Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Burning desire in the classroom

The dankprofessor now feels that he may have been just a bit too hard  on William Deresiewicz (aka Cockmaster D while he was a professor at Yale) in my last post on his “Love on Campus” essay. 

Deresiewicz  is one of the very few academics who has directly opposed what has become a campus “truth” which is that female students never initiate anything sexual with a professor.  Almost all campus fraternization policies say that such is the case.  Female students are never seen as having any agency in this area.  Female students are not seen as being attracted to male profs.

Deresiewicz puts it in in these terms:

Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction…

I think that Deresiewicz has it right in terms of professors igniting students, at least some of the students some of the time. Of course, there are many profs who never ignite students.  I surmise that it is the non-igniting professors who are the profs who are likely to become involved in sexual harassment charges; their advances are hardly ever welcomed by students.  On the other hand, the fully engaged and engaging professors are the ones likely to become involved in consensual sexual relationships with students since they are dealing with students who are ignited as a byproduct of their involvement in the class.  Or to put it in what may be overly simplified terms, professors who love teaching their subject are likely to become the subject of student love.  Of course, in the end Deresiewicz cops out- the students are mistaken, their “earthquake” has nothing to do with sexual attraction;
professors should help these jolted students avoid the excesses of campus love.

What Deresiewicz also fails to understand is that what he calls an earthquake experience is not unique to female students on campus.  In traditional terms, such is called being swept away.  The swept away feeling although applicable to both men and women, tends to be viewed as more often sought and experienced by women.  It is also used as a rationale for having sex-
“he just swept me off my feet”- although the swept away feeling may be less often invoked for sex in todays hookup and binge drinking campus culture.

Now someone who understands the swept away experience is unlikely to state to the swept away, as Deresiewicz states, that ‘you are mistaken, you are not really attracted to the prof, you are just experiencing brain sex.’  The dankprofessor response to Deresiewicz and others giving this sort of counsel to the swept way is that the professor counselors know little or nothing about love and romance and sex in the real world.  The fact that they often attempt to enforce their sexual biases as formal campus rules for sexual behavior is otherworldly.  What we pedestrian students and professors are often left with are campus administrators who suffer from both puffery and buffoonery in their everyday campus sexual rule making and enforcing.

May 12, 2009 - Posted by | attractive professors, brain sex, consensual relationships, ethics, fraternization, higher education, love, passion, sex, sexual harassment, sexual politics, student professor dating, Yale University


  1. I thought that was an interesting article, too. At least it doesn’t reduce everything to lecherous older male professor vs. shrinking victimized younger female student.

    “Female students are never seen as having any agency in this area. Female students are not seen as being attracted to male profs.”

    Excuse me while I laugh hysterically for a minute. That isn’t what I’ve heard. Female students make a lot of first moves, probably most of them; those moves are often much more overt than they might be in ordinary life; and increasingly, they’re not even traditionally aged (and presumably naive.) Anyone who has worked on a campus for a while knows this and knows what a minefield this represents for any male professor.

    “I surmise that it is the non-igniting professors who are the profs who are likely to become involved in sexual harassment charges; their advances are hardly ever welcomed by students.”

    There are also a few more possibilities. Igniting professors might not ignite everyone sexually. I’ve run into a few people, professors and non-professors alike, who think everyone must find him (or her) attractive. These people are a nuisance, and sometimes do not take even a clear, spoken “no” for an answer.

    The other thing is that some people become annoyed when they find that they are not the only person in the professor’s life; that there are two, or three, or more other students the professor is involved with. I am betting that this is the source of a lot of retroactive sexual harassment claims, although I don’t think that’s harassment so much as the anger of spurned lovers.

    Here’s another thought: there’s a perfectly good French phrase for “swept away”: “coup de foudre,” “lightening strike.” It’s certainly not exclusive to women. I don’t know if men are not allowed to feel it or admit to it anymore; there are so few socially acceptable emotions for men except for rage.

    Our culture doesn’t really have a lot of tolerance for love at all, does it?

    Comment by DCP | May 14, 2009 | Reply

  2. I resent the idea that I, as a female student, have no agency in a sexual relationship with a professor.

    If a professor started hitting on me and I was not being treated as an equal and a consenting adult capable of my own decisions and actions, I would tell that person to get bent. But I would do that if he wasn’t a professor.

    If I am being treated as a consenting adult and act as one, than to label me the “victim” or to say I was “seduced” (which implies some kind of manipulation) is just absurd. And, in general, the kinds of things we are trying to prevent with these student-professor bans are just impractical. Romantic relationships are varied and complex in any situation. And they have a huge impact on our lives. But if we are adults, we make choices and we have to deal with the consequences. Why any policy should dictate any aspect of that, I just don’t know.

    And, for the record, I have (as a student) initiated the sexual advances in two different instances over the last four years and with two different professors. Each relationship turned out differently, and I felt victimized in neither. And cognitively, I am just not aware of the student-teacher aspect of things once a real and intimate emotional relationship has developed. Those labels dissolve for the parties involved and only remain for the judgmental and dictatorial bystander–as with, for example, an interracial couple.

    Comment by Dankstudent | September 29, 2010 | Reply

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