“Truth: Any faculty member who tells you he hasn’t had a student come on to him is either a liar or in the math department.” That’s what a faculty fuckbuddy of mine said to me the first year I taught at the college level. He happened to be nuts-deep in a female sophomore at the time. I remembered the lesson through all my teaching years.
I’ve noticed in the past decade that more and more people assume a teacher/student relationship—and by relationship here I mean fucking—is a taboo. I’ve noticed that men and women alike seem to assume that colleges ban it. (A few do, but most don’t. Why should they? Their students are adults.), They assume that it’s the kind of thing that happens only in porn scripts and maybe Kentucky.
If you look at popular culture of the last century, though, you’ll see find a preponderance of novels and movies and even stage musicals (hi, On Your Toes) in which female students basically treat college like a pre-internet match.com where they expect to land a tweedy faculty husband. During my college years it was easier to figure out which faculty member I hadn’t slept with, than name the ones who’d bent me over their desks. Without thinking much I could probably tick off between a dozen and a score of names of my professors who’d ended up marrying female students. And if you think those relationships were chaste before the wedding vows, I’ve got a bridge built by Foucault to sell you.
No, throw a bunch of horny post-teenagers into an environment with authority figures like faculty, isolate them in a small campus town in which there’s no other form of entertainment, and the fucking is sure to follow. Is sleeping with students ethical? Depends on who you’re asking. Of the ones who’ve talked about it with me, I’ve known professors who would consider a dalliance with students who weren’t currently enrolled in any of their classes—but who would draw the line at slipping it to a current student, just to steer clear of charges of harassment. I’ve known faculty who’d push that line a little further—who’d fuck a current student as long as it was clear between them that the student’s grade wouldn’t be affected either way.
And I’ve known professors like my old fuckbuddy who had no problems fucking students in exchange for better grades. To him it was simply a transaction, plain and simple, in which each party had something the other wanted. If everyone agreed to the transaction, there was no need for anyone to bring up ethics.
Joel was his name. He was a full professor in his late forties who taught in the business school; I met him when I was cruising in the restrooms, back in the nineteen-eighties. I was in my mid-twenties, the fresh and proud possessor of a master’s degree, and newly hired as an adjunct by the university where my parents taught. Joel and I had exchanged blow jobs below the stalls of the cruisiest bathroom on campus and had enjoyed each other enough that we spent a few minutes talking outside. When he discovered I wasn’t an undergraduate (or a high school student, as he’d assumed—I’ve always had a tendency to look about a decade younger than I am), he took me under his wing.
Joel was one of those faculty who fucked students for sport. Male, female. Enrolled in his class or not. Bright shining stars or barely-lit bulbs. He didn’t care, so long as they’d strip down for him, spread their legs, and open up a hole. Once they’d consented, he enjoyed pushing their limits as much as possible. He’d keep a Polaroid camera and packs of instant film in his desk drawers, so he could take fuck photos in his office. If the kids were in one of his classes at the time, he’d tell them where to sit and what to wear to the next class—and what not to wear underneath. And he especially got off on sharing holes with another guy.
I was good for that. I liked Joel. He was an open-minded pig during a time that most people were pretending they didn’t have sex at all, especially the variety not carrying the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. He got me laid. And he taught me lessons I never picked up in the faculty handbook. (Mostly because there was no faculty handbook.)
“Don’t you go chasing after them,” Joel told me. “They’ll come looking for you. They’ll come up to your office and hang around, trying to shoot the shit with you. If they’ve got no reason to be there, that’s the reason they’re there. Trust me.”
I remembered those words my second semester, with a former student named Allan. He’d been in the very first class I ever taught. It met at the ungodly hour of eight in the morning, three times a week. The class was mostly freshmen, and even though the average age of the new admissions at the university skewed way upward from the standard eighteen, the genuine adults knew better than to register for an eight a.m. seminar. In a class of young and very sleepy faces, Allan was a standout. He was twenty-two or twenty-three and just starting college; he was tall and handsome. He wore a neatly-groomed beard in a time when very few men who weren’t aging hippies wore beards. He was intelligent, and wrote well. He easily earned the A I ended up giving him.
