I don’t get out much. It’s kind of sad, especially considering I’m a sociologist (meaning I study people), but I attribute it to the fact that Debi and I are both workaholics and introverted. Ergo, being around large groups of people is pretty rare for me.
I mention that to introduce a couple of incidents from my volunteering trip in May. We flew in and out of Las Vegas, and, on the last day of our trip, we spent the evening walking the streets of Law Vegas. I’ve been to Vegas a few times before; it was always an obvious place to stop on my way from Utah to California. Perhaps I don’t remember it during my earlier trips or perhaps it has become more pervasive but one of the things I noticed right away were the gangs of mostly Hispanics (I’m assuming because they will work for cheap) on the sidewalks and corners handing out flyers advertising women. I’m actually in favor of legalizing prostitution, so prostitution itself doesn’t bother me. But several aspects of this operation did. First, they were very intrusive in targeting men. I happened to be in a group with 10 young women and was surrounded by them most of the time, so it was awkward and annoying to have people pushing in to our group to offer me brochures over and over. I was also annoyed that they were just targeting men and that they were targeting pretty much any man, regardless of who he was with. They didn’t offer them to women. Why?
While I’m sure their primary customers are men, what about lesbian women? Or do they not hand them to women because they think women would be offended? And why are there not people offering women brochures advertising men? (The obvious answer is because men are easy and women don’t have to pay for sex; it’s relatively easy for women to find a willing partner.)
But I was also intrigued by who was handing these brochures out. It was, as I noted, mostly Hispanics. Are they Catholics and opposed to prostitution but still handing out the flyers? How do they feel about this? They have to be aware of what they are doing as the flyers included pretty clear pictures of what was on offer, so how do they justify this in their mind? Is this simply a reflection of their poverty and the fact that desperate people are willing to do just about anything for money?
So, that bothered me. But something else bothered me as well.
As it got later, different people, all men, started approaching the women in my group and offering them free entrance into night clubs. Now, I’ve only ever been to a couple of night clubs (not my scene at all), but I think I know why these guys would be out on the streets of Vegas trying to get women into their clubs: more women will attract more men which will result in greater profits, offsetting the loss of comping women admission fees. I get that. But this also bothered me. It’s basically open discrimination against one sex – men.
Additionally, this is discriminatory against non-straight individuals. I tried to make this point to one of these recruiters.
As a recruiter approached my group on a street corner and asked the women in the group if they wanted a bracelet to get them into a nightclub for free (which they all declined), I turned to him and said, “And what if I’m gay?” It stopped the recruiter dead in his tracks and he didn’t know how to respond, so I pressed on. “You’re trying to get the women into the club to attract men, but couldn’t I do the same thing if I’m gay?” Now the recruiter seemed genuinely creeped out. He stammered a very uncomfortable, “No,” then dissolved back into the throngs of people on the sidewalk.
The students with me were initially shocked by my outburst, but as soon as the recruiter left they laughed and thought it was funny.
Yes, it was funny. And, no, I didn’t really think he’d give me a free bracelet so I could get into the club. But my point was really to get him to think about the assumptions he was making and the discriminating he was doing. Of course my outburst won’t change anything, but I wanted to see how he would respond.
Heteronormativity is still widespread in the US. And, while it is often a safe assumption to make that everyone is heterosexual (since about 95% of people are), I think it’s time we stop assuming heteronormativity. My desire for this won’t change the intrusive and obnoxious targeting of people on Vegas sidewalks, but there are practical reasons for this. In fact, my not assuming people are heterosexual probably saved two interviews I did for my research. I was interviewing nonreligious people and wanted to know about their social network. I specifically asked, “Do you have a significant other?” rather than asking about husband or wife because I didn’t want to assume my respondents were married. And, in the follow up question I asked of those who had a significant other I was very careful to ask, “What is his or her name?” regardless of the respondent’s sex. While I might still offend someone who is asexual or has a partner who is something other than male or female, this question left open the possibility of either a male or female partner regardless of the participant’s gender. Two of my respondents hesitated when I said, “What is his…” until they heard me say, “…or her name?” Both were females living with their female partners. And both participants seemed to issue a sigh of relief when I included “…or her?” Thus, the fact that I did not assume heterosexuality helped my two lesbian respondents feel more comfortable in responding to my questions.
Is it time to end heteronormativity?