An undergraduate program at Canada’s University of Toronto offers discussions on flogging, restraint and role-play, as well as an arts course called “Queerly Canadian.” But teachers and students insist it’s a serious academic program that isn’t simply about sex.
“It’s not sexy sex sex, where we’re talking about whips and chains, but we will talk about whips and chains,” said graduating student Robbie Morgan, 33, who left her job teaching sex education in Chicago to attend the Sexual Diversity Studies program, one of the largest of its kind in North America.
“We’ll talk about whips and chains in a political, social, cultural, religious context of sexuality and how that sexuality affects those institutions.”
The Sexual Diversity program appears one of the edgier ones offered at the university, which was founded in 1827 and is best known for its science and medical research. Alumni include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lester B. Pearson, insulin inventors Frederick Banting and Charles Best, author Margaret Atwood and film director David Cronenberg.
The program promises an academic approach to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual issues — from history and law to the performance of sadomasochism.
“It’s a very serious analytical exercise and it isn’t what a lot of people think it is,” director David Rayside told Reuters during a visit to the school, which is located in the original Romanesque-style University College building at U of T’s leafy downtown campus.
Large donation from winemaker
The program, established eight years ago, got a $900,000 boost this week with a donation from Canadian winemaker Mark Bonham to expand the curriculum. There are plans for Canada’s first undergraduate major in sexual diversity studies, and for master’s and doctorate programs from 2008.
“This is a long-neglected area and Canada provides an ideal environment to take up these questions creatively,” said Bonham in a statement.
The program includes a drama course called “Sexual Performance: Case Studies in S/M (sadomasochism)” and the arts and literature course “Queerly Canadian,” for which one student wrote an in-depth review of a male strip show.
But it also focuses on traditional academic discussion — from Plato to same-sex marriage, with courses like “Theories of Sexuality” and “Sexual Diversity Politics.”
Canadian provinces were the first jurisdictions in North America to legalize gay marriage — and Toronto, with one of the largest gay and lesbian communities in the world, is a perfect backdrop for such a program, said Rayside.
“This is a city that has diversified a lot, and is muddling through how to recognize that diversity in ways that are quite interesting,” he said.
“We’re located in the heart of a tremendous laboratory where cultural and international differences actually play a role, and that’s part of what we do.”
A program for everyone
Students were keen to dispel the perception that the program caters only to activists and gays.
“The stereotype is it’s a bunch of queers talking about sex and gay rights,” says Kirstin Caspersen, 22, who wants to apply her degree with criminology to look at how gender and sexual issues affect people in the justice system.
Rayside said the sexual orientation of students in the program is as diverse as the studies themselves.
“I would estimate — of course I don’t ask — that 50 percent of our students are not queer-identified by any use of that term, which is great,” he said.
“A lot of the people from the university, from the president on down, think that what we’re doing is important work. But there’s still a lot entailed at persuading more and more people that what we’re doing is legitimate.”