The magic of trust: of consent, power, BDSM and professor-student sex

Not quite ready to let go of the professor-student sexual relationship discussion. Below yesterday’s post, Clarisse writes:

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

Clarisse, who writes a great deal about BDSM at her own blog, asks if I can make a case against teacher-student relationships that doesn’t privilege a disapproving majority against the desires of a minority. She’s concerned — as others such as the famous Jane Gallop were concerned — that policies which ban sexual relationships between consenting adults do a kind of violence to individual freedom. Given the history of these sorts of power-imbalanced campus relationships, I’m more sympathetic to hearing this argument made by women than by men. (I fisked Barry Dank, a leading defender of teacher-student sex, here.)

It’s worth noting that other professions ban sexual relationships between practitioners and those who seek their help. Attorneys are not allowed to have sex with their clients; psychologists and doctors aren’t permitted to have sexual relationships with their current — and in some cases, their former — patients. Few would argue that it abrogates human freedom to suggest that therapists should lose their licenses if they fuck their patients, even if those patients are well above the age of consent. Of course, we recognize the special vulnerability of someone who seeks therapy, or someone who turns to an attorney. It’s not clear that we see college students as equally vulnerable. I think a good case can be made that in terms of their professors, they generally are.

(A parenthetical aside. As someone who has made teaching his life’s calling, I bristle at the idea that my profession ought to be seen as less influential than that of medicine or law. By permitting professors and students to engage in consensual amorous relations, while disbarring barristers and solicitors who do the same with their clients, we send the signal that we who teach have less significance than those who litigate, or negotiate contracts. No offense to my lawyer friends, but I find that implication offensive!)

To get to the specifics of Clarisse’s question. At the very heart of BDSM, at the core of “kink”, is one thing: trust. One of the things I’ve heard, over and over again, from men and women who practice BDSM in one form or another, is that it is within that particular subculture that they finally found safe and reliable boundaries. Even people who don’t practice kink know the phrase “safe word”, a term that has made its way into our shared lexicon. Because BDSM deals openly with issues of power, domination, submission, and control, the reliance on clear and unmistakable boundaries is at the very heart of that world’s practices. There’s no question that many folks who come out of backgrounds of abuse — and some who never endured violation — have found redemption, healing, and catharsis in practicing BDSM. And to a woman and a man, they all seem to agree that trust is the sine qua non of the lifestyle.

I’ve long maintained that there’s a great deal we in the “vanilla” (non-fetish) world can learn from our brothers and sisters who practice BDSM responsibly. I honor the commitment of the kinky folk to developing rules and rituals that protect each participant’s dignity and sense of self. And I honor there sense that trust is something that needs to be made explicit in our words as well as something that needs to be lived out in our most intimate actions.

And of course, the common thread between the teacher-student relationship, BDSM, and psychotherapy is the preciousness of trust. In the classroom, in a psychiatrist’s office, and in a bedroom filled with the tools of kink, we see asymmetrical power relationships at their healthiest. Students need to be able to trust their professors, particularly in fields like my own (gender studies). Patients need to be able to trust their therapists. And a submissive needs to be able to trust a dominant partner — and vice versa. Violations of trust in any of these arenas can be devastating.

My students have put their collective trust in me not merely to teach effectively and grade fairly but to embody the ideals which I profess. When I slept with my students, even though I only slept with a relatively small number, the damage I wrought to the fabric of campus life was very real. That damage to the collective trust was no less in those instances where the specific student with whom I was having sex perceived no harm (but rather the opposite), and trusted me personally throughout our time together. What I did with Marie (the subject of yesterday’s post) and other women in private had public repercussions which were profoundly negative; my actions sowed seeds of mistrust in me in particular and male authority figures in general.

But by the same token, when two people who aren’t in a professor-student (or patient-therapist, lawyer-client, pastor-parishioner, etc) relationship engage in BDSM that is consensual and respectful, they aren’t subverting institutional ideals. If they find, as many of my friends in that world have found, that their lives are enriched, their souls nourished, their spirits healed and their bodies pleasured by what they do together, then there is not only no collective harm, there is collective good. We all benefit, after all, when our fellow students and family members, our co-workers and colleagues, are filled with a greater sense of well-being. When those who are close to me experience healing and joy, they will transmit that joy to me one way or another, even if I never figure out why they seem so calm, or so happy, or just so much more content than before.

