Report from the Field: “How to Sleep with a Professor”

June 25, 2014 | by Molly Moynahan, OP-ED | 5

I was nineteen and he was thirty-something. I was a student and he was a professor, not my professor but a professor at the University I attended. I am 56 now and I remember every detail of what happened because it was so cruel and so sad. I remembered again when this student at NYU accused a professor of sexual harassment. In 1977 sexual harassment didn’t exist.

I had a boyfriend but he had left me to attend a University in the Midwest while I remained at the state school on the East coast. Both our sets of parents thought the other a horrible choice. His mother called me a “Shiksa whore” and when I mistakenly baked her bread for Seder I doomed myself. My parents considered him a Bob Dylan wannabe loser, a boy who had bewitched and seduced their daughter who was finally fulfilling her intellectual gifts and scoring straight A s as a freshman in graduate level history classes. My boyfriend and I were blindingly in love, in love so deep it felt like time stopped when we were together and sex was transcendent. At least it felt that way to us. When he left I actually believed my heart broke. We had isolated ourselves and my parents had purchased a house for me to live in close to campus. Looking back, it was a lovely birdcage. I was alone frequently and I did nothing but study, drink and pine.

One beautiful spring day I was sitting on the steps of this house when this professor, ridiculously young to be a professor, but a professor none-the-less, came up my street and stopped, acting surprised to see me. I had been a gofer on several of his film projects; he knew my boyfriend and my boyfriend’s best friend who was seriously interested in film. This professor, I’ll call him Bob, had been connected with Andy Warhol’s factory and many famous people and he was charismatic and sort of good looking. But, he wasn’t on my radar. I was in love, depressed and lonely. He was someone I regarded as part of the world of parents, teachers and authority figures. I would no sooner flirt with him than I would attempt to flirt with a friend’s father.

“Hey,” he said, stopping in front of my front steps, “I know you. Do you live in this house?” I would learn later, much later, that this was a ruse; he had planned to find me. He knew I lived on this street and if I hadn’t been sitting on the steps he would have knocked on the door.

“Hi,” I said. “Yes.”

“I was just thinking about you,” he said, sitting beneath me.

Yes, I was flattered. I was nineteen. He was an adult. A cool adult.

“I was thinking about how much you’ve changed since last year. You seem more grounded and thoughtful.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t talk to my parents much. I was really angry about how they had refused to let me transfer to my boyfriend’s college. But it was nice to know someone believed I was thoughtful. In our last conversation my father had told me I was a fool, a fool in love with an idiot.

We each had a beer. We talked about movies and school and his classes and my writing. He reluctantly complimented my father, a professor at the same school. His compliment’s subtext was, “He’s a genius and a bastard. Poor you.” They were colleagues.

I offered to get us some pretzels from my kitchen and when I turned around he had followed me inside and was standing just behind me.

“How’s your boyfriend?” he asked, leaning back against the wall. ”It must be hard to be separated.”

I nodded. Something didn’t feel right. I was uncomfortably aware of his eyes on my body and my face. I wasn’t wearing a bra and I felt self-conscious. But then I remembered he was living with someone, a woman in her thirties. They were adults in an adult relationship and I was just a kid. A kid with a boyfriend.

“I don’t see how he could leave you,” he said, moving closer. “How could anyone leave you?”

I blushed. He was openly staring at me. This world of men, the idea that I was an object to be pursued and captured had changed my life. I had always raised my hand, answered back, defended the weak, yet this was no longer acceptable since I was a woman and women needed to stay quiet. I felt numb and sad. Numb because I just didn’t want to feel anything and sad because I thought he was being kind but he just wanted to sleep with me. I was used to this sort of thing and I hated it. I had grown up wanting to be sexy and make men want me but I understood now how little that desire had to do with friendship and how tiring the whole thing would become. Also, he was a teacher and I was a student. I loved my boyfriend.

I tried to push past him but he grabbed my arm. “I’m coming back tonight,” he said. “After my class.”

I hoped he was kidding. “What for?” I asked, fear a new element in this day.

“For you,” he said. “I want you and I’m coming back for you.”

And then he left. I didn’t know what to do. I went back outside and then I went inside to study. It was hard to concentrate. Should I tell someone, call my parents, the police? If I told them would they do anything? It was my fault, I decided, I had done something to make him think I wanted to sleep with him. The only time I had prolonged contact with this professor was on the set of his film. Working on the movie had been great fun but I couldn’t recall anything that had passed between us until I remembered that happened just before I left when he had said, “It’s nice to have someone working on the set that is so pretty.” This embarrassed me and I brushed it off as an awkward compliment. But it ruined things. I had felt competent and strong but he just thought I was pretty.

I decided to leave. I called the younger brother of a friend of mine and he was free. We decided to meet at the bar at the end of my street. We had been there for about an hour, sharing a pitcher of beer and playing the Ramones on the jukebox when I told him about what this professor had said.

“Oh, he’s not going to show up,” he said. “He was just being a jerk. Don’t worry.”

A moment later the professor walked into the bar.

“Oh my god,” I said. “He just walked in.” I felt paralyzed.

“Bob” walked up to our table, nodded at my friend and said, “Let’s go.” He put his hand under my elbow like a cop. I looked at my friend. He was just a kid like me but he looked ready to do something. He knew my boyfriend.

“Okay,” I said, standing up.

Walking down the street towards my house I kept asking myself why this was so terrible. Hadn’t I slept with plenty of men since high school? It was the seventies and there was no AIDS yet. Birth control was cheap and plentiful and abortions were easily obtained. He was holding my hand like I was a child he was taking home.

