Friday, July 22, 2011

Online Course: Sociology of Human Sexuality Part 1

cross posted from my Media Justice column

This is the first part in a series of posts (maybe 4 maybe 5) based upon my teaching experiences this summer semester as I teach an upper level course called “Sociology of Human Sexuality.” This is the second time I’ve taught this course and I have three times as many students this time around. I’m super excited to know that I’ll be able to share some of what I have planned each week with you all.
Our semester in the summer is four weeks long. We meet three times a week for three hours. Each class session is considered one week in a usual fall or spring semester. As a result, we’ve covered a LOT already and we have only had three classes. Below is an overview of what we discussed with links to the readings and films when available. If you are interested in receiving the syllabus I’m using please leave a comment with a way to reach you.

Day 1
Introduction, Anatomy & Physiology

I began class by introducing the course and myself by reviewing the syllabus and discussing major projects and grading requirements. Although grading is my least favorite part of teaching, it’s required. There are two quizzes, one final, 20 workbook assignments, and 5 guest speakers. The final project is for the students to either do a formal/traditional research paper of a topic of their choice or to rewrite a piece of media (of their choice) to demonstrate the characters/environment/etc. represent a sexually responsible, positive, and inclusive presentation of sex, sexuality, and topics we have discussed this semester. 

There are two required texts for my class, one is a traditional textbook about Human Sexuality called Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity by Janell L. Carroll and the second text is Tales of the Closet  by Ivan Velez, Jr. This second text is one that I adore, it was the first comic book that was written and created (both by Ivan he’s the artist and author) centering queer youth of Color in NYC. There is a great history of the book that you can read on Ivan’s website Planet Bronx.  You may purchase Tales of the Closet online (and the other parts as well) and I have the honor of having Ivan agree to visit our class on the last day and discuss his text and career as an author, artist, and media maker. 

After introducing the course I had us do our first group activity. As many educators like to do (and apologies if you have done this activity and call it a specific title), I wrote terms on a piece of paper (i.e. each piece of paper had terms: Breast & Nipples, Testicles & Scrotum, Vulva, LGBTQI, Masturbation, Oral Sex, Anal Sex, and Vaginal Sex. I put the students in pairs and gave them each a piece of paper with a word on it. Then gave them 2 minutes to write all the other terms, synonyms, people, places, phrases they could think of regarding this topic in that time without repeating others that are already written. Usually I have one student read the terms on the paper they are holding, but this time I decided against that for time purposes. Instead I asked students what their reactions were reading their peers terms and phrases. What emotions came up for them? These emotions varied from funny, happy, angry, uncomfortable, and confused. I then indicated that those are terms we are NOT going to use in our class. That we will use the “scientific” terms in our class unless we are making direct quotes, using specific examples, and/or need assistance finding another term. That this connects to the respect issue as many people respond to language differently. 

Then, I went straight into lecturing. I always like to start with what I think is the harder part of the course: anatomy and physiology. I think this is difficult because for folks who do not have a medical/science background or have not been trained to memorize things in a particular way, this is a challenge. We briefly discussed puberty and changes that may occur during this time. I then went into the reproductive organs of what is assigned to people who are male. One of the reasons I start here is because the images and pictures needed can be taken care of with one foto. Plus, starting with these reproductive organs often quiets the young men in the room if they are already feeling a bit uncomfortable. They are often fascinated with the reproductive organs they are assumed to have and how they work. 

Here is a good example of one of the images  I used to present this discussion. The body parts we discussed include: glans penis, corona, frenulum, shaft of penis, scrotum, perenium, and anus as the external parts of the genitalia. The internal parts we discussed include: urethra, cowper’s gland, ejaculatory duct, prostate, seminal vesicle, bladder, vas deferense, epididymis, testicle/testis, sperm, semen, and ejaculatory fluid. All of these parts (which you may do an internet search to find more information about each if you are not familiar with any of these parts) I presented as important parts of reproductive organs and how our society has created ideas of “normal” genitalia. 

We then discussed the pathway that sperm and semen go to exit the body. For those of you who need a refresher the pathway is: sperm develops in the testis, matures in the epididymis, moves up through the vas deferens which provides some nutrients and donates to the semen, followed by the seminal vesicle, ejaculatory duct, and passes the cowper’s gland (which stores pre-ejaculatory fluid) and out of the urethra. There was a question about retrograde ejaculation, when instead of semen (which carries sperm) goes into the bladder because the bladder neck closure connecting the bladder and urethra does not close. This closing is required for the semen to move through the rest of the body and out the urethra. 

It was a whole bunch of information and I was exhausted and thirsty and needed to sit down! And yes, I did draw images on the board to help show these body parts and the passage of semen, which is kind of hilarious in itself. So we took a break and when we returned we finished up with the internal and external reproductive organs of people assigned as female. 

