Big Think Interview with Juan Battle
Juan Battle is a Professor of Sociology, Public Health, & Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (C.U.N.Y.).
Prof. Battle is a Fulbright Senior Specialist and was the Fulbright Distinguished Chair of Gender Studies at the University of Klagenfurt, Austria. His research interests include race, sexuality, and social justice. Further, he is a recent president of the Association of Black Sociologists and is actively involved with the American Sociological Association (ASA).
Question: Why does society have so much difficulty discussing sexuality?
Juan Battle: I don’t know because it’s so fun. I would think it would be easy. I don’t know. I do know that they do. There is that phrase. I forget the name of the play, but it says sex is a dirty, nasty, disgusting thing you should save for someone you love. It is a taboo subject and I think that that’s unfortunate, but and here I’m thinking sexuality just broadly, not just about sex, but just as broadly as possible. But no, I mean you know to me everybody has it. Everybody does it. Most people at some point in their life actually enjoyed it. I don’t know. I mean people call it a guilty pleasure. I don’t see why it just can’t be a pleasure, pleasure.
Question: Has sexuality become less taboo?
Juan Battle: I think practically everything has become less taboo. Watch TV. So yeah, we are. While moving forward we need to also realize that all of these things mean different things to different people and we should be about liberating everyone and not just those who agree with us.
Question: Why is there so little research on black sexuality?
Juan Battle: Two reasons I would argue. One and I tell this to everybody. What I do is a luxury. The ability to sit back and to think about these things and write about these things and publish and teach and talk about these things, it’s a luxury and so as a group you know black Americans have had a longer list of things to worry about and to deal with and to overcome and I think for the majority of populations, i.e., white populations they didn’t care. So when you have one group that doesn’t care and then one group that is too busy to deal with it it’s easy for these things to sort of get pushed off to the side and the same thing is true for Latino sexualities or for Asian or Native American or anything. It’s a particular point, a moment of luxury to think about it at that level, but I think it’s important to think about it because it could also easily be an issue of literally life and death. If you think about it from a public health perspective there are things like HIV and AIDS. If you think about it from a women’s right perspective there are discussions about abortions and a women’s right to control her own body. If you think about it from a life course perspective people’s sexuality continue and is expressed and is understood literally throughout the life course and it is a part of who people actually are and so I think it’s obviously both a luxury to think about it. I think that it’s not a luxury not to think about it.
Question: What has your research uncovered about minority sexuality?
Juan Battle: Well most of what I focus on is gay and lesbian populations in the United States. At least I focus on at this point in my career and I think that the bulk of my research is showing that within the black population, there is no monolithic experience. There are multiple experiences. But among those things that tend to matter most (and this is no surprise) is money. A friend of mine once said no matter how much money you have you will always have a conversation about money. The issue is depending on how much money you have that will dictate which conversation you have and the same thing is true concerning issues of sex and sexuality and you know expressions based on that.
I don’t know if I would say we choose partners based on money, but they definitely keep them based on money. Sorry. I’m just entertaining myself over here. Money matters and resources matter. Something I often times say is: In relationships, regardless of race, short of death, the two leading causes of the demise of relationships are sex or money broadly defined and people often times say that you know they left at the same time. I’m like no, usually one leaves and the issue is as soon as the one leaves the other one leaves so quickly you think they left at the same time. When indeed there was an order. That is true regardless of race.
Question: What is fear of black sexuality and what are its origins?
Juan Battle: I think the origins were clearly from this whole idea of an effort to keep black men away from white women. That was at core what the hope, wish and desire were. That’s where its origins were. How does that show up now if you will? There is kind of a tacit agreement that never has to be languaged, but it is extremely easy to tap into and that is that you know all black men want to screw white women or do something harmful to white women and women must therefore be protected. Okay, but based upon that alone so we can see racism. We can see patriarchy. We see sexism. We see misogyny, all sorts of things give rise in that scenario. There was an incident that happened a few years ago where a woman unfortunately drove her children into a river and claimed that a black man carjacked her. There were far too many reports in the media where women talk about or even men talk about they have beaten their own wives. And they claim that some black guy came along and did that. Well that is a narrative you don’t have to convince people of. All you have to do is simply tap into it, if you will.
