Money and the murky boundary of teaching and sex
May 15, 2018 10:24 AM   Subscribe

Every few years an essay appears that treats the question of sexual harassment in the academy as an occasion to muse on the murky boundaries of teaching and sex. While a staple of the genre is the self-serving apologia for an older male harasser, the authors are not always old or male. And though some defend sex between students and professors, many do not. These latter writers have something finer, more Greek, in mind. They seek not a congress of bodies but a union of souls. Eros is their muse, knowledge their desire.... I call this genre The Erotic Professor.
posted by Cash4Lead (39 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite


 
the problem is the dyad itself.

This is a very good analysis of something that is always, always so disturbing. The quoted material is repulsive.

I don't understand why the student-teacher relationship is so commonly seen like a sexual romantic connection, when it has so many important similarities to a parent-child relationship instead. Why the hell do so many professors see their students as sex objects rather than vulnerable children? They're adults, but they're still just so, so young, and your relationship to them is structured by you knowing more than them and being able to help them grow.

Ugh. Just ugh.
posted by meese at 10:41 AM on May 15 [23 favorites]


I'm delighted by this essay - if only because the description of Brooklyn College feels so familiar. My university was in pretty good repair, but with 35,000 undergraduates (20 years ago - there are more now), I can count on two hands the number of one-on-one conversations I had with my professors, and I was a keener who attended office hours and actively sought out tutoring. You just don't get much frisson of attraction at 8:30 in the morning, sitting around with 30 (or 100) other sleepy students listening to lectures about Sun Yat-Sen and the Three Principles of the People - as much as I really liked that professor (Professor Luk was wonderful - and sadly passed away much too young).

Why the hell do so many professors see their students as sex objects rather than vulnerable children? They're adults, but they're still just so, so young, and your relationship to them is structured by you knowing more than them and being able to help them grow.

I understand what you mean: a relationship between a teacher and a student is NEVER okay, because of the power differential, just as a relationship between a supervisor/manager and their report in the workplace is problematic. But I don't like the framing of students as children. Outside of the elite universities, a lot of students aren't children. I was 21 by the time I started undergraduate and had worked full-time; my TA was my age. Most students at my uni were 18-19, but there were still a fair number who were 25, 35 or 55. (And because we had five years of high school, there were almost no students under 18, and the university culture reflected that: the university categorically refused to communicate with parents.)
posted by jb at 10:59 AM on May 15 [14 favorites]


Students are not vulnerable children, and this essay is not just about sex. Eroticism in the context of the essay means many things. I appreciate the author's highlighting of class as the delineating line between close mentorship of this nature and none - this tracks with my experience as well. Very good essay, and food for much thought...
posted by lazaruslong at 11:01 AM on May 15 [8 favorites]


Here’s how that passage scans at Brooklyn College — where I teach — a CUNY campus that, despite the resolute interventions and dedication of our new president and vice president, remains undone by decades of malign neglect by the state. In the lecture hall, there are chairs that can’t be sat on, a light fixture that does double duty as a graveyard for insects, and grimy windows you can’t see through. The view opens up in the hallways, but that’s because holes and gashes in the ceilings and walls offer portals to an unseen world. Timeless truths are stopped clocks. The only thoughts about sex are in the graffiti on bathroom stalls, next to toilets that are less broken than deconstructed. As my friend in the philosophy department, Samir Chopra, once remarked, "The most unsexy thing I’ve done in my life is teach in a Brooklyn College classroom."
I graduated from Brooklyn College (and took a really good class w/ the author of this piece) and hoo-boy is this just absolutely dead on. Until reading this it didn't actually occur to me that almost all of the endeared and rosy Erotic Professor narratives I've encountered are in the context of an academia where the infrastructure is intact and free time is afforded to both the students and the professors and how much both of those things depend on class and capital.
posted by griphus at 11:14 AM on May 15 [17 favorites]


I am deeply glad that I never developed whatever kink it is that makes it possible for people to see the teacher-student relationship as erotic. There weren't any more "murky boundaries of teaching and sex" to me in college than there were in kindergarten. I'm lucky in a lot of ways; if I ever had a male teacher or professor who was attracted to me, I never knew about it. I always looked to learning as a refuge from the demands of gender and sexuality, from my own appearance and the madness of boys. As I say, I was lucky. Someone else with less home support and life advantage might grasp at a proposition, or make one, in an attempt to get their hooks into another stratum of life and of possibility. Girls who went for MRS degrees looked wherever they could.

