Q&A with authors Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: Part 2

September is National Honey Month! In celebration, we’re featuring the second half of a Q&A with Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut, authors of Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (read the first half here). In part two, Moore and Kosut talk about their experience in the field with bees, the truth about the sting, and bees as the new cause célèbre.

Question: What was it like to be in the field with the bees?

Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: The first few times with the bees was intense. We weren’t even paying attention to the beekeepers – it was all about being in the space of the bee and moving slowly and deliberately and respecting their airspace.  We realized if they just sit on your body and you aren’t freaking out, they won’t sting you. We had to get over all the ways we have been socialized by media messages that bees are bad and could attack at any moment.  Bees are actually mostly docile and if you are just smart and contemplative you will be okay. But of course, humans make mistakes.

Beekeeping is also a sensual experience. First is the sound of the bees. The hum can be kind of meditative. It is almost like water in a stream – bees can cause people to really calm down and be in the present. Also, in terms of the embodiment of beekeeping, the hive gives off this extraordinary smell and one of the beekeepers we interviewed, talked about this smell being like truffle oil. She talked about it as being like a “good, heady sex smell” – sort of like the pheromones of sex across species. And we smelled that smell.

When people go and open up the hive, they will sit and watch the bees come and go. These are the intimate embodied relationships people have with the bee.

Q: What about the sting?

LJM and MK: In Buzz, we discuss the sting a lot. There are these affective relationships with bees where fear and anxiety is in involved in the practice. So there is something about the wildness and danger that is attractive to people in New York City in particular. Because beekeeping had been illegal in New York City until a couple years ago because of the fact that they sting, we found beekeepers that actually liked the illegality – it was living on the edge and exciting.

The unpredictability of the bees is also a thrill. There are thousands of them flying in the air and they are making all this noise and it is a little bit intimidating, because they can sting you. People deal with the dangers differently – some beekeepers work without prophylactics. We interviewed this one guy who does beekeeping barefoot. There is a little bit of machoness to it – to quote one of our beekeepers, there’s a “bad-ass-ness” about it. It is kind of a flirtation with wild nature, but not too wild. It is not like keeping a tiger in the city.

Getting stung – being able to say you lived through it and you are going in again – we think that is attractive to people. Because getting stung hurts. The bees die after they get stung, so they actually don’t want to sting you. They do all these warning things to avoid stinging – they release pheromones to signal threat, they change their pitch to show they are angry, they also do this thing called bonking. They fly in and basically hit you on the forehead with their bodies to warn you and make you back off.

Bees die when they sting you because their bottom half falls off. So it is very sacrificial for them – they are sacrificing their life for the security of the hive. The whole is more important than the individual – we as sociologists are very attracted to that idea.

Humans theorize about the bees, comparing the hive to a democracy where all these individuals are working together for the greater good. In Buzz, we discuss how bees are basically this model insect because they are so easily anthropomorphized and a template for how humans are supposed to behave. Historically people have been attracted to bees.

Q: Do killer bees make honey?

LJM and MK: Killer bees are sort of a misnomer – or misnamed.  Basically these are bees taken from Africa and studied in South America – mostly Brazil, where they have been studied for certain characteristics. As they are smaller than European honeybees, they reproduce more quickly. But bees are an unpredictable species. They are domesticated, but they don’t always follow what humans want. So some escaped.

They have the capacity to supplant other European hives with their own queen. Once they install their own queen, a hive can turn over to being Africanized. This has been moving up the borders across the U.S.-Mexico border as far north as about Southern Georgia – maybe a bit further. This is tracked by the USDA and other agencies because of the presumed threat of Africanized bees.

They don’t have more venom in their sting – but if they are provoked, they will go farther and longer to sting. The fact that they nest inside buildings and underneath the ground means that humans’ actions sometimes disrupt those bees more than European honeybees because of their nesting patterns. So in Buzz, we talk about that threat of the Africanized bees and how it has been sort of managed through existing tropes of race and racism. Bees have become another way to express anxiety about the border and race and ethnicity. Bees that are out of control are not paying attention to all the rules about entering the country. They are more robust and heartier and that trait is capitalized on and used in a pejorative sense to make us fearful.

