“I can’t trust your praise”: the unintended fallout of professor-student affairs

I spoke too soon. I feel compelled to write another post on the teacher-student dating thing, in response to this question below yesterday’s post, from “Pounding Sand”. PS asks:


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.

During what — for lack of a better term — I call my “acting out years” (from 1995-1998, when I was having affairs with students), I dated one woman who was older than me. I was 29; she was 32.

“Claire” was a returning student, coming back to college more than a dozen years after dropping out. She was very bright, but like many of those who return to college after years away from academia, anxious about her abilities. Her story was a familiar one: she’d been a clever but underachieving high school student, more interested in social activities than intellectual ones. Claire had gone off to a Cal State campus for one year, and partied her way onto academic probation and into eventual dismissal. She had married at twenty, had a baby, and stayed home with her daughter for several years. By the time she came to Pasadena City College, she had been divorced for two years and her daughter was in fifth grade.

In her thirties, much to her surprise, Claire had discovered she loved learning: she loved books, writing, ideas. What had bored her to tears at 17 fascinated her at 32. Her passion was matched by her ability. (It is not always so.) She earned top grades on every test she took and every paper she wrote. And she was funny; lovely; she sat in the front row. Our affair started during the second semester Claire was my student, in early spring of 1997.

Claire and I were discreet. Of course, she wasn’t the only person (or, for that matter, the only student) I was dating. Neither of us wanted a serious relationship. None of her classmates knew; even as word spread across campus of my reckless and sordid indiscretions with others, no one discovered what was happening with Claire.

Claire eventually transferred to a nearby liberal arts college renowned for recruiting promising non-traditional students; I wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation. And it was when I handed her a copy of the letter of recommendation that I realized yet another damaging aspect of teacher-student affairs, something that goes to the heart of the question Pounding Sand poses.

Claire looked at the letter and smiled. Her smile faded, though, and I asked her what was wrong. I’d praised her exceptional abilities (particularly her writing skills) to the heavens; I’d meant every word I’d written. Claire said: “I wish I could believe that all of this was true.”

“Of course it’s true!”, I exclaimed.

“Is it? Don’t you feel as if you have to say these things after everything that’s happened? How can I know that you mean this?”

I was horrified, and, I confess, indignant. “Christ, Claire, you earned your A in the classroom. I can’t believe you’d doubt that. I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.”

Claire remarked, calmly but with an edge in her voice, something to the effect that a professor who was so cavalier about sleeping with his students could hardly be self-righteous when his integrity was questioned. I could tell she wanted to believe that the words I’d written about her intellectual promise were true. I knew damn well that they were true. If I’d never come within ten feet of her, her dazzling, witty prose; her work ethic; and her insights would have earned her the highest grade in the course. In my mind, our sexual relationship had nothing to do with her academic ability, save that that unusual ability was one of many things that had made her exceptionally attractive to me.

Claire transferred, graduated, remarried, and moved away. She ended up in law school, and is now an attorney. I made amends to her in 2001. Our conversation was civil but brisk. She told me that while she had enjoyed my classes, and not been unhappy with our relationship outside of class, she was angry that our affair had made it impossible for her to turn to me as a mentor. Claire hadn’t seen me as a “younger man” (we were less than three years apart, after all), but as her professor. I had something she wanted, and what she had wanted most was intellectual validation. I gave her that, but it came wrapped up in a sexual relationship. As a result, she had had a very difficult and painful time trying to decide whether her As were earned, and whether my consistently laudatory feedback was truly deserved.

A woman who had grown up being told she was “pretty” but “not very bright”, Claire was a late bloomer as a scholar. And by having a sexual relationship with her, I robbed her of the chance to bask in the uncompromised praise she had so indisputably earned. At her four year school, Claire had found other mentors with whom she didn’t have affairs; she had come to trust that her talents were genuine. She hadn’t been able to get that from me. Whatever fleeting pleasure she had derived from our affair had left a lingering hurt in the form of self-doubt. And the fact that she was three years my senior in no way mitigated my responsibility for causing her that hurt.

It’s been a dozen years since I slept with a student who was in my classes. And of all the people whom I hurt by my selfish, narcissistic behavior during my acting out years, Claire was one of those the memory of whom has haunted me the longest. The amends I made to her may have been sufficient; it was the best I could offer. But she is one of those who has spurred me not only to change my life, and change it radically, but to be such a public and vehement advocate for banning “consensual” sexual relationships between profs and students.

So, PS, when it comes to the ethics of teachers dating students, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what the ages of the parties involved are. When the person with whom you are getting naked is also the person evaluating your work and your intellectual ability, the potential for crippling self-doubt will always be there.

66 thoughts on ““I can’t trust your praise”: the unintended fallout of professor-student affairs

  1. Seems to me the potential issues are pretty similar to those involved with a manager dating someone who works for them
    (1) Favoritism
    (2) Potential abuse of power/coercion

    But I don’t think it is INHERENTLY abusive or wrong. Personally I would be fine if my classmate dated the professor. If it doesn’t affect my grade, why should I care?

    As an undergraduate my then girlfriend once took a class for which I was the TA (we had been dating for a while). I think I was actually a bit tougher on her than average and she might have complained a bit. But it didn’t affect our overall relationship at all. So I think if both parties act in a mature and professional manner it really shouldn’t be a big deal.

    I guess the problem comes with professors who view their students as sexual targets or students who try to date their professor for a better grade. As usual the immature idiots ruin things for everyone else, thus necessitating all these rules.

  2. Haha, Benny totally summarized the argument I’ve been so carefully making over many comments on many pasts, and he made me laugh too.

    But the reason I’m commenting on this one is that I actually do relate to Claire rather a lot. As I noted on the last post, I used to work as a game writer — a very male-dominated and often sexist field — and I’ll admit that one of the reasons I left was that I was frequently hit on at work events, and often by my superiors. One of those superiors outright told me that he hired me because I was hot.

    But the thing is, I don’t actually think this is a problem of sexual attraction. I think this is a problem of culture. Dudes in the gaming industry actually see nothing wrong with hiring someone because she’s hot, rather than because of actual talent. If I had actually believed that my work hadn’t depended, at least somewhat, on my attractiveness and on the fact that I didn’t slap them across the face when they said crap like that, then all of the attraction in the world would not have been a problem. The problem was not their attraction; it was the way they expressed it and the fact that they were terrible at setting decent boundaries around it, both for their own sakes and for mine.

  3. Here is what I find so striking about the story of your involvement with Claire. This was a grown woman older than you and 32 years old. Perhaps she wanted the relationship; perhaps she wanted an A. Did she feel you coerced her? I think you let her off the hook too easily when she said she couldn’t tell whether she earned those grades and a recommendation because of her ability in the classroom or because she was sleeping with you. There are women who “get over” because “they are pretty;” others (men) act as though it is irrelevant if they are bright, and they seem to like it that way, until all of a sudden they have second thoughts, as Claire seems to have experienced. But it wasn’t a problem when they were getting over big time.

  4. Folks,

    I’m not disputing Claire’s agency. But what she wanted proved ultimately contradictory: she wanted an A that she earned academically, she wanted to get honest feedback on her work, and — at least at the time — she wanted to date me. We both thought that she could have all three without any conflict; what we discovered was that the sexual relationship “poisoned the well”, as it were. It made it impossible for a reasonable person (and Claire was and I assume still is a very reasonable woman) not to have some doubt as to whether the praise for her academic work was entirely deserved. None of us compartmentalize nearly as well as some of us pretend.

