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Lust for Learning

Is erotic longing between professors and students unavoidable?

My freshman American literature course presented me with many revelations, but one of the most indelible happened not inside the auditorium classroom where, twice a week, our professor stood onstage in front of more than a hundred 18-year-olds. Instead, it came as I stepped into the women’s restroom afterward, just in time to overhear two of my fellow classmates rhapsodizing over how cute the professor was, with particular attention lavished on his long, slightly bowed, denim-clad legs. I was naïve enough to be a bit shocked that girls my age would talk that way about such an exalted figure. And I felt a little sheepish, too, since I’d secretly been thinking the same thing myself. 

Students sometimes nurse crushes on their teachers, and teachers sometimes lust after their pupils; these are facts of life so commonplace as to have become the ultimate cliché: a porn motif. Like many vaguely parental relationships, the pedagogic one can have a strong and unsettling erotic undertow. My fellow students and I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at our prof if we’d met him at the bus stop or waiting in line at the campus café; he was at least 35—maybe even 40! Like many young women, however, we were far from immune to the mystique of a man who can command the admiring attention of a crowd, and if he was like most men, he was sensible to the flattery of all those rapt faces. Yet at the root of this queasy dynamic was genuine intellectual excitement. His class set off a series of firecrackers in my understanding of books, ideas whose impact I can still recollect vividly. Perhaps it’s possible to separate the thrill of encountering a fascinating mind from the fizz of libido, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to. That species of desire makes ideas feel more vitally connected to our bodily lives and tells us that passions can be spurred by qualities deeper than six-pack abs.

Whether students or their teachers should ever act on such desires, however, has never been an untroubled question. To do so raises the possibility of both favoritism and exploitation. If we think of the university as a purely professional realm, where services are exchanged for a fee among rational economic actors, then sexual relationships seem clearly out of bounds, as they are in most workplaces, especially between supervisors and subordinates. But if the academy is something more than that, if, as many of its members hope, it’s a place where deep and lasting collegial bonds are formed, where mentors and protégés can become close friends and where young lives are transformed by a galvanic encounter with knowledge and their own latent capabilities, how can we possibly stamp out the potential for desire to arise? Perhaps what makes pedagogy so potent also makes it inherently erotic.

Lines in the debate have been drawn more clearly in recent years. In February, for example, Harvard announced that it was banning all consensual “romantic or sexual” relationships between faculty members and undergraduates, regardless of whether the student is enrolled in any of the professor’s classes or is even in the same department (although faculty can still date graduate students if they don’t supervise their work). These and other revisions of university codes followed the announcement last year that the Department  of Education would be investigating 55 colleges and universities for “possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints” under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. (Harvard was found to have failed to comply with Title IX in responding to such accusations.)

Certainly not everyone agrees with the changes. Quarreling with them got Northwestern film professor Laura Kipnis into trouble earlier this year for an essay she published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. She feels that prohibitions on faculty-student dating are paternalistic and part of an increasing tendency to infantilize students as preposterously fragile “trauma cases waiting to happen,” rather than as adults acquiring the experience that will enable them to navigate a rough-and-tumble world. “Bona fide harassers” ought to be punished, she insists, but in the current climate, “the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life” are being treated the same way as quid-pro-quo demands for sexual favors in exchange for grades and letters of recommendation.

Kipnis’s essay, titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” drew ire by challenging our propensity for viewing professors in relationships with students as sexual predators, a view that Kipnis regards as hopelessly reductive. To illustrate her point, Kipnis offered the example of a Northwestern philosophy professor (whom she didn’t know and didn’t name) at the center of a “murky and contested” complaint lodged by an undergraduate. He was accused of getting her drunk at an art exhibition and then groping her while they slept, fully clothed, in his bed. Kipnis made a passing reference to the same professor’s involvement with a graduate student whom he claimed he had dated. Two students then made Title IX complaints against Kipnis, arguing that her essay (and a  tweet) constituted “retaliation” against the students who filed the original charges. As a result, Kipnis herself became the subject of a disturbingly opaque investigation, although she was soon cleared. Then she wrote about that for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in an essay called “My Title IX Inquisition.”

Exactly what happened between the philosophy professor and his two students is not all that material to Kipnis’s argument: She is more concerned that the new university strictures permit only one view of student-faculty relationships, when in fact, like most human connections, they sprawl across a bewildering spectrum. The official model will of course apply in some cases, but it will also do an injustice in a great many others. In particular, this model invalidates the student’s own desire and self-determination. Like a drunk person or a child, a student, by definition, cannot consent to a tryst with a faculty member. As Harvard’s policy puts it, “Even when both parties have consented at the outset to the development of a romantic or sexual relationship between individuals of different University status, it is the person in the position of greater authority who, by virtue of his or her special responsibility and the core educational mission [of the faculty of Arts and Sciences], will be held accountable for unprofessional behavior.” How did we get to the point of protecting young adults’ feelings by denying that their feelings count?