Q: What are some of the surprising findings about bees and urban beekeeping?

LJM and MK: One of the things we found so interesting in looking at bees and urban beekeepers and colony collapse disorder (CCD) is that simultaneously, while it is probably a panoply of causes that lead to bees dying, but primarily neonicotinoid – there is also this movement at the same time to save the bees. We liken this to the 1970s save the whales movement.

Bees have become this new mascot or cause célèbre for people to root for or rally behind and this has effects in the urban beekeeping landscape and also for larger corporations like Haagen Dazs or other companies who make saving the bees part of their way of engaging with consumers. It is a pitch to get us concerned by the environment. Bees are seen as so wholesome and so threatened that we need to help them. This is a far cry from when we grew up and were taught to run from bees due to “The Swarm” and other killer bee movies.

In a short time, we have been taught to be concerned about the bees, to worry for them, to want to care for them, to want to buy products that protect them. There is a real shift in how we have seen bees as a real threat to how we seem them now as completely threatened.  And this becomes part of our own desire in how to participate to try and help them.

Q&A with authors Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: Part 1

Did you know… September is National Honey Month? We didn’t either. So it’s particularly fitting that our book, Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut is coming out this month. What a beautiful coincidence! 

Today we have the first half of a Q&A with Moore and Kosut, in which the two authors discuss the origins of their book, look at urban beekeeping practices in New York City, and give a convincing case for why we all should care about the fate of bees. Stay tuned for part two later this month!

Question: What got you interested in studying urban beekeeping?

Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: We got interested in studying urban beekeeping because it seems as if the bee is the animal of the moment. Lisa Jean said, doesn’t it seem like bees are popping up everywhere? In farmer’s markets, at city fairs, people are taking beekeeping classes, and essentially it was a question of the fascination with bees in New York City.

We were also interested in the DIY movement that is very popular in many urban centers in the United States and in particular Brooklyn, where we live. The ways in which the DIY movement cleaves with urban homesteading. Urban homesteading is where people take some of the country into the city and do things like bake bread, make beer, knit, and raise chickens. Or have fermentation parties – there is connection between fermentation parties and bees – making mead. (And apparently bees are also the gateway drug to chickens.)

As professors, we were also interested in the trends regarding what students do the years after college. It used to be that students would take the year off and go get a Eurail pass and travel around Europe.  But we find now that our students are traveling around to different urban farms, or even rural farms, and doing organic farming – or Woofing – where you stay on organic farms and work in exchange for your room and board. We were fascinated by this need for the return to the land and how it has been modified from the 1970s to be in urban spaces.

Like the green-roof – the Eagle Street Rooftop Farms in Greenpoint, Brooklyn where they have an extensive rooftop farm with all sorts of vegetables, bunnies, chickens and bees. One of the many places in the city that is bringing nature into the urban as part of greening initiatives. Dropping out while staying in. Having all the luxuries of urban life while at the same time having this alternative identity and practice it.  Bees are part of that practice.

We were also interested in people making things, people getting involved. So in Buzz we talk about how there are these generations of old and young beekeepers who really enjoy both the interaction with the bee but also the collaboration with the bee to do things like make honey and harvest it, making beeswax and beeswax candles. And also in a sense of making something larger – what we would call the pollination of NYC which creates vast opportunities for the flora and fauna of NYC – the urban ecology.

Q: Isn’t Beekeeping in NYC illegal?

LJM and MK: Until recently, a couple of years ago, keeping bees in NYC was illegal. Under Rudy Giuliani, in 1999 beekeeping became illegal. It was a nuisance crime. The local authorities didn’t really go after people that kept bees unless some neighbor turned them in because they felt fearful of bees being in their space.  Fearful that bees would attack or swarm. This is a common misperception about swarming – it is not dangerous. It is just bees moving to find more space because they are such a healthy colony and want to grow. It is a spectacular thing to see a swarm – our informants talk about seeing a swarm live as a lightning strike or a shooting star. Where nature overcomes you.

