You are here

Sex and Confessions in Queer Academia

In a classroom specifically organized around the subject of sex, speculation, coded revelations, and secrecy often run rampant. Simply enrolling in a class on queer sexuality is often read by outsiders as a confession.

Alicia Brooks

Issue #62, December 2002


In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault examines the central role of the confession in modern Western society. He traces the evolution of the confession from the Catholic church to the psychiatrist's couch and into almost every aspect of modern life. Along the way, he documents how sex became the most important subject of the confession, as well as how the confession transformed sex into truth. Foucault observes that confession is often seen as a liberating force, freeing sex from repressive powers which work to silence it. He then questions this notion, putting forth the possibility that the very powers we accuse of silencing sex may be the same forces which produce in us the desire to tell all.

When my professor assigned a research paper for our Queer Theory seminar, I decided to explore Foucault's idea of confession. I saw endless possible applications of his theory. I considered examining reality TV, online journals, or lesbian porn, but could not settle on a final topic. Then, while talking over the possibilities with my professor, the conversation turned to our class itself. I commented that class discussion often felt like a confessional. I was never sure what to reveal, or what to hold back, when the readings veered into personally meaningful territory. I noticed many awkward gaps during in-class conversations, times when my classmates were struggling with the same questions. Within a few minutes, I realized that I had found my topic.

What I want to consider here is how the confession operates in the space of queer academia. More specifically, I am interested in the role of confession in classrooms where queer sexuality is the focus. To investigate this issue, I turn to pedagogical writings by queer academics. Across various academic fields, professors engaged in the study of queer sexuality encounter many of the same questions. I have divided these questions into two categories. First, I will explore the negotiation of unspoken classroom confessions: issues of speculation, limited disclosure, and coded messages. Then, I will turn to the issue of explicit confession, namely the position that lived experience is allowed to occupy in the classroom.

Part One: Speculation

According to Foucault, "it is in the confession that truth and sex are joined." The modern confession places all thoughts, fantasies and desires concerning sex under scrutiny and inscribes tremendous meaning onto them. The perceived importance of sex makes speculation about the sexuality of others almost second nature. In "Pedagogy and Sexuality", Joseph Litvak posits that a large part of "acquiring cultural literacy" is "acquiring sexual literacy." From an early age, we are taught to decode the appearance, mannerisms, and behavior of others to reveal the hidden sexual "truth" about them.

We acquire much of our sexual literacy in the classroom, where we speculate about the sexualities of our teachers and about our fellow students. Litvak opens with an anecdote about his junior high school French teacher, Mr. Boyer. Mr. Boyer is in the closet; however, his homosexuality is the worst-kept secret at school, discussed frequently by his students in lurid detail. Litvak recalls making fun of Mr. Boyer to his friends. Mocking Mr. Boyer asserted the sexual literacy of both Litvak, who told the jokes, and Litvak's friends, who understood them.

In a classroom specifically organized around the subject of sex, speculation, coded revelations, and secrecy often run rampant. Simply enrolling in a class on queer sexuality is often read by outsiders as a confession. In an article about her "Sexuality and the Law" class, professor Ruthann Robson notes that many students object to her use of the word "sexuality" in the course title. They are wary of this word, with its many implications, appearing on their law school transcripts.

Teaching a class on queer sexuality makes a professor the target of speculation by both students and colleagues. In her article "We Girls Can Do Anything, Right Barbie?: Lesbian Consumption in Postmodern Circulation", Erica Rand describes her thought process as she decides how to present a photo spread from On Our Backs portraying a woman using a Barbie doll as a dildo, to her Art History/Women's Studies class. One of the factors she considers is the "guys in Duplicating" problem: to have slides made for class, she must send a work order through the duplicating lab. This "confession", as well as gossip from students, will reveal to her colleagues that she uses lesbian porn in her classroom. Rand must consider how this revelation will impact her job security. When she finally presents the images to her class, she is sure to tell her students (truthfully) that she received the photos from a friend. In this way, she removes herself somewhat from the discussion and avoids "coming out" as someone who owns porn.

Robson comments that her position directing a class about sex and assigning grades "installs" her "as an expert on the subject of sex," leading her students to wonder about her personal level of expertise. Rand faces similar scrutiny. Despite her best efforts at controlling her students' reactions to the On Our Backs images, she is greeted at the next class by a student who asks, "I don't understand the point of that story. What is it you like to do with Barbie dolls?"

