Essay questions from Psychology of Gender quiz

1) Briefly describe your family of origin.

2) Analyze your family using information from the course. You must cite at least 1 course reading in your analysis. (Follow the link for more information about analysis)

I grew up in a family that pretty closely sticks to the conventional American script: two hetero white parents with three kids. I’m the oldest, with my sister two years younger and my brother four years younger. My dad worked while my mother was a stay-at-home for most of my childhood, and even when she was working he earned a lot more than her.

Analysis: my family structure pretty clearly conformed to patriarchal norms, with the benevolent, breadwinning father heading the family. The (fairly opulent) house I spent most of my childhood in was designed by my father, who also oversaw its construction. In retrospect, this seems to have been a project to symbolically prove his masculinity: not only was he powerful and successful enough to pay for something just shy of a mansion, he also had the gumption and competence (big wheel) to ‘build it himself,’ so to speak. This seems to parallel one of the best insights from Tough Guise 2: that, historically, as men become less able to live-out the script of masculinity (fighting, riding horses, building things with their own hands), they have to turn to symbolic representations of male power like guns or, in my WASP dad’s case, a big house.

On the other hand, both my parents drove modest, budget-efficient cars throughout my childhood. At first blush, this seems like a counterexample to my dad’s symbolic-masculinity house, since you’d expect him to drive a macho car. However, I think the important distinction between the house and the car is flamboyance: with a house that ‘he built,’ my dad could advertise his maturity and efficacy as a patriarch, while a flashy car–being as easily purchased by effeminate rich people as masculine rich people–would have seemed to my dad and his peers to advertise immaturity and waste. It’s a lot easier to imagine John Wayne building a house than it is to imagine him buying a BMW.

Another element of patriarchy at work in my household was the distribution of childcare duties. Given the difference in their pay grades, it made sense for my dad to keep working while my mom raised the kids, but 1-that probably wasn’t the only reason and 2-that difference in pay was itself a result of systemic forces of patriarchy. My mother, the woman, chose and was able to access a career in teaching (nurture), while my father chose and was able to access a career in law (power, efficacy). According to Esch, citing Lerner, the basic material cause behind those systemic patriarchal forces is (maybe) male-caste control over the means of reproduction. In this explanation, just as the basis of capitalism is private capitalist control over the means of production, the basis of patriarchy is male control over the means of reproduction; cultural norms are ultimately caused by distribution of power over resources. Neither of my parents thought of their relationship in terms of dominance, of course; they were just acting out the form of relationship that they’d learned from their progenitors. But that’s what makes the patriarchy systemic: the individuals doing it don’t necessarily know that they’re doing it (again, recall Tough Guise 2, and the white suburban kids imitating black gangsters imitating Italian and Cuban gangsters imitating pre-WWII fictional noir heroes; you don’t have to understand the larger causes behind your own actions in order to do them).

A strong piece of evidence in favor of my contention that systemic patriarchy was at work in my childhood home is my dad’s homophobia when I came out: by transgressing my gender role as the dominant hetero man, I  was engaging in ‘sissy stuff’ and threatening my masculinity and, by extension, his. Again, none of this was presumably conscious; I assume that my dad was aware of the micro-level psychological causes (i.e. tenants of homophobia) behind his behavior while ignorant of the macro-level causes behind those micro-level causes (i.e. patriarchy).

What is 1 assumption about sexual orientation? Why is this assumption problematic for our research and understanding of sexual orientation?
An obvious answer is the assumption of heterosexual monogamy as a norm (which also presumes a clear gender binary), which is problematic because it’s unempirical: rather than looking at how human sexuality works in practice and then building reformable models to describe it, the assumption of hetero monogamy either obscures or writes-off all other instances of sexuality.

I’d suggest, however, that a deeper problematic assumption is that discrete categorization is an adequate frame for human sexuality, as if sex behaviors could be fit onto an Excel spreadsheet. As I said in class, there seems to be a close relationship between categorization and policing, since policing behavior requires the ability to articulate the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It’s not clear to me that “What am I?” is the right question to ask about sexuality, or that “sexual identity” is ultimately a useful concept. An analogy to sports might be helpful: there are people who are soccer players and people who are ruggers, but these ‘identities’ are understood to refer to a contingent pattern of behavior, not an essential self. Someone could be a rugger and then stop and then start again, or play rugby and soccer at the same time. If sex is something you *do*, then there’s no intrinsic reason to stick to one type of it; but if sex is something you *are*, then deviations from your sexual identity are by definition unnatural and unhealthy.

Using Campbell’s (2000) report of sex workers in South Africa, identify and explain: a) 1 instance of power over, b) 1 instance of power with, and c) 1 instance of personal power.

And d) suggest 1 possible route to empowerment for this population of sex workers. Be sure to explain how your idea serves the purpose of empowerment.

a) In Campbell’s description of sex workers squatting near a South African mine, an instance of power over is the power of moneyed male clients over sex workers. While in the conventional, neoliberal sense the sex workers are generally not “forced” to have sex but are instead engaging in a mutually beneficial transaction, the context of the sex workers’ limited options (lethal poverty vs. paid sex) makes that consent hollow. (The messiness of consent is actually a much larger problem for neoliberalism: even someone who literally has a gun to their head still has a ‘choice.’ In other words, there is no non-arbitrary way to distinguish between what counts as unfair coercion vs. fair negotiation.)

b) Campbell describes one of the key goals of their project as organizing women so that they can mutually support one another (power with). “A key theme running through all their responses was that in order for a pro-condom campaign to be successful there would have to be a degree of co-operation and unity amongst the sex workers in enforcing it” (Campbell, p. 478). By coordinating their personal choices over whether or not to individually engage in unprotected sex, sex workers have the ability to have far greater mutual power than any of them could have had individually.

c) Closely related to power-with is the personal power of each sex worker in deciding whether or not to organize. This personal choice occurs in the context of conflicting incentives, with the need to make as much money as possible incentivizing each sex worker to take clients who want to eschew condom use and the need to stay healthy incentivizing them to organize and demand condom use. This is an instance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: all of the sex workers will be better off if none of them accepts non-condom clients, but if only most of them maintain this standard then the few who don’t will profit.

d) As discussed in the paper, community building among sex workers seems like an effective strategy for laying the groundwork for effective organizing. It’s a lot easier to trust and coordinate with people you’ve already trusted and coordinated with on lesser projects in the past.

A second strategy I’d suggest is making the sale of sex legal but the consumption illegal. This would give sex workers individual power over their clients, since they could turn clients in to the police without any risk to themselves, and this power over clients would put sex workers in a stronger bargaining position when demanding condom use. 


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