I am a sociologist who studies how cultural schemas shape power relations and how subordinate groups are sometimes able to increase their control by creating new cultural meaning.
To date, I have pursued these interests through four main lines of inquiry that examine: 1) how and why the United States and France developed very different legal and corporate approaches to sexual harassment; 2) how and why fatness has come to be understood as a public health crisis and the consequences of understanding body weight in this way; 3) how and why various groups talk of “coming out” as members of these groups to resist stigma and collectively mobilize for social change; and 4) how the term gender neutrality has been used in and out of the courts and across the women’s rights, gay rights, and transgender rights movements.
2000 Ph.D., Princeton University
1999 Ph.D, L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris
In 2003, I published What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne (California), which showed how different legal and political traditions constrained and enable U.S. and French activists to develop distinct legal approaches to sexual harassment that, in turn, had disparate implications for corporate policies in each nation. In 2018, I extended this work in an article published in Law & Society Review, showing how European law—and specifically a 2002 Directive—has shaped the practice and content of sexual harassment law in France. I find that the European Directive changed how French courts address sexual harassment and shaped the content of a new sexual harassment law France passed in 2012. Yet, its influence has been mediated by dominant national attitudes about: 1) the nature of sexual harassment, 2) which legal institutions are best suited to address it, and 3) the character of women who claim to have been harassed. I further find that news reporting on a 2011 arrest of a French politician for sexual assault led to more positive attitudes about sexual harassment victims. The impact that news media reporting on this arrest has had on the enforcement of sexual harassment law in France sheds light on the likely impact of the #MeToo movement in the United States, as I discuss in several forthcoming publications.
My 2013 book, What’s Wrong with Fat? examined how and why fatness has come to be understood as a public health crisis and the social consequences of understanding body weight in this way. I have also published several articles that examine related issues.
My next book, Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are (Oxford, 2020) examines how and why people “come out” as specific kinds of people. It examines the political goals this accomplishes and how the term’s origins in the gay rights movement inform what it means to come out as, say, fat, undocumented, as Mormon fundamentalist polygamist, or as a victim of sexual abuse. It shows that identity-based movements seek to cast off negative stereotypes and internalized shame. Sometimes this involves reclaiming stigmatized terms such as black, queer, or fat. Other times, groups try to destigmatize and reframe issues by employing new terms, such as undocumented, DREAMers, or plural-marriage-families. In both instance, people counter stigma and discrimination and pursue a human need to have their authentic self publicly recognized and valued.
Finally, with generous support from the National Science Foundation Program in Law and Social Science, I am collaborating with Juliet Williams (UCLA Gender Studies) on a project examining the contested and evolving meaning of the term gender neutrality in and out of the courts and across the women’s rights, gay rights, and transgender rights movements. While the principle of gender neutrality has been invoked in almost thirty Supreme Court cases and over 500 Appellate Court cases and inspired movements for gender-neutral parenting and gender-neutral bathrooms, no one has yet systematically examined the different meanings given to the term or the impact it has had on law or politics. This study thus provides the first comprehensive assessment of the impact of the principle of gender neutrality in U.S. law and political activism. We find that gender neutrality has been underutilized as a legal doctrine, underestimated as a social change strategy, and undertheorized in scholarship on law and gender politics.
Our first paper (2019 in Signs) from this project draws on quantitative and qualitative analyses of a sample including all news articles published in The New York Times that include the term gender neutral/neutrality or the synonyms sex neutral/neutrality or sexually neutral/sexual neutrality anywhere in the text and all articles with these terms published since 1987 in USAToday, San Francisco Chronicle, or Christian Science Monitor. Our analyses of these data show that the press has invoked gender neutrality in discussions of a wide range of issues, including language, consumer products, and restrooms. The press has discussed gender neutrality in the context of women’s rights since the 1970s, gay and lesbian rights since the late 1980s, and transgender rights since the 1990s. Most news discussions focus on reducing the salience of gender—or degendering, but among the subsample of articles discussing transgender rights, most frame gender neutrality as gender inclusivity—or the recognition of multiple gender identities. A third frame—androgyny, in which people are encouraged to play with gender regardless of their biological sex—is invoked more rarely than the other two. We discuss the implications of these findings for contemporary gender politics, and more broadly, for advancing current theoretical accounts of doing gender. Specifically, we suggest that the gender neutrality frames we identify—degendering, androgyny, and gender inclusivity—challenge normative conceptions of gender and thus gesture at alternative gender orientations. While degendering represents an orientation in which gender is downplayed, androgyny supports free play with masculine and feminine elements. Degendering corresponds to undoing gender, whereas androgyny speaks to redoing gender. By recognizing gender identities beyond the binary, gender inclusivity offers a different version of redoing gender. In each of these ways, gender neutrality challenges some aspect of the prevailing gender system, whether it is an assumption of the “omnirelevance of gender” (degendering); a strict dichotomous account of gender (androgyny); or the binary gender system itself (gender inclusivity).
Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are. Oxford University Press. 2020.
What’s Wrong with Fat? ” Read the Introduction” Oxford University Press. 2013.
What is Sexual Harassment?: From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne. University of California Press. 2003.
