Thursday, July 28, 2011

Online Course: Sociology of Human Sexuality Part 2

cross posted from my Media Justice column

This is a series of posts from the sexuality course I am teaching this summer. Check out the first week of notes here. If you are interested in receiving some of the readings, syllabus, and workbook assignments please leave a comment with a way to contact you!

Day 3
Gender & Sexual Orientation

For this class there were some fairly long readings that I had scheduled. The two main readings for our topic on gender were 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! The other reading is the introduction and first chapter of Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl which discusses trans people and how our societies have constructed ideas around identity, sex, experience, and ways we may begin to challenge and unlearn. The final reading for the gender section is called Words That Are Transphobic And Why.

The second part of the class will focus on sexual orientation as folks usually confuse gender and sexual orientation, especially when it comes to gender expression and exaggerations! The readings for sexual orientation include a discussion of asexuality based on Dan Savage’s
exclusion of this as a sexual orientation, Queertionary 2.0, and the Media Maker’s Salon: Espie Hernandez.

Before I started class for these themes I forgot to lecture on one topic that is important to discussions of sexuality. These are the
Circles of Sexuality. We discussed each circle (5 in total) which include reproductive health, sensuality, intimacy, sexual identity, and sexualization. Each circle intersects with the other and we are at the center of that intersection. Reproductive health focuses on managing health care and understanding the postive and negative consequences of sexuality and sexual activities. Sensuality has to do with our sense (touch, vision, hearing, taste, smell) and awareness of our bodies and what we enjoy as well as others ability to enjoy their bodies and experience pleasure. Intimacy is about emotions and being able to create relationships with others (or animals). Sexual identity includes sexual orientation and gender. Sexualization includes using sex as a form of power and coercion to influence and manipulate others. This may include assault, rape, violence, but also things many of us do like flirting and seduction.

I then asked the class what they thought was missing?

I asked where they would put class, race, ethnicity, disability, immigration status, education level, incarceration history, language spoken, and other aspects of our identities. We agreed that these were vital parts of our identities that do inform our sexuality and sexual health in various ways. So, why weren’t they included? And where would they include them? Personally, I include these identities in the center of where the circles meet. Other students believed they would put others in various different circles. I think this is an important discussion to have with students to demonstrate that even in the field of sexuality not everything is included and there are ways to improve and expand the field!

To begin our discussion of gender I discussed the different between sex and gender. Sex being based on biological reproductive organs and genitals that is assigned to us at birth. While gender being more psychological, not having to be connected to the genitals. Yes, this is a very limited way of discussing gender. One of the reasons I begin these conversations in such a way is because I’ve learned that for the past 3 years teaching at this location, students have never had discussions on gender, sex assigned at birth, and trans communities as we will have in our class. I see these as small steps. These are doses of conversations that once begun can then be explored further and then challenged and critiqued. I completely recognize this is limiting, and I acknowledge that and build from a basis to help students unlearn and challenge assumptions and socialization as well as theories and critiques on gender and sex.

Sometimes I begin by asking students to take a few moments and write in their notes what the first time they realized their gender was like. Where were they? Who was there? What was the environment and context? Some students say “I just knew” and this is a useful discussion to have regarding gender and our knowledge of ourselves.

As many sociology courses are known to do, we discuss how sex and gender are social constructions; things that society creates and gives value, importance and meaning. I introduced the phrase “sex assigned at birth” (SAAB) as what we are given/assigned by physicians based on what our genitals look like which is how society has crafted fe/male identities. Because doctors and physicians are a part of society, this is one way SAAB is a social construction. SAAB may also be argued as a social construction because it is happenstance that the decision was made that females have vulvas and ovaries, et. al. and males have penis’ and testicles, Sometimes students ask “what about what the Bible says,” and my response to that is usually that people interpret the Bible differently, that some people interpret the Adam & Eve story as a transgender narrative. Another reply I have is that this discussion and our ability to have certain types of knowledge is one of the gifts we are given by the universe, god/desses, etc. Other responses I have is that these are arguments people make and they can choose to believe what they want, but they must understand people’s ideologies and why they come to these conclusions. Finally, SAAB may be argued as a social construction because we are able to change our sex, it is not ridged and static.

