M y first year teaching, a student asked me for a private meeting after class one day. He looked perplexed and over-caffeinated, like he was gearing up to tell me I was the worst teacher he’d ever had and he’d asked the registrar for a full refund, and they’d said yes. We marched to the TA offices and sat in my cubicle, where he proceeded to ask me out. Yes, on a date. “I know you’ll probably say no,” he added. “At least this way I can feel less nervous around you.” Of course, I shook my head in a polite way, and he left. The guy actually wound up making an A. Overall, good student.
Let’s call this guy Mark. Despite the abundance of sexy teachers on TV shows, he’d never actually encountered one before and didn’t know what the hell to do. If you’ve come here looking for a serious essay on sexuality and higher education, by the way, I apologize. I don’t do serious most of the time. I’m here to make people laugh about weird situations. So sex in higher education qualifies: Sexy teachers have reached academia. Or maybe they’ve always been there, hiding, waiting for the chance to reveal themselves. (Not reveal like that, you pervs.)
Sexuality shows up at odd times in academic culture. We don’t mind reading dense theoretical treatises on sex, or talking about sexual identity. We love bringing controversial figures to campus — erotica authors, porn stars, and even exotic dancers. But all that intrigue and intellectual curiosity might vanish when a professor comes out as a porn star. I remember one of our MFA students started making some money on the side by hosting a web cam and other unsavory activities. Her dissertation director brought her in for a serious meeting and told her to stop. “You’ll never be taken seriously if you keep doing this and someone finds out.”
We joked later that night over drinks. I asked, “How did he even find out?”
It was an excellent question.
Apparently the dissertation director had been up to some unsavory activities of his own, maybe?
That professor was probably right. You don’t want a search committee to find nudes of you online. But that story does make us sound like a bunch of fucking hypocrites, doesn’t it?
When it comes to real life, professors don’t handle sex very well. In fact, a lot of us act like total prudes. We don’t like to talk about sex or sexuality outside the classroom. We look at coworkers funny when they make references to their own sexual identity, if they can’t tie it directly to Foucault.
Maybe we’re scared, and for good reason. You’re only allowed to talk about sex in America in certain ways, according to certain rules, under certain circumstances. Transgressing these unstated rules can land you in big trouble. We see that all the time.
There’s no shortage of professors who’ve been fired for actual sex crimes. We don’t have a great reputation in the media, which loves scandalous stories about professors caught in bad situations. Of course, these people deserve punishment when they engage in sexual harassment, assault, or kitty porn. The downside is that these assholes make the rest of us look pretty bad, and it also results in us avoiding any behavior that might feed a public perception of us that already doesn’t look so great.
Within the walls of academia, you’re best off looking and acting like a robot. There’s a reason why women don’t talk about shit like makeup, fashion, or other “feminine” topics anywhere near campus. That’s the fastest way to kill your career.
Once, a woman applied lip gloss during a faculty meeting. At the year, the department chair “declined” her reappointment.
I’m just kidding.
Or am I?
Some universities have even tried to pass “civil conduct” policies that prohibit crying, sighing, or eye-rolling during department meetings. Doing so can result in censure and disciplinary action. (Like, they can cite your emotional demeanor during meetings as a reason to deny tenure.)
University officials sometimes have a very poor sense of humor. Professors get fired for jokes sometimes. Fortunately, mine’s surprisingly cool about free speech. Still, a prevailing attitude exists that dates back to 19th century stereotypes about academics. They’re supposed to be tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking, cynical old leather bags who don’t care about the larger world. They’re supposed to me apolitical, areligious, amoral.
Online discussion forums for faculty are even worse. If you want a real snapshot of what a lot of professors actually think about sexual politics, pay a visit to The Chronicle’s discussion forums. Some of them take great pleasure in ridiculing people for daring to broach a taboo subject with a bit of casual humor. Sometimes it’s fun to watch, but not always.
I’m not suggesting we break down every code of professional conduct. Some things you just shouldn’t wear to work, and some conversations should stay at the bar. No work place can operate like a brothel or a strip club — unless you’re employed by one, in which case that’s your work place. But those workplaces aren’t conducive to reading articles about linguistics. Believe me, I’ve tried at least once.
The attitude toward sex and humor is one reason why I decided to start a blog. I’m hoping to show more and more people that professors can be funny, sarcastic, normal, sexy, and everything else without crossing a line or acting unprofessional. We have physical bodies. We have real lives. We go on dates. We go shopping at Victoria’s Secret sometimes, or Target’s lingerie section when we’re strapped.