Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment
Halfway through this remarkable and peculiar book, the feminist academic Jane Gallop tells a story about two dazzlingly brilliant professors who were on her dissertation committee when she was in graduate school in the mid-Seventies, and whom “I did my utmost to seduce.” The men were reluctant at first: “Both of them turned me down, more than once.” However, “over the years, I did what I could to sway them. Trying not to be too obnoxious, I watched for opportunities that might present themselves, prepared to take advantage and press my suit.” Finally, both men bowed to the fate better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. “I had sex but once with each of them,” Gallop reports. “Neither of these became a ‘relationship.’ It was just what is called ‘casual sex.”’ She adds, “To be honest, I think I wanted to get them into bed in order to make them more human, more vulnerable…. I was bowled over by their brilliance; they seemed so superior. I wanted to see them naked, to see them as like other men.” And, most important of all,
Screwing these guys definitely did not keep me from taking myself seriously as a student. In fact, it seemed to make it easier for me to write. Seducing them made me feel kind of cocky and that allowed me to presume I had something to say worth saying.
The occasion for this reminiscence—and for the writing of Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment itself—was a scandal at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in 1992. Two women graduate students filed charges of sexual harassment against Gallop, claiming that she had tried to seduce them and, when she failed to do so, had retaliated by harshly criticizing the work of one and refusing to write letters of recommendation for the other. Gallop denied the charges and was eventually cleared of them. After a long investigation, the university found no evidence that Gallop had attempted to get the students into bed with her or that she had dealt with their work unfairly. But in the case of one of the women the university found Gallop guilty of violating a rule forbidding “consensual amorous relations” between professors and students and put a black mark on her record.
Gallop, as may be gathered from her encounter with the two professors, is not one to meekly accept defeat. As she wore down the professors’ resistance, she gamely goes to work on the reader to whom the merits of her idea of pedagogy as a sort of Sixties love-in may not be immediately apparent. “I sexualize the atmosphere in which I work,” Gallop writes with the matter-of-factness with which another teacher might speak of charts and slides. Further, she calmly tells us, she habitually forms intense, sexy, even sexual relationships with certain of her students. Her extracurricular activities with students have ranged from shopping for clothes to going to bed. Although she actually stopped sleeping with students in 1982, when, rather inconveniently, she fell “madly in love with the man I’m still happily with today,” she has continued to be available to favorite students for kissing, fondling, and talking dirty. This is her teaching style. When we put down her book (such is its dogged seductiveness), we are almost persuaded that any other style is unthinkably stuffy.
Gallop was named Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Wisconsin in 1992 and is one of the ornaments of the poststructuralist school. Her writings on Freud, Lacan, Sade, Barthes, and French feminist theory are famously witty; she has taken the technique of close reading to hitherto untried extremes of playfulness. Here is an example of her wit, which appears in a paper called “The Student Body,” first published in 1982 in Yale French Studies and later reprinted in a book called Thinking Through the Body:
One of Sade’s contributions to pedagogical technique may be the institution, alongside the traditional oral examination, of an anal examination. The Sadian libertines have a technical term for such an examination; they use the verb socratiser (to socratize), meaning to stick a finger up the anus. This association between the great philosopher/teacher and this form of anal penetration recalls the Greek link between pedagogy and pederasty….
Pederasty is undoubtedly a useful paradigm for classic European pedagogy. A greater man penetrates a lesser man with his knowledge.
The passage touches on one of Gallop’s dominant preoccupations—relations between “greater” and “lesser” figures—an interest which has led to some of her most arresting strokes. In an essay on Freud’s Dora case, called “Keys to Dora” (it appears in her book The Daughter’s Seduction), she compares the relationship of Freud and Dora (and by extension of every analyst and patient) to the relationship between a servant and a master—Freud being the servant and Dora the master. (Her starting point is the passage in Freud’s text where Dora says she is quitting the analysis and Freud asks her when she had decided to do so. “A fortnight ago,” she replies. Freud remarks, “That sounds just like a maidservant or a governess—a fortnight’s warning.” The remark has traditionally been read to mean that a servant is giving notice; Gallop opts—plausibly, when you think of it—for the reading that it is the employer giving the employee two weeks notice of dismissal.) In Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment Gallop offers the equally novel view of professor/student sex as a transaction that reduces rather than increases the power of the putative “greater man.” We have seen the student Gallop reduce her intimidatingly brilliant professors to a couple of contemptibly naked guys; and we see the obverse as well: the professor Gallop so reduced. She writes of her seduction early in her teaching career by a student named Micki, who came to her lecture afterward, “bursting with the sense of having possessed me but a few hours earlier,” and looking “like the proverbial cat who’d eaten the canary”; and of her fling with a student named Scott, a sort of volunteer worker, who kindly offered to sleep with her when her boyfriend (another student) left her, and paid a house call on her birthday because “in view of the occasion, he wanted to make sure I got laid.” With the light-heartedness—you could almost say the dippiness—of these anecdotes Gallop underscores the heaviness and unpleasantness of the narrative of the two graduate students for whom it wasn’t enough to see their brilliant teacher naked (so to speak), but who needed to see her pilloried as well.