Surely desire and love have flared between teachers and their adult students since pedagogy began, but most of it has been invisible. Until recently, Western education at almost every level was a same-sex activity, open mostly to men of the upper classes, so it stands to reason, that most student-teacher affairs have been between men, even if they’ve left few historical records. Except, that is, at the very beginning, in ancient Greece, where, according to Daniel Mendelsohn, who often writes on classical antiquity, there was a “literary rhetoric,” much like the medieval ideal of courtly love, surrounding the relationship between a boy and an older man. “It has to do with an archaic custom for the military training of the aristocracy where you send a young recruit with an older guy out into the hills,” he told me. The smitten man, called the erastes, plies the passive boy student, the eromenos, with gifts and love poetry, until the boy reluctantly surrenders, although he is not expected to find pleasure in the act. Their coupling is a fair trade, and at least partly an initiation into manhood, one that can be continued without shame until the boy begins to grow a beard, at which point he may become an erastes himself. Such affairs weren’t an expected or obligatory part of Greek education, but when they occurred, they were viewed not as furtive transgressions, but as a refined custom that enhanced the relationship between generations.

This is the tradition that the beautiful, highborn Athenian youth Alcibiades ironically invokes near the end of Plato’s Symposium. Alcibiades, bright but wild and notorious for his amorous carryings-on with both genders, is a student and would-be lover of Socrates who arrives boisterously drunk  at a gathering of Socrates and his other pupils. Alcibiades professes to be smitten, “astounded and entranced” by Socrates’s words, but he also warns the other students that Socrates himself only pretends to feel desire in return. “All the beauty a man may have is nothing to him; he despises it,”  the young man warns. Alcibiades’s concerted attempts to seduce the philosopher have come to naught. All Socrates cares to do is talk, and he chides Alcibiades for thinking his own beauty is a coin with which to buy the older man’s wisdom: “You are trying to get genuine in return for reputed beauties.” Their banter is worldly and mocking, leaving no one seriously hurt. The exchange is meant to demonstrate Socrates’s imperviousness to the weaknesses that afflict lesser men, but it also reveals that pedagogical lust did not always come from the erastes; the eromenos, too, could initiate an affair, and attraction could be fueled by brilliance as well as beauty. 

Socrates, according to Alcibiades, had Athens at his feet due to the sheer power of his eloquence, but until the emergence of European universities in the Middle Ages, it would have been absurd to speak of a perilous “power differential” between students and professors. Most teachers were a form of glorified servant, hired to tutor the children of the wealthy. Still, when the pupil was female and the instructor male, danger lurked. What between a man and an almost-man might be viewed as a worldly exchange of knowledge for beauty between equals could only result in rapine and ruination once a woman was involved.

Peter Abelard, a twelfth-century French scholar, fell in love with Héloïse d’Argenteuil, the niece and ward of a Parisian canon, in part because of her reputation for “wit” (intelligence), as well as for her celebrated beauty. He finagled his way into her uncle’s house by agreeing to instruct Héloïse in exchange for lodging. Their love led to her pregnancy and a secret marriage, but Héloïse’s uncle remained angry at Abelard’s betrayal (and perhaps believed he was about to discard her, thereby disgracing their family), so he had a group of thugs break into Abelard’s room and castrate him. Abelard became a monk and urged Héloïse to become a nun. Eventually, each rose to a position of authority in their religious orders, whereupon they commenced their famous correspondence, seven letters in total that are part passionate love missive, part religious instruction, the two threads intimately intertwined.

It is Héloïse’s side of this exchange that makes it immortal: Few medieval documents speak so directly or with such a restless, unbridled spirit. Her letters are also--in the literary tradition, at least--a rare case in which the junior, female partner in such a relationship expresses her passion for her mentor. Héloïse’s uncle, she tells Abelard, believed that he could extinguish her love for her teacher by removing his genitals: “He measured my virtue by the frailty of my sex, and thought it was the man and not the person I loved. But he has been guilty to no purpose. ... If, formerly, my affection for you was not so pure, if in those days both mind and body loved you, I often told you even then that I was more pleased with possessing your heart than with any other happiness, and the man was the thing I least valued in you.”

As women gradually laid claim to higher education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the specter of more Abelards and Héloïses loomed. Women’s colleges with female faculty seemed safe; the possibility of lesbian liaisons there either never occurred to parents and other authority figures or simply wasn’t taken seriously. When a few exceptional women gained admission to male bastions, the occasional extraordinary partnership was formed. Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt met and began an affair in 1924 at the University of Marburg, when she was 18. Married and nearly twice her age, Heidegger had no intention of leaving his wife, which caused Arendt some pain. In their relationship, as in much of his professional life—including his membership in and collaboration with the Nazi Party—Heidegger exhibited an ignominious deference to respectability and a willingness to do whatever it took to advance his own prominence. Furthermore, Richard Wolin’s Heideggers Children suggests the philosopher had many other relationships with his students, including the woman who was his wife when he met Arendt. Was Heidegger’s relationship with her an exercise in exploitation?

