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Fear of Queer Sex in the Classroom

12 April 2012

Recently when discussing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “Footnote to Howl” (here’s Ginsberg reciting) in an American culture course, students got up and left the class when the conversation turned to how Ginsberg uses gay sex as metaphor and imagery. Contextually, we had just come out of a few days of discussing Cold War conformity and domestic “containment,” as well as C. Wright Mills’ concept of the “happy robot” from White Collar. [Earlier this semester, students had also gotten up and left class during a conversation of orgasm and female sexual agency in Kate Chopin's The Awakening.] I’ve been teaching about sexuality in my classes since 1998, usually integrating the issues of power and normativity surrounding sexuality into other topics (I haven’t had the chance to teach a course on culture and sexuality since 1998). I’m not bothered by student discomfort in the classroom; I am however troubled by the willful refusal to engage with the bothersome facts and ideas.

Like many scholars in that bleed-over space between humanities and social sciences, I see my role in the classroom as being more than a dispenser of information. As a sociologist (trained in interdisciplinary culture studies, American studies, and history as well) I see one of my primary pedagogical goals as being to help students develop their “critical thinking skills.” And many university level courses ranging from biology to Women’s studies, from Physics to art history can challenge students learned perceptions, bringing habitual patterns of thinking and doing to light. As anyone who has ever taught knows, it can be very uncomfortable.  But in terms of learning and pedagogy, I’m okay with students being uncomfortable with course content.

The phrase “critical thinking” is so banal as to be meaningless at this point, so I feel it bears some further explanation from my personal pedagogical approach. I do not mean a bland ability to spot someone’s politics in a newspaper article; nor do I necessarily mean the ability to scan a poem. Rather, what I mean is the ability to step outside one’s own experience and habits and see the social structures, power relationships, ideologies, and statuses that produced them and limit them on a day to day basis. To step outside oneself and engage C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination is no mean trick, and takes practice, exposure, and modeling to fully blossom. And even then, it requires students to be in what cognitive scientists term “conscious problem solving” mode, which involves effort, deliberate and purposeful thinking, abstraction, and will to execute. [Of course, we must admit that a perfect abstraction away from the self is not possible, in my opinion; but that it is a worthy end-in-view that enables worthwhile humanistic research.]

To this end, it often requires a shaking experience of some kind for people to think outside themselves. This can be tricky, as jolting people out of their comfort might raise ethical questions, and because they can resist the process. It should go without saying that heteronormativity structures and pervades a classroom. The students (and teachers) bring it with them and enact and reproduce it in the room, including all the privileges and powers that it bestows upon its adherents (if you’ll excuse the religious metaphor). There are many ways that a teacher can pedagogically lay these structures bare in the classroom, but my personality and teaching style tends toward the frank and the brash intrusion of queerness into a course design overall or into a particular discussion. Over the years I’ve had mixed responses, including students calling me faggot in class and writing homophobic comments in my teaching evaluations. But generally speaking from a pedagogical standpoint, my students learn to point out the systems of power, privilege, subordination, and oppression around genitals, bodies, desires, and pleasure.

But with “Howl,” male-male sex—specifically and explicitly, butt fucking and blow jobs—is central to the thing itself, and not a pedagogical choice. It is a queer production by a queer man at a time when deliberate shaming, ostracism, jailing, financial ruin, institutionalization, and suicide were the public face of homosexuality. It is in its writhing litany of the pain and foreclosure of American society in the 50s, among other things, a responsa, an apology, a hagiography to the queer. Ginsberg’s lost generation are those

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may

The transposition of public gay sex reveling in its abjection with Jewish symbols of holiness (seraphim) and with Whitmanian symbols of “spiritual democracy” (semen and grass) challenges the reader (the student?) to demand difficult answers from the domestic containment of the 1950s, and indeed, from the pro-gay marriage campaigns of today.

By broaching these sexual topics and throwing them out there for students, I challenge them to see the ways that assumptions about desires and bodies creates imbalances of power in the society they live in. And it makes them squirm. But in a world where heteronormativity blocks Ginsberg’s sanctification of gay male sex—not to mention Chopin’s longed-for full female sexual agency—they can always simply refuse it, turn their backs on it, and slam the door behind them. And there was really nothing I could do to protect the handful of gay students in the room from that rejection.

From → Teaching

8 Comments
  1. Maybe it wasn’t fear but disgust.

    • Fear and disgust are closely related emotions. What’s interesting about disgust in this case is how tightly it is constrained by its context. Outside of a narrow range of smells, children learn disgust as a response to socially “unclean” things from interacting socially in their environments; it’s so culture specific that even the universal disgust at rotten food is widely modified by culture (for example, Westerners eat cheese, which is more or less rotten cow’s or goat’s milk).

      We find by studying people in various cultures around the world that sex acts and desires can become triggers for the emotion of disgust, but that depending on the culture you’re in, the particular desires and acts triggering disgust are wildly different.

