Professors Dating Students, Professors Harassing Students


“As for the fact of being a lecturer in bed with undergraduates in particular, there was no possibility of avoiding the charge that this was an abuse of my position.”

Those are the words of Ted Honderich, now 85 years old and emeritus professor of philosophy of mind and logic at University College London. They were published in 2001 in his memoir, Philosopher: a Kind of Lifeand refer to a time in the mid 1960s, when he was in his 30s.

He continues:

But it was not easy to make clear sense of the charge. It was not as if my partners were reluctant, which they were not. They were not seduced, or hardly more seduced than me. To use a term not then current, there was no harassment worth the name. Nor did they act from the promise or anticipation of academic favours, or fear of reprisal if they declined my casual invitations. If they were impressed by me in my position, which very likely they were, I did in fact possess the attributes in question. Being impressed was not in itself being a victim. Evidently I was breaking a tacit undertaking to Sir John Fulton [a university administrator] and to others of his mind. But was the conventional view of the weight of this obligation correct? Why was there no explicit rule? It did not escape me either that I was not alone in my ways. There were others than our Abelard who were not burdened by their tacit undertaking.

So I would have said in setting out to defend myself. In fact, in these buoyant times, I did not reflect a lot on my actions and my moral standing, or suffer guilt, partly because of the optimistic feeling that if I worked at a defence, a confident one might be constructed. I was never called on to provide one. (pp.128-29)

This passage and related ones were brought to my attention by Joshua Habgood-Coote (Bristol), who discussed them on Twitter. (It is unclear whether these students were ones Honderich had any supervisory role over.)

I’ve reproduced the passage here not to provide an occasion for excoriating Honderich. It isn’t obvious today that it is wrong for professors to have consensual romantic or sexual relations with students at their university over whom they have no supervisory role, and it is not clear to what extent such a judgment was seriously entertained 55 or so years ago. Further, even if one thinks Honderich acted wrongly by engaging in those relations, whether and how he should be blamed or otherwise held responsible for them today is another matter. (To be clear, it’s not that I’m endorsing relativism here; I am, however, saying that judgments about how to react to these kinds of cases are complicated by uncertainty and social and temporal distance.) I would add that Honderich’s personal life was widely discussed in reviews following the book’s publication, and we needn’t rehash all of that here. (Though I would recommend reading this excellent review by Catherine Wilson.)

The circulation of these passages, rather, presents an opportunity to discuss some of the disputes over romantic or sexual relations between professors and students. I’ll raise just two here: (1) arguments over blanket policies that some schools have adopted banning any such relationships, and (2) arguments concerning the treatment of philosophers who’ve engaged in such relationships.

(1) Blanket Relationship Bans

One consideration relevant to relationship bans arises in another passage of Honderich’s book that was part of the Twitter discussion:

Feminism had begun, with books and marches, but it did not include the charge of harassment by teachers. Harassment there certainly was, once by me in at least one mind. A young woman of good family told me of her sad marriage to an Indian gentleman, I sympathized too much, and did get an idea in my head. Something was said to Richard [Wollheim, then chair of the department] of this, and he found her another tutor. It was a good lesson of a kind. It preserved me from an undergraduate or two with the invigorating idea of an extra-curricular connection with their tutor. (p.189)

That’s one worry about professor-student relationships. Even if we suppose that there are some that are consensual and otherwise unproblematic—“successful”—we need to look at the ongoing context in which such relationships might come about. An ongoing context that produces some successful relationships probably involves a greater number of relationship attempts. Some of these attempts fail, and it is likely that some of these attempts will involve sexual harassment. So a context in which such attempts are not discouraged is one which may lead to more sexual harassment (this sounds plausible but is ultimately an empirical question so if you know of work on this feel free to share it). If that is so, it should be taken into account in reasoning about whether to have such policies.

Now in this latter case the student Honderich admits harassing is one he has institutional authority over. Can we at least agree that professors have very strong reasons not to attempt relationships with their own students? Whether such relationships would involve a power imbalance that undermines the possibility of consent, I don’t know; I think the diversity of actual cases means that this is hard to generalize about. However, such relationships clearly violate widely-accepted and well-justified norms regarding conflict of interest, and there is no sufficiently compelling reason in these cases to override these norms. Many universities now have policies that prohibit such relationships (or, in cases in which the lines of institutional authority are less clear, policies that require disclosure of the relationship to the relevant administrators).

On the other side of the debate over blanket bans are the goods of romantic or sexual relationships and sexual liberty. Last year, philosopher Neil McArthur (Manitoba) published an article, “Relationships between university professors and students: Should they be banned?” in Ethics and Education, arguing against bans of professor-student relationships (also discussed in this Times Higher Ed piece). McArthur acknowledges  that “romances between faculty and students are minefields, both emotionally and ethically, and they should be approached with the utmost care and trepidation.” However, “such matters are far too complex for the blunt tool provided by outright prohibitions, and that such prohibitions cannot be justified” (p.138).

On whether such relationships are likely to be nonconsensual, McArthur looks at some empirical work:

In Glaser and Thorpe’s (1986, 49) survey of 464 former graduate students, all female, about their sexual involvement with professors, nearly all reported that they ‘felt no coercion or exploitation whatsoever.’ Bellas and Gossett (540) similarly found that, among those in their smaller survey, ‘none of the students felt coerced to initiate or to sustain their relationships … students believed that they entered into them freely—their relationships were, at least in their own minds, consensual.’ We must consider, too, that it is by no means always the professor who initiates romantic contact. Skeen and Nielsen (1983, 39) reported that in only three of the twenty-five cases they studied was the sexual interaction initiated by the professor. (p.136)

(See below for a criticism of McArthur’s intepretation and use of some of this data.)