Private actions have public consequences. Trust is, in any relationship, desperately precious. The teacher-student relationship, when it is characterized by mutual respect and a commitment to non-sexual nurturing and challenge, can be magical. BDSM, when it is engaged in by adults who understand the rules and rituals of that subculture, who value themselves and their partners,can be similarly magical. And for these reasons, I can celebrate kink in all its glory — and be rigid and inflexible in my insistence that professors ought never be sexual with those who are in their classes.

36 thoughts on “The magic of trust: of consent, power, BDSM and professor-student sex

  1. Right. A prof who sleeps with his students does violence to the idea “My prof is my teacher and I can trust that his teaching isn’t colored by his wish to get in my pants”. Bottom line. Same thing out here in clinical psychology land, mutatis mutandis.

  2. Hugo, since you subscribe to this ideal, that power-imbalanced relationships are inherently unethical, why have you left the minister/parishioner relationship out of the conversation? For that matter, why are we not having an international conversation about creating a cultural ethic which forbids clergy from having sexual/romantic relationship with a person who has been or who is a parishioner?

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you; the professor/student relationship should be a no-sex zone. I have seen my fair share of such relationships and even those who did not end in tragedy were problematic precisely because they were built on a student/teacher dynamic. Once the student has caught up to the teacher’s knowledge, where can the relationship go?

    But beyond the power-imbalance, prohibitions against student/teacher affairs are also about having one relationship in the sex-crazed world of college where you can trust that “How are you?” is a serious inquiry into one’s welfare and not the opening line of a pick-up. College needs to be a sacrosanct zone, where women’s minds are taken seriously and where gaining value as a sexual object is not an option.

    Shouldn’t a church be able to offer at least the same sanctuary from the sexual oppression of our culture as a classroom or a lawyer’s office? Can we even keep a straight face and say that the power created by being a spokesperson for the Divine and for the morals of the community is not greater than that of teacher, therapist and doctor combined? Can there even be such a thing as a non-abusive sexual relationship between clergy and laity?

    There is no denying that there is something very romantic, very gender affirming about the vulnerability and nurturing found in the relationship between a male teacher and a female student, as witnessed by Liza Doolittle – between male transformer and his Cinderella – as we see in Pretty Woman. Stories of vulnerability answered by transformative nurturing touch us deeply because they remind us of parental nurturing, because they provide for some a sense that there really is “someone to watch over me” and for others the ego-boost that comes from transformative nurturing. Is there anything that makes us as vulnerable as spiritual transformation or any nurturing more ego-enhancing than the “saving” of another person’s soul?

    I know, we have been reticent to address the sex-lives of our spiritual leaders, but don’t we think that it might be time to grow up and recognize that ministers are just humans with all the needs and frailties that accompany our existence?

    We already have a “don’t do immoral things” clause in most minister’s contracts, so it might seem rules about clergy sexual-conduct would not need to be articulated explicitly. Let’s face facts: some clergy are single and a certain percentage of the married ministerial population is going to have an extra-marital sexual relationship. The act is an offense to the congregation, of course. But the minister adds injury to offense and creates legal liabilities when s/he has a sexual or romantic relationship with a member of the flock. We have to identify these relationships as clergy-abuse, just as we identify similar relationships between therapists and clients as abusive and legally un-defendable. I know a therapist who kissed a client and had his license revoked; yet most ministers caught in adultery are punished only for the offense of unauthorized sex, not for the abuse.

    We owe it to ourselves and our children to create a community taboo against clergy/parishioner sexual/romantic relationships. And churches need written policies which forbid, under the threat of defrocking, all sexual contact between clergy and parishioners as well as romantic relationships.

  3. If you read closely, Catherine, I included “pastor parishioner” in one parenthetical aside. But there is no equivalent of the APA or the ABA for all men and women of the cloth. Of course, there ought to be, but because the state licenses doctors and lawyers and employs professors like me — and doesn’t license or employ pastors in the same way — the rules will have to be developed differently.

  4. Hugo, thank you so much for taking my comment so seriously, and for responding at such length.

    Still, I think we may merely have to agree to disagree. I’m going to take another stab at trying to isolate the point where I get confused, though. You write:

    My students have put their collective trust in me not merely to teach effectively and grade fairly but to embody the ideals which I profess. When I slept with my students, even though I only slept with a relatively small number, the damage I wrought to the fabric of campus life was very real.

