Critical ThinkingHigher Education

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

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Corey Lee Wrenn

Corey Lee Wrenn

Ms. Wrenn is an ABD PhD and adjunct professor of Sociology and Social Psychology. Her interests include social movement theory, abolitionist Nonhuman Animal rights, social inequality, and veganism.

5 Comments

  1. March 1, 2013 at 8:01 pm —

    I have so much ambivalence about porn. I certainly don’t want to demonize people who work in the sex industry, nor do I wish to condemn consumers indiscriminately. But…these things you say here. I know some people want to promote erotica and porn that display sexuality as equal and mutual, and that sounds very nice, but what percentage of the industry does that encompass, really? Will that model ever be the norm? Here’s the deal for me: If rape culture were not a thing, and institutionalized sexism were not a thing, I imagine I would not give a damn about porn at all. I don’t even like to watch people kiss in the movies, but I can imagine equality porn in an equal society, and how that could be great for people who like that sort of thing. I guess? Ugh, I don’t know. I’m all over the place on this topic and always have been.

    • March 1, 2013 at 8:21 pm —

      Hi Dr. Shell,
      The intent is not to demonize sex workers, but recognize that as a group, they tend to come from vulnerable populations and rarely enter the profession with “free will.” Pornography is an industry made by men for men that profits men.

      You’re right that many people like to focus on the small percentage of niche pornography that does respect the dignity of all parties involved, but mainstream, popular pornography is deeply misogynistic and exploitative. I completely agree, if rape culture were not an issue, pornography might be a little less problematic. There’s still the issue of objectifying women, however, as well as sexualizing degrading acts that 1. focus primarily on male pleasure and 2. generally entail no pleasure (or pain) for women

      Thanks so much for your comments!

  2. March 1, 2013 at 8:09 pm —

    I want to see our Google Analytics results after this post, by the way. Or maybe I don’t. 😉

  3. March 2, 2013 at 11:27 pm —

    Something I often find myself wondering when reading deconstructions of adult film is how to account for a great deal of virtually identical practices in gay male porn, which (it seems to me) predate their popularity mainstream straight porn. I know, I know, what about the menz, rite?

    But at the same time (in certain productions at least) it serves a function a bit like the Hawkeye Initiative, where one is posing a male character in the very same positions normally occupied by a female one. Does male privilege cancel out the problematic nature of the acts in question, even in the case of historically less-privileged effeminate men? Are men who enjoy this kind of treatment in real life also participating in a kind of patriarchal misogynist system to which they have been conditioned by the equation of homosexuality with femininity? Does that mean that even gay porn is degrading to women? Just a thought I’ve never really been able to address satisfactorily myself, so I wonder if anyone else has thoughts.

  4. March 3, 2013 at 12:29 am —

    Whoa, those are interesting questions. I have not seen a lot of porn, and very little of that very little was gay male porn, but I think you’re right that the gender bias spectrum associates gay men with women and thus treats them with a lot of the same prejudices, and men who are perceived as effeminate are even further disempowered. The whole “top” vs. “bottom” thing seems organized that way, doesn’t it? (Do people still use those terms? I am old.)

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