“Making Good Sex: The Story of the Book”
Prof Catherine M. Roach, The University of Alabama
In a writing assignment, a student once asked, “Why isn’t sex as great as everyone hypes it up to be?” This book offers an answer.
For twenty-five years, I’ve taught at the University of Alabama, a large public institution in the leafy college town of Tuscaloosa, and published feminist research on popular culture topics such as strip clubs and romance stories. I seek to run my classroom as a safe environment of critical inquiry that is student-centered, trauma-informed, and open and affirming of diversity.
In 2015, I decided to scale up the small departmental seminar I’d been offering on gender, sexuality, and popular culture. I had sense of mission: I felt I needed to do more to help create a campus-wide curricular space. Our university, like many in recent years, had been expanding its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and strengthening its messages about the importance of consent. But at the same time, we had—and continue to have—an alcohol-fueled campus party scene that can be conducive to sexual harassment and assault.
The rhetoric sounds good, in other words, but the experience on the ground can be a different matter entirely. My students, of all genders, have a lot to say on this subject about the problems of consent and contemporary hookup culture.
They want a learning space that will equip them to make healthy decisions and be culturally competent. The students are trying to figure out relationships, desire, and pleasure in their personal lives and negotiate shifting norms around gender and sexuality in the public sphere and the workplace. As young adults, it’s a lot to manage.
In response, I created a much larger cross-university lecture course titled Sexuality & Society and began to offer it every semester. The course grew very popular. Sexuality & Society has now enrolled hundreds of students majoring in a wide range of programs—biology to music education, public relations to math. The students are all young but otherwise very diverse, hailing from a broad mix of racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. More than half come to Alabama from states all over the country and across the world. One semester, the majority of my students were guys from Kuwait, all majoring in engineering, which made for a fascinating classroom.
Overall, the students engaged in the material with such enthusiasm that a six-year research project developed out of this teaching experiment. The research has now come out as a book, Good Sex: Transforming America through the New Gender and Sexual Revolution.
I use this notion of “new gender and sexual revolution” to signal a shift or tipping point in the culture, exemplified by fundamental changes in the last decade such as same-sex marriage becoming legal, the #MeToo movement exploding, the media learning to celebrate body positivity, and transgender visibility going mainstream. At the heart of this transformation—and the often virulent backlash it provokes—is a culture-wide conversation about sexual and gender justice.
In many ways, this cultural shift is a demographic one led precisely by the young-adult Generation Z cohort of my college students. In recent American polls, one out of five Gen-Z youth now identify as LGBT, 84 percent of them support same-sex marriage, and students who are gender-nonbinary and queer are increasingly visible and supported in schools across the country. This generational shift gives me hope that the present-day moment is getting us closer to a vision of inclusive and positive sexuality.
This book came into being because of my students. I thank all these young people, whose stories and vision of a just future continue to inspire me.