“My sweet boy, my goy toy”: a debut piece of non-fiction at Jewrotica

From the confessional writing files: a true story about a brief grad school fling serves as my debut piece at Jewrotica. Check out My Sweet Boy, My Goy Toy and please note that the piece does contain sexually explicit scenes and may not be appropriate for all readers. AND NOT YOU, MOTHER.


We ended up back in her apartment, kissing on the couch. She pulled my tucked polo shirt out of my jeans, her hands running up my torso, finding my nipples. I gasped, my own hand reaching up to cup her breast. Chana suddenly pulled back, pushed back her spectacularly tousled hair, and announced, “Wait. I need to ask you something.”

I was sure she was going to ask one of two things. Perhaps: was my divorce final? (It wasn’t.) Or: did I have a condom? (Not on me, but I was prepared to sprint to the nearest pharmacy.)

Instead: “Are you Jewish?”

I was stunned. My first thought was that she was trying to figure out if I was circumcised. But what an odd way and time to ask, I thought. “I’m half,” I replied, “my father is.” Chana nodded. “But not your mother?”

“No, she’s an atheist Episcopalian. Does it matter?”

Chana leaned forward, butting her head gently into my chest. I kissed her hair, waited. “This can never go anywhere serious,” she said, proceeding to explain – without ever raising her gaze to meet mine – that she was totally committed to her faith and her heritage and would only consider marrying a Jewish man. I stroked her hair while she talked, trying to figure out if I was flattered that this brilliant, gorgeous woman would consider marrying me – or if I was insulted that my mother’s background took me out of the running. Mostly, I was amazed. It was 1992! What serious academic (and Chana had extraordinary intellectual chops) made decisions based on religion?

I lifted Chana’s face to meet mine. I kissed her. “It’s okay if we can’t get serious,” I whispered, “I just want to enjoy this now.” She laughed. “I’m gonna hold you to that, baby; remember you said that.” She cocked her head to one side, studying me. I held her gaze, sensing that if I wavered, I’d be asked to leave. And then, without another word and in one fluid motion, she pulled my shirt up, over, and off.

Read the whole thing.

Teaching Sexuality, Respecting Student’s Privacy: Where and How to Draw the Line

My latest at Role/Reboot looks at how we set healthy boundaries in college courses that focus on sexual subjects: I Don’t Need to Know if You Masturbate.


As college courses on sexuality proliferate, professors across the country are increasingly finding themselves in trouble because of what they’ve shown, asked, or assigned. In separate incidents in April, instructors at Fresno State in California and Appalachian State in North Carolina were each placed on leave, accused of showing “objectionable” sexual material to their students. Last year, a professor at Northwestern University got in trouble for hosting a live sex demonstration (which was optional for students to attend).

It’s not just videos or live presentations that have attracted controversy. Earlier this month, a student at Western Nevada College claimed that her human sexuality professor required students to share their sexual histories in journals, papers, and class discussions. According to Inside Higher Education, “students were asked to describe different types of orgasms and describe how they sexually stimulate themselves, specifically referring to certain parts of the female anatomy.” The professor, Tom Kubistant, promised not to read the explicit journal entries, claiming he would only “scan” his students’ scribblings to make sure they’d actually covered the topic. A federal complaint has been filed against Dr. Kubistant.

The safest places to talk about sex are—not entirely paradoxically—those that are desexualized. When students know that they won’t be mocked, won’t have their privacy invaded, and won’t be the subject of a professor’s prurient interest, they are able to do what we so rarely do in our culture: discuss sex candidly and (almost) fearlessly. The need to feign an insouciance or expertise that they don’t actually feel can slip away. The more students know that their boundaries are respected, the more comfortable they’ll be sharing their stories and listening non-judgmentally to those of their classmates.

Read the whole thing.