I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie not long ago because I heard it was a lovely, effervescent novel of youth and female bonding. Either I was mistaken or somebody has no idea what healthy relationships look like, because that book gave me the crawling horrors.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:15 AM on May 15 [10 favorites]


When I was doing my master’s in library science 20 years ago I took a journalism elective; the course was (broadly speaking) about pop culture, and it was taught by a relatively young male professor who made a big show of being the “cool” prof, who would go out for drinks at the grad club after class and hold court. I loved the course and thought he was great, a cynical truth-teller in the midst of a bunch of stuffy academics. Well, you can probably tell where this is going; not long after I graduated I learned that a friend of a friend dated him for a while and was treated like a disposable plaything before being cast aside for another student in a seemingly purposefully callous manner, a pattern that had been repeating itself for as long as the prof had been teaching there. No laws were broken (I have no idea what the school’s policies were regarding student-teacher relationships) but for me (a straight man) it was a lesson in how wide the gap between a man’s progressive rhetoric and their personal behaviour can be.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:33 AM on May 15 [11 favorites]


I'd not really delved into the Erotic Professor subgenre, possibly because it didn't map well to my own alma mater, a semi-shabby second-tier state university. I do think that there were faculty at my school who were trying to act it out, with results as embarrassing as you might imagine.

I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie not long ago because I heard it was a lovely, effervescent novel of youth and female bonding. Either I was mistaken or somebody has no idea what healthy relationships look like, because that book gave me the crawling horrors.

For some reason, I'd always thought of that book (which I haven't read) as some sort of distaff version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips or The Dead Poets Society. Needless to say, my jaw was hanging open when I skimmed the Wikipedia summary; perversely, I now kind of want to read it, because it sounds like just the most fucked-up mini personality cult situation.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:35 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


What the rest of us don’t see — with our roving harassment patrols and simpleminded faith in rules and regulators — is the erotic charge of education, how two particles of mind can be accelerated to something hotter. In our quest to stop the sex, we risk losing the sexiness.

I literally do not fucking care if eroticism means "many things" in this context. This is, quite frankly, disgusting to say. Sorry (not fucking at all sorry) if you think Title IX and attempts to stop literally an entire quarter of undergraduate women from being assaulted is ruining your sexy fee-fees.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:40 AM on May 15 [21 favorites]


And the author (so far as I can tell) never mentions that every single time- and resource-constraint detailed is significantly worse for those professors who now teach a majority of our college students here in the US: exploited adjunct professors. A very telling blind spot in an article that purports to address issues of class.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 11:48 AM on May 15 [10 favorites]


I went to a small, private liberal arts college with plenty of access to my professors, I majored in English, and yet this classist presumptuous erotic dynamic was mostly just...not a thing. We joked about how it wasn't a thing, even! I'm quite sure that this was because we weren't prestigious enough of a school for this kind of entitlement to make any sense culturally.
posted by desuetude at 11:55 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


The essay sadly missed one crucial aspect of the Erotic Professor trope:
It's not just about class; it's also about power.
posted by erniepan at 12:10 PM on May 15 [9 favorites]


I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie not long ago because I heard it was a lovely, effervescent novel of youth and female bonding.

It's explicitly a novel about fascism and the abuse of power.

This reminds of the time I saw The Friendly Young Ladies on a tumblr-curated list of empowering LGBT reads.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:13 PM on May 15 [6 favorites]


I’ve always understood the Greek stuff about learning’s connection with eros as depending on a definition of eros as desire generally—in this case, the desire for knowledge, rather than the desire for sex. (Isn’t that what all the ladder business is about? It’s eros all the way up, even though no one has sex with Platonic ideals of beauty, so far as I know).

