Some conversation topics are really awkward. But why? How do cultural norms and practices shape our feelings about certain subjects? Have you ever wondered why some topics (like sex) are awkward or embarrassing? Looking at the broader context, we can see culture and power as a guiding force not only for what gets constructed as acceptable sexuality but also comfortable conversation topics.
“Okay class. Today we’re going to talk about the article ‘Women and their Clitoris.’1” An awkward combination of snickers and silence fell over the room. In my excitement about the sociological point the authors made, I had forgotten about the potential for awkwardness. Here I was, a 35-year old woman, standing in front of 50 college students saying the word clitoris – and with sociological enthusiasm no less! I felt my face turn red and despite my preparation, I was at a loss for words. Hiding my discomfort was impossible, so I said, “okay, look, this is just as awkward for me as it is for you, so let’s just all say it together. Ready? Clitoris!” Most of my students played along but this pithy attempt to lessen everyone’s embarrassment just made it worse. As I began to doubt the usefulness of the article and worried about how the next hour would go, I remembered that this is exactly the point the authors made. It was not inherently awkward, but because it was about the clitoris – that mysterious lump of flesh and nerves that’s sole function is to give women sexual pleasure – we all squirmed. This is just not something we talk about in our culture – and certainly not in a sociology class….
This week athletes will sprint, jump, run, throw, and vault their way through competition at the 2011 World Championships of Track & Field held in Daegu, South Korea. An athlete receiving a good deal of media attention is one of South Africa’s 400 meter sprinters, Oscar Pistorius, but not because he is a favourite to win. Both of Pistorius’s legs have been amputated below his knees, sparking an interesting discussion on the sociological concepts of status, stigmatization, and deviance.
Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius is a world class athlete. By clocking 45.07 seconds in the 400 meters earlier this year, Pistorius ran the automatic qualifying time for the upcoming World Championships. Unfamiliar with track and field? Try sprinting around a 400 meter track in under a minute and you will appreciate Pistorius’s speed. Heck, back in my glory days I traversed this distance in just under 47 seconds, well, once, and that was in a relay race. Trust me, this guy can move! Pistorius is all over the headlines for the World Championships, but not because of his supreme talent. Pistorius’s status as a world class athlete is accompanied by his status as an athlete with two prosthetic legs.
Before jumping into this issue, let’s get down a few terms. “Status” refers to a recognized social position an individual holds within a particular area of life. For instance, within a family someone may hold the status of a father. That same individual may hold the status of employee at work, and coach on his daughter’s soccer team. Even within one area of life a person can hold multiple statuses. In addition to being a father, this same person may be a husband and brother. All of the statuses a person holds is referred to as his/her “status set.” Pistorius undoubtedly holds a number of statuses, including world-class athlete….
I took my daughter to the park for playgroup. She decides to swing. I cringe knowing what she is going to say when swinging: “Weeeee…Fly like an Angry Bird!” Oh no, she said it. I’ve now been outed as a bad mom who lets her toddler play Angry Birds. What happened instead was that the mom next me said, oh, my son loves that game, too! A sense of relief overcame both of us….
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