Losing it at GMP, and Why You Shouldn’t Sleep with Your Prof at Jezebel

Two new pieces up today.

The first is part of the Our Sexual Vocabulary series at GMP: Why “Losing It” is Sometimes the Best Term for First Sex. Excerpt:

I’m not troubled by the language of losing, as long as we understand that some losses are to be welcomed as well as grieved. When we lose a fear of heights by learning to skydive, we overcome an obstacle. That’s a positive loss. When we lose our fear of speaking up, and become assertive in social situations, we have lost something we needed to lose. Loss can be redemptive and a marker of spiritual, physical, and psychological growth. Rather than trying to avoid using the language of loss to describe first sexual experiences, we can broaden our understanding of what it means to lose.

And at Jezebel, my Genderal Interest column: The Real Reason You Shouldn’t Fuck Your Professor. (Hint: I didn’t pick the title, and I don’t read the comments.)

Not being able to trust praise: why erotic capital, isn’t

And a follow-up to yesterday’s post on erotic capital at GMP today: “I Can’t Trust Your Praise”: Why Erotic Capital Isn’t Capital.


It’s been more than 13 years since I slept with a student who was in my classes. And of all the people I hurt with my selfish, narcissistic behavior during my acting-out years, Claire was one of those the memory of whom has haunted me the longest. The amends I made to her may have been sufficient; it was the best I could offer. But she is one of those who has spurred me not only to change my life, and change it radically, but to be such a public advocate for banning “consensual” sexual relationships between profs and students. And she is one of those of whom I first thought when I read about Catherine Hakim’s thesis.

When the person with whom you are getting naked is also the person evaluating your work and your intellectual ability, the potential for crippling self-doubt will always be there. There is no capital in that.

Read the whole thing.

“Stop before you become the ‘dirty old man'”: a remembered morsel of advice

Not an hour ago, I had a vivid flashback to a conversation I had had in 1996, and hadn’t thought about since. I sometimes joke that it’s the drugs I did that have robbed me of certain memories, and that may or may not be true — but particularly when it comes to the mid-1990s, there are substantial lacunae in my recollections.

In the fall of 1996, I was 29. Three years into my teaching career, my reputation as an energetic lecturer was quickly being eclipsed by rumors of my sleeping with students. Most of the rumors were true. I was reckless to the point of stupidity, showing little interest in protecting the job I loved. I was trying to get sober and failing. I stashed drugs in the same file cabinets that held student papers, gave lectures with booze in my bloodstream. I had sex with students on my office desk.

It was a “slipping-down life”, and more and more people were noticing. Continue reading

Third Party Harassment, Third Party Complicity

My friend Emmylou wrote me after my Jezebel post appeared last Friday, noting that we need to remember the problem of “third party harassment”: the impact that the problem can have on witnesses.

On Friday I was crossing the street when I saw a man in a large panel truck inch up in his lane so he could stop and look down at a woman in the next car. She was in the passenger seat and never looked up and to her right as far as I could tell. While walking by, I saw she was wearing a tank top with some cleavage showing and the perv staring hard…not an appreciative look at all. Once I passed them, I turned around and yelled at him. “I know what you’re doing, creep! Stop staring at her!” She didn’t react but the truck driver did. He was both shocked and angered by my calling him out on it.

She didn’t know. But I did and I was offended by it and put off. Someone might say it is none of my business since it didn’t happen to me, but I think it is. It isn’t only the recipients of this kind of behavior who get to be outraged. I think if my goddaughter or nieces had been with me. They have every right in the world to not be exposed to this kind of lecherous behavior. And so do boys.

It isn’t just the one-to-one impact. It’s the example and influence on display for everyone else to see…

Emmylou is right on the money. Street harassment teaches all who witness it lessons about men, women, and sexuality. When children witness adult men leering and catcalling, they learn a lie about male desire. They learn a truth about our collective hostility towards women, and the way in which we use harassment to display power and to slut-shame. Harassment — even if it’s only a prolonged, silent, penetrating gaze — impacts everyone close enough to see it take place.

