“Filched this fellow’s heart:” on the crushes we get on students

This post first appeared in March, 2006.

In a comment below last Friday’s post on student crushes, Ryan writes:

There is, also, a reciprocal phenomenon that few of us talk about: the crush on the student. Let me first explain what I mean by crush, here, because it’s almost explicitly not sexual. Lord knows that my sex life was awkward enough at that age–I certainly wouldn’t want to revisit it with a 15 years older body. But there are students with whom I become temporarily fascinated. Just as students find that there can be something intoxicating about the presence, the experience, the passion of someone at the front of the classroom, there is something similarly invigorating about the potential, the excitement, the newness of a really compelling student. I regularly develop these crushes. They’ve never grown into anything more than an occasional email correspondence after the student has gone, but the crushes do go both ways, and they more we try to divorce them from taboo sexuality (which seems to have little to do with it at all), the more we can address what they are, which is excitement about the very act of teaching and learning, personified in teachers and students who seem to embody those ideals.

An excellent idea for a follow-up post!

Like Ryan, I scrupulously avoid sexualizing my students.  (Frankly, at this point in my life, that’s not difficult to do.)  But like Ryan, I get an occasional crush on a young (or not so young) student.  Not only are these crushes not sexual or romantic, they also aren’t primarily about my ego, either.

I mentioned this topic to a colleague yesterday (I’d sent her the first post on student crushes), and she laughed at me.  "Hugo, you just like the students who soak up your every word.  You get crushes on your proteges as extensions of yourself.  You’re such a narcissist!" I was hurt, and I told her so.  Lord knows, I am relentless in my self-criticism — but after reflecting for some time on what she said, I’m convinced my colleague got it wrong.

What I mean by a crush on a student is this: every once in a while, no more than once or twice a year, I will have a young man or a young woman in one of my classes whose life and ideas and personal growth become powerfully interesting to me. I can’t always tell who it’s going to be, mind you!  It’s not automatically the "best and the brightest", and it certainly (I can’t stress this enough these days) has damn all to do with physical attractiveness.  It can happen equally often with men or women.  But suddenly, often out of the blue, I will find myself caring desperately about that one particular student’s development.  I daydream about that student, and look forward eagerly to their office visits and to their emailed questions and the stories they tell about their lives.

I know lots of my students read this blog, so let me be clear about something: you are all precious to me. I rejoice when you do well, I agonize when you don’t (and I wonder what I can do to help you do better.)  I think about you more than you realize, and even though you surely imagine that you are just a sea of faces and names to me, please know that you are far more than that.  I take seriously my obligation to teach all of you, to challenge you, to stimulate you.  And I worry, more often than you know, that I am failing you.

Continue reading

The Slut-Shaming of Amanda Knox, updated

Amanda Knox has been freed by a court in Italy. I am immensely relieved and pleased, and my reasons why are in this GMP post today: Amanda Knox Freed, But the Slut-Shaming Goes On. It concludes:

When I look at the face of Amanda Knox, I see someone who looks a great deal like many of the students I taught. When I hear the details of her private life discussed with both salacious enthrallment and feigned repugnance, I think of the experiences of so many of my students who went abroad with me. When I hear the twisted, groundless narrative that the prosecution offered, something along the lines of “American girl is sexually curious and open about it and she smoked pot: therefore it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to stabbing one’s prudish roommate to death”, I’m enraged and indignant. What happened to Amanda Knox — and I am nearly as convinced of her innocence as her parents — could have happened to a dozen young women I knew and taught in Italy.

Make no mistake, I grieve the loss of Meredith Kercher and the horrible way she died. But I have little doubt that if Knox had been a little less pretty, a little less sexual, and a little less American, she’d never have spent a day in prison for her roommate’s murder.

I rejoice in her freedom today.

“The Thoughts of Six-Hundred Pounders”: Class, Ambition, and the Privilege to Err

This is an abridged and updated version of a post I wrote in February 2009

Is it irresponsible to tell young people to follow their bliss?

