Tag Archives: agency

In 2004, Elizabeth Armstrong, then a sociologist at Indiana University, and Laura Hamilton, a young graduate student, set out to do a study on sexual abuse in college students’ relationships. They applied for permission to interview women on a single floor of what was known as a “party dorm” at a state university in the Midwest. About two-thirds of the students came from what they called “more privileged” backgrounds, meaning they had financial support from their parents, who were probably college-educated themselves. A third came from less privileged families; they supported themselves and were probably the first in their family to go to college. The researchers found their first day of interviewing so enlightening that they decided to ask the administration if they could stay on campus for four years and track the 53 women’s romantic lives.

Women in the dorm complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic,” Armstrong writes, because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. “If I want to maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with,” one woman told Armstrong, “I have to work. I just don’t see myself being someone who marries young and lives off of some boy’s money.” Or from another woman: “I want to get secure in a city and in a job … I’m not in any hurry at all. As long as I’m married by 30, I’m good.”

The women still had to deal with the old-fashioned burden of protecting their personal reputations, but in the long view, what they really wanted to protect was their future professional reputations. “Rather than struggling to get into relationships,” Armstrong reported, women “had to work to avoid them.” (One woman lied to an interested guy, portraying herself as “extremely conservative” to avoid dating him.) Many did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.

Armstrong and Hamilton had come looking for sexual victims. Instead, at this university, and even more so at other, more prestigious universities they studied, they found the opposite: women who were managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters. “The ambitious women calculate that having a relationship would be like a four-credit class, and they don’t always have time for it, so instead they opt for a lighter hookup,” Armstrong told me.

The women described boyfriends as “too greedy” and relation­ships as “too involved.” One woman “with no shortage of admirers” explained, “I know this sounds really pathetic and you probably think I am lying, but there are so many other things going on right now that it’s really not something high up on my list … I know that’s such a lame-ass excuse, but it’s true.” The women wanted to study or hang out with friends or just be “100 percent selfish,” as one said. “I have the rest of my life to devote to a husband or kids or my job.” Some even purposely had what one might think of as fake boyfriends, whom they considered sub–marriage quality, and weren’t genuinely attached to. “He fits my needs now, because I don’t want to get married now,” one said. “I don’t want anyone else to influence what I do after I graduate.”

The most revealing parts of the study emerge from the interviews with the less privileged women. They came to college mostly with boyfriends back home and the expectation of living a life similar to their parents’, piloting toward an early marriage. They were still fairly conservative and found the hookup culture initially alienating (“Those rich bitches are way slutty” is how Armstrong summarizes their attitude). They felt trapped between the choice of marrying the kind of disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal their credit card—or joining a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable. The ones who chose the first option were considered the dorm tragedies, women who had succumbed to some Victorian-style delusion. “She would always talk about how she couldn’t wait to get married and have babies,” one woman said about her working-class friend. “It was just like, Whoa. I’m 18 … Slow down. You know? Then she just crazy dropped out of school and wouldn’t contact any of us … The way I see it is that she’s from a really small town, and that’s what everyone in her town does … [they] get married and have babies.”

Most of the women considered success stories by their dormmates had a revelation and revised their plan, setting themselves on what was universally considered the path to success. “Now I’m like, I don’t even need to be getting married yet [or] have kids,” one of the less privileged women told the researchers in her senior year. “All of [my brother’s] friends, 17-to-20-year-old girls, have their … babies, and I’m like, Oh my God … Now I’ll be able to do something else for a couple years before I settle down … before I worry about kids.” The hookup culture opened her horizons. She could study and work and date, and live on temporary intimacy. She could find her way to professional success, and then get married.

–Hanna Rosin, “Boys on the Side” (bolding mine)

Breaking news: hooking up may in fact be an exhibition of young women’s agency and desire to manage sexual desire against other competing goals like career and friendships. Sorry sexual panickers.

But clearly class matters in distinguishing how women negotiating against these different norms. I LOLed at Susan Walsh‘s line that this was featured in The Atlantic, “the unrivaled go-to source for all stories describing the educated female’s life trajectory and meteoric rise to financial success and emotional independence.” I wouldn’t expect The Atlantic to focus more on how socio-economic status changes these dynamics, so I’ll hold out for Rosin’s book before making Walsh’s critique.

Also sexuality matters. What about the lesbian and bi ladies–does this apply? Or is this just a straight girl strategy? Nobody’s gonna know if we don’t do the research.


For World Refugee Day last week, UNHCR launched a shiny new global advocacy campaign called Dilemmas. According to the strategy documents (full acknowledgement: it is awesome these are public), the new campaign

“compels audiences to consider the same life-or-death decisions a refugee is forced to make when they decide to flee – building empathy for the distinct horrors of refugee flight and the compelling need for protection.”

Revamping the ‘Take Action’ section of the UNHCR website, Dilemmas challenges users to consider what they would do if in the same situation that hypothetical refugees may face (e.g. What would you do: ‘Face death in a war zone?’ or ‘Escape but leave loved ones behind?’) . Each scenario is accompanied by testimonies from refugees and displaced people to give authenticity and humanize stories.