    This is the part that trips me up. Why is this necessarily a violation of trust, assuming no malicious intent and no nonconsensual pushing of boundaries? I’m not saying that these kind of relationships aren’t often a problem, but why the constant reversion to this idea that they must necessarily be a problem? If these relationships are often nonconsensual or disruptive in some form, then shouldn’t we be trying to address that and not the existence of the relationships themselves? And if we successfully addressed that then wouldn’t we also, automatically, be addressing the anxiety of uninvolved students?

    Perhaps I should note that my experience in this is shaped by my relationship with one of my own professors — not because he had an affair with me, but because he had an affair with another student. The affair happened a while before I came to the institution, but I heard about it anyway (I went to a very small college called Simon’s Rock — it’s okay if you’ve never heard of it). At first I was a little sketched out, but I took one of his classes anyway; it was really enjoyable and I never felt threatened in any way. The professor later became my thesis advisor, and his past behavior was never a problem at all except inasmuch as it caused me to have an initial hiccup of distrust. Which makes me think that the problem was not, necessarily, him or his behavior at all, but rather my jumped-to conclusion that he was sketchy because of that previous relationship. And that makes the problem my triggers — a prejudice I ought to take responsibility for — rather than his behavior.

  5. Clarisse, your “hiccup” of distrust was mild; it would not be so for others. Your professor’s behavior was also in the past. Plenty of my students know about my past, and have no trouble trusting me. But if it were ongoing? If they knew that I was sleeping with a classmate, would it be realistic to expect my female students to be 100% certain that I had no lecherous intent towards them as well? I think that’s an overask.

  6. While it is true that churches have been slower than other institutions to recognize these issues (and can still be tempted to sweep these sorts of things under the rug) officially many denominations have moved to implement standards more in line with the other professions outlined. When I was in seminary we had a required ethics seminar which addressed the issue of pastor/parishioner relationships. As pastoral interns (think student teaching type positions for seminarians) we were forbidden to date any members of the congregation we served. My domination (PC(USA) has similar strict ethical standards for the pastors they ordain. Violations can lead to losing your congregation and having your ordination suspended. I imagine the other mainline denominations have similar policies.

  7. Even if the relationship btw teacher and student is consensual and trusting, I think the prof is betraying *other* students’ trust by creating a “casting couch” environment. It creates the suspicion that he will not be objective about grading their work. Favoritism will creep in because of his lack of boundaries between personal and professional life. Even if his girlfriend is not currently a student in his class, it would make me anxious that he felt okay about noticing which of his students were “hot”. (Yeah, we all notice, but as Hugo always says, we can choose to dwell on it or not.)

  8. I am a member of one of the aforementioned fields in which sex with a client is considered unacceptable. I don’t find this rule particularly burdensome, so on a very basic gut level, I just don’t understand the problem with extending the same principle to teachers. Leaving aside the question of trust, such affairs create a serious conflict of interest, just as it would be a conflict of interest to teach/counsel/treat your own child.

    I’m afraid I’m not clear on how these arguments apply to BDSM at all. Could somebody clarify?

  9. Lucy, some feminists are critical of BDSM practice because it eroticizes power relations — and disparate power is something against which feminism ought to struggle. Teacher-student sex involves, usually, some eroticization of power as well.

    Obviously, historically, an imbalance in power has meant that women have been more likely to be raped and abused sexually than have men. Women and men alike, therefore, who are committed to egalitarian principles in public life ought to, or so the thinking goes, be committed to them in private (sexual) life as well. And while BDSM relationships can be egalitarian politically, the turn-on revolves around domination and submission.

    For some feminists, by no means all, we need to work — all of us — to stop being turned on by power, either by the thrill of using it or of having it used on us. Some folks disagree, finding much that is redemptive in BDSM’s promise of bringing control and safety to both parties in a sexual transaction.

    And while I think the defenders of BDSM are generally on to something, I think the eroticization of the teacher-student relationship is almost always something to be patiently and firmly resisted.

  10. I’m interested in Clarisse’s thoughts on what it would be like to be a student in a class in which the professor is currently dating another student in the class.

