Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies

Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies

by Jonathan Alexander

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Despite its centrality to much of contemporary personal and public discourse, sexuality remains infrequently discussed in most composition courses, and in our discipline at large. Moreover, its complicated relationship to discourse, to the very languages we use to describe and define our worlds, is woefully understudied in our discipline. Discourse about sexuality,

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Despite its centrality to much of contemporary personal and public discourse, sexuality remains infrequently discussed in most composition courses, and in our discipline at large. Moreover, its complicated relationship to discourse, to the very languages we use to describe and define our worlds, is woefully understudied in our discipline. Discourse about sexuality, and the discourse of sexuality, surround us—circulating in the news media, on the Web, in conversations, and in the very languages we use to articulate our interactions with others and our understanding of ourselves. It forms a core set of complex discourses through which we approach, make sense of, and construct a variety of meanings, politics, and identities.
In Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy, Jonathan Alexander argues for the development of students' "sexual literacy." Such a literacy is not just concerned with developing fluency with sexuality as a "hot" topic, but with understanding the intimate interconnectedness of sexuality and literacy in Western culture. Using the work of scholars in queer theory, sexuality studies, and the New Literacy Studies, Alexander unpacks what he sees as a crucial—if often overlooked—dimension of literacy: the fundamental ways in which sexuality has become a key component of contemporary literate practice, of the stories we tell about ourselves, our communities, and our political investments.
Alexander then demonstrates through a series of composition exercises and writing assignments how we might develop students' understanding of sexual literacy. Examining discourses of gender, heterosexuality, and marriage allows students (and instructors) a critical opportunity to see how the languages we use to describe ourselves and our communities are saturated with ideologies of sexuality. Understanding how sexuality is constructed and deployed as a way to "make meaning" in our culture gives us a critical tool both to understand some of the fundamental ways in which we know ourselves and to challenge some of the norms that govern our lives. In the process, we become more fluent with the stories that we tell about ourselves and discover how normative notions of sexuality enable (and constrain) narrations of identity, culture, and politics. Such develops not only our understanding of sexuality, but of literacy, as we explore how sexuality is a vital, if vexing, part of the story of who we are.

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Utah State University Press
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Theory and Practice for Composition Studies


Copyright © 2008 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-701-8

Chapter One


Bridging Sexuality and Literacy Studies

Let me begin at a very personal point-a portion of my own literacy narrative-as a way to approach thinking of literacy and sexuality together. For some readers, pairing literacy and sexuality might seem a stretch, but for me, the connection began early and felt natural.

I wasn't always a reader. In fact, I was a pretty "borderline" student in English and reading courses in grammar school throughout the 1970s. Or I was, until our fifth grade reading teacher read to us one chapter a day from C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was hooked. Before that experience, reading assignments went largely unfinished, and the novels our teachers assigned-classics such as Little Men (for the boys) and The Prince and the Pauper-went unread. But Lewis's story changed that. When the teacher, an older lady named Mrs. Cermak, finished the book in class, I went home and begged my mother to take me to the bookstore, where I bought the second book in the Narnia series, Prince Caspian, the first book I ever read. From that moment, I become a lifelong reader, first of fantasy literature, then of its near neighbor, science fiction, and then of anything that interested me.

There's much about Lewis's book that obviously appealed to my childhood and boy sensibilities. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a rousing tale, for one thing, including not just lions and witches, but strange creatures, the threat of temptation, and a dramatic concluding battle. But more than this, I clearly remember being struck by the final chapters, which Mrs. Cermak read slowly and deliberately, asking us questions. What does this story remind you of? Does Aslan's sacrifice seem familiar in any way? I was attending a Catholic school at the time, and most of us were, like any other kids, enthralled by the story, our khaki- or plaid-clad bottoms squirming in our seats, anticipating Aslan's triumph-and successful answers to the teacher's questions. Indeed, it was important to Mrs. Cermak, as both a reading instructor and a Catholic educator, that we understand that Aslan's sacrifice paralleled Christ's, both heroic figures laying themselves down for others that they might be saved. It was thrilling.

Indeed, I believe it was that moment that captivated me the most-realizing, through Mrs. Cermak's guidance, how a writer could take a story, recast it, and tell it all over again in a new way. I was not a particularly religious child-my family wasn't even Catholic-so the spiritual message of sacrifice and redemption wasn't particularly profound for me. Rather, what enthralled me was Lewis's "theft," as well as his creativity. He could take something we all knew about and make it alive again. He could steal a story, even a sacred one, and make it his own.

