Bed Bug Stigma – What Would Goffman Say?

Quite often, students tend to confuse deviance will illegal activities and criminality. I always have to remind them that a deviant label may be imposed on people who hold unconventional beliefs but also people who have conditions that others find repulsive, disgusting and generally gross. In all cases, pretty much anything may be defined and re-defined as deviant. There is an arbitrary dimension to deviance.

And once someone has crossed the social distance between primary deviance (the norm-breaking phase, in this case, the infestation) to secondary deviance (the social discovery of the deviant condition), society, groups and individuals impose a stigma on the deviant person or group. For science-ficton fans, a wonderful illustration of this process (along with tertiary deviance, that ism the internalization of the label) can be found in David Marusek ‘s novel, Counting Heads, and the stigmatized “stinkers” (people who have been  – sometimes – wrongfully labeled deviant and “seared” and, as a result, permanently stink because of loss of control of bodily processes).

Case in point, bed bugs… Via Art Jipson on Twitter, this article from the New York Times. The article details all the minute forms of discrimination that the stigmatized endure as their participation in society gets limited by others and confined to what others find acceptable. Their very person becomes a source of pollution and they become, literally, untouchable:

“Jeremy Sparig spent months fighting bedbugs. Now, to some people, he is like a mattress left on the street, something best avoided in these times.

“They don’t want to hug you anymore; they don’t want you coming over,” said Mr. Sparig, of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “You’re like a leper.”

At the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which recently had a bedbug breakout, defense lawyers are skittish about visiting, and it is not because of the fierce prosecutors.

Even Steven Smollens, a housing lawyer who has helped many tenants with bedbugs, has his guard up. Those clients are barred from his office. “I meet outside,” he said. “There’s a Starbucks across the street.”

Beyond the bites and the itching, the bother and the expense, victims of the nation’s most recent plague are finding that an invisible scourge awaits them in the form of bedbug stigma. Friends begin to keep their distance. Invitations are rescinded. For months, one woman said, her mother was afraid to tell her that she had an infestation. When she found out and went to clean her mother’s apartment, she said, “Nobody wanted to help me.””

The fact that the threat is invisible yet easy to imagine (little creepy-crawlies are eating you up while you sleep) and reconceptualize: one person in the article compares it to terrorism, another to being a human sacrifice, a third like H1N1 (super bug!). I’m sure there is a movie in there, somewhere. Or at the very least, a Saturday night Syfy movie with bad CGI.

At the same time, the invisibility of the threat makes it impossible for the victims to prove that they are “clean” and remove the stigma (stigmas tend to be sticky).

Maybe a video game can help destigmatize the condition…

2 thoughts on “Bed Bug Stigma – What Would Goffman Say?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Bed Bug Stigma – What Would Goffman Say? | The Global Sociology Blog --

  2. A New York Community Health Survey found that one in fifteen New Yorkers had bed bugs in 2009; a recent Daily News-Marist Poll found one in 10 has had them in the past.

    Given those statistics (and, understanding how skewed they may be by all kinds of factors), and since we know that New Yorkers in all income brackets and neighborhoods have suffered from bed bugs, how does this affect such a stigma?

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