    I can see her point that in her situation, just knowing about an affair with a student in the past was not a “big deal” for her to get past. But does she really think that a professor who is dating one of his current students can be fair to the other students in that class during the same semester? That grading papers he/she is not at all influenced by the emotions of new love/lust in which the object of one’s affections often appears to be a much better version of him/herself? What kinds of “rules” could you put on those relationships that would weed out the “bad” ones and keep the “good” ones? How can the professor, even while trying to be “fair” to the lover and other students, know that it’s not coloring his/her interpretation of classroom dynamics, classroom comments, graded assignments, etc? Would the professor discuss course material outside of class with the lover? Would that be acceptable? Or does the lover have to come to office hours to discuss class materials? Can the professor comment on the lover’s unfinished or un-turned in work product? I certainly have had by boyfriend/husband read over a paper and edit or give comments, but if that’s not available to other students in the class I think it would be totally inappropriate. And, if you impose all of those kinds of rules on a relationship – we can’t talk about this, you can’t show me that, we have to go through an elaborate routine to separate your role as student from your role as girlfriend – will two people equally enforce those boundaries? Or does the professor also become the official boundary enforcer of the relationship?

    It’s just too messy. Therefore, I come down on the it’s just not allowed side as well.

  11. Obviously, historically, an imbalance in power has meant that women have been more likely to be raped and abused sexually than have men. Women and men alike, therefore, who are committed to egalitarian principles in public life ought to, or so the thinking goes, be committed to them in private (sexual) life as well. And while BDSM relationships can be egalitarian politically, the turn-on revolves around domination and submission.

    Perhaps we ought to make a distinction here between the concepts of “power” and “force”. I heard it well put one time that power involves the influence one has over other people because it has been granted by those people, whereas force is the power that one attempts to take from other people. In other words, they move in opposite directions, and to opposite ends. Force, in this context, is what is used in rape. Power defines most human relationships to some degree. President Obama has power because we trust him with it to achieve beneficial ends for the rest of us. A professor has power over students because we trust she or he to use it to instruct them for their benefit. Power abused can be revoked by the people who grant it. The absence of any power or any power differential, under this conception, looks more like the brutal Hobbesian state of nature than any sort of positively egalitarian world.

    The same power vs. force distinction delineates BDSM from or sex abuse. The submissive grants out of their own free will and for their pleasure, and may revoke, permission and consent to do what the dominant will do during a BDSM scene. Absent that, it becomes unethical and unlawful sexual assault or rape.

    The argument against professor-student relationships would seem to be that the professor is, or is at risk of, abusing their power that they have for illegitimate ends. That isn’t rape, of course, but it falls on a spectrum of sexual conduct that we consider inappropriate all the same.

  12. Well, Hugo, you are right – it is there. Fortunately, this is the day of the week when I am allowed to make mistakes without self-rapprochement. Had it been tomorrow- well that would have been a whole different thing.

  13. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds as if this question is being couched in the understanding that the professor is both older than the student, and male. There’s also the implication that all other students in the hypothetical class are aware of the affair between student and professor.

    So if the affair is a discreet one, and no one else is privvy to the situation, wouldn’t that mitigate the perception of other students that the affair is effecting their interests? In the case of age equivalence is ther any room to consider the relative experiences of the lovers. In other words, the relationship between a thirty eight year old female student and a thirty year old, or thirty eight year old male professor, perhaps draws a somewhat different picture of ‘imbalance’ than the relationship between a forty year old male professor and his twenty year old female student, or an older female professor and younger male student. Put another way, who’s zooming who?

    I’m not advocating either/or, but I’m interested in the both the perceived inequality vs the actual.

  14. I haven’t yet noted this on this particular thread, although I’ve noted in on a bunch of others :P, so let me just preface this by saying that I’m actually not sure whether I would support removing current rules that ban professor-student relationships (or lawyer-client relationships, etc). I’m just uneasy and unsure about the tone and assumptions behind a lot of this discourse.

    @Hugo — If they knew that I was sleeping with a classmate, would it be realistic to expect my female students to be 100% certain that I had no lecherous intent towards them as well? I think that’s an overask.

    Why? I have plenty of male friends who are sleeping with female friends of mine. That doesn’t mean that I assume “lecherous intent” (or, to put it more neutrally, attraction) towards me as well. And even if they do feel attracted to me, I don’t see why that’s automatically a problem. Plenty of people have very frequent, perfectly reasonable non-sexual interactions with other people that they’re attracted to.

