Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 1

August 10, 1998


By Barry M. Dank and Klaus de Albuquerque

In a recently completed study at the University of Massachusetts on consensual sexual relationships between female undergraduates and the University of Massachusetts employees (professors, staff, teaching assistants, etc.) only 1 out of 521 students surveyed indicated she had had a relationship with a professor (the numbers were slightly higher for other employees). The survey confirms what any careful observer of academe knows, yet some feminists insist that consensual relationships between professors and students are widespread and a serious problem necessitating extraordinary measures. One such measure is to ban all intimate relationships between students and professors (banning). On the surface, the proponents of banning with their familiar arguments about protecting innocent female students, the appearance of impropriety in faculty-student
relationships, and so on, sound frighteningly reminiscent of 19th-century Puritans.

To avoid the wrath of these new Puritans, most persons involved in intimate  asymmetric relationships on campus have closeted themselves. They are not only hiding from the extremists, but also from academic bureaucrats who have the responsibility of enforcing university policies which have codified the new Puritans procrustean moral agenda. The new Puritans have been remarkably successful in imposing this agenda on campus, because the professoriate and university administrations have been singularly unwilling to challenge all the loose facts and tired stereotypes emanating from this group. Those female professors who have done so have been viewed as apostates. It is the male professoriate that has remained uncommonly silent. For male professors to come out as we do in this article against banning, opens us to being targeted and objectified as sexual predators.
Already one of us has been vilified in the press and on radio for publicly opposing banning. In the simple-minded calculus of the new Puritans any male professor opposing banning on civil libertarian or other grounds is immediately suspect; his real motivation must be the desire to preserve an obviously important perquisite--access to young women.

We support gender neutral sexual harassment policies that make it easier for students to report unwanted sexual attention from whatever quarter, yet afford the accused due process. However, we reject attempts to label consensual relationships between professors and students as a form of sexual harassment. We agree that such relationships are inadvisable where a close supervisory role is involved because of the potential for a conflict of interest, but a conflict of interest and sexual harassment are two very different things. And why stop at intimate relationships? They are many other more common relationships between professors and students that have the potential for conflicts of interest. What about evaluating and writing recommendations for students who are integral and indispensable members of professorial research projects or employees or partners of professorial
business ventures? Or what about the situations where Professors have children of colleagues in their classes, or may hire their students who need extra money to help them on campus or at home? In principle, supporters of banning should be opposed to all such relationships, but they have been uncharacteristically silent about these relationships.

In the Spring of 1993, students and faculty at the University of Virginia were embroiled in a fractious debate over a proposed policy to ban all student-faculty liaisons (banning). In her public pronouncements, Ann Lane, professor of history and Director of Women's Studies, and the main spokesperson for the "banners", portrayed the proposed policy as "... coming in the wake of Anita Hill, and Tailhook, and priests molesting children." She argued that "the common story is the teacher who is a sickie" and presented herself to the media as the protector of young coeds, fighting the good fight against "free sex" and exposing academe's "dirty little secret".

While the Praetorian Guard hastily assembled to protect the virtue of young female students at the University of Virginia was not entirely successful, the faculty did vote to ban all intimate relationships when a faculty member is in a supervisory relationship with a student. Faculty concerns over the constitutionality and unenforceability of any kind of ban were remarkably muted, although the students were much more vocal in their opposition against the imperious presumption that they somehow needed protection and were incapable of giving consent. However, the University of Virginia's new Puritans were very successful in publicly airing their views in the media without significant scrutiny. And public scrutiny their views sorely merit, since they represent a gross distortion of the facts, a scurrilous attack on the male professoriate, and on women in general, as
well as an attack on the central principles surrounding sexual harassment.

Has the sexual harassment of students by professors reached "epidemic proportions" as the new Puritans contend, necessitating extraordinary pre-emptive measures such as banning? While a careful reading of national and institutional surveys of harassment in academe suggests otherwise, it has become official orthodoxy to claim that 20-30% of female students will experience some form of sexual harassment from professors during their academic careers. These figures are based on surveys using the Sexual
Experiences Questionnaire--a questionnaire that defines harassment very loosely and lacks both criterion and construct validity (it does not measure what it purports to measure). If the definition of sexual harassment is expanded to include "looks", sexist jokes, and derogatory comments against women, advocates of banning often contend that the true figure rises to 70%.

Even if data on actual complaints (not adjudicated) filed against professors from a sample of campuses across the country are multiplied by a factor of 100 to account for non-reported incidents, that still leaves us with an affected student population of 2-3% a year and 8-12% over the course of a 4 year academic career. But the true figure is very much lower, since most campus officials charged with investigating sexual harassment complaints estimate that currently only 1 in 10 incidents are reported. The hype surrounding the extent of sexual harassment of students by professors and the degree of non-reporting, prompted Charles Adams, the well respected former Associate Vice Provost charged with investigating sexual harassment
complaints at Chico State University, to lament that his campus was fast becoming a place "composed of a greater number of unregulated rat catchers than it seems to have rats" (CHICO ENTERPRISE RECORD, September 17, 1993). Adams noted that in his 12 year direct involvement in implementing Chico's sexual harassment policy, he was not aware of any "evidence of the sort that would normally be respected on a university campus" that would lead to the portrayal of Chico as a hotbed of sexual misconduct. When pressed to provide evidence to back up their assertions to the state and national media that Chico State was a hotbed of professorial sexual misconduct, the new Puritans at Chico countered with chilling McCarthyesque logic; "the nature of sexual harassment is such that the lack of evidence is in fact evidence!"

