walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Kristin Luker, _When Sex Goes to School_: warning, very long

When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex – and Sex Education – Since the Sixties

Kristin Luker

(1) Luker is a second-wave feminist.
(2) Luker is a sociologist.

Regular readers of mine will recognize these as two major strikes for me, even before opening the books.

IIRC, I bought this off Amazon; I probably would not have bought it if I’d seen the back jacket copy (recommendation from the author of The Dance of Anger, whose work I have a very limited amount of patience for).

Three strikes before I even start. Not good.

Luker’s field work involved going to four towns and interviewing people who were involved in contentious public debate over sex education curricula in public schools. She puts this in the context of the work of “social hygienists” in the early years of the 20th century, and the general social upheaval of the 60s. She varies in terms of how she refers to these events; either the first round was the only sexual revolution and the 60s its aftershocks or there were two revolutions. The Victorian context in which the social hygienists operated in is reified – think, turtles all the way down. This is especially problematic in that she reifies gender roles that were new/unique to the 19th century (woman stays home and “nurtures”, but is otherwise not especially productive; man goes out into job market and comes home with money). Thus she has no opportunity to recognize the activism (that included many women) that went into creating this division, much less what preceded it.

Additionally, she reifies sexual divisions (man is pursuer/man’s appetite is uncontrollable so women must say no) that were also comparatively new. This prevents her from exploring what preceded those ideas (women were the source of all temptation/women were unruly and men must show circumspection and control when around them). Along with this, she reifies the definition/expectation of sex which is really unique to the last two hundred or so years (productive, penetrative), ignoring the extremely long history of pre and extra marital sexual activity which was looked on relatively benignly and/or ignored as long as it wasn’t productive/penetrative.

All of this prevents her from being able to recognize the various revolutions as both continuations of previous change (post birth control pill, penetrative, tab p slot v sex without much if any foreplay becoming for a short time the only sex engaged in) and reversions to old standards (post AIDS return to outercourse).

Okay, so that’s the problem with the sociology.

One of the major reasons that sexual conservatives are concerned about the loss of the family is because they have become second class citizens in a world that expects two paycheck families. In this, all families with children have become second class citizens. Previously, a family wage was paid to men who had a wife and children. A woman doing the same work was paid less, because it was expected she was not supporting others. Second wave feminists, equal pay for equal work, women are people therefore women are just like men, erased the family wage scheme. Conservative families lost out. All families lost out when women either had to go out to work and/or the family wage was lost, because children must still be cared for. Money must go out to that or money must be given up for that. One way to undercut the appeal of a return to the past would be to address this imbalance, either through direct payments to mothers (a la the UK), children (a la France), parental leave (a la Sweden etc.), or publicly subsidized high quality day care. This won’t help with the people who are determined to stay home with their own kids, but it would probably reduce the number of unhappy people. But because she ignores the economics (almost certainly because she is a second wave feminist), she can’t see this.

She ignores homosexuality in this discussion, except as an occasional sidelight, which is a big problem since many non-penetrative/non-procreative sexual practices are treated as “homosexual” practices by sexual conservatives (she may or may not know about this; given the way she talks about masturbation, she almost certainly does not know about this). Discussing male/female roles without discussing homosexuality concedes virtually all the ground to the sexual conservatives. Further, gay communities and lesbian communities (which do need to be recognizes both as separate and overlapping) demonstrate clearly that sex with multiple partners, whether simultaneously or over time is a key component of creating group cohesion and identity. Sexual liberals (at least some of them) recognize this as an important role for sex to play, but it is not as common among heterosexuals as it is among homosexuals/bisexuals. Again, talking about sexual morality and the purposes served by sexual activity exclusively in a middle-class heterosexual context concedes almost all the ground to the conservatives.

Summary so far:

(1) Second Wave feminist
(2) Sociologist
(3) No historical perspective
(4) Heterocentric
(5) Ignores value of unpaid labor in the family

That’s looking pretty bad, right? There’s some reason to think that she has misunderstood and/or mischaracterized sex education in France, one of her major comparators in the analysis at the end. Let’s have a look at a small slice of the nitty-gritty complaints (I have 12 pages of scrawled notes on this subject, because I knew that while my husband is a lovely human being and quite patient, expecting him to tolerate this many rants was a little unreasonable).

