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Home arrow Sociology arrow Being an Early Career Feminist Academic: Global Perspectives, Experiences and Challenges
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Disciplinary Boundaries: Gendering and Sexing Criminology

Classrooms represent a microcosm of larger society, where gendered roles, expectations, and knowledges manifest themselves. To understand why students come into the classroom with particular gendered and sexed ‘common sense’ beliefs, we must reflect not only on how such thoughts are embedded within our culture and within the wider anti-feminist patriarchal rhetoric, but also too how they are permeated within the disciplines themselves. As higher education was historically reserved as a male space, many disciplines—including the methods of knowledge production themselves—also developed in this manner (Hesse-Biber 2011; Oakley 1981).

As a result of the historic neglect of both women and feminism, the discipline of criminology has been posited as traditionally male-centric (Chesney-Lind 1988; Comack 2006; Naffine 1997). Tracing the trajectory of feminism into and within criminology, Comack (2006, p. 22) asserts that ‘[d]espite the use of generic terms—such as ‘criminals,’ ‘defendants,’ or ‘delinquents’— criminology has historically been about what men do, so much so that women have been invisible in mainstream criminological theory and research.’ When feminism and gender are highlighted, it is often within the context of studying ‘women’ as offenders and victims— as if men are genderless. Indeed, the study of women and criminality and/or victimization is treated in separate courses, identified by the title ‘women,’ with a lack of corresponding courses specifically titled ‘men’ and criminality and/or victimization. The message becomes, as Naffine (1997, p. 2) highlights, that ‘feminism is about women, while criminology is about men.’

Given these realities, imparting a decidedly feminist perspective to the discipline of criminology by gendering crime—that is, exploring the implications of masculinity and femininity on understanding criminality, victimization, and deviance—is a difficult task. While constructs of sex, sexuality, and gender underscore our very understanding of criminality, victimization, and deviance, among other social phenomena, such topics are often marginalized by being taught in specialized courses, and/or are relegated to gender- or women-studies programs. Constructed as something innate, natural, and ‘common sensical,’ gender, sex, and sexuality are frequently treated as outside of popular discussion and critique (Crawley et al. 2008). As a result, underscoring the role of rigid and dichotomous gendered and sexed roles and expectations in not only our understandings of current events, but also in how we rationalize and respond to these events, is often absent in mainstream narratives. This absence has been noted particularly in discussions surrounding criminality and victimization.

For example, following the school shooting in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and 6 staff members, media and popular debate turned its attention to—as it consistently does in cases of mass shootings - gun regulation, mental health, and prominent displays of violence in video games, movies, and music. However, amidst these debates existed another discussion3 focusing on one aspect that consistently remains unspoken: namely, that of the 62 mass murders that occurred within the United States in the 30 years preceding the Sandy Hook incident, only one shooter was a woman (Follman et al. 2012).4 As Murphy (2012) highlights, ‘A thousand conversations. None of them about men.’ Similarly, with respect to victimization, Jackson Katz, scholar and anti-sexism educator, states in his TED Talk ‘Violence Against Women— It’s a Men’s Issue’ (2012)5, that while domestic violence is framed as a problem of women, often eliciting the victim-blaming narrative of ‘Why did she stay?’, one aspect of this type of victimization consistently remains unspoken. Amongst all the dialogue surrounding domestic violence, and how to best support victims/survivors, conversations surrounding masculinity and the embeddedness of aggression and other violent behaviours in gendered constructions of manhood are lacking, or when presented, silenced.

Amidst the growing anti-feminist men’s rights activist (MRA) backlash on social media, the popularity of #ImNotAFeminist, and the stereotypes and lack of understanding of feminism as a whole (Douglas 1994), questioning constructs of sex and gender, evaluating the implications of privilege and justice, and imparting all this information into a traditionally masculine discipline is a challenging task. This challenge is heightened when we consider that the students who study criminology often want to enter careers in the traditionally masculine profession of law enforcement, and, at least in Canada, have largely grown up in a cultural context surrounded by media oversaturation and sensationalization of crime events at a moment when overall crime rates have declined (Boyce et al. 2014), panic surrounding ‘stranger danger’ persists even though criminological data suggests that any given individual is most likely to be victimized by someone they know (Walklate 2007), and tough-on-crime and antiimmigration political rhetoric are at the fore.

These challenges are especially salient for me, a feminist criminologist who studies topics that are already at the margins of academia and frequently treated as frivolous or non-intellectual from a sex-positive feminist perspective, much to the chagrin of a discipline that groups these under the rubric of degradation and exploitation. Bringing gender into discussions is challenging even when the topic at hand is one that neatly falls within disciplinary boundaries. For instance, in my seminar course on human trafficking, I challenge students to question why a) human trafficking is treated synonymously with sex trafficking, neglecting the realities and eco- nomic/consumer perpetuation of labour trafficking and largely rendering invisible the existence of organ trafficking and b) why in discussions of sex trafficking (and of crime, more generally), the victim is always implicitly envisioned as a girl or woman and the offender as a man—unless explicitly denoted otherwise. How have we discursively coded ‘victim’ as feminine, and ‘perpetrator’ as masculine? What are the implications of this? I am constantly encouraging the students to see criminality and victimization through a gendered lens.

What I find more interesting in doing this type of research and speaking on these sorts of topics within the classroom, however, is the response of students towards me as an individual. I have had several students comment—mostly positively—on the ease with which I use proper names for genitalia, or openly discuss the dominant cultural construction of sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, and virginity, etc., and their justice implications. Others have questioned why, as a woman, I was interested in doing my doctoral dissertation research on pornography, a topic generally asserted to be a male domain. Many students—mostly women—have asked how my parents feel about what I teach and study. Such comments have led me to reflect on my own positioning as one that disrupts gendered expectations. Despite claims of the ‘pornification’ of Western culture, pornography, and sex more broadly, is still considered deviant, taboo, and something that polite society does not talk about (Sigel 2002)—especially not women. The fact that I am a woman is considered as important as the content of my analytic work on sex, sexuality, pornography, and gendered sexual regulation.

In class, as well as in life, not only do I examine deviance as performative through sexually explicit texts, but I am also attuned to how my own identity is socially constructed through the performance of deviation. When people—including students—find out what my research interests are, people assume that I too am deviant. Questions about how I became interested in sexually explicit content are frequently (a) underscored with conjecture surrounding my own sexual behaviours and accessibility, or (b) laden with academic moralism or elitism surrounding the ‘low-brow’ nature of the genre. Secondly, my deviance arises from my own positioning as pro-porn, which does not mean that I accept such content without question but, rather, that I, along with other aligned feminist pornography scholars, believe that free expression about sex and sexuality, including its representations, is central to women’s continued battle for equality and sexual agency. As Nadine Strossen (2000: 14) explains, ‘Women’s rights are far more endangered by censoring sexual images than they are by the images themselves’. However, such positioning renders me deviant from a radical feminist as well as moral conservative point of view, which views pornography as wholly degrading, oppressive, and violent towards women. Indeed, students are frequently surprised by my stance on sexually explicit representations, and do not connect it with feminism per se. Both Sigel (2002) and Penley (2013) write about similar experiences of how, as feminist pornography scholars, their identities too are constructed within and through the performance of gendered and academic deviance - the same arena of deviance within which pornography lies.

Such introspection on my own embodiment of certain ideas and devi- ances within the classroom; my positioning within the discipline of criminology; the gendered notions and expectations, as well as the perceptions of feminism, that students are likely to enter the classroom with, has led me to reflect upon how I navigate this terrain in a non-confrontational and engaging manner pedagogically. This is the focus of the following section.

 
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