From here we discuss gender roles, expectations, and expressions. We create a list of how we are socialized into understanding and assuming we are to behave and act based on gender. From this list I introduce gender binaries and ideologies around gender and how folks challenge and affirm gender within these binaries. I then begin to discuss how gender is not just two different options/sexes/genders, that gender is significantly more complicated and to put them in these small spaces limits everyone.

We then begin to discuss transgender communities and refer to the reading by Julia Serano. In her introduction and first chapter, she discusses her reasons for writing her book, her goals, and what she seeks to put forth, challenge and affirm. We discuss masculinity and femininity, and how Serano argues for liberating femininity in specific ways, her challenging of gender binaries as an ideology and approach, and connecting back to SAAB.

This conversation was a challenge for some students. Many became confused with gender expression and identity. One student asked (and I’m paraphrasing) “but when I (a woman) go to play soccer I wear the same clothing as men, this does not make me a trans person or wanting to be a man.” This is a great point and an interesting perspective on where some of us may get confused. I was glad we had read Serano’s article as I could refer to passages she wrote where she states that women have more flexibility with expressing femininity than men are provided. That when men embrace any aspect of femininity they are ridiculed and isolated. We connect this to misogyny as Serano does, and the ideas that masculinity and things that are identified as representing men as being strong and powerful. That men are considered to be the “better” gender because of ideas about differences versus similarities. From this perspective of understanding misogyny, we can understand Serano’s argument that women having a gender expression similar/stereotypically associated with masculinity that it makes “sense” because men are stronger and more powerful, of course a woman would want to dress/behave/do what men do! After explaining this a bit more an connecting with the Serano reading it seemed to “click” for many students.

I then highlighted some of the terms and language that Serano used in her chapter. These included transmisogyny, cis, cissexual and cisgender, and sexism. As with many new terms that are introduced at certain points in our lives, they were a bit confusing for some, on how to properly use them what they represent, if they are adjectives, nouns, or verbs. I asked what their reactions were in discovering terms that may describe some of them, labels that trans people have come up with to identify them. I then referred to the Queertionary 2.0 reading that included terminology that has also been created by trans and gender queer people, these included ze and hir. We had a brief discussion of how language can also shift and change when we begin to challenge and question our socialization and build more inclusive and libratory communities.

One example of this limitation would be people who are intersex. This is when the third chapter of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book is useful. I introduced intersexuality and defined it very generally as “ambiguous genitalia.” I often find that some students want to know specific details of genitals that are considered ambiguous even when they may not be clear what their own genitals look like! Instead of giving them specifics, we talk about how we may know if an enlarged clitoris is a clitoris or a penis. One way to know this is that a urethra passes through the penis and if one is present we understand that body part to be a penis. I also mention that there is nothing wrong with have a large(r ) clitoris and that these ideas are often connected to our ideas of “normalcy” which we all have a responsibility to challenge.

Instead of discussing each of the most common types of intersexuality that occurs, as Fausto-Sterling does a great job of outlining them in an accessible way in her book, we discussed a societal response to intersex people. We talked first about why doctors and parents may rush to perform surgery on babies, what motivations the doctors and the parents have and if they are the same. We also discussed in what capacity someone would know if they were intersex if they were not told, if the idea by parents and doctors is for them to have “normal” looking genitals how would they know what “normal” is? What images in our society and families may help us understand what “normal” genitals look like when we do not all live in societies where we show our genitals to others outside of specific encounters.

As part of their preparation for discussing intersex communities and experiences I had them watch a four part series of a documentary following Caster Semenya, a South African track runner (videos below). You may remember conversations about Semenya, as some of her competitors were suspicious on why and how she was so much faster than them and winning often (i.e. the faster in track is a few seconds). We discussed what was seen in the documentary, how Semenya coped with what was going on, how the world now knew what her chromosomal make up and genitals may look like (when ironically a majority of us do not know our chromosomal make up and some still don’t know what our own genitals look like because we have not ever looked in a mirror!) Many students vaguely remember Semenya, or what the societal and institutional response was to her. They were each disappointed in the response and all picked up on the fact that although Semenya was one of the fastest women runners in the world, she was not the fastest and she was not close to the fastest man runners in the world. I hope that if they one day find themselves in a position to support an intersex person they are able to remember our class and their experiences and responses to Semenya’s story.

