Flings & Flirting at Conferences

Academics often hook up at conferences; they just don’t want to talk about it. Bragging about flings is considered taboo in higher education, something reserved for private chats and gossip. Naturally, then, I’ll blog about it here.

I had my conference flings down to a system in my 20s: arrive with presentation finished, present, attend panels, keep a lookout for cute (smart) guys, socialize/network and casually flirt, find one worth kissing. I could handle it all and still have time for an afternoon run. All told, I probably had seven or eight conference flings in between my serious relationships. I’m not sure if that’s a lot or not. It was enough for me. One of them was married.

I felt a little bad about that one, but he was probably the best looking guy I’ve ever encountered in person. His wife was already cheating on him, and I suppose he was looking to get even. I was more than happy to help. Eventually, they divorced.

One time I did piss off my conference roommate by bringing a guy back around midnight. We tried to be polite by sleeping in the suite area, not the bedroom, and I’d planned to have him out of there by dawn. That didn’t happen, though, and she found us in a kind of flesh pretzel on the sofa. Awkward.

I tried to make coffee for everyone using that cheap plastic machine they put in your rooms, the kind with the slide out tray. I wound up with the place to myself that morning!

My conferences have been much quieter the past couple of years since settling down with what appears to be a permanent spouse. (Hurray for me.) But the temptation remains. I’ve talked about this with friends.

As one says, “It’s healthier to be honest. Lying to yourself is the path to the dark side.”

Example: A friend of a friend had an awful cheating spouse. He would befriend some blond and include her in the social circle. They would “hang out” together when his wife wasn’t around. He swore they were “just friends,” until one day they had sex and he asked for a divorce so he could re-marry.

Faithfulness doesn’t happen on its own. You have to work it.

We all have colleagues and coworkers we want to fuck–sometimes very badly. That’s the nature of sexual attraction. I can list three colleagues from other schools I’d have sex with at the drop of a hat. I can’t even look at them without blushing a little. Two of them have given guest lecturers at my campus, and we present on panels together. I don’t allow myself to interact with them much socially, especially not with alcohol. We’re all business.

I know that one night with either of these gentlemen would be spectacular, but it could never measure up to the lifetime I plan to spend with my current spouse, and that’s a calculation I make consciously.

I’m perfectly happy in my relationship, but I’ve always been romantically voracious. In high school, they called me “The Tease.” This pattern continued for almost 10 years. The worst thing about me is that I don’t act like one. I act shy and reserved until just the right moment.

One night, I even had my first date drop me off at a bar where I planned to meet my second date. It took a long time for me to realize what I was doing–procuring admirers, sometimes even plotting to steal boyfriends–wasn’t right. Well into my 20s, occasionally a friend had to pull me aside and tell me to lay off someone else’s crush.

These days, I consider myself a recovering psychopath. Friends tell me I’m much nicer than I used to be. Still, I can’t help but flirt just a little bit when I’m traveling. At the airport, I spend 10 minutes trading furtive glances with a guy at my gate. I believe the kids call this “eye fucking,” and it’s thrilling when the right person does it. You don’t even have to say anything–something I especially appreciate. At the hotel bar, I chat with a couple of random guys for a timed interval of 30 seconds and then rejoin my group. Same thing at Starbucks. And so on.

I’ve never been the type to lose control in a situation. So far, so good.

I know plenty of other academics who fail at conference romance. They drink too much, and try too hard to make some unrealistic fantasy come alive. If they can’t enjoy the flirting part, nothing’s ever going to happen for them.

Which leads me to Free Hands Guy. I recently met him at a Starbucks near my hotel, where many of us were fueling up. (Yes, the conference had coffee, but you never know how drinkable it’s going to be.) He was dictating emails about carpet to someone with a free-hands set. He was loud. People next to him were visibly irritated. Sure enough, he caught me studying him and mistook it for eye-fucking, and came over. Then I noticed he had a name badge that looked very much like mine. Oh, god, I thought. We’re going to the same conference.

