What we talk about when we talk about sex in the academy

by Corey Robin on May 13, 2018

I have a piece in The Chronicle Review about a genre that has annoyed me for some time:

Every few years an essay appears that treats the question of sexual harassment in the academy as an occasion to muse on the murky boundaries of teaching and sex. While a staple of the genre is the self-serving apologia for an older male harasser, the authors are not always old or male. And though some defend sex between students and professors, many do not. These latter writers have something finer, more Greek, in mind. They seek not a congress of bodies but a union of souls. Eros is their muse, knowledge their desire. What the rest of us don’t see — with our roving harassment patrols and simpleminded faith in rules and regulators — is the erotic charge of education, how two particles of mind can be accelerated to something hotter. In our quest to stop the sex, we risk losing the sexiness. Against the discourse of black and white, these writers plea for complexity: not so that professors can sleep with their students but so that we can speak openly and honestly about the ambiguities of teaching, about how the most chaste pedagogy can generate a spark that looks and feels like — maybe is — sexual attraction.

I call this genre The Erotic Professor.

The latest addition is Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran’s “The Erotics of Mentorship,” which recently appeared in the Boston Review. Like many practitioners of the genre, Figlerowicz and Ramachandran are professors of literature. (You’ll never find a professor of chemistry or demography among the authors of such pieces.) Also like many practitioners, they have a high estimation of the academy’s sexiness. “There are perhaps no places more vulnerable to the intertwining of work and romance,” they tell us, “than colleges and universities.” That belief, of course, reflects the happenstance of their being in the academy rather than any empirical comparison of the academy to other workplaces. The office romance is a ubiquitous feature of the culture, after all, its settings as various as a bar (Cheers), a detective agency (Moonlighting), a paper company (The Office), and an insurance firm (The Apartment).

One of the conventions of the genre, in fact, is for the erotic professor to imagine what her students must be feeling by reference to what she once felt, and then to state that feeling as if it were a universal law (“intellectual magnetism, a notoriously protean force, often shades into erotic attraction”), scarcely noticing that when she had that feeling, she was a student on her way to becoming a professor. What about the student on her way to becoming an HR rep? Or an accountant?

The question never arises because the real shadow talk of the erotic professor is not sex but class.

You can read more here.




Paul M Gottlieb 05.14.18 at 12:50 am

You may not find professors of Chemistry or Demography writing nonsense about the erotics of mentorship, but you will find some of them sexually harassing their female students


J-D 05.14.18 at 1:16 am

What the rest of us don’t see — with our roving harassment patrols …

Of the following two possibilities, which seems less unlikely?

1. There really are roving harassment patrols. Somewhere.

2. There really are obtuse whiners trying dishonestly to bolster their complaints with grotesque exaggerations.


faustusnotes 05.14.18 at 1:29 am

This guff about how the intellectually charged relationship between supervisor and student is also sexually charged conveniently misses the role of intention in the relationship. It’s not sexually charged, but when an older and more powerful professor chooses to, they can sometimes make it so by manipulating the much younger, much less powerful student. It’s a deliberate choice to tip the intellectual intensity over into physical intensity, and all these erotic professor articles carefully miss that.

Or in other words, none of this would be an issue if the professor would just keep his dick in his pants.


Kiwanda 05.14.18 at 2:18 am

A couple more entries in the neighborhood of the genre: Alice Dreger thinks there may be something there beyond easy answers, and the Title IX inquisitions started against Laura Kipnis with this.


casmilus 05.14.18 at 8:11 am

It’s time to talk about the obvious solution: all male academics should become eunuchs as a condition of tenure.


anonymousse 05.14.18 at 12:06 pm

“It’s time to talk about the obvious solution: all male academics should become eunuchs as a condition of tenure.”
I thought that happened in 1970 or so.


bianca steele 05.14.18 at 4:04 pm

That’s an interesting take on it.

One of the things I found interesting about Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” (this is going to sound like a digression, bear with me, there’s no room in the comment box for a research-focused introduction) is the idea that there are colleges and there are colleges, and we (poor souls) may think we went to college, but we didn’t really go to college. There’s always something to allow the insinuation to be thrown. I may have gone to an Ivy but do I actually believe I’m the kind of person they really cared about educating? Did I take full advantage of my mere proximity to intellectual greatness by forming “relationships” with the faculty? No, there must have been a deeper magic that I was unaware of, that was shielded from the view of those not worthy of it. This idea that education is erotics plays right into that.


Ray Vinmad 05.14.18 at 4:55 pm

Just a reminder that one of the most egregious sexual harassers in recent memory was astronomer Geoff Marcy.


