Sexuality and Agency
A course at the New School for Public Engagement
This course is an exploration of various perspectives addressing the enabling and constraining conditions for sexual agency. Beginning with the question of how we might define agency as a psychological construct, we chart a course along theoretical, empirical, ethnographic, autobiographical, and popular renderings of what it means to have — or not to have — sexual agency. We will read literature from varying and converging disciplines, ranging from psychological theories of agency to legal contexts for investigation of sexual misconduct, from evolutionary and biological models of sexual behavior to countercultural theories of sex and sexuality, and beyond. Each week we will address a different broad topic, outlining major contributions and themes foundational to the study of sexual agency in the interest of building a multidisciplinary understanding of what it might mean to be sexually agentic, and consider what cultural, legal, social, interpersonal, biological and evolutionary forces are at play in our development of sexual subjectivity.
This course includes content that directly engages with sexual violence, racial and gender inequity, and other representations that challenge us intellectually, emotionally, and interpersonally. We discuss rape and other forms of exploitation that will interact with our personal histories and epistemological positions in various and sometimes unexpected ways. To maintain an open, safe, and productive classroom, we practice listening carefully to one another, respecting our own and others’ reactions to the material, and showing regard for the complexity of the issues under discussion. *We decided in the most recent class (February 12, 2018) to incorporate mindful listening exercises in future classes in the interest of adding an experiential and “process” component to our classroom exchange.*
We are four weeks into the course, and I could not be more impressed with the students’ engagement with the texts and with one another. The classroom is unique, in that as a course listed under the New School for Public Engagement, we have traditional undergraduates from Lang and Parsons studying alongside adult learners returning to undergraduate coursework in the midst of demanding careers. They bring tremendously varied perspectives, but are alike in their curiosity, interest, and commitment to learning from and with one another.
Learning Outcomes: Students will become well-versed in various approaches to the study of sexual agency. Students will be able to recognize philosophical and methodological differences and understand their applicability in the public sphere (e.g., discussions of affirmative consent, rape culture, legislation). Students will be able to critique socio-political dimensions of public conversations about women’s sexuality, as well as critically engage research on the topic from various disciplines. Students will gain practice engaging in civil evidence-based, critical discussions with classmates on difficult topics.
Week One, January 22
Theoretical Coordinates: Situated Agency
Orientation to class, expectations, introductions.
Frie, R. (2008). Introduction: The situated nature of agency. In R. Frie (Ed.), Psychological Agency (pp. 1 – 31). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Tolman, D. L., Anderson, S. M., & Belmonte, K. (2015). Mobilizing metaphor: Considering complexities, contradictions, and contexts in adolescent girls’ and young women’s sexual agency. Sex Roles, 73, 298–310. doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0510-0
Wilkerson, A. (2002). Disability, sex radicalism, and political sgency. NWSA Journal, 14(3), 33 -57.
Collins, P. H. (2015). Intersectionality’s definitional dilemmas. Annual Review of Sociology, 41 (3), 3.1 – 3.20.
Week Two, January 29
Power and its Products
Holland, J., Ramazonoglu, C., Sharpe, S., & Thomson, R. (1992). Pleasure, pressure, and power: Some contradictions of gendered sexuality. Sociological Review, 40(4), 645-674.
Gavey, N. (1992). Technologies and effects of heterosexual coercion. Feminism and Psychology, 2(3), 325–351.
Additional Readings (Optional):
Bartky, S. L. (1990). Femininity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression. New York; London: Routledge. [PDF]
Ch. 5, “Foucault, Femininity, and the Mod. of Patriarchal Power” (pp. 63 – 82)
Ch. 2, “On Psychological Oppression” (pp. 22–32)
Ch. 6, “Shame and Gender” (pp. 83–98)
Week Three, February 5
Philosophical & Psychoanalytic Approaches to the Question of Agency
Oliver, K. (2004). The depressed sex. In The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Social Theory of Oppression. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Johnston, R. (2017). Personal autonomy, social identity, and oppressive social contexts. Hypatia, 32(2), 312–328.
Pollack, L. (2008). Sexual agency in women: Beyond romance. In R. Frie (Ed.), Psychological agency (pp. 201–222). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Week Four, February 12
Gavey, N. (2005). Rape as a social problem. In N. Gavey (Author) Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape (pp. 17–49). New York and London: Routledge.
Siegel, L. W. (1995) The marital rape exemption: Evolution to extinction. Cleveland State Law Review, 43, 351–378.
Fine, M., & McClelland, S. (2006). Sexuality education and desire: still missing after all these years. Harvard Educational Review, 76, 297–338.
