hold a college student responsible for a sexual assault than a college student conduct proceeding.

Universities have an institutional mission that invites more public scrutiny because of their different regulatory environment. The Title IX legislation holds campuses responsible for addressing sexual assault as a matter of women’s civil rights and creates a structure of accountability that does not exist in other institutional settings. Thus, we do not hear the same outrage when rape occurs in prisons, by military contractors, or even in the military itself. In some ways, universities also represent our cultural elite, and it is possible that our collective outrage over the campus rape crisis should be read as a barometer for our sense of impunity when non-students are victimized and violated.

What solutions lie ahead? First, behavior interventions on sexual health and consent at the college level are too late, too little. Universities that focus on these measures are likely to see success with increased reports, but will not necessarily see a reduced number of assaults. Cultivation of respect for bodily autonomy, integrity, and a culture of consent and affirmative sexual practices must begin long before students reach college. If Title IX implies that we are responsible for reducing rates of sexual assault on campus, then policy directives that urge early childhood education are key and will have a broader impact on sexual assault across all sectors.

Finally, university officials should commit to applying the preponderance of evidence standard properly. This means, as in the criminal justice system, student conduct boards should rely on testimony as credible evidence, and understand that forensic evidence is rare and often inconclusive. The absence of physical evidence is not the absence of rape. In many jurisdictions, experienced prosecutors and public defenders have learned this lesson well, and it is not uncommon for criminal prosecutions to rely solely on testimony. Student conduct boards need not apply a standard that is even higher than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Proper training and ethical orientations are a necessary intervention.

The campus rape crisis is a symptom of the U.S.’s rape crisis. If we are serious about finding solutions to the problem of campus rape, we will implement changes that address the problem of sexual violence writ large.

Sameena Mulla is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Marquette University (WI). She is the author of The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses, and Sexual Assault Intervention (NYU Press, 2014).

“Boys will be boys”?

—Judy Y. Chu

As a parent of a 10-year-old, I have spent a fair amount of time over the past few years observing kids playing—at schools, playgrounds, and various social functions. As a researcher who studies boys’ development, I am especially inclined to tune in to what parents and teachers say about boys. And I have found that when adults talk about boys, regardless of the context or the particular group of kids, I can expect to hear someone at some point remark that, “Boys will be boys.”

Usually, this comment comes as a response to boys’ rowdy and rambunctious play, as when they are running around, being loud, acting hyper, getting into mischief, or otherwise brimming with energy. (Incidentally, no one says anything when girls display similar behaviors). Even when said in a tone of acceptance, it seems to have a negative connotation. In my experience, this comment is not meant as a celebration, as in “Hooray! Boys will be boys!” Rather, as they say this, adults will often shrug their shoulders, smile mildly, and sigh as though in resignation: “Oh well. What can you do? Boys will be boys.”

But what does it mean for boys to be boys? And why might this be something less than desirable? When we think about it, the first question almost doesn’t make sense. Of course, boys will be boys. What else would they be? But the question gains new meaning when we consider anthropologist Margaret Mead’s observation that in many cultures and societies, boys must prove their masculinity. Somehow it is not enough to be biologically male. Boys must prove that they are “boys” or “real” boys (and, later on, “real” men). For the most part, they do this by aligning with group and cultural norms of masculinity.

Social psychologists remind us that we tend to find what we look for and favor those things that match our expectations. So, when boys behave in ways that confirm gender stereotypes and are consistent with conventions of masculinity—that emphasize, for instance, physical activity and toughness, emotional stoicism, and projected self-sufficiency— we take notice and are prompted to conclude that, “Boys will be boys.”

Conversely, we tend to overlook or discount those things that challenge our assumptions. Although we may like to think of ourselves as being receptive to new information, most of us are more comfortable with evidence that affirms what we already know and believe. It requires extra effort to truly consider and incorporate unfamiliar ideas or ways of thinking.

This might explain why I rarely, if ever, hear people remark that “Boys will be boys” when boys are calm, quiet, gentle, kind, thoughtful, generous, and considerate. Boys certainly exhibit these qualities as well. Indeed, they are a part of boys’ (as well as girls’) humanity. Nevertheless, to the extent that these qualities are considered “feminine,” and we continue to define masculinity as the opposite of femininity, we are less likely to recognize these qualities in boys, much less count them among the attributes that confirm boys’ masculine identities.

