How to Sleep With Your Professor

No time for love, Dr. Jones.

by Professor X

Early in my teaching career, I found a note slipped under my office door: "You're the sexiest professor on campus and if you can figure out who I am then you can have me." The note was more confusing than thrilling, especially since it was from a woman and I'm gay. Actually, I was a little threatened by the note — even as a misidentified object of desire. Universities have gotten more puritan and corporate in the past twenty years, and I had just watched a dean get dragged through the spectacle of publicly defending himself against charges of mishandling sexual harassment complaints. He was finally forced to resign.

I pondered the note for a day before I took it to the chair of the department. He quickly read it, then with a slow grin reached into a desk drawer and pulled out one of those clunky metal stamping machines that records the date and stamped the note "Received." He knew I was gay, and his crazy, Kafkaesque gesture was a good joke that made me relax.

Never, never, never sleep with anyone crazier than you.

Universities have changed a lot, but there are still premodern aspects, like the classroom autonomy professors often enjoy and sometimes abuse. Deans can say what they want and have certain weapons in their arsenal, but a tenured professor usually has a remarkable degree of freedom in the classroom. The best professors care about what they are teaching and do give a damn whether or not students learn. The best teachers have an unschooled and unteachable talent to persuade and lead students toward one truth or another. Teaching is a form of seduction. At the same time, universities and colleges just happen to be hotbeds of sexual exploration and discovery for young men and women recently released from parental supervision. Bedding a professor is high on the student trophy list. Students are young, smooth, lean, and sometimes availablea high temptation for some colleagues. It can get messy.

Crazy rumors circulated for years, with sorority girls claiming to have slept with me or definitively knowing a girl who had. When I started getting unsolicited invitations and anonymous notes from young men, I was less amused. If colleagues heard that I was rumored to be fooling around with a young woman, they wouldn't take it seriously, but an athletic, handsome, creative, and sexy man — that's another story. I remember discussing one particularly persistent brilliant and sexy male student with a doctor friend, who told me that physicians often negotiate a similar blurred zone of attraction, authority, and ethics. He had one simple principle: "Never, never, never sleep with anyone crazier than you."

The student in question wasn't clinically crazy, but he was in one of those frenzies that Alcibiades describes in Plato's Symposium. He was brilliant, in love with somebody he thought was smarter than he was, and eager to get into bed with him. He was a little crazed. It would have been easy for me to sleep with him, but probably stupid: he was unpredictable and dramatic. Over the course of a semester, I negotiated my escape from his advances. He finally graduated and moved to Manhattan, where he became a painter and gay activist. (I ran into him one day near the New York Public Library; we had a nice exchange, and he encouraged me to "get back in touch.")

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