The discussion of “women who don’t call it rape” at Alas, A Blog is pretty much over, I guess, but one of the questions that came up was how to deal with men’s fear of false rape accusations. One participant in the discussion, Polymath, wrote what I thought was a really honest comment about his own conflicting feelings about false accusations. There were a lot of problems with his post, which people in the discussion, including myself, commented on, but one thing he said that hit home with me — because I am, like him, a teacher — was not picked up on in a serious way, and I’d like to give it some attention here. What Polymath wrote was this:
i mean, my career (as a teacher) could be ruined by one upset, troubled, deluded 14-year-old kid (girl or boy) who wanted revenge and accused me of even improperly looking at him or her.
In many ways, of course, Polymath’s fear is irrational. I will not say that such accusations don’t happen, but for a teacher to walk around in constant fear of such an accusation — which may not be true of Polymath in real life, but his comment certainly makes it sound like it is — simply does not strike me as a rational thing to do. Not only, as I said in my response to his comment, will a good investigative process — and, in my experience, most academic institutions have one — make it very difficult for a false accusation to stick, much less ruin a career; but, and perhaps more to the point, to imagine that levelling false rape accusations is central to the way girls and women think about men is both self-centered in the extreme and to project onto women what is essentially a male way of thinking about rape, i.e., as a way of doing damage to someone. In other words, it is to imagine that women think about rape not in terms of their own (actual or potential) victimization, but of how to turn their own victimization into a way of victimizing men. (I also think that Q Grrrl’s response to Polymath is particularly apt.)
None of this means, of course, that false accusations don’t occur or that they are to be taken lightly when they do. Indeed, I have been thinking about the on-the-job aspect of Polymath’s post for a while now precisely because there have been at least four times in my career as a college professor when I have had to be concerned that a woman could make false accusations against me, not of rape, or at least I was not worried that she would accuse me of rape — which of course doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have — but rather of an actionable sexual impropriety. What I have to say about these incidents really doesn’t belong in the thread on Alas, A Blog, though, so I am going to post it here, giving the incidents in chronological order, starting from about the second year of my full-time college teaching career and ending with something that happened in the eleventh or twelfth.
Before I get to my stories, though, it is extremely important for me to make clear what I am not saying: I am not saying that these women are in any way representative of the hundreds of women I have taught in more than twenty years of teaching, sixteen of them at the same institution. And I want to underline that: I am talking about five women in four separate incidents over more than twenty years. Clearly not a majority and, as clearly, not a signifcant minority. Nor am I saying that any of these women would in fact ever have considered lodging a false complaint against me. Rather, what I am interested in talking about is why I had to be concerned about the possibility.
Incident 1: At the time of this incident, about two years after I started teaching at the institution where I work now, I was the English as a Second Language (ESL) Placement Coördinator for the college. One of my responsibilities was to judge whether students had been accurately placed into the classes for which they had registered and, if not, move them into the right class.
During the second week of class, I moved a woman out of the class I was teaching and into a higher level. When she came back to my class a couple of weeks later and asked to make an appointment to see me, I assumed she wanted to talk about the new class and to thank me for moving her — something students occasionally did, especially when, like her, they had been so obviously misplaced to begin with. When she came to my office for the appointment, however, after some humming and hawing, she propositioned me, asking if I would go with her that night, right then, to a nearby hotel. (She was married with children and knew that I knew it, and she knew that I was married.)
I told her no, but I was a whole lot less experienced and/or confident than I am now, and so when she started to press me about why I was saying no, I didn’t have the presence of mind to point out to her how inappropriate her questions were and to tell her, simply, to leave. So I told her I wouldn’t go with her because we were both married and because I was a teacher and she was a student. She responded that we were about the same age — which was true; in fact, I think she was older than I was by a year or two — so the student-teacher thing didn’t matter and, as for being married, people did it all the time. When I told her that I wasn’t one of those people, she nonetheless continued to press me for an explanation, asking me if it was because she wasn’t pretty enough, if it was because she wasn’t white (she was Hatian), and so on.