    Beauty brings rewards — and it brings liabilities, not least the nagging doubt that one is only valued for one’s looks. If there’s one place that ought to be a refuge from that focus on appearance, it ought to be the classroom. It was my job not only to evaluate my students on their work rather than their sexiness, it was my job to make it apparent to everyone that looks had no bearing on my evaluation.

    Men and women alike have the capacity (if we choose to exercise it) to separate appearance from other aspects of a person’s work and worth. I do so now, I didn’t then, and it was my fault. The fact that Claire was a couple years older than me at the time has damn all to do with it, I think.

  5. Hugo, this is a valid point, certainly. I just want to bring up that it applies to not only sexual relationships. I don’t think any supervisor should be in a position to evaluate the performance of their family members or close friends over others, for the same reason.

    The possible exception might be a small mom-and-pop business that’s been run in the family for years. The word nepotism exists for a reason, though.

    When I was growing up, a handful of my classmates had teachers in our school system. They always arranged not to be in their parents’ classes, and I think it’s for this very reason. If the parent gave the kid good grades, it would seem like favoritism. If the parent gave the kid poor grades, it might seem like overcompensation to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

    Better to just avoid a conflict of interest when you can.

  6. Personally, I’ve never been in a situation where people didn’t behave like “immature idiots”. Ditto for people who cannot, for whatever reason, set decent and appropriate boundaries. Better to avoid any situation which creates a conflict of interest.

    Even in situations where people think they are being discreet co-workers and colleagues can usually pick up relationship undercurrents. In my experience, people are social creatures and for whatever reason often feel compelled to tell others, often burdening them, with their secrets and relationships. So despite thinking that they are being discreet rumors spread and it usually causes a host of problems. Collectively it can cause a lot of divisiveness, tension and conflict ultimately destroying morale.

    We really do need emotionally and intellectually safe zones, where women are valued for their intellect rather than sexuality being at the forefront.

    I’m glad that you wrote about Claire as well as came to the understanding about the very real hurt which resulted from your actions. Kudos to you for realizing it and writing about it as you have with understanding. I find it rather sad that despite your best efforts that there are people who still don’t get it—probably will always be that way.

  7. This. Thank you. This is one of my biggest objections to this kind of relationship. Students deserve to be able to trust feedback from their teachers. When a woman seeks validation from a man, it very often turns sexual, for all kinds of societal reasons, but sometimes having it turn sexual makes it impossible for the woman to get what she actually wanted, and I wish more men would stop and think about that.

    Relationships are complicated, and putting in the effort to make sure that your conduct is ethical is hard, but it’s worth it, and it’s the right thing to do.

  8. It’s been a very interesting week to be a current student of yours and a reader of this blog!. I had not known until now about ur past, and I had not heard the rumors Which is not a big surprise, as I am new to PCC.

    Anyhow, I agree, kudos to u for your commitment to excellent boundaries now. For what it’s worth, I cannot imagine u as anything other than professnal and safe. I am glad that this behavior of yours was a long time ago. If u were dating a classmate of mine now I would feel extremely uncomfortable and would not trust anything u said on the subject of feminism. Perhaps I’m not open-minded enough, or maybe I’m just too naive, but the idea of teachers and students dating horrifies me.

    Thank you for being so honest. I love your class, and glad I can now share the podcasts with family!

  9. You’re asserting too much ownership of the process. You didn’t “rob” your student; the two of you colluded to undermine her need for validation.

    Also, not all of us look to our professors for intellectual validation. Plenty of people take lessons from professors who KNOW MORE than they do, about a specific topic, but who are by no means intellectually superior. Or even at a peer level.

  10. True, Robert, but particularly (though not exclusively) at a community college, professors play a vital role in providing accurate assessment about their students’ academic ability. For someone who has long doubted her talents, to be told that her talents are real is immensely reassuring. To have her told that by someone with whom she has a sexual relationship is, obviously, less so.

    Calliope, I try and strike a balance between discretion (not rehashing the past over and over again with salacious details) and the commitment I have to talking openly about things that simply aren’t talked about. We need to name sexual misconduct for what it is; we need to do away with the excuses that permit that misconduct to flourish. And that requires, sometimes, that some of us tell old stories which may be shocking to a new generation.

  11. Hello Hugo, thanks for another great, thought provoking, piece.

    I teach undergrads, and have, in the past flirted with some of the youg men I teach, but that was in my first year of teaching, before training and any kind of experience. there is no way I would do it now, the I do not see my students in that way, rather they are raw material embedded with hidden diamonds. It is my job to help my students find their gems, and that is all a good teacher should be thinking about: how best to do this for each one. Not how lovely and attractive they are.

    As a teacher you are there to facilitate and push your students’ intelectual capacity, throwing a sexual, or otherwise intimate, relationship into the mix is risking all kinds of complications. It’s not like colleagues dating, there is an inbalance to this relationship, a teacher has a responsibility to a student, rather like a counsellor does. We must stand on the outside of the rest of their lives so they can test themselves impartially, and know what they are capable of, this is what education means, and it is what they are paying us to do, even if most students don’t realise it at the time, we, as paid professionals, should.

  12. I sent you a much longer email – but to comment on this discussion:

    At least from my experience, men within five years of my age have consistently let me down – and as the years progress I’ve found myself drawn to older and older men because they’re settled in life, know a bit better what they want and what they are willing to do to get what they want out of life, and generally are less selfish. Sure – maybe part of what they find desirable about me is that I’m significantly younger than them, and maybe even that I’m “a hot piece” – but why is that a terrible thing if what I find attractive about them is that they’ve finally grown up? Why can’t a mentoring relationship develop in ways that stimulate my intellect and my libido at the same time while not tipping the power-balance scale? Why can’t personal growth and development come at both levels simultaneously?

    And why is it so terrible it needs effuse apology that a man enjoys feeling virile and brilliant as he enhances the intellectual and sexual life of a younger woman surrounded by men her age who don’t know what they want out of life, are still selfish in bed so can’t (or won’t expend the effort to) pleasure her the way she deserves? In many ways, May-December romances can revitalize the lives of both parties involved.

    And – the part I find most offensive after the idea that women in their 20s cannot decide for themselves whether or not the behavior they’re engaging in is self-affirming or self-destructive is the idea that older men only want to be with younger women because they’re stupid. I don’t know how many younger men you interact with – but if you’re a beautiful girl – no matter the age, men will first and foremost notice you for your looks and “fuckability”. And, regardless of age, many will still wish that those looks came with less challenging intellect than an intelligent beautiful woman tends to provide.

    So, for beautiful, intelligent women – a man who is sexually experienced and brilliant enough to challenge her intellectually without being intimidated by her can be the exact man she needs. Whether he’s her age or 30 years older. And to make her feel like that decision is not in her best interests is much more patronizing than the relationship you’re decrying.

  13. Rachel, interesting points on age disperate relationships, but this threadis about student teacher relations and trust, and not age. There are other threads on Hugo’s site on which you canhave this discussion though.

  14. Well – his discussion has been about both sorts of relationships, and the topics have had similar veins of thought. He mentioned that student-professor relationships would be worse when the age gap was larger, that they might not be as bad when women were the older party in the relationship, and this current post still seems to negate the woman’s agency and choice in the relationship – which could easily apply to any sexual relationship a female chooses to engage in, whether with a professor or a peer. So, the comments I’ve made are meant to apply as much to age disparate relationships at they are to student-professor relationships.

