Sexuality is fundamental to the existence of most human beings; it is about our body, mind, desires, and intimate relationships with others. Thus, in order for us to live as citizens, our sexuality rights—the right to express sexual identities, to experience intimacy and bodily pleasure, to reproduce, and to be in public space with partners if we so desire—have to be ensured (Richardson 2000). However, these issues have long been viewed as private ones and have been excluded from the discourse of citizenship (Weeks 1998). At the same time, in the history of modern nation-states, as Foucault pointed out (see Davidson 2008; Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983), sexuality has also been the major site in which biopower has operated to regulate citizens indirectly. Regardless of the freedom individuals have in relation to their bodies, states have successfully lead their citizens to re-appropriate their desires and behaviors subjectively to meet the interests of these states without coercion (Rose and Mille 1992). In neoliberal society, the bodies of young working-class minority women especially have been the significant sites of governance; states have various intervention programs to redeem them into being productive and reproductive citizens (Harris 2004; Weeks 1998). While the initiative to educate young women should not be condemned, we must also be aware that such initiatives could hinder the expression of their sexuality rights.
Sexuality education targeted at minority working-class girls, particularly, requires critical examination since these programs often stress the importance of regulating one’s sexual desires instead of advocating for sexuality rights (Fine and McClelland 2006; Fields 2008). For example, AOUM, implemented largely in working-class minority communities, posits sexual intercourse within heterosexual monogamous married relationships as the only legitimate sexual act, and suggests that deviation from this norm will bring negative economic and social consequences (Fine and McClelland 2006). AOUM also teaches girls and young women to abstain from so-called non-legitimate sexual acts. In order to assist young women to advocate for their sexual rights, as well as to guide them to pursue their economic goals, it is important to introduce them to Weeks’s (1998) notion of sexual citizenship. This is because sexual citizenship embraces both the public and the political nature of sexuality, and it assists girls to make conscious decisions related to sexuality in the present, as well as to develop aspirations related to family, education, and career.
This article examines how a young Jamaican girl, who immigrated to the United States after experiencing a teenage pregnancy and an abortion, participated in AOUM classes at her high school in a working-class neighborhood of New York City. It specifically examines the aspirations related to her family and career that she developed, and how the values of sexuality and success, which she learned from her AOUM classes, shaped her aspirations and the meaning of her past pregnancy. Furthermore, I discuss how her aspirations and her plan for attaining them extended or limited the possibility of her enacting her own sexuality rights.
Girl Power, Seduction, and Regulation of Young Female Bodies
The regulation of individuals’ bodies and sexual desires has been essential to constructing citizens in the modern nation-states. In the pursuit of their endeavors, these states, according to Foucault et al. (cited in Davidson 2008) have invented technologies to govern individuals from a distance without exerting direct control, including, as Rose and Miller (1992) point out, the construction of loose assemblages of persons, techniques, images, commodities, ideas, and projects. Girl Power discourse, common to popular culture today, is an example of such assemblage. It consists of seductive images, commodities, and encouraging stories of girls who are described as successful because they made their way up solely through their own effort and talent, and it disseminates the message that girls today have access to power, money, social status, beauty, confidence, and even sexual subjectivity (Harris 2004; Gill 2008). When girls become a part of the assemblage, they assign personal meanings to the values of female success and sexuality presented to them within the assemblage. As a result, these values become personalized and integrated into their own belief systems. Such interpretation is a subjective process through which individual girls exercise their freedom to choose. At the same time, it brings a paradox into their lives. Girls may feel that they are empowered as they envision their own success and make a commitment to attain it. However, in reality, their choices are not purely their own; they are shaped by ideas, persons, and objects included in the assemblage. So, what they choose subjectively could end up meeting the interests of others (like, for example, the state and corporations), and could even work against the benefit of individuals (Koffman and Gill 2013).
