It is remarkable – in spite of feminism and the sexual revolution, in spite of the hyper-sexualized advertising culture in which we live and the relative openness with which our intimate personal lives can be talked about in certain contexts – that non-monogamy remains such a delicate and taboo subject, and here I am thinking of normal, polite society, even (or especially) its more liberal, open-minded pockets.
A taboo is something we want but cannot have. The reasons we cannot have it can tend towards the vague, and therefore the taboo is necessary to ensure that the thing we want remains forbidden. This is not to say there are no reasons or logic within any given taboo. For example, reasons behind the taboo on non-monogamy might include: the encouragement and development of jealousy, the necessity of maintaining stable family units in order to raise stable children, the spread of certain diseases, etc. However, these reasons do not necessarily feel convincing when placed next to the overwhelming force of our desire for the forbidden thing.
She was irritated by the book’s initial reception, as if people hadn’t actually bothered to read it, or read it so superficially as to make their insights negligible. But as time passed, considering the matter further, she realized her first impression was incorrect, too condescending. People had understood what she was getting at, often in a very deep and intuitive manner. They simply didn’t want to deal with it, instead focusing on aspects of the book they could most easily handle.
And then the horrible, ridiculous thing happened. There was a knock at the door, late at night, like in some mediocre crime film not worth renting. When she opened it, five police officers informed her that she was under arrest and if she resisted they had been authorized to subdue her using ‘undue force.’ She always remembered that phrase, undue force, how it implied a threat completely disconnected from the language being used. She did not resist. She did not even ask why she was being arrested. People were being arrested all the time, she knew this better than anyone. Once in the interrogation room they informed her she was charged with spreading seditious, anti-social ideas. That she would be given a fair trial, but first a panel of government experts (experts in contemporary sociology and theology, they felt it necessary to add) would be required to examine her book at length. Until the time they had completed their analysis of her text, and prepared a case against it, she would remain incarcerated. She feared they would torture her but they did not. For their purposes, at this juncture, it seemed intimidation sufficed. She was not allowed a phone call or for that matter any contact with the outside world. Her possessions were taken from her, she was given a loose-fitting one-piece jumpsuit, and locked in a small room for the night.
In one sense, non-monogamy seems to comply too well, fit too neatly, with the requirements of late capitalism. The imagery suggested by the term evokes a free market in which sexual partners come and go like so many obsolete commodities. It can be argued that the open possibility of many partners creates a competitive economy, a marketplace within which the intimacy of direct physical contact is downgraded, replaced with a series of encounters that, because they are numerous, are at the same time implicitly less important, more superficial. However, if we take friendship as a model, it is unlikely we think any one of our friends is less a friend to us simply because we have many. Sexual intimacy certainly complicates friendship. But it also generates another quality of connection, another strata where all kinds of new energies and communications have the potential to emerge.
She found it difficult to gauge the passing of time. She would sleep and think and cry and stare at the walls, in seemingly endless rounds of exhaustion and confusion. Her thoughts kept returning to the idea she found most disturbing, that this was what she had wanted, for her book to have an effect, cause a stir, bring some attention towards her. Such circular, obsessive thinking would always return to the same tepid cliché: be careful what you wish for. Her critical resources had shut down and she was unable to arrive at anything more complex.
Most of the time they left her alone. Meals came sporadically, or perhaps it only seemed that way. There were days when she began to suspect they had forgotten about her altogether. Then she would find herself being led back to the interrogation room where they would ask more questions, often the exact questions they had asked before, where they would read endless passages of her book to her, again and again demanding she clarify what she meant. “It doesn’t require clarification,” she would repeat. “It means exactly what it says.” So they would read the passage again, to the point where it came as a relief when she was finally returned to her small dark cell.
Capitalism thrives on a high degree of disconnection. In contrast, at its best, sexual intimacy is one of the most intense fields of connection two people are capable of experiencing. In this sense it might seem there are aspects to sexual connection that are progressive or subversive. Compare the value of heartfelt sexual connection with the overwhelming barrage of slick sexual imagery we are subjected to on a daily basis. Photographed and televised sexual imagery creates a continuous stream of low-level desires, desires that the corporations who produce such imagery have absolutely no intention of satisfying. They are designed to generate within us an infinite, gnawing dissatisfaction. In contrast, certain kinds of sexual intimacy have the potential to be satisfying, to connect us to each other in the long term, to generate ongoing solidarity. But I fear I am painting too rosy a picture of what is possible. Intimacy generates many powerful, conflicting emotions. With love comes the potential for jealousy. For every desire to assist and nurture there is a contrasting desire to possess or entrap. Opening a dialogue about how we might build on the emancipatory potential inherent in sexual intimacy might also generate insights as to how we might better manage the emotionally painful aspects that arrive alongside it.
