I devoured this book in a hour because it is about sex and feminism in the life of its author, a university professor. At the end of the hour, I found I did not like the professor, who used her feminism to justify morally questionable sexual behavior.
Questions of sex and gender figure prominently in the public life of Professor Jane Gallop. Her psychoanalytic writings on the erotic dynamics within both literary texts and interpersonal relationships have been well-received by both feminist and postmodern scholars. Yet Gallop’s personal explorations of those dynamics led, in 1993, to her being accused of sexual harassment by two female students. Although found not guilty of harassment by a university tribunal, she was declared to have violated the university’s ban on “consensual amorous relations” between faculty and students. The case made national news, and Professor Gallop wrote Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment in order to present her side of the case.
Gallop’s nostalgia for the excitement of the early years of academic feminism is central to her presentation. In the seventies, she says, students and professors [End Page 521] were exploring texts, ideas, and relationships together; in the nineties, professors plod through established canons and well-worn lessons while maintaining a professional distance. Further, some of the understandings of the early years have become distorted as feminist ideas have entered popular consciousness. In particular, Gallop argues that the concept of “sexual harassment” has drifted far from its original intent. “Sexual harassment” originally referred to a form of discrimination, in which (according to EEOC guidelines) participation in a sexual relationship was made a condition of a person’s employment. Now, however, “sexual harassment” seems to refer to any kind of sexual relationship in the professional or pedagogical arena. Instead of expressing the principle that discrimination is bad, current sexual harassment cases seem to express the principle that sex in itself is bad. Sex in itself, however, can be a means to self-esteem and power as well as pleasure. Students who are otherwise fairly powerless in our university system, Gallop argues, gain a feeling of power from sleeping with their professors.
These are valid points, but they do not serve Professor Gallop well when she uses them to justify herself. She defends her history of many sexual relationships with her students and professors by speaking of her desire to recapture the vitality of her early years as a feminist, of her interest in the many ways that sex can bring people together for mutual pleasure, and of her quest for power. In this, she is refreshingly honest, but hardly heartwarming. I find it difficult to like someone who sees nothing wrong with offering a frankly self-centered defense of actions that might harm others.
Gallop argues that she treats her students as persons, in contrast to university policies that treat them as objects by sheltering them from intimate relationships with faculty members. In this respect, she embraces a radical liberalism. She and her students are individuals who come together to engage in temporary consensual (implicitly contractual) relationships. When those relationships end, individuals are fully responsible for their own reactions to the relationship and the breakup. I find this radical liberalism to be a very shortsighted and irresponsible approach to amorous relationships. Refusing even to acknowledge the pain unrequited love may cause in some of her admirers hardly seems to me to be treating those admirers as persons. In another work, Gallop acknowledges that many of the professors she slept with in her student days were married or otherwise attached. Yet she speaks only of how those relationships helped her to awaken sexually, and seems to have no notion of the larger web of persons, such as her lovers’ partners, who may have been affected negatively by the affairs.
In an essay in her earlier book Thinking Through the Body (1988), Gallop writes that we cannot erase our bodies and their peculiar inclinations. Our quirky bodies erupt through the limitations we place on them. For this reason, no consistent theoretical...