Part of McArthur’s argument against blanket bans is that enforcing them well would be problematic and difficult. For example, interestingly, he claims that such bans would make the aforementioned conflicts of interest harder to detect and avoid. He writes:

Supporters of relationship bans will say that such relationships often create conflicts of interest, such as cases where a student is involved with his or her supervisor. This is certainly true, and these conflicts must be dealt with. However, they can be easily addressed non-punitively, such as by transferring supervisory responsibility to another faculty member. But banning relationships outright actually works against, not in favour of, this important goal. If we are to prevent conflicts of interest, it is crucial that the conflicts be reported as they arise, so that they may be managed. The threat of punitive action for consensual sex makes it impossible for professors to disclose a relationship that creates a conflict, and so these relationships, when they develop, will be kept secret. It is only by removing the threat of punishment that universities can ensure they know about, and can thus eliminate, conflicts of interest. (p.134)

This seems to assume that compliance with a policy that bans professor-student relationships will be low, and that compliance with a policy that merely requires their disclosure will be quite high. Without these assumptions in place, it could be that the overall reduction in the number of student-professor relationships brought about by the ban is so significant that, while it still results in some such relationships remaining undisclosed, there are fewer such undisclosed relationships with the ban in place than without it. Are those assumptions about uneven compliance warranted? I doubt we can make an informed judgment about that at this time, but in general, when comparing policies, we should guard against just helping ourselves to empirically unsubstantiated assumptions of differential levels of compliance.

That said, I think McArthur is smart to draw our attention to what the potential costs of certain versions of blanket bans would be, especially since they would be administered by imperfect human beings.

Along those lines we might ask about the “right to sexual intimacy” or to “sexual activity in private” that McArthur thinks is threatened by a blanket ban. How much of a threat is it, really?

We should note that such bans amount to saying to professors: “Given your position, you cannot attempt to exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ with the small number of particular people who are currently students at your school. However, you may (a) exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ during this time with any of the billions of other adults in the world who consent to it, (b) wait a little while until the particular people who are currently students at your school are no longer students at your school and then exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ with any of them who consent to it, or (c) abandon your position in the school and be free right now to exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ with any of them who consent to it.”

Framed this way, such blanket bans seem like less of an incursion on people’s rights to sexual intimacy—especially at schools in well-populated areas. It should be acknowledged, though, that people at more remote schools may indeed be more negatively affected by them. (See, also, this previous post: “Are Bans on Faculty-Student Sex Unjust to Students?“)

After Times Higher Ed wrote about McArthur’s article, it published a response piece by five philosophers from the University of Guelph: Maya J. GoldenbergKaren HouleMonique DeveauxKaryn L. Freedman, and Patricia Sheridan. In it, they argue that McArthur’s evidence does not support his conclusions about whether student-professor relationships are generally consensual:

He cites a 1986 study of 464 female psychologists, claiming that it shows that “nearly all” of those who had sexual involvement with their professors during graduate training “felt no coercion or exploitation whatsoever”. But a closer look points to an altogether different conclusion. In fact, 10 per cent of these women reported feeling coerced at the time, and 30 per cent said that they later came to feel that there was coercion. More alarming still, 71 per cent of all of those who had experienced sexual advances by educators (some of whom had rejected those advances) felt that they were coercive to some degree. Lastly, only women who completed their doctorates were surveyed—a crucial limitation (acknowledged by the study’s authors) given that many impacted by sexual harassment abandon their studies.

The authors also believe that McArthur overlooks the impact of such relationships “on the learning community as a whole”:

As highlighted by a growing body of research, “available” (usually male) faculty members advertise that fact in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in order to cast a wide net. In so doing, they hijack the learning spaces for their own purposes. In philosophy, for instance, they might let it be known in seminars and classes that they are single or party to an “open” marriage, using the example of polygamy when talking about natural rights; even arguing in favour of extramarital affairs as their illustration of utilitarian reasoning. They may be doing it unconsciously, but it in effect sexualises the learning space for everyone. 

Those who, quite reasonably, feel uncomfortable about a sexualized work environment, may find that their best option is to reduce their participation in it, or leave academia altogether:

Some will be unsuspectingly flattered by an academic who takes a keen personal interest in their work. Discovering that their bodies, not their intellect, ignited that attention will be, at best, embarrassing, and may discourage them from continuing their studies in this field. Other students who sense that their professor’s interest is not merely professional will be hampered by deep uncertainty and insecurity. And how, in either case, can the students deflect the professor’s interest without damaging the professional opportunity that comes from their support—or potentially hurting their academic futures by offending him? So they avoid the department when he is around, stay away from talks and reading groups and abstain from social gatherings where he is likely to be present. In short, they lose their footing in the intellectual and social community. 

I appreciate these concerns. I think, though, that we could usefully distinguish between an environment in which consensual professor-student relations are allowed and an environment which is “sexualized.” Some people might meet at church, for instance, and then go on to develop a romantic relationship. Is church thereby a sexualized environment? (Okay, maybe some people will think that’s a bad example, but you get the idea.)