    I have worked in a field (writing games) in which some superiors hit on me a lot. (In fact, one outright told me that he hired me because I was hot.) Occasionally this made me uncomfortable (and yes, it was a factor in why I left the field), but that was when I didn’t feel that I could set boundaries without risking punishment as an employee. But that’s not a problem of the attraction itself, that’s a problem of those particular superiors failing to put me at ease.

    @Jendi — It creates the suspicion that he will not be objective about grading their work.

    But if we accept that it’s conceivable that a professor could have an affair with a student without displaying favoritism, then why is this “suspicion” the professor’s problem and not the students’ problem? If students assume that he can’t act neutrally, they’re arguably the ones making unfounded assumptions. Like me with my professor — I’ll happily argue that my initial hiccup of distrust was the fault of my biases, and not his behavior, given that he always behaved with total decorum.

    @Lucy — Hugo’s writeup is interesting, but my own reasons for seeing parallels between this and BDSM are actually much simpler. Basically, I think we’ve learned from BDSM that policing other peoples’ consensual relationships doesn’t make any sense. I don’t see why that should be different with professor-student relationships.

    In the comment of mine that Hugo quoted from to start this post, I also wrote:

    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.

    @Emily — What kinds of “rules” could you put on those relationships that would weed out the “bad” ones and keep the “good” ones?

    See, this is an interesting question, and one that I agree is very difficult to answer.

    But if you state that “it’s too hard to ensure that a given professor-student relationship is not problematic, therefore we will outlaw professor-student relationships altogether,” then that’s a really different argument from “professor-student relationships are always problematic, therefore we will outlaw professor-student relationships altogether”. The first argument (which is, I think, the one you’re making) is one that I can get behind, though it makes me uneasy. The second one is one that I don’t think I can get behind, and it also seems to encourage very broad judgments and stereotypes that I don’t like.

    As for the direct question of whether I personally would mind if a professor were sleeping with another student in one of my classes — well, that would depend on the situation. That’s my whole point.

    @Pounding Sand — I’m interested to know if you read the tangentially related Alas thread, particularly my comments (which start around comment #60).
    http://www.amptoons.com/blog/archives/2010/03/12/reader-i-married-her/

  15. “The argument against professor-student relationships would seem to be that the professor is, or is at risk of, abusing their power that they have for illegitimate ends. That isn’t rape, of course, but it falls on a spectrum of sexual conduct that we consider inappropriate all the same.”

    This is a perfect illustration of why I, as a domme, strongly believe that teacher/student relationships are inherantly problematic. Those relationships aren’t based on a consensual power exchange in the same way BSDM relationships are. The power exchange in BSDM relationships is based on a conscious choice – it’s not automatic. Professor/student is a relationship with an automatic power differential built it, one that the student can’t just choose not to participate in. I just can’t see any way in which the professor’s decision to sleep with his/her student isn’t an abuse of that power.

    It’s kind of like saying, why can’t I have a consensual BSDM relationship with my servant? (If I were a person rich enough to have servants, and hey, as a child in the Third World I actually did so I’m not just reaching blindly here) How can you ever be really sure that the person in the less powerful position is freely consenting? You can’t, honestly, and even if you could be, that relationship is still creating an environment in which now the door to such relationships is open, which makes it easier for unethical people to take advantage of the situation.

    It’s even more inappropriate when implied trust is so vital to the relationship functioning properly, as it is in teacher/student, therapist/client, doctor/patient. Many people have laid out the reasons why, and I don’t think there’s anything I can add here. It’s just not OK, and would not be OK even if the particular student swore blind that he/she was fine with it.

    Responsible kink means understanding that there are lines you must not cross – you need to care about other people and how your actions affect them. This is a lesson that does indeed apply to life in general.

  16. Hugo, I left a long comment here yesterday, and I didn’t see it appear, so I tried leaving it again and got a duplicate comment alert. I don’t see it now. If you’ve deleted it, then may I ask why?

  17. It was probably the link. Spam filters are weird like that. I’ll keep that in mind in the future. Glad to know I didn’t get banned for being rude or something :grin:.

  18. Hugo, the story of yours and Claires relationship is a sad one, and certainly provides some support for the prohibition of student/professor(S/P) sexual relationships at any age of student or teacher.

