Studying Sex: A One-of-a-Kind College Course Is Helping to Transform the Burgeoning Field of Sexuality Studies

Article excerpt

In a large classroom packed with students, Professor Nick Baham is teaching a course called African American Sexuality. The course has been taught here in the Ethnic Studies department of California State University-East Bay (formerly CSU-Hay-ward) since the mid-'80s, with Baham taking over as professor in 2000. The students settle in as he turns their attention to a guest lecturer, who is visiting to discuss images of people of color in feminist pornography.

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Most of the students in the class are themselves Black, and mostly female. They range in age from late 20s to early 30s, and between 50 and 60 people take the class when it's offered several times a year. Most students identify as heterosexual. As far as Baham knows, it is the only course in the country specifically on African-American sexuality. For today's lecture, Baham and his guest field questions about Black female sexual agency, the involvement of Black people in alternative sexual communities and even representations of pleasure and orgasm.

Contrary to some students' expectations, the 10-week course is not a sexual "how to." Baham's challenge is to get students to step out of their comfort zones, as they cover topics such as BDSM, Black LGBT issues, sex work, media hype around the "down low," marketing of Black female bodies on television, representations of Black sexuality in pornography, interracial sexuality and Black male patriarchy.

Rethinking What's Natural

Students enroll in the course with a variety of ideas about sexuality, Baham says. Among his students, he finds that "certain things are considered taboo because they're considered things that white people do. For example, gay and lesbian identity is considered white, introduced to Blacks during slavery and not organic to Africa. Religiosity also comes up; sexual practice is conflated with religious prerogatives."

Representations of Black sexuality, especially Black female sexuality, in popular culture are also an issue. "They're very aware that their sexual bodies are objectified and commodified," Baham says. "And there are clearly demarcated lines between [women who are] virgins and sluts. [The students'] sexual self-perception is bounded by race, gender, and religiosity. Every erotic activity that they're engaged in becomes a contested cultural terrain, where [they're] fighting the legacy of colonialism."

For one of the class assignments, Baham has the students conduct a mini-ethnography. He asks students to interview people whose sexuality is different from that of their own. "So, if they're heterosexual and vanilla, they go to the Folsom Street Fair [an annual leather community event in the nearby city of San Francisco] and chat with people," he says.

"I'm not trying to indoctrinate them. I'm not trying to stop them from looking to the Christian church every time they have sex. I'm looking to get them to think critically about what they do and what they think is 'natural.'"

The Color of Sexuality Studies

The existence of Baham's course itself--and its high enrollment numbers--indicates a departure from the norm in the field of sexuality studies. Rita Melendez is a professor in the Human Sexuality Studies department at San Francisco State University and a research associate at the school's Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality. Both at sexuality studies conferences and in her own classroom, she often finds that she is one of a handful of people of color. Most of her colleagues are white, as are most of her students.

The field of sexuality studies is small but growing, having emerged from an interdisciplinary social sciences arena. Academics and theorists dating back to Freud popularized the notion of studying human sexual behavior, and its development has been shaped by everything from the early psychologists to the birth of feminist theory, from the advent of HIV/AIDS to the creation of women's and gender studies, and more. …