The Weekly Cover Story: Hot For Teacher

Teddy, Nick

Just like any doomed romance, it started with a personal ad on Craiglist.The author – let’s call her Joni – described herself only a little: A sorority girl, 19, disillusioned by the NU dating scene, looking for a man. “It would just be a little two-sentence bio,” she says. “Maybe a cropped photo.”Joni and her friends posted these kinds of ads as a joke, just to compare who would bite. “Nothing ever comes of it,” she says. And to be sure, the respondents were themselves mostly jokes – creeps and fetishists looking to “lick your feet or trying to sell you something from Nigeria.” But one reply in her inbox was not as easy to ignore.Subject: “I am…”Body: “a critically acclaimed author who was reading those ads for other reasons. Your post was very well written. Almost too well written. Is it legit? Or something else?”Joni was intrigued. She was tired of dates with stammering NU boys who didn’t want to “date” in the first place. And the “author” bit piqued her interest. “I find myself having respect crushes on some of my profs,” she says. Intellectual clout turns her on. She has fantasized about dating her instructors, but feared that disciplinary consequences would result.Mid-October, she decided to write him back. There followed an e-mail exchange that was not sexual in nature – at least not at first. He really was the author of a well-received novel. And he was a professor of writing at a private college in the Chicago area (not NU). He said he was cruising the personals as research for his next book.Initially he refused to send her a picture because he was a “semi-public figure,” but within a few e-mails, Joni independently formed a picture: A confident intellectual type with Don Draper-style good looks, virile but mature, with a low, measured voice. “I was going by what little details I had and building it up in my mind,” she says.”By the way, he’s 38.”His age was an issue for Joni. Yet she figured that their exchange wouldn’t leave the Internet. Meanwhile, their conversations were sliding into the realm of shared sexual fantasies. The professor entertained many of the same daydreams about instructor indecency, involving high skirts, low blouses, bondage, spanking and desks. “One of them we talked about was hypothetically if I went to visit him in his office hours, wearing a typical schoolgirl outfit,” she says. “Going to his office, closing the door … everyone being none the wiser and we’re fucking in his office.”After a few e-mails back and forth, they moved to instant messenger conversations and Joni explained that a picture was non-negotiable. She needed to know what he looked like. He sent his picture, and she was let down: There was no physical attraction. The professor – let’s call him Eliot – looked older, plainer and less professorial than the man about whom she had fantasized. “I didn’t quite realize the effect to which he reminded me of my father,” Joni says.Even so, the chat sessions became a nightly occurrence, and they started exchanging more than words. With her webcam, Joni let Eliot watch her during the conversations, although she could not see him. She admits, “There was some inappropriateness going on with the webcam.” She was never fully nude, but she would try on bras and panties for him. “It was fun to be kind of exhibitionistic, because I don’t often get to indulge in that.”Joni’s appearance and voice have an unaffected softness, and she looks like the last person from whom you’d expect anything we might call sexual deviancy. While she spoke, her fingers and voice trembled slightly, but by and large she seemed thrilled to be confessing the whole experience. She has told practically no one else. Even her roommate in the sorority is “none the wiser” about the whole relationship – “Thank God.”There were close calls, though. Once, modeling a thong for Eliot, she heard the doorknob jiggling. “I had to rush and put a towel over me,” she says. “Some people think that’s exciting. I just think that sucked!”A month passed, and somewhere beyond the porno clichés and webcam exhibitionism, certain affection developed. “It kind of got me through my day, ” Joni says. “I didn’t realize how attached I was getting to it.” They would exchange endearments and compliments, and although she had never met him or even heard his voice, the sessions felt “like having a conversation with a boyfriend.” The picture of Eliot which at first thwarted her desire looked more attractive every day. She began inserting his face into her sexual fantasies.One day, Joni asked if he wanted to meet in person. He agreed. They settled on meeting at a burrito place off Addison.At this point it’s fair to ask: What drives a pretty, intelligent college girl to leave her sorority without telling a soul and hop on a train to Wrigleyville, to grab lunch with a 38-year-old man she has never met? Is dating at NU really that bad?Or was it the fantasy, shared by many or even most of us, that in the desexualized halls and classrooms of NU, behind our appropriate public behavior with this professor or that T.A., there could be some private and inappropriate connection? If you’ve never had an attractive instructor on the left side of middle age, there may be no explaining it. If you have, you might know the feeling all too well.When we asked 100 students, “Have you ever fantasized about hooking up with a professor or T.A.?” fully 39 percent of women and 49 percent of men said they had. And that’s doubtless a little low, since respondents may feel pressured to show off their propriety.Gregory Ward, who teaches gender studies and linguistics at NU (but doesn’t hook up with his students), sheds some light on the strange appeal. “My first association was when people become intrigued or perhaps even drawn to actors,” he says. “They’re seen only as performers. Most students only see professors when they’re on-stage or only in the performance role of being the professor. What people don’t realize is that there’s a different life off-stage. They’re