There can be an intense and exciting sense of growing relationship between a learner and the subject learnt, when it’s new and chimes perfectly with the learner’s mind—that’s what it means to say that a mathematician has fallen in love with some model or a humanities scholar with a particular text. And there’s a kind of privacy in the mind of the learner that makes it reasonable to think of that experience as something dyadic, between student and subject. But it’s a mistake to treat the projection of that feeling onto the teacher as anything but psychological projection, which the learner has to get over if they are going to get anywhere. And of course it’s absolutely dangerous and nonsensical to think that has anything to do, one way or another, with teachers having a non-metaphorical, perfectly straightforward and reprehensible, desire for exploitative sex with a younger person who doesn’t have as much power as they do. We don’t need to be conflicted about banning professors from pursuing that goal. The handful of students on maths courses who want to be mathematicians will figure out a way to fall in love with maths anyway, whether or not their teachers are strictly prohibited from hitting on them or hanging out with them in bars at night.
posted by Aravis76 at 12:22 PM on May 15 [5 favorites]


The essay sadly missed one crucial aspect of the Erotic Professor trope:
It's not just about class; it's also about power.


Except the essay didn't miss this. It's in there. The author even calls out Gallop explicitly for not examining power differentials:
Gallop’s text can be disturbing, so breezily dismissive is she of the differentials and abuses of power, including her own

The question of power imbalance is addressed in multiple other spots, too.
What the rest of us don’t see — with our roving harassment patrols and simpleminded faith in rules and regulators — is the erotic charge of education, how two particles of mind can be accelerated to something hotter. In our quest to stop the sex, we risk losing the sexiness.
I literally do not fucking care if eroticism means "many things" in this context. This is, quite frankly, disgusting to say.

I hope you are referring to the text from the essay and not my comment about eroticism meaning many things?

Look, are we all reading a different essay? The writer is clearly describing and satirizing the position of the group of Erotic Professor trope writers that are the subject of the essay. They then go to great lengths to pick apart how it's wrong, class and power are huge factors, and even some super woke feminists have a blind spot to the privilege of wealth and free time that underlie the whole thing.
posted by lazaruslong at 12:44 PM on May 15 [8 favorites]


If Corey robin didn’t mention adjunct professors in this one essay, it’s ok and not a huge blind spot/weakness. What it is though is the only thing he’s written about the university where he doesn’t talk about adjuncts. Kinda surprised how many people here are missing the point.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:11 PM on May 15 [5 favorites]


meese: Why the hell do so many professors see their students as sex objects rather than vulnerable children?

I think two impulses buttressed themselves here, personally.

One is the sexualization of young girls and female teenagers. I'm not just talking about in media, but also in how girls and women are treated as we develop secondary sex characteristics. “Common sense” dictates that girls grow up faster, are more mature, etc... and that’s all part of a concerted cultural effort to frame children and teenagers as socially aware and adept. The other is practices long used to devalue and demean women as a way of both lessening our social power and making us feel unwelcome - sexual harassment.

Combine those two and you have predators claiming they’re just drawn to these mature co-eds who know exactly what they’re doing when they flirt with the professor. It’s all about the desired power dynamic many men and the media they create want to reinforce into assumption - the woman as naive slate the man writes upon, who either rightly shows her appreciation and adoration or somehow becomes bitter and twisted and must be discarded.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:11 PM on May 15 [7 favorites]


If Corey robin didn’t mention adjunct professors in this one essay, it’s ok and not a huge blind spot/weakness. What it is though is the only thing he’s written about the university where he doesn’t talk about adjuncts. Kinda surprised how many people here are missing the point.

Tenure-track professors are a shrinking minority at this point. Any essay that addresses anything to do with class and academia that doesn’t acknowledge this new normal exhibits a (likely self-serving) blindspot.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 1:35 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]


It’s all about the desired power dynamic many men and the media they create want to reinforce into assumption - the woman as naïve slate the man writes upon, who either rightly shows her appreciation and adoration or somehow becomes bitter and twisted and must be discarded.

