Opinion | What’s Wrong With Sex Between Professors and Students? It’s Not What You Think.

By Amia Srinivasan

Amia Srinivasan is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford. This essay is adapted from her forthcoming book, “The Right to Sex.”

Netflix’s new hit comedy “The Chair” revels in certain clichés of university life — mock-Gothic buildings, wood paneling, crusty old-timers who don’t know how to use a photocopier, and, of course, an ambiguous relationship between a professor and a student: Bill is a charismatic English professor who is in a tailspin after the death of his wife, and Dafna is a literature-loving undergrad who is desperate to get into Bill’s class. She gives him a ride; they quote T.S. Eliot to each other; he signs a copy of his book for her; she makes him a pie. We think we know where this is going, because we’ve seen it so many times before: in “Election” (1999), “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and “Elegy” (2008), based on Philip Roth’s novel “The Dying Animal” — to take just a few recent examples. “The Chair” ultimately upends our expectations in a way that is both comic and poignant. Don’t have sex with me, Dafna in effect says to Bill: Teach me.

The cultural fascination with professor-student affairs seems to have grown in step with policies restricting them. (“Be careful,” the dean warns Bill in “The Chair.” “This department is hanging on by a thread.”) Policies prohibiting professor-student sex — “consensual relationship policies” as they are usually known — are now common in the United States. A 2014 study found that 84 percent of the American universities surveyed had some prohibitions on professor-student relationships. In 2010, Yale strengthened its restrictions: Previously, it had prohibited relationships between professors and students whom they supervised (or were likely to supervise), but now it imposes a blanket ban on all relationships between faculty and undergraduates. Many other universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Duke, followed the move to stricter, all-out bans.

U.S. universities only began regulating student-teacher sex in the 1980s. This shift was an outgrowth of the feminist campaign against sexual harassment that began in the 1970s, which sought to establish that unwanted sexual advances in the workplace were a form of discrimination “on the basis of sex,” and were therefore a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. “Unwanted” sexual advances would seem not to include consensual relationships. But in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that acts of apparently consensual sex, when involving parties marked by a significant power differential, can in fact be instances of harassment. Mechelle Vinson was a young Black woman who said she had given into the persistent pressure to have sex with her boss because she was afraid she would be fired. Vinson’s consent to sex, the court noted, did not mean that her boss’s sexual overtures were welcome, if her consent had been secured by coercion.

Universities realized that it was now possible to argue, by the same logic, that professors were sexually harassing the students with whom they were (apparently consensually) involved. Students might be agreeing to such relationships out of fear — of a bad grade, lackluster recommendation, or worse. As a result, many universities extended their sexual harassment policies to restrict apparently consensual professor-student relationships.

Despite the bans’ origins in feminist activism, some feminists at the time denounced these prohibitions as a betrayal of their principles. To deny that women students could consent to sex with their professors, they argued, was infantilizing and moralizing. Were women university students not adults? Were they not entitled to have sex with whom they pleased? Did such policies not play into the hands of the religious right, which was all too keen to control women’s sex lives?

But in the last two decades these arguments have been less prominent, and comprehensive bans on teacher-student relationships have had little pushback from feminists. This is in keeping with a deepening feminist anxiety as to whether true consent is possible when sex is marked by an imbalance of power. The feminists of the #MeToo movement have relied on this notion not only to condemn the predatory actions of Harvey Weinstein, but also to explain what’s wrong with stickier cases: Aziz Ansari and the ‘date gone bad’, middle-aged men who date 18-year-olds, a U.S. president who has sex with an intern.

In many ways the contemporary focus on consent is a victory. Historically, sexual assault was defined not by the absence of consent but by the presence of force, which meant that the countless women who froze with fear or chose to submit rather than face the alternative were not, legally speaking, raped. But in recent years our interest in consent has become single-minded. The habit of viewing all kinds of exploitative, creepy or troubling sex solely through the lens of consent has left us unable to speak, in many situations, about what is really going wrong.

