Many—too many—women of color, Indigenous women, immigrant women, poor women, white women, trans women, women whose identities intersect these categories, and others, share histories, especially family histories, of sexual violence. This is not a new story. It’s been going on for centuries and continues today.1 And this sexual violence tells women, implicitly, that we are unworthy of being safe.
For me, the message that I was unloved and unlovable came first, and loudest, from my mother. But every time we’re rejected, treated differently, or dismissed, whether by our families, our communities, or our social institutions, we’re being told that we’re unloved and unworthy. When states and cities don’t invest in public schools, when managers treat their workers with suspicion, when authority figures discount our experiences because of our race, gender, or sexuality,2 we’re being told that we do not deserve their investments of time, money, and attention. Whether we’re talking about relationships, family, or society writ large, the experience of being loved is rooted in recognition and resources. Being denied those resources and recognition marks us as unloved, the essence of what it means to be an outsider.
How we understand and assess ourselves is filtered through the eyes of others.3 In her essay collection Thick, Tressie McMillan Cottom declares that she is unattractive or ugly. She tells readers that she’s not internalizing the dominant culture’s assessment of her. Instead, she’s thinking through beauty as capital, “naming what has been done to” her and “signaling who did it.”4
Love, too, is a form of capital.
Love is an emotion—a feeling of care, whether it be romantic, sexual, friendly, or familial.5 And these feelings of love spur action, organize our thinking,6 and permeate popular culture, from songs and movies to television shows and toys. Love is so powerful that states intensely regulate love and its corollary, lust. In the United States, interracial marriages have only been legal since 1967, when the US Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law prohibiting the interracial marriage of Mildred Loving and Richard Loving. Love also has been central to organizing international political economies. Bars and clubs frame which kinds of sexual activity are desirable and obtainable, the communities we live and work in frame which types of relationships are appropriate, and which are not, and governments and militaries regulate, organize, and criminalize particular kinds of intimacies, such as sex work and marriages.
But what would it mean to see love as a form of capital? When sociologists refer to capital, they’re often drawing on the social theory of Pierre Bourdieu,7 who discusses different forms of capital. Scholars have also used the term capital to study our feelings. Emotional capital refers to the emotional resources, skills, and energies that people acquire and use, strategically and actively, in their lives.8
So, emotions are not just feelings or only the “stuff” of culture. As a form of capital, emotions shape relationships and individuals’ access to a whole set of resources (or their absence). But let’s zoom out. What if instead of looking at the ways that individuals draw on, or teach others, emotional resources and skills—that is, instead of seeing emotions solely as a form of capital that people do or do not have—we emphasize how emotions shape and are constitutive of capital and our decisions regarding how resources are used and distributed and where we put our labor and energy? What if we also see love as a bundle of practices associated with our labor?
Let’s break the concept down. To love or to care also means to invest, whether the thing being invested is time, money, or something else. Here’s an example. It’s often taken for granted that people love their families. What does that mean? Traditionally it means that, to the extent that you are able, you provide shelter and food for your closest relations, send children to school, and treat them nicely—whether that’s kissing a “boo-boo,” rocking them to sleep, reading to them, celebrating their accomplishments, or encouraging them in their passions.
For many caregivers, parents or otherwise, “loving your family” also means personal sacrifice, which usually means working long hours and putting the needs of others first. In the case of many—particularly Filipina women—it also means leaving children behind, migrating to another country to work (often as domestic workers).9 Spending money to buy, or sending money for others to buy, things like food, clothes, electronics, necessities is another way that caregivers demonstrate love.
Sociologist Viviana Zelizer10 talks about how people match what we give to whom based on our relationships, which are shaped by feelings.11 That is, a favored child may receive more attention or toys than a less-favored child. When we’re angry with, dislike, or hate someone, we may withhold resources from them and limit our loved ones’ interactions and access to them. The emotions available to us, and our ability to use them, are also shaped by historical processes and structural conditions.12
In this respect, love—like all forms of capital—is also unequal. Our default focus on individual or family sacrifices as signs of a parent’s love masks structural inequalities. Not everyone can provide for their child(ren). Some people must leave their children behind and move to another country to better their children’s lives. But that’s not necessarily because of a lack of love. It’s because of power and inequality. It’s about how structural racism, sexism, classism, and legacies of colonialism shape who is deemed worthy or unworthy of resources. For some parents, leaving their children is the only way to provide for them.