Within the queer studies classroom, the professor must wade carefully through a politics of "who knows what about whom." While students may share selected experiences in class, much will go unsaid, for reasons including the comfort level of the students and limits placed by the professor on personal narrative. Yet students may confess things to the professor in office hours or to one another outside of class which they never bring directly into the classroom. Robson refers to this complex web of knowledge "a subtext that bubbles to the surface when one student runs crying from the room or when a student lashes out at another student." The professor faces the challenge of remaining as aware as possible of this subtext at all times, as well as deciding if and when to participate in it. Robson explains that her knowledge of students sexual secrets can influence her choice of texts. For example, she chooses not to teach a case which deals with incest because she knows that there is an incest survivor in her class.

Students also make non-verbal confessions. Many queer academics write about students who never explicitly come out in class, but who come out to the professor and one another through coded words and behaviors. In these situations, closeted students rely on the professor to be sexually literate enough to recognize their confession, while not doing or saying anything which would reveal them to the less literate students in the class. Rand wishes that she could ask her queer students how they feel about the On Our Backs images, but is concerned that "to approach them on the subject might be more violating than showing the images without their input." Litvak mentions that closeted students may want the professor to remain closeted as well, for fear that (s)he will "blow [their] cover."

Professors address the issue of speculation in their own decisions of whether or not, and how, to come out to their classes. Queer academics express a vast diversity of opinion on the issue of whether or not to come out to students. For some, like Rand, coming out may threaten job security. Even those who know that they can be out must decide if they should be out, taking into consideration how this stance will change the space of their classroom. Robson never explicitly comes out to her students, though she maintains that her lesbianism is "a fact . . . well known" to them. This position, which she adopts for the sake of neutrality, is often read as a betrayal by her openly queer students. At the same time, closeted students may prefer that a queer professor not disclose his or her sexuality, for fear that they will also be outed. Litvak suggests that it may be best for a queer professor to come out, simply to silence speculation which may occur otherwise. Professor George Haggerty argues that a queer professor should come out so students are aware of his or her biases in addressing the material of the course. He views any other course of action as dishonest.

Whether or not a queer professor and his or her queer students are out to one another, they often engage in an unspoken dialogue about what should and should not be discussed in the classroom. A persistent question is what aspects of queer life and sexual practice should be "confessed" in front of straight students. Robson observes that she and the lesbian students in her class are often very reserved in their discussions of lesbian sex; they "do not disagree as much in this diverse setting as we would among ourselves." She credits this self-censorship to a belief that "lesbian sexuality belongs to lesbians." Rand also comments on this issue. In deciding whether or not to teach the On Our Backs spread, she ponders whether she will be "merely reinforcing stereotypes about lesbian perversity." She is particularly concerned about how her lesbian students will react. Will they feel exposed in front of the other students? Rand knows that most of the students in her class have very limited knowledge of lesbian sex practices, and many of them come in with preconceived stereotypes about lesbians. When she is not teaching more "mainstream" lesbian practices, is it responsible to teach the more unusual? If she does not confess everything, should she confess anything?

Part Two: Declaration

Foucault describes "a confessional science," which developed as the institution of the confession became ingrained in Western society. This method applies scientific analysis to actual sexual experiences. Its pioneers had to evaluate "the validity of introspection, of lived experience as evidence." This question persists today in queer studies classes. Perhaps the most crucial and difficult issue facing professors who teach about queer sexuality is the place of personal experience in the classroom. Though this is a relevant question in any class, the subject of sex seems especially prone to provoke personal narrative. Allowing students to bring their experiences into the classroom has many pitfalls, but many advantages as well.

Haggerty argues that it is absolutely essential for queer professors to share their own experiences with their classes and encourage queer students to share theirs. In his view, the queer professor has a duty to provide a positive role model to both queer and straight students, and to encourage queer students to explore and assert their identities. Haggerty's opinions are very in line with the often deceptive perception of confession as liberator. Haggerty believes that queer sexuality and sexual experience are silenced elsewhere in the academy; therefore, the queer professor must allow them to speak in his or her classroom. This belief is echoed by some of Robson's students, who label her "repressive" and "conservative" whenever she attempts to limit what one is allowed to confess in her class.

Foucault questions the power of confession to liberate. He insists that:

One has to be completely taken in by this internal ruse of confession in order to attribute a fundamental role to censorship. . . one has to have an inverted image of power in order to believe that all these voices which have spoken so long in our civilization — repeating the formidable injunction to tell what one is and what one does. . . are speaking of freedom.

