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.