At this point, I felt that I was into the conversation too deeply simply to end it and I began to worry, given her questions, about how she would respond if I rejected her out of hand. There were no other faculty members in the building and so if she did respond to my rejection of her by accusing me of something I didn’t do, it would have been my word against hers and, frankly, that frightened me. Again, I want to be clear: She gave me no indication that she would have done such a thing, but I did not know how stable or unstable she was, and so what I am talking about is a fear I had based on my assessment of the situation, and, given the circumstances, I think I would have been foolish not to take the possibility of some sort of false accusation into consideration. So I kept talking to her and eventually, I don’t remember precisely how, the conversation turned to her own underlying unhappiness with her sexual relationship with her husband. This diffused the tension between us, and the conversation ended after a little bit more talk and then she left. She made no more overt passes at me during the course of the semester, though she always smiled knowingly when saw me on campus and when she came to see me in my office with legitimate questions she had about her classes and placement, she still tried to be flirtatious, and so I always made sure that my office door was open and that, as much as possible, a colleague was in hearing of what was going on.
When I think about this now, I have to acknowledge that it wasn’t only my inexperience that kept me from establishing a firmer distance between myself and this woman. The truth is that I allowed the fact of her desire to flatter me — I found her very attractive as well — and so I did not want to do what I know now is not only the right thing to do from the point of view of professionalism, but is also the safest thing to do. Because the reality is that once I allowed the lines of professionalism to blur — more to the point, once I allowed them to become blurred on terms that she dictated — I was no longer in control of the situation, and, as the professional, it was my responsibility to be in control of the situation, regardless of the fact that she was a little bit older than I was. As well, and here we get a little bit into the territory that I think Polymath was trying to get into on Alas, A Blog, if things had ever come down to her word against mine because she made a false accusation, the fact that I had let the boundaries blur would very likely have made it more difficult for me to prove my case. That difficulty, however, would have been one that I invited, not one that she was able to exploit simply because she was a woman and I was a man and men prey sexually on women.
Incident 2: A 19-year-old Korean woman from my ESL class comes to see me during my office hours. She tells me she is very confused about something she read in the library, an exchange between two people written out on one of the desks. She copied it down, she tells me, because she thinks it’s really interesting and would like to know what I think. The dialogue she has written down is between a woman who is wondering about whether she it was ethical for her even to think about starting an affair with her teacher another woman who was advising her against it. It was pretty clear from the way the “first” woman wrote that the teacher in question was me and also that my student was the author of both women’s voices.
After a minute or so of polite conversation, I asked this student if the teacher mentioned in the dialogue was me. She said she was afraid to tell me because she was afraid I would kick her out of my office — which, of course, gave me my answer without her having actually to say it, and here I need to stop to give you a little more background information about her. When she first entered my class, she would not speak at all, and while I am normally perfectly happy to let students who don’t want to speak in class remain silent, in an ESL class, where speaking is necessary, her silence was becoming a problem. I asked her why she refused to speak and she wouldn’t answer me, so I changed the topic and started to talk about Korea, where I had been an English teacher for a little more than a year. Once she knew I knew something about Korea, she seemed to relax, and she began to tell me her story: Apparently, her father had come to the US some years earlier with the intention of bringing her and her mother to be here with him. Along the way, however, without first divorcing my student’s mother and without telling her either, he had married another woman. When my student and her mother arrived here, he presented this other woman to them as his wife and he insisted that my student call this second wife “mom.” My student was, understandably, horrified, wanted to go back to Korea and — here is what is most relevant to what I am telling you now — had decided that she hated men. She told me she was never going to get married and couldn’t understand how any woman would marry any man, ever. Once she told me her story, she began to open up a bit. She still didn’t talk in class very much, but at least she talked a little bit, and she would come to my office for extra help. Obviously, she developed a crush on me.
So, there we were, sitting in my office, and she was telling me without telling me that I was the teacher in the dialogue she’d brought to show me, and that she was the student, and I told her that it made me happy she trusted me enough to share her feelings with me, which made her smile, but that it was pretty clear that we could never have the relationship she’d envisioned in what she wrote. She asked me why not, and I pointed out the obvious, that she was my student. She said she would wait till the semester was over and that she would transfer to a different school. So I pointed out the fact that I was much older than she was. Age, she responded, should not make a difference if two people really love each other. So I said that I was used to having relationships with women who were more indpendent than she could be living at home with her mother and father. If I would be patient, she said, she would find a way to move out of her house and “catch up” with the kind of woman I was used to. Finally, I looked at her and reminded her that I was a man and that she hated men. That, she admitted with a smile, would be a problem. When I suggested that it would therefore be better if we remained friends, she agreed.
The conversation ended there and we did, in fact, remain friends. She would come to my office to talk about her life every once in a while, and I had the pleasure of watching her begin to come out of the isolation she had imposed on herself because of her shame about her father. She made friends with other women in the class, started to go out with them to dance or to the movies; and then she moved back to Korea, fell in love, and I have sitting somewhere here in my office the most recent picture she sent me of her and her husband and their son.