What this distinction amounts to in practice, or in regards to policy considerations, I’m not quite sure. I think we have good reasons to favor policy approaches which expand rather than contract opportunities and options, other things equal, so I’m inclined to oppose a blanket ban. But there’s no doubt that a learning environment that’s tolerant of lecherous behavior, innuendo-filled lesson plans, and sexualized interactions and events is one that effectively reduces acceptable opportunities of the kind it is supposed to provide for a significant number of the very people it is supposed to serve. So what to do?

Here’s one possible approach: take steps to keep your school from being the kind of place that needs a blanket ban. Such steps would likely include: professors cultivating in themselves a disinclination for relationships with students, schools and units holding meetings aimed at explaining the various reasons not to engage in such relationships, strictly enforced disclosure policies, and colleagues being willing to speak to each other about problematic behavior (including that which is disguised in the veneer of plausible deniability). Advice on how to take these steps, and what other steps to take, are welcome.

The steps would probably also include the explicit acknowledgment that if the less formal mechanisms of conscience, discouragement, norms, and criticism fail—that is, fail to keep an environment in which attempts at such relationships, while technically allowed, are rare, from becoming problematically sexualized—a ban, if it would not be counterproductive, would be worth trying.

I  imagine that some people believe, correctly, that their institutions are ones in which these less formal methods have already failed. I wonder if that is true of most colleges and universities. In any event, it will be interesting to see if the bans being tried at various institutions yield the desired results.

At the departmental level, concerning graduate students, I think there are reasons to be less permissive. It’s a relatively small community, so individual relationships will likely have more of an effect on its culture and what work and life feel like in it. Additionally, the lines of power at that level are harder to disentangle—a professor may not have an explicit supervisory role over the person they’re dating, but will have some kind of relationship with whoever does; a professor may not participate in departmental decisions that concern only the individual they’re dating, but in general decisions and policy matters that may affect the graduate students as a whole—so the risks of conflict of interest seem significant. A ban on relationships between professors and graduate students in their department seems reasonable.

I’ve thrown my view into the mix here as one to consider alongside the rest. I welcome hearing from others as to what alternatives to consider, or as to how I’ve gone wrong in my thinking on this.

(2) How To Treat Those Who Have Harassed

In his discussion on Twitter, Dr. Habgood-Coote disapprovingly notes that Ted Honderich was the subject of conference honoring his work in 2016 at the Royal Institute of Philosophy (of which he had previously been Chair of the Council and Executive Committee) and that the conference led to this book, published just this month.

(For what it’s worth, in an interview (scroll down to #4 on this page), Honderich says, “I’ve been prudent with regard to undergraduates for decades. All those affairs were in my flaming and possibly more rational youth.”)

More generally, there are questions about the extent to which a person’s having harassed people should affect how they (and their work) are treated by others in the profession. We have discussed some of these issues before, for example, in “Banning the Guilty,” “Should You Continue To Teach The Work of Sexual Harassers?“, “Hiring and ‘Unofficial’ Information,” “Disbelief, Inaction, and the Persistence of Harassment and Assault,” and “When, If Ever, Do Scandals Belong On A Scholar’s Wikipedia Page?“.

Further discussion of the issue is welcome, but I ask that commenters refrain from making accusations of harassment or related misconduct here. Also, please recall the comments policy.

Felix Schramm, “Spatial Intersection”

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Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

Ugh, not this again.Report

Patrick Lin
3 years ago

Related news from a few days ago: “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Consensual Sex’ When a Person Is in Police Custody”

Link: https://www.aclu.org/blog/criminal-law-reform/reforming-police-practices/theres-no-such-thing-consensual-sex-when-person

Excerpt: “The defense completely ignores the incredible power police officers have over civilians in general, particularly those in their custody. That power dynamic makes consent impossible in this circumstance. Anyone in police custody implicitly understands this and knows that not going along with a police officer’s wishes could have serious adverse consequences.”

Of course, the teacher-student power dynamic isn’t as dramatic as the police-suspect relationship, but it’s on the same spectrum; so the same worry that consent may be missing still exists to at least some significant degree…Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Well, you had said in the initial post: “Whether such relationships would involve a power imbalance that undermines the possibility of consent, I don’t know; I think the diversity of actual cases means that this is hard to generalize about that.”

My analogy was to show that power imbalance, /all by itself/ and despite particular details about actual cases, can be a reason to categorically prohibit intimate relationships. I’m not saying that the police-suspect relationship is perfectly analogous to the teacher-student relationship (though sometimes it feels like it), but they both are marked by power dynamics, even if in varying degrees; and you may be de-valuing the role of power imbalance in this discussion. It’s possible that everything hinges on it, as in the case of police officers, or at least a lot more than some folks recognize.