It might have been weeks before anyone noticed, with any certainty, that she had gone missing, her life having become in many ways so isolated by that point. But in fact a good friend, on his way to meet her, happened to be just a few feet away from her building as she was being escorted out the front doors and into an unmarked car. He had heard enough stories by that point to realize what he was witnessing, and, fearful if he tried to interfere he would be arrested as well, he instead hurried home, picked up the phone and sounded the alarm as loudly as possible. Within a certain liberal circle she soon became a kind of rallying cry, a trenchant symbol for everything that was completely fucked about the current situation. It didn’t hurt that she was beautiful, that there were endless photographs of her already in circulation, that her books were still in bookstores and her publisher could seize upon the opportunity to get her latest book the attention they now felt it had always deserved, and finally that, unlike the ethnic minorities who were frequently subjected to such treatment, she was white, middle class and had spent many years in the public eye. Since the authorities officially declined to comment, journalists were free to speculate as to where she might be and why. The fact that the story was about sex certainly didn’t hurt.
Most of her time continued to be spent alone in that small, dark room, attempting, against all odds, to put her idle thoughts to some constructive use. However, during the now infrequent interrogation sessions, she felt something peculiar happening, some slight change in her interrogators’ attitude. She was sure she was only imagining it, but then again, how could she be sure of anything. While before they had treated her like some bit of garbage scraped up off the sidewalk, someone they could eliminate just as easily as release, now gradually they seemed almost to know who she was. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something in the way they phrased certain questions made her feel she represented something for them, she had no idea what, a certain status within their limited world view. As she lay on her back in that small dark room staring at the ceiling, trying to mentally examine the situation with as much objectivity as possible, admittedly not so much, she came to the conclusion that something was starting to shift.
In the post-Fordist economy each worker is required to overidentify with their job. Work is no longer something you can leave at the office but rather something that can reach you at all times: through e-mail, your cellphone, company weekends and getaways. Even when you are not working it is expected that you will be thinking of work, or at the very least thinking of yourself as someone who works for a particular company in a particular job. The skills you bring to your job are meant to be varied and complex. When asked ‘what do you do?,’ your first answer will probably concern your job or at the very least something related to some aspect of your work. This is one of the most insidious ways capitalism weaves itself into our lives and into our fundamental sense of who we are.
Twelve years ago I began teaching. Since the tenure system has been more or less dismantled, like most of my colleagues around the same age I was hired on a contract-to-contract basis. I received no benefits and was expected to happily take on whatever extra work was handed to me. The students were drawn to my classes because of my celebrity and, from year to year, I generated a considerable amount of revenue for the university. It is one of the cardinal rules of teaching that the one thing you must never do is sleep with your students. Over the years directly preceding the writing of this book, I had sexual relations with at least four of my students. I intend to write about these experiences in the chapter that follows. I am choosing to do so, however ill advised, for a number of reasons. I feel my experiences – or, if you prefer, my lack of professional ethics – are far more common than anyone suspects or publicly acknowledges. When an occurrence is both widespread and covert I believe there are many good arguments for bringing it into the light and subjecting it to further examination. The main rationale behind the taboo on sexual relations between teachers and students is that it is an abuse of power on the part of the teachers. This rationale underplays the incredibly complex and intricate power dynamic, the degree to which students are able to wield power over their instructors, and the degree to which pedagogy is a process of exchange, performance and even seduction.
Slowly she got used to her life of incarceration, at times even finding it comforting. She began to see her predicament as a kind of modest vindication. While so much writing and theory passed through the world unnoticed, her book caused a stir, alerted the attention of the authorities, had an effect upon the larger system. Her work had been threatening, and this made it important. Then again, maybe prolonged solitude had only made her smug.
