A Radical Rethinking of Sexuality and Schooling Status Quo or Status Queer?
reviewed by Mari E. Koerner - 2006
Title: A Radical Rethinking of Sexuality and Schooling Status Quo or Status Queer?
Author(s): Eric Rofes
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0742541959, Pages: 169, Year: 2005
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Recently The New York Times Magazine published an article about a film director who made a movie showing an affair between a man and a woman. The reason the film warranted an entire article in the Sunday supplement is because it is a story about sex using real, not simulated, movie sex. Of course, there are porn films, but this is a serious movie which will play in mainstream theatres. The director notes, You can show people eating and doing normal things but you cant show two people making love, the most natural of things (Rodrick, 2005, p. 24). I think the director is credible, and it makes sense to me intellectually, but I am not sure the actors had to have real sex in order for the movie to be better. I am unconvinced it makes the product all that more worthwhile. Is sex the point? Or is there a larger story which may not be as fully presented because this authentic portrayal actually gets in the way?
There were many times, while reading A Radical Rethinking of Sexuality and Schooling: Status Quo or Status Queer? I had the same feelings. It is exciting to engage with Eric Rofes intellectually about teaching and sexuality, but I am not persuaded that he makes a clear case for all of his ideas and the need to implement them in order to make classrooms better places for teachers and students. Often, at the end of particularly provocative points, I wanted to put up the warning Do not try this unless you really know what you are doing! A caring, thoughtful, responsible professional at that.
Through a personal narrative, Eric Rofes talks about his life as a gay man, activist, and teacher of middle school and college age students while looking at sexuality and teaching. Raising issues he has encountered or studied over his long career, he presents beliefs, stories, and arguments which are frequently provocative, almost always engaging, sometimes dense, and often with unclear implications. The ideas, and sometimes subsequent or potential practices, can be startling, a bit out of focus and not quite transparent enough to be fully understandable or transferable to our own lives as teachers. Perhaps, my perspective is shaped by my own acculturated, institutionalized, and therefore, limited views. As Mulhern and Martinez (1998, p. 255) point out (and perhaps with particular relevance to me and others like me), Teaching queerly required more than a conviction. Confronted with a lack of knowledge and remnants of the homophobia we had grown up with, we had to peel back layers of fear and discomfort and educate ourselves. Then I ask the questions, Who is the audience for this book? Is it only the people who already know and agree with Rofes and his politics and have the same understandings? If that is the case, it is too bad because he has a lot to offer all teachers, all people, who would agree with him when he says, Ultimately, I believe my work as a teacher is about supporting students as they become agents of transgression and activists for social and political change (p. 100).
Rofes perspective rests on the very powerful idea that an argument can be made to identify gender-nonconforming children and adolescents as resisters to the patriarchal gender inclination that occurs within most schools, family units, and youth peer groups (p. 2). Eric goes on to explain this in terms of his own life, Rather than see my gender-nonconforming self or my homosexuality as rooted in deficits (e.g. a lack of effective male role models), could they be understood as the heteronormative sex-gender system? Could Icould all queer youthactually be active agents in moving into their queer identities and lives? (p. 126). Ultimately Rofes talks about inclusion as a way to learn from marginalized groups and that these groups do not have to fit within the normative society in order to be recognized as valuable. I am committed to a gay liberation agenda that argues that queer cultures have much to teach mainstream America about sex, democratic social networks, and equitable relationships (p. 98). The core of his argument is that the ultimate goal of multiculturalism and diversity is not to assimilate but rather to make available the advantages of difference.
It is the discussion about adultism and the power that adults have over children which, although cogent, is troubling because it raises issues which need to be more fully explored than he allows for in this book. Rofes recognizes, as a form of abuse, first, the characterization of children as incapable, inept and profoundly dependent and then, the subsequent laws, practices and policies which follow. This definition allows, he contends, adults to use the science of developmentalism and most of the theories in the educational psychology canon to suppress, repress and incarcerate childhood (p. 6). Eric says about himself, Rather than being born vulnerable, as people like to think of children, social and cultural forces colluded to make me vulnerable (pp. 6-7). In response, he offers that this means finding ways to radically transform what we believe is the nature of childhood in America and reduce the privileges and stature awarded to their biological ages (p. 7).
Because Rofes does not present, in real depth, the problems which may result from taking this stance, he does not to fully develop it. Without age sensitive laws, there are many adults who would, without sanction, freely seduce and abuse children. He barely accounts for this very important problem that would come with the view that children are really far more fully capable people who can make, what we now consider, adult decisions. His arguments against the credibility of child development offer no guide for how to, indeed, measure the level of responsibility a child can have as he or she grows into adulthood. Certainly it is not the same as adultsso who is responsible for what and when? He offers the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) as a source of thoughtful critiques of childhood and sexuality(p. 54), and while he acknowledges that this alone might lessen his credibility, he is non-specific as to what arguments they offer which he thinks add to the credibility of his arguments. Knowing that NAMBLAs opinions about age-of-consent laws have also been used by pedophiles, it would be very useful to help guide this argument and give more specific information. Instead of using a chapter to talk about the stated mission of education schools, which I thought was underdeveloped, it would have been far more useful to draw out this argument and acknowledge with some vigor, the issues of possible sexual exploitation of children. This goes back to the question of audience for this book-perhaps Rofes thinks that he only has to have brief references to support his case and the reader knows enough to fill in the vacant spots.
All of Rofes stories about himself as a teacher are very engaging, and I found myself longing for more description of how he goes about his craft, a craft he obviously has taken seriously for many years. But what was missing for me was acknowledgement of and discussion about the dilemma of using the very power he talks about as oppressing students, to put forward his own agenda. For example, Eric talks about how he discusses his sexuality in his classrooms, but does not account for the power he has as the authority which allows him to do this. He does not offer much insight about how he decides what that power means and how it may indeed silence his current and former students. I remember when I was a doctoral student and a professor of ed philosophy talked about his proclivity toward oral sex. It did not enhance my understanding of ed philosophy, and it was more than I wanted to know about him. But what I did know was that he took advantage of his authority with a captive audience to talk about himself about something which was relevant to only him. I would guess if you asked him about it now, he would say that we were all mesmerized by his admissions because no one objected. My questions are, How does a teacher really ever know what students think about personal discourse during a class? What is the gauge Rofes uses to understand when he has crossed a line and his talk is more self-serving than student-serving? I think these are universal questions with which teachers strugglewhen does the personal self interfere with the students learning? I wish, because I am sure Rofes thinks about all of this, he had talked more about itto sound out many of the discussions in the book and to acknowledge the dangers as well as the advantages of his beliefs about teachers and their roles and responsibilities.
There are so many more ideas which Eric Rofes presents and which are equally compelling. I would recommend that this book be read, not in isolation, but with other teachers to talk about his life and his ideas and what they mean for the education and liberation of children.
Mulhern, M. and Martinez, G. (1998). Confronting homophobia in a multicultural education course in W.J. Letts IV and J. Sears (eds) Queering elementary education Advancing the dialogue about sexualities and schooling. NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Rodrick, S. (July 3, 2005). Michael Winterbottom gets naked. The New York Times Magazine, 22-27.