By Rae Staben
At a university populated with ambitious and intellectual students, it can be difficult to find a subject Stanford undergraduates haven’t mastered yet. But what about a less-discussed topic: love? Or perhaps even a more common experience in college life: hookups?
Enter SOC123: Sex and Love in Modern Society, a class offered by the Department of Sociology that attempts to shed light on contemporary issues of sexuality and romance.
First taught in 2005 by former Professor of Sociology Paula England as a means of researching the college hookup culture, the class found a broad and receptive audience among both sociology majors and the Stanford undergraduate community at large due to its unique but simultaneously relatable subject matter.
“I started the class the second semester I was at Stanford, in the fall of 2005, in part because I was interested in studying about the new hookup culture and teaching about it,” England said. “To learn more about it myself, I had focus-group assignments that students participated in and developed an online survey [about hookup culture].”
Twenty-one universities participated in England’s study, with the data collected still used in research today.
When England left Stanford to work at New York University in 2011, the class was discontinued until Alison Fogarty M.A. ’09 Ph.D. ’13, England’s former research assistant and a current sociology doctoral student, took on the class this quarter.
“I’ve restructured the course, updated the materials and added in new topics,” Fogarty emphasized. “I have done a lot of modifying the course since the days that Paula taught it.”
Although Fogarty has developed a new curriculum and course structure based on England’s previous lectures, she noted that the general subject matter of the class has been left untouched.
“We look at both sexual interactions as well as relationships, and so we do cover quite a broad amount of topics,” she said.
Those topics include controversial items, like sex positivity, pornography and the college hookup culture. Still, Fogarty said that she intends to look at more widely accepted and often common elements of contemporary sexuality, including homosexual relationships and same-sex families, as well as the effects of cohabitation on childbirth.
“We also look at things like American families and how the demography of them has been changing, covering topics like out-of-marriage childbirth and cohabitation,” she added.
David Huynh ’14, a member of Fogarty’s class, said he enrolled in the course purely out of interest in the often-taboo subject matter.
“Most of the topics are interesting, including college hookup culture,” he said. “There was a disclaimer in class that there will be some touchy material discussed.”
In order to respect student privacy, the class has a policy that any personal experiences shared in class cannot be shared elsewhere on the Farm — or anywhere else at all.
Still, Huynh conceded that the intimate nature of such storytelling made him uncomfortable at first.
“I think the only thing that made me uncomfortable is that there is a lot of personal story sharing,” Huynh said. “People have been through a lot … It shows you that there is a lot out there. People do some crazy things.”
According to Fogarty, the class used to be a lecture-style course with over 100 students, which she has since reduced to a mere 25 in order to foster a more personalized experience that also focuses with greater depth on the assigned texts. For example, students write a short analysis about the readings or lecture for each class period.
“When Paula was teaching it, it was a huge class, so it was much harder to have assignments like that,” Fogarty said. “I think it is really important for the students to integrate the information and to have that opportunity to reflect on how the material is impacting them … and so I think that, for me, is one of the things I am most excited about the course offering to students.”
Although the class has just entered its third week, students like Jacky Lee ’14 said they have found the novelty of discussing issues like sex positivity to be eye opening.
“I’ve never heard about sex positivity,” Lee said, referencing the course’s first lecture, which was led by renowned sex educator Charlie Glickman. “There should be more of an open mindset for looking at sex. I thought it was really interesting because I’ve never thought about it that way. I grew up in a very sex-negative mindset.”
Lee said that he enrolled in the class simply as a means of expanding her knowledge about sexuality, a subject his background prevented her from analyzing to any great extent.
“I thought it would be an interesting class to take because I came from of a conservative Chinese culture … and I’m also Catholic,” Lee said. “I’m going in with an open mindset. I’m thinking of it more as a learning experience.”
Similarly, Huynh commented the class has already impacted his life.
“Just from the first class analysis that we did, it made me reflect on how I can improve by becoming more sex positive versus sex negative,” he said. “It made me more knowledgeable and respectful of other people, just in the first two classes.”
While Huynh and Lee entered the class with little idea of what to expect out of such discussions, Whitney Wells ’12 M.A. ’13, a former employee of the Sexual Health Peer Resource Center, joined Fogarty’s course as a way of grappling with these issues in her own life.
“I’m most excited to use the class to discover any sex negativity in myself,” Wells said. “Before taking the class, I hadn’t considered studying sex and love. Now I want to carry it on as I go forward in my studies.”
With such positive student feedback, the class may be on its way to once again becoming a Stanford staple.
“Gender, sexuality, relationships and love are topics that impact all of us in our lives,” Fogarty said. “Getting to understand the social processes that are involved in structuring the way that these things operate is hugely important, both on a personal level and on a sociological level.”