May I presume that you agree with a blanket ban on all police-suspect relationships? If so, and since you do recognize power imbalances in teacher-student relationships, where are you drawing the line where power imbalance, all by itself, can trump any other consideration? In both kinds of relationships, the more powerful can ruin the lives of the less powerful in different ways and to different degrees? (And if US teachers become armed, we can ruin their lives fatally, too.) Even a half-grade difference in an undergraduate’s final grade can make the difference between a desired career and not, as well as financial aid, etc. That’s a lot of power.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Patrick Lin
3 years ago

Every relationship involves a power imbalance, be it in the psychological aspect, social aspect or financial aspect. Surely you don’t think relationships as such should be banned? Assuming you don’t, then you’d have to agree that a power imbalance becomes problematic when it reaches a certain degree. What Justin is saying, I think, and rightfully so, is that it is not clear whether the degree of the power imbalance between students and professors is sufficiently strong to justify a blanket ban. Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  krell_154
3 years ago

Let me edit my comment: a great deal of relationships involve a power imbalance, much more than people would be prima facie comfortable with.Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  krell_154
3 years ago

Right, I’m not saying that all relationships involving a power imbalance are inappropriate and should be banned; and that wouldn’t follow anyway from pointing out that power dynamics matter a lot in policing or teaching.

There also seem to be important, relevant differences between professional relationships and personal ones. Let’s say a poor, young person A feels pressure to continue dating rich, older person B; and that if not for the money, A wouldn’t want to date B. There may be something exploitative there, but A has no right to B’s money or “fair treatment” by B. But if A and B were in a professional working relationship (B is A’s boss or parole officer, let’s say), then A does have a legitimate expectation to be treated fairly by B; and romantic entanglements can often color how one is treated, for better or worse.

I agree that “it is not clear whether the degree of the power imbalance between students and professors is sufficiently strong to justify a blanket ban.” I haven’t drawn a line in the sand or have an informed proposal to offer. I just wanted to make sure that power dynamics aren’t prematurely dismissed in the conversation (e.g., in a slippery-slope argument) since a lot might hinge on it. I take it you would agree, if you think the issue is unclear and needs more thought.Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

We may be understanding “consent” differently, then. It’s more than just a rational, informed adult agreeing to something; coercion, exploitation, and power come into play. For instance, if you were being robbed and offered the choice “Your money, or your life”, just because you’re a rational adult who’s making an informed decision doesn’t mean you’ve “consented” to being relieved of your cash, beyond a pedantically strict sense.

But sure, it’s possible that teachers and students might have a truly consensual relationship, just as it’s possible a cop and a suspect might have one; and I agree that nothing normative follows from that. What’s more important than romantic liberty here, I think, is the imperative to protect vulnerable groups, such as students (at any level of education) and police suspects (from parking violators to alleged murders).

“Conflict of interest” is a compelling reason for me, too; but I suppose I’d try to build that into an analysis of power imbalance, since they seem related. Still, we might be understanding COI differently as well: even if a student is not in a teacher’s class nor planning on it, they could change their mind and enroll in that teacher’s class later; or the student might later ask for a reference letter; etc. So, COI arguably should include reasonably possible COI in the future, not just current/actual COI.

Again, I’m not supporting a blanket ban here, but merely suggesting that it shouldn’t be summarily dismissed, especially if it’s based on an assertion that some undefined threshold of power imbalance isn’t reached in some/many/all teacher-student relationships.Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

And to perhaps support my understanding of what a COI is, it’s very common for police rules to include a prohibition on associating with criminals even /not/ in custody.

For instance, the Chicago Police Dept’s rule 47 prohibits: “Associating or fraternizing with any person known to have been convicted of any felony or misdemeanor, either State or Federal, excluding traffic and municipal ordinance violations.”

Presumably, this sort of relationship would compromise possible /future/ interactions and interests. The teacher-student relationship is obviously less serious than the police-criminal one, so a ban on mere association and fraternization may be too strict. Again, I’m not advocating for any kind of ban here, but it seems that a ban on dating, etc. isn’t outright unreasonable, if COI have been recognized elsewhere to include possible future conflicts, not just actual ones.

Link: https://www.cityofchicago.org/dam/city/depts/cpb/PoliceDiscipline/RulesofConduct.pdf

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Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Patrick Lin
3 years ago

Here’s an important disanalogy between the cases.

It seems that the power imbalance between a police officer of any sort and a suspect of any sort (even in separate jurisdictions) is a power imbalance that is not voluntarily entered into by the suspect, and involves significant amounts of institutional coercion. The power imbalance between an instructor of any sort and a student of any sort (particularly in separate colleges of a university, or other divisions of that sort) is of a quite different character – it’s one that the student opts into, and doesn’t generally take the form of coercion (though it can at times).

It seems to me that that distinction colors every aspect of the difference between a student and a suspect.Report

agradstudent
agradstudent
3 years ago

I know this is a terribly unqualified statement for a philosophy blog, but I’ll just say it: if everyone were to exercise moral common sense, this wouldn’t even be a problem. “Moral common sense” here entails that (i) you don’t hit on people within a classroom setting, (ii) you don’t hit on people within a supervision context, (iii) if you are put in a position to have institutional power over someone you have or had a sexual relationship with, you report the conflict and resolve it.

Some negative examples, all of which – sadly – are derived from real circumstances.
– don’t hit on your students during the break of your class.
– if a student sends you an email about your class, don’t ask them out in your response.
– if a student asks for comments on their paper, don’t invite them to your home to discuss.

But these appear fine to me:
– you run into one of your students while at the pub and end up going home with them.
– after a seminar, some people go out for drinks. A professor and a student hit it off.

Note that if the professor runs into the student when out about town, the professor may still be harassing the student. But then this is just a person-who-happpens-to-be-a-professor harassing a person-who-happens-to-be-a-student (or vice versa). There is no need to make institutional rules about such cases of harassment, because the institution has nothing to do with them. The standard rules/laws of society apply.

