EXCLUSIVE: The University of Sydney has doubled down on the choice to include an outdated and triggering textbook containing graphic descriptions of and arguments in favour of child sexual abuse on a number of undergraduate courses’ reading lists, claiming “a commitment to academic freedom” just a year after promoting the book’s author to the position of Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Joanna Psaros reports.
WARNING: This article contains discussion of child abuse.
Is a disgraced paedophile accused of raping multiple pre-pubescent boys a reliable expert on the subject of sexual ethics? Absolutely, according to Professor Annamarie Jagose and the University of Sydney, who have made the highly questionable decision to teach students Queer and gender theory through the philosophical framework of Michel Foucault and other controversial, outdated theorists who argue against age-of-consent laws and contemplate the “ethical eroticism of children.”
Queer Theory: An Introduction by Annanamarie Jagose, was first published in 1996 and contains many examples of the above. Though it was written some 20 years ago, it is still in print and, according to a University of Sydney spokesperson, it is “frequently set as reading for undergraduate courses in gender and sexuality studies.”
Foucault was a French writer and philosopher of the 1950s and 60s who was highly influential in academic circles and responsible for developing the constructionist theory; the philosophical position that human sexuality is subjective and relative to individuals’ cultural context.
It seems Foucault put his somewhat fluid interpretation of sexual ethics into disturbing practice. Since 2021, the widely referenced intellectual has been credibly accused of sexually abusing several local children between the ages of 8 and 11 while living in Tunisia in the late 1960s. It has been claimed by one of Foucault’s former acquaintances that French media was aware of the claims surrounding Foucault for decades but helped cover up his crimes against young boys in north Africa.
Queer Theory: An Introduction was first published in the late 1990s when Annamarie Jagose was employed as a senior lecturer in English at Melbourne University. The author would go on to work at the University of Auckland in her native New Zealand, before becoming Head of the School of Literature, Art and Media at the University of Sydney. Last August, Jagose was promoted to the university’s executive team, taking up the position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the institution.
“Why is age, unlike, say, race or class- understood as a sexualised power differential recognised by law? Is it possible to eroticise children in an ethical way? These are questions commonly raised – and by no means yet resolved- in the controversy over intergenerational sex.”
– Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction
“Is it possible to eroticise children in an ethical way?”: Annamarie Jagose claims the jury is still out (Image: University of Sydney / Supplied)
Jagose has since published a number of fiction and non-fiction works inspired by gender and sexuality in all its forms – including those involving minors. For example, her 2004 historical fiction novel Slow Water, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, depicts real-life English missionary William Yate’s sexual awakening and “mesmerizing love affair” with another man in 19th century colonial New Zealand – skimming over the well-documented fact that the Yate’s sexual appetite extended to the young mission boys in his care.
“Yes, there were these so-called “native boys” who had also had sex with Yates in various villages and so on,” Jagose casually stated in a previous interview on the subject.
“I was also interested in the testimonials [given by several of Yate’s child sex abuse victims] and the way they reported their narrative so “matter of factly” even though the missionaries were totally scandalized.”
Jagose then continued on to suggest: “This made me think about what kind of cross-cultural value systems were being invoked”.
Exactly what Jagose meant by these comments is unclear. It is, however, hard to deny that her description of the abuse testimonies consciously downplays the seriousness of child sex abuse and its impact on victims.
Pseudophilosophy aside, there’s overwhelming evidence that child sexual abuse causes profound and long-term damage to subjects. Child protection organisations identify several reasons victims may not express obvious trauma, including the fact that abuse is often ‘normalised’ by perpetrators. In the Yate case for instance, one of the boys’ testimonies states the abusive missionary had told him that “everyone” engages in such sexual acts before marriage.
The perspectives on sexual abuse contained in Jagose’s text may be disturbing, but they’re far from unique. According to UNSW Associate Professor and child protection advocate, Michael Salter, musings on “child eroticism” have a long, if dubious, history in academia.
“For some sociologists and historians of sexuality … the criminalisation of [child sexual abuse] in the late 1970s represented a victory for conservative and reactionary forces,” Salter recently stated publicly.
