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Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education

reviewed by Isabel Nuñez - March 30, 2015

coverTitle: Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education
Author(s): Jen Gilbert
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
ISBN: 0816686394, Pages: 144, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

It was a pleasure to explore so many applications of psychoanalytic ideas to education in Jen Gilbert’s new book, Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education. Freud is not very popular these days, but not only did he open the human unconscious for exploration, he also revealed the profound, arguably primary force that is sexuality in the individual psyche. As much of what is discussed in Gilbert’s book demonstrates, we ignore the psychic power of sexuality at our own peril.

This is not to say that Freudian theory has not been fruitfully built on and rightly critiqued. It is through critical engagement, rather than dismissal, that theoretical structures, to whatever degree flawed (as all ideas, being human creations, inevitably are), become most useful. In fact, one of Freud’s most important psychoanalyst critics, Alice Miller (1998/1984), condemns both the Freudian interpretation of childhood sexuality and trauma and our societal insistence that children “shalt not be aware.”

Our cultural discomfort with youth sexuality—and sexuality in general for those of us in the United States—poses a conundrum for educators, who are vocationally disinclined to promote ignorance. The myth of childhood innocence, the risk of censure for a teacher who broaches taboo topics, the unresolved sexual issues that many adults carry: these are some of the obstacles that need to be negotiated by the educator who truly seeks to teach the whole child, who is an intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical (yes, even sexual) being (Jung, 1949/1932).

Thankfully, Gilbert’s book presents a sensitive and thoughtful resource for teachers who are committed to doing just that. Refusing to throw the baby out with the androcentric Freudian bathwater, she acknowledges in the introduction that “sexuality begins at the beginning of life: sexuality inaugurates subjectivity” (p. xviii). Eros remains central to the experience of learning, and therefore to the educational project. The “wildness” of sexuality “both propels and sabotages the practices of education” (p. x). It is no wonder we need the essays collected in this book to help us navigate sexuality in school.

The first chapter brings attention to the inner work that adults need to do before engaging pedagogically with children. Gilbert cites Kincaid in explaining the child as a blank surface for adult erotic inscription. The examples cited in the chapter are when queer adults construct themselves as children in predictive origin stories designed to “anchor the possibility of a coherent and stable sexual and gender identity” (p. 3), and when children serve collectively as symbols and markers in adult power relations and policy debates. Educators, Gilbert argues, should work to free the child from adult baggage—personal or societal—and to value “her being as important as her becoming” (p. 23).

Chapter Two begins by problematizing the distinction between adolescents and adults—those who need and do not need sex education. Again, we are reminded of the inner work that we as educators need to do. Gilbert suggests viewing these less as age-based categories than as “psychical relation” (p. 27) of maturation, necessarily involving rebellion and “the painful work of giving up the parents as love objects” (p. 35), and nurturance, including the willingness to “endure those tests” and thereby reassure the adolescent of “the durability of their environment” (p. 41). Sex education must take the risk of trusting young people to take the risks that are necessary to their healthy psychic development; it must validate adolescent sexuality while acknowledging that sex cannot be separated from love and loss.

The book’s third chapter examines the dual role of the life histories shared by queer adults in the “It Gets Better” campaign of video testimonials. For the adults, haunted by the ghosts of teen suicides as well as their former young selves, the narratives are a means of nurturing those internal voices. The youth that view the videos, Gilbert explains, are caught between what Butler describes as “the necessity of being addressed and the risk of being stuck with the terms of that address” (p. 54). The sharing of what Nealon terms “foundling texts” becomes a means of building “a community of orphans” (p. 59).

Chapter Four draws disconcerting parallels between comprehensive and abstinence-centered sex education—both of which assume “sexuality is a risk against which education mitigates” (p. 65) and demand compliance rather than thinking. Resonant of her earlier advice that adolescents need to be trusted to take risks, here Gilbert calls for educators to offer adolescents “our capacity for thoughtfulness,” thereby furthering “the capacity to think for oneself” (p. 74). Dewey (1975/1909) pointed out that the only way to teach lessons of this kind is through modeling. Therefore,

we must, as adults, risk thinking for ourselves, recognizing how our own desires come to structure our attempts at sex education for youth, and then offering youth generous enough prohibitions so that they can make good use of both our and their own negations as they work to craft affectively rich stories about their sexualities. (p. 80)

The final chapter is entitled “Education as Hospitality: Toward a Reluctant Manifesto.” Gilbert reminds us here of the contradictory workings of sexuality in education, with potential for both inspiration and disruption.  In a similar way, the Derridean notion of hospitality—offering unconditional welcome while constrained by those very “laws, norms and practices” of hospitality (p. 82)—is at odds with itself. Despite the challenges and existential limitations of the project, Gilbert offers five truths to guide us in the work of integrating this most troublesome, but fertile, aspect of human experience into the project of education: there is no magic bullet; everything counts; we need to speak the words of our experience; we need to look beyond bullying; and we need to support and protect LGBTQ teachers.

As Gilbert points out in Chapter Two, teacher and student, adult and child, are at heart psychical relations. We move in and out of these roles throughout life—even in the course of a day. More importantly, these relations take place both in the inner world and in the outer, since we have as many voices within as without. For self, for others, and for self in others, we as educators must think and act deeply and pedagogically about sexuality in schools.


Dewey, J. (1975). Moral principles in education. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published in 1909)

Jung, C. G. (1949). Psychological types, or the psychology of individuation. (H. G. Baynes, Trans.). London, England: Routledge. (Original work published in 1932)

Miller, A. (1998). Though shalt not be aware: Society’s betrayal of the child. New York, NY: Macmillan. (Original work published in 1984)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 30, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17911, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:29:23 AM

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About the Author
  • Isabel Nuñez
    University of Illinois
    E-mail Author
    ISABEL NUÑEZ holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago, an M.Phil. in Cultural Studies from Birmingham University, England, and a J.D. from the UCLA School of Law. She was a classroom teacher in Los Angeles and the U.K., and a newspaper journalist in Japan. Her book, Worth Striking For: Why Education Policy is Every Teacher’s Concern, authored with Gregory Michie and Pamela Konkol, will be published by Teachers College Press in February 2015. She edited the 2014 volume Diving In: Bill Ayers and the Art of Teaching into the Contradiction with Crystal Laura and Rick Ayers for Teachers College Press, and has authored chapters in books from Peter Lang, Routledge and SAGE. She is an associate editor for Multicultural Perspectives, and she edited and introduced the section “Self, Sexuality and Teaching” in Sexualities in Education: A Reader, published by Peter Lang in 2012.
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