Men, Women and Birth Control

P 80: “task of not getting pregnant has become a woman’s responsibility, and her responsibility alone” also “men increasingly feel that they do not have to support what is now seen as a personal choice”

Not knowing precisely what dates she did the field work on which she based these statements makes judging this remark tricky. My personal perspective is that some time in the mid-late 1990s, there was a sea change in this particular attitude. While men were still mad that they could not make a woman abort a child they did not want to support, they figured out that they’d better stop saying that out loud, because no one would be on their side. Instead, they recognized that the law was going to come after them for child support no matter what, and started fighting for their parental rights, taking a “you make me pay, I get to play” approach.

Also, as men increasingly recognized this terrain (from talking to their friends, reading men’s mags, watching the news), they started insisting on using their own condoms and, in cases where a man never wanted children again, getting a vasectomy (sometimes without telling spouse/partner, who might want more children). Men circulated among themselves stories of women desperate to have a child who would sabotage birth control, as a way of enforcing this new group norm. I have no idea how she missed this; by 2000 or so, it was pervasive across social class and race and the meme showed up in quite a lot of pop culture.

The near-total marriage-and-reproduction of the 20th century (where virtually all women and men reproduced) is, well, bizarre. It was possible because (1) the New World had been depopulated by disease and genocide, leaving a lot of available resources to fill and (2) cheap fossil fuels expanded the “niche” for humans. It could not last (it was filled, and arguably overfilled). History shows clearly that delay/spacing and limiting who reproduces is how we avoid population busts. A return to that is inevitable. From there, it is a simple matter of how does it happen (b.c. tech can help, but fundamentally we’ll see a lot more non-procreative sexual activity). But she doesn’t consider it from that perspective.

She never uses the word patriarchy and appears to be have trouble even with the word hierarchy, in that she wants to suggest it means order without anyone being oppressed. Similarly, she never refers to companionate marriage, although she talks around it in the historical portion of the book.

She uses the terms “sexual conservatives” and “sexual liberals” and parallels those with people who treat sex as sacred and people who treat sex as natural. This just makes me want to scream. What about all the “sexual liberals” who believe that sex can be and often is sacred (and that coercive control of who can have sex with who and how profanes sex)? In any event, it isn’t a particularly useful distinction and it is very loaded. If you are going to load this, why not focus on how it plays out: who controls/defines/describes what sex is moral and what sex is not? Who is trusted to make those decisions and who is not? The conservatives want God and/or the group to make those decisions (or, at least, the parents). The liberals think it should be the individual and/or the group – but the way that a group makes that decision is not once-and-for-all, but rather evolves over time. Conservatives believe human connection is fragile, rare and requires coercion to last. Liberals believes it can be strong/resilient/powerful, it is common and coercion destroys it. Conservatives believe that if something feels good, it is Of the Devil. Liberals believe that doing good feels good. Conservatives believe that God is other and punitive. Liberals believe that God is in us/is us and is loving and supportive.

Another approach would be via attachment (another way to think about connection, and the basic need fulfilled by sex). Conservatives believe that only in a dyad is attachment possible (makes ya wonder about their babyhood). Liberals believe in a plurality of attachments.

As for early vs. late marriage and waiting vs. experimenting: liberals are trying to say you won’t pick a good partner young while recovering from a horribly toxic upbringing in conservative families (cause that’s where we all came from). Liberals believe a decade or more should be spent, not only getting an education and developing a career but also in recovering, learning about oneself and others, and growing into a healthy person who can choose a compatible partner.

Luker accepts the conservatives self-portrayal that “morality is a clear code of rules that is true across time and across distance”. They are not. They pick and choose, like everyone else. The primary difference is that they lie about what they are doing, to others and possibly themselves, which makes her further comment that “these many observers [who have written about conservatives are across time and space and liberals adapt] must really be on to something” really obnoxious.

At times, the reader is forced to wonder who edited this book. Luker says on page 142, “I always interview people where they can have complete privacy”, so they can say things they might not say in front of a spouse. She says this in the context of an interview that is taking place in front of a spouse. It would be better if she said, “I always try to”. As it is, it’s just not true.