I wanted to experience again and again that creative thievery. I would later come to understand this as an experience of intertextuality. At the time, I just thought it was cool. After devouring the remaining six books in the Narnia series, I looked to other books on adjacent shelves and found works by L. Frank Baum, Lloyd Alexander (no relation, unfortunately), and J. R. R. Tolkien. One shelf over lay Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke, and I began thrilling to their creativity, loosely based in science as it was.

As I reflect on this initial experience and my subsequent reading practices, I see in my reading choices some trends that resonate powerfully for me with aspects of my emerging sexual self. At a very simple level, these stories provided escape from pubescent pressures, both personal and peer-induced. Who hasn't wanted to escape into a much more thrilling and adventurous world when your face is breaking out into a million pimples and your voice is cracking uncontrollably? I was also a gangly and unathletic kid, more than a little shy and increasingly bookish. Moreover, I was frequently bullied, if only verbally, and, in middle school and high school, some classmates began taunting me with sexually flavored epithets, such as "fag" or "queer." Given this, the stars seemed a much better destination. Playgrounds, lunchrooms, and the PE field were, by comparison, too fraught with danger.

At another level, my reading choices operated, I believe, as more than just a mechanism for escape. They weirdly paralleled my developing bierotic sexual consciousness-and how I attempted to deal with it. I knew, from teachers, preachers, priests, and parents, that my eyes weren't supposed to be lingering over another boy's buttocks, that I shouldn't be sneaking peaks at other kids as we changed for PE, that my thoughts as I touched myself shouldn't drift to my best guy friends, or a male teacher. As I entered high school and such thoughts persisted, I read more furiously, seeking escape and solace. Perhaps I could escape the fires of hell on a rocket ship. But, looking back, I see that those stories, particularly my fascination with C. S. Lewis and L. Frank Baum, portended another connection between reading and sexuality. In both stories, about Narnia and Oz, children not only escaped into another world where they were valued and loved, but they also had secrets. They could not come back to this world and readily tell others of their adventures. I think many kids could-and can-relate to such a situation. But I believe I felt it all the more deeply given the emerging secret that I had to hide. I desperately didn't want others to know that I was going to hell or that I was "sick and wrong." Like Dorothy in the contemporary movie version of The Land of Oz, I might be sent away to a "special doctor" for telling my secret in the "real" world.

In a way, then, Lewis's wardrobe was my first closet. Fantasy and sci-fi provided escape, but their stories of strange and unbelievable adventures set in contradistinction to our all-too-real universe served as a trope for my life-an interior experience of forbidden interests and longings that I carried around with me as I moved through the sometimes terrifying and all-too-real worlds of school, church, and home.

As I grew older, my reading habits shifted and expanded, and I turned to headier works. I encountered my first real literary queer at sixteen in Frank Herbert's Dune. The infamous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who had a taste for young men, whom he slept with and then killed. I'll admit it; I was enraptured. I knew, even then, that Herbert was painting his villain as particularly evil by making him a murderous queen, but I loved finding someone like me, even if just a little bit, in the books that I read. Perhaps more importantly for me, the baron wasn't hiding his interests. Everyone knew. And he didn't care that they knew. Unlike the baron, I don't believe I wanted to murder anyone, but I thrilled to his audacity. And, frankly, at some level in my adolescent subconscious, his murderous impulses must have resonated with my developing anger-at having to hide so carefully, at having to watch every move I made and every word I said, so as not to give away my queerness. Eventually, at seventeen or eighteen, I began finding gay characters in books set in this world, and I remember huddling over a copy of Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero, in which young adult characters made it with male and female friends, living a California life of which I could only dream. Ellis's fiction seemed as fantastic as anything I'd found in Lewis, Baum, Asimov, or Bradbury. But it was all the more comforting in that it purportedly took place in the "real" world.

Given this background, I cannot help but think of my literacy experiences as intimately connected to issues of sexuality. And while they may not be as intertwined for others as for me, I believe that literacy and sexuality are connected for all of us in socially complex and often very personal ways. Several other authors and thinkers have explored such a connection in their own far more complex literacy narratives. Audre Lorde's Zami, Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La frontera, Mark Doty's Firebird, and David Wajnorowicz's Close to the Knives are all works that speak powerfully to how an individual's emergences into sexual and literate self-awareness are often tied together in complex ways. Like me, though, all of these writers articulated queer experiences, in addition to other experiences of "outsiderhood," such as racial, ethnic, or class "marginality." So the connections between sexuality and literacy drawn in these works may seem somewhat necessary given the experience of marginality.