However, the essay this piece is responding to is written by two women professors, is it not? And Jane Gallop's infamous book explicitly argues that female professors such as herself can sleep with anyone that want, and that it literally can never be sexual harassment.

So I don't think such a gendered analysis works here. As women increasingly gain power in academia, the last thing we need is a giant new exemption allowing them to be predators, whatever their rationalizations.
posted by msalt at 1:40 PM on May 15 [7 favorites]


Any essay that addresses anything to do with class and academia that doesn’t acknowledge this new normal exhibits a (likely self-serving) blindspot.

Am I missing something here? Robin doesn’t mention adjuncts. Why is that self-serving and what is his alleged ulterior motive?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:45 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


The article contrasts the 4/3 teaching load and terrible conditions for tenure-track professors at CUNY with the rarified air of places like Yale. This is (too) narrow, because the majority of professors would kill for a tenure-track gig at a place like CUNY. If you’re going to make the argument that pedagogical Eros (or whatever) presumes luxuries available to a rare few, then omitting a majority of academic professionals from your analysis is just weird. Or, less charitably, it serves the interests of the Chronicle and not the majority of professors who are actually connecting (or failing to connect) “erotically” with their harried students: the exploited adjunct underclass.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 2:02 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I don’t even disagree with the piece! It just struck me as (yet another) example of adjunct erasure.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 2:11 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Dunno. I think it’s kinda beside the point. Adjuncts are only employed to teach, being a professor has a much broader job description, many of things are part of the genre Robin is discussing.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:16 PM on May 15


I married a student. She was not in my class. I am 29 years older. Today we will go out to have fine dinner. We are now married 35 years and have had two wonderful children
posted by phreddie at 2:20 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Dunno. I think it’s kinda beside the point. Adjuncts are only employed to teach, being a professor has a much broader job description, many of things are part of the genre Robin is discussing.

Now this just betrays an ignorance of the facts, but it’s a derail so whatever.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 2:22 PM on May 15


In the fall semester of my senior year I took 5 classes.

Four of the five professors, I knew were having sex with female students; the fifth -- the only woman -- was not.
posted by jamjam at 2:23 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I went to a large state school and barely ever even talked to a professor the whole time I was there.
posted by octothorpe at 2:25 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I recall a comment here once, I think from Eyebrows, about how she had a professor, and there was nothing sexual there, but she had such an intellectual thrill, she wanted to have "brain sex". That thrill of learning, of connecting, and feeling your horizons expand is so powerful (at least it was for me in also I a non sexy way, coming from a podunk town with little in the way of great teaching) , I can see why it can be exploited by professors (it's alluded to above).

Like the author I wonder how much the conditions for this kind of connection persist. Lecturers here routinely deliver lectures to empty rooms as students download recordings after. Hard to see it having the same frisson.
posted by smoke at 2:41 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


"I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie not long ago because I heard it was a lovely, effervescent novel of youth and female bonding. Either I was mistaken or somebody has no idea what healthy relationships look like, because that book gave me the crawling horrors."

I cannot imagine how someone could possibly read the novel and come away with the impression it was a lovely, effervescent novel of youth and female bonding. It's a horror show about abuse of power, sexualization of young children, and the how the intense passions of the young can be used by predators in twisted ways.

Also the movie with Maggie Smith is great. (although it's not a super-faithful direct adaptation.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:53 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I went to a small, private liberal arts college with plenty of access to my professors, I majored in English, and yet this classist presumptuous erotic dynamic was mostly just...not a thing. We joked about how it wasn't a thing, even! I'm quite sure that this was because we weren't prestigious enough of a school for this kind of entitlement to make any sense culturally.

