What kind of sexual conduct is appropriate for philosophers within the academy?
Anyone with even half an ear tuned to the outside world will know that there have been some high profile cases of sexual misbehaviour of late. These have been accompanied by a sense from many folks within the discipline that it’s time to get our house in order. This is a good thing. For a long time, all sorts of egregious sexual behaviour has gone unchecked, and people have been harmed as a result. Given this sorry state of affairs (no pun intended), it’s good to see a new resolve to sort things out. However, we’re now faced with this question: how should philosophers behave towards their students and other members of the profession, when it comes to matters of sex and romance?
This is a question that we, as a profession, need to address, and I’m going to start attempting to do that in a series of forthcoming posts. These don’t represent my finished thoughts on the matter, but are, instead, an attempt to come to a view.
Today I’m going to think about consent and sexual relations* with students.
*(I’ve chosen to use this maybe – for those of us who remember a scandal involving a certain US president – slightly comical phrase, because it seems sufficiently broad to encompass both fleeting sexual encounters and much longer-term relationships, as well as sex acts of all sorts.)
Some people think that lecturers should never have sexual relations with students. I disagree with that view as it seems too restrictive. Students and lecturers are adults who should be granted some degree of sexual autonomy. However, I also disagree with the view that sexual relations between lecturers and students are fine so long as they are consensual.
Why isn’t consent sufficient? Let me tell you a quick story. I come from a culture where there is a strict social hierarchy, based on age, gender, and social class. One way in which this hierarchy manifests is in etiquette concerning mealtimes. People within a household eat in a strict order: male (sometimes female) elders eat first, followed by young men, and then the women and children. Social class is also taken into account when there are guests. Thus, village leaders are invited to weddings, and they will be served before others. Household servants will be fed last. With this etiquette in play, it makes it easy for certain sorts of abuses to occur. I have been at weddings where the village leaders have eaten most of the food, and then left taking bottles of whiskey with them. I have been at family meals where the men have – out of greed rather than scarcity – eaten most of the tasty treats, leaving the women and children with less nice food. Of course, these abuses do not occur every time people eat. But the point is that it would be much harder for such abuses to occur in the absence of this social practice. If everyone ate together, it would be easier to ensure that food was shared out equally.
It seems to me that loosely analogous points can be made with respect to sexual relations between students and lecturers. The latter are in a position of power with respect to the former. This means that if academic culture is such that sexual relations between them are commonplace, then academic culture will be one that opens up the possibility of certain kinds of abuses. Sex could be used as commerce for grades, jobs, funding, extra tuition, and so on. Withholding of these things could be used as punishment for refusing sex. Threat of withholding them could be used to coerce sex. Notice that these abuses of power are possible even if the student is not directly taught, or their work graded, by the lecturer. I am not, for one minute, suggesting that all sexual relations between lecturers and students will involve these abuses. Far from it. My thought instead is that the culture would be one that made these abuses of power easier. That to me, seems like a bad thing. We should strive for social practices that make it harder for such abuses of power to occur.
There are also lesser – but still significant – conflicts of interest that might arise.
Students sometimes have to confide in their lecturers about difficult personal problems in the process of obtaining an essay extension, making special arrangements for sitting an exam, asking for extra tuition, and so on. Imagine how that student might feel if the lecturer concerned is one with whom they had had sexual relations, or whom they heard one night having noisy sex with their housemate, etc.
Students can feel insecure about their intellectual worth – have they properly understood the ideas being discussed? If they speak up in a seminar, will they appear stupid in front of their peers and the teacher? It’s important to provide a supportive environment in which students can lose the fear of appearing stupid, and gain confidence in their abilities. An environment where lecturers regularly engage in sexual relations with students is in tension with the creation of such an environment. When a lecturer encourages a student in their learning, it’s more likely that the student will wonder whether the lecturer has other motives. This can negatively impact the student’s confidence.
It’s important that students are treated – and feel that they are treated – fairly. If a lecturer regularly engages in sexual relations with their students, others may wonder if those students are getting better grades as a result, more tuition, and so on. This can lead to resentment and rifts in the student community, which gets in the way of providing a supportive learning environment.
