Self, Sexuality, and Society: Holistic, Literary Sexuality Education

Self, Sexuality, and Society is one of Dublin’s newest English electives. In line with critical literacy’s goals, it pushes students to disrupt the commonplace, interrogate multiple viewpoints, focus on sociopolitical issues, and, as February 20th’s Sexuality Education Fair proved, take community-centered action. Its fall course description reads:

How can love be so confusing, so simple, so necessary—all at once? How can love be so painful yet so desirable? The best place to start looking for answers to these questions is through literature that illuminates human relationships, accessing discourses on desire, love, lust, identity, power, gender relationships, and the interlocking networks that help us define love, write the rules, try to follow them, and change them—again and again.

Sexuality is a fundamental force of human life, shaping who we are, what we feel and believe, and how we relate to others. In Self, Sexuality, and Society, we will examine human sexuality personally and globally—from biological, psychological, cultural, and ethical perspectives. We will study essays, short stories, poetry, novels, and plays, engaging in analytic, creative, and narrative writing. We will also study fact-based sexuality education, as this course pursues how we look at ourselves, our society, our sexuality, and our relationships.

“Taking Self, Sexuality, and Society was the best mistake I ever made,” says senior Geoff Erickson.

 Geoff Erickson

Geoff Erickson

While at first, because he was placed in the class due to chance, he dreaded it, his attitude has since transformed. When he watched the documentary “The Mask You Live In,” he discovered how and why his thinking and his actions have been shaped by society’s definitions of masculinity and was inspired to learn more about how, in his terms, “young men are groomed so improperly in today’s society.” He took it a step further, connecting the gender studies content to himself and his own experiences with the power of male body image that pervaded his previous school’s culture.

“The class truly is fun and interesting, and I am learning so much that I had never even thought of before,” he says. “I highly recommend the class, especially to people like myself who think it’s not for them, try it for at least one term.”

From reading Alison Bechdel to Junot Diaz to Jeanette Winterson to Danielle Evans, students immerse themselves on different stories, contrasting views on love and intimacy, and multifaceted identities. As they study these stories, they develop vocabulary around topics in human sexuality.

“We use literature to engage with topics like identity, intimacy, romantic attraction, gender socialization, lust, and love,” explains instructor and English Department Chair Rachael Jennings. “As you might find in any literature course, the texts are both windows and mirrors. We hold the stories up to our own, wrestle with misconceptions, interrogate the stories we hear, and think about the stories we want: for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our communities.”

To frame class discussions, Jennings uses principles of Holistic Sexuality Education that she learned from coursework at the Institute for Sexuality Education and Enlightenment. Some of these considerations come from Dr. Dischiavo, who states that: “Sexuality is part of a larger system of a person. It is a vital part of a person’s wellness, happiness, and growth. We are taught instead that sexuality has to do with how someone looks and not about how a person feels. This view is not integrated!”

Dischiavo also asserts a principle that belongs in the fabric of the course: “Gender, sexual orientation, and relationship orientation are living entities. These are neither binary nor static. These can grow and change throughout a lifespan: for some people, they stay the same, for others, they do not. These orientations impact and shape each other on an ongoing basis.”

“The essence of the course is learning who you are and what matters to you as a relational human being who is living in a world that’s sending you a ton of conflicting, complex messages,” says Jennings. “Once you work on understanding yourself, you can address how you understand your sexuality, and then you need to look at how that integrates into society—from your friendships to your romantic relationships to your relationships with institutions.”

“One of the goals of the course is to reframe misconceptions and then learn how to communicate with the people who matter to you,” Jennings elaborates. “It’s about asking questions—that’s a pillar of the class that I learned from leading sexuality educator Al Vernacchio. If you can start with the literature—start with asking questions on why Yunior treats women the way he does in This Is How You Lose Her, or if you can ask questions that would help mediate a conflict between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth—you aren’t just learning how to interrogate literature. You are learning how to interrogate what you believe, what others tell you, and what society tells you. You are learning how to frame your own conversations on your personal needs, on the impact of your education, on your understandings or misunderstandings of healthy sexuality, consent, trust. You are learning how to communicate all that—which, hopefully, will lead you to healthy, happy, meaningful relationships. The class strives to create a safe academic zone to practice the conversations that will matter to you in the long run.”