Sexual Orientation
Originally I did not put these two topics after one another. The reason for that is because often students confuse sexual orientation with gender. I often like to do separate days and lectures for each topic, however, since we only meet three times a week for a few hours and I had some guest speakers coming in, this was one of the only options I had to discuss both topics in depth.

I began by making it clear that students understood WHY gender and sexual orientation were separate. I asked them why they thought they were different and heard their responses. We then made a list of the sexual orientations that they have heard about or are familiar with. The list we created as a group included: lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and queer. As is often something that happens the group forgot that heterosexuality is a sexual orientation. I used this opportunity to remind them that this is a good example of how we are normalized to understand and see heterosexuality as “normal” in our society.

I explained that sexual orientation is not just about sex. It is an attraction and a connection. That sometimes these connections and attractions are physical and/or sexual, but when thinking about how they identify their sexual orientation it is more inclusive and centers connections that are also spiritual, emotional, sensual, and fulfilling in various ways. That when we think of sexual orientation think of who you may want to spend your life with, build a family with, and find comfort. It is far more complex than engaging in sexual activities.

Part of their readings for this section was focused on discussing asexuality as a sexual orientation. One reading focused on Dan Savage recent
ignoring of asexuality as a sexual orientation and how harmful and inappropriate that approach is for a sexuality educator. TheQueertionary 2.0 also acted as a good resource. Some students confuse asexuality with celibacy. So, I made it clear that brothers, sister, monks, and nuns may have their own sexual orientation, but their vow of celibacy means they are not acting upon their desires, but that does not mean they never existed!

We also discussed the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality. Some students did not see the difference and my explanation was that people who identify as pansexual may often “date the people they like” regardless of gender expression, sex assigned at birth, and identities. That often folks who identify as bisexual may be clear that they are attracted to a specific gender expression and sex assigned at birth, that the term alone is a good example of clearly being interested in people who are a part of the gender binary and that is ok!

I then went through a discussion of how trans people also have a sexual orientation. That being trans is a about gender, not sexual orientation; a completely different part of our identity. I explained that if a trans woman partnered with a another woman that would be a lesbian relationship; if a trans woman partnered with a man that relationship is heterosexual, if a trans man partnered with a man that is a gay relationship and if a trans man partnered with a woman that is a heterosexual relationship. Again, just as with intersex, some students get caught up on the genitals. These relationships are not always about genitals. I make it clear that it is none of our business what two (or three or four) people do in their relationship with their genitals unless we are one of those people. That to assume that a coupling would participate in certain sexual activities is problematic, and sexual behaviors do not define us. Since we had already discussed anatomy and physiology, we know where nerve endings are located on our body so it makes sense if some folks find pleasure in certain activities that we may not enjoy for ourselves. These are important things to know about ourselves for our partners, but they are not to be used to oppress other people’s pleasure, that is a misuse of power.

Now, some folks confuse these two: gender and sexual orientation, also because some folks may not perpetuate a stereotypical gender expression. That some people who identify as something other than heterosexual, that their gender expression challenges what we assume and are socialized to understand men and women presenting and exaggerating. I use myself as an example and share that my gender expression is very stereotypically feminine. Yet, my students do not know what my genitals look like or what my SAAB was just as I do not know what theirs is. We base those off of gender expression. Because I wear dresses, have long hair, my name is “feminine,” my voice is high, my body has fat deposited in places we assume is correct for “curvy” figures, and I wear make up (to name a few), I express femininity in this way. That does not mean that folks can assume what my sexual orientation is by looking at me. Some folks who are women may express their gender in what we understand to be stereotypically masculine qualities and that is also not grounds to assume anything about someone’s sexual orientation. Gender expression is about what we feel comfortable doing that day, how we wish to present ourselves to the world and for some people it is connected to gender, for others it may be connected to sexual orientation, or for others connected to both.