As couples therapist Terrence Real points out, when we take all of the qualities that make us human, divide them into “masculine” and “feminine,” and decide that only males should be “masculine” and only females should be “feminine,” everyone loses. While there is no doubt that boys will be boys, it is necessary to update and expand our understanding of what it means to be a boy, including what boys are capable of knowing and doing in their relationships. We know from our experiences of the boys in our lives, as well as from research studies, that gender stereotypes may misrepresent, or represent only a fraction of, boys’ capabilities and strengths.

Although we know that there is more to boys than being “boys,” it is easy to allow stereotypes to influence how we view and respond to them. When we expect boys to be “masculine” and we focus on ways in which boys’ behaviors conform to masculine norms, it can become difficult for us to acknowledge that they are capable of anything else. At times, the notion that “Boys will be boys” can even become an excuse for doing nothing about sub-standard behavior (e.g., when boys behave dispectfully towards others or towards themselves).

To support boys’ healthy development and relationships, we need to hold them accountable to standards that exceed merely being “boys.” By moving beyond gender stereotypes, we can transform this cliché to convey greater expectations. Whether or not boys align with norms of masculine behavior, ultimately it is the qualities that make them human—such as their sense of integrity, decency, compassion, and connection to others—that will be crucial to their happiness and success.

Judy Y. Chu is Affiliated Faculty in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University and the author of When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity (NYU Press, 2014).

[Note: This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.]

Doing justice to Mandela’s legacy

—Robert N. Kraft

A remarkable set of events occurred in South Africa in the final half decade of the 20th century – events that are now mostly forgotten. In the outpouring of tributes to Nelson Mandela’s life and leadership, many people remembered his transcendent wisdom in negotiating the stormy transition from apartheid to democracy and his triumphant victory in May of 1994 as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, but few recalled the truth commission that followed.

In 1995, guided by President Mandela and mandated by an act of Parliament, South Africa created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a massive, temporary institution whose mission was to reveal the specifics of widespread human rights abuses and to begin repairing the damage from nearly half a century of brutal repression known as apartheid.

To appreciate the magnitude and merit of Mandela’s accomplishments as a national conciliator requires traveling back in time – to South Africa in the middle of 1990, shortly after Mandela’s release from prison in the forty-second year of official apartheid.  When Mandela emerged as the chief negotiator for the African National Congress, he faced not only an entrenched apartheid government but also the beginning of unprecedented volatility in the provinces of South Africa.

From July 1990 to April 1994, nearly 14,000 people died in politically motivated violence, a rate of more than 300 deaths a month. Transposed to the present population of the United States, that would be 110,000 deaths due to political violence in a four-year period – or 2,300 deaths every month. Neither the difficulty nor the urgency of Mandela’s task should  be underestimated.

After his election to the presidency, Mandela then worked with a diverse group of leaders to manage the aftermath of apartheid. The result was the TRC. To accomplish its eponymous goals of gathering truth and promoting reconciliation, the TRC obtained testimony from the victims and the perpetrators of apartheid. Victims gave testimony to the Human Rights Violations Committee to document the crimes committed against them and their families and to apply for reparations. Perpetrators gave testimony to the Amnesty Committee to inform the nation of the specific crimes they carried out during apartheid and to obtain amnesty for these crimes – acts that were illegal even under apartheid law. If the crimes were judged to be politically motivated, and if the perpetrators made full disclosure, they were given amnesty.  Freedom was granted in exchange for truth.

Listening to the victims’ stories made sense for healing the wounds of apartheid, but the idea of granting amnesty to violent perpetrators faced understandably passionate opposition. Heinous crimes had been committed. Tens of thousands of people had suffered lasting harm from these specific crimes, and millions had endured profound hardship due to the laws of apartheid. One reasonable approach, then, would be to punish those who had committed the wrongdoing. (After all, Franz Kafka wrote The Penal Colony – not The Reconciliation Colony, and Dostoyevsky did not write Crime and Amnesty.)