The problem, I think, with many teacher-student relationships is not that they don’t involve consent — or even real romantic love. Sometimes, no doubt, students agree to have sex with their professors, like Mechelle Vinson said she did with her boss, because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. But there are also many students who consent to sex with their professors out of genuine desire. As defenders of teacher-student relationships like to remind us, many professors are married to former students (as if we were in a Shakespearean comedy, where all that ends in marriage ends well). The question, I want to suggest, isn’t whether genuine consent or “real” romantic love is possible between teachers and students. Rather, it is whether, when professors sleep with or date their students, real teaching is possible.

Teachers, as teachers, understand how to do certain things; students, as students, want to understand how to do those same things. The tacit promise of the classroom is that the teacher will work to confer on the student some of his knowledge and understanding. In the best case, the teacher-student relationship arouses in the student a strong desire, a sense of thrilled if inchoate infatuation. That desire is the lifeblood of the classroom, and it is the teacher’s duty to nurture and direct it toward its proper object: learning. The teacher who allows his student’s desire to settle on him as an object, or the teacher who actively makes himself the object of her desire, has failed in his role as a teacher.

I have used these pronouns — ‘he’ for the professor, ‘she’ for the student — deliberately. To be clear: It is no less a failure of good teaching — what I would call a “pedagogical failure” — for a woman professor to sleep with her students, male or female, or for a male professor to sleep with a male student. The same goes for nonbinary professors and nonbinary students. In all these cases, I would suggest, the teacher betrays the purpose of the classroom. But any argument about consensual teacher-student sex misses something crucial if it doesn’t observe that these relationships typically involve male professors sleeping with women students. In the majority of cases, then, the professor’s failure isn’t just a failure to redirect the student’s desire toward its proper object. It is also a failure to resist taking advantage of the fact that women are socialized in a particular way under patriarchy — that is, in a way that reinforces patriarchy.

The feminist writer Regina Barreca, speaking to women professors, asks: “At what point … did the moment come for each of us when we realized that we wanted to be the teacher, and not sleep with the teacher?” Barreca’s point is that women students tend to interpret the feelings aroused in them by their professors as feeling of desire for the professor. Male students, meanwhile, tend to interpret their feelings toward their male professors as they are socialized to do: as a desire to be like them.

Adrienne Rich, in a lecture she gave in 1978, spoke of what she called the “misleading concept” of “coeducation”: “that because women and men are sitting in the same classrooms, hearing the same lectures, reading the same books, performing the same laboratory experiments, they are receiving an equal education.” For women, Ms. Rich noted, do not enter or exist in the classroom on equal terms with men. They are assumed to be less intellectually capable, encouraged to take fewer risks and be less ambitious, given less mentoring, socialized to take themselves less seriously, told that evidence of a mind is a sexual liability and that their self-worth depends on their capacity to attract men’s sexual attention.

How much of this has changed in the intervening decades? It is true that today’s college-age generation has, in many ways, a more expansive relationship to gender and sex. But those dissident possibilities are taking shape against a background of still-rigid gender expectations — an implicit understanding, often internalized, of what girls and boys, women and men, are for. So, even now, the difference between women and men in how likely they are to see their teachers as role models rather than sexual partners isn’t the effect of some natural difference in disposition. It is the result of how they have been raised to be in the world. Many professor-student relationships reproduce the gendered dynamics on which they feed, by making sure that the benefits of education will not accrue equally to men and women.

If so, there is a case to be made that even genuinely consensual professor-student relationships, while not instances of sexual harassment, can constitute sexual discrimination, outlawed by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. According to the conventional legal understanding, discriminating “on the basis of sex” involves treating women and men differently. Clearly, the male professor who has sexual relationships only with women students does just this. Bisexuality poses a problem for this understanding of sex discrimination. (Is it not sex discrimination if a boss hits on both his female and male subordinates?) This is one reason to favor an alternative understanding, sometimes invoked by the courts, of what it means to discriminate “on the basis of sex.” For Catharine MacKinnon, Lin Farley and other feminist pioneers of sexual harassment theory, the essence of sex discrimination lies not in differential treatment but in treatment that reproduces inequality. Take the boss who hits on his secretary, a woman. The problem isn’t that the boss doesn’t also hit on his male underlings, but that his unwanted sexual advances, as Ms. MacKinnon puts it, “express and reinforce the social inequality of women to men.” The same, I think, can be said of some consensual professor-student relationships.

