January
19th 2012
Teaching the history of sexuality: more men but less rape, please?

Posted under: American history, Gender, GLBTQ, Intersectionality, race, students, the body, unhappy endings, women's history

Yesterday, I read the comments on the teaching evaluation forms my students filled out last semester for the pilot course in the History of Sexuality in America class I co-taught with a colleague.  (We covered just about 1492-2011.)  The comments were overwhelmingly positive with only a few outliers.  Even people who liked the course complained that there was too much reading, but I and my co-instructor always get that on our teaching evaluations.  (Here’s an easy solution:  read through the syllabus on the first day of class, and drop the class if you don’t want to read all that!  It’s win-win for everyone that way.)

We had one suggestion–and only one–from a student who suggested that next time we might consider offering the course with one man and one woman professor, instead of two women.  Right–because our male colleagues are just lining up to teach this course, and it will be soothing and more objective if a male professor is in the room.  (I occasionally get comments like this about the sex of book authors on my evaluation forms that went something like this:  “I thought that this course was biased because we read mostly female-authored books, but then we read some books by men that seem to agree with the women, so I guess the books in this class aren’t biased.”  I really must ask my male colleagues if they ever are informed that including women-authored books on their syllabi is reassuring because it means that the information presented by a male professor and male authors isn’t biased after all.)

A few students suggested that next time we don’t talk about rape so much, but then they didn’t like the one book we assigned that focused on married heterosexuality either.  But the truth is that none of the books in the history of sexuality are super-sexy, because the historiography of sexuality is very Foucaultian and is therefore about the distribution of and challenges to power, challenges that frequently hurt the challengers more than the reigning system of power distribution.  I think the students were surprised that studying sex could be so depressing, although I warned them from the beginning that I think I teach the most depressing courses in the Baa Ram U. history curriculum.

I think the problem is that most modern college students experience sex as liberating, and they don’t want to think about the constraints on sexuality or even the sexual abuse that was a much more widespread experience of most people transhistorically, even in the present.  (I know that’s how I would have thought about these issues as a 20-year old, so I’m sympathetic to this view.)  I get it that the class turned out to be kind of a bummer for them, even if the reading assignments hadn’t been so heavy.  (But quite frankly, the last thing I’d ever want to be accused of is a lack of rigor when teaching anything, let alone a pilot class on the history of sexuality.)

38 Comments »

38 Responses to “Teaching the history of sexuality: more men but less rape, please?”

  1. Perpetua on 19 Jan 2012 at 8:55 am #

    That’s an interesting point about their unwillingness to comprehend sexual abuse as a transhistorical phenomenon; it makes sense to me as well that they would find that depressing. In my own classes, I try to find sources that go the other way. When I teach medieval history, we talk so much about chastity and religion (and they associated this with no-fun-sex), I like to remind them that medieval people enjoyed having sex , and basically already did everything under the sun. Yet I’m looking over my syllabus and there’s a lot more abuse than happy-fun-times-sex.

    One of my students this week told me that the history classes offered by women’s studies were all “biased.” (Mine was not included in that assessment.) I didn’t say anything, but I wanted to be like, do you think there’s a version of medieval European history where women weren’t being treated like sh*t? The only alternative to the bleak narrative is to erase women from it. It turns out it’s kind of a bummer not to have any rights!

  2. Historiann on 19 Jan 2012 at 9:24 am #

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Perpetua. It’s especially interesting to me, because as I drafted this post and pondered my students’ frustration with all of the bad news, I wondered if I should include some readings about Catholic celibacy/New World women’s communities, both as another way of looking at the history of sexuality as well as a means of finding some stories that weren’t all about rape!

    We had one comment that accused us of anti-Catholic bias in the class. I can’t recall saying or assigning anything that was truly anti-Catholic, but we did talk about the Catholic League and the Hayes Code at one point when talking about the 1930s. True to Anglo-American form, our readings overwhelmingly talked about conservative opposition from a Protestant religious viewpoint, not Catholic opposition to abortion, birth control, etc.

  3. Nikki on 19 Jan 2012 at 9:32 am #

    I teach a history of sexuality in my regioanal specialty and by about November the students told me they were sick of talking about sex and specifically, syphilis–which was the theme that week. The first time I had ever managed to bore college students by discussing sex.

  4. Monica on 19 Jan 2012 at 9:54 am #

    Last semester I took a course in the geography of human rights. I learned a lot and it was depressing. The hope that humans will cease to be mostly heinous (and I suppose I am not exempt) is a very dim one.

    The reading list was depressing, the videos of trials were aggravating, the photographs of crime scenes were sickening. End result: I need to use wider lenses to see the world.