So, to be a bit more qualified, I propose the following “rule” to give to those without moral common sense: a professor can’t solicit for relationships while exercising their role as professor. Otherwise, just declare and resolve any conflict.

I’d say “announce your relationship status in class” is prohibited by the rule, so the Goldenberg/Houle/Deveaux/Freedman/Sheridan is resolved without forbidding student-professor relationships outright.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
3 years ago

I’m intrigued by the idea that there are good reasons to be less permissive when it comes to graduate students than undergrads. This is something I hadn’t considered. My assumption (now called into question) was that since graduate students are generally older and generally more mature, they are more likely to be able to exercise their own rational agency in this context. I wonder now if that might not have been naive.

Blanket bans are, I think, generally utilitarian in nature; yes, we might be “outlawing” what are legitimate and healthy relationships in some cases, but the prevention of coercive and harassing relationships makes this an acceptable trade. Report

Another Gopher
Another Gopher
Reply to  Will Behun
3 years ago

I was a graduate student in a department where junior faculty routinely dated female graduate students. It made for a hostile and unfair work environment. Male graduate students suspected that attractive females in the program enjoyed a number of unfair advantages, such as co-publishing papers with faculty. But we were all too afraid to say anything that might jeopardize our pwn standing in the program or our standing with the professors whose behavior was at issue.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Can you say more about your last line? I’m not sure that I’m parsing it correctly. Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

It seems that this discussion involves two distinctions – undergraduate vs graduate student, and same department vs different department. My intuition is that there is greatest concern with an undergraduate in the same department (particularly if they are taking a class from the professor), followed by a graduate student in the same department, followed by an undergraduate in a different department (particularly if they are unlikely to ever take a class in that department), and least concern when it is a graduate student in a different department.Report

Agree with Another Gopher
Agree with Another Gopher
3 years ago

Another Gopher hits on a great point – institutions need better reporting mechanisms and reporting chains for concerns. That’s a nice concretely addressable thing.

As someone who knows one of the individuals who’s been doing this this relatively secretly for a long time – don’t expect them to be responsive to *anything* other than formal, technical rules. Self-monitoring or erring on the side of caution is just not going to happen because they *don’t* believe there’s anything problematic. They’ll stay within the rules in order so that they don’t risk their salaries or jobs or future access to potential romantic partners I mean young students. E.G.: So there’s a rule that you can’t date students within your institution? Okay so create and take advantage of more opportunities for face time with young, impressed academics who come from outside of your institution then gravitate to the ones you like but be sure to wait for them to make the first “move” so you can’t be accused of unwanted sexual harassment. Kind of like TP’s behavior was described in that thought catalog article. That’s how the art of all that works. What can you do? Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Agree with Another Gopher
3 years ago

”Okay so create and take advantage of more opportunities for face time with young, impressed academics who come from outside of your institution then gravitate to the ones you like but be sure to wait for them to make the first “move” so you can’t be accused of unwanted sexual harassment.”

I might be missing something super obvious here, but what exactly would be the problem here, presuming that everyone involved is over 18 years old? If they don’t supervise those students, what would be the conflict of interest there?Report

AwAG
AwAG
Reply to  krell_154
3 years ago

To do this chronically seems exploitative of the “transference” phenomenon Emma alludes to below and it seems to dilute or degrade the professionalism of the environment. It’s not a great environment for women when that one guy, along with legitimately appreciating the scholarly virtues of the young women in the vicinity, is also habitually objectifying them (even if/when they may not be aware of it) and scoping them out as potential prospects. *I* might be missing something super obvious here but that’s how it seems. Report

EmmaB
EmmaB
3 years ago

Starting the discussion with a contribution from a harasser-professor rather than a student-victim is epistemically ridiculous. Or perhaps this view from the top you imagine grants “objectivity.” Also, can we even countenance the naiveté (willful?) of those who believe that students see the “real us” and are thus impressed? Plato’s views on eros notwithstanding, we are screens upon which students project their idealizations. I suggest everyone look up the notion of “transference.” Thank you.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  EmmaB
3 years ago

This is condescending as hell: When undergrads are attracted to their instructors, it is not generally for good reasons, like that they’re responding to that person’s looks, wit, or abilities.

This is paternalistic as hell: As a result of the above undergrad incompetence, we instructors had better refrain from reciprocating their affection, for their own good.

Tell me you didn’t just espouse both of those lines.

Perhaps you are envious of the youth and vigor of your students, and you are compensating for this by infantilizing them. I don’t know you or your particular situation at all, but I’m going to take license and make this assessment. Feels pretty condescending, huh?Report

AwAG
AwAG
Reply to  sahpa
3 years ago

I think this is not a constructive and respectful response, sahpa. It’s more of a counter-punch, with some misogyny baked in. EB’s original post was lightly snarky, sure, but as much self-deprecating as other-deprecating. Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  AwAG
3 years ago

I’m unsure how your response doesn’t just amount to tone policing, but I will suppose it doesn’t. My point was that EB’s original post was both condescending and paternalistic toward the students (nevermind the also apparent fact that it is condescending toward “those who believe that students see the ‘real us’ and are thus impressed”). Condescension and paternalism warrant many responses, and it is not always constructive and respectful ones.

And I’m guessing you’re spotting misogyny in the last paragraph of my post. But remember what the force of that paragraph is: to make a point about how condescending it would be to assert those things straightforwardly. The paragraph itself is pretty obviously not asserted straightforwardly. Any misogyny in it should also not be viewed as expressed straightforwardly.