***(Read pages 305 – 313 for discussion of regulatory function of law)
Yung, C. Y. (2017). Rape law gatekeeping. Boston College Law Review, 58(1), 205 – 255. (Graphic content.)
Additional Readings (Optional):
Chemaly, S. (2016, August 16). How police still fail rape victims. Rolling Stone Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/how-police-still-fail-rape-victims-w434669
Rubin, G. S. (1984). Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In Carole Vance (Ed.), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (pp. 267 – 39). New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
February 19th—NO CLASS PRESIDENTS’ DAY
Week 5, February 26
Cultural Conditioning: Sexual Scripts, Education, and Medicine
Fine, M. (1988). Sexuality, schooling and adolescent female: The missing discourse of desire. Harvard Education Review, 58, 29–53.
Simon, W., & Gagnon, J. H. (1986). Sexual scripts: Permanence and change. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 15, 97–120. doi:10.1007/bf01542219
Choose one from below (in class, students will present articles so be prepared to outline the basic features of the article and present problems/implications):
Hurtado, A. & Sinha, M. (2005). Restriction and freedom in the construction of sexuality: Young Chicanas and Chicanos speak out. Feminism and Psychology, 15(1), 33–38.
Sobecki, J. N., Curlin, F. A., Rasinki, K. A., & Lindau, S. T. (2012) What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about sex: Results of a national survey of U.S. obstetrician/gynecologists. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9(5), 1285–1294. doi:10.111/j.1743-6109.2012.02702.x
Seabrook, R. C., Ward, L. M., Cortina, L. M., Giaccardi, S., & Lippman, J. R. (2017). Girl power or powerless girl? Television, sexual scripts, and sexual agency in sexually active young women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 41(2), 240–253.
Kim, J. L., Sorsoli, L., Collins, K., Zylbergold, B. A., Schooler, D., & Tolman, D. L. (2007). From sex to sexuality: Exposing the heterosexual script on primetime network television. The Journal of Sex Research, 44 (2), 145–157.
Week Six, March 5
Sexualization of Girls and Women
American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from:
Lerum, K. & Dworkin, S. L. (2009). “Bad girls rule”: An interdisciplinary feminist commentary on the report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Journal of Sex Research, 46(4), 250–263.
Orenstein, P. (2016). Girls and Sex. New York, New York: Harper Collins.
Garner, M. (2012). The missing link: The sexualization of culture and men. Gender and education, 24(3), 325–331. doi: 10.1080/09540253.2012.670392
Additional Readings (Optional):
Krassas, N. R., Blawkamp, J. M., & Wesselink, P. (2001). “Master your Johnson”: Sexual rhetoric in Maxim and Stuff magazines. Sexuality and Culture, 7(3), 98–119.
Grauerholz, E. & King, A. (1997). Prime time sexual harassment. Violence Against Women, 3(2), 129–148.
Week Seven, March 12
Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173–206.
Tolman, D. (2002). Object lessons: Romance, violation, and female adolescent sexual desire. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 25 (1), 70 -79.
Impett, E.A., Schooler, D., and Tolman, D.L. (2006). To be seen and not heard: Femininity ideology and adolescent girls’ sexual health. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35, 131–144
Parent, M. C., & Moradi, B. (2015). Self-objectification and condom use self-efficacy in women university students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 971–981. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0384-1
Additional Readings (Optional):
Talmon, A., & Ginzburg, K. (2016). The nullifying experience of self-objectification: The development and psychometric evaluation of the Self-Objectification Scale, Child Abuse & Neglect, 60, 46–57.
March 19 – NO CLASS SPRING BREAK
Week Eight, March 26
Embodiment and Agency
Young, Iris. (1980). Throwing like a girl: A Phenomenology of feminine body comportment, motility, and spatiality. Human Studies, 3, 137–156.
Liddiard, K. (2014). “I never felt like she was just doing it for the money”: Disabled men’s intimate (gendered) realities of purchasing sexual pleasure and intimacy. Sexualities, 17(7), 837–855.
Impett, E. A., & Daubenmier, J. J. (2006). Minding the body: Yoga, embodiment and well-being. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 3, 39–48.
Curtin, N., Ward, L. M., Merriwether, A., & Caruthers, A. (2011). Femininity ideology and sexual health in young women: A focus on sexual knowledge, embodiment, and agency. International Journal of Sexual Health, 23, 48–62. doi:10.1080/19317611.2010.524694
Week Nine, April 2
Sexual “Empowerment”? + the Slut Problem
Infanger, M., Rudman, L. A., & Sczesny, S. (2016). Sex as a source of power? Backlash against self-sexualizing women. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 19 (1), 110 – 124.
