Boy, Girl, Straight, Gay … Starved, Groomed, Altered?

How do you know if you’re a boy or girl, straight or gay, or something else altogether? Is it just obvious biology, something you’ve always known instinctively? Or is it something you’ve learned? What about your sexuality? Or what about your image of yourself as a sexual person?

While conventional perspectives focus on a hetero-normative image of men and women accompanied by prescribed male and female behaviours, and other perspectives gave range to a number of alternative conceptions – gay, lesbian, queer, transgender etc – the origins and repercussions of our sex, gender and sexuality are contested.

Some say that sexuality is fluid and eroticism is plastic, changing over the life course and in different contexts. Others point out that ‘obvious biological’ parts of our existence – our bodies – are increasingly altered to confirm to socially derived gendered stereotypes. Many women continue to alter themselves in ways ranging ‘beach ready body dieting to labiaplasty in pursuit of the perfect female form. Similarly, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and sales of protein enhancement and grooming products are steadily increasing amongst men.

What do you think? How much of our sex, gender and sexuality is innate and biological, and how much is environmental and social?

#S327UOW17 #Tut4

Do we improve mental health through more services, or restructuring our work, cities and social connections?

There has been intense investment in mental health resources and treatments over the last few decades in Australia. This includes the establishment of initiatives such as the Black Dog Institute, the headspace National Youth Mental Health Initiative (a good program, which I helped evaluate), and recently a multi-sector initiative aimed at ‘Creating Mentally health Workplaces’.

Despite these efforts, however, the expenditure on and costs of mental health issues continue to rise, and the prevalence of anxiety issues in our society remains high. Anthony Jorm, at the University of Melbourne, estimates that around 15% of Australians suffer from an anxiety disorder, but many Australians don’t understand these issues, can’t recognise the symptoms, and tend to dismiss them as ‘everyday worries’. This serves both to downplay the severity and impact of anxiety issues on the national psyche, but also – importantly – obscure the social basis to such emotions. A similar story applies to the experience of loneliness. As Adrian Franklin finds, loneliness is endemic in Australia.

There are numerous sociological explanations behind ingrained, or rising, anxiety and loneliness in our society. Certain groups are at greater risk of loneliness than others – older men for example – but sociologists such as Anthony Giddens and Zigmund Bauman point out the atomising affect of late modernity, where human relations become more individualised, and we become less invested in keeping our groups and connections together. And we are not helped by the way we structure our modern lives. Work is increasingly temporary and fractious, sending us off to all sorts of places, to work all sorts of hours, with increasing precarity. Our cities continue to sprawl into suburban ‘exopolises’, lacking natural social centres within which people can connect and socialise. And our media changes, becoming supposedly more ‘social’, but with uncertain consequences in terms of the exact impact it has on our face-to-face interaction.

The exact alchemy of factors that entrench anxiety and loneliness in modern society is unclear. However, the need to examine these factors sociologically is paramount. Do we need more expenditure on mental health services? Or is this just a Band-Aid solution? Do we instead need to examine, recognise, and cost options for making deeper, structural changes to our social, urban and media environments that impact our sense of sociability and security, and our feelings of anxiety, isolation and loneliness?

#S327UOW16 #Tut10

Managing emotions – how, when, and whose?

We all know what its like to feel the wrong thing at the wrong time. Boredom when you’re meant to be interested (or at least look interested) in that lecture, anxiety when you’re meant to be happy with friends, tiredness when you’re playing with children, and frustration and stress at work. We all know what it means to feel the wrong thing, and then have to pretend – or display – a different feeling, or even somehow make ourselves feel something altogether different. We call this ‘emotion management.’

But how do we manage our emotions? When should we manage them? Should we always try to think happy thoughts – is sadness just bad and troublesome? Or are there social rules about how and when we should do this? Arlie Hochschild suggests that society has ‘feeling rules’ about how we are allowed to feel in given situations – particularly at work – and that these rules impact differently on men and women, with women still doing the bulk of the ‘emotional labour’ involved in care jobs in most countries.

Do you manage your emotions most of the time at work? Or in other areas of life? Does your gender affect this?

#S327UOW16 #Tut6

How much would you change your body to ‘look better’?

Have you ever wanted to change how you look? Perhaps you’ve admired the way someone else looks – or the way certain types of people in general can look – and it’s something you want to try, or experiment with? Not just in terms of how you dress, but how you might alter your body? For example, a lot of people exercise and work out to make their bodies look and feel healthier, and some argue that tattoos and piercings help people express difficult individual feelings in a uniquely public way. Some people undertake cosmetic surgery in order look different – younger, slimmer, tighter, bigger, or just to adjust certain features of face or body – so they can feel ‘more like the person they were always meant to be’. For them, body modification is an expression of individuality and authenticity.

However, an important question is just how unique are these looks and feelings to us as individuals? Do we work out, tattoo, pierce, or undergo surgery to look more like our real, genuine selves? Or to look more like how we think others want us to look – and will admire us for looking – which often makes us look like everyone else?

