Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Feminist bell hooks on erotic student/faculty relationships

Following are key excerpts from an article by feminist author Bell Hooks, “Passionate Pedagogy; erotic student/faculty relationships,” Z MAGAZINE, March 1996, 45-51. This is one of the best articles written on this subject and I urge readers to savor and critically scrutinize this article.

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When I became a professor I was amazed at the extent to which students, male and female, approached me for romantic and/or sexual encounters. Like many unattached female professors in the academy, I was constantly the subject of student gossip. Often the students I loved the most did the most talking. When I complained to them about their obsession with my sex life, they simply responded by telling me to get a grip and accept that it goes with the turf. They wanted to understand female sexual agency. They wanted to know how women professors are coping with working in patriarchal institutions, and how we were juggling issues of sexual desirability, agency, and careerism. They saw us as charting the path they will follow. Many of these students were more than hip to the dangers of getting involved with someone older and more powerful.

Contemporary feminist movement has usefully interrogated the way men in power within patriarchal culture often use that power to abuse and sexually coerce females. That necessary critical intervention is undermined when it obscures recognition of the way in which desire can be acknowledged in relationships between individuals where there is unequal power without being abusive. It is undermined when any individual who is in a less powerful position is represented as being absolutely without choice, as having no agency to act on their own behalf. As long as young females are socialized to see themselves as incapable of choosing those situations of erotic engagement which would be most constructive for their lives, they will always be more vulnerable to victimization. This does not mean that they will not make mistakes, as countless female students did when they chose to have disappointing nonproductive romantic liaisons with professors. Everyone I interviewed for this piece had no regret about these liaisons. We all knew they did not have to be negative. The point is that we were not embracing a psychology of female victimization that would have been utterly disempowering. There is clearly a connection between submitting to abuse and the extent to which any of us already feel that we are destined to be victimized.

The vast majority of women who are heterosexual in this society are likely to be in intimate relations with men at some point in their lives who have greater status and power, however relative, given the nature of capitalism and patriarchy. Clearly, it is more important to learn ways to be “just” in situations where there is a power imbalance, rather than to
assume that exploitation and abuse are the “natural” outcome of all such encounters. Notice how such logic fixes those in power in ways that deny their accountability and choice by assuming that they act on behalf of their interests exclusively. And that their interests will always be antithetical to the interests of those who are less powerful.

Contemporary focus on victimization tends to leave very little cultural space for recognition of the erotic as a space of transgression that can undermine politics of domination. Rather than perceiving desire between faculty and students as always dangerous, negative and destructive, what does it mean for us to consider the positive uses of that desire, the way the erotic can serve to enhance self-actualization and growth. We hear much more about the way in which individuals have abused power in faculty/students relations where there is erotic engagement. We rarely hear anything about the ways erotic desire between teacher and student enhances individual growth. We do not hear about the affectionate bonds that spring from erotic encounters which challenge conventional notions of what is appropriate behavior.

Most professors, even the ones who are guilty, would acknowledge that it is highly problematic and usually unproductive to be romantically involved with students you are directly working with, either in the classroom or on a more individual basis. Yet, prohibitions, rules and regulations, will not keep these relationships from happening. The place of vigilance is not in forbidding such encounters but having a system that effectively prevents harassment and abuse. At every college campus in this country there are individual male professors who repeatedly harass and coerce students to engage in sexual relations. For the most part, even when there have been ongoing complaints, college administrators have not confronted these individuals or used the already institutionalized procedures governing harassment to compel them to stop abusive behavior. Even though everyone seems to be quite capable of recognizing the difference between those professors who abuse their power and those who may have a romantic relationship with a student that is consensual, by imposing rules and regulations that would effect all faculty and students they deny this difference. Some folks want to argue there is no difference that the student is always more vulnerable. It is true that relationships where there are serious power  imbalances  can be  a  breeding ground for victimization. They can begin with mutual consent yet this does not ensure that they may not become conflictual in ways that lead  the more powerful party to become coercive or abusive. This is true in all relationships in life.  Power must be negotiated.   Part  of maturing is learning how to cope with conflict. Many of the cases where students cite serious exploitation on the part of  professors involve graduate students and professors. It is difficult to believe that any graduate student is not fully aware of the risks when they become erotically involved with a professor who has some control over their career.  Concurrently,  sexism and misogyny have to be seen as factors at   work, when individual powerful male professors direct their attention at exceptionally smart female graduate students who  could easily become their competitors.  If campuses really want to effectively address the problems of abuse in faculty-student relations then we should be socializing undergraduates to be realistic about the problems that can arise in such encounters.

The Time magazine story on romantic relations between students and faculty begins with this confession: “During the three months in 1993 when she was sleeping with her English professor, Lisa Topol lost 18 pounds. She lost interest in her classes at the University of Pennsylvania, lost her reputation as an honor student and wondered if she was losing her mind. If she tried to break up, she thought, he could ruin her academic career. Then she made some phone calls and learned a bit more about the professor she had come to view as a predator.” If one took out the words academic and professor this would read like the troubled narrative of anyone involved with someone on the job who is their supervisor. The problem with this story is not that it does not tell the truth but rather that it tells a partial truth. We have no idea why Lisa Topol entered this relationship. We do not know if it was consensual. We do not know how or why the male involved became abusive. We do know that he did not become abusive simply because he was her professor. The problem here does not lie with faculty-student relations but with this individual male, and the large numbers of men like him who prey upon females.  The cultural context that condones this abuse is patriarchy and male domination. Yet most men and women in the academy, like society as a whole, are not engaged in activism that would target patriarchy. There are many faculty-student romances that end in friendship, some that lead to marriage and/or partnership. The professors in these relationships are able to conduct themselves in a way that is not exploitative despite the imbalance of power. There are many more male professors involved with students who are not abusive than those that are.

