Beyond Binaries: Seeing Sexual Diversity in the Classroom
Ochs, Robyn. Michael J. Murphy (co-authors),
In Activities for Teaching Gender and Sexuality in the University Classroom, ed. Michael J. Murphy and Elizabeth Ribarsky. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2013, pp. 62-68.
Appropriate Course(s) and Level
Courses across a variety of disciplines that discuss issues of sexual orientation and expression, including sociology, women’s and gender studies courses, human sexuality, etc. Appropriate for upper and lower division – depth of analysis and conversation can be altered through use of the Discussion Questions.
Appropriate Class Size
Works best in a class of 20 or more to protect students’ privacy.
- To understand the complexity and diversity of sexual experiences, desires, and identities
- To examine the benefits and limitations of the major methods and survey instruments used to measure sexual orientation
- To realize sexual experiences, desires, and identities do not always correspond and can change over the life course
- To produce a more respectful and inclusive classroom environment through greater knowledge of students’ peers while protecting privacy and confidentiality around sensitive subjects
- To increase student awareness and understanding of identities and experiences that differ from their own
Estimated Time Required
Activity can be completed in a 50-minute class period, though for upper-level courses it is best conducted over two class periods: one for the lecture, one for the activity.
- Handout with models for measuring sexual orientation (Klein, Storms, Kinsey, etc.) and questionnaire related to sexual experiences, desires, identities, etc. (see Handout).
- Box of black or blue pens (to ensure untraceable comments on questionnaire).
- 7 sheets of paper numbered 0 through 6 (a Kinsey scale) in very large print (one number per piece of paper) OR the same numbers written on a chalkboard across the front of the classroom.
- Tape or other means of adhering sheets of paper to front of classroom (if needed).
The diversity of human sexual experiences, desires, and identities is often obscured by taboos surrounding discussion of sexuality and dominant cultural discourses that privilege monogamous, heterosexual behavior in the context of romantic relationships. Moreover, inequality for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals often inhibits the disclosure of these identities or related experiences, especially by young students in the classroom context. Objective or abstract approaches to human sexuality can lead to a failure to recognize the diversity of sexual experiences and identities in the classroom. As a result, students can make unintentionally harmful or exclusionary comments about marginalized or non-normative sexual identities or experiences that might be represented, albeit silently or covertly, in their own classrooms. Finally, the apparent straightforwardness of descriptors like “straight” and “gay” can prevent students from seeing that even these sexual identities are complicated and multifaceted constructs that social scientists have struggled to accurately describe and measure.
Preparing for the Activity
- We recommend assigning the overview of methods for measuring sexual orientation (Sell, 1996) for the day you will conduct this activity.
- Make enough copies of the Handouts for distribution in class. Because students will be returning the questionnaire, double-sided copying is not recommended.
- Depending on the level and background of your students, prepare a short lecture on the history of the most popular scientific models of sexual orientation. This can be as brief or in-depth as you like, depending on the length of your class time and level of the course.
Facilitating the Activity
- Distribute the handout (with sexual orientation models) in class and deliver your short lecture.
- Segue to the activity by describing the activity and explaining its purpose: to help students understand who’s in the room as well as the larger issues about human sexual diversity and incongruence between sexual behavior, identities, and desires and shifts over the life course.
- Distribute questionnaire and blue or black pens if they need one. It is very important that students use a common (black or blue) ink color so no one can trace answers back to a specific student. Read the instructions aloud. Give students about 10 minutes to the answer questions. Note: inform students that they are not to put their names on the questionnaire and that all answers will be kept confidential.
- While the students work, tape numbered sheets (‘zero’ at left and ‘six’ at right) across the front wall of the classroom allowing enough space between them for students to stand in groups during the second part of the activity. Spacing of 4-5 feet between numbers works well in classes up to 30 students. The more space between numbers, the easier it will be to see on which number people are standing. Adjust according to the size of your class and configuration of your classroom. In classrooms with large chalk/whiteboards at the front, it is sufficient to write the numbers (0-6) on the board with sufficient lateral spacing between numbers.
- Again, remind students that their names should not appear anywhere on the questionnaire. Ask students to fold their questionnaire in half with the blank side facing out when finished.
- After collecting all the sheets, shuffle them by ‘dealing’ the pile into three separate piles, then stacking them, and repeating until you are confident that they have been randomized. Make it clear that you are not looking any individual sheet’s answers while shuffling. It is important that you make an effort to not show an interest in a specific student’s responses!
- Announce you will be re-distributing the sheets. Explain it is highly unlikely anyone will receive their own sheet back, but on the unlikely chance someone did, no one would know unless they exclaimed, “I got mine back!” Ask people to respect the person whose sheet they draw the same respect they would wish for their own questionnaire/information.
- Redistribute the sheets to the class. When all the sheets have been distributed, ask students to stand and move to the front of the classroom while you move to the back so you can ‘orchestrate’ their movements. Read the first question and ask students to line up under the number for question #1 on their sheets. Remind them they are ‘performing’ the answers on the questionnaire in their hand, not the answers they provided earlier. In this way, everyone’s responses can be made known while individual student responses remain confidential.
- When everyone has settled under a number, direct the class to make some observations about the distribution. Then, move on to each question in succession having students move to their indicated position.
- Before reading question #9 (on questionnaire), ask everyone to return to their #1 answer. Tell participants that you will be calling out identity words, such as gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, queer, questioning, “choose not to label,” etc. Ask them to raise their hand each time a word that is on their sheet is said, and you want to honor every identity in the room and thus will ask students at the end to call out any identity word that has not yet been said.
- Ask students to return to their seats and proceed with Discussion Questions.