Admiration is not the only emotional motive for changing our bodies. Many of us worry about the way our bodies look. Sometimes we feel pressure and anxiety to fit in and look ‘good enough’, and sometimes we might even be driven to copy or look better than someone else through a sense of low status or envy. Gordon Clanton argues that if you find yourself “thinking the other does not deserve the good fortune or wishing that the other would lose his or her advantage or otherwise suffer, that is a measure of your envy”. Have you ever thought that someone you know has it too easy because they are just lucky enough to be good-looking? If you told someone else about your feeling of envy, what would be the most likely response – would they agree, would they tell you off for being ‘too envious,’ or would they encourage to ‘embrace your envy,’ and work harder to look better? Cas Wouters argues that as a society we are becoming increasingly competitive over status, and the management of emotions is a key part of this. Do we modify our bodies to manage our envy?

These ideas raise important sociological questions. Is envy a useful driver towards seeking the higher status that comes with ‘looking better’? Do modified bodies bring us the joy of authenticity, or the thrill of elevated social status (and the relief of reduced envy?) Is there a body-industry out there helping us to conflate authenticity and status? How much is society, the media, and the body-industry telling us – and selling us on – how to look? And how to treat others based on how they look?

#S327UOW16 #Tut8

‘Late Modern’ Love and the Transformation of Intimacy

Isn’t it nice to be in love? Isn’t the feeling of love wonderful? But wait – are we talking about the enticing, heart-pounding, sexualised passionate form of love, or the steady-as-she goes companionate form of love we feel for friends, families and partners we’ve known a long time? Or are we talking about something else? Should love be overwhelming or considered? Perhaps it depends on our social context.

The experience and structures of love and intimacy in society have changed over time. Love in the Victorian Era involved published etiquette-based rules of courtship, and considerations of many things besides how one simply felt – there was one’s gender, class, finances, and the social respectability that came with marriage and family to keep in mind. Moving into contemporary times, Anthony Giddens describes the ‘transformation of intimacy’ in the later 20th century ‘late modern’ period, which continues today. We have so much more independence now from the constraints of traditional family and gender roles, that we can (and do) seek love and the ‘pure relationship’ in any number of forms. And Eva Illouz argues that this has created a society of commitment shy people – men in particular – and new inequalities in gender and intimacy.

What do you think? Has love changed? Is ‘all fair’ in love and sex these days?

#S327UOW16 #Tut5

How many emotions are there? Is our society building new, complex emotions?

When was the last time you felt something ambiguous? A feeling that you couldn’t name? Was it perhaps a mixture of two, three, or many other more familiar emotions? Are there basic emotions that everyone feels and understands? The evidence seems to suggest that there are at least four to six universal basic emotions, based on Paul Ekman’s analysis of facial expressions across cultures. These have a genetic basis, and are experienced by all humans. The great majority of emotions seem to be more complex amalgams of these basic emotions. Indeed, in 1980, the psychologist Robert Plutchik developed a fascinating ‘colour wheel’ of emotions to depict the various possible combinations and intensities of basic emotions and their resulting ‘complex emotions’.

However, many of the psychological studies into basic and complex emotions do not account for the inherently social way in which emotions are combined and experienced. Norbet Elias’ Civilizing Process, and Michel Foucault’s studies of discipline and punishment (compounded in the construction of Jermeny Bentham’s famous Panopticon as a vehicle for moral reform) are historical examples of how society engenders complex, socially constituted emotions such as shame and guilt to maintain social order and police the boundaries of class and status. Think about how the modern institutions of society – work, family, church, government, market, media, social networks – shape and assemble your emotions in ever more complex forms.

Reflect on your feelings right now. Are they basic or complex? Individual or social?

#S327UOW16 #Tut3

Is mind superior to body and emotion?

We have long conceived of a separation between mind and body in western society, with supremacy of mind over body. This basic idea that reason should dominate is captured in the classic statement by Descartes ‘cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore I am’. However, if your thoughts are affected by your bodily feelings, or even your perceptions of how the society around you sees you, then what are you? What are your thoughts? Are they really separate from your body and your feelings? And do we have a better understanding of the relationship between reason and emotion as a society today? Compare Disney’s take on the role of emotions in human action in 1943 and in 2015 (and note that the producers of the 2015 ‘Inside Out’ film considered including ‘logic’ as an emotion, but later decided to drop it). Which of these depictions makes more sense to you?

#S327UOW16 #Tut2

The social experience of bodies and feelings

How do you feel? Bodies and emotions seem like the most basic and essential parts of us. You knew your body before you could talk, and your feelings before you could think. They form the core of you. How can such primal things as bodies and emotions – the greatest markers of who you are as an individual – be influenced by society?

Perhaps a few questions might help answer the question:

  • Do you have a tattoo?
  • Do you wear a dress?
  • Did you have braces?
  • How well do you throw a ball?
  • Do you tell people in your life that you love them regularly?
  • Can you restrain your anger?
  • Are you envious of anyone around you?
  • How happy are you?

Think about your answers to these questions. Were these just simple choices that you made as an individual, or skills you did or didn’t pick up at random? Or did your society shape your answers in predictable ways, based on your sex, age, race, education, wealth, health, and social class background? How has society shaped your body, and the way you display and use it? How has society shaped your feelings, their expression, and how you manage them?

#S327UOW16 #Tut1