It’s also important to set sexual behaviour in its societal context. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a bonobo-like sexual utopia, but in a world rife with gender stereotypes. Whilst I don’t think that the problems identified above only affect female students, some of them, at least, are more likely to have a significant impact on women. For example, women are often viewed primarily in terms of their sexual desirability in contexts where that is inappropriate (think of media coverage of female athletes). It thus seems plausible to think that if lecturers regularly have sexual relations with students, female students will, more than male students, find that folks are more interested in their looks than their intellects.
For these reasons, it seems to me that sexual relations between students and lecturers are only appropriate when they are committed, long-term relationships. It’s also important that they are rare. Imagine that all the lecturers in a department are in long-term relationships with undergraduates. Many of the problems noted above still seem to lurk in such a situation. Casual dating and one-night stands shouldn’t happen. The reason I think this is not – I hope – because I am some sort of prude who disapproves of casual sex. I really don’t care what lecturers (and students) do with people outside the academy. My thought instead is that given that there’s a lot at stake when a lecturer embarks on sexual relations with a student, the costs are too high to be offset by the benefits of casual sex. If lecturers just want to get laid, they should do so elsewhere.
(Incidentally, this is a view shared by members of other professions. See, e.g., this discussion of sexual relations between doctors and patients.)
To be continued…
35 thoughts on “Sexual mores 1”
This could be a US/UK misunderstanding, but do you intend “lecturers” to refer to…all faculty at a college or university? only tenured or tenure-track faculty members? only full-time, permanent faculty (which may include both TT faculty and full-time, renewed instructors?
It seems to me that the distinction could be important to many cases.
I was using it to mean all faculty. I was also thinking of the above to include graduate teaching assistants, whom – it’s true – aren’t usually referred to as ‘lecturers’. But I think at least some of the above points apply to them too.
I disagree that “sexual relations between students and lecturers are only appropriate when they are committed, long-term relationships,” for a few reasons, not the least of which is that this seems an impossible standard to get to, since I would think a relationship only becomes long-term after some initial period which is not long-term! Must one know that one is committed in advance to a long-term relationship?
Rather than focusing on whether or not relationships are appropriate in hierarchical contexts, the attention of the rest of us should be on how to restructure contexts to support consensual relationships, primarily with policies adaptable to changing the power of relata (i.e., a lecturer cannot grade the coursework of a student with whom they are in a romantic relationship).
Thanks. In that case, I think the requirement that sexual relationships only happen in the context of committed, long-term relationships seems pretty onerous to some people (though it will depend on the specifics of the local institution), especially with respect to graduate teaching assistants, adjuncts, and temporary faculty. A couple of considerations here:
1. There are a lot of cases of sex outside that criterion that seem to be fine, both in isolated cases and in the aggregate. A graduate teaching assistant in Philosophy meets an undergraduate business student who has never been enrolled in a Philosophy course and they have a short-term sexual relationship. A visiting professor on a one-year contract fresh out of grad school who will be off to another city next year meets an engineering undergraduate at a bar and they date without a commitment for a few months. A local businessperson who teaches a course once every few years at the business school briefly a 40 year old undergrad who is returning for their degree. None of these things seem like a problem, but they’d all be boxed out on the criteria you’re setting out here (as I’m reading them, anyway – let me know if I’m off base). It seems like there needs to be some kind of accounting for the relationship the specific faculty member has to the college/university’s culture, and some sort of accounting for the connection the relationship has to the college/university. Did they meet on campus? Will the student enroll in the faculty’s courses in the future? Are they at similar levels of age and experience (the adjunct and the “adult student”, for instance)?
2. I don’t think we ought to promote problematic models of how relationships are supposed to work. Does “committed, long-term” mean “monogamous”? Why are we supporting normative monogamy? I wholeheartedly agree that faculty/student relationships exert a kind of collective pull downward on university culture, but I’m not sure “committed, long-term relationship” is the right standard to use to fight against that. So I guess I see and agree with the motivations, not sure I yet agree with the means to carry it out. I’m having trouble coming up with a good alternative, though. I’m sure you’d agree that the student shouldn’t be enrolled in the faculty member’s courses in either the present or future. Maybe the rest of the story could be told in terms of what the faculty member should do (e.g., have some sort of non-university connection with the student) and should not do (e.g., feature relationships with students in university-connected social settings, widely advertise that they date students qua students).
