Ms Behaved?

May 16, 1997

Can a feminist professor sexually harass her female students? No, says Jane Gallop, who argues that harassment applies only to men and that, in her experience, consensual teacher-student sex is no bad thing. Tim Cornwell reports

Sex, in the world of Jane Gallop, is dripping from the walls of the ivory tower. Sexual energy brings lectures alive. A good conference, heady with dangerous liaisons, academic and otherwise, is "inevitably sexual". Professional impulses are sublimated sexual drives, a la Freud.

Gallop, a distinguished professor of literature at the University of Wisconsin, is a household name in the feminist world as a formidable theorist and an enfant terrible. Feminism, she says, is a force that made her come alive, intellectually and sexually, an experience that "brought me as a young woman out of romantic paralysis and into the power of desire and knowledge".

But five years ago this child of sexual liberation - who delighted as a student in dancing bare-breasted at a feminist gathering in 1971 - came to see herself as the victim of the anti-sexual 1990s. In November 1992, she was accused by two of her female graduate students of sexual harassment.

That experience has now produced a book, really a 101-page essay, from Duke University Press titled simply Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment. In it Gallop, 44, leaps to the defence of "consensual amorous relations" between students and teachers.

She draws on her own experience of sleeping with two professors on her dissertation committee to suggest that students, rather than being automatically debased and demeaned by such relationships, can "feel powerful because they seduced their teachers". Contrary to the image of the lecherous professor, she notes, it is usually students who initiate sexual advances.

Her one-night stands with the two men, she writes, intensified her desire to learn and her desire to excel. "I desired and I ****ed my teachers. And they taught and challenged me, criticised and praised me; they let me see them as men and never stopped taking me seriously as a student. I felt that in their eyes I was both a desirable woman and a serious scholar."

Gallop says she had felt the urge to "hide in shame" from a life that had fallen into sensationalism. Instead she comes out swinging, arguing that sexual harassment was devised by feminists like herself to label a form of sex discrimination by men against women, and has now been perverted and turned on its inventors.

Shock is part of Gallop's stock in trade as a successful academic writer. She wrote her dissertation on the Marquis de Sade, and has recounted having her first orgasm after learning to masturbate from Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex. But she was licking her wounds this month after the publication of her latest book unleashed a storm of criticism.

As a feminist calling for a halt to what she calls the "rampant expansion" of sexual harassment, she seems to have entered the lists on the side of conservatives, and has placed herself in a dangerous no-man's land. Both men and women have accused her of intellectual dishonesty, of contorting the definition of sexual harassment to justify her own unethical behaviour. Critics described her as narcissistic and reactionary, and pointedly questioned whether Duke would have published such a work if it had come from a male professor.

In the letters page of the Chronicle of Higher Education, in the angry calls to a talk-radio show, and in the pages of a neo-conservative magazine, she suddenly felt people were treating her like an "evil sick woman for saying such things", she says. Duke put the book on the cover of its spring/summer catalogue. Friends had warned her that people would get really angry, and that she would be attacked from both sides, but "I was surprised by the intensity of the hostility," she says.

Gallop does not sleep with her students any more; she might allow the occasional flirtation, but draws the line at that. "It's not just students. I just don't have sex with a lot of people," she says. For 17 years, in fact, she has lived in a monogamous relationship - "not in principle, but just in fact" - with the father of her two children, a fellow professor on the University of Wisconsin campus at Milwaukee.

In the book, however, she details her early amorous encounters. Earlier in her academic career she did her utmost to seduce two professors and "finally managed to have sex with them (each separately, to be sure, but oddly, coincidentally, in the same week)." Then, in her first job, as she wrote The Daughter's Seduction, which would make her career as a feminist theorist, she slept (separately) with both partners in a lesbian couple attending her classes, and two other students.

Gallop's recounting of these affairs is not just to titillate, though it helps make her book an unusually racy read. She uses the affairs to champion the rightful place of sex in academic life, at a time when most US universities either ban or severely discourage affairs between faculty and students. Shutting down sexual feeling or flirting, banning "consensual amorous relationships" or even casual sex, she says, may be "shutting down certain possibilities that make the relationship productive".

Her early days in the feminist movement, Gallop writes, in the company of "energetic young women", put her "constantly in heat, energised for political activity and schoolwork; I learned that desire, even desire unacted upon, can make you feel very powerful". Her teaching mission became in part to "ignite" her pupils as feminism ignited her as a student.

The eroticism of the teaching relationship is a familiar theme in Gallop's writings. Trouble began in practice, however, when she moved to Milwaukee in 1990, from Rice University, Texas. Gallop and a graduate student, Dana Beckelman, embarked on a very public flirtation that rapidly put them on a collision course. For years, both would argue about who started what, but Beckelman admitted to being smitten by this "megaforce in the feminist movement".

At a gay and lesbian studies conference at the university in 1991 called "Flaunting It", Beckelman gave a paper on Gallop's own work that was heavy with sexual overtones. Gallop, in the audience, remarked that "graduate students are my sexual preference". Later, at a local lesbian bar, the two women exchanged a slow French kiss.