“Reassessing Gender Neutrality.” Abigail C. Saguy, Juliet Williams, and Mallory Rees. 2020. Law & Society Review. 54 (1): 7-32
“Reimagining Gender: Gender Neutrality in the News.” (with Juliet Williams). Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. vol. 44, no. 2 (Winter 2019): 465-489.
“Europeanization or National Specificity? Legal Approaches to Sexual Harassment in France, 2002-2012.” Law & Society Review. vol. 52, no. 1 (March 2018): 140-171.
“‘I Would Never Want to be an Only Wife’: The Role of Discursive Networks and Post-Feminist Discourse in Reframing Polygamy.” (with Nicole Iturriaga) Social Problems. vol. 64, no. 3 (February 2017): 333-350.
“Culture, Health, and Bigotry: How Exposure to Cultural Accounts of Fatness Shape Attitudes About Health Risk, Health Policies, and Weight-Based Prejudice.” (with David Frederick and Kjerstin Gruys) Social Science and Medicine. vol. 165 (September 2016): 271-279.
“Effects of Competing News Media Frames of Weight on Antifat Stigma, Beliefs about Weight, and Support for Obesity-Related Policies.” (with David Frederick, Gaganyjot Sandhu, and Traci Mann.) International Journal of Obesity. vol. 40, no. 3 (March 2016): 543-549.
“Coming Out of the Shadows: Harnessing a Cultural Schema to Advance the Undocumented Immigrant Youth Movmeent.” (with Laura Enriquez). American Journal of Cultural Sociology. vol. 4, no. 1 (February 2016): 107-130.
“How to Describe it? Why the Term ‘Coming Out’ Means Different Things in the U.S. and France.” (with Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer) Sociological Forum. vol. 29, no. 4 (2014): 808-829.
“Reporting Risk, Producing Prejudice: How News Reporting on Obesity Shapes Attitudes about Health Risk, Policy, and Prejudice.” (with David Frederick, and Kjerstin Gruys.) Social Science and Medicine. vol. 111 (June 2014): 125-133.
“Gendered Homophobia and the Contradictions of Workplace Discrimination for Women in the Building Trades“(with Amy Denissen) Gender & Society. vol. 28, no. 3 (June 2014): 381-403.
“ Coming Out as Fat: Rethinking Stigma. ” (with Anna Ward) Social Psychology Quarterly. vol. 74, no. 1 (March 2011): 53-75.
“ Social Problem Construction and National Context: News Reporting on ‘Overweight’ and ‘Obesity’ in the U.S. and France.” (with Kjerstin Gruys and Shanna Gong) Social Problems. vol. 57, no. 4 (November 2010): 586-610.
“Morality and Health: News Media Constructions of Overweight and Eating Disorders.” (with Kjerstin Gruys)Social Problems. vol 57, no. 2 (May 2010): 231-250.
“Fat in the Fire? Science, the News Media, and the ‘Obesity Epidemic‘.” (With Rene Almeling). Sociological Forum. vol. 23, no. 1 (March 2008): 53-83.
“The Epidemiology of Overweight and Obesity: Public Health Crisis or Moral Panic? ” (With Paul Campos, Paul Ernsberger, Eric Oliver, and Glen Gaesser). International Journal of Epidemiology. vol. 35, no. 1 (February 2006): 55-60.
“Constructing Social Problems in an Age of Globalization: A French-American Comparison.” (With Rodney Benson) American Sociological Review. vol. 70, no. 2 (April 2005): 233-259.
“Weighing Both Sides: Morality, Mortality and Framing Contests over Obesity.” (With Kevin W. Riley) Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law. vol. 30, no. 5 (October 2005): 869-921.
“International Crossways: Traffic in Sexual Harassment Policy.” European Journal of Women’s Studies. vol. 9, no. 3 (2002): 249-267.
“Employment Discrimination or Sexual Violence?: Defining Sexual Harassment in French and American Law.” Law and Society Review. vol. 34 no. 4 (2000): 1091-1128.
“Puritanism and Promiscuity? Sexual Attitudes in France and the United States.” Comparative Social Research. vol. 18 (1999): 227-247.
Awards & Grants
UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award, 2017.
Honorable Mention. Association for Humanist Sociology Book Award. for What’s Wrong with Fat?
Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), Stanford. Fellow. 2008-2009.
Fellowship. Robert Wood Johnson Scholars in Health Policy Research Program (Yale site). 2000-2002.
Winner. Sally Hacker Award. Sex and Gender section of the American Sociological Association. 2000. “Sexual Harassment in France and the United States: Activists and Public Figures Defend their Definitions.”
National Science Foundation. Law and Social Science and Sociology Programs. # 1734340. For “How difference matters in the development of legal doctrine” (with Juliet Williams) $326,967. September 1 2017-August 31 2020.
ASA/NSF Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline (FAD): Creating the “Obesity Epidemic”: Science, Social Activism, and the Mass Media. $7000. 2004-2006.
National Science Foundation. Doctoral Dissertation Research: Defining Sexual Harassment in France and the United States. NSF 98-2. $3400. 1998-1999.
French Government. Subvention pour le fonctionnement d’une cotutelle de thèse (Dissertation Grant). 35,000 F ($6364). 1998-1999.
Council for European Studies. The Young Scholars Networking Grant. Spring 2000.