Q: Has beekeeping been growing in popularity?

LJM and MK: Yes, definitely. When we started taking urban beekeeping classes at the Central Park Arsenal (which is a free six-month course run by New York City Beekeeping), there were probably about 200 – 300 in the room—and by the time we left, there were about 2,000 members… and it keeps growing. Once a week, we pick up the paper and there is a story about beekeeping in there – it is expanding as a hobby.

Part of that is because last year was a terrible year for the bees. In 2012, fifty percent of the bee population was lost. So colony collapse disorder (CCD) is not going away or being solved. It is difficult to keep up on the CCD crisis and how people are trying to fix it – while at the same time more and more people are cultivating bees. More classes are being offered – they are an urban animal now.

Q: Why should people care about bees?

LJM and MK: People should care about bees primarily because they are a native pollinator – not native to the United States, but brought here in the 17th Century. But they are a pollinator that can be domesticated through animal husbandry practices and trained to pollinate certain crops. Pollination is responsible for at least one third of food production and reproduction – both industrial and backyard food production.

And since 2006 bees have been suffering from colony collapse disorder, which we talk about extensively in Buzz. It seems to us that since they have been gone from the disorder, people care about them more. This shows how enmeshed with are with bees as this other species and how we co-mingle in all of these ways that are becoming more obvious to us now.

In Buzz we examine CCD through media studies. Different agencies, scientists, look at it from different angles. Some people write about it as being caused by pesticides, or mono-cropping, or the decimation of local ecologies; other people liken CCD to invader species being brought by urbanization and the movement of mites from different locations to attack bees. Ultimately CCD is caused by a host of factors which are human interventions into the landscape. It is highly politicized – if it is linked to pesticides. There are billions of dollars at stake.

Part two of this Q&A will appear on this blog on September 20th, 2013. 

The bees of NYC

—Mary Kosut and Lisa Jean Moore

New York City is a multispecies metropolis – a place where millions of humans, animals and plants co-mingle and co-exist. Although pigeons and rats are the most iconic of urban animals, New York is home to over 230 species of bees that play a vital role in the local urban ecology. Since their migration from Europe in colonial times, honeybees have always lived throughout the five boroughs with or without the aid of humans, but our insect neighbors have never really been on our radar until now.

In the wake of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) the syndrome responsible for the disappearance of 50% of the bee population in 2012, we are beginning to understand our vital connection to bees. Bees are a species we rely on; their pollination makes our contemporary diets possible, and their honey, venom and pollen are revered for holistic nutrition and alternative health treatments. They are literally a part of our bodies, and we tend to describe their behaviors in anthropocentric terms – insects that become too much like us.

Honeybees are a green mascot and a cause celebre, melding well with urban farming and green architectural initiatives. As a recent article in the New York Times reported, beehives are being cultivated on rooftops in the city’s most prestigious locales, including Bryant Park, Chelsea and the Whitney Museum of Art on the Upper East Side. Even though some people are fearful or skeptical of living near a colony, many would likely agree that these industrious insects should be protected and even welcomed to rooftops, backyards, parks and farms. The honeybee has a new cultural status – it is officially an urban animal.

In the process of conducting a three-year multispecies ethnography in New York City amidst bees and their human caretakers, we were witness to tens of thousands of bees who challenged our senses and caught our attention. They buzzed, swirled, dive-bombed and stung. Like the beekeepers we interviewed who worked closely with their hives, we were often captivated while in their space. Being in the presence of bees challenged our taken for granted assumptions about the ways in which we consider nonhuman animals, and how it is so easy to slip into descriptions that perpetuate distinctions between nature and culture.  Best intentions notwithstanding, as humans we tend to think that we can save or fix ecological problems (that we created) through technology and other interventions. This is a perfect case of human exceptionalism.

