Appropriate Behavior? Sexualities, Schooling, and Hetero-Gender

David Mellor & Debbie Epstein. Handbook of Gender and Education. Editor: Christine Skelton, Becky Francis, Lisa Smulyan. Sage Publications, 2006.


Eight school pupils have been suspended following a protest against their headmaster’s decision to ban ‘canoodling’. The protest began last Friday when around 200 pupils … refused to return to afternoon classes after being told they were not allowed to kiss, hold hands or hug. The headmaster … said today that the ban was aimed at instilling ‘appropriate behaviour’. (The Guardian, 6 October, 2004)

The young people at this British school were disciplined for exhibiting their sexuality within a formal educational setting. As the report highlights, the head teacher clearly found the assorted acts of ‘canoodling’ to be disturbing and inappropriate in the educational context for which he was responsible—such acts had no place at school. It seems that such sexualized behavior fitted ill with his vision of what school pupils should be (or be like). His solution was to ban conduct that apparently disrupted both his identity as an educator and the young people’s identities as students. It was, as such, an attempt to banish sexuality from their school. But to think that by stopping ‘inappropriate’ behavior such as kissing or holding hands, one could ‘remove’ sexuality from schooling is misguided, as it understands sexuality purely as biologically driven acts of intimacy and fails to recognize that sexualities are cultural and historical constructs that shape and define people’s lives and identities (Weeks, 1986). Indeed, the ‘appropriate behavior’ required by the head teacher is, in fact, the practice of a particular kind of gendered sexuality considered correct for young people in schools. It is, moreover, a distinct type of dominant heterosexuality.

In recent years, Anglophone countries have seen a rise in abstinence campaigns that argue explicitly in favor of the postponement of sexual activity until marriage, and in so doing, promote and discipline a particularly ‘straight’ version of heterosexuality. The bold presumption of these campaigns is that everyone is normatively heterosexual and that this heterosexuality must be defended against the incursions of ‘queer’ and other non-normative versions of sexuality.

Constructing Sexualities

The head teacher’s attempt to control the expression of sexuality in his school assumes, as popular common sense generally does, that sexuality is biologically organized and driven in fairly uncomplicated ways. Along with most other researchers who work on sexuality, we argue that sexuality is much more than just sex. It consists of a myriad of social interactions and cultural understandings developed in particular situations and places. Sexuality, then, includes all the cultural practices adopted by people (in this chapter, children and teachers), from childhood games like ‘kiss-chase’, through dating and dumping practices, romantic ideals and stories, to the social and legal institutions (like marriage) through which we organize our sexual lives.

It is important to underline that sexualities are never completely stifled or removed from educational contexts and that certain sexual identities are actually openly promoted and regulated. For example, in the US context, the high-school ‘prom’ and, in the British context, the ‘school disco’ assume, require, and promote particular versions of heterosexual relating. These include dressing up in certain styles (whether formal evening wear at the prom, or the more casual, but nonetheless carefully achieved, wear appropriate to a disco), couples comprising one of each gender, and the need to be heterosexually attractive to the opposite sex. These ‘ideals’ are not always achieved but are very clearly understood by the young people attending such events. Even where the heterosexual presumptions underlying the organization of proms are challenged, the very extensive response (both negative and positive) to such challenges is indicative of the degree to which heterosexuality is assumed to be the only ‘normal’ version of sexuality. Sexualities, then, are not absent from schools, but are deeply entwined within the normative discourses of education. Here, we explore the ways in which children themselves (and their teachers) form, construct, and struggle over meanings (that is discourses) in the cultural worlds of their schools. If, as many have argued, the social and cultural construction of sexualities takes place through discourse (for example, Foucault, 1978; Weeks, 1986, 1991), it follows that identities, and thus gender and sexualities, have been and continue to be shaped not by nature but by historically specific cultures. This theoretical framework has been widely used to explore sexuality in terms of people’s creativity and agency, while retaining an understanding of how professionals and institutions exert considerable influence over identities (Vance, 1995). The study of sexuality in education has, generally, followed similar lines of argument (see, for example, Deacon et al., 1999; Epstein, 1999; Renold, 2002; Sears, 2002; Hillier and Harrison, 2004), as we do here.

