Philosophy of Sex and Gender Course Suggestions
Jessica Wolfendale (West Virginia) writes in:
I am putting together a course proposal for an introductory Philosophy of Sex & Gender course, and I would appreciate any suggestions regarding how best to structure the course and what content to include, as well as advice about what did/didn’t work in similar courses.
I take it that it’s “sex” as in “biological sex”, rather than as in “hot sex” — and that the idea is to have a course with a narrower focus than a general feminism course (i.e. it’s not just a titular variant). Here are some suggestions, which cover foundational stuff, metaphysics of gender stuff, and experience-of-being-gendered/effects of gender roles stuff. Most of this is pretty M-F. I don’t know much about literature specifically on trans experience/identity/etc, but I’m sure it exists, and some of that would be a good addition.
Beauvoir, “The Second Sex” (extracts — maybe the intro and some of the descriptive women’s-roles bits from book 2?)
hooks, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
Young, “Throwing Like a Girl”
Haslanger, “Race and Gender: (What) Are they? (What) Do we Want Them to be?”
Nussbaum, “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism”
Witt, ʻWhat is Gender Essentialism?”
Bach, “Gender is a Natural Kind with an Historical Essence”
Back with more later if I think of any.Report
One topic that goes over very well with my intro students, and has never failed to generate a lot of discussion while getting the basic themes across, is the gendered meanings of losing one’s virginity. Consent is another good topic, and if I can plug my colleague’s work, Liberto on sexual promises is very engaging stuff. If you approach it right, and carefully discuss the racialized aspects, the down-low is another good topic for getting at some of the puzzles about how we understand, construct, and stereotype sexual identity. On the more traditional sex and gender side of things, I’ve had success with bell hooks on intersectionality (really, the more intersectionality the better), Frye’s birdcage “Oppression” article, portions of Calhoun’s Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet, and Haslanger’s “Gender and Race”. And if you’re willing to stray beyond philosophical texts, my intro students react really well to the book Body Outlaws, edited by Ophira Edut. For a more pop culture approach, I can’t say enough good things about Anita Sarkeesian’s youtube series about gaming and tropes vs. women. The video documentary Tough Guise 2 is excellent, as is Kimmel on masculinity.Report
Oh, and Young’s On Female Body Experience. Definitely that.Report
Oh oh, and Halberstam on female masculinity. And the Stone / Snorton debate on trans identity and passing.Report
What do you have them read about the loss of virginity? Sounds like a great topic.Report
I used Carpenter’s “Gender and the Meaning and Experience of Virginity Loss in the Contemporary United States” (2002). It discusses different understandings of virginity loss, such as gift-giving vs. ridding oneself of virginal stigma, how these different understandings were strongly gendered (in both content and who was likely to experience them), and how these understandings affected young peoples’ experience of their virginity, their first time, and themselves. The article is the write-up of a study rather than philosophy proper, but it’s pretty easy to spool philosophy out of it.Report
Great! Thanks so much, Daniel!Report
I showed the documentary ‘Boys Will Be Men’ to my intro class, and it went over well. The film shows how gender norms also take their toll on boys (especially on their emotional health and development). I think the men in my course appreciated this perspective and it helped them ‘buy into’ the value of discussions about gender norms.Report
I would like to recommend my article 2001 “On the Government of Disability” which traces a genealogy of the sex-gender distinction and applies the insights derived thereof to the impairment-disability distinction that has conditioned most contemporary philosophy of disability and disability theory. The article has been very well received, has been reprinted three times, including in a three-volume collection of the best work in feminist philosophy. (Unfortunately, the article is the *only* article on disability is the three-volume collection.) You can read the article here: https://www.academia.edu/5812147/On_the_Government_of_Disability.Report
In a seminar on this topic that I took, among the things we read that have not been mentioned already, Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book Sexing the Body was by far my favorite reading.Report
A pity to confine it to male and female. Be brave and move beyond the binaries to include intersex people. Suggested reading Anne Fausto-Sterling Myths of gender: biological theories about women and men. New York: Basic Books. .
Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality., and her latest which I have not read Sexing the Body, Of Gender and Genitals., which seems very pertinent. Also Alice Dreger Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, even my book Unseen Genders if you can find a copy. Good luck with the course.Report
Thanks for all the suggestions! They’re really helpful. Just to clarify, I wasn’t thinking of confining the topic to male and female, so I’m interested in work on intersex and transgender identity as well.Report
If you’re interested in textbooks that provide some kind of overview of interesting topics, I’d look into Shrage and Stewart’s Philosophizing about Sex. I’m currently writing a review of this text for a journal, though the review won’t be coming out in time to be of much help for the fall semester. It’s not a reader or collection of articles, and it won’t replace lecturing, but it’ll give a lot of topics and a lot of question prompts for class discussion. It could also help an instructor select articles.Report
I have with some success taught a historically informed course that starts with sex and gender essentialism and then ends with a section or two on the impacts of how one thinks about sex and gender metaphysically. The anthology “Philosophy of Woman” contains a range of helpful excerpts. I have used Plato and Aristotle, along with Rousseau. I’ve also drawn on writings in the querelle des femmes, including Christine de Pizan, Lucrezia Marinella and Marie de Gournay (none of whom are in the anthology). Other options are Poullain de la Barre and Olympe des Gouges. One can move from there to the late 18th early 19th c with Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill. And from there to Simone de Beauvoir, Monique Wittig, and to contemporary writings. In its most recent interaction, I ended with Charlotte Witt’s recent monograph and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender.Report
I’d recommend looking at Nancy Bauer’s new book How to Do Things with Pornography.Report
Alexander Pruss’ book One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics.Report
Some great stuff mentioned here already! If this is a lower-division course, Anne Fausto-Sterling’s essay “The Five Sexes, Revisited” (2000) is very accessible, especially if you don’t have time for a whole book. Chapter 16 (“Unraveling Hardwiring”) of Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender is particularly good. And despite its difficulty for undergrads, Haslanger’s already mentioned essay on race and gender is essential reading.
I consider masculinity and femininity a critical part of gender discussions (not just the distinction between sex and gender). Anything by Michael Kimmel is awesome, especially Tough Guise. Stone’s chapter on Essentialism in the textbook Feminist Philosophy is good. Jessica Valenti (not a philosopher, but a fun-to-read activist) on virginity and slut-shaming is accessible intro material. And intersectionality is critical on this topic. Bell hooks’ book “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity” is great – I’ve had students read portions of that and show clips from Byron Hurt’s film “Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.” While the film is ostensibly cultural criticism, it delves into the tropes of black masculinity and black femininity in an accessible way.
Talia Mae Boettcher has some good philosophy articles on transgender issues. Her entry “Intersexuality, Transsexuality, Transgender,” in the Oxford book of Feminist Theory is good. On transgender topics, students like to talk about sports, since it’s the most recognizable space where the gender binary is problematic. I recall that there are some good articles in the American Journal of Bioethics on transgender issues in sports (can’t find the exact reference now, sorry). Kate Bornstein (activist, not philosopher) is a fun person to introduce students to. Also, I teach in the south and show the film “Southern Comfort” which introduces students to injustices in the trans community. I generally mention the TERF’s but don’t have them read anything… there’s a lot out there.