The Girl Power discourse expands through individuals’ active and voluntary participation. The circulation of successful stories, especially about those who are from humble backgrounds but who pulled themselves up by their boot straps as Harris (2004) and Ong et al. (1996) have noted, provides an illusion that we now live in a post-feminist era in which, according to Doull and Sethna (2011), all women, regardless of their backgrounds, can attain equity in political and economic spheres, as well as the freedom to express their sexual subjectivity. Such an illusion inflates the desire of working-class minority girls to achieve success. While there are still multiple obstacles that hinder girls’ attainment of success, the Girl Power discourse justifies individual responsibility for success and failure, and it leaves systemic inequality unquestioned. This depoliticized view of female power circulates most actively in the media. For example, hypersexual female bodies appear to express their sexual subjectivities, confidence, and power through music videos and advertisements. However, careful reading of these images reveals that these women are still trapped in the traditional heterosexual male-female binary and hierarchy in their presenting of themselves as objects of the heterosexual male gaze (Gill 2008; McRobbie 2007). Ironically, asymmetrical traditional male-female gender relationships are sustained actively through the desire and choice of female subjects to be objectified.
The At-Risk Girl and AOUM
Since the Girl Power discourse constructs successful girls, it simultaneously constructs at-risk girls through their active participation. Successful young female citizens in a neoliberal age have hyper-feminine bodies, and are financially independent, entrepreneurial, and confident. They also juggle many responsibilities to be productive and reproductive at the same time (Duggan 2003). Those who deviate from this expectation—often poor and dependent girls who lack self-esteem or the stereotypically ideal body—could easily be pathologized (Mann 2013). Working-class young women from racial minority communities, including new immigrants, have been viewed historically as lacking the traits of the ideal citizen and, consequently, have been assigned the at-risk label. The history of the relatively high ratio of working-class racial minority single mothers who have received Assistance for Family with Dependent Children (AFDC) has also contributed to reinforcing the negative stereotypes of working-class minority women (Luker 1997).
With the fear in the US that young women from working-class racial minority communities will turn into a burden on the nation, various intervention programs have emerged. As part of the welfare reform in 1996, AOUM is one of the largest federally funded intervention programs. With the intention of reducing welfare dependents, especially single mothers from racial minority working-class communities, the Department of Health and Human services allocates $40 million annually to various states to implement AOUM programs (Fine and McCelland 2006). The programs further proliferated with the additional funding of Community-Based Abstinence Education during the Bush administration (Fields 2008). AOUM’s curriculum, in its incorporation of neoconservative Christian values about sexuality, preaches that sexual intercourse should take place only within a monogamous married relationship for the purpose of reproduction. Further, it warns girls to stay away from any activities that lead to sexual intercourse because this would have harmful consequences for them, their families, and society (Hampton 2008; Lesko 2010).
New immigrant girls who move into working-class minority communities are automatically placed in a large assemblage that consists of contradictory messages about young women’s sexuality and success. On the one hand, they are exposed to seductive images and stories of women in the media that encourage them to exhibit their sexual subjectivities and their desire for empowerment. On the other, they are told by educators in the sexuality education programs like AOUM to stay away from sex because it could harm their future (Boryczka 2009). Being poised between two forces that pull them in opposite directions, young immigrant girls must make meaning of success and sexuality, and develop their aspirations for the future.
A Case Study
In order to explore how immigrant girls experience those contradictory forces in the discourse of girl empowerment and how their experience shapes their values about family and sexuality, as well as their aspirations, I conducted a case study from 2005 to 2008 in a public high school, located in a working-class community in New York City, that was founded in 2001 to serve the needs of late-entry English language learners. The school had 320 students from Grades 9 through 12 who had emigrated recently from Central and South America, West Africa, and the Caribbean to the US. The school was successful in its teaching of English and in its guiding of the students towards academic competence by setting high expectations for all of them, and persuading them of the importance of investing in education for social upward mobility.
Although there were three participants in the study, I have chosen to focus on only one of them, Bianca, since her experience in Jamaica and the US vividly illustrates how and why she willingly adopted the AOUM teachings about the link between female citizens’ success and their sexuality. My data consisted of observations, focus group interviews, and individual interviews. I observed a Language Arts class once a week for two semesters in 2006. I also observed an advisory every other week during the fall semester of 2007. There were twenty-four observations in total. Since the school implemented an AOUM curriculum in the fall of 2007, I observed AOUM sessions conducted by staff from a non-profit organization during the advisory. I also conducted a total of fifteen focus group interviews, and 4 individual interviews with each of the three participants.
