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.
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.")
Students like to flirt with professors, especially during office hours. It's harmless, insincere, and flattering to those of us who have annual physicals. But when students want attention, I often turn a blind eye. I have a reputation for being a misanthrope when it comes to student social events and sit with a quasi scowl until I excuse myself from the proceedings. I met my last serious challenge at a department dinner for majors, and even though he was interested in me, I was clueless.
He signed up for a seminar I was teaching, and other professors who knew that the student was gay asked what I thought of him. They were all pretty convinced he was the smartest student in the department, and he was awkwardly gay in the most adorable way. I started to warm up, pay attention, and feel some sympathy for him. We began an unspoken ritual where he would show up at my office before class and ask me if I wanted a cup of coffee. We would then walk to the café together, chat about nothing, and then walk to class together. I could tell he was nervous, and I thought that made him even more adorable. We slowly graduated to the occasional lunch, and I thought our conversations were more like mentoring sessions — the sympathetic gay professor coaching the young student in queer matters.
Then one day he sprung it on me: he couldn't go with me and a group of students on an overnight trip because it would just be too difficult; his interests in me were not just academic. I was impressed with how direct and honest he was, and I told him I understood but that nothing could happen between us, and I wasn't interested in him anyway because he was too young and I didn't want to settle down. He took it well, but I sensed it was tough on him. About a month later, he invited me to lunch and asked if I was sure I wasn't interested in having a relationship. It was painful, and my advice to him at the time was to hang out with more gay people; I told him (thinking back to my own experience in the '80s) to experiment and shop around, have more experience before he thought about settling into a relationship.
Nice advice, especially for the 1980s, but graduation came, he became legal, and I was surprised, truly, to realize that one needs to be careful about these things. Love was happening. It is still happening several years later. There is an age difference, to be sure, but no power or authority issues. He seduced me, but now we're partners.
Teachers and students have been falling in love forever. If you're just looking to bed your professor, you might have a good shot, but remember that it could easily get messy and it might also be terrifying for him — unless you want to ruin his career, you need to take your diploma before you take off your clothes. If you're a professor, remember how awkward it will feel when you walk across campus and see that guy (now clothed) with his schoolmates, talking and turning their heads to look at you. A student might be easy and tempting, but he could also develop a very painful crush on you, and you need to be responsible for the collateral damage. The bottom line is this: think, respect each other, don't use stupid clichéd excuses, and don't fuck anyone crazier than you. Oh, and if you're in graduate school, all bets are off.
Professor X is an actual professor.
(c) 2012 by Lindy West, Dan Savage, Christpher Frizzelle, and Bethany Jean Clement. Reprinted from How to Be a Person with permission from Sasquatch Books.