Barry Dank picks a bone with my views on student crushes and professor-student amorous relations in this post of his yesterday: Crushing Student Crushes. Dank is a retired professor of sociology from Long Beach State, where he built a name for himself as a consistent (some would say relentless) advocate for legitimizing sexual relationships between teachers and students. He even has a Facebook group dedicated to the cause!
I took on Barry Dank directly in this post in 2007. I was appalled at his comparison between ethics guidelines that ban professors from dating students currently enrolled in their courses and the anti-miscegenation laws that existed prior to Loving v. Virginia. Here’s Dank’s famous article where he makes that analogy. My readers can judge for themselves the merits of his argument.
I do want to correct a few points he makes in yesterday’s post about me. Dank suggests that my views on teacher-student relationships reflect an “ethic of convenience”, and that I became hostile to professors dating their pupils only after settling down into happy monogamy. As regular readers know, I made the commitment to stop dating students (and to stop a host of other problematic behaviors) in 1998. I was intentionally celibate at the time. I started dating the woman who is now my wife in 2002, more than four years after making this commitment to professional ethics and two years after making amends to the campus by chairing the committee that wrote our new consensual relationships policy.
But that’s a minor quibble. My real argument with Dank and those who take his stance that professor/student romantic relationships ought to be permitted (and not only permitted, but celebrated), is the way in which he co-opts the notion of young women’s agency. (Though both Dank and I acknowledge that there are instances where older female professors date younger male students — and instances where both parties are of the same sex — the vast majority of such sexual relationships involve older male instructors with younger female students.) Dank writes:
For Schwyzer, students have crushes since students are de facto children. They are not yet grownups who can experience a mature love. Or translated- they have not yet graduated; once they graduate then they are adults. Reminds me of the old idea that a girl cannot become a woman, remains a girl or a child until she married.
That’s a not very clever attempt to appropriate feminist rhetoric about young women’s agency. As I’ve written many times before, one of the oldest tricks in the predator’s book is the flattering appeal to a young woman’s maturity: “Come on, you’re old enough to know what you want. These rules aren’t protecting you, they’re infantilizing you, treating you like you’re a little girl! But you’re not a little girl anymore, you’re a woman who knows what she wants. You’re smarter and more mature than most of your peers; do something bold!” (J.M. Coetzee captures the ugliness of this reasoning brilliantly in his deservedly celebrated novel, Disgrace.)
(I note, parenthetically and with a sigh, that my radical feminist critics accuse me and my liberal colleagues of grossly overselling the notion of “agency”, while libertarians like Dank suggest that I am equally amiss in denying its possibility. Cue the great song from the one-hit wonders, Stealer’s Wheel.)
It is true that college students are generally legal adults. No one is saying that a forty-something professor who seduces a nineteen year-old student is the same as a pedophile who rapes a nine year-old child. I’m not incapable of drawing distinctions between behavior which is criminal and behavior which is merely unethical. But I also think that folks like Dank fail to recognize three things:
1. College students in their late teens and early twenties are still developing intellectually and emotionally, as this New York Times Magazine article made clear recently. Many young people are in a space between, as the old saying goes, “the Already and the Not Yet.” They are already legal adults and are in many ways fully responsible, but in other key ways continue to need more time to develop the complete capacity for impulse control and moral reasoning. As the Times article put it, the only ones who “got it right” about how long it takes young people to grow up are the car-rental companies, who often refuse to rent their vehicles to drivers under the age of twenty-five. While nineteen year-olds may be ready for sexual relationships with their peers, they are vulnerable to exploitation (whatever protestations may be made to the contrary) by those who are substantially older.
2. The power imbalance between a professor and a student, regardless of the latter’s age, makes it impossible for the student to give consent as long as the professor is in a position to evaluate (or recommend) him or her. You can’t trust a “yes” unless the person who says the “yes” also feels free to say “no” in the confidence that there will be no deleterious consequences. And as long as a student is in any position to be evaluated professionally by their professor/lover, they can’t have that knowledge that a “no” will be safe. That’s not infantilizing; that’s common sense.
3. The damage that professor-student sexual relationships do to the broader academic community is enormous. I’ve written that some of the students with whom I had sexual relationships remembered what we shared fondly; others suffered lasting negative consequences for which I take full responsibility and a profound sense of guilt. But leaving aside the essential question of the impact of these relationships on young women’s lives, I can say with certainty that these affairs are impossible to keep secret. Campus gossip made them widely known. Not only was I labeled a lecher, but the legitimacy of the entire college was in some sense compromised. I’ll never know how many young people grew a bit more cynical, a bit less trustful of the system, a bit more suspicious of older men as a result of my sadly well-deserved reputation in the mid-to-late 1990s on this campus.
If you want a better argument in favor of an indulgent and permissive approach to teacher-student sexual relationships, you’d do well to avoid Dank’s own writing and check out what bell hooks had to say on the subject. Credit Dank for linking to hooks; I read the hooks piece when it was first published in 1996, a year in which I slept with several students, and found what I was looking for: a plausible defense for my behavior. I’d also suggest a book that also served to justify my unethical behavior, Jane Gallop’s Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment. Where once I used hooks and Gallop to justify the unjustifiable, I now see them as making an interesting, effective, but ultimately unsatisfying case against the kind of rules I have helped to write and against which Barry Dank has struggled for so long.
Note: I’ve separated what had been one category of posts into two. Though there is some overlap, it seems wise to have one set of posts dealing with Sexual Relationships between Students and Professors and a second dealing with Student Crushes.