Four weeks into the new semester, my classes are more crowded than ever before, as a changing economy sends more and more people desperate for new skills back to the community colleges for retraining. At the same time, middle-class parents who might once have been able to afford to pay for four years at university for their son or daughter now encourage their kids to spend two years at a far more affordable (if obscenely over-crowded) community college like my own Pasadena City College. And as always happens in an economic downturn, state services are cut at precisely the same moment that demand for those services increases.

In thinking about what we all fear is to be long slow decline in public education — and about the double-dip recession in which we are almost certainly now caught — I think about my role as a gender studies professor and feminist educator. Should how I teach — and what I teach — change, at least in some way, to address the current crisis? I take great pride, and have for years, in the number of my former students who go on to major in Women’s Studies or Gender Studies in part because of what they got out of my classes. I’ve always held that students should major in something they love, rather than something that they think will get them a job. I’ve preached the (at best, optimistic, at worst, criminally misleading) mantra that “If you do what you love, the money will follow.” That was always a questionable proposition, particularly for those students who don’t have access to the kinds of networks which traditionally provide the social and financial capital with which to turn dreams into a sustainable living. Is it even more of a questionable proposition now, as we face what could be a prolonged recession with potentially massive unemployment?

Pursuing Gender Studies as a major is obviously no guarantor of financial security. But neither is a degree in finance; look at the massive layoffs in the banking industry. A career in construction is no more promising, nor a career in real estate. (If I had a dollar for every student I knew who was working on a real estate license during the peak of the housing boom between 2004-06, I’d be able to take an entire class to lunch.) When I was an undergraduate, with the Cold War still the defining global dynamic and with Reagan in office, many people I knew at Cal were studying aerospace engineering. They figured on a never-ending buildup of arms and materiel to confront the Soviet Union; the “smart money” said a career preparing for the defense industry was a sure thing. The Berlin Wall came down five months after I graduated college, and for the next dozen years, aerospace jobs were shed like dog hair. The point is an obvious one: for a student in her late teens, looking ahead to four or five decades in the work force, there is no major at college that will guarantee a steady and reliable income. In times of great instability, a major in something “impractical” like history or women’s studies makes no less sense than anything else. It is not, I insist, irresponsible to point so many undergraduates towards academic gender work.

But I worry that my own privilege may lead me to give poor advice. Continue reading

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.

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.

Intercourse, suffering, pleasure, and feminism: more on “envelop” v. “penetrate”

I’ve gotten a few emails from readers in the past few days asking me to respond to something else Factcheckme (FCM) discusses on her blog. (See my post immediately below this one for an explanation of the disagreement she and I are having about the role of men in the feminist movement.) Though I don’t think FCM and I could have much of a conversation (a civil exchange requires a mutual recognition of good faith and legitimacy, and she’s made it clear she doesn’t think I possess either), her views are not unique to her and deserve a response.

One of FCM’s tabs is her Intercourse series, a lengthy set of posts exploring her reactions to Andrea Dworkin’s famous book by the same name. As even a casual reader of her blog will realize, FCM takes Dworkin quite literally in her insistence that heterosexual intercourse (penis-in-vagina sex, or PIV) is abusive to women. Women should generally resist PIV, FCM argues; any man who dares claim the label feminist ally for himself must renounce PIV if he wishes to be taken seriously. Refusing intercourse is the proof of one’s seriousness and credibility.

There’s a lot of debate among Dworkin scholars as to whether her work was meant to be taken literally in all instances, or whether she was often engaged in a complex and dazzling rhetorical performance designed to elicit shock and reflection. (I tend to hold the latter view, and I suspect that FCM leans towards the former.) I certainly think that feminists ought to challenge people’s conventional views about heterosexual intercourse. In my women’s history class, for example, I point out that until relatively recently, one of the leading causes of death for women was complications related to childbirth. (In some places at some times, pregnancy and childbirth have been the leading cause of female death.) The overwhelming majority of pregnancies are the consequence of heterosexual intercourse; therefore, it is logical to conclude that heterosexual intercourse has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions of women over human history, as well as to unimaginable pain and discomfort to those who did not die but were merely injured by everything from miscarriages to fistulas to prolapsed uteruses.

