Chicago. -- Amuch reviled privilege, perhaps more mythical than real, was known as the lord of the manor's prerogative ("droit du seigneur"). The manorial overlord had the right to take each of his female subjects' maidenheads. He, the master of style and experience, would perform this deflowering properly, in a way that no rural lout could equal.
Some question how far this supposed feudal right was exercised. But now we have proof that there are some real-life seigneurs out there, who think their position gives them the right to end the virginity of their charges. In a Harper's magazine symposium, university professors defend the right -- no, the duty -- to take sexual charge of the students committed to their care.
Professor William Kerrigan of the University of Massachusetts says that it is large-hearted of him to step in when a female student, "for one reason or another, has unnaturally prolonged her virginity." If the good professor allowed this kind of misguided woman to have her first experience with a fellow student, she might rush into an unconsidered marriage. He makes it clear that his services are extramarital.
Professor Kerrigan says that such virginities are offered to him because he, "half an authority figure, can handle [them as] a thing whose preciousness I realize." Only the connoisseur can sample this year's vintage.
Gay and lesbian professors join in, saying that they have a similar duty to initiate students still unclear about their sexual orientation. This is not just their duty but an essential part of academic freedom, since the professors say they must guide all forms of learning in their students. There is a lot of high-minded talk in this symposium about the students' needs. But what comes across is the professors' needs. They have come to exercise a lecher's license.
Though the symposium was called to protest the rules in some schools against teacher-student sex relations, the result is a stronger argument for such rules than I have seen elsewhere. If professors' views of their Svengali relationships with pupils lead to the principled "deflowering" of virgins, then we should all be .. protected from such pompous and self-deluded academics. The droit du professeur" is no more savory than the old "droit du seigneur." In fact, it is simply the same thing.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.