Data analysis was inductive and deductive. I started my initial coding with three broad categories related to aspirations (such as, for example, family, occupation, and personality traits) and three categories related to sexuality values (reproduction, marriage, and premarital sex). During the first coding, I generated more specific codes for each of the three major codes related to aspirations. Under the category of family, there were family structure, power relationships, roles, and lifestyle. Under that of career there were occupation, education, and income. Finally, under the category of personality traits, the three subcategories were responsible, caring, and independent. After coding, I examined how data in each subcategory was related to each category of sexuality values and Bianca’s past experience of pregnancy.
The stance I took on interpreting the data followed the tradition of girlhood studies that is based on advocating for the rights of young women from various geographical, social, and cultural locations. As a researcher, following Mitchell and Reid-Walsh (2009), I did this by listening carefully to their voices through their many different modes of expression. I have also become conscious of the political nature of voices; I know that they are not purely authentic or personal but constructed at the intersection of the multiple discourses in which girls participate. I recognize that nowadays discourses about the empowerment of girls are infused with neoliberal force that equates success with financial and material empowerment. I realize that such discourses encourage girls to invest in themselves by developing their confidence, responsibility, independence, flexibility, and productivity and, that as girls participate in the Girl Power discourse, which is reshaped by neoliberal force, they translate these values in the context of their personal empowerment. This means that the expression of their own aspirations is likely to be aligned with the neoliberal notion of success (Harris 2004; Koffman and Gill 2013). I know that the assumptions about the discursive nature of voice also suggest that certain voices are silenced because of the participants’ lack of access to other discourses. For example, working-class minority girls in the United States, whose sexuality has been pathologized, may have limited access to the discourse of desire that includes intimate relationships, pleasure, and the experience of living in a body, as well as the experience of pregnancy, abortion, and child raising (Fine and McCelland 2006). Keeping this in mind, I was careful during my research process not to take my participants’ statements about their aspirations at face value. Instead, I attempted to understand their statements and silences in relation to particular discourses in which they participated or to which they had no access.
Bianca was a freshman in high school when I met her in 2005. She was born in Jamaica and lived with her mother and grandmother in her hometown until she came to New York City in 2003 to live with her father whom she had not met before. Bianca described herself as “pretty, sexy, hot, adorable, girly, intelligent, and flirty … [and one who doesn’t] depend on people for money.” These characteristics were evident in her fashion sense and in the way she interacted with her teachers and peers at school. She was especially successful at catching her peers’ attention with her clothing choice of tight shirts, jeans, and short skirts, as well as with her long ponytail.
What triggered Bianca’s emigration from Jamaica was her pregnancy at the age of fourteen. As soon as her community members found out about her pregnancy, everyone in her school stopped talking to her. Although Bianca and her boyfriend (the father of the baby) were initially happy about the pregnancy, her mother convinced her to have an abortion and then move to New York City. The decision was based on her mother’s belief that Bianca would be better off if she were away from her boyfriend. While Bianca had a difficult time adjusting to her new environment, she acted strong and cheerful at school. She was also moving forward on her academic path to college, supported by her belief that going to college was the first step to achieving success.
Bianca’s aspirations were located in the discourse of neoliberalism. In a neoliberal society, the state reduces its responsibilities toward its citizens while it increases individual citizens’ responsibilities to it. Under these conditions, all citizens, including women, are expected to juggle multiple responsibilities by participating in the labor market and competing with their male counterparts, while continuing to assume traditional female responsibilities such as consumption and reproduction (Duggan 2003; Harris 2004; McRobbie 2007). All these responsibilities are present in Bianca’s aspirations. Her elaborated description of commodities in her future life also signifies that consumption occupies a central position in her aspirations. The luxurious life style in her dream is what Davies and Bansel (2007) would describe as a quintessential example of neoliberal female success. In addition, Bianca’s aspirations had reproductive implications. For example, she planned to take care of her family members financially. Such an aspiration would be celebrated in a neoliberal society because, as Duggan (2003) observes, the government’s support for the underprivileged, including elderly citizens, young children, low-income workers, and single mothers is reduced. Bianca was also aware that consumption and reproduction depend on financial power; she prioritized the achievement of financial independence through professional success in her future plans. In that sense, Bianca’s image of a successful future self was aligned with the neoliberal notion of the ideal female citizen who supports herself financially, consumes actively, and takes care of her family (Harris 2004).