    If you’re agreeable, may I have a copy of the reading list you used for this class? I imagine it will widen the ol’ lenses even more. I take full responsibility for anything I find unpalatable! Thanks.

  5. Emily on 19 Jan 2012 at 10:08 am #

    I’m a college senior writing a history of sexuality thesis, and have taken both undergrad and grad-level courses in the field, so these are issues I think about a lot. I think another element of students’ discomfort with the unpleasant side of the history of sexuality may be that popular perceptions of sexuality and society often involve a teleology of increasing liberation, especially in the context of contemporary political issues like LGBT rights that have a lot of currency with young people. It’s scary and unsettling when that kind of progressive understanding of sex and sexuality in history (which probably also comes from high-school study of the women’s suffrage movement, etc.) is challenged by the realization that there seems to be rape everywhere you turn.

    I thought I knew this literature pretty well, but in a class I took this past fall, even I was surprised to realize that the history of sexuality doesn’t just incorporate the study of *nonnormative* sexualities, and that marriage and pregnancy and birth and the history of the family are extremely relevant to the field. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that sex and sexuality aren’t just about dissidence.

  6. Historiann on 19 Jan 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Monica, that sounds a LOT more depressing than even my courses! I can understand that you’d feel the need for a braindouche after class.

    Here’s our reading list, which was supplemented with articles and primary sources:

    Beth Bailey, Sex in the Heartland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999)

    George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994)

    Kirsten Fischer, Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002)

    Thomas A. Foster, Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: NYU Press, 2007)

    Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 2003)

    Susan Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

    (And look: we didn’t assign Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, which is *all about rape*, and we also left off Trevor Burnard’s work on Thomas Thistlewood which I’ve used in other classes and after which I always feel the need to take a long, hot shower. I mean no insult to these authors, who are respectively a BFF and a co-author of mine–it’s really a testament to the power of their work. My students in last semester’s class have no idea how much MORE depressing the couse might have been.)

    One of the unfortunate aspects of the history of sexuality in America is that it remains overwhelmingly White, so we also supplemented with articles to include more non-white experiences.

  7. J. Otto Pohl on 19 Jan 2012 at 10:18 am #

    We don’t have formal evaluations here. But, I have had students complain about too much reading. It does not deter me either.

    My knowledge of the subject of your class is limited, but it seems to me that it has a lot of positive as well as negative sides. It is not like teaching the history of genocide or slavery where there is nothing good about the subject. The time frame is quite long 1492 to 2011,surely some very good stuff happened during that time? After all I would not teach a history of the USSR class and only focus on human rights violations.

  8. Notorious Ph.D. on 19 Jan 2012 at 10:21 am #

    My good friend teaches a course on war and gender. She always feels like she needs to be extra-nice to the students when they have the week of reading on rape and warfare.

  9. Historiann on 19 Jan 2012 at 10:26 am #

    Otto–that’s what I thought, and it’s why I would never teach a history of sex class that ended in 1800 or 1850. My co-instructor is a modern U.S. historian who teaches the 1800-present U.S. women’s history course, so I knew she could tell us about all kinds of things that most people taking the course would find more positive, like gay liberation, legalized birth control, the sexual revolution, etc. And the students did noticeably sit up and were interested by these phenomenon.

    I would even say that the 20th C part of the course was rather whiggish.

    The most interesting thing I learned from my colleague was that women were encouraged to douche with Lysol by the Lysol manufacturer. I had heard about this practice as a primitive spermicidal douche, but I never knew it was advertised and promoted *by Lysol itself*. (This was during the depression, when the idea was to help women find contraceptive practices/techniques using stuff they might already have laying around the house.)

    So it’s even more horrifying than I had thought!

  10. Historiann on 19 Jan 2012 at 10:27 am #

    And Notorious: merely a week on rape as a weapon of war? That seems neglectful, actually.

  11. Perpetua on 19 Jan 2012 at 10:54 am #

    FWIW there’s great material on queer folks in pre-modern Europe, as well as intersex and trans (and these stories don’t always end at the stake). Even within some pretty oppressive political-religious-social structures there are pockets of – well, not freedom exactly. Maybe space? For me, that makes my classes less grim. The only nice thing about *not* doing any modern stuff is that it’s easier to evade whiggishness.

    (Once I shocked my students with a (primary source) story of a woman in prison who told another woman step-by-step instructions on how to build her own dild0. They were beet red.)

    I really like Chauncy’s book on NY.

