Dr. Lauren Gutterman Discusses the New Podcast, “Sexing History.”

sexing history

UT American Studies professor Dr. Lauren Gutterman, along with Gillian Frank (fellow at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion), have started a new podcast called Sexing History, “a podcast about how the history of sexuality shapes our present.”  We asked Dr. Gutterman and Dr. Frank about their inspiration for the project, the first few episodes of the podcast, the relationship of podcast to pedagogy, and the direction they hope to take the podcast in the future. You can find the podcast at:  www.sexinghistory.org.  Please read on!    

Can you tell us a little bit about the podcast and how you arrived at the project?

GF: Sexing History explores how the history of sexuality shapes present day sexual politics, values, communities and identities. Lauren and I are the co-hosts. Our producers are historians Rebecca DavisDevin McGeehan Muchmore and Saniya Lee Ghanoui. We’ve all worked together in various capacities for years and all share a commitment to telling accessible stories about sexual diversity in the American past. We were able to launch Sexing History through the generosity of Allen Zwickler of the Phil Zwickler Charitable and Memorial Foundation.

LG: Gill really deserves credit for coming up with the idea for a podcast on the history of sexuality. He approached me about it this summer and brought our amazing team of producers together. While I’ve worked on digital history projects including OutHistory.org a Wikimedia website on LGBTQ American history, and more recently Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality an international history of sexuality blog, I was excited about the possibility of engaging the broader public through audio recording rather than text.

How do you see podcasting as different from more traditional academic publishing? Why did you choose to work in this medium?

GF and LG: Writing for a podcast is quite different from writing for an academic journal. To begin with, the timeline is much faster. Over the summer and fall we’ve been able to write our first three episodes, whereas an academic journal article typically takes years to publish.

Writing for an audience of listeners, rather than readers, also comes with particular challenges and opportunities. With episodes of just twenty-to-thirty minutes, we need to get to the heart of a topic quickly and we have to leave out details that aren’t essential to the story we’re telling. We try to write shorter, more readable sentences, cut out academic jargon, and strike a more conversational, colloquial tone than we would in our other work. The podcast also allows us to highlight audio from the historical events we’re discussing as well as the voices of leading scholars and historical figures, which, of course, we can’t do on paper.

We chose to work in this medium because we suspected and hoped that people who might not have the time or inclination to read an article about the history of sexuality would find listening to a podcast more accessible and engaging.

Your first three episodes discuss the history of sexuality in relation to high school proms, abortion, and “breast developers.” How did you choose these topics? What bearing do these issues have on present-day American society?  

GF and LG: We discuss potential topics together with our producers Devin McGeehan Muchmore and Saniya Lee Ghanoui and then do some initial research to see if relevant audio is available. As our first few episodes suggest, we are thinking about the history of sexuality in a broad sense, including LGBTQ history, reproductive politics, standards of beauty and desirability, and more. We’re currently writing future episodes on cultural battles over interfaith marriage in the 1970s, and evangelical sex advice.

One of our major goals with Sexing History is to provide listeners with an historical context for contemporary events, and each of our episodes speaks to the present in some way. Our second episode, for example, examines the 1975 case of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, an African American physician who was convicted of manslaughter in Massachusetts for performing a legal second trimester abortion. His trial transformed the anti-abortion movement, which, following his trial, began to focus on limiting access to abortion rather than overturning Roe v. Wade. In a sad coincidence, just this month, the House of Representatives voted to pass H.R. 36, legislation that would make abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy a criminal offense, and would impose fines or prison terms for abortion providers who violate it. The similarities between the case of Dr. Kenneth Edelin’s case in the 1970s and the discourse of today is striking. 

What projects or people have inspired your work more broadly? 

GF and LG: Both of us are avid podcast listeners. Some of our favorites include 99% InvisibleCriminal, and The Moth, Radiolab, and You Must Remember This. We’re influenced and inspired by the ways these podcasts approach storytelling, unpack complex issues, and find ways to link American history to contemporary culture.

How do you see your work fitting in with conversations in academia and beyond?

GF and LG: Sexing History allows us to both highlight existing scholarly work on the history of sexuality and to push academic conversations forward. For our first episode on gay proms, we interviewed professor Amanda Littauer who is researching the history of queer youth activism in the United States. Several scholars have written about the case of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, and in our second episode we were able to interview professors Johanna Schoen and Mary Ziegler, about the case and the anti-abortion movement after Roe v. Wade more broadly. Our third episode about the Mark Eden corporation, which fraudulently marketed a piece of exercise equipment as a “breast-developer” for more than a decade in the nation’s leading women’s magazines, has not itself been the subject of scholarly examination, but professors Elizabeth Matelski and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela who write about post-war female beauty standards and fitness culture, respectively, helped us to contextualize this particular manufacturer’s history.

How do you think your podcast has affected your teaching? Or, conversely, how do you think your teaching has affected the podcast?

LG: In class and on the podcast I try to make the past more accessible and more relevant to students and listeners. Often in class, I’ll invite students to examine a particular object or text, like a political cartoon or a magazine advertisement, in light of broader themes we’ve been discussing. In some ways Sexing History takes a similar approach. By looking in-depth at Aaron Fricke’s fight to attend prom with a same-sex date or the Post Office’s legal battle against the Mark Eden corporation, for example, we’ve been able to explore much broader issues in American society and culture from gay oppression and youth activism, to oppressive beauty standards and mail fraud.

GF: In my teaching, I’ve found that people learn best when they find relevance in the subjects they study, are given ample and diverse opportunities to engage with a range of ideas, and through critical engagement and careful reflection, learn to negotiate the differences they will find in each other and society with intelligence and civility. These values underlie Sexing History, which strives to make connections between past and present while sharing sexually diverse perspectives and stories.

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