Anyway, I want to thank you for raising this topic. And I think you’ve laid a lot of excellent ground work for thinking about these issues.
This of course points to wider issues about the appropriate sorts of relationships in which faculty may engage with students. For example, when I was a graduate student, it was quite common for faculty to develop close friendships with graduate students, a unsurprising result given typical aspects of departmental social life such as weekly talks followed by dinners and drinks, weekly athletic or social gatherings, reading groups, conference trips, etc. Of course, close friendships often turn out in the relevant respects to be just as problematic as their Romantic or Sexual Counterparts (if not also arguably far more prevalent within the profession).
The original post seems to be expressing a position on what best practices might look like–the analogy with a practice of serving eaters according to the their place in a perceived hierarchy is clearly meant to draw this out. But Drabek’s ‘counterexamples’ strike me as the type of objections that one might give against any type of proposed practice. I assume, though, that we often think general practices or rules are important, otherwise we have the familiar problem of biased, partial actors relying on their own judgments in a case-by-case way. If we agree that sexual relationships between graders and the graded is one of those cases in which adopting a publicly recognized and generally adhered to standard for best practices is needed, then we should think of objections based on possible cases as misplaced. The right sort of objection would be given by the identification of a rival standard that does better. There may well be such a rival; I haven’t thought enough about this issue myself. But I don’t see a serious rival proposed among the objections above. And until we’ve got a better one, ‘don’t treat students at your institution as your pool of candidates for causal sex’ doesn’t seem like a particularly onerous rule to follow, I would have thought.
As for Norlock’s claim that the standard is impossible to adhere to: I would have thought it quite possible to be in a relationship that become stable and long-term before it become sexual. It may be true that not many people are looking for such relationships. The suggestion of the original post is, I take it, that those who are not can look for like-minded individuals elsewhere.
Just to be clear, I don’t think anyone has suggested that there’s any controversy over relationships between “graders and the graded.” I think all people – Monkey, Kate, myself – are in full agreement that there should never be any sexual relationship whatsoever between a faculty member and current student, and that faculty should not allow anyone with whom they’ve had a sexual relationship to enroll in future classes they’re teaching. I assume Monkey’s proposal is meant to be about relationships between faculty and undergraduate students who have no official professional relationship with them.
Yes, of course. I was looking for a quick way of characterizing the divide between those with the power to grade at an institution and those who do not and are graded at the same institution.
Couldn’t a number of concerns be addressed by ensuring colleges require the following line to be added to their references:
‘Have you involved in relations of a romantic / sexual nature with this referee? Yes / No’
Knowledge of this inevitable endpoint (where faculty vouch for their grads, undergrads) might hopefully help to set the tone for the interactions that precede it. I can think of a good number of interactions that would have been handled differently by all involved had this requirement been included.
In Matt’s examples, I notice that most of the not-sketchy relations don’t involve a person who can directly affect the academic assessment or financial support the other person receives.
Okay, I think I can now articulate why I’m sketched out by 99% of cases of a professor and a student being sexually or romantically involved: I see all faculty members as potential mentors for students in their dept. Mentors directly affect the assessment of students (even if only informally). As Monkey laid out for instance, mentors can be important sources of support that provide informal assessments to students in the form of “you can do this!” and whatnot. So, if a faculty member and a student begin a relationship, or have casual sex, that faculty member is no longer an ideal mentor to the student. But if a faculty member likes a student enough to want to sleep with them or date them, why doesn’t the faculty member want to mentor them instead? To refuse to mentor someone, if you think you can be a good mentor, b/c you would rather sleep with them, seems selfish in a way that diminishes their professional integrity. But doing both–having sexy time with someone and mentoring them–also seems selfish. Because you’re ignoring the unintentional pressure that is likely putting on the other person to please you in one sphere of life so as not to mess things up for themselves in the other sphere.
I suppose, if the student assessed the situation, and had enough experience in higher education where they could reasonable assess the value of that faculty member as a mentor, and decided they would make a much better partner/hook-up buddy than an academic mentor, then the relationship wouldn’t be sketchy. But it often takes a long while before a student can make that sort of assessment.
