“I don’t want your amends”: of consensual relationships, happy memories, collective harm and Montblanc pens

I wrote last Thursday about professor-student relationships, a topic I’ve turned to quite a few times. I had been inspired by this post at Alas and the subsequent comments.

As I often do, I posted a link to my own post on my Facebook page. A very small discussion then broke out on FB, and one of my friends, Carlotta, wrote about her own very positive memory of a sexual relationship with an older professor of hers:

Help me out with the unethical part though… honestly, for me my relationship provided me with an oasis of sexual comfort amid a desert of sterile academia. I remember mine with affection and (sincere) gratitude.

I’ve heard some stories like Carlotta’s. Heck, I had one in my own past. One of the last students with whom I had a sexual relationship, back in 1997-98, was a remarkable young woman, Marie. Marie and I were lovers for a brief period both while she was my student and immediately afterwards. She later transferred back east as a women’s studies major, a major she selected after taking my History 25B course the semester our affair began.

Not long after our relationship ended, I got a birthday card from — of all people — Marie’s mother. The note was attached to a box, and in the box was a fine MontBlanc fountain pen. Marie’s mother, who knew about our recently-concluded affair, wrote that she was grateful for my influence in her daughter’s life, and that as far as she could see, her daughter had changed for the better as a result. Though she admitted that she had had some concerns about her daughter’s involvement with a professor, Marie’s mom said that she could see that nothing but good had come as a consequence. She wanted me to have the pen as a token of appreciation. I still have it. (I need new ink cartridges for it.)

A few years later, sober and filled with repentance for my earlier behavior, I spoke to Marie and attempted to make amends to her for having “abused my power” with her. Marie was exasperated. “Bullshit, Hugo”, she said. “I was a legal adult too, and I’m not sorry that it happened. I had happy memories of it, and it pisses me off that now that you’re a ‘reformed man’, you’re trying to make it sound like it was unhealthy. It wasn’t. I liked what we did, I’m not sorry.” We’ve only touched base a few times since that conversation eight or nine years ago. What I do know is that Marie now lives in New York where she’s finishing a doctoral dissertation, and that now — well into her thirties — she remains adamant that she has nothing but fond memories of her relationship with me. I’m certainly not going to try and continue to convince her she shouldn’t.

I should also say I made amends to many other women who did note that with hindsight, they were troubled and hurt by my actions. Marie seems to have been in a minority in her insistence (and her mother’s) that our affair was only a force for good (even a career-changing force) in her life. When I write, as I often have, that what one perceives positively at twenty one might perceive negatively a decade later, I’m writing from experience.

The point is an obvious one: happy exceptions do not argue against the wisdom of the rule. As I’ve written before, those who harmed by a teacher-student sexual relationship are often those who aren’t involved in the relationship. The perception of favoritism; the perception of hypocrisy (especially for a women’s studies professor, of all things!); the perception that a woman’s sexuality might still matter in the classroom — these can do damage to the fabric of campus life, even if the student actually having the affair perceives it positively for the rest of her life. What one student gained by having a sexual relationship with me came at a very high price; my safety as a mentor was naturally and correctly called into question.

The benefit to Marie, even if the benefit of our affair was in her case real and enduring, doesn’t outweigh the collective harm the relationship caused.
And I’d say the same to Carlotta about her happy memories of her relationship with her college prof. We proscribe teacher-student relationships not merely because they can cause harm to the individual students involved. We proscribe them because even when these affairs don’t cause harm (but quite the opposite!) to those who engage in them, they send an unmistakably damaging signal to the entire campus community — particularly to other young women. One student’s happy recollections of sexual awakening and intellectual inspiration do not mitigate the collective harm “consensual relationships” can cause.

And so, with all due respect to the Maries and the Carlottas of the world, I remain firm in my conviction that affairs between professors and students currently in their courses are invariably unethical.

22 thoughts on ““I don’t want your amends”: of consensual relationships, happy memories, collective harm and Montblanc pens

  1. Cross-posting a comment I left on the Alas thread, in response to a comment that was saying basically the same thing as this post:

    Instinctively, this argument feels persuasive to me … yet I’m having trouble coming up with a rational reason for that, and so I feel wary about it. And, simultaneously, it sounds to me like it has parallels with arguments about (for example) gay people and why they “shouldn’t” express their relationship in public, at all, ever, because it makes others uncomfortable. Which makes me feel warier.

    I’m not convinced that outsiders should have the “right” to control others’ relationships simply because they “feel uncomfortable” that those relationships are occurring. If a professor is hitting on you and ignoring your boundaries, that’s one thing. If a professor is having an affair with that student over there, yet he always acts professionally towards you and the rest of his students, and the relationship never impinges on class time, then I’m not sure why the perspectives of students who don’t like the relationship should be privileged to such an extent.

  2. P.S.: Reappearing to add something I’ve already made clear at Alas, namely, that I’m not sure whether I support the existence of rules that outlaw teacher-student relationships in all contexts. But I am sure that I don’t like some of the overtones of the discussion: for example, the ones I point out above.