Now that I think about it, this incident doesn’t really belong in a post about teaching and false rape accusations, not so much because there was no danger, but because the danger that there was – for example, the possibility that my student might have misinterpreted something I said – had little to do with false accusation. In other words, my student might have misinterpreted something I said to indicate that I was interested in her romantically/sexually, and that could have led to all sorts of problems, but I don’t think she would purposefully have fabricated an accusation against me. Indeed, now that I have written this incident out – and it’s the first time I’ve done that – it occurs to me that what I am really interested in in this post is the degree to which the college classroom is an intensely erotic, and potentially highly eroticized, place.
I’m not necessarily talking about teachers and students fucking each other, but rather about how, because we inevitably bring all of who we are to the classroom, and because teaching and learning are linked activities that are all about desire and the fulfillment of desire, the processes of teaching and learning cannot help but sometimes connect teachers and students in ways that they experience as distinctly erotic. This is a subject that makes many teachers distinctly uncomfortable. In fact, I have more than a few colleagues who have told me over the years that they make sure to leave their gender and their sexuality outside the classroom door. Assuming for the moment that such a thing is possible, and I don’t think it is, what has always struck me is that these colleagues make this statement without seeming to be aware that it is both a recognition that the classroom is an erotic space and a stance that they take towards that eroticism.
I will say more about this later on in the post – though in the interest of full disclosure I should say that I met my wife when, but did not start dating her until after, she was in my class. First I want to tell you about another incident:
Incident 3: A woman in my English as a Second Language (ESL) composition class comes to class during the first few days of the spring semester wearing a see-through blouse with no bra. She sits directly in front of my desk. When class is over, she walks up to where I am sitting on the edge of the desk with a piece of paper in her hand, which she hands to me mumbling something about not being able to figure out her schedule; it is clear from what she is asking, though, that I am not the person who can give her the answer she needs. I take the paper from her anyway to see if I can be helpful and she walks behind me to look over my shoulder at the paper. While she is doing so, she pushes her breast up against my shoulder blade and then stands on her toes — she is much shorter than I am — ostensibly to get a better look at the paper. The effect, though, is that she is rubbing her breast against me. I pretend that I do not notice what is happening, give her the paper back and tell her that I cannot help her with her question, which was true. It felt to me like the look I saw in her eyes was in anticipation of a signal from me that I got her signal, but I could have been misreading it; I do not think I am wrong, however, that the pouty and flirtatious look of disappointment on her face when I told her I couldn’t help her had to do with more than the question she asked me. In the next couple of classes, I made sure to mention more than a couple of times that I was married and that I had a son who was in the campus day care center. There were no further incidents after this.
I made sure to report what happened to the chair of my department, and he advised me to keep a log of all my interactions with this woman, which I did until it became clear that she was not interested in repeating what she’d done. Still, especially because what I described above happened so early in the semester, before there was any kind of developed teacher-student relationship between us, it would have been stupid of me not to be as suspicious of her motives as possible, and that included the possibility that she might have been trying in some way to entrap me.
Incident 4: This is the most complex of the incidents and it involves nothing even remotely resembling false rape accusations. I was teaching a class called Advanced Essay. In this class were two women of color, one Haitian and the other Latina, who were very serious about wanting to be writers. Each of them told me that one of her goals was to write books that would have a serious social impact, and the first thing that each wanted to write about – I should add that they told me these things separately and not so neatly as I am making it sound here – was her experience of child sexual abuse. And then each of these women made her experience of abuse the topic of an essay she wrote for my class. The essays, which showed real promise, but had all the hallmarks of a beginning writer struggling to deal with very difficult autobiographical material, confronted me with a difficult choice: Should I respond the way I would to any other student, or, given what these women had told me about their desire to write, should I respond not so much as their teacher, but as a more experienced writer who had struggled with the same problems. (I also was sexually abused when I was a kid and had been struggling for years to write about it in a way that was not merely cathartic.) The differences between these two responses had to do with how open I wanted to be with these women about my own experience, and since being open with them about my own experience would inevitably mean a greater degree of closeness, I had to decide how much I trusted these women.
Largely because I saw this as an opportunity to be able to provide for young writers a kind of mentoring I wished had been available to me – in the late 70s and early 80s no one, male or female, wanted to talk about the sexual abuse of boys – I decided that I would trust them, and when one of them approached me about doing an independent study, I asked the other to join us, and entered into a teaching situatiuon that truly changed my life. I have written elsewhere about the details of this independent study and it’s a long story that I am not going to go into here. So I am going to skip to the end of the semester, when the women had to prepare to present their work at a colloquium, a requirement of independent studies at the school where I teach.
