How do you desexualize that? A reprint on the “erotics of teaching”

This is timely, based on recent discussions ’round these parts. This post originally appeared in June 2008.

A reader named Anna kindly sends me a link to this story that ran in the Times (UK) Higher Education Supplement last month: Sex and the university. It deals with an old and familiar subject, that of teacher-student affairs at the post-secondary level.

The British, it seems, are slower than we Americans to embrace ethical codes that forbid consensual amorous relationships between professors and their current students. While most American two and four-year colleges started adopting such policies in the early 1990s, universities in the United Kingdom have met more resistance to such restrictions (and, apparently, less interest in the policies in the first place).

In the UK, attitudes towards relationships in academe are changing rather more slowly. In 2005, figures revealed after a Freedom of Information Act request by Times Higher Education showed that 50 out of 102 institutions had no policy requiring staff to declare sexual or other relationships with students that might give rise to a conflict of interest. Of those that did, few appeared to apply them: just 17 universities had any current records on file.

In the same year, 18 per cent of respondents to a poll conducted by the Teacher Support Network said that they had had a sexual relationship with a student. Despite this, only 73 relationships were officially recorded and just five of these were defined as sexual or romantic. Many respondents, 62 per cent, said they did not know whether or not their university had a protocol on such matters.

That nearly one in five faculty members in Britain admits to having had a sexual relationship with a student doesn’t surprise. I don’t know of any comprehensive study of faculty behavior at North American campuses, but would imagine that the numbers would be very similar. Purely anecdotally, based on gossip as much as self-reporting, I’d guess that somewhere around 10-20% of my colleagues have engaged in such a relationship. (And as I’ve admitted many times, I had a series of such relationships, all of which ceased ten years ago this month.)

I’ve written about consensual relationships policies here, here, and here, among other places. Part of my own redemptive work was to chair a committee to write a policy for Pasadena City College on consensual relationships, a policy that was not in place during the years in which I was conducting a series of these affairs.

But the point I want to make today is less about such policies, and more about the erotics of teaching. Of all the quotations in the THE piece, this one from the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard struck home:

In some ways we have to accept that there is an erotic dimension to pedagogy. If you take a traditional Oxbridge-style tutorial system, that’s one thing that students love and it’s some of the most interesting teaching when you really get to know someone. That doesn’t mean it’s about feeling someone up, but it is passionate. The difficulty is that that’s a terribly sexy experience; two people sitting together really talking through how Latin love poetry works. How do you desexualise that?

I haven’t done anything with Latin love poetry since auditing a seminar on Catullus in late 1990, but I get what Beard’s talking about. Obviously, a community college doesn’t have the English tutorial style of instruction. But what we do have at PCC is a faculty dedicated to student mentoring. I am certainly not the only instructor whose office hours are frequented by bright young people eager to meet with me one-on-one. And though I don’t teach Ovid, I do teach several courses that touch on various aspects of human sexuality and gender. I’m passionate about these subjects, and the students of both sexes who can be bothered to come to my office hours to work through the material with me are, generally equally passionate. And we all know that there are few things more charged with sexual potential than a shared interest, perhaps particularly one that is discussed behind closed doors. (And yes, I always keep my office door shut — as it opens out onto a hallway so loud that even if it is merely ajar, I can’t hear myself think.)

Beard asks how a teacher can “desexualize” something that is innately sexy. From the THE article, it seems she asks the question rhetorically, presuming that “We can’t” is the only honest answer. Based on my own experience, particularly the experience of transitioning from a chronic seducer (pre-1998) to a scrupulous observer of interpersonal boundaries (ever since), I think that in a very real sense, we can defuse if not entirely desexualize the tutor-tutee, mentor-mentee, instructor-interested student relationship.

Most of us who love the life of the mind (which is why we’re in this gig in the first place) find intelligence and wit to be sexually attractive qualities in others. Often, the students who are most interested in the subjects we teach (particularly, perhaps, in the humanities and social sciences) feel the same way about the erotic power of ideas. Little wonder then that a student, or a professor, or both could easily transfer the excitement about an idea to an excitement about the person with whom one is having the conversation about the idea. Of course, this kind of transference is dangerous. I touched on it in this post:

If we’re doing our job right, we have the power to change the way a student thinks about himself or herself. At our best, those of us who love to teach are practiced seducers, Casanovas of the classroom. But my agenda isn’t about sexual conquest, it’s about creating an interest and a passion where none previously existed. It’s about getting students to want something they didn’t know they wanted! Though some students may sexualize their crushes, what they really want is to continue to feel the way you make them feel: excited, energized, provoked, challenged.