Arendt did not appear to think so. She remained devoted to him for much of her life, even after the extent of his involvement with the Nazis became known. Her own thought had been transfigured during her university years by Heidegger’s genius. She wrote in The New York Review of Books of his rejection of “the old opposition of reason versus passion, spirit versus life” and his championing of “the idea of a passionate thinking, in which thinking and aliveness become one.” Arendt was no pushover, and she had ample justification for publicly repudiating her former lover. Yet instead she defended him from the consequences of his own actions during the war. Whether it was the remnants of love or the lingering intoxication of his genius that kept her sweet is a question that biographers and historians continue to debate.

The mid-twentieth-century flood of women into universities of all kinds coincided with a relaxation of sexual mores to create the ideal environment for unscrupulous male professors to exploit. Andrea Dworkin, who attended Bennington in the 1960s, when it was still a women’s college, saw it as “the archetypical brothel”: a place where male faculty members could be spotted sneaking into students’ bedrooms and famous visiting artists and writers were, as a matter of course, “provided with one or more Bennington girls” from which to choose. Dworkin was prone to overstatement, but the college’s reputation was well known. Kathleen Norris, a poet and essayist of around the same age, recalls being introduced at a New York City party as a Bennington undergrad and getting the response, “Oh. The little red whorehouse on the hill.” Norris herself later plunged into an affair with a married professor, finding that it “buoyed me, stimulating me not only sexually but intellectually as well. I was discovering a whole new self.” The man turned out to be a “habitual philanderer” who dumped her as soon as he sighted a fresh target. She was crushed but also relieved, and in a way that is difficult to describe, she felt liberated. Another, more vulnerable young woman might have decided that her whole new self had been built on a lie and fallen into despair.

This view of professor-student affairs—lecherous male professors who survey the latest crop of dewy and compliant coeds like shoppers hovering over a flat of peaches—has been the prevailing one for decades, and not without cause. A cautionary book on the phenomenon called just that, The Lecherous Professor, by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, was published in 1984 and promised its readers a taxonomy  of the species in all its variations and favorite tactics. The product of much pent-up indignation and disgust, it was packed with the testimonials of women who’d been leered at, propositioned, groped, baldly offered better grades in exchange for sex, and raped by boorish men ranging from lowly industrial-design instructors to Nobel laureates. It helped make the sexual harassment of women on campuses  an issue for national talk shows and magazine articles.

The lecherous professor also has his literary counterpart in novels by Philip Roth (his David Kepesh books), Bernard Malamud (A New Life), and Malcolm Bradbury (The History Man, in which husband and wife academics both avail themselves of student lovers) and fictional apotheosis in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, in which a teacher’s opportunistic affair with a student both precipitates his downfall and serves as the emblem of Western civilization’s exploitative attitude toward the rest of the world. Sometimes these books excused, validated, and even glorified the professor’s ardor while admitting the inequalities in their relationships with students. Roth, in particular, has portrayed this sort of man with notable frankness: “They come to my first class, and I know almost immediately which is the girl for me,” Kepesh says. “There is a Mark Twain story in which he runs from a bull, and the bull looks up to him when he’s hiding in a tree, and the bull thinks, ‘You are my meat, sir.’ Well, that ‘sir’ is transformed into ‘young lady’ when I see them in class.” The perspective of the young lady herself is typically absent from this canon. 

There have, however, been dissenters to this view of student-professor affairs, academics who agree that sexual harassment is a problem but believe that attempts to control it have gone too far. Kipnis has a predecessor in Jane Gallop, an academic at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who nearly 20 years ago wrote Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, a book recounting her own hellish season at the center of a similar controversy. While Kipnis argues that student-faculty relationships are not necessarily harmful and can even serve as an emotional education, Gallop went further. She contended that sexual attraction was integral to intellectual development and incorporated that belief in her teaching style. 

In 1992, two female graduate students claimed that a few years earlier Gallop had made sexual advances to them and then penalized them academically when they refused her. She was eventually cleared of the charges of harassment (that is, of discriminating against them for sexual reasons) but was reprimanded for engaging in a “consensual amorous relation” with one of the students. It was a sort of hypercharged flirtation. Physically, the two never went further than a highly theatrical kiss that took place at a crowded lesbian bar during a conference. But even by Gallop’s admission, her relationship with the student was complex, stormy, and rife with innuendo and much-discussed sexual tension. 