On page 153, she compares overeating, smoking, having a bit too much coffee or alcohol or oversleeping to molesting one’s biological daughter. This is insane! To compare a failure to optimize actions to overstepping a taboo on that level is not a matter of degree, as if one of these apples had a worm in it and the other one was a little overripe. No, this is like comparing an apple to a marauding elephant. The motivational structures one uses to deal with eating, smoking, drinking and sleeping are radically different, not in degree, but in kind from the motivational structures one uses to deal with whether or not to have sex with an immediate family member.

A couple pages later, she asserts, “there is no agreement about sexual morality in American society”. I would argue that there actually is some quite broad agreement that no one should have sex with people to young to give consent, and that in general, if someone does not give consent, it is wrong to force sex on them. These values cross over into sexual conservative territory, with extremely rare (FLDS) exceptions; they have as a result been coded into law without generating much resistance.

Her description of hierarchy bends over backward to avoid using words like “patriarchy” or “oppression”. She repeatedly found traditional conceptions of gender roles that gave men power over women and adults power over children. Children did not have power, except possibly over pets, so the idea that greater responsibility leads to greater rights is pure propaganda. Respect for authority is based on position, and only vestigially on how that position was acquired (talent, education, age). She asserts that these roles are different from the Middle Ages; that’s just an assertion until she can show otherwise. She then proceeds to imply that liberals who perceive inequality/discrimination/oppression (although she won’t use that word) here think that discrimination is “albeit subtle”. It is not subtle, when these people talk about women being subject to the servant leadership of their husbands, and deny any possibility of a woman pastor. Men can rep God, but women can’t. That isn’t subtle.

It is at this point, on page 160, that it becomes crystal clear what’s going on. “To be perfectly honest, thinking about that kind of social structure inspires in me the same envy and admiration I have when I imagine Martha Stewart’s well-ordered linen closets…symbols of homes, families, lives, and a world in order and under our control. In a rapidly shifting global economy, the longing for order is something,” that she, at least, experiences. The mind boggles. This is like wanting the Mormon family without the Mormonism, or wanting all that orderliness and on-time-ness of Nazism and Fascism, without Hitler, Mussolini, or that unpleasant business with the Jews (gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals). Would Luker sign on for sexual conservativeness if she were not a woman?

Does she really just want a Stay at Home Wife to maintain the hearth and bring her her pipe and slippers and a glass of wine when she gets home from a hard day interviewing people?

There is more (and more, and more). Erratic use of male/female vs. man/woman (so she’ll use male/female, but also teenage woman, a creation that I can make no sense of – does she mean females aged 18 and 19? I sort of doubt it). She says liberals are focused on the individual and see boundaries as serving only to separate people. That’s hardly right. Liberals are focused on the network and connection, not the isolated individual. She describes liberals as having been raised conservative and then made at having been fed a spurious morality that was already on its way out, as if they had been forced to wear low rise jeans and show their midriff after high rise jeans and tissue weight layers had replaced them. No, it isn’t about fashion, it’s about hypocrisy, lies, the crimes committed under the hypocrisy and lies, and the damage done by patriarchy even when committed by comparatively benign, loving fathers.

She persists in confusing rationalism (Descartes) with the idea that we have already eaten the apple and have taken upon ourselves the “knowledge of good and evil” so that we are “like God”. Doesn’t mean we’re rational – just means we’ve decided that is part of our role as humans.

Do liberal parents distance themselves in favor of pros to teach sex ed, because they are “too old, too emotionally involved and too vested” in the results? I don’t think so. In my experience, parents leave it to the pros because they know they don’t know enough. While I could believe that conservatives at least parrot the idea that they are not as good as they could be, the idea that this preoccupies the mental and emotional space of conservatives is bizarre to me. Sure, we try to learn and improve, but few of us agonize over how closely we approach perfection.

She quotes without any exception a conservative Christian who asserts that non Christian groups accept the 10 commandments, and completely ludicrous proposition on the face of it.

She finds a parallel between the conservative parent who wants the group to enforce what the parent says regardless of content with the liberal parent who wants the group to increase liberty and access for all, and keep an eye out for truly toxic parenting. I don’t see it. At all. She seems to think that conservatives object to contraception as a gateway to sex (pregnancy and abortion). In reality, a lot of conservatives object to contraception per se, and the sooner liberals realize that, the sooner we can undercut the idiot who are tagging along on this particular idea.