I don’t think it’s possible, or even desirable, to desexualize the teaching experience for everyone. That doesn’t mean, mind you, that I deliberately try and evoke sexual responses in my students, or that I have sexual responses to them. But there is something potentially very sexy about the act of teaching well, and about the passionate exchange of ideas, particularly of the sort that can happen with a bright student in conference hours. The key is not to try and desexualize what is inherently sexy (at least for many people). The key is to remember that old mantra of youth workers everywhere: “affirm, and re-direct.” Though it is surely almost always best for a faculty member not to name out loud his or her responses to a student, it is the job of teachers to say to themselves: “These feelings I have are normal, and quite understandable, and not bad at all. But desire is not an irresistible predicate to action, and while I affirm that there may be ‘something here’, I’m going to take the responsibility to re-direct all of that intoxicatiing intellectual/sexual energy on to the work itself.”

When a student has a crush on a teacher or mentor, it’s the job of that prof to “affirm and re-direct.” The affirmation doesn’t have to be as obvious as calling the student out on the crush, unless the student has already confessed it. The key is avoiding three “wrong” responses: shaming or belittling the student, withdrawing from one’s mentoring role, or engaging in amorous relations. Each of these responses represents a different sort of betrayal, and a sensible teacher ought to avoid them all. The wise professor learns that unilateral, or even mutual desire, is not a force so powerful that it will brook no resistance. Most of the time, the professor will presumably have no erotic or romantic response to a student, but obviously, sometimes teachers do “fall” for their students in ways that are clearly sexual. “Affirmation and re-direction” is something that each of us who teaches may sometimes have to do for ourselves as well as for the occasional student.

I know this is particularly challenging for young faculty members. What I find absurdly easy to resist as a happily married, born-again 41 year-old seemed impossible not to engage in when I was 28, single, and lonely. I bought into the myth about the irresistiblity of desire, and I know I was not the last young teacher on this campus to do so. In thinking about my own colorful, troubled, and ultimately irresponsible experiences, I’m convinced that colleges and universities can do much more to be honest with graduate student instructors (TAs) and junior faculty members about just how common — and how seemingly powerful — the erotics of teaching can be. We need to do more than hand junior faculty a code of conduct and a series of warnings about lawsuits and termination. We need to equip them with the tools to “affirm and re-direct” both the crushes directed at them and their own sexual or romantic responses to their students. Some of that can happen through informal mentoring, generally from another faculty member who is not part of the younger professor’s tenure committee. But however it comes, it must come.

There’s no point in trying to make Ovid or Sappho less sexy. There’s no point in denying that sexy material — and any idea, presented passionately enough can become sexy — will provoke an erotic response in the occasional student, and even the occasional teacher. I’m not interested in reducing the excitement of the pedagogical exchange. I am interested in better equipping the chief stake holders in the exchange, students and teachers, both to affirm without guilt or anxiety the reality of desire (when it appears), and to gently, firmly, redirect it towards what is, in the end, almost certainly its real object: the excitement of true insight and the longing for more of it.

(And I’ve re-worked that awful last sentence four times and I’m giving up. Sorry, but you get the idea.)

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3 thoughts on “How do you desexualize that? A reprint on the “erotics of teaching”

  1. The penultimate sentence is fine, just long and heavily punctuated like so much of what you write.

    Great post. Someday, a book on your before and after? Or better yet, find one of the women with whom you slept who is interested, and write an article together about the experience and what you learned from it. FCM and MsCitrus and Delphine call you a rapist, and I think it would be fascinating to read both sides of the story to refute that. From what I know of you through your words in class as well as here, it’s hard to see you as predatory in any common sense of the word. But intimidating? Yeah.

  2. Very insightful. I myself LOVE to talk about deeper things with my husband even though we disagree on some points, overall we are trying to attain the same goal (we both label it differently, or rather I label it and my husband does not)..I find it to be a very sensual experience. It is unfortunately rare that my husband and I talk about such things because he has a fear of rejection, one that I have to be absolutely understanding of and when those subjects do come up, to be aware that he is in a very vulnerable state and to be encouraging without necessarily agreeing…it’s a very difficult balance. This balance is what I see as a necessity to connect to the opposite sex, both parties should be doing their part to encourage, a dynamic that isn’t often thought of in a romantic relationship when relating to meditative subjects. The dynamic of the teacher-student relations is in a constant state of this as this is the nature of teaching, so it’s easy for an outsider to see it as abusing power when relating to the frequencies of the relationships inside the classroom (when in an area that is conducive to a supporting environment about a mutually passionate subject, time to bond is sped up than in your average relationship so it would be logical to assume you might have more lovers in the classroom than you would in the outside world)…not that it makes it okay to seek out relationships that could abuse the power dynamic, but it’s easy to see how it could be confused by outside parties, and the parties committing the act.

  3. Pingback: Crushing student crushes « Dankprofessor’s Weblog

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