Boy Scouts and the Fantasy of Desexualized Space

by - Friday, March 15, 2013

I think we have all heard about the Boy Scouts and their conflict trying to decide whether to ban gay kids from joining their group. After opening it up to allow people to call in and give their opinion, the Scouts decided to put off the decision until May. Despite their attempt to let the attention die down , this issue continues to come up, as apparently Carly Rae Jepsen canceled a concert with them because she disagrees with their exclusions. My short reaction to this whole thing is who the hell cares and why would anyone want to be in the Boy Scouts anyway (though I know many lovely people who are scouts)? I don't want to be in a club that bases its whole existence on who it excludes. At the same time, I think the argument has a lot of interesting subtext about whether it is even possible to have a space where sexuality isn't present. My short answer is hell no. This is my long answer:

I feel like the two sides of the argument are pretty self-evident. One side is against young children being excluded because of their sexual identities. The other side feels that these kids should start their own group and seem extremely uncomfortable with the suggestion that kids that age even have sexualities. They displayed this uneasiness in the survey by asking the question: One of the questions on the survey is, "Is it acceptable for a gay scout and a straight scout to share a tent on an overnight camping trip?" In 2000, they tried to distance themselves from the question by stating that they were not interested in the sexuality of any of their members. Their official policy is that sexuality is to be discussed in other spaces (parents, etc) and therefore they will turn away anyone who is openly homosexual. The anxiety seems to be that sex (or the discussion of sex) is distracting, inapropriate, etc in spaces meant for kids. The boy scouts can exclude girls with few detractors because girls might distract from the fire-building and such business with their girly lady business.

When we were kids until high school, my Mom had a very specific rule about our sleepovers. Girls slept upstairs and boys slept downstairs. One girl once broke that rule, and my mom still is suspicious of her. By keeping the genders separate, my mom meant to stave off any funny business. Of course, my brother's best friend through middle and high school was gay, but this never seemed to bother her or make her question her system. We took the rule seriously, and I am sure she felt that keeping the boys downstairs nipped any mischief in the bud.

The keeping genders separate seems to be a universal system for desexualizing spaces, especially when it comes to kids. No co-ed bathrooms, or camp cabins, or even clubs. The military made the argument that women couldn't participate in certain forms of combat, because their boobs were just too distracting to the men. With kids, this is even more dangerous because we see kids as being either completely unsexual or unable to understand their sexuality in any kind of concrete or practiced way.

The problem with this strategy, of course, is that it is all a myth, and the danger of homosexual kids is that they threaten the stability of something that was false to begin with. As kids develop their conciousness of themselves as selves, their are also developing their own sexuality.  Lacan's Mirror Phase already points to the ways we define ourselves in relation to others and how we have attractions or affinities to certain individuals.

I can remember not really understanding what sex was, but I can not remember not knowing about sex or not thinking about sex. Obviously, I grew up to study visuality and sexuality, so perhaps my suriousity was greater even then, but I honestly don't think so. I can remember some of my female friends having crushes as early as preschool. I can remember both my brother and I asking my very blunt and honest mom about sex ("sex is when a man puts his penis into a woman's vagina" is the answer as far as I remember... there was no stork coming to our house). I think we don't like to think about these things for some obvious reasons as we get older, not the least of which is that the majority of the people we are close to (namely, our family) occupy a very different space in our consciousness, and we don't want that bridge gapped. I can only imagine that instinct is even stronger when you are a parent, and you don't want to think of your kids as sexual beings.

I get that, but it doesn't change the fact that they probably are. In fact, I think it might be dangerous to keep on with that kind of thinking when sexuality is branded younger and younger. Sexualizing youth is a dangerous trend to be sure, but to be mum on the subject leaves them to be objectified and unable to process the information on their own. A parent's instinct might then be to shield their kids from sex as long as they can, but there is a big difference between trying to make it a taboo subject and setting boundaries through conversation.

