What we talk about when we talk about sex in the academy

I have a piece in The Chronicle Review about a genre that has annoyed me for some time:

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. 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. Against the discourse of black and white, these writers plea for complexity: not so that professors can sleep with their students but so that we can speak openly and honestly about the ambiguities of teaching, about how the most chaste pedagogy can generate a spark that looks and feels like — maybe is — sexual attraction.

I call this genre The Erotic Professor.

The latest addition is Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran’s “The Erotics of Mentorship,” which recently appeared in the Boston Review. Like many practitioners of the genre, Figlerowicz and Ramachandran are professors of literature. (You’ll never find a professor of chemistry or demography among the authors of such pieces.) Also like many practitioners, they have a high estimation of the academy’s sexiness. “There are perhaps no places more vulnerable to the intertwining of work and romance,” they tell us, “than colleges and universities.” That belief, of course, reflects the happenstance of their being in the academy rather than any empirical comparison of the academy to other workplaces. The office romance is a ubiquitous feature of the culture, after all, its settings as various as a bar (Cheers), a detective agency (Moonlighting), a paper company (The Office), and an insurance firm (The Apartment).

One of the conventions of the genre, in fact, is for the erotic professor to imagine what her students must be feeling by reference to what she once felt, and then to state that feeling as if it were a universal law (“intellectual magnetism, a notoriously protean force, often shades into erotic attraction”), scarcely noticing that when she had that feeling, she was a student on her way to becoming a professor. What about the student on her way to becoming an HR rep? Or an accountant?

The question never arises because the real shadow talk of the erotic professor is not sex but class.

You can read more here.



  1. Roquentin May 14, 2018 at 11:30 am | #

    I’m always baffled at why so many think academia is vastly different than any other institution in the US. As if bosses in corporate America didn’t mentor certain employees, as if these relationships were any different, and similar power dynamics and ethical problems weren’t there. I studied literature in college and I’ve worked ever since, and I feel confident saying that this argument that academic study is somehow particularly erotically charged relative to anything else is pure fiction. Maybe that’s my petty resentment. Along with with the elite class attitudes about academia, there’s this sense that the people writing these essays never worked a day job and probably never will. How else could you think you were so different, your situation so special?

    That said, you’ll never get rid of workplace romances completely. You can’t spend 8-10 hours a day with people, significantly more than what you spend with those in your personal life, and expect nothing to happen. I once had a short relationship with a coworker who was on a even keel with me at the time, then I got promoted shortly after it ended. At that point I was sort of supervising her, but she didn’t report to me directly. It made everything extra awkward. Neither of us work there anymore and we’re still friends, so I’d like to think I didn’t do anything out of line, but the ethics of it have always seemed murkier to me than I’d like them to be. The line between personal and professional will never be that clear.

  2. F. Foundling May 19, 2018 at 6:05 am | #

    In the CT thread about the article, I argued that there is no need for a focus on sex; not only romance, but also friendship, fraternisation and even ‘long sincere conversations’ between students and teachers are to be avoided (given that the relation between students and teachers is inevitably unequal and hierarchical). It really doesn’t matter whether relatively intimate personal relations include sex or not – the objections that apply in one case, apply also in the other.

    I thought that I should add a more detailed justification of the more extreme part of the statement, pertaining to the inclusion of even slightly closer relations; since the entry was closed in the meantime, I will post it here. Even if one trusts one’s own ability to preserve objectivity and impartiality, and however egalitarian-minded one may personally be, most people in general are very conscious of hierarchy, and that context is what determines the ultimate results of a given behaviour. For most people, students as well as teachers, any semblance of closer relations of a student with a teacher is a powerful status signal. Many ambitious students will systematically and blatantly show off and boast of their (real or seeming) closer relations with one or more teachers – including anything resembling ‘long sincere conversations’ – in order to signal and achieve higher status, to demonstrate that they are ‘special’, among the ‘chosen few’ and part of the ‘in-crowd’. This, in turn, entails their being entitled to different treatment from the rest. That treatment may include getting away, ‘just this time’, with shoddy work and performance that others wouldn’t get away with, or even with obnoxious and outrageous behaviour that would be considered unforgivable in others – privileges that they will gladly use and sometimes even proudly demonstrate.

