Wilfredo: You’re listening to Tell Me More!, a podcast for amplifying the work of graduate students. I’m your host, Wilfredo Flores... or just Wil.
[opening theme song plays, “Metre” by Slow Alarm]
W: This is a show where we ask graduate students a singular question: Tell me more!
W: So, let’s get into the episode.
[music continues and then fades out]
W: Hi there! Welcome to tell me more where we chat with graduate students about their work, ideas, and more. In this episode, I'm chatting with Aunrika Tucker-Shabazz, a fourth-year PhD candidate in sociology, gender, sexuality, and family at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. So, welcome Aunrika. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Aunrika: Yes! Thank you so much. And thank you. I'm excited to be a part of this. I am a fourth-year graduate candidate at the University of Michigan, and I am originally from Chicago, Illinois. I shout it out because I am a firm Midwesterner, but all the schools I've been to, I went out to New England and was a traitor for a while, regionally, but I came back. I grew up in Minnesota, went to college out east in Massachusetts, and then return to the M in Michigan of the Midwest. So I've got—that's me. And my research I'm here to talk about today is in a lot of ways about place as well. So I do research on sexual violence, structural violence, and I'm here today to talk about how we talk about sex that happens at home as opposed to sex that happens or sexual harassment that happens on campus or the street or the workplace.
W: Awesome. That sounds great. I'm excited to learn more. So please— tell me more! [laughter]
A: So what I'm here today, I'm excited really to kind of work it out, but I'll start by saying as a sociologist, I think that upon my entrance into sociology as a social theory discipline—as a discipline, that concerns itself with sexuality, the subject to subjectivity, individuality, groups, and categories. I was surprised when I came into grad school in 2017 with this interest about sex in the family. So what is typically called incest by, by some people, molestation by others, it is referred to others as child sexual abuse, some put it under domestic violence. There's a lot of ways that sex within the family gets categorized in Western discourse. But I was very curious, especially about sociology, thinking about talking about sex on campus, campus sexual assault—it was like, okay, check. When I get to college, there's a language for talking about violent sex that happens—great. If I am a worker, awesome, I have workplace harassment and I have filing something against a boss. Great. So if I'm working someplace, I have a language for negative sexual interactions. If I'm on the street, there's street-level harassment and cat calling, and there's in all of these realms, there's people who are organizing around sexuality, the meaning of sexual interaction and violence in particular, but I was very shocked right, that something that we know is under-reported—the most common form of sexual violence under reported—is that sexual violence that happens to minors or what we do with children and what happens at home. And there wasn't really a lot of social theory about sexual interactions at home. And if it was, it was about the married couple. So the married couple is ideally two strangers who through some form of purity and danger and intimacy come together in the public and then they decide to get married and then reproduce. And that's a good story, except for the fact that that's not the most common way sex happens inside of a home.
There's more sexual contact then between adult who are married. And that was very important to me, sort of as the form, the problem formulation was: we know this is very common. We know that there's other kinds of sexual arrangements. So why is sociology so concerned with the married sex of heterosexual married people? So that's a mouthful, but it's like that, that that's really the, the, the problem for me as a sociologist was how are you leaving this other obvious sexual activity in a position, as Saidiya Hartman says, of a position of unthought sexual activity. That's sort of where I started. So what I call the structure of silence, it was very difficult going then to look for resources that talk about the meaning of sexuality within the family in the home that is not the property of two married strangers. And I had several avenues.