We had spent the semester reading material that ranged from James Baldwin’s essays to Andrea Dworkin’s book Intercourse and talking about my students’ writing, much of which, especially the essays written by the younger of the two women, was quite explicit and intimate. A couple of examples:
- She wrote graphically about how for years, as a result of the sexual abuse she had survived, sexual penetration was painful for her and she wrote with a similar explicitness about the first time she was able to achieve not just orgasm, but pleasure through penetration, with a caring and considerate lover;
- she wrote about how she’d experienced masturbation as a form of rebellion against a violent and tyrranical father, which led to conversation between the women about how each had discovered masturbation and its relationship to her sexuality and to the abuse she had suffered – I remember, in particular, the moment when the older of the women looked at the younger, and they each smiled sheepishly to discover that each had felt, when she began masturbating that she was the only girl in the world to be doing that;
- and she wrote about a sexual experience in a car that, because of difficulties in her prose, led to a conversation in which I was asking her questions like, “Okay, so in this paragraph he has two fingers in you, but then this paragraph makes it sound like he hasn’t inserted anything in you yet. Chronologically that doesn’t make sense.” (This is not a precise quote, but the conversations were that explicit.)
These women, in other words, trusted me with some of the most intimate parts of who they were in a way that continues to humble me; it was a trust as deep as anyone has ever bestowed upon me in my life. More to the point, this level of trust also made the time we spent together working on my students’ writing feel separate from the academic context in which it was taking place. I was not acting as my students’ therapist, but I was becoming their friend, and we were, in a way, becoming a small community of sexual abuse survivors who had found each other and were able to offer each other comfort and support. (I know it was healing for them to be able to be as open with me as they were, and it was similarly healing for me to be for them the kind of mentor/friend that I wished I had had.)
Once I began to talk to them about the fact that they would have to read their essays publicly, however, and once they learned that the audience would include the president of the college and the vice president of academic affairs, the bubble of our little community burst. The women were very uncomfortable with the thought of saying out loud what they had had been saying privately to me and to each other all semester, but they were even more worried that I might get into trouble. Suddenly, the sexual nature of what they’d been writing about, of what they would be saying in front of complete strangers when they read their essays, hit them, and they realized how artificial in some ways the privacy we had cultuvated was.
They were worried that they would get yelled at for reading things that were inappropriate for an academic setting, and they were worried that someone would start to question my motives and accuse me of sexual impropriety. I was not worried about the latter because, after all, if the students were not going to bring charges, there was nothing anyone could do to me, and, as for the former, I told my students that when I introduced them, I would talk about my own experience of trying to write about being a survivor of sexual abuse, and so anybody who wanted to come at them for being inappropriate, that person would have to come through me first.
So we went to the colloquium, I gave my introduction, the women read their essays and received standing ovations and everything was fine, though it was interesting that no one, except for a couple of students from the audience, had anything to say to me about either the work I had done with those two women or what I had revealed about myself when I introduced them. The only thing that happened that confirmed for my students that their worries for me had not been unfounded was that one of my female colleagues asked one of them whose idea it had been to write about sex in the first place, and my student told me that the way the question was asked made it very obvious that my colleague was proceeding from the assumption that I had initiated it and that the whole semester had been my way of getting my rocks off by talking about sex and getting these two young and beautiful women to reveal the intimate details of their sex lives to me.
I don’t necessarily blame my colleague for asking that question; I would probably have done the same thing because there are male teachers out there who do get their vicarious thrills by getting into the details of their female students’ sex lives. Nonetheless, I have to admit that the semester I spent with these two women was one of the most erotic experiences I have had and I don’t think that’s something I should hide or be in any way ashamed of. I also think my story, as sloppily and partially as I have told it here, raises some interesting questions: I presented a paper on this experience at an academic conference, for example, and someone in the audience pointed out that it is possible to teach students how to write without turing the classroom into a group therapy session. I was fascinated by this response because it seemed to me that my approach was precisely the opposite of the therapist-patient model, where the therapist revelas absolutely nothing about him or herself. I saw myself and these women in a relationship that more closely resembled that between a master and an apprentice, or mentor and a mentee, in which the master inevitably shares something of him or herself in the process of modeling what the apprentice needs to learn.
There is a great deal more to say about this, and perhaps people will comment and a discussion will ensue, but I think I am finished writing for now.