Set in motion by the forceful persuasion of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the amnesty hearings proceeded – from 1996 to 2001. Acting as an itinerant axis mundi, the Amnesty Committee moved from Durban to Pretoria to Johannesburg to East London to Pietermaritzburg to Cape Town, hearing hundreds of amnesty cases and sending several resonant messages throughout South Africa: truths about widespread human rights violations will be uncovered, secrets of illegality will be disclosed, government crimes will be illuminated, and perpetrators will be held publicly accountable for their crimes.

In part, the TRC has faded from view for most of us because it occurred during an obscure period of time: in the words of noted correspondent Rupert Hart-Davis, “too old to be news and too young to be history – the day before yesterday.” Yet it was the TRC that transformed an emerging set of principles for finding truth and resolving long-term national conflicts into an established tradition, a tradition that continues today in those countries working to adapt its principles to their own traditions.

Two truth commissions completed their work just last year – the Gacaca system in Rwanda and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission in Kenya. In Canada, a truth commission is currently in operation, endeavoring to investigate and repair the damage inflicted by more than 120 years of the Canadian government’s program of Indian Residential Schools (  Each of these commissions drew on the work of the South African TRC.

For those countries traumatized by widespread injustice or sustained violence, the findings of the TRC represent news in the making, but for the rest of the world, the TRC remains the day before yesterday. Over the next generation, however, as policy makers and community leaders continue to study the TRC, awareness of its principles will grow and propagate. Within a generation, the TRC is likely to become both news and history. Even with its flaws and limitations, the TRC stands as an enduring example of the potential for restorative justice on a national scale and a prototype for other national truth commissions.

More generally, after the foundational concepts of restorative justice enter the cultural lexicon, it is only a matter of time before they enter political discussions and national public policy. For many nations, Nelson Mandela’s South African legacy will then become bold possibility – a realistic solution for investigating and reconciling large-scale violations of human rights and constitutional guarantees. Indeed, we may someday see such a truth commission in the United States.

Robert N. Kraft is author of Violent Accounts: Understanding the Psychology of Perpetrators through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2014).

Bullying, teasing and the gender trap

—Emily W. Kane

With National Bullying Prevention Month underway and a focus this year on the sponsoring organization’s tagline, “The End of Bullying Begins with Me,” I find myself thinking back to what I heard from parents of three- to five-year-old children during interviews for my book, The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls.

I talked to parents from all social backgrounds and all family types, and found that quite a few wanted to give their kids the freedom to pick activities, toys, colors, and approaches that were not strictly determined by gender. But even those parents who wanted to encourage a moderately more fluid approach to gender, expressed fear and anxiety about how their children might be treated if they didn’t conform to typical gender expectations.

I heard reports of an everyday world teeming with social pressures, judgments from friends, relatives, their children’s peers and even strangers if their kids didn’t stick to a pretty narrowly gendered path. These parents were very much conscious of the social costs their children might face and, consistent with decades of scholarship in gender studies, these costs and anxieties loomed larger in relation to boys. With frequent mention of phrases liked “picked on” and “ostracized,” parents expressed the fear that their sons would be bullied by other children if they wandered even a little bit off that socially-dictated path.

The trap of parents pushing children toward traditionally-gendered outcomes is sometimes baited by beliefs about biology, personal preferences, and unconscious actions. Even when it isn’t, though, the everyday judgments of friends, relatives, and teachers can bait that same trap. Gender nonconformity is much too often met with bullying behavior, and if adults are not vigilant about responding to that bullying and responding to the more minor policing of gender expectations (which parents in my study labeled as teasing), many parents will enforce gendered constraints they don’t even agree with out of fear for what their children might face.

Individual parents can try to create a less constraining world for their children, but only if the rest of us suspend our judgments, applaud their efforts, and seek to interrupt the everyday teasing and more significant bullying that are too often ignored in children’s daily worlds. Suspending our judgments, offering that applause, and executing those interruptions are all ways that the end of bullying can indeed begin with each of us.

Emily W. Kane is a Professor of Sociology at Bates College and the author of The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls (NYU Press, 2012).