It was around this time she was assigned a new interrogator and the interrogation sessions became more frequent. Many things were unusual about her new interlocutor, most significant among them was the fact that this was the first woman she had had any prolonged contact with since her original arrest. The fact that it was now another woman asking the questions, another woman trying to grind her down, was unsettling, setting off biases within her previously invisible: that women didn’t do such things, that institutional cruelty was the sole domain of men. This new interrogator was also the cleverest, most educated, sympathetic person she had met since arriving at the detention facility. Against her better judgment she found herself looking forward to the interrogation sessions, those lively bursts of tension-riddled conversation about her book and its implications. She had to remind herself, constantly, that this new woman was also trying to break her. That this new kindness and intelligence represented only a shift in strategy, not a shift in their intentions.
Over the course of many sessions her new interrogator took her through the book, chapter by chapter, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sometimes line by line. They were halfway through chapter two, the chapter in which she discussed sleeping with her students.
The sublimated erotic energy inherent within a classroom situation shifts into another register when played out outside the classroom. That academic learning can take place in the bedroom, and by moving to the bedroom be acutely intensified, is a fact that should be readily apparent to anyone who has tried it, or considered the matter at any length. Sexual intimacy generates an openness to learning that is, at times, unparalleled.
That said, I would be seriously misrepresenting the situation if I were to imply that the original reason I began sleeping with my students was to further their education. At the beginning, the situation was more pedestrian. During the early years of my teaching career the workload was all consuming. Between classes, lecture requests, requests for articles and the additional administrative workload there was little time for socializing outside of the academy. Since I was single and had been aggressively non-monogamous for many years, I was constantly at a loss for strategies to deal with the overwhelming loneliness my new academic life imposed. I was by far the youngest adjunct professor on staff, and the people I came into contact with closest to my own age were, generally speaking, students.
The interrogator stopped reading and looked up. She was standing with her back to the door. On the other side of the door were two armed guards, one on each side, the same guards who brought our author to this brightly-lit room and who would eventually take her back to her cell when the session was done. The interrogator continued to read.
When I first noticed a certain mutual attraction between myself and one of my students, I quickly dismissed it. But over the course of any given year such attractions continued to smoulder, and my earlier dismissal slowly transformed into the gnawing question: why not? Of course there were many reasons not to. Professionally it was highly stigmatized and, if I were to be caught, would put my job in considerable jeopardy. It also had the potential to reverse the power imbalance with any given student, creating a situation in which, if things did not go to their liking, they could threaten me with sexual harassment. In retrospect, I can see that the motivation for the first couple of affairs had more to do with the incredible discomfort I felt surrounding my new pedagogical position, my reluctance to embrace any sense of authority. In a sense, it was a prolonged attempt at self-sabotage. But the sabotage failed. Instead I discovered a continuous stream of new possibilities.
The interrogator looked up once again. “I read this aloud and I can almost understand why you’re here,” she said. “You encourage something quite explicitly, something you might be able to engage in within a certain ethical framework but others most certainly could not.”
“You can almost understand why I’m here…”
“If I really try: almost.”
“So if you were in charge, if it were your decision, I wouldn’t be here.”
“I don’t see any point in locking up writers.”
“But…I don’t understand…you do see the point of locking up those who encourage, quite explicitly, unethical behaviour.”
“As I said: almost.”
They often had such exchanges: repetitive, harsh, playful. A style of aggressive banter which, at times, verged on tenderness.
“I’ve never thought of asking this before…”
“What do you want from me?”
“It’s simple. You could probably guess.”
“If I could guess I wouldn’t be asking.”
“The only reason you can’t guess is because it’s too obvious.”
“If you tell me then I won’t have to guess.”
“What fun would that be?”
“I haven’t had any fun in a very long time.”
A tense pause. The writer wondered for a moment if she had crossed a line, since often in their banter it seemed to be an unspoken rule that they would both pretend everything was fine. For things to be fine no reference could be made to the more negative aspects of her incarceration.
“That makes me sad. I thought we had fun every time you came up here: reading, thinking, talking.”
“You’re having fun?”
“Of course. I thought we both were.”
“You want to know what we want? I can tell you quite simply: we want you to admit that you were wrong and that we’re essentially right.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Probably because in actual fact you’re right and we’re wrong.”
“I don’t understand…what do you want me to do…sign a statement?”
As she said this, our writer looked up, so exhausted and drained by the prospect of some new process that might or might not lead to her release (was she only being toyed with?), that her interrogator almost started to pity her. But the interrogator had a job to do. And she knew that now was the moment to do it properly.