Also, if you could point to the part where EB was being self-deprecating, and then explain to me how she was *as* self-deprecating as other-deprecating, I’d appreciate it. I think both claims are absurd, frankly.Report

AwAg
AwAg
Reply to  sahpa
3 years ago

Well, she used “we” and “us”. Ok so she’s borrowing the concept of transference from the field of psychology, obviously, where there’s a well known phenomenon of patients falling for their therapists and caretakers and where there’s a professional prohibition against going for it, etc etc etc. She’s saying “look, something similar is going on here, can’t you see that?” You *could* look into that if you were genuinely interested. In that context that concern isn’t condescending and paternalistic (or if you’re going to press the case that that is too, I don’t have enough patience for this). AND she’s ** looking out** for students here. That’s her motivation. Why does that have to be reframed and twisted into something offensive? Oh right because dudes.Report

DrPhil
DrPhil
Reply to  AwAg
3 years ago

Transference is deemed by psychoanalysts an extremely common phenomenon, and there is nothing intrinsically objectionable to it. Within their framework, everyone is regarded as projecting their idealizations on others. The main reason why transference is discouraged in the case of the pyschoanalyst is that it tends to frustrate analysis, and for that reason is unprofessional. But professors are not students’ analysts, and it is a live option that transference might not interfere with learning. Report

Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

Virtually everybody’s outrage here stems from this elephant in the room that the person writing a defense of this could one day be a professor, and it seems as if they could be writing a future defense of sexual harassment they haven’t yet done. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t have any intention to teach at a university, and don’t think I ever will, so hopefully everything I say here isn’t shocking or taboo. But I know that even if I open this way you probably won’t believe me.

My concern is that I don’t think sex workers can be philosophy professors now, and I think you have to choose. The issue of sex work vs professorship is a sincere question because I don’t know if there is a choice, but I’m leaning “I don’t think so.” Hopefully I will elaborate on why this is a real concern for a lot of people, and not just an edge-case I’m making up for the sake of argument.

Both me and my partner are current or former sex workers. She works as a dancer at a club, and I used to be an escort. We’ve done other forms of sex work before — I used to cam and she had a few million views through some softcore porn videos — but those are by far the most profitable form of sex work for us that approximates what you could call a job. Both of us have often ran into problems due to our backgrounds; I’ve had it insinuated to me that merely mentioning my history as an escort is a form of sexual harassment. (You can even google me and the keyword ‘sex’ if you’re in doubt; one of the first results should be a viral anal sex guide I wrote when I was 25.) In my partner’s case, seeking therapy is a minefield because any therapist will hyperfocus on the sex work and think that’s the source of problems in her life because it’s so abnormal or deviant. In both of our cases we are the ideal psychological profile for people who would do these kinds of jobs; we’ve never had problems in our life that were directly the result of sex work, and it’s never been the source of real divides between us romantically. Teaching in a university setting is something I’ve written off a long time ago, because there are so many ways to use my background against me.

But mentioning to you that I’m a former sex worker is putting this in terms I think you will understand. What I mean by this is that saying I have done sex work makes it clear to readers that I have abnormal psychological traits in some ways, but if I said “I am a hoe/slut” or “I am a person with a high sex drive” most people would register this as a cheap identity statement and not think anything of it. Presumably lots of people think they know what high sex drives are. But there are lots of people who are this way — just very sexually deviant, or very horny, or whatever — who don’t do sex work but nonetheless feel like they can’t ever be normal in a setting like that of a university because they’re in a very sex-unfriendly environment.

What I mean by sex-unfriendly is that people who do not have a lot of sex are more likely to think about sex as A Big Deal, and it will be a more significant and discrete event in their life, in the same way that drinking alcohol is a significant and discrete event to someone who never otherwise drinks alcohol (compared to a bartender) or getting into a fight is a significant and discrete event for someone who has never fought (compared to an MMA fighter). It is very easy for me and my partner both to be casual about activities that other people regard as extremely significant. We’ve had sex openly at a sex club before in a way that would require a major psychological shift for 99% of the population, but for us was just a natural extension of how we think already.

It’s palpably clear to me that in a university setting sex is Special. I remember taking part in a large-group discussion about open/polyamorous relationships with two professors combining class rosters, and the group of maybe 40 people spoke of polyamorous relationships in the way that some philosophy classes will discuss eastern religion or philosophy. The students and professors would structure phrasing like “some people are polyamorous and they…” as if there was no chance someone who does this would actually chime in to speak about their experiences. When I tried to say that sex wasn’t a big deal, an older academic rebutted what I had to say with “love is mental and sex is primal” and I got the sense that if I thought this was so wrong to the point of backwardness I would not be able to get a word in edgewise, even as a person who is effortlessly conversationally assertive, because virtually all of the 40 people there thought this way. My view is that both love *and* sex are “primal” and it’s nonsensical to think of it otherwise, but “love is mental and special” seemed to be the consensus opinion.

