Sex & Relationships

The Study of Sex

A unique college course on African-American sexuality is shaking up the world of academia.
In a large classroom packed with students, Professor Nick Baham is teaching a course called African-American Sexuality. The course has been taught in the Ethnic Studies Department of California State University, East Bay 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.

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.

Melendez contends that "when you study sexuality, race and ethnicity are pivot points. Who you study and what you find will be influenced by race. There needs to be a lot more people of color doing sexuality studies." Sexuality studies has immediate relevance to communities of color, she argues, because of historical and contemporary intersections between sexualized racism and racialized sexism, and because of the ways in which sexuality can be a particular source of joy for persons of color as well.

Race "hasn't been dealt with very well" in sexuality studies, Melendez says. Despite the fact that many people of color are interested in the topic, "there has been mainly a large group of white men and women in the field of sexuality. A lot has to do with the word 'sexuality'; it gets associated with white people." Melendez finds that when the word "sexuality" gets added to a course title, people of color don't enroll.

Part of that word-association has to do with the fact that many white sexuality researchers are researching people of color. For example, Melendez says, most research being done today on people with HIV is done on people of color with HIV. For that reason, a notion prevails that sexuality studies is something that white people do and something that people of color have done to them. This paradigm sets up a power dynamic that can leave people of color dissociated from the sexuality research field.

Another reason for the low numbers of students of color in sexuality studies courses may have to do with the way race plays out in the mostly white classroom. "I spend all day talking about sexuality. I can say anything in my classes, and nobody will be shocked. But when [I] start talking about race, it often becomes a sensitive subject for my students," Melendez says. "When we really start talking about what race means, we get uncomfortable. Students tend to think that if you know somebody's race, you know a lot about them. I think that's not true. Everybody experiences race and ethnicity differently. If you're white, does that mean we can presume to know everything about you? It's really important to de-teach [my sexuality studies students] about race. [I] constantly try to bring race and ethnicity into the conversation."

When she was in graduate school at Columbia University in 2002, Melendez witnessed firsthand the degree to which many other people of color share her interest in sexuality studies. She was involved in the development of a program at Columbia called MOSAIC, which was intended to get undergraduate students of color involved in the field. By offering minischolarships, conducting weekly seminars and bringing the students to conferences such as the ones held by the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (a leading national sexuality studies organization), MOSAIC was able to engage students of color and legitimize their preexisting interest in sexuality studies.

Melendez believes that sexuality studies need to embrace students of color by creating more structural programs, like MOSAIC, and more courses that acknowledge and examine the intersections of race and sexuality, like Baham's African-American Sexuality. "It's vital that more people of color enter the field, but I don't think that's going to happen until people make a concerted effort." This effort, she says, could include sexuality studies programs working to get more students of color into their classes; it could also entail black or other ethnic studies programs, including classes on sexuality in their roster, and it could mean an academywide effort to destigmatize the word "sexuality" itself.

Race, sex and power
Baham's time in the classroom goes a long way towards meeting all three of those goals. But the real revolution comes from within.

At the beginning of the course, Baham says that students always come in with a "pseudo-scientific" notion. "The question that they want answered is: Why are people gay?" Baham says. "I get them to understand that asking 'why' comes from a particular privileged position of power," namely that of heteronormativity.

Baham also gets the students to look at the notion "that black gay men are the biggest health risk in the black community. What about cocaine, heroin, unsafe sex among heterosexuals?" In getting students to critically examine topics such as internalized and externalized homophobia, Baham encourages analysis of the ways in which students personally construct their own sexualities.

Finally, the course ends with a look at BDSM. "We've had this motif that runs through the course: It's called power," Baham says. "I ask the students: How about if we play with power? How about if we play with violence? How about if we play with slavery? I talk about BDSM as a political act. [In BDSM], all the issues with gender roles, slavery, violence and power, all of these come to a head. I deal with it as a potentially very mature way for people to resolve issues that develop from the sexual persona, such as pain, loss, mistrust."

Baham starts by talking about spanking or being spanked as an example of what BDSM can entail. He'll often bring in a guest speaker from the BDSM community. Through these discussions, the students are able to see the potential for BDSM to be, as he puts it, "a redemptive and spiritual act." His students often mention having a slight interest in the topic, but that they don't know what it is and think that it's a "white thing." Despite this, students report that the idea of "doing things that are aggressive or submissive is exciting. There's a tremendous amount of interest, but real lack of information on it," Baham says. "When I talk about trust and safe words, and they see it's not people getting together willy nilly and beating the crap out of each other, they can understand it. Only later do we talk about the more extreme forms of BDSM, such as race play."

Baham often overhears his students tell their friends, "Man, you wouldn't believe what we do in that class!"-- which he takes as a compliment.

What does the future hold for Baham's African-American Sexuality and for Melendez' desire to see more people of color studying and researching sexuality? In CSU, East Bay's Ethnic Studies Department, Baham and colleague Luz Calvo have proposed the creation of an entire departmental program to focus on the gender and sexuality of people of color. The African-American Sexuality course would become part of that program along with similar courses.

Melendez dreams of the day when academics will work to make sure that "young people of color know the importance of studying sexuality, that it's not just fun and games, but that it deals with really important issues that are of concern to many communities of color" such as HIV/ AIDS, intimate partner violence, pregnancy and birth control, the rights of same-gender loving individuals, and sexual agency and the right to pleasurable experiences. "If I had my way," she concludes, "sexuality studies would take over the entire university, because everything relates to sexuality."
Amy Andre has a master's degree in human sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She works as a sex educator and writer.
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