Laurel Westbrook

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Grand Valley State University
Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley (Sociology)

Contact: westbrol (at) gvsu (dot) edu OR LaurelWestbrook (at) gmail (dot) com

Curriculum Vitae

Recent Publications

Syllabi for Courses I Teach

Research  and Teaching Interests:
Social Theory, Gender, Sexuality, Violence, Social Movements, and Media Studies

About me

My research focuses on the inner workings of the sex/gender/sexuality system. I utilize a range of research methods, including interviews, statistical analysis, and textual analysis to examine how this system shapes and is shaped by understandings of violence, the practices of social movements, and the construction of sociological knowledge.

My interests have given rise to four research projects. The first examines violence against transgender people and social movement efforts to prevent such violence. The second theorizes everyday ways in which the sex/gender/sexuality system is reproduced and changed. The third explores the social scientific construction of ideas of sex, gender, race, and sexuality. Finally, my second book project looks at how the sex/gender/sexuality system harms men.

Identity-Based Anti-Violence Activism and Violence Experienced By Trans People

The coupling of anti-violence activism with identity politics, such as focusing specifically on violence against women or lesbians and gay men, is often assumed to benefit the groups it works to protect. However, my book, Fighting Violence with Identity: The Causes and Consequences of Identity-Based Anti-Violence Activism, demonstrates that this form of activism can have a number of unintended consequences that run counter to the goals of increasing the livability of group members’ lives and decreasing the violence against them. Using an original data set of websites, press releases, flyers, reports, and other materials produced by twelve national organizations working between 1990 and 2005 to reduce violence experienced by transgender people in the United States, I take up the question: What happens when identity politics and anti-violence activism are combined? I find that activists promoted the idea that transgender people were valuable and undeserving of violence. However, these narratives often include the notion that all members of the identity group are as equally vulnerable to violence at all times. This both produces enormous levels of fear among group members and ignores patterns of violence, thus reducing the effectiveness of proposed solutions. I incorporate examples from other identity-based anti-violence activist groups, including the women's, gay and lesbian, and civil rights movements, to illustrate how these unintended consequences are inherent to identity-based anti-violence activism.

In addition to collecting activist texts, I also gathered every news story about, and all of the available police reports from, each of the 232 murders of trans people committed between 1990 and 2005 in the United States, a total of more than 7,000 documents. I am currently working on two articles based on this data. One article explores the construction of the idea of “transgender,” detailing how, once the new identity term was invented, activists had to actively teach people, including those they considered to be trans, about the term and its meanings. In the process of doing so, they actually reinforced aspects of the gender system which scholars had speculated the existence of trans people would “undo.” Another article challenges the assumption by scholars that all transgender people are at equal risk of experiencing anti-transgender violence. Using a variety of accounts of these murders, including those in police reports, I compiled a quantitative dataset to analyze patterns of violence. I find that gender (masculine identified vs. feminine identified), race, class, and sexuality all play significant roles in these homicides. As a consequence, trans women of color engaged in first time sexual encounters (either as hook-ups or as sex workers) are much more at risk for fatal forms of violence. 

The Sex/Gender/Sexuality System

In the second project, I work to theorize the processes of the sex/gender/sexuality system, including how gender and sexuality are intertwined, how gender inequality is created and maintained, and the current dominant criteria for gender categorization. In this fully collaborative project with Kristen Schilt (University of Chicago), we examine the criteria for gender attribution through an analysis of interviews with trans men and their co-workers, newspaper articles about violence against transgender people, policies determining eligibility of transgender people for competitive sports, public debates over the expansion of transgender employment rights, and proposals to remove the surgery requirement for a change of sex on birth certificates. In our examination of moments of conflict over who counts as a man and who counts as a woman, we find that there are different criteria for “determining gender” in different social spaces. In everyday encounters, such as the workplace, cisgender (non-transgender) people are more willing to use self-identity in determining a trans person’s gender, while in sexual situations and in sex-segregated spaces, they are more likely to utilize body-based criteria. However, these rules are not applied evenly across genders. Because of beliefs that women are inherently vulnerable and men are dangerous, access to women’s spaces, but not men’s, is central to debates over transgender rights.

Surveying the Surveyors

More recently I have turned my attention to the social scientific construction of knowledge about common categories of difference, including race and ethnicity, sex and gender, and sexuality. Through a systematic examination of questionnaires, manuals and other technical materials from the longest-running and most widely used social surveys, Aliya Saperstein (Stanford University) and I examine how methods of measurement have, or have not, changed over time and vary across surveys. We investigate the often unspoken assumptions about what it means to be a member of a particular race, gender or sexual orientation that are implied by aspects of the survey design. The structure of the surveys not only shapes the types of responses that can be recorded, it also constrains the kinds of analysis researchers can conduct. By revealing both the structure and silences about social categories in our national surveys, we hope to highlight the role that social science research plays in (re)producing particular visions of the social world. 

Men's Experiences of Violence

Finally, I have begun work on a new book project, tentatively titled Doing Gender, Doing Violence: Men, Masculinity, and How Gender Hurts Everyone. Although heterosexual, gender-conforming men are usually (invisibly) centered in social science research, they are often absent from our studies of gender. Nowhere is this more true than with studies of experiences of gender violence. Surveys and crime data show that men experience more physical violence than women; however, the study of gendered violence has traditionally focused only on violence against women. In this project, I use interviews with a racially, socioeconomically, and regionally diverse group of men to examine what types of violence men experience and how it shapes their lives. I explore whether they experience certain acts, those typically defined as violence when done to women or children, as violence at all and if those violent encounters leave them feeling vulnerable for having experienced it or strong for having survived or ended it.


Laurel Westbrook,
Sep 23, 2014, 12:14 PM