Phyllis Thompson is a Lecturer in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality program at Harvard College and is currently teaching a class entitled “Leaning In and Hooking Up: Visions of Feminism and Femininity in the 21st Century.” Her Campus Harvard sat down with her as part of our “Relationship Week” to talk dating culture, consent, and the power of awareness.
I meet Phyllis Thompson in her basement office in Boylston Hall. She sits cross-legged on her office chair but slowly unfolds as we talk, gesturing emphatically with her hands, leaning forward to conspiratorially whisper a revelation about teaching, and constantly pushes away from her desk to show me a syllabus or a book from the stack on her filing cabinet.
Her Campus: How long have you teaching classes on Women, Gender, and Sexuality or, more generally, working on these subjects?
Phyllis Thompson: “Leaning In and Hooking Up” is the first class I’ve taught in this department! I got my PhD in 2014 so I am… recent to this field. My PhD is from Harvard, in the American Studies department, with a certificate in WGS. WGS is a program at Harvard, and not a department, so you cannot receive a PhD in the field directly, so I’ve got the absolute closest thing you can get [laughs].
HC: The class is called “Leaning In and Hooking Up,” so I think I can probably guess what it’s about, but I’ve also heard you cover a new topic separately every week. Could you tell me a little bit more about those?
PT: I certainly can! We started by talking about definitions of feminism and moved in discussions of who talks, who listens, who gets the floor, who has space at the table to speak, who are stories written about in the news, by whom are these stories written [she becomes more and more intense as she moves through these definitions of voice and agency, stamping her foot at the last point]… Then we moved onto images of bodies and beauty, and then to an analysis of sex-positive culture, which transitioned, unfortunately naturally, into sexual assault the next week… I guess pornography was in there somewhere between those two. Now we’re in a unit that I think is really about the tensions between work and home life, so we’ll talk about the workplace and then about domesticity, motherhood. We’ll move on to young woman’s activism and the international implications of gender work and activism, and then we’ll talk about women’s studies as a discipline.
HC: If you could present a lecture on one of these topics that every undergraduate student would attend, what would it be on?
PT: [laughing] Wow, okay. That’s a great question, such a great question, but I’m divided. There’s a couple ways to answer this: what do I think to grip most imaginations or what do I think you would get nowhere else?
HC: That’s actually really interesting, because when I was writing the question I was thinking more along the lines of what people need to hear, which I now think is a far more patronizing way to address the issue than how you’re considering.
PT: Right, right! If I can truly ensure that every person on campus will attend and listen, I think right now, given the current climate, I would give a lecture on the relationship between hook-up culture and sexual assault. That’s something I wish I could get every young person, male and female, to think about because the consequences are immediate and severe. So, that’s definitely the topic I would like to draw attention to, if my standpoint were protecting the students of Harvard. Another way to go about it would be to say that I think every single student at Harvard ought to attend an introductory lecture about gender and sexual identity and absolutely be forced to develop a sensitivity to the ways that people experience their gendered and sexual selves. But I think I’ll go with the sexual assault lecture because I think the way that you’re receiving information about it is all about procedure – don’t do this, don’t do that – and what I think the missing link is how to this extend from behaviors that are seen as positive.
HC: Is there anything perhaps more unrelated to what we’re currently dealing with as undergraduates that you would like to talk to us about, maybe something that’s not even on our radar before this lecture I’ve invented?
PT: If I could talk to you about something that I would guess you’re definitely not thinking about yet, but think you maybe should be [she waves her hands in a mixture of frustration and determination to get her thoughts in order about this before moving on] – wait, I guess this doesn’t really apply to all years. If I were talking to freshman, I would definitely give the lecture on sex. I would like to give all the seniors a lecture on the difference between domestic and work lives. That is, the ways in which all individuals and life partners can usefully imagine power at home and at work and the relationship between them. It is a little terrifying to me, the degree to which undergraduates are worried about whether they can “do it all” or what sacrifices they might have to make before they’re even out the gate so I guess I’d like to push back against that.
HC: My last question about all this is whether your answer would change if the lecture were only attended by male-identifying students or only female-identifying students? Do you even think discussions like this should be separated by gender?
PT: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I think I would talk about the same topics, but in different ways. Single-gender spaces can feel safer, so there are certain issues you can speak about with a different frame if you’re in those kinds of spaces. I desperately wish I could get lots of men to pay attention to gender issues, because I feel as though right now, overwhelmingly, the most men that do are the ones who have a sexual identity stake in them.
HC: Do you believe that women who identify with the gender they were born with, and identify as heterosexual, still care about gender issues where their male counterparts do not?