I also went to a small, private liberal arts college, and I knew of more than a few professor/student affairs. Obviously I had no way of knowing the actual numbers, but the ones I knew of personally were all with male professors, about half gay and half straight. In grad school I mostly saw student/TA relationships, I am sure professor/student relationships happened but they were mostly kept on the downlow, other than the one creepy professor in the department who had married a series of his grad students. I think he was on number three when I was there.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:10 PM on May 15


Large public land grant university, some 30k students, plenty of contact with some professors, almost none with others.

I knew of at least one student-TA relationship and one professor-student relationship. The second case was a female professor and male student - at the time, at least noteworthy.
posted by abulafa at 7:39 PM on May 15


I've already commented twice in this thread and I don't want to be close to threadsitting, so I'll just try to re-rail this thread one more time:

If your beef is with professors, mostly male, exploiting the dynamic between powerful teacher and less powerful student, I hear you! That shit is super fucked up and not okay!

The FPP is mostly concerned with other stuff, and the above is dismissed (rightly) as fucked up, on its face, in the first couple of paragraphs.

It's a super interesting essay with nuanced analysis of intersectional pedagogical practices and I'd really love to discuss the linked essay, if we can move past the knee-jerk (and frankly, completely understandable) instinct to repudiate gross old dudes preying on young women. That shit is thoroughly not okay. Also, not the subject matter of the FPP.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:45 PM on May 15 [7 favorites]


They seek not a congress of bodies but a union of souls.

The other stuff is obviously not okay, but this, if you cut out the parts that again we've previously established are just completely wrong, what's left is to me just weird because it sounds totally exhausting. Like, I can acknowledge that there's an appeal to the manic pixie dream girl in movies, but I don't want one in real life. The thing about a life-changing teacher is that, for example, in law school I was often taking five classes in a semester and doing law review and moot court. Am I supposed to want those life-transforming experiences from all those things? Just one? Which one?

I didn't really want a life-transforming educational experience. I wanted professors who were very efficient at communicating information and who assigned useful readings and supplementary materials, and who occasionally could have an edifying chat after class, and who otherwise were going to let me go home to actually do laundry. This guy's dream teaching environment seems like it'd feel smothering unless you had literally nothing else to do but take that one class.
posted by Sequence at 10:33 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


I didn't really want a life-transforming educational experience. I wanted professors who were very efficient at communicating information and who assigned useful readings and supplementary materials, and who occasionally could have an edifying chat after class, and who otherwise were going to let me go home to actually do laundry.

I don’t think these are mutually inconsistent? At least sometimes, you can have a life-changing educational experience slowly— you do lots of things and are bored and busy a lot of the time and then at some point the thing becomes fun and exciting. (While you still spend time getting on with laundry and completing other commitments). I don’t know about life-changing, but fun and the pleasure of learning can flow over, slowly, over time, into something that you realise was transformative in hindsight. That may or may not involve a particular teacher in a particular class who communicated that excitement to you, but either way it doesn’t have to involve a kind of intense quasi-romantic connection with just that one teacher.

The intense quasi-romantic fixation on a particular teacher can accompany a life-changing educational experience but it doesn’t have to and I would say it usually doesn’t except where the learner is an adolescent. Teenagers are often dramatic and their different desires can collide in their heads and I can see how the excitement of learning can be romanticized by them. But the excitement itself is often a part of good learning, I think, throughout life, and it’s a pity when learning is instead purely instrumental and doesn’t communicate any sense of pleasure in the subject for its own sake.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:01 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


What I was referring to there, Aravis76, was particularly the sort of intense "transformative" experience that Robin is referring to in the article, not that somehow I literally don't want any learning experience to have an impact on my life or be enjoyable in any fashion.
posted by Sequence at 5:08 AM on May 16


Coming back to the heart of the article: the whole "college" experience is itself deeply classed. My university was 85% "commuter students" - that is, people who lived off campus, usually with their parents (to save money) and who came to campus and left right after class. We shared classes with the residential students, but it was like we inhabited parallel worlds. All of those experiences that people talk of as formative at university: roommates, dorm parties, "doing laundry for the first time" (excuse me? I was doing the family laundry by the time I was 15 - and that was in the building's shared laundry room) - these are still like things out of a film for me, and probably for the vast majority of university students in North America.