To say that a case can be made is not to say that we should necessarily make it. In the United States especially, feminists have often reached to the law as an instrument of social transformation. The ability of women, today, to sue employers who harbor abusive bosses, or to report domestic partners to the police, is a result of the feminist mobilization of the law in service of gender justice. But that mobilization has sometimes had unintended, and worrying, consequences.

Consider mandatory arrest laws, which require the police to make an arrest whenever they suspect an act of domestic violence. As many Black and Latina feminists predicted in the 1980s, when these policies began to be implemented, such laws increased the incidence of domestic violence against women of color; numerous studies have shown that retaliatory violence after arrest is linked with poverty, unemployment and drug and alcohol use — factors that disproportionately afflict Black and Latino communities. Indeed, male joblessness is linked with domestic violence against women the world over. But poor abused women cannot, as a rule, turn to the state to employ their partners, or for the money they would need in order to be able to leave them. Instead, they can only ask that their partners be locked up, which many are understandably reluctant to do. Mandatory arrest laws were born out of a concern for women’s safety. But they have sometimes had the effect of making marginalized women worse off, and have served as a cover for the deep conditions — poverty and precarity — that make certain groups of women especially vulnerable to violence.

The law has its limits on campus, too. The Office for Civil Rights, which administers Title IX, does not publish racial statistics for allegations of Title IX violations. Title IX requires schools to appoint officers to protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, but not from discrimination on the basis of race, sexuality, immigration status or class. Thus, as a matter of Title IX law, it is of no concern that, during at least two recent academic years, the small minority of Black students at Colgate University, the elite liberal arts college in upstate New York, have been disproportionately targeted for sexual violation complaints; and, as a matter of law, no notes are kept on where else this might be happening.

Given the lack of data, we cannot know for certain that Title IX disproportionately affects marginalized groups, but there is good reason to think that it might. Janet Halley, a professor of law at Harvard, has spent years documenting the unseen costs of campus sexual harassment policies, including accusations that unfairly target men of color, undocumented immigrants and L.G.B.T.Q. students. “How can the left care about these people when the frame is mass incarceration, immigration or trans-positivity,” she has asked, “and actively reject fairness protections for them under Title IX?”

So, we must ask: Would legally recognizing consensual faculty-student relationships as sex-discriminatory make campuses fairer for all women, for queer people, for immigrants, for the precariously employed, for people of color? Or would this bring with it unintended consequences, to be suffered by some of the people already most marginalized in our universities? In a context in which more and more academic labor is performed by adjuncts on low pay and with no job security, which university teachers could we expect to be targeted by such a legal change? Could such a change be leveraged to undermine academic freedom? And would the young people, usually women, involved in consensual relationships with their professors end up better off?

In considering these questions, it is perhaps instructive to return to one of the few times that U.S. courts have been asked to rule on whether faculty-student relationships can be penalized: a 1984 case called Naragon v. Wharton. Kristine Naragon, a graduate student instructor at Louisiana State University (L.S.U.) had a romantic relationship with a 17-year-old freshman student — also a woman — whom she wasn’t teaching. At the time, L.S.U. did not have a ban on faculty-student relationships, but the school decided not to renew Ms. Naragon’s teaching duties after the freshman’s parents demanded that the administration intervene. Meanwhile, L.S.U. declined to sanction a male professor in Ms. Naragon’s department who was having a live-in affair with an undergraduate woman whose work he had the responsibility of grading. The court ruled in L.S.U.’s favor, finding that by punishing Ms. Naragon but not the male professor, the school had not been motivated by homophobia.

None of this is to say that we cannot use the law, and Title IX specifically, to make university campuses more equal. But it is to recommend caution. It is not enough for us to think about what, as a matter of principle, the law should say; we must also think about what, in practice, the law will be used to do, and against whom. The law is a powerful tool, but it can also be blunt. It is also not the only tool available.

