When I first started full-time work as an assistant professor, philosophy was an overwhelmingly male profession. All my colleagues would be men. In my college days, the women who taught me masculinized themselves in their gestures and dress, so that no one could accuse them of allowing seductive feminine wiles in the halls of academe.
I did not want to do what my women teachers had done. The sixties were ending. The new feminism was just beginning. Eventually, it would change the landscape. But its way of framing the situation was generic. What I needed was a concrete sense of how to navigate.
Here’s what I did. I imagined, empathically, what it would be like to have the body of a man. You have external genitals. That’s a dangerous vulnerability. You can be aroused involuntarily. Unless you are Attila the Hun, there’s another vulnerability. Your power and reputation are in principle under fire from other men. You stand on a field of combat. Meanwhile, if a seductive woman approaches, you can be attracted and rebuffed, even used and discarded. Or you can miscalculate the pushes and pulls of courtship and find yourself attached to a woman who is wrong for you. Or you can turn out a deliberate heel, but that is no light thing either, especially in a work situation.
That being roughly the masculine ordeal, I would have to (1) gauge and respect distances, so as to telegraph that I was not planning any of these kinds of power plays. This is more a matter of rhythm, timing and “body language” (but these reflect intentions telegraphed). I would also need (2) indirectly to acknowledge the erotic factor, which exists between a man and a woman, at any age and condition – even perhaps between a priest and a dying woman. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s the way we are, once we grow up. It was better before we grew up, but here we are. Nobody can help it. What I really wanted was to allow collegiality to usher us back to the halcyon days when I was ten years old, when we boys and girls were free — before dates and proms and wallflowers — before everything got horrible.
Here’s an example of indirectly acknowledging the erotic factor: a colleague was giving a paper and chanced to remark, perhaps in the Q & A, that flirting was a thoroughly bad thing. I countered, “How can you say such a terrible thing? Who would want to live in a world without flirting?”
To say that is not, in itself, to flirt. It’s to say, “It’s all right. We can’t help the way life is.” Everybody is acknowledged. Everybody is off the hook.