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hot for student: sex, campuses, and the “meaningful” in front of “consent”

Posted by pocochina on April 6, 2010

There’s a certain strain of third-wave feminism which likes to claim it’s invested in personal agency and intersectional identity and analysis of existing power structures, but is actually so mired in mainstream American neoliberal I-got-mine individualism as to be pretty much useless when it comes to anything but cheerleading for new! and! empowerful! modern femininity.  Nowhere is this more evident when discussing consent issues (see also – TW, incest), and today’s Broadsheet column on a new policy at Yale University is probably a paradigm example.

The headline is as follows:  “Yale bans teacher-student sex”



Apparently, the policy of Yale University has been that student-teacher affairs were impermissible if and only if the professor had “direct pedagogical or supervisory responsibilities” over the student.  Under the new policy, undergraduates are sexually off-limits to professors.  TCF, in a highly formalistic reading of the language provided that’s disturbingly close to the linguistic jujitsu performed by abortion exceptioneers and civil-rights law dodgers, decides that this is enough to protect students from affairs with professors which have a “direct impact on their academic careers.”  (I’m going to use “she” to connote the student in the relationship and “he” to connote the professor because that is the most likely scenario both to exist and be reported under the school rules, not in order to diminish the existence or potential harm of other sexual student/teacher pairings.)

There are so many factual holes in that assertion, it’s enough to disqualify the whole column as showing any sort of serious thought.  Even accepting arguendo that the only harm that matters is direct academic disruption and that such relationships are not inherently exploitative (and I accept neither premise as generally true) there are still significant perils to a student’s college experience.  What if a student-teacher affair keeps a student from registering from a class she wants or needs?  Doesn’t affect her GPA!  What if a professor is involved in a student group the student is involved in?  That has nothing to do with her academic career, even if it’s an important networking experience which allows her to expand on her academic interest and feel more connectd to her school.  And professors don’t stay professors forever!  What if an ex-lover became the head of the student’s department after the relationship is over, or in charge of special assistance (minority outreach; disability accommodations) that the student needs or comes to need?  Those are all very serious problems that were not implicated under the old policy, and they alone are important enough to justify a new and more restrictive, totally uncool policy.   Moreover, they emphasize the power imbalance – a professor is likely to be aware of these potential complications or even actively angling for them, while a student simply doesn’t have the behind-the-scenes knowledge to make an informed decision.

Even if none of the above instances occur, it is not the case that only academic harm should be prevented by the school.  An education at a school like Yale isn’t just about the classroom, but also about building professional relationships at the necessarily tiny upper echelons of the student’s chosen field.  Acknowledge it or not, anti-sex attitudes about the less powerful party in a sexual relationship will frequently spread through such a tiny world before the student even has an opportunity to prove herself professionally.  There’s also the question of overall school environment.  Schools are tiny environments where a few folks have enormous amounts of power over lots of other folks – in context and theory (though clearly not in consequences), this is far more like military anti-fraternization rules than regular criminal law.  If Yale fears that students will feel pressured to sleep with professors – and I am not saying that they do, but that they reasonably could – if there is no explicit ban on such behavior, they are not just permitted to take action on it, but they should do so.

I’m also really disturbed by the appeal to possibility here – even if it’s possible that some professor-student relationships are not exploitative enough for a school to ban, it doesn’t logically follow that they are the norm and should be given preference in terms of policy.  TCF bravely argues in favor of professor-student relationships by pointing out that both parties involved are legal adults, thus neatly sidestepping the fact that Yale has not encouraged the state of CT to charge any professor with statutory rape for sleeping with a student, but has merely requested that its faculty keep their desire for barely-legal strange limited to Quinnipiac students.   Is it possible that once in a while there is a genuinely equitable student-professor relationship (WHATEVER, IT WORKED FOR PARIS ON GILMORE GIRLS, I hear you all shouting, and remind you that Paris ducked these consequences because the dude died)?  Sure.  But given what we know about the power imbalance in such relationships, those instances are likely to be the exception, not the norm.  And the school is well within its rights to decide that the likely harm of exploitation of students who are likely to be female outweighs the protection of the possibility of the superfuntastic professor-student relationship.  This isn’t some paternalistic denial of agency, but a recognition that agency is complicated and likely to be heavily limited by outside circumstances.

And take just a teeny, tiny step out on a ledge and imagine that such a relationship does end badly, and the student tries to press her case with the school in order to have disciplinary action taken!  Student says she is uncomfortable on campus; felt pressured into continuing the relationship; and feels that her academic performance has suffered.  Professor claims that her GPA is just fine and she will graduate on time, and anyway was TOTALLY INTO HIM.  Who the fuck do you think is going to be believed under a stricter policy?  SPOILER ALERT:  NOT THE STUDENT.

In an attempt to overdramatize Yale’s decision, TCF cutely uses the word “outlaw,” in a situation where, I remind you, no law exists, just school policy.  This isn’t about locking folks up or even suing, it’s about a perfectly reasonable workplace regulation which does nothing but codify what should in any event have been an ethical obligation in the first place.  However!  Yale could have taken inspiration from actual laws such as Title VII, which among other things basically recognizes that people don’t deserve to suffer hostile work environments because this experience can cause immediate and long-term psychological suffering as well as limit future lifetime prospects, and Title IX, which recognizes that ladies don’t always get equal opportunities in education.  I say this not to imply that Yale has some sort of legal obligation to put this policy in place, but to point out that this is based in theory consistent with and possibly inspired by some effective, well-thought-out jurisprudence.

Perhaps most disturbingly, TCF argues that the policy is wrong because significant and even dangerous power imbalances in relationships are common in the world, and so even if they are harmful, where the hell do schools get off requesting that their employees behave in a professional and non-harmful manner?

I wonder where the hell they get off not doing so.


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