A Father’s Day wish list

—Gayle Kaufman

Today’s fathers are more involved than ever. According to the Pew Research Center, fathers spend over 10 hours more per week doing housework and child care than they did in 1965. Yet their paid work hours have only decreased by 5 hours per week. It may be no surprise then that fathers are now experiencing a good deal of work-family conflict. In honor of Father’s Day, I have a few suggestions for helping out all those dads who want to be more involved with their kids:

  1. Paid paternity leave.  The United States is the only industrialized country without paid parental leave. I vote for the Icelandic model. Currently they offer 9 months of paid leave, with 3 months reserved for mothers, 3 months reserved for fathers, and the rest shared. Just in December, their Parliament approved an extension of leave to 12 months, with 5 months for each parent and 2 months shared (this will go into effect in 2016).

  2. Shorter work hours.  The United States is the only industrialized country without a maximum work week. The European Union has a working time directive that limits all work, including overtime, to 48 hours per week. Many countries set this lower. Belgium has a legal working week of 38 hours. The actual average working time in the European Union is 37.5 hours per week.

  3. Paid vacation.  The United States is the only industrialized country that does not require paid annual leave. The European Union insists on a minimum of 20 days. The French get 30 days. If we count paid holidays, the difference is even greater. Austrians get 22 vacation days and 13 holidays!

  4. Daddy Day.  Why save it for once a year, when dads could have a day to spend with children every week? In the Netherlands, one-third of men work either reduced hours (i.e., part-time) or full-time over four days, leaving an extra day which has become known as the “papa dag.”

We want dads to be more involved. Let’s try to help them out.

Gayle Kaufman is Professor of Sociology at Davidson College, a 2012-13 Fulbright Scholar, and the author of Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century (NYU Press, June 2013).

Dads are parents, too

—Gayle Kaufman

In a recent Atlantic piece, Alexis Coe writes about different expectations of and reactions to mothers and fathers. On the one hand, people expect “very involved” fathers to do less than “very involved” mothers. On the other hand, when fathers do the same thing as mothers they are praised, while mothers remain invisible. Coe argues for people to react to involved fathers in a way that “is not judgmental or evaluative, but still positive.”

“Look! There in the playground, with the stroller and diaper bag! It’s Superdad!”

While I agree that fathers should be as involved as mothers and engage in all aspects of parenting, I don’t have a problem with praising the actions of involved dads. Being evaluative means considering the value or worth of something. In this case, fathers who take care of their children are engaging in a very worthwhile activity. To be fair, mothers do much of the valuable work of caregiving. In an ideal world, we might not speak of “mothers” and “fathers” but of “parents”—and we might praise all parents for the important work they do. But we are not quite there yet.

Coe suggests that when people react in the wrong way (perhaps in the form of misguided praise), gender differences, rather than equity, will be encouraged. She gives the example of parents avoiding calling their daughters “pretty” or “dolls.” But the other side of this is that parents instead call their daughters “smart.” While we might not want to flip it completely by calling sons “dolls,” we should encourage more nurturing behaviors in boys and men.

Consider how much we praise women who succeed in business and politics. Think Madeleine Albright, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Sheryl Sandberg. Men in similar positions don’t receive as much attention. My point is that we want more women in business and politics and we react (mostly) favorably when they get there. I think it’s okay if we do the same for men.

I don’t want to overblow this issue. I’m sure Coe and I would agree on a lot. I just think there’s room for superdads.

Gayle Kaufman is Professor of Sociology at Davidson College and a 2012-13 Fulbright Scholar. She is author of Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century (NYU Press, June 2013).

Announcing our Spring 2013 Catalog…

NYU Press Spring 2013 Catalog is now online, featuring an exciting range of new books in history, media studies, law, and more!

Highlights include:
TWO PRESIDENTS ARE BETTER THAN ONE: Making the case for a two-party, two-person presidency, this “pipe dream of a book” presents a “novel and provocative thesis worth hearing out” (Kirkus Reviews).

A DEATH AT CROOKED CREEK: Marion Wesson, author of best-selling and prize-winning legal novels including Render up the Body, combines drama and intrigue  with cutting-edge forensic investigation techniques and legal theory in this superbly imagined historical novel.

CAPITAL OF THE WORLD: Charlene Mires tells the dramatic, surprising, and at times comic story of hometown promoters in an extraordinary race to host the U.N. headquarters at a pivotal moment in history.

(You can also click here to access this catalog via our website, or find our catalogs available on Edelweiss.)