Research Topics in Self, Sexuality, and Society: Entering the Academic Discourse

What begins with questions, conversations, and literary analysis transitions into deeper questions, more individualized conversations, and research.

In the winter strand, students take their work a step further—just as Geoff did with his interest in masculinity—by selecting, exploring, finding, and crafting arguments of their own about topics in human sexuality. The students’ range of topics made for fascinating discussions and a diverse offerings of topics at the Sexuality Education Fair. For example, Riley Hodson became interested in his project after attending a workshop for the True Colors conference at UCONN, where he learned about how sexual orientation and romantic orientation work on separate spectrums; his project explored orientation and genetics. Shaneil Wynter’s inspiration for her project came from reading the article  “Racializing Raven: Race and Gender in That’s So Raven” by Ramona j.j. Bell, which analyzes the children’s show That’s So Raven on the Disney Channel. This research encouraged Shaneil to revisit her childhood and rethink the way the shows she once loved affect her life. Katia Dermott was particularly interested in advertising and analysing depictions of genders in the media. When the Self, Sexuality, and Society class was asked to share three advertisements they found online that focused on selling a stereotype, Katia realized her passion for the topic of beauty and how it influences consumers.

From the reading that they did in the fall and their discerning interactions with their communities, students begin to find their niches in the conversation—some care about studying hypermasculinity and its effects, others are concerned with biphobia and stigmas within the LGBTQI+ community, others are concerned with destructive media standards for beauty:

Extending on the fall literature and human sexuality offering, “Research Topics in Self, Sexuality, and Society” will further investigate the five circles of sexuality: intimacy, identity, sensuality, sexualization, and sexual and reproductive health. Students will read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, bell hooks’ All About Love, and Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn, and excerpts from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, Jackson Katz’s The Macho Paradox, and Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape; as a community, we will use these texts as resources and lenses through which to consider the ways that self, sexuality, and society work together to create our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the institutions we know. More, we will investigate how our understanding of self, sexuality, and society has the power to shift the cultural landscape of human sexuality.

After reading, discussing new texts, and researching, students decided on their topics, curated, read, synthesized, and processed at least ten scholarly works pertaining to their research interests, and then articulated the conceptual problems that most interested them.

“One of the most exciting parts about researching and grappling with conceptual problems in Human Sexuality Studies,” says Jennings, “is that conceptual problems are inextricably linked to practical problems. As you formulate a solution to your conceptual problem—whether it be about erotophobia or destructive norms in masculinity—you will find your way to practical solutions, too.”

By late January, students in the course had created their topics and delved into their research; by early February, students in the course had written ten-to-fifteen page research papers on their topics. Finally, they worked to create 9-minute presentations—which included visual aids, technological aids, and interactive activities—that would share their passions, discoveries, findings, and conclusions with the larger community.

The following topics were students’ final presentations:

  • “Job Gaps, Not Gender Gaps,” Armaan Gandevia
  • “How to Re-Shape Ourselves With the Presence of the Media,” Joseph Hynes
  • “NASA, Addictions, and Convenient Friends: Social Media and Middle Schoolers,” Jared Lewis
  • “Masculinity: Men vs. the Media,” George-Henry Werowinski
  • “External Influences of Self Image,” Harrison Atlas
  • “Bisexuality within the LGBTQ Community: Biphobia, Stereotypes, and More,” Emil Hristache
  • “The Language of Sexism and Institutional Sexism,” Georgina Yang
  • “I Hid to Silence my Pain, Now I need to Speak to Find my FREEDOM: Physical Abuse and Recovery,” Eliza Sigel
  • “Born This Way: The Relationship Between Sexual Orientation and Biology,” Riley Hodson
  • “How to Draw The Perfect Man,” Geoffrey Erickson  
  • “Race, Gender, and Sexuality: Issues in Media and Children's Programming Today,” Shaneil Wynter
  • “The Gender Wage Gap: A Woman’s Burden,” Brianna Moore
  • “Evolution of the Ideal Beauty: Babies to Sexy and All the Media in Between,” Katia Dermott
  • “Sex Trafficking and Rape Culture,” Lucy Selby