  12. Historiann on 19 Jan 2012 at 10:59 am #

    The European medievalists have been way way far ahead of the Americanists on innovative queer history. And the ones I know–a selective sub-set to be sure–seem much more open to thinking about other non-heterosexual ways of being in their periods than most of the early Americanists I know.

  13. Z on 19 Jan 2012 at 11:24 am #

    Whenever I teach a women’s studies course, I get quite a few evaluations saying the news on the actual situation of women is too depressing, and some the analysis the class offered was too feminist.

  14. kim on 19 Jan 2012 at 11:25 am #

    I also teach the history of sexuality–the entirety of it in US and pre-colonial US history–and OF COURSE the reading load is too heavy when we have to cram nearly 500 yrs. of history into one semester. I keep trying to use what is generally the only negative comment about the course (too much reading) to argue for a need to subdivide the class into at least two, if not three or four parts. No one with power seems to think a course on sexuality/gender/marriage/power needs to be taught more than once a year, despite the fact that my wait list is always longer than my enrollment cap, and despite the fact that I try to scare people away with threats of a heavy reading and writing load. Nope, the students want to learn this stuff, but the powers that be won’t make it easier to teach it, or for the students to substantively engage in the excellent literature on these topics.

    Also, one could certainly design a course totally on sexuality and masculinity, where men and their identities and actions in public and private are the FOCUS (and one could probably assign all male authors, too), but this would require departments to acknowledge the important ways in which historical inquiry has changed and to face the fact that their courses on diplomacy and electoral politics are not filling up because majors want to take more social history courses with relevance to their own lives, or something.

  15. Dr. Crazy on 19 Jan 2012 at 11:29 am #

    Hmmm. My students in literature tend to be more comfortable talking about rape/negative representations of sexuality than they are talking about sexual pleasure or representations of sexual agency (whether in heteronormative or queer contexts). In some respects, I think that the negative stuff allows them distance? I’m not really sure. But WOW are they uncomfortable with orgasms.

  16. Z on 19 Jan 2012 at 11:29 am #

    I mean, some *saying [the analysis was too feminist].

  17. kim on 19 Jan 2012 at 11:30 am #

    P.S. I begin my courses on day one with an explanation about why the subject matter exists because of feminist scholarship, and that this course and most of its readings are in fact feminist scholarship (and those that are not will stand out). I make no apologies about this, and give students fair warning. By the end, most of them acknowledge that they learned that they are feminists but just didn’t know it. There’s really no reason such criticisms should ever bite an instructor in the ass, is there? Teach it. Own it. Love it. That’s my philosophy.

  18. thefrogprincess on 19 Jan 2012 at 11:36 am #

    so when they say “too much reading,” how much are you giving them? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, b/c I’ve been loading it on at my current institution, but also have been hearing a lot of folks saying no more than 80 pages a week. A few of my students complained, but others said the reading was interesting and class discussion made it worthwhile. My whole thing with the reading is: 1) how long are you spending on those econ problem sets? 2) those of you that are headed off to law school or even Wall street have crap tons of work headed your way. Might as well start dealing with it now.

  19. Historiann on 19 Jan 2012 at 11:37 am #

    Dr. Crazy: Interesting! I guess I’m more comfortable talking about rape and power than I am talking about pleasure, but that’s because in my period there’s more evidence of power than pleasure. (The only people writing about sexual pleasure I can think of offhand are male rapists of servants and slaves like William Byrd and Thomas Thistlewait, and some colonial travlers who are clearly hot-to-trot for some of the lovely young Native girls they meet. And do I really care about their pleasure? I must say that I really don’t!)

    Kim: My co-instructor and I are in a different kind of place than you are. I’m sure we could teach this course as often as we wanted, and I’m sure we could also cut it in two like we do the American women’s history we both teach (I cover 1492-1800, and she covers 1800-present.) But because of our other teaching commitments, it looks like we’ll teach it every other year. Also, I think we’ll keep it all in one semester, because it’s just too depressing for me to think about teaching a class up to just 1800 or 1850, which would be all rape and executions for sodomy and adultery. (And maybe some celibate communities, for relief? Yegads, I’m ready to stick my head in the oven just thinking about it.)

  20. Historiann on 19 Jan 2012 at 11:44 am #

    thefrogprincess: you are doing the right thing to hold the line. I and my co-instructor assigned 100-200 pages a week of reading for this upper-level History class. (Usually it was closer to 100-150 pages, but there were some especially busy weeks.)

    I find that 5-6 books a term plus supplemental articles works for a 15-week semester. I think the reason we got so many complaints about the reading (even more than usual) is that 1) the students knew this was our first time out with this class, and we asked for their feedback for future courses, and 2) it attracted many more non-history majors, who just aren’t used to reading and writing like History majors in our department.