“I’ll feel like a whore,” I told him as I was walking up the stairs to my room.

“That’s fine,” he said.

I didn’t. I felt like a victim and I felt stupid and I felt sad and horribly guilty. But mostly, I felt rage. When it was over, I took a shower and walked into my room. “Get out,” I said.

I never forgave myself.

Well, yes I did. I forgave myself five years later when a colleague at work wouldn’t leave my apartment until I slept with him and when I told a friend he said, “Molly, that’s called rape.” You see, I never thought about Bob in those terms. He didn’t hit or threaten me and I wasn’t too drunk to realize what was going on. So, I just thought I was a slut, an unfaithful slut who didn’t love her boyfriend enough to remain faithful, a trampy girl who provoked just by breathing and being smart and passionate about art and life. I caused problems; I was too independent and too honest. I needed to be broken like a horse, taught how to heel and reminded of my place in life. For months after this incident I avoided meeting the eyes of the men I knew because I was trouble.

Becoming a teacher myself helped me put this situation in perspective. Ironically, I taught creative writing at my Alma Mater after I published my first novel and one of my students; a graduate student, had a huge crush on me. He came to all my office hours and brought me small gifts and, incidentally was very handsome. The idea of seducing him made me feel sick. The power I wielded over him was profound and unnerving. I began to understand that every professor who slept with a student was creating a terrible imbalance. “You might as well sleep with a child,” I thought and then I remembered how I had regarded my professor as an authority figure and could not defy him and was filled with anger and sadness. I met with my student and told him he was a good writer and a wonderful person. I wished him luck and suggested he keep writing and find a different teacher. If I could go back and find that lonely young woman sitting on her steps I would tell her she had every right to be pretty, smart and full of life. I would tell her to never let anyone shame her into submission ever again.
Molly Moynahan Bio Pic 1Molly Moynahan has taught creative writing at Rutgers University, SMU, Columbia, DePaul and Loyola. During her nine years as a certified English teacher at Evanston Township High School, New Trier she taught every level of student in the junior and senior grades from the lowest to Advanced Placement English Literature. Her writing intensive courses have included creative writing, journalism, critical thinking and AP Literature and Composition. She was a literacy consultant for Changing Worlds, A Chicago non-profit, and is a writing consultant for MDC Partners. She is an acclaimed author of three novels, Stone Garden was chosen as a New York Times notable book. Her blog is at mollymoynahan.blogspot.com.

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Together we can build a community strong enough and courageous enough to call out sexism and misogyny as we see it. Send us your Reports from the Field (essays, screen shots, whatever): lmelnick@vidaweb.org. For other concerns relating to this or any other VIDA content, email aking@vidaweb.org.

5 Comments to 'Report from the Field: “How to Sleep with a Professor”'

  • Dana says:

    Powerful, necessary reading for every woman in collage.

  • Elias says:

    Well written and thoughtful. It’s not only for women; the teacher/student relationship is a powerful metaphor for any relation that has unequal parameters for whatever reason. We have come to know rape as an assault of power, not sex. Your piece reminded me to watch for any relationship that is unequal no matter who is greater or lesser in position. To give balance to the situation is what you did in relation to your student later on. That is the only way to transcend power. Thank you for this piece.

  • walter says:

    The author was 19 and so an adult who could give legal consent.
    Nowhere did she state that the man used physical force, the threat of force,
    drugs or alcohol, or clearly stated how he misused his position to blackmale her into sex. She did not communicate a clear NO.
    So why is this a case of sexual abuse?

  • Ben Quick says:

    This is very interesting reading. I know that the majority of encounters between students and faculty are much more complex and grey than we like to admit. And I think this is especially true when the students are graduate students or otherwise near if not equal in age and/or stature with professors.I know when I taught senior creative writing workshops I was the object of advances on more than one occasion, and in some cases these advances were systematic and occurred over a fairly lengthy period of time. I am a man. And in each case women were making the advances. Actually I have been hit on by gay students but in my experience my gay students are the most understanding of our inability to get together. Maybe it is because we as men speak the same language. I’m just not sure. As for my women students, in every case but one I refrained from any kind of intimacy, and this can certainly be done in a way that is firm but compassionate. In the one case where I eventually acquiesced to advances they were obviously calculated and certainly not the immature flirtations of a less than mature young woman. Our relationship turned into a very healthy long term relationship I have absolutely no regrets about. And I’m pretty sure if you were to ask my former student, who has a very active and healthy sexual life, and is currently finishing her dissertation at a prestigious university and well on her way to professional success she deserves, she would say the same. We stay in touch. She built a relationship with my son that transcends our personal romantic relationship and I will always be grateful for the time we spent together and the kindness and understanding she exhibited in a relationship with a single father that certainly is not always easy. There is a 15 year age difference between us.I have dated women a decade older than me and the decade younger than me and women my age and no one came close this womans intuitive sense of how to be intimate with a single parent in a way that was neither clingy nor aloof nor in any other way less than wonderful. PS, I refrain from using her name for obvious reasons.

  • This is a beautifully told first account, and I am unsure of adding my thoughts since I DO feel the writer at 19 was taken advantage of, for her innocence and passivity. However, like someone else commented, the writer did not say “no.”

    Sure, Bob was an authority figure who came on strong, and the writer acquiesced. Was he an over-bearing pig? Yes. Was this sexual harassment or rape? No. The writer was an adult who could have refused Bob, especially in the public bar.

    Saying, “I’ll feel like a whore” is not the same as “No.”

    Many lonely people who get together regret it later, but regret does not = sexual harassment.

    Of course if there was abuse and if the sex was not consensual, then ignore my observations (since they were based solely on the brief content presented).

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