Of course, one of the most offensive assumptions here is that homosexual boys somehow bring stronger sexual overtones to an interpersonal situation. First, do we have to rehearse the same old point that just because someone is gay doesn't mean they want all males? Secondly, it characterizes these boys as feminine, and plays off long held and frankly disgusting assumptions that women both awake and are responsible to resist men's urges. Gross. Also, to continue in this line of thinking means accepting the idea that sexuality is black and white which it really never is (got to love that sexuality spectrum!) There is a belief here, rooted in Romanticism, that we can exist in a space beyond our bodies (that the narrator can be just a voice or the archetypal disembodied eye, etc.); that we can be just the narrator. This was a right and thought process only for white men of power then, and I think it basically continues that way. Unless you are the "norm" you need your body, because it defines you.

There is also a lingering desire for sexuality to be strictly heterosexual because then it can be more easily controlled by just splitting up the sexes. It creates the possibility for spaces where sex cannot be thought about or discussed. In the History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault refutes the assumption that sex is a taboo concept to discuss. He notes that in the Western world, we speak verbosely of our silence. Even when we aren't talking about sex, we are talking about how we are not talking about sex.  Instead he explains that sexuality is constantly present in many discourses (especially those of power). He shuns the sort of fake myth of the Victorian Era and instead looks over the 16th centuryand the Industrial Revolution (this is no short term phenomena!). He notes that in religious and medical discourses, the patient or parishioner discloses their sexuality with the hope of diagnosis and healing. Science essentially takes over the act of confession at the turn of the 20th century.

Ok, this was a long recap to get to an important point (also its a great book if you are looking for something theoretical to read- Foucault is actually not too tough, which is why any hack of an academic can cite the crap out of him, much like I am doing now). Foucault basically says that discourse about sex is ruled by a "will to knowledge" which is less about truth (aka knowing whether a kid is gay or not, sexually aware or not) and more about power (using outlier sexualities to delimit rule-abiding sexualities). Knowing more about people gives you power, and that power gives you pleasure- it is a “perpetual spiral of power and pleasure” (45).  

Sex, as Foucault sees it, has high political, national, and economic motivations, because it is at the heart of population. People of power must concern themselves with the birthrate, fertility and sterility, and other demographic issues because “a country had to be populated if it hoped to be rich and powerful” (25-26). The state became invested in certain sexual behaviors- a web of discourses, special knowledges, and analysis- to produce a set of state-specified norms.

 Foucault uses this discourse about norms to talk about the gendering of schools in the 18th century- a model of logic that continues into these kinds of scouting conflicts. 

Rather than the model of censorship, Foucault marks the strategies in which adults and other figures created a system of many loaded silences which permeate discourses. It wasn’t one large silence  but a new regime of discourses. There are discourses addressing the children and surrounding them- it is an intervention of power and a multiplication of discourse around the rearing of children and the formation of their sexuality.  Despite these silences, a roundtable with school boys revealed their knowledge around sexuality to be relatively mature and factual.

Rather than continuing to try to maintain these loaded silences and to delimit the identity of the group based on the desire to keep it desexualized, the Boy Scouts should consider what allowing diversity might permit them to do and track the possibility for growth. It is an uncomfortable place to be, for sure, but trying to solidify children's gender roles by denying sexuality is a crazy move that doesn't help anyone. It is well-documented that men and young men suffer because they are not sufficiently prepared to deal with their own emotions, or difference, or the changing nature of the world. Why would you actively seek out discrimination for your kids? Why would you want to pass on homophobia as a norm or as a reason to keep people from the privileges you enjoy?  They take an oath to help people at all times, and I think that has to be more than some from above patriarchical posturing. There isn't space for that anymore, and it sets up kids to have unreal expectations in their dealings with others. These guys need to learn a thing or two from the Pawnee Goddesses. Where is Leslie Knope when you need her?

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