The theme for this episode is that it’s OK to be uncomfortable talking about sex. Scratch that. It’s good to be uncomfortable talking about sex. Moving outside our comfort zones is how we learn and grow.
Sergio G. Barrera is a doctoral candidate in American Culture and Latina/o Studies at The University of Michigan.
Hi, I’m Kenneth, and this is the Unspeakable Vice Podcast, where we talk about talking about sex. Sex is a dirty word, a taboo, something that just isn’t talked about. We’re about to dig into why.
Recently I had the privilege and the pleasure of speaking with Sergio Barrera, a graduate student in American Culture at The University of Michigan.
So my name Sergio Barrera. I am doctoral candidate in the Department of American Culture where I do a lot of work with like masculinity studies and fraternity studies. But I also do it through a lens of an anthropological, ethnographic approach.Sergio
Sergio is interested in masculinities, or what it means to be a man. And he is a man, so of course he has a personal experience with that, but beyond that he is informed by his involvement as a leader in a fraternity and by his family background.
How do I write myself in the narrative and find value in my own experience as a man who migrated from the southern border to the northern border, right?
So I’m from Texas, the Texas and Mexico Borderlands. I did my undergrad here, and my Masters here, in interdisciplinary studies. I focused in Latino Studies a lot with like gender, sexuality. So my work has been revolving around these topics of culture, identity, race, ethnicity, privilege, and all these other things.Sergio
So far, when I’ve talked about sex, sexuality, gender, and so on, I’ve been kind of vague. I sort of lump all these ideas together. I think it makes sense to do so, because they are all related in a way, particularly in how we have a hard time talking about them openly and honestly because of our strongly-held beliefs, our prejudices, and our fears. But if we are going to study these topics from a scientific, academic perspective, we should be clear on what we mean.
How do you define sex?
I think full disclosure is the more I learn about these things, the more I complicate them. So whatever definition I tell you about right now is likely going to be shaped by our cultural and social norms, as they evolve.
But the way in which I see sex in the way in which I studied it, is sex is also a spectrum. A lot of people believe that sex is biological so it goes more on the genetics. Right. So the XY chromosome, you know, determines whether you’re a female or a male. But there’s also been research that shows that there’s folks who are intersex. And sometimes they don’t fall in the binary of what is female, male, right. And you had this for over, I mean, many centuries. It’s been known that there’s folks that are intersex.
So when I refer to sex, I mean, I use it for a sort of binary approach because I work with male-identifying men, you know, or men-identifying males in that sense. Right, so I don’t work with trans folks. I don’t work with, you know, maybe, women who might identify with masculinity. My entire research is on men and masculinity and males in that sense. Right, so the way in which I see it in my research is more this idea. But the way in which I understand sex is more complicated than when I actually write about, if that makes sense.Sergio
How do you define gender?
When it comes to gender, I think of what is performed. Right. So I think mainly on Judith Butler as a feminist …Sergio
Judith Butler is an influential theorist in the areas of feminism, gender, and queer theory. Perhaps most importantly, she is credited with the development of the idea of gender performativity. In brief, this is the idea that gender is a performance that each of us contribute to. But more than that, gender—male and female and everything else—does not exist outside of the ways in which it is performed. So, she is not saying that individuals choose to perform male or female, but that the ways in which individuals perform creates our understanding of what male or female is.
… and thinking about how she said that gender is a construction. Right. So we are a product of our social environment of our economic mobility, or lack of, right. So all of these things really have to play in the way in which we perceive what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman, but also how we enact those and I believe that the more mobility, you have, the more freedom you have to move between the parameters of gender. But then other people you don’t just choose not to. And that’s also fine. Because again, gender is perceived from the moment we step out of the door. Right, so how are we walking? How are we dressing? And it’s all really a performance.Sergio
How do you define sexuality?
