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.

Public display of affection
The authors of the “The Changing Landscape of Love and Marriage” (found in the most recent issue of Contexts) Kathleen Hull, Ann Meier and Timothy Ortyl have graciously lent the Teaching blog some great ideas for ways to use their article in the classroom.
The first activity they offer to pair with the article is an in-class survey that asks the students to rank their feelings/opinions on love, relationships and sexuality.  Here’s a sample of the questions:

Full survey here.

In-Class Survey (sample questions)

Rate the importance of the following characteristics in a mate, using a four-point scale as follows:

A=indispensable; B=important; C=desirable, but not very important; and D=irrelevant or unimportant.

9.  good cook and housekeeper
10. pleasing disposition
11.  sociability
12.  similar educational background
13.  refinement and neatness
14.  good financial prospect
15.  chastity (no previous experience in sexual intercourse)
16.  dependable character…

27. There’s been a lot of discussion about the way morals and attitudes about sex are changing in this country.  If a man and a woman have sexual relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

A.  Always wrong
B.  Almost always wrong
C.  Wrong only sometimes
D.  Not wrong at all

28.  What if they are in their early teens, say 14 to 16 years old?  In that case, do you think sex relations before marriage are always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

A.  Always wrong
B.  Almost always wrong
C.  Wrong only sometimes
D.  Not wrong at all

29. What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex – you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

A.  Always wrong
B.  Almost always wrong
C.  Wrong only sometimes
D.  Not wrong at all

34.  Who do you think usually enjoys sex more – men, women, or do they both enjoy it the same amount?

A.  Men
B.  Women
C.  Both the same amount
D.  Don’t know

Rate your agreement or disagreement with the following statements using this 5-point scale:

A=Strongly agree, B=Agree, C=Neither agree nor disagree, D=Disagree, E=Strongly disagree.

35.             Same-sex couples should have the right to marry one another.
36.            It is all right for a couple to live together without getting married.
37.            It’s a good idea for a couple who intend to get married to live together first.

42.   Which of the following statements comes closest to your feelings about pornography laws?

A.  There should be laws against the distribution of pornography whatever the age
B.  There should be laws against the distribution of pornography to persons under 18
C.  There should be no laws forbidding the distribution of pornography
D.  Don’t know

45.  I would not have sex with someone unless I was in love with them.

A.  Strongly agree
B.  Agree
C.  Disagree
D.  Strongly disagree

46.  My religious beliefs have shaped and guided my sexual behavior.

A.  Strongly agree
B.  Agree
C.  Disagree
D.  Strongly disagree

(questions 9-26 are from Buss et. al.–referenced in the article)

Be on the look out for more activities to pair with this article next week!

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?

Here’s a simple learning activity to be used in class with Andrew Cherlin’s Contexts article “Should the Government Promote Marriage?” from Fall 2003 (also found in the Contexts Reader). Students would need to be able to reference the article as they work on this in small groups. Click here for a PDF of this worksheet.

Directions: Get into groups of 3 or 4. As a group, find evidence given in the article that supports both sides of this debate.

1)      Imagine that you are a proponent of the “Marriage Movement.” What evidence can you find in this article that supports your argument that marriage is the best family form?

2)      Now, imagine you are part of the “Diversity Defenders.” What evidence can you find in the article that supports your argument that marriage is one of many positive family forms?

Now that you have examined some evidence for both sides of the debate, discuss and answer these questions with your group:

1.  Do you think the government should encourage people to get married? If so, is there a specific group that should be targeted? If not, why not?

2. Do you think that a child who is raised by married parents benefits from their marriage?

3.  Do you think that children who are raised within other family forms (e.g. single mothers, single fathers, gay and lesbian couples, etc.) inevitably miss out on some benefits because their parents are not married?