Also, if it’s an undergrad student and they want to go into the profession of the faculty member, then the faculty member I would say is again a potential mentor and someone who can informally assess their work by offering their opinion to their colleagues, who may then be formally assessing the student.
And if it’s a graduate student, then the informal assessment is already always in play. Which is why I’m sketched out by any faculty member and graduate student who is in the same field as them being involved or having sexy time relations.
tl;dr: It doesn’t seem sketchy if a student wants to date or sleep with a faculty member, if…
–the faculty member doesn’t directly assess their work or help decide if they receive financial resources.
–the student has no plans to enter the faculty member’s field of study.
–the student has enough college experience to be a good judge of whether the faculty member would make a better partner/hook-up buddy or a better academic mentor.
And just to add, once we get to senior-junior faculty relations, that’s a whole separate knot to untangle, because I take it the dynamics of assessment between faculty members are more complicated and less straightforward. So that’s probably going to entail more individualized factors.
I am chair of a department in which a male faculty member had a romantic relationship with a female undergraduate student. She was his student at first but she did not take another of his classes, nor did she take classes taught by anyone else in the department. The romantic relationship did not officially violate any rule in the faculty handbook and so was not prohibited. It did, however, create a toxic environment in the department and beyond.
News of the romantic relationship negatively affected the professional relationship between this professor and his other students for many years. Several students requested exemption from required courses in order to avoid having to take his classes. It is possible that others simply dropped the major all together. Some female students reported feeling at times like he viewed them as potential romantic partners, and this diminished the quality of their educational experience. They stopped attending his office hours and limited their interaction with the professor in class because they didn’t trust the sincerity of his praise and they didn’t want to be viewed by other students as flirting. (I’m not making this up. This is what they reported feeling.) I wonder whether this soured the professional relationships these students had with other male faculty in the department.
Moreover, news of the affair spread through the college. Faculty from other departments would occasionally ask me to confirm the rumors. Most troubling was that the story changed as it wended through the rumor mill and came to be associated with another (innocent) male faculty member in the department. I suspect that the reputation of the department as a whole was injured by the affair, and I would not be surprised if some faculty in other departments advised their students not to take our courses. The affair also changed the social dynamic within the department. It became an unpleasant place to work.
My story is not unique, I’ll bet. The collateral damage that occurred should not be surprising to any reasonable and honest person. Romantic relationships with students are very different from other kinds of consensual relationships between adults, and that’s partly why people go to great lengths to hide the former and not the latter.
Banning all faculty-student relationships would be difficult to implement because of the kinds of examples that Matt Drabek cites. I’d favor mandating that faculty be required to report to an administrative official all romantic relationships with students in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Failure to report a relationship could be grounds for termination.
“My story is not unique, I’ll bet. The collateral damage that occurred should not be surprising to any reasonable and honest person. Romantic relationships with students are very different from other kinds of consensual relationships between adults, and that’s partly why people go to great lengths to hide the former and not the latter. ”
No, it most definitely is not unique. A very (VERY) similar situation happened in my department as well. My colleagues seemed to allow perfection to get in the way of the good when we discussed how to craft an informal department response to the situation (they kept insisting that any rule we tried to implement would have counter-examples and so was a bad rule…despite the fact that the counter-examples, if they were ever to actually happen, would have been acknowledged as permissible by just about everyone).
I think having reporting requirement on potential relationships between faculty and students is a good idea. Faculty thinking of entering into a relationship with a student should be forced to report this to their home departments (at the very least) or whatever office handles sexual harassment on their campus. If faculty were to ‘accidentally’ enter into a relationship with a student (“we met a bar”), then reporting should occur as soon as possible. Failure to report relationships should carry increasingly harsh penalties.
None of these reporting requirements outright ban faculty-student relationships but they put up enough hoops and hurdles that they would at least force a faculty member to consider whether it is worth the trouble.
(1) I think we should be more particular in our claims here of what is a student and a lecturer/professor. If you have one category that groups together undergraduates and graduate students, and another category that groups together adjuncts and tenure stream faculty, and, well, also graduate students, I think that is going to be very confusing.