So here’s what I am leading up to: an implication of thinking the way I do, and the way my partner does, is that a lot of the cases of sexual harassment in universities don’t strike me as anything. I don’t mean they seem justified or unjustified, I mean they don’t even register as *anything*. They don’t register discrete events, in the way that saying “it’s cold outside” doesn’t register as a discrete event. We directly butt heads with policies like (I think) at Cornell where romantic relationships need to be explicitly declared. The reality is that we’ve had so many sexually casual relationships with people in such a fluid and shifting way that having to note every instance of this would be bizarre and impossible. Documenting romantic commitment would be clear and easy, because commitments are explicit, but documenting merely any instance of sexual contact is like asking a military drill instructor to document any instance of aggression or a bartender to document any instance of alcohol consumption; while it’s theoretically possible, our baseline for perceptibility is completely different and we just interpret body language and language itself in a radically different way. It’s a complete shift in values from how I think, and I have to constantly remind my partner of how different the norms are in university settings because she forgets so easily when we get home and talk about our day. I have to accept the possibility that at nearly every moment someone will pick up on something that I think is not a deal whatsoever, to the point that it’s imperceptible to me, and they will think it’s the biggest deal. I have to constantly remind myself about how different the norms are here, much in the way that if you went to North Korea you’d have to constantly be on the lookout for accidentally making a dig at the administration or if I went to Saudi Arabia I’d have to constantly be on the lookout for acting somewat gay and/or mentioning that I am bisexual. This is hyperbole to make the point, of course, but I can’t stress enough that there’s this unusual hypervigilance I have to have for something I do not think at all is an issue and I have to be constantly on the lookout for something I never normally think about.

It does seem to me obviously wrong for a professor to sleep with students, but not in the way you think. The default argument goes that this is a power imbalance. This seems difficult to empirically measure, or test, or replicate. What I’d argue, and which I think is much more testable, is that this introduces bias into the grading process that corrupts the value of the degree granted. You might think this is an attempt to meet you halfway, but if I’m being frank with you it’s not; I view grade inflation and poor grading standards as an equally large issue. (In other words, a professor grading a student badly because the student disagrees with them is the inverse, but an equally a large concern to me, as a professor grading a student favorably because the student slept with them.) Unstandardized methods of evaluation are a huge concern to me in the sense that I want professors to be held to rubric standards and replicable methods of grading. The value of a degree appears to hinge on this. So it seems to me that romantic relationships between graduate students and professors are a lot worse than between undergrads and professors, and I know this is precisely opposite of how the normal argument goes. I know that if I Was a graduate student and I knew that a student was sleeping with a professor I’d be outraged at the special treatment this student was no doubt receiving; graduate students have far more responsibilities and the benefit of being prioritized at that level is massive. But during undergrad if I suspected a student was sleeping with a professor the most I ever suspected of them was that they graded the student in a very biased way. This would be not much different than if you told me the professor graded students in a biased way for disagreeing with them, which I think we know happens all the time. So if there’s not much likelihood the professor will ever be able to influence the student’s grade or progress, I don’t see the issue.

And if this adds any context, I’ve taken issue with sexual power imbalances in much more sex-friendly environments. My partner and I had a long discussion about strippers who slept with their managers and who gave out sexual favors to avoid paying house fees. (House fees are fees strippers pay to use the club as a venue, because they are considered contractors.) I objected to this for two reasons: (1) it could have the club held liable for prostitution, and (2) the likelihood that staff would request or pressure for sexual favors in the future, if they set the preceedent that it’s okay, is very high, and staff are not safe about their sexual practices like escorting clients are. But the actual possibility of my partner sleeping with someone else, which would be the concern for 99% of people, isn’t a big deal. We’ve done this as a job; as long as you get tested and don’t do anything to compromise your physical safety (in other words: carry pepper spray or a taser), it’s fine. And more to the point, this sort of thing is common at clubs, and it’s very easy to fire dancers because they are merely contractors from a legal view. Universities are the opposite: sex between professors and students is not common, and it’s extremely hard to expel students.

So what I am saying is that universities just don’t seem like places for people like me, aka sex workers or people who think of sex casually or whatever angle you wish to use. The strict anti-sexual harassment mentality and the mentality of people like me seem intractable. When I used to comment on these stories, if I went with this angle I’d just get dismissive writeoffs, as if I was being pretentious or as if I was some bro casually bragging about his sex life. So I think I’ve unconsciously avoided saying what I really feel is true on this topic, because I feel like no one will actually believe that’s my real sentiment.

Nonetheless, these are my thoughts; as in, I could take other positions on this, but I’d be lying to you. I know a lot of other people feel this way, too, and just haven’t said anything. But to reiterate, I sincerely hope no one will freak out under the remote possibility that I end up teaching their students some day. For the love of fuck, I don’t have any intention of ever doing that, and that sort of concern makes honest discussion about these issues impossible.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

You should try to go on Thaddeus Russell’s podcast. Report

Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Robert Gressis
3 years ago

I’m more than willing to talk about this sort of thing on a podcast, sure.Report

CasperK
CasperK
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

“It’s palpably clear to me that in a university setting sex is Special” & “I know that if I Was a graduate student and I knew that a student was sleeping with a professor I’d be outraged at the special treatment this student was no doubt receiving”

Are you assuming professors give special treatment to their partners? Are you assuming being a partner warrants special treatment?Report

Alfred Macdonald
Alfred Macdonald
Reply to  CasperK
3 years ago

I’m assuming that it’s exceedingly likely that they will

it’s true in just about every other area of life where sexual relations ariseReport

Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  CasperK
3 years ago

or, to put it differently: the kind of objectivity about sexual partners that they’d have to have for this to be an unreasonable assumption is an objectivity I’m only used to seeing in sex workers, and if I thought professors were like sex workers in this way I wouldn’t have written what I didReport

KH
KH
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

Easily the best post I’ve ever seen at Daily Nous!!!Report

Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  KH
3 years ago

Thank you! 🙂Report

deesse877
deesse877
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

I also strongly appreciate this post. Thanks. You probably already know it, but I recommend the work of Samuel R. Delany on alternative sexual ethics.Report

Sikander
Sikander
3 years ago

Interestingly I was just thinking about this topic over the last few days. I agree with you on this completely, Justin, and with Neil McArther. Blanket bans are illiberal, and consensual relationships between faculty and students can and have happened (without conducting any research on this topic I know of one [as far as I can tell happily] married couple who were grad student and faculty member in the same department at one point). However, I would hate for the culture of a department to become sexualized and unsafe, and support taking certain steps to prevent that from happening or try to solve the problem if it has already arisen. Especially, anyone interested in attempting to initiate such a relationship should be very careful with their attempts, as they can easily be (though they are not necessarily) instances of harassment.Report

Sikander
Sikander
Reply to  Sikander
3 years ago

I forgot to mention that IMO prohibiting relationships between faculty and students when there is conflict of interest (e.g. faculty member is the advisor of the student) is fine, but the solution in such cases is to require either a change of roles (e.g. require the student to select a different advisor) or an end to the relationship, not immediate suspension or firing, and certainly not criminal sanction.Report

crimlaw
crimlaw
Reply to  Sikander
3 years ago

Has anyone ever seriously suggested that violations of University policies about dating students might warrant *criminal* penalties? What criminal statute would anyone think this violates?

Report

Simon Evnine
3 years ago

The appalling content of Honderich’s assertions is aptly expressed by the grandiose glibness of his prose. Why, oh why, look to anything he says on this matter for enlightenment?Report

Just Wondering
Just Wondering
3 years ago

Honest question, in reference to McArthur’s study: Precisely in what way, or precisely to what extent, is answering the question “Did you feel coerced or harassed?” relevant to answering the question “Were you coerced or harassed?” On the face of it, it seems like answering the first question is indeed relevant to answering the second. But I’m having trouble articulating why. Does it have to do with the very nature of coercion and of harassment? And are there cases in which the questions can have different answers? Why? How? If anyone can point me to literature on the subject, I’d appreciate it.Report

AwAG
AwAG
Reply to  Just Wondering
3 years ago

“Honest question” prefaces are usually red flags of course. But whatever. You must know that social interactions can be subtle and complicated – one can easily imagine cases where the answer to one of those questions is “Yes” but the other is “No” and vice versa. What’s your worry precisely?Report

Just Wondering
Just Wondering
Reply to  AwAG
3 years ago

I’m wondering about the inferences we may draw from studies, like McArthur’s, whose data are that someone did (or did not) feel coerced or harrassed. I’m asking for an explanation of the legitimacy of the inference from “X felt coerced” to “X was coerced.” My intuition is that it is legitimate, and so I’m assuming it is and asking: what explains that (given) legitimacy? Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
3 years ago

In these discussions about student/professor relationships, it seems to me that two things tend to get lost very quickly:

(1) We are talking about school *policy* and no policy will ever be perfect. Of course, we can try to anticipate potential exceptions (e.g. having a grandfather clause about faculty-student relationships), but as Aristotle suggests about nomos, the exceptions are infinite. Once we grant this point, I think we can see that these discussions go off the rails too often by individuals pointing out potential counter-examples. The implied argument seems to be “Since the policy of banning faculty-student relationships admits of potential exceptions, there should be no policy.” (My one sentence reductio: I can imagine plenty of exceptions to setting a speed limit on the highway, but that does not mean I oppose setting speed limits.)

(2) In considering this policy, I think it is *urgent* that we draw a distinction between undergraduates and graduate students. For faculty to undergraduates, I think there should be a blanket ban (the only exception being a grandfather clause). For faculty to graduate students, I can see the need for a more complex policy. While I personally am tempted by Martha Nussbaum’s view that there should be a blanket ban here, too, I’m very open to those who think otherwise. (For Nussbaum’s view, see her essay in “Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy”.)Report

M
M
3 years ago

What does sex add? We already (properly) prohibit harassment, abuse, improper use of power, etc. Do we want to prohibit sex in its own right, without any other evidence of inappropriate or abusive behavior?

Do people think so because they think that it’s impossible to have sex without abuse in the context of power-unequals? What’s the argument for that conclusion?

Do they think that’s also true when the superior person is a woman?Report

Women professor who married male grad student a long time ago
Women professor who married male grad student a long time ago
3 years ago

It is hard to date in academia for a variety of reasons. Hence if a grad student falls for a professor and vice versa,, I think it’s wrong to tell them they can’t have a meaningful life-long relationship if they happen to find their match. The appropriate thing to do is sign some papers and have no supervisory role. I even know two married couples where a male professor meet his wife while teaching her in undergraduate. As long as they didn’t date while he was her professor, I again see no reason to but ourselves into what might be a happy life-long relationship. Might it be the case that the relationship has difficulties because of the previous power relationship? Of course. But that is NONE of our business. It seems pretty obvious there should simply be some type of conflict of interest rule where you can’t date while having supervisory powers. This is college. We are adults. Let’s stay out of each others personal lives. Report