Affirmative action for boys means perfectionism for girls

My piece at Jezebel this week looks at how “affirmative action for men” drives perfectionism for young women: Women Are The Real Victims Of The So-Called ‘Men’s Crisis’. Excerpt:

Young men… are collectively rewarded for their absence of academic ambition and community spirit. By the intensely competitive standards of college admissions, what might seem like a lackluster volunteer record from a high school girl (say, 5 hours a week reading to the blind) seems positively heroic when it belongs to a guy. The more time the mass of young men devote to the gym or to playing Call of Duty, the more the shrinking number of even moderately ambitious dudes benefit; they become the chance for a selective school to keep its gender ratio from becoming too female-heavy.

The traditional “stressors” in so many young women’s lives – the obligation to care for family, the burden of chasing an unattainable physical ideal, the pressure to be sexy but not sexual, the worry about “running out of time” — all these were present well before the current frenzy of anxiety over the end of manhood. These familiar worries have now been joined by the depressing reality that young women have to be far more accomplished than young men just to receive equal consideration in college admissions.

Read the whole thing.

The soft bigotry of low expectations: affirmative action for boys

The New York Times reports today on a new study about changing college admissions practices, done by Inside Higher Education. The results are depressing and predictable: colleges are increasingly giving preference to wealthy students — and to men of all races. I write about this at Good Men Project today: Do Boys Need Affirmative Action?


…when it comes to competitive admissions men of all backgrounds are now lumped in the same preferential category as athletes, children of alumni, and offspring of donors. Though rumors have persisted in recent years that some colleges did favor men in admissions to try and achieve a balanced sex-ratio, we’ve never had evidence of just how widespread this practice is until now.

There’s no question that the percentage of women receiving bachelor’s degrees has climbed in recent years—and that at the same time, slightly fewer men are attending or finishing university. There are a host of hotly debated reasons for this shift. Some, like Leonard Sax, argue that boys lack the natural ability to focus that girls possess, and as a result tend to fall behind in school. They may need extra help, a different pedagogical approach – and apparently, preferential treatment in admissions.

But it’s hard to escape the sense that the decision to admit guys with lower grades than their female peers is tied to a panic about the seeming feminization of ambition and success in our culture. In the 1920s, the Ivy League famously initiated quotas to keep down the number of Jewish students, who were considered too bright, too pushy, and too likely to displace the young WASPs in pursuit of their gentlemen’s Cs. In the 1980s, there were widespread rumors that the University of California was taking steps to reduce the very high percentage of Asian students at campuses like Berkeley.

Women, it seems, are the “new Jews” of higher education—forced to be better than everyone else in order to be treated equally.

The First Day of School and Imposter Syndrome

An updated version of a post that appeared last year.

The fall semester begins today at Pasadena City College. If you look back through my archives, you’ll see that I usually have a “first day of school” post up on the last Monday in August. This year shall be no exception.

My mother tells me that my formal education began forty-one forty-two autumns ago, in September 1969. I was two when I first went to Santa Barbara’s long-vanished Humpty Dumpty Nursery School. Since that year of Woodstock and moon landings and the amazing Mets, I’ve been in school every fall without fail. I went from nursery school to graduate school without a break, and began teaching full-time at the community college while still finishing Ph.D. work at UCLA. I’m in my fifth decade in the educational system, which astounds me. And I’m beginning my eighteenth 19th year as a professor at PCC; this year, my youngest students will have been born after I started teaching here.

In August 2004, I wrote about still having butterflies in my stomach the first time I met a class. Six Seven years later, things remain very much the same in my innards. I wrote then of the reasons for my nervousness:

The obvious question is this one: why, after all this time, do I still get so nervous about the first day of school? It’s not stagefright; public speaking has never been a fear of mine. It’s not new material, at least not this year; all four courses I am teaching this fall are courses I have taught in the past. It’s not fear that my students won’t like me; though I do struggle with vanity, it’s not at the root of my jumpiness this morning. All three of these might be small factors at different times, but the core reason for this almost-pleasant state of anxiety is more basic: I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I can’t believe they pay me to do it.

Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last six 13 with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me “We’re sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else. Though I can assure my readers that I did not lie or stretch the truth when I applied for this job, somehow after all this time I still suspect that I “got away with something” when I was hired to teach here.

