Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Thinking Sex

ENGL 296.401
crosslisted as: GSWS 297
TR 4:30-6:00
fulfills requirements:
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 2: Difference and Diaspora of the Standard Major

Is sex a sacrament of conjugal union, a gendered act of domination, a sin, a means to reproduce the species, the key to a person’s identity, a temptation that tests one’s strength of character, the signal criteria for sorting normal and abnormal types of people, what animates our unconscious drives and desires, a socially repressed potency to be liberated, the most fascinating topic of discussion, or something no decent person knows much about? Who has the right to sexual pleasure: do women have it, do elderly people, do children, do prisoners, what about the disabled, and what about “perverts”? And why is it, after all, that the details of one’s sexual practices seem more inherently meaningful than those of one’s diet or one’s exercise regimen?

This interdisciplinary course explores how a range of knowledge practices, societies, and historical periods have defined “sex” and ascribed meaning to it. We will study how evolutionary biology, religion, law, feminist and queer theory, sexuality studies, sociology, cultural anthropology, and psychoanalysis have approached sex as an object of knowledge. Throughout, we will ask how those who have sought to know, interpret, and categorize sex have dealt with the slipperiness of sex as an object of knowledge and an act to be regulated. How have authorities believed they could prove, know, suspect, deduce, or assume that sex had occurred? We will also explore how the meaning of sex has changed in tandem with social transformations brought about by activist movements, economic development, colonial conquest, decolonization, globalization, and mass migration. By the end of this course, students will be able to analyze the function of sex in relation to diverse social systems and knowledge practices.