Sexuality and power in recent novels and recent history

Oh, professor!

In a review of two recent novels that feature professor-student affairs, reviewer Michelle Dean asks where is the frank discussion of power?  She writes,

The professor-student romance debate similarly breaks down, for the most part, to two opposing views. In one corner you have your Roiphes and your Paglias, who style themselves as revolutionaries for celebrating the power dynamics of the status quo. In the other you have feminists more aligned with Andrea Dworkin who seem to believe one can remove power from relationships entirely.

(Presumably, she meant to write instead “feminists more aligned with Andrea Dworkin who seem to believe one can’t remove power from relationships entirely.  At least, I’ve never read a word of Dworkin to mean that there was any such thing as sexuality without power.  This is a woman who was closely aligned with Catherine Mackinnon, the woman who wrote “man f^(ks woman, subject verb object.”)

So what do these new novelistic treatments of professor-student sexual relationships have to say about them?  Both Susan Choi’s My Education and Jessica Lott’s The Rest of Us “seem ultimately uncomfortable with the very subject they have taken on—as though their authors are ultimately unwilling to confront the thicket of moral issues such relationships raise.”  In Choi’s novel, the relationship is between two women, and in Lott’s book it’s a heterosexual affair, but both books ultimately shy away from talking about power.

Part of the reason, Dean suggests, is that “neither author makes her protagonist the actual student, in the literal sense, of her lover. Terry, the student in Lott’s book, only audited a class by her eventual lover Rhinehart, a famous poet and professor. Choi’s Regina becomes involved with her professor’s wife, Martha, who is herself an academic.” But Dean doesn’t buy this evasion:

If one party is always a teacher, and the other a student, in a relationship, then someone has the upper hand. That someone is Henry Higgins to his Eliza. Both Choi and Lott are coy on this point. It is out of vogue to talk about power and its uses in any direct way, so they don’t. And funnily enough, it is the silence about that dynamic that, more than anything, brings out the frustrated Puritan in women who look from afar upon these relationships. Like me, reading these books, thinking about the stories I used to hear of the professors who harvested the undergraduates each fall, remembering how prudish it felt to observe the predictable cliché of it all.

Of course, all love has an element of worship, and worshipper and worshipee are not unlike student and teacher. But the gold standards of romance, those beloved 19th-century novels, understood that the worship isn’t always deserved, and provokes suffering. Think of Colonel Brandon waiting at a respectful distance for Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. (It helps to lean on Alan Rickman’s heavy-lidded interpretation here.) Think of how Jane Eyre resolves to deal with Mr. Rochester’s deceit: “Not a human being that ever lived could wish to be loved better than I was loved; and him who thus loved me I absolutely worshipped: and I must renounce love and idol.”

So it’s curious to find that in The Rest of Us and My Education, the renunciation of the teacher-idol never happens. Terry and Rhinehart do not live happily ever after, but neither does Terry begin to see his faults clearly. Regina and Martha are able to treat each other more maturely because of the passage of years—and so the reader is robbed of the chance to say to Martha: “My God, what were you thinking?” And never mind the reader—rebellion doesn’t seem to be an option even for the students, either. They remain simple receptors of the teacher’s message in the end. All faults are the students’ own; they were the ones with growing up to do.

Both books, then, ignore the crucial emotional experience of resenting the person who made you worship them when you were young and impressionable. As one should, by the way.

Although it’s feminism that encouraged us to think about power in sexual relationships, it’s clearly another countervailing  force in feminist thought that animates Choi’s and Lott’s novels:  the rejection of women’s victimhood.  I see the same thing in a great deal of feminist historical scholarship, too.  Feminist scholars are extraordinarily reluctant to portray their subjects as victims in any way.

This is especially true in recent women’s history.  For example, over my recent vacation I read Lois Banner’s recent biography of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn (2012).  I found Banner’s argument that MM was an invention of herself and a second-wave feminist avant la lettre compelling and convincing.  However, I wondered how that reading of MM’s life squares with its sad ending:  Banner mentions only in passing that MM was bugged by J. Edgar Hoover at the time of her death!  She was carrying on affairs with both President John Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, in the last years of her life, and she strongly implies that if Bobby Kennedy was not also involved in her murder, he was at least heavily involved in the cleanup after her death.  Banner also mentions casually that MM’s drug use may have led to an anal gang-rape by Sam Giancana and his cronies at a party in Palm Springs!  I think it’s wrong to see MM only as a victim or creation manipulated by others, but we can see her as both the author of her own life and also the victim of circumstances beyond her ability to control as well.

Young women’s sexuality can be used as a kind of power, and it can make them feel powerful.  But it’s not unambiguously an instrument to power in the way that money or real power is–the kind that the Kennedys, Hoover, and Giancana possessed and used ruthlessly.  I think that historians and novelists alike can tell women’s stories in complex ways that avoid both total victimhood or total empowerment, if they want to.

Have any of you read Banner’s Marilyn yet?  What did you think?  (I really enjoyed it and absolutely recommend it.)  And what do you think about this aversion to portraying women as victims either in contemporary novels or in history books?