The stuff I’ve mentioned thus far is American, but if you venture into transnational topics and approaches, there is even more to read and think about! Semesters end up being way too short for this material.Report
There are so many great suggestions here – I really appreciate all of you taking the time to respond to my query. Clearly, there’s material for multiple courses! It will be definitely a challenge to cover everything I’d like to in a single course.Report
I’ve taught both an introduction to philosophy course that was special topic based and gender/sex themed, as well as a feminist philosophy course. I recommend Soble’s Philosophy of Sex reader for an intro class. It has a lot of the readings others are mentioning. In my feminist philosophy class, I had students do a sort of social experiment in gender, where they were in small groups and designed a study to measure or observe some aspect of gender or sexuality on or around campus. It went really well and the students seemed to genuinely learn from and engage with it. I’m happy to send you syllabi or that assignment if you are interested.Report
Serious question: can anyone recommend philosophical work on gender and sex that is *not* written from an explicitly feminist standpoint? (It doesn’t have to be explicitly *anti*-feminist, although I’d be interested if people have recommendations of this sort too).Report
Immanuel Kant has written about gender and sex that is really not from a feminist perspective. It would be fair to suggest that the patriarchal state & the historical aspect of females being the legal and moral property of their fathers and husbands and with this being entrenched in laws, government & social attitudes – is the reason why there is limited writing about gender and sex from any standpoint other than the feminist perspective. Kant’s believes that women are unable to contain themselves and they are not capable of reason or autonomous self agency in equality with men. He actually has quite a sense of humour in his writings if you can get your head around it – he believes that women are not just meek and incapable of representing themselves – it is clear that he is of the opinion that some women are too emotional and swayed by this they are unable to keep their counsel or be their own best agents. They need to defer to their husbands as they are likely to mouth off without thinking!Report
David Benatar’s THE SECOND SEXISM — about which Katharine Schweitzer, in her Spring 2013 APA Newsletter book review (pp. 22-24), observes:
“I recommend The Second Sexism to scholars who investigate gender relations, and I urge academic feminists to take Benatar’s thesis seriously and to respond to it with respect rather than with disbelief or derision. Evaluating the strength of his arguments is a welcome opportunity to reflect on whether feminist premises and conclusions have become dogmas. Benatar’s book raised my hackles on many occasions, but it also provoked reflection. Students enrolled in introductory level courses in women’s studies and in feminist philosophy would also benefit from engaging with his positions. Benatar’s rigorous argumentation would complement personal narratives or sociological descriptions of the different ways in which boys and girls are reared and men and women are treated in specific domains of social life.”
For Anon’s question about work not written from a feminist standpoint, much of the work here mentioned about the metaphysics of sex and gender, like Fausto-Sterling, Witt, Bach, Bettcher, etc, is written by feminists, but accepting feminism is not essential to their arguments. (I.e. there are no feminist premises.) The exception to this would be Haslanger, since you won’t buy her definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ unless you accept that women are oppressed (which seems like a core tenant of feminism).
And other people mentioned on this thread are famous for their criticisms of feminism, like Butler and hooks. They are still feminists, but my students who are not feminists tend to enjoy their perspectives, and one can teach only the critical parts.
If I were looking to incorporate a contemporary anti-feminist perspective in a course I would think about including something that is more generally a criticism of “identity politics” like Adolph Reed. Admittedly, this will sometimes make anti-feminist students very mad because students who are anti-feminist tend not to be Marxists. But not sure what you are looking for so this may be what you want. There’s a pretty good SEP entry on identity politics too.Report
You could try the work of Edith Stein and Karol Wojtyla (Sts. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and John Paul II). Both of them would actually describe themselves as feminists, but certainly their work is far out of the mainstream of contemporary feminism (not to mention explicitly theistic). Some of Stein’s major works in this regard are her “Essays on Woman” and “The Spirituality of a Christian Woman,” and JPII’s are “Love and Responsibility,” “Theology of the Body,” “Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Woman),” and the apostolic “Letter to Women”. Stein was a major influence on JPII’s thought, and both were Thomists and personalists, which would make it easier to present them together, should you wish.Report
Here are links to some of my sample syllabi with reading lists on the last page for a Gender Studies course as well as a Gender and Philosophy course: https://sites.google.com/site/rebekadferreira/GRC-courses/hum-160-introduction-to-the-study-of-gender
I had a lot of success with both.Report
I second much of what others have suggested above.
I have only taught these issues within women’s studies courses, not philosophy courses (I teach both), but I think a lot of the material would cross over well. And a few bits here and there I’ve done in both bioethics and women’s studies, though often with different emphasis.
If you are looking at sex as an activity (and one in which gender is prominent) a good topical issue is the “female viagra” issue. I had students watch Orgasm Inc. and then examine some of the activism in favor of drugs for female sexual dysfunction (much of which tends to tie back to Sprout pharmaceuticals). This raised some vexed issues regarding whether an androcentric standard of a “normal” amount of sexual desire was being used or whether the lack of FDA approval for any drugs for FSD (until just two days ago) itself demonstrates sexism in the form of assuming a satisfying sex life is less important to women than to men. This seemed to go over very well–I taught it last fall and heard through the grapevine that a number of students from the class were posting on facebook about the FDA decision in critical ways.
