Gendered Sexuality & Inequality

A second research stream explores how young people collectively negotiate, perpetuate, and make meaning about gender and sexual inequalities. This inquiry yielded a series of articles that examine a. how gender and heteronormativity are interlinked and reinforced through girls' bullying practices, b. how gender, class, race, and sexuality intersectionally shape young women’s experiences with conflict in emerging adulthood, and c. how youth navigate adults' resistance to the representation of girls' sexualities in school.

Miller, Sarah. 2016. “How You Bully a Girl”: Sexual Drama and the Negotiation of Gendered Sexuality in High School. Gender & Society 30(5): 721-744

 Photo: TwentyFour Students is licensed under CC by 4.0

Photo: TwentyFour Students is licensed under CC by 4.0

Abstract: Over the past decade, sexual rumor spreading, slut-shaming, and homophobic labeling have become central examples of bullying among young women. This article examines the role these practices— what adults increasingly call “bullying” and what girls often call “drama”— play in girls’ gendering processes. Through interviews with 54 class and racially diverse late adolescent girls from five regions of the U.S., I explore the content and functions of “sexual drama.” All participants had experiences with this kind of conflict, and nearly a third had been the subject of other girls’ rumors about their own sexual actions and/or orientations. Their accounts indicate that sexual drama offers girls a socially acceptable site for making claims to, and sense of, gendered sexuality in adolescence. While they reproduce inequality through these practices, sexual drama is also a cultural resource for girls—one that is made useful through the institutional constraints of their high schools, which reinforce traditional gender norms and limit sexuality information.  

*Lead article and winner of the 2016 American Sociological Association Sociology of Sexualities Section Graduate Student Paper Award, See Also: Miller, Sarah. 2016. “How You Bully a Girl.” Gender & Society Blog.    

Miller, Sarah. 2013. In Defense of Danger: Sex, Schools and the Politics of Discourse. Sexualities. 16 (5/6): 604-621

Abstract: This study examines a community controversy over the first high school-sponsored student performance of The Vagina Monologues, covered in the local and national media about the sexuality of minors. Through content analysis of archival documents and media coverage, I explore the discursive politics of this debate over sex, youth, and schools. I find that this community’s atypical support for teen girls’ performances about sexuality and desire at school was couched in a protective discourse of sexual risk, obfuscating girls’ sexual autonomy, while emphasizing their vulnerability to sexual violence. 

Wilkins, Amy and Sarah Miller. 2017. “Secure Girls”: Class, Sexuality, and Self Esteem. Sexualities. 20(7). 815-834

Abstract: Public discourse is replete with talk about the fragility of young women’s self-esteem, linking poor self-concept to a range of social problems associated with girlhood. We know little about the impact of these ideas on young women. In this article, we examine interviews with 66 girls, aged 14–22, to understand how they talk about the link between self-esteem and sexual expression in everyday life. We find that girls’ talk about self-esteem uses classed meanings that unintentionally reinforce and extend the role of sexuality in girls’ status hierarchies, benefitting those with more class resources, while policing all girls’ abilities to claim sexual agency.


Miller, Sarah.  When Drama is a Luxury: The Role of Race and Class in Girls' Accounts of Conflict. Working Paper

Abstract: This paper examines interviews with 54 late adolescent girls from five regions of the U.S. to explore how race and class impact girls’ experiences with relational aggression. I find that young women across positionalities use similar practices to shore up classed and racialized boundaries. Yet, the frequency of girls’ participation in these conflicts varies by class and race: White, wealthy girls report significantly greater engagement in "drama" than do low-income girls and young women of color, who describe avoiding peer conflict due to concerns over security, policing, familial responsibilities, and future trajectories. Together, these young women's accounts articulate how "drama" is a luxury not everyone can afford.