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Sexuality in Courses on the Family

I just got back from the American Sociological Association Annual Conference in Denver. Before the main conference, the sexualities section had a mini-conference. Two days with a couple hundred sexualities scholars sharing ideas on sociological study of sexualities. One theme that continuously came up at this conference was the growing interaction of sexualities with other areas of sociology (and other disciplines). Our studies of sexualities draw on and contribute to countless other areas of sociology: political sociology; demography; collective behavior and social movements; race, class, and gender; ethnic minorities; immigration and transnational processes; and religion amongst others.

One of the keynote speakers made the point that while sexualities scholars have begun building formal relations with some areas of sociology, we are sorely lacking in other areas. On this year’s conference program, there were entire panels devoted to the study of sexualities and social movements and sexualities and race, class, and gender. And papers in numerous other areas addressed sexualities. But the keynote noted that we could improve our work in the area of family. While there was some cross-fertilization of topics, there seemed to be a division of labor of sorts between the family and sexualities sections (I may oversimplify this as I am trying to remember the details of the presentation without notes). Papers in the family area focused on issues related to parenting and life course issues in heterosexual families. Papers in sexualities focused on LGBTQ people and family formations.

This division is particularly relevant to me right now because I expect to be TAing for “Families and Societies” in the fall. I specifically requested this course because I see this division in my own work. I have only a basic knowledge of ideas from the family literature. My own past work on same-sex marriage politics includes key citations showing that the meaning and structure of marriage have changed tremendously over time. But beyond these citations, my work does not engage with the broader literature on families.

In many ways, this division might be expected. My work focuses on political mobilization, on how people understand and make sense of the law, and how people use the law as a site of contesting identity. Questions about the broader relations between family and society may seem far beyond the scope of my specific research. There’s only so much each of us can read, write, and think about. One of the most important skills graduate students learn is how to focus on what’s important and filter out much of the rest, no matter how interesting. I cannot read everything written in my primary fields of sexualities, social movements, and law, much less in adjacent fields.

So then my goal in requesting to TA this course is not to become an expert on the family literature. Instead, my goal is to use the literature as a tool, to think about how it provides another lens on my own research. In the context of my dissertation, I want to think about how broader changes in family structure are relevant to legal strategies around same-sex marriage (as well as custody, adoption, and other family law issues). This sort of cross-fertilization requires that I pay close attention to how key questions from the literature on families and societies suggest new ways of thinking about my own work. This is an achievable goal in the context of TAing for a course.

In addition to the goals for my own research, I also have the teaching goal of bringing sexualities into discussions of the family (at least to the extent I can do that in leading discussion sections and other TA obligations). Most obviously, this means discussing how LGBTQ people fit into our definitions and understandings of family. But this also means thinking about the role of sexuality and desire in “traditional” family units. This means getting students to think about the relationship between family structure and how we regulate sex, pornography, sexual harassment, prostitution, and other areas of sexuality. Some of these topics may already be brought up by the course materials. But to the extent that they are not already in the course, I think introducing sexualities will give students broader perspectives on the core topics.

I think there is a strong relationship between teaching and researching, and I expect that TAing this course will benefit my dissertation. Teaching forces us to think much more broadly than our own research. This is especially true for courses outside our primary areas, as in this case for me. But this is even true for courses within our own research areas. Teaching requires us to think about new ways to present material and to explain why that material is important. If we’re open to it, this process of rethinking and presenting familiar material can offer new angles on our research.

Returning to the division between sociology of the family and sociology of sexualities, I don’t think we’re going to close this gap, and I don’t think we need to. Instead, the goal is to narrow that gap. To think about when, as sexualities scholars, we can identify blind-spots in other literatures, and when other literatures reveal blind-spots in our own work. There’s limits to how much of this any of us can do. Using our teaching as a way to broaden our thinking is one concrete step we can take.


  1. […] that perpetuate the unequal status of LGBT people in the US, as well as reflections on teaching gender and sexuality. […]

  2. […] to his scholarship.  Jeff also reflects on his work in the classroom, especially on teaching gender and […]

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