Sex-negativity often goes hand-in-hand with adultism, a form of ageism that discriminates against young people considered “not adults.” Adultism is so embedded in the structure of society that many institutions, including schools, routinely marginalize young people by silencing their voices, disallowing their participation in decision-making activities, or actively excluding their presence at public assemblies.

Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in controversial areas where youth intersect with social stigmas, like sex education.

The latest volley of adultist sex-negativity was hurled by Margaret Brooks in her Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “‘Sex Week’ Should Arouse Caution Most of All(paid subscription required, full text republished here). While others have been quick to point out the obvious prejudice against sexual diversity Ms. Brooks epitomizes, there is another problem deeply entrenched in Brooks’ assertions that deserves equally critical analysis: her anti-youth stance. (Skip to anti-youth section.)

Some background and context

A few points that Margaret Brooks conveniently chooses to decontextualize are worth noting before we get much further. First, in her article, Margaret Brooks fails to mention the multitude of correspondence she has had with University administrators who approved the Sex Week events that she’s so eager to condemn:

[Sex Week] events have transpired recently on campuses across the country—perhaps unbeknownst to many parents, alumni, and even professors. As the word gets out about such controversial programs, university administrators must decide what kinds of sex-education programs should be offered to their students, and who should be teaching them.

(Emphasis mine.)

In fact, Margaret Brooks has been in long-standing contact with Brown University administrators since well before February, 2010—more than 7 months—when she began raising her concerns. The Brown University administrators, with whom I’ve spoken directly, were and are extremely aware of campus programming, and dismissed Ms. Brooks’ concerns as unfounded after duly performing their own research of exactly the kind she suggests; they thoroughly reviewed the prior works of invited speakers such as myself. I’m told they replied directly to Ms. Brooks’ concerns in writing, but she continued peppering them with emails, and they were eventually forced to rightfully ignore her.

Also, although Margaret Brooks seems to fancy herself some kind of Paul Revere for sounding the alarm about sex-toy companies…actively seeking access to students through campus resources as if this is some new and dangerous threat, as if companies in other profit-driven industries behave any differently, the Sex Week phenomenon is, in fact, a decade old. Brooks’ willfully ignorant slam is just the latest manifestation of a years-long campaign against similar events from the likes of Gail Dines, John Foubert (see also ACLU press release), and even the misinformed Maryland State Legislature.

Another glaring hypocrisy Margaret Brooks neglects to make clear in her article is her colleagues’ consistent use of exactly the same sort of images she vehemently objects to. Her collaborators like Donna M. Hughes and their associates like Gail Dines routinely use uncensored pornography in campus lectures, conference speeches, press conferences, and other settings. Funny how her concerns are directed entirely at educators with whom she politically disagrees.

Margaret Brooks: anti-youth champion

So, Margaret Brooks’ content-related concerns are an obvious misdirection. But did you notice the other prejudice neatly tucked into the facade of academic freedom with which Ms. Brooks wraps herself? Her call to “concern” is actually a radical return to the pre-1960′s-era doctrine of in loco parentis within higher education. I’ll let Ms. Brooks, herself, explain:

If sex education is to be offered at all, college administrators must take a leadership role in the scheduling, financial support, and monitoring of those programs. […] Although administrators can and should work with student leaders to develop the program, administrators should make the final decisions.

[…]

Ideally, sex education should be taught entirely by the college’s permanent faculty or staff. […] College-hosted sex-education events should be open to enrolled students only. […] Minors should not be admitted to college sex events under any circumstances.

[…]

Who pays and who sponsors? […] If external sponsors are needed, then administrators should do the asking. Only they have the knowledge and authority to negotiate contractual terms regarding the use of the college’s name and facilities. Only they should decide which products are appropriate—or not—for raffles and giveaways.

