III. Sexuality, Intimacy, and Friendships
I don’t think [my graduate school professors] took much interest in me. Probably because I didn’t sleep with them…. I was too busy. I was working at night for the BBC, I was sending news items about women’s contribution to the war effort…so I didn’t have time to fool around with the professors.
Few areas of society have undergone as rapid change as human sexuality. The number of sexuality studies has grown exponentially over the past half-century, and academic approaches to the topic now include a sharper focus on sexual diversity and queer theory. Dr. Hacker was a pioneer in this field, publishing research in the 1970s and 1980s on the sexual and non-sexual relationships between men and women.
As the self-proclaimed “world’s oldest Ph.D.,” Hacker began her graduate studies at Columbia in the early 1940s but did not officially earn her doctoral degree until 1961. When we visited her in New York City in 2011, she shared stories of inappropriate behavior perpetrated by well-known sociologists and was surprised when we’d sometimes pause to underscore the gravity of the events that she described. These were all too common occurrences in Helen’s lifetime. When asked whether she had personally experienced sexual harassment, she flippantly replied, “Well I’ve been chased around the table, if that’s what you mean.” At a professional conference she was propositioned by a department head who, when he later offered her a faculty position, told her that he would not have hired her had she accepted his proposal. As we revise these introductions, the sociological community is wrestling with its own abuses of power and allegations of sexual harassment, illustrating that academia is not insulated from these types of institutional challenges.
Hacker addressed this reality head-on through activism and public writing. She was a key member of several activist groups (and was instrumental in linking her chapter of Sociologists for Women in Society to the United Nations), marched for women’s rights in Washington, and delivered passionate speeches on top of soap boxes in the streets of New York City. She also wrote an op-ed about the sexual harassment of Indian women during her time at the University of Bangalore and—when her essay sparked outrage—replied to her critics by publishing a content analysis of the letters they had sent to the Deccan Herald.
The articles included in this section represent Hacker’s larger body of scholarship on sexuality, intimacy, and friendships. Just as she theorized about women as a minority group in her most well-known article, in “Homosexuals: Deviant or Minority Group?” (1971) she similarly argued for the conceptualization of homosexuals as a minority group. Doing so offered the analytic power not possible at a time when this group was predominantly viewed as deviant (homosexuality would continue to be listed as a mental disorder in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1987). Although some of Hacker’s claims can be rightly criticized in the context of more contemporary understandings of sexuality, she was certainly ahead of her time when it came to issues of discrimination and justice. Sociologist Tim Ortyl, in his comments during a session we organized at the University of Minnesota’s Sociological Research Institute, discussed the “forward thinking” nature of Helen’s arguments that lesbians and gay men experience collective discrimination and that homophobia (versus homosexuality) is the social problem. Tim also highlighted how Helen was well “ahead of the curve” in her advocacy for same-sex marriage and parenting rights. Over the past several decades, this piece has also been cited for introducing the term “antihomosexualism” to describe what we most frequently now refer to as heterosexism.
Hacker’s short 1981 essay, “The Future of Sexuality: A Sociologist’s View” was published a full decade later. Drawing from conversations she was having in her classrooms at Adelphi University, likely in the Sexuality in Sociological Perspective course she pioneered, Hacker predicted two future changes related to sexuality: (1) growing sexual agency among women, with lessened pressure on men to engage in sexual conquests and, as a result, increasingly similar sexual attitudes and behaviors; and (2) a widening spectrum of experiences and a less sacred outlook on sex. The practices Hacker described have become more common, but subsequent scholarship and informal conversations with our own students suggest the pressures to conform to gendered behaviors are still incredibly strong among young people today.
This section ends with Hacker’s 1981 article, “Blabbermouths and Clams: Sex Differences in Self-Disclosure in Same-Sex and Cross-Sex Friendship Dyads.” Here she analyzes intimacy and power in friendships, an area that remains under-theorized in the discipline but has recently become the subject of renewed interest among scholars of masculinity, sport, and culture. Helen candidly told us that “statistics was a horror. I didn’t care anything about it, so I liked to write narratives, stories.” Reflecting this position, her empirical analysis of 250 total interviews with members of 70 same-sex and 55 cross-sex friendship pairs presents percentages but does not test for significance or attempt to include multivariate analyses. Still, even with her aversion to the quantitative, Hacker effectively demonstrates how gender role expectations constrain men and women in their friendships with others.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1971. “Homosexuals: Deviant or Minority Group?” Pages 65-92 in The Other Minorities: Nonethnic Collectivities Conceptualized as Minority Groups, edited by Edgar Sagarin. Waltham, MA: Ginn and Company.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1981. “The Future of Sexuality: A Sociologist’s View.” Pp. 626 in Sexual Choices, edited by Gilbert D. Nass, Rober W. Libby, & Mary Pat Fisher. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Inc.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1981. “Blabbermouths and Clams: Sex Differences in Self-Disclosure in Same-Sex and Cross-Sex Friendship Dyads.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 5(3): 385-401.