The crux of this question is whether one person—a student—with less power than another person—a professor—can consent to a sexual relationship. Today, many people, many of them feminists, would say, “No.” Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, authors of the still relevant (though 30-year-old) book The Lecherous Professor, are among them. They write about “The Consenting Adult Myth”:
Few students are ever, in the strictest sense, consenting adults. A student can never be
a genuine equal of a professor insofar as his professional position gives him power over
her. Access to a student occurs not because she allows it but because the professor
ignores professional ethics and chooses to extend the student-faculty relationship.
Whether the student consents to the involvement or whether the professor ever intends to
use his power against her is not the point. The issue is that the power and the role
disparity always exist, making it virtually impossible for the student to act as freely as
she would with a male peer. (p. 74)
Dziech and Weiner conclude, “People who promote the consenting adult myth seldom mention that true consent demands full equality and full disclosure” (75).
Other feminists see the same issue differently, a viewpoint elaborated by Cristina Nehring in what has become a seminal essay on the matter, “The Higher Yearning,” published in Harper’s in September 2001. Generally, Nehring argues that “academic eros” between a student and a professor enhances learning, though she adds that it “does better work when channeled and curtailed than spilled” (65, 69). In other words, the sexual energy between teacher and student is more intellectually productive if left repressed, rather than acted upon. In response to the claim that a student can’t consent to an amorous relationship with a professor, Nehring asserts that
campus feminism, which began with the aim of giving women more power—more
faith in their own resources; greater enfranchisement, sexuality, and independence—
has ended by infantilizing them . . . . It has [taught] them to run to their elders and
fear the dark; to distrust male appreciation and demonize male attraction—to revert, in
sum, into the shrinking, swooning, sex-spooked maidens we thought we’d left behind
in a darker age. (67)
She scoffs at the notion that women (and, presumably, men) in college can’t make such decisions on their own.
But can they? Even if they’re love-struck over a professor whose attention they crave, even if they attempt to seduce a professor, do they really know what they’re asking for? Or is that very question objectionable for patronizing students who are, after all, adults and who are at college to learn, sometimes through making mistakes?