    The “power-dynamic” and personal agency are present in both professor-student relatinship arguments as well as relationships with significant age gaps. This current post is so apologetic that “his narcissism” somehow deeply impacted his female students negatively – when, as another commenter noted, she made the choice to sleep with him so her choice impacted her negatively.

    Anyway. My earlier post was in regard to both sorts of relationships, and applies equally to both.

  15. Rachel, I cannot add to what I have already said:we teachers have a professional responsibility to out students, just as counsellors do. We know much more about this than students do, that is why we are teachers and they are students, hence the agency/choice issue being very different to relationships outside of this and similar professional relationships like doctor/patient, counsellor/client.

    If I wanted a relationship with a student I would wait until the individual were no longer my charge, my professional responsibility as it were, and see if things developed then. I’m a woman of 40 and I teach young men and women, and what Hugo says about the student teacher dynamic applies just as well to me as it would to a man of my age. Also, I get male students who obviousy have crushes on me, but that is part of the student teacher dynamic too, I am a safe, distant figure on whom they can project and test, and I in no way want to abuse that position.

    Schools and universities have firm rules about these things for very good reason.

  16. To make it more explicit – the basic premise of my first post was if a woman doesn’t think she can still be enriched by her professor as her mentor, then she shouldn’t engage in consensual sex with him. If a woman thinks it will be enriching, then she should be permitted to pursue a sexual relationship with her professor.

    If she chooses to engage in consensual sex with him, then it’s her choice and shouldn’t be patronized as something only the male-professor “did” to her that he needs to apologize for, nor a decision she’s not capable of, and responsible for, making. That line of logic denies other female students the agency to enter into these relationships that could be incredibly positive for them.

    Everyone is capable of making great decisions and making horrible ones. If a student wants to be with a professor and thinks that she can get the intellectual affirmation she seeks from a professor while sleeping with them – then to deny her that choice and say it’s not rational or valid, or that it’s detrimental in the long run, is unfair and denies her agency in making her own decisions.

    Sure, some women may make a similar choice that is not in her best interests – but that doesn’t mean that student-professor relationships are universally, across the board bad. To deny some women that enrichment because it’s negatively impacted others who shouldn’t have entered into such a relationship is patronizing and infantilizing, to say the least.

  17. At what point are men and women permitted to be rational adults making their own decisions, then, under your and Hugo’s analysis?

  18. ‘At what point are men and women permitted to be rational adults making their own decision, then, under your and Hugo’s analysis?’: When they are over the age of consent, according to me anyhow, I won’t presume to speak for Hugo.

    That is not the issue here, the issue is OUR choices as teachers, as professionals: that is what Hugo and I are talking about. If a teacher thinks a relationship is worth risking the welfare of a student for, then surely it is worth waiting for…

    Also, this is not about ‘women’ students exclusively, or younger students, it is about students perse. There is a 50 year old man on one of my undergraduate courses, and charming tho he is, I would not, under any circumstance, have an affair, or flirtation with him while he is a student. If I were keen, I would wait for graduation. Those are MY choices as a professional who knows and cares about her job, and have nothing to do with anything HE might decide.

  19. Rachel, I understand your point. Many moons ago, when I was an undergraduate, I became infatuated w/one of my professors. My only logical behavior was waiting until I had completed his course (w/an “A” ;-) & was “on my way” [waiting through the summer until I went off to graduate school in the fall] before I hotly pursued him…
    Even in my foolish youth, I understood the moral & ethical fallout for us BOTH if we had our fling while still in our student-&-professor roles.

  20. My response to this as gendered was because much of Hugo’s posts comment on male professor, female students, and he has mentioned previously that he thinks if the genders were reversed it would potentially be less damaging. In this post of Hugo’s he accepts quite a bit of responsibility for the decision he made, but in doing so seems to deny her responsibility in the decision.

    From my reading of your posts, I think you are both stating that these relationships are bad across the board and shouldn’t exist while the student is still in a professor’s class – that professors across the board should agree. If this is just you defending a personal choice of your own – I am sorry for putting you on the defensive. I respect your choice and, to an extent, understand your perspective. But, Hugo is a self-proclaimed “public and vehement advocate for banning “consensual” sexual relationships between profs and students.”

    “Consensual” in quotation marks alone implies that such relationships cannot be consensual. So, please don’t take the intensity of my comments as directed entirely at you. But – at that point, if the relationship were to begin or at least be initiated after the class was concluded, the argument that students could still call into question every positive intellectual interaction would be just as likely if the student was so predisposed to assume physical attraction negated compliments about the student’s intelligence. So, it should be a person by person judgment call – on the part of each party.

    Additionally, your statement: “We know much more about this than students do, that is why we are teachers and they are students” is the premise behind your argument with which I take issue. To tell me you know more about this than me is pretty offensive just because you are a professor and I am not (since you say age of student doesn’t matter). It negates my life experience (which could be so much more or so much less than yours, who knows), in the female capacity, human capacity, minority capacity, class level capacity, student capacity, the student teacher capacity, the professional capacity. It’s patronizing and I refuse to accept that you simply know more than I do about my own well being and position in situations where I am fully aware of a potential risk of power imbalances. Nor do I believe that you know each individual student and their best interests, their purpose in school, their confidence levels, their passions, and their motivations in such relationships.

    In some situations I would agree with you that student-professor relationships are a worrisome, even absent any level of overt coercion (for example, the first few years of college when the students are away from home and parental persuasion for the first time). But in other instances, I would completely disagree (students who are more mature, which I admit is subjective). Which is why I disagree with a blanket policy “disallowing” adult consensual behavior, or blanket condemnation of professors and students who choose to engage in that sort of behavior.

  21. Rachel: I don’t think it is patronising to assume that a fully trained professional who has been in a job for many years has a greater understanding of the dangers of unprofessional conduct in their own profession than would someone with no experience or training in that area. I would not assume to know as much about tv production, for example, as a tv producer, or as much about medicine as a doctor. I think it is slightly naive to pressume that a student would have as much understanding of the education process as an experienced teacher. I am sorry you took what I said in that way, it was not meant to be personal. I have no idea of your profession (you could have been a teacher for all I know), but am sure you are far more knowledgable about it than I am, and could inform me about it in the same way Hugo and I can inform you about our profession: teaching. I’m afraid teachers, or at least those worth their salt, do know much more about the student/teacher dynamic and the education process than students, that is what we have training for, and that is how we avoid getting the sack.

    ALL universities and schools have this rule, it is not just my personal opinion. Educators with years of training and experience have come to the conclusion that student – teacher relationships are potentially very hazzardous for the student. Are you so passionate and defensive about counsellor/ client relationships?

  22. Val – thanks for pointing that out. I’m not trying to deny that there is a potential for fallout. I just don’t think there should be such a risk when grades are independently justifiable and the class is not discussed outside of regularly scheduled class time and office hours. And, as far as I am aware, enforcement of school policies is more lax when the situation is as benign as described in my previous statement. But – clearly, precautions for propriety would be in order. And, waiting would clearly be the easiest path to take, with the least amount of risk.

    Matey- I did not mean to profess that I understand the student-teacher dynamic as well as someone who has lived the professor role and the student role, so is more aware of both sides. But I continue to disagree that students across the board cannot be enriched by such relationships, thus justifying a universal ban.

    I know all schools have these policies – but not all enforce them blanketly – they tend to examine situations on a case by case basis, and not all professors believe the rule is anything but patronizing. That is similar to lawyer-client relationships – it’s unethical, but a lawyer is unlikely to be disbarred for sleeping with his/her client absent any evidence of gross misconduct regarding the case for which the lawyer represents the client.

