Do the words we use matter? Christine Labuski argues they do, in particular the words we use to describe our sexual organs. For our “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, she challenges society’s unwillingness to use the correct terminology when describing women’s sexual body parts, using “vagina” as a catch-all term. Through her research, Labuski calls attention to how detrimental to women it can be to not use the more precise term “vulva.” Additionally, she emphasizes the need for more interdisciplinary research on the vulva—beyond the medical—that critically engages with gender, sexuality, the cultural, and the political aspects of a woman’s body.
From Our Fellows
The SSRC has been providing funding to researchers at all stages of their academic and professional careers for more than 90 years. Through a highly competitive and rigorous peer-review process, the SSRC has awarded over 15,000 fellowships and grants to support research around the globe. From Our Fellows focuses on emerging research in the social sciences, including intersections with the humanities and natural sciences, by recipients of SSRC funding. The SSRC’s fellowships, grants, and prizes improve conditions for social science knowledge production worldwide.
Over the last 30 years, party polarization has increased, making bipartisan compromise less attainable. In this essay, Lynda Powell identifies the electoral and institutional factors influential in determining the extent to which individual legislators spend time forming cross-party rather than within-party coalitions to pass legislation. Focusing her analysis on individual legislator behavior, she introduces a new measure of legislative activity—coalition building bipartisanship—defined as the difference in time legislators devote to cross-party versus within-party coalition building to pass legislation. Overall, Powell finds that in state capitols as well as Congress, as time goes on, legislators spend more time building within-party coalitions, rather than bipartisan coalitions.
Over the course of nearly 50 years, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has developed many strategies and negotiating tools to become an effective organization in Congress. Here, Mamie Locke explores how the CBC has grown from its original 13 members from relatively homogeneous districts to a caucus reflecting greater geographic and demographic diversity. She argues these changes in membership allow the CBC to more readily engage in deliberative negotiation and strategic partnerships to meet its mission of empowering marginalized communities. The CBC has leveraged its collective power to animate a policy agenda determined to move minority communities forward. Despite facing an increasingly polarized environment for the past 20 years, CBC members have formed alliances and worked in a bipartisan way to achieve successful legislative outcomes.
Pablo Mitchell illustrates the importance of mentorship in fostering new generations of academics, in particular in emerging fields. As part of the “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, he reflects on the role his mentors played in cultivating his scholarship on the history of Latinx sexuality. Highlighting the importance of researching the history of sexuality of minorities within the broader history of the Americas, Mitchell looks to the future of the field and advocates for increased research on Latinx sexuality.
A consequence of increasing polarization is the decline of moderate legislators—those who occupy an ideological middle ground between the two parties. This decline has allowed those moderates to play pivotal roles, especially in the Senate, in deciding whether a bill passes or fails or a nominee is confirmed or not. Yet little is known about whether these moderate senators play an influential role in shaping public opinion around pieces of legislation. Using a survey experiment, Logan Dancey investigates whether public support for specific bills changes depending on who sponsors (and cosponsors) the legislation. His findings suggest that although names like Susan Collins and Joe Manchin are well-known among American voters, when moderates attach their name to pieces of legislation, it does not uniquely influence public support for or opposition to the bill.
It is commonly believed that congressional leaders will always obey the “first commandment” of party leadership: Thou shalt not aid bills that will split thy party. Nevertheless, in 2017 House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allowed voting on a bid to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), putting on display their party’s ideological divisions. In this Democracy Papers essay, Ruth Bloch Rubin draws on the personal papers of midcentury House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) to understand when and why congressional leaders choose to act as agents of discord. She investigates how Rayburn used intraparty tensions to push for his agenda. Bloch Rubin argues that Rayburn’s tactics provide a new angle for understanding contemporary congressional action like the ACA bill.
In her contribution to the “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, Anne Esacove highlights the Trans Literacy Project (TLP) and its work at the University of Pennsylvania. Created by a group of students, activists, and scholars to cultivate and expand conversations on trans and gender inclusivity, the TLP hosted a series of events and workshops to bring to the forefront concerns and issues facing the trans community in academia. Esacove uses this opportunity to bolster the voices of the project’s participants. Six of the TLP conveners, Ava L.J. Kim, Davy Knittle, Kel Kroehle, Aylin Malcolm, Monique Perry, and Brooke Jamieson Stanley, summarize key points learned from the TLP experience, which can be used to enrich academic learning and provide a more inclusive experience for trans students and scholars.
Danielle Thomsen, a Negotiating Agreement in Congress grantee of the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program, examines the electoral preferences of primary voters. Her project investigates whether primary voters can be persuaded to support politically centrist candidates. Using a survey-based experiment, Thomsen finds: (i) primary voters tend to prefer politically extreme over centrist candidates; (ii) despite Americans' frustration with gridlock and hyperpartisanship in Washington, primary voters are unlikely to vote for candidates who champion bipartisanship. Her findings shed light on the continued polarization in US politics.
Narratives of abuse and violence that women experience play a crucial role in prosecuting perpetrators. However, as Shonna Trinch explains in her contribution to the “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, the representations of these narratives are susceptible to distortion by legal actors recording stories of said encounters or detail discrepancies on the part of victims. Building from her research on Latinas’ retellings of their abuse, Trinch argues these omissions create stereotypical and androcentric narratives that hurt women’s chances at justice and remove their agency. She concludes by highlighting the Seeing Rape project and class, programs she started alongside playwright Barbara Cassidy, to perform and problematize representations of gendered violence.
Reflecting on her Sexuality Research Fellowship Program experience and how it shaped her career, Lynn Comella explores the evolution of and growth in the feminist sex-toy retail industry since the 1970s. Through ethnographic research across different field sites around the United States, she interrogates how these women-friendly shops and the larger industry around them went from a peripheral phenomenon to mainstream in the span of a few decades, normalizing women’s sex lives and their sexual desires. In her research, she argues that by co-opting consumer culture, sex-positive feminists were able to spread their message of sexual empowerment; however, Comella also highlights potential challenges of “practicing sexual politics through the marketplace.”