Technologies of Sexuality: The HPV Vaccine and an Investigation into Parental Responsibility, Progressive Sex-Education, and Adolescent Girls’ Subjectivities

My research problematizes responsibility and the persistent tensions that accompanying vaccines, sexual health, and sex-education in contemporary society. I connect the everyday micro-level of parents, teachers, and adolescent girls, with macro-politics of biomedicine, good parenting, and progressive sex-ed to understand how vaccine politics and sex-education i) manage and generate surprising forms of inequality, and ii) relate to girls’ development of their own subjectivities. I argue that while parents and teachers work to be responsible to girls’ health and sexual health, their actions and may not support adolescents in ways they imagined.

1) The first paper developed for research uses data from 28 qualitative semi-structured interviews with Canadian mothers tasked with consenting to the HPV vaccine. In this paper, I challenge the overly narrow binary where parents are labeled as “responsible” if they vaccinate, “irresponsible” if they do not. I find that HPV vaccine-consenting mothers have a normative conceptualization of responsibility aligned with this vaccine. Some non-HPV vaccine-consenting mothers exercised alternate responsibilities, aligned with broad efforts to manage their teens’ sexual health and sexuality. They extend responsibility beyond cancer protection vis-à-vis vaccines to a more general responsibility for their daughters’ sexual health and self-esteem. While medical research clearly establishes that vaccination is beneficial, I argue that non-HPV vaccine-consenting mothers may nonetheless engage in practices that do have a positive contribution to their daughters’ sexual health and well-being, even if their decision to not vaccinate does not do so. By taking seriously these multiple accounts of responsibility -- that which is normative, as well as alternative — my research re-ignites conversations about the taken-for-grantedness of biotechnical interventions into the management of adolescent health, sexual health, and sexuality.

2) The second paper for this research is based on ethnographic observations of public school sex-education classrooms and interviews with Ontario teachers, to uncover the complexity of teaching sex-education in Ontario, Canada. Situated in a context of controversial sex-education curriculum, multiculturalism, and student diversity, I show that these sex-ed teachers deliver lessons in ways that align with key dimensions of “progressiveness” – facts, choice, and promoting diversity. This chapter not only outlines how teachers use facts, teach choice, and promote diversity, but also uncovers the outcomes of their efforts, explicating how systems of gender, sexual, class, racial, and ethnic inequalities are reproduced in their efforts towards progressive education. I highlight consequences of secularizing sex-ed, of employing neoliberal and rational-actor approaches to choice, and of teaching “bias-free” sex-ed. This research offers a point of reflection into progressive varieties of sex-education, reminding scholars and educators of the taken-for-granted inequalities that persist, despite best intentions.

3) The third paper developed for this project is based on 19 qualitative interviews with girls (aged 11-17; grades 7-12), as well as separate interviews with their parents (mostly mothers), this paper investigate the “push and pull” of girls’ narration as they discuss themselves, their families, mothers, schools, and teachers as it relates to conversations on the HPV vaccine, their health, sexual health, and sexuality. I find that other people, negotiations of independence and autonomy, and trust (as in, who girls look to) are main themes in all the interviews. Reading girls’ narratives with these themes in mind, three particular types of selfhood emerged. Some girls: 1) prioritize their mother’s narratives, presenting a type of  “tethered self”; 2) explore enactments of agency, autonomy, and independence (although, with varied success), presenting an “autonomous self”; 3) have confidence in the accountability that is diffused between their parents, schools, and doctors -- instilling trust in these institutions gives them a sense of assurance in their stance on these topics. This is the “trusting self.” Highlighting four girls as exemplars of these types, this research reveals the patterns through which girls’ subjectivities, sexual health knowledge, and thoughts on the HPV vaccine are intertwined and operate in relation to other people and larger sociocultural structures. In short, this research focuses on how girls’ sense of self emerges in relation to topics like the HPV vaccine, health, and sexual health.  

This research is supported by a Doctoral Award from the Social Science & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) as well two Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS).



The Dynamics of Knowledge Production

In addition to my research in sociology of health, medicine, and sexuality, I also have active research agenda in social and sociological theory, knowledge politics, philosophy of science. One article, Erasing the Social From Social Science: The Intellectual Costs Of Boundary-Work And The Canadian Institute Of Health Research (Canadian Journal of Sociology, 2014), examines the role of health-research funding structures in legitimizing and/or delimiting what counts as “good” social science health research, and reveals the erasure of feminist praxis, critical research strategies, and creative scholarship. My interest in this topic continues, and I am currently co-authoring an empirical piece on the “undone” and “rearranged” science that occurs within Canadian health research.

I have also recently published another article titled, "Towards a New Normal: Emergent Elites and Feminist Scholarship,” written as part of an invited ASA author-meets-critic dialogue with Neil Gross, Eleanor Townsley, and Peter Baehr on Stephen Turner’s new book American Sociology: From Pre-disciplinary to Post-Normal. This paper expands Turner’s conversation about the contributions of feminist sociology. I offer this critique to function as an entry point through which to contemplate what elite sociology is, and how it relates to feminist sociology. I argue that Turner under-explores the contributions of feminist sociology by reducing its contributions to advocacy-based scholarship. By placing feminist sociology in opposition to elite sociology, he simplifies the important discussion of elite sociology, and loses sight of feminist sociology’s theoretical and methodological strengths. 

Gender Research

For the past several years, I have also been a project coordinator for a state funded project using mixed methods, including a 60-day diary tool with 150 undergraduate students, to study unwanted sexual contact on university campuses. This is a comparative project with Erik Schneiderhan and Anna Korteweg that has emerged out of an association with faculty at Columbia University in New York, investigating the social, structural, and institutional factors related to sexual violence and assault on university campuses in Canada.