    I personally believe that counsellor-patient relationships are different because a patient is seeking psychological assistance from a counselor, entering the counselor’s office admitting their own suspicion of their personal judgment/soundness of mind at the moment. Additionally, a patient divulges the most intimate details to a counselor putting them in a unique position to be manipulated and taken advantage of.

    While it requires good judgment, some students can approach professors in office hours where conversations turn to getting to know one another in an organic way much like peers in study groups. (Of course, that is not true in every instance.) There’s less “taking advantage” of a student who rationally decides to enter into such a relationship, as opposed to a patient entering the relationship with his/her counselor looking for help sorting out their emotions and thought process.

    But, maybe we just disagree on that distinction.

  23. In my experience, the teacher/student relationship is very much like that of the counsellor and client. We are not just there to pour knowledge into to an empty vessel, we are employed to develop individuals and emotions and psychological development is very much part of that. If a teacher gets involved with a student, the dynamic between her and all of her students is altered, she becomes a very different figure in the lives of her students. It is not just about ‘taking advantage’ of a particular student. If you ever decide to become a teacher and go through the relevant training, you may change you view of this.

    Yes, some schools and unis are lax about enforcing this rule (my old school for one), and other rules such as proper moderation of essays, class numbers and union agreed pay for teachers, but that doesn’t make it, or any of the other rules that are sometimes ignored, any less relevant.

  24. My perspective might in fact change if I am ever in the professor role, that is true. But as of now, I’m skeptical. Thanks for talking it through with me.

  25. I’m sorry that I don’t have time to weigh into this discussion more fully. I do want to reiterate a couple of points I’ve made elsewhere:

    1. I think that while the danger of a power differential might well be present in a relationship between a teacher and his/her former student, I don’t think it’s appropriate for a university to police that — banning sexual relationships between a supervising professor and a student whose grades he or she is responsible for seems sufficient.

    2. I think that when it comes to the older man/younger woman dynamic (only tangentially related to this discussion), the age gap is less important than the maturity of the younger woman involved. A ten year gap is tremendously significant between an 18 and 28 year-old; much less so between a 25 and 35 year-old. My concern is primarily for women in their teens and early twenties.

    3. Rachel, I don’t mean you personally — but I do think that one of the hallmarks of this discussion is that the predatory are quite willing to flatter the vulnerable by appealing to their sense of agency. “You’re old enough to know what you want, why should you care what anyone else thinks?” — that’s a line that a great many abusive older men have used, cleverly playing on a young woman’s own sense that she is more mature than in her peers. I dealt with that phenomenon at length in this post:

    http://hugoschwyzer.net/2006/11/07/older-men-younger-women-5-self-deception-and-agency/

    And lastly, I believe that there are exceptions to every rule. But we tend to exaggerate the number of exceptions, and our fear of appearing prudish or censorious tends, often, to trump our responsibility to protect those who are, despite their eloquent protestations to the contrary, still vulnerable.

  26. 1. I know this was a brief response and that you may respond in more detail later – if that’s the case, I wonder if you feel the same way when the grading system is “blind” – where the professor has no idea whose paper s/he is grading, and the professor and student do not engage in extra class discussion/assistance outside class time and office hours that are afforded equally to every other student in the class. Basically, when they discuss their situation and decide to engage in a responsible adult relationship given their academic situation.

    2. I agree about the teens and early twenties analysis – that a student under 20-22 is likely to be more easily influenced and manipulated, or unclear of the power dynamic and its potential consequences. But so long as a relationship isn’t overtly exploitative (ie: sex for grades) I don’t agree that it’s significantly more damaging than another poorly chosen relationship on her part.

    3. Even if it’s manipulation that lets her feel like the relationship was a mature decision she made for herself – if she made the decision, then it was a choice she is ultimately accountable for and should grow from – she should be taught to think through her choices and then hold herself accountable for them – not others. Much like males are held accountable for their decisions. Much like any other poor choices students have made in the romance/sex department are ultimately their responsibility. I’ll try not to devolve into the age gap commentary since it’s not responsive to this blog post, and that blog is closed to comments.

    Lastly – even if there are as few exceptions as you seem to believe – this line of thought still creates a situation where women of age are told what they should and should not do with their sexuality — something men are largely not subjected to. In reading the post you linked me to, a number of women posted and disagreed with you about past relationships with older men. I believe that you are not accurate about at least some of the current group of 20 somethings engaging in relationships with older partners.

    To the extent it’s a terrible decision to engage with a professor, then it’s a terrible decision. To the extent that it was a wonderful decision, then more power to her for making that decision despite everyone telling her she shouldn’t have because it wasn’t in her best interests – because she knows herself better than a committee making rules essentializing her into their conception of “young women”. You responded earlier that experience is not always something we learn from – but I think that’s dodging the issue here.

  27. women of age are told what they should and should not do with their sexuality — something men are largely not subjected to

    Er, isn’t telling professors “don’t fuck your students, k?” telling men (and, for that matter, women) of age what they should and should not do with their sexuality? I thought the idea that boundaries = oppression went out with wife-swapping.

  28. “In my experience, the teacher/student relationship is very much like that of the counsellor and client. We are not just there to pour knowledge into to an empty vessel, we are employed to develop individuals and emotions and psychological development is very much part of that.”

    With small and intimate class sizes this is likely much more of a truism than with class sizes of say, over 75. And anyone that has been in almost any science class with over forty students would probably have a slightly fevered and different opinion as to the amount and quality of emotional and psychological development on offer. ;-)

    Rachel, I like almost everything that you have to say here and, I’ll restate, I’m not advocating for or against professor/student relationships, but I do feel that the responsibility for any relationship that takes place is that of both parties. The responsibility for manipulating any given student is, obviously, that of the professor alone, but that also speaks to a wider question of personal morality and behaviour as, like it or not, all relationships have some elements of manipulation.

    Trying to determine at what age someone is ably mature enough to decide when, how, and where to engage in a sexual relationship with any other person is an issue that bedevils us all as friends, confidantes, teachers, parents, in whatever sphere we inhabit. Yes, the professor/student dynamic is rife with the potential for abuse, but by both parties. The sex for grades issue can cut both ways too.

    Hugo, I like the points you have reiterated too, although I’m not so sure about the exceptions to the rule you cite. It seems just as likely, given the human proclivity for sex, that many professor/student sexual relationships that have happy or ‘neutral’ outcomes simply slide under the radar; of course bad ones too. I also think that the statement regarding prudishness and censorship is a little overeaching. I’ve seen little evidence of folks holding their tongues, or opinions, when it comes to deciding for others when, where and with whom sex is appropriate or not. And specially in academe, where voicing ones opinion is largely encouraged, I be willing to bet that anyone with even a vestigial concience is more likely than not to speak out, if/when asked, if they are witness to an abusive/manipulative relationship between a faculty member and a student.

  29. Pounding Sand,

    In one of your other responses you state that Claire may have had unstated expectations in the relationship. We base a lot in life on expectations of certain behavior by others in given situations. That’s part of the reason life’s details don’t overwhelm us. We use expectations as a guide to predicting behavior of people around us. Otherwise we’d have to figure out every situation we encountered every minute of every day!

    One of my “unstated expectations” was that I had hoped that my professors would behave both professionally and ethically with their main goal as helping me to achieve my educational goals, etc. I also desired a relationship where I could trust them to evaluate my work, intellectual ability and to maintain professional and appropriate boundaries. I didn’t bargain for them trying to sexualize the relationship with manipulative ploys and power plays.