Space, Time, Narrative

Schools are particular discursive spaces with their own sets of (usually unstated) but widely understood regulative processes and regimes of truth. There are a number of aspects to keep in mind in this regard. First, it is worth remembering that formal schooling came into being (in the UK at least) as part of the shift from cottage industry to industrial labor. This shift made it necessary to provide child-care for workers so that they could undertake paid labor in factories. Second, schooling is compulsory for children and young people (though the age of compulsory schooling varies slightly from country to country). Thus, children’s presence in schools as pupils/students is coerced—they must attend (unless their parents embark on the complex process of home-schooling) whether they want to or not. Third, adults are present in schools on a voluntary basis, in so far as they have the ability to choose employment other than that of teaching or assisting teachers. Fourth, and partly because of this, adult power is institutionalized in the context of schools. While children/young people may well (and often do) resist strongly and creatively (Willis, 1977; Wyn and White, 1997), discursively and formally the adults are meant to be ‘in charge’. Fifth, the underlying assumption that governs formal education is that teachers know and children learn. Thus, in what Paulo Freire (1996) identified as a ‘banking model’ of education, teachers are responsible for the transmission of knowledge and children are there to absorb it. In this context, the degree to which the children have become saturated with knowledge is constantly tested by both public and school-based tests and examinations. Furthermore, in the contemporary context of neo-liberal marketised education systems, schools are themselves tested, audited, and judged, often on the basis of children’s success in public examinations.

This discursive field is productive of the kinds of individuals who inhabit the spaces of schools—on the one hand, adults-as-educators and, on the other hand, children-as-pupils—and this has implications for the construction of school-based sexualities. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1977) argues that schools (and the examination process) produce and depend on the regulation of what he terms ‘docile bodies’, defined, through discourse and surveillance, by the spaces they inhabit. Pupils’ bodies are particularly subject to the disciplinary gaze of teachers and the pedagogic discourses they deploy (Walkerdine, 1990). Since sexuality is invariably embodied (as well as enculturated), it comes as no surprise that it is disciplined in gendered ways (Butler, 1993). Girls and boys are supposed to inhabit their bodies differentially and spatially (Gordon et al., 2000). It therefore follows that schooling can, in no way, be divorced from the bodies of either pupils or teachers or from gendered (ethnic, classed, etc.) versions of sexuality.

Indeed, despite widespread political and common-sense support for the notion that education can and should take place without sexuality, many aspects of education are, in practice, concerned with educating for (hetero)sexuality. Moreover, educational discourses can be seen to foreground a particular version of institutional, gendered (hetero)sexuality in educational sites from the nursery school or kindergarten, through secondary and high schools, to colleges and universities. It should be stressed that this ‘heterosexual economy’ is salient within the discursive practices and meanings of the official curriculum and the values of institutions, but also exists as a dominant regulatory force within the everyday cultures of school (Hey, 1997; Epstein et al., 2002; Kehily, 2002).

As we saw at the start of the chapter, the head teacher who prohibited ‘canoodling’ while at school was concerned about ‘appropriate behaviors’. We suggested that this was because what he saw as ‘inappropriate’ behaviors were disruptive of his identity as an educator and of what he thought were suitable identities for his students. Clearly, the students saw things somewhat differently. As this example shows, the playground space is much more in the control of the students than that of the classroom, and the refusal to go into class was a very symbolic action that deployed the differential discursive geographies of the school. This illustrates how schools are not singular but multiple geographical sites, and sexualities are negotiated differently in areas like the classroom, the playground, the hallways, the staff room, and the lunch hall. That is not to suggest, however, that there is freedom to choose sexual identities in any of these areas, because a combination of educational, cultural, gendered, and other discourses collude (and collide) in assembling a particularly narrow interpretation of (hetero)sexuality as ‘natural’ that often passes unaccredited and without criticism.

