When you swipe right on your professor

Sex and attraction between students and teachers

Photo by Tony Lam Hoang on Unsplash

Ethan wanted to talk to me after class. He looked uncomfortable. Naturally, I thought he had a complaint. Or a sister in the hospital. Maybe he was going to ask me for a deadline extension.

Instead, he invited me on a date.

He didn’t ask the way a confident adult would. After all, I was 27 to his 19. That’s almost cougar status. Especially in this case.

His opening line was, “The thing is, I find you incredibly attractive. And I don’t know what else to do. Is there even a chance?”

Ethan was appealing, but no. Zero chance. We talked about whether he would stay in my class. He said his fondness wouldn’t become a discipline issue. And he turned out to be a great student. Still, I made a report to my boss. Just in case. Imagine if he failed my class. Filed a grade appeal. Told Student Affairs that I hit on him, or encouraged him. What a stain.

One time, a student in my friend’s class took a direct approach. They lived in the same apartment complex. So he knocked on her door and invited her over for casual sex. She had to drop him from her class.

That was years ago. Now, students and teachers have even more ways to get into trouble. Imagine finding a former student or professor on Tinder. Would you swipe right? For me, that’s a stern no. And not just because I’m married. We’re talking about legal issues, ethics, and HR policy. But I’m not the arbiter of morality. It’s a tricky question.

The trope of sexy teacher

Every teacher wants their students to like them. At least a little. Some of us even want them to find us attractive. How weird is that? In grad school, most TAs would’ve killed for a chili pepper on their RateMyProfessor page. One guy even created a fake account to give himself one.

RateMyProfessor has died, but the idea hasn’t. Pop culture and entertainment still celebrate the sexy teacher. The stereotype sells. Sexy teachers are extremely marketable. [Insert Van Halen GIF. Just kidding.]

Just don’t be too sexy. Especially in real life. Teachers face all kinds of risks when they’re not dancing in music videos. For starters, the parents can get pissed off. That happened to one teacher who posted “too many” workout photos. She almost got fired. Every day, some teacher gets in trouble because students dig into their smartphones looking for nudes.

If you ask me, it’s a shitty double standard. Executive producers can make a killing off the trope of sexy teacher. Meanwhile, actual teachers lose their jobs if they’re too hot. Pop culture encourages students to sexualize their teachers. But teachers have to act like nuns.

When fantasy hits the fan

Part of me likes the taboo of student attraction. But it’s just that — an off limits fantasy. Teachers want the chili pepper for its own sake. Otherwise, sex and charm can make us vulnerable. A chili pepper presents a nice, sanitized version of what can happen in actual classrooms.

A friend of mine didn’t think anything about her flirty students. Until about halfway through her first year. One day, she showed up eight minutes late for class. A male student joked about giving her a spanking, and setting a sterner curfew. He implied she’d stayed up all night having sex, evidenced by her bed head. No, it wasn’t me. Honestly.

These days, I know better. I mean, my friend knows better. I’ve gotten older. But I also care less about what my students think about me personally. I honestly don’t care if they think I’m attractive, cool, smart, or anything else. And if I don’t care about those things, and keep the focus on their future, it’ll show. And the respect will follow.

Most of the time.

Drawing thin red lines

Teachers will always have to be the ones who set the boundaries. Double standard or not, we live in a culture that shoulders unfair levels of responsibility on educators. We’re paid squat, but half the country thinks we should be carrying firearms to protect their kids.

The public trusts us with guiding future generations. Kind of. Honestly, we’re mostly in charge of keeping them occupied during business hours, and not fucking them up too much.

I’ve learned a lot about setting boundaries. These days, I don’t tell my students anything about me. Except that I’m married. That one helps a lot. Sometimes, I’ll share just enough to make myself look normal. Like trips to the zoo. Netflix shows I like. I don’t tell them anything along the lines of what appears on my blog. And if any of them do stumble across my profile, they’d better not bring it up in class. Boundaries.

Some students don’t understand boundaries. So you have to make them redder, thicker, bolder. Like one who came to my office hours almost every day. For weeks.

He was an older returning student. Former military. Didn’t need help. Just came by to visit. As if I were lonely in my office, just waiting for a conversation partner. Not trying to write. Or grade.

One time he found out my birthday and brought cake and flowers. Stayed in my office for almost an hour, asking personal questions and telling me how special I was. That day, I had to pretend to pack up and leave. I said, “My FIANCE is taking me out to dinner.” Walked to my car, and then sneaked back into my office and worked with the door closed. It wasn’t a total lie. We did go out for dinner. That weekend.

Teachers have a bad rep these days

I’ve flirted, but never dated a student. Not even a former one. It’s smart to avoid drama. Especially in academia. Anytime we turn up in the news, it’s for something bad. Skim the headlines: Teacher busted for kiddie porn. Arrested for sleeping with students. Fired for salacious tweets. Disciplined for scandalous photos. You name it.

Politicians engage in these same criminal behaviors. But they hardly ever face consequences. When they do, they rarely feel them in their wallets. They land cushy jobs as consultants and TV pundits. Few teachers turn out so lucky. A publicly shamed teacher might wind up in a van down by the river.

That’s why I always tread carefully. Besides, I’ve never met anyone in my classes that warranted the risk. Most of them can’t drink — at least not legally. They live in dorms. They prefer video games to films with subtitles. Talk about an awkward date night. No, for me it would turn into meaningless sex. And I can get that from someone old enough to buy me a drink first.

Some teachers do court former students

Attraction drives on two-way streets. For every student who fantasizes about their teacher, a teacher does the same. We hear plenty of stories about lecherous professors. One colleague narrowly escaped being fired after he invited a student to his house and tried to make out with her over cappuccinos and biscotti.

You don’t hear so much about healthy, consensual relationships forming between teachers and students. Sure, it’s rare. But it happens. A few friends of mine married former students from their undergrad seminars. They managed to do so with a surprising absence of stigma.

I’ve never considered any of my students dating material. But we have to acknowledge that there’s nothing inherently wrong with dating someone you used to teach. The couples I know didn’t date until well afterward. They didn’t pull any tricks, or engage in clandestine practices.

How did they pull it off? I imagine it was simple. They shared genuine feelings and mutual respect. It wasn’t about some lecherous professor trying to get laid, or taking advantage of their authority. More than just a passing infatuation. When you love someone, the rest is just details.

Teachers enjoy sex, just like you

I’ve wondered why sex and education have such an odd relationship. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with finding a teacher attractive. Or vice versa. Sex happens. And attraction comes cheap. There’s no point in acting surprised. Seems like anytime I write about sex, I wind up coming to the same general conclusions. We would have a lot less trouble if we didn’t repress talk about sex and sexuality.

Stop shaming teachers into acting like nuns. We’re not. When nobody’s looking, we have normal consensual sex and drink alcohol. Whether you see pics on Facebook or not, we’re doing it. During the day, we’re tasked with educating young adults about the world. Preparing them for it. We aren’t guardians of virginity and innocence.

I’m not saying let teachers do whatever they want, just stop scapegoating us for everything that’s wrong today. Unless I post a full nude selfie on my faculty profile page, or sext undergrads on the weekends, then I’m probably not the source of corruption that politicians would have the public believe. It would be nice to be treated like a citizen. Not chained to a pedestal. Not overly sexualized. Just respected. Maybe even appreciated.