SXLTYST 5620: Sexuality and Violence

Course Overview

“It is unacceptable that one person feels he or she has the right to torment another because he or she does not like what the other stands for. Being a woman, being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning, being mentally or physically disabled, … being a member of a minority or of different faith, ethnicity, body type or being a combination of any of these does not make a person less worthy of our care or protection.”

– Archie Panjabi in Bullying: Experiences and Discourses of Sexuality and Gender

This course considers the relationship between sexuality and violence. An act of violence is often a traumatic event whether it takes place in the context of war, bullying, sexual violence, intimate partner violence, sexual trafficking or anti-LGBTQ violence.

Case studies will play a significant role in this course. For example, how do American institutions respond to cases of domestic violence like that of footballer Ray Rice? Why has Columbia University student Emma Sulkowitz resorted to carrying her mattress around campus as a means to protest institutional policy regarding rape on campus? Why has the response to Anita Sarkeesian, critic of violence in computer games, been to vilify and abuse her online? Why is there a need for charities like It Gets Better, which supports LGBTQ youth who are subject to bullying and consequent self-harm?

The course will examine cutting-edge research, media texts, creative responses, cultural artifacts and testimonies. It will also explore how acts of violence can be bound to and normalized by specific types of assumptions, prejudices and expectations about sexuality. By illuminating this complex relationship, we will seek to uncover the causes and complexities of such violence.

Required Texts

  • Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2007) (2nd ed) ed. Laura O’Toole, Jessica R. Schiffman, and Margie L. Kiter Edwards.


Week 1:Introductory Sessions: violence and sexuality, and the relationship of the two.

“Serious talk about sexuality is inevitably about society”

—Thomas Lacquer

This week’s sessions will introduce ideas of violence and sexuality and consider how the two are enmeshed. We will begin to explore how acts of violence can be bound to and normalized by specific types of assumptions, prejudices and expectations about sexuality. By illuminating this complex relationship, we will seek to uncover the causes and complexities of such violence.


Week 2:            Masculinity and violence? Interrogating heteronormative sexualities.

Statistics suggest that men are the perpetrators of violence to a far greater extent than women. This session, however, far from vilifying men, is devoted to considering the problems of masculinity. Is there something in the cultural construction of masculinity that creates this tendency towards violence? Is there something dysfunctional about heteronormative relationships and sexual identities that encourages violence?


Week 3 and 4: Race, Violence and Sexuality

Bearing in mind an intersectional approach, these sessions will consider how racial prejudice inflects view of sexuality and violence. How is black sexuality constructed and what are the implications of that? Do certain views of black sexuality serve to legitimize acts of violence against black people? Drawing on David Ikard’s commentary and the slave narrative by Northrup, we will consider the legacies of slavery in how black men and women and their sexualities are constructed by white observers. We will also consider representation of black men and their sexuality in the media and the court alongside extracts from the films Django Unchained and Twelve Years a Slave.

The second week turns to exploring the representation of black women in particular. Drawing on Patricia Collins’ seminal essay that draws links between slavery, pornography and the perception of black women’s bodies, we will focus on the artist Nicki Minaj, thinking through her links to Sara Baartman and trying to gauge the subversiveness or not of her artistic practice. We will consider recent work by Beyonce, and consider its reception by white observers.


Week 5: Domestic violence and institutions

How do American institutions respond to cases of domestic violence like that of footballer Ray Rice or Chris Brown (and Rihanna)? How and why does domestic violence happen and how can it be prevented? We consider case studies where assumptions about sexuality and gender intersect to legitimize acts of violence, not only in cases where men act violently against women, but in a variety of scenarios which illuminate the causes of intimate partner violence.


Week 6:

Sexuality, protest and the violence of the internet

Critics of certain forms of violence are increasingly a target for threats, intimidation and violations of privacy. Often trolling involves threats of a sexual nature, or disclosing intimate personal information. We will consider a number of high-profile cases including the experiences of Caroline Criado Perez, Anita Sarkeesian’s campaign against video game violence and the Gamergate debacle. Do the problems of trolling constitute a new civil rights issue?


Weeks 7 and 8: Anti-LGBTQ violence 

What violence do LGBTQ communities still suffer as a result of their sexuality? Why are campaigns like “It gets better” having to be set up to prevent teenage suicides? Do Western institutions enact violence on LGBTQ peoples? Is there violence within LGBTQ communities and if so, how does it work and why?

Alongside real case studies, the second week will use short stories and memoirs  as a starting point for discussion. In the past, we have used texts like the short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx, and the autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Drawing on the theory and discussion of the previous week, we work out how certain violences are routinely experienced by LGBT communities.


Week 9: Midterm


Week 10: Trans People and the Whipping Girl

This week’s sessions will look at trans people in particular, focussing on the particular kinds of violence that they face. We will look in particular at Julia Serrano’s recent work on femininity and the trans woman, and how such figures become a scapegoat for gender anxiety, a kind of “whipping girl.” We will also study recent divisions between trans allies and radical feminism.


Weeks 11 and 12: Sexual violence and rape

The first week considers the prevalence of rape myths. How are women (and men) who are survivors of sexual assault made into objects of blame for the crime that has taken place? What myths allow this process to happen? What possibility is there for resistance?

With reference to real-life cases (e.g. Jerry Sandusky, Jian Ghomeshi, Jimmy Saville), the second week discussions use fiction and film as jumping off points for a discussion about how rape myths are embedded in institutions such as the courts, the police, the media, government and welfare systems. We will also discuss the possible agency of survivors of sexual violence and consider how treatment of such survivors sometimes represents a second or “double violation” in the way it forces them to talk about events.


Week 13: Violence, war and the postcolonial

 This session asks why sexual violence is a weapon of war and conquest? Why are gender and sexuality so often the focus of politicized religion? Why are sexual and religious violence so often entwined in these contexts? How have people resisted such violence?


Week 14:

Health and Sex Education

In recent years, the Roe versus Wade ruling by the Supreme Court has appeared to be on shaky ground, as there have been moves to present more and more challenges to women seeking an abortion. The discussion for this week attempts to approach a sensitive issue, while critiquing some of the more disturbing political rhetoric about women’s bodies and sexuality. It also looks at the treatment of the body of pregnant women by the medical system, including experiences of ‘birth rape.’ Sex education will also be a relevant issue this week, as well as the reproductive bodies of women from adolescence into adulthood. We will also touch on issues related to LGBTQ communities, such as the denial of certain medications to trans people in prison.