He read my name off my badge and then started quizzing me on my background. Then he asked if I was going to be at any of the official and unofficial receptions, and of course the “after receptions” that go on into the night. Obviously, I couldn’t say no. I planned to catch up with people I knew here.

Free Hands Guy is the worst kind of academic stereotype. Not only is he the kind who conducts business at Starbucks, but also:

  • Brags a lot about nothing. For example: At the bar later that night, he talks about being chair of a committee. He straight up asks me, “So do you direct anything at your institution?”

I put down my bourbon. “Direct?”

He leans forward, gesturing with his hand. “You know, like a committee chair. I’m chair of a committee already. Can you believe it?”


“Yeah, pretty big vote of confidence. I’ve got big plans for us this year. It’s strange to have all that responsibility right off the bat.”

Hands Free Guy is one of those people who calls his committee “my team” or some shit. What’s wrong with this? First, we professors all have to serve on committees. They are not brag-worthy. I’m on committees that don’t even meet. Also, chairing a committee just means that you’re the one who has to send out the fucking doodle poll and reserve whatever conference room. Big deal.

  • Scammed easily. Hands Free Guy tells me some company is interested in printing his dissertation. He shows me an email that reads something like “Dear Dr. So-and-So, we read your dissertation on X and would like to invite you to blah blah blah.”

I hand his phone back and he reads the email again. “I just don’t know if I’ll have time to get it ready. Because of course I’ll want to revise it some.”

What I don’t tell Hands Free: We’re in the same field, and I’ve never heard of this press. There are lots of fake journals and publishers out there with names like Harvard Square Publishing that aren’t affiliated with any university. I get those kinds of emails almost every week and delete them. If you know anything about your field, so do you.

I nod. “Yeah, revising a diss is hard. I’m doing that right–“

“So can I get you another round?”

“No, I’m fine. I was just think–“

“So where are you in the diss process?”

“Well, I’m actually–“

“Man, I remember writing my diss. I got so drunk every weekend. It was the only way to turn off my brain. Don’t take it too seriously, or you’ll never finish.”

Other conference attendees drop in and make small talk with us as they order drinks. We mingle some, and so my time with Hands Free is more like a conversation than a prelude to anything. I can get up and leave, go talk to other academics, any time I want. I’m so amused, though, I stay put for now.

I decide not to embarrass him within earshot of the others, about his dissertation book deal. Someone more senior than me will eventually set him straight. I’ll just blog about him later, I think.

  • Wants to give advice, not take it. Hands Free Guy has a decent tenure-track job at a decent school. As we talk, the more it becomes clear he thinks I’m a PhD student. This makes perfect sense. After all, I don’t introduce myself as Dr. Jessica Wilder, Assistant Professor of Bullshit. Therefore, he assumes I’m a graduate student and starts giving me job search advice. It helps that he’s a talker, and I’m a listener.

Hands Free isn’t slurring-drunk at this point, but he’s tipsy. He touches my arm and says, “I’ll totally look at your CV.” He’ll make room for me between phone calls tomorrow morning.

“Thanks,” I lie. True, I’m starting to get bored now, and tired.

He notices and decides, yeah, maybe he should let me talk some. “So where are you applying? What kind of job are you after?”

So I finally can say, “I have one.”

“Wait, what? Like a full-time tenure track position?”

I nod.

He laughs. “You just struck me as a grad student for some reason. Now I feel stupid.”

The conversation winds down after this. Who knows why? I probably change my demeanor toward him somewhat, and he now realizes he’s talking to an equal with a spouse, and that this whole adventure was a mistake. His eyes start moving around the bar, and he quickly locates a mixed-gender group with some attractive women, maybe some grad students in that gaggle he can hit on? We trade cards, and I move toward the elevator as he orders more overpriced booze. Those are my highlights from Hands Free. And definitely evidence that I’m getting a little old for these kinds of interactions. My hip feels a little stiff from the treadmill. Ow.










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