May 12, 2008

Hot For Professor?

By: Phoebe Maltz

When I was ten years old, I went to sleep-away camp and developed a huge crush on a guitar-playing British counselor. He was about the age I am now, in his early 20s, and even at the time, I was well aware that this crush had no tangible resolution, that if for some creepy reason he was interested, that would be the quickest way to end that crush. Thankfully it never came to that, so I have fond memories of learning what it was to like someone without the burden of having to sort through an actual relationship with another human being.

These days, it seems such experiences are increasingly rare – and might not exist at all. From media reports of the college hook-up culture, it’s hard to imagine an undergraduate today who has even a momentary sexual urge which doesn’t lead to honest-to-goodness getting-it-on. Could the crush, that naively romantic, never-to-be-consummated relationship, exist in a climate where you can, with all your friends’ approval, have a one-time liaison with as many classmates of either sex as you’d like? What in another age would have festered for months of silent pining is quickly answered with a yes-or-no response at the next drunken party. When there is mutual interest, nothing is holding anyone back.

The reason I refer above to “media reports” is that I attended the University of Chicago — not exactly I Am Charlotte Simmons country. But even in the snowy land of nerdy, relatively monogamous 18-year-olds, sex just isn’t that big a deal, and virtually no one believes that there’s any obligation to marry their first partner.

So for the most part, the crush is now the domain of middle- and high-school students, kids who, as in my sleep-away camp experience, are too young either to want or to realistically expect sex. At the end of senior year at Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, for example, students post “crush lists,” handwritten lists of everyone they had a crush on throughout high school, which are then taped to a wall in the school’s lobby. While the point is ostensibly that you can embarrass yourself in front of people you may never see again, the crush list also serves as a grand farewell to the crush, period. Once you get to college, you will have no need to have crushes on your classmates. You either get involved with a person or move on to the next. Imagination-only relationships make sense at camp at age 10, or in ninth grade when everyone’s parents are always around, but less so in the 18-and-over world of birth control and coed dorms.

Yet for some college students, especially college women, unconsummated desires still remain, not on their peers, but instead on those vaunted few who remain out of reach: their professors. It’s true, of course, that this type of relationship is not always appealing – and many, in fact, have grown less so over the years. The older man-younger woman relationship is presented (by older men, at least) as a pedagogical one, whether the man in question is an academic, an accountant, an investment banker, or the man on the corner selling fruit from a fold-out table, and after a long day on campus, who wants more pedagogy? And traditionally, what the older man teaches the younger woman is sex. But if the what-goes-where has already been figured out with guys her age, what amazing, supernatural skills does today’s young woman expect to find in the balding-and-graying set? Is sex learned in the 1970s that much better than sex learned in the 2000s? The young woman of today — okay, me — has her doubts.

Today, all the older man has to offer the younger woman is the smaller chance that he will in turn leave her for a younger woman in a decade or two. Sure, an older man makes a 22-year-old woman feel young — a plus in an age in which beauty is represented by 14-year-old Estonian runway models who, in full makeup, can look as old as 12. But it’s the rare young woman who feels insecure enough about her age that this would be an issue — in terms of weight, perhaps, but few 22-year-old women feel old.

The real concern with college today is not that students lust after professors, but that the former see the latter as nothing more than cogs who dole out grades. Today, student-professor affairs are a rare phenomenon not because of sexual-harassment law, but because of the professionalization of the college process and, along with it, the college experience. A Gawker comment notes the intensity of student striving, remarking, “Glad I am no longer in school. Way back when, the teachers just hit on you.”The professor is often seen a means to an end, a walking standardized test determining entry into the career or graduate programs of one’s choice — and there’s nothing sexy about the LSAT.

It’s looking grim these days, scandal-wise, in the humanities. When I discussed the topic of this article with fellow grad students, the consensus was that this sort of thing — a crush or an affair — happens all the time, but when pressed, it came out that no, in fact, it does not. Everyone had the same tired old examples, many of which involve professors I’ve never heard of who apparently slept with all their female students… in the 1960s (or perhaps the 1860s). And when scandal does erupt, it’s more akin to a seventh-grader confessing her super-secret crush on a ninth-grader than to anything Philip Roth would deem novel-worthy.

