Teaching the Social Construction of Sex
Why do some women find it a turn on when men “take control” in the bedroom, pushing her down and performing aggressive sex acts?
Choking a woman not a biologically-based sexual gratification. I also suspect that penetration to the point of soreness or tearing is not a biologically-based source of gratification either. And finishing on a woman’s face makes no evolutionary sense. Instead, sociologists argue that sexual behaviors are, for the most part, socially embedded. Sexuality is something we learn.
In almost half of the most popular pornographies, female actresses perform what is known as “a**-to-mouth.” “What is a**-to-mouth?” I ask my students. When no one can (or will) answer, I explain that a**-to-mouth is the act of man sodomizing a woman and then having her perform oral sex. Let me reiterate, almost half of the most popular pornographies feature this sex act. This is not deviant niche-market porn, this is mainstream porn.
I then ask my students what exactly it is about a**-to-mouth that is so especially pleasurable for men? Is it the sensation of feces and saliva interacting on his skin that amplifies his orgasm? Now they get it. “It’s about control,” one student will suggest. “It’s about humiliating the woman,” another will add. Bingo.
Most of us take for granted the many sexual acts that are inherently androcentric, privileging the male experience at the expense of women’s pleasure and dignity. Sex has become a product of patriarchy. It is intended to uphold unequal power relations, that is, male domination and female submission. It’s taught to both men and women through in the process of socialization, with pornography playing a pivotal role in this process.
To illustrate this point, I have drawn on two media sources when teaching the social construction of sex to my students. The first piece is Cindy Gallop’s “Make Love, Not Porn” TED talk. At four or thirteen minutes (there are two versions), this clip fits easily into lectures. Gallop succinctly explains the role of porn in constructing a new human sexuality that privileges men at the expense of women. Her talk is engaging, funny, and, at times, quite blunt. Her website of the same name is also very abbreviated and uses large, easy to understand graphics that are well suited to the projector screen. However, the language is often coarse, and teachers might want to discern which slides from her website will be appropriate and which are better left to the students to explore on their own time.
Another excellent source for deconstructing sexuality is the film The Price of Pleasure. A female professor at Appalachian State University was fired for showing this film to her class, however, so a word of caution. Indeed, the film includes countless uncensored clips from popular porns and may not be suitable for your students. Even though I teach this material and feel relatively immersed in the discourse, I cried for hours, woke up in the middle of the night from nightmares, lost sleep, and was, for all intents and purposes, traumatized after viewing the film myself. So, I opt not to show this video to my class, leaving it up to my students to locate the film on their own if they were interested. However, the film project offers a teacher’s guide on their website that is free to educators. That information has been invaluable to my lectures, drawing on popular media to which the students can relate and providing powerful social critiques.
Getting students to think critically about the social construction of sex is not easy work. Most of us have been thoroughly socialized to see sex as mutually beneficial and mutually empowering. We assume that sex is something “natural,” something that is based solely on evolution, hormones, and compatible genitals. Heterosexist stereotypes encourage us to perceive sex as legitimate only when it is between a woman and a man. Gender stereotypes persist that position women as naturally subservient, happy to perform “degrading” acts, and “willing” participants in pornography. Many men are reluctant to explore how those behaviors that have benefited them at the expense of others actually reflect an exploitative patriarchal dynamic. Not many of us are happy to discover that even our most intimate behaviors are dictated by social inequality and the media.
But the rewards are worth it. I’ve had several students contact me after “The Porn Lecture” (which I shamelessly hype up all semester) and thank me for covering the topic. While a lecture of this nature is certainly uncomfortable for many students (and even for myself at times), it can make a lasting impact on students’ lives. Knowledge is empowerment. Deconstructing sexuality allows women (and men) to take control over what happens with them and to them in the bedroom.
Featured image from WikiCommons