20 thoughts on “Sexuality and power in recent novels and recent history

  1. “Presumably she meant to write…*can’t remove power…” re Dworkin. Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but it doesn’t seem like the scale of a slip-of-the-keyboard that one would not catch before hitting send to Slate. Can’t get the link to click on a library catalogue terminal. Is that just a top-of-the-review throw-off, the described binary between the Roiphs/Paglias and Dworkin, or does it carry through and shape the review? Because if she is reading a major thinker in opposite ways from the way most have, that would be more interesting than her take on the books themselves.

    There was a relationship like this in the last weeks of my time in high school, at a small and somewhat intense private school, between a female boarder classmate and a hip young English teacher (not *that* much older than her). First rumored, then scoffed off and carefully negotiated around a delicate prom situation, then revealed the next spring with a quiet resignation, a college transfer, and a marriage, followed a year later by a reported un-marriage. Never heard anything about how it turned out beyond that, as there was no “hometown” that all of the students came from.


  2. Having had that teacher-student relationship (have we discussed is Historiann? Memory says yes) one reason to punt is that it is so complicated. It’s not as if I was locked in the attic: I would hop on my bike and ride five miles to engage in my own oppression! It is only decades later that the questions have become more nuanced for me, in part because at the time I was so invested in my own agency. Now, at 55, I am positioned differently and would view my own role in such an arrangement as complete loss of control/sanity.

    So I’ve looked at life from both sides now…..


  3. Young women’s sexuality can be used as a kind of power, and it can make them feel powerful. But it’s not unambiguously an instrument to power in the way that money or real power is.


    Women have always had this supposed power–or at least the pretty ones have, for the few years between puberty and marriage, pregnancy, or a nasty disfiguring disease.

    And we see how far this particular power has historically gotten women.


  4. we can see her as both

    Indeed, but I think TR’s point about hindsight (and about life’s illusions) is important. Actions that–when viewed from either very close or far away–have all the trappings of self-determination may not be that way at all. But then, I’m not sure there is necessarily a difference between “agency” and “the best I could manage at the time.”


  5. I also think that female sexuality in this context means ‘influencing men to do things (for you)’, not holding power yourself. And we have to ask, if this is the case, who really has the power?


  6. I think that historians and novelists alike can tell women’s stories in complex ways that avoid both total victimhood or total empowerment, if they want to.

    Historians, probably. Novelists, I don’t think so. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte were friggin’ GENIUSES–what they pulled off in the middle ground between victimhood and agency isn’t what “novelists” generically can do.

    Even if a contemporary writer were as gifted as they, the challenge would be harder for her. Today we read Austen and Bronte (also Dickens and Trollope) all agreeing that women were disempowered back then and had to tread carefully to express themselves and get what they want. A contemporary fiction writer has to work around the trope of the Whiny Woman Plays the Victim Card because, dontcha know, the oppression of women has ended. Variations on a theme of empowerful are the only way to get published.


  7. That’s an interesting point, LadyProf–I suppose it is easier for historians (at least for pre-1980 subjects) to write about the very real constraints of patriarchy. Banner does this well in her MM bio.

    Of course, one solution to this feminist problem is to write a historical rather than a contemporary novel!

    Yes, TR–we talked about your teacher-student fling when we read & wrote about Terry Castle’s The Professor a few summers back. (And we bonded on that issue, too. ‘Nuff said.) I think your point about hindsight & the relative wisdom that comes with age is important.

    Even when I was in my late 20s, the undergraduate students all looked like fetuses to me. Absolutely none of the young men were or are at all sexually appealing to me. So I really don’t get how or why some male proffies are drawn to their students, esp. undergrads. It verges on pedophilia, from my perspective.


  8. Even when I was in my late 20s, the undergraduate students all looked like fetuses to me. Absolutely none of the young men were or are at all sexually appealing to me. So I really don’t get how or why some male proffies are drawn to their students, esp. undergrads. It verges on pedophilia, from my perspective.

    Yep. In my grad program, plenty of male graduate students date undergrads (and we’re not talking the 23 yr old grad student dating the college senior; we’re talking men in their late 20s/early 30s dating undergrads). No female graduate students do. My female friends and I find this pattern incredibly disturbing: not only is there an intensely problematic power differential between male grad students and female undergrads, but it suggests that the men *need* to feel more powerful and this dynamic transfers, at times, into professional settings in which men are skeptical or or don’t want to acknowledge the value of the ideas suggested by women.

    [And then people wonder why there are so many single female grad students…]


  9. Yes, there’s got to be some room to comment. There’s a gulf between speaking the truth about gendered power dynamics and practicing paternalistic victim-making on young women. Everyone’s choices exist in the context of a larger power structure, theirs no more or less so.

    It doesn’t matter if a particular undergrad doesn’t feel victimized by her relationship with a male faculty member, if it is in fact the case that she very well might be, the moment she stops playing nice. It doesn’t matter that a relationship might not have a clearly-identifiable victim, if the relationship itself degrades the entire academic enterprise for other young women seeking mentors, including out of necessity older male ones.