For this reason, it was not uncommon in academic circles of the time to decry child protection efforts as “witch hunts” and expressions of “moral panic.”
In such a context, Queer Theory’s age of consent commentary might be considered less shocking than it first appears. What is shocking is USyd’s unqualified support of Professor Jagose’s outdated work and disregard for the welfare of students forced to study it.
“We are deeply committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech, as described in our Charter of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom. Our academic communities are encouraged to pursue knowledge and to robustly test and debate ideas, even if some might find those ideas controversial or even offensive,” a spokesperson for the University of Sydney said.
“Queer Theory: An Introduction is considered a groundbreaking work and continues to be cited more than 25 years after it was first published.”
The above statement was crafted by the University of Sydney media and PR team, which is made up of sixteen-plus staff – not one of which was prepared to demonstrate regard for their students’ welfare in the matter. Instead, Ms Jagoses’s reputation appeared number one priority,
The book also contains graphic descriptions of child sex abuse, quoting a passage by David Halipern that implicitly compares underage sex to homosexuality.
“Does the ‘paedarest,’ the classical Greek adult male who periodically enjoys sexually penetrating a male adolescent share the same sexuality with … the New Guinea Tribesman and warrior who from the ages of eight to fifteen has been orally inseminated on a daily basis by older youths? Halipern writes.
“Does any of these [people] share the same sexuality with the modern homosexual?”
In her seminal text, Jagose herself appeared to question the legitimacy of age of consent laws, calling such laws “arbitrary.”
“Is it possible to eroticise children in an ethical way?” the academic posited.
When asked if the appointment of Ms Jagose to a senior executive role complies, in light of such comments, with the university’s equity and diversity promotion policy, the University of Sydney refused to comment.
No stranger to controversy, Annamarie Jagose made headlines over her role in proposed mass staff and budgetary cuts within her department during the Covid pandemic. Last June, student protestors opposing the cuts targeted Jagose’s offices chanting: “Annamarie get out, we know what you’re all about / Cuts, job losses, money for the bosses”.
“By no means yet resolved”: Child abuse is up in the air for Annamarie Jagose in ‘Queer Theory’ (Image: Supplied)
In a faculty-wide newsletter, the then-Dean called out protestors on ostensibly feminist grounds, objecting to what she called the “insinuatingly gendered” use of her first name in the campaign, as well as suggesting the protests demonstrated structural inequality on the basis of her Parsi surname’s “apparent exoticism.” A little over a month later, she would be promoted to one of the university’s most senior executive roles.
Structural inequality and the repression of female and Queer voices in public life is somewhat of a running theme in Jagose’s work. But when asked about her own role in disempowering child sexual abuse survivors – a group in which the LGBTQIA+ community is disproportionately represented – she remained silent.
There is of course, no suggestion that Professor Jagose personally supports all of the age of consent “commentary” the academic cites. However, her writing certainly leans in to justificatory language concerning the sexual abuse of minors, euphemistically referred to in Queer Theory as “intergenerational sex” and “man-boy love.”
“Man-boy love” is the label adopted by the world’s largest paedophile advocacy organisation, the abhorrent North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Since the 1970s, NAMBLA have attempted to overturn age of consent laws and campaigned for the release of convicted sex offenders.
The line of enquiry adopted by Foucault, NAMBLA, and Sydney’s own Annamarie Jagose could be seen as damaging not only to the welfare of child sex abuse survivors, but Jagose’s own Queer community. It seems unlikely that questioning, for example, whether child protection safeguards are simply “erotic hysteria” (as Jagose does) would achieve anything but fan the flames of damaging and inaccurate stereotypes about child predation in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Bafflingly, Jagoes goes as far as to promote the existence of such associations, writing: “There is little agreement … on which groups politically comprise a lesbian and gay affinity with queer, although most commentators nominate paedophiles in that category”.
“Know my name,” Jagose commanded students in her sign-off from the infamous open letter to last year’s protestors.
Perhaps it’s a command she’ll come to regret, with the name Annamarie Jagose now potentially associated with abuse apologia.