I’ve talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling the suspicion of one’s own fraudulence. That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say Really? That’s how I feel too! (One of the worst teachers I ever worked with, now thankfully retired, claimed never to feel this way.) I wonder if there isn’t some connection between periodic bouts of self-doubt (the imposter syndrome) and the drive to prove one’s self. Actually, that’s silly: I don’t wonder that at all, I know it with total certainty!

My office is a cheerful mess, I’m caffeinated and be-BrooksBrothered and readier than ever to begin the grand journey again.

UPDATE: Both in person in the hallways, and on my Facebook page, former and soon-to-be-current students have wished me “good luck” today. This isn’t new; I’m wished good luck each time a new semester begins. It might seem odd to wish it to the tenured professor; I’m not applying for anything, I’m not being evaluated this semester, and I’m not trying to get into a class. But I’m wished luck nonetheless.

I like to think it’s more than just a pleasantry offered when someone begins something new (or in my case, resumes an old and familiar task.) I like to think that it’s because even the very young recognize that there is an element of chance and mystery in teaching; some classes sizzle with chemistry while others, as we all acknowledge, are duds. Perhaps they are wishing me great students, or wishing me success in avoiding spilling on myself or teaching with my fly unzipped. Or perhaps they know that anything really can happen in the classroom, from the marvelous to the heartbreaking, and they are wishing me luck and grace and strength to cope with whatever comes, and to be as present and effective as I can be for all whom I will call my students.

Perfectionism, Libido, and Older Men/Younger Women links, plus a conference

Different websites have radically different commenting communities. This has been driven home to me in recent months as my pieces have been republished at other places. It’s not that various blogs and magazines have widely divergent rules for commenting; it’s that they often seem to have completely different readers.

For example, my post on the problem of older men sexualizing younger women attracted a storm of male criticism at the Good Men Project. What runs on Tuesday at GMP runs on Thursdays at The Frisky. Though you need to be logged in to read responses at the latter site, the largely female readership at The Frisky offered a starkly different take. Though the responses were more positive, as one might expect, many young women who are in relationships with older men were strongly critical of what they saw as my refusal to differentiate between teens and early twenty-somethings.

Jezebel kindly reprints my post on the Damaging Expectation of Higher Male Desire. It got only a handful of responses here, but about 80 so far (and counting) at their place.

And I’m very grateful to Chloe at Feministing for driving some Friday traffic to yesterday’s post “If I Were Thinner, I’d Have the Right to Expect More”: on perfectionism and the scarcity model.

And I’ll be speaking (and moderating) at the Applied Women’s Studies Conference at Claremont Graduate University tomorrow morning. The panel I’m chairing is on Feminist Masculinities, and I’ll be sharing the dais with some terrific activist men. Here’s a link to the program; come on out today (or tomorrow)!

Many of my lectures are online for download

Reminder: Thanks largely to Mon-Shane Chou, many of my lectures are now online as downloadable audio files.

A nearly complete archive of women’s history lectures is here (taped Spring 2010).

A complete archive of my lectures for my “Beauty and the Body in the Western Tradition” course is here.

And the growing archive of this semester’s “Men and Masculinity in America” lectures can be found here.

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Better than I was: in defense of seniority rights for teachers

It’s a month of anniversaries for me. Thirty years ago this March, I was kicked out of prep school, launching an adolescent rebellion that would continue on and off for years. 25 years ago this month, my career as a sex educator began when I started training with Berkeley’s Peer Sexuality Outreach. And twenty years ago, with the beginning of the spring quarter at UCLA, I began my teaching career as a Graduate Student Instructor in the Classics department.

GSIs (or TAs, as they were still known then) often lectured in discussion sections. I remember being so nervous before my first lecture (I was not quite 24) that I threw up in the Bunche Hall men’s room before meeting my students. Most were only two or three years my junior. I was excited and terrified, but knew after the first week of teaching that this was the life I wanted.

Two decades later, I’m still teaching. And though I don’t get as nervous as I did in 1991, I still get butterflies from time to time. More to the point, however, I’m an infinitely better teacher than I was back then. And that brings me to my point.