For our First Black President, no more racial niceties

—Enid Logan

Social scientists have spent a great deal of time in recent years writing about covert racism, also known as colorblind racism, have-a-nice-day racism, or racism lite. Many of us have believed ourselves to have entered into a new racial era wherein overt racist sentiments are rarely uttered aloud, and in which the mechanisms that sustain white supremacy, though insidious and impactful, are now much more subtle and hard to pin down. But then Barack Obama ran for, and won, the presidency and Overt Racism once again reared its ugly head.

At this juncture, I believe, many scholars and non-scholars alike are trying to figure out just what is going on. How is it that in the era of racial niceties, where racial meaning is most often conveyed through “sanitized” and deracialized discourse, old style racism, overt racism, or “Archie Bunker” racism has suddenly moved from the fringes to the conservative mainstream? How is it that a moment that was supposed to represent the nation’s triumph over racism has seemingly lead to the opposite?

In the last several years, we have seen the vilest of racial imagery applied to the President, his young daughters, and his wife. Particularly visible early on was the signage at the rallies of the so-called “Tea Party” in 2009-2010. President Obama was figured variously as an African witch doctor, as Hitler, or as a white-faced Joker, with black circles around his eyes and bloody red lips. Comments about the Obamas left on the internet over the past several years have been especially vicious. And, in November 2009, it was revealed that the top ranked Google search image for Michelle Obama was a Photoshopped rendering of her as an ape. As sociologists Adia Harvey Wingfield and Joe Feagin report, in July 2009, one anonymous reader at the Free Republic—an online message board for independent, grass-roots conservatism—described 11-year old Malia Obama “as ‘a common street whore’…and went on to “wonder when she will get her first abortion.” And in March of this year, a federal judge circulated an email in which it was implied that Barack Obama had been conceived at a party during which his mother had had sex with both a black man and a dog.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Obama has faced lashes of anger and incivility directed at him from white elected officials. Consider Congressman Joe Wilson who yelled “You lie!” at Obama from the Senate floor, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who greeted the President with a finger in the face as he arrived at a Phoenix airport. Once considered primarily to be an extremist, fringe political movement, the Tea Party itself has achieved sweeping electoral success, as a number of its candidates were elected to the U.S. Congress during the 2010 midterm elections, largely on the grounds of their fierce opposition to the President.

During his brief, fake bid for the Republican presidential nomination, business tycoon Donald Trump based his entire political platform on the clearly race-baiting ideology of “birtherism.” This is the view that Obama’s presidency is illegitimate, because his birth certificate is a fake, and that he is not a U.S. citizen. While this belief would seem to be a highly illogical and irrational one, an August 2010 poll found that 41% of Republicans and 1 in 4 Americans overall believed that the president was probably lying about his citizenship.

But perhaps the most ominous development we have seen in recent years lies in the area of voter policy. Legislatures in 41 states have introduced restrictive voter identification laws in the last year, designed expressly to limit the access to vote. Voting rights would particularly be curtailed among the young, the elderly, and non-whites—all liberal-leaning constituencies that are likely to vote for President Obama in 2012. Critics have likened these measures to the poll taxes and literacy tests that restricted African American access to the vote for seven and a half decades after the Reconstruction.

So what has happened? Was Overt Racism always already in the background, ready to reemerge at any moment, and had we just been fooling ourselves to think that it would stay there? Is this a calculated political strategy on the part of the Right, designed to inflame racial fears and drive whites to the polls on election day? Or does it represent the uncoordinated, inchoate rage of a segment of the white population that perceives itself to be imperiled by the impending “non-white” demographic takeover of the U.S.?

I believe it to be a mixture of the two. The reaction demonstrates that for all the claims that Obama is a milquetoast moderate who has brought about very little change and done almost nothing to shake up the status quo, not everyone is in agreement. The reappearance of Overt Racism in the Age of Obama tells us that white racial anxiety and anti-black hostility in the U.S., as well as an abiding investment in the U.S. as a white nation, run much, much deeper than many of us had imagined.

Obama’s victory seemed at first to portend great things for the U.S. As I have written in my recent book, from 2006 to 2008, a chorus of pundits proclaimed that Barack Obama offered redemption, absolution, and renewal to the nation, all of which was refracted through the magic of his blackness. Above all, we were told, the election of a black man as president would prove that whites had largely gotten over the issue of race, and Real Racism was now firmly in our past.  But this has been proven to be manifestly false. And let’s be clear. It was John McCain who won the majority of the white vote (56%) in 2008, and without the high turnout of the black, Latino and Asian electorate, he would have won the presidency.