(2) My undergrad was a small liberal arts college with three male philosophy professors. Two of the professors while I was there had relationships with students. It was a very toxic place. I have no clue how long term the women involved in those incidents felt. At the time, the ones I knew were very defensive that everything was fine and consensual. But none of that stopped there from being repercussions. I still remember going out on a date with a woman, who I found out later had been going out on dates with one of my professors. And knowing that dude was grading me, and maybe kinda jealous, and I needed letters of recommendation, and did I explain there were only three faculty in my department? I also knew several female students who felt uncomfortable going to the office hours of the male professors who had had relationships with students. To my knowledge these students had never been hit on by these professors, but a trust had still been broken. In other words, I am greatly in agreement with “Chair,” when talking about these things serious attention has to be paid not just the people involved in the relationship, but to the impact on the other students (I know that my undergraduate life would have been improved if I didn’t have to worry about a jealous romantic competition with a professor). So, we need something that balanced the rights of people, while also balancing the interests of having a functioning department that doesn’t turn into a CW show.
(3) Generally I favor rule that bans professor (from Adjunct and VAP to endowed tenured chair) to not have sexual relations with undergrads (with appropriate exceptions, such as if the relation pre-dates the matriculation, or something like that). I don’t favor such rules for grad students dating undergrads, or professors dating grad students, but we do need policies. But I am not entirely clear on what those should be.
Chair’s story reminds me of the following, oft-repeated real-life situation.
A schoolteacher was discovered to be gay. He dated men outside of the school, but when parents and students found out, it created a toxic environment. Many parents and students asked for rescheduling to avoid this teacher. Probably a number of students left the school altogether as a result. The male students in the class became very uncomfortable and started to think that the teacher was sizing them up for sex.
Should we, on this basis, tighten the restrictions on permissible sex in the school? It seems that in the parallel case, Chair and others think we should.
I just departed a program wherein there existed a culture of faculty, including graduate students, regarding students, both undergrad and grad, as a pool of candidates for romantic and/or sexual encounters. I am not personally aware of any behavior that could be described as anything other than consensual, but, regardless, this produced an intolerably toxic environment. I am very happy to say that I have escaped. I won’t reveal any details, but I remain severely traumatized by my experience there, and I continue to try to heal myself. So, the idea that nothing ill will befall a department, including students, faculty, staff, and administration, as long as all such intra-departmental romantic/sexual relationships are consensual, is questionable at best. It is in everyone’s best interests to preclude the possibility of such relationships occurring.
I am not in a department with any intradepartmental amorous relationships at all, so I can’t speak to the atmosphere. But, I have two pretty good friends. One of them dated a man who was a grad student in her program when she was a professor, and subsequently married him. The other dated a man who was a faculty member in a program in which she was a grad student, and subsequently married him. All four are very happy in their marriages and have very successful careers.
So that’s just to say that the idea that “it is in everyone’s best interests to preclude the possibility of such relationships occurring” is very narrow-minded. It is most definitely not in everyone’s best interests.
I wonder if we’re forgetting that such policies are often *standard* outside of academia.
Interestingly, Rachel, there’s been a major change in workplace dating policies over the past two decades. Much is still in flux, but the move has been toward increasing respect for workers’ autonomy. This stems largely from a sea change in the attitudes of younger workers who make up a larger and larger slice of the workforce as the years go by. In many surveys, today’s under 40 set shows a strong resistance to what it sees as needless infringements on the autonomy of employees who after all spend a fair chunk of their waking hours together. Many employers are finding that keeping antiquated, authoritarian anti-dating rules in place is too costly, since they stand to lose good workers who don’t like having their private lives needlessly controlled. For this reason, while bans on relationships with those in the direct chain of command may be here to stay, the trend is moving toward liberalization in dating policies in business, law, and many other professions.
I think the anonymous stories posted are very helpful and help make Monkey’s point very clearly that consensual relationships can have negative effects on department culture. Rachel’s link is very clear that workplaces have a policy (what’s in that link is, I think, pretty standard in the corporate world – and it pretty closely matches the policies at my non-academic workplace – I’m a full supporter of everything that link says, as is I think just about everyone in the corporate world). But it’s not yet clear how to adapt that sort of document to best practices or policies for postsecondary institutions. The document is very clear – and helps supports Chair’s (#12) point that we should require reporting of relationships. So that’s one thing that seems like it should be a best practice. The document is also clear that there should NOT be romantic relationships between managers and their direct reports (I take the relevant analogy to be all faculty and the students enrolled in their class, and also to TT/full-time faculty and majors in their field). But we already knew that one.