UNHCR has even developed a game for Android and iOS called “My Life as a Refugee.” Players can select one of three characters, based on real life experiences of refugees, and attempt to reach safety, reunite with loved ones and rebuild their lives through a series of tough decisions and chance events.

This is supplemented by glossy, artistically striking images and videos of celebrities like Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and Goodwill Ambassadors Khaled Hosseini and Juanes, all primed to be shared online.

Let’s be clear here: this is super sexy advocacy by UNHCR standards. It may not seem that impressive to those outside the NGO world, but I have seriously never seen the concept of refugee protection this amped up.

Yet innovative tech, stunning visuals and beautiful celebrities mean nothing when a campaign message gets twisted.

And honestly, I’m appalled by how twisted the messaging has gotten. Seared into almost every image and repeated by every celebrity is the tagline, “No one chooses to be a refugee,” and the more common and more problematic refrain,Refugees have no choice.

Obviously advocacy requires simplifying messages to some degree. But effective campaigns are not fuelled by stupidity and pity. And these slogans dilute the complexity of migration down to the point of being disempowering and inaccurate—at the cost of a entire, well-conceived strategy.

So let’s break down this trainwreck.

1) Um, refugees do make choices.

Even before getting into the policy and ethical implications of the notion ‘Refugees have no choice” (don’t worry, those are points #2 and #3), this makes no sense. Not just in life (because obviously refugees do make decisions). But it actually makes no sense in the context of the discussion Dilemmas frames, because the campaign starts on the premise that refugees are faced with difficult choices that are outlined for the viewer to consider.

This juncture between the campaign premise to the slogan results in a weird incoherence that permeates throughout the materials. Case in point: in Hosseini’s video clip, he blatantly poses a dilemma faced by a hypothetical refugee (“Would you stay and risk being killed, or would you escape and risk rape, kidnap or worse?”), then concluding with “Refugees have no choice.” Yes, these are both terrible options, but clearly then it is a decision to flee. So why state otherwise? It sounds dumb.

But even outside the context laid out by Dilemmas, people obviously make choices when they leave during a crisis: they decide when to go, where to go, who to go with, whom to trust, what to take, etc, etc. The decision-making ability afforded in each of these choices reveals significant power dynamics that emphasises the problem with lumping ‘refugees’ together—and can even highlight that being able to leave in the first place also reflects a certain amount of privilege. For instance, a wealthy, politically involved family may be able to legally leave before war breaks out to go to London, while a young woman from a poorer, rural area may have to stay in a conflict zone because she can’t afford to go or because her mother is not well enough to make the journey with her. All of this gets masked when with the statement, ‘No one chooses to be a refugee.’

2) By emphasising that “refugees have no choice”, Dilemmas winds up reinforcing the problematic dichotomy there are ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migrants.

I realise, dear reader, you may read point #1 and think I’m quibbling over silly semantics. Alright, maybe I am. But these silly semantics happen to be codified in international law, which provides protection to migrants based on their reason for leaving. Broadly speaking, if that reason is that the migrant was ‘forced’ to leave (i.e. because of political reasons, such as persecution) refugee protection can be granted, whereas if that reason is ‘voluntary’ (i.e. because of economic or social reasons) refugee protection is not.

While this distinction sounds clear on paper, it takes two seconds to get cloudy, because the line between voluntary/forced is actually a spectrum than a tangible divide. Take an example of an Afghan migrant: are you fleeing because a) armed groups are specifically targeting your family due to your political involvement; b) you’re afraid that your town will be affected by violence; or c) the war has made the economy collapse and you can’t make a livelihood? Turns out only A falls under ‘forced’ migration territory while B and C are closer to ‘voluntary’.

What is bizarre is that UNHCR knows these complications intimately. In adjusting to these changing dynamics towards more social/economic pressures, UNHCR’s mandate has had to expand well beyond serving refugees alone to the vague, all encompassing term, ‘other persons of concerns’, which includes internally displaced people, returnees, and other victims of conflict.

In light of the fact that UNHCR provides support to an increasing variety of migrants, it remains puzzling that the Dilemmas campaign would find it useful to reify the idea that refugees, in particular, have no choices. The implicit suggestion that other migrants do have choice doesn’t earn anybody working on broader migration any points.

3) Saying “Refugees have no choice” strips refugees of their agency and garners pity instead of empathy.

It is this last point that is probably the largest offence of Dilemmas in my book.

My skin crawled with every retweet that ‘refugees have no choice’ on World Refugee Day. Coupling that with the line ‘But you do’ felt ethically wrong. The power dynamics are all off in this campaign, ultimately empowering the viewer to feel sorry for refugees beyond anything else.

What’s most disappointing is that I think from what is outlined in UNHCR’s communication strategy for this campaign, the potential for building empathy was immense. The game and gorgeous graphics would have been interesting if put alongside text that (coherently) reflected that refugees make choices like any person would, even if in a difficult context. Basically a few words have undone a well conceived campaign. Honestly, it made me straight up annoyed and angry to see such blatant pity generated by a UN body.

Sadly, the moral of Dilemmas seems to be that the line between building pity and empathy remains razor thin in advocacy–and good strategy means nothing if your slogan is shit.