The intellectual and physical seduction of young female students by older, male professors—usually in the humanities, and in the throes of midlife crises—is so common in movies and books that it’s become a cliché.
But a recent Twitter thread started by a popular feminist blogger examines a dark side of that cliché in real-life academe, one in which professors’ advances—intellectual and otherwise—feed a need for validation and flattery, and at times cross the line into sexual harassment.
“Please share with me all your stories of the male professors you had in college who thrived upon and demanded female admiration to function,” Mallory Ortberg, editor of the website the Toast, tweeted. She soon followed up with a humor piece imagining a conversation between two male professors bemoaning diminishing adulation from the new generation of female pupils.
“Just yesterday, in one of my intro classes, I used the word ‘problematic’ in a sentence—real casual, just to let them know I’m one of the good guys—and not one of them stayed after the lecture to ask me just what I meant by that or to see if they could borrow the conspicuously dog-eared copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed I like to leave on my desk in case any female students want to borrow it,” one imaginary professor says.
He continues, later, after some bottle-passing: “That copy has my phone number in it. You know, the old ‘write your phone number on the front page of a copy you lend to female students only under the “IF LOST PLEASE RETURN TO” bubble’ gag?”
Almost immediately after her original tweet, Ortberg’s Twitter followers began to respond with their experiences with such professors, some humorous and others less so. A sampling:
@hallleloujah: “had one who called everything sexy in a weirdly drawn out, British way. Also started a rumor he was undercover for CIA (he wasn't).”
@kitalita: “one kept conveniently ‘forgetting’ my graded assignments in his office and specifically told me he was divorced (he wasn't).”
@AmyRosary: “Let's talk about the English department chair I got fired for harassing EACH AND EVERY female English major. He liked to insist [continued in a separate tweet] upon meeting girls in his office and serenading them with Bob Dylan covers with the door closed, or ‘accidentally’ putting on porn.”
@kellieherson: “Providing a validation space for those men is the only reason university administrators allow the humanities to continue to exist.”
Another follower cited a proclivity for flirting among her theater professors, one of whom bragged about once trying to meet women with actor Pat Morita. One said her professor had emailed her to tell her that not doing her homework was “not sexy”; yet another fended off a request for her to model for a professor who said he was an amateur photographer.
Jaya Saxena, a web editor for the New-York Historical Society and writer who studied English and political science at Tulane University, said: “Lots of [him] inviting classes to his house for pizza and making sure to corner the girls and talk about his art collection.” That professor also once hit on her in a bar, she posted.
In an email, Saxena said she enjoyed close relationships with several of her professors, and that in New Orleans, seeing faculty members out at a bar was not outside the norm. But the “line gets drawn when you're throwing your arms around your students and drunkenly saying they look hot when they dance!”
Saxena said she never took classes from the professor mentioned, and therefore felt less intimidated than awkward following the incident.
That wasn’t the case for Tamara Johnson, who tweeted about an English professor who told her as an undergraduate that “female students were like fishing lures, drawing male instructors into deep waters.” He also made inappropriate remarks about rape, vaguely in relation to a lecture, soon after, she said—making her feel highly uncomfortable.
Johnson, who has her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from San Diego State, said she saw male professors seeking sexual attention from their female students as the rule, not the exception. Saxena, by contrast, said there were several “attractive” male professors in her department who reacted to the attention from students in different ways. And while male professors did seem to bask more in that attention than did female professors, she said, “I never saw the ‘attention-needing male professor’ as a rule.”