So I was very familiar with the literary tradition, what I call the incest canon that comes from Black literary figures. So this is The Color Purple, this is Precious—or Push, sorry, by Sapphire. And invisible instances right in Invisible Man. There were, there was this canon that had been started particularly in the literary genre of the neo-slave narrative, the Reconstruction-era Black subject, But, I had first gotten exposed kind of this, to this idea of incest, really, through whiteness. So most people are familiar with Good Will Hunting, the Prince of Darkness with Nick Nolte [Editor’s Note: Prince of Tides] in the sense that Good Will Hunting in the sense of like a troubled white male character from some kind of sexual trauma the Prince of Darkness was really 80s type of film. And then Precious happens where the first film of on-screen kind of discussion about sex in the family as something that's a problem is happening, happens on screen or that you hear it on screen. You see it on screen and feel it on screen. And then Game of Thrones. And it was like Game of Thrones, it was sexy. It was like Twitter names. It was like, “Are you team Lannister?” I was like, oh my gosh. So I like felt alone a lot and then like get, you know, Game of Thrones happens. And I was like, why doesn't sociology? If they're not interested in the literary canon, I got it. Maybe that's a Black thing from neo-slave positions. They don't want to do the literary genre. There wasn't a structural theory of sex within the family, but you had patriarchy, but no one had gone so far as to say the father who has sex with the child or siblings who have sex with siblings, things like that. So then it's like Game of Thrones, intersectionality, and Precious. And I was like, there's this cultural thing happening around sex in the family but that sociology just hadn't quite picked up on. So it was trying to find data as they talk to you about, as a graduate student, but when you find a silence, as your data, when you, when you find a nothing, a non-response as the data, that's where I was pretty much up to last year. And now I'm in this stage this year of like, what kinds of concepts and what kinds of audiences should I pitch my work to? And most concerned with those who are living with—living in the wake of incest, as opposed to just speaking to my discipline about sexuality and the family. So to wrap that part up—this part up—it's like where I am is really wanting to, how do I speak to, how do I do my research? How do I write my work in a way that is livable, speakable, and makes the power structures of sex within the family a lot more explicit so that individuals like myself can counteract shame, embarrassment, guilt—The livable qualities, really, of living in the wake of incest.
Unspeakabilty does not mean unpracticability. And this, incest, is that—it really exposes that, where a lot of practices, a lot of research, still assumes at the very least that what is spoken follows from what is practiced and that what's practiced follows from what's spoken, right? When you have something like incest, where it's like, people practice this activity all of the time. So, what happens when there is a ritual practice that is not specific to a race group that is not specific to a particular class of individual. It is not particular to a language group, of moments in time or history—I mean, sex within your family membership has historically been popular. It is contemporarily still practiced. So my question and for a lot of people is like, at which point did this become a problem, sociology, for the, for the society? Not really, at which point does it make us uncomfortable? Right? Because that's what, cause that's the explanation for the unspeakable city is that heteronormative assumption of discomfort around talking about the fact that marriage does not prevent other sexual activity. And the second one is that children have sexuality and that they have sexuality that, while it may not be able to be captured by our frameworks of consent or of choice, agency—children are sexual, sexualized, have sexual potential, but they are also the group that legally everyone supports as should have no rights; they should not be allowed to assemble. They should not have the right to vote. They should not have the right. And I know it sounds typically, it sounds egregious to people, right? To, to suggest that a child should have rights, but these two, these two problems make incest, what, the biggest, well-kept secret and most practiced form of sexual violence.
The, the unspeakability of it, which is about that knowledge assumption. And then that hetero, those heteronormative assumptions, as well, that marriage is the foundation of the family and that children, everyone can get behind this idea that, well, a child should have no rights. And we don't think about how that creates this, this larger social activity.