I’m perhaps too quick to bring up the unethical aspects of my past, but I’ve got some familiarity with this concept. As I’ve often written, I slept with many students during my early years at PCC. All of these relationships, however unethical, were consensual and not in violation of college policy — because the college had no policy against profs and students engaging in “mutually desired amorous relations.” But of course, I was about as subtle as a Labrador in a flower bed, and many of the women I was with “talked.” And as I learned, this all-too-true gossip proved shattering (or at least upsetting) to many other students, who not only lost respect for me but felt as if the classroom had now been sexualized. Indeed, the only people who ever complained to the administration were not the women I was involved with — but others who “witnessed” the behavior in one way or another. Arguably, the greatest harm I did during those years was not to my student lovers, but to those “third parties” who felt unsafe and confused when they found out what was going on.

Third party harassment is widely acknowledged in law. But while it is used in litigation in corporate settings, we don’t often talk about it when it comes to something like street harassment. But we need to remember that harassment is didactic: it’s meant to teach a lesson. The woman being harassed is being reminded that she’s vulnerable, that her body is public property for men to leer at and comment upon. She may be affluent or poor, she may be in a short sundress or in sweats — it doesn’t matter. She’s being “taught a lesson”, and it’s not a complimentary one. And when we hear it or see it, we’re being taught a toxic lesson as well.

My friend Emmylou made the courageous decision to “teach a lesson back”. Not everyone can be expected to do as she did; harassers can turn violent when called out. But where we can do something, we should. This is especially vital work for male allies to do. As I always tell my students, the litmus test of a male feminist is not just how he treats women, but how willing he is to challenge other men on their words and attitudes. As we know, harassment and sexual assault thrive in a culture that normalizes and accepts that behavior. Every rapist or harasser has someone in his life who is complicit in his behavior, who gives tacit approval to his actions. And make no mistake: harassers and abusers invariably interpret the silence of their friends and family as an imprimatur for their behavior.

Without completely disregarding personal safety, we need to be aware of our opportunities to be like Emmylou this week, finding ways to challenge those who make our public — and our private — spaces unsafe.

For more on ways to fight back (whether you’ve been harassed or have observed it as a third party) check out the international Hollaback community.

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 Cautery of Hate: on Breakups, Psychoanalysis, and the Healing Power of Rage

I was reminded of this story by an exchange with a friend today.

Dealing with the end of an intense romantic relationship is painful, regardless of the terms on which that relationship took place. Whether an unrequited obsession or a marriage, the adjustment to life without that one other person on whom you were so focused for so long is very difficult. And especially when we’ve had a hard time seeing a lover’s flaws, recovery may call for a period where we zero in on nothing but those shortcomings.

The story:

Many years ago, during one of my intermittent attempts to get sober, I went into analysis. Yeah, old school analysis, four days a week for an hour at a time. My psychiatrist, who had gone through the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute, had me on the couch in his Pasadena office for nearly two years. My grandmother footed the bill. But when we made the family decision to put me through the famed Freudian process, it was my mother who told me about a dear friend of hers — another psychiatrist — whose own daughter had gone into analysis (with another doctor, of course, not her mother.) My mother’s friend had told her daughter, “Boopsie, at some point during this process you will realize that you hate me. Don’t worry, the hate won’t last. But it’s a necessary stage in analysis.”

“Don’t be silly, Mom, the day could never come when I’d hate you!”, Boopsie replied.

Six months later, the phone rang. When my mother’s friend answered, she heard her daughter’s voice: “Mom”, Boopsie said, “I just want you to know… it’s that day. I hate you.” Click.

Several weeks later, of course, the phone rang again. “Mom, I just want you to know, I don’t hate you anymore”, Boopsie announced with pride. Her mother laughed with her, and they cried together.

And yeah, I went through the same thing with my own mother.

But it’s not just Freudian analysis with its high price tag that produces this process of progressing from idealization to angry contempt and then on to loving acceptance. It’s also part of a good breakup, as I discovered not long after I began the analytic journey.

