Alvin G. Burstein

The recognition that sexual entanglements can become a part of teacher student relationships is a very old one, but the moral implications of that recognition have changed remarkably. The prototypic mentor, Socrates was able both to admit to carnal urgings, indeed, erotic excitement with respect to his young students (Plato, 1964a), and simultaneously able to decline acceptance of Alcibiades' seductive attempts without recrimination (Plato, 1964b). On the other hand, the sexual relationship between the middle-aged twelfth century philosopher Abelard and his teen-aged student Heloise, though subject to rigorous punishment (castration for him, cloistering for her), is regarded by many as one of the great love stories of all time (Abelard & Heloise, 1974).

Evidence that such relationships have persisted into modern times can be found in the attention being given the affaire de coeur between the married thirty-five year old Martin Heidegger and his 18 year old student Hannah Arendt which began in 1925 and lasted for decades (Wilson, 1995). Those critical of this recently publicized affair seem to focus on Arendt's lack of taste in loving a Nazi apologist or her lack of integrity in defending him rather than on his marital inconstancy, her willingness to be "the other woman" or the disparity in their ages (not very different than that of Abelard and Heloise). No one has expressed surprise that a brilliant philosopher and his extraordinarily talented student would be attracted to each other. To these examples one might add others: the extramarital relationship and later marriage of the famous psychologist, John B. Watson to his graduate student, Rosalie Raynor, a situation which many think led to the end of his academic career (Buckley, 1989) and Bertrand Russell's relationships with younger women attracted, despite his marriage, by his brilliance and his interest in their ideas (Clark, 1975).

To these more or less dated examples, one could also add the case of James Maas, the Cornell award winning teacher and psychology researcher, whose Chancellor's medal has been revoked following allegations by some former students that he expressed his affection for them in physical ways, kissing and fondling them; Maas' retort is that he is a warm and affectionate person and that he had no intention of becoming involved in illicit sexual relationships with them (Wilson, 1995).

The force of these examples is not that sexual relationships can sometimes occur between mentors and their students, but the stronger and more problematic notion that there may be something about teacher student relationships that fosters erotic feelings, or that teaching and learning have an erotic component. My intention is to explore that notion in the context of a shift in the way in which such relationships are currently viewed and reacted to.

That shift is exemplified in the book authored by Billie Wright Dzeich and Linda Weiner, The Lecherous Professor, published first in 1984, with a second edition in 1990 (Dzeich & Weiner, 1984, 1990). This book has three components: anecdotal accounts of women students of being sexually harassed by male faculty members, a few accounts of administrative reactions to those accounts and a detailed collection of university codes and policy statements dealing with sexual relations between faculty and students. A fourth component of the book is its "view with alarm" message, citing some estimates of the extent of such activity and underscoring its seriousness as a source of anguish to students. That contemporary concern with the issue is still at a high level, and the nature of that concern, is illustrated by a Harper's Magazine forum on the topic, "New Rules About Sex on Campus," (Forum, 1993), in which faculty note and take exception to the proliferation of administrative proscriptions of sexual relationships between faculty and students; an October, 1995 article, "Hot for Teacher," in University Magazine, describing the development of such a policy by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Hackley, 1995) and, not least, the involvement of the American Association of University Professors in drafting a policy statement on the issue (Report, 1995).

Three themes seem to emerge from this complex of activities: the first is a degree of tension between an air of moral outrage and something that strikes me as provocative cynicism, as illustrated in the "Hot for Teacher" title and the claims by one of the Harper forum participants that a professor might be uniquely qualified to "help" a woman student who "has unnaturally prolonged her virginity." The second is a definition of such relationships as a stereotypically polarized one in which there is a perpetrator and a victim. Usually the (woman) student is seen as the victim of the "lecherous professor," and there is an emphasis on the imbalance of power between the two, but sometimes, rarely, the student is seen as a siren-like corrupter offering to have sex for grades. Third, there is an effort to act as though whatever problems might exist in such relationships are the result of a naivete' that administrative clarifications will forestall.

There seems a striking contrast between the views of such relationships as highly individualized ones in which we can admire and find instructive both Socrates' restraint and Abelard's devotion and the more contemporary examples in which both motives and intentions seem trivialized.

I would argue that this shift is in large part a result of what might be termed the industrialization or mercantilization of education. The paradigm of teaching and learning as a highly personal activity based on the wish to emulate and please a mentor or to transform a protege has undergone an industrial revolution based on large numbers of students, and programmatic, largely vocational, definitions of curricula. In this context the equivalence of programs and of courses becomes of more concern than the recognition or valuing of individual differences. The contemporary university is more like a department store or factory than it is like a Socratic academy. Not surprisingly, then, the student has become seen as a customer negotiating a contract for desired credentials, and issues of truth in advertizing, value for the dollar and fair trade supplant those of individual admiration and respect. Because the parties to a business transaction are each trying to maximize their profit, adversarial motives are assumed rather than affiliative ones, and justice or right behavior become construed in terms of levelness of playing field and potential for exploitation. Because the student is seen to be in a weak situation, needing something (a grade, a diploma) that the professor controls, he or she must be protected by the shield of the helpless, rules and laws. If a professor is thought to care deeply enough about his or her student that he would seek their good and despise the notion of gratifying himself at the student's expense, he might, in this age, be thought to be too involved, incapable of objectivity and at risk of a code violation.

