On August 1, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the sociologist Michael Kimmel, world-renowned for his academic studies of masculinity and his advocacy on behalf of gender equality, has been accused by a former graduate student of sexual harassment. The details are still emerging — Kimmel responded by denying that he had knowingly engaged in unethical behavior, and he called upon his accuser to come forward with the specifics of her allegations. In turn, Bethany Coston, now a university professor, published an article on the Medium website relating her experiences studying with and working for Kimmel and describing him as sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and far from the forward-thinking feminist he purports to be.
I bring up the Kimmel story not because I care to weigh in on his case but because it so nicely illustrates the tensions and contradictions many of us are striving to reconcile in the #MeToo era.
It’s always disappointing to find out that a person’s private conduct fails to live up to their public persona, particularly if it’s somebody we admire. But if we’ve been following the news of late, then it shouldn’t surprise us. Who can keep count of how many celebrities, politicians, and members of the clergy have been outed as sexual predators in recent years? Today, why should anybody be floored by the news that, say, a “family values” Republican has been spotted hooking up with an intern or that a progressive feminist superstar like Michael Kimmel has been accused of sexual harassment? When it comes to our sexual behavior and our beliefs about gender and sexuality, we Americans have always burdened ourselves with shame, silence, and self-deception. And where there’s shame, silence, and self-deception, there’s bound to be hypocrisy.
Where there’s shame, silence, and self-deception, there’s bound to be hypocrisy.
The signature move of the #MeToo movement has been to make things public, airing the conduct that powerful people (on the far right, progressive left, and everywhere in between) have hidden behind a well-groomed public image. And many of the articles in this issue of Kappan advocate a similar strategy. For example, to protect children against abusive teachers and staff, argues Charol Shakeshaft, we must do more to collect and share information about educators who’ve preyed on students, and we must make it impossible for them to sneak past human resources and land another job in our schools. To promote sexual health, agency in decision making, and communication between partners, as well as to protect students from risks such as sexual coercion and unintended pregnancies, argues Laura Lindberg, schools must provide explicit, comprehensive sex education, giving students the important information they need rather than leaving them to figure it all out on their own. And to prepare young people for life in a diverse, pluralistic society, argue Mollie Blackburn and Summer Pennell, schools have an obligation to teach openly about differing gender norms and diverse expressions of gender and sexuality, even if some members of the community would rather not bring those issues up for discussion.
Not that it’s always easy for educators to decide what ought to be aired publicly. One might ask, for instance, when accusations of misconduct should be shared, and when an accused teacher or staff member should be confronted privately. What do schools need to do to make it safe for students and teachers to be open about their sexual preferences (if they choose to be out)? When is the right time for transgender students to make a social transition in school, and how should it be discussed with other students and their parents?
Still, though, our historical moment does seem to call for an open, honest, and shame-free debate about how best to teach about sex and gender in K-12 education. And judging by the enormous number of manuscripts we received for this issue, there’s considerable appetite for that debate among educators. Thus, in this month’s Kappan, we’ve decided to break tradition and devote the entire issue to our theme — we’ll return to featuring a mix of thematic and non-thematic content in November.
Citation: Heller, R. (2018). Editor’s note: No shame, no silence. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (2), 4.