If you were doing a survey to see how a racist a group of people were or in a certain region you wouldn’t say, “Hey, are you racist?” That’s a waste of breath because you know only the most extreme moron would answer yes to that question, but one way you can get at that question is to basically say to someone, “How comfortable would you feel…?” If you’re talking to somebody who is white in the south let’s say in rural areas, “How would you feel if you’re daughter brought home a black man?” You know what I mean? And then you can begin to measure comfort levels, something called feeling thermometers that they have in social science research. And that I think gets added and that exists all by itself. It doesn’t take a lot to create it. It already exists and all you have to do is just sort of tap into it. It’s just there.
Question: Why is everyone aware of this black male white female notion?
Juan Battle: Again, I go back to probably in the early 1600s when in the United States there was this desire for those who had power who were land owners who were overwhelmingly white men whose desire it was to maintain and to control all of their property and among their property they clearly saw was also the women in their lives. You know seeing black people as property that was easy. They already were property. That was clear, but in order to maintain control and so quite often when dealing with even women the whole idea was I’m trying to protect you from them you know that generalized other, that evil thing off to the side and you know I don’t think that’s unfortunately you know I don’t think that that is completely gone and when I say gone, I don’t mean to imply that there are people who wake up every morning and it’s the first thing that they’re thinking. I don’t mean to imply that, but there is awareness, and it goes both ways. When I say goes both ways, it shows up both negatively and positively, this controlling and displaying of bodies and the black male body and what that looks like through sports and the black female body and now we’re seeing it much more with Latino populations and Latinas. Jennifer Lopez, who I often times point to when she first quote, unquote, hit it big she was a raceless figure and then once she became Latina we then allowed for this space and opportunity for her to actually have a big ass and it was a good thing. Beforehand she was just this raceless person with a big butt and she needed to get a smaller one, but as soon as that label of Latino was put on to her she not only had it, we as a culture began to exploit it and looked forward to it and magnified and referred to it in shall we say bootylicious ways.
Question: How did figures like Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton broaden the notions of traditional black sexuality?
Juan Battle: They controlled their sexuality, in the case of Bessie Smith, with both women and men. She controlled her presentation of self and it wasn’t seen as a negative because it was so masterfully done and it was this sort of “I’m in charge of what is going on. I’m an actor and I’m just not being acted up.” Who white did that very well? Mae West: she did a great job of controlling it and you knew any man she was with she controlled him. She controlled the dynamics. She had the power of it and so it was this broadening and creating space and license for women to say you know you don’t have to just be you know acted upon. You can be an actor and you can enjoy sex. You can enjoy these broader expressions of sexuality and up until that point there was sort of “what a lady should do,” and I guess these women came along and said, “okay that is what you say a lady should do and there is what I’m going to do.”
Question: Does the “what a lady should do” idea still exist?
Juan Battle: Yeah, yeah. Until our culture comes up with an equivalent term that is pejorative for men who sleep around we’ll forever you know. We talk about man whores or whatever, but it still doesn’t have the same level of negative connotation. And in the very place that you work, if there was a gentleman who had slept with three or four of the ladies who work there, that sort of thing we might call him a dog. We might investigate the circumstances of those relationships. Conversely, if there was a woman who slept with four of the guys here it’s a short conversation. She is a slut. We’re done.
Question: Are tarnished male figures like Tiger Woods and Eliot Spitzer changing how we think about sex?
Juan Battle: It’s funny you should say that because I haven’t given this much thought because my sentiment is except for Tiger Woods, who by the way, I’m still telling everyone, don’t forget, he said he was not black, so don’t push him off on us. Please no. We got enough problems. Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Tiger Woods, all these ministers in the Midwest and Colorado and who keep getting caught with their pants down, my argument is what they’re doing is the human experience. They’re not doing anything different than what everybody else is doing, so then why do we care? What are they tapping into that causes this? And I think that there is again this tacit agreement about how these things should be done if you will and they’re exposing the fact that that’s not true. It’s not true.
We all cheat, but we don’t get caught and we don’t do stupid things like leave ridiculous messages on the voicemail of a cocktail waitress out of Vegas. Could you be more cliché for heaven’s sakes? So that is where I think the sort of this pushback that we have to give this public perception that we disagree with someone engaging in the same behavior that I too engage in. That was a far too long answer.
Question: Aren’t women cheating just as much as men?