That’s a lot of suggestions restricting the autonomy of university students, most of whom are legal adults. Despite 40 years of precedent upholding student rights to free speech and freedom of assembly, Ms. Brooks not-so-subtly uses the threat of sexual harassment liabilities in an astonishingly twisted interpretation of “intellectual diversity” to turn back the clock to days when colleges enforced curfews for women and expelled “morally undesirable” students without due process or appeal. The Chronicle of Higher Education, an influential publication to say the least, should be ashamed of itself for publishing such thinly-veiled threats.

Of course, I suspect the only reason Margaret Brooks’ article was published at all is because of its panic-inducing, sex-negative message. Brooks insists any sex education “should be taught entirely by the college’s permanent faculty or staff.” That borders on academic lunacy, although it might actually be a good business model for the (struggling) Ivy league!

Imagine what would happen if this were adopted for other educational arenas or events. Your English professor couldn’t invite other authors to share their work. And forget about those community job fairs or open-access theatre shows if campus events would be open to enrolled students only. Oh, and since minors aren’t legally granted full personhood, if you’re a bright 17 year-old attending an American university, you can forget about equal access or even representation at pretty much any controversial gathering, which could be construed as anything from a rock concert to a political rally.

While I agree with Ms. Brooks that administrators should “work with student leaders to develop” programs, she suggests treating all students—by virtue of their role as students—like second-class citizens. Not only does she insultingly brand them incapable of being knowledgeable about their University’s rules and regulations (“Only [administrators] have the knowledge…”) but also not actually worthy of being considered first-class members of their own University’s community. To wit, Margaret Brooks writes:

Students are transitory members of the university community[…].

To this I pose the obvious question: at what point are students no longer considered “transitory members?” Let us remember that most students spend 4 years at their chosen university, which is on average about as long (if not longer) than many of them will spend in most of their jobs. By that measure, should companies also treat their employees as “transitory members,” and thus restricted from holding decision-making potential in their roles, too? Get real.

If adult students at universities are not to be given decision-making potential to run their own groups, at what stage of life does Ms. Brooks suggest society prepare young people to lead independent lives, free of paternalistic oversight? For their entire lives, many young people have experienced protracted processes of university entrance—at which point their helicopter parents too often micromanage dozens of decisions, like course selection. From a privileged perch in her own Ivory Tower, Ms. Brooks is suggesting that removing even more decision-making opportunities from students about their own education is appropriate, despite mountains of evidence that suggests the contrary.

That being said, Margaret Brooks would be comforted to know that the reality is more like she would make you fear it is not. For example, Brown University administrators employ non-transitory members of the university community (yes, “real” adults! With “real” jobs!) to oversee student activities and to liaise with student leaders.

One such administrator is Ricky Gresh, who spoke candidly about the university’s role in supporting Sex Week at Brown. He, along with myself and others whom Brooks has attacked for supporting student-led on-campus sex education, gave an informal speech during the Sex Panic! Panel organized as a direct response to Ms. Brooks’ concerns, and to which she received a personal invitation, and to which she never responded. Here is a video of Mr. Gresh’s speech capably addressing Ms. Brooks’ concerns:

In Margaret Brooks’ world, decision-making power would be consolidated in the hands of a select few individuals. Who do you think she wants those individuals to be? She doesn’t want those people to be anyone like AASECT certified sex educator Megan Andelloux or Shanna Katz, whose Masters in Human Sexuality certainly qualifies her to speak on and research the subject more than Brooks’ economics degree. Instead, Brooks wants decision-makers to be “permanent” university fixtures holding “faculty” positions.

In other words, Margaret Brooks wants the only decision-makers to be people like her. But I will give Brooks credit for highlighting the danger in relegating critical education to sporadic, infrequent event series. She’s right that sexuality is an area of concern within education, which is precisely why readings, workshops, seminars, and one-off programs that supplement a real curriculum delivered by qualified faculty who have the full protection of academic freedom, solid salary, benefits, and the respect of their fellow academics are so sorely needed.

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