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Karen Peterson-Iyer: Theology, Sex and Relationships

Karen Peterson-Iyer serves on Santa Clara’s religious studies faculty, teaching courses and writing on contemporary sexual ethics, bioethics and human trafficking. Dr. Iyer got her B.A. in Political Science from Stanford University, her M.Div. at the Graduate Theological Union, and her M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in Ethics (Religious Studies) at Yale University. Her research interests are currently focused on sexual ethics (contemporary sexuality), bioethics, and human trafficking.

Dr. Iyer teaches one of Santa Clara’s most popular courses: Theology, Sex, and Relationships. From the course description: “This course will explore the ethics of romantic and sexual relationships, in light of Christian theological and scriptural tradition(s) as well as reason (including social scientific sources) and contemporary human experience. We will examine overall relational patterns including friendship, dating, and sexual intimacy, with the ultimate goal of integrating our best insights into a creative, constructive, and fulfilling sexual ethic for college students in 2019.”


In this conversation, we discuss why students are so drawn to this course, human fulfillment, cultural influences, funny stories, advice Dr. Iyer would give her college self, and more. 

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Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: Can you discuss some of the topics from your Theology, Sex and Relationships class?


Karen Peterson-Iyer: The class itself is about framing the ethics of sex and relationships. The way I do that is by first having several weeks devoted to helping people articulate both their personal experience with respect to sex, but also our social experience. In a college environment, that has quite a bit to do with hookup culture and gendered understandings of the self. What does it mean to grow up in a culture with the pressures of being a boy or girl? What directions does that lead us in? Being able to articulate oneself both in terms of gender, and race... Hearing other people’s experience and articulating our own is the focus of the first few weeks of class.


After that, I try to give some normative tools to think about those things. It’s a religious studies class, so most of the sources stem from an explicitly religious background or are religiously-informed. We look at how the Catholic church has begun to address questions about sex, but we also look at more reformist Catholics or more radical perspectives look at sex.


In the last third of the quarter, we look at more specific iterations of sexual expression or sex work. We have conversations about what the ubiquity of the online experience has to do with sex, or how that affects dating.


GC: What is the value in bringing personal experience into conversation with more academic texts?


KPI: I absolutely do think there’s value. In the discipline of theology and ethics, experience itself has moral weight. History is written by the victors, so to understand what the history is about, you have to think about the experience of the people writing the history. In any discipline, experience does inform that discipline, we just often don’t admit it.


When we’re talking about sex and relationships, unfortunately, people who have minority status have been largely oppressed and ignored. In the last 50 years or so, there has been a bit of a turn where we realize that experience matters, and not everyone’s experience has been amplified. If we’re not aware of others experience, we’re not doing an honest job with the project of ethics.


We need to look at what the tradition has said, what the reasoning process is, what does scripture say… then bring that into conversation with experience. We’re not so bad as a culture about talking about experience, but we don’t do it academically. I’m a pretty firm believer that if we’re not doing that when talking about sex, we’re not really talking about sex.


GC: What advice would you give to an incoming first-year student?


KPI: I think for anybody entering college, the times people get in trouble are where they think, “If I don’t do XYZ, I won’t have any friends.” It’s a really tender time. You’re leaving your family and home, it’s a whole new academic environment. First of all, I think they need to know that there’s lots of time. Probably the people you gravitate towards at the beginning aren’t going to be your long-term friends anyways. Just give yourself grace.


The other thing is to know that you are awesome! I think every college student needs to know that they have deep, deep worth inside, and the time that that’s most challenging to remember is when you’re a first-year. A lot of problematic behavior we see comes from people not knowing that they are treasured, wonderful human beings. I would encourage people to know that they don’t have to be anything they don’t want to be.


Listen to the rest of the podcast to hear us discuss the two famous assignments from the class: the anonymous paper, and the date assignment. We also touch on vulnerability, cultural influences, and advice for students. 

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