As I’ve often written, early on in my teaching career I went through a period where I dated and slept with many of my students. Though all these relationships were consensual, at least in the legal sense, they were also deeply unethical. And while some were one-night stands, some lasted on-and-off for months, and in a couple of cases, over a year. One of the latter relationships was with a young woman named Tanya, whom I slept with on and off from late 1996 to early 1998. I was a complete jerk to Tanya, not only because our relationship had started when I was her professor, but also because she was someone who wanted an exclusive romantic relationship with me, something I had neither the willingness nor the ability to give at that turbulent and self-absorbed point in my life. As far as I was concerned, Tanya and I were “friends with benefits”. And yet my conscience wasn’t so drugged and numbed that it didn’t know damn well I was taking advantage of her feelings for me.

Finally, in early 1998, Tanya told me that it was too painful to continue to sleep with me when I could give her nothing more than sex, affection and conversation. If I couldn’t commit, she told me, she’d need to stop seeing me altogether. She also told me she was starting therapy, and was excited about where that would take her. Since I was, at this point, on dear Dr. Levine’s couch Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, I was all about therapy, and told Tanya I was pleased for her. Continue reading

The challenge of confrontation: dismantling rape culture one conversation at a time

Clarisse Thorn wrote a Thanksgiving post, in which she raises an all-too-familiar problem:

One very intense, very important issue I grappled with this week was having a friend email me to inform me that another friend — someone I like and admire a lot — has been credibly accused of sexual assault by a person who will never press charges. This has come up before in my life; every time it’s a little different, and yet so many things are the same: a person is assaulted, the news gets out among friends, the survivor doesn’t press charges, there is confusion among the friends about how to act, eventually things die down, and I feel as though I should have done more.

Clarisse wrote to an ex of hers for his take, and he replied:

Nobody is composed of unmixed goodness or evil, no matter how much of a paragon/fiend 1) they seem to be or 2) their principles require. People we respect and love are not forces of nature or avatars of their cause of choice, no matter how thoroughly they embody it to us… I can’t see how it could ever be good to allow things like this to just slide. Honestly, I’m not sure what else you can do but (as you suggest in one of your messages) politely ask your friend about their take on the story. If nothing else, it will demonstrate that people are paying attention to this thing…

I agree with Clarisse’s ex, both about the necessity of confrontation in some form and the wisdom of acknowledging that those around us are never entirely what they seem. (This doesn’t mean that most people are fraudulent, merely that we tend to see blacks and whites more clearly than we see shades of gray.) And I think this willingness to raise hard questions is particularly important for men.

I’ve often made the case that the true measure of a man’s commitment to gender justice doesn’t just lie in how he treats women, but how he interacts with other men when there are no women around. Most young women have had the utterly infuriating experience of having a male buddy, boyfriend, or brother who is sweet and sensitive when she’s alone with him — but who turns into a troglodytic jerk when other men are around. That sudden shift from kindness to doltishness can be chalked up to the homosocial pressure to be “one of the guys”, a pressure that tends to trump everything else in young men’s lives. And so I repeat the message that I learned a long time ago: part of being a good male ally lies in challenging the sexism of other men even when there are no women around. Actually, if there is a litmus test that distinguishes a boy from a man, that might be it: the courage to stand up to other men and to endure the homophobic insults that will surely come when he challenges the attitudes and actions of his “bros.”

Feminists often talk about “rape culture.” Rape culture doesn’t just mean a culture in which rape happens — it means a culture in which sexual assault is condoned, or excused, or minimized, or even actively facilitated. For example, fraternity parties to which young women are invited and encouraged to binge drink are part of rape culture, as they involve the use of alcohol and social pressure to undermine young women’s capacity to give or deny meaningful consent to sex. Rape jokes are part of rape culture, as is the loathsome use of “rape”idiomatically to refer to any action of domination or success. (An example I overheard in the hall last week: “Dude, I totally raped that test.”) But nothing — nothing — sustains rape culture like silence. And given that men are raised to be homosocial (meaning they place intense value on the opinion of their male peers), and given that it is men who are doing almost all of the raping, it is the reluctance of the so-called “good guys” to challenge other men that allows rape culture to survive.