Rather than looking to the law, professors might look to themselves. Graduate students tend not to receive much instruction in how to teach — much less in how to negotiate the strong feelings (of desire and elation, but also of anger, frustration and disappointment) that can charge the classroom. Likewise, we rarely discuss what to do about the fact that teacher and student are not just abstract intelligences, but embodied creatures. Writing about her experience as a new professor, the Black feminist bell hooks observed: “No one talked about the body in relation to teaching. What did one do with the body in the classroom?”

The need for such discussion is recognized elsewhere. Therapists are taught to anticipate and negotiate the fact that their patients will often develop feelings for them — what Freud called “transference.” They are taught that they must harness those feelings and direct them toward the therapeutic aim — the well-being of the patient — rather than responding to those feelings in kind. In contrast, discussions of classroom ethics are usually confined to mandatory sexual harassment training, put in place by administrators anxious to avoid lawsuits. Unsurprisingly, such top-down training rarely speaks to the specifics of teaching: the particular dynamics, risks and responsibilities of the classroom. What would it be instead for professors to think about what we, as teachers, owe our students, as students? How might we create a sexual ethics of pedagogy?

I began writing a version of this essay in 2012, five years after I had finished my undergraduate degree at Yale, and two years after Yale implemented its blanket prohibition on sex between a faculty member and an undergraduate student. I was then a graduate student in philosophy, a discipline in which both sexual harassment allegations and consensual faculty-student relationships are common. I was struck by how limited philosophers’ thinking was on the question of whether professors should have sex with their students. How could the same people who were used to wrestling with the ethics of eugenics and torture (issues you might have imagined were more clear-cut) think that all there was to say about professor-student sex was that it was fine if consensual?

As a graduate student, I wanted to explain to the men in my discipline, as I have tried to explain here, that the absence of consent isn’t the only indicator of problematic sex; that a practice that is consensual can also be systemically damaging; that the pedagogical relationship comes with certain responsibilities beyond the ones we owe one another as persons. I wanted to explain to them that it was precisely because pedagogy can be an erotically charged experience that it is harmful to sexualize it. I wanted to explain that refraining from having sex with their students wasn’t the same as treating students as children.

Now that I am a professor, I confess that some of these arguments don’t grip me in the way they once did. Not because I think they are wrong — I still think they are right — but because I no longer feel them to be, in a sense, necessary. As a teacher, I see that my undergraduate students, and in some cases my graduate students, for all their maturity, intelligence and self-directedness, are, in an important sense, still children. I don’t mean this as a claim about their legal or cognitive or moral status. They are perfectly capable of consent, and have the right to determine the course of their lives just as I have the right to determine the course of mine. I simply mean that my students are so very young.

I didn’t know, when I was in their place, how young I was, and how young I must have seemed even to those professors who were kind enough to treat me like the fully fledged intellectual I thought I was. There are plenty of people my students’ age, most of them who are not in university and will never be, who are adults in ways that my students simply aren’t. My students’ youthfulness has much to do with the sort of institutions at which I have taught, filled with the sort of young people who have been allowed, by virtue of their class and race, to remain young, even as many of their peers have been required to grow up too quickly. The youthfulness of my students, undergrad and grad, has a lot to do, too, with the peculiar liminal space in which they, as students, exist. Their lives are intense, chaotic, thrilling: open and largely as yet unformed.

In my very first week as a new professor, I attended a dinner with faculty members and graduate students in my department. I was closer in age to the grad students than I was to most of the faculty members, and I remember feeling relaxed and happy in their company. After dinner, the wine not yet finished, everyone buzzing, a senior professor told me he was calling it a night. Eyeing two graduate students horsing around across the table, he laughed: “When they start sitting on each other, I think it’s time to head home.” I followed him out, leaving my students to get on with it.

Amia Srinivasan is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, the University of Oxford. This essay is adapted from her forthcoming book, “The Right to Sex.”

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