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Further reflections on the sexual dynamics of teacher/student relationships

Another scandal (if that is the appropriate word) has occurred in the philosophy community with a high-profile male academic being reported for sexual misconduct. And my heart sinks when I see these articles – I can barely read them because it feels so sordid to hear the details of people’s lives when this type of behavior is exposed. But the main reason it is so difficult for me is that it is so far removed from my experience with older men – and I know how healing it can be for a young woman to be given attention from an older, high status male.

I find myself saying “but young women like older men. We like them paying attention to us!” (although the attention I refer to is not in line with the reports of this scandal) and I can hear women screaming at me for my ignorance regarding the extent of sexism and the damage it causes. At this point I curl into a ball and remember my mother, her madness, and how I have lived my life seeking safety in men who lacked the hysteria of the older women I knew.

I must say, quite truthfully, I have not experienced the harassment that so many women have suffered. When I left school, I headed to the inner city of Sydney. This was in the days before the inner city was gentrified. These were ‘ghetto’ areas full of students, unemployed, artists, people taking drugs and having a wild time. It was also the heart of the queer community. I didn’t fit into mainstream culture, or so I felt, and so – along with my peers in the inner city – I escaped the suburbs and found a community where I did feel I belonged.

I guess I wasn’t hit on much. I slept with guys, sure, but I never felt hassled. To be honest I was quite asexual. I wasn’t sending out signals and I wasn’t picking up any. I was lost in my own little world. So, whilst I was immersed in these subversive sexual subcultures, I was like a little kid who wasn’t there.

What I do know is that I was always seeking a teacher. An older male. A father figure. I needed a mentor. And as I had conflated this need for a mentor with my need for a relationship with a partner – I was unable to have a serious and committed relationship until I had this opportunity of being mentored. When I did finally meet a teacher who I projected onto and who responded to me – it was a turning point in my life.

Once I had a teacher, an older man who looked at me with delight, who cared about me, my life changed. I was lifted out of the dark hole that I was in and I moved into the world and found my husband and stepped into a loving relationship.

These mentoring relationships are healing. They can be healing and they should be healing. And, for this reason, my stomach sinks when I hear of a high-status male, whose work is admired, behaving badly and abusing his power. Because I know not all men are like this and I don’t want to live in a culture of hysteria and suspicion. But again, I lack the experience of harassment – and so I’m just left deeply saddened.

Harassment is very different from the bonds that can form between teachers and students due to transference. When I studied analytical psychology, I tried to understand the notion of transference because I needed to make sense of the recurring patterns in my life. I kept putting people on pedestals – either falling unrequitedly in love with them or wanting them to save me. For years people would run in the other direction – they didn’t want this adoration. I was too needy. As a result, I was lost, lonely and confused – despite the friends I had. I eventually got the attention I needed from the academics who taught me about transference.

Transference is a term that comes from depth psychology – Freud and Jung and others. What these practitioners found was that when they worked with clients often the clients would fall in love them or they would fall in love with the clients. A huge amount has been written on this and I can only hint at some central features. To be honest, this notion remains mysterious to me because the experience is something that goes beyond the words used to explain it. Basically, it is love. A form of love – and I guess the theory is a way to understand what this love is based upon.

Transference wasn’t an abstract notion for Jung, he was forced to grapple with it personally. Early in his career he had a sexual relationship with one of his female patients, Sabina Spielrein. He treated Spielrein for schizophrenia while she was in the psychiatric hospital where he worked and she subsequently became his student. Jung denied this relationship to his mentor, Freud. However, Freud spoke with Spielrein and discovered the truth. Spielrein became a doctor and a Freudian analyst after her hospitalization.[i]

Jung’s ideas about transference diverge from Freud’s. While they both agree that projection plays a role, their understanding of this is different. For Jung, when we are in a relationship with another person we can project aspects of our own personality that we are unconscious of or in denial of onto that person. For example, if we are having difficulties with someone the faults we see in them are, in fact, our own faults. We are disowning these denied parts of ourselves and blaming the other person for these flaws instead.

This can also happen with positive attributes. There can be parts of our personality that we are not ready to accept and integrate. We can see these qualities in another person, and admire that person for them, while failing to recognize that they are aspects of ourselves that are not yet realized. In this way, teachers (and therapists) can often hold the unrealized potential of their students (and clients).

What a good teacher does is mirror or reflect these qualities back to the student, so that eventually the student comes to own and integrate these parts of their personality. This is how people can grow through these relationships.

And yet, for Jung, transference can work on an even deeper level than this. While the term archetype is in common use, Jung’s theory of archetypes is not well regarded. But Jung would say that these teacher/student relationships can have an archetypal quality to them. This means they resonate with something inside us that is beyond our personal experience, something that belongs to the unconscious store of images and emotions that is common to humanity. The teacher/student relationship was part of our ancestors’ reality and these dynamics have been passed down for tens of thousands of years – you can think of these patterns as being wired into our brains. Certain patterns affect certain people more than others depending upon our personal experiences. For Jung, there is something numinous about archetypes. This means they have a certain power over us, an almost religious quality, when they are activated. So, if a situation in our lives activates an archetype, it can feel intoxicating.

Teacher/student relationships can be very powerful in this way. When this quality is present both parties are transformed by the relationship – and indeed, this is what a good therapeutic or teacher/student relationship involves. And – these relationships can have an erotic dimension. Eros is aroused when we are close to the numinous.

While erotic attachments can be problematic in these relationships, this erotic attraction is nothing to feel guilty about. What matters is a person’s behavior – but even on this score people make mistakes and we need to accept how fallible humans are – as illustrated by Jung and Spielrein. We are simply called upon to do our best, to bumble through and behave appropriately and respectfully towards one another.

There needs to be an awareness of the transference dynamics that can occur in teacher/student relationships because their quality and strength is as much a part of academic life as it is of therapeutic life.

However, harassment is a separate issue from this. Whilst transference can be confusing, it happens in relationships because of our deep psychological needs and is often underscored by an emotional connection to who we think the other person is. This is not something we can control – but we need to be self-aware when it happens. In contrast, harassment involves aggressive and hostile behavior. For example, if a person objectifies another and has no respect for their intelligence and autonomy, then this is abuse not transference. If a person in a positon of authority uses their power to oppress a subordinate in this way, this misuse of power amounts to subjugation. This denial of the other person’s humanity is morally inexcusable.

I think mentoring relationships are incredibly important – and they are a necessary part of academic life. As I said, my heart sinks when I hear about people abusing their role as mentor. It’s almost a sacred role, to my mind. It is the role someone plays when they are initiating a tribal member. There needs to be honor in this sacred duty.

[i] Tragically, Spielrein was killed in the Holocaust in 1942. She is best remembered for a paper entitled “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being", which Influenced Freud’s development of the Death Instinct. Her relationship with Jung is portrayed in the 2011 film “A Dangerous Method”.

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