She thinks liberals object to parental consent laws because they infringe decision making by teens (which is bad enough), but liberals I know object to parental consent laws for a host of other reasons: no girl should be forced to carry a child resulting from her father raping her who then refuses to allow her an abortion. Or, for that matter, a child resulting from her boyfriend raping her. Or whoever. Or even if she just made a mistake. Delaying only makes things worse, and consent laws often turn a first trimester abortion into a second trimester abortion. Further, teenage pregnancy is costly for society in general. Parental consent laws contribute to EVIL in the world – not only infringement of the rights of sexually active humans of whatever age.

Her definition of feminism is off for me: “women and men are fundamentally equal, and more similar than dissimilar”. Mine is more like, “women should not be treated differently solely because they are not-men”, which allows for sexual difference and recognizes that, for better or for worse, our default is male (which, ideally, should change, but that would be humanism).

Her heterocentricity is breathtaking. On page 201, “The key mystery, I suspect, is that men and women in the bedroom, as elsewhere, share one humanity but two genders.”

Her willingness to sign off on previous generations willingness to oppress and enforce norms: “the kind of embargo on information that the conservatives want was, in an earlier era, simply tact and discretion”. And the Comstock Act and a willingness to lock people up for talking, and kill people for engaging in certain kinds of acts.

Most research indicates that whether a woman is staying out of the workplace has less to do with politics, and more to do with the number and age of the children currently in the household and secondly on relative earning power of people in the household.

She found the selection of condoms in Sweden astonishing. Sheltered life, hunh?

She spends a lot of time trying to explain that what works or doesn’t work in sex education is not the question. She says you won’t convince the conservative extremists, even if you could come up with 100% effective prophylactics and 100% compliance in using them appropriately. Sure, but you’d cut their followers down substantially. Whether it works or not is all the vast middle cares about; they want their kids to have successful, happy lives and teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease are not a part of that picture. This is also where parental leave and other support for families especially those with small children could help undercut support for abstinence-only education. She says “few educational programs” are 100% effective. None are. None have ever been. None ever will be. She uses circular arguments (let’s grant that abstinence-only reduced sexual activity and pregnancy. Then we can conclude they are somewhat effective. !!! p. 257).

Her final proposal is a perfect example of her original liberal position (which she’s not giving up, because her career and identity would go with it – if only she were a man!): tell the kids their decisions about sex are a proxy for decisions about marriage and family and social control. Right. Because if the conservatives had a problem with condoms, they’re not going to have a problem with this?!? And, no pressure on the kiddies.

Finally (you thought I’d never finish), I’d like to conclude with a couple of comments about how social control works in a networked group: Gossip. Yes, conservatives love to hate it (and routinely engage in it). Yes, when it’s passing a bunch of wrong information around, it can cause problems. But gossip serves a lot of purposes. It’s how group norms are conveyed (can you believe what so-and-so did!). It’s how group norms are created. And it’s how group norms evolve. (All things conservatives don’t like, since they want the group norms to appear to come from God, through a hierarchy of men, and be communicated through channels to everyone else. Gossip tends to undercut this system.) Liberals don’t want to devise comprehensive systems of morals, sexual or otherwise. That gets in the way of evolving group norms. Sure, some people talk about it in terms of individuals and in action, it looks like that. But we all have friends and kin. And everyone talks. And we care about what family, friends and kin are saying about us, so we try to make sure that whatever is going ‘round about us is something we’re okay with – and we speak up to explain ourselves when we disagree with the interpretation.

This is part of why Luker is frustrating. She’s trying to codify this stuff, which is an anti-liberal agenda right there. And she’s trying desperately to avoid taking sides, ditto. No wonder this book didn’t get very many reviews, and most of those were lukewarm at best.

One last complaint: on page 158-9:

(In fact, the original meaning of the word “hierarchy” was simply order, as in “the
order of things”; it only later came to mean people who had power over others).

This then goes to note 5 on page 316:

5. In English, the word originally applied to different kinds of angels and then came to mean ecclesiastic orders. Only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did it take on its modern meaning of ranks in which some have more value or power than others.

No citation is given in support of this assertion. Here’s what it says under definition 1 for hierarchy in the OED, a quote from 1398:

The hyghest ierarchie of angels conteyneth thre ordres: Seraphin, Cherubyn and Trones.

Good freaking luck turning this into “order” without “rank". This is rank dishonesty. I was okay with just disagreeing with her until I did this checking. Now I don't trust her, either.

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