  3. Clarisse, I hear you. One person’s violation can be another person’s liberation — we know this. On the other hand, it’s important for institutions to think about the collective good, and not hold back from doing everything possible to protect the vulnerable.

  4. Hey Hugo. I have to admire your ability to step back and see the bigger picture here. I pretty much have the same perspective – even if everything is 100% consensual and above board (and I doubt it is in the majority of cases, for reasons you clearly understand), it’s still just not a good idea for all kinds of reasons both ethical and practical. There are times where the wishes of the individual are in conflict with what’s best for the group, and this is one of them. And in those cases, what’s best for the group wins.

    Then again I’m a socialist, so…

  5. If it’s about how it affects the other students, then maybe you should apologize to them instead of to the student you had the affair with?

    I think it’s theoretically possible for a professor to sleep with a student and somehow remain objective and not show favoritism in grading or during class. It isn’t appropriate, though. It may not bring any serious emotional harm to anyone, but it’s worth avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. And it’s also best to avoid a conflict of interest. Being fair in a situation like that is extremely difficult. There is definitely the tendency to either favor the student or to overcompensate for that tendency and unfairly penalize the student so as not to appear to be favoring that student over other students.

    Teaching relationships don’t last forever. If it’s really meant to be, wait until the person is no longer under your authority (not your student, not someone asking for a letter of rec from you, etc.).

  6. And as I’ve written before, since I could hardly track down the hundreds who were enrolled in my courses during the years I was sleeping with students, I made an institutional amends to the president of the college and our VP for human resources; I also chaired our ad hoc committee that hammered out a new consensual relations policy…

  7. If most of the students Hugo slept with and tried to make amends to say later that they were troubled and hurt by his actions, and one says that she has fond memories, it would seem to me that Marie’s fond memories are his moral good fortune, when as far as he knew at the time her experience could have gone the other way, and that his experience points toward a general rule of not having sex with his current students.

    Saying that a happy exception doesn’t argue against the wisdom of a rule in this case isn’t the same as the case of people objecting to other people’s gay and lesbian relationships, because in this case the people whose experience is being used to argue for the general rule are people who really are personally harmed by the behavior, whereas anti-same-sex marriage arguments, for example, defend imposing a clear and heavy burden on a small set of people based on very speculative arguments about moral influence on some larger set of people.

  8. The main objection I have to student-professor sexual relationships is their harm to honest mentoring. Hugo has written a lot about his work as a mentor. This work proceeds much more smoothly without the confounding effects of sexual activity. We all know that academic advising, letters of recommendation, suggestions about transferring out (obviously an issue at PCC), recommendations about research or writing to pursue etc. aren’t 100% pure and neutral even if everyone remains fully dressed at all times. But the system stays more truthful and reliable without couplings between student and prof.

    To me that’s the main issue. If you focus on consequences to the student then you end up with protestations like those from Marie and her mother, opposite some uncounted sentiments that the relationships do real harm. If you focus on appearances of impropriety you’ll provoke real disagreement among students and colleagues about how bad it looks. But I don’t think anyone can disagree that sexual relationships between professors and students compromise mentoring.

  9. Hugo, the mentoring issue aside, would it have made a difference if the object of your desire had not been in one of your classes?

  10. PS, I think there’s a huge difference in the ethical level between dating a student under one’s direct supervision and dating a student who isn’t. One creates a clear conflict of interest, the other doesn’t. The PCC policy only prohibits dating students who are enrolled in one’s classes. Given that we have so many adult community members in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties who take classes at the college just for fun and edification, forbidding faculty from ever dating PCC students of any sort would be an extreme measure. One estimate I heard recently was that half the folks in Pasadena will take a course at PCC at some point in their lives.

  11. @Hugo — Clarisse, I hear you. One person’s violation can be another person’s liberation — we know this. On the other hand, it’s important for institutions to think about the collective good, and not hold back from doing everything possible to protect the vulnerable.

    I’m curious to know if you see any connections between the argument you’re making now, and the arguments against BDSM/kink.

    People argue that BDSM ought not to be accepted, de-stigmatized, legalized, etc. because violent relationships are sometimes used to oppress people. But while this is true, outlawing BDSM (a) marginalizes the sexuality of a huge number of people (the best, most rigorous study done on kink estimates 2% of the population), and (b) people who are into BDSM will do it anyway, and stigmatizing/criminalizing it will just make those people feel scared and awful about themselves, plus often preventing them from finding the resources they need to do it safely and consensually.

    I’ve heard some knee-jerk reactions of “This is totally different from kink and I can’t believe you would even compare the two!”, but I haven’t heard any arguments that actually take my point, disagree with it, and break it down. I’m wondering if you can do that for me, especially given that you disagree with the concept of sexual orientations in general, and so you presumably won’t make the case that “kink is different because some people really need to have sex that way, whereas teacher-student relationships seem less likely to be an innate sexual preference”.

  12. Having been in this situation myself I tend to agree with Hugo’s assessment of the situation that generally it’s inappropriate as well as emotionally harmful to have sex with his students. Then again, my experiences were unlike Marie’s and I don’t think of them fondly. I can still feel angry towards the individuals who behaved inappropriately towards me and the other people who made the situations worse by projecting on me and for failing to take steps to intervene and neglecting to see the very real damage it created.