Though maternal death is far rarer today in the industrialized West (though troublingly higher here in the States than in Europe), it is still a very real danger in less developed parts of the world. But pregnancy is not the only consequence of PIV that can lead to death. In Africa the AIDS epidemic is primarily carried on through heterosexual intercourse; the vast majority of women who die of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa contracted the virus by having PIV. When fundamentalists speak of AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuals, it’s worth replying that God has punished far more women with death for having PIV with their husbands than he has male homosexuals for having anal sex. And God is said to be a fan of PIV in marriage. Feminists do well to point these things out, and I do so in every class I teach.

(Parenthetically, heterosexual intercourse put me in the emergency room once, as I wrote in this post. There’s no comparison, of course, between the physical danger of PIV for women and for men. But PIV can bring everything from frenular tearing to broken hearts to males as well; to suggest otherwise is to be blind to the reality of male vulnerability. And vulnerability isn’t a zero-sum game.)

It’s also important to note that women’s legal right to resist intercourse with their husbands is very recent, and by no means universally accepted. The first successful prosecutions for marital rape in this country only took place in my lifetime; many traditionalists in many places still find the notion of marital rape itself to be an oxymoron. Empowering women legally and socially and psychologically to say “no” to their partners (including their husbands) is an essential part of the global feminist project.

But of course, there is another side to all of this discussion. As Dworkin’s critics have long pointed out, much of her objection to PIV is rooted less in physiological reality than in the language we use to describe it. I wrote about this last fall, describing an exercise familiar to all my women’s studies’ students. An excerpt follows.

One of the first gender studies courses I ever took at Berkeley was an upper-division anthropology course taught by the great Nancy Scheper-Hughes. It was in a class discussion one day (I think in the spring of ‘87) that I heard something that rocked my world. We were discussing Andrea Dworkin’s novel “Ice and Fire” and her (then still-forthcoming, but already publicized) “Intercourse”. I hadn’t read the books at the time (they were optional for the class). One classmate made the case that on a biological level, all heterosexual sex was, if not rape, dangerously close to it. “Look at the language”, my classmate said; “penetrate, enter, and screw make it clear what’s really happening; women are being invaded by men’s penises.” Another classmate responded, “But that’s the fault of the language, not of the biology itself; we could just as easily use words like ‘envelop’, ‘engulf’, ’surround’ and everything would be different.” The discussion raged enthusiastically until the next class irritably barged in and chucked us all out. I was electrified. Continue reading

The Price of Shame: on rethinking a harsh anti-porn stance

I’ve written a number of posts on pornography. I’ve taken a fairly strong anti-porn line, linked to my own admission that for years, I struggled with pornography addiction. I’ve had many years of recovery from that compulsion as well as from so many others. What I’ve had a hard time doing is letting go of the “disease model” for approaching the subject. While I acknowledge that plenty of folks (but not me) can drink beer without becoming alcoholics, I’ve had a harder time acknowledging that the same might well be true for pornography. (See the post linked in my second sentence.)

This tendency to extrapolate from my own experience combines with a traditional (call it Second Wave) suspicion that pornography is always and invariably anti-feminist, even when what is filmed or written seems empowering and redemptive. But in the last two years, the number of emails and comments I’ve gotten from feminist women who regularly view pornography has risen dramatically. Though I don’t ask my students to share this sort of information, the number of journal entries in which students of both sexes talk openly about their porn use has almost, um, exploded exponentially in that same time period.