Realistically, our pedagogy is failing both inside and outside the classroom if students have no awareness of their agency when it comes to choosing a relationship of intimacy with a faculty member. Some folks oppose faculty/student erotic bonding because they say it creates a climate of favoritism that can be deeply disruptive. In actuality, any intimate bonding between a professor and a student is a potential context for favoritism, whether or not that intimacy is erotic. Favoritism often surfaces in the classroom and has nothing to do with desire. For example: Most professors are especially partial to students that do assigned work with rigor and intellectual enthusiasm. This is as much a context for favoritism but no one is seeking to either eliminate, question, or police it. Young females and males entering college are in the process of claiming and asserting adult status. Sexuality is as much a site where that evolution and maturation is registered as is the classroom.

A college environment should strengthen a student’s ability to make responsible mature decisions and choices. Those faculty members who become involved in romantic relationships with a student (whether they initiated it or responded to an overture by the student) who are not exploitative or dominating will nurture this maturation process. In my teaching career I have had a relationship with one student. Although he was a student in my class, I did not approach him during the time that he studied with me because I did not want to bring that dynamic into the classroom or into my evaluation of his work. He was not an exceptional student in my class. When the course ended, we became intimate. From the start we had conflicts about power. The relationship did not work yet we became friends. Recently, I shared with him that I was writing this piece. I wanted to know if he thought I had taken advantage of him. He reminded me of how shocked he was that I desired him because he primarily thought of me as this teacher that he admired and looked up to. He shared his perspective: “I did not feel in any way coerced. I found it intriguing that I would be able to talk to you one on one about issues raised in the class. I was happy to have a chance to get to know you better because I knew you were this smart and gifted professor. We all thought you were special. I was young and inexperienced and even though it was exciting that you desired me, it was also frightening.” Our romance failed. We had our share of miserable conflictual moments. Our friendship has deepened over the years and is grounded in respect and care.

Student devotion to a teacher can easily be a context where erotic longings emerge. Passionate pedagogy in any setting is likely to spark erotic energy. It cannot be policed or outlawed. This erotic energy can be used in constructive ways both in individual relationships and in the classroom setting. Just as it is important that we be vigilant in challenging abuses of power wherein the erotic becomes a terrain of exploitation, it is equally important to recognize that space where erotic interaction is enabling and positively transforming. Desire in the context of relations where hierarchy and unequal power separate individuals is always potentially disruptive and simultaneously potentially transformative. Desire can be a democratic equalizing force—the fierce reminder of the limitations of hierarchy and status—as much as it can be a context for abuse and exploitation. The erotic is always present, always with us. When we deny that erotic feelings will emerge between teachers and students, this denial precludes the recognition of accountability and responsibility. The implications of entering intimate relations where there is an imbalance of power cannot be understood, or those relations handled with care in a cultural context where desire that disrupts is seen as so taboo that it cannot be spoken, acknowledged, and addressed. Banning relations between faculty and students would create a climate of silence and taboo that would only intensify dynamics of coercion and exploitation. The moment power differences are articulated in a dialogue where erotic desire surfaces, a space is created where choice is possible, where accountability can be clearly assessed.

June 1, 2008 - Posted by | consensual relationships, ethics, feminism, fraternization, higher education, passion, secrecy, sex, sexual harassment, sexual politics, student professor dating, Uncategorized, victimization

6 Comments »

  1. [...] article I read at the Dankprofessor’s Blog in which he cited an incredibly provocative essay by feminist bell hooks on erotic student/faculty [...]

    Pingback by Passionate Pedagogy « On Purpose | October 2, 2008 | Reply

  2. But for the fact that so many other of bell hooks’ ideological stances (principally on race and gender) are so inexcusably short-sighted…

    Comment by e jerry powell | November 23, 2008 | Reply

  3. It is so refreshing to see a feminist who has an open minded view on the subject. If we demonize all men, and infantilize all women, where a difference of power & status exists, consider this. Nearly all heterosexual relationships are “exploitive”, as most men are physically stronger than most women! See how far the paranoid feminists can carry this? I’m somewhat surprised that they haven’t done so already!

    Comment by Donald Visconti | August 15, 2009 | Reply

  4. What a great post. The sexually charged dynamic between teacher and student (of both sexes, as we hear so frequently in the news) is both understandable and, as you say, impossible to “police or outlaw.” It is no different from other relationships where there is an imbalance in power, age, maturity, experience – all of which can be exceptionally alluring to both parties.

    Comment by Jamie London | October 28, 2009 | Reply

  5. Here’s an experiment for you, or at least a thought-experiment. On the same day, bring 5 copies of this essay to five campus feminist clubs, with the correct author and her photo at the top. This could be done by five cooperativing professors. On the same evening, another five cooperating professors bring a copy of this same essay with a false male name at the top and a white male (and not too “attractive”) photo at the top. Have the members of the club (including any male members) vote on whether they 1) agree with 2) disagree with 3) are not sure about.

    Compare the average percent voting 1) or 3) for the average of the first five, with the average percent voting either 1) or 3) in the second five groups.

    This comparison might not tell us much about the merits of hooks’ essay, but it may reveal much to us in other ways.

    (postscript- Some of the following may be come as a surprise to some- that I admire bell hooks yet do not entirely agree with her essay)

    Comment by pav | January 8, 2010 | Reply

  6. I do trust all of the ideas you’ve introduced in your post. They are really convincing and can definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are too brief for newbies. Could you please lengthen them a little from next time? Thank you for the post.

    Comment by Jorge | June 8, 2013 | Reply


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