I never liked teaching in spring. Classroom windows are open, sounds of games played on the quad drift in with smells of new mown grass and apple blossoms – no teacher has material to compete with that. So when the dean invited me to teach a class for the spring semester, I turned her down – saying (honestly enough) that my research left me no time.
A week or so later, I was at a department happy hour, standing with a group of colleagues when someone asked this question: If you could teach any class – any subject, any structure – what would you teach?
The answer came to me easily because I’d thought about it so many times, and it came out of my mouth easily because I’d had a few glasses of wine. “History of Erotic Fiction,” I said, much to the delight of the rest. Only then did I notice that the dean had come up behind me in time to hear.
“How serious are you?” she asked, smiling. And before I could answer, asked, “Serious enough to teach it this spring?”
She had called my bluff, called it in front of a half dozen other professors, and everyone was looking at me, waiting for my answer.
I restricted the class to seniors, on the theory that the students would be over 21 and I would have to field fewer irate phone calls from parents. I also restricted the class to language-arts majors, to keep out the football players, frat boys, and other voyeurs. On the first day of class, I had ten students – the maximum number I had agreed to take.
The syllabus was straightforward. We began with cave paintings, then pulled back the curtains on successive eras, surveying the erotic fiction that was one of the few human constants across continents and cultures. Grades were based on weekly papers that were due at the beginning of Monday’s class. Each paper consisted of over one thousand words of erotic fiction written in the style of the culture we had studied the previous week. (With one exception: The week we studied cave paintings, I had the class create their own symbols and tell an erotic story with finger paints – flattened cardboard boxes standing in for our cave walls.)
It was hard to say who enjoyed the class more – the students or me. The debates were lively, the questions challenging. The students were all good writers, some even rising to excellent – and one was extraordinary.
Her name was Sloane. I had seen her around the department, but didn’t remember having had her in a class before. And I would have remembered. Whenever she walked through the door, I always expected everyone in the room to stop talking. She was the most beautiful woman any of us was ever likely to see in person – who for some reason, had enrolled anonymously at our college, disguising herself behind nerdy glasses, her hair in a careless ponytail. But regardless of what disguises she wore, she could not hide those high cheekbones, green eyes gazing up at me from behind thick lashes, full lips that slipped into a daring smile at the slightest provocation. On the first day of class, she caught me staring at her – and looked so willing in return – that I had to make a conscious effort not to look in her direction at all, or else I’d lose track of what I was talking about.
Perhaps it was because she was so beautiful that I expected so little from her. But what I got – week after week – was easily the best work in the class.
Unique among her peers, Sloane wrote all her stories in the first person. There was no distance between the author and the actions of her protagonist as she fucked her way through the centuries. After the first few papers, Sloane’s work began to read like a time-travelling novel, with breathtaking references to her heroine’s past and future sexual encounters. With each successive chapter, Sloane gave herself completely to some new fetish – but despite her well documented orgasmic satisfaction, left no doubt that she had not found that special something she was looking for. By process of elimination, I began to get a clearer – and more arousing – picture of what that something might be.
At first, Sloane’s heroine was fucked by both men and women, but as the weeks passed, she was taken increasingly by women alone. It began to dawn on me only then that Sloane might be queer. (Internalized homophobia, I chided myself, to assume that no woman as beautiful as Sloane could be a dyke.)
But it was not just that Sloane’s fiction was well written, it was not just that she could write to any time or any style, it was that her work was truly erotic. After the first week, I started saving her paper until last and would grade it in bed, just before I switched off the light – letting her words intertwine with my own fantasies, barely able to scribble my critique before reaching between my legs to satisfy the need her words never failed to create.
I had been teaching then for about 15 years, and this was the first time I had ever read a student’s work for my own pleasure. I delighted in handing out the graded papers each week, perpetually turned on by my secret, watching Sloane out of the corner of my eye. Did she have any idea how many times I’d gotten off on her words, or how often my fantasy as I came included her naked body, stretched beneath mine in total submission?
Whenever I handed back graded papers, I reminded the students to see me during office hours if they had questions about my critique. A number of them did, some just angling for a better grade, some genuinely interested in improving their writing. However, since Sloane consistently earned the highest marks in the class, I was surprised to find her waiting to see me during my office hours early one evening. She sat across the desk from me, on the edge of her seat, and handed me her paper from the previous week. I skimmed it quickly, as though to refresh my memory – although I had come often enough to those words that I could hardly forget them – then looked up. “Tell me what you want.”
Perhaps I imagined it, but it seemed as though she blushed a little. She lowered her eyes to the desk. “Please tell me what you meant about remembering the reader’s purpose.”
I read over my words, then laid the paper on the desk and leaned back in my chair. “Why do people read?” I asked.
She hesitated. “To learn . . . to go places they . . . to experience . . .” her voice trailed off. She was embarrassed by the inadequacy of her answer.
“Why do people read erotica?”
Her eyes met mine and a small smile played at the corner of her lips. “To . . .” She tried to gauge how far she could go with a full professor.
“Say it,” I encouraged her.
“To get off,” she said, and I could tell she was trying not to show how turned on she was by saying those words aloud.
I nodded. “Sometimes, it seems like you’re a little ashamed of your readers – writing as though you want them to believe that you believe they have some intellectual purpose for reading erotica, writing as though you don’t know what their hands are doing while they read your words.”
She held her breath. “I know.”
“Then you know something very powerful. You know what your reader wants. You can give it . . .” I waited for the words to sink in “. . . or not. But either way, you need to understand how power works.”