A true story:

As I’ve written many, many times, I had a series of consensual sexual relationships with my adult students when I was first a professor at PCC. The fact that most of these students were my chronological peers (one or two were even older than I), and that the relationships were often initiated by those students does nothing to mitigate the unethical and irresponsible nature of what I did. It was an abuse of power, and all sexualized abuses of power fall on what might be called a “rape spectrum.” What I did wasn’t rape in that it didn’t violate the consent of the adult women with whom I was having sex — but it was on that spectrum nonetheless because the power imbalance may have had at least some impact on the capacity of these women to give meaningful consent. (I acknowledge agency, but also acknowledge the social and cultural pressures that can undermine agency.) Continue reading

Age gaps, cultural barriers, and contemplating a tutor-student affair: a response to “Robin”

I got a Facebook message last week from a friend of mine named “Robin”. Robin is in her late twenties, and recently started tutoring English to Spanish-speaking employees at a large business in her hometown. Knowing my posts about teacher-student relationships (and about age-disparate affairs), she wrote:

I speak Spanish fluently, so there are plenty of opportunities to build relationships with staff members who are not at this time conversant in English or interested in learning. But, it seems as though a new staff member has developed a more-than-passing interest in me. The trouble is not just that my student is interested in me, it’s that I have some pretty strong attraction to him, as well.

I have no idea how long I may be tutoring there. It could last several years or more. I also have no idea how long this particular individual may be studying English under my instruction. Even if he worked really hard and became conversational within a year (a remarkable feat!), he’d still likely be working at this company, and that could make things uncomfortable for the others if I decided to lower that boundary. I care about all of them very much; it’s more than tutoring; it’s ministry with these wonderful people. It’s much more clearcut when the rule is “Not until this person is out of my class/Not until this person has graduated.” How would I know in this case?

Two other considerations for if/when the student/teacher relationship is no longer a concern: Our age difference and the different cultures we represent. By the time there’d be license to ‘go for it’ he wouldn’t be as “Fresh Off The Boat” as he is now (two months). But, I’d still be 8 years older than him, which is a big deal considering that means he is 19 right now. Cultural differences won’t necessarily get less important as he ages and adjusts to living here in the States.

Or maybe he’ll do what most 19-year-old boys I know do, and he’ll have a new crush on someone else next week.

One key difference between Robin’s situation and that of other teachers who are romantically interested in their students is that Robin is teaching a skill for which no grade will be assigned. Her judgment in that sense isn’t compromised; there’s less worry that a relationship with this young man will damage either her integrity or that of the business for which she works as a result.

The age difference, of course, is real. 27 and 19 is a significant gap (much more so, developmentally, than 35 and 27). Add in the cultural and class differences, and you’ve got a number of signs that Robin should proceed with considerable caution. Robin doesn’t mention the fellow’s immigration status; if he’s undocumented, then his vulnerability is increased exponentially, as is his potential dependency upon her, another red flag. She should consider all of these factors before moving forward towards either a fling or a relationship with this 19 year-old. Continue reading

Overselling agency: a reply to Barry Dank on teacher-student sex

Barry Dank picks a bone with my views on student crushes and professor-student amorous relations in this post of his yesterday: Crushing Student Crushes. Dank is a retired professor of sociology from Long Beach State, where he built a name for himself as a consistent (some would say relentless) advocate for legitimizing sexual relationships between teachers and students. He even has a Facebook group dedicated to the cause!

I took on Barry Dank directly in this post in 2007. I was appalled at his comparison between ethics guidelines that ban professors from dating students currently enrolled in their courses and the anti-miscegenation laws that existed prior to Loving v. Virginia. Here’s Dank’s famous article where he makes that analogy. My readers can judge for themselves the merits of his argument.

I do want to correct a few points he makes in yesterday’s post about me. Dank suggests that my views on teacher-student relationships reflect an “ethic of convenience”, and that I became hostile to professors dating their pupils only after settling down into happy monogamy. As regular readers know, I made the commitment to stop dating students (and to stop a host of other problematic behaviors) in 1998. I was intentionally celibate at the time. I started dating the woman who is now my wife in 2002, more than four years after making this commitment to professional ethics and two years after making amends to the campus by chairing the committee that wrote our new consensual relationships policy.