Obama’s election was without a doubt a triumphal and defining moment in our nation’s history. But it was a moment that awoke the dormant T-Rex of Race, igniting a special kind of fear and loathing in the nation, aimed directly at our First Black President. If Obama wins the election in 2012, it will be despite the power of racial fears to sway some whites towards the GOP ticket. It will also be because the expanding multiracial electorate turns out for Obama in large numbers, thus helping continue our march towards an America that is red, white, blue, and brown.

Enid Logan is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her book, “At this Defining Moment”: Barack Obama’s Presidential Candidacy and the New Politics of Race was published by NYU Press in 2011.

The case for global education

Did you know tomorrow is International Literacy Day? Established by UNESCO in 1965, International Literacy Day (observed annually on September 8) focuses attention on worldwide literacy needs, reminding the international community that literacy is a human right and the foundation of all learning. Today, we’d like to kick off the celebration with a free chapter from Educating the Whole Child for the Whole World (edited by Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco and Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj): “The Case for Global Education,” by John Sexton, the President of NYU. Read an excerpt from the chapter below, and access the full chapter here.

Today, the world is wired; it has grown small. What happens in distant places is known and, more important, experienced almost everywhere—by almost everybody—immediately and unavoidably. The faith assumption of education for global citizenship is that students will ask, not “How did they get to be that way?” but, with voracious curiosity, “What can I learn from you?” How can I translate your world into mine and mine into yours—without diluting our distinctiveness?

You can celebrate International Literacy Day, too. Here are a few tips from UNESCO on how to

1.  Donate books and reading materials to your local school or community centre
2.  Start a reading club
3.  Volunteer to teach literacy classes in your community
4.  Become a mentor of a non-literate person
5.  Send your literacy stories to joinliteracy(at)

Click here
 to learn more about Literacy Day and ways you can advance literacy in your community.

Parental fear, social judgments, and the gender trap

—Emily W. Kane

In a moving New York Times magazine story, Ruth Padawer reveals the treacherous terrain facing parents whose young sons wish to wear dresses and tiaras, polish their fingernails, or even refer to themselves as girls. She opens the article with an account of one such boy: Four-year-old Alex, whose parents were worried about his desire to wear a dress to preschool. Susan, Alex’s mom, wanted to let her son pursue his interests, but worried intensely about how others would treat him. She was terrified that he would be bullied at school, tortured by statistics that predicted her son would likely become a drug addict or commit suicide later in life, and often had panic attacks as a result.

The complex tales of significant gender variation that Padawer reports are important ones, as is her analysis of how psychologists, pediatricians and other experts advise parents of “gender variant” children. But even parents whose children perform gender just a little differently, and parents who wish to encourage even a moderately more fluid approach to gender, face fears and anxieties as well. In my forthcoming book, The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls, I interviewed parents of preschoolers, asking them how they think about children’s gender. None of these were parents whose kids would be classified as gender variant and none had sought any expert intervention—they were just everyday parents from all sorts of backgrounds, engaged in routine daily choices.

I figured many would tell me that they see gendered patterns in childhood as biologically dictated, while also reporting relatively unconscious everyday actions that reinforce and even produce those patterns. Some parents did follow that expectation, but many didn’t. And among those who viewed gendered childhoods as a product of social expectations rather than biological dictates, and who considered gender expectations problematically limiting to their children, I heard reports of an everyday world teeming with social pressures, judgments from friends, relatives, and even strangers if their kids didn’t stick to a narrowly gendered path. These parents were very much conscious of the social costs—to their children and themselves—of not living up to gender expectations. Consistent with Padawer’s analysis and decades of scholarship in gender studies, these social pressures are much more notable for boys (and men) who wander even a little bit off the socially dictated path.

