| in Community

Sarah Miller is senior lecturer of sociology and director of undergraduate studies and professor of women’s gender, and sexuality studies (WGS). Miller is currently teaching “Sociology of Gender, Gender and Crime,” and the introductory WGS class, “Gender and Sexuality: An Interdisciplinary Introduction.” Her research focuses on the intersection of gender, sexuality, youth, education, and new media.

What specific issue or passion led you to become a scholar of sociology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies? 

The specific issue was sexual violence. When I first graduated from college, I did sexual violence prevention work in Chicago. I was a rape crisis counselor and provided prevention education in  public schools, community centers, and juvenile detention facilities. This work made me passionate about the impact that better knowledge about gender and sexuality could have on preventing harm in the world. That was initially what led me to get my WGS degree. I didn’t actually become a sociologist until significantly later. When I started graduate school, I was very invested in constructing knowledge around gender and sexuality and sharing that knowledge with others. It seemed like WGS was a really important space to do that in. I ended up also doing coursework in the Human Sexuality Studies Program at San Francisco State, where I was getting my WGS master’s degree. The human sex program was very social scientific focused, and I realized, ‘Ah, okay, so what I really want are the tools that social scientists use to do research around gender and sexuality related issues’, which is how I ended up later pursuing a PhD in Sociology, researching bullying. Early on, a lot of my work was still very connected to the kinds of ways that knowledge about gender and sexuality is restricted, especially for young people. I knew that because of those restrictions,  a lot of harm is happening to young people. I believe that if we can produce research that actually can show how that harm is produced, we might have a little bit more leverage on prevention. So that’s kind of where I was motivated when I began, and I’ve carried that same thread of motivation throughout my work till today. 

What is the most influential piece of advice or inspiration you have heard from a mentor or peer? 

‘Don’t give up,’ and ‘leap and the net will appear.’ I think it’s very easy, especially as an undergrad, and also as you continue along your way in an academic career, to doubt yourself or feel like you don’t really belong. There’s a lot of reasons why people might feel like that in academia, especially when they’re first coming in as students. I think it’s really important to remember to never give up because this place is better because you are here. Especially for students who may be wondering if they belong here, they very much do and they’re making this place better explicitly because they’re here. The ‘leap and the net will appear’ was actually a magnet a professor of mine gave me, that I’ve held on to all these years. It’s stayed relevant throughout my life actually. Whenever you’re at the precipice of something new, it can feel completely overwhelming to take that next step. I think one of the main ways significant social change has happened has been with people leaping and that net appearing, believing that the impossible is actually possible, but of course, not without a huge amount of labor on the part of many actors to make that change happen. I think that oftentimes, our self-doubt makes it hard to do that leap. And the reality is that sometimes you just have to. 

What progress would you most like to see in the U.S.? 

Knowledge. Education and knowledge. Right now, we’re in a moment where education and knowledge about gender and sexuality are very much under attack. We’re seeing all these restrictions on K-12 education. And they aren’t just about gender and sexuality, but they are also  restricting knowledge about racial injustice and racial inequality. Part of how progress is made is being able to learn both from the past, to make better futures, and also about new ways of being. If we’re trying to restrict that knowledge it’s going to make it so much more difficult for people to be who they are and to fight for justice. I think we’re in this really complex moment where there has been so much progress made on many different forms of rights. But that progress is seen as a threat. A lot of times it’s also the knowledge production around that progress that is also seen as a threat. Especially in academia, it is vital that we protect the creation and dissemination of knowledge around social justice issues, particularly so that we can better support young people. Luckily we have social media, we have the internet. Even in places where there’s a lot of restrictions around this information, youth are still very adept at finding and sharing this information. The more we, as academics, can be creative in how we actually share knowledge, the better. Especially at this moment in history, it’s going to be vital that we take a cue from youth, and lean into these different modalities that educators haven’t necessarily always used in the past, because of these restrictions. 

Tell me a bit about your current book project, The Tolerance Generation: Growing Up Online in an Anti-Bullying Era. 

The book project is based on two school years of digital and in person fieldwork at a rural high school in the northeast. I spent two years hanging out with teenagers studying how they navigate bullying and anti-bullying policies, in person and online. I was interested in how young people are growing up, and learning how to get along, as racialized, gendered, sexual people in this virtual panopticon that is social media. What I found was that a lot of the anti-bullying initiatives that were supposed to  protect young people were failing at providing the kind of protection that is most needed. I found that kids who were more privileged, those who were white, middle and upper middle class, cisgender, and heterosexual were the ones that were most capable of using anti-bullying policies to their benefit when they experienced conflict. But the kids that were non-dominant in a variety of different ways, namely, the kids who were LGBTQ, students of color, and working class or low income, and oftentimes the intersection of these identities, were less likely to actually draw on these policies and initiatives when they were experiencing harm. This had to do with how bullying was framed by adults as a direct, targeted attack. This definition made it very difficult to help in the case of the very prevalent, yet diffuse forms of aggression that non-dominant youth were more likely to experience. Teens are much more likely to bully, especially when the content relates to inequality, indirectly via sub tweets, rumors, etc. But that doesn’t mean that bullying isn’t still happening to these teens. We have horrible situations right now in the media of very explicit, horrible direct attacks on youth of color and on trans and non-binary young people. Most of what I saw happening at this school was not directed. It was all this indirect, diffused, micro aggression, kind of thing that was happening to non-dominant youth. It was making it so much more difficult to actually do anything about bullying. 

What are some key themes from the book project? 

Ultimately, if we really want to protect kids from bullying, particularly the kids that are most likely to be targeted, our policies need to actually be grappling with and addressing the role of inequality in bullying practices, and that’s not what they’re doing. That’s one takeaway of the book. We have all these initiatives in place in schools now to prevent bullying, but what I was seeing was that they were mainly just protecting the youth who need protection the least. But the other major takeaway is about the value of social media. Even though adults often focus on how the digital world is super problematic and creating all this harm for young people, I found that social media was the one tool that kids had at their disposal to actually use to prevent bullying from happening, to productively respond to it when it was, and to, share vital information about inequality with each other when educators avoided teaching them about it. It created a space for kids to actively have conversations that adults weren’t allowing them to have in school. My takeaway around social media is not that it is all bad or all good, but that it is an incredibly useful tool that young people have at their disposal to actively try to prevent harm, make social change, and grow. Adults are wildly underestimating young people’s capacities on the front. 

What does Women’s History Month mean to you? 

I 100% would not be here without all of the incredible work that so many women have done over the years to create space for us to be able to do the work that we do today. When I think about women’s history month, I also feel like it’s a huge reflection on not just everything that has come before but where we are in this particular moment. We are in this super complex moment, especially when it comes to gender inequality and gender injustice, be it related to attacks on reproductive justice, trans rights, or LGBTQ people, restrictions that are most deeply impacting communities of color. Had we not had all of these people doing all this incredible work in the past, we could not be here to be fighting for justice at this moment. So I think it’s really important to be honoring the work that has come from all of these women that have put in  this labor throughout history to make this world better. And when I say the women who have come before, I mean all women. Women’s History Month historically has often  been framed around cisgender women, but I think it’s really important that we think not just about cisgender women. There have been a ton of really incredible trans women and gender diverse people who have done enormous things for reshaping this world. With Women’s History Month, we want to be thinking very inclusively about which women we are talking about and whose histories we’re celebrating.