    Conversely, many teachers are, indeed, influenced by such factors in their treatment of students; many *will* favour those who have, in various ways including the one mentioned above, come to be seen as part of the academic ‘in-crowd’, as well as those who have had especially ‘long sincere/intimate conversations’ with them personally or have socialised especially intensively with them (in more exclusive contexts, but sometimes also during collective ‘fraternisation’). This is facilitated by the fact that such students’ special relations with the teachers will be advertised by them and to some extent viewed by others as a justified recognition of their capability, intelligence and cultural capital – even though they actually result, partly or wholly, from social (cliquish) adroitness and intensive social (cliquish) efforts that have nothing to do with their academic merit. In this way they unfairly acquire a vast advantage; even if they possess some real academic merits as well, that does not make the advantage more acceptable.

    To conclude – (some) hierarchy is a fact of life and not just a matter of attitude. Therefore, the way to counteract its pernicious effects is not to ignore it, but to take it into account; thus, ironically, a commitment to egalitarianism is the reason to observe hierarchy-related rules meticulously. Hierarchy must operate as justly as possible, and for that purpose it must not be mixed with friendship and love; conversely, friendship and love are too important to be contaminated by hierarchy.

    • jonnybutter May 20, 2018 at 6:04 pm | #

      Reading Corey’s piece it struck me that, even if students now and then get crushes or whatever on profs., it’s always a teacher who writes this ‘erotics’ discourse stuff. So it’s really not about the student, it’s about the prof. So, not much of a dilemma.

    • Richard Moodey June 24, 2018 at 4:24 pm | #

      This comment makes me wonder if F. Foundling would also frown upon long, thoughtful conversations between a parent and child.

      • F. Foundling July 22, 2018 at 11:55 am | #

        This sounds like an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, but it is rather sloppy. The point of my position is to prevent a hierarchical relationship from also becoming personal, resulting in injustice. The parent-child relationship is *inevitably* both very hierarchical and very personal (which, of course, also necessarily entails ‘fraternisation’ and thoughtful conversations about life); only with time does it gradually become possible (and obligatory) to minimise and eventually eliminate the hierarchical component, while maintaining the personal one. The inevitability of this particular hierarchy is an unfortunate fact of life, and parent-child relationships, however ‘natural’ and ‘primaeval’ they may be popularly considered, are actually full of problems resulting from it in the real world. The extension of the model of that type of relationship to broader society, aka paternalism, does result in increased inequality, arbitrary power, favouritism and injustice, and, as an egalitarian, I am opposed to it. Favouritism and discrimination between siblings can occur in families and can be psychologically harmful there, too; however, children are inevitably very close to their parents, so a difference in closeness usually doesn’t become equally large and signicant as the one between unrelated individuals in an institution, and it usually does not have the same obvious direct effect on people’s career or on the process of collective labour outside of the family. Therefore, intimacy and long conversations are not a problem in the family.

        In academia, I do not object to a long conversation that results from a student’s genuine effort to achieve better understanding of some issues related to the subject of instruction. I do object to a long conversation for conversation’s sake, a long conversation about issues unrelated to the subject of instruction, insider gossip (let alone slander and flattery), and sharing real or alleged deep personal thoughts and feelings. Admittedly, conversation for conversation’s sake may also include highly specialised questions about the subject of instruction asked solely in order to signal higher status, but the distinction between this and genuine inquisitiveness is too subjective in this case, so one generally has to tolerate that sort of thing. Still, it should be restricted to consultations in a formal setting as far as possible, instead of being turned into an elitist/showy ‘genteel chat on lofty topics between great minds’.

  3. Lichanos May 19, 2018 at 5:23 pm | #

    Doesn’t the erotic-academic line originate with Plato? Not that he is a good role model.

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