Recent attention to significant gender variance in childhood, and to the struggles faced by transgendered people of all ages, is a welcome trend for those who wish to see a world unconstrained by gender rules. But the parents I interviewed offer a crucial reminder of just how far we are from that world, as even more minor variations—especially for sons—provoke fear, anxiety and careful management on the part of quite a few parents. For parents, the trap of pushing children toward traditionally gendered outcomes is sometimes baited by beliefs about biology, personal preferences, and unconscious actions. Even when it isn’t, the routine assumptions and everyday judgments of friends, relatives, teachers, children’s peers, and strangers can bait that same trap. Parents can try to create a less constraining world for their children, but the rest of us will need to suspend our judgments and applaud their efforts.

Emily W. Kane is Professor of Sociology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Her forthcoming book, The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls will be released this month.

The Internet and modern times: Are they driving us crazy?

—Peter N. Stearns

The evidence is piling in: People are not only dangerously addicted to the Internet, but are also driven literally insane by its pace and pressure. This includes imagining cell phone vibrations out of the blue—a phenomenon known as Phantom Vibration Syndrome—and feeling lonely and dissatisfied despite having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook.

Half full or half crazy?

The growing concern about the downsides of the Internet and its communications spawn raises important issues. In their most recent revision of their staple Diagnostic manual, American psychologists are recognizing Internet addiction as a new illness. More widely, a variety of observers speculate not only about the Internet’s outright damage to individual psyches, but about the wider inadequacies of digital offsprings such as Facebook.

The discussion is interesting in its own right, but it also evokes recurrent frustrations with modernity in general. The basic conversation is not as novel as many of its proponents imply. After all, the notion that people are sacrificing wellbeing to the inexorable demands of technological change is hardly a new one. Putting the current Internet debate into wider context may actually contribute to sorting out the problems involved.

Most obviously, it has long been clear—if not always adequately discussed—that modern developments harm a minority. Rates of depression unquestionably go up with the onset of modernity, and the Internet is simply another contribution to a larger story. The result is a clear challenge to objective evaluation: how much should the new troubles of a minority detract from the larger satisfactions modernity brings? Should those of us who both enjoy and depend on the Internet change our ways because some people are endangered? (And, of course, how big is the threatened minority in any event?) Finally—this has also been part of the modern story—can’t we generate some compensatory therapy?

But the minority downside is only part of the picture. Critics who attack the hollowness of the Internet’s social results also sound a familiar alarm. Other aspects of modernity must be discussed in terms of false promises. Consumerism and modern leisure are two other examples of phenomena that win ardent support but which, nevertheless, do not bring the systematic benefits their advocates claim. Do the critics have enough evidence to counter the enthusiasms of the majority—can so many enthusiasts be wrong about their own commitments? Are we sure that satisfactions were really greater in the good old days?  Do we risk measuring against a misleading nostalgia? The analytical challenges here are both significant and interesting, and again the Internet can fit into a larger, though complex, effort at evaluation.

My own take on modernity—and I would apply the same thinking to the Internet, which I enjoy a lot—is that, overall, the gains outweigh the downsides, though the damage should not be swept under the rug. Periodic criticisms of modernity, which is now emerging around the Internet debate as well, too often overdo the dark sides. So far, as I can see, the claims that the Internet is driving us all crazy just does not stand up.

It is true that modernity has not produced as many gains as its more enthusiastic proponents have claimed, and that too often modern societies have let changes sweep over them without sensitive assessment or control. We can, in other words, do better, even as we recognize that we neither can nor should turn back the clock entirely. Beneath the various crises that claim the headlines, the challenge of taking a more thoughtful approach to modern change needs more attention than we have so far been able to provide. Critical discussion is in this sense a vital first step.

But, at the very least, Internet fans and critics alike should know that this is the latest in a series of modern improvements that should be handled with care. What’s next in the queue?

Peter N. Stearns is Provost and University Professor at George Mason University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Social History, and author of Satisfaction Not Guaranteed, published by NYU Press in April 2012.

Interview with Philip S. Gorski

An excellent interview with Philip S. Gorski, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University, appeared on the Imminent Frame blog last week. Gorski is the co-editor of The Post-Secular in Questionpart of the SSRC series with NYU Press. He spoke with Joseph Blankholm about his current work, the role of sociology, and much more. Below is an excerpt from the article.

JB: In your essay in The Post-Secular in Question, you ask, “What’s the role of sociology?” Your answer is that it could be a moral science that recovers the idea of “the good.” What would that moral sociology look like? Is there a relationship that you see between the creation of a civil religion and the creation of a sociology that’s more concerned with the good?

