My research examines the interrelationships between law and crime, gender and sexuality, and science and knowledge to explore how powerful social institutions affect the expression and conceptualization of social identities and extend new forms of social control. I seek to highlight the role of non-state actors and institutions in influencing legal outcomes, shaping penal practices, and imposing criminal and civil sanctions. My research agenda represents a unique approach to the study of law, crime, and social control by centering sexuality and gender but also by highlighting the role of science and technology in legal decision-making and penal practices—an increasingly important issue in a world of “big data” and governance by algorithm.
My book manuscript, Determining Sexuality: Law, Classification, and the Naturalization of Sexual Kinds (under contract with University of Chicago Press) analyzes how legal and scientific institutions work together to reify and regulate sexual subjects. Using legal and discursive analysis, interviews with legal and scientific actors, and multi-sited ethnographic observations, I argue that attempts to measure and classify sexual “others” naturalizes social differences along the lines of sexuality while simultaneously legitimating differential forms of social control for various sexual populations. Through a comparative analysis of sexual orientation-based asylum claims and risk evaluations of sex offenders—two legal arenas where adjudicators must determine subjects’ sexualities—I show how the state enrolls non-state expert actors to help craft classificatory schemas that render sexual “others” legible to and thus manageable by the state.
Drawing on different types of social science expertise results in dramatically different measurement practices and, in turn, drastically disparate definitions of the sexual subjects under scrutiny. I demonstrate that distinct institutional logics, legal opportunity structures, and cultural frames led to the formation of different networks of expertise that in turn supported competing understandings of sexuality and legitimated the prevailing institutional goals of each legal complex. In the case of sex offenders, forensic psychology offers largely essentialist explanations of sexuality drawn from technologies meant to read the body, such as polygraphs and penile plethysmographs, which make for easier assignations of criminal blame and individual pathology. Conversely, asylum advocates forward more constructionist accounts of sexuality that are sensitive to sexuality’s social determinants and more conducive to humanitarian relief. I suggest that the institutionalization of these divergent schemas within law and science helped to anchor the rapid separation of sex offenders and LGBTQ people in the cultural imaginary and thus the extension of rights for LGBTQ people and the escalation of punishment for sexual criminals.
By bringing together insights from the sociology of law and crime, gender and sexuality, and science and technology, I offer several key contributions. First, I highlight how institutional processes of measurement and classification legitimate different forms of social control and can both reflect and produce cultural change. For instance, classifying sex offenders as mentally ill rather than criminal allows the imposition of draconian social control measures normally not allowed under criminal law. In short, I suggest that how we know sexuality determines how we govern it. Second, I demonstrate the importance of non-state expert actors in the creation and implementation of state classification schemas and penal practices. Third, I extend work on the cultural shaping of risk perceptions to show how risk has become a lens through which we construct issues of sexuality, even beyond the usual domains of health and medicine. Risk determinations are rapidly becoming the ultimate arbiter of entry into the realm of citizenship for sexual subjects.
I am currently working on several other projects, including a large-scale collaborative project with Laura Beth Nielsen on how the differential implementation of Title IX policies on sexual assault on university campuses affects students' rights consciousness, sexual interactions, and likelihood of reporting unwanted sexual encounters.
Other projects examine the legal constitution of transgender asylum claimants, gendered differences in the asylum claiming process for gay men and lesbians, racial disparities in "sexually violent predator" determinations, and the spread of "sexually violent predator" statutes.
Forthcoming. “Constituting the ‘Sexually Violent Predator’: Law, Forensic Psychology, and the Adjudication of Risk.” Theoretical Criminology. Online first: https://doi.org/10.1177/1362480618759011
2017. “Interview with Tiana Paschel.” Amici: The Newsletter of the Sociology of Law Section 25(2):13-15.
2014. “Queer Nation.” Pp. 570-572 In Encyclopedia of Social Deviance, edited by Craig Forsyth and Heith Copes. London: Sage.