Childhood, Hetero-Gender and Education

Within this discursive framework, a particularly strong—even hegemonic -discourse in contemporary Western (particularly Anglophone) culture is that of ‘childhood innocence’. Children, it is widely assumed, should be protected from the corrupting ‘adult’ world and should have as little as possible, preferably no (sexual) knowledge that, it is supposed, could damage their innocence or tempt them into experiencing forbidden practices (Kitzinger, 1988; Jenks, 1996; James and Prout, 1997). Culturally, then, children are held to be asexual or presexual persons (Jackson, 1982). Paradoxically, at the same time, children are often highly sexualized. Jackson (1999), for example, describes how young girls may be entered in beauty pageants, and Walkerdine has analyzed the sexualized discourse of very young children (Walkerdine, 1990), of young girls at the primary stage (Walkerdine, 1997), and of girls growing up to adulthood (Walkerdine et al., 2001). Similarly, boys must be ‘real boys’ in ways that mark them as heterosexual (Epstein, 1997; Renold, 2004). As we can see, the fixing of the boundaries of gender (Thorne, 1993) is frequently, if not invariably, achieved through hetero-normative discourses which place boys as boys and girls as girls in ways which, as Judith Butler (1990; 1993) argues, presuppose heterosexuality.

Research about children’s relationship cultures has shown that the notion that children are ‘innocent’ and lacking in knowledge about sexuality is problematic in two, interconnected ways. First, children often do hold complex knowledges about sexuality, but they vary from and sometimes overlap adult understandings. Second, children and young people do not simply learn about sexuality, passively, but they mould and re-produce such knowledge, articulating it in diverse ways within their friendship cultures while forming their own social realities (see, for example, Kehily et al., 2002; Renold, 2005). This understanding of children’s friendship groups as producers of identities differs greatly from older socialization models, where young people were seen as simply replicating the pre-existing socio-cultural order (Kehily et al., 2002).

The places where children and young people are educated and indeed all educational contexts, are widely held to be non-sexual spaces, at least in relation to processes of teaching and learning, where all present, students and educators, are cast as asexual beings—or, at least, beings whose sexuality is on temporary ‘hold’. This makes the discussion of issues of sexuality in an educational space potentially a risky business. There are at least two risks here. First, educators who talk with young people about sexuality may well find themselves the subject of tabloid (in the UK context) scandal, seen as ‘promoting’ particularly kinds of (undesirable) sexuality or of encouraging children to become sexually active by introducing them to discussions about sexuality. This may compromise their jobs and privacy. The second ‘risk’ is contained in the first. This is the perceived problem of young people’s sexual activity at a time and in a space in which their interest in sex and sexuality is seen as illegitimate. The narrative goes that if ‘society’ takes one step in the direction of liberalization of sexualities (or even discussion of them), then the rest automatically follows—that is, a complete loss of all ‘moral values’ (especially where the only legitimate morality is seen as conservative) becomes inevitable.

Adult anxieties about the behavior of young people as both endangered and dangerous to themselves and to other members of society have led to increasing levels of surveillance and regulation, such as the installation of closed-circuit TV (CCTV) in certain schools (Kelly, 2003; Bunyan, 2004) so that children can be constantly monitored by, and under surveillance from, parents, teachers, or other adults. While younger children are most often seen as at risk from others, older children are seen as a risk to others and ‘decent’ society. The tendency to categorize children in relation to riskiness (to themselves and/or to others) is especially marked with regard to fears about sexuality and sexual activity. Such fears run from panics about the dangers of paedophilia, to the ‘epidemic’ of supposedly unwanted teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This is not to suggest that these are not problematic issues or dangerous for some young people. However, the dominance they have achieved in educational discourse often leads to the exclusion of all other considerations about sexuality. In the USA, for example, sexuality education in many states constructs a model of the sexual teenager as normatively heterosexual and attends only to the risks and dangers associated with teen sex (Bay-Cheng, 2003). All this reveals a close association between sexuality and danger that is common in contemporary discourse, where both are intertwined in complex and ambiguous ways (Vance, 1984; Weeks, 1986).