  10. Great points, rachel & anonymous.

    Per rachel’s observation, I wonder how or if these male graduate students accustomed to dating undergrads make the transition to faculty life? Do they start dating their grad students instead, or do they continue dating the undergrads? Where’s the line, once it’s crossed in this fashion?

    anonymous makes an important point about younger women & older male mentors. In most fields, even in the humanities, it’s a necessity, as ze says. Eroticizing the (sometimes) gender & (persistent) power differences in professor-student or mentor-mentee relationships means that well-meaning people end up shying away from professionally and personally fruitful non-sexual relations because they don’t want or fear that their professional overtures will be misinterpreted as personal/sexual.


  11. The male Faculty member I know well who regularly dates his students always dates u/grads as the p/grads know better. One of the most disturbing things about his behaviour is the impact on the female students he is *not* dating, who see him as predatory and actively avoid him as they are anxious when he is around.

    I think rachel is perhaps right about some men ‘need’ that power differential in their relationships, but I also think that this is embedded in heterosexual norms of desire, so that men are encouraged to see young women as the MOST attractive and there is kudos attached to dating young, attractive women. In contrast, women have often been encouraged to like older men and find them desirable, but even in more modern ideals of desirability, age comes in to play. Currently, attractive men (for the female eye) are increasingly those who are muscular (if not completely ripped), broad-shouldered, perhaps with a bit of stubble. And, while men who look like that often play ‘young’ men on TV, most of those actors are (at least) in their mid-late twenties, because developing that level of muscle and build is difficult for young men, who might not stop growing until they’re 24 (perhaps with the exception of a few athletes in particular fields). So, when we see the bulk of our u/grads, we don’t see the ‘hunky’ ‘young’ men of our TV fantasies but teenagers who are still to develop the builds we are taught to desire.


  12. Faculty member…who regularly dates his students always dates u/grads

    This is not, imho, “dating.”

    Feminist Avatar’s observations about attractiveness norms and the timing of physical development are great. I’m currently teaching a group of first year students that is 10:1 male. The relative ages seem very easy to assess.


  13. For a (probably somwhat non-representative) sampling of some current college women’s analysis of the “cost/benefit” ratio of “dating” v. “hook-up” culture, see the article in the N.Y. Times this past Sunday. I read it too thinly and recycled it too quickly to remember whether it got into student-faculty relationship questions, but think it probably didn’t.


  14. From what I’ve read, “thin” and “recycled” are exactly the adjectives that some have chosen to describe that “hookup culture” article! (See today’s forthcoming post.)


  15. This conversation is pretty interestng to me, mostly because the (feminist) framework you folks are using to think about these things is so utterly different from my moral framework. One planet, two moral universes, I guess.

    Re: In my grad program, plenty of male graduate students date undergrads (and we’re not talking the 23 yr old grad student dating the college senior; we’re talking men in their late 20s/early 30s dating undergrads).

    Wow, I wish my grad program had been like that. I’m in more or less that same boat: I just finished up a grad program (in plant biology) this spring, at 32, and I pretty much only date/am attracted to girls in the traditional undergrad age range. (I started grad school at 26, after a few years in the Peace Corps). I think being surrounded by more grad student guys who date undergrads would have made me feel much more comfortable and confident. (I didn’t actually date at all from about 20-30, because of some serious social anxiety issues that I’m only now growing out of, but since then I’ve dated undergrads. I can walk into a nightclub now and get *much* more attention from 18-22 year olds than when I was their age.

    And in response to your question, Historiann: I’ll be starting a postdoc job soon, and I’m certainly going to try keep dating the undergrads, until I find someone who wants to marry me and have children (not really interested in grad students). A good female friend of mine told me she thinks I can probably keep dating college girls till I’m 50, so there’s no way I’m not going to try. If I start attracting less interest from younger women my plan is to spend some time overseas and find a spouse there in my desired age-range.

    Of course, I wouldn’t ever date someone I taught, who worked for me, or who was under 18. There are more places to meet people besides work, and I have no interest in mixing work life and dating.

    As for what interests me about much younger women? Rachel is definitely right that I *need* a power differential in my relationships. I want to be the provider figure, breadwinner, source of emotional stability, mentor, etc. and I’m looking for someone who can look up to me and expect me to provide those things. I have pretty much zero interest in the ‘partnership of equals’ type of relationship that’s fashionable nowadays, and I wouldn’t get involved with anyone who was looking for that.


  16. Feminist Avatar,

    That’s awesome. I always enjoy reading these threads, because it’s inspiring to hear about people who are confident enough to break out of silly societal fashions about what age range they should date.

    If you’re in your 50s and can still attract 18 years old, all power to you.


  17. Hector, I hope you’re very clear about your intentions to date your students with your chair, dean, and provost. I’m sure they’ll be very interested in this information.

    Anyone over thirty who tries to date undergrads are pathetic as well as morally bankrupt.


  18. The Marilyn book sounds really interesting and I find it fascinating that she still commands scholarly and pop culture attention. But when ever she comes up I think of the scene from the movie Insignificance where “The Actress” aka MM played by Theresa Russell explains the Specific Theory of Relativity to Albert Einstein. Which by the way is the clearest explanation I have come across.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.