Suzanne 05.16.18 at 12:23 am

@4: Thanks. Every once in awhile you come across a sentence, like Dreger’s “But I remember, by contrast, the moment I wanted to hastily undress the man I ultimately married, namely when it became clear he could reliably find the verb in a sentence by Judith Butler,” that reminds you of why that hoary old rule against splitting infinitives came into being in the first place.

I have never had any trouble figuring out when I am not having sexual pleasure, speaking for myself only, of course. If Dreger can’t meet any smart people outside the academy, she needs to get out for more than hummus. If she likes boasting about the “dumb guys” she has “bedded”….well, I’ll stop there. Catherine MacKinnon has been addressing some of the other issues Dreger raises for many, many years now:


(It’s not that Dreger doesn’t make a good point or two. I just found her overall tone so annoying that it was hard to get past it.)


floopmeister 05.16.18 at 6:15 am

I think Robin’s argument that this is all about class is persuasive – and I would offer as evidence my deeply unscientific and woefully unsupported observation that the trope of ‘sexual relationship between a professor and student’ in porn (whether soft or otherwise) is deeply bound up with the notion of power differentials and the dom-sub dichotomy.

We all all seen this trope in action:


The power differential is the basis for the sexual tension, I would argue.

Just an observation – certainly not supported by any personal research into the matter… :)


LFC 05.16.18 at 12:07 pm

I doubt that many current undergrads are following this debate/discussion, but it would be unfortunate, IMO, if any were to infer from it that they should not try to find mentors if they are inclined to, or engage w their teachers in any way beyond the classroom, say by going to office hours.

I did not do enough of that when I was in college (Harvard, late 1970s). Although I found Harvard’s mechanisms for advising and mentoring to be weak (at best), there is one person whom I primarily blame for my failure to take (if I may adapt bianca’s phrase) full advantage of my proximity to a world-class faculty. That person is me.

To be clear, I’m not talking about “erotics” here, just about intellectual exchange outside the classroom.


bianca steele 05.16.18 at 5:01 pm


I think you’ve missed the point. Unless you’re saying that if someone used as a debating tactic “you may have gone to Harvard but I bet you didn’t have an erotic relationship with a professor there, so I don’t have to take what you say seriously,” you’d admit defeat, leave the discussion, and go home and think about the errors of your 20yo self’s ways.


LFC 05.16.18 at 6:21 pm


I think you’ve missed the point of my comment, which was not intended as a response to yours (though I did adapt/adopt one of your phrases).

Rather than try to clarify or restate, I think I’ll just leave it there — especially since I don’t have anything directly at stake in this discussion, as I’m neither a professor nor a student.


LFC 05.16.18 at 7:55 pm

p.s. A little story, cribbed from Ronald Steel’s 1980 book Walter Lippmann and the American Century. (I’m doing this from memory, so don’t quote every little detail please, but the rough outline is as follows.)

As a Harvard freshman, Lippmann (class of 1910) wrote an article for a student publication (I don’t remember which one) that rather brashly criticized a particular professor’s notions about something or other. William James, a living legend on the Harvard faculty, happened to read the article, liked it, and proceeded to pay a call on the young author. He knocked, with no prior announcement, on the door of Lippmann’s dorm rooms one day; Lippmann answered and James proceeded to introduce himself (as if he needed any introduction) and said that he had read Lippmann’s article and wanted to congratulate him on it in person. Recovering quickly from his shock, Lippmann suggested they walk around the Yard, which they did. Thereafter Lippmann had tea fairly regularly with James at his house, where they discussed politics, philosophy, etc.

Was this erotic? No, except possibly in the most diffuse and/or sublimated sense imaginable (which is not, btw, the standard dictionary definition of “erotic”), and even then I think we really have no way of knowing. Was it about class? Well, in one way, probably: Lippmann was from an upper-class New York German-Jewish family (and had gone to a small private school), and he might well not have had the social confidence and skill or presence of mind to capitalize so adroitly on James appearing at his door had he come from a different background. Could this happen today? Of course not. For one thing, no professor in her or his right mind would ever knock, unannounced or otherwise, on a student’s door, and there are very good reasons why that’s the case. (Indeed, would a professor these days agree to meet a student for a cup of coffee somewhere if a student asked? I tend to doubt it. There are just too many potential downsides. The sensible answer would be: “Sorry, I can’t do that, but you can stop by my office hours and we can discuss [whatever the topic or question] then.”)


LFC 05.16.18 at 8:19 pm

p.p.s. Talking about undergrads in last graph above. Grad students wd be a different case, I think. Actually, as an undergrad I ate meals now and then w a junior faculty member whom I was friends with, but never just the two of us alone — i.e., always in a big dining room w tons of people around. And that was atypical — the vast majority of faculty of whatever rank didn’t have the time or inclination to hang out w students that much, unless it was actually part of their job (which for a v. small number of them it was, because they were resident tutors, in the local jargon, or something similar).