A video I asked them to watch before class was Jay Smooth’s “An Old Person’s Guide to ‘No Homo’” which I find to be accessible, and sadly, still relevant. Check the video out below:

They also watched the film Mariposa about Espie Hernadnez’s experience with planning her quinceñera (sweet 15). Some folks did not know what a quinceñera was so this was a new experience for them. Many of my students are from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean where quinceñera’s are not always/often celebrated as in other Central and South American communities. One question was if Espie was “pushing” her sexual orientation onto her parents. I explained that for this rite of passage it assumes heterosexuality, thus it is a heterosexist rite of passage, which also privileges heterosexual people. For Espie to request she be partnered with her girlfriend for her quinceñera is challenging hetersexism and also speaks to her desire to be true to herself and truthful and honest with her family. Check out Mariposa below:

The next class is a quiz (if you want to know what the quiz questions were to practice or quiz yourself let me know in the comments and I’ll send them to you) for the first hour in short answer format with a diagram for students to complete. We then discuss pregnancy and birth options with our first guest speaker!

Day 4
Again, if you want to know the quiz questions, let me know! Some sample quiz questions I offered students to prepare and try to answer in short question format include:

1. What is the path sperm goes to exit the body?
2. Is PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) real? Support your opinion.

You’ll notice that we did not discuss PMS specifically when we discussed the menstrual cycle, however it was in the textbook readings and they are responsible for those readings even if we do not discuss them in depth in class. Also, in the syllabus are lists of terminology that are important to know. Many of these terms I discuss in class but if not they are in the text and readings and they are still responsible for know.

Pregnancy Options and Birth
Our guest speaker is someone that I’ve mentioned here before, my doula mentor
Sparkle. I asked Sparkle to talk about her experiences working with pregnant and parenting people and providing support for them as well as what occurs during pregnancy and birthing options. To prepare for this session, students were reading Doula Right Thing: About Purportedly Gendered Body Parts which discusses how to work with trans and genderqueer people who are pregnant and how to discuss genitals without assigning a gender to them. They were also asked to watch clips from the documentary “The Business of Being Born” which discusses the medicalization of birth, home births, working with midwives and doulas, and how medication given to pregnant people at the hospital impacts the body and baby. The clips are below:

Before Sparkle began to present I defined three terms for students: fertilization, implantation, and human chorionich gonadotrophin (HCG). Fertilization is when a mature egg hooks up with a mature sperm. Some folks believe this is when “life” begins, but I am going to leave that definition of “life” up to individual students. Implantation is when the fertilized egg attaches itself to the uterine/endometrial lining which helps nurture it and grow into a fetus. HCG is considered the “pregnancy hormone” as this is what is trying to be detected in home pregnancy tests and pregnancy tests at doctors and clinics. I made it clear that home pregnancy tests do NOT have to be expensive and that the dollar store tests work just as well as the expensive name brand ones.

One of the reasons I have Sparkle come to my class to discuss pregnancy and birth options (she came last year as well) is because it is one topic that I do not enjoy discussing. I’m honest with students about this (just as I don’t like discussing deviance in introductory sociology courses) but I do it! However, if I can get an expert who is excited about pregnancy and birth I’d prefer them to have someone to talk to versus myself who is not as excited about the topic. Sparkle basically went through
this article and discussed each point in detail and incorporated a personal narrative and story when appropriate. In addition, Sparkle suggested this article about pregnancy and birth for future reference. She also took questions as they came up.

Sparkle shared that as a birth doula she may be present for the birth of the baby and the birth of the placenta providing pain management and support for the birthing parent. She also noted that she is also a support for parents after pregnancy where she will help with breastfeeding, cleaning, coping with parenting, and making sure the transition from being pregnant to being a parent is smooth.

Many students were surprised to hear that working with a midwife in a home birth or a birthing center is significantly less expensive than working with an OB/GYN in the hospital. They were also surprised to hear about how an episiotomy (when the perineum must be cut or severed to help the baby move through the vaginal canal) done by midwives who often allow the perineum to tear are more careful to stitch up the perineum than doctors are who cut the perineum which requires more stitches and a longer recovery time. I have one student who is a parent and chose to share her experience with childbirth with the class. She shared that she felt very empowered by her doctor who supported her desire for a “natural” birth (i.e. no medication) and that to this day she is proud of her accomplishment. It was such a privilege to have her share her birthing story and for it to be one that is positive as she will carry that with her for the rest of her life!