Recent work in the field of sexuality studies, however, is beginning to underscore powerfully that sexuality and literacy are connected for all of us in contemporary Anglo-American culture. While authors writing from particularly queer experiences may have insights into this connection because of their "outsider" status, the insights they articulate also point to a profound intertwining between sexuality and literacy in general. While I cannot claim in the following pages to provide an exhaustive account of the possible impact of sexuality studies on our conception of literacy, I nonetheless want to suggest some significant ways in which insights from this emerging field of study can provoke us as compositionists to explore more nuanced and sophisticated understandings of literacy as it functions socially, culturally, politically, and personally.

More specifically, what I aim to do is bring critical work in sexuality studies, which has paid enormous attention to the discursive construction of sexualities and sexual identities, to bear on our understanding of literacy and what a capacious literacy studies might do. The development of queer theory and other discursive theories of sex and sexuality have promoted an understanding of the social constructedness of sexuality and, as such, they locate the "meaning" and our "understanding" of sex in the symbolic field: that is, sexuality has meaning as it circulates and is articulated through a variety of complex human communications systems. Hence, I argue, this understanding of sexuality is deeply tied to issues of literacy, of what it means to communicate, to learn how to communicate, and to find some forms of communication forbidden or foreclosed upon. A significant consequence of this connection is the further linkage of sexuality to issues of citizenship; specifically, our understanding of the "good" or "appropriate" or "normal" citizen is one who has and articulates a particular sexuality and who talks about that sexuality in certain prescribed ways. It is precisely at this juncture that the New Literacy Studies (represented by theorists such as Brian Street, James Paul Gee, and Lisa Delpit) can augment our understanding of literacy as an ideological event and practice; I use these theorists to make what I hope is a compelling case for understanding how discourses surrounding sexuality are powerful, often prescriptive, and sometimes even empowering literacy events themselves. I conclude the chapter with a pedagogical example that shows these critical insights at play in the composition classroom.


Sexuality is among the most complex of human experiences, existing in a dense matrix of the biological, anatomical, psychological, cultural, social, and political. In an effort to understand and appreciate this dense matrix, sexuality studies has emerged as a fairly new interdisciplinary field, consisting of a complex conversation among many different fields, including sociology, psychology, education, medicine, political science, the humanities, and the arts. Certainly, feminist studies, critiques, and analyses from the 1960s onward have laid the groundwork for approaching sex, sexual activity, and identities based on sexuality. But while feminist and gender studies focus on issues of gender and the construction of masculinities and femininities and their relation to power, sexuality studies focuses on the construction of identities, communities, and sociocultural norms based on sexual activity and desire, as well as perceptions of what is appropriate (and inappropriate) sexual expression or identification.

One of the chief characteristics of sexuality studies is its emphasis on how conceptions of sex and sexuality change over time and in relation to sociocultural and political spaces. In Histories of Sexuality: Antiquity to Sexual Revolution, Stephen Garton notes, "In the second half of the twentieth century the history of sexuality has emerged as a major field of historical inquiry. Sexuality, instead of being something natural, came to be seen by historians as subject to historical change. But how sexuality was made historical, and what might be the motors of historical change, became the object of intense scholarly and theoretical dispute" (2004, 28-29). Garton's point about historical change is well taken. Concomitant with the rise of sociology and a growing sense of historical relativity at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, a variety of professionals interested in sexuality began considering the impact of social change on our conceptions of sex and sexuality, and many thinkers began seriously questioning the idea of sexual desire as purely natural or biologically innate.

Indeed, a significant dimension of the debates surrounding sexuality has revolved around two opposing understandings of sexuality: is sexuality internally driven, that is, is it innate and biologically or psychologically determined, or is it socially constructed, and thus determined by social and cultural paradigms? Freud dominated Western understanding of sexuality at the beginning of the twentieth century, figuring it as a set of biologically innate drives that are shaped by internal psychic conflicts, such as the Oedipus conflict. Freud believed that such conflicts were essentially universal, occurring cross-culturally and transhistorically. More recently, though, writers such as Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and Norman O. Brown, early to mid-century post-Freudian thinkers, attempted to reconcile Freud and Marx and to understand sexuality as a deeply rooted part of political economy. This tension between innate and socially oriented perspectives has led some thinkers to trace the shifting historical perception of sexuality across the centuries, and this tension can readily be seen in debates between social constructionists and essentialists.


Excerpted from LITERACY, SEXUALITY, PEDAGOGY by JONATHAN ALEXANDER Copyright © 2008 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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