Regulating sex businesses in the suburbs

Many suburbs want nothing to do with strip clubs and similar businesses so they employ several methods to discourage them:

Warren is running into something that has plagued businesses dealing in sex for decades. Local governments — and the officials elected to govern them — don’t want these businesses around, according to Judith Hanna, a professor at the University of Maryland.

Hanna has testified as an expert witness in more than 150 court cases involving sexually oriented businesses. She even wrote a book about her experiences…

The majority of the cases she testified for involve strip clubs, which Supreme Court rulings protect because of First Amendment rights…

Menelaos Triantafillou, a professor at the University of Cincinnati who teaches courses in planning and urban design, explains: “The only thing you can regulate is not the use itself,” he said, “but the specific location.”

Local governments typically allow these businesses to exist in industrial areas. Restrictions are placed on how close they can be to other establishments such as schools and day cares.

In the particular case discussed in this article, the community is working hard to make a swingers club go away. But, it sounds like they are making it up as they go to appease voters as several local officials have privately supported the new business.

Perhaps an alternative strategy is in order. Zoning is a big deal in suburbs as they get to keep uses that limit endanger property values or a high quality of life away from single-family homes. But, zoning can only do so much. Yet, communities can make it clear that certain businesses are not welcome. While suburbs often welcome new businesses (they provide jobs, property tax revenue, perhaps sales tax revenue), couldn’t they also make it hard for the new business to make money? I’m thinking bad publicity, protests, no invitations to the local chamber of commerce and local events.

Compared to unprotected sex, Americans underestimate risks of driving

A recent study looks at how Americans compare the risks of driving and unprotected sex:

Imagine that a thousand people—randomly selected from the U.S. population—had unprotected sex yesterday. How many of them will eventually die from contracting HIV from that single sexual encounter?

Now, imagine a different thousand people. These people will drive from Detroit to Chicago tomorrow—about 300 miles. How many will die on the trip as a result of a car crash?…

If you’re anything like the participants in a new study led by Terri D. Conley of the University of Michigan, the HIV estimate should be bigger—a lot bigger. In fact, the average guess for the HIV case was a little over 71 people per thousand, while the average guess for the car-crash scenario was about 4 people per thousand.

In other words, participants thought that you are roughly 17 times more likely to die from HIV contracted from a single unprotected sexual encounter than you are to die from a car crash on a 300-mile trip.

But here’s the deal: Those estimates aren’t just wrong, they’re completely backward.

According to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, you are actually 20 times more likely to die from the car trip than from HIV contracted during an act of unprotected sex.

While the rest of this article goes on to talk about perceptions of sex in the United States, these findings are consistent with others that suggest Americans don’t see driving as a threat to their safety. Driving is one of the riskier behaviors Americans regularly engage in: more than 30,000 Americans are killed each year in vehicle accidents. (It should be noted that this figure has dropped from the low 50,000s from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Driving today is safer than in the past.) Yet, Americans tend to like driving (or at least what it enables) and find it necessary in their daily lives (by social and political choices we have made) so those deaths and car accidents are acceptable losses.

Of course, it may not be long before even having to acknowledge our difficulties in weighing risks is no longer a problem due to driverless cars that eliminate all vehicle deaths.

Reassessing Mead versus Freeman in their studies of Samoa

A new look at anthropologist Derek Freeman’s critique of Margaret Mead’s famous study of sex in Samoa suggests Freeman may have manipulated data:

But Shankman’s new analysis — following his excellent 2009 book, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy — shows that Freeman manipulated “data” in ways so egregious that it might be time for Freeman’s publishers to issue formal retractions…Now Shankman has delved even deeper into the sources; in 2011, he obtained from Freeman’s archives the first key interview with one of the supposed “joshing” informants, a woman named Fa’apua’a. This interview, conducted in 1987, allegedly bolstered Freeman’s contention that Mead had based her “erroneous” portrait of Samoan sexuality on what Fa’apua’a and her friend Fofoa had jokingly told Mead back in the 1920s.

But Shankman shows that the interview was conducted and then represented in deeply problematic ways. The 1987 interview with Fa’apua’a was arranged and carried out by Fofoa’s son, a Samoan Christian of high rank who was convinced that Mead had besmirched the reputation of Samoans by portraying his mother, her friend Fa’apua’a, and other Samoans as sexually licentious…

But why did Freeman get it so wrong? Shankman’s book suggests Freeman was obsessed with Mead and with what he saw as her dangerous stories about the flexibility of human cultures. He saw himself as a brave “heretic,” a man saving true science from Mead’s mere ideology.

I wonder if Shankman’s work is the start to a solution to this debate. If two anthropologists disagree so much, wouldn’t bringing in other anthropologists to review the data or conduct their own fieldwork a possible answer to adjudicating who got it more right? There is a time factor here that makes the issue more complicated but people in addition to Shankman could review the notes and comparisons could be made to other societies which might be similar and offer insights.

More broadly, I wonder how much incentive there is for researchers to follow up on famous studies. Freeman made a name for himself by arguing against Mead’s famous findings but what if he had gone through the trouble and then found Mead was right? He likely would not have gotten very far.