    Clarisse, I feel for you. The question at hand, and whatever ‘rules’ are developed to prevent bad student/teacher relationshps developing, is a difficult and thorny one. Unfortunately, as with many other things in life, I do not think that its possible to satisfy the potential needs of each side here with any kind of certainty. Hugos relationship with Claire perfectly illustrates the potential for harm, although I do not think that Claires ‘anger’ is entirely justified. As an age equivalent person engaging in a consenting relationship with someone she ‘wanted something from’ she bears at the very least 50% of the responsibility for her subsequent disappointment. As I asked earlier, who’s zooming who? Hugo may well have been operating under the assumption that he and Claire were equals in expectation, but her expectation that Hugo could, and would, serve as her unpartisan mentor, as well as her lover, appears to have been an unstated one. Claire could have broken off from Hugo at any time, but it rather seems she tried to have her cake and eat it too – no disrespect intended.

    Your comment that “it would depend on the circumstances” is well taken and begs that the larger question be parsed in each and every situation where a S/P relationship is in the offing. I don’t believe that its possible to legislate feelings or physical activity between consenting adults, and may not even be desireable, but the rules that are implemented at any institution, while they may be draconian in outcome should the lovers be discovered, may at least provide a forum in which the relative ‘harm’ done to either party can be determined on a case by case basis. Of course one has to break the rules first, so one gambles, and wins or loses.

    I’m a medical professional who has intimate medical realtionships with many patients. The prospect of a patient/provider consensual sexual relationship has cropped up more than once over the years. I say the prospect has cropped up, but nothing more than that. I have found that the reason I entered into this line of work in the first place, that of being a source of help, hope and sustenance to patients, has done more to prevent me from engaging in a sexual relationship with a patient far more than the stated legal prohibitions. Not that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind, but I’ll pararhase an earlier post, “Its what you do about these things that counts”.

    Another thought, the maxim upon which everyone in medicine practices is that of ‘Do No harm’. I’m not aware of similar formal oaths that bind the legal profession (Spare No Foe?), or the teaching profession(Tell no Lie?), but perhaps if there were a ‘teaching oath’ then boundaries between students and teachers would be broken somewhat less frequently, or with at least a little more forethought.

  19. “Another thought, the maxim upon which everyone in medicine practices is that of ‘Do No harm’. I’m not aware of similar formal oaths that bind the legal profession (Spare No Foe?), or the teaching profession(Tell no Lie?), but perhaps if there were a ‘teaching oath’ then boundaries between students and teachers would be broken somewhat less frequently, or with at least a little more forethought.”

    In my expderience people who feel they are special and ignore rules (always with the attitude that rules are made to be broken), generally also tend to ignore boundaries, other people’s feelings and also don’t pay attention to oaths. An oath would be similar to a rule, which according to their thought process is something to either be ignored, bended or broken to their liking or as they see fit as they are special and unique.

    Rebelliousness and rulebreakers tends to sound rather special and romantic and fun except to the people who get in the way of the special ones.

    “I don’t believe that its possible to legislate feelings or physical activity between consenting adults.”

    I don’t either, however an institution providing rules and a framework of inacceptable behaviors at the very least offers students an opportunity to file grievances against offending parties and a means of taking corrective action against people prone to abusing power.

  20. An oath is similar to a rule only in that it describes a pattern of behaviour to be followed. An oath is fundamentally different in that one has to personally commit in word and action to that code of behaviour. This is the difference between blindly signing the company code of conduct and taking a public vow of marriage, or swearing to tell the truth in court, or pledging allegiance to whatever deity, flag or cause you believe in.

    The thought of a teachers oath occurred to me in the context of having the teaching professions fomally bind themselves to an ideal of informing *and* protecting students, just as lawyers and doctors are asked to do for their patients and clients. There is a certain grvitas about the process of informed, verbal committment that seems to reinforce good (or at least better) behaviour. In other words, I’m asking that if teachers were *sworn in* as teachers, wouldn’t that help them preserve boudaries and adhere to an ideal more than if, as now, simply being given employment, a company rule book, and politely being asked to behave. This oath taking would not at all infringe upon the rights of the abused student to seek redress, or absolve the offender from punitive action.

    FWIW, I do not believe that the spectrum of humanity that become doctors and lawyers are in any way morally superior to those who become teachers, or engineers, or police officers, or garbage collectors, or plumbers.