The anecdotal evidence I’m getting of an increase in women’s use of pornography seems backed up by the evidence. It’s not hard to figure out why. The anonymity of the internet is helpful. In a world where we shame women for displaying sexual interest, there is a much higher social cost to admitting to porn use than for men. The web allows the consumer to avoid going to a physical place to buy or watch erotic media. And equally importantly, the depth and breadth of erotic material online means that women are much more likely to find porn on the ‘net that was created by and for women.

I got a message from a Facebook friend last week that summed up a lot of what I’ve been getting from those who are critical of my anti-porn stance. Artemisia, who is a married mother of teens, wrote:

… I think you have painted both porn and porn consumers with too broad a brush. And the brush you use feels hurtful and shaming. Yes, there are a lot of really vile things out there, but there are some things that are tasteful and even sweet. What really smarts is that your discussion assumes that porn consumers are men, thereby making women who consume porn rare and likely deviant. But, that isn’t true; some research has shown that as much as a third of all online porn is consumed by women. Further, about 17% of couples who watch porn together as a part of their lovemaking. The entrance of women into the porn market as consumers has irrevocably changed that market. The role of porn user has been cast as a guy who is either single or sneaking it outside of his relationship. That is not only untrue; it is a bit gender-biased.

I am, on occasion, a consumer of pornography both online and in print. And I have to say that it makes me really uncomfortable that people assume that I am watching something vile and that only men watch porn. Judiciously chosen erotica (what you call porn because it has live actors) has been helpful in my sex-life with my husband. I/we don’t use it regularly, but it is helpful at times. And it doesn’t drive us apart; it makes us closer and makes our sex better. You said to ask any woman if her husband is a better lover for having been online with porn. I have to say a resounding yes. And, to bring a little gender equality here, I am also a better lover.

It seems important here to really qualify that not all porn is created equally. For example, one of my favorite sites, and one of the most popular porn sites on the web, features average, every-day women of all sizes and ethnicities masturbating to orgasm in an environment that can only be described as respectful. It doesn’t lie; it doesn’t make anything selfish. It educates, and does so well. And I think that the site’s popularity makes an important point: the worst of internet porn is not representative even though it is abundant and flashy. There are fewer respectful, sane sites, but those are the ones that stay around for years and that become profitable staples.

Artemisia suggests what I’m hearing from others out there: female consumers are changing the face of porn, at least to the extent that a significant section of the erotic marketplace is aimed at their needs and desires. What that means is that those of us who launch into traditional critiques of porn as graphic misogyny are making a lot of women feel invisible and shamed. As a feminist ally, that troubles me, as do the letters and journal entries and chats I’ve had with young people of both sexes who insist it is genuinely possible to find porn that is arousing and progressive. Like Artemisia, these men and women suggest it is possible to “get off” in a morally and politically responsible and enlightened way. (I don’t know which web site Artemisia refers to, but I’m told that there are a number of similar sites.)

Here’s the thing. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time sampling what’s “out there”, any more than as a sober alcoholic, I’m planning to go wine tasting. Part of recovery is learning one’s limits, and while I don’t get uncomfortable with sexually explicit material these days, I also want to acknowledge my own boundaries. That said, I also want to reiterate my concern that much of mainstream porn — particularly the sort of thing that young people first discover online — is degrading and misogynistic. I’m not yet convinced that for many if not all, habitual porn use doesn’t play a part in encouraging dissatisfaction with a single partner. (The longing for everlasting novelty notion.) I hear from many of my female (and a few of my male) students that porn has badly distorted their understanding of sexuality and the ideal body, impacting the kind of sex they think they “ought” to be having. As for “feminist porn”, I worry that at least some of that empowerment is slickly oversold, as with the ultra-hip “Suicide Girls” site, which was bought by Playboy. And lastly, while I acknowledge that not everyone who encounters porn will use it addictively, I think a great many people clearly can become unhealthily addicted. All this concerns me.

