Transcending Boundaries: Limits, Possibilities of Gender & Sexuality

The Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGSX) House and WGSX faculty held a conference on Friday, Nov. 12 to present student papers on a variety a topics ranging from gender in poetry and television, stereotypes, and sexual ethics and sexual health.

The conference began with two separate but concurrent sessions: “Gendered Poetry”, which focused on gender issues and portrayal within poetry, and “Breaking Stereotypes”, in which students examined religion’s impact on women and the implications of the word and idea of dependence.

Senior Yvette Mbangowah began the “Breaking Stereotypes” session with her paper, The effects of the arrival of Christianity and Islam on African women.

Mbangowah said women’s power and status before the arrival of these two major monotheistic religions was much higher than after their arrival. She gave the example of the power of female deities and how because of them these cultures “recognized the female has some power.”

However, after the arrival of Islam and Christianity, Mbangowah said, “most of the matriarchal societies started to die away.” Women’s roles became less important and they held a lower status, and power moved to men and the male deities of the new religions.

Senior Michele Johnson followed Mbangowah with her paper Redefining Dependence as a Desirable State. Her paper focused on the concept of dependence in our culture and how it has implications of shame and weakness. Autonomy and independence are linked to strength and power, but Johnson said we should “frame the idea of dependency in a different way.”

She argued that “dependency is [seen as] an incomplete state in life” and that people are not seen as legitimate persons if they are dependent on others, but that dependency is a natural state of existence for every human being and that dependency should be the basis for determining personhood.

In order to focus on dependence as a positive, worthwhile and rational state, Johnson jokingly said, “Maybe we should have a Dependence Day, where you have BBQs and hold hands.”

In the Blackistone Room during the session entitled “Ethics, Sex and Sexual Health”. Junior Madeline Montgomery presented Assessing HIV Risk Denial and Condom Use Among Black Inner-City Women. She said, “As it stands the health care system is not user friendly for inner-city women.”

These women face issues such as the black communities’ denial of the risk of HIV.

Condom use is also lower in these communities because of misinformation about sexually transmitted diseases (such as the idea they can be contracted outside of sexual acts) and the “perception that the relationship has failed” if one needs condoms.

Montgomery proposed improving the image of condom use to one that is empowering and loving and stressed the importance of disseminating correct, accessible sexual health information.

Senior Allison Smith spoke next on her paper, Beyond Heteronormative Sex: The Ethics of BDSM. This paper covered the practices and reactions to BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) by the general population and feminist writers.

Her paper examined how views of BDSM are generally negative and that the practices and mind-sets related to BDSM are misunderstood. In fact, she said that BDSM is based in very explicit consent practices. Smith said, “Many ‘vanillas’ [individuals with more conventional views of sex] misconstrue rape fantasies as meaning that a [submissive] would like to be raped,” but that those fantasies are not based in reality.

The session was wrapped up by senior Dana Gittings’ presentation, Linda Williams’ Hard Core: Power, Violence, and Controversy in Heterosexual Pornography Aimed at a Primarily Male Audience. She examined the practices of pornography and what messages they portray about sexuality and the individuals who view it.

For example, Gittings said the “expected ‘money shot’ ending…with male ejaculation determining the conclusion of the sexual act, indicates that male pleasure and orgasm are presented as the primary aim of sex. The female partner’s goal is to cause the male to reach this state.”

Across the hall, as one audience discussed sexual ethics, another was engaged in “Gender in Television”. This section began with sophomore Katie Brown’s presentation Girly Power: The Re-Feminization of Female “Superheroes” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed.

In this she described how the strong female leads in the these shows are sexualized and reliant on male characters for assistance to “make [them] more acceptable to male viewers.”

Brown said ,“they are transformed into stereotyped, sexualized images…[it] overshadows that feminist girl power.”

The final paper presented was senior Nona Landis’ paper Gendered Law and Ideological Order: Women in Television Crime Dramas. She looked at the shows Law and Order: SVU and Criminal Minds, to show how the strong female leads are “still subject to the same media influences and biases.”

Even though female characters are physically powerful they are still examined through their sexuality and other gendered norms. Landis said, “Even if a woman can kick ass and take names, she better look good doing it.”

Associate Professor of Psychology Jennifer Tickle helped wrap up the conference. Commenting on the themes of the papers she had seen, “there’s a lot of power and strength associated with women…in feminine characteristics and…strength in areas that are traditionally masculine.”

She added, “We should continue to question ideologies, especially when ideologies suppress the importance of feminine characteristics.”

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