Professor Tempest: Exploring Sexualized Identities in the Classroom


Gathered around a table, four eager 18 year-olds wait for my attention. I occasionally meet each pair of eyes while addressing and evaluating a room filled with others anxious for my nod. “How will I meet their needs? Exceed them?” A white light flickers. The four distract easily. One finishes his soda. In the peripheral, a woman’s body passes. Their faces shift away. “How can I keep their attention? What kind of woman will I be today? What kind of leader?” My accessories have been chosen with purpose: Silver, simple, easy to move in, yet bright enough to highlight. Fitted skirt. Pointy heels. I approach the table of four. And they have been waiting for me. “I am confidence. Power. I am this role.” My eyes form a tractor beam between one of the young men and me. His young, curious face looks anxious and will not need finessing, but rather direct guidance. I lean down, chest forward. He smells me now, sweet and warm. Against his neck, pressing into his right ear, I whisper, “Would you like to see me naked?”  He looks at his three buddies, then at my chest, legs, ass and face. Sliding his chair back and body up, he smiles, says nothing and lets me take his hand as we move toward the edge of the room where booths wait for customers and private dances.


As “Tempest,” exotic dancer, I sold twenty and thirty dollar private dances to male customers based, in great part, on my visual gender identity; a very sexualized one. A seductive smile, long hair, red nails, dark lips, high heels and tight skirts helped create a persuasive persona; one who much more often than not, earned several hundred dollars a night. And I loved “Tempest.” She looked cheap, but commanded. Period. Armed with the visually uber feminine, at least one version of it, my other persuasive characteristics – flattery, a sense of humor, smarts, flirtation, lively conversation and eye contact, became more persuasive.


Even among strippers with bigger boobs, thinner bodies and blonde hair, I discovered that Tempest’s power came more from within; the outside in rather than inside out. As Karen Lehrman puts it in The Lipstick Proviso, a book about women, sex and power, “Appreciation of beauty also won’t undermine a woman’s ability to boost her self-esteem through her imagination, intellect, and personality. Self-esteem can also come from without and work its way in--and there’s nothing wrong with that.”[1] Feeling that I looked “good,” I became more confident, in control, seductive, funny and capable of getting what I wanted.


I’d felt like a strong, sharp, apt, even attractive woman before, with unshaved armpits, wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers and a ball cap. Through Tempest, what I assumed as a –then – woman in her early twenties, about how power can be exponentially communicated through a visually sexualized, male fantasy identity, was confirmed. I learned to own that identity and feel good about it for myself. However, understanding oneself as a sexual, powerful, embodied woman and applying the skills that may manifest from that persona in practice are two very different kinds of wisdom; the former being more clear than the latter. Still, I try to understand my scholarly and teaching self projected against that history, ideally toward better serving students and their work.


Almost 15 years since first stripping, Tempest now helps me teach Composition as a bonified, if you will, college professor. This intersection and sharing of identities, one highly sexualized and the other almost asexual, causes me to reflect on how a pair of knee high black patent leather boots can be worn with a wool suit jacket. More generally, how is power communicated through my visually sexualized identity and why has it deposited such strong traces in my current teaching persona and psyche?  How is a sexually gendered, yet professional persona, an identity visualized through skirts, heels and lipstick, used in Composition practice?  Might that visual identity translate into passion in the classroom? Might a female professor feel her authority through that powerful sexuality?  And might she feel herself more capable of “seducing” a class toward building community and, ergo, creating a more productive learning environment? 


Today, six years since my last stint nude on stage, I find my professorial identity manifesting characteristics of Tempest in university Composition and Literature classrooms. When I walk into a classroom at the beginning of a semester, to some degree, I am ascending “the stage,” costumed to communicate power, sexuality, authority and professionalism, much like I did for many years as a stripper. More importantly, I feel these characteristics are mine to own as a woman who has come into her own personally and professionally.


Not that other experiences and their residual identity traits do not enter into the classroom, but the most visibly commanding and highly gendered persona is the ex-stripper; the woman I associate most with power, with a capitol “P”. Power is why she is the woman I bring with me to the classroom for the first day of the semester. And because I like her. She is woman. Hear her roar. Again, Karen Lehrman seems to understand this. Embedded in a section about “sexy clothing,” bucking the patriarchy and feminine stereotypes, she writes, “What this analysis completely misses is the sense of power women derive from wearing sexual clothing. They strut when they put on clingy dresses, sheer black stockings and heels. And they strut not just because they’re fulfilling stereotypes. They strut because sexuality is a form of power, a strength, an asset…”[2] Strippers know this. So do their customers.


But in the university classroom, a space traditionally associated with briefcases, beards, tweed and long-winded lecturers, how does Tempest fit in? More importantly, can feeling sexy work well in a college Composition classroom? The answer seems to depend on how sexuality manifests in that setting. When I feel sexually embodied, I behave with more energy and confidence. As well, I may be more likely to allude to a sexual innuendo. Or more likely to touch a student on the arm or back. I also feel better able to engage students, drawing them out using skills I associate with stripping. Across genders, I flirt, tease, and listen very actively. And while this teaching style snaps most students to attention, and seems to bring them into a classroom community with more enthusiasm, I still wonder about its appropriateness and effectiveness.


Addressing this issue, activist, educator, and writer, bell hooks, seems to have anticipated speaking to me (an ex-stripper gone writing instructor) in her essay, “Erotic student/faculty relationships.”  Her article asserts that:

Passionate pedagogy in any setting is likely to spark erotic energy. It cannot be policed or outlawed. This erotic energy can be used in constructive ways both in individual relationships and in the classroom setting. Just as it is important that we be vigilant in challenging abuses of power wherein the erotic becomes a terrain of exploitation, it is equally important to recognize that space where erotic interaction is enabling and positively transforming.[3]

I feel comforted to learn that others address what has seemed to me somewhat dark and wrong; a sexually un-shy and empowered woman coming of age in the historically antiseptic role of “university professor.”


However, this identity offers challenges. Recently a young male student commented, “You’re the youngest professor I’ve ever had.” Another male student added, “Yeah, me too.” I’d been introducing the course, casually, joking a little and maintaining a light tone as I read through the syllabus and class contract. For the first day of class, I’d purposefully dressed a bit down, in a pair of fitted, dark jeans over black boots with a fitted black sweater. Casually professional. My curves and personality showed that day. Besides, I somewhat enjoyed the comment; its naiveté. As well, the older I get the younger I don’t mind being taken for.    

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[1] Karen Lehrman, The Lipstick Proviso (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 96.

[2] Lehrman, 94.

[3] bell hooks, “Passionate Pedagogy: Erotic Student/Faculty Relationships,” Z Magazine (Mar. 1996): 51.