Yet the impossible, imagined relationship has a certain appeal, and has not altogether vanished from graduate-student or even college life. If a student does develop a crush, it is far more likely to be on a professor than on a fellow student, whose interest (or lack thereof) is easily assessed before there is time for a crush to develop. Pining for a classmate who’s not interested is pathetic; pining for a prof you would never pursue is, relatively speaking, socially acceptable, although still problematic, since there’s something neurotic about wanting what you can’t or know you shouldn’t have in an age when viable options that do not violate any school policy or social taboo are so readily available. Regardless, while prof-crushes are not all that common, they surely exceed the negligible number of affairs.

Still, as Yale Professor William Deresiewicz noted in an essay in The American Scholar, that hasn’t stopped the stereotype of the lecherous academic from being perpetuated.He argues that there is stereotype of the absentminded professor has been replaced in the American imagination with that of the professor — middle-aged, male, and in the humanities — who sleeps with his students. He concurs with my anecdotal evidence that these relationships are far less common in real life than in the movies, and suggests an alternative view of the professor-student bond. “The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul,” he writes. His point is that the student’s love for a professor is on a different plane than her love for an obnoxious but ripped frat boy classmate.

The problem is that Deresiewicz seems to want to separate two linked impulses – mental attraction and physical attraction. But often enough, there’s no clear line. It’s entirely normal to find intellectual qualities sexually attractive.Indeed, viewed through the lens of biological determinism this makes plenty of sense: Do we really want symmetrical offspring but have no preferences as to how clever our children turn out? The response to a brilliant mind — that of a classmate or a professor — is not always (and not only), “Wow, I wish I could talk to that person all night.” Sometimes thoughts provoked by intellectual qualities turn physical, and that means that sexual attraction is not about “bodies” versus “souls,” as Deresiewicz would have it. There is a reason that even conversation is more exciting when it takes place with someone of the sex to which one is attracted.

Elsewhere in the piece, Deresiewicz argues that a prof-crush is not in fact sexual, but this only reveals the extent to which we’ve internalized the idea that a crush only ‘counts’ if a physical relationship is in the works. A crush doesn’t simply mean the desire for a sexual relationship, but instead a sexually charged impulse toward another person with no particular end goal attached. People have all sorts of desires whose realization is never contemplated. Does everyone tell their boss or their mother-in-law what they really think? But do sentiments in those areas not ‘count’ unless actual confrontation ensues?

In this age of “coming-out,” we’ve developed the mistaken notion that every sexual desire must be declared openly. This leads to the corollary idea that if a sexual desire cannot be shouted from the rooftops, that is because it is not really a sexual desire, but an affection of another kind, one which the individual has misunderstood and described in sexual terms. Deresiewicz claims we lack the language for expressing a deep bond that is not sexual. Whereas what we lack is the mechanism for expressing that yes, a desire is sexual, but no, it should not, for both practical and ethical reasons, lead to sex.

In some situations the current state of affairs is advantageous — whom does it help if rapists or pedophiles affirm their desires alongside their vows not to act on those urges? It’s certainly preferable if the urges themselves are denied into oblivion. But there are also sexual desires that are neither violent nor appropriate to act upon. Interest in one’s aging professor is perhaps the best example. A 20-year-old student with a crush on a married 50-year-old professor is not an imminent danger to society, but should nevertheless restrain himself. Yet since we have no way of understanding sexual desires that fall into this category, the college sophomore must convince himself that his interest is both platonic and sophisticated. Which is what brought us to the situation in which the only people allowed to openly express desires that they have no intention to act upon are those still in early high school, those for whom all desire, gay or straight, is expected to remain closeted.

Whether motivated by a professor’s brilliance or the way he looks in his blazer, the student’s crush is nothing more profound than the sexual desire for someone who happens to be a professor. The only thing ‘intellectual’ about the prof-crush is that the student rationalizes that the attraction is not about anything physical, and is in fact just admiration, while the professor, even more inclined to deny the sexual component to a student’s interest, refuses to admit that what’s going on is a garden-variety crush.

It is liberating to admit that desire can be sexual yet non-threatening, even sexual — yet not actually in pursuit of sex. Yet it is perhaps even more freeing to outgrow the crush stage of life and to learn that there are even more exciting traits a relationship can have than impossibility.

— Phoebe Maltz is a student in New York University’s joint doctoral program in French and French Studies. She blogs at