The best way to counteract one discourse about sex is not simply to pronounce the opposite discourse. It may be true that the experiences of queer students are unwelcome or silenced in many areas of academia; however, allowing them to be offered without interrogation in a queer-friendly classroom may cause more problems than it solves.

If experience is merely allowed to stand as truth, it can severely compromise the academic aim of a class. Robson explains that much of the homophobic legal doctrine she challenges in her class is problematic because its perspective is limited to the sexual experience of the person or group who produced it. She does not find a suitable solution to this problem in merely substituting new narratives and widening the circle of experience. Instead, she wants her students to question why legal doctrine about sex is limited by anyone's experience. The project of her class is to (at least temporarily) leave experience behind and examine the theoretical issues behind it. Theory is the higher aim, and it can be compromised by experience.

Voyeurism Picture! The inclusion of personal narrative in a classroom also raises questions of identity politics and authority. Lived experience can easily be manipulated to authenticate some viewpoints, while silencing others. For example, in a queer-themed class, a straight woman may find it hard to disagree with her lesbian classmates. If the professor has come out, he or she may unwillingly occupy a position of dual authority in the eyes of students. Robson comments that straight students in her class often expect her to come out and exercise her "authority" as both lesbian and professor to settle arguments. In the same way, students who align themselves with a certain label or identity may later find themselves pigeon-holed by it. Once a student has prefaced a few comments with "as a. . .", other students may assume that all of his or her subsequent comments begin with those words, whether or not they are explicitly spoken. Students who find themselves in this uncomfortable position may feel the need to censor themselves in order to avoid saying anything which would compromise or contradict their self-proclaimed identity.

Downplaying these difficulties, Haggerty insists that the value of experience as a teaching tool must not be ignored. He suggests that, to a certain degree, the personal experiences of queer students are above theory and can add depth to conversations that could not be achieved with a purely theoretical discussion.

One solution to the dilemmas posed by personal narrative is to teach students to treat experiences as texts. Interrogating experience in this way helps students uncover their own biases. In addition, Haggerty suggests that differences of experience can be used to explore larger questions of cultural construction and situation. Interrogating and comparing the different experiences within their lesbian and gay studies seminar helped Professor David Roman's students reach a more sophisticated understanding of the course's theoretical material. It also helped them apply the material to their lives in deeper ways, making the class more intellectually and personally meaningful.

Another challenge entailed in using personal experience in the classroom is "the rigor question." The idea of queer studies as an academic discipline is still very new and often greeted by skepticism. This skepticism increases when much (or all) of the class is devoted to queer sexual practices. Professors who choose to teach these classes may be accused of merely inviting students to gossip and talk about themselves, without addressing any important academic issues. Professors use several strategies to negotiate this question. They may place limits on the amount or type of personal narrative allowed into the classroom. They may monitor what language is used to discuss the personal, both in class and on the syllabus, using academic terms in place of more conversational ones. Finally, they may choose deliberately challenging readings and maintain extremely rigorous standards for required coursework.

These strategies may overcome the issue of rigor; however, professors who wish to give experience (especially their own) a place in the classroom face yet another challenge: the specter of the molester. Any out professor, especially one teaching about queer sexuality, may at some point be accused of trying to seduce his or her students or "recruit" them to homosexuality. Refuting these allegations can be difficult. As many queer academics agree, the classroom is by definition an erotically charged space. In Cultural Capital, John Guillory comments "That the relation between teacher and student is 'erotic' is perhaps the least surprising statement one might make about it." In the modern classroom, the student/teacher relationship is not supposed to be expressly sexual; however, its hierarchical structure lends to it an eroticism that is heightened when the subject on the table is sex. This relationship strongly resembles the confessor/confessee relationship explored by Foucault.

Foucault describes the confession as "a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner." This relationship is erotically charged, involving a different kind of pleasure: pleasure in the truth of pleasure, the pleasure of knowing that truth, of discovering and exposing it, the fascination of seeing it and telling it, of captivating and capturing others by it, of confiding it in secret, of luring it out in the open." Confession in the classroom takes many forms; therefore, the identities of the confessor and confessee are not always the same. A student telling a story during a class discussion may be seen as confessing to the entire class. The situation changes if the story is only told during office hours or in a paper. Either way, when the power relations of confessor/confessee and student/teacher are embodied within the same two people, the relationship is doubly eroticized.

