Subjectivity under Erasure: Adolescent Sexuality, Gender, and Teacher-Student Sex

The Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall 2007, 347-360.

Angelides, Steven
Issue3, Fall 2007
PaginationThe Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall 2007, 347-360.
Type of WorkEssay

This article offers a reading of a recent Australian teacher-student sex scandal in order to interrogate the relationship between gendered subjectivity and cultural codes of gender.

The questions of whether gender ought to make a difference to how we understand instances of so-called “intergenerational sex” and whether cultural codes accurately reflect sexual subjectivity are posed.

It is argued that while cultural codes are not external or equivalent to subjectivity, this does not mean that they are not expressive of elements of subjectivity.

The article concludes with the suggestion that the failure to attend to the nexus of the social and the psychical not only serves to strengthen a very recent and particular set of historical, political, and ideological forces but also risks creating foundations for misreadings of the history of male adolescent subjectivities. [...]

I argue not that cultural codes or representations are “external” or equivalent to subjectivity, but rather that they are inextricable from, and expressive of, aspects of subjectivity.

The article concludes with the suggestion that both the reification of culturally constructed codes at the expense of an account of subjectivity, and the erasure of subjectivity from cultural codes, are two sides of the same analytic paradigm.

Moreover, this dual erasure of subjectivity is far from benign. Not only does it serve to strengthen a very recent and particular set of historical, political, and ideological forces, but it also risks creating foundations for misreadings of history. [...]

In 2004, Karen Ellis, a 37-year-old physical education teacher in a Melbourne secondary school, pleaded guilty to six counts of the statutory offence of “sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16 years” (Crimes Act 1958, [Vic.], s. 45). Ben Dunbar, the so-called “child” in question, was a student of Ellis’s, and only three months short of his sixteenth birthday and the general age of consent. Dunbar claimed not only to have consented to sex with Ellis but to have initiated it and to have gained positively from the experience. [... ... ... ...]


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Despite strident child protection efforts in our society, what the Karen Ellis affair demonstrates, in my view, is that in the realm of adolescent sexuality and the law, we are often just as adept at policing, punishing, and disempowering competent adolescents as we are at protecting them from harm.

We are sometimes more concerned with defending ideological positions, laws, and politics than we are with seeking to understand the complexity of sexual relations and seeking, genuinely, to listen to, understand, and allow for the articulation of a range of adolescent subjectivities.

Ellis may have made an unethical decision to enter into a sexual relationship with a pupil at her school. But ought this sexual relationship, which only a cursory scan reveals was consensual and anything but intrinsically damaging, result in a prison term?

In my view, Ellis did not deserve to go to jail and Ben Dunbar does not deserve to shoulder the massive guilt he will almost inevitably be haunted and hindered by for having initiated an affair that has sent someone he “know[s] is a good person” (R v. Ellis, 2005, p. 70) to prison and that has irrevocably and catastrophically ruined her life.

It is not enough to try and impute total blamelessness onto Dunbar and total culpability onto Ellis. No matter how much we may try to convince them, and ourselves, that Dunbar is a victim and Ellis a serious sexual offender culpable for breaching her duty of care and trust, this will never capture the relationship as it was experienced from the perspectives of the participants.

As psychologist Sharon Lamb (1996) points out, even when counselling actual victims of sexual abuse it is crucial

  • “to tease out the accurate level of [victim] responsibility” (pp. 179-180).

Many victims know that there were moments when they made particular choices or unwise decisions that contributed to the abuse. Lamb goes on to argue that when

  • “we blame victims too little, we make them too small as individuals and reinforce the passivity that was inherent in the experience of victimization” (Lamb, 1996, p. 181).

Lamb is, of course, not here talking about those individuals who are competent and consenting minors, such as Dunbar.

To extend Lamb’s analysis, I argue that when we blame perpetrators too much — and I am talking here about voluntary, or, consensual relationships such as Ellis and Dunbar’s — we fail to recognize the subjectivities of the young people involved. This can result, as it did with Ellis and Dunbar, in a misrecognition of the intersubjective dynamics structuring the encounter and the misapplication of the categories of perpetrator and victim.

Short of complete amnesia or repression, Dunbar will, for the rest of his life, know that, as he himself said, “it takes two to tango,” and that he was an agentic partner in that dance. This is potentially an immense burden of guilt for anyone, adult or child, to endure. [*15]

  • [*15] See Angelides (2004) for an argument about the potential detrimental psychological effects of trivializing or ignoring a young person’s sense of sexual agency.

To circumvent such a potentially debilitating scenario, Dunbar’s sense of agency and responsibility ought to be properly recognized.

In my mind Ben Dunbar and Karen Ellis have been pawns in a broader historical and political battle over the issue of gender equality before the law. Rendering the
“lucky boy” narrative mere historical myth is one of the political means by which the move toward gender equality (or, neutrality) has been secured.

The repudiation of the subject position of “lucky boy” is intimately connected, it seems to me, to what Roper identifies in this issue as the prevailing tendency to view masculinity more

  • “as a matter of social or cultural construction than as an aspect of personality.”

Although intimately connected, there is an interesting twist here. What we have seen in the Ellis-Dunbar affair, and in recent social and cultural efforts to invalidate the subject position of the “lucky boy,” is a simultaneous overvaluation and undervaluation of socially constructed codes of masculinity.

  • On the one hand, there is an abiding recognition of the reality of external cultural codes.
  • However, on the other hand, there is a palpable refusal to recognize these codes as expressive of the psychical realities for some individuals.

This suggests something slightly different, albeit related, to the concern Roper raises about the naive reification of cultural codes as somehow representative of subjectivity.

Rather than misrecognising representation as subjectivity, I argue that the treatment of Ben Dunbar and others like him demonstrates a failure to recognize subjectivity in representation.

However, either way we are left with the same problem: a failure to apprehend the intersection of the socio-psychic and the ways in which the two formations
of subjectivity and discourse are mutually informing.

In conclusion, I want to suggest that this failure to attend to the interface of the socio-psychic risks installing foundations for future misreadings of history. For if sociologists of the present and historians of the future are to relegate the “lucky boy” narrative and subject position to the scrap-heap of history — that is, if they were to take present cultural disavowals of the “lucky boy” as fact — they might be guilty of misreading norms of adolescence for adolescent subjectivities themselves.

This means that attempts in the present to construct norms of adolescent sexuality might themselves be inadvertent attempts to forge an as yet unwritten history for the future. However, to accept either of these present or future renderings would be to accept the erasure of an important part of adolescent sexual experiences, which are an important part of history.