W: Right yeah, it kind of hinges on just the way that the liberal subject operates within, at least the Western framework in the United States, of who has yeah, like sexual potential. Like if we think of sexuality tied to that liberal subject and how children don't really fit within that placeholder until they grow into it at a certain, often arbitrary age limit, and again yeah, that does sound egregious. So I think that's also why I think straight people don't want to talk about it maybe. Yeah. But yeah, I totally, I totally see that. Yeah. I see those connections. That's so fascinating. I never thought of, I, like you said, you see it in popular media. And just now, yeah, I'm reading a book called Real Life from Brandon Taylor. And there's a moment of spoiler, I guess, for anybody reading the book, there's a moment of sexual abuse or whatever term you want to use that hinges on incest. And yeah, it's, it's, it's everywhere, but it's that unspeakable thing where suddenly, well, for one thing, when it's white folks, it becomes sexy. Like it's Cersei and that other guy, I don't remember. I didn't watch the show. I stopped watching it once I saw that Daenerys lady and all the formerly enslaved people that she liberated, like carrying her. And I was like, okay, this imagery is not for me, but yeah, whatever that dude's name was. So, you see it and you see the way it's kind of picked up by popular media in particular and framed in specific ways. Is that something that is really at the core of your analysis, like looking at popular media to excavate these things?
A: Yes, I really—yes. So partly because right the sociological silence doesn't mean that there was silence in society, and it doesn't mean that that silence is everywhere. So it definitely was important for me as the graduate student in that research process to be like, when I found a finding, to not the instinct to generalize it and to universalize it. “There is a silence in the”—it's like, no, it's very specific. So having, when I looked elsewhere, where does this come up? Well, porn, I mean, faux incest has been the moneymaker since the eighties, that category has increasingly become popular. And what's really funny is that as a graduate student, the internet is just so deliciously amazing for this kind of research. So on one hand, I have, right, I have the media representations. So these film versions, how they are packaged and curated. So that's from the sort of supply side in that sense. And you, you really didn't have on screen representations of sibling sex or intergenerational sex that was sanctioned—the only place that that was OK was pornography, the other thing we will not speak about. But PornHub tells the truth.
So PornHub was publishing statistics and PornHub statistics about usage and viewing. Right? You have the racial dynamics appear in that virtual landscape. Then in Twitter, Twitter threads, where people are actively on Twitter saying, I can't even get good porn anymore. You know, like people on Twitter are like, it's everywhere. I can't get away from it. But then you had prime television. HBO is not PBS. Okay. I am going to subscribe to this
W: Yeah, I’m paying for that!
A: And then Game of Thrones become, it's I mean the highest-watched episodes right, by no coincidence are also these ones where–well, I make the argument by no coincidence—they're also the ones where sexual intercourse between Jamie and Cersei is taking place. Or where Joffrey, who is the right most, just awful in-bred—he is evil and he must die. And a large part of that fantasy work of seeing the parents indulge sex—great. But then the child right. Is cast as this horrible mean, awful, evil thing. So this is like, the white, as you said, this is how whiteness makes sense of incest in the media is that there's a lot of lust, hot stuff going on, and we can do it in PornHub because it's like, step-brother, step-sister. We can invoke this, “Well, they're not really family” in porn world. But in the fantasy realm, there's, there's the sexy, hot, erotic, steamy, but the consequences of that, you see whiteness playing out as evil, really unnatural kind of child: Joffrey is the consequences embodied of right between his parents. But then later on in the season, whiteness makes sense of, right, of Jon Snow and Daenerys. Like later on Jon Snow, it's the for white men, it's the accidental innocence trope like, oh, “But have they, it was hot until we found out,” right? Like, oh no, Jon Snow didn't they didn't really know. So there's still gets to be like white fantasy innocence there.
A: We had two other media representations though, that came out with Black people and that was the films, right. We had Precious, which is released, and we have all these op-eds and the flurry of intellectual knowledge production around Precious—representations of poor women, low-income women, inequality, the family structure, drugs. And then we also have the strange things about The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. So 2009, 2010, 2011, 2011, you have these four media representations of family sex that really hit the public media sphere. And this is—so it's good that I came into graduate school, I guess in 2017, because I get to look at this like media representation sort of field. And that is a huge, that that is a huge part of looking at racial discourse, racial meaning-making of incest in, on film and, and on screen which helps with the literary tradition that precedes it. There isn't really a media at the time. Toni Morrison's writing out Beloved and Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. You get these snippets in Go Tell It on the Mountain. So this literary tradition gives way to the media tradition in some sense. Yeah, I guess like something I want to, I'd love to hear your thoughts on, because part of my work as a graduate student as well has been accounting for... It's like, how do the theories that we do have, like, how do I make sense of them? So I really appreciated earlier when you were talking about like the way sort of feminist theory and queer theory and theory of color has really been about addressing heteronormativity, it's been about addressing that assumption and how deeply it's baked into society. But in a lot of, a lot of ways, like age is kind of the last frontier that I think people still believe is natural. I think that people believe you were bringing up time here. The way we experience time is still naturalized.
