[Edited slightly on 10/12 to correct some inconsistencies.]
I’m looking at Playboy’s Miss October for 1995 and I’m trying to remember what it was like to see pictures of naked women for the first time. My brother and I were very young—no more than eight or nine—when we discovered my grandfather’s stash of Playboy magazines in the corner behind his chair in the living room. Huddled together in that chair’s shadow, we turned the pages very slowly, and I remember wanting to know if I was looking at real women.
As I grew older and my life began to reveal itself to me as a sexual one, magazines like Playboy and Penthouse took on an aura of divination. To understand the images between their covers was to understand the erotic world of the adult I would one day become. I studied the pictures assiduously and read the text as closely as I knew how, searching for what I believed was there: knowledge that would help me claim the life the magazines promised would be mine if I learned the secret of how to claim it.
By the time I was in my twenties, the women in the photographs represented what was supposed to be my sexual present, an endless montage of breasts and thighs, of willing mouths and open legs, and I was often frustrated and confused that the life I was living didn’t live up to the promise those images held out to me.
Now, in my late forties, as I look at Miss October’s body spread out on the pages before me, I confess I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience an erotic tug on my imagination, but I’m also very aware that Miss October has a name and a time and a place—Alicia Rickter, early twenties (at least when the photographs were taken), and Cal State—a life, in other words, that has nothing to do with my response to her pictures.
Skimming the copy that accompanies the photographs, I note that she will not turn forty until the year 2012, which means she is exactly ten years younger than I am. She was, in other words, only twenty-three when the pictures I am looking at were taken, much too young for her image to represent either the present or the future of the sexual life I imagine for myself now, or that I would have imagined for myself had I been looking at them in 1995. Indeed, it’s far more likely that any encounter I might have with a woman resembling the Alicia Rickter Playboy has created for my consumption would be limited to the twice-a-week meeting times of a class of mine in which she was registered than in the kind of extra-curricular encounter her pictures are supposed to help me imagine. More to the point, I’m not really supposed to imagine my students in this way.
The first photograph shows her lying on her stomach on top of a large wooden desk. A personal computer with text on the screen is partially obscured by her red knee-socked calves, and a pile of textbooks is strategically positioned just behind her right arm. The plaid mini-skirt she’s wearing, reminiscent of a Catholic school-girl’s uniform, is hiked up to expose her bare buttocks, and her red sweater has been pushed up to reveal the undercurve of her left breast. She has a pencil in her right hand, and she appears to be tapping the eraser pensively against her chin. Her eyes, however, are looking straight into the camera, and the smile on her face clearly shows she has something other than studying on her mind; and suddenly I’m standing once again in the writing class I taught a some years ago in which there was a young white woman whom I found physically very attractive. I am trying to concentrate on teaching, but what I really want is to stare at her. She has on a tight-fitting shirt that hugs her breasts and outlines the shape of her nipples. She’s not wearing a bra. As I start the day’s lesson, the woman begins a yawn that travels her body in a stretch that I watch from the corner of my eye. I watch the way the lift of her arms lifts her breasts as if she were offering them to be kissed. Briefly, I want to believe she’s offering them to me, but there’s no eye contact, and I’m reminded that she’s probably just yawning.
Yet what if she wasn’t “just yawning”? What if she really was offering me her breasts? I did once have a student who blew kisses at me while I was lecturing, and on another occasion a student not in my class anymore, close enough to me in age that at least some of the taboo against student-teacher sex would have been ameliorated, came to my office to ask if I would go with her to a hotel to make love. It’s not impossible, in other words, though I think it highly improbable, that the student whose body Alicia Rickter’s photos conjured for me had purposefully worn a shirt that revealed her breasts, and it’s not impossible, though it is highly improbable, that she meant to stretch in a way that would show them off, that she was hoping I would notice her and, on the pretext of discussing her writing, ask her to see me in my office where she fully intended to seduce me, and it’s not impossible that she would have succeeded. I understand all of the ethical issues that last not-impossibility raises, and I like to think I would not allow such a thing to happen, but I am human, and desire is powerful, and irrational, and sometimes a fantasy can mean so much more to you than the reality in which you live that you’ll take the risk of trying to make the fantasy real, and who has not been tempted, and who has not tried and failed?
I should be clear: I find nothing objectionable, morally or otherwise, in the idea that teachers might fantasize sexually about their students, as long as the fantasies do not interfere with the instructor’s ability to do her or his job. We are, after all, human, as are our students, and to pretend otherwise would be foolish; but thinking about Alicia Rickter’s pictures in Playboy and the effect they have on me, are supposed to have on me, reminds me of something that happened in another composition class I taught not too long ago. One of my students—call her Samantha—was a young woman, around nineteen or twenty, who wanted to be a model. She announced this to the class, so it was not a secret, and she told us proudly about a couple of gigs that she thought might be her ticket to a serious modeling career.
Also in this class was a man about my age, forty five—call him Barry—a retired cop who’d decided to come back to school to start a second career. During one class, Barry and Samantha happened to be in the same group, and I noticed as I walked around checking on each group’s progress that they were scribbling something in each other’s notebooks. I assumed it was their email addresses so that they could communicate about the group project outside of class. That evening, however, I received an email from Barry with the subject line “Check this out!” There was nothing in the body of the email but a MySpace URL. Since he and I often discussed politics and marriage after class, and sometimes chatted about our children, I clicked on it without thinking, assuming he was sending me something that had to do with one of our recent discussions.
Instead, what I found was Samantha’s MySpace modeling portfolio, which included mostly pictures of her posed provocatively in revealing lingerie. They were, as far as I could tell, legitimate pictures—in other words, she I don’t think she had been trying to get Barry to subscribe to her soft (or hard) core porn site or anything like that—and I was immediately sorry that I saw them. Samantha had not given me permission to look at them, and I was sure they did not represent the image she wanted me to have of her, and it was also not the image I wanted to have of her, when I called on her in class or when I graded her papers.
I confronted Barry—to his credit, he immediately recognized the inappropriateness of what he’d done—and I spoke to Samantha, because she had a right to know what Barry had done, and the situation was resolved; but the fact is that I couldn’t unsee what I’d seen and while I am confident that I behaved professionally towards Samantha throughout the rest of the semester, I’d be lying if I said her pictures hadn’t touched me in a way that was not so different from the way that Alicia Rickter’s pictures are supposed to touch me; and how different in kind—for it is certainly different in degree—is Barry’s attempt to bond with me over the body of the young woman in my class from the implicit and explicit male bonding that takes place over the pages of Playboy every day?
Cross-posted on The Poetry in the Politics and the Politics in the Poetry.