The question of who is loved, worthy, and thus, deserving—and who is deemed unlovable, unworthy, and undeserving—is political and has long gripped social scientists because the answer has very real socioeconomic and political consequences.13 The intense debates in the US about reproductive rights, including both abortion and forced sterilization, for example, gestures to the link between worthiness and resources. Beginning in the early twentieth century, for example, many US states operated eugenics programs that ultimately sterilized tens of thousands of people without their consent, mostly women of color and people with disabilities.14 The practice of forced sterilization inspired the Nazis and continues today: a September 2020 whistleblower complaint by Dawn Wooten, a nurse, alleged “seemingly high numbers of hysterectomies performed on immigrants detained at [the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Ocilla, Georgia], which was followed by stories of multiple women being sterilized without their consent.”15 Both now and in 1920, the practice of forced sterilization is rooted in eugenics—that is, in racist policies that turn social and biological ideas about whose life is worth living into a form of population control.
We typically think of eugenics, with its emphasis on forced sterilization, as having a different politics than abortion restrictions. And yet, both eugenics and abortion are about racialized, gendered, and sexed notions of worth. Beginning in 1976, congressional appropriations for Medicaid funding came attached with the so-called Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds in most abortions.16 In effect, the Hyde Amendment meant that, in the words of sociologist Zakiya Luna, “a rich woman using private insurance and a poor woman using federal government insurance both have a legal right to an abortion, but only the first one can be assured she can obtain the abortion.”17
The Hyde Amendment, however, contains a notable exception for cases of “life endangerment, rape or incest.” In the eyes of the state, even these yet-to-be children are not meant to live. They are unlovable and unworthy. This observation is not to say anything about a woman’s right to choose. I support my own mother’s right to choose and think that aborting me would have saved her years of pain and trauma every time she looked at me. Instead, my point is that socioeconomic and political decisions that control access to resources are another way that we collectively demonstrate who is worthy of love.
This is the case even for so-called “good” and “progressive” movements like that of climate change advocates. For example, white climate change advocates from the Global North often link the fate of the environment to individual women’s reproductive decisions. The ideal women, who environmental and gender scholar Jade Sasser describes as “sexual stewards,” are “assumed to be fertile, reproducing beings, whose improved status will ideally lead to making responsible family choices—choices that include the proper spacing, timing, and number of children that will slow global population growth.”18 Sasser goes on to note that these “population-climate narratives tend to naturalize poverty and inequality in the Global South. In advocacy trainings, images of the poor are presented as dark-skinned women of color, often in tattered clothing and surrounded by children… these images…are…constructed representations, informed by colonial legacies.”19 Constructions of worthiness, race, gender, and resources go hand-in-hand and reproduce what Du Bois refers to as a global color line.20 But placing the burden of climate change on individual women doesn’t have to be the case. Nonprofits and advocates like Colette Pichon Battle at the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, to name one example, provide alternative solutions by working in collaboration with local communities of color to create sustainable economies based on organizational values of human rights, restorative justice, equity, shared liberation, and sovereignty and self-determination.21 Solutions, in this vein, are structural and community-centered practices, and not based on individual reproductive decisions.
What, then, does it mean to see love as something used by individuals, a bundle of practices, and as something that is structural, unevenly distributed, and shapes decisions? It means understanding love as working through organizations like governments, schools, and workplaces. Seeing it in this way helps clarify that where we put our federal, state, local, and personal resources is a matter of who and what is loved and thus is seen as valuable and worthy.22
1. For example, Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Miriam Gleckman-Krut, and Lanora Johnson, “Silence, Power and Inequality: An Intersectional Approach to Sexual Violence,” Annual Review of Sociology 44 (2018): 99–122.
2. For example, Brandon Andrew Robinson, “Conditional Families and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth Homelessness: Gender, Sexuality, Family Instability, and Rejection,” Journal of Marriage and Family 80, no. 2 (2018): 383–396; Brandon Andrew Robinson, Coming Out to the Streets: LGBTQ Youth Experiencing Homelessness (Berkeley: University of California Press).
3. This is a central insight from symbolic interactionism, e.g., Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922); George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934); Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: First Anchor Books, 1934); W.E.B. Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folk (Project Gutenberg, 2021 ), 1–2, https://www.gutenberg.org/ files/408/408-h/408-h.htm.