Even though it takes a great deal of human effort to establish a hive and cultivate healthy bees, we must recognize that bees are also working alongside us to create commonly shared worlds. The generative capacity of bees – they pollinate New York City – must not be eclipsed by human-centric discussions of what we as a species are making possible for them.

Mary Kosut and Lisa Jean Moore are authors of Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (NYU Press, 2013). Kosut is a cultural sociologist and Associate Professor of Media, Society, and the Arts and Gender Studies at Purchase College, State University of New York. Moore is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies and Coordinator of Gender Studies at Purchase College, State University of New York.

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.)

The not-so-simple ‘Decline of Evangelical America’

—Justin Wilford

A week after the 2012 national and state elections, I noted how downcast many evangelical leaders were about the election results. There was a widespread sense that evangelicals were facing “a new moral landscape,” one in which they were marginal figures. No doubt, for many institutional leaders in American evangelicalism, this is worrisome news. If it is “the end of evangelical dominance in politics,” as one evangelical writer put it, then this cannot bode well for what really matters for these leaders: putting people in the pews.

This past weekend, James S. Dickerson, an evangelical pastor writing in the New York Times’s Sunday Review, argued that although “it hasn’t been a good year for evangelicals” and things look to be trending downward, there is hope still for this embattled form of Christianity.

Dickerson argues that the American evangelicalism can right itself if it embraces its new marginalized status, acting less with the “superior hostility” of a bullying, dominant cultural group, and more with the “grace and humility” of outsiders in a strange land.

This may be good advice in any case; who among us couldn’t do with a little more grace and humility? But it also happens to be the only card left to play for conservative Protestantism. As I show in Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, many of the largest and fastest growing churches in America—like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church—foreground everyday secular problems of work-life and family, modulate hot-button cultural issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and downplay theological differences between denominations. And yet, these churches hold the same conservative theological views as the churches of older generations. The difference is in presentation, not in the core doctrines held by the church leaders.

This might appear as the purely cynical marketing strategy of a failing brand. Even Dickerson’s excellent presentation of the matter leaves room for such an interpretation (he implores evangelicals to hold on to their “unpopular doctrines” while “re-emphasizing” the less off-putting message of God’s saving grace). But I don’t think the matter is so simple.

First, these hardline doctrines have served as important boundary markers, clearly delineating the sacred in-group from the secular out-group. Now that many evangelicals like Dickerson and Rick Warren are concerned that these very boundary markers are keeping people away, even relegating these issues to secondary importance is a major shift for evangelicalism. It means that the most defining issues of conservative Protestantism, chiefly biblical literalism, could be up for debate as leaders begin to grapple with an increasingly eclectic membership body with few historical ties to evangelicalism who have been drawn in by the “good news” but turned off by the increasingly unpopular cultural doctrines.

Second, the structure of these new churches is built around blurring the distinctions between the sacred and secular. Their buildings are designed to blend into the secular landscape; the weekend sermons are focused on success at work, marriage difficulties, underachieving children, and even fitness and diet; and the most important gatherings in the church occur during the week, in small groups in members’ homes. This is not about drawing boundaries between a (spiritually and doctrinally) pure church and secular world, but rather about tearing down these boundaries to make the church more meaningful in the context of the world. Unfortunately for hardliners, this means that many of the aforementioned “unpopular doctrines” become issues pushed off for another day that never comes.

Finally, Dickerson’s piece and the examples he gives of churches like Warren’s Saddleback are tacit acknowledgments of something that many social researchers’ of religion have been resisting for several years: old-school secularization. When he writes of a “shrinking minority [of evangelicals] in the United States” and a generational crisis in which the young are not replacing the old, he’s describing what has become fashionable to refer to as the “European exceptionalism” of secularization. It appears now that Europe is not so exceptional after all.

What is, however, exceptional about American evangelicalism, and pastors like Dickerson and Warren, is their willingness to innovate, blur old distinctions, and adapt to the culture they are in, rather than fight it. To my eyes, this means that secularization is not a fate, but a situation that can be responded to in a multitude of ways.