During the semester he was in my class I’d found myself hugely attracted to Allan, but I’d never shown him any special favoritism. I did cheat a little with him, though. One of my assignments through the semester was to ask students to keep a creative journal; I assigned a weekly number of pages they needed to scrawl out, and told them I wouldn’t be reading them but would only be checking the journals to see that they’d made the page count. Every couple of weeks I’d collect their notebooks, hand out a test, and sit in the hallway where I’d count pages to make sure they were keeping up.
I never read any of the journals, save Allan’s. I felt dirty doing it—like I was stealing his soiled underpants from his gym bag, or something. I’d save his notebook for last. I read about his car problems. I read about the ho-hum details of his everyday life. I read about his job at a body shop, where he’d worked since high school to help support his single mom. He never divulged any details about his sexual or romantic exploits, but the entire time I dipped my toes into his personal life, I’d be erect.
It’s probably a good thing he excelled at his work, because I had such a boner for the guy that I probably would’ve given him an A regardless.
He showed up in my office the semester after. I was sharing a small enclosure with two other adjuncts at the time. I’d never seen them; we all kept different office hours. I looked up from whatever I was doing to see his handsome, bearded face as he lounged in the door. “Hey,” he said.
“Well, hey,” I replied, gesturing him in. “What’s going on?”
I expected that he’d come to ask about a recommendation or something. But no. He was there just to hang. We made small talk about other students for a few minutes, and then came a point when the small talk ran out. I started to wonder exactly why he'd stopped in. Then Joel’s words came back to me. Allan had no fucking reason to be there. If he was there, his reason was fucking. And my heart began to pound.
What followed formed the basic template for every student come-on since. Allan cleared his throat, screwed up his courage, and nervously asked, “So . . . in your spare time, where do you hang out?”
My throat was dry. “Hang out?”
“You know. When you’re not working.” I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t had much experience with a student coming onto me on my own. I didn’t know how I was supposed to react. “Bars, that kind of thing.” He started rattling off a list of Richmond hot spots. It was Richmond in the nineteen-eighties. There weren’t that many. And the very last one, which he pronounced at a softer volume than the others, before letting his words trail off, was Richmond’s only gay bar at the time.
I’ve had so many former male students do that exact same thing in the years since. They think they’re being clever and coy, casually dropping the name of a gay bar in the conversation to see if there’s that spark of surprise or recognition in my eyes. They think it’s never been done before. Little do they know that Allan beat them all to it, in my timeline. And little do they suspect that my poker face is better than theirs. Pulling a stunt like only leads to me standing up from my desk, pushing shut the door, and then shoving them against the wall. It’s not my eyes that are sparking with surprise, at that point.
But I didn’t have the confidence then I have now. I wasn’t the aggressor then that I’ve become since. So I simply stared at Allan, wet my dry lips, and finally said in the blandest tones possible, “I don’t think so.”
“Oh, okay,” he said. “I just thought if you wanted to grab a beer sometime. . . .”
I was still frozen by the opportunity. Simply put, I lacked the experience to know how to deal with it. So I blinked over and over again for a few seconds, probably looked as uncomfortable as I was, until at last Allan stood up, mumbled some vague goodbye, and made a speedy getaway.
“You’re a fucking fool,” is what Joel told me when I reported the incident to him later that week. “That kid wanted you, and you blew it.”
His words only confirmed the way I felt about myself. I was a failure, and I’d managed to let an opportunity slip through my fingers that would likely never repeat itself. (It never did.)
Joel slapped me on the back, though, as if my fumble were only a temporary setback. “There’ll be other chances,” he told me. “Just you wait. There’ll be others.”
And he was right. There were others, and plenty of them.