It could be the fact that the word “sex” is in the title, but professor Aminda Smith likes to think that her class on the history of sexuality is gaining popularity for the concepts it covers. Since a year ago when History of Sexuality was reintroduced into MSU’s available courses, a tremendous number of students have found the topic to be enticing as well as an integral part of their learning experience. Students’ interest in the course has grown to the extent that the next time it is offered it will consist of nearly 150 students. The course, which can be taken under HST 420 or WS 420, ran once in the 2007-2008 school year and will run once this school year, in the spring.
According to Smith, History of Sexuality is a course that focuses on how people have conceptualized, constructed, experienced and performed sexuality throughout history. “We look at the extent to which issues of sexuality shape our world and how they are socially constructed,” Smith said. To do so, the class uses first-hand accounts, fiction, film, art and artifacts. The students learn about sexuality from as early as the medieval period to the 21st century. “Gender and sexuality are separate from history, but they do motivate historical events,” Smith said.
At a young age, Smith became interested in the history of sexuality as an activist for women’s rights. As an undergraduate in college, she took a lot of classes that discussed gender and women’s studies. This led her to acquire a personal and political interest in the meaning behind her activism. Smith was curious as to why people sexually developed the way they did and why they changed over time. Her enthusiasm and familiarity of the subject has given her the ability to pass on that knowledge to another generation of students at MSU. “Now we tend to think of sexes as two different entities, but it wasn’t always that way,” Smith said.
[Smith]The class is harder than people think because it involves a lot of theory. Throughout the semester, students are required to explore the rationale of theorists such as Matthew Kuefler, Thomas Laqueur, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and Sigmund Freud. To show their comprehension, students are then asked to write in-depth analyses of the various theories. “The historical aspect of the class was being able to read theory and understand sexuality in society at different times,” sociology and women and gender studies senior Rachel Mieskowski said. In the fall of 2007, Mieskowski decided to take History of Sexuality in relation to her major. Before the semester was finished, she discovered how much the history of sexuality had influenced social norms and taboos today.
The paper that Mieskowski enjoyed writing the most focused on the concept of homosexuality and heterosexuality. “It helped me conceptualize how we oversimplify things today,” Mieskowski said. The class read two articles pertaining to the sexual system in ancient Greece where there was no differentiation between the sexes. Mieskowski took that view and argued that there could be only one sex system. “Years ago, people thought of women as just imperfect men or ‘inside out’ men,” Smith said.
Taking that idea, Mieskowski concluded that people could consider the idea that one could not be heterosexual if the two sexes were fused together. They could only be homosexual. “I found a way to complicate something that seemed so simple and it was actually a lot of fun,” Mieskowski said. It is easy for students to get engaged in the class because of the topics of discussion. “Really anyone could enjoy and benefit from this class,” Smith said.
Hospitality business junior Nate Wallace decided to take the class because he had no other options. However, he said that he was not disappointed. “I was happy that I took it. Aminda Smith was an amazing professor. The way she approached things was what made it interesting,” Wallace said.
The topic that stood out the most for Wallace was the medieval era. Wallace said that this was when sex was seen as an uncontroversial part of life. “The church got involved and you couldn’t talk about it,” Wallace said. This was interesting to Wallace because he could see the same scenario played out in the 21st century. “You’re just told this is bad, but not told why,” Wallace said. Having the “sex” talk with the parents is still awkward for most kids. Wallace said that this course enables students to break that awkward barrier and think and talk about taboos.
Historical events such as the 17th Century Salem Witch Trials and the 19th Century legend of Jack the Ripper have even wound their way into the curriculum of History of Sexuality. It might seem nearly impossible to link these extremely well-known eras of time with sexuality, but that is another reason why the class has become so appealing. “The witch trials were incredibly sexualized,” Smith said.
In some instances witches were accused of having sex with the devil, Smith said. She said that there are books that describe the persecution of women who were searched for a witch’s mark. “People doing the persecuting gave explicit descriptions of the female anatomy,” Smith said. Sexuality’s underlying role in the Witch Trials shows that while history sometimes brushes over its importance, sexuality is a constant in our time. “We think we know what the Salem Witch Trials were about, but when you get into it, it has a lot to do with sexuality,” Mieskowski said.
[racheltrials]Quite a bit of time was spent on Jack the Ripper as well. Many would be surprised to know that Jack the Ripper had a major influence on the way people looked at sexual crime. “This was a turning point in history because of the gruesome sexual nature of the crime,” Mieskowski said. At the time, sexuality was not something many people talked about. Jack the Ripper introduced the idea that women were sexual objects. “This was the beginning of serial killers and sexually motivated crimes,” Mieskowski said.
In the last portion of the class, the focus on sexuality turned to human rights over the years. “We talked a lot about sexual revolutions,” Smith said. Some of these included transgender acceptance, gay movements, pornography, censorship, prostitution, and violence. The class looked at how these revolutions were redefined and reshaped in the U.S. as well as abroad. “The big one was [the New York City riots at] Stonewall. We were able to watch things build up to that moment and why,” Mieskowski said. This progressed into a deeper discussion of what was natural sexuality and what was deviant sexuality. It boiled down to what many people thought sexuality could be. In many cases, peoples’ decisions were based on stereotypes. “The stereotypes we have to break through come directly from TV. In most ways they don’t always reflect normality,” Smith said.
For whatever reason a student chooses to enroll in the class, they are expected to do nothing less than creatively explore sexuality and understand that it has changed over time. The purpose of Smith’s class was to raise discussion about how people debate sexuality and what they view as right and wrong. “I encourage people to really study their own politics,” Smith said. The freedom of having a voice and an opinion brings the class objective full circle and makes for a favorable outcome that is shared among every student who participated. “It’s an interesting subject people want to learn about and it’s not discussed a lot,” Wallace said.
If enlightening conversation on the sexuality of the ancient Greeks, the Kama Sutra, or avatar pornography is your bag, then you might want to take this sexy class, baby.