Back in kindergarten, most boys had a fail-proof way of explaining the workings of the female mind: cooties. Soon, though, cooties become obsolete and now — after puberty, hormones and periods — understanding women is often perceived as a hopeless task for the college-aged man.
But not for Colin Adamo ’10.
As one of only four men who have declared a Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies major, Adamo has taken an unconventional approach to “sexuality in American society” — his self-designed track within the major — by choosing to pursue the field academically.
“There are always complaints on both sides of the table that ‘we never understand the opposite sex’ and ‘they’re so confusing,’” Adamo said. “And if you want to understand them more, why not study the subject?”
Rather than feeling out of place as one of the few males within the major, Adamo cited a “real sense of community” within the WGSS. And, he said, the major itself is key to his plans for the future. Double majoring in WGSS and Psychology, he explained, allows him to explore and understand different relationships and lifestyles — knowledge that he hopes will serve him well in his career.
“I have ambitions of working either as a sex therapist, marriage counselor or a sex educator, and I want to include within my clientele … people of all sexuality, genders and lifestyles,” Adamo said.
But given that only three other males are currently enrolled in the major, not all men on campus appear to agree with Adamo’s “why not study the subject?” attitude.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the major’s seeming focus on women may lead male students to believe, mistakenly, that the subject simply does not apply to their lives.
“I suspect the mere name of the major features women’s studies so prominently [that it] may make men think superficially that this major is not relevant to issues of interest to them,” Salovey said. “But given the strong focus on gender and sexuality, of course it is.”
WGSS Director of Undergraduate Studies Maria Trumpler agreed. “It takes a certain kind of strength of character in a man to say that the first word of the major on his transcript is going to say ‘women’s,’ ” she said.
But WGSS students emphasized that its curriculum does not equate women’s studies with feminism. In fact, the major offers two separate tracks: one dedicated to women’s and gender studies and the other to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer studies, which attracts many — though not all — of the male majors.
“One of the things I have taken away from my courses is not just ‘Oh, what women think,’ ” WGSS major Lea Krivchenia ’08 said. “We study all these things that other people study with gender and sexuality in mind.”
“It really speaks to something when you feel what other people have been able to feel,” Adamo agreed. “When would that be explored within any other curricula at Yale?”
‘Orgasms and stuff’
But in spite of the diversity in the field of study, WGSS is often perceived as a niche major that caters to students with very specific career interests.
Krivchenia said the major — which has only 11 officially enrolled students — may lack credibility among the student body compared to some of the larger, more established majors on campus like history and political science, which have 358 and 335 enrolled students, respectively, according to the Office of Institutional Research.
“It’s still thought of as something that you don’t really major in; like it’s interesting to study these things, but you should still major in political science or something,” she said.
Plus, Adamo said, the major is not directly relevant to most popular careers.
“It’s hard when everyone around you is like, ‘I need to go into I-banking, law school or med school — and it’s hard to do that with a WGSS major on your diploma,’ ” Adamo said.
WGSS also carries with it a certain political connotation that perhaps limits its appeal on campus, students interviewed said.
While some majors, like Adam Gardner ’09, described that characterization as “very dangerous” and “not accurate,” Andrew Dowe ’08 said his decision to choose WGSS in addition to African American Studies came “as an extension of my activist activities.”
“Both fields grew out of political movements as tools to dismantle the reactionary practices of mainstream academics,” Dowe wrote in an e-mail.
Although only 11 students are actually enrolled in the major, at least one course offered by WGSS, “The Biology of Gender and Sexuality” — more commonly referred to by students as “Porn in the Morn” — has attracted hundreds of students of all majors for many years, some for its famously explicit subject matter, others for its reputation as a “gut” class.
But some students even found this class, which has become mainstream, a bit more political than they had bargained for.
“When I first got into the class, I thought it was really open and slightly outrageous because [Molecular Biology and Biophysics professor Bill Summers] just discussed things in a very liberal manner,” said one student, who asked not to be named.
Another added, “Some of it was stuff I didn’t really wanna know, like about orgasms and stuff.”
But perhaps the most effective way of building up the major, students suggest, is through additional University resources — something they hope would lead to increased consistency in WGSS faculty members and course offerings.
“The inconsistency of personnel and course offerings produced by visiting and jointly-appointed professorships means that it is difficult for courses to develop reputations like those that drive students to intro courses in larger majors and then into the majors themselves,” Dowe explained.
Salovey agreed that the program has suffered from the loss of faculty members over the past several years.
“I think over the years we have lost other senior faculty associated with the major,” he said. “I think an increase in faculty actually involved with the major would generally be a good thing.”
More rather than less?
But while students in the major at Yale may be asking for added support from their University, at some peer institutions, equivalent programs are not official majors at all.
Deborah Nord, director of the Women and Gender program at Princeton University, explained that at her school, the subject may only be studied as a “concentration” in conjunction with another major.
“It’s meant to be done in tandem with a more mainstream discipline,” she said.
And perhaps as a result, the number of seniors who graduate each year with “certificates” in Princeton’s program dwarfs that of Yale seniors currently set to graduate with a degree in WGSS — a mere 3 compared to 10 to 15 per year at Princeton. But the number of men who graduate with these certificates is considerably lower than those who graduate with a WGSS major from Yale; according to Nord, Princeton has graduated no more than three men with certificates in Women and Gender in the last five years.
“We wouldn’t tend to have more than one per year, and there have been years when we didn’t have any,” Nord said. “It’s not a field of study that’s familiar to a lot of students on campus.”
But while offering women and gender studies as a program rather than a major may decrease visibility on campus, Princeton anthropology professor and Women and Gender Executive Committee member Rena Lederman said it eliminates apprehension that the field is irrelevant to most careers.
“The advantage of our arrangement is that, insofar as parents or students may worry about external perceptions (e.g., on the job market after college), Princeton students show that they have been doing “more” (as in: a major AND a certificate!!) rather than “less” (as in: a Women&Gender major??),” she wrote in an e-mail.
As for Yale, Salovey suggested that decisions about the structure of WGSS are best left to the faculty involved with the program.
“We might consider how to do a better job promoting the interesting topics covered in the major for men as well as women,” he said. “I think this may be an issue of increasing awareness rather than restructuring.”
Especially, Krivchenia said, since universality exists in every major, even one that seems as narrow as WGSS.
“Everyone,” she said, “has ‘gender’.”