    I was NOT seeking a sexual relationship nor did I feel that I would be enriched by one either. I wasn’t seeking their validation of my sexual desirability as a woman either. What I did desire and needed was a professional academic relationship where my sexuality was NOT at the forefront and where it wouldn’t INTRUDE or be IMPOSED! I desired a more professional and trusting environment, which unfortunately I didn’t find.

    I did not view myself as lacking in maturity or openess either because I didn’t want a sexual relationship with a professor. In fact, I found it pretty manipulative, selfish and downright creepy on their part to act out sexuality towards me and I resented their attempts to sexualize the relationship. I resented their behaviors, being placed in that position and saw it as a manipulative power play. It created a very stressful environment for me and detracted from my academic life and didn’t enrich it.

    Just like Rachel I often felt that guys my own age were selfish, inconsiderate and immature. However, I find this true of older men too—the only difference being that they were much more adept at manipulating situations to their favor and masking their motives. I didn’t view them as being capable of any more honesty than anyone else, just more sophisticated in masking their aggression and in their arguments and objections and, especially in turning situations around to get what they want.

    I would have appreciated appropriate boundaries and a means (policies) of being able to take corrective action against offending professors.

    “And specially in academe, where voicing ones opinion is largely encouraged, I be willing to bet that anyone with even a vestigial concience is more likely than not to speak out, if/when asked, if they are witness to an abusive/manipulative relationship between a faculty member and a student.”

    I also didn’t find the above to be true in my situation or in any group situation where people don’t like a dissenting opinion.

  30. Hugo,

    “…but I do think that one of the hallmarks of this discussion is that the predatory are quite willing to flatter the vulnerable by appealing to their sense of agency. “You’re old enough to know what you want, why should you care what anyone else thinks?” — that’s a line that a great many abusive older men have used, cleverly playing on a young woman’s own sense that she is more mature than in her peers.”

    I tend to agree with the above observation. I heard it repeatedly and every variation of it and there were many. They were just more slick, subtle and underhanded in their attempts to get what they want and deceptive enough to hide their true intentions.

    “And lastly, I believe that there are exceptions to every rule. But we tend to exaggerate the number of exceptions, and our fear of appearing prudish or censorious tends, often, to trump our responsibility to protect those who are, despite their eloquent protestations to the contrary, still vulnerable.”

    That was another control tactic that I often heard too—someone trying to frame me as prudish or censorious, when they were intrusive and manipulative. Some people have a pretty slick repertoire of tactics to get others to do what they want… I didn’t view myself as vulnerable, with the exception that I didn’t really have people to turn too for help and the people I did turn too were dismissive.

    I still agree with your general assessment and awareness. I think it important to have policies in place that protect the rights of others. Aggressive people tend to do what they want anyway without regard for others and they’ll resist changing their attitudes and core beliefs. They are who they are and are comfortable with their behavior patterns, even though who they are and how they act might bother others a lot. It’s far more important for them to achieve their ends by managing their impression of you while manipulating others to get what they want.

    I appreciate your post.

  31. Pounding Sand: One of the premier funtions of a counsellor is to act as the teddy bear in the room. Any animation or interaction comes after this. Teachers function in a similar way. I teach a group of 100 students and I feel just as responsible for their welfare and what they pick up from me as a person as I do when I teach a grooup of 15.

    There are many students I have guided into co-operating, into having faith in themselves and into freeing themselves enough from the belief systems they came to uni with to be able to engage independently with a subject. Education is about way more than acquiring a set facts.

    I agree that in a relationship both parties are responsible. It should be th tacher who makes this choice for themselves as a professional. A few months or even years is not long to wait for the right person.

  32. Matey.

    “Teachers function in a similar way. I teach a group of 100 students and I feel just as responsible for their welfare and what they pick up from me as a person as I do when I teach a grooup of 15.”

    Sorry to offend. Blame my poor sense of humor, and even poorer memories of intensely focused classes where the object of more than one of my professors was indeed to pour knowledge into us empty vessels.

    “I agree that in a relationship both parties are responsible. It should be th tacher who makes this choice for themselves as a professional. A few months or even years is not long to wait for the right person.”

    I completely agree. This statement illustrates the difference between ‘those who will, and those who won’t’. There will always be rule breakers, in fact I have no doubt that all of us break some rule of employment, be it major or minor one, on a weekly if not daily basis. My point was more that it is a personal decision to maintain whatever boundaries between professor and student, and that trying to legislate this behaviour is not really an effective, or necessarily desirable, way to make folks toe the line. Also, a blanket rule does not allow,and this would be true of both good and bad p/s interaction, for considered relationships on either side. And as someone pointed out earlier there are sometimes exigencies that demand immediate action, and that do not allow for the luxury of waiting for the right person to be in a position where they would be ‘legally’ available. Again, I’m not advocating for or against, but I don’t presume to know what circumstances prevail in any student or professors lives.

    This point Rachel makes very well..

    “2. I agree about the teens and early twenties analysis – that a student under 20-22 is likely to be more easily influenced and manipulated, or unclear of the power dynamic and its potential consequences. But so long as a relationship isn’t overtly exploitative (ie: sex for grades) I don’t agree that it’s significantly more damaging than another poorly chosen relationship on her part.”

    Perhaps a prohibition on p/s relationships for freshmen, juniors and sophomores up to the age of ‘college consent’(whatever that may be), would work in some degree to mitigate the issue. One other point is that while uni is an environment where there should be some protections for all students, it’s also a place where learning about other parts of life, fair and unfair, occurs, and where one should also be learning how best to make sane, thoughtful, well considered decisions, and to take responsibility for them. One cannot develop any of those skills in a vacuum of only ‘proper’ behaviour that is determined by an outside party. To a significant degree this is how, when and where we learn become adults. Light is the left hand of darkness.

  33. Perhaps a prohibition on p/s relationships for freshmen, juniors and sophomores up to the age of ‘college consent’(whatever that may be), would work in some degree to mitigate the issue.

    Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. Either students are adults and able to make their own decisions, in which case a sophomore is just as culpable as an MA candidate, or we don’t want professors hitting on their students, in which case age is irrelevant.

    It’s not about the individual student. It’s about preventing coercion and the abuse of power by the professor who, no matter how mature and well-meaning everybody is, does have enormous institutional power over his or her students.

  34. mythago, don’t be sorry, because of course you can have it both ways, it all depends on what you want to get accomplished and what you’re willing to do to reach the stated goal.

    I didn’t say that rules governing teacher conduct couldn’t/shouldn’t be instituted, I said that I didn’t think it was necessarily the right way to get the best, or fairest, result for all parties concerned. Further, the issue of age is one that almost everyone here, including Hugo, seems to agree is more of(but not the only one), an issue when the student is in their teens or early twenties, or if there is a significant age gap between the protagonists. So clearly an MA candidate may be in a very different state of mind and emotional development if in fact they are older. And yes, it’s about preventing coercion and abuse of power, but it should also be about the individual student as she has rights too. So, they are in fact adults, or they aren’t.

    I’m simply asking how does one preserve the right of a woman to sleep with whomever she wants to, whenever she wants to, while at the same time protecting the rights of a woman to not be coerced into, or in, a relationship that she does not want any part of. I haven’t heard the ‘best’ answer yet, and I’m sure that I don’t necessarily know what it is, nevertheless banning all p/s sexual encounters doesn’t, on the face of things, sound like the most equitable solution; altough that prohibition certainly is the easiest to entertain, and maybe that is enough for now. How and when a better solution is developed may depend on how and when, or at what age, we start to stop protecting women from themselves.

