Faculty-student amorous entanglement is, to this day, prevalent on college and university campuses. Discuss the matter for five minutes with just about anybody who has any stake in campus culture, however, and you’ll see that what people consider to be “harassment” varies widely. In part, the definition of harassment traces back to the consent question (covered in the four previous posts above, from 9 Sept. to 13 Oct.). The hard-core view of what constitutes a professor’s harassment of a student would be any amorous relationship at all; that’s because of the power-differential between professors and students. How can a student be thought to “consent” to a sexual involvement, the reasoning goes, if the student lacks the power of a professor? In that light, any sexual relationship between a faculty member and a student, no matter how “consensual” or “mutual” it’s believed to be, is actually coercive.
But common sense and observation prevent the conclusion that no faculty-student relationship eventually works out well for both people. Most of us know at least one couple who started out as teacher and protégé(e) and who wound up living happily ever after. To talk in terms of banning all such involvement strikes many people as severe and absolutist, not to mention nigh impossible, given the potential for eroticism through intellectual engagement. Clearly, the difference between one professor who flirts with a student and another who attacks a student physically is vast: the first may or may not qualify as harassment, depending upon other factors; the second is an abominable abuse of power. But distinctions on the spectrum of what qualifies as harassment are ultimately far subtler than in that example—as in the difference, for instance, of a professor’s flirting with a student in one of his classes versus with a student he’s never supervised or graded and likely never will.
Robert H. Kretsinger, chair of the faculty senate at the University of Virginia in 1993, when the school was debating and revising its sexual harassment policy, spoke to the New York Times about his perception of professor-student sexual relationships at UVa. He said that “he could think of ‘hundreds of examples without exaggeration,’ some that worked to the benefit of both people and others that produced ‘broken hearts and abuse.’” Another way to state the same idea would be to consider the professor’s point of view and motives. Some teachers are no doubt capable of acting honorably in sexual relationships with students, while others, who exploit their power over students, are not. Some are to be trusted: even if an involvement doesn’t end well, the professor takes the student’s well-being to heart and even puts it first. Others use their position to get what they want, whether they attempt to barter good grades for sex or, more subtly, call in a favor after having mentored and supported a favorite student over time. The last example is arguably the most heinous because it involves the appropriation of long-standing trust for the sole benefit of the teacher.
I would argue that the number of professors whose amorous intentions can be trusted is far smaller than that of teachers who have students’ interests in mind. That larger group warrants close examination.