Virginity Auctions and Freshman Composition

At George’s request, I’ll be focusing this week’s teaching carnival post on a recent activity I conducted in my freshman composition classes.  The activity, which was designed to encourage students to think about issues of genre and audience and their relationship to writing, seemed to work well, and because it was conducted on the second day of class, it also proved to be a pretty effective icebreaker.  As I was preparing for what would be my second day of class, in which I planned to lead a discussion of “rhetorical situations” based on readings from The Norton Field Guide to Writing, one of my colleagues happened to mention the recent news story that a 22 year-old college student, Natalie Dylan, had announced that she was auctioning her virginity to the highest bidder in order to pay for her graduate school tuition.

Dylan, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in marriage and family, reports that bidding has reached $3.7 million dollars and that she came to the idea of selling her services after learning that her sister had paid for grad school by working as a prostitute. In most interviews, Dylan has depicted herself as making an empowered choice, one that will benefit both her and her customer.  Ultimately, the story raised a number of questions about the ethics of Dylan’s actions, about female empowerment, and about the legality of prostitution–among many other topics.  Perfect for a class activity focused on argument.

The chapters from the text ask that students think about how issues such as purpose, audience, genre, stance, and medium affect writing, and as a teacher, I often find it difficult to reinforce these ideas in a concrete way, so my solution was to create an in-class activity in which students were expected to think about these parameters for writing in the context of Dylan’s story.  First, I read with students one of the articles about Dylan.  Then, I divided the students into groups of two and asked them to write an argument about the story given certain conditions: One group was the president of a campus women’s studies organization writing a letter to the school newspaper. Another group was assigned to play Natalie herself, writing an email to her mom to defend her choice.  A third group was to play a friend of Natalie’s trying to convince her not to go through with the auction using text messages only.  Another pretended to be a church youth pastor using the story to teach teens about the sanctity of marriage.  A final group was asked to pretend to be executives from eBay issuing a press release explaining why they were taking down Natalie’s auction.

Because the students didn’t have to commit to any position themselves, they jumped into the task pretty energetically and fairly quickly showed that they have some grasp of how we write in these various media and contexts.  I then had each group present their text to the class.  One point of interest was the debate over whether Natalie would send an email to her mom about the auction.  One group said that it would be more appropriate to have such a conversation face-to-face, but another student observed that sending a written text would make it easier fro Natalie to make all of her points without the risk of interruption.  The eBay students gleefully adapted the dry corporate rhetoric used in press releases, while my students also had fun imitating the vocal styles of their preachers and the lingo of text messagers.

I think the activity generally worked pretty well.  More than anything, I hoped to start a conversation about the challenges of writing for specific audiences and hoped to get them to recognize that they often practice these skills in their daily lives by adopting different tones with parents, teachers, peers, and employers.  If I do a similar activity in the future, I’d likely have to focus on a different news event, but I this particular controversy worked well because it touches upon issues that were familiar to them: premarital sex, financial security, gender relationships. In fact, one student came into class the following day and excitedly told me that “your article” was on CNN.  At first, I thought she meant that something I had written had been mentioned on CNN, which left me taken aback, but she was referring to a Nancy Grace discussion of the story, so it seemed to stick with some of them, at least.

If I had more time–I planned the activity about two hours before class–I would have given them the articles in advance so that they could anticipate some of the major arguments earlier.   And I would want to do a slightly better job of making sure that the debates themselves–over legalized prostitution, for example–didn’t outweigh the main point I wanted to make about audience, but I think it did help to make the idea of audience, genre, and purpose a little more concrete for them.

By the way, I’d like to encourage all of my readers to contribute to some of the upcoming teaching carnivals.  The first carnival will be hosted by George Williams on January 26, and I’ll be hosting one on March 23.  Contributions are welcome from anyone involved in education.  Just follow the very simple instructions on the Teaching Carnival blog.

Update: A few days after this assignment, Dylan’s story continued to develop.  According to Film in Focus, Dylan may receive as much as seven figures for the rights to make a movie about her story, enough money that she’d consider not going through with her original proposal.


  1. Brian Said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    Chuck, this sounds like a great assignment. I taught a piece on a virginity auction in the fall of 2004, involving Rosie Reid (see from the BBC). We held one of the day’s discussions entirely in a chat room, where students quickly learned that their rhetoric and method of argumentation had to adapt to the different medium of the chat room. I really like the idea of getting them to write from the different perspectives, and will gladly use this in the future.

  2. Billie Said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

    This is such a clever idea, Chuck. Can I steal it? 😉

  3. Chuck Said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 1:41 am

    Feel free to use it. I ha a lot of fun with it, and I think my students did, too.

  4. The Salt-Box » Teaching Carnival 3.1 Said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 2:40 am

    […] Chuck Tryon builds a writing assignment around “virginity auctions.” […]

  5. The Chutry Experiment » First-Year Writing: Narcissism or New Literacies Said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 11:43 am

    […] crucially, it is written for an audience.  I’ve done a number of activities, including my virginity auction activity last fall, in which students are asked to think about audience, and because of their […]

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