But having made all that clear, let me also say this. I’m not going to ignore the Artemisias of this world. There are few things I’d less like to do with my writing and my lecturing than instill shame. I know that I’ve done that around this issue, particularly with my decision in 2008 to assign my Men and Masculinity students Robert Jensen’s famous Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, a book about which I wrote a laudatory three-part review here. I loved Jensen’s thesis (read the previous link for more). Many of my students did too. But some of my students of both sexes who told me they viewed porn felt overwhelmed, shamed, guilt-ridden as a result. One young woman told me she had stopped looking at porn but felt guilty about the arousing images that still popped into her head. Another young guy, one of my best students, told me that he felt as if he’d been set up for failure, as if Jensen and I were positing abstinence from pornography as the sine qua non of being a decent male. “If I masturbate to porn can I still be a good man” was the question I got from more than one anguished participant in the class. And if several of the students were willing to divulge such private pain to me, I can only assume that still others felt the same way but kept silent.

I’m going to reconsider assigning “Getting Off.” I love Jensen’s book – it resonates with me. But unlike any other text I’ve ever assigned, its stridency wounded some very sensitive and reflective kids. And my stridency on this issue wounded Artemisia, a friend whose kids are almost the age of most of my students. I grieve that, and need to take action around that, finding a way both to point out what is so terribly problematic about so much pornography — and to acknowledge that at least for some, the use of visual and written erotica can be joyous, liberating, and fully compatible with a vision of justice in which human beings are not objectified. The latter was not my experience, but I cannot in good conscience continue to extrapolate universal truths from my own memories of compulsiveness.

It is almost universally acknowledged that with the possible exception of race, there are few issues more divisive within feminist communities than porn. Allies who agree on everything else find themselves bewildered at a friend’s views on internet erotica. Somehow, we’ve got to do a better job of listening to each other’s stories, of honestly sharing our own, of doing everything possible to avoid shaming and belittling each other. The knowledge that what I’ve said or written about this topic has proved deeply hurtful troubles me, as well it ought. I can’t avoid the issue altogether, nor can I responsibly avoid raising the concerns I’ve always raised about porn. But I can do a better job of creating a space where we who want a world that is both just and joyous, safe and shame-free, can find common ground.

“Male feminists are mostly gay”: more on myths of lust and humanity

I’ve posted many times before on the stereotypes male feminists (or, if one prefers, male feminist allies) encounter. Nearly a quarter-century after I first took a women’s studies class, and after more than a decade and a half of teaching the subject, I still regularly encounter the following assumptions:

1. I’m gay
2. I’m straight and sexually predatory, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, using the class to “pick up chicks”.
3. I’m filled with masculine self-loathing, desperately using feminism to get validation from women.

Most male feminist allies encounter at least one, if not all three, of these fairly often. In this post, I’d like to tackle the first stereotype.

The assumption that men who teach women’s studies (or merely express a strong interest in gender work and activism) are gay is a deeply held and pervasive one. Of course, it’s a different stereotype from the other two on the list. There’s something wrong with a man feigning feminism in order to get access to women; there’s something unhealthy about adopting feminism as a strategy for winning approval. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being gay, and by constructing this list, I don’t intend to suggest that there is. (There’s an analogous stereotype about female feminists, that they are lesbians and man-haters, but that’s another topic.)

I don’t mind if folks question my sexual identity. I make it clear that I’m married to a woman and that we have a child together, but I don’t go any further to establish heterosexual bona-fides. I call myself Eira-sexual, and explain why here and here. But there is something about the assumption of homosexuality that troubles me deeply, and that’s the implication that men who are sexually drawn to women are incapable of seeing them as true equals.

