As a regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed, I have written about my professional journey of becoming an #altac sexuality educator. In earlier essays, I have described the impact of sexuality education on my academic career, and, in turn, the impact of my academic training on my sex ed career. In this third essay, I write about the pervasive sex negativity that I have observed in academe. The many interconnections of sexuality with life in and around universities should concern all of us, regardless of orientation, relationship status or gender identity.
Sex negativity refers to a mind-set that sex is inherently dirty, dangerous, risky, pathological or deviant. Certain kinds of sex are seen as normal and thus acceptable within the bounds of heterosexual procreative monogamy. Meanwhile, those types of sexual identities, expressions and acts that fall outside the bounds are considered deviant.
In a sex-negative society like contemporary America, sex is seen as an activity that taints the people who engage in it, resulting in stigma for people like single mothers, sex workers, nonheterosexual folks and people who participate in sexuality subcultures such as swinging, polyamory and kink. Sex negativity has consequences for things that are not strictly related to sexual acts, too; exploring a nonmainstream gender identity is also enough to get one in trouble.
Within education, sex negativity plays out in very specific -- and very harmful -- ways. Examples abound, like this one: a high school teacher lost her job after a student stole her phone and shared a nude picture of her that was stored on it. When I was writing for MySexProfessor.com, I had a tag just for all the sex-negative crap that kept happening in academe.
Here are some of the major manifestations of sex negativity that I have observed in academe:
- American academe is a microcosm of the rest of America, which can be sexphobic, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic, and we can see these patterns replicated in university norms.
- Students are regularly held to different sexual standards than instructors, with student sexuality being framed as a problem only when it is excessive or combative, and with faculty sexuality usually being treated as a problem when it is visible at all (especially for women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups).
- The most talked about sex topic in most universities is sexual assault, and yet actual policies to prevent and prosecute sexual assault are problematic, in some cases minimal and often thoroughly enmeshed in the assumptions that accompany rape culture (e.g., victim blaming, lacking an understanding of how trauma works and so on).
- The university allows outright censorship of sex topics, as has happened to Alice Dreger, as well as faculty members not being defended when they criticize some facet of the sex-gender system, as happened to Saida Grundy.
And that is just the highlights list. As a sexuality scholar, and as a human who (gasp!) has had some personal involvement with sexuality over the course of my adult life, I have had to tread carefully.
Our time in academe is social, and that necessitates navigating sexuality. I do not mean getting it on in the classroom or office but rather choosing which facets of one’s identity are put on display, if being closeted is even an option. If one departs from the cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, vanilla norm, then what? For instance, if in the past I have brought a male partner to departmental events, do I have to think twice before bringing a female partner?
Further, the personal and the professional blend in university settings in ways that exceed and contort a scholar’s intentions. When I teach a unit on nonmonogamy in different cultures, am I seen to be advocating for that relationship mode? If I research contemporary sexual subcultures, do I have to think about how it might harm my university’s brand if I am seen doing participant observation at a local fetish night? Surely a scholar who teaches about World War II with interview data from Third Reich leaders is not seen as advocating for Nazism, despite making students read about it and discuss it. But since the way we view sex in America is so pathological, everything about it becomes distorted.
The more time I spend being alt-ac, the less I worry about what anyone thinks of my teaching and research, though I suppose that may be a mixed blessing. If someone wants to take me to task for teaching racy material, well, that is a possibility. As an adjunct, I am extremely vulnerable when it comes to job security. But at the same time, the less that I am wrapped up in the world of full-time academe, the less I feel constrained by these arbitrary norms -- by the pressure to be a heteronormative model citizen who looks presentable and does not say things that might offend students or upset the status quo.
One thing that I have learned, and am grateful to have experienced, is that the sex ed community is delightfully accepting, inclusive and sex positive in contrast to academe. I feel safe there to discuss not only whatever sex research I am into at the moment but also anything going on with my own sexuality, gender identification, relationships and so on. That is not because my sex ed colleagues have poor professional or personal boundaries, but rather because we are committed to revolutionizing boundaries that only serve to uphold hierarchies and unjust notions of appropriateness. For all that the university is supposed to be a bastion of progressive thought, free of intolerance and bigotry, I would rather have the vulnerable and more charged conversations with my sex education colleagues than with most of my academic colleagues.
Like most major life transitions, this has been a slow one at times, but ultimately it has also been quite fulfilling. My academic research skills have been a great boon in the sex ed world because, frankly, there is a lot of misinformation out there about sex. My habit of saying, “Citation please?” registers as obnoxious at times, but it helps me do my job better. I suspect that being a sexuality professional in a sexphobic culture will never be easy, but the fit with academe is, thus far, going about as well as I could have hoped.
Sex negativity in academe is, I suspect, especially hard on those of us who are not as sheltered by various facets of privilege. I am a woman who benefits from white privilege, yet as an adjunct I lack the job security of someone who is tenure track or administration. The intersection of identities already impacted more by sex negativity (such as gender and sexuality minorities) with sex negativity in academe makes for a mix of prejudices, silences and constraints. My work as a sexuality educator informs my approach to these topics now, and I would advise, as always, that people try to find the right balance of self-care and activism that lets them keep doing good work in the world.
Easier said than done, I know, but simply having this conversation is a great place to start.