In the current political climate, it’s become fashionable to attack public employees — teachers in particular. Conservatives who have never been enamored of public education hope to take advantage of a weak economy to strip teachers of their pensions, bargaining rights, tenure, and other job protections. These attacks are odious and indefensible, motivated less by concern with fiscal rectitude or the well-being of young people and more by a desire to destroy the progressive public service unions.

One bit of this emerging conservative conventional wisdom drives me nuts: the idea that teachers are at their best when they are new. Complaining about seniority rules that follow the tradition of “last hired, first fired”, education “reformers” often describe older instructors as “dead wood” and the newest and most vulnerable teachers as the ones who do the most valuable work. Even some ostensibly progressive voices agree, arguing that too many senior faculty have “given up”, while the young (and less well-paid) are the ones who are still engaged.

In what other profession do we express such open contempt for experience? Do people board airplanes, saying “Gosh, I really hope our captain and first officer are new at this — enthusiastic young pilots are the kind I trust most!” Do people go to hospitals, asking “Could you please have a resident operate on my child? I’m worried that an older and more experienced surgeon won’t do the job right.” Of course not. In every other profession, experience is valued. In every other profession, seniority is seen not just as a perk for sticking around but as a resource for the entire community.

I am still an enthusiastic professor. I’ve taught 15,000 students (at the least) since I faced that first class twenty years ago this month. Last fall, my in-class teaching evaluations were higher than they’d ever been before. Even as I’ve given the same lectures over and over again — about Cicero and clitorises, about Gilgamesh and intersectionality, about the Pauline epistles and Betty Friedan — I’ve found ways to change and refine what I say. I know I’d shudder if I heard one of my early lectures now, simply because I’ve gotten so much better at the job of delivering a good talk.

Of course, there’s more to teaching than lecturing. I am more compassionate, more patient, and much quicker to recognize when a student is struggling. (I’m also much more ethical — my infamous and inexcusable sexual relationships with students all happened early on in my career.) I can discern the difference between the lack of motivation and the presence of a genuine learning disability in a way I simply couldn’t years ago. Experience has given me these tools. And if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that no amount of youthful energy can compensate for the benefit of accumulated wisdom.

I make more money now. My first year as a TA, I was paid $1050 a month. My first year as a full-time prof at Pasadena City College, I made $27,000. I have a base salary of approximately three times that now. (Finishing my doctorate in 1999 boosted my compensation nicely.) Am I worth the salary and the benefits? I don’t know, but I do know I’m worth more than I was when I started. And judging by my colleagues whose work I know well, the same is true for them as well. As with every true calling, as with every profession, experience matters for those of us who sweat and strut in the classrooms.

It’s time we push back against the attempt to de-legitimize our profession, and to dismiss the very real benefits of seniority.

Sex work and the classroom: double standards abound

Anna North has this story in Jezebel: Female Professor Fired For Burlesque Performance. See more at Inside Higher Ed.

Only the latest in a string of cases in which women have been fired from teaching positions as a result of legal off-campus sex-work, I find this story and others like it to be disheartening and maddening. Though it was a different era, the mid 1990s were not eons ago — and I was notorious on this campus as the young, untenured prof who was sleeping with a great many of his students. And as I’ve written, the administration looked the other way — as long as the women involved didn’t complain, I was golden. I slept with students while traveling to conferences on the college dime, and the most the vice-president for human resources could say when that story was “Hugo, you’re quite the rascal!”

Not that I have any intention of finding out, but I’m not sure that things have shifted all that much in the past decade and a half. But while administrators might still look the other way when exuberantly irresponsible male academics sow their proverbial oats, they are still unable to grasp the reality that a woman can be an erotic performer off-campus and still maintain her intellectual gravitas in the classroom. In 2011, that’s infuriating and shameful.

The Master’s Tools: feminism and titles on campus

I got an email last week from Abby (not her real name):

I work in a Feminist Center on my campus and we have recently welcomed a new director to our center. Upon meeting her I used her first name not even thinking about it, and was corrected by a different person who told me she would prefer me to address her as Dr. so and so.

