‘Sexing History’ podcast emphasizes the story of the history of sexuality

sexing history
Bianca Thiruchittampalam/THE REVIEW
‘Sexing History’ podcast combines the art of storytelling with women and gender studies .


Rebecca Davis is an associate professor of history and women and gender studies. However, as a producer on the podcast “Sexing History,” Davis defines herself with a different title: storyteller.

As Davis explains, storytelling is a central component to her work as a producer.

“I get the script that the co-hosts write with the help of the research team and read those scripts,” Davis says, “I work on building and framing the narrative.”

The stories Davis frames and formulates on “Sexing History” cover a wide breadth of topics — from the sexualization of flight attendants during the 1970s to the beginnings of gay proms to the more recent Me Too movement — but all of them address the overarching topic of the history and impact of sexuality in America. The podcast, which was created by Davis’ friend Gillian Frank, launched in fall of 2017 and is currently in its spring season.

On Feb. 15, Davis was invited to the Department of Women and Gender Studies’ Diversity Research Cafe to discuss the content of her podcast in a casual, conversational setting. From 4 to 5:30 p.m., a crowd of gathered in the Memorial Hall Dome to enjoy light refreshments, hear Davis explain the content and intention behind ‘Sexing History’ and engage in conversation on the topic of sexuality in America. The discussion attracted individuals both with and without a women and gender studies background, including sociology professor Chrysanthi Leon.

“My area of research is sex crime and punishment, so there’s a lot of overlap there,” Leon says. “Really, women and gender studies is an interdisciplinary area, and as long as one’s work and area has something to do with gender and sexuality issues, then they provide a community of tools that are of interest and ways to approach it. There’s sort of a natural connection to sociology.”

One major theme that Davis emphasizes in “Sexing History” is politics. During her discussion, Davis brought light to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in government, journalism and show business, emphasizing how the movement against these powerful figures — such as the president and film producer Harvey Weinstein — gained strength when women realized their experience was indeed a shared one.

“More recently, I think it’s become unavoidable how directly our political world is shaped by gender difference, sexuality and race,” Davis says. “The conversation has emerged around the president and his administration, among men on both sides of the [political] aisle, men in the national media, and the upsurge in feminist activism in the last year and a half and the response to all these things. This thing you might have kept to yourself because you thought it was just the way your relationship worked is really a part of a massive puzzle about how gender affects power. It’s a part of a broader system, it’s connected and it’s political.”

Davis also notes the power of stories in politics. According to Davis, many of the journalists who worked on the 2016 presidential campaign were responsible for imposing a double standard upon Hillary Clinton, calling her voice “shrill and screech-y” and criticizing what she wore, while giving Donald Trump a “free pass.” She believes that the stories told by these journalists helped shape people’s perception of politics and the eventual outcome of the race.

Another popular topic on Davis’ podcast that came up multiple times during the Diversity Research Cafe talk was the sexualization of flight attendants during the 1970s. In order to attract customers, many airline companies would create advertisements with overt sexual messages, such as a campaign featuring a flight attendant standing in front of an airplane and wearing revealing clothing with the caption “Fly Me.”

The sexualization of these women translated from ads to their workplace, where flight attendants were fired if they got pregnant, had restrictions on how they could wear their hair and were subject to frequent weigh-ins. Male customers on flights would frequently harass these women, groping or pinching them. Davis believes that it is important to study this history because of its parallels to current events.

“Women organized their own labor union and successfully pushed back against these restrictions,” Davis says. “They launched an effort to protest those labor conditions. I think there’s a pretty obvious connection to the Me Too movement right now and the sexualization of women in all kinds of employment situations.”

Davis’work is largely academic, but during her talk, she was able to encourage conversation and participation from non-academic members of her audience.

“I liked her emphasis that this is an academic world, but that she wants to have a connection with the public,” Mirabootalebi Reyhane, a graduate student in the Department of Women and Gender Studies, says.

Davis believes that the podcast format is a refreshing and effective approach to telling stories, a format that she and the podcast creators intend on sticking with.

“Listening is a very personalized experience,” Davis says. “I think there’s something that’s simultaneously private and connected about a podcast. I think there’s an artistry to it.”

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