Instructor: Chris Lynn
Course: Anthropology of Sex (ANT 208)
Anthropology of Sex is an introduction to anthropology via a course in human sexuality. I approach the class from a four-field anthropological perspective — which means I use sex as a means to explore archaeology, culture, biology, and linguistics — and use it as an opportunity to provide a service to the student community, since there are only a few courses University-wide that focus expressly on sex and sexuality.
What are your goals for this course?
I want students to think critically and question the world around them. I also want them to understand that sex and sexuality can be viewed from numerous perspectives, and that both can be used as lenses for understanding humanness. My hope is that every student walks away from the course with an enhanced “anthropological perspective,” which is a holistic approach to life that we believe is invaluable, regardless of one’s path in life.
What are your favorite teaching strategies in this class?
I love getting students out of their seats to do things that are awkward or embarrassing. The topic is sex. It’s awkward. It’s embarrassing. It’s seldom discussed, and it’s constantly discussed. It’s weird that way. For some people, it’s not polite conversation, but for others, it’s constantly on their minds. It’s a part of absolutely everyone’s life. I figure if students show up in my class, they’re not there to hide from the funny or scary sides of sex.
Many students have remarked on my penchant for jumping on tables and pretending I’m a chimp or a female rat with lordosis. This is funny for them. I do it often enough that it feels a bit cheap, but they remember why I did it and what it means in the context of the lesson, which is important.
Other times, I have students demonstrate knuckle-walking or grab their own butt cheeks to better understand why they’re efficient bipeds and their genitals are positioned in the orientation they are. This is always accompanied by giggling, but the students attending those classes inevitably perform well on related test questions.
What challenges does this course present?
It’s a huge topic, so covering much at all in one semester is difficult, let alone incorporating the entire spectrum of anthropological approaches to the topic. It can’t be done, but I try.
What are your solutions?
I use several methods. One is to include readings from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Another is to use activities in class that help students experience other perspectives and epistemological challenges. I recently switched from an exclusive TR lecture format to a MWF format and use Fridays for activities, discussion, guest lectures, and such.
We read a book about the archaeology of gender, conduct an activity that uses cultural and linguistic methods to assess how sex is at the root of much of the cursing and taboo in our culture. I have the class replicate some of the evolutionary psychology research about courtship and mating behavior to understand how we know what we think we know and send them out to observe mating behavior among other humans and report back on it, using class readings on studying animal behavior to guide their methodology.
I also change things up a lot every semester as new opportunities present themselves or certain topics loom large in the public consciousness (e.g., same-sex marriage in Alabama).
Have you introduced something new to enrich or enliven this course?
Last time I taught it, we spontaneously decided to do an ethnographic project as a class and study the use of dating apps. Students downloaded dating apps and set up profiles to observe and in some cases participate in that cultural phenomenon. That has been difficult to get going because, ethically, I do not advocate that students participate in any particular sexual behavior, and watching online interactions can get a bit boring.
However, it is still a great experience and exemplifies how research gets done. It takes dedication, innovation, and a lot of patience and work.
What else do you want your students to leave your course knowing?
I want them to leave the class as constructive cultural critics. I recognize that the majority of the students who take my class are not and will not become anthropology majors. Happily, many switch their majors to anthropology after taking Anthropology of Sex, but my objective is to convey the anthropological perspective to the non-anthro majors.
Being able to take other perspectives and realize that there are things beyond their conception and comprehension that are nevertheless normal in other cultures — or even in their own — is tremendously important for students living in a pluralistic world.
Anthropology makes the world a better place, in my humble opinion. Diversity is our business. I hope my students leave the course celebrating diversity everywhere they find it.
Chris Lynn is an associate professor and the director of evolutionary studies in the UA Department of Anthropology.