Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer and sex educator. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted, Patheos and MySexProfessor.com. Be sure to follow Jeana on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.
I recognize the erotic as a powerful force. In “Uses of the Erotic,” black lesbian feminist scholar-activist Audre Lorde describes the erotic as a resource grounded in consensual sharing and exploration. And certainly, education at its best is a sharing of knowledge and skills, consensual and exploratory. The erotic also touches on pleasure and satisfaction, which I am in favor of incorporating in the learning process where possible and appropriate.
Yet as a divorced bisexual woman, I am not in a safe position to be seen as erotic in the classroom when I teach. As a sex-positive feminist, that makes me sad. But as an adjunct, I’m in favor of keeping my job. So there we go.
Bruce Fleming wrote an essay on “The Erotics of Professing” for Inside Higher Ed in which he compared professors to movie actors, stating that students will respond to our bodies the way theater audiences do to an actor, as bodies responding to bodies on a number of levels, including the erotic. And I agree that how we as teachers look and comport ourselves can impact the learning experience.
But I cannot get beyond framing it as “erotics.” Call it “theatrics.” Call it “kinesthetics.” Call it “embodiment.” Call it “metaperformativity” or any other made-up academic jargon-y name, but not “erotics.” Erotics implies sexual availability that is downright dangerous for people in certain (marginalized) identity categories. Being erotic in the classroom is of no interest to me because I am aware that, as a woman, I am already eroticized and objectified when I do not want to be — whether getting catcalled in public or getting hit on while serving on a convention panel. (Yes, that happened.)
Further, the persistence of dualism in Western culture ensures that mind and body remain mutually opposed conceptual categories. Sexuality is relegated to body, meaning that sexual beings are less likely to be thought of in elevated mental terms. This means that my students sometimes do not take me seriously or trivialize my areas of study. On a course evaluation, answering the question “What did you like least about this course?” a student once answered, “That I wasn’t dating the instructor.” No, thanks.
One can’t escape that pesky sexual connotation that the erotic has acquired. And it is here that I feel unsafe attaching it to anything that I do in the classroom. I am totally comfortable lecturing about sexual topics, bringing in my expertise as a sex educator and gender studies scholar. Those things are not about me, my body, my positioning or my sexuality.
Lorde sums up the problem when she reminds us that the erotic is transformed into a weapon and wielded in gendered ways: “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.”
I contend that it is professionally risky for marginalized academics to profess too erotically, or even marginally so. Whether you are an adjunct, of an alternative sexuality, a woman — or, like me, all three — you are in danger of being interpreted through the lenses of stereotypes that haven’t died yet. Gay teachers seeking to seduce or convert students. Unmarried women with overheated uteruses. That sort of thing. Outdated, but still pernicious.
Again, I do not have a problem with being more aware of how one uses eye contact while teaching or whether one’s language is suited to the lesson plan. As a body art scholar, I agree, of course, that what we wear impacts how we’re perceived. Similarly, as a dancer and dance scholar, I could analyze someone’s posture, gestures and movement in order to describe the impressions they are imparting to their audience, however intentional.
I am not against professors intentionally shaping their image in order to have a certain impact on students and peers. How we look and sound and move is part of the whole package, and has a definite impact on how our material is received. There are always differing degrees of awareness when transmitting cultural information, on the part of the senders as well as receivers. For every stereotypically oblivious professor, there will be students too enmeshed in their own worlds (electronically aided or not) to really pick up on all the signals being thrown down. Such is life.
I see no problem in academics taking pleasure in how they look, either. I mean, it’s fun to come up with snappy conference outfits that both look professional and express who I am as an individual.
I am lucky to teach in a pretty liberal department; I do not think my colleagues would bat an eye if I brought a male or female partner with me to a campus event. But as an adjunct, I do not feel safe bringing my sexuality into the classroom in any more concrete sense than offhandedly mentioning that I am not straight and “yep, people like me exist.”
And, it’s a bummer for a lot of reasons. When I lecture about the cultural history of belly dance — a dance form I also practice — I know that students are curious about my involvement with it. The stigma and oversexualization of the dance seem too insurmountable for me to ever give in to requests to demonstrate more than a wrist floreo.
It is a shame that women instructors still struggle to get fairly evaluated in the classroom compared to their male peers, pointing at the pervasive sexism still influencing how competence is judged in the ivory tower in connection with gender (and, I’d argue, sexuality). It is a travesty that women professors receive rape threats, as Kristina M. W. Mitchell has recounted. She writes, “Gender bias in academe persists,” and it takes many forms, from misogynist evaluations to rape threats. Her experiences are coextensive with mine, rooted in (among other things) the sexualization of women’s bodies in Western culture.
In sum, I do not want to be seen as erotic (hence a sexual being or sexually available) to my students or colleagues for a couple of reasons: I want to act as appropriately as possible in light of the student-teacher sexual taboo, my contingent position and already being vulnerable to being interpreted as sexually available.
Maybe someday we can all profess as erotically as we wish because we will all be on even footing in terms of both subtle cultural judgments (like sexism and heterosexism) and job security. But I’m not holding my breath.