    OK, that last remark is inflammatory, but not unimportant.

  35. the right of a woman to sleep with whomever she wants to, whenever she wants to

    I thought we were talking about students and professors, and not assuming the rules shouldn’t apply if they’re male and female respectively. But –

    Women have the right to sleep with whoever, whenever they want? You can’t possibly believe such a right exists. I hope I don’t have to explain why the assertion that anybody has a right to ‘sleep with whoever, whenever’ is ridiculous.

    Banning professors from having romantic/sexual relationships with their students absolutely is equitable. It limits the professor’s behavior. Nobody is talking about disciplining a student for asking her professor on a date (unless the behavior crosses into sexual harassment, in which case it’s simply a case of sexual harassment). It’s not about protecting women from themselves; it’s about protecting students from predatory professors.

  36. Rachel – there’s enough of a risk of behavior ranging from “predatory” to “just plain stupid”, and really no downside, that it makes a great deal of sense to place restrictions on people with institutional power having romantic/sexual relationships over those in their jurisdiction.

    If you fall in love with your professor, you can, after all, remove yourself from his/her jurisdiction (quit the class, change majors, transfer to a different college) or your professor can do the same, and then there’s no problem. But it’s selfish and rather goes against your portrayal of yourself as ‘mature and able to handle it’ to suggest that because you find older professor types more attractive than your student peers, it’s mean and condescending for anyone to suggest that perhaps it’s not the best idea to return to the Bad Old Days when screwing your students was a perk of tenure.

  37. This isn’t about me trying to justify behavior I wish I could engage in, that was a cheap shot. I included information about myself to contextualize a situation where a student may actually seek out such a relationship to illustrate the fact that they’re not always prey. And, I’m not so arrogant as to think I’m the only one capable of weighing out situations and making constructive decisions, so I’m also putting myself out there to posit an alternative to the picture of students many of you are painting. I personally am aware of power dynamics, have taken a class on it, read literature on it, had many dialogues about it, and would factor that into my decision making calculus. I’m clearly not the only student who’s capable of doing that, so to say that students are just unable isn’t fair, it denies agency and rational ability – give us a little credit. It is patronizing – though I don’t think I would choose to describe it as “mean”.

    I don’t like the creation of the student as someone unable to understand situations and respond appropriately – or being given the benefit of the doubt that they should be treated like adults. Especially since we’re saying this is problematic no matter the students’ age or life experience, even when the student is older than the professor. Surely if the situation switched to predatory it should be reported and proper recourse should be sought. And, luckily for the student, there IS recourse against his/her professor – whereas her/his horrible choice to sleep with that fourth year student who’s captain of a club or team, a tutor, or is just has little regard for his/her sexual partners – is all on the student, with absolutely no recourse.

    The emphasis would be more constructive if it was on teaching students to think through their decisions, weigh the pros and cons, and remain aware that, ultimately, they’re responsible for their adult decisions; that they can’t pass the buck on the other people involved in those decisions.

    We make choices everyday, we should be allowed to make those choices without being told we’re incapable because we’re not mature enough. It can limit students’ ability to develop the intellectual process to make decisions for which they will ultimately be held accountable. It limits the maturation process, infantilizing students as the victims, the “acted upon” vs the “actors” and denies them agency and rational thinking.

    And while so many people are saying “this applies to male AND female students” – the overwhelming public sentiment is that male professors are predators of female students – “the lecherous professor” is rarely considered female. I think it’s even more problematic not to allow female students sexual agency and the responsibility for their decisions. We can’t treat them like children forever – and it’s not feminist to deny them the right to at least claim agency and attempt to live their lives on their own terms.

  38. Rachel, you keep fixating on the student’s agency and maturity. It’s not about the student. It’s about the person who has the institutional power and the ability to abuse that power, and about making sure that the relationship of the supervisor to the supervised is an appropriate relationship. Especially when the ability of a student to report and seek redress for predatory behavior (interesting that you use the passive voice there, by the way) is going to be hampered when the reported person is someone who has power over them, and who may even have the ability to interfere in the process of redress.

    “The lecherous professor is rarely considered female” because historically, as in many professions, university positions have been overwhelmingly a male domain and in a time when the idea of female subordinates being fair game was the norm. That of course is changing. The stereotype certainly isn’t a good basis for you to keep steering this discussion away from one about professors and students to one you’re more comfortable with, where it’s all about picking on females.

    Perhaps I’m a bit slow, but I’m missing how “professors should keep their hands off their students” leads inexorably to “treating women like children forever and denying them to right to live their lives on their own terms”. I may have been oblivious at the time, but rules about sleeping with students never made me feel like a child when I was in college. I also never felt that because if I made a pass at a TA, he would have had to say “Sorry, but not while you’re in my section”, that I was being forbidden to live my life on my own terms.

  39. I fail to see how these rules are horribly restrictive of women at college. When a guy I was already seeing wanted to TA the same class I wanted to take, it was easy enough to arrange that I wouldn’t be in his section. When a TA wanted to ask me out, it wasn’t that burdensome for him to wait till I was no longer in his class.

    The people I knew who had professors hitting on them while they were in their classes, on the other hand, didn’t appreciate having to fend off the advances, and wanted the protection. And a straightforward “don’t date anyone you’re teaching” rule seems easier for professors to follow than a “feel free to date people you’re teaching, but we may come down on you if the woman you’ve approached feels your approach is predatory” rule, given that, frankly, people in positions of authority just aren’t that great at figuring out when their approaches will be out of line, if they aren’t given hard and fast rules.

    And it’s the business of colleges to provide an acceptable teaching environment, not to maximize their students’ dating opportunities. They shouldn’t, of course, be getting in the way of students in an in loco parentis fashion, when the dating has nothing to do with the classes, but if we’re talking about advances by professors that interfere with a good teaching environment, well, concern for the teaching environment trumps.

  40. My school has a blanket policy that staff, ALL staff, cannot date students at the school. I think it’s a good policy, and because of where I work, it’s also a huge liability safeguard for the school as well. Know who else I can’t date? Anyone I supervise directly or who supervises me. For the SAME reason that professors can’t date students.

    Considering that most schools also have “in loco parentis” policies, I’d argue that that policy is MUCH more dismissive of the concepts of “students-as-adults who can make their own decisions.”

  41. I admit, the angle of my criticism is not all-encompassing, but that doesn’t diminish the agency criticism (with a feminist angle, yes) I’m making, just because it doesn’t address every other possible criticism or applause that might also be applicable.

    “Professors should keep their hands off their students” leads to “treating women (and men if the student is male) like children” when argued in the way this post and its comments have argued it – when the justifications are that a student who is of age can’t handle it, and the professor should know better, which means the relationship could never have been consensual because it was inherently manipulative. I’ve spent numerous paragraphs pointing out where I’m coming from on that.

    Clearly, this is an issue we won’t all be agreeing on, so I am going to stop engaging now.

  42. Tsk. If you want to stop engaging, the way to stop engaging is to say “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree,” not “let me get in the last word and then I’ll decide we all have to shut up.”

    Lynn, exactly. Why create a situation that frankly encourages predators?

  43. “Tsk. If you want to stop engaging, the way to stop engaging is to say “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree,” not “let me get in the last word and then I’ll decide we all have to shut up.”

    Quite.

  44. Pounding Sand:

    Matey.

    “Teachers function in a similar way. I teach a group of 100 students and I feel just as responsible for their welfare and what they pick up from me as a person as I do when I teach a grooup of 15.”