    Related to the presence of non-majors in the class was the complaint that the final grade was based on essays alone (2 midterm essays and a final essay exam). I’ve never had that complaint from History majors, and I’m wondering what other evaluative instruments they were yearning for: in-class presentations? Smaller-stakes readings quizzes? We did give them some credit for class participation based on their showing up for class discussions and also their record of handing in shorter in-class writing exercises.

    (BTW, I get fewer complaints about the reading as I get older. Part of it is that I have an established reputation. The other part of it is that I think they sense that I’m less impressionable than a younger instructor, who might be more readily pushed around by student opinion.)

  21. J. Otto Pohl on 19 Jan 2012 at 11:54 am #

    I am trying to move up to 100 pages a week in upper level courses. Right now I have been at about 80. But, I suspect people working in the US have a much easier time in upping the reading load than I do. I wish I could assign more writing, but when my 400 level courses are over 70 students and my 300 ones over 100 I just don’t have the time to check for plagiarism.

  22. Iowaprof on 19 Jan 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    A historian myself, I taught the intro course to gender, women’s and sexuality studies this past semester and many students commented on course evals that my lectures were both biased and too persuasive. (too much feminism!!! shut up shut up!!!) I incorporated a lot of material on sexuality, and they were actually quite eager for that material. I was surprised I did not get more negative feedback about that aspect of the course. It was the feminist analysis that they disliked, apparently. And the most valuable thing they learned over the course of the semester, they reported, was to learn the difference between gender and sex–which of course was one of the earliest things we tackled, but apparently had long-lasting reverberations.

  23. Indyanna on 19 Jan 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    I can still remember Miz. Davies, who had graduated from my college a generation before I was born and was then, in her 70s/80s?, the tough-as-nails doyenne of two different departments, in a humanities course on “The Nineteenth Century Russian Novel.” I asked in all innocence how many of these books on the syllabus do we “actually have to read” (wrong phrase, embedded in the wrong question). The glare she shot me told me I was doomed–that day anyway–and her deliberately-spare “why ALL of them, of course” picked me off with one shot through the eye. I hung in, read MOST of them, of course, and she gave me the requisite, and deserved, B+. She even wrote me a graduate school letter, for which I was too afraid of her to even go and thank her. (We didn’t have e-mail for that kind of politesse; or teaching evaluations, for that matter).

    On maried heterosexuality and the popular culture, there was a story that went around Hollywood in the 1970s about a hard bitten, cigar-chomping studio chief who red-lighted a project from an until that point totally-bankable writer/director/actor team with the pithy edict that the American moviegoing public was “just not ready for marital sex.” This was flat-out in the middle of the “Deep Throat”/”I am Curious” era.

  24. Historiann on 19 Jan 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    Why anyone would complain or even wonder at a women’s studies course presenting feminist views is truly beyond me, Iowaprof. Then again, students just don’t know that there was no such thing as PREfeminist women’s studies–they don’t know that it was only the presence of women as (eventually a majority of) students and as a minority of professors who got that stuff in the curriculum. Similarly, they just don’t know that it has never occured to a man among the regular faculty* to teach a course on the history of sexuality here.

    I like Kim’s idea of giving students a genealogy of women’s history >>gender history>> history of sexuality. I’ve done that in my classes in the past–and I think I did that last term, too.

    *I misspoke earlier. There is an adjunct lecturer who has created and taught a course on gender and sexuality in Victorian England in my department, and he deserves his due.

  25. Feminist Avatar on 19 Jan 2012 at 4:23 pm #

    I don’t know about the US, but there is some nice early modern European balladry that contains more positive representations of female sexuality. Ok, some of these reinforce the em women are over-sexed and out of control trope, but you can also read them as women claiming a right to their sexual desire. So, there are songs with women complaining about their husband’s male impotency, or others that ask why is premarital sex wrong when it does no harm. I know a lot of ballads made it across the ocean with the colonists, so maybe some of the US Folklore folks might have some reading that would lighten things up before 1850.

    I have to say though that the day I found myself pontificating on the social construction of the clitoris was the day that I realised that I could talk about just about anything with a straight face.