This entanglement of sexuality, danger, risk, and surveillance leads to a kind of implicit and often explicit censorship of sexuality in schools, which is as often self-censorship as it is imposed by others. In one sense, this can be seen as silencing, but in practice, sexuality is very present, very loud, and very uncensored in school spaces. The very censorship itself creates the impetus for the expression of sexuality. Judith Butler (1997) suggests that censorship is not so much about silencing people as about creating the conditions of production of the self through discourse (speech and acts). For example, teachers’ fears and anxieties about sexuality add to and increase the regulation and disciplining of sexuality in schools. But far from this leading to sexuality vanishing from school, what actually happens is that inherent to the discourse of the ‘non-sexual school’ is a strong recognition of the gendered sexualities of educators and students. Indeed, more than that, it is productive of the expression of sexualities among students/pupils and teachers alike in a whole number of ways.

Paradoxically, in all this anxiety, surveillance and regulation concerning the supposed risks of sexuality to children and young people, normative ideas about gender remain largely unchallenged. The matrix of gendered practices that are undertaken daily, and the mass of naturalized gendered knowledge that informs these practices, render unnoticed the heterosexual framework by which people are compelled to live (Butler, 1990). While gender is not simply collapsible into, or a natural expression of sexuality, the compulsory and institutional nature of heterosexuality makes it appear so (Rubin, 1984). The resultant discourse of normatively gendered heterosexuality is supported by and dependent on certain narratives—stories about the way things are and should be (like romantic love) -that inform, shape, and are shaped by people as they try to make sense of the world that they live in (Bruner, 1990; Plummer, 1995). Because of the culturally pervasive discourse of gendered heterosexuality and the narratives that support it, a distinctly narrow form of hetero-gendered sexuality is privileged and sanctioned within educational institutions. This form assumes that gender is fixed in certain ways, that heterosexuality is the inevitable (and the only normal) destination for children as they grow up, and that particular modes of doing/being boys and girls are not only natural but desirable. This is what is speakable within school contexts. At the same time, other forms of sexuality, including non-normative heterosexualities, are demonized and rendered virtually unspeakable (O’Flynn and Epstein, 2005). In the context of sex education, this is maintained by a limited focus on coitus and heterosexual intimacy (Thorogood, 2000), while in other areas of the official curriculum the institutions of normative heterosexuality, such as marriage between two people of opposite sex, are positioned as natural and difficult to challenge.


Within the context of the school, classrooms constitute particular spaces of their own and have different characters at different times. They are the primary spaces for teaching and learning but are also often territorially marked as ‘belonging’ to a particular teacher. Generally, teachers are in control of this space in a number of important respects. They are able to control who is allowed into the space and when they may leave—notwithstanding the fact that students may sometimes barge in unceremoniously or, indeed, run out in certain circumstances, nor that senior managers and inspectors often have the run of the classroom with or without teachers’ permission. The furniture is arranged in particular ways that bespeak the kind of teaching that goes on there (Walkerdine, 1984), in single file, pairs, or joined up for group work. Children are often deprived of the choice of where to sit but are given a space or refused permission to sit in another space. Thus, bodies are controlled, and this regulation often occurs in gendered and sexualized ways (Gordon et al., 2000). For example, boys and girls may be made to sit next to each other in order to discipline the boys and control their behavior. Thus, boys are positioned as being active, mischievous, and/or disruptive in very bodily ways, while girls are seen as calming, mature, generally more responsible and as inhabiting quieter, stiller bodies. This leads into the common discursive framing of normative heterosexuality as dependent on active masculinity and passive femininity, which is reflected in many ideas about what and how boys and girls are ‘supposed’ to be.

Teachers’ classroom talk with children is regulated and (self-)censored in part through the set curriculum and texts in use in the classroom. Teachers do not speak freely in classrooms, especially not about sexuality, and their classroom talk is delimited by a complex combination of personal beliefs, circumstance, and official and cultural discourses. Teachers are obliged to enact the role of the ‘non-sexual educator’, but in doing so, are able to draw on and deploy normatively gendered heterosexuality, positioning themselves and the children within this discourse. Thus, many heterosexual teachers will regularly make reference to their own family arrangements—children, husbands/wives, and so on (Spraggs, 1994). The point, here, is not that normatively heterosexual teachers should refrain from deploying their own lives as part of their teaching, but that it is a problem when others cannot do the same. In these ways, narratives of hetero-gender are present within many different aspects of teaching. It is these narratives that give weight and authority to the discourse of normative heterosexuality and help render alternative stories, which might open up more complex ways of understanding the world, relatively untellable.

