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Conference Sex, or What Professors Get Up to at Holiday Time

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A curious thing happens every year between Christmas and New Year. Ten thousand literature professors and grad students from around the globe gather together in some big U.S. city or other for the Modern Language Association's annual convention.

Like bees to a scholarly honey pot, they swarm to hear a myriad of panels and schmooze, gossip, and bitch with their peers. For grad students trying snag one of the few academic appointments on the market, the MLA hosts the dreaded job circuit interviews.

Frantic, competitive, and buzzing with tweed and spectacles, the MLA certainly gets intellectual adrenalin pumping. But it generally isn't known for its sexploits. In fact, someone writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education once dubbed the MLA, "that annual bacchanal of sexless sadomasochism."

Yet a panel at this year's MLA (which just finished in San Francisco) proves that the annual literature convention is a whole lot sexier than first impressions might suggest. Over at Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik reports on "Conference Sex," a panel which wowed this year's MLA crowd with theories, analysis, and confessions about conference nooky. It was also, apparently, "the only session at the MLA this year in which a panelist appeared in a bathrobe."

According to Jaschik, one presenter carefully categorized the different types of conference sex - ranging from "conference quickies" to "career-building sex" to "bi-curious experimentation by nerdy academics trying to be more hip." Another panelist equated what goes on in the day at the conference with what goes on behind closed hotel doors at night:

"At a conference... 'a collegial discussion of methodology becomes foreplay,' and the finger that may be moved in the air to illuminate a point during a panel presentation...can later become the finger touching another's skin for the first time in the hotel room, 'where we lose our cap and gown.'"

My, my. Who knew the MLA could be such a sexy place?

Actually, I did. How? Because I went to the MLA as a grad student - and I had great conference sex there.

What surprised me more reading Jaschik's report, however, was the extent and prevalence of this kind of after-hours academic pursuit. In my days of conference sex, I was always under the impression that I was up to something naughty, unheard of, and, well, quite frankly unique. Everyone at the MLA always looked so intense and driven and book-focused, it was hard to imagine them taking off their spectacles - let alone their clothes. But lo and behold, it seems everyone was up to "it" - not just me and my now-husband.

I might still be able to claim uniqueness in one way, however. Six years ago I came away from the MLA with a stack of rather dry academic books. I also came away undeniably pregnant. My five year old son is living and chattering proof that "Procreative Conference Sex" is a viable category too.