Peterson, Z. (2010). What is sexual empowerment? A multidimensional and process-oriented approach to adolescent girls’ sexual empowerment. Sex Roles, 62, 307–313. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9725-2.
Tolman, D. (2012). Female adolescents, sexual empowerment and desire: A missing discourse of gender inequity. Sex Roles, 62 (pages missing).
Lamb, S., & Peterson, Z. (2011). Adolescent girls’ sexual empowerment:
Two feminists explore the concept. Sex Roles. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9995-3.
Gavey, N. (2012). Beyond “empowerment”? Sexuality in a sexist world. Sex Roles, 66, 718 – 724. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-0069-3
Additional Readings (Optional):
Crawford, M. & Popp, D. (2003). Sexual double standards: A review and methodological critique of two decades of research. The Journal of Sex Research, 40 (1), 13 – 26. doi:10.1080/00224490309552163
Gill, R. (2012). Media, empowerment, and the ‘sexualization of culture’ debates. Sex Roles, 66, 736 – 745. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-0107-1
Week Ten, April 9
Raunch and other forms of Resistance
Klement, K. R., Sagarin, B. J. & Lee, E. M. (2016). Participating in a culture of consent may be associated with lower rape-supportive beliefs. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(1), 130-134.
Barker, M., Heckert, J., & Wilkinson, E. (2013). Polyamorous intimacies: From one love to many loves and back again. In T. Sanger & Y. Taylor (Eds.) Mapping Intimacies: Relations, Exchanges, Effects (pp. 190–208). United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan. doi:10.1057/9781137313423
Carr, J. L. (2015). The SlutWalk movement: A study in transnational feminist activism. Journal of Feminist Scholarship, 4, 24–38.
Levy, A. (2005). Female chauvinist pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture. New York: Free Press.
Week Eleven, April 16
Social Psychological Approaches to Gender and Sexuality
Deaux, K. & Major, B. (1987) Putting gender into context: An interactive model of gender-related behavior. Psychological Review, (94)3, 369–389.
Kelly, A. J., Dubbs, S. L., & Barlow, F. K. (2015). Social dominance orientation predicts heterosexual adverse reactions to romantic rejection. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 903–919. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0348-5
Week Twelve, April 23
Attachment, Biopsychosocial, and Evolutionary Models, Part I
In-Class Workshop: Students will discuss final paper proposals with peers, receive peer review/input, and share critical review feedback in larger class discussion.
Cameron, N. M., Shahrokh, D., Del Corpo, A., Dhir, S. K., Champagne, F. A., & Meaney, M. J. (2008). Epigenetic programming of phenotypic variations in reproductive strategies in the rat through maternal care. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 20, 795–801. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2826.2008.01725.x
Hetherington, M. E. (1972). Effects of father absence on personality development in adolescent girls. Developmental Psychology, 7, 313–326.
Ellis, B. J., McFadyen-Ketchum, S., Dodge, K. A., Pettig, G. S., & Bates, J. E. (1999). Quality of early family relationships and individual differences in the timing of pubertal maturation in girls: A longitudinal test of an evolutionary model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 387-401.
Ellis, B. J., Bates, J. E., Dodge, K. A., Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, L. J., Pettit, G. S., & Woodward, L. (2003). Does father absence place daughters at special risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy? Child Development, 74(3), 801-821.
Week Thirteen, April 30
Attachment, Biopsychosocial, and Evolutionary Models, Part II
Arreola, S. G., Ayala, G., Diaz, R. M., & Kral, A. H. (2013). Structure, agency, and sexual development of Latino gay men. Journal of Sex Research, 50(3-4), 392–400
Gentzler, A. L. & Kerns, K. A. (2004). Associations between insecure attachment and sexual experiences. Personal Relationships, 11, 249–265.
Shaver, P. R. & Mikulincer, M. (2012). Adult attachment and sexuality: Attachment insecurities bias the functioning of the sexual behavior system. In P. Noller & G. C. Karantzas. (Eds.) The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Couples and Family Relationships (pp. 161–175). Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell.
Week Fourteen, May 7
Neo-liberal desiring subjects + “Postfeminist” Representations of Female Sexual Agency
As you read for class this week, post links to Canvas to commercials/music videos/media representations fitting those described in the readings.
Bay-Cheng, L. Y. (2015). The agency line: A neoliberal metric for appraising young girls’ sexuality. Sex Roles, 73, 279–291.
