On male professors, female students, and the affective atmosphere of dicomfort

– Posted by Anonymous

I’m sitting in a lecture with one of my favorite professors. I’m eager to impress him, but I’m usually too shy to speak in his class. But after weeks of listening to to male students make banal points and ask unthoughtful questions, I decide that today is the day I will get over it.

By “it,” I mean the atmosphere in a classroom that makes women feel less qualified to speak than their male counterparts, despite their being undeniably qualified.  This atmosphere is produced as a result of a lifetime of being socialized to take up as little space and to be as silent as possible, a socialization we internalize through self-censorship.

But like I said, today is the day I resolve to get over it. I raise my hand. The professor seems interested in my point. He sits down to provide a lengthy answer. I’m pleased.

But while he’s answering, his eyes make rounds: from other students’ eyes, to my eyes, to my breasts, to the recorder I’ve put on the table.

My eyes, my breasts, the recorder.

I think he keeps looking at the recorder because he thinks that if his eyes are darting from my eyes to the recorder, I won’t notice that he’s lingering in between to stare at my breasts. I’m upset he thinks I’m foolish enough to not notice. Then, as always happens, I question myself: is this all in my head?

Needless to say, I’m too distracted to listen to his answer. I’m wondering, should I turn my eyes away? Would that give him even freer reign to stare at my breasts?

The problem is not just that it is inappropriate for a professor to stare at his student’s breasts during a lecture, although that is obviously the case. I’m sure it says so in the student handbook, tucked away somewhere between the clauses ‘thou shalt not plagiarize’ and ‘thou shalt pay all student loan fees on time’.

What troubles me is the affective atmosphere of discomfort that exists always in my interactions with male academics, from the PhD graduate student advisor, to the head of department himself. It is an atmosphere that simultaneously makes one feel unqualified despite one’s qualifications, and also hyper-sexualized. Obviously, these are intimately related: I feel unqualified because I have been made to feel throughout my life that the size of my breasts and my thighs are the most important features about me as a human being; that if I could just control those two things, I will have succeeded in my life’s purpose.

What troubles me is that because of incidents like the one I describe here, I find myself having to make pre-emptive gestures to de-sexualize myself.

I’m sitting in the office of a different male professor.  I think about what I’ve heard about him, that he gave an absurdly high grade to the dissertation of a female student he wanted to fuck. There are histories at work in the creation of this one moment of discomfort. I become hyper aware of my body and its movements. I wonder, are we sitting too close to each other? Was my joke a little too friendly? Again, I find it difficult to concentrate on what he’s actually saying. I compensate for this hyper awareness of my female body by being overly professional and even by masculinizing myself. I actually lower the pitch of my voice as I deliver an idea for my term paper, and leave his office as quickly as I can. Isn’t lingering suggestive, after all?

What troubles me is that my body, just by virtue of taking up space, is already read as a provocation, as an invitation: to look, to touch, to fuck.

My body speaks for me, before I even have the chance to open my mouth.

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