W: This is, this is a fascinating project to me, because again, I never thought of incest as a way to look at those, all of these things converging in that way and they are converging in this particular space. So that's fascinating to me. Yeah,
Aunrika: Absolutely. I, I tend to, I tend to believe that that's where my project is going. That like, the reason that it's hard to get at incest in the US context is something about time. That there's something about the way we haven't quite denaturalized time all the way yet. And there's a refusal to do that, I think. Cognitively, we kind of get there when we say PTSD, right? We kind of get there when you hear some intellectuals and people say that linear time, we're not on linear time, but then you're like, so what does that mean though? What does it mean for something like violence? What does it mean for something like, well, the history of racism will just keep repeating itself. We have a logic for it when it comes to the prison, right? The, the carceral logic, we have this understanding of how slavery and capturing someone and confining them shifts and reproduces itself over time. We have this language of reproduction of social inequality, which is kind of biological and kind of woman-ish, but not quite because we don't mean reproduction in a birth since we just mean reproduction to mean continuity of inequality. And then we kind of have, like, we don't have a, we don't really have a theory of time, really, in sociology. Like we have like historicity, history, but we don't have a sense of how is time being taught from one generation to another? And how does that affect the way that, for example, someone who is a repeated victim of sexual violence, what does, how does time come to be understood for them? Beyond this idea of like you have PTSD and so your brain is fragmented, right? And memory becomes the thing to torment the survivor as opposed to something that can empower them or makes like for them. And children just constantly lose out. Like they're not reliable memory—they're seen as not having a reliable memory. They're not seem, you know, as having a reliable kind of speech. They're not mature speakers as of yet. They don't, they're not endowed with any rights. The emergent system of education is there to do something for children—to groom them as we call it—construct them into good idyllic citizens. But like child is a very empty modifier to use it that way. There's just an empty category because it means everything you do not have until we give it to you. Children are public property in the sense that they, they have none of these sort of markers, they don't have rights, they don't have protections, or they're subsumed really under the family. So I think in a lot of ways, children pose a time problem to social theory and specifically to developmental ideals of sexuality, which is you'll arrive at some point, you'll arrive at this moment and puberty gets to remain this like, it's like the best time piece we have. It's like puberty, but it's a, it's a gendered form of time telling right. Puberty is about women's ability to reproduce or not. But what, you know, Being prepubescent does not prevent you from sexual activity, right? Like prepubescent doesn't mean anything for sexual potentiality. So this kind of problem that, like, children and children's bodies and children's sexuality really poses for adult-centered, stranger-centered theories of social life.