When I think of sexuality. There are various components. Because my understanding of sexuality is again very broad. I don’t really focus on the aspect of sexuality. A lot
Because my thing is sexuality could influence how we perform gender, but it is not in correlation to it, right. So, for example, when I moved to Michigan, I was told that I was straight passing. And as a queer male, you know, a queer man, I’m like, Well, how does one perform straightness or how does one perform gayness? To me it didn’t fit to the idea that I needed to ascribe to maybe a more feminine aesthetic, or a more feminine demeanor, or a more feminine sounding. You know, they’re they’re all these catalogs I just did not feel trapped in because—later on I understood. I mean, the socialization. Obviously, I come from Texas and Mexican family. So my conservative nature did not allow me to maybe explore and or dabble in femininity as much as other folks, but I was being outcast it within the young queer community. So when I think of sexuality. I think of the component of who you choose to engage romantically with, and also who you might engage sexually with.
And obviously, I mean I don’t question things. I believe that people are going to share whatever it is that they want to share but I do believe that some men are like, well, I am a straight male who enjoys in the pleasure with other men, you know, and I don’t think that I would call them bisexual or question me or any of these things. Because a lot of these terms are arbitrary and we get to impose those on ourselves, right. So because I grew up in a certain atmosphere, and then I left and then people were telling me, “no you’re this, you’re this,” it just didn’t sit well with me that if I have more knowledge about a term that I would put people in boxes that maybe they don’t want to associate themselves with.Sergio
Definitions are arbitrary
This is really interesting. Even academics, who spend careers trying to define words, sometimes say that those definitions can be arbitrary. If we can’t even agree on what it means to be gay, for example, how can we possibly talk about it?
I think this kind of issue is what makes it clear that we need to talk more about these things. We need to develop a common language—a common understanding—of terms we use to talk about sex, gender, sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual orientation so that we can actually have honest conversations. If a man says he is not gay, and that he likes to have sex with men, we all need to know why and how that is not a contradiction if we are ever to get to a point of understanding.
Hearing Sergio speak about his experience of rejection by the queer community when he came to Ann Arbor makes me think about my own experience. Having grown up in and around Ann Arbor, I can’t say I was rejected by the queer community because I didn’t even know it existed. I think I must have been straight-passing to the point that I didn’t recognize an alternative, and maybe I was never invited into those alternative queer communities because I was so straight-passing that nobody even thought to invite me in. So, I didn’t even know what my options were, I didn’t know that there might be communities where I would feel more at home, but I just felt like I was different, that I didn’t fit in.
Yeah, I mean, I think as somebody who who studies gender and sexuality, right, like—and I think study more of like I do a lot of self reflection and I try to learn from other people and see, well, how do I fit and don’t fit and maybe in the sites that I don’t fit find comfort in not fitting, Right. Like, that’s my biggest thing because a lot of the time. I think we grow up wanting to feel identified, but It might be 30 years or 40 years before we find an identification point.
So it’s very important to just be okay with being uncomfortable and being like, “Hey, well I don’t fit in here and that’s fine because it’s not for somebody else to get me. It’s for me to get me.” Right, and I think that once you develop an agenda of self-preservation, self-awareness, and self-care, like you’re on the best path to becoming the best human being possible. That’s what I believe.
When it comes to to the idea of communicating. I feel it’s very difficult because I have read so many books and sense through so many lectures. So my way of thinking could sometimes be very elevated when it comes to speaking to folks in my community that maybe have never taken a gender studies class or maybe have never even stepped foot in an institution like in a university. And I tell you this because in my home, it’s always the struggle between me being, you know, a possible doctor in, you know, who specializes in gender, versus my mom and my dad who have a more conservative background, who are Catholic by, you know, by practice, by choice, by faith by raising. They’re sort of acting upon each other because their level of education versus my education are both very different ways in which we’re processing this.
Right, so what I have had to do is, how can I make the knowledge that I have gained at the university accessible for others that might not understand this language fully? And I think that that’s the biggest challenge that academic space because a lot of us in the academy are in this bubble that all this language is language that everybody gets. And a lot of these phrases that are jam packed are thrown, right, for example.
