unintentionally heteronormative

I discovered a MAJOR pedagogical fail last week.

My course is called Women’s Sexuality, so I began my first lecture with the questions:

What is sex? and What is a woman?

Right? Because it’s Women’s Sexuality, see?

Sex, I ultimately told them after some collective brainstorming, is an evolutionarily adaptive strategy for reproducing, involving the recombination of the genes of two individuals to generate a brand new (genetic) individual. In humans, as with many species, it involves a male, who has sperm, and a female, who has eggs.

A woman, I told them, was, for our purposes, for the time being, the female of the species, the one with the eggs, the uterus, and the breasts. In the process of brainstorming definitions, the class also suggested that a woman was “anyone who wanted to be,” and I promised that we would return to that idea and begin to explore the massive complexity of this concept.

And the entire semester would be an exploration of what falls out of that foundation of sperm and egg.

That was all in weeks 1 and 2.

Last week was the Gender lecture.

Let me say here that the class includes everyone from first years to seniors, folks who’ve never heard the phrase “gender binary” and folks who have fully transitioned from one gender identity to another. It’s a diverse group of students, but it’s also a 100-level class.

So I began at the approximate beginning, with the Bem Sex Role Inventory and the idea that masculinity-femininity doesn’t have to be viewed as a one-dimensional continuum but could instead be a two-axis system. I talked about intersexuality. I talked about transsexuality. Stuff like that.

After it, I received an email that, among a great deal else, described my curriculum – the entire curriculum, mark you – as “unintentionally heteronormative.”

Which made me stare, with one eyelid twitching, at my computer, because it means that for the last 8 weeks I have been failing, for two hours each week, over and over again, to make the most fundamental point of the class.

Because my class is neither unintentional nor heteronormative.

I mean, I do the obvious stuff: I use “they” rather than “he” or “she;” I say “partner” rather than “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or “husband” or “wife.” I say “penetration” when some people might just say “sex.” I routinely point out the absence of research on people of non-hetero sexual orientations, the heteronormativity of the language in the textbook and in the media used in class. I’m, like, SO active in not assuming that anyone has any particular sexual orientation or gender identity and in teaching students not to make assumptions, to think critically about the science and the politics that live in the science. And of course I have an entire lecture on gender variation and another entire lecture on sexual orientation and identity (that’s next week).

But I AM teaching that humans are a sexually reproducing species wherein some have sperm (males) and some have eggs (females).

I suppose I’ve been relying on students to find their own way to embracing biology as a valuable way to think about sex. But this point of view is so foreign to many of them, many of them Sociology or Women’s Studies majors who have never thought about sex in terms of biology or reproduction, many politically active around these issues without ever having studied them academically. And I suppose it was too much to ask that they get there on their own.

I wanted them to find their way to the notion that it’s not “heteronormative” to recognize that sex is an evolutionarily adaptive reproduction strategy that, in humans, involves males and females; it’s just our biology, and there’s a complex, mutually interacting relationship between the biological and the social. I’ve been working toward that all semester. But they have not gotten there.

So I’ve spent days banging my head against a metaphorical wall, unsure how I could have failed so spectacularly, for so long, and not have realized it. I have 180some brilliant young humans who’ve spent something like 15 hours being lectured at by me without actually receiving the message I was trying to convey.

And now I have to figure out what to do about that.