Frye’s “Lesbian ‘Sex'” raises interesting issues about what counts as “having sex,” how to differentiate one instance of having sex from another, etc. Along with this reading I assigned students in small groups to try to come up with a sufficiently broad and inclusive definition of what it is to “have sex” and the exercise had helpful results demonstrating how this is a much more difficult question than one would think.
Also: Rich “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Continuum,” Martin “The Egg and the Sperm,” Bem’s An Unconventional Family along with Gould “The Story of X” and this story (http://www.thestar.com/life/parent/2013/11/15/remember_storm_we_check_in_on_the_baby_being_raised_genderneutral.html) generated a lot of enthusiasm and helpful conflicting views in discussion. For documentaries to go along with readings I also found How to Lose Your Virginity and Intersexion useful.Report
A few tips based on my experience:
1. The Bach article mentioned above is really good but I think it is too much for an introductory course because it has an extended section just on natural kinds. I teach it in my advanced undergrad courses though.
2. My students have always really liked Frye’s discussion of oppression being like a birdcage, especially good for the introductory level. Introductory students also always respond well to bell hooks – white students often say they are shocked to hear about feminism or feminists being hostile to black women but they always say they love the reading. For that level I like the excerpt in Cudd and Andreason’s Feminist Theory anthology.
3. If doing any material on definitions of gender, I prefer to have my students read Talia Bettcher’s “Trans Women and the Meaning of Woman” before they read anything else on definitions of gender. A lot of what’s out there can be criticized for its treatment of trans people, but it is good to establish a language for students to talk about that before they even get into the topic. (It also can serve as a partial primer for those students who don’t even know the meaning of ‘trans’.)
4. Relatedly, I have yet to find a Fausto-Sterling reading that doesn’t say something that is problematic from a trans perspective, but there is not a lot of other philosophical literature that talks about sex categories. So my solution has been to just leave out Fausto-Sterling, but instead make sure they read something written from a first person perspective about being intersex and/or something that provides some definitions and facts for them. I like this blog post: http://www.autostraddle.com/claudia-is-intersex-lets-talk-about-it-149137/
5. Sometimes I throw Judith Butler at introductory level students, but if that is daunting an alternative is Asta Svensdottir’s work, her chapter “The Metaphysics of Sex and Gender” in the book Feminist Metaphysics is explicitly attempting to be a reconstruction of Butler, and it’s easier for students to understand.
6. I find pictures and videos essential, if not shown in class then as resources students can look at at home. Halberstam’s female masculinity book has cool pictures, I also like this website http://www.transpeoplespeak.org/ and this is useful too http://www.featureshoot.com/2014/05/chloe-aftel/Report
Oh and I thought of another tip #7 – I really love and always want to assign students what I think of as classic lesbian texts like Rich’s Compulsory heterosexuality, Wittig’s arguments that lesbians aren’t women, or Kate Millet. But students really don’t get this stuff or respond to it, their understanding of lesbianism just seems too far apart to connect – they don’t agree or disagree so much as not care.
But The Second Sex is surprisingly relevant to them even though it is of course older.Report
I’ve taught this material in different ways over the years, across various classes (intro level to grad seminar). An annotated version of my “Queer Theory” syllabus (which incorporates much of what I’ve done over the years) here: http://thoughtomatt.com/2014/06/04/queer-theory-an-annotated-syllabus/Report
Warnke’s two books: After Identity and Debating Sex and Gender; anything by Anne Fausto-Sterling.Report
Is there a shortish, contemporary, philosophical, discussion of the gender-critical (“TERF”?) position that could be recommended? Politically perhaps someone like Miranda Yardley, but with more metaphysics. A bit like the equivalent of the Benatar book for Anon’s question, I guess.Report
it might be helpful to bring in some contemporary scientific research. this review of Fine, for example, is interesting: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-23/edition-11/book-reviewsReport
I didn’t see this posted above, but you may find this a helpful resource or possibly just an overwhelming trove of possibilities. Helga Varden and Patricia Marino, on behalf of the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love, have collected a list of syllabuses in the area of sex/gender/feminism/love. You can find links to around 20 different syllabuses at http://philosophyofsexandlove.org/resources/ .Report