I began the discussion with internal reproductive organs.  I often find that these images are often ones that people are more familiar with. I’m not sure why this may be, perhaps it is not seen as “pornographic” as external genitalia are? Or maybe it is because of our discussion of contraceptives and birth control. In any event, we begin by discussing the following parts: ova/eggs/ovums, ovary, fimbria, fallopian tubes, uterus, uterine/endometrial lining, cervix, os, vaginal canal. I then shared, similarly to how we discussed sperm moving through the body, how ova/eggs mature and move through the reproductive organs. Again, for those who are not sure the path goes as follows: ova stimulated to grow in ovar, the most mature egg busts out of the ovary (yes it is a forceful process one that some folks may feel and this has been called a MittleSchmertz ), fimbria picks it up and helps move through fallopian tube, uterus, and if there is no fertilization (the egg hooking up with sperm) then there is no implantation (fertilized egg attaching to uterine/endometrial lining) and when it is time usually menstruation occurs where the lining of the uterus exits the cervix through the os and out of the vaginal canal. 

The second part of the reproductive organs for females was the external. This is a good image that may be useful for folks to follow along. I introduced the vulva as a term that describes the entire external female genitalia; this was a term that not many folks were familiar with. I indicated how when folks say the “vagina” they are really just referencing one part of the vulva and to get to know the other great parts that make up the vulva! These include the mons pubis, clitoris, inner and outer labia lips, vagina, perenium, and anus. I made a note that I would refer to the inner and outer labia lips instead of how the textbook discusses them as the labia majora and minora. This is because for some people their inner labia lip (what some call the labia minora) is often larger and/or longer than their outer labia lip (what some call the labia majora) and this may lend to people with vulvas thinking their vulva is not “normal” because the terms associated make the assumption that “majora” is longer. 

I also shared this so that when we begin our discussion of female sexual dysfunction we can have a conversation about vaginoplasty and if we think this may qualify as a dysfunction, cosmetic, or something else. Some students were not too fond of hearing me say this about terminology, so I made the note that just like our faces, where we usually have two eyes, one nose, one mouth the vulva usually has the same features but they all look different, just as our faces look different. This seemed to have settled them down a bit. 

I then spent some time discussing our ideas of virginity. Who may be included and/or excluded in those ideas and had the class provide some commentary on how they would define virginity. It quickly became clear the students had various definitions of virginity and that it was tied for many of them to vaginal canals and hymens. With that noted, I shared the different types of hymen’s  that may exist. We also discussed what hymens’ are, how they are formed, how one may “check” for virginity, how a hymen may be a challenge for “normal” reproductive growth (i.e. no perforation for menstrual blood to flow). Here’s a great set of images to help clarify how hymen’s may look for some folks.

Day 2
Human Sexual Response, Menstrual Cycle, Stages of Erection and Ejaculation, Sexual Assault & Rape

One of the reasons I put rape and sexual assault so early in the semester and connected to stages of an erection, ejaculation, and human sexual response, is because often folks are not aware of how our bodies may response to trauma. I wanted to help students understand how our bodies function and therefore have a better understanding of why the body may respond in certain ways that are nonconsensual. 

We began with discussing parts of the breast, which I had forgotten to discuss in our first class. We discussed milk ducts, mammary glands, nipple, areola, and lactation. I then discussed hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), Gonadotrophin Releasing Hormone (GnRH), prolactin, and oxytocin. I then went into the stages of the menstrual cycle  which include: follicular, ovulation, luteal, and menstrual. I shared that, although using a 28-day cycle, that many folks who menstruate do not always full under this cycle timeline. That the 28 days is the idea that for 21 days out of the month a person does not bleed and for 7 days they do. This has historically been promoted as the “normal” cycle even though we know that there are often more than 28 days in a month. I noted that this cycle is usually attached to “traditional” (read not the type that only gives you your period 3x a year) oral birth control pills where for three weeks a person may not menstruate and then for one full week. This may be in part to the connection between reproductive health and the pharmaceutical companies in the US. 

We then moved to human sexual response, which I included 5 stages of versus the usual 4 (even today an online search will come up with the original 4 still). These staged include: desire (fairly new addition), excitement, plateau, orgasmic, and resolution. Historically desire was not included until the activism of a few sexologists. The argument is that desire must first exist and be acknowledged in order for human sexual response to occur in the way we have been taught to understand. Without desire what does that mean? What does it mean if we have sex but there is no desire? How does this connect to consent? At one point when discussing “sex flush” which is often considered a reddening of the skin when the body experiences certain things, I connected this to the normalization of white and light skin. For people whose skin is not a color where redness is easily seen and recognized there are other ways for a sex flush to occur, such as “goose bumps.” I wonder how many other educators, trainers, physicians make this note about skin color and physical responses? How many make the connection that these theories we teach still erase and ignore many of our community members?