AOUM as an Assemblage
AOUM classes, in which Bianca participated at her school, contributed to the development of her aspirations. The AOUM curriculum consisted of a series of activities, and messages that reflected the neoconservative Christian values of sexuality and the neoliberal values of success that include the attainment of a materially wealthy life through investment in oneself. As Bianca participated in the program, she assigned personal meanings to these values. Furthermore, they led her to re-evaluate her past pregnancy, to make choices related to sexuality in the present, and to develop aspirations for a different future. In her statement about these aspirations, we can see the influence of the values embedded in the AOUM curriculum.
Bianca’s plan to achieve her dream by postponing reproduction until the achievement of financial independence and marriage overlaps with one of the major objectives of AOUM, Linear Life Planning, which is one of the major competencies that the US Department of Health and Human Services requires AOUM programs to include in their lessons in return for the provision of federal funding (Fields 2008). In Bianca’s AOUM class, this objective was taught through an activity in which students had to juggle three balloons, a boyfriend balloon, a college balloon, and a job balloon. After some students experienced difficulty in juggling all three balloons, the instructor guided a class discussion on the impossibility of the task, as well as on the importance of choosing just one balloon—the college one. The rationale behind the choice was that girls would not find a good job without a college degree, and that the boyfriend balloon could distract them from focusing on schoolwork and going to college (Fieldnote, 07 December 2007).
This AOUM teaching contains values from two discourses—the neoliberal discourse of success and the neoconservative Christian discourse of sexuality and family. Neoliberalism assumes that the carrying out, by female citizens, of responsibilities for consumption, reproduction, and production simultaneously in today’s society requires careful planning (Harris 2004). Aligned with that belief, AOUM teaches that postponing reproduction until marriage is the strategy that enables one to assume all these responsibilities (Boryczka 2009; Fine and McCelland 2006). Although these messages about reproduction and sexuality come from neoconservative Christian values about sexuality and family, AOUM introduced them to Bianca, and others in the class, as the strategy for financial and career success in the US.
As Bianca participated in the AOUM classes, she voluntarily incorporated these values into her aspirations and into her way of achieving these. She chose to plan her life linearly, determined to finish college first, establish financial independence next, get married, and have children: this reflects, clearly, the operation of governmentality. The state did not impose these values on Bianca. Instead, the state power indirectly and seductively moved her to re-shape her aspirations and behaviors by leading her to personalize the meaning of success, sexuality, and family as introduced to her through the AOUM classes.
Bianca’s Subversion: Translation of AOUM Message
Living amidst the influence of governmentality, however, did not totally eliminate Bianca’s possibilities of subversion. While she conformed to the idea of Linear Life Planning and reproduction within marriage, she also resisted the sexuality norms taught in AOUM.
Bianca’s comment about her AOUM classes shows her disagreement with its assumptions about working-class minority girls, a population lacking the supposedly right knowledge about family and sexuality that results in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease, as Fields (2008), Fine and McClelland (2006) and Mann (2013) have pointed out. Bianca subverted this assumption of deficit by presenting herself as a knower who has the ability to make informed decisions related to sexuality and reproduction. Evidence of agency on her part is also prominent in her selective adaptation of the neoconservative values that underlie the AOUM curriculum. In order to achieve the neoliberal version of success, the attainment of financial power and a luxurious life style through consumption, Bianca consciously chose reproduction within marriage, thus following the neoconservative Christian values related to family. However, she challenged the same values by translating the major teaching point of AOUM, abstinence until marriage into “be careful when you have sex.” The transformation of this message is her subversion. However, this point of resistance did not develop into a substantial counter-discourse to that of AOUM because, as Foucault ( 1990) has pointed out, points of resistance need to be connected to each other and this was not the case for Bianca. As a result, Bianca’s voice remained simply at the level of personal dissatisfaction with the AOUM lessons.
Another point of resistance Bianca expressed was the reproductive right of young women. She asserted that individual women should choose when to reproduce and in which relationship.