really seeing just a slice.”The slice we see may be articulate, confident, friendly, and well-dressed. It may also be the only person at whom we’re allowed to stare unashamedly for several hours a week. And let’s face it, if we hadn’t been conditioned to seek approval from our teachers, we wouldn’t be attending NU. And what’s more approving than sex? Joni explains her fantasy as “a cultured, refined professor – who’s also really dirty. Initially the attraction stems from intellectualism. But in my mind it crosses over into domination, submission.”But if the abuse of scholastic authority becomes eroticized, like it did for Joni, this raises a knotty question: Where should universities draw the line? Where does the imbalance of power go from kitschy and sexy to genuinely exploitative?NU’s rules about student-teacher sexual relationships are actually somewhat mild. The official policy: “No faculty member or staff member may have evaluative or supervisory authority over any student with whom he or she is having or has recently had a romantic or sexual relationship.” In other words, you can flirt with your professor or T.A. all Winter Quarter, but you can’t hook up until Spring. If a staff member hears about a violation of this policy, he or she must report it to the administration. Since even if disciplinary action is taken it remains confidential, it’s impossible to know how often these kinds of relationships occur. But they do occur. Joan Slavin, director of Sexual Harassment Prevention at NU, writes in an e-mail, “While these are not the most frequent types of matters our office deals with, we have seen several situations in the past few years involving faculty and students.”For Joni, though, the relationship seemed too scandalous for her to tell anyone else. “I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone because I was afraid of being judged,” she says. And besides, secrecy is half the fantasy.As she got ready for the date, Joni was overcome by nerves. She took a shower, put on make-up and perfume, made sure she looked nice. But she kept asking herself, “What am I doing? Am I
really doing this?” She took the El to Addison, her heart pounding. She showed up at the restaurant five minutes early, with some time to compose herself.Eleven o’clock came and went. There was no sign of Eliot. 11:05, 11:10, 11:15. Nonplussed, she kept waiting. At 11:20, her nerves were calming and her irritation was mounting. And then, unmistakably, he walked in.”My heart was beating at 200 B.P.M.,” she says. A million things seemed to happen at once. Eliot saw Joni and walked up to her. He took her by the hand and patted it with the other. He said, “It’s nice to meet you.” He didn’t apologize for being late. His teeth were crooked; he hadn’t been smiling in the photograph. His voice was rough. It wasn’t deep and soft, as she had imagined. She wasn’t attracted, and knew it instantly.”Within ten seconds I knew I just wanted to leave,” she says. “He went from being sexy professor who I really want to fuck to total creep. All it took was ten seconds of seeing the reality and thinking, ‘I spent one month of talking to this guy online? And showing him my body?’ I felt really dirty all of a sudden.”She didn’t know if she should get up and leave or go along with it. She decided to stay put. Eliot directed most of the conversation; he brought up topics they had talked about online. For her part, Joni was too stunned and disheartened to say much. Their food arrived, but she had lost her appetite.They got up to leave and go get coffee, which they had planned on. Eliot reached out and brushed a lock of hair behind her ear, which they had not planned on; they had agreed the date would be strictly platonic. She stiffened.Waiting for a stoplight to change, Eliot took a step back and looked Joni up and down, grinning. (“I didn’t even say anything.”) As they walked to the coffee shop, he kept trying to tickle her, which they had talked about earlier. Joni recoiled and backed away and even told him to stop, but he didn’t take her seriously.Coffee was less mute than lunch but just as uncomfortable. Joni had adjusted to this new copy of Eliot, and found herself less despondent. But as she renounced all of her sexual fantasies about the man, he seemed just as keen to remember them.”Do you know what I think?” he asked at one point, according to Joni.”I don’t know. What?””I think you need a spanking.”They left the coffee shop. He offered her a tour of the neighborhood, and she didn’t refuse. He kept touching her hair as they walked. A day earlier, thinking about the same touch – and much more – might have made her exhale. Today, she shuddered and told him to stop. She wondered where they were going.On a residential block, they paused at a chain-link gate. Eliot said he wanted to show her something, unlocked the gate and walked inside. Joni followed him in, but stopped short. He was unlocking the door to his apartment. “I thought to myself, ‘This is where I draw the line,'” she says. She told him she wouldn’t go inside. He asked if she was scared. She said that she was.They walked out onto the street and to the nearest El stop. Joni shook his hand and said it was nice to meet him. As she waited for a train to take her to the Belmont transfer, reality began to sink in. A month of conversations, deliberations and fantasies had added up to nothing. “He was nothing like the eloquent, sweep me off my feet, intellectual professor that I’d been hoping to meet,” she says. She had broken down into tears before the train arrived.A few days later, she sent Eliot an e-mail – the gist was that she didn’t want to meet again. He never responded. It seems that neither performer could live up to their role: Joni wasn’t a compliant schoolgirl; Eliot wasn’t a sexy professor. These days, Joni is back to dating “NU boys,” but she admits it’s only for physical companionship. She still hasn’t found that deeper connection, and is still dissatisfied for it.But she adds, “I’m very attracted to a current professor that I have.”