      The problem in this context of a university classroom in the united states, from a sociological perspective, is how fear (or disgust if you prefer) is in fact an effect of power; that is, the feeling of disgust works socially to motivate a student to get up and leave, a student who feels in his gut the “disgustingness” of the topic and the “rightness” of his refusal. Disgust is not an excuse or explanation for bad behavior. Disgust is the means of oppression.

      Further, because the emotion of disgust is structured socially and given meaning culturally and because emotional expression is a learned habit, the expression of disgust in a classroom regarding sexuality, in this case, gay male sex, serves to reproduce the context of internalized disgust, that is, self-hatred of the gay students in the room.

    • Martha Nussbaum, an amazing ethical philosopher, has written a great book about the intersection of disgust with homophobia and anti-gay politics in the U.S.

      From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law

      http://www.amazon.com/From-Disgust-Humanity-Orientation-Constitutional/dp/0195305310/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334269253&sr=8-1

      • Sorry, but homophobia (fear of homosexuals) is just one way that sad gays and supporters slant things in an attempt to place blame on those who know it’s wrong, and away from their own practices.

  2. First off, I’ve never read Ginsberg, but let me just say that I’ve never read a more beautiful excerpt that contained the phrases “fucked in the ass” and “scattering their semen freely”. I know this is coming off as sarcastic, but…poetic? I think maybe.

    I hope you bear with me, because this is not my field or in any way my expertise, but…

    What really shocked me in this piece was how you concluded: “And there was really nothing I could do to protect the handful of gay students in the room from that rejection.” Do you feel the need, or the obligation, to “protect” them? I feel as though that comes from a place of assumed weakness on the part of the gay students in your class.

    I think it’s interesting how you put it in the above comment: “because the emotion of disgust is structured socially and given meaning culturally and because emotional expression is a learned habit, the expression of disgust in a classroom regarding sexuality, in this case, gay male sex, serves to reproduce the context of internalized disgust, that is, self-hatred of the gay students in the room.” Once again, just my instinct, but my feeling is that you are empowering the “disgusted” and not giving enough benefit to the personal choice and liberties of the “disgustee” to make that conscious and deliberate decision to either internalize those feelings of self-hate, or to accept that there will be douche bags in this world who don’t like them for the type of porn they watch, and move on with bettering themselves in your class.

    I agree that getting up and walking out is bad behavior…rude, dismissive, condescending…and I understand and agree with you to a point about this behavior re-enforcing a norm of fear and disgust…but I also feel as though you can best “protect” them, not by shielding them from those who are disgusted or fearful, but through the process of education, and it seems as though your resume is suited just for that.

    Lastly, I wish you hadn’t used that example of cheese being rotten milk…I literally just sat down with a wedge to snack on while I read this.

    • I do feel an intense need in the classroom to create and maintain a safe space for all students. But I’ve been teaching since 1996, so I have no illusions about my ability to actually do so. Rather, I treat it as an end-in-view, a worthwhile pedagogical goal, but more or less unattainable. That last sentence comes from a more personal place of looking into the faces of two students specifically and understanding their hurt/anger/frustration. Of course I don’t think I can or should protect them, nor do I think that they can’t handle it. They are two gay guys going to school in an environment that is ostensibly “LGBT friendly” but which in fact enforces closetedness. They are strong young men and they get it. Yet the whole reason I do what I do is because i hope for a world without that kind of personal injustice.

      I think you’re reading my very brief analysis of the structures of power a bit too strongly. That is, do not think that a couple of sentences that explain how disgust works to reproduce systems of power is all there is to say about the matter. Of course LGBT folk constantly resist and flip the bird at such bull shit; and through their efforts they have created (since WWII in the U.S.) a very different world for themselves. But they do so from a position of abjection created by the disgust of the dominant culture, and it is vitally important that we understand how disgust works.

      Sorry about your cheese. LOL

  3. Great post! Smart, interesting, and on the spot. Hadn’t read that particular text of Nussbaum, but it recalls her work on people with disabilities, who are also treated with disgust by many people and therefore dehumanized. It saddens me greatly that your students are unable to sit and just BE with their discomfort, it could move them into different thinking spaces. It’s like a hundred or so years ago when the white students got up and left rather than sit with black students at the Harvard medical school. It really shows small mindedness and I am very sorry to hear that the next generation feels entitled to oppress people.

    • I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but to be fair, American culture (especially some religious and ethnic subcultures within in) enforce a secrecy about sexuality, so that it creates intense shame and embarrassment for people to talk/see/think about it. Of course, that secrecy is one of the primary means that the power of the sexual order is maintained. Notice how this goes against, to some degree, Foucault’s analysis of the enforced “confession”; I think the two phenomena co-exist in American culture.

      All this to say that from a raw cultural perspective, I understand why some students are so deeply shaken by discussions of Edna’s desire to have an orgasm with a man she desires (rather than a man she was forced to marry) or to think about why Ginsberg would elevate “balling in the public park” to the heights of the American sacred. It is, in a way, very American.

      What really sticks in my craw, though, is that we have several times over the past two semesters (this is a full-year, 12 credit sequence course for underclassmen) about just how secrecy and shame work. So it really bothers me that they aren’t able to internalize that critique and become self-reflexive about their own disgust and shame.

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