In the nearly two decades I taught at colleges and universities, I became increasingly aware that all too often departments and programs hired individuals who matched their own interests and expertise while shying away from creating a more academically diverse department or even division.
For public colleges, the issue was more severe. Increasingly, administrators catered to social media and public outrage, preferring to have a faculty member “resign” than fight for a more complex and diverse understanding of the most pressing issues of our times. The end result is that many institutions of higher education ceased to be places to learn but became advocacy-driven out of fear of liability and a tarnished public image. No longer could teachers teach, offering an objective, even scientific view of an issue, they must become lawyers and social workers that advocate for particular preset causes.
The importance of Gender Studies
No, this is not an article that is shadowing hate or misogyny, quite the contrary. I have spent most of my life advocating for women writers, writing about Black Lives Matter, and defending girlhood from censorship that often sets girls behind boys while masquerading as progress.
My challenge, however, is that as a male feminist scholar, what do I know about women and girls? I’d always know considerably less than my female colleagues and students, including the teenagers I often taught (and they taught me). I realized early on that if I wanted to contribute to girlhood and womanhood, if I wanted to advocate for the construct of femininity in art and in life, while pointing to the challenges and the misogyny of “being a girl,” I would have to create a different path. So, my focus became men. How do men see visual images of young girls in media, and does their viewing of young girls in media differ from how they see women? I know how and why men look at girls.
In this regard, I am a man and I would know. I could contribute to gender studies because whether we like it or not feminine youth and beauty dominates almost all world cultures and will continue to do so. We can face it or run from it. We are choosing to run.
This is not what people often think it is: the issue of pedophilia or sex offense risk, that men that look at such images are pedophiles seeking pedophile rings. Such arguments are riddled with misunderstanding and a clear lack of knowledge about human sexuality, human sexual development, the very early onsets that girls start showing secondary sex characteristics, and the different dresses kids wear today as compared to 50 or so years ago. Add 24/7 social media visuals, and the issue becomes much more complex.
In sum, hetero guys will look at very young girls online. Often, this has little to do with pedophilia, which is “sexual interest” in kids that don’t often show secondary sex characteristics. There is also a big difference in our sexual fantasies from what men really want and do that is totally missing from academic or any public discourse.
So, who’s looking? We are. And that is a powder keg and one of the reasons I chose to leave the profession I spent hundreds of thousands preparing for. Institutions of higher learning have become make-believe “safe spaces” where triggering/trigger warnings are seen as negative. And such naming can be used politically to shut down any difficult but necessary conversation, research, or discourse. Your college professor may be from Yale or NYU, but they must listen to Twitter or the New York Post if they want to keep their job.
Gender Studies Does Not Address the White Hetero Male
The white heterosexual male is not only absent from feminist, race, and gay studies, he has become the male patriarchy. In other words, each male, even Men of Color are the oppressors and enemies of women and People of Color. There is nothing to study about them, and to even suggest it as I do, means automatically that someone like me is a racist, sexist, homophobic, gun-waving, Nazi. Yet, I have Anne Frank’s face tattooed on my arm and am considering Joan of Arc on my other. I did that to show her respect as a Jewish girl that has become a cultural icon.
We are missing the fundamental problem that is tearing all of us apart: whenever we silence a group, we rewrite their narratives and histories for them. We cut out their tongues and we provide our best examples of our people and the worst examples of theirs. We are all historically spinning in circles; whoever has power, provides an over-simplified and false narrative of the other. Then the hands change and the same thing happens all over again.
The key to a good academic institution is to study the human condition in its totality so that we can stop what I call the insanity of repetitive events in history. There is no other issue more important to liberal arts, to humanity, to the humanities, to all of us, than to stop our destructive natures toward one another in an ethical and human manner. No, there is no room for hate, but we have to understand what breeds hate. We have to know who is standing in front of us, for real.
What I Learned at Columbia University
When I spent a year at Columbia University’s social work program, I made the mistake to support the University’s position to have a White Supremacist speak at the University. I regret that decision, and I apologized to the many students on Twitter at the time. Yes, I think we have to understand hate, and my fear at the time is that if we suppress one’s tongue then the only option we give them is physical violence. I still think this is true, and it is clearly happening. January 6th is just such an example. However, the whole point of having trained and specialized professors is to have one with experience present these sides in class. They can even use actual writings from such groups. But we don’t have to invite Hitler or Jeffrey Epstein or even Mr. Tate to our party.
If we don’t show students such writings, then we risk the same kind of filtering that creates false accounts of history, and sadly most of history is told by those that won over those that lost. That is why Gender Studies, race studies, and sexuality studies (we don’t study sexuality really) are so important because it’s the only way to set the record closer to the truth. Such is not a true account of history when told from any one perspective.
Academics like me are not perfect. Here is just such an example of my own mistake, but I recognized my mistake and learned from it. If I was simply excluded, I would have never learned and could have become more radicalized, something that is happening to many white men in our society right now. There is a reason Mr. Tate is so loved by so many young men, and that is very disturbing to me, what he allegedly did to young women. There is nothing manly about his actions or his position which is really one of male anger and emotional weakness. He seems simply predatory. If you don’t like women or girls, I don’t like you, period. You’ve chosen the path of anger and your own personal destruction, as Tate has.