Clearly, the modern university is not a classical academy. The demands of educating a reasonably democratic citizenry, the success of scientific research in enriching everyday life and the rise of the educationally defined professions all press for an educational system that deals with large numbers and in which professors have interests which diverge from those of many of their students. Nevertheless, as I reflect on my own decision to teach and as I talk to my colleagues I am repeatedly struck with how important teaching is. And I mean teaching as opposed to the retailing of facts or skills. The heart of education, the element of education that makes it a calling rather than an occupation or trade is that it centers on changing minds. The moments that give teaching its special value are those when, even in a large lecture, one sees a student's eyes widen as a vista previously unknown to them suddenly explodes in their awareness or when a student seeks one out to share some deeply held view that now requires deeper exploration. In that sense, the academy is not dead, but the living heart of the university.

Let me now return to the central question which I intended to raise; is there something essentially erotic about teaching and learning? I would say yes.

One of the most startling and profound discoveries of psychoanalysis is that of the importance of transference in understanding human nature. The fundamental and mind boggling essence of transference is that it shatters two paradigms: that of memory as a reasonably veridical video-tape of past events and of human beings as pleasure seeking, problem solving machines. The concept of transference says that an important and problematic aspect of memory is to store, without conscious awareness, in behavioral, not cognitive terms, the patterns of past repressed interpersonal conflicts, and to repeat, in our behavior, and without awareness, those unprofitable and painful patterns. This paradoxical persistence of unrewarding behavior was one root source of Freud's (1953) having to move "Beyond the Pleasure Principal," and the key to the move in psychoanalytic technique to focus on analysis of the transference as crucial.

The recognition of transference grew out of an attempt to understand the vicissitudes of the analysand's emotional investment in his or her analyst, and is often trivialized into a notion that psychotherapy patients are expected/required to fall in love with their shrinks. This trivialization involves two errors: seeing transference as a phenomenon restricted to the consultation room and seeing it as restricted to patients. While it is true that infatuations and "crushes" are transference, transference involves the whole range of intense feelings, positive and negative, and emerges, not only on the analytic couch, but in all relationships in which trust is a crucial element. This paradoxical persistence is not peculiar to the consultation room nor to patients, it is ubiquitous and as problematic to therapists (when for foolish reasons) it is called counter-transference as it is to their patients and to people in general. Fenichel remarked that every psychoanalyst must navigate the dangerous straits between the Scylla of an obsessional preoccupation with technique and the Charybdis of floating on the sea of one's countertransference.

One of the most important discoveries of psychoanalysis is this discovery that trusting relationships have the capacity to evoke strong, unpredictable, problematic and difficult to control passions, passions that are the residuals of the passionate experiences of childhood, and involve both partners in the relationship.

I have argued elsewhere (Burstein, et al., 1984) that there is a class of professions for which trust is a crucial element. Examples would include law, medicine and teaching--at least teaching which centers on mentoring and changing minds. Trusting relationships breed transference reactions because they recreate the parent-child paradigm. For that reason, teachers and students, at least teachers and students who are deeply involved in the project of changing minds, can be expected to experience the dangerous cross-currents of transference feelings, rendered even more dangerous by a failure to acknowledge their presence and power. It is this circumstance that renders a reliance on codes or informed consent models in the constructive management of the emotions involved in teaching and learning naive' or problematic.

Put another way, I am saying that teaching, like psychoanalysis, is a project of changing minds that is deeply personal and deeply involving and is embedded in a trusting relationship and that, that kind of relationship evokes conflictual and passionate experiences of childhood in both the parties involved. The belief that codes and policies will prevent exploitative corruptions of these relationships is rooted in the misconception that those involved are not aware that they are on dangerous ground, and that if they knew that to be the case they would choose rationally to avoid danger and/or censure. In fact, they are often in the grip of powerful irrational and partly unconscious motives. What is much more often the case is that those involved feel caught, conflicted, frightened and excited, a compound of present perceptions and past unconscious memories. I would argue that the laudable end of minimizing the hurtful and exploitive possibilities in these relationships lies, not in the publication of codes, but in the recognition of the power of emotions and the nature of the teaching and learning experience.

Of course, it can and will be argued that it is recognized the publication of codes and policies in themselves do little, but that their publication does no harm and can potentiate a conversation that might change values and behavior. I would argue to the contrary, that teachers know they should not exploit students and that students know that sex should not be exchanged for grades; that we are too eager to take the publication of such codes as a replacement for personal collegial accountability, substituting administrative reviews and hearings, and all of the trappings of due process for difficult personal encounters with the professor or student whom we feel is behaving inappropriately. Put another way, we shrink from confronting a colleague or a student with our questions about their behavior, preferring to become thus complicit in their improprieties rather than dealing with the tensions and enmities the confrontation entails.

Recognizing the emotional and human side of teaching, bringing this issue into the arena of the mentionable, and offering young teachers a venue in which openly to discuss their feelings about their students is at least as important as guidelines for curving grades or constructing exams and more likely to be helpful than publishing codes of behavior.


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Wilson, Robin (1995, July 7). Cornell Professor Found Guilty of Harassment. Chronicle of Higher Education, XLI(43), p. A14.

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