Photo by cl-s from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Sex was perhaps best summed-up by Sarah Michelle Gellar in the timeless cinematic touchstone Cruel Intentions when her character explains to Selma Blair’s that “everybody does it, it’s just that nobody talks about it.” Here to remedy that very problem is the University of Toronto’s own Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity, now the first institution in Canada to offer a graduate program in Sexual Diversity Studies.
The advent of a program like this a big deal, and the news has certainly been making headlines. The Globe and Mail, for instance, had a particularly choice one: “A PhD in Putting Out.” While the article itself (sorry, but you do have to pay five bucks if you want to read it) is for the most part well-written and thoughtful, the editor who wrote that headline added a certain tone of disrespect to the piece—a tone readily picked up on by internet commenters, whose mostly-critical responses on the semi-moderated board tended to consist of typical anti-academic bitching about wasted taxpayer dollars, useless degrees, and some pretty grade school-appropriate jokes about “oral examinations.”
Scott Rayter, acting director for the program, told us he liked the article, but agreed that the headline was slightly problematic. “It seems to make light of the work we do and feeds the kinds of criticism one saw on-line,” he said. “My sense of the criticism about the article is that it needs to be broken down. Some was just blatant homophobia, others talked about programs like this, saying they were just as useless as those about Equity or Women’s Studies.” And what about the other comments? Is it true that a Master’s in Sexual Diversity Studies is a “useless degree”? Says Rayter:
First off, respondents like this don’t see any value in learning for the sake of learning, about those who want to know about history, anthropology, sociology, who we are, where we’ve come from, how and why we do the things we do, and how art and culture are ways of addressing these kinds of questions. They fail to see that knowledge for its own sake is a worthy pursuit, and in that quest, one also acquires skills that are necessary and useful to any future employment, e.g., critical thinking, writing, and synthesizing, processing, and communicating ideas and information, to those who both share the same discourse, and to those who do not. Students of English literature and philosophy, for example, tend to do fairly well and have an advantage in writing the LSAT and getting into Law School. They acquired the tools—and have become experts—by taking courses such as ours. The other issue—again a conservative one—tends to be that education should be purely utilitarian, which leads one to ask why have universities at all, and not simply training colleges? I’ve outlined above what students get from a general BA, but would also ask, following this kind of reasoning, why watch TV, go to movies, read books, attend a play, socialize, etc? Is everything in life supposed to help you in your job? The argument strikes me as reductive & ridiculous.
Now there’s an encouraging thought for those of us who really enjoyed our Joint Specialists in English and Drama but noticed potential employers hadn’t exactly been banging down our doors. But what about the accusations of wanton hedonism? The suggestion that students will do little more “research” than watching lots of porn?
Some email responses see studying sex as simply watching porn, or engaging in various sexual practices, whereas this is obviously a misguided and limited idea of what we do here. That said, given the billions of dollars invested in pornography—indeed technological advancement in DVD culture, for example, has been driven by the porn industry—seems an important area of inquiry. Much online technology has been developed with pornography and its dissemination in mind. To take it further, how, one might ask, has porn changed the way we have come to think and feel about sex, our bodies and those of our partners? At no other time in history has our sense of sexuality (and sex, and sexual identity) been so mediated by technology and visual imagery… What do people learn about sex and about themselves when they encounter and/or watch the porn that is so readily available? What do they learn about gender, about race? Class?
All new disciplines of study receive criticism when they first get added to university course calendars—it’s practically a rite of passage. But it’s upsetting to see so many close-minded responses to a university program that is arguably one of the most relevant to every person on the planet. Sex is the reason we were all born. Sex is the reason many of us will die. Most of us have sex. All of us, whether we want to admit it or not, have a sexuality. The real question people should be asking about the concept of Sexual Diversity Studies is not “why?” but “what took so long?” And maybe “why do you have to wait until university to take it?” And that’s a question the graduate students of this program just might be able to answer. One of the 12 students enrolled in the program’s inaugural year is writing her thesis on revamping our somewhat-pathetic public school sex ed curriculum. Here’s to a new generation of tolerant, educated and sex-savvy teens. May they roll their eyes at Cruel Intentions.