The revelation that Judy Buranich, the same woman teaching classics like "Catcher in the Rye" to high school students, also writes erotic novels with names like "Rednecks 'n' Romance" shocked a small group of parents in the town of Middleburg, Penn. They called up local news outlets, which were all too happy to relay the parents' tasty morsels of outrage and paranoia, like: "I don't want my son sitting in her class thinking, is she looking at him in a certain way." The next stop: The Daily Mail, naturally.
At no point was Buranich, who writes erotica as Judy Mays, in danger of losing her job; sanely, the administration didn't actually consider disciplining her over her legal side-job. But there is clearly something irresistible about teachers with decidedly adult extracurricular activities, and many have not been so lucky as Buranich. In 2009, a Florida biology teacher was fired after photos of her in a bikini were discovered online (interestingly enough, after failing to find a new teaching job, she turned to porn). Earlier this year, a teacher in San Diego contested his firing over posting an ad -- with a photo of his face and his penis -- on Craigslist's men-seeking-men section. Last month, a high school secretary in Quebec was sacked after it was discovered that she had done porn; and just the month before, a Florida high school teacher was canned when her X-rated past surfaced. Then, of course, there's Melissa Petro who recently wrote in Salon about losing her job over her public admission of a sex work past.
It kind of makes you wonder why we care so much about what teachers do in their private and -- with the exception of Petro -- entirely legal sex lives. This is part of a problem popping up in nearly every profession, not just teaching. So many of us live online -- posting photos to Flickr, checking in on Foursquare, tweeting about Happy Hour exploits and casually commenting on Facebook friends' walls. Never before has it been so difficult to keep our private selves totally private, and the potential for professional conflict is huge. The stakes are raised even higher when it comes to teachers, though. As concerned parents have pointed out, they're teaching "our kids," the young and impressionable future generation. Does being an erotica writer make one unfit for that task? What about being a fan of Craigslist's "casual encounters" or a former sex worker?
Culturally, we're already profoundly anxious about teenage sexuality. Think of all the ways we try to protect kids from sex -- from strict curfews to abstinence-only education. A year ago, I wrote about a high school teacher who, after hearing that she was getting laid off, blurted out to her class that she was becoming a stripper and selling her eggs; parents were outraged over the incident and the teacher was investigated by school officials (even though they were already taking away her job). It's no surprise then that some parents would be hesitant to invite someone with a publicly available sexual resume of any sort into the classroom. Of course, most adults have a sexual past of some sort -- but it's a different thing when concrete evidence of it is readily available. When you can go online and call up an excerpt from an erotic novel about interspecies alien loving written by your son's English teacher -- just, wow. Take this passage from Buranich's "Celestial Passions" series: "A shiver danced up her spine. Wow! I'd love to see him naked. Will his cock match the rest of him?" Reading that simply changes the way you and your kid view said teacher: Suddenly, you become aware of her as a woman with a, shall we say, rich sexual fantasy world.
But, is that such an awful thing? As a friend who used to teach told me: "It's pretty shitty, honestly: We have a pay scale that relies on teachers to be altruists. Now they have to be nuns, too? Bullshit!" It does seem unfair to deny people in such a strained profession (there have been a number of ugly layoffs recently, notably in New York) a personal outlet like writing erotic novels. It's also impractical: I guarantee you that scores of high school English teachers across this country are pseudonymously writing online fan fiction -- everything from Harry Potter slash to naughty renderings of Jane Austen. And fer crying out loud, after a long day trying to get teenagers excited about reading "Heart of Darkness," teachers at least deserve to let loose by writing about sexy vampires and werewolves and aliens, oh my.
There's a difference between Judy Buranich and Melissa Petro, though. That Petro's sex work past has any bearing on her abilities as a teacher is absurd, but the fact that she engaged in an illegal activity makes her case harder to defend. As for the former porn performers and casual encounters fans, their behavior may be edgy, but it's legal. If they do a satisfactory job in the classroom -- who cares? It's only a problem because we know about it, and we only know about it because of the revealing powers of the Internet -- against which few of us are fully protected. And, hey, judge not, lest ye be judged.