Elliott, S. (2014). “Who’s to blame?” Constructing the responsible sexual agent in neoliberal sex education. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 11(3), 211–224.
Harris, A. (2005). Discourses of desire as governmentality: Young women, sexuality and the significance of safe spaces. Feminism and Psychology, 15(1), 39 – 43. doi: 10.1177/0959-353505049702
Gill, R. (2008). Empowerment/sexism: Figuring female sexual agency in contemporary advertising. Feminism and Psychology, 18(1), 35–60.
Rihanna. (2015). “ Bitch better have my money.”
Additional Readings (Optional):
Duits, L., & van Zoonen, L. (2006). Headscarves and porno-chic: Disciplining girls’ bodies in the European multicultural society. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 12(2), 103–117.
Gill, R. (2006). Critical respect: The difficulties and dilemmas of agency and ‘choice’ for feminism. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 14(1), 69–80.
Duits, L., & van Zoonen, L. (2006). Who’s afraid of female agency? A rejoinder to Gill. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 14(2), 161-170.
Week Fifteen, May 14
Beres, M. A. (2007). ‘‘Spontaneous’’ sexual consent: An analysis of sexual consent literature. Feminism and Psychology, 17(1), 93–108. doi:10.1177/0959353507072914
Beres, M. A. & MacDonald, J. E. C. (2015) Talking About Sexual Consent. Australian Feminist Studies, 30(86), 418-432, doi:10.1080/08164649.2016.1158692
Burkett, M., & Hamilton, K. (2012). Postfeminist sexual agency: Young women’s negotiations of sexual consent. Sexualities, 15(7), 815–833.
Conroy, N. E., Krishnakumar, A, & Leone, J. M (2015). Reexamining Issues of Conceptualization and Willing Consent: The hidden role of coercion in experiences of sexual acquiescence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 30(11), 1828–1846.
Muehlenhard, C. L., Humphreys, T. P., Jozkowski, K. N., & Peterson, Z. D. (2016). The complexities of sexual consent among a college students: A conceptual and empirical review. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(4-5), 457–487.
Villalobos, J. G. Davis, D., & Leo, R. A. (2016). His story, her story: Sexual miscommunication, motivated remembering, and intoxication as pathway to honest false testimony regarding sexual consent. In R. Burnett (Ed.) Vilified: Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Baumeister, R. F. & Twenge, J. M. (2002). Cultural suppression of female sexuality. Review of General Psychology, 6, 166–203.
Bay-Cheng, L. Y., & R. K. Eliseo-Arras. (2008). The making of unwanted sex: Gendered and neoliberal norms in college women’s unwanted sexual experiences. Journal of Sex Research, 45(4), 386–397. doi:10.1080/00224490802398381.
Beres, M. A., Herold, E., & Maitland, S. B.. (2004). Sexual consent behaviors in same-sex relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33, 475–486.
Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Cahill, A. J. (2016). Unjust sex vs. rape. Hypatia, 31(4), 746-761.
Cahill, Ann J. 2011. Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics. New York: Routledge.
Dowsett, Gary (1996) Practicing Desire: Homosexual Sex in the Era of AIDS. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Fahs, B., Swank, E., & McClelland, S. I. (2018). Sexuality, pleasure, power, and danger: Points of tension, contradiction, and conflict. In S. L. Cook, A. Rutherford, C. B. Travis, J. W. White, W. S. Williams, & K. F. Wyche (Eds.), APA Handbook of the Psychology of Women: History, Theory, and Battlegrounds, (pp. 229 – 247).
Fahs, B., & McClelland, S. I. (2016). When sex and power collide: An argument for critical sexuality studies. Journal of Sex Research, 00(00), 1–25.
Fahs, B. (2016). Methodological mishaps and slippery subjects: Stories of first sex, oral sex, and sexual trauma in qualitative research. Qualitative Psychology, 3(2), 209–225.
Foucault, M. (1978/1990). The History of Sexuality: Volume I. New York: Random House.
Gavey, N. (2005). Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. New York and London: Routledge.
Holland, J., Ramazanoglu, C. Sharpe, S., & Thomson, R. (2004). The Male in the Head: Young People, Heterosexuality and Power. London: Falmer Press.
Kitzinger, C. and Frith, H. (1999). Just say no? The use of conversation analysis in developing a feminist perspective on sexual refusal, Discourse & Society, 10, 293–316.
McClelland, S. I. (2010). Intimate justice: A critical analysis of sexual satisfaction. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4/9, 663–680.
Orenstein, P. (2016). Girls and Sex. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Roberts, D. (1997). Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Pantheon Books.
Wardlow, H. (2006). Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.