This week, we read Literacy, Sexuality, and Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies. I’ll be honest: I have a soft spot for Jonathan Alexander’s work, and I was really excited to read this book. It’s not a topic that I’m very familiar with—I’ve only heard sexuality discussed in terms of how the classroom is a space of sexual repression, so I was really into Alexander’s argument that we should focus on promoting sexual literacy.
Sexual literacy: “the knowledge complex that recognizes the significance of sexuality to self- and communal definition and that critically engages the stories we tell about sex and sexuality to probe them for controlling values and for ways to resist, when necessary, constraining norms” (5).
For me, the overarching question for this text is this: Why should we focus on sex and sexuality in the composition classroom? What does it add to writing?
Right off the bat, Alexander argues that “sex and sexuality are key components of how we conceive of ourselves personally, organize ourselves collectively, and figure ourselves politically” (1). He makes a case for the importance of discussions of sex/uality, but how does that affect literacy? Alexander writes, “How we talk about, define, and discuss the private versus the personal; how images and representations of sex and sexuality are constructed, written, and disseminated; how the state, the collective ‘we,’ defines sex and sexuality and controls information about it—all of these are literacy events that deserve attention and analysis” (4). These cultural and social issues are also matters of discourse—both written and spoken—that collectives take up and start defining and controlling. Alexander argues that our students need to take up these discussions in order to be better informed citizens-participants.
Alexander makes it very clear that sexual literacy is something more than just being informed about sex/uality. He writes that “it should also be an intimate understanding of the ways in which sexuality is constructed in language and the ways in which our language and meaning-making systems are always already sexualized” (25). In order to facilitate that understanding, we must ask the following:
- “How do students write sexuality?” (25)
- “How do sexuality and literacy interconnect in complex ways?” (26)
- “How can we create pedagogical environments to invite students—safely, productively, and insightfully—to compose about sex and sexuality?” (26)
In order to answer some of these questions, Alexander advocates for a critical pedagogy “that takes sexuality as a key and focal interest for the development of literate citizens. We need a strong, critical, disciplinary sense of sexual literacy as a central literacy need of our students” (64). Part of this critical pedagogy involves the inclusion of queer theory, which is “designed to provoke consideration of the construction of all sexualities in our culture as sites of identity, knowledge, and power” (14). Recognizing this construction of sexuality is key to Alexander’s argument. He wants students to recognize the social constructions of sex/uality and identity in order to gain a great understanding of how these constructions are normalized as good/bad ways of being. Because these constructions affect us all—whether we are part of these normative practices or reside in the margins—Alexander argues that students can benefit from disrupting and deconstructing these assumptions.
It is this idea of disrupting heternormative practices that also makes transgender theories important for critically understanding 1. gender as a social construct and 2. how we can expand and extend the narratives we have about gender (129). Alexander makes a connection between trans activists and feminists: “they seek an expansive notion of gender, a questioning of restrictive norms and categories, and an understanding of how gender is used a politically and personally normalizing category” (131).
To someone wary of bringing these different theories—critical, feminist, queer, and transgender—into the composition classroom, Alexander takes a stance against indoctrination. He writes, “While I believe that our classrooms should be free of indoctrination, I also firmly believe that a significant difference exists between indoctrination and critical examination” (184). Historically, the minute these more liberal theories are introduced into the classroom, we hear cries of indoctrination. The fact that Alexander keeps sex/uality a broad inquiry in the classroom (e.g. not limiting students to just sexual orientation or identification) maintains an open dialogue where students don’t have to necessarily think one way or the other.
“I believe all of us can—and should—consider the development of sexual literacy as a significant component of becoming literate in our society, and the only way to work with students on such sensitive material is to do so calmly, respectfully, openly, and honestly. Our students deserve nothing less” (209).
Alexander’s book is a strong argument for talking with students about sex/uality within the composition classroom. The purpose is not to indoctrinate or force students to be more tolerant; rather, it is to hook them with a topic that is always-already relevant to them (as all people are sexual beings) and to examine critically the ways that cultural discussions of sex/uality are constructed, normalized, and disseminated. What sex/ual literacy adds to the writing classroom, then, is attention to critical thinking, cultural and rhetorical awareness, and in-depth research on very relevant topics.
Alexander, Jonathan. Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2008. Print.