Juan Battle: No, no. I’m not saying women don’t’ cheat. Don’t get me wrong. But you say just as much, that’s where the variable comes into play. I think that again there is this cultural expectation and this cultural standard that there are certain things a women should do. If you talk to an average guy. If you meet a women at 2:00am on a Wednesday in a bar and she goes home with you and has sex, that’s the kind of woman that goes home with people at 2:00am on Wednesday in a bar and has sex with people and he’ll enjoy that, but this is probably not someone he wants to hang out with for a very long period of time, because these cultural standards, norms. Conversely, I think from the man’s end you know he can probably go home and you know tell most of his friends, “Oh my God, I went out to the bar.” “I met this woman.” “We went and had sex.” There will be no judgment around that activity, but there would be judgment around if he then said, “Oh, and I asked her to marry me.” See they would look just like you are right now.
Question: Why do some women have an almost visceral dislike of Hilary Clinton?
Juan Battle: I used to do some polling work and stuff for her when she was running for the Senate the first time here in New York and I remember talking to these people who had organized some of these focus groups among white women. That was the first time I had ever been exposed to this sort of bimodal distribution of white women when it comes to Hillary Clinton. Either they loved her unconditionally or they wanted her hit by a bus and they wanted to be the ones driving the bus. And I was shocked by this. I thought that all white women love all white women and so therefore everybody got along. And I was like, what is going on? It just, it threw me off and I felt like Karen on “Will and Grace.” What’s going on? And so here is my theory. I can’t prove it, but here is my theory. There is a tacit agreement if you will, a prescriptive ethic, what ought to happen, then a descriptive ethic that does happen. We’re still talking about Hillary Clinton. The prescriptive ethic is if you’re with a man and he cheats on you, you leave him, period. That’s it. Hillary, her man cheated. We all heard about it. We all knew about it. It was an international sensation and Hillary didn’t leave. Well quite frankly, most women don’t leave. They just don’t because if most women left you know they say 50% of marriages end in divorce. I would argue 90% of marriages would end in divorce. So then what was it about Hillary that upset people so? It was because she was this sort of public manifestation of the fact of saying to men, “Yes you can cheat, yes we’ll get pissed off, but we’re going to stay.” And so you’ve violated the rule, if you will. The rule is you’re supposed to make them think you’re going to leave, and so surely “if Hillary doesn’t leave Bill then I ain't going to leave my man, but now that he knows that, you’ve shown him my hand.” And so I would condense that down to saying to Hillary Clinton, “How dare you be so strong as to not do something I was too weak to do? And you’ve shown the hand.”
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Juan Battle: I’m really a bad person for that because I have a very strong spirit of sleep. When I get tired I’m going to sleep, so I mean I think that is one reason why I can be so productive because I don’t toss and turn. There are two levels. There is sort of just me and then there is the world. On a personal level, the just me, I oftentimes say to my partner Michael, you know I’m the flavor of the month, but I have enough sense to realize that even the longest month only last for 31 days and on that 32nd day I don’t want to look up and think I wasted my time, that I was worrying about the wrong thing, that I was affecting change in the wrong way or that what I was doing was somehow insufficient and if I had just thought about it I could had a bigger impact, so that is on a personal level. On a more broad world level it’s just issues of social justice. There is a TV show, the “Actor’s Studio” I think it’s called, and they ask those questions at the end of the interview and one of them is, “If heaven exists and you make it, what do you want to hear God say?” My answer has always been if heaven exists and if I make it to the pearly gates and I bump into the greater being you know I don’t want to hear, “Great job Juan.” Or, “You made a difference Juan.” Or, “Welcome, come on in.” I don’t want to hear that. I could care less. The conversation I want to have is you know, “Juan, human suffering, there was a point.” “Come on in, sit down and I’ll explain it to you.”
Question: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Juan Battle: The best advice I think I ever received came from my grandmother who passed away a year, maybe two years ago. I have an extremely, very large, loud laugh and my grandmother said to me once, “Don’t ever let them take your laugh.” And I just, as do all black or probably white, even, grandmothers who grow up in the South, everything is wrapped in these parables. Nothing is ever explicitly just stated, and that idea of never let them take your laugh. I mean never let the world take that which feeds you, which sustains you, which takes care of you, which makes you uniquely who you are on the planet. That’s what I took that to mean, of never let them take your laugh.
Recorded on March 2, 2010
A conversation with the C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center Professor.
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