Justin Wilford is author of Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism (NYU Press, 2012).

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)unesco.org

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.

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball of Asian-Jewish Relationships

—Helen K. Kim and Noah S. Leavitt

A quick search through the internet uncovers many comments about romantic attachments between Asian-Americans and Jews, ranging from the serious to the silly. One of the most famous examples of this is a series of discussions on Jewlicious, a site for all things Jewish, about whether Asian-American women are among the most frequent visitors to Jewish dating websites like JDate.com. No matter what their tone or perspective, though, these stories demonstrate the strong emotional reactions that such couples evoke.

No recent Asian-Jewish couple besides, perhaps, Soon-Yi Previn and Woody Allen has gotten as much media scrutiny than Dr. Priscilla Chan and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Gazing into the crystal ball of the Chan-Zuckerberg marriage, one might wonder how these two—and other Asian-Jewish couples—incorporate their backgrounds into their shared daily domestic life. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to ignore the question, “What is going to happen with their kids?”

Intrigued by these kinds of questions, we recently spent a year and a half travelling the country to interview Asian American and Jewish American couples to understand how they describe their relationships. And, in the forthcoming Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation, we spend a chapter focusing on the worldviews and reflections of the second generation Asian-American spouses or partners in sixteen of the Asian-Jewish couples we talked to.

While all couples are unique in many ways, based on what our interviewees shared with us, we’ve made a few predictions about the Chan-Zuckerberg relationship:

  1. Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg will share a fundamental value system focused on high educational achievement, close-knit families, and hard work, which is a version of what scholar Will Herberg called, in 1955, a type of common faith that he defined as “the American way of life.”
  2. Dr. Chan will not incorporate her religion of origin into the household religious or spiritual practice to create a dual-religious, or a syncretic, practice.
  3. If there comes a time when Chan-Zuckerberg kids appear (we think this highly likely, even with Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg’s very full professional lives—a characteristic they share with many of our interviewees), they will be raised Jewish, and Dr. Chan—regardless of any religious affiliation she grew up with or claimed—will be an equal, if not the, catalyst for this being the primary identity of the kids.
  4. Their kids might have trouble seeing themselves as tracing their identity through Dr. Chan’s family.
  5. In the end, the couples’ differences will be harmonized and the family will endure.

While critics of Jewish intermarriage often fret about the loss of a Jewish identity in a mixed household, we found that Asian-Jewish households often wind up, surprisingly, becoming Jewish.

Are the Asian-American members of these households losing their religion? Maybe.  Are they trying to acquire status in a still-white dominated nation? Perhaps. Or maybe they are trading their own spiritual practices for a harmonious household. To paraphrase one of our interviewees, a Chinese-American physician on the West Coast, “There are only a few million of my wife’s people but there are a billion of mine. Is one more really needed?”

Helen K. Kim is Associate Professor of Sociology at Whitman College, and Noah S. Leavitt is Assistant Dean of Students and a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at Whitman College. Both are contributing writers to the forthcoming edition of Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion Among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation (NYU Press, 2012).

Looking Further Behind Stonewall

—Leila J. Rupp

As celebrations for LGBTQ Pride month take off around the country and world, we often look back to Stonewall, but rarely much further. For me, the diversity of bodies, identities, desires, and performances that are represented in the most inclusive Pride celebrations recall much longer histories that we would do well to remember. In my book, Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women (2009), I begin with imagined prehistories and do what I can to put between two covers all that we know about women who loved, desired, and made love to other women throughout time and around the globe. One of my favorite online comments about the book called it “lurid and steamy,” which I consider high praise indeed.

Such a history, far from pointing to lesbians in different times and places or making us proud about how far we have come, reminds us that there is no linear trajectory from the bad old days to the present. In fact, in the contemporary world, all the ways that women in the past found to express their desire and love—from finding one another in sex-segregated spaces to falling in love with co-wives to marrying one another legally to crossing the gender line to embracing masculine-feminine pairings to falling in love with their friends—coexist with meeting in a bar or online or at a Pride march.