But that’s a minor quibble. My real argument with Dank and those who take his stance that professor/student romantic relationships ought to be permitted (and not only permitted, but celebrated), is the way in which he co-opts the notion of young women’s agency. (Though both Dank and I acknowledge that there are instances where older female professors date younger male students — and instances where both parties are of the same sex — the vast majority of such sexual relationships involve older male instructors with younger female students.) Dank writes:

For Schwyzer, students have crushes since students are de facto children. They are not yet grownups who can experience a mature love. Or translated- they have not yet graduated; once they graduate then they are adults. Reminds me of the old idea that a girl cannot become a woman, remains a girl or a child until she married.

That’s a not very clever attempt to appropriate feminist rhetoric about young women’s agency. As I’ve written many times before, one of the oldest tricks in the predator’s book is the flattering appeal to a young woman’s maturity: “Come on, you’re old enough to know what you want. These rules aren’t protecting you, they’re infantilizing you, treating you like you’re a little girl! But you’re not a little girl anymore, you’re a woman who knows what she wants. You’re smarter and more mature than most of your peers; do something bold!” (J.M. Coetzee captures the ugliness of this reasoning brilliantly in his deservedly celebrated novel, Disgrace.)

(I note, parenthetically and with a sigh, that my radical feminist critics accuse me and my liberal colleagues of grossly overselling the notion of “agency”, while libertarians like Dank suggest that I am equally amiss in denying its possibility. Cue the great song from the one-hit wonders, Stealer’s Wheel.) Continue reading

Flirtation, adultery, student-teacher boundaries — again!

I get a fair number of emails from college students, almost always young women, who found this blog after having googled the phrase “student crushes”. I reposted the piece that I did on Tuesday after receiving two such emails at the beginning of the week, both from women who had crushes on older, married, male professors.

Let’s review: professors should not date students who are enrolled in their classes, for some excellent reasons. We shouldn’t suborn adultery for some equally important reasons, as I wrote in January ’09 in a post called Helping Him Become What He Pledged Not to Be.

And while I don’t have a problem with professors dating their former students (though the ideal would be that a student would be sufficiently “former” as to have left the campus entirely), I do have a very serious problem with decentralizing the relationship status of the parties in this discussion. I think we can have a serious discussion about whether or not professor-student romantic relationships are invariably unethical and a bad idea. I take that negative position, but know that others — in good faith and at times with very thoughtful reasons — can take the opposite one. But I don’t think that it’s possible to make a compelling case in defense of adultery. While it is possible to critique monogamy as an institution, it isn’t ethically viable to defend dishonesty. And at its heart, the sinfulness of cheating is not in the sex, but in the lie it creates. As I wrote fifteen months ago:

One of the great tragedies of infidelity lies not in what it does to others but what it teaches us about ourselves — that we are fundamentally untrustworthy. And it is hard to be happy while living with the dissonance between one’s language and one’s life.

So let me be clear. I’m happy to chat with folks — in “real life” or through this blog, email, social media and so forth — about the ethical and human issues surrounding this topic in which I am deeply invested. What I’m not interested in doing is co-signing any behavior that dishonors another person’s monogamous commitment. Relationships can end, of course, and romantic statuses can shift. But when we’re dealing with people who have pledged fidelity to others, we have an obligation to do all that we can to help them honor that commitment. Honoring the commitment to fidelity can include breaking up prior to sleeping with someone else. But it cannot include idle flirtation, emotional affairs, or outright seduction.

Older married men who flirt with younger women do so, generally, for ego validation. The longing to know that one still has “it” can be overwhelming, particularly for a fellow who hasn’t really dealt with his own fears about ageing and mortality. But whether he is a politician or a plumber, he needs to grasp that young women — heck, women of any age — are not yardsticks with which to measure the sexual appeal he longs to know has not diminished. When the greying Romeo is a married professor flirting with his own students, that behavior moves from being unfortunate and unwise to reckless and irresponsible.

And that’s a message that apparently needs frequent repeating.