When I ran the topic of professor-on-student sexual harassment by a friend of mine, a distinguished second-wave feminist who continues to do good political work in her 80s, she responded, “I remember so well the huge crush one of my best friends had on her chemistry teacher in college. I think she would have been willing to submit to almost anything. Fortunately, the only thing he ever asked her to do was baby sit so he and his wife could go out to dinner. Had he been one to prey on young women, he would have found a willing companion.” Had he been a predator, would the student, as “willing” as she was, have been harassed? For me, the answer is “yes.” In that situation, no matter how enamored she was, it was up to the professor to be an adult and recognize the student’s vulnerability and the relationship’s inappropriateness.
But I think my friend was inwardly mulling over whether a student’s crush on a professor wasn’t a natural occurrence and, by extension, whether a professor’s acting on it wasn’t to be expected. I encountered just that assumption—that sexual involvement between students and those who teach them is simply in the nature of things—several years ago on my campus, when an internationally known acting company was in residence for some three weeks. The members of the company who were acting in plays were considered teachers as much as were the designated educators in the company or regularly appointed faculty members at the college. All of the visitors, to a person, were on campus to teach the students, and they were formally told that, because of their role, they were to abstain from amorous relationships with students. When such relationships cropped up willy nilly, members of my community laughed them off as predictable, impossible to prevent—that is, as an essential part of any academic environment. When I objected to this view, they gently ridiculed me for my prudishness.
Another way to look at the matter is that we’ve become desensitized to a fundamentally unjust, pervasive occurrence, so that we can’t imagine the academy without educators and students becoming intimately involved. The example that’s perennially invoked by people who maintain the inevitability and naturalness of teacher-student desire is that of Abélard and Héloïse, the medieval philosopher and his pupil who couldn’t contain their mutual desire. The cruel punishments meted out to each—castration for him, religious sequestration and celibacy for her—are supposed to exemplify how generations of sceptics have misunderstood and misclassified academic amour.
But I would argue that such involvement isn’t endemic to academe; rather, like plants that become naturalized in non-native conditions, it is invasive.