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“Straight-ish”: Constrained Agency and the Linguistic Constructions of Sexual Identities, Desires, and Practices among Men Seeking Men


Despite prolific research in language, identity, and sexuality (e.g. Bucholtz and Hall 2004, 2005; Cameron and Kulick 2003, 2005), less work is conducted online (cf. Mortensen 2010, Baker 2013, Rega 2013), and what research has been done tends to focus on established identity groups such as lesbians (Jones 2012), gay men (Manalansan 2003), and bisexuals (Thorne 2013) in predominantly urban areas (e.g. Leap 2005; Podesva 2007, 2011). Research on agency in linguistic anthropology and language, gender, and sexuality has also proliferated (e.g. Davies 1991; Ahearn 2001, 2011; Duranti 2004; Zimman 2010, 2014; Mills and Jones 2014), though the focus tends to be mostly on the role of language in constructing agency, and ways agency is claimed by minoritized groups. Constraints on agency as seen through multiple layers of identity, conflict, or construct are less directly discussed. This dissertation contributes to the increasing attention paid to agency in language, gender, and sexuality scholarship and linguistic anthropological research more broadly through what I call constrained agency, defined as the agentive manipulation of and negotiation around constraints, whether self-imposed or external, that limit the capacity of a subject or group of subjects to act.. By examining constraints on agency and the ways they are manipulated and negotiated, the analysis shows the complexities of sexual identity construction and a queering of sexuality that both exploits and challenges existing sexual identity categories.

To explore this concept, I examine three sources of data using a multi-faceted, bottom-up approach to discourse analysis: 1. Television footage, media coverage, and comments on media articles of the 2015 TLC special My Husband’s Not Gay, which illustrates the creation of a novel sexual identity category despite constraints on agency within the LDS church; 2. Online personal advertisements of straight-identified men posting advertisements in a “men seeking men” forum to examine the linguistic negotiations used to balance a self-presentation as a straight male while simultaneously seeking same-sex partners; and 3. The role of linguistic and visual commodification of the self by employing tropes that idealize straightness and sexualized body parts as markers of desired masculinity in posts on the men seeking men forum of Craigslist.

Together, each portion of the analysis works to construct an understanding of constrained agency and the linguistic and visual manipulation of and negotiation around myriad constraints, including social norms, individual desires, religious dogma, and ideological expectations of sexual identities. Through a nuanced exploration of the ways constraints work upon agents in addition to the ways agents manipulate those constraints for their own purposes, we can come to a deeper understanding on the role of language in identity construction and sexuality, and critique the common ideologies that essentialize sexual roles and identity categories and theoretical frameworks that guide our understanding of sexual selves.

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