Community Involvement: Interrogating, Sharing, Empowering

“When I first walked into the gym and saw that all the students had clearly put a great deal of effort into this project, right from the start, it was inspiring,” said one teacher who attended the Fair.

The Fair took place in Dublin’s gymnasium, where white-table-cloth-clad booths lifted colorful trifolds, sticky notes and notecards for interactive activities, and laptops cued up to play excerpts from TED Talks, commercials, and documentaries. Decorating the tables perched containers with Hershey’s Kisses and Lifesaver candies and Smarties.

(“The candy is THEMED,” says one student. “Get it?”)

As students and faculty and staff members entered the gymnasium each period—as the Fair ran the whole academic day—a playlist that Riley Hodson engineered blared through the gym, welcoming and topical. Songs like Sara Bareilles’s “Brave,” Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” and Beyonce’s “Love On Top” swept participants into the vibrancy of the Fair.

Bareilles’ lyrics resound: “You can be amazing / You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug / You can be the outcast / Or be the backlash of somebody's lack of love / Or you can start speaking up / Nothing's gonna hurt you the way that words do /And they settle ’neath your skin / Kept on the inside and no sunlight / Sometimes a shadow wins // But I wonder what would happen if you / Say what you wanna say / And let the words fall out / Honestly, I wanna see you be brave / With what you want to say / And let the words fall out / Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.”

“I think that’s what made the Fair a success in my eyes,” says Jennings. “It was how courageous, open, and brave the student presenters were. Honestly, it’s nerve-wracking to present to your peers, especially on topics like these. The student presenters were poised, engaging, and professional. They were brave and honest. They made me really proud.”

“I am a ‘traditional’ and uncomplicated person, so I am just interested to learn that there are clearly many other people who have a very different, and sometimes challenging, experience of their own minds and bodies,” said a student; they appreciated the content of the Fair and, if anything, the presentations exposed them to new-to-them ideas.

“The Sexuality Education Fair raised good questions for me about the impact of culture, society, and mass media on body image and sexuality,” said another student. “It made me wonder how I can learn more.”

Harrison Atlas had students think about institutional impacts on identity; Georgina Yang had participants discuss sexist language and dissect the relationship between interpersonal and institutional dynamics; Joey Hynes had students view and unpack media-crafted images and consider how these images distort beauty, relationships, and gender norms; Eliza Sigel had students consider steps they could take to support friends and loved ones in unhealthy, abusive relationships; Jared Lewis invited students to consider how their relationships with social media impact their intimate relationships; GH Werowinski encouraged students to redefine masculinity; freshman Lucy Selby educated her peers about sex trafficking; Emil Hristache led students in a conversation about stigmas and stereotypes within the bisexual community; both Brianna Moore and Armaan Gandevia shared analyses of the wage gap. Katia Dermott had students write down their own reconstructed definitions of beauty after touring them through the vicious world of beauty advertising.

One student left the Fair saying, “How are we not talking about all of this all of the time? I encountered ideas I had never considered, and they feel so important. We need to talk more!”

“I’m proud of my students’ energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and courage,” says Jennings. “But mostly, I think I am proud of their ability to talk and their vulnerability in listening. We are all thrilled to have shared the Sexuality Education Fair with the larger school community, but we only got there because, in class, every student listened thoughtfully, considered compassionately, and talked candidly with their peers. We’ve been on quite the journey, but the final product the school saw at the Sexuality Fair was only a glimpse of all the ways that these students—this first graduating class of the Self, Sexuality, and Society course—have shown courage in their own studies, conversations, and interrogations. The conversation is always just getting started.”

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