Check out the article Is Hooking Up Bad for Young Women? by Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Laura Hamilton and Paula England, which appears in the Summer 2010 issue of Contexts. This highly accessible  and interesting article will work great in an undergraduate course on sexualities or gender.

Cerro Santa Lucía, SantiagoThe FULL article is available to download on!

The article offers insight on the “hook-up culture” among young people today by examining the Baby Boomers’ panic over teenage casual sex, presenting the data on casual and serious sexual relationships among teens, and examining pros and cons of hook-ups for women.

The authors cite the work of some journalists and others who have commented on “hooking up” among young women in very different ways:

  • Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both (2007)
  • Jessica Valenti, author of The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (2010)
  • Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005)

A fun and interesting way to use this article in your class is to allow students to take on the role of commentator by writing a short paper (3-4 pages) on their understanding and opinions on hook-up culture. You could have them read sections from the books above and/or read blog posts like this one from in addition to this article from Contexts, and also have them research and cite scholarly work on the subject, like the work cited in the article.

Have them take a position on the issue of “hooking up”/casual sexual interactions in college and use evidence they find in their research to back up their claims.

Lesbian Romance

Questions that could be used to develop their argument include:

Do you think that hook-up culture is empowering for women or not?

Why do you think hooking-up is more common now than ever?

Why do you think young people hooking up causes such a moral panic?

Is sexual interaction within relationships preferable to hook-ups?

Is there a sexual double standard between men and women when it comes to hooking up?

How does the hook-up culture described in this article relate to same-sex relationships?

We all love to hate reality TV. This assignment asks students to watch a few episodes of America’s Next Top Model after reading an interesting and accessible culture review from Contexts. There are many elements in ANTM worth sociological examination: race, gender, and sexuality of contestants and judges, gender performance, use and display of bodies, modeling culture, body image, patriarchal power, infantilizing women, feminism, self-branding and individualized success ideals.  You could even ask students to send you clips of segments they found especially provocative and show some of them in class to spark the discussion.


Read the culture review “The Top Model Life” by Elizabeth Wissinger featured in Contexts magazine’s Spring 2010 issue.

Then, watch an episode (or a few) of America’s Next Top Model online.

Full episodes found here.

Here is an activity that was given to us by Amy Alsup, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota.  The activity revolves around a clip from Season 1 of Mad Men located on Youtube and entitled “Peggy and the Gynecologist.”

Scene Description:

It is the early 1960s and Peggy Olson begins work at Sterling Cooper advertising agency as a secretary.  Her co-worker Joan recommends that Peggy embrace the attention from men and “show a little leg.”  In this scene, Peggy visits the gynecologist to get a prescription for contraceptives.  The gynecologist warns Peggy not to “be a strumpet” and sleep around just because she is not likely to get pregnant on the pill.

This clip demonstrates stereotypical attitudes about women and sexuality.  While women are expected to give men sexual attention, they are at risk of being considered “tramps” if they are rumored to be involved in high amounts of sexual activity.  The gynecologist in this scene warns Peggy, “Even in these modern times, easy women don’t find husbands.”  The assumption here is twofold: women are expected to give men sexual attention under the radar but still expected to “be proper” and get married.  Although it is not Peggy’s intention to immediately “find a husband,” it is expected that this is her goal.

This clip could be used to introduce a lecture, discussion or active learning exercise on the medicalization of women’s sexuality.  It could also be used to introduce a broad discussion on gender roles and sexuality in the 1960s.

Active Learning Exercise Idea:

Have students read a book or article about women’s sexuality and social control.  Show this video clip in class, and have students write a written reflection addressing the following questions, then discuss with a partner:

(1) How are women’s bodies subject to control today?  Is this different or similar than in the past?

(2)  Birth control for many women was empowering when it was first prescribed in the 1960s.  However, prescriptions were also regulated and controlled in large part by men.  How is women’s health regulated today?  Are there improvements or new setbacks?  What are they?

(3)  What is medicalization?  How can this concept be used to understand the power dichotomies between doctors and patients?  Men and women?