At the same time, the document expresses the same concerns Monkey expresses for giving people autonomy in relationships and allowing them to make their own choices. And the document doesn’t seem to support any particular clear standard for faculty/student relationships. So we’re sort of back at Monkey’s original question – what are best practices for philosophers?
Maybe the best answer we have so far is some kind of cluster like this: faculty should never date students in their own courses; permanent/TT faculty should never date majors in their field; faculty should be very wary of dating graduate students in their own department; relationships between faculty and students should be rare (i.e., faculty should not have serial relationships with students – where they hop from relationship A to B to C); faculty and their supervisors should be aware of department climate and should regularly talk about and assess climate, and adjust policies accordingly. One idea is that we can try to remove the power dynamics as much as realistically possible, and then try to talk about and assess climate on a regular basis.
There’s a mistake in comment 19, I believe. Strike “Interestingly” and replace it with “Actually.” Then it will be perfect.
Just because a faculty member and a student end up getting married, and, even, end up with successful careers in philosophy, doesn’t mean that their intra-departmental courtship wasn’t damaging to themselves and everyone around them, as well as philosophy academia in general.
The arguments in favor of letting faculty hit on their students at will strike me as analogous to the arguments made in favor of catcalling on public streets. Perhaps it shouldn’t and can’t be made illegal, but women are speaking out, en masse, online, and anonymously, most often, to tell how this behavior affects them. They are often fearful of doing so on the street, when it happens, because they fear retaliation. Just because you can find a woman here and there who says that she enjoys the attention, doesn’t justify the creation of an atmosphere of intimidation, exclusion, and threat.
The same can be said for philosophy departments, but, in an academic setting, department, college, and university administration are in a position, and actually have a responsibility, to make sure that the atmosphere of the department is inclusive and, at the very least, not threatening and intimidating, especially to minorities that have been historically underrepresented in these departments. They are in a position to make certain behaviors, and they do make certain behaviors, a condition of employment. And, women are speaking out, en masse, online, and anonymously, most often, to tell how this behavior affects them. They are often fearful of doing so publicly, when it happens, because they fear retaliation.
The fact that you can find a handful of students that ended up marrying their professors does not justify the creation of an atmosphere of intimidation, exclusion, and threat.
The persistent underrepresentation of women in philosophy and philosophy’s terrible image problem amongst the general public speak volumes as to the damage wrought by a culture of faculty regarding students as a pool of candidates for romantic and/or sexual encounters, even if it is the case that this culture only manifests consensual romantic and/or sexual encounters.
I agree with Monkey’s suggestion that the best balance would not prohibit sexual relationships outright, but would make them relatively rare. I disagree that the best way to do this is limit them to ‘committed, long-term relationships’, in part for the reason Kate Norlock mentions: most committed long-term relationships begin as more casual sexual relations, and this should be encouraged—or at the very least, tolerated. A policy that permits CLTRs but prohibits casual sexual activity seems to me worse than a policy that prohibits all sexual activity, as it promotes a particular ideal of relationship that I think it’s wrong to favour.
The important thing isn’t commitment or duration—it’s an understanding that a sexual relationship between a faculty member and a student in that department shouldn’t be undergone lightly; it is something that can have unforeseen negative consequences, including cultural consequences that extend beyond the particular parties sexually involved. I think a policy that permits all consensual sexual relationships, but that requires reporting them, and prohibits the evaluation and assessment of people with whom one is sexually involved, draws the line in about the right place. (This is basically what ejrd said at #13.)
Just because a faculty member and a student end up getting married, and, even, end up with successful careers in philosophy, doesn’t mean that their intra-departmental courtship wasn’t damaging to themselves and everyone around them, as well as philosophy academia in general.
Sorry – I may be misunderstanding. But it sounds to me as if you are saying that my friend’s relationship with her husband is damaging to herself and everyone around her, even though she thinks it isn’t.