The notion that gay men and hetero women are natural allies is deeply held — and reinforced by countless films and television shows. These friendships are indeed often very precious and enduring. But the problem with our discourse about these friendships is that they reinforce a number of assumptions, chief among the the idea that sexism is rooted in heterosexual desire. As many women know well, gay men are perfectly capable of the same degree of sexism as their straight brothers. The problem of misogyny is rooted in something that runs deeper than desire. We can, it turns out, despise what we aren’t attracted to as much as what we are. And while I certainly don’t think my gay brothers are especially sexist, I reject the notion that their queerness gives them any particular insight into or empathy with women’s experience. Those who are acculturated as males will have to overcome a hell of a lot of sexist programming, almost entirely irrespective of the direction of their libidos. Continue reading

“I can’t trust your praise”: the unintended fallout of professor-student affairs

I spoke too soon. I feel compelled to write another post on the teacher-student dating thing, in response to this question below yesterday’s post, from “Pounding Sand”. PS asks:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds as if this question is being couched in the understanding that the professor is both older than the student, and male. There’s also the implication that all other students in the hypothetical class are aware of the affair between student and professor.

So if the affair is a discreet one, and no one else is privvy to the situation, wouldn’t that mitigate the perception of other students that the affair is effecting their interests? In the case of age equivalence is ther any room to consider the relative experiences of the lovers. In other words, the relationship between a thirty eight year old female student and a thirty year old, or thirty eight year old male professor, perhaps draws a somewhat different picture of ‘imbalance’ than the relationship between a forty year old male professor and his twenty year old female student, or an older female professor and younger male student. Put another way, who’s zooming who?

I’m not advocating either/or, but I’m interested in the both the perceived inequality vs the actual.

During what — for lack of a better term — I call my “acting out years” (from 1995-1998, when I was having affairs with students), I dated one woman who was older than me. I was 29; she was 32.

“Claire” was a returning student, coming back to college more than a dozen years after dropping out. She was very bright, but like many of those who return to college after years away from academia, anxious about her abilities. Her story was a familiar one: she’d been a clever but underachieving high school student, more interested in social activities than intellectual ones. Claire had gone off to a Cal State campus for one year, and partied her way onto academic probation and into eventual dismissal. She had married at twenty, had a baby, and stayed home with her daughter for several years. By the time she came to Pasadena City College, she had been divorced for two years and her daughter was in fifth grade.

In her thirties, much to her surprise, Claire had discovered she loved learning: she loved books, writing, ideas. What had bored her to tears at 17 fascinated her at 32. Her passion was matched by her ability. (It is not always so.) She earned top grades on every test she took and every paper she wrote. And she was funny; lovely; she sat in the front row. Our affair started during the second semester Claire was my student, in early spring of 1997.

Claire and I were discreet. Of course, she wasn’t the only person (or, for that matter, the only student) I was dating. Neither of us wanted a serious relationship. None of her classmates knew; even as word spread across campus of my reckless and sordid indiscretions with others, no one discovered what was happening with Claire.

Claire eventually transferred to a nearby liberal arts college renowned for recruiting promising non-traditional students; I wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation. And it was when I handed her a copy of the letter of recommendation that I realized yet another damaging aspect of teacher-student affairs, something that goes to the heart of the question Pounding Sand poses.

Claire looked at the letter and smiled. Her smile faded, though, and I asked her what was wrong. I’d praised her exceptional abilities (particularly her writing skills) to the heavens; I’d meant every word I’d written. Claire said: “I wish I could believe that all of this was true.”

“Of course it’s true!”, I exclaimed.

“Is it? Don’t you feel as if you have to say these things after everything that’s happened? How can I know that you mean this?”

I was horrified, and, I confess, indignant. “Christ, Claire, you earned your A in the classroom. I can’t believe you’d doubt that. I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.”

Claire remarked, calmly but with an edge in her voice, something to the effect that a professor who was so cavalier about sleeping with his students could hardly be self-righteous when his integrity was questioned. I could tell she wanted to believe that the words I’d written about her intellectual promise were true. I knew damn well that they were true. If I’d never come within ten feet of her, her dazzling, witty prose; her work ethic; and her insights would have earned her the highest grade in the course. In my mind, our sexual relationship had nothing to do with her academic ability, save that that unusual ability was one of many things that had made her exceptionally attractive to me.