Race is one of those. Like, race is thrown a lot, but do we really understand the concept of race and the history of race? A lot of folks do not. They understand a more of a pop cultural reference which has a lot of ties to it. But the complexities of these phenomenons are very large and to me, and even myself. I don’t consider myself an expert in gender or sexuality, because there’s always something that I haven’t learned or haven’t read right.
Um, but what I try to do is, how can I make theory practical. And I think that this is something that I learned when I was a graduate student. I took a class in which we were talking about decolonizing and decolonizing and this word kept coming up. And I’m like, “What the hell is decolonizing, right?” I didn’t, but, I didn’t understand it because I didn’t understand, what was the colonization that we needed to decolonize from? So I needed to do a backwards approach. I was learning all of these things of what we should undo, but never understood what needed to be undone.Sergio
Get Comfortable Being Uncomforable
I love this idea that Sergio brings up about being uncomfortable. He says it’s OK to not fit in, it’s OK to be uncomfortable. It might not be fun or pleasant, but it’s OK. Beyond that even, there are benefits to being uncomfortable. Pushing outside our comfort zone is how we learn and grow.
It was just a coincidence that as I was talking to Sergio I was wearing this shirt, with the phrase “Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable.” The guy who sold me this shirt is an athlete. So from that perspective, getting uncomfortable, pushing out of your comfort zone, means that you push yourself physically. When you make your muscles uncomfortable, that’s when you start building a new level of strength, or flexibility, or control that lets you do new things. It’s how you grow.
But it has another meaning too. This same athlete is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. And since then, he’s gotten really good at getting comfortable being uncomfortable on a psychological level. He’s speaking about his pain and the challenges they’ve created for him. He’s speaking out against the forces that might keep victims from speaking out on their own behalf. He’s trying to make it easier to talk about sex.
So, when I was younger, I don’t think I was very comfortable being uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable all the time, but I thought that meant there was something wrong that I needed to fix. And I did some pretty stupid and harmful things trying to fix it. Now I’m a lot more comfortable. Those same discomforts are still there, more or less, but I’ve found enough confidence in myself that I’m OK when I’m in a socially uncomfortable situation. And I’m using those situations as opportunities to grow.
I asked Sergio about barriers to honest communication. I realize that what we were talking about was not just being honest with others, but also with ourselves. His response is as relevant to me personally as it is to these ideas in general.
What keeps us from communicating honestly about sex?
The first thing is that a lot of folks are are scared of challenging what has been passed down to them. We believe that this sort of intergenerational understanding of life should be unquestioned or should be—not—like, we shouldn’t think critically about this because I might be shunned away from the community or it might be outcast. Or I might be this right and and we sort of perpetuate those patterns by not challenging the patterns or even just questioning why, like, why do I do this? Why do I think that? Why do you think like this? Right? And I think that once you get the confidence to ask why and
Then things become a little bit more clear.Sergio
I’m a very anxious person. I have OCD, I have high levels of anxiety. I am an over-critical thinker. So like, again, I use that to my advantage.
I’m like, “Okay, how has fear permeated culture and society to create a barrier for us to think freely or to speak freely or to question freely?” And I am not rooted or—I don’t let fear rule my life, especially when I’m trying to learn because what happens is if you let fear rule you from that you’re always going to be held back.
And again, another thing that I learned in grad school is if you’re don’t feel if you don’t feel uncomfortable about something, then you’re not learning something new. Right, and I think that that is true about everything. If you’re doing something that is so normal to you, then you’re not expanding the site of anything.
Um, so that is a thing. As a male well we grow up saying “no, don’t say this.” “No you can’t express your feelings.” “No, you are more of the outside than inside.” “No more, you know.” So there’s all these factors that come into play when men have to just try to have a conversation. Because we feel the need to perform toughness, to perform stability, to perform emotional maturity, even if a lot of us are carrying cultural baggage or emotional baggage of when we were children.
And there’s this book that I just ordered that’s called the Peter Pan syndrome and …Sergio
The book he’s talking about is The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up, by Dr. Dan Kiley. (As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
But basically the claim of the book—and I haven’t read it but—the claim of the book is how there’s this idea that men mature slower than women.