  21. PS. I apologise to anyone offended by my first post for ‘fogetting’ that lawyers are sworn in at the bar. .

  22. Pounding Sand,

    “An oath is similar to a rule only in that it describes a pattern of behaviour to be followed. An oath is fundamentally different in that one has to personally commit in word and action to that code of behaviour.”

    If someone resists submitting to rules what makes you think they will give care about an oath, regardless of whether it is fundamentally different or not? People are quite capable of committing in words promises which they do not intend to keep. And I do not mean any disrespect in pointing this out.

    You state, “I’m a medical professional who has intimate medical realtionships with many patients. The prospect of a patient/provider consensual sexual relationship has cropped up more than once over the years. I say the prospect has cropped up, but nothing more than that. I have found that the reason I entered into this line of work in the first place, that of being a source of help, hope and sustenance to patients, has done more to prevent me from engaging in a sexual relationship with a patient far more than the stated legal prohibitions.”

    So you have a conscience, demonstrate self-restraint and you seem to genuinely care about other people. You also demonstrate awareness and understanding about motivations. So what about people who do not act the same way, who don’t share the same world-view or code of conduct and are not influenced or motivated by the same things?

    The qualities you demonstrate are generally lacking in people who are prone to abusing authority and exhibiting boundary violations. Their motivations are mainly about getting their needs met at the expense of other people—a common trait of narcissists. Character-disordered individuals basically are unencumbered by qualms of conscience, they lack self-restraint and they tend to passionately pursue their personal goals with indifference to and often at the expense of the rights of others. That’s why they ignore boundaries. An oath would have little meaning to them and quite frankly, they are undeterred by legal prohibitions as well. What they need and can benefit from are limits, confrontation and most especially correction and that is one reason why I feel we do need legal prohibitions—mainly to protect the rights of others.

    For you an oath would have meaning. I wouldn’t assume it would for others. I don’t know how legally binding a formal oath would be or for that matter what legal recourse one would have without written policies delineating what constitutes appropriate professional behaviors, etc.

    As far as the relationship between Hugo and Claire is concerned, I respectfully disagree that she had at least 50% of the responsibility for her subsequent disappointment. I believe Hugo had the greater responsibility of the two. Likewise, in my experience I believe most people have unspoken expectations.

  23. Probably bending the topic this, but, hopefully Hugo can forgive me…

    I was very serious sexually abused as a kid and came from an abusive family (not sexual abuse) and the idea of getting involved in BDSM has always been deeply repugnant to me. Even the idea of getting involved with milder forms appalls me. I’ve always, cosnciously, pursued the opposite of abusive situations – although subconscious behaviour is another matter. And I have found pursuing healthy behaviour to be the best way of establishing good boundaries, I spant my teens and early twenties hanging about with people who were healthier than me in that respect and they brought me into line, showed me the ropes so to speak, so I could fnd my own way. I have found catharthis through plate smashing, acting out imaginary scenrios, confrontation with abusers and some good counsellors. Is BDSM really such a fab way to learn all this stuff? It certainly isn’t the only way. It it were so great wouldn’t people eventually drop it because they had dealt with their problems? It seems to me a bit like treading rond and round on the human equivalent of a hamster wheel, staying still, not moving on and being free.

  24. Attorneys are not allowed to have sex with their clients

    Believe it or not, this is actually untrue. Also, the ABA is a lobbying and mutual-interest organization; it does not regulate attorney conduct or discipline wayward attorneys. That doesn’t make it a good idea to sleep with your clients, of course. Lawyers do take oaths – it’s that whole ‘officer of the court’ thing – but we’re not silly enough to assume that everybody will abide by their oath, or that the oath to uphold the law is enough to keep everyone ethical.

  25. “Lawyers do take oaths – it’s that whole ‘officer of the court’ thing – but we’re not silly enough to assume that everybody will abide by their oath, or that the oath to uphold the law is enough to keep everyone ethical.”

    Isn’t that the truth! Scumbags crop up everywhere and in all professions.

    I once had a brief interview with an attorney who wrote up a job description, using words such as dominant and submissive as well as chic to describe the employment skills that he required. He was probably into BDSM. Really, he actually used those words. Luckily, I wasn’t so hard up for work that I would have taken the job or be exposed to such a scumbag. It turned out that he did a lot of work for the Porn industry. He eventually was investigated by a news show.

    I took the job description and gave it to a woman I knew whose ex-husband was a district attorney. The guy was a scumbag, but they couldn’t do anything, since he was so effective in knowing just how far he could push it.

