Mayo, Disputing the Subject of Sex: Sexuality and Public School Controversies

By Bailey, Lucy E. | Vitae Scholasticae, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Mayo, Disputing the Subject of Sex: Sexuality and Public School Controversies


Bailey, Lucy E., Vitae Scholasticae


Cris Mayo. Disputing the Subject of Sex: Sexuality and Public School Controversies. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. ISBN 0-7425-2658-5. 176 pages.

In Disputing the Subject of Sex, Cris Mayo utilizes poststructuralist and social constructionist theories to critique how youth are subjected to, and can become Subjects in, discourses and practices that constitute contemporary sex education. She grounds her analysis in case studies of HIV/AIDS education and multicultural curriculum during the late 1980s and early 1990s in which conceptions of "community membership, schooling and sexuality collided" (xiii), and in the process, highlights the complex forces shaping citizens' battles over what constitutes appropriate sex education for American youth. As critical scholars have noted, funding, state policy, school boards and local communities in a given setting profoundly shape the education, practices, and identities available to its youth. The context in which Mayo situates her analysis is curricular debates in New York State, yet the usefulness of her poststructuralist animation of power relations in sex education and identification of spaces of resistance in schools extend well beyond the local controversies under study. To Mayo, citizenship rights are at stake in youth's access to a "broader understanding of sexual meaning, practices and identities" (xiv) that can aid them in becoming the Subjects of their own sexual lives.

Mayo's theoretically-rich scrutiny of discourses, curricula, and practices enriches scholarship intended to advance more socially just visions of sex education. Her analysis is grounded in substantive critiques of conventional approaches to sex education: its mechanistic preoccupation with abstinence, disease and risk; its disconnection from the lived experiences of contemporary youth; its gendered silences that construct females as passive subjects rather than sexual agents; and its staunch and constitutive hetero-normative orientation that privileges heterosexuality, renders sexual minorities invisible, and concretizes static understandings of sexual identities and practices. Just as Pillow argues that pregnant and mothering teens don't "fit" in contemporary educational spaces, (1) Mayo demonstrates that schools and standard curricula offer few spaces for diverse sexual identities, meanings, and practices to flourish. What curriculum too often "neglects to consider," Mayo insists, is, "how adolescents themselves arrange and understand their own sexual lives" (xix).

In Part I of her text, "Identity, Sexuality and Theory," Mayo details the rationale for her theoretical allegiances. She acknowledges sexual minorities' "debt" (4) to liberal and communitarian theories, yet she suggests liberalism's dependence on a stable subject and focus on individual rights in the private sphere is insufficient for the public issue of sex education. More useful to Mayo is the poststructuralist focus on the constitution of particular identities and practices through power relations and its destabilizing of the notion of a unified subject or "natural" or "authentic" sexualities. To Mayo, Foucault and Butler's theories of the subject as contingent, partial and fluid create spaces of resistance in schools that tend to "demarcat[e] proper from improper identity" and to "inscrib[e] boundaries around particular identities and activities" (28). Students, she cautions, must take care in "how they understand themselves through categories" (28) because embracing such essences can normalize rather than liberate.

Similarly, Mayo provides significant support for her argument that communitarian theories' privileging of commonalities can foreclose diversity, difference, and disputes within communities, thereby silencing minority interests. In Part II, she analyzes "Curricular Definitions of 'Community' and 'Sex'" in HIV/AIDS curriculum in NewYork State that limit identities, practices, and meanings. …

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