But we don’t understand the cultural components. Why? Because women, since they’re young girls, they’re always asked about how they are, or if something hurts they express it, and it’s always tender and care. So they start progressing their emotional maturity at a much younger age to where they can identify things that hurt them, things that cause them pain, things that make them happy, that make him cry—versus boys.Sergio
We’re almost shoved to the playground and are told to be physical and are told to be aggressive, and there’s really no sense of communication or expression when it comes to boys versus girls.
So a lot of the emotional maturity has to do with how we’re treated as children, right, and and sometimes it’s like, “Well, I’m just trying to, you know, prepare my son for the world.” But the thing is you prepare him by making him a good being, not by, you know, ascribing him to “this is what a man should be like.”
Like think, okay, this is not how a man or woman should behave. But how should just a human being behave?
Right, and I think that when you start thinking about these things, then you start thinking more on the feminine side in regards to care and love and nurture and all these other things that we wish we could incorporate but that we so shy away from because we feel like that’s the unreachable. That’s a woman’s thing that’s not a man’s thing.
Right. So for me, I’ve navigated a lot of these barriers. Again, psychologically, emotionally, culturally, socially, and even things that I cannot control, such as my body and my gender or my sex. So I hope that helps.Sergio
Sex is related to everything
Fascinating, isn’t it? We are talking about sex, masculinity, and gender. But look at all the other areas that come up! Religion, race, culture. Psychology. Emotions. How we raise our children.
To me, anyway, what is amazing is how we’ve taken something as foundational to the human condition as sex, and we’ve tried to somehow excise it from all these other conversations where it’s actually directly related. In polite society, there’s a lot we can talk about, but we manage to keep dodging around this one part of all those topics. And we pretend that we don’t need sex, that we can ignore it, that it’s just a small, inconsequential part of our social experience. But it’s not. Sex is with us from the moment we are born, from the first steps we take and the first outfit we wear. It is with us in our homes, in our churches, in every relationship we have. Maybe we should stop ignoring it.
What questions should we men be asking ourselves?
I think that a question that we should be asking is, the first thing is, “why do I behave the way that I do?” When you tackle the why—And I think that rather than questioning the out, question the in.
Why do I think about this like this? Why do I behave like this? Why do I respond like this? Why am I emotionally attracted to this and not this. Why do I put an emphasis on this and not just start questioning your own beliefs and your own system because you’re going to learn in this questioning that it is learned behavior. “I find this acceptable because at one point, my father expressed that it was.” “I find this tolerable because at one time, my group of friends said that it was.” I found it all starts relating to these pinpoints as to who were the ones that influenced and shaped our worldviews, and sometimes that is destructive behavior.
And sometimes that’s great behavior, but it always stems from something. Who are our model heroes? Right. If you ask a child who is your hero, and he tells you this very hyper masculine figure, maybe he’s a cartoon. Maybe he is, you know, a firefighter, then you’re going to already start knowing: This is his concept of gender, his concept of performativity, of masculinity.
If you find a boy who might say my superhero because I’m saying that like superhero or role model without a gender might be a woman. Then maybe they’re they’re attracted to the nurturing side, to the loving side, right. And that is—if hopefully nobody shames them—that is a life that they will be leading. Right.Sergio
So I think that a lot of it comes from questioning our own actions. And then if we find that they’re problematic, question, how can we address these. Right, because it does, it doesn’t stop just with reflecting, but then reflecting on how I can enact and change or how I can be and how I can, you know, how I can have the will to change, right, which is really important because it is very, very common for us to follow our father’s footsteps because that is the right thing to do. Because that is the only fatherhood or male role models that we know to be. But how do we learn from other ones. And how do we make we made me bridge them and create a new amalgamation of what your sense of manhood.
Um, I write a lot about fathering especially on the border, because my dad was deported a couple of years ago, and before that he lived in Mexico. So my idea of masculinity was pretty much non existent because I was raised predominantly by my mother. So my thing with the way in which I approach work is very much as a motherly male figure, Right. Like, I tend to be very warming and I tend to be understanding and I tend to be listen and I tend to care and I tend to hug and embrace in non sexual ways.