    Sorry to offend. Blame my poor sense of humor, and even poorer memories of intensely focused classes where the object of more than one of my professors was indeed to pour knowledge into us empty vessels.

    In that case, I’d be much more annoyed about the poor standard of teaching on your undergrad courses than about your right not to wait to date a professor during your time as his/her charge. If you ever become a teacher, or do any teacher training you will understand why the teaching approach you describe is so very, very wrong.

  45. matey:

    “In that case, I’d be much more annoyed about the poor standard of teaching on your undergrad courses than about your right not to wait to date a professor during your time as his/her charge. If you ever become a teacher, or do any teacher training you will understand why the teaching approach you describe is so very, very wrong.”

    From my albeit limited, but lengthy, experience the ‘fill the empty vessel’ approach is all too common a method of teaching in many colleges. I’m not, nor have ever been, annoyed by my educational experiences in school but I do wish that in some respects they could have been different. Neither was I relating any personal experience of wanting, or being denied, a relationship with a teacher.

    Outside of academia I have taught various things to various folks as a paid professional, and while I would allow that me dating any one of my students, or they trying to date me, would in all likelihood be a very poor decision to make one or both parts, I would still defend the right of any student to approach a teacher, and if the circumstances were appealing enough to both parties, the freedom of both to enjoy whatever relationship they cared to muster, as well as wishing them the good fortune and adult maturity to handle the consequences appropriately.

    I have not condoned or defended a teachers decision to approach a student who was under their supervision.

  46. Pounding Sand
    ‘[Teaching] various things to various people as a paid professional’ hmmmm…. that’s a vague statement. You mean as a managaer? A colleague? A lover? A foster carer? Or as a paid, professional teacher? Because these circumstance differ greatly. But whatever the case, I find it patronising that someone with little experience and no training in my field assumes a greater expertise in the area than my own.

    I do not question a student’s right to approach a teacher, as I have already repeated several times, that is absolutley not the issue.

    I find it very difficult to understand why a teacher’s professional requirment to wait a few weeks or months is seen as such a terrible strain on the civil liberty of either party. Especially when the consequences of student/teacher relationships reverberate much further than their own, personal, experiences.

  47. Oh, also for Pounding Sand,

    From your last post, I’m getting the idea that you think student/teacher relationships are ok so long as the student apporaches the teacher, is that right? It would be impossible to judge who apporached who, in any given relationship, and, therefore, impossible to apply a boundary which would prevent teachers approaching students, and leave students and staff knowing where they stand on the matter. A blanket rule eases confusion, and a few weeks, or months at most, is not long to wait.

  48. Matey, for just one second try not to be so defensive. Nowhere did I equate my experiences teaching with yours as a professional educator, nor have I claimed a greater expertise. The last time I looked we were discussing differing opinions. (My being vague is not a license for sarcasm, imputation or speculation on your part). And in any event it doesn’t really matter. The premise of the debate entails the teachers position being a supervisory one and providing for an inequality of status. So “No”, it wouldn’t be a “collegue”, or “foster carer” or, as much as my Walter Mitty-an other might consider, a “lover”.

    You don’t see the potential for difficulties if people have to wait to consumate their relationships…….but that does not mean that difficulties may not exist or that there would be other exigencies or repercussions. The issue for me is whether or not *all* s/p relationships should be covered by the same basic rule. A rule that has no consideration of those who are engaged in equitable, mutually satisfying, non toxic, *adult* relationships.

  49. matey:

    “From your last post, I’m getting the idea that you think student/teacher relationships are ok so long as the student apporaches the teacher, is that right?”

    I think that it depends. Much, if not all, of this has been discussed already.

  50. Sorry you were so offended Pounding Sand, I thought, from your previous posts, in response to me, that you were up for a bit of banter and humour, I was teasing you (as you have teased me about my professional knowledge), please don’t take it to heart so much. I thought, with your assertion that you had experience of ‘teaching’, that you were responding to my oobservation that, with experience in the profession you would almost certainly see this issue differently. I can see no other reason for you to make that assertion.

    The vageries that you describe in what may or may not be ok in a student teacher relationship make bespoke rules for each relationship impossible. The blanket rule is there to protect the welfare of all students (and teachers against sexual harasment laws suits etc). As you are not a teacher, or a student, I really can’t see any point in spending my energy explaining this any further, so I’m off to do something more worthwhile. Good luck!

  51. “Lynn, exactly. Why create a situation that frankly encourages predators?”

    Exactly. They need no encouragement. If they want something they’ll find a way to manipulate a favorable outcome or to bend and break the rules all predicated on their desires.

    “I fail to see how these rules are horribly restrictive of women at college.”

    Ditto. I fail to see it too. And I don’t get the fixation on student’s agency and maturity other than how it’s presented comes off sounding rather selfish and immature.

    “The people I knew who had professors hitting on them while they were in their classes, on the other hand, didn’t appreciate having to fend off the advances, and wanted the protection.”

    EXACTLY. I agree wholeheartedly and this was precisely the point which I was trying to make. These rules don’t/didn’t make me feel like a child or that I was being forbidden to live my life on my own term either, etc. It did/does place the focus on education, which I see as having a positive outcome.

    “And it’s the business of colleges to provide an acceptable teaching environment, not to maximize their students’ dating opportunities.” Agree again…

    “Perhaps I’m a bit slow…” HARDLY….Maybe just slow on making your presence known sooner.

  52. And what is striking is that what might be seen as mutually satisfying and equitable today, might become in the future, through the eyes of the student, something else. It is not uncommon for a student to bring a suit a few years after the class has ended, and even after graduation, once the student is out of the class and experiences a different perspective. As a matter of fact, or out of school. Our school recognizes that in its policy.

    Thus, a sexual harassment lawsuit could arise. It is not infeasible as well that someone could get into a “fatal attraction” type of mess, and thus put professional reputation and everything else at stake. These type of cases always result in a “student says/professor says” kind of mess, and the professor might not easily hide behind the “well it was consensual/the student wanted it” type of thing.

    Greater power leads to greater responsibility and in the eyes of many, greater culpability! Is it really worth it? It is a given that faculty should not go there. If the student pushes it notwithstanding the rules, I would wonder if there was some sort of obsession going on.

    As for potential difficulties if “things are not consummated,” that sounds like a line from a romance novel. Will the world end, will the person pine away? Never find another chance for love or a relationship????

  53. Out of curiosity – and this may have been answered before – but what if the professor one is attracted to is no longer the person’s professor? In fact, what if the professor teaches in a completely different area of study than the person attracted to them? Although they both belong to the same university, is it still equally wrong to be involved?

    And separate but still wondering: is it ever possible that a young woman could merely be attracted to a much older man simply because he is extremely good looking? I know a lot has been discussed about men taking advantage of younger women and the women only being attracted to the men because of their power, demeanor in the classroom, etc. but isn’t it also possible that a young woman simply has a more animalistic desire to be near a good looking, sophisticated man she’s taken note of?

    I would love to hear someone else’s thoughts on this.

  54. A.P. – when you phrase something as ‘is it ever possible’ you’re begging the question, but I think you knew that.

  55. Indeed, A.P. There’s a difference, I think, between unwise and unethical. It is unethical and never appropriate for a teacher to date or sleep with a currently-enrolled student, regardless of age or gender identity. It is unwise, but not unethical, for a professor to date a former student who is substantially younger than himself or herself and is still a student on the campus. Perceptions matter.

