Across the country this week and next, college students are taking final exams. Quarters and semesters are coming to an end, and with that, a moment of decision for some with crushes on their professors. I know this well: each year around this time, my inbox fills up with queries from women (and, much less often, men) who want advice on whether they should ask out their instructors once the term is over.
A few years ago, I started a series at my own blog looking at student crushes through a professor's perspective. I wrote as someone who'd been on the receiving end of those crushes, particularly when I was a much-younger faculty member in my late 20s. (Students still get crushes on much older profs, though as far as I can tell in my case, the number began to drop precipitously as I neared 40 and drew close to the age of many of their fathers.) I wrote about the foolish, unethical decision I made early in my career to take advantage of many of those crushes by dating and sleeping with a not-insignificant number of my students. The fact that these women were only a few years younger than me (and in one instance, three years older) made these affairs no less inexcusable. I was fortunate to have kept my job, fortunate never to have been charged with sexual harassment, fortunate to have had the good sense to bring that behavior to a firm end by the time I was 31.
I've had 20 years to reflect on the distinct but related phenomena of student-teacher romances and the crushes that folks get on their professors. (Crushes that are, at least occasionally, reciprocated.) I get lots of email from current college students coping with huge crushes on their instructors as well as a wealth of anecdotes from older people recalling their own experiences of being smitten with the man or the woman in front of the classroom. And while most people seem clear that college professors should never date those who are actually enrolled in their classes, there's a lot of uncertainty about whether it's a good idea for students to pursue their crushes after the term is over. That's the question I get asked, in one form or another, more than any other.
Most of those who write to me are young women who've fallen for male college professors. I also get a significant number of messages from women who've got crushes on their female instructors; I get far more of those than I do from young men who report being smitten with teachers of either sex. Part of that may be because there are still more men than women teaching at the college level, even as women approach 60% of the American undergraduate population. Another reason for the disparity is the reality that, try as we might to fight it, young women are still taught to be attracted to people who are older and more powerful than they are — the knight in shining armor, etc. Young men are not as regularly encouraged to crush on their female professors. (Though I certainly hear some stories about guys doing just that.)
I'm often asked if professors can tell when students are crushing on them. When it was very obvious, I sometimes could, though the outer appearance of enthusiasm for the subject and physical attraction to the one teaching it tend to look very similar. My female colleagues tend to be savvier about recognizing when they're on the receiving end of the crush. "I can always tell, regardless of whether it's a guy or a girl," my colleague Samantha, who teaches psychology, says. "They make it so obvious."
The male profs I've asked about this are considerably less certain, and with good reason. By the time they get to college, many (but by no means all) women have learned that flirtatiousness is a necessary tactic for getting older men's consideration. Some female students flirt with me on their initial visits to my office hours. It's rarely evidence of my desirability. It's more often a reflection of the reality that many women have concluded that if they want to be heard, they'll need to get a male professor's attention first. And they've learned that the quickest way to get that attention is with their sexuality. It's a rare male professor who can easily distinguish between that kind of grim "flirtation of necessity" and a genuine crush. All the more reason for male professors to be leery of what appears to be sexual interest on the part of female students.
I don't have a problem with students asking out their former instructor, provided the grades have been turned in. But I try to warn them that the reality of an actual relationship is likely to be disappointing. Students fall in love with a fantasy; the professor who seems so cool and commanding in the lecture hall is rarely so charismatic over dinner — or as mind-blowing in bed as one might have fantasized. I've seen a number of student-teacher relationships unfold in which a woman ends up dumping her former instructor in near-disgust; the gap between what she thought he was and what he turned out to be was too much to bear. That can be shattering and disillusioning for everyone involved.
Two decades in the classroom have taught me that when it comes to students and teachers, we don't get crushes on people whom we want sexually as often as we get crushes on people whom we want to be like. Yes, some crushes are purely physical. But more are what I'd call aspirational: the objects of the crush represent something students want for themselves. College is an uncertain time; good teachers tend to embody passion and certainty, two things students desperately want. And when they're crushing on a prof, young people are usually confusing the messenger with the message. As I learned the hard way many years ago, rather than encourage the crush to feed our egos, our job as professors is to turn that intensity back on to our students, encouraging them to use their newfound enthusiasm and let it take them to all sorts of wonderful places. Places other, of course, than their professors' bedrooms.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.
Image via Constant/Shutterstock.