In the light story of the two professors and the heavy story of the two graduate students we may read the sad pass things have come to during the two decades that separate them. In one respect, however, the polarity isn’t quite as neat as it should be. Where Gallop could keep the professors indistinguishable from each other (like a brace of game), she is obliged to differentiate between the two graduate students: the charges of one of the women were so insubstantial that her case was quickly dismissed. So it is actually only one graduate student who figures in the heavy story. This glitch, like that of the inconvenient lasting love, points up the schematic, unreal character of the text. This is hardly a work of confessional autobiography; in its taut stylization it more resembles a work of pornography (though the content is PG-rated). Gallop has represented herself not as a real person but as the precision instrument of an argument. She reveals nothing about herself that doesn’t serve her polemic. She gets laid or flirts or engages in “sexual banter” because this is the job her character has been assigned to do to propel the book’s argument along. This functionalism gives the character its interesting and curious chasteness. We are never embarrassed by Gallop. We are sometimes astonished by her, and we sometimes find her absurd, but she never makes us cringe, because she never invades her own privacy. Her subjects are sex and pedagogy, and every story about herself is a single-minded fable constructed to demonstrate the essential connection between the two.
Gallop’s opening story is like the introduction of an opera’s leitmotif. She writes about herself as a freshman in college in 1970 sunk into a typical freshman’s malaise: she was uninterested in her work, cut classes, watched late-night TV, and got poor grades. Her love life was just as impoverished: “As a good soldier in the sexual revolution, I had sex often, but with little pleasure and no orgasms. Although I fervently wished that all these young men I bedded would fall in love with me, all my wishing and hoping wasn’t really desire.” All this changed in Gallop’s sophomore year, when she came under the influence of feminism. She learned to masturbate (Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex introduced her to the sport) and to experience desire for women:
I had the hots for so many of the energetic young women who went to the same meetings as I. While I actually slept with very few of them, these attractions introduced me to the feel of desire. Whereas my adolescent boy-craziness had filled me with romantic fantasies of love, when I thought about the women at the meetings I burned to touch their bodies. I walked around that year constantly in heat….
She simultaneously became a good student: “One and the same change made me both an engaged, productive student and a sexually energized, confident woman.” Gallop writes of an unforgettable women-only dance, which a group of men tried unsuccessfully to crash; the women threw their bodies against the door and repelled the invaders, and to celebrate their triumph flung off their shirts and danced bare-breasted. The breasts of a woman named Becca—“the most beautiful breasts I had ever seen”—linger in Gallop’s memory.
But more memorable yet was the spectacular arrival of a famous feminist professor with a beautiful senior on her arm: “The teacher was wearing a dress, the student a man’s suit; their carefully staged entrance publicly declared their affair.” The impressionable Gallop was blown away: “I thought the two of them were just the hottest thing I’d ever seen.” But she also took careful note of what the pair’s costumes denoted: “It was crucial to this feminist spectacle that the student was the one wearing men’s clothing. This seemed a role reversal. Her suit hinted that the connection made it possible for this student to take on power with the teacher.” We have seen Gallop take the hint and run away with it. The image of the teacher in the dress and the student in the suit hovers over the book as a kind of pictograph of its thesis that professor/student sex gives the student power over the professor.
The power to get a teacher into trouble, if not fired from her job, was a power hardly anticipated by Gallop, and one she blames on “the chill winds of the current climate” rather than on what she ought to have recognized (she writes that she is “at heart a Freudian”) as the sirocco of the oedipal universe. Her ability to see that the love affair between the generations is also a struggle for power which the “lesser man” cannot lose is accompanied by a refusal—like her refusal to take no for an answer from the reluctant professors—to accept the tragic dimension of the story. Gallop’s vision is a comic one. She is a clown, an exhibitionist, a person who, as she tells us, likes to make a spectacle of herself, and who has an activist’s optimistic belief that things can be worked out if you work at them hard enough. But in the case of the graduate student things could not be worked out.