But when Gallop made Beckelman revise her thesis proposal several times, Beckelman interpreted it as sexual blackmail, and said that Gallop was pressurising her for sex. She brought sexual harassment charges after a second student told her Gallop had also made sexual advances to her.

Gallop hired a lawyer, and even as the official investigation got under way, she defiantly organised a conference on the subject of faculty-student sex. Beckelman and her supporters handed out bumper stickers saying "Distinguished professors do it pedagogically". The two women's kiss, witnessed by several students, became symbolic of the whole dispute. In her complaint, filed the following year, Beckelman said she kissed Gallop back only because she was "angry and hurt". Gallop, by contrast, slips into a classic defence in sex cases. "If she were upset, she showed no sign of it at the time," she wrote in the book, as she made her parting shot. "Whatever her real feelings might have been, those who witnessed the kiss saw her as a willing and even eager participant."

Wisconsin eventually dismissed Beckelman's complaint of sexual harassment, which at its most serious could have led to Gallop being fired. An investigator, however, concluded that the pair had an "amorous relationship" which violated university policy against student-faculty affairs. A letter to that effect was placed in Gallop's personal file.

Sexual harassment started out as a reasonable attempt to get rid of a clear abuse, Gallop says. Instead it has taken on a "whole bunch of baggage, which is people's sense that sex is very troubling, and that the more places we can get rid of it the better". She draws a line between feminists like herself, who are not afraid of their appetites for sex and power, and "victim feminists" who are afraid to defend sexual freedoms. "There's been a widespread confusion between suspension of sex and feminism."

Universities are not seriously going to stop students and their professors having sex, she says. But, in order to protect themselves against legal action, in case some parent calls a lawyer, they have drawn up consensual sex policies. She can think of examples where teacher-student sex was inappropriate, but it is a deep misunderstanding of sexual harassment to say "less sex is better".

Classic harassment, Gallop now says, involves discrimination against women. It was assumed to be about sexism in the context of men occupying a stronger social position. But, without much thought, it was rapidly expanded on the grounds of fairness to include women harassing men. Gallop implies that women, particularly feminists, cannot legitimately be accused of sexual harassment. If the same sex is involved, discrimination does not hold up.

"Explanations of sexual harassment are beginning to move away from the idea that gender is the key factor and towards a gender-neutral notion of power. While a number of feminists have embraced this move, I consider it to be a serious departure from feminism," she writes, and adds: "Under the guise of despising sexual harassment, we find ourselves once again vilifying women who presume to be sexual and powerful like men."

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Reader's comments (2)

When someone attempts to or uses power over another to exchange sex for institutional favors, this is sexual harassment. There is no way that this kind of assignation would not compromise the relationship between students and professors, much less give such students an advantage over students who do not sleep with their professors. This woman should be fired, as would immediately happen to any male professor. Imagine the firestorm created by any male professor (even tenured) who took pleasure in admitting such appetites and liaisons? This needs to be called what it is—the shameful abuse of power by a licentious female professor, protected by the aegis of the double standard of feminism, to perpetuate an unethical and immoral professional life style. I have nothing against the pleasure and knowledge that comes from knowing oneself sexually, but to use students this way, while claiming all the while that women professors cannot be guilty of sexual harassment, that it does not harm, or that it’s the students who initiate—is unforgivable. Shame on any university or individual that condones this breach of trust! Are there no standards left?!
Jane Gallop is one of the finest minds writing today on women, power, and sexuality. I find it important in reading her to put aside considerations of provocation and assumptions that she exploits those less powerful than she. It's important to listen to what she says with intelligence and nuance. And it's empowering to participate in her uninhibited approach to intellectual engagement. The question that the article in question should raise is: Is the power imbalance between a woman professor and a graduate student great enough for a sexual relationship between them to qualify by definition as exploitive? I agree with Gallop that it is the power imbalance between women and men that caused feminists to create the concept of sexual harassment. But it is possible for a male professor and a female student to fall in love and have a balanced relationship, depending on the people and the circumstances. So it's important not to be categorical about using the term sexual harassment, whomever you're talking about. It's an unfortunate fact of history that abusers routinely call their activity "consensual". Their deviousness doesn't mean consensual sex between faculty members and students doesn't exist, I believe that one should not be a thesis advisor to someone with whom one has a sexual and/or romantic involvement, so in that I think Gallo erred. However, I'm appalled at the vicious attacks on her values and her moral compass. Disagreement is disagreement; adding moral indignation only muddies the waters. Moreover, Gallop is spot on in insisting that sex and sexuality fuel academic life. Like many others, I entered my chosen field because as an undergraduate I lusted after a professor. (I wasn't as brave as Gallop, so I didn't pursue her.) Academia is just plain sexy. Intellectual life is sexy. As in her book, "The Daughter's Seduction", Gallop always needs to be read carefully and without recourse to runaway emotions concerning hot topics. And I don't mean that cooler minds should prevail. I mean that hot minds who presume to make a career of thinking should be able to do just that: think.