Teaching Religion in the History of U.S. Sexuality

Monica L. Mercado

Teaching in the archives. Photograph by Dan Dry,
courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine.
While those of you on semesters are nearly wading into midterms, tomorrow is the first day of classes on the quarter system here at the University of Chicago. I'll be teaching one class this term for the University's Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, "Sex and Sexualities in Modern U.S. History." Ten weeks is not a lot of time for a discussion-based survey course, which is why I decided to focus primarily on the twentieth century. We have a lot to cover, but when designing the syllabus, I knew I wanted to make sure that my students gain a more nuanced understanding of how American religious discourses have influenced popular beliefs and cultural practices toward sex, and driven some of the official or governing discourses around sexuality. [If you're curious, you can read my entire syllabus online, here.]

So where are the sources?

Given the constraints of time and space -- it's important to me that undergraduates gain experience in archival research, so I'll be teaching in Chicago's Special Collections Research Center, which gives us access to important collections including those of Chicago sociologist Ernest Burgess and the papers of ACT UP Chicago -- I've pulled just a few of my favorite readings for considering religion in the recent history of American sexuality:
  • Leslie Tentler's 2004 Commonweal article, "A Bitter Pill," an introduction to her research for Catholics and Contraception: An American History (we'll also be screening PBS's American Experience documentary, "The Pill," which does an admirable job of addressing the religious issues involved, with Tentler providing some of the commentary); and
The Bible and Dr. Kinsey pamphlet (1953),
via The Kinsey Institute 
    Of course, we're not simply limited to print sources. My colleague Derek Attig, teaching History of Sexuality in the U.S. this fall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, boldly threw down the gauntlet during his first class with Madonna's 1989 video for "Like a Prayer." And speaking of video, film, and American Catholics, how could we leave out the Motion Picture Code?

    Closer to home, the University of Chicago's current oral history project, Closeted/Out in the Quadrangles, which I'm helping to coordinate, has begun to document links between liberal religion and social activism on campus in the stories of LGBTQ individuals and communities since the era of Gay Lib. Recent alumni interviews have led us to moments when the University's gay and lesbian association was directed by a core of graduate students from the University's Divinity School; during the 1980s Brent House, the Episcopal campus ministry, opened their building to the group's work. The archive of interviews won't be available to outside researchers until 2015, but my students will have the opportunity to work with the oral histories this fall.

    All of this is to say that I feel like I'm barely scratching the surface--religion is, after all, just one of the themes I hope to cover in this survey course. There have been some great posts on the blog over the last few months considering religion and sexuality, and it's a conversation I'm glad to see picking up steam.

    This is also a good place to mention that it's not too late to respond to the CFP for "Histories of Sexuality and Religion in the 20th Century U.S.," to be edited by Gillian Frank, Bethany Moreton, and Heather White [full CFP here], so if you have a topic in mind, do consider submitting a proposal for what promises to be a great collection. In the meantime, what are some of your favorite primary and secondary sources for teaching religion in the history of U.S. sexuality? My students and I are all ears.


    Mark T. Edwards said…
    Looks like a fantastic course, Monica.

    What about evangelical sex manuals, including the very popular one by the LaHayes?


    There was a wonderfully perceptive and punny essay in Church History several years back (2008 or 2009?) on evangelical sex manuals as well, but can't recall the name.
    Carol Faulkner said…
    Great syllabus! When I teach History of American Sexuality, I find it much easier to integrate religion before the 20th c. than during it, so your post challenges me to think more about it. Have you tried Reagan's _Dangerous Pregnancies_? She discusses the role of religious beliefs (among doctors vs. patients) and the Catholic Church/Hospitals in determining what information/procedures should be made available to women during the Rubella epidemic of the 60s. It is excellent, but provocative. I've only used it at the graduate level so far.
    Unknown said…
    Amy DeRogatis wrote that article. She also has another in JAAR 2009 titled "Born Again is a Sexual Term."
    Some excellent stuff on that syllabus, and some good suggestions for incorporation of religious materials. Since there is a lack of non-Christian material represented so far, may I offer my own article on same-sex marriage in the Buddhist Churches of America: http://www.globalbuddhism.org/13/wilson12.pdf

    I note that the resources section doesn't include the LGBT Religious Archives Network. They've got lots of online material, you students could definitely mine it:
    Thanks, all! These are great suggestions.

    T&P, I had forgotten about the LGBT Religious Archives Network, as well as the newly revamped OutHistory.org, and will add them to my list of research resources.

    Can you tell I'm crossing my fingers one of my students decides to write their final research paper on religion?
    Anonymous said…
    Thanks for the shout out for the CFP! The class looks fantastic.
    Anonymous said…
    Thanks for the shout out about the CFP! The course looks amazing.

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