When Old Dominion University chose to be reactive and encourage Dr. Walker, a trans person, to resign because of what The New York Post and other bloggers manipulatively and hatefully presented, it became clear to me that Old Dominion and most public colleges and universities are not real academic institutions. They are businesses catering to public opinion, and it is easy to mislead the public, especially when it comes to pedophilia. That is why pedophilia is such a good topic for academic discourse. Such demands excellent critical thinking skills.
Dr. Walker said that pedophilia is not immoral. At first, I assume all of you have a strong reaction to this. But let me stop you. What do you really know about the term? Where are you getting your information? Can you make a sound judgment if you feel angry and emotional right now, or if you feel triggered? Even if you are a survivor of abuse, do you know what the term means? I do because I worked with hundreds of men, many of which had pedophilia or pedophilic disorder. Walker is a scientist. It is not a question of morality because no one chooses pedophilic disorder or who they are sexually or romantically attracted to (or have a sexual interest in). People have no control over this. But they can make good or bad choices, so in treatment, we cannot cure who you like, but we can help you make ethical choices. That is where morality comes into play. I understand this as many experts do. Some experts don’t want to understand it because it is easier and more profitable to go with mass opinion.
What happened to Walker scared me, too. I realized that I could not attend my doctoral program at Tulane University. Because even if I could get a job at a university, I would be fired the first time someone misinterprets what I write whether it’s on Twitter or it’s an openly biased media platform. I could also make a mistake. Since when should a mistake cost someone their career or even life?
We have politicized American education, and that spells the death of democracy. To be a professor is to be one that upholds what is critical to U.S. national security; our very reason for existence: our freedom. But if we want freedom, we must understand that the person next to us also has freedom, something that has become totally lost on so many of us.
We have to stop reacting, and this is what I taught in composition studies for years. It is part of critical thinking at the freshman college level, but no one seems to remember it because emotions are stronger than facts. Such is humanity’s Achilles Heel.
When I was teaching, a colleague showed me a competitive dance video that she thought was “sex trafficking.” Fortunately, this was an idea that did not catch on, but the opinion is that if we let young girls dance in official dance competitions and they show any skin or dance provocatively, they are being sex trafficked. As one that did a research project on sex trafficking for the Franciscan Chapter of the United Nations, I was deeply offended by her assertion. Dance is artistic and involves the body. Dance is sexual, but we all have sexuality. Kids naturally dance, even provocatively, as some would see it. That does not make dance abusive or sex trafficking. People’s thoughts and actions are what can make any certain thing abusive. A swimsuit is not abusive, but forcing one to wear it is. There is a distinction. My colleague then said to me, “Earl, you cannot do this work because you are a man. My advice is to advocate for sex trafficking research, but don’t do the girls and media stuff.” In other words, just push the accepted narrative.
Maybe I know something she does not because I am a man and well-educated and willing to put out my vulnerability while showing courage to discuss what so many are too afraid to discuss. And that is exactly what feminist studies has advocated that men do, but here I was being told to shut up.
Fortunately, Walker was hired by Johns Hopkins University, a private school, because as a University that leads others in child sexual abuse prevention, it understands the needed work that Walker is doing, and, I think, the University understands that when looking at the attacks on Walker, not only did readers fail to understand the terms and what they really mean, but the attacks were hateful and were targeting Walker for who they are, a trans person.
Walker themselves was said to be immoral because they are trans and gay and trans people are naturally perverted, just like pedophiles. That is the dangerous narrative perpetuated by those on social media blogs. They successfully silenced Walker and created a false narrative in Walker’s place. In that way, Old Dominion University’s position is one that supports hate and intolerance as well as misinformation. We all know that in today’s world “resigning” means a very nice way to be fired. Don’t expect much to change anytime soon.
Unfortunately, it’s tough to get into Johns Hopkins. I never could, so for many the great education offered there is out of reach, and our continuous failures at public intuitions, their desire to just look good politically, and the political pressure and veiled harassment they get from their local politicians make them not only ineffective but counterproductive to our nation’s values regardless of anyone’s political leanings. In terms of access for poor people like me, People of Color, and in some cases women, a fine, thorough education is still out of reach. But there is always Twitter and the New York Post.
So, I drive buses. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I just cannot make a living with it after accumulating enormous student loan debt. Yes, that is my responsibility, but it’s not my responsibility to be harassed and excluded. I don’t regret my efforts or debt because I really did the best I could possibly do.
To gain knowledge is what gives us access to freedom. Not only is freedom never free, but seeking freedom is wrought with danger. Gender Studies is failing us, not because it addresses the pervasive racism, homophobia, and sexism that holds our society back but because it fails to see the serious struggles males are encountering. There is a reason why so many particularly white males are going to violence as a last and only resort. Tragically, it’s the only way they can be visible. Enacting violence feeds into the male patriarchy narrative and media sensation. It also gives us what we always pay attention to — fear, anger, outrage, and panic. More to come.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.