Lessons in sex education, discussed elsewhere in this book, are not the only lessons in which sexuality is addressed overtly and directly. Lessons in science (especially biology) are clearly places where reproduction might be discussed. Equally, lessons in English, drama, and sociology, for example, may approach human relationships and sexuality as part of the curriculum. However there is, in addition, a swathe of spaces in lessons that might appear ‘free’ from sexuality but are not. Because teaching and learning, as supposedly non-sexual activities, rely on certain narratives about sexuality (drawn from official documents and encapsulated in and through the performed identity of the ‘non-sexual’ educator), particular ways of speaking about relationships are privileged, while others are seen as inappropriate or deeply problematic. Such processes can be seen in the way that, for example, traditional fairy tales are deployed in work with young children in early-years settings. In role-play, boys are regularly the ‘handsome princes’ rescuing the girls, who enact the damsel in distress and even when teachers may try to subvert this, the dominance of the discourse makes it difficult to achieve (Davies, 1989). As children start to do work in history, for example, they are more than likely to be taught about the heterosexual relations of famous figures (whether or not they were ‘heterosexual’ in any simple way). When children reach the stage of subject choice, it is well established that their choices are highly gendered (Arnot et al., 1999), but there is a relationship here, too, between the gendering of a subject and the heterosexualisation of classrooms.

We do not want to give the impression that classrooms are spaces of unproblematic or unchallenged regulation. Children are active agents in the classroom, as elsewhere, and what goes on there is the result of negotiation between and among the children and their teachers. Thus, children’s own relationship cultures often (indeed usually) find many avenues for expression while they are in the classroom during formal lessons, and these cultural practices are saturated with gendered sexualities.


If the classroom is a place where pupils are highly regulated but also active agents who may conform to and/or challenge teachers’ demands, playgrounds are much more constituted as cultural spaces through the relatively unimpeded activities of the children/young people. It is often here that friendships are made, broken, and consolidated. It has been well documented that children’s friendship cultures constitute a space where they exercise social control and are able to shape and construct sexual identities (Thorne, 1993; Swain, 2000; Allard, 2002; Hey, 2002; Kehily et al., 2002; McLeod, 2002; Ali, 2003; Connolly, 2004).

As these authors have shown, the impulse to present oneself as recognizable within normative heterosexuality is strongly influential within children’s relationship cultures. Yet, it should be stressed that children and young people are active negotiators of sexuality discourse, many finding creative and subversive ways in which to overcome the heterosexual imperative and create positive spaces for their own sexualities (Hillier and Harrison, 2004). However, this identity work remains hard labor that runs against the grain of compulsory heterosexuality. There is, for example, an assumption that boys and girls cannot be friends, but only ‘couples’ from an early age (Cahill, 1998; Bhana, 2002).

One of the key issues in the playground, particularly, but also in the classroom, is the role played by homophobia in regulating both gender and sexuality. The extent of homophobic verbal and other abuse in schools has been demonstrated by a number of researchers (see, for example, Frank, 1993; Rivers, 1995; Douglas et al., 1997; Kehily and Nayak, 1997; Davis, 1998; Deacon et al., 1999; Duncan, 1999; Epstein, Hewitt et al., 2003). The point we want to make here is that homophobia is a kind of policing activity that contributes to the difficulties young people (perhaps especially boys) may have in living out gender and sexuality in alternative ways. The quiet, studious boy or even the boy who fits gendered expectations in many ways but is hopeless at team contact sports (like soccer, rugby, or football), may well himself be the target for bullying and abuse. Epstein (1998), for example, describes the lengths that some boys go to in order to avoid being labelled as ‘gay’. A further aspect of homophobia, which demonstrates its links with misogyny, is the way that boys have to demonstrate clearly that they are ‘real boys’. The epithet ‘girl’ is frequently used, almost as an aside, in a disparaging and mocking way that some boys find extremely hurtful. However, showing that they are hurt would confirm the ‘truth’ of the allegation that they do not ‘do boy’ adequately. Finding the creativity to ‘do boy’ differently, in such circumstances, may be well-nigh impossible.