  26. I have after37yrs of marriage have just been imformed my husband is into this lifestyle.not wanted by his parents at 30something not even taken into account which I find repugnet. I was raised not dragged up!I was To believed sex was another form of love.But because my husband of 37yrs was into this thing have tried to fathom what he feels to be eciting but can’t.It is awlful.now because I have said it is sick he now says it was a lifestyle choice is this right ? I hope so because the only feeling I feel 4 his sad.My parents loved me and wanted me is that why peoploe of this pervusion are into it?

  27. Teena and matey, I can see where BDSM can seem mystifying, dangerous, and unhealthy to the outside observer. A spouse who attempts to coerce a partner into the lifestyle is doing something repugnant. It’s not my bag, as they said in the Sixties, but many dear friends are active in the fetish world (they’re all on FetLife). I’ve seen the positive good that kink has wrought in their lives.

    I’d also hasten to say that not everyone in BDSM is working through their issues of molestation and abuse. Some are, some aren’t.

  28. @Karen — I once had a brief interview with an attorney who wrote up a job description, using words such as dominant and submissive as well as chic to describe the employment skills that he required. He was probably into BDSM. Really, he actually used those words.

    Really? You assume that he’s into BDSM because he managed to use the words “dominant” and “submissive”, and because … wait, I don’t see another reason. Except perhaps that you seem to think he was a creep, and of course BDSMers must all be creeps, right?

    Quit stereotyping us.

    @matey — It it were so great wouldn’t people eventually drop it because they had dealt with their problems? It seems to me a bit like treading rond and round on the human equivalent of a hamster wheel, staying still, not moving on and being free.

    I’m sorry about your experiences, but I fail to see how they’re relevant to BDSM. Most people who are into BDSM aren’t in it because of childhood experiences of molestation; most of us were not abused as children, just like most of the mainstream. And many of the few BDSMers who were molested as children believe they would have been into BDSM either way, because again, many of us consider BDSM to be innate — similar to a sexual orientation.

    Quit stereotyping us.

  29. Thank you for taking responsibility here. I wish more professors had done as you did.

    I’ve known you long enough as my professor and then my friend to know that your transformation is real. But if you can go back to 1998, what would you have done with you if you were the dean of human resources? I remember you mentioning that you didn’t have tenure when you were sleeping with students. Would you have fired you? If not, why not?

    I’m not saying you should lose your job now. But no one back then could have been sure that you would change. So, what should have been done to you at the time, given the need to protect students?

  30. If I recall Hugo has mentioned that it actually wasn’t against any official protocol (at the time)… so with the knowledge that there was never any complaint filed and it was consensual, I would imagine the dean would do nothing… or at the very most issue Hugo a warning and perhaps make some changes. But I can’t imagine him being fired.

    If you’re talking about Hugo himself, as a moral person… well, the thing is, the dean cannot make moral decisions, he merely interprets and upholds the rules as written.

  31. Note: I opened comments on a couple of these posts by request.

    Cammie, indeed there was no policy against consensual sexual relationships between teachers and students at the time. I helped write the policy that went into effect in 2001, three years later, as part of my amends process.

    My behavior was well-known to the administration, as it turned out. What I had thought was a secret was widely known. My own dean, a woman, essentially ignored what happened with a nod and a wink. If I were dean now with an untenured faculty member behaving as I behaved, we’d certainly have a “come to Jesus” talk which would make it very clear that something had to change immediately.

    No one had that talk with me. I changed as a result of getting sober and going through a period of celibacy and re-evaluation of my ethics. But others might need more of a push.

  32. Amy Alkon had a link to this post today. On another MRA site, StandYourGround, someone posted that you had admitted to having sex with at least 20 students. If that’s a small number to you, Hugo, wow. Just wow.

    Though I appreciate your point, I don’t think students are generally as vulnerable with a professor as clients are with shrinks or lawyers. They come to the latter two professions often in desperation, where they come to college to learn and to experience new things. I’m not defending teacher-student sex, but I think you’re both flagellating yourself too much and overestimating the power of your profession.

  33. That number is about right. It is what it is.

    And I think that in my field, gender studies, the intimacy and trust that is part and parcel of what we establish in our teaching does put us on an emotional par (in terms of importance) with lawyers and psychologists.

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