I find that stunningly arrogant.
Lots of really interesting thoughts here which I’m currently chewing over.
Please try to ‘be nice’ to each other, folks. I’m moderating as lightly as possible but I’ll have to be tough if an argument develops…
I think that we can risk banning a few perfectly ok relationships in order to make sure that we protect vulnerable students. And the vulnerable students we are protecting here are not vulnerable through individual esoteric reasons, but rather through structural issues: because of the way the power balances actually lie, and the stereotypes that affect all of us. So the choice between the problem of banning good relationship and allowing bad relationships is not symmetrical. Great that all these ideas are being discussed.
Also note, the most plausible version of a ban on faculty/student relationships is not a ban on those two people never getting together ever ever ever. Its just while one is teaching/involved in the teaching of the other. So it is not quite like other professional environments.
My own view is that it would be worth banning all sexual contact between students and staff involved in teaching them. I accept that lots of the banned relationships would have been fine.
Agreed, Elinor, that the ban should not be on those two people getting together ever, just not while one has institutional power over the other.
But much less sure about the first part. How did you arrive at the conclusion that the problems are not symmetrical?
Liberal norms run the risk of a relationship developing from subtle sociopolitical pressure, hence people may be deluded in thinking they consent to them, perhaps. On the other hand, conservative norms run the risk that people have done nothing wrong can face very serious discrimination to the point of being excluded from the profession altogether. If a woman, say, insists she’s in a consensual relationship with someone, and the norms (legislated or not) say or imply otherwise, then the norm upholders can have a morally icky feeling about her. If that feeling is for no good reason, she can be effectively excluded. There’s also a rumor mill about these things, and some people might not feel comfortable challenging the norm when they hear the rumor.
Is it really obvious that such harms are milder? I don’t see why. A woman, or man, can be vulnerable to subtle or overt social pressure either way, and both pressures can have very serious consequences.
I’ll have more to say later when I’ve time to join in the conversation more fully, but in the meantime, I thought I’d let you know that I’m seeing this issue in terms of two different, albeit related, questions: (1) one sorts of sexual relationships are ok (if any), and then (2) what sort of ‘courting’ behaviour (to use a nice old-fashioned word) is acceptable. In this post I was thinking specifically about (1). I’m going to do another post when I’ve got time, addressing (2). That would discuss worries raised in comment 22 above (and maybe some of the ‘toxic environment’ concerns).
(I don’t think those two questions exhaust the general issue of sexual conduct. But I think it’s helpful to keep the two apart when we’re thinking about sexual relations between lecturers/faculty and students.)
Engaging with Monkey’s (1) and (2) in turn:
(1) Call me a romantic, but I strongly suspect that if A and B both badly want to be in a relationship with each other, in a large fraction of cases they are going to do it *whether or not* this violates some institutional policy. So as a matter of pragmatism, I think there’s a very strong case for requiring transparency (i.e., disclose relationships as soon as they happen) and removal of institutional conflicts (i.e. stop being taught by your lover) rather than just banning things outright. I just don’t believe those bans will be adhered to, but their presence will push relationships underground, which has various toxic consequences. (I should admit that I prefer transparency-plus-conflict-removal over bans anyway on general libertarian grounds too, so it’s possible I’m predisposed to overrate the practical difficulties with a ban.)
(2) My no-doubt-oversimplified thought on courting is that you shouldn’t make moves on people over whom you have (even broadly-construed) institutional power, so that in particular faculty-student relationships ought always to be initiated by the student. (But that obviously can’t be codified into a policy, and is in any case based on no personal experience at all – I’ve been in the same (non-academic) relationship my whole postgraduate career.)
I agree with David Wallace’s proposal. If philosophy were another kind of business, I would favor a complete ban on workplace personal relationships with students applied to anyone who is receiving compensation for teaching, with all violations uniformly considered a firing offense. However, we must acknowledge that setting workplace policy on this matter is usually not up to philosophy departments alone.
Why would I favor a total ban even in theory? First, these relationships are closely analogous to attorney-client, doctor-patient, or counselor-client relationships. Most people consider the latter unethical; I see no reason why teacher-student relationships are different enough that they should constitute an exception. If you don’t think it’s unethical for doctors or lawyers to date clients, that requires a separate conversation; I’m starting from that broadly shared assumption. If teacher-student relationships are different, why?
