Author Speaks on Masculinity, Sexuality in High School

November 16, 2007

From the time she was an undergraduate at Brandeis, C.J. Pascoe '96 said she had an "obsession with masculinity." She has continued to focusimage1 on the subject as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, culminating in her new book Dude You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.

Pascoe returned to her alma mater on November 15 to talk about her research in a California high school for the book, in a talk titled "Guys are just Homophobic: Heterosexuality and Homophobia in High School." In addition to the Ethics Center, the event was co-sponsored by the Department of Sociology, the Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Women's and Gender Studies Program, the Education Program, the Cultural Production Program, the Department of Anthropology, and the Martin Weiner Fund.

For boys in the high school, masculinity meant being powerful, competent, heterosexual, and not revealing emotion other than anger, said Pascoe. Through her 18 months of fieldwork, Pascoe observed interactions and rituals that reinforced that image, including the frequent use of the term "fag" to target behavior that didn't conform to "heteronormative masculinity."

"Fag was the ultimate insult for a boy," she said. The use of the term, she added, is "one of the ways men manage anxiety about having emotional intimacy with one another."

Thus, boys used the term against other boys known to be straight, for such things as liking to dance, showing any interest in another boy, or even being "too nice."

A boy seen as effeminate was subject to merciless harassment. She reported that one boy, who choreographed and performed on the school dance team, faced threats and received no protection from the school administration.

Such homophobic harassment had as much to do with masculinity as fear of gay men, according to Pascoe. Indeed, some boys told her that the term "fag" wasn't a comment on sexuality. One remarked that you can still throw a football and be gay.

For the students, "Being gay isn't so bad as long as you're normatively masculine," Pascoe observed.

Boys also displayed their sense of masculinity in behavior with girls, touching them in aggressive ways to "show sexualized dominance over girls' bodies," said Pascoe. One boy active in drama, which was seen as not masculine, told Pascoe that he wanted to have a girlfriend to show people that he wasn't gay. "They used girls bodies as a shield against being labeled as fags," she said.

Pascoe outlined practical steps that she said would improve the environment in schools. She cited as a model the California School safety and Violence Prevention Act, which mandates that all state public schools protect students from discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Only three other states and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation, she said.

Pascoe also called more school education programs, such as gay-straight alliances, guest speakers, and assemblies. Such initiatives would not only benefit gay youth, but all young people who feel different, she said.

"In making our schools 'safe for sissies,' we can make them safe for all students," said Pascoe.