The story begins, in Gallop’s account, as the story all over again of an ambitious, eager student with a crush on a brilliant teacher (“She was…enamored of my work even before she met me”) and of the teacher’s helpless surrender to the student’s desire. As we know, after 1982 Gallop was not available, as the two professors had been, for going all the way, but she was up for the “intensely personal and personally intense” relationship that developed almost immediately between herself and the graduate student. The woman had come up to Gallop after an evening class, insisted on an immediate conference, pressed to be taken on as a dissertation advisee, and, when Gallop agreed, still not satisfied, persuaded her to accompany her to a bar across the street for talk into the night. This new version of her pushy young self could not but enchant Gallop. The student further endeared herself by sharing Gallop’s love of being outrageous. Thus, at a gathering of graduate students in a bar during an event at the university called the First Annual Graduate Student Gay and Lesbian Conference, Gallop saw no reason not to take part in a long, passionate kiss with her advisee (“I don’t actually know who started it,” she writes) as the other graduate students watched in awe. She saw it as just another piece of amusing showing off of the kind she and the advisee were devoted to. She did not see it as the kiss that mafia figures bestow on the guy they are going to kill. A year and a half later the kiss turned up in the graduate student’s sexual harassment complaint, along with another piece of naughtiness Gallop permitted herself at the gay and lesbian conference, in the innocent belief that she was among young friends rather than ancient enemies.
Gallop was entranced by the conference. There was so much sex in the air she thought she was back in the hot Seventies. (A graduate student “complimented me on my legs, and asked if I wanted to go back to her hotel room with her. I was flattered but graciously declined.”) And “everyone seemed so clever and sassy; I wanted to rise to the occasion.” Gallop did so while formulating a question for one of the speakers (“a really good-looking woman from out of town”); before she knew it she had said “graduate students are my sexual preference.” “The statement was meant to be a joke,” she explains, a trifle leadenly. It “was playing with these two identities, trying loosely to suggest that ‘graduate student’ was somehow like ‘gay and lesbian.”’ But no one got it, least of all the sexual harassment complainants, who were in the audience. In their complaint they said they understood Gallop to be publicly announcing that she slept with graduate students and privately signaling that she wanted to sleep with them.
Gallop’s relationship with the pushy graduate student went sour when Gallop began criticizing her work. “More than once I told [her] her work was not satisfactory.” Here is where the story diverges from the story of the two professors who, after sleeping with Gallop, “continued to serve on my dissertation committee [and] continued to serve me well” and who “did not treat my work any differently than before we had sex.” In Thinking Through the Body, Gallop recalls a meeting with one of the seduced professors (as we now know him) to discuss a chapter of her thesis on Barthes’s reading of Sade, and writes that “we tore the chapter to shreds, while I laughed hysterically at the stupidity of my reading of Barthes.” Sixteen years later, Gallop’s student did not laugh hysterically when her stupidity was pointed out to her. She “felt let down, became outraged, and charged me with sexual harassment.”
Gallop cannot help but allow some of her reciprocal disappointment and anger to surface. But she reserves her bitterest reflections for the university which rapped her on the knuckles for “consensual amorous relations” and, in effect, found her guilty of “something like ‘fourth-degree harassment.”’ She points out that sexual harassment has to do with unwanted sexual attentions. She reminds us that in all the stories she has told about herself as a student or teacher lover, it was always the student who was the instigator. And she holds up the policies that forbid consensual sex and romance between professors and students as a threat to pedagogy:
At its most intense—and, I would argue, its most productive—the pedagogical relation between teacher and student is, in fact, “a consensual amorous relation.” And if schools decide to prohibit not only sex but “amorous relations” between teacher and student, the “consensual amorous relation” that will be banned from our campuses might just be teaching itself.
Modern American pedagogy is poised on the fiction that there is no “greater man” or “lesser man” in the teacher/student dyad. Although the socratizing lecture course is still offered, the action in American higher (no less than lower) education is in the democratizing discussion class. Here any idiotic thing the student says is listened to as if it was brilliant, and here our national vice of talking for the sake of hearing ourselves talk is cultivated as if it was a virtue. A good teacher is someone who can somehow transform this discouraging gathering of babblers into an inspiriting community of minds working together. That an erotic current (a transference, to use the psychoanalytic term) is the fulcrum of this transformation is unquestionable. The students begin to speak the teacher’s language and to ape his thought, like lovers under the illusion that they are alike. Gallop is a good teacher who is also a dedicated bad girl. Her transgressive after-class relationships with students are evidently a condition of the sparkle and zest of her performance as a teacher. Teachers like her—larger-than-life characters with quirky minds—are the teachers one remembers best from college. They are a precious resource, there aren’t many of them, and colleges know their worth and compete for them. Gallop has offered a persuasive argument for the harmlessness (to the student) of a teacher who is a pushover. (She never addresses the obviously more fraught question of the teacher who is a seducer.) But her book has not convinced me that the unpleasantness she has been subjected to has put her teaching at risk. The book itself is a testament to the prod that unpleasantness can provide to a restless spirit. The new repression can only spur the irrepressible Gallop to new audacities.