Sex and the School

On its surface, Title IX looks simple: it bans sex-based discrimination in schools:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. 

As we take up this administrative language, however, we confront questions like: What does “the basis of sex” of mean? What is sex? Gender? Sexuality? There is nothing simple about questions like these.*

Sex is the subject of mystification and ideological struggle. Our relationships to each other are structured by profound, unresolvable contradictions which, in a sexist system, serve to strengthen the sexist apparatus. Sexism depends on the mystification and mythification of sex and sexual difference. If people struggle to understand what sexual harassment and sexual violence are, it is because they can’t find their way through sexism’s mist — through the strange effects of the discourses of sex and rape on how we think about the body, sexuality and power especially in desexualized spaces.

Title IX’s passage led to the recognition of sexual harassment as a form of discrimination and also to the recognition of the failure to address sexual violence within school communities as potentially discriminatory.

The challenge of administering Title IX is a feminist problem. Title IX attempts to regulate sexism out of existence. Nothing short of a dramatic re-organization of our lives will bring this about. So much about its administration is confusing. So much about the application of this law feels invasive.

Aspects of Title IX enforcement feel like a threat to the academic’s way of life. There is good reason for this. A set of regulations calling for gender equity is bound to feel invasive to the person whose sense of the world is ordered by sexism and misogyny. If we really are  going to eliminate the use of sex as a barrier to access to educational opportunity, we’ll have to re-imagine what school is. We’ll have to confront the degree to which certain forms of labor are sexed and devalued, for example. We’ll have to confront the degree to which hierarchies, modes of knowledge production, professional service and forms of pedagogy are sexed. We’ll have to confront the degree to which a certain sense of the intellectual — the scholar who publishes a lot, the leading figure in the field, the person whose work emerges from themselves, the person whose time should not be wasted on service  — is sustained by racism, by misogyny, by ableism.

Title IX might be feminist malware, uploaded, avant la lettre, into the Higher Education Act back in 1972 — a virus with the capacity to transform the school into something we can barely recognize as a school.

This is a perverse way of looking at Title IX.

It’s a weird tool. We can use it, but we did not write its code. We don’t know what the consequences of our engagements with it will be. We engage it when we have nothing to lose. We engage it because this is how we work. We engage it because we can’t work.

We can’t know what the future school will be. But we do know this: sex will always operate as a barrier where sex is marked as that which belongs elsewhere. No official articulation of education around that expulsion will be a good place for sexual being.

Title IX forces school communities to confront the disavowal of that fact that schools are sexual communities — that disavowal is sexism’s foundation. This is paradoxical, because, at the same time, the practice of Title IX enforcement often positions sex as a violent intrusion on a non-sexual space.

The school carves out the non-sexual as its territory — it slices through our bodies, cutting deeper into some than others.

The culture of school is defined by this disavowal of the school as a sexual space. And yet the school’s desexualization is never complete. Sex lurks everywhere — it must be rooted out. One thing must be separated from the other. That separation must be performed, and performed again.

Thus girls, for example, are subject to dress codes like “no visible bra straps.” Any person who has worn a bra will know the fidgety worry this undergarment brings to the body. Straps that slip off the shoulder, that don’t cooperate up with your outfit’s neckline. The question of what a bra strap is — is it the same if what you wear on your chest is closer to sports bra?

Thus hazing rituals pivot around sexual violation — as if, by walking through this fire, one is cleansed finally and forever.

School is a theater of sexual humiliation. Debilitating anxiety about menstruating through one’s clothes, anxiety about using school bathrooms (which can be the site of sexual harassment and homo/transphobic violence), the stigmatization of effeminacy  — students who are marked as sexual subjects struggle to feel welcome in school. One’s sexualization is positioned as at odds with one’s capacity to work and learn: school policy and social practice will reinforce that feeling. One begins to wonder if that positioning is, itself, what sexuality is.

We accept this division of sex and work/school in our day-to-day lives — indeed, it is all but impossible to function in desexualized spaces without participating in the disavowal which discursively positions sex as what exists and what happens outside work/school.**

More contradiction: for so many, the climb up the academic hierarchy is accompanied by fantasies of sexual power and entitlement — “mentoring” the objects of one’s sexual interest — the dispensation of sexual attention as a “reward” — the good job which brings the good wife. So much of how we understand the profession’s benefits are tied to sexual life — having enough money to own a house and start a family, the access to health insurance for one’s partner and children, tuition support for those children — the ability to have “a life” beyond work is expressed almost exclusively through reproductive privilege — through access to the reproductive labor organized under the family.

The maintenance of a collective disavowal of the fact that we are always sexual subjects comes at a cost — this disavowal intensifies the sexualization of subjects in a minority position within the space of school and work (as bodies who don’t belong, as bodies who belong to the space behind or underneath those structures). The story of the collusion of Penn State staff and administrators with years of sexual abuse is one example of what this level of disavowal can enable. The overwhelming domination of certain fields by men is another. The academy’s miserable responses to individual harassment cases is another.

A friend who works as an investigator once told me that every workplace complaint is a “situation.” People who address harassment within their organizations by engaging its complaint systems create a situation for that organization. Even if the people administering a complaint are sympathetic, the institution itself responds to a complaint as a problem for, structurally, that is what a complaint is. That is what a complainant is, too. She is married by the institution to her complaint. She has a body problem; she is a body problem.

A Title IX complaint is a signal jam. It will not necessarily make things better. It is a form of alarm. The complainant signals not sex’s intrusion but the reverse: the complainant shows us a problem that was always already there, always already, in a sense, everywhere.


*This post revises and expands a July 1 post — all of my posts on this subject are works in progress and are often revised. Re this particular post — see Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” originally published in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, Carol Vance ed. (Boston: Routledge, 1984), 2-319. In a sense, I am processing Title IX through some of the critical frameworks offered by Rubin in that essay. For example, she opens “Thinking Sex” with a sweeping observation: “The realm of sexuality also has its own internal politics, inequities, and modes of oppression. As with other aspects of human behavior, the concrete institutional forms of sexuality at any given time and place are products of human activity. They are imbued with conflicts of interest and political maneuver, both deliberate and incidental. In that sense, sex is always political. But there are also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized. In such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated.” Struggles over the administration of Title IX are explicit renegotiations of the relationship between erotic life, sex, school and work.

**There are important exceptions, which deserve far more than a footnote. Take, for example: feminist, queer and/or trans communities practicing sex work. Dare I ask that we look more often to these worlds for guidance regarding what it means to recognize, embrace and support the sexualities of working communities? Pornographic fantasy recuperates the desexualization of school for sexual use — here, we witness a mass form of working-through — but, phobically staged, it is also a constant reinforcement of the positioning of sex as a disruption and debasement, as a stigmatized form of learning.