“Let me put it this way: if by some miracle we were to eventually release you, there are going to be a lot of people – friends, colleagues, reporters – wanting to know what happened. And together we can come up with a story. That you wrote some things you hadn’t put enough thought into. Some things that if you were to write your book again you would choose to leave out, or write differently. We noticed these things and investigated. However, after a thorough investigation, together we all decided that, while it would have been better if you hadn’t written such things, or had written about them in a more circumspect manner, since some concepts weren’t as deeply considered as you had first assumed, and others were downright misguided, in the end there was no harm done and in future both sides have agreed to be more careful. We will craft this story delicately, since it is the exact story you will repeat, with slight variations, every time you are asked, for as long as you continue to be asked. From the way you tell it, and from the way it is repeated by others, in the long run everyone will come to understand that in some sense you were wrong and the government was right. And that, while certainly everything isn’t perfect, some things are basically as they should be in the world.”
“To get out of here I tell a story? Concoct and repeat a story?”
“Of course it has to be good.”
The interrogator smiled. Calmly she continued to read.
The intimacy I felt with these students led to some of the most thorough theoretical investigations I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. The fact that such discussions were interspersed with kissing, with touching, stroking and licking, with wetness and stickiness, only leant intensity and resonance to the complexity of the matters under discussion. I was teaching and giving and taking pleasure both in the ideas being expressed and in the intensity of physical contact I was able to generate with these young men.
The almost complete, but temporary, loss of self that was involved – a loss of self present in all intense sexual encounters – doubled as an open door through which one could enter new areas of thought, as if one had left one’s old self behind, as if within this new, amorphous territory, in which one was no longer one’s previous self but had not yet become anything else, infinite modes of discovery became possible. The intimacy of our nakedness made us feel, or at least gave the illusion, that we were so much more directly engaged, both in dialogue with the larger world of ideas and with each other. This directness: of being intertwined, exhausted and sated, of drifting in and out of sleep and having the strains of our discussions, of our nightly lessons, freely intermixed with half-remembered dreams…
The interrogator stopped reading and looked up. “You must be getting pretty lonely,” she said.
The author nodded, almost in spite of herself.
“It’s strange, for someone who’s experimented as much as you have…you only ever write about fucking men. You never talk about sleeping with women.”
The author looked up, her hair loosely falling into her eyes. For a split second she thought that maybe this other woman, this woman who had been tormenting her all these draining, exhausting months, was about to make a pass at her. If this was the case one thing was certain, her interrogator didn’t lack gall.
“It’s true,” the author replied, “for some reason I prefer men.”
“You’ve probably guessed this about me already,” her interrogator said slyly, “but I definitely prefer women.”
“No, I hadn’t guessed that at all.”
“Really?” Her interrogator smiled. ”I thought you were more observant than that.”
“Must have had my mind on other things.”
The interrogator, without missing a beat, looked down at the book and continued to read.
…forms the basis for a different kind of learning, learning that enters not only through the mind but also through the skin and sweat and pores. In this way ideas are divested of their previously cold abstraction and instead gain heat, momentum and complicity. This is the deep learning, and there is no conduit for it other than one’s intimate and ongoing personal experience.
It might be said that the fact that such behaviour is forbidden adds to the intensity and complicity of such learning. Anything illicit brings with it a certain charge, a certain urgency and electricity. But, in and of itself, breaking the rules is never satisfying. Breaking a rule is only ever a test, to see what possibilities are created if one chooses to take the world not as it is but instead as it could be. What matters is not the charge of breaking any given taboo but the charge of generating new openings. Because to sleep with one’s students is nothing if not a commonplace practice, hidden, unspoken, the dirty little secret of professional academia. It is only in publicizing my activities without shame or embarrassment, in highlighting the positive aspects of such commonplace practices, that a real opening might occur…
The interrogator once again paused. “Perhaps there’s yet another taboo we could break,” she said.
“Perhaps,” the author replied. She had no idea. Could this turn of events offer some improvement? Or would it only suck her down into further constrictions of power, emotional mind games, desperation? Was fucking her just another way for her interrogator to fuck her over, manipulate, bend her to their will? Or might it represent some genuine opening, a subtle change in the power dynamic?
[The above is an excerpt from my book Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed published by Pedlar Press in 2010. As well, some other Jacob Wren Links.]