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College hosts interdisciplinary panel on sexuality, impacts on society

| Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Saint Mary’s President’s Council on Sexual Violence hosted a virtual panel Wednesday about a diverse array of perspectives involving sex and sexuality, titled “Let’s Talk about Sex.” 

Hosted by Jamie Wagman, professor of gender and women’s studies, and Liz Coulston, director of the Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO), the panel invited professors Jessica Coblentz, Laura Elder, Kelly Faust and Cassie Majetic to each provide brief talks all centering around sex but focused their different fields. 

Coblentz, assistant professor of religious studies, began her talk by saying students tend to see the Church as maintaining a prohibitive standpoint involving sex.

“I suspect that, if I asked you what the Catholic Church has to say to us about sex, most of your answers could be summed up with one simple word: ‘No,’” she said. “That is, no masturbation, no premarital sex, no artificial birth control, no LGBTQ relationships and so on. A whole lot of no’s.”

While Coblentz acknowledged that this was “not a wholly inaccurate characterization,” she countered that the Church’s teachings are often misunderstood.

She noted there tends to be an attitude in modern culture of wanting to make sex a private and personalized experience instead of one for which rules and regulations are offered. However, Coblentz argued that in the case of nonconsensual sex, it became clearer that students’ opinions tend to contradict themselves. 

Take, for example, our contemporary prohibition against non-consensual sex, she said. I have not met a Saint Marys student who objects to this rule, in fact, I am thrilled that students adamantly defend it. … No one is telling me ‘I think nonconsensual sex is bad, but you do you? … One thing that this example reveals is that many of us do think there is such a thing as good and bad sex.

Coblentz explained how Catholics should first view their perspectives of sex from the priority of being in the right relationship “with God, with self and with others,” using Sr. Margaret Farley’s work. Farley offered that Christians and Catholics should see sex as “a positive work of moral justice,” that mutuality of participation is required and that sex should never be about one’s desires, but about each other’s desires together and about fruitfulness.

The panel then turned to Laura Elder, professor of global studies, who talked about sexuality as a cultural construct. 

“Because of this diversity [of sexuality around the world], cultural anthropologists say that sexuality is not a biological given, it’s actually culturally construed, so you come to learn about your sexuality through your culture,” she said. “Therefore, there’s nothing natural about systems of sexuality and there’s also nothing natural about stigmatism and repression of sexuality.”

Speaking about language variation in regards to sexuality, Elder referred to the different uses of the word gay to self-identify.

“Some people are also mobilizing around the word gay as a self-referential aspirational element as well as connecting imagining connections to the broader global community,” she said. “Other people are really much more attached to language that goes ones and zeros, which connects to sexual roles, and then also to gender roles, and includes this idea of a hierarchy of gender roles.”

Elder is hopeful that seeing sexuality in this new way will benefit social justice movements.

“Rather, we’re seeing [sex] as a cultural construction, something that is defined and learned interactively in a specific social context,” she said. “And if we do that, I think we can hope to address some of the social justice challenges we see in the 21st century, of course, those social justice challenges are particularly severe.”

After Elder, Faust from the sociology department spoke. Faust used her work and experience within the LGBTQIA community to explain discrimination among populations within the group.

“When we think about discrimination and the way that discrimination is faced by members of this community, we do need to keep in mind that LGBTQIA statuses intersect very often with other marginalized identities and this is going to impact the amount and type of discrimination that individuals face,” she said.

Faust then used the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) data to explain what forms discrimination takes in everyday environments, like schools. 

“The national school climate survey conducted by GLSEN showed that 86% of students who identify as LGBTQIA experienced harassment or assault. Interestingly, a little over half of these incidents went unreported, mostly because the victims didn’t think that they would be believed when they brought these claims forward,” she said.

Faust also talked about law enforcement discrimination, discussing the difficulty in possessing a driver’s license not matching their gender expression.

“There tends to be experience [with discrimination] in interactions with law enforcement when individuals don’t fit stereotypical gender roles,” she said. “It’s very problematic for transgender individuals whose driver’s licenses may not match the gender that they present, so this is definitely an area where discrimination can be felt and felt in very severe ways.” 

Faust then explained her identity as a formerly lesbian, now identifying as asexual woman, and talked about her experiences and the way she has felt surrounding that she has been discriminated against within that aspect of her life.

Finally, Majetic, professor of biology, gave a talk on plant reproduction and how that relates to humans. She began by referencing agriculture.

“There are two kinds of main focal points that people use when they’re focusing on plant meeting systems and plant reproduction. One is the connection to food and agriculture. We wouldn’t be able to eat most things if it weren’t for plant sex,” she said. “The reality is is you don’t get any of these things unless you actually have plants that reproduce and grow and change over time.”

Majetic went on to explain the difficulties for a plant to reproduce.

“The challenge of reproduction for a plant is how do you find a mate, because, unlike the animals we think of and we see out in the world, you can’t get up and move to go find a mate. You’re stuck in one place; you’re rooted to the ground,” she said.

Majetic also used pollen as an example, although not of asexual reproduction, and identified the challenges of self-reproduction while making a comparison to human social structures.

“There are some challenges that come with self-reproduction. In human societal structures, we talk a lot about things like inbreeding, … and oftentimes, when you see those in human structures, you see some challenges spring up amongst the offsprings of those meetings,” she said. “Another possible solution is to try to get help from the world around you to move your pollen from point A to point B.”

The panel ended with questions from the audience, culminating with a question from an anonymous participant.

“Do we perpetuate this gender binary as a women’s college? And how do we seek to upgrade the system when we actively benefit from it?”

Elder invited that question to further discussion.

“I think there are more people who would possibly like to discuss that with you, and what advancements we can make as an institution to change that,” she said.

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