  26. Western Dave on 19 Jan 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    Until this year I was the only man in my Upper School history department and I did the most history of sexuality of anybody who taught the surveys. The fact that I was oldest and had kids of my own probably helped. Nobody was seeing me as an older sister figure to confide in meant that the stuff we did (the origins of patriarchy, Greek women, Hindu gods and goddesses, monasticism, the virgin/whore complex etc in the first half of the world survey. Rape on the plantation, the creation of the Metis -and later trapper culture – flappers, the invention of the vibrator/medicalization of childbirth/criminalization of abortion, sexual revolution plus other stuff I can’t think of right now). I’m not sure how changing from teaching all girls to coed will change that. I hope it doesn’t. We also have a senior elective on The Construction of Race and Gender that would have been renamed The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality but if you change the course name you have to redo the NCAA clearinghouse paperwork which is a pain.

  27. Dr. Koshary on 19 Jan 2012 at 8:27 pm #

    The day that I receive evaluations in which no student complains about too much reading will likely be the day that I die of astonishment. *solidarity*

    And yeah, studying sexuality is a way different endeavor from what students think it is, i.e. talking/giggling about sex. It sounds like my experience mirrors yours (Historiann, as well as your commenters): after the initial shock, and the following depression, students actually come away with some new ideas in their heads about the nature and dynamics of sexuality in society. The unit I did on gender and sexuality last semester yielded some of my best ‘eureka’ moments.

    On a tangent: how is George Chauncey’s book? I always wanted to read it, but could never justify it among all the other texts with higher priority in grad school.

  28. Indyanna on 19 Jan 2012 at 8:41 pm #

    Chauncey gave a rocking keynote talk at a conference I was at in Australia a few years ago based on the book and a sequel he was working on, but haven’t read either.

  29. Western Dave on 19 Jan 2012 at 8:46 pm #

    I love the Chauncey book. I was asked to give three books that kids could choose from to read for summer reading and then I would lead a cross grade discussion 9-12. The Chauncey was one of them.

  30. Sisyphus on 19 Jan 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    I’m sure you could get more discussions of pleasure in the early part of the course —- What about _When Jesus Came, The Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality and Power in New Mexico? Or Lisa Duggan’s _Sapphic Slashers_? Or the West? I know I’ve seen some good stuff on women in early San Francisco — though what I know of California Indian history would bring it right back to the “depressing” comments.

    What about Hawaii? I think this list also needs some more discussion of how immigration restrictions and sexuality went together — policing Chinese women would-be immigrants as potential prostitutes and pathogens, for example. And then you could compare that with the point that native-born women would lose their citizenship if they married a foreigner.

  31. thefrogprincess on 19 Jan 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    I wonder if another reason that students are “surprised” to encounter feminist opinions is because students now have little concrete sense of the difficulties women have in our society. For the most part, we’ve managed to push the point when discrimination against women really becomes obvious until after college, so that our students are coming in unaware in any meaningful or personal way. Feminism to them seems like pointless carping, b/c they’ve yet to experience the workplace/postgraduate issues and because so few of them (at least at traditional 4-yr, 18-22 colleges) are married.

  32. Notorious Ph.D. on 19 Jan 2012 at 11:12 pm #

    Regarding my friend’s course: bear in mind that this is a course on as many aspects of war and gender as possible. No one’s saying that war doesn’t involve a lot of rape, nor that it’s not an element in her other discussions. But when you think of all the way that gender touches on war, that leaves quite a bit to cover.

  33. Charlie on 20 Jan 2012 at 3:40 am #

    Awesome reading list! Those are some lucky kids.

  34. Perpetua on 20 Jan 2012 at 7:15 am #

    @thefrogprincess, I think you’re right about part of what accounts for the “surprise” of feminist opinions. Clearly, they view feminism as inherently “biased” (that is, lacking legitimacy) and also alienating. But I find myself perplexed how to teach pre-modern women’s history without something that smacks of feminism. How do we talk about women’s relationship to society, religion, and law without talking about their roles as second class citizens/ people without legal autonomy or whatever? It seems like in addition to a postfeminist present they want a postfeminist *past*, and the inability to distinguish between the two is frustrating for me, as a historian. (Obviously, I am in no way personally sympathetic with the idea of a postfeminist present.)

  35. thefrogprincess on 20 Jan 2012 at 8:45 am #

    Oh, I don’t think their discomfort is something you should change your content around for, Perpetua. I think students could use some of the jarring, especially since while they might not be old enough to experience/witness much hostility to women, they certainly are old enough to vote, votes that are based on how much they understand the world around them. But it’s interesting to think about the sources of the discomfort.

  36. m Andrea on 20 Jan 2012 at 2:10 pm #

    @Iowaprof, as a non-academic, I am massively curious how you could get students to understand the difference between gender and sex. Dealing with folks who don’t understand the difference is a problem all feminists in general have, so what is it you say (or have them read) which has such a long-lasting effect?

    Always a pleasure to read here, btw.

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