Bianca’s belief about young women’s choice regarding reproduction is contradictory to the teaching of AOUM. While her belief is solid, this point of resistance also failed to evolve into a larger counter-discourse against the neoconservative values of sexuality and reproduction embedded in AOUM. While Bianca acknowledged the reproductive right of young women, as can be seen in this interview, she chose to conform to the neoconservative teaching of reproduction promoted by AOUM; she was planning to reproduce within marriage after the establishment of her career and of her financial independence.
Ironically, Bianca’s choice, which seems to contradict her beliefs on sexuality and reproduction, was her way of being subversive. This stemmed from her experience of pregnancy in Jamaica.
Bianca had a strong desire to proclaim the sexuality and reproductive right of girls especially to those who ostracized her when she fell pregnant. However, instead of making that claim in the present, she decided to postpone it until she achieves (neoliberal) success—the achievement of financial independence through personal effort. Furthermore, she chose to adopt a neoconservative Christian value related to family and life planning, postponing reproduction until marriage, as a method of attaining success. This choice shows that she was personally caught up in the values of the neoliberal and neoconservative discourses, and that she believed that leading her life based on these values would result in her attaining an important goal which is to express the reproductive right of young women in her community in Jamaica. This personal goal, which was entangled with the neoliberal value of success and the neoconservative Christian values around sexuality and family, motivated Bianca. However, careful examination of her comment reveals that Bianca fell into a paradox—she actively conformed to the neoconservative Christian value of ensuring reproduction only within marriage in order to disrupt the same value. In other words, Bianca subjectively adopted the value in which she, essentially, did not believe.
In this study I explore how Bianca, a new immigrant student from Jamaica, interpreted the values of sexuality and success delivered in her AOUM classes, and how her interpretations of these values shaped the meaning of her past pregnancy, her current sexual practice, and her aspirations for the future. Bianca’s aspiration, which emphasized the attainment of material wealth through careful life planning, investment in education, and the development of responsibility and independence, was aligned with the neoliberal notion of success and the neoconservative Christian values related to family as taught in the AOUM classes. She also made a personal decision not to have children before attaining financial independence. Even though there was a glimpse of sexual agency that Bianca expressed in the interview—her choice to engage in a sexual relationship with her current partner and her desire to express young women’s reproductive rights in public in the future—Bianca did not share these views in her AOUM class. This was because AOUM, which does not recognize sexual plurality or the political nature of sexuality, simply pathologized individuals who held sexuality values that deviated from its norm. In addition, AOUM’s claim that making what it calls the right sexual choice as a precondition for economic success framed the issue of sexuality solely as a personal choice for one’s economic empowerment. Such a way of presenting sexuality eliminates opportunities to discuss the existence of multiple sexuality values that the students in her class might have held, to examine how sexuality is tied to other forms of discrimination in society, and how the unequal structure of opportunity in current society hinders the economic advancement of working-class minority girls regardless of their sexuality values and choices.
The emphasis on personal empowerment and the neglect of structural issues that reproduce inequality parallel the second wave feminists’ experience in their pursuit of empowerment in the past, particularly their alliance with neoliberalism, which resulted in reinforcing economic inequality and gender gaps (Fraser 2009; Doull and Sethna 2011) warns young women to be vigilant about the technology of governance embedded in the Girl Power discourse in the neoliberal age; active self-regulation of desires and bodies for the sake of economic empowerment could contribute to the interest of the state but not to their own empowerment (Bartky 1990; Koffman and Gill 2013; McRobbie 2007).
This study also adds a few new insights that complicate our understanding about how and why girls, specifically those who live transnationally, actively engage in the discourse of what could, essentially, disempower them. The first new insight is the traveling nature of sexuality values. Bianca’s experience shows us that sexuality values are not bounded by certain cultural communities in specific geographical locations; they travel across national borders. The sexuality norm that Bianca’s community member in Jamaica held was the same as the one that underlay the AOUM classes: they both condemned sexual intercourse and reproduction outside of heterosexual monogamous marriage as what Eggleston et al. (1999) think of as acts of transgression that deserve punishment. This is not a surprising coincidence when we reflect on the history of colonization that involved the travel of Christianity and its values concerning sexuality from the West to other nations (Thomas 2006). In addition, with massive immigration to the US occurring today, the norms related to sexuality in various communities across the world are traveling into hundreds of communities in this country.