Right, because also I think that there’s a misconception that anything that is physical between two men has to be sexual. And for me, it is more, you know, I am just lending you a hand. I am just here to show you my support not only in words, but through action. through touch. Because we need that embrace, even if it’s just putting a hand on somebody’s back and saying, “Man, I got you.” That means more than sending a text or just saying it for 10 feet apart, right.
There is a degree of intimacy that people associate that is not sexual. But that they know is stemming from a place of care. And I think that I think that my growing up was both a blessing and the curse, right, because I for most of my childhood I resented my father for being absent. And sort of discredited his efforts in Mexico, right, and praised my mom for so many things.
And then now as I approached 30 years of age, I am thinking wishing my dad had a different perception of care, because for my dad it was about providing. It was about having the opportunities for me, it was about giving me the best life I could possibly live. without maybe telling me that he loved me, because for him those actions of care and promote providing were acts of love. Right, versus I wanted to hear him vocally say it.
So now I had to go back with my research, right, and my self reflections. And things were, were moments in which my dad told me he loved me without telling me you love me. Right, if that makes sense. So I’ve had to question a lot of my upbringing and find peace in the fact that maybe what I expect people to be like, That’s not what they’re going to be because they also hold their traumas and their histories.Sergio
Let’s take a few minutes to listen to Sergio describe his own experience wrestling with gender and sexual identity.
When I began my PhD program, I was the only person that was not from the Midwest. I was the only person that was coming from Texas, most people were from Michigan, from Illinois, I believe there was one from Florida. But the way in which gender is constructed and policed on the border is very different. And the only way that I realized that is when I went to live to Michigan and Ann Arbor in particularly that is very liberal—in some sort of senses and others not so much—but it is much more progressive than the city that I’m currently in.
When I left over there, and I started thinking about our study experiencing all these things, I said, Hold up, this is, this is not our reality back home. Like, this is not the way of living that I’m used to back home. So I started questioning why is being a man so different in Ann Arbor than it is being in the border?
And then when I came back home there were this idea—and full disclosure, when I left to Michigan in 2016 I was not out. I came out Seven months after moving to Michigan, because of other things that were related to mental health, but—When I left, I felt like when I was in Michigan. I was one person and then I came to Texas for vacation, and I was like back to closeted me. So it just became too much having to navigate between one persona and a persona that I—the persona that I wanted to become was in Ann Arbor, and the persona that people knew me to be was whenever I came to Texas. Right. Um, there was this constant back and forth. That was very emotionally taxing.
But when I first stepped into some classrooms, folks were like “you know you you don’t sound gay.” And that was one of the things right. Um, because my voice, maybe is not as elevated or is high pitched as other folks. So, the way in which I was sound was being questioned. That’s one thing.
Another thing was the way in which I dress. So I am Mexican and Texan through it through. Like I wear boots. I wear cowboy hats. I wear cowboy belt. I wear shirts that are cowboy in nature like trhat is what I wear and I actually took a pair of boots to Michigan that I would wear sometimes. So it was that it was my behavior. It was how I sounded in.
It was also that I was never carrying like a badge that said like LGBTQ pride or whatever. Um, so I was not an advocate of pride. Because I was not proud of myself. Right. I was still in the closet when I had left. So it was very difficult for me to, to think about, shit. Well, How am I supposed to be? Am I supposed to wear a pride flag everywhere I go? I’m am I supposed to start sounding More like a woman? Am I supposed to wear makeup? You know, am I supposed to change how I dress in order to prove my allegiance or and or just like my identity.Sergio
In that way to me a lot because with the issue of straight passing also came white passing. Right, so I am a light-skinned Latino and I know that. And white passing is something that was thrown out left and right, but I’m like yo, I don’t think that I have received benefits of whiteness in the sense of, like, my name is very Mexican and my first language is Spanish And I grew up in Mexico in my father got deported. And there’s a lot of these things that do not ascribe to whiteness, right.