In my quest to go looking for work on incest. It was like, even within that, who do we tend to care about? Right? So like at which point is incest, again, a social problem. Like, is it a problem if it's two older people, if it's two siblings who are 30 and 30, is it a problem then? Or is it a problem only when it is a pre-legal, when it's a minor. Right. And what I was finding in terms of like, at which point in the life course is incest a problem. And, and one of the things I'm running into there, right, is like time. It depends on what logic of time you're using, because 18 is legal-centric. It's criminogenic understandings of time that there's certain periods of the life where aggression increases, where likelihood or propensity for criminality increases, all informed by, as you said, colonialized racial logic. First of all right? The ideas of youth are not race neutral, and they are also morally charged ideas of adolescent, teenager, as we have been seeing. And I found this other issue of time, which is that elder care is its own form of silence, structural violence. I mean, the sexual violence taken against elders in the community is also a problem that is not talked about at all. And I was just, I mean, I was to talk about the graduate research process. I mean, when I found that out, I went looking for one thing, right. And I found this other kind of structural violence that had been silenced and just processing that alone was so in the body stressful, I like could not work for two weeks, three weeks, maybe like just, just absorbing that kind of knowledge, that kind of information. Like there's no place for elders to report this information, right, at either. So this other finding that comes out, like you said, of like Americans and a lot of societies seem to be very concerned with that under-the-normal curve, those two standard deviations: 18 to 40. And that's really, when we care about marking your body as reproductive or not, tracking your body, tracing your body, we want to give you all of the toolkits and resources and language you need to navigate this sexual ecosystem, safely land in the allotted place we have for you. And then there's these tail ends, right, if you think about age sexuality, that way the tail ends that's. I mean, if we think there's a lot of sexual violence going on in under that part of the curve, it's the tail ends at, like, we haven't even begun to really engage in and think about because of the way age is functioning, I think, in society and in social research. Sexuality is social constructed. The family is socially constructed. Your identity is socially constructed. Your race. All of these things are socially constructed, but, but age is not, right? Like we still want to say age tells us anything true about an individual. And, and that is a very, I think, that that's something that really undergirds why those tail ends—elders and young people—particularly in capitalist societies really suffer in silence.
This silence really has consequences like for adults, obviously for children, especially, but that was so important to me as a survivor, as well, was like meeting men who are survivors of, as well, who've had experiences, traumatic sexual experiences with family sex. And they're like, no, one's talking to us either. Meeting white people as well, like needing white men who are like. I think this happened to me. I think that this is my experience. I just didn't know what it was, I didn't know what it was called. I didn't think I was raped. I didn't call this abuse. I just didn't know what was going on. I, my work on incest moves me beyond the black-white binary. And I think that that's very important when it comes to the contribution that something like paying attention to incest, how it is structured in society. It's not, it doesn't obey a lot of the rules that a lot of the ways we usually talk about sexuality do. And a lot of people need the work. It's not just, I'm not just talking to the diasporas of, you know, descendants of individuals who are colonized, but it matters that white people have silenced this work even as they have been practicing it on themselves, as well. So what does it look like to have research that is rigorous on sexuality in society that encounters racism, encounters the colonial legacy of slavery and, you know, empire, domination. But to, to realize that the black- white binary of the system in the US doesn't deny the fact that survivors need this language, as well, and white survivors, are men and are women, and also non, you know, gender identifying in that sense. It's like something like incest it's like, how do I make sure it doesn't get pegged in the politics, right,
of publishing—the politics of this must be critical race theory. This must be about Blackness. This must be about women and Black feminists. This must be queer theory. This is for y'all.
I have friends, I have men in my life. Like I have friends. I have so many people from so many different races, ethnicities, class backgrounds, wealthy white men who also are experiencing incest who also have no language to, to challenge their oppressors. And so it's such a hefty, it makes a demand, I think, intellectually that also hasn't been addressed, but it, it really is a livable, I think, sexuality experience that the language demands: How do I get this to people who need it or how to like, like, folks who are living with—I need to make a decision of staying or going. I need to get a decision of, I'm not in a safe place where people expect that I am. I can go to my campus counselor, but can I talk about family sex in a campus sexual assault space, right? Like Title IX doesn't work on family, and workplace harassment, doesn't work at home and street—right, so where do you go when you don't have a resource safety net in public either, right? There's, there's no social resources in the public sphere. So a lot of individuals and a lot of families are the ones who are responding. Like, that's the level at which it's being contained is like individual experience or family. You seek out your own family therapist, or you seek out a therapist or a psychologist for yourself, resource strategy as for so many people. So I, I really have the desire to be some form of what is called the public scholar. It's like this work. I don't want to just sit in the citation conversations at conferences. It's, it's for people. So I wanted to say that in terms of the, tell me more, it's like the applications of this. I'm, I'm brainstorming. It's opportunities like this for me, that allow me to, to say something about my work and to get it out there at least. So I'm very thankful and I'm very appreciative and I'm very unpolished still, but I just, I can't tell you how much, like, thank you so much for having this opportunity and like, and doing the work, like, just...