John Quiggin 05.16.18 at 11:27 pm

As background, Australia had a huge (for Australia) scandal in the 1950s around a professor of philosophy accused of a sexual relationship with an undergraduate student. He denied it, and found lots of defenders, aided by the fact that he had previously been in conflict (and mostly in the right) with the university authorities over governance issues. In retrospect, though, it’s pretty clear that the allegations against him were well-founded.


Back then, the prohibition was based on the position of universities in loco parentis rather than on power differentials. There was a brief interval in between the two when there were no clear rules.


Matt 05.17.18 at 12:35 am

Indeed, would a professor these days agree to meet a student for a cup of coffee somewhere if a student asked? I tend to doubt it.

I’m less sure. When I was teaching in the Legal Studies department at Wharton for a few years recently, I had a number of students ask if we could meet for coffee or lunch. (This was outside the “take your professor to lunch” program that Wharton has.) Usually this was after the semester, and at least half of them were male, but I had no problem at all meeting at places near or on campus where lots of other students and the like eat. I’d hate to think such things were not acceptable.


F. Foundling 05.17.18 at 12:53 am

There is a lot of truth in the OP’s article: in the end of the day, a lot of this stuff is connected to power differentials and social climbing, in particular the identification, recognition and special treatment of ‘the chosen ones’ destined to become part of the elite, and that is what makes it distasteful and harmful from an egalitarian point of view. It inevitably begins to acquire the old Cinderella~Twilight type of dynamics. And it’s important to point out that this applies not only to romance and sex between teachers and students, but also to friendships, fraternisation, having coffee together, ‘long sincere conversations about life’, etc. All of this must be strictly avoided; hierarchically organised work and love~sex~friendship fatally pollute each other, they lead to repugnantly unjust phenomena such as special treatment, favouritism, patronage, advantage-taking, manipulation, toadyism and sometimes coercion. Therefore, the two must be kept apart as far as possible (fantasies and roleplaying being nobody’s business, of course).

There are also things that I would object to. Some part of that erotic tension really is inevitable, because, in the end of the day, a person is inevitably impressed by the admirable people that s/he meets – and for many, such admiration does tend to have not only a strong emotional aspect, but also a vague erotic dimension. And the following holds true of such admiration and emotional attitude, regardless of whether an erotic element is present in it or not: 1. on the part of the teacher, such admiration and emotional attitude are *inevitably* distributed unequally between students, since some of them impress more than others; 2. on the part of the teacher, this sort of admiration and emotional attitude *can* be distributed between many students; 3. on the part of the students, this sort of admiration and emotional attitude do *not* arise exclusively in those who expect to have an academic career; 4. on the part of the students, this sort of admiration and emotional attitude do *not* arise exclusively in a clean, prestigeous, well-financed and maintained teaching environment. These four points correspond to my personal experience (of my own emotional life) as a student and as a teacher; and in both roles, I have always done my utmost to avoid the things mentioned in the first paragraph, which I consider to be as infuriating, outrageous, revolting, disgusting and evil as anything in this sphere can be.


LFC 05.17.18 at 1:35 am

Matt @17
Thanks for the perspective. I agree with you re acceptability.


J-D 05.17.18 at 3:21 am

John Quiggin
I don’t think it’s just retrospect; I think even at the time people could judge that the allegations were well-founded. I remember my late father making a passing reference (many years later; at the time of the case I wasn’t even born) to contemporary discussion of the case at the staff association committee (of which he was a member; this was a different Australian university from Orr’s). It was pretty clear to his mind that Orr’s defenders were comfortable with defending a professor who’d had an affair with a student but not comfortable with acknowledging that they were defending a professor who’d had an affair with a student. I think their view was that the university authorities also didn’t think there was anything wrong with it and were just using the opportunity to get back at Orr for other reasons (which, of course, may have been true; but even if the university authorities and everybody else agreed that there was nothing wrong with the affair, that doesn’t make that the right conclusion).


J-D 05.17.18 at 4:27 am

Yet even with such literary and philosophical bona fides, acknowledging the erotic force of pedagogical situations remains difficult, perhaps never more so than in the present-day U.S. university, whose governance is shaped by corporatized risk management and simplistic codes of conduct.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran, and it does occur to me, that an acknowledgment of the erotic force of pedagogical situations is part of the justification for the codes of conduct they deride as ‘simplistic’; more plainly, the knowledge that sometimes teachers and students want to have sex with each other is part of the reason for having rules against teachers having sex with students.