Quick Review: The Casual Vacancy and Back to Blood

I recently read two recently-published New York Times best sellers: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe. Even though the books come from very different authors, one known for writing about a boy wizard and the other known for “new journalism” and tackling status, I thought the books had a lot in common. After a quick overview of each story, I discuss some of the similarities:

1. The Casual Vacancy is about English small-town life as the village of Pagford debates whether a nearby council estate (public housing project in American terms) should remain under their purview or should come under control of the nearby large city. The sudden death of a local council member alters the debate and different members of the community, from residents of the council estate, disaffected teenagers, and local business owners get involved in the decision. In the end, the battle doesn’t really turn out well for anyone involved.

2. Back to Blood is about multicultural Miami where different ethnic and social groups vie for control. The main story is about a Russian businessman turned art benefactor who is investigated by a beleaguered Cuban cop and WASP reporter. Others are caught up in this story including the black police chief, the Cuban mayor, a Cuban psychiatric nurse, and a pornography addiction psychiatrist. Similarly, no one really wins in the end.

3. Although set in very different places, the muted English countryside versus vibrant Miami (reflected to some degree by the writing styles, more conventional for Rowling, more in-your-face from Wolfe), there are common themes.

3a. Power and status. At the heart of these novels are characters vying for control. Of course, this looks different in different places: in Pagford, England, this means being a local council member or having a respectable job in the local community (say as a bakery owner or a doctor) while in Miami, this means the ability to own expensive clothes, cars, houses, and boats while also twisting people’s arms in the directions you want them to go. The characters in both books spend a lot of time worrying about their relative position and scheming about how to get to the top of the heap or how not to be buried completely by others (there is little room for middle ground).

3b. Sex. This is tied to power and status, but both books feature a lot of sexual activity. On one hand, it is presented as one of the rare moments when the characters aren’t solely consumed by the quest for power and yet, on the other hand, sex and who is having sex with whom and for what reason, is inevitably wrapped up in the naked grab for power and status.

3c. Characters alienated from society. Both books are full of characters who feel like they don’t fit in society, that they don’t know where they belong or aren’t able to achieve what they would really want to achieve. This comes across in some classic types: there are teenagers who feel like the adults around them are idiots and so they grasp at ways to make their own name. There are characters caught in the cogs of bureaucracy, particularly adults who are “successful” but don’t feel like it, who have some agency but are ultimately dependent on social and government institutions.

3d. Communities striving for goals but having difficulty overcoming the frailty of their human actors. Although the communities are quite different in size and aspirations (Miami striving to be a world-class city and Pagford striving to control more of its own destiny), their characters want them to be known and coherent places. They want their neighborhoods as well as their municipalities to be about something. Alas, both places are reliant on social actors that can’t overcome their own anxieties and hang-ups and this limits what the larger whole can become.

In the end, I’m tempted to write these off as the sort of themes one finds all the time in “serious adult literature,” the sort of books that peel back the facade of life and expose people for the vain creatures that they are. These are not uncommon themes in more modern books where there are no real heroes, most characters are just trying to get by, and authors revel in tackling sociological issues. But, I don’t think it is an accident that the two books cover similar ground. Power, sex, alienation, and communities striving for success are known issues in our 21st century world. Compared to movies, books like these offer more space to develop these themes and really expose the depths to which individuals and institutions have fallen. Stories like these can translate sociological themes into a medium that the public understands.

Yet, I can’t help but wish that both books had more redemptive endings. If power, sex, alienation, and community striving do make the world go round, how can this be tackled in a “right” way? Is there anyone or any social institution who can put us on the right path? In ways common to 21st century commentary, both of these books offer a bleak view of social life and not much hope for the future.

Responses to AIDS as told through posters

A collection of “more than 6,200 posters in 60 languages from 100-plus countries” regarding AIDS is being made available to the public through a website. Here is what these posters can tell us:

Well, naturally, you would think about it as medical history since AIDS was then a uniformly fatal disease. But the reason it’s more important as social history is because, if you look at a whole lot of the posters, you will see how different countries approached the subject. Here you’re dealing with a new disease, dealing with the closeted subject of sex, and it was really amazing to see the variation from country to country and even from groups within a country. To me, that’s by far the most striking thing about the collection.

Generally speaking, in the United States, the posters were less interesting because they had to be neutral. They had to be careful not to offend some group or some sensibility so the best American posters were usually put up by private organizations. Abroad, that wasn’t quite as true. There were some good ones that the CDC put out. One shows a young woman sitting on a chair dressed from the waist down, her legs are crossed, and it says, “A sure way not to get AIDS.” Another one, my children’s favorite, shows a young man and woman necking through the back window of a car. It says, “Vanessa was in a fatal car accident last night. Only she doesn’t know it yet.”…

The watershed was October 1986 when Surgeon General [C. Everett] Koop published his AIDS report. That totally changed the picture. That was the beginning of a huge outpouring of posters all over the world, not just the United States. He really made [it acceptable] to talk about using condoms. If you look at The New York Times, the word “condom” I don’t think appeared until the mid 1980s. I may be mistaken but it certainly didn’t appear very early.