4. Tressie McMillan Cottom, THICK and Other Essays (New York: The New Press, 2019), 60.
5. For debates on whether love is an emotion and different approaches to the study of love, see Diane Felmlee and Susan Sprecher, “Love,” in Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions, ed. Jan Stets and Jonathan Turner, 389–409 (New York: Springer, 2006).
6. Ann Swidler, Talk of Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
7. Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J Richardson, 241–258 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986).
8. Marci D. Cottingham, “Theorizing Emotional Capital,” Theory and Society 45, no. 5 (2016): 451–470; Maeve O’Brien, “Gendered Capital: Emotional Capital and Mother’s Care Work in Education,” British Journal of Education 29, no. 2 (2008): 137–148; Diane Reay, “Gendering Bourdieu’s Concepts of Capitals? Emotional Capital, Women and Social Class,” Sociological Review 52, no. s2 (2004): 57–74; Diane Reay, “A Useful Extension of Bourdieu’s Conceptual Framework?: Emotional Capital as a Way of Understanding Mothers’ Involvement in Their Children’s Education?” Sociological Review 48, no. 4 (2000): 568–585; Spencer E. Cahill, “Emotional Capital and Professional Socialization: The Case of Mortuary Science Students (and Me),” Social Psychology Quarterly 62, no. 2 (1999): 101–116; Elizabeth Vaquera, Elizabeth Aranda, and Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez, “Emotional Challenges of Undocumented Young Adults: Ontological Security, Emotional Capital, and Well-Being,” Social Problems 64 (2017): 298–314; Carissa M. Froyum, “The Reproduction of Inequalities through Emotional Capital: The Case of Socializing Low-Income Black Girls,” Qualitative Sociology 33 (2010): 37–54.
9. For example, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Servants of Globalization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015 ); Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, The Labor of Care (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018).
10. Viviana Zelizer, The Purchase of Intimacy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
11. Nina Bandelj, “Relational Work and Economic Sociology,” Politics & Society 40, no. 2 (2012): 175–201; Nina Bandelj, “Emotions in Economic Action and Interaction,” Theory and Society 38 (2009): 347–366.
12. Bandelj, “Relational Work and Economic Sociology,” 187.
13. For example, Mabel Berezin, “Secure States: Towards a Political Sociology of Emotion,” Sociological Review 50, no. 2 suppl (2002): 33–52; James M. Jasper, “The Emotions of Protest: Affective and Reactive Emotions in and around Social Movements,” Sociological Forum 13, no. 3 (1998): 397–424; H. J. Gans, The War against the Poor (New York: Basic Books, 1995); J. Soss, R. C. Fording, and S. F. Schram, Disciplining the Poor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); M. Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); M. B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); M. B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor (New York: Pantheon, 1989); Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana, “Racialized Valuation and Assessments of Gentrification,” Ford Foundation Conference, 2021; R. A. Moffitt, “The Deserving Poor, the Family, and the US Welfare System,” Demography 52, no. 3 (2015): 729–749; C. D. DeSante, “Working Twice as Hard to Get Half as Far: Race, Work Ethic, and America’s Deserving Poor,” American Journal of Political Science 57, no. 2 (2013), 342–356.
14. For example, Lisa Ko, “Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States,” PBS, January 29, 2016, https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/ unwanted-sterilization-and-eugenics-programs-in-the-united-states/.
15. Nicole Narea, “The Outcry over ICE and Hysterectomies, Explained,” Vox, September 18, 2020, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/9/15/21437805/ whistleblower-hysterectomies-nurse-irwin-ice.
16. Zakiya Luna, Reproductive Rights as Human Rights (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 45.
17. Luna, Reproductive Rights as Human Rights, 48.
18. Jade Sasser, On Infertile Ground (New York: NYU Press, 2018), 5.
19. Sasser, On Infertile Ground, 12
20. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk; Katrina Quisumbing King, “Recentering US Empire: A Structural Perspective on the Color Line,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 5, no. 1 (2019): 11–25; see also Jean Beaman and Amy Petts, “Towards a Global Theory of Colorblindness: Comparing Colorblind Racial Ideology in France and the United States,” Sociology Compass 14, no. 4 (2020): e12774.
21. https://www.gcclp.org/mission-vision, last accessed 12/15/2021.
22. For example, Michèle Lamont and Virág Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences,” Annual Review of Sociology 28 (2002): 167–195.