Of course, I thought that I had cracked the TRUE experience of university: memorizing the locations of all the important letters in the Library of Congress cataloging system in our main library and mastering FOUR (4!) different bibliographic systems (APA, MLA, Vancouver and Chicago - and still boasting of it). My humanities bias is such that university to me is, first and foremost, essays; for my science friends, it was labs and/or stats classes. We were atypical keeners - all of my university friends did end up at grad school - so for us, university was all about academics. Not changing the world or thinking big thoughts, but grinding away at research (more or less literally - one friend is a geologist). But that's not to say I don't feel sometimes a bit sad at having missed out on a culturally common experiences among middle and upper middle class people.

But, of course, I had my own privileged experience of university: I was single and childless and while I paid my own tuition, my family could afford to support me with room & board at home. I also lucked into a very well-paid part-time job, which also supported my skills development (I was working for scientists, thus the APA and Vancouver citations). Since then, my partner's been an adjunct lecturer and the stories he tells of his students makes me realize how lucky we were: students with children, with families they financially contribute to, working long hours at jobs that were not supportive of their studies - and all in an economy that is brutal. Romance the professor? Sit around being inspired? My partner is super supportive and I wonder if any of his students did have a crush on him. I know how he felt somewhat paternal/avuncular towards them: they were all so very, very worried, because they knew that success - or not complete failure - relied on them never faltering, never straying.

Of course: someday I still want to see a film about crazy college students getting excited when they realize that the DA section at the library is really big, and also fighting about what is best: APA versus MLA versus Chicago versus Vancouver.


(Spoiler: none is best - every bibliographic referencing system is optimized for the different needs of the different fields that use them).
posted by jb at 8:00 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


Popping in to say I'm excited to learn Vancouver has its own bibliographic system!
posted by chapps at 8:08 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]


It's a super interesting essay with nuanced analysis of intersectional pedagogical practices and I'd really love to discuss the linked essay, if we can move past the knee-jerk (and frankly, completely understandable) instinct to repudiate gross old dudes preying on young women. That shit is thoroughly not okay. Also, not the subject matter of the FPP.

I wouldn't presume to second-guess what your FPP is about, but my read of the OP essay is that it is a critique of the fey, classist Erotic Professor ideas as -- among other problems -- often a thin rationalization for predatory sexuality by professors, with the interesting twist that many of the rationalizers are women.

And this seems to be an inherent risk of colleges, where students are naïve, literally barely-legal and exploring sexuality at the same time they separate from parents as authority figures. As with Jordan Peterson in a non-sexualized example, college students are very prone to romanticizing or attaching themselves to confident father- or mother- figures, which IIRC is what Freudians referred to "transference."
posted by msalt at 12:14 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


So, students have had non-sexual intense intellectual experiences in a non-elitist, more democratized setting. Folk schools, for example. This essay rightly points out the connection between "the erotic professor" and elitism, but I think misses the connection between power and sex as Western culture is currently constituted - that is, I don't think the erotic professor phenomenon is about "an opportunity for reproduction, not biological but vocational" as much as it is about power, and the fact that we sexualize power.

It particularly doesn't speak well to the reasoning powers of the philosophy and literature professors at elite institutions writing these paeans to the erotic professor that they can't distinguish between intellectual intensity and sexual intensity, or interrogate how or why those two might seem bound up to some people. This essay is interesting and relatively thoughtful, though.
posted by eviemath at 3:15 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


bell hooks has an essay in Teaching to Transgress where she talks about the link between the erotic and the intellect, including an account of navigating attraction to a student from her own history.

Her approach was to approach (and date) him after the class was completed, but it was the inteectual connection that provided the spark

This was in a university, and would in fact be an okay scenario under my university policies which make it unacceptable for students and instructors to date only while the instructor is actually teaching the student in a class or supervising them aas a grad student.
posted by chapps at 11:48 PM on June 6


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