    As for young people being sexually attracted to older faculty, happens all the time. As I’ve written, it’s usually (not always) about something other than sex — it’s a sexualized response to something more profound. See the student crushes archive for more.

  56. I’m waiting to see if MsCitrus will take you up on her offer to explain in one of these newly re-opened posts her reasons for calling you a “rapist”. I agree with you that your relationships with students were deeply unethical, and appreciate that you cop to the harm yu did in a post like this one.

    As someone who was raped many years ago, I hate the misuse of the term rape. To call you a rapist for something that was manipulative and wrong but clearly with consenting adults who were roughly your age makes me wonder what to call the asshole who climbed on top of me at a sleepover in high school and forced himself on and into me while I held still not wanting to wake up his sister, my best friend. I bled, I cried, I was scared I was pregnant, I hated men and myself for a long time. That’s rape. Calling what you did by the same name diminishes the power of the word and does violence to what happened to me.

    But perhaps you could say more about how you see it, and why you think it was unethical but not rape. How did your institutional power make it hard for the women’s “yesses” to be with you to be authentic? Who was the initiator in these scenarios?
    Since you’re opening up Pandora’s box anyway…

  57. Geni, the ball is in MsCitrus’ court, as it were.

    I share with you the dislike of an over-broad use of the term rape.

    I honestly don’t remember how many students I was involved with sexually between 1995 and 1998; probably somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen to twenty. A few of these relationships did turn romantic, while most were primarily sexual. Most of those involved were slightly younger than I was (the average age of PCC students is much older than traditional four-year college students) and one was older. A few were several years younger, though of course all were legal adults.

    Some pursued me, I pursued others. Those with whom i did initiate were those whom I strongly suspected of having a crush on me; I took unethical and irresponsible advantage of that, a danger I’ve weighed in strongly against.
    Beyond this, details aren’t helpful. I’ve been very candid in the past, but there is a limit. I have my wife and my daughter to think of, as well as the women with whom I was involved themselves.

    Everyone said yes. But the yesses in some instances may well have been coerced by the power imbalance. Hence the deeply exploitative nature of what I did. Even for those who pursued me, who were fulfilling a fantasy they had about fucking a professor, the emotional fallout was sometimes different and darker than they had imagined. I owed it to them to affirm and redirect those crushes, and I didn’t, not then. I deeply regret that and am very sorry.

    The behavior has stopped. It stopped not because I was caught, but because I hit rock bottom with my drinking and using and tried to kill myself. Surviving a suicide attempt (barely), I was released from a hospital with a commitment to sobriety and transformation. I went through a period of celibacy, and in the cold hard light of day, saw what I had been doing with students as profoundly unethical and irresponsible. Should I have been fired? Perhaps, though what I was doing was technically not against college policy. (Something that, as I’ve written before, I helped redress.)

    I brought my behavior to the attention of the college authorities, making amends to as many of the women involved as I could and then also to the president, the dean of human resources, the vice-president for academic affairs, and a member of the board of trustees. I talked to my colleagues. I told the feminist club on campus in an emotional meeting in the fall of 1999 that I will never forget as long as I live. I heard a lot of anger, a lot of disappointment, got a lot of eye-rolling.

    I rebuilt trust in the community slowly. Some of the amends I needed to make to the women involved took years to make, some were finished only very recently, while others (as I’ve blogged) were cheerfully dismissive of my attempt to apologize, citing their own enthusiastic agency. Some felt used, others felt as if they had enjoyed themselves thoroughly. Some still are hostile, with justification, towards me — others, I am told, think of our time together quite fondly. I don’t spend a lot of time checking in, however, with these figures from my past.

    I do more good in (and out) the classroom by copping to what I was openly and candidly then I would ever do by resigning.

  58. I’m sorry I’m so late reading and responding to this, Hugo, thank you.

    I had no idea it was as many as twenty, I thought it was more in the range of perhaps five or six. Did you have a serious relationship with any of them? Did you yourself ever fall in love?

    Do you ever worry you could have a relapse with a student?

    I’m just so terribly curious. I’m also really glad you’ve changed and been open about those changes. Thank you.

  59. Since this subject is still open: how would you want a student to handle it if s/he was attracted to you or if you guys had sexual tension? Would you want him/her to acknowledge their feelings to dispel awkwardness or pretend it didn’t exist?

    Would you mentor someone or be mentored by someone with whom there was a strong, mutual or non-mutual attraction?

  60. It’s funny, I opened this up for MsCitrus but she seems uninterested. Probably for the best.

    Geni: Yes, I fell in love with one of the students with whom I had an affair. She was the last student I slept with. She had a fantasy about a professor, and while I was initially only drawn to her sexually, I fell hard for her. She liked fulfilling the fantasy, but found me (rightly so, considering the state I was in) needy and compulsive and not what she’d expected. She told me, when she dumped me after a few weeks of passion and nuttiness: “I had you on such a pedestal. I wanted you so much. You were so different than anyone I’d ever met. And now you turn out to be just another man. I am very disappointed.” That stung, of course, in its truth.

    FWC:

    In general, I don’t think it’s a great idea for folks to confess their attractions to people who are already in monogamous relationships, as I’ve written in this post. In certain instances, it might be appropriate to be honest about the feelings and, if necessary, a mentee and I could talk about them together, the “affirm and redirect”. If a mentee’s attraction to me became impossibly burdensome to him or her, I’d suggest gently that they seek out someone else, and I’d work to get them hooked up with someone else for mentoring. That isn’t often. Usually, the crushes dissipate and turn into something better, a warm trust.

    I have a good sense of boundaries these days. I’m not cocky; the possibility of being attracted to someone I work with, despite my marriage and my public pronouncements, is always real. But I’m pretty good at this point at redirecting my own feelings. A few times, I’ve had to pray the prayer I wrote about here: “God, show me my role in this person’s life. Help me to see her as you see her, not as I am seeing her now.” That hasn’t failed me in a very long time. But I’m ready to use it; even the best monogamous marriages are not impervious to external temptation, and I’m ready to meet those temptations should they come.

    As I’ve written before, I have a history of bisexual behavior. When it comes to attraction, I don’t have a “type.” So excluding one class of people ain’t gonna work. What I do is practice, through restriction and through reflection the work of being what I call “Eira-sexual”, channeling my erotic energy towards my spouse. If I’m doing my job, and staying accountable to my own mentors (something I do), I can work with anyone.

    But hey, as we say in program, I have a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition.

  61. You should write out that story of the love affair with the student who knocked you off your pedestal. I’d love to read it.

    To be honest, I brought this up because I’ve seen the way some of your students (including a couple whom I know you’ve mentored) have crushes on you. I don’t know if you can tell, and I don’t pretend to know if the crushes are about lust or about the “Daddy crush” you’ve talked about. But I could feel the “heat” coming off one or two of them, all of that heat pouring in your direction. Wondering if you felt that too and ignored it or were oblivious to it. Considering that some of these girls are striking to look at, I really have to fight my suspicion when I hear you say (as you do)_ that you aren’t attracted at all to that combination of youth, sex appeal, and hero worship.

    But you’ve never given me good reason to believe you haven’t changed.

    Thanks for takin g this on. I hope MsCitrus doesn’t come. Please don’t let her continue to call you a rapist on your own blog.

  62. Pingback: Steering the Sluts: Prof. Hugo Schwyzer Organizes Los Angeles SlutWalk | Radfem Hub

  63. Pingback: Older Men, Younger Women, and the Slide Into Invisibility at Hugo Schwyzer

Comments are closed.