- When discussing sexual orientation, we usually group ourselves into two (or three categories): gay, straight (or bisexual). This classification system describes our own gender identity (or sex) in relation to that of those to whom we are attracted. Why do we sort ourselves this way?
- What are some other ways we could sort ourselves?
- In some cultures, if two men have sex, only the man who takes a passive or receptive role is considered gay. What if we defined our sexual orientation by other factors: active/passive/switch; “top”/”bottom”/”switch”; or by specific desired sexual practices?
- Most of us, if someone told us they were “straight,” would instantly imagine them to be a Kinsey “0.” Yet, the data from this exercise (and from sexuality research in general) tells us that “straight” covers a wider range: usually – in our experience – from 0 to 2. All of our sexuality labels, as we see, cover ranges. And, someone who identifies as bisexual might be just as heterosexual as (or more heterosexual than) than someone who identifies as straight, or just as homosexual as (or more homosexual than) someone who identifies as gay or lesbian. What then, is the usefulness of these categories? What do we need to keep in mind when someone tells us how they identify?
- How, if at all, do you think people’s Kinsey scores may vary over their lifetimes?
- Are we attracted to someone because of their sex (male/intersex/female) or because of their gender identity (man-ness/gender-queerness/woman-ness) or because of their gender expression (masculinities/androgynies/femininities)? Why or why not?
- Introducing the Kinsey Scale, Alfred Kinsey wrote: “Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories… The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects” (Kinsey, et al., 1948, p. 639). How, if at all, does the data from this exercise support Kinsey’s assertion?
- Where does bisexuality begin and end?
- If we view sexuality as a spectrum, how much territory does the word bisexual cover?
- How much bisexual attraction and/or behavior does it take to make a person bisexual?
- Is the concept of bisexuality meaningful across cultures? Why or why not?
- Do you believe bisexuality encompasses people whose attractions change over time? If you are once bisexual, are you always bisexual? Is there a statute of limitations? And, for each of these questions, who gets to decide?
- A more typical way of gathering data about sexual orientation identities is to ask, “What is your sexual orientation (check one): ___ straight ___ lesbian/gay ___ bisexual.” Discuss the value and limitations of this method of collecting sexual orientation data.
- How, if at all, has doing this activity changed your understanding of sexuality? What are assumptions that you had previously made that you wish to no longer make?
- What are limitations of doing research on sexuality?
- How comfortable do you think that some people – even some people in this class – are answering honestly questions about their fantasies and sexual behavior?
- How do you think results to this questionnaire might vary if everyone filled out the questionnaire knowing that they would be required to represent themselves on the scale or if they were filling out this questionnaire anonymously on line?
- Responses vary dramatically, depending upon the class. Sometimes, not all numbers are covered. However, there is always a continuum.
- There are some students (most often on “0”) who stay in one place during the entire exercise. Some students move but within a small segment of the scale. Others move moderately. Yet, others move dramatically.
- In our experience, “straight” or “heterosexual” usually spans 0, 1 and 2 of the scale in a triangular shape (with most respondents on 0, a smaller number on 1 and a smaller number on 2). “Lesbian” or “gay” usually spans 4, 5, and 6, but the shape is different. (Most fall on 5 or 6, but distribution is unpredictable. 4 is usually the smallest. Ochs described this shape as a bottle facing inward) “Bisexual” and “pansexual” usually span 2, 3 and 4, and sometimes extend further to 1 and/or 5. “Queer” normally spans 2 to 6. It is not uncommon for 1-3 participants to step off the scale with an “n/a” answer to one or more questions.
- Geography and campus culture have a dramatic effect on results. On some campuses, “queer” is the most common identity label (other than straight/heterosexual). And, there are others where not a single participant will identify as such.
- Expect students to express amazement about the range and diversity of responses, as well as the (sometimes significant) movement of individuals as you work through the questions. These ‘ah ha!’ moments are when the real learning occurs!
- Depending on your class, an emerging awareness of the sexual diversity and identity of fellow students can be disconcerting especially if you conduct this exercise early in the semester. It is important to allow sufficient time for debriefing and processing about the knowledge produced during this activity.
Limitations and Cautionary Advice
- Remember to read the guidelines aloud and ask students to be frank and honest in their answers.
- Be sure to clarify the difference between sex and gender, and which of these is being used.
- Take steps to ensure that this exercise is as anonymous as possible and also that it is perceived as such. This exercise should not be done with a group of less than 20. It can provide extra “cover” (or confidentiality) to bring together two classes to do this exercise together; to invite students to bring guests; to bring in a few extra people yourself; or to invite students from your campus LGBT group to participate.
- Before students fill out the questionnaires, make sure they know that this is an anonymous exercise, and they will not be identified with the answers on their own questionnaire.
- Have extra copies of the survey available just in case someone accidentally doodled or wrote their name on theirs.
- If the area available for enacting the exercise is limited and “0” is crowded, you may wish to ask all students holding sheets in which all answers to questions #1-8 are “0” to raise their hands. You can then invite these students to be seated, reminding students to imagine, throughout the exercise, that these people are all standing at “0.” Doing this will make it easier for all students to observe movement between “0” and “1,” and to see that not all for whom “0” is their first answer remain on that number for every question.
- Before leaving the room, collect all questionnaires from the students and let students you know they will be recycled or trashed.
- The questionnaire includes space for bonus questions, for example:
- With “0” being very uncomfortable discussing sex with my closest friends and “6” being very comfortable discussing sex with my closest friends, assign yourself a number between 0 and 6.
- Write in how old you were when you first met someone you knew was lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
- Were you taught sex education in secondary school?
- If so, were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people mentioned in this curriculum?
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