So as we celebrate the newer possibilities of changing sex, of rejecting binary gender, of embracing pansexual or fluid identity, let us remember that there is a long history behind all these possibilities that is far more complicated than we might think. We have a lot to be proud about this Pride season, but we also need to be humble in recognition of all the different varieties of desire and love out there. Imagine celebrating with Amazons, with Sappho, with Walladah bint Al-Mustakfi (the “Arab Sappho”), with nuns and witches, with manly women and female husbands, with roaring girls and aristocratic tribades, with sworn sisters and sweet doganas, with schoolgirls in love, with Parisian salonnières, with German girlfriends, with African mummies and babies, with Thai toms and dees, with Indonesian tombois, with Afro-Surinamese mati.  And imagine what they all would, or would not, make of each other.

Leila J. Rupp is professor of feminist studies and associate dean of the division of social sciences at the University of California. She is the author of Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women, a 2011 NYU Press publication.

»»»  Happy Pride from NYU Press! Save 25% on Sapphistries and other LGBT Studies titles when you order via our website. Simply enter promo code DIVER12 online during check out or call 800.996.6987. Offer ends on July 1, 2012.

Dancing the body beautiful

Using accounts from several professional Latin dancers augmented by the author’s own experience, Julia A. Ericksen traces the ways bodily perfection has become an important part of dancers’ identities. In addition, Ericksen argues that this is a more extreme form of general cultural pressure to engage in bodywork.

[Note: This article originally appeared in Contexts. Read the full version here.]

- – – – 

In the professional Latin event at a ballroom dance competition, men wear dance pants with tight shirts open to the waist, showing bulging chest muscles. Their hair, which must stay motionless and shiny for the entire event, is glued back with gel and blow-dried with hair spray. Faces are tanned, and matte makeup makes the skin appear translucent and blemishfree. Men’s high-heeled shoes are immaculate and usually black, as is the costume. Bodies are perfectly proportioned with no fat in sight.

©2007 Jonathan S. Marion.

Each handsome man frames an equally gorgeous woman, wearing a brightly colored skimpy dress that flares out with every move, embellished with hundreds of Swarovski crystals, glued by hand, as well as earrings, bracelets, and necklaces in matching stones. High-heeled, open-toed shoes are typically flesh-colored, to make legs look longer. Women’s backs are bare and tanned, and faces are elaborately made up. Hair is long, swept up or in a ponytail. Not only are the bodies taut and muscular, but the heights and looks of each member of the couple are purposely matched.

While looks have always been important on the dance floor, they have become increasingly important in recent years, especially in Latin dance. Clothing has become more revealing and unforgiving of imperfections, and dancers’ concern with appearance has intensified. Dancers’ identities have become intertwined with the bodywork they do, and the bodies they produce.

No chubbies

In the past, men were taught to make their partner the focal point of the performance, using expressions like “the man is the frame and the woman is the picture.” Today, this traditional obligation is weaker. Many men display themselves almost as much as they display their partners. For example, Pavel, a male dancer, is as involved in appearance work as his wife [Tsvetanka]. Partners, he says, “have to match well, and they have to look beautiful, and they have to match the bodies.” To accomplish this, Pavel works on every aspect of his body and its presentation. Because he does not want to be too “chubby” or too skinny, in addition to careful diet and practice and the many hours he spends coaching and teaching students, he takes gyrotonics classes, uses a Pilates machine at home, and has a personal trainer at the gym. He needs the personal trainer, he says, “because my legs are long compared with my torso.” In order to be, “connected with the center [of your body], you get tired.” He works on his upper body, and on general physical toning.

Pavel has a complicated routine before each competition. He eats, drinks coffee, and does pushups to engage his core, and then focuses on his appearance. He shaves and does his hair, as well as his partner’s. As Tsvetanka puts on her makeup, he offers her constant advice, “Do more of this. Don’t do that.” Sometimes they fix their costumes, or experiment with something new. Finally, two hours before the competition, when they are happy with their looks, they warm up together, and get into the competitive mood by listening to music and talking quietly.