PG: That would certainly be a hope of mine, and it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately, whether there’s a limited kind of moral realism that we could defend, and that we might actually be able to contribute to through social science or at least through academic reflection of some kind or another? My suspicion is that there is; I just don’t know what the scope of it is. It would have to be premised on some understanding of human flourishing—that human beings are put together biologically, neurologically, in a certain way—that they have certain kinds of capacities or propensities—that their flourishing and well-being in general involves the development and cultivation of these propensities and capacities. Of course I’m simply channeling a lot of research that’s being done in neighboring fields. There’s recent work in positive psychology, for example, which is starting to get a great deal of attention by people like Jonathan Haidt and Marty Seligman. There’s a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics tradition that people like Martha Nussbaum and Richard Kraut have revived and defended in recent years. Even some folks like Amartya Sen have tried to make a basis for a different way of thinking about economics and development policy. So the question is, “How do you develop a theory of the human good which doesn’t become a kind of hardened dogma, a sort of a one-size-fits-all understanding of what a life well-lived is going to mean?” We don’t live in Athens anymore. We live in a much more diverse, much more egalitarian, much freer society. Clearly there has to be a great deal of room for people to act freely. Part of flourishing is also making mistakes and learning and developing, so it’s not the idea that you simply prescribe some kind of a lifestyle. I think this notion that Nussbaum has developed, a kind of capacities approach to justice—that you need to create a basic set of preconditions for people to explore their own particular talents, capacities, inclinations—that that probably strikes the right balance between liberalism and a more robust form of moral realism. I think where sociology might contribute to this is in thinking harder about how you create the preconditions for the sorts of social connections and communities that are clearly part of human flourishing. We know that this is one of the clear results of recent work in positive psychology: that relationships to other people are critical. There’s a lot of confirmation for this in evolutionary biology and psychology, the mounting evidence of pro-social characteristics of human beings. But most of these disciplines are really focused on the human organism, or they’re focused on the human psyche. They don’t really think deeply about the social, per se, so this is where sociology might actually step in and make some kind of a contribution to this, I think. But I expect there’ll be a lot of resistance. One of the first things that you learn in graduate school in the social sciences is about the fact/value distinction, that there is no way of knowing or discovering what’s good. I don’t think people really believe that. I think that’s why most people go to graduate school, because they think this will help them answer these kinds of questions. But you get professionalized and socialized out of this during your first few years in graduate school. It’s salutary to the degree that we learn to establish a certain kind of reflexive distance to our tacit assumptions about what’s good, but I think the next step is to return to those basic practical questions that really animate people and get them interested in academic life and scholarship in the first place.

JB: That’s really interesting. So in some ways it’s breaking down the limits of what an objective science can discuss. It makes me think of the ways in which sociology and economics can articulate with people who do governance. I can’t help but think about this sociology of the good as theology for technocrats, or something like that.

PG: [Laughs] Right.

JB: Do you think there’s any way to push an agenda through sociology that could speak to something much broader, or are we very insular in the way we work with disciplines, in the way that, in a Weberian sense, we compartmentalize our society, secularize it?

PG: I guess I would say two things. First, I think one of the theological virtues that any technocrat would have to learn first is some measure of humility. [Laughs] Yeah, I think perhaps one of the most important things is to make room for people who do work that’s more publicly engaged. Again, there’s a lot of resistance to this, sometimes motivated by resentment of people who get attention from the wider public or have some kind of non-academic success. It’s not to say that you can go to the other extreme. I don’t think that everybody in the academy should suddenly become some kind of activist or public intellectual. There has to be some sort of balance struck between the autonomy of the scientific community and its engagement with the public, which is probably difficult to maintain. It certainly seems to me that this is a moment where there is a lot of academic capital or knowledge that’s been stored up within the research university, which just gets ignored, gets drowned out. Nobody pays any attention to it. This is partly an institution-building question, too, of course. It’s not just a matter of a particular individual deciding, “I’m going to speak to the broader public.” Well that’s not going to get you heard. You have to figure out ways to reach a broader public, and that’s a huge problem in and of itself, obviously. Non-academic intellectuals have figured this out.

Want more? Read the original interview here.