For girls, too, there is an imperative to be heterosexual, which generally finds expression in the demand to make the body heterosexually attractive (through diet, clothes, make-up, and so on), even though the ‘tomboy’ is an acceptable face of femininity, at least until the heterosexual economy of secondary schools begins in earnest (Lees, 1986, 1993; Renold, 2001). Mary Jane Kehily (1996; 2002) has shown how girls use ‘teen’ magazines as a resource both for exploring sexualities and for producing themselves as heterosexual (see also McRobbie, 1991, and Chapter 26 in this volume). For girls, in addition, there is the requirement to be heterosexual enough without becoming known as a ‘slag’, the ‘local bike’, or some other misogynistic designation for sexually active young women. Sue Lees’ account of how girls tread a narrow line between being a ‘slag’ and a ‘drag’ (Lees, 1993) is of relevance here. In spite of these constraints, the literature and our research abound with examples of children’s/young people’s creativity and agency in relation to sexuality and gender (among other aspects of their lives). David James Mellor has found that in some boys’ friendships the strength of the ‘best friend’ narrative is such that boys can be close and talk about emotion and intimacy in a manner that, to some extent, overcomes the restrictive nature of the forms of heterosexual masculinity that predominated in their school. When writing stories about friendship, many of the boys would express their friendships (whether symbolic or real) in romantic terminology, where bonds between boys were secured in an instant and sustained throughout all adversity (Mellor, 2004). Boys can feel emotional closeness for each other in a manner that is often overlooked (Redman et al., 2002).

We are not implying that everything has changed or is changing and that things are becoming easier for those who do not perform dominant versions of gender and of sexuality. While it is important to recognize and celebrate the creative endeavors of children/young people, it is vital that we recognize the continued existence of a dominant and limiting compulsory heterosexuality for both boys and girls.

Conclusion—the Challenge of Universal Anti-Heterosexist Educational Practice

Throughout this chapter, we have emphasized the constructed nature of heterosexuality in schools, shown the way it is bolstered by official discourse, and illustrated how it is negotiated by individuals and groups. To conclude, we would like to suggest how our knowledge of compulsory heterosexuality can be used to work toward anti-heterosexist practice across the curriculum.

To begin, the gap between the academic and the everyday needs to be closed. An open discussion of how sexuality is constructed at different historical points within different cultures would open the space for students and educators to begin to think differently and to challenge dominant norms. This would aid students and educators, whether they identify as heterosexual, non-heterosexual, or queer, by helping to dissolve deep-seated heterosexism and homophobia, and thus provide greater opportunities for personal expression to all individuals regardless of sexual identification. It is important that research in the area of sexualities and schooling retains and emphasizes its focus on problematizing and de-naturalizing institutional heterosexuality and hetero-gender in educational settings. Sexuality education already exists in some areas, having replaced more traditional sex education, but this is just the beginning of what is required. Moving teaching about sexuality away from lessons strictly about biology and/or health and into the humanities and social sciences could help open up spaces for the critical reflection on the constructed nature of institutional and normative heterosexuality (Epstein, O’Flynn and Telford 2003). Such sexuality education could be a vital point of departure for challenges to both the official and unofficial curricula that cause individuals anxiety, uncertainty, and pain through the regulation and disciplining of sexual and gender identities.

One could say that the curriculum needs to be ‘queered’. This does not mean trying to sexualize what young people learn but to ‘excavate and interpret’ the way the curriculum ‘already is sexualised’ (Sumara and Davis, 1999: 192; emphasis in original). As can be seen from our chapter, the dynamics for the interruption and renarration of sexual selves and sexual stories are already present within the cultural settings of education (Atkinson, 2002). One of our key arguments has been that the workings of compulsory heterosexuality in education are limiting and constraining for all involved (adults and children). A key challenge, therefore, for researchers of sexuality and education, is how to unpack and understand the nature of institutional heterosexism while working with practitioners in identifying ways of opening up the possibilities for children/young people rather than, as all too often happens, closing them down. This is an important joint project because, as Judith Butler has recently noted, ‘changing the institutions by which humanly viable choice is established and maintained is a prerequisite for the exercise of self-determination’ (Butler, 2004: 7). It is for the sake of the sexual self-determination of all young people and educators that research in this area will continue apace.