So what I had to do is I was put in a situation in which I was getting cornered by saying “You cannot claim this because you look like this. You cannot claim that because you look like that.” And I became very shy to expressing myself because I felt like people were just attacking me and I did not know any other way of being.
Right, because here it was never questioned my masculinity was never questioned. My sexuality was never questioned. My gender, or sorry, my race was never questioned. It’s homogenous, so it’s mostly Mexican, Mexican-American folks here. But we all know that we come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. We all know that masculinity fluctuates within the border, but we have a common understanding of what it is that we all ascribe to. And maybe that is we all wear cowboy boots, right, which is just a stereotype but it is also a cultural phenomena.
So really what I had to do is I had to listen to what these folks were saying, and I need to understand why it was that they were painting me like that. So I again for me. It comes a lot to I need to understand motive. Like, what is your, your intention and what are your motivations for cataloguing you like this. Well, a lot of these folks were women of color. A lot of these folks were more marginalized than I was, and had negative experiences with men. Therefore, they would feel that my presence of masculinity was an attack or was an oppressive state for them to be in. When in reality, I was like, I’m here to learn, you know, like, and if I say something stupid. I do apologize but I say it because I want to learn Or if I asked something stupid like say because I’m curious and learning. Um, and what I had to do is honestly not give two fucks about them.
You know, because what I realized is that they were getting in my head so much that they were preventing me from being my true, authentic self. Because now I had to I had to re shift in order to prove that I was something that I already was. But in order for them to find me acceptable. I felt like I had to do that. And it was too much because I was not ready to embark on that journey. And also, I did not know how to embark on that journey.Sergio
Um, what I ended up doing is I started feeling comfortable with who I was right, saying, well, I come from a conservative state. So, what do you expect? I come from the conservative household. So what do you expect? And gayness is not one thing, and Latinidad is not this one thing, and being a man is not just this one thing. And if that is your perception of what being a man, being masculine, being gay, or being Latino is, then that shows more about how you are as a person than how I am. And that shows more about how your reality reflects on to the my body, but that is not my reality.
Right. So, what I really had to do is I had to equip myself with the knowledge of saying, “Your reality I respect but I will not allow you to displace your reality onto my body. Because you’re making my body uncomfortable in a way that I should not feel,” because it was not educational. It was in the mode to attack.
Right, so I needed to understand what were the uncomfortable levels that I was okay with I’m uncomfortable if I’m uncomfortable in a learning situation. But if I’m uncomfortable in a attacking mode. I am going to bust out my claws and clawback right I’m in. I don’t care what people might say, because I’m going to stand up for myself. Right. So what I had to do is I had to think Okay, again, and this is where the introspective like where do I come from it. Why do I find this behavior acceptable? And why do I dress like this? And all these things all these questions about gender happened once I left my hometown.
So I really needed to think about You know, what is the best way that I can. I’m not going to be offensive to them because I want to be respectful to them, but I do want them to also make them uncomfortable in a learning state. And a lot of it was having these difficult conversations about, hey, well, have you ever been to Texas? And they’d be like, “No.”
And I said, “well, let me tell you a little bit about where I’m from. And where I’m from this is our way of life. And this is our lifestyle. And we have no access to gay clubs, and we have no access to gay spaces, and we have no access to x, y, and z.” And I brought them into my reality so that [what I had] to do is really engage in conversations that were educational about where I come from and why I am the person I am.
Which required a lot of emotional labor, but I think that in the long run. It helped me because I understood that there was nothing wrong with who I was as a person and there was nothing with wrong with How I was in terms to the communities that I wanted to belong to and that I already belong to, um, and that was honestly the best thing I could do for my mental state.Sergio
Wow. That’s wonderful and fascinating.
If you are curious in hearing more from Sergio, I’m going to put our entire interview up on Patreon. So you can check it out there. He also has a really fun Instagram account, and there’s a link to that on the website. I hope you learned something from this interview. I’d love to hear your comments. Thanks for listening.