PT: Yes, because even straight women still are stigmatized by gender politics in some way. That’s why the problems in communication arise, because the only people who are really talking about these issues are the ones who feel as though they are on some short end of the stick somewhere – which is natural – but I do desperately wish I could get (specifically) more straight, white males to pay more attention to their own implications in larger structural systems. I think I find teaching this class so incredibly heartening because all the students are working so hard and care so much, and then I hear about them having different, more productive conversations with their male friends as a result of it. How freakin’ awesome is that?! [she bursts out in delighted laughter] Go for it!
HC: Of all the topics you’ve been teaching, which do you think was the most of a revelation for the students? It seems as though a lot of the issues are things we’re already confronted with, but have you taught anything where you could tell it was entirely new information, or at least an entirely new way of looking at old information?
PT: Yes. I think of all the topics, the most shocking one was – [she leans forward, conspiratorially] – motherhood. No one had really thought about it. It was big news! In particular, we read a piece about the medical industrial complex and how sexist the process of giving birth is in this country, which seemed deeply shocking for my students. Medicalized birth is a ritual, and all cultural rituals are designed to turn you into a person that you are not. In other countries, you walk into a hospital and give birth standing up or squatting, with gravity on your side. Here, you’re immediately put in the wheelchair because you’re seen as disabled, your body as defective. Your body doesn’t know what to do so a team of doctors and machines get to work fixing you. It’s a ritual that turns you into a certain kind of citizen.
HC: So we’ve been dancing around this a bit already, but since this interview is for our Relationship Week, and based on the nature of your class’s title, I wanted to ask something directly. There’s been a lot of talk going around about our generation’s hook-up culture is destroying the traditional idea of dating. I was wondering about your perspective was on that from an academic standpoint, and not just from our parents lamenting how we’re not going on dates anymore.
PT: I think there are many things to say on all sides of this. There are arguments that hook-up culture is empowering for women, and time-effective, and that it can be a relief to have access to a sexual experience without the pressures of a relationship. But there are also arguments that it is a culture in which men have actually retained a lot of the social power, most notably by being the hosts of events and parties more frequently, which creates a power differential unto itself. It can be argues that it’s a sexual culture that encourages men to ask for more and more and stakes their masculinity upon their persuasiveness. The argument against hook-up culture that I think is most important is that there is no such thing as an even playing field. Even just in looking at the different amounts of time men and women put into getting ready for such a liaison! Is it a loss that dating culture seems to be receding? I think there are many factors going into this, such as the “shopping aesthetic” of Tinder and other apps on your phones that I don’t even know about [laughs], and the fact that you can Google anyone and eliminate the need for that preliminary conversation. This kind of scoping out is also destroying dating culture, and I don’t think it’s necessarily hook-up culture that’s the real culprit here. I think my main problem with hook-up culture is not that it’s ruining another sort of culture but rather that it’s making it much, much harder to create a fully consensual situation because it’s harder to communicate and you need to practice communicating with a person before you know what really means “yes” from them. When you think about it, the dating culture of older generations was just a social ritual designed to suppress sexual urges so nowadays it’s just… [long pause]
PT: More just irrelevant! Because every single study shows that the students having more sex are in relationships… so whatever culture you subscribe to, it’s proven that the most reliable way to have… [laughing] “physical fun” is to be in a relationship!
HC: My last question, then, is about a problem I’m sure you’re aware of, in which sex-positivity is received as empowering or demeaning – [I stop talking as she leaps up excitedly, grabs a book off her bookshelf and shakes it in the air, pointing at the title: I am Not a Slut] – exactly! What I’ve really been noticing lately are people like Reina Gattuso, who wrote sex columns in the Crimson last year, are having older female writers publish articles that are just tearing apart their decisions and their views on sex-positivity. It’s a weird pushback where it’s no longer students calling fellow students sluts, but rather a different generation taking over the name-calling.
PT: This is a huge issue I talk about in my class. There are sexual acts that twenty years ago were handled much differently than they are today. For example, oral sex was something that used to happen after intercourse – it was considered far more intensely intimate. Anal sex even more so. And that has shifted today! There seems to be an aesthetic that whatever doesn’t get you pregnant is fair game and a little safer. For that reason, it’s very difficult to get yourself out of your own set of assumptions of what is really going far. So I think when the script changes, it’s really hard on communication. It might be worth thinking about what kinds of experiences older generations might have with long-form fallout. Sometimes it’s just sex-negative, but sometimes one’s life experiences have lead one to strongly believe in communication over frequency or fluidity. Absolutely not saying that this is universally expressed in a sensitive and useful way, and clearly more listening needs to happen on both sides, I just think there’s not a lot of trust in either direction, which is regrettable. I think it is possible to be both sex-positive and care profoundly about the safety and long-term well-being of young people and to hope dearly that they practice relationship skills like communicating about consent and happiness no matter what kind of relationships they have. Not to ever victim-blame, just trying to create a culture that cares deeply and structurally about consent. Ideally, everyone gets what they want and is in their comfort zone, getting the gift of exploration and an awesomely good time without ever feeling limited or pressured. This is what we want!!