She's got a thing for teacher

I get crushes on my professors -- I only like older, more accomplished men. Is there something wrong with me?

Published September 27, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have been dealing with the same problem all through college. I always develop incredibly powerful, desperate crushes on my male professors. In some sense, this is not surprising, because I know that young women often admire older men, and besides, all these men are my physical "type."

What is surprising, what I cannot figure out, is why I feel compelled to act on these desires. At various times, I have asked out a teacher 20 years my senior after the course was over (he turned me down), openly flirted with another in person and via e-mail (even though he is married), and most recently went to insane lengths to find out if another professor was single (he was). He found out about my asking around (our town is a small college community), and needless to say, class became really awkward. And yet despite the embarrassment I still desire him and find him more appealing than the guys in my classes or that I meet when I go out. Same can be said about any of the professors in question.

It has occurred to me that the men I have dated in the last few years (who were close to my age) have universally expressed insecurities about my accomplishments and education, my looks, or the money my parents have. These boyfriends would nitpick my grammar, cheat on me, even exaggerate their own accomplishments, in order to feel like my equal. And, of course, no matter what I said to them, I could not assure these men enough that they were my choice and a valued and loved partner.

Perhaps I find these professors attractive based on my presumption that someone so much more educated and erudite, older and wiser, would not be so insecure. Perhaps as someone more mature for my age, I am simply attracted to someone whose habits and interests match mine. All through my lonely years in high school, my mom and teachers would comment that I was very mature for my age, and that the boys would love me when I got older. I guess that hasn't happened yet. Then again, maybe I'm just attracted to seemingly unattainable men because all these weird experiences with my peers have made me too insecure to put myself out there and date someone I could actually attain. What's more, it's not like I really know these professors socially or personally. So why can't I stop myself? (And, yes, I have a great relationship with my dad).

I guess the basic problem is that I can't stop being attracted to the teachers and can't seem to stop acting on those impulses. I realize that this isn't healthy and probably won't work out well -- but nonetheless it's my preference. Can I work past this? Should I try to?

Can't Stop Myself

Dear Can't Stop Myself,

I don't think there is necessarily anything wrong with your interest in older, more accomplished, more worldly men. Most of the men in this category whom you currently know, however, are sexually taboo: current and former professors, as well as men who are already married or otherwise committed. I think if you use a little discernment you can identify a subset of men who meet your requirements but are not taboo.

The question is, how do you meet these men? Obviously, you come into daily contact with your professors. But how do you meet similar men who are not barred from the dating pool by sexual taboo? I would think you could meet them through your professors' expanded social network. To do that, you have to become one of those "advanced" students of "exceptional promise" who are invited into the social and professional world of the professors. This doesn't mean you have to excel extraordinarily, although you have to be competent. But more important, you have to show a great deal of interest in the subject and a great deal of personal charm. Your sexual attractiveness to male professors will also play a role in this, but you must keep it muted and conduct yourself with the utmost decorum, so you are not perceived as a sexual threat by academic wives or as a potential liability by the male professors themselves.

By branding yourself as a student of exceptional promise and great charm who may one day make something of herself, and by making yourself available in whatever capacity is available to you (volunteering in a low-level capacity on projects and so forth) you may thereby navigate with limited and provisional leeway the restricted bayou of dinners, conferences, performances and informal get-togethers that is academic social life.

Academic social life is not limited to academics. Business and government leaders, socialites, artists, bohemians, journalists and political activists all ply similar waters. Thusly you may meet the kind of men you are interested in.

What you do with the adults, once you're at the table, is up to you. Your goal, as I see it, should be to find a man to whom you're attracted who is attached neither to a woman nor to your university. Once you begin a relationship with such a man, however, be prepared for unexpectedly powerful passions. You may discover much you did not know about how you really feel. These things are never simple. Although you say you get along with your dad, that doesn't mean that your attraction to these men has nothing to do with unfulfilled childhood needs.

I would also carefully consider the possibility that to some extent it is the taboo itself that attracts you, that you are deliberately choosing men that you can't actually date because you like the thrill of standing too close to the edge. If you find yourself toying with such men but pulling away or sabotaging the relationships, it may be that you are not ready, that you are simply role-playing and experimenting with the power of your youth, beauty and intelligence.

These are just things to think about. There are always things to think about. Our desires are never pure; there are always layers and layers. Good luck. Be careful. Tread lightly on the careers and marriages of the men you tempt with your enchantments.

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