Gallop went on to defend the erotic dimension of her interactions with this student and others. “I do not respect the line between the intellectual and the sexual,” she writes in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment. Galvanized by the on-campus women’s movement of the early ’70s, when she was an undergraduate, she wanted her students to experience the same ecstasies that turned her from a passive girl into an “engaged, productive student and a sexually energized, sexually confident woman.” A self-described Freudian at heart, Gallop viewed her method as a form of transference, in which people form emotional, frequently eroticized attachments to authority figures in adulthood that resemble the dynamic they had with important people from their childhood, typically their parents. A skillful psychotherapist can use transference to help a patient cope with her past and forge a better future (and may also need to fend off the patient’s attendant crush). Gallop, who felt empowered as a student after seducing a few of her own professors and members of the committee overseeing her dissertation, believed that her teaching style simultaneously mobilized desire to fuel academic work and trained an insightful theoretical eye on desire itself. 

It helps in understanding the hubris of this to know that Gallop also belonged to a generation of post-structuralist theorists in the humanities who had become celebrities in the academic world. Instead of laboring reverently over the work of long-dead geniuses, theorists turned the tables by crafting impenetrably mandarin writings that revealed the works of past greats to be rife with unexamined, noxious ideologies or simply irrelevant to the world outside the text. Rejecting the role of high priest, theorists were usurpers who aspired to the status of deities. After the decidedly undonnish model of the French philosopher Michel Foucault—who, with his shaved head and fondness for leather bars, was a veritable prototype for the breed—they cultivated dashing, renegade personas and relished talking about anal sex and other risqué subjects when discussing, say, sixteenth-century English poetry. Those who excelled at this showy scholarship became stars and could command plum jobs and phalanxes of acolytes, veritable cults of personality. It was a sweet gig if you could get it, and Gallop got it. She wore outrageous outfits and commanded a devout following. Hiring her was a coup for UWM, where the search for a senior feminist theorist had been protracted. Many UWM students were thrilled to work with her. “It was the most intense pedagogic experience I’ve ever had,” one of Gallop’s doctoral candidates rhapsodized to Lingua Franca, a magazine about academic culture. 

Gallop didn’t actually sleep with any of her UWM students, however. In fact, much of the flirtation between the professor and her graduate student seems to have consisted of long discussions of whether Gallop, who lived with her male partner and their son, was really sexually attracted to other women or was just pretending to be in order to burnish her bad-girl persona. At times, reading the various accounts of the case, it’s not clear whether the complainant was angry because Gallop wanted to have sex with her or because Gallop didn’t. There is more than one way, after all, for a professor to use her students.

History tells us that imposing a moratorium on erotic longing between professors and their students would be as quixotic as trying to forbid campus gossip, but to condone acting on such desires is another matter. At the very least, a liaison between an instructor and one of the students in his or her class constitutes an unfairness—not least to the other students, who can’t hope to receive due attention when competing with a paramour. Plus these things, when they go bad, can lead to an unholy mess. 

Bans on faculty-student relationships amount to an institutional throwing up of the hands when it comes to parsing the difference between an intense pedagogic experience and a manipulative seduction. Better to define any sexual contact at all as categorically predatory than to get tangled up in the mysteries of any individual couple’s story. That doesn’t necessarily mean that university administrators actually believe that students are inevitably the victims of their professors when such affairs happen. Chances are they’re  just trying to save their institutions trouble in the form of protests, angry parents, and lawsuits. 

With the new conduct codes in place, if something goes wrong, if the idea of passionate thinking segues, as it so often does, into less cerebral passions that later sour, the administration will not be called upon to determine just how wolfishly one-sided those desires were. The faculty member will be, a priori, in the wrong: done and dusted. On paper, such policies define students as people incapable of freely deciding to sleep with their professors, or, as Kipnis puts it as “helpless damsels tied to railroad tracks.” But in practice they place the ability to define an encounter or relationship as either consensual or coerced in the student’s hands. Some will choose not to complain about the most flagrant violations of sexual harassment codes. Others will be empowered to demand harsh penalties for wrongs that would strike many of us as misdemeanors.

It is an excess of caution that makes the vulnerabilities of a community’s most fragile members the benchmark for everyone else’s sexual choices, but university administrators are probably not losing any sleep over the chilling effect the new conduct codes will have on their faculties’ love lives. No wonder the professorial classes are up in arms, and not just the sleazy old goats who try to parlay grades into favors. The aphrodisiac qualities of intellectual excitement can’t be regulated away, and the comelier academics I know always seem to be besieged by student suitors, some of whom have great difficulty taking no for an answer. One woman’s ordeal is another’s adventure, a chance to flaunt her ability to beguile the teacher whose lectures leave her spellbound. It’s up to the faculty to see if they can determine which is which. They’re supposed to be the grown-ups, after all.