W: No yeah, like, yeah, thank you for, for sharing all of this. This has been fascinating like encouraging, energizing. Like my brain is just kind of rushing with all of these ideas of like, not to solve or fix things, but how do I attend to these issues as well within my own work? Which I think is, yeah, that work of that public, that public scholar of, “This affects you too. Like, as you said, like this affects a lot of people.
A: I've really enjoyed in my graduate career. Like as I've come into this professional identity of, of dissolving those boundaries, literally through conversation and hearing how the work is similar and how we have to just trust that we are doing it right, because we're the first ones to do it. And that can be so hard. I have my mama in my head, like, “How many times I have to tell you to do this right?” And I'm like, damn! But you know, like... [laughter]
W: Yeah! Like, if I have go up there and it's wrong, I'm going to get the belt or something horrible like that. Yeah!
A: It's like, oh, the extra, you know, be extra. Right. Your mom comes in, well, my Black mom aesthetic of, “It looked clean, but run your hand over it.” It's like a very different—it's like when I run my hand over it, does it feel right? As good as it looks does, is it as clean to the touch as it is to the eyes or the ear? And I think that kind of like, for me, what I call the, the way the Black aesthetic shows up for me, but that's my mom, that's my Black mom aesthetic. Like, yeah. Read over this paper, and yet you got the citations, and you got the bibliography, or you got the references, and you're saying it right. But when you run your hands over that essay, is it, is it, does it feel right? So the embodied knowledge tradition in sociology and like work and theory and stuff, but it's like really what it means. I call it like that living work and doing the living work part of it. That's, that's what I'm hopeful for us round of generation of like scholars and theorists. It's like, oh, snap, like, realizing that we are doing these things for the first time in that trusting that sense about the choices we make and then trusting that once we get it right, do it right—the Capricorn is like it, get it right. So then it could—
W: [laughter] Yeah! I’m a Virgo, so getting it right is very much ingrained into who I am. That perfectionist kind of mentality of, it has to be done right correctly the first time. And if it's not, your whole life is over, which I think has been a struggle to overcome, trying to get to that publishing stage.
W: Well, this has been a great conversation. I know I'm going to be thinking about this for the rest of the day, the week, my life probably. Thank you so much for sharing your, your, your project. And I'm looking forward to seeing the next stages and reading more about it. Is there any website or social media that you would like to plug to the audience?
A: Thank you so much. I had a great time as well. I don't currently have any social media that I would like to plug, but I have a TedTalk that is published online through the University of Michigan Rackam Graduate Office. And so that is a teaser in terms of my work around criminalization of black girls and push out published by Monique Morris. So looking at black girls criminalization and sexual violence. My current work will be crossed fingers in the publication pipelines in the next year or so specifically on sexual violence, incest, and sociological discipline. But look me up anytime—Google me [laughter] I will be there giving talks out... there will be recordings of me someplace giving talks or anything. So I'm on the web, but I'm not real savvy as of yet. [laughter]
W: Again, thank you so much and take care, yeah, thank you!
A: Thank you so much. Have a good day as well. Thank you!
[outro music plays]
W: Thanks for listening! You can find out more about this and other episodes at tellmemorepod.com, where you’ll also find transcripts for each episode. The opening and closing theme song is “Metre'' by Slow Alarm. Music licensed under an Attribution, Non-commercial, Share Alike License, and special thanks to Slow Alarm for providing the music free of charge. You can learn more about Slow Alarm at nultielrecords.blogspot.com. Be well!