Managing this eroticism is a constant challenge for queer professors. They must be careful to maintain what Robson calls "the professor boundary," lest they be accused of flirting with or harassing their students. Maintaining the professor boundary becomes especially difficult when the class is focused on sex. Robson observes that "listening to students' sexual experiences makes it more difficult to maintain authority, and being questioned about my own sexual experiences makes it more difficult to maintain formality."

Queer academics are also subject to allegations of recruitment. Haggerty mentions the notorious British law known as Section 28 or "no promo homo". This law (recently repealed in Scotland, but still on the books in England) "forbids the use of materials that promote homosexuality in any government-sponsored activity." Though this is a British law, Haggerty points out that the belief behind it holds sway in the United States as well. Namely, if an out professor mentions sexuality in class, he or she may be accused of pushing the "gay agenda." These accusations may be countered with many of the same strategies used to address the rigor question. By maintaining a rigorous academic environment, the professor is prepared to prove that he or she is teaching students more than how to be gay. The professor can also frequently remind his or her students that queer studies classes do not only apply to queer students. Interrogations of any sexuality or sexual practices provide deeper understandings of sexuality as a whole.


"So, Alicia. . . Without confessing too much, why do you love that line?"

I know my face is bright red as ten pairs of curious eyes turn on me, eager to see how I will reply to my professor's slyly worded question. It is the final day of our Queer Theory seminar and we are discussing Ricardo Bracho's play The Sweetest Hangover (& other stds). I have been brave (or foolish) enough to volunteer my favorite line from the play, the end of a monologue by gay disco owner Octavio: "I am a student of women's liberation but I cum the hardest when someone whispers the word "Bitch" in my ear. Especially if he means it." Faced with the task of explaining what this line means to me, I quickly reach for a familiar mask: "Well. . . um. . . it's like Foucault says. . . "

This is the type of awkward moment my classmates and I have encountered many times throughout the semester. The halting speech and nervous laughter punctuating our comments reveal that once again we have hit on a topic that resonates deeply for many of the women in the room- and not in a theoretical way. Still, this is a classroom, not a bar, so we grope for academic terms and theoretical concepts through which we can articulate ourselves. Following a familiar pattern, these initial awkward moments quickly turn into one of our best conversations. We discuss the relationship between theory and real life, the moments when theory helps us understand ourselves and the moments when no amount of theory can account for what we do or feel. Everyone leaves the room enriched.

The challenges of negotiating confession are many and great for both professors and students who wish to engage queer sexuality in an academic setting. Persistent questions of what belongs in the classroom must constantly be evaluated and re-evaluated. Participants in the queer studies class must approach their academic pursuits with sensitivity, respect, and a sense of humor in order to maintain an environment where everyone can grow intellectually and personally.

Yet, when the negotiation project is successful, queer academia provides a valuable model of how theory and life may interrogate and enrich one another. Roman observes that "for lesbian and gay [students[, the chance to be authorized to apply theoretical models of inquiry based on sexuality to their own lives. . . [is[ a novel experience." For all students, the study of queer sexuality provides a look into the moments when the theoretical and the personal intersect, with life giving rise to theory and theory influencing life.

My Sources for Further Reading

Bracho, Ricardo A. The Sweetest Hangover (and other stds). San Francisco: premiere production script, 1997.

Rand, Erica. "We Girls Can Do Anything, Right Barbie? Lesbian Consumption in Postmodern Circulation." In The Lesbian Postmodern. Ed. Laura Doan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 189-209

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume I. New York: Random House, 1978. 60-64

Haggerty, George E. "Promoting 'Homosexuality' in the Classroom." In Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature. Eds. George. E. Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995. 11-18

Litvak, Joseph. "Pedagogy and Sexuality." In Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature. Eds. George. E. Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995. 19-30

Robson, Ruthann. "Pedagogy, Jurisprudence, and Finger-Fucking: Lesbian Sex in a Law School Classroom." In Lesbian Erotics. Ed. Karla Jay. New York: New York University Press, 1995. 28-39

Roman, David. "Teaching Differences: Theory and Practice in a Lesbian and Gay Studies Seminar." In Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature. Eds. George. E. Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995. 113-123

Alicia Brooks can be reached by e-mail at:

Copyright © 2002 by Alicia Brooks. All rights reserved.