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…