Are Bans on Faculty-Student Sex Unjust to Students?

The New Republic has published “Lust for Learning,” by Laura Miller. If it weren’t for the fact that this article is full of references to philosophers past and present, I would ignore it and its ridiculous subtitle: “Is erotic longing between professors and students unavoidable?” Take a moment to imagine the bizarre world in which the answer to that question is yes.

Sorry for that. Now try to think of something else. Anything else. Or stare at this for a while to clear your mind:

Szakaly gif

Authors are sometimes not responsible for how their articles are titled, so I’ll give Miller the benefit of the doubt that she doesn’t think that’s a serious question.

Miller’s examples of romantic educational relationships include Socrates and Alcibiades, Abelard and Héloïse, Heidegger and Arendt, Bennington College in the 1960s, characters that populate some novels by Philip Roth, and feminist author Jane Gallop and members (cough) of her dissertation committee.

It’s not clear how this interesting collection of examples help answer the real question of Miller’s essay, which is what stance universities should take towards faculty-student relationships.

She notes that Harvard has banned

all consensual “romantic or sexual” relationships between faculty members and undergraduates, regardless of whether the student is enrolled in any of the professor’s classes or is even in the same department (although faculty can still date graduate students if they don’t supervise their work).

Echoing the view Laura Kipnis expressed in one of her recent pieces for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Miller says

the new university strictures permit only one view of student-faculty relationships, when in fact, like most human connections, they sprawl across a bewildering spectrum. The official model will of course apply in some cases, but it will also do an injustice in a great many others. In particular, this model invalidates the student’s own desire and self-determination. Like a drunk person or a child, a student, by definition, cannot consent to a tryst with a faculty member….

It is an excess of caution that makes the vulnerabilities of a community’s most fragile members the benchmark for everyone else’s sexual choices.

Why would a university ban such relationships? Strangely, Miller’s article does not contain the phrase “conflict of interest.” It spends just one sentence on “unfairness”—the unfairness that the student sleeping with the professor is bound to get more attention than other students. And the only time “power” is mentioned is to say that speaking of a “power differential” between the student and teacher would have been “absurd” prior to the Middle Ages. (Quick check: we’re still moving forward in time, right?) It seems strange that an article so dominated by philosophy examples—one that actually uses philosophy examples to support a more permissive view of faculty-student sexual relations—would skip lightly over these concerns, especially given the fairly public problems the discipline has had recently with sexual harassment and assault.

The main reasons Miller considers in favor of a ban are pragmatic:

Bans on faculty-student relationships amount to an institutional throwing up of the hands when it comes to parsing the difference between an intense pedagogic experience and a manipulative seduction. Better to define any sexual contact at all as categorically predatory than to get tangled up in the mysteries of any individual couple’s story. That doesn’t necessarily mean that university administrators actually believe that students are inevitably the victims of their professors when such affairs happen. Chances are they’re  just trying to save their institutions trouble in the form of protests, angry parents, and lawsuits. 

One gets the sense that Miller finds this unsatisfactory, but given everything else that everyone at a university has to do besides analyze others’ relationships, as well as the unpleasantness of having your professors or colleagues comb through the details of your love life, these considerations shouldn’t be ignored.

The whole article is here. (via Philosophy Matters)

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(image: animated gif by David Szakaly)

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