Every year, I teach a religious studies and gender studies course on sex and sexuality. My institutional context is a small, private liberal arts college and a religious studies department that is committed to nonconfessional and comparative/critical approaches. Although the student population is 42 percent non-white and we have a significant number of Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish students, the white Protestantism of North Texas, ranging from moderately liberal to less moderately conservative, is still the strongest cultural current among the student body.
The course, in its settled form, is titled Sex, Self, and Society and is offered at the intermediate undergraduate level with no prerequisites. I structure the class as an exploration of multiple ways sex and religion relate to one another within US society. From the first day of the semester, I emphasize that we will be examining how sex itself functions in religious ways as well as how organized religion engages sex in various manners.1 Topics include gender roles and power in sex, secular and religious cultures and ethics of sex, sexual health, marriage and polyamory, pornography, same-gender sexualities, abortion, and legal regulation of sex. In all of these areas, I am committed to queer and feminist stances, directly addressing the gender- and sexuality-based power asymmetries and inequities that heteropatriarchal (and white supremacist) capitalism imposes and imagining alternatives thereto.
Such an orientation to the course makes it necessary also to feature a major unit on preventing sexual violence, which began as one week in a fourteen-week semester and has slowly lengthened to its current two and one-half weeks.2 My overall goal in the unit is for students not only to understand the issue of sexual violence better but also to begin imagining and experimenting with how we, as everyday members of society, might work to eradicate it.
The framework I have used for this unit has gone through three stages. At first, I framed the unit as empathizing with victims of sexual violence: we read narratives from rape survivors and reflected on the many ways sexual violence impacts survivors’ (and victims’) lives and communities. I soon transformed the unit into one of analyzing and dismantling rape culture, in order for students to [End Page 177] appreciate sexual violence primarily as a structural phenomenon. After several sessions detailing the mechanisms and extent of rape culture, students worked in groups to design actions or programs that could chip away at some aspect of rape culture that each group selected. These creative projects often resulted in proposals that could contribute in real ways to eradicating sexual violence; more importantly, students repeatedly began to see eradicating sexual violence as something in which they had a stake.
Nevertheless, I came to realize that students could come away from the unit without coming to consciousness of the truth that sexual violence in the West is fundamentally a problem of masculinity—a manifestation of the phenomenon that gender studies conceptualizes as “toxic masculinity.” Students need to understand that while rape culture is the mechanism that channels toxic masculinity into specific, socially legitimized practices of sexual violence, if we want to eradicate sexual violence, we must transform the apparatuses by which boys are subjectified into toxically masculine men. I find that the framing in Jackson Katz’s book The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help is closer than not to the enduring understanding I want students to take from the unit.3 Of course, sexual violence is perpetrated upon (and to a lesser degree, by) people of all gender identities, as I point out to my students: but the transformations of masculinity required to eradicate men’s violence against women (sexual and otherwise) are also the key to eradicating all forms of gender-based and sexual violence.
In addition to Katz, we study current statistics on sexual violence, summaries of research on why women reporting sexual violence are often not believed, and excerpts from Michael Kimmel’s Guyland as well as Transforming a Rape Culture, edited by Emilie Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth.4 For their daily reading accountability assignment (required throughout the semester), students (of...