Teaching Weinstein, Spacey, Sexual Assault, and New Skirmishes in Old Sex Wars

I’m teaching my sociology of sexuality class this semester. I often leave a gap in the syllabus for students to pick a topic that hasn’t been addressed. It helps me learn new things from them, respond to current events, and fill in the topical gaps for a class that students’ in which students are often very personally invested because the stakes are both higher and more intimate. Students are grouped into 7 discussion teams of 5-6 people each around themes they chose themselves and provide the lens through which they discuss our readings (such as: sexual assault and consent, critical theory, conflicts across identity, art and performance, cross-national differences). This allows them to get to know each other, participate more broadly and, if there is conflict, to resolve it with someone they know and are familiar with, rather than across the room in a classroom of 37 strangers. I wander around the room like a third wheel, dipping into conversations and asking the occasional question, but mainly feeling jealous at the deep conversations they get to have without me. It’s teaching by setting up a learning environment, but it feels like I’m not doing anything–even though much more learning is happening because participation is broader and deeper. For the last 35 minutes of class, each group nominates one issue or question for all-class discussion, where I again have an active role.

This year, they picked Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, sexual assault, and sex wars. I crowdsourced a list of resources from friends and colleagues on Facebook. The ambiguities about my own internal conflict about the two cases and the public responses to them are best expressed by Masha Gessen’s piece “When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic?” but it came out after class. She best expresses my feminist glee at powerful rapists getting their due and my queer concern that another front in the sex wars has opened.

I experience this widening rift in the classroom all the time, where my students and I often disagree over the meaning of sex (I work very hard to preserve its ambiguities and ambivalences, which to them doesn’t properly take into account power relations), trigger warnings (to oversimplify: they are for, I am against), safe spaces (I am so skeptical that any classroom of more than 6 people can ever be one that it’s dangerous to equate them, they feel we should always be working to make classrooms safe spaces), and whether sexualized spaces like bars and nightclubs inherently exclude people (like asexual people and victims of sexual assault) to the degree that they should be desexualized (which offends my queer hunger to repair my desexualized existence in a small-town adolescence and belated coming-out and even my exurban adulthood). This makes this class fraught for me, and sometimes a minefield of misunderstandings and unintended hurts.

We’d just read Gayle Rubin’s classic Thinking Sex, a piece that I teach a hasving marked the end of second wave feminism’s dream of a unified theory of women’s oppression, the beginning of the end of gay and lesbian studies (toward queer theory), and a broader appreciation for the study of sexuality distinct from gender. I teach it with her subsequent essay Blood Under the Bridge, in which she reconsiders her 1984 essay.

The first piece I included was Jane Ward’s Thinking Bad Sex. Students enjoyed it but disagreed with almost all her points except with her point that rape is not a metaphor. They accepted that his apology might not have equated pedophilia with homosexuality in theory, but in practice they felt that Spacey had attempted to rape a child. Similarly, they accepted, in theory, that Spacey was required to come out in his apology, but in practice they felt he had a responsibility to have come out earlier and by coming out, he was distracting from his victims. Students also accepted that there are virtues in seeing some topics as a sex panic, but they felt (and it’s hard for me to disagree!) that regarding sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, we should be panicking!

Other groups were engaged with Joe Fischel’s article in Slate, “How Calling Kevin Spacey a Pedophile Hurts the Gay Community.” His is one of those pieces that is an exemplar of the greatness and dangers of public scholarship. Based on his work in his recent book, Fischel quickly published a piece about why queer people shouldn’t conflate Spacey with pedophilia. When I first read it, I thought ‘right on,’ because at that point only a couple people had accused Spacey in leisure situations. By the time I read it, however, that had ballooned into dozens of accusations from workplaces on two continents. Students appreciated thinking about the ways that legal categories to protect victims end up being disproportionately used against queer people and practices, but want Weinstein and Spacey both punished.

The last piece that engaged them was Laura Kipnis’ account of her Title IX hearings for criticizing the Title IX hearings against one of her colleagues (I chose the original piece rather than the more recent profile of her second trial that appeared in the New Yorker). Again, they appreciated its perspectives while disagreeing with her about everything, but this article caused for them a lot of the intellectual dismay captured by Gessen’s piece. “It’s a lot,” more than one person assessed, of Kipnis’ conflation of her Kafkaesque trial experience with trigger warnings, safe spaces, feminism, sleeping with professors, and more. Someone correctly diagnosed the article as falling prey to Gayle Rubin’s domino theory of sexual peril: that if one sexual thing was alarming and disturbing, all of those other things must be as well (Hooray for students connecting current events to theory readings! Yay for smart students who make me smarter!). But students were more willing than Kipnis or I am to treat these issues in isolation from each other, which allows them to disagree with them all individually while I, seeing them together, am inclined to say the dominoes have fallen. One student discussed the article with her mother, herself a film scholar like Kipnis, and was shocked to discover a generational feminist divide between them: although they agreed on so many things about Weinstein, her mother agreed with Kipnis that higher ed procedures about student sexual assault have gone too far, while the student and the rest of my class feel they haven’t gone far enough. Another student detected a contradiction in Kipnis’ celebration of sex between students and professors and her scorn for the long-term relationships that might result from such unions–which included her own parents.