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Ballroom dancing and the allure of intimacy

The season finale of “Dancing with the Stars” — the hit TV show that pairs professional dancers with celebrities in a dance competition — drew close to 20 million viewers, and is currently moving along in its 13th season. Suffice it to say, it’s a hit. But maybe not just because it offers an opportunity to catch glimpses of celebs-of-times-past (Mel B. from the Spice Girls, Ricki Lake, etc) butchering the samba or stumbling shamefully through the foxtrot.

According to Temple University sociologist Julia Ericksen, audiences are drawn to the romantic connection on display between partners – and the appeal of ballroom dancing as a whole lies in its offer of “instant intimacy.”

“In the modern world, many people don’t always have time to develop relationships and make long-term commitments, and the thing about dancing is you get all the warmth and intimacy and connection without having to make the commitment,” Ericksen said.

For her new book, Dance with Me: Ballroom Dancing and the Appeal of Instant IntimacyJulia Ericksen interviewed 60 dancers from all levels and backgrounds to explore new depths within the world of competitive ballroom dance. Check out the video below, as the author takes a dance lesson and talks about her work, including some surprising findings.

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Read the full article by Kim Fischer here.

“Monoga­my is not natural, nonmonogamy is not natural. Variation is what’s natural.”

Judith StaceyMark Oppenheimer’s epic and exciting piece on Dan Savage’s new framework for marriage included an extensive interview with Judith Stacey, author of Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China. I thought Prof. Stacey gave the best quote of the article (printed above), and gave Savage’s argument the academic perspective it lacked.

Judith Stacey, a New York University sociologist who researched gay men’s romantic arrangements for her book “Unhitched,” argues that gay men, in general, will continue to require less monogamy. “They are men,” she said, and she believes it is easier for them — right down to the physiology of orgasm — to separate physical and emotional intimacy. Lesbians and straight women tend to be far less comfortable with nonmonogamy than gay men. But what matters is that neither monogamy nor polygamy is humankind’s sole natural state. “One size never fits all, and it isn’t just dividing between men and women and gay and straight,” she said. “Monoga­my is not natural, nonmonogamy is not natural. Variation is what’s natural.”

I asked Stacey if, given the differences between men and women, she thought Savage’s vision was unrealistic for straight couples. Yes and no, she said: “I believe monogamy is actually crucial for some couples and totally irrelevant for others.” That does not mean that nonmonogamous couples are free to do as they please. Creating nonmonogamy that strengthens rather than corrodes a marriage is surely as much work as monogamy. Couples should make vows and honor them. Not all good relationships require monogamy, but they all require what she calls integrity.

“What integrity means for me is we shouldn’t impose a single vow of monogamy as a superior standard for all relationships,” Stacey said. “Intimate partners should decide the vows you want to make. Work out terms of what your commitments are, and be on same page. There are women perfectly happy to have agreements in which when you are out of town you can have a little fling on the side. And rules range from ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to ‘I want to know’ to ‘bring it home and talk about it and excite our relationship.’ ”

Stacey and Savage each say that monogamy is the right choice for many couples; they are exalting options, not any particular option. As a straight, monogamous, married male, I happen to think this is a good thing: if there are people whose marriages work best with more flexibility, they should find the courage to choose an arrangement that works for them, society be damned. I also recognize, however, that we may choose marriage in part to escape the terror of choice. There are so many reasons to marry; we could call them all “love,” but let’s be more specific: admiring how she looks in a sundress, trusting her to improve your first drafts, knowing that when the time comes she will make the best mother ever. But another reason might be that life before her was so confusing. In all those other relationships, it was never clear when there was an exclusive commitment or who would use the L-word first or when a Saturday-night date could be assumed.

Judith Stacey had another piece in the Times, on the Room for Debate blog, about marriage, and you can read an excerpt from her book on From the Square.