Sexualities studies raising questions

Sexuality is quickly becoming a common topic of conversation in university classrooms and is emerging as a new area of study at many institutions, including Portland State.

Duke University, Cornell University and New York University are among many schools across the country that have established sexualities studies, or gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered (GLBT) studies programs.

At PSU, sexualities studies classes include the university studies department’s “Sexualities” sophomore inquiry and junior cluster, as well as courses with such titles as “History of Sexualities,” “Gender and Sexualities,” “Sex and the Family” and “Sex, Sexuality and Erotic Subjectivity.”

Student response has been very positive. The sexualities sophomore inquiry is in high demand. It was so popular during the 2001-2002 academic year, the university studies department had to increase the number of the times the class was offered.

“We offered it twice this year, and we’re considering offering more sections,” said Dr. Candyce Reynolds, director of Mentor Studies. “There certainly looks like there’s a great demand.”

Many of the courses in the cluster are offered by the women’s studies department, though the sociology, anthropology and English departments offer classes that study various aspects of sexuality, as well.

Ann Mussey, the cluster coordinator, explained the sexualities courses were designed in response to student demand.

“The topic is current, the questions are there, people are familiar with gender-play, and they see that traditional gender roles are exploding,” she said.

Faculty members decided to use the title “sexualities” for the cluster as opposed to GLBT in order to encompass a broader range of perspectives.

“It was clear that there needed to be queer studies, but in order to make it broad enough it was decided to use the term sexualities instead,” she said.

“It has more appeal and allows students to focus on queer studies if that’s where their interests lie.”

Students in the sexualities sophomore inquiry classes examine human sexuality from multiple perspectives and incorporate body, desire, identity and reproduction into their personal understandings of sexuality. By focusing on the way sexuality and politics are interconnected, students are able to better understand the roles of sex and gender in everyday life, Mussey said.

“The first thing we do is try to define sex, but there is no one definition,” she said. “There are many, from the dictionary definition to the various ideas of what constitutes a sexual act.”

The cluster courses range from “Sex and the Family” to “Gay and Lesbian Fiction,” providing students with a variety of different options, as well as the opportunity to focus on a particular field of interest.

Heather Hartley, who teaches the sociology course “Gender and Sexualities,” explained that not only is it important for sexuality to be discussed in the classroom, but the subject matter allows students to easily relate information they learn in class to their everyday lives.

“We all have a stake in this because we all have gender and sexuality and are familiar with hierarchies and patriarchies,” she said. “Students can think about how they have been impacted by this very personal aspect of society, then choose what makes sense for them.”

Classes that deal with sexuality in an academic environment provide students with the opportunity to ask questions, said Michele Gamburd, an anthropology professor who teaches both “Sex, Sexuality and Erotic Subjectivity” and “Gender and Cross-Cultural Perspectives.”

“Students are asking that their education teach them something about the real world,” she said. “It’s taboo, but through open discussion, we can clarify concepts and move toward better understanding of important issues.”

Sexualities studies also allow students to escape the “MTV mentality” and develop the skills to think critically about sexuality, Mussey explained.

“It gives people the sense of more possibilities in their personal life and allows students to think about creating change,” she said. “They can think about what kind of roles they would like to live in, and how sexuality can be integrated into their lives.”

Though PSU doesn’t have a certificate program for sexualities studies, Mussey acknowledged that it is a hope for the future.

“It’s hard to say how soon because of the constriction of funds for higher education in the state right now,” she said. “However, we have wonderful resources in both students and faculty. It’s certainly a possibility.”

Currently, faculty members are hopeful the increasing availability of classes will raise awareness of gender roles and common stereotypes, Gamburd said.

“Just getting people to look critically at these categories that they take for granted every day, that’s what we’re doing,” she said. “The first way to change things is by bringing them out into people’s consciousness.”