Claire transferred, graduated, remarried, and moved away. She ended up in law school, and is now an attorney. I made amends to her in 2001. Our conversation was civil but brisk. She told me that while she had enjoyed my classes, and not been unhappy with our relationship outside of class, she was angry that our affair had made it impossible for her to turn to me as a mentor. Claire hadn’t seen me as a “younger man” (we were less than three years apart, after all), but as her professor. I had something she wanted, and what she had wanted most was intellectual validation. I gave her that, but it came wrapped up in a sexual relationship. As a result, she had had a very difficult and painful time trying to decide whether her As were earned, and whether my consistently laudatory feedback was truly deserved.

A woman who had grown up being told she was “pretty” but “not very bright”, Claire was a late bloomer as a scholar. And by having a sexual relationship with her, I robbed her of the chance to bask in the uncompromised praise she had so indisputably earned. At her four year school, Claire had found other mentors with whom she didn’t have affairs; she had come to trust that her talents were genuine. She hadn’t been able to get that from me. Whatever fleeting pleasure she had derived from our affair had left a lingering hurt in the form of self-doubt. And the fact that she was three years my senior in no way mitigated my responsibility for causing her that hurt.

It’s been a dozen years since I slept with a student who was in my classes. And of all the people whom I hurt by 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 and vehement advocate for banning “consensual” sexual relationships between profs and students.

So, PS, when it comes to the ethics of teachers dating students, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what the ages of the parties involved are. 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.

“I don’t want your amends”: of consensual relationships, happy memories, collective harm and Montblanc pens

I wrote last Thursday about professor-student relationships, a topic I’ve turned to quite a few times. I had been inspired by this post at Alas and the subsequent comments.

As I often do, I posted a link to my own post on my Facebook page. A very small discussion then broke out on FB, and one of my friends, Carlotta, wrote about her own very positive memory of a sexual relationship with an older professor of hers:

Help me out with the unethical part though… honestly, for me my relationship provided me with an oasis of sexual comfort amid a desert of sterile academia. I remember mine with affection and (sincere) gratitude.

I’ve heard some stories like Carlotta’s. Heck, I had one in my own past. One of the last students with whom I had a sexual relationship, back in 1997-98, was a remarkable young woman, Marie. Marie and I were lovers for a brief period both while she was my student and immediately afterwards. She later transferred back east as a women’s studies major, a major she selected after taking my History 25B course the semester our affair began.

Not long after our relationship ended, I got a birthday card from — of all people — Marie’s mother. The note was attached to a box, and in the box was a fine MontBlanc fountain pen. Marie’s mother, who knew about our recently-concluded affair, wrote that she was grateful for my influence in her daughter’s life, and that as far as she could see, her daughter had changed for the better as a result. Though she admitted that she had had some concerns about her daughter’s involvement with a professor, Marie’s mom said that she could see that nothing but good had come as a consequence. She wanted me to have the pen as a token of appreciation. I still have it. (I need new ink cartridges for it.)

A few years later, sober and filled with repentance for my earlier behavior, I spoke to Marie and attempted to make amends to her for having “abused my power” with her. Marie was exasperated. “Bullshit, Hugo”, she said. “I was a legal adult too, and I’m not sorry that it happened. I had happy memories of it, and it pisses me off that now that you’re a ‘reformed man’, you’re trying to make it sound like it was unhealthy. It wasn’t. I liked what we did, I’m not sorry.” We’ve only touched base a few times since that conversation eight or nine years ago. What I do know is that Marie now lives in New York where she’s finishing a doctoral dissertation, and that now — well into her thirties — she remains adamant that she has nothing but fond memories of her relationship with me. I’m certainly not going to try and continue to convince her she shouldn’t. Continue reading