As we work in a feminist center that focuses on outreach and education about feminist issues and ideals to students, I found her request to be addressed as Dr. to be anti-feminist and pompous. Incredibly pompous. I wouldn’t be so bothered if I worked in a center that didn’t focus on feminist ideals. It creates a very clear hierarchy, and thus who’s opinions and views are valued more – hers. It clearly has nothing to do with formality, as she is not going around calling us student workers Ms. and Mr. so and so. It has everything to do with her need for people to toot her horn. I understand she worked hard for a Ph.D, but if she really needs anyone and everyone to keep congratulating her on it by way of calling her Dr., that’s plainly arrogant.

What it says to me is: I’m a better feminist than you because I have a Ph.D. And I have a Ph.D because I had the money and the means to get one. I find all of if very reflective of her feminist philosophies. It may seem harsh, but I really question whether I can consider her a feminist because of it. It just goes against so many feminist principles.

There are a pair of conflicting ideals that appear in response to Abby’s note.

On the one hand, we live in a world where the Ph.D. (and other terminal degrees) are important markers of accomplishment. Some people feel that it’s vitally important for members of groups who have not traditionally earned such degrees (meaning anyone other than white men) to display them proudly in order to send an inspirational message. Abby’s director may believe that young women not only need to see older women with Ph.Ds, they need to see those women addressed with the kind of respect that was once reserved only for men.

And of course Ph.D.s take money. They also take sacrifice, often the sacrifice of a larger community (like spouses and parents). To refuse to use the title, some folks think, is to discount the sacrifices others made so that one member of the family could earn a Ph.D. It’s one thing to be falsely modest on your behalf, another thing altogether to be falsely modest on behalf of those who helped you along the way. Parents have long bragged about their “son, the doctor”. Isn’t it important that they be able to brag about their “daughter, the doctor” as well?

I’ve written before of my personal disdain for the title “doctor”, and my refusal to hang my diplomas on the wall. But I come from an academic family; both my parents, as well as my brother, have doctorates. My paternal grandmother earned her Ph.D. at the University of Vienna in the 1920s. We were raised to see diplomas on the wall or an insistence on titles as vulgar ostentation, evidence of “trying too hard” or “showing off.” But that’s a position of privilege rather than a universal truth, and I freely acknowledge the distinction. Those who are the first in their families to earn something — and those who are particularly mindful about setting an example to those they teach or mentor — may find that using or displaying those titles are essential ways of honoring one generation and inspiring another.

In an academic setting, where the professor has the gradebook and the student doesn’t, the use of first names may suggest a false equality. It may even strike some people as a disingenuous attempt to cover up the power differential. Using the term “doctor” may seem more honest under such circumstances. Of course, the term “professor” (which, used generally, can encompass those with and without Ph.Ds) solves this problem neatly.

But Abby has a point about the danger of hierarchies. Feminism at its best is more than just giving women an opportunity to compete in traditionally male spaces by traditionally male rules. It’s about changing those rules and reimagining those spaces. Most of us know the oft-quoted line from Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” An insistence on titles certainly smacks of the “master’s tools.” It does privilege one kind of knowledge (the sort that comes from writing a dissertation and having the money for grad school) over other kinds of knowledge. Trust me, I have many colleagues who don’t have a Ph.D. who’ve taught me far more about the business of teaching than my fellow holders of the doctorate.

While it might be fine to use titles as a sign of respect for a particular kind of sacrifice, insisting that the title “doctor” be used for Ph.D. holders strikes me as it strikes Abby: incompatible with a feminist commitment to the kind of egalitarian values one might expect in a campus women’s center. A female professor who wishes to be addressed as “doctor” in a classroom setting is one thing; to expect that in an explicitly feminist space like the Women’s Resource Center is something altogether different. A Women’s Resource Center should be a place where traditional campus hierarchies are called into question, where the focus is as much on nurturing the spirit as it is on disciplining the mind. There’s no inconsistency in being “Jane” when one is in the campus WRC, and asking to be called “Dr. Doe” in a more explicitly academic setting. And if I were able to speak to Abby’s campus director, that’s the advice I’d give.

It’s a dangerous thing to be too enchanted with the master’s tools.