Day 5
Contraceptives and Birth Control

This session focuses on contraceptive and birth control options. For a social and historical perspectives on how these options have been used as coersive forms of population control among people with disabilities, working class and working poor people, and people of Color in the US (and abroad) we read a chapter from Dorothy Robert’s book “Killing The Black Body.” This chapter is called “The Dark Side of Birth Control” which focuses on how birth control advocate Margaret Sanger worked toward making contraceptives and birth control available but also how she aligned herself with eugenicists and the eugenics movement in the US that worked to eliminate racially Black people (and other non-white people) as well as those with disabilities. This chapter is very long! But it provides such an important amount of information about how people’s bodies were seen as valuable, disposable, and how racism, classism, ableism, and ageism played a role in the US history of reproductive health.

I then discussed the difference between the terms contraception and birth control. The term “birth control” does exactly what it says: prevents a birth from occurring. Contraception attempts to limit fertilization, an egg and sperm hooking up. As a result, birth control may allow fertilization and implantation to occur, however a birth does not occur. I then made a list of hormonal and non-hormonal methods and said that after we discuss each we will be able to identify which are contraceptives and which are birth control.

Hormonal methods discussed included a list that students provided: oral birth control pills (obcp), Depo-Provera (the shot), Nuva-Ring, Reproductive Patch, Mirena (IUD), Implants, and Emergency Contraception/Morning After Pill. The non-hormonal methods we discussed included male and female condoms, Paraguard (IUD), diaphragm, spermicides, natural family planning/calendar method, sponge, cervical cap, withdrawal, sterilization (tubal ligation, essure, and vasectomy), breastfeeding, abortion, and abstinence. One website I offered for students to check out prior to this class was
Bedsider which offers a discussion of almost each method in depth and in an accessible way. I had samples of each (except for the cervical cap, sponge, implant, and Depo-Provera). We discussed each method, how it is supposed to work, what the side effects are, what folks like and do not like about the method and the cost.

When discussing EC, I shared that it is available over-the-counter for folks over the age of 16 in NYC and the cost may range from $20-60 depending on what that pharmacy chooses to charge. I also indicated that I’m not sure how men who go to the pharmacy to purchase this are treated and if they are given EC. I’m not aware of any men who have tried to get EC and what their experiences were (this may be a great social experiment for some of you reading!). I also noted that if men are not provided with EC when they request it, since men should also know about EC, that it is a good example of leaving contraception and birth control up to the person with the vulva, and that pharmacists are making assumptions about someone’s genitals based on their gender expression. The man in front of them may have a sex assigned at birth that requires them to need EC.

We also discussed how lesbians (some of which I have in my classroom) often think they do not need birth control or contraception, however, again we do not know what our future holds, and it may be that we find ourselves in a relationship with someone who is a woman but whose sex assigned at birth is male and that is a lesbian relationship, but one where if penetrative vaginal intercourse is occurring a barrier method and/or birth control option is needed. Plus, barrier methods like condoms, dental dams, gloves, and finger condoms are useful for many folks regardless of sexual orientation.

Finally we ended with discussing abstinence, which I defined as “waiting to have sex.” I shared that many people define abstinence differently and that “waiting” may mean waiting until you get condoms, waiting until you graduate college, get married, fall in love, whatever! That it is important for each of them to define abstinence for themselves and to be comfortable sharing that with any of their partners. It is also important to discuss what abstinence means to them and to their partner as they may have different definitions as well. We also discussed how abstinence may not work such as instances in domestic violence situations where a person who may not want to have sex with their partner may need to for safety and survival purposes, or when someone is a victim and survivor of rape.

Although I included abortion in our list of non-hormonal methods, I leave that up for a separate class lecture where we will discuss what the procedures actually include, laws surrounding abortion, and debunking myths. We will also discuss female sexual dysfunction and how that is diagnosed and discussed among the sexology community.

No comments:

Post a Comment