Lastly, we had a general lovefest for Kimberlé Crenshaw’s piece on the Anita Hill hearings, “Black Women in Defense of Ourselves.” Here was something we could all get behind: the difficulty that multiply oppressed people have with coming forward, being believed, and being publicly attacked. Where they were unwilling to go, at least in the context of the all-class discussion, was the fact that many African Americans defended Clarence Thomas as the victim of a “high-tech lynching,” and the respectability politics that may give disadvantaged people the benefit of the doubt–just as I was willing to give Kevin Spacey a pass for things he had done at parties or gay bars, if not for subsequent allegations about the workplace.

Time ran out, I checked in: how had things gone? Heads nodded. My quick scan saw no telltale signs of scowls or teary eyes, crossed arms or hunched shoulders. We left. I was happy. Today we’re discussing two chapters of Sarah Schulman’s new book Conflict is Not Abuse, which I chose because I think it offers not only a middle way of considering these generational divides, but solutions to address conflicts of all kinds.

As I said, this sexuality class is fraught for me, too. It’s the class I came to the academy to teach. I’ve long described the class as wobbly: students come to the class wanting all sorts of things that no class can deliver, and they often want affirmations of identities or experiences that the social science I teach cannot address. This academic, analytical remove can be liberating–and I try to make this explicit, and model its virtues for making cross-cultural comparisons–even as it’s depersonalizing and culturally relativistic. And sexuality is no doubt a source of trauma and shame, making the class content and freewheeling class discussions a potential minefield for young adults who have recently experienced sexual assault, are in the throes of coming out or gender transition, have experienced abortion or family conflicts about birth control, or constant racial microaggressions around how a white-majority classroom is willing to support criminal prosecutions that rarely ensnare the rich and famous but devour young men of color. I am not a fast grader, but I am slowest with this class, evidence to me of the ambivalence that I can recognize in myself even as I can’t transcend it.

In recent years, this wobble has often toppled over. Students have been hostile to each other and me in class, lashing out at my complicity with or perpetration of institutional and disciplinary racism, calling-out and ostracizing peers for poorly chosen comments in discussion, at their perceptions of transphobia in course readings, and at the oppressive self-satisfaction of lectures and professors and white men. Some of these complaints have been farcical in the way that snowflake students these days have been mocked by Serious Intellectuals ™ in the Atlantic Monthly and New York Times Sunday Magazine. I have learned from all of them, even when it felt like I myself was being bullied, despite the fact that this is impossible: I have the institutional power, they are at my mercy–except on social media, such as when the friend of one of my students who accused me of being the most racist professor at the College in a viral Facebook post that ended up on social justice listservs that reached a colleague in another state and my boyfriend in another county.

Those experiences hurt, and occasioned the pedagogical transformation into learning teams. The initial impulse was to get students closer to each other so they could be more civil in their callings-out and repair the relationships in their aftermath, and to separate groups from each other so that if one went down in flames, the others would continue onward like the ships in a fleet that had not run aground. Since those bad experiences, I teach this course in a defensive crouch. But I don’t drift into the mocking or resentment of some of my colleagues or shallow journalists. I understand my students’ complaints not as impetuous youth or virtue-signalling but as clumsy acts of care, of a worldmaking exercise where they are militantly building a world where Black lives matter, that includes transgender peers, and centers the needs of victims of sexual assault. Who can argue with some hurt feelings in the service of such necessary goals? And I understand that the campus politics that capture public attention are the product of elite campus institutions like my own which are a tiny minority of higher ed institutions and concerns, and are the product of widening income inequality that is just so… unsexy.

This particular class has hardly wobbled, and for that I’m grateful. The election of Donald Trump has emphasized our common positions on macroaggressions, in the way that an external enemy always helps reinforce the solidarity of the group. I’m mindful that my experiences were not alone–my colleagues at Reed College are going through similar conflicts, and I haven’t been able to read beyond the first paragraphs of the articles or the brave editorial one of them wrote because I am overcome with such shame, anxiety, regret, and pain over slights I endured from years past.

I’m not over those past experiences, but I am beyond them. The pedagogical transformations have been worth the tradeoffs (jettisoning the syllabus as a list of curated articles and issues for a book-centered, team-discussion approach). Because this time, the students and I were able to hear each other and understand and sympathize with each others’ viewpoints–even as we agreed to disagree. I have no doubt that things went better this time because I have gotten better at foregrounding the passionate advocacy that produces scholarship, providing better historical context, and foreshadowing disagreements among texts and viewpoints rather than people. Conflict is not abuse, indeed.


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