Assignment #3: Reflective writing on sex work (By Kari Lerum)

One of my regular courses at UWB is a Senior Seminar on “Commercial Sex Work, Sexual Health, and Global Human Rights.” Since sex work (and sexuality in general) is a topic that can bring up a lot of emotion and polemics, I spend a fair amount of time asking students to contemplate and write about their own emotional reactions to commercial sexuality. They do this reflective work as a preface to, and during the course of, their own research projects. Toward this end, I assign:

a) Two values check-in essays (1-2 pages, double spaced, each). Due during the first and last weeks of the quarter. These are only worth 5 pts each; 10 total. Below is the prompt for these essays:

“Sexuality is a topic that few feel neutral about. Combining sexuality with marketplace activities brings up even more intense reactions. At the beginning and the conclusion of  this course, I would like you to spend some time meditating on and documenting your current emotional reactions to the issue of sex work. I am not looking for a thesis driven argument here, just an honest attempt to reflect and mark how your life experiences up to this point will shape the way you approach this issue.”

b) I also assign an “embodied field trip” (3-5 pages, double spaced) Due around midquarter (15 pts). The instructions are below:

“Some new sexualities research can be found within a broader literature that emphasizes the body, everyday performances, and embodied knowledge. In this spirit, your assignment is to take your body on field trip into a site (a physical location) that hosts commodified sexuality. Preferably, this site will be new to you. Possibilities include but are not limited to: Attending a burlesque show, visiting a sex toy or adult video shop, visiting an exotic dance or peep show establishment (the Lusty Lady, Déjà vu, etc), taking a pole-dancing class at a gym, taking a burlesque dancing class, and so on.”

While these assignments are “easy” in terms of getting a few points (basically, if they do it, I give them full credit), they are not necessarily easy to complete. I find that the students who really take these reflective essays seriously also really push themselves in the classroom to imagine alternative perspectives and to recognize the powerful force of one’s own experience and social position in how one sees, experiences, and understands sex work. Comparing and discussing these assignments in class help students understand and appreciate the social rootedness of knowledge and “truth.” And once that is understood, it’s then easier for them to go forward in conducing rigorous, systematic research on sexuality and sex work.


Assignment #2: Submit a blog post for Sexuality & Society (by Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin)

For Faculty: this assignment is geared toward Graduate Students or advanced upper division undergraduate students in the social sciences. Please consider using this as an optional classroom exercise for your students with the added incentive of potentially getting published at Sexuality & Society (i.e. you might state that all “A-range” posts will be sent to the editors of Sexuality & Society for publication consideration).

This exercise may also be used as a template for faculty or others interested in submitting a blog to Sexuality & Society.

For Students: Your assignment is to compose a post for “Sexuality & Society,” a blog hosted by the public sociology journal, Contexts:

To prepare:

  • Review the existing posts on Sexuality & Society, taking note of form and tone.
  • Review the mission of Sexuality & Society (found on the “about” page)
  • Find a contemporary news item (news article, recent academic article, recent cultural trend) regarding sexuality.

To create a post:

  • Comment on your chosen news item, employing sociological and/or interdisciplinary analysis. While this isn’t the place for lengthy in-depth analysis, you should be able to reference your story within a larger set of literature, questions, and/or debates.
  • Editorial comments are welcome, but must be based on academic (peer reviewed) or other credible sources of evidence.
  • Your post should run between 300-700 words (not including citations)
  • What matters more than the length is the analytic power of your post; are you bringing a fresh perspective to a contemporary sexual issue?


Assignment #1: Should sexual health workers be concerned with “purity balls”? By Kari Lerum (I used a version of this assignment for an upper division course called Global & Local Health Inequalities)


photo and story source: Time Magazine (7/17/08)

Recent press has called attention to the social phenomenon of “Purity Balls.” In January of 2007, Glamour Magazine was one of the first mainstream media sources to spotlight this practice.  After reading the description below (excerpted directly from that Glamour article),  answer the following questions at the bottom of the page:

“The first purity ball, with all its queen-for-a-day allure, was thrown in 1998 by Wilson, now 48, and his wife, Lisa, 47; the two run Generations of Light, a popular Christian ministry in Colorado Springs. “We wanted to set a standard of dignity and honor for the way the girls should be treated by the men in their lives,” says Lisa, a warm, exuberant woman with a ready smile and seven children, ages 4 to 22. Lisa’s own father left her family when she was two, and despite a kind stepfather, she says, she grew up not feeling valued or understood. “Looking back, it’s a miracle I remained pure,” she says. “I believe if girls feel beautiful and cherished by their fathers, they don’t go looking for love from random guys.”

That first ball got some positive local and Christian press, as well as inquiries from people in 21 states interested in throwing their own. Today, South Dakota’s Abstinence Clearinghouse—a major association of the purity movement—sends out about 700 “Purity Ball Planner” booklets a year (tips include printing out the vows on “beautiful paper” and serving wedding cake for dessert). While the Wilsons make no money from their ball, a cottage industry for accessories has sprung up. Roam the Internet and you’ll find a $250 14-karat pearl-and-diamond purity ring; for $15, you can buy a red baby-doll T-shirt with ‘I’m Waiting’ emblazoned on the chest, its snug fit sending a bit of a mixed message.

The older girls at the Broadmoor tonight are themselves curvaceous and sexy in backless dresses and artful makeup; next to their fathers, some look disconcertingly like wives. In fact, in the parlance of the purity ball folks, one-on-one time with dad is a “date,” and the only sanctioned one a girl can have until she is “courted” by a man.

The roles are clear: Dad is the only man in a girl’s life until her husband arrives, a lifestyle straight out of biblical times. “In patriarchy, a father owns a girl’s sexuality,” notes psychologist and feminist author Carol Gilligan, Ph.D. “And like any other property, he guards it, protects it, even loves it.”

When it’s time for dads and daughters to take the pledge (some informally exchange rings as well), the men stand over their seated daughters and read aloud from parchment imprinted with the covenant: “I, [father’s name], choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity….” The men inscribe their names and their daughters sign as witnesses. Then everyone returns to their meals and an excited buzz fills the room.”

  1. What features, if any, about this cultural practice, clash with the WHO’s Millennium goal #3 (to “promote gender equality and empower women”)?
  2. Using a public health standpoint that is centered on women’s health and well-being, comment on the practice of purity balls.
  3. What are some possible “causes” of this practice? Why is this cultural practice emerging now in the US?  (think here both as an insider to the culture and as a scientific critic of the practice)
  4. If you believe that this practice is a problem, brainstorm an “intervention” in this process. (If you do not believe this practice to be a problem, explain why).
  5. In what ways is your intervention “culturally sensitive”? (so as not to alienate insiders to the culture). In what ways is your intervention it not culturally sensitive? (evaluate the pros and cons of each)