We then transitioned into discussing the stages of erection an erection. Before doing this I drew a picture of what is inside of the penis  and discussed the urethra, corpus cavernosum and corpus spongiosum so it was clear there is no bone, how and where blood fills into the penis. This is a very physiological discussion; one that can easily get confusing and I try to make it accessible. I begin by discussing the autonomic nervous system (ANS)  and two branches: parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The ANS controls balance, breathing, urination, sweating, and sexual response; things that we often don’t always think about but are basic parts of our body needing to do so it can function in a particular way. The PNS controls muscle contractions and thus erections and the SNS controls our feelings, emotions, anxiety, and ejaculation. 

An erection is, as their textbook states” a “hydraulic event” (yes hydraulic as in what may happen with cars as they go up and down) and a spinal cord reflex. There are several parts of the body that come into play for an erection to occur. These include the brain, blood vessels, hormones, nerves, and spinal cord.  I usually draw a picture of the spinal cord with special emphasis on the lower parts called the Lumbar curve and Sacral curve. I then give students two different scenarios:

1. Touch: something/one touches or brushes against a penis and what happens is that a message from the ANS is sent to the spinal cord, specifically the sacrum which is part of the sacral curve. The sacral area is “erection central” in that it receives messages and then sends them to the penis so that blood can be sent there and fill, which is called vasocongestion. This is what causes certain parts of our body to become hard when they fill with blood (i.e. nipple, clitoris, penis, vulva). 

2. Visual: If the person with the penis sees something that they find arousing or pleasurable a message is sent from the brain that goes to the lumbar region of the spinal cord. That message says “this is something I find arousing” and thus an erection can occur. The lumbar then sends a message to the sacral area and that message is for vasocongestion to occur in the penis. 

When the lumbar does not translate that message to the sacral area, this is when folks may look to medications for erectile dysfunction such as Viagra© and Cialis®. One of the reasons these medications work is because they help to take away whatever is blocking the Lumbar in translating the message from the brain. The issue is that there is still desire that the person with the penis has for experiencing an erection, they are just not experiencing one because there is a block. 

I finished up this discussion with the three stages of ejaculation: emission (when mature sperm moves through the body), bladder neck closure, and ejaculation. One of the reasons why I put the rape and sexual assault discussion at this time was to discuss how some folks don’t understand why people get erections. I wanted to help folks realize that not all erections are sexual, that sometimes erections occur but it does not mean that people want to engage in a sexual activity. Often, these can be spinal cord reflexes. These may occur during a sexual assault. It is possible that when someone with a penis is sexually assaulted and/or raped they experience an erection. Many folks believe that if a person has an erection when experiencing such a traumatic event that the person must have “wanted” and/or “enjoyed” the interaction.

This is not true. 

Go back and read above about the stages of an erection and the first scenario regarding touch that was provided. There is no signal from the brain that this is a pleasurable experience for the person. It is a response that our bodies have. The same thing is true for people with vulvas and vaginas. When aroused lubrication is increased usually. However, sometimes people may experience vaginal lubrication when being assaulted and/or raped and again, become confused thinking their body is revolting against them. In many ways this is because our brain is the most sexual parts of our body and we do not understand how this could occur if we did not desire to have the experience. Again, this is one of the ways our body responds to certain situations. It is one way that our bodies may help us decrease the amount of friction and thus pain. 

I used the example from the book Push  by Sapphire, where Precious discussed not understanding why she would experience orgasms when her biological father was raping her. This is one of the reasons I find these topics important to connect early on. It is also a good way to discuss consent and community responses to violence.

The readings for this class came from a few places. One reading is available online and is called “The People You Meet When You Write About Rape”  and an essay from The Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology by  Aishah Shahidah Simmons (the director of NO! The Rape Documentary) titled “The War Against Black Women, and the Making of No!” Students also watched two videos before class one is “The Internal Clitoris”  by Betty Dodson, which demonstrates how far back the nerve endings of the clitoris extend in the body, and Nuala Cabral’s “Walking Home."

I know this is only two days into the first week of a 3-day week, and it’s a whole lot of information! I can only imagine how tired my students must feel especially if I’m ready for a 2 hour nap when I get home! This is why I may have five parts as I may only be able to cover so many classes a week! Our next class is going to be on gender and sex assigned at birth. We are reading the third chapter in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book Sexing The Body  called “Of Gender & Genitals: The Use & Abuse Of The Modern Intersexual” which will totally challenge everything I taught them the first two days! We will follow that up with the introduction and first chapter of Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl  where we discuss trans people and how our societies have constructed ideas around identity, sex, experience, and ways we may begin to challenge and unlearn. We will end class with a focus on sexual orientation as folks usually confuse gender and sexual orientation, especially when it comes to gender expression and exaggerations!

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