    Those experiences detracted a great deal from my studies and created a stressful environment. It was very disruptive. I don’t tend to talk about those experiences given the types of responses I’ve had, which always tended towards being dismissive. At any rate, these negative memories surface when I get mail from my alumni association and solicitations for donations. I don’t care to participate and they’ll never get a penny from me.

    Professor/student relationships are inappropriate on many levels—-the imbalance of power being a strong factor. Unlike one of your other commentators, I do not believe that it is theoretically possible for a professor to have a sexual relationship with a student and to remain objective and to not show favoritism, etc. I just don’t believe it and everything in my experience points to another conclusion.

    People are social creatures and for whatever reason often feel compelled to tell and to burden others about their secrets and relationships. I’ve been on the receiving end of this type of behavior as well and I resented it. Collectively this can have a very negative impact on everyone. This type of stuff happens in office settings too and it is just miserable to deal with—-it can collectively cause a lot of divisiveness, tension and conflict ultimately destroying morale.

    I agree with Cassandra’s observation, “There are times where the wishes of the individual are in conflict with what’s best for the group, and this is one of them. And in those cases, what’s best for the group wins.”

    And for the record I don’t consider myself a socialist.

  13. I am a 25 year old female student in Texas completing my bachelors in classical philosophy this year. For almost 2 months I’ve had an ongoing relationship with a 36 year old professor in the law department whom I met at a banquet hosed by the university for honors students. We have no academic ties to each other, he has never been my teacher nor will he ever be since I will be transferring out of state to pursue a law degree.

    Our time together has been wonderful, we enjoy each others company and spend as much time in intellectual debate over coffee as we do in the bedroom. Both of us are ruthlessly pragmatic and view our relationship as a pleasant detour from rigorous and often monotonous academia.

    I’m curious to know your thoughts on my particular circumstance as we do not have the usual “student/professor” relationship. This is my first dalliance into the world of professor affairs and currently I have no complaints or regrets.

  14. Kelley,

    I don’t see any conflict of interest in your situation, since you are not a student in the class and it’s not the usual student/professor relationship. I personally wouldn’t have a problem with it. I don’t know how Hugo or anyone else would feel about it. I believe your situation is different from what he has been discussing.

    I tend to be a discreet person. Problems and conflicts of interest arise from people who are not discreet, especially in work situations, especially and even more so from the fall out of relationships that end badly. They burden their fellow employees with information, which creates a lot of strain. It also creates a lot of conflict and that is why people often lose their jobs or are asked to resign, because it can be very disrupting and cause a huge morale problem.

    Your situaiton however is different and I don’t see a conflict.

  15. Kelley, I have to wonder if you’re trolling, given that you describe your SO as being in “the law department” but your intention to go to “law school” in another state. Even in Texas I’ve never, ever heard anyone refer to their university’s law school as “the law department”.

    On the off chance that you’re describing a real situation, if you’ve read this far you’d be aware that nobody is talking about whether any person who is a student at any college ought to date any person who works somewhere as a university professor. “Professor/student” relationship of the type Hugo is discussing are those where the professor is dating somebody who is their student, or is likely to come under that professor’s jurisdiction (i.e. somebody who will be taking that professor’s classes next semester).

  16. I have read several of you articles regarding student-professor relationships. While this comment does not relate directly to this post, I just wanted to let you know that the whole series of posts on this is greatly appreciated.

    I thought there was something wrong with me, as I am slightly obsessed over a certain professor. He is probably twice my age, and while he dresses very well, is nonetheless hardly what I would call physically attractive. My crush was surprising to me and I was a little worried about myself- But after reading your posts, I understand now that I am incredibly lucky to have met a passionate lecturer who has the ability to mesmerise and inspire me to do better.

    Now, I have a better understanding of why I feel this way and your perspectives have greatly helped me to transform my feelings into something academically positive, while continuing to be in awe of my professor and love his charismatic, eloquent lectures.

    I think I will continue to visit him during office hours, but I will be aware what this is. I guess I just want some of his ‘charm’ to rub off a bit on me – exactly as you have mentioned. I’ll just continue to enjoy his presence and his courses as much as I can.

    Thank you for making me feel so much better about my ‘intellectual’ crush.

  17. Thank you so much, Julia; that’s wonderful validation and very much appreciated. I’m glad this series was helpful. Perhaps, someday, it will be a book…

  18. You’ve done what I thought was impossible, Dr. Schwyzer, and undermined every good reason I thought I had for having the hots for you. Not that you disgust me now, of course! But thanks for being so candid in demolishing the reasons why some of us think we want to be with professors like you.

  19. Pingback: Hugo Schwyzer and the sin of coercion « Dankprofessor’s Weblog

  20. I disagree with Sabs about losing the hots for you, but I won’t say more.

    It seems to me that this post makes some of Dank’s case for him. Isn’t it possible that your guilt is blinding you to the fact that these relationships aren’t as destructive as you’re insisting that they are? If your guilt made you make amends to someone who was so certain that she hadn’t been harmed, it may also distort even more your perception of other’s relationships with their profesors.

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