This sounds like a very interesting collection which would be useful for examining two things:

1. How the medical knowledge was translated into cultural narratives across different countries. As the cited part above suggests, this public message would need to fit with cultural messages regarding sex and diseases. It is also interesting to think in which countries and settings posters are very effective ways for disseminating information as opposed to other options like television or radio shows and commercials, public service announcements in various forms, or through state influenced facilities like schools and hospitals.

2. How the cultural message changed over time, particularly as medical knowledge improved and the public became more educated. For example, did more recent posters have to be more edgy in order to remind people that AIDS is still something they should be concerned about?

This may just make a great example for a class session on medical sociology.

As a side note, I wonder if there is much interest in posters among historians, art museums, and those interested in social history. Earlier this year, I saw an extensive exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago of TASS (the “Soviet press agency”) posters during World War II. The exhibit was quite interesting as the posters combined art with text and design in creating a negative cultural image of Germans. Are posters primarily a mid to late 20th century phenomenon and how much can they tell us about the larger society compared to other media options?

London School of Economics distances themselves from sociologist who wrote about “erotic capital”

The press has paid a lot of attention to Catherine Hakim’s concept of “erotic capital,” perhaps partly because the stories have claimed that she works at the respected London School of Economics. (See earlier posts here and here.) But the LSE now wants to distance themselves from her work:

Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital garnered some hostile reviews after it was published by Allen Lane last month, with many commentators aghast that an LSE sociologist should advocate that women use their sexual assets to get ahead.

The book’s title is inspired by the catchphrase used by prostitutes in Jakarta who ask for cash upfront for sex – with women advised to exploit their own “erotic capital” to gain professional success.

It has now emerged that Ms Hakim’s links to the LSE are perhaps looser than had been suggested. Although she is described as a “senior research Fellow of sociology” at the LSE on the book’s dust jacket and in subsequent book reviews, Times Higher Education has learned that Ms Hakim has not been employed there since 2003.

She had, with the agreement of the school, continued to work from an LSE office and use email, telephone and other clerical-support facilities – despite not being part of the sociology faculty.

The institution has now written to Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin, asking it to correct further publications, while Ms Hakim has been asked by the LSE not to refer to herself as an LSE sociologist, THE understands.

One might wonder what would have happened had the book been good or not invoked a scandalous argument.

Additionally, if the reviews of this book have been scathing, why has it gotten so much press? Just because it is a “sexy” topic?

Does sex also sell sociological research?

A common assumption is that “sex sells.” Could this also apply to sociological research? I have watched as two stories about sociological research have made their way through the media.

1. Do a Google search for “erotic capital” and you will find reference to sociologist Catherine Hakim’s term. Read a quick overview of the term here.

2. A New York Times article from the weekend titled “Another Reason to Avoid His Friends” briefly discusses a study in the July 2011 issue American Journal of Sociology titled “Network Position and Sexual Dysfunction: Implications of Partner Betweenness for Men.”

If these two pieces of research could be distributed to a broad representative sample of American sociologists, here are a few things that I would want to ask:

1. Do you think research that covers a topic like sex (or celebrity or political scandals, etc.) is more likely to get a positive reception and more coverage from the media and the American public?

2. Does publicity about a sociological research finding make the research more or less important within the field of sociology?

3. Do you think it is good for sociologists to promote any research that would appeal to the public rather than research that might be more consequential? In other words, is all publicity good publicity?

For the record, I have not looked closely into either pieces of research and therefore could not assess the quality myself. A sociologist from the London School of Economics and a piece published in AJS might get attention anyway since they have already come from respected institutions. But I think these pieces could lead to interesting discussions about how research within the discipline matches what might be popular among the American public and whether these two interests should match up and whether this helps the academic discipline of sociology.

Blizzards do not lead to baby booms in 9 months

There is a story out there that suggests when a blizzard comes along, like the one that hit Chicago this past week, one can expect a rise in births in nine months. Experts say this story has little foundation in fact:

The commonly held assumption dates at least to the widespread blackout of 1965 that doused New York City in darkness. About nine months after residents spent hours together with the lights off, The New York Times reported an uptick in births. A sociologist quoted at the time offered this euphemistic explanation:

“The lights went out and people were left to interact with each other,” he said.

Over the years, blackouts, snowstorms, and even full moons have all been deemed natural aphrodisiacs. But for nearly as long, experts have sought to debunk the relationship between catastrophe and copulation, dubbing it mere myth.

“It is evidently pleasing to many people to fantasy that when people are trapped by some immobilizing event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation,” demographer J. Richard Udry wrote in a 1970 paper that showed there was no statistically significant increase in births that could be attributed to the 1965 blackout.

Tom Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Politics at the University of Chicago, agreed that most baby boom speculation following various disruptions has not proved true.

“First, these events are as likely to separate partners as they are to isolate them together with ‘nothing better to do.’ Second, most people are using contraceptives,” Smith said. “(And) third, these are hardly the type of events that make couples say, ‘Let’s start a family.'”

So why exactly does this myth still make the rounds? This one is fairly easy to disprove: just look at the records for birth nine months after any event.