In the end, how much is erotic capital really worth?
In yesterday’s column critiquing Catherine Hakim’s celebration of women’s erotic capital, I shared an anecdote about a student whom I called “Allee.” Allee was a young woman who could have been one of Hakim’s disciples, and in my previous piece, I shared the story of how I challenged her in a professional, responsible, and—I hope—kind way. I didn’t respond to her flirtation, and earned her trust as a result.
But as I’ve written before, I was not always so ethical. During an indefensibly self-indulgent period early in my teaching career (in the mid-1990s), I slept with a number of my students. Most were older than traditional college age; one with whom I had an affair was three years my senior. When we first slept together, I was 29, and she was 32.
“Claire” was a returning student, coming back to college more than a dozen years after dropping out. She was very bright, but like many of those who return to college after years away from academia, anxious about her abilities. Her story was a familiar one: she’d been a clever but underachieving high school student, more interested in social activities than intellectual ones. She used her “erotic capital” with a flair that would have impressed Catherine Hakim, and had a series of older boyfriends.
Claire had gone off to a Cal State campus for one year and partied her way onto academic probation and into eventual dismissal. She had married at 20, had a baby, and stayed home with her daughter for several years. By the time she came to Pasadena City College, she had been divorced for two years, and her daughter was in fifth grade.
In her thirties, much to her surprise, Claire had discovered she loved learning; she loved books, writing, ideas. What had bored her to tears at 17, fascinated her at 32. Her passion was matched by her ability. (It is not always so.) She earned top grades on every test she took and every paper she wrote. And she was funny and lovely; she sat in the front row. Our affair started during the second semester Claire was my student, in the early spring of 1997.
Claire and I were discreet. Of course, she wasn’t the only person (or, for that matter, the only student) I was dating. Neither of us wanted a serious relationship. None of her classmates knew; even as word spread across campus of my reckless and sordid indiscretions with others, no one discovered what was happening with Claire.
Claire eventually transferred to a nearby liberal arts college renowned for recruiting promising non-traditional students; I wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation. And it was when I handed her a copy of the letter of recommendation that I realized yet another damaging aspect of teacher-student affairs, and one that goes to the heart of what’s so wrong about encouraging the use of “erotic capital.”
Claire looked at the letter and smiled. Her smile faded, though, and I asked her what was wrong. I’d praised her exceptional abilities (particularly her writing skills) to the heavens; I’d meant every word I’d written. Claire said, “I wish I could believe that all of this was true.”
“Of course it’s true!” I exclaimed.
“Is it? Don’t you feel as if you have to say these things after everything that’s happened? How can I know that you mean this?”
I was horrified, and, I confess, indignant. “Christ, Claire, you earned your A in the classroom. I can’t believe you’d doubt that. I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.”
Claire remarked, calmly but with an edge in her voice, something to the effect that a professor who was so cavalier about sleeping with his students could hardly be self-righteous when his integrity was questioned. I could tell she wanted to believe that the words I’d written about her intellectual promise were true. I knew damn well that they were true. If I’d never come within 10 feet of her, her dazzling, witty prose, her work ethic, and her insights would have earned her the highest grade in the course. In my mind, our sexual relationship had nothing to do with her academic ability, save that her unusual ability was one of many things that had made her exceptionally attractive to me.
Claire transferred, graduated, remarried, and moved away. She ended up in law school and is now an attorney. I made amends to her in 2001. Our conversation was civil but brisk. She told me that while she had enjoyed my classes, and not been unhappy with our relationship outside of class, she was angry that our affair had made it impossible for her to turn to me as a mentor. Claire hadn’t seen me as a “younger man” (we were less than three years apart, after all), but as her professor. I had something she wanted, and what she had wanted most was intellectual validation. I gave her that, but it came wrapped up in a sexual relationship. As a result, she had had a very difficult and painful time trying to decide whether her A’s were earned, and whether my consistently laudatory feedback was truly deserved.
A woman who had grown up being told she was “pretty” but “not very bright”, Claire was a late bloomer as a scholar. And by having a sexual relationship with her, I robbed her of the chance to bask in the uncompromised praise she had so indisputably earned. At her four-year school, Claire had found other mentors with whom she didn’t have affairs; she had come to trust that her talents were genuine. She hadn’t been able to get that from me. Whatever fleeting pleasure she had derived from our affair had left a lingering hurt in the form of self-doubt. And the fact that she was three years my senior in no way mitigated my responsibility for causing her that hurt.
It’s been more than 13 years since I slept with a student who was in my classes. And of all the people I hurt with my selfish, narcissistic behavior during my acting-out years, Claire was one of those the memory of whom has haunted me the longest. The amends I made to her may have been sufficient; it was the best I could offer. But she is one of those who has spurred me not only to change my life, and change it radically, but to be such a public advocate for banning “consensual” sexual relationships between profs and students. And she is one of those of whom I first thought when I read about Catherine Hakim’s thesis.
When the person with whom you are getting naked is also the person evaluating your work and your intellectual ability, the potential for crippling self-doubt will always be there. There is no capital in that.