Interim and Spring Course Previews: History of Sexuality in the United States

Our series introducing four new courses concludes with AnneMarie Kooistra’s newest contribution to the American History category in our curriculum — one of the two required courses in Bethel’s new Gender Studies minor:

HIS302 History of Sexuality in the United States

What are some of the big themes or questions addressed in the course?

Theoretically, Christians and Christian institutions understand that sexuality is one of God’s many gifts to human beings. Bethel University’s own Covenant for Life Together even asserts: “We view sexuality as one of God’s good gifts.”  And yet, for a variety of reasons, Christians often seem to treat sex as a taboo topic of conversation. One of the things I’m excited about, then, in having a class devoted to the study of sexuality is the possibility of reclaiming and believing that sexuality really is one of God’s good gifts, but that it — like any other part of creation — has been marred by the fall and is in need of redemption, and that Christians have a role to play in that redemption. In other words, we can’t let just non-Christians define sexual norms and dictate the way that we understand it, even historically.

"The line at the ticket office" (1911)
Wladyslaw Benda’s 1911 drawing, “The line at the ticket office,” an illustration of the “first sexual revolution”: from “separate spheres” for women and men to a more “heterosocial” culture

Some of the big questions we’ll look at include: Just how has sexuality changed over time? What kinds of categories have evolved? What kinds of sexual norms and mores have evolved? What kinds of historical conditions led to such evolutions? What are the costs and benefits associated with some of the ways in which we understand sexuality and our bodily relationships with each other? I think, too, that an ongoing discussion will be how Christians today might do a better job talking about sexuality and issues relating to the “body” and our relationships with each other than perhaps we’ve done in the past — how do current Bethel students envision a healthy Christian approach to the topic of sexuality, for example? Are there instances when our Christian churches and communities have talked about sexuality in informative and affirmative ways? What changes might we like to see in the Christian community’s approach to sexuality?

What might students most enjoy about HIS302? What might they find most challenging?

We sometimes talk about a “Bethel bubble.” I think we mean that students here are somehow sheltered from what is happening in the larger world. That might be true to an extent, but it’s also evident that the larger world is very much apparent even in this protected community. So, we have questions. And this class might not always provide all the answers, but we’re going to look at issues related to sexuality about which students are curious but about which they might feel reluctant to inquire. So, when we talk about the history of sexual categories, how the concept of “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality” came to be defined and understood popularly, that might be extremely fascinating and yet troubling at the same time. We’ll get into some fairly nitty gritty material, and as historians our first quest is to understand rather than to condemn, and that might be challenging.

What do you most hope that students take away from the course?

I hope students will leave this class with more empathy for people who have made different sexual choices from themselves, that they are more thoughtful about why they possess the sexual paradigm they do, and that they have an appreciation for the challenges and blessings of being embodied members of a complex community of believers. I hope students will walk away more ready to ask questions, to seek true dialogue on the topic of sexuality, and to claim a formative role in shaping our understanding of what sexuality has been and what it should be.

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