Ideas for texts include:

Conrad, Peter. 1992.  “Medicalization and Social Control.”  Annual Review of Sociology, 18: 209-32.

Gordon, Linda (2002). The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

A third (and final!) set of ideas for using Hull, Meier and Ortyl’s piece “The Changing Landscape of Love and Marriage” (Spring 2010 issue) from the authors!

Exercise #1:

Have students answer the relationship values questions (which they used for their research published in Journal of Marriage and Family) as a learning exercise; perhaps in advance of the assigned reading so they are not biased by having read the article, and then compare the students’ responses to the findings in their JMF article as a jumping-off point for class discussion of relationship values/attitudes, where they come from, whether/why they differ by gender, SES, sexual orientation, etc.

“How important do you think each of the following elements is for a successful marriage or serious committed relationship?”  (using a 1=”not important” to 10=”extremely important” scale)

1)  Love

2)  Faithfulness

3)  Life-long commitment

4)  Financial security

5) Being of the same race

Exercise #2:

The article talks broadly about romantic v. confluent love. Students could debate which of these two models is more relevant today and/or which pieces of each model they like/don’t like and why.

For the romantic love model, Swidler’s four features (or myths) could be discussed:

1) one true love
2) love at first sight
3) love conquers all
4) happily ever after

For confluent model, Gidden’s ideas include these features:

1) relationship contingent on satisfaction of both partners
2) lots of communication/negotiation
3) overarching goal of self-development

This learning activity asks students to create a curriculum for a sex education class in small groups based on what they learned from the “After the Sexual Revolution: Gender Politics in Teen Dating” by Barbara Risman and Pepper Schwartz in Contexts Spring 2002.


Discuss and answer these questions with your small group:

1) Do you think there is a sexual double standard for female and male teenagers? Did you observe this in your high school? Here at college? In your family?

2) Do you think that the double standard endures throughout life or do you think it disappears after the teenage years?

3) Do you consider teenagers having sex a social problem? Would your parents agree?

4) If it is a social problem, what are some specific problems/dangers/concerns that you see with teenagers having sex?

5) Do you think there are emotional consequences for sexually active teenagers? If so, what are they?

6) What was your high school sex education class like? Do you think the class had any effect on students’ sexual activity or their views on sexuality? Did it help prevent sexual activity or not? What do you think were the goals of the class?

7) What do you think the focus of sex education classes should be? Should they promote abstinence or focus on prevention of physical, emotional, and/or social problems of teenage sex?

Part II

Based on what your group discussed, create a “curriculum” for a high school sex education course that would confront the issues that you brought up about teenage sexuality.

Questions to think about:

1)    What were the issues that your group talked about? Did you identify physical, social, cultural, and/or psychological issues?

2)    How do you think an educator should approach these issues with high school students?

Our “curriculum” would include these topics and strategies:

This learning activity is the first of a package of exercises to be used with material from the most recent issue of Contexts (Spring 2010). Keep an eye out over the next few weeks for material to accompany the newest issue!

This in-class exercise asks students to evaluate the state of love and marriage in the United States today and to decide whether they think the changes are problematic or progressive. The activity was designed to accompany “The Changing Landscape of Love and Marriage” by Kathleen E. Hull, Ann Meier, and Timothy Ortyl in the new Spring 2010 issue.

Directions: Read the following statistics and statements about the state of relationships in the U.S. today from the article “The Changing Landscape of Love and Marriage” by Kathleen E. Hull, Ann Meier, and Timothy Ortyl. After reading each statement, decide if you think it is a problem or not. Circle “Yes” or “No.” In the space below each statement, briefly describe your reasoning.

Do you believe that these changes in love and marriage present a problem to our society? 

1) Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce.

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

2) People are getting married later than they used to; the median age at first marriage
is now 28 for men and 26 for women, compared to 23 and 20 in 1960. 

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

3) The proportion of adults who never marry remains low but is climbing; in 2006, 19%
of men and 13% of women aged 40-44 had never married.

