“Enjoy her! She’s a perk.”
The titular quote is reproduced absolutely verbatim from the advice of a male academic discussing what to do with a hypothetical female student who ‘flashes her admiration and who asks for advice on her essays’. Leaving aside the possibility that she might, you know, actually want help with her essays, there is so much wrong with this man’s so-called ‘advice’ that I don’t know where to start.
Let’s start with the Times Higher Education supplement, who published the whole article on the ‘seven deadly sins’ of modern university life, with seven academics providing ‘amusing examples’ of the vices in action. It’s pretty obvious that it’s a light-hearted article about the weird and wonderful world of university, which to be fair isn’t exactly a place where normal rules apply.
The entries on Sartorial Inelegance, Procrastination and Pedantry are genuinely funny, and written with a certain rueful affection for those staples of academic life: dons are legendary for all three and it’s pretty much something you expect. Those on Arrogance, Snobbery and Complacency are a little more worrying, because unlike the previous three they are not always without consequence, and the consequences can be bad for the university, the academic, their colleagues and their students alike.
But the remaining entry – Lust – is strikingly out of place, to the point where I boggle at the thought that anyone at the THES thought it could possibly be a good idea. You’d almost understand if it were about the inadvisable things most students get up to and the sticky consequences, because (as our Students’ Union warns you every few yards) irresponsible sexual behaviour leads to heartache, STDs and children.
But no. It’s not about the prevalence of people drinking too much and not thinking enough: it’s about why it’s entirely okay for male lecturers to look at, and indeed fantasise about, their female students.
Let’s have another look at this section of the article. It was written by one Dr Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. In other words, someone in a senior administrative position, with a great deal of power in his institution, and with everything he says reflecting on his university by virtue of that power. In the article he describes how
Normal girls – more interested in abs than in labs, more interested in pecs than specs, more interested in triceps than tripos – will abjure their lecturers for the company of their peers, but nonetheless, most male lecturers know that, most years, there will be a girl in class who flashes her admiration and who asks for advice on her essays. What to do?
Enjoy her! She’s a perk. She doesn’t yet know that you are only Casaubon to her Dorothea, Howard Kirk to her Felicity Phee, and she will flaunt you her curves. Which you should admire daily to spice up your sex, nightly, with the wife.
Yup, I’m afraid so. As in Stringfellows, you should look but not touch. Be warned by the fates of too many of the protagonists in Middlemarch, The History Man and I Am Charlotte Simmons. And in any case, you should have learnt by now that all cats are grey in the dark.
Right. So you want to stare at your attractive female students, so that you can fantasise about them later on while having boring sex in the dark with your – sorry ‘the’, presumably in line with ‘the car’ and ‘the toaster’ – wife.
His phrasing makes me gag. If he’d said that looking at, or the chance to look at, the nice girl in the front row was a ‘perk’ of the job, I might be able to see his point. We like looking at attractive people. But people themselves, female or male, are not objects, are not ‘perks’ to be ‘enjoyed’. The free parking is a perk. The nice view over the quad is a perk. I’m a female student. I’m there to study. I’m not there to be used like the bloody departmental coffee machine.
Despite the my reaction to the above, I have no problem with what Dr Kealey does to spice up his sex life (although judging by this it seems like his wife might); I’m not the thought police. Nor do I have a problem with people looking at other people they find attractive: it’s human, it’s probably universal to the sexual population, and it’s simply not something you can police.
Simply looking rarely does harm, for the main reason that the subject of the look is generally not aware of it and what you don’t know can’t hurt you. We’re sufficiently accustomed to social interaction that most people accept they will be looked at, with varying motives, on a regular basis. Kealey, on the other hand, by writing this ‘amusing’ article, has effectively forced his subjects to be aware, without, evidently, an iota of consideration for the female students who really didn’t want to know that their lecturer is hitting on them. Or, perhaps, didn’t want to be triggered into tears and panic by the revelation that their lecturer is the same kind of scary fantasist as someone who once abused them.
The truly worrying part of the article, however, is a little earlier, where Kealey reveals that behind his own personal inclinations lie some very unpleasant sexual politics.
When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he is famously said to have replied, “because that’s where the money is”. Equally, the universities are where the male scholars and the female acolytes are. Separate the acolytes from the scholars by prohibiting intimacy between staff and students (thus confirming that sex between them is indeed transgressive – the best sex being transgressive, as any married person will soulfully confirm) and the consequences are inevitable.
The fault lies with the females. The myth is that an affair between a student and her academic lover represents an abuse of his power. What power? Thanks to the accountability imposed by the Quality Assurance Agency and other intrusive bodies, the days are gone when a scholar could trade sex for upgrades. I know of two girls who, in 1982, got firsts in biochemistry from a south-coast university in exchange for favours to a professor, but I know of no later scandals.
My emphasis. I’m speechless. To my knowledge sex between staff and students isn’t actually prohibited in most UK universities so long as both are consenting adults, but there’s a reason that its public revelation will lose you your job. It’s because, yeah, it’s an abuse of power. Kealey’s blather about ‘the days are gone when a student could trade sex for upgrades’ shows a complete misreading of, or more likely wilful blindness to, the power dynamic here. Having sex with a professor may not help your academic progress, but who’s to bet that refusing sex with a professor wouldn’t damage it?
My tutors mark my essays, review my unassessed work, give me guidance on further work and will one day write the references I use to try and get a career. That is a hell of a lot of power for someone to have over you. And Dr Kealey is a vice-chancellor, with the kind of connections that only very senior academics have. That is career-wrecking, life-ruining potential, right there. I’d say there’s a fair argument that sex where one partner is so very powerless relative to the other is by definition coercive; even if you don’t accept that, it’s plain that Kealey’s ‘What power?’ is nonsense.
And that’s before we look at Kealey’s lofty description of ‘male scholars’ and ‘female acolytes’, presumably flocking to be educated at the altar of male knowledge. Because there are obviously neither female lecturers nor male students in Kealey’s world. Also, ‘as any married person will soulfully confirm’, marriage is clearly dull as ditchwater and impossible to maintain a happy sex life within. And, oh, it must be ‘the fault of the females’ that student/lecturer sex happens, because clearly no male academic is physically capable of politely refusing an offer which it would be idiotic, inappropriate and unprofessional to accept.
Kealey’s article does so many disservices to so many people it’s hard to know where to start. To his ‘normal’ female students, dismissed as interested only in boys and their muscles. To his genuinely interested female students, who just want help with their essays, without being perved on. To his male students, who presumably don’t exist, or are neglected in favour of their more attractive classmates. To his male colleagues, for suggesting they are incapable of professional behaviour. To his female colleagues, who, again, are presumed not to exist – Kealey seems to conflate ‘academic’ with ‘male’. To his wife, who I can’t imagine being happy to read this stuff in this tone in a national newspaper. To his university, for bringing it a fuckton of negative publicity. But by God, most to himself. I wouldn’t wish the loss of students, reputation, job and marriage on anyone, but in this case I can’t say I’d be entirely surprised.