Second, it’s insufficient for teachers to avoid dating current students, because any currently enrolled student who could take further courses or independent studies with that professor or benefit from an official recommendation or fellowship opportunity would be constrained by the relationship.
Third, it is both difficult and undesirable to keep such personal relationships entirely secret, and once they are known they can create unfair burdens for other students and colleagues. Students rightfully wonder if the teacher sees other students as potential dates or is able to remain objective in performing job duties, and colleagues may have to take on additional work to help the teacher avoid inappropriate professional contact with the dated student.
Fourth, personal relationships open the door to litigation against the employer and can foster climate problems. In response to kt, this is why it is not “stunningly arrogant” for someone to suggest that even a good relationship can cause damage to others around the parties. The happy couple may be blissfully unaware of the difficulties their relationship creates in the workplace; sometimes that’s a big part of the problem.
Fifth, given that a solid majority of both professors and grad students are male, inevitably some groups of students are more likely to be involved in personal relationships with a teacher or pursued for that reason – straight or bi women and gay or bi men. This creates a discriminatory situation. Some people complain that students use these relationships as career boosters; I think this outcome is far less likely than its opposite, though I acknowledge it does occasionally seem to occur. Either way, why would we prefer to have this discriminatory situation?
Will problems 1-5 always occur in teacher-student relationships? Of course not. But they happen with enough frequency that under normal circumstances they would weigh strongly against officially permitting any such relationships. Given problems 1-5, why do I nevertheless concur with proposals like David Wallace’s, permitting personal relationships as long as they are disclosed and any professional conflicts of interest are reduced as much as possible? Because philosophers are in the unusual position that losing one teaching job for any reason, at any level, can easily mean the end of an entire career. Perhaps some teachers engage in such egregiously unethical conduct in workplace relationships (or attempts to pursue them) that they ought not to teach at all, but I can rattle off a dozen teacher-student relationships I know of firsthand that were conducted ethically and should not have cost the parties a job, much less a career. Preserving freedom is a general good that counterbalances negative risks of this open policy, but the risks should be taken seriously.
The fact that teacher-student relationships are not uncommon in philosophy, combined with the fact that social and professional life can become intermingled in typical academic philosophical activities (unusually intense conversation, often over dinner or drinks, sometimes at private parties), means that remaining disinterestedly professional is not always the accepted norm. I think we need to make it the norm, whatever the official policies might be.
What the profession seems to be lacking is not adequate regulations, but shared, sensible sexual mores. Yet everyone is too afraid of being labeled prudish or moralizing to go ahead and speak explicitly with one another about what those mores are and ought to be. Yes, we can argue endlessly over regulations-that’s easy. Telling colleagues-to their faces-that their ongoing tendency to think of students as potential sexual partners is unseemly and possibly perverse-that’s hard.
When I read whining about how this or that poses an undue burden or limits their romantic prospects or prevents wonderful intradisciplinary relationships from blossoming the words always come out of the page at me in the voice of Woody Allen …”the heart wants what the heart wants.”
Sorry friends, but sexual Liberté is often not conducive to professional Égalité or departmental Fraternité.
MJ, it’s not that “everyone is too afraid of being labeled prudish or moralizing.” Some aren’t “afraid” at all. They simply don’t share your type of views about what is “unseemly and possibly perverse”–even if they might well agree that certain consensual relationships between faculty and students are problematic enough to be generally discouraged or even ruled out.
Attempting to be condescending about the perspective of “friends” with whom you disagree does not make your perspective any more compelling.
Fourth, personal relationships open the door to litigation against the employer and can foster climate problems. In response to kt, this is why it is not “stunningly arrogant” for someone to suggest that even a good relationship can cause damage to others around the parties.
Suggesting that even a good relationship can cause damage to others is obviously perfectly sensible. What I said was stunningly arrogant was the idea that my friend’s relationship with her husband is damaging to herself and everyone around her, even though she thinks it isn’t.
[…] light of recent discussions of professor-student sexual relations (here, for example), readers might be interested in learning of about what has been happening at Barrett, […]
Comments are closed.