Bianca’s experience also points out that the same sexuality values can have a different purpose and outcome in a different context. AOUM’s message about sexual intercourse and reproduction only within marriage was repressive in Jamaica, and Bianca’s deviation from this norm made her a target of retribution. But AOUM communicates the same value seductively as a strategy for young women to attain economic success. Her inability to recognize the commonality of the same value in these two societies resulted in Bianca’s active compliance with the teaching of AOUM even though this was in conflict with her beliefs in the reproductive rights of young women.
Another significant finding of this study has to do with the danger of assuming cultural essentialism in a community. Bianca’s case shows that she transgressed the sexuality norms of her own community in Jamaica; she had no support to embrace and express her sexuality in her own community there. Ironically, the sense of isolation she felt from this lack of support drove her to actively adopt the values taught in her AOUM classes. This case warns us not to assume the homogeneity of sexuality values within an ethnic community. Past studies on working-class ethnic minority girls’ sexuality have highlighted their collective experience of marginalization when their community’s sexuality values were judged negatively by the dominant sexuality norms in their society as a whole (Kasirye 2008; Koffman and Gill 2013; Mann 2013). Acknowledging the cultural differences that surround sexuality values is, of course, important, but as this study shows, we must be careful not to have this hinder the acknowledgement of the sexuality rights of individuals within ethnic communities nor the creation of sexually pluralistic societies in this multicultural and transnational era.
The findings of the study point to the implications of how we talk about sexuality issues, especially in sexuality education classes, in order to facilitate the empowerment of working-class minority girls, including those in new immigrant populations. One important point to consider is that we need to frame sexuality issues not simply as personal ones, but as public ones that are tied to other aspects of inequality in our society (Mann 2013; Weeks 1998). Such an initiative includes recognizing that individuals and communities hold diverse sexuality values, and ensuring individuals’ equal access to opportunities for economic advancement and political participation regardless of their sexuality values. In addition, we should shift the issues of economic empowerment and sexuality rights, which are confined to the personal realm in neoliberal society, into the public realm.
In order to pursue these goals, sexuality education, especially for working-class minority girls, in accordance with Weeks’s (1998) advice, needs to move away from AOUM to one that places sexual citizenship at the center. This is because the notion of sexual citizenship, which connects the personal to the public, provides a language to talk about sexuality as part of citizenship that includes rights, responsibilities, equality, and belonging. Using these terms and this kind of language would help students to see sexuality as a public issue that has political and economic dimensions. Introducing sexuality into social studies, following Fields and Hirschman (2007), could be a start to this endeavor. While situating sexuality in the discourse of citizenship is important, Bianca’s case also indicates that we must pay attention to the specific nature of sexuality that distinguishes itself from other forms of identity connected to citizenship. In the struggles for equality in relation to race, gender, and class in our history, group members formed alliances based on common social-cultural values, on the history of oppression, and on goals for liberation. In contrast, the struggles for sexuality rights require the recognition of different sexuality values between and within ethnic and/or racial communities. We must be careful not to fall into cultural essentialism, and, instead, focus on forging alliances between and among individuals who hold different sexuality values within and across various communities based, for example, on ethnicity, race, and class.
The pursuit of such an endeavor is not an easy one. Young women’s bodies will still be vulnerable to biopower that will drive them internally to engage in the popular Girl Power discourse for their own individual economic empowerment, while shifting their focus away from unequal social structures that systematically reproduce economic inequality. However, this vulnerability and close contact to the power simultaneously suggest that girls’ bodies can be strategic sites of subversion. By creating spaces in which girls and their allies can discuss and recognize diverse desires, bodies, and relationships openly, we can begin to re-imagine a new form of empowerment. Unlike AOUM, which leads individuals to a specific pre-set goal through precise planning and calculation, the goals and paths of this new collective journey are unpredictable and uncertain. However, it is a worthwhile risk to take.
I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Nancy Lesko for guiding my dissertation study, on which this article is based, and for encouraging me to complete it. I am also grateful to the reviewers of my article for their insightful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript, along with their suggestions. Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Thomas Popkewitz and his students for the intellectual conversations that allowed me to refine this article greatly.
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