The question should not be how to exorcize even the hint of erotic ambiguity from the academic workplace, but rather how to allow our classrooms to remain safe spaces amid such ambiguities; how to support a student’s as yet fluid, and often unselfconscious, identifications and projections without causing these explorations to be manipulated and exploited, or shamed. In order to do so, we need to recognize and condemn sexual harassment in an academic context—and also to acknowledge that, even at our most metaphysical, both we and our students are embodied beings.

And again, clear simple rules against sexual interaction between teachers and students are being misrepresented as an attempt to exorcise even the hint of sexual ambiguity; they are, rather, exactly what’s ostensibly being asked for, a means to allow classrooms to remain safe spaces amid such ambiguities. They don’t require anybody to change how they think or how they feel, they only require restraint in action, which is just as it should be.


maidhc 05.17.18 at 7:27 am

My university started a “Have Coffee with a Professor” program, but our faculty union legal advisors strongly warned against participating in it.


that_guy 05.17.18 at 9:49 am

these responses are in many instances gross.

the fact of the matter is the ‘erotic professor; ie rapist assaulter etc. has no life outside the academy. the ‘erotic professor’ cannot exist without the threat of grades etc.

the article in question sounds like the NXIVM rape cult.

the fact of the matter is the article in question doesnt discuss ‘sex’. its propaganda for sexually harassing and assaulting people in what should be an intellectual relationship.

these professors are rapists, plain and clear. they cant get laid outside of threatening grades (or the shadow of threatening grades) floating over the situation. the defense of rape as ‘sex’ for professors is exactly what enables professors to push the limits on behavior- ie, stalking, threats, and- in this case- rape propaganda from higher education.

the people in the article sound liek weistein and friends. not like kama sutra profesors.


Corey Robin 05.17.18 at 1:19 pm

LFC, your take on the story about Walter Lippmann and William James illustrates my point.

When you think about the role of social class in that story, you think not about the setting or the institution—how the culture overall is infused by strong class assumptions—but about Lippmann’s personal background. And when you think about why it couldn’t happen today, you think of the rules and norms around professor/student relations. That reflects the view from, well, Harvard.

But the real reason the type of interaction you’re describing would never happen at many college campuses today, like Brooklyn College, is that we’re commuter schools. (According to a 1998 DOE study, 86% of all college students in the US are commuter students.) There aren’t college dorms that a professor can just show up to and knock on a door (Brooklyn College recently built one but it’s mostly for international students and there are very few rooms, relative to the size of the student body). I’m not about to get on the subway, ride out to Marine Park, and knock on a student’s family’s door (which is what I would be doing to track down our students, since almost all of them live with their families of origin.)

And as for student publications that I as a professor would read, there are some but they come out very infrequently and most students don’t partake of them for the reasons I set out in my article.

I bring all this up because it points to the problem with so much of these discussions: you went to Harvard and are recollecting that experience; someone else upthread mentions Wharton. The invisibility of how many colleges actually operate, how the material factors actually work in practice, to the people who conduct these conversations, is overwhelming.

I have no problem with people talking about their personal experiences, but when the conversation then shifts, as it does in your statement about Lippmann, to an exploration of the larger issues, I’m struck by how much the conversation is saddled with these invisible assumptions of how things work, almost all of which come from a very privileged perspective.


Matt 05.17.18 at 1:58 pm

someone else upthread mentions Wharton. The invisibility of how many colleges actually operate, how the material factors actually work in practice, to the people who conduct these conversations, is overwhelming.

Well, I was the one who mentioned Wharton (where I taught for a while), but I was a student at a school every bit as much (or more) a commuter school at Brooklyn (Boise State), and one where, relative to most colleges and universities, the student’s can’t be called “privileged”. That said, we had lunch or drinks with professors fairly regularly, went to their houses, invited them to our parties, and so on. Once, when what had started as an “independent study” grew to have four members, my roommate and I convinced the professor to let us host it at our apartment off campus. This was a few years (well, more really) ago, but I worry, Corey, that you might be over-generalizing your experience as well here.


LFC 05.17.18 at 2:18 pm

I take your points.
My graduate education was at less “elite” schools than Harvard, and I’ve also taught, albeit v. briefly and about a decade ago, at a community college where the students were almost all commuters. That said, I think I probably have to plead guilty to your main point about assumptions.


engels 05.17.18 at 5:33 pm

friendships, fraternisation, having coffee together, ‘long sincere conversations about life’, etc. All of this must be strictly avoided; hierarchically organised work and love~sex~friendship fatally pollute each other

#GalaxyBrain maybe the problem is the hierarchical organisation and not the friendship?


LFC 05.17.18 at 5:43 pm

In the interest of clarity, please ignore or mentally strike the word “also” in my comment @25.

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