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

4) Unmarried cohabitation has gone from a socially stigmatized practice to a normal
 stage in the adult life course (more than half of all American marriages now
begin as cohabitations).

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

5) Roughly one-third of all births are to unmarried parents.

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

6) Today, people feel freer to marry later, to end unhappy marriages, and to forego
marriage altogether.

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

7) Americans have established a pattern of high marriage and remarriage rates,
frequent divorce and separation, and more short-lived cohabitations. 

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

8) Straight women are more likely to rate faithfulness and lifelong commitment as
 extremely important compared to straight men and sexual minorities.

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________ 

Based on your responses above, which position described in the article do you most
 agree with? Circle one.
     1. The marital decline position, which argues that changes in intimacy are a significant cause for concern. OR
    2. The marital resilience perspective, which, in contrast, argues that changes in family life have actually strengthened the quality of intimate relationships, including marriages.
After you have finished, discuss your responses with a small group of classmates. Does your group agree?

This case study can be used with Julie E. Artis’s “Breastfeed at Your Own Risk.”  The article, which appeared in Contexts in Fall 2009, can be read online here.

At the age of 38, Monique gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter named Kayla. Kayla was born with severe developmental and physical disabilities. As Kayla grew older, Monique and her husband tried diligently to get her the help she needed in order to maximize her development. They put her in speech and physical therapy programs and brought her to many health specialists. Caring for Kayla was expensive and time consuming. All of the doctors and specialists Monique talked to told her she needed to spend more time helping Kayla one-on-one; but Monique couldn’t afford to stay at home, and she and her husband each spent more than 50 hours a week at work. Kayla was cared for during the day by a nurse who came to Monique’s home, but after 5:00 p.m. Monique was responsible for her care.

As Kayla grew older, Monique began to fall behind at work and spend less time caring for her three older children. Monique could tell they were resentful of Kayla for this. Kayla required constant supervision and needed help eating, changing clothes and using the bathroom. Kayla became easily frustrated and had trouble sleeping, which kept Monique up many nights. Monique was often discouraged and irritated and felt less happy overall. When Kayla was 5 years old, Monique became pregnant again. Overwhelmed at the prospect of caring for Kayla, her three other children and a newborn baby, Monique considered other options. She found out about a live-in care center about 3 hours away from her home that specialized in taking care of children with disabilities. Monique thought that the care center would be a better home for Kayla than her own. She thought the nurses and the teachers at the center would help Kayla more than she could.

But, the center was very expensive and paying for Kayla to live there until age 18 would prevent Monique from helping any of her other children with their college tuition someday. Also, many of the specialists had told Monique that Kayla might be better off if her mother cared for her. Monique considered the negative things other people would think of her if she brought her daughter to live at the care center instead of caring for her in the home. But, she also considered how much better her life and the lives of her other children might be if they did not have the responsibility of caring for Kayla on a daily basis. She would have more time for her other children and more time to develop her career.

Discussion Questions:

1) If you were in Monique’s shoes, what would you do?

2) What do you think a mother’s role is in this situation?

3) What responsibilities do the larger community and the government have with respect to childcare?  Do they have these same responsibilities regarding childcare for disabled children?

Contexts Magazine graduate editorial board member Shannon Golden has offered a syllabus and in-class exercise to our readers for a course addressing ‘Sociological Perspectives on Race, Class, and Gender.’ The materials were developed as part of a course in the Sociology of Higher Education offered by Professor Ron Aminzade in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.

The syllabus:

  • For a semester-length course meeting twice weekly
  • Assignments include weekly media reaction papers as well as two longer papers, designed to be ‘writing-intensive’
  • The section devoted to ‘Course Dialogue’ provides a great example of how to encourage students to engage in respectful debate about controversial issues.  – A must-read for all first-time instructors.

In-class exercise:

  • Title: ‘A White African-American?’
  • Written scenario about whether a student typically identified as ‘White’ can be considered for an academic award aimed at recognizing accomplishments of African-American students
  • Provides discussion questions to get students talking about the scenario
  • Engages students in small group discussion
  • Based on an actual event, with some details modified