In the view of the new Puritans, intimate relationships between a student and a professor can never be consensual for as the authors of THE LECHEROUS PROFESSOR argue, true consent can only occur in the context of "full equality and full disclosure". Or, as the authors of ACADEMIC AND WORKPLACE SEXUAL HARASSMENT insist, "there is no such thing as women students' informed consent in a sexual relationship with a male faculty member" because of "great differences in power due to organizational and cultural status." Since a female student is seen as incapable of giving consent, it therefore becomes correct to view the "consenting" student as a victim of sexual harassment even when she indicates that the professorial attention was very much wanted and that she actively solicited it. Illustrative of this is the newly emerging radical feminists' definition of sexual harassment: "When a formal power differential exists, all sexist or sexual behavior is seen as harassment, since the woman is not considered to be in a position to object, resist or give fully free consent" (Louise Fitzgerald in IVORY POWER).

This definition of sexual harassment functions to discard the core of the current legal definition: sexual harassment occurs when sexual attention is perceived as unwanted by the "reasonable" woman even when there is no intent to harass by the male. Under current interpretation of the law, an interpretation which is flawed because it violates the gender-neutral intent of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is the woman's subjectivity that is central. In other words it is the woman's definition of what is wanted or unwanted; what is comfortable or uncomfortable; it is her consent or non-consent that is critical. But what the new Puritans propose by their definition of sexual harassment, is precisely to take away a woman's consent. No wonder young women everywhere are resisting this insidious assault on their rights. As Alyson Todd, a former graduate from Wellesley, protests, "we don't need Big Mommy to tell us what is going on." This infantilization of women, particularly young women, is inconsistent with feminist principles and quite counterproductive.

In responding to an opinion piece in THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION critical of student-professor liaisons, Susan Plass, Assistant Vice-Provost for International Affairs at the University of Oregon who for 14 years has been married to her former professor, writes, "true love in academe is not always a fantasy...don't try to forcibly prevent my husband and I from
falling in love. In our case, a ban on sexual fraternization would not have made any difference." But the new Puritans see Susan Plass, and many others like her, as just another misguided pathetic victim of sexual harassment. As one of the contributors to IVORY POWER states: "... a relationship which ends in marriage is not evidence that the power element which operates in
student-faculty relationships did not apply...A faculty member's desire or willingness to marry a student does not necessarily imply equality in the relationship or erase the real and or psychological power he wields over her. Actually, a faculty member's determination to marry his student may also have exploitative aspects as it raises questions about his use of power and control in obtaining what he wants."

The movement to ban faculty-student relationships is simply a first step in applying the principle of asymmetry to all workplace relationships. Persons in supervisorial positions will be required not to fraternize with those they supervise or might potentially supervise. In effect, persons will be allowed to only fraternize with their "peers"; doctors with doctors, not doctors with nurses; editors with editors, not editors with staff writers. Ultimately we might find ourselves in a situation where "peers" might be
expanded to include age peers and gender peers.

There are many who will argue that bans on intimate relationships between professors and students are necessary because there is a huge power differential between these two groups and because female students are young and sexually naive. The sexual naiveté of contemporary female students is another one of those hoary myths like the lecherous male professor, and while most female students are younger than their professors they cannot be consigned to the category of children incapable of consent; 58% are over 21; 44% over 25; 31% over 30. The greatest power differential in academia is not between students and professors, but rather between untenured and tenured professors. Yet the new Puritans have never suggested banning intimate relationships between tenured and untenured professors, for to do so would be to reduce their untenured sisters to the status of children requiring special protection.

It is clear to us that the power differential, and the potential for exploitation that comes with this, is not the primary reason for proposing bans. In fact, it is our experience that the advocates of these bans are quite comfortable with power differentiated relationships as long as they are not in the subordinate position. We believe that one of the latent objections to intimate student-professor relationships, is that these relationships, more than any other student-professor relationships, subvert the campus social stratification system. The closest analogy we can draw is the traditional opposition to inter-racial relationships, particularly black-white relationships, with their stereotypes of innocent white females and predatory sexually obsessed black males. Bans on inter-racial relationships were, as we well know, designed to maintain rigid systems of racial stratification.

Some other motives suggest themselves from the new Puritans loud insistence that their only interest is protecting innocent female students. We cannot help wonder if some of them might be really interested in protecting themselves from competition from younger women or affirming their power over younger women. Whatever the case, we have observed that the attempts to legislate "morality", under the false presumption that our campuses are centers of immorality, are profoundly affecting the nature and quality of interaction between students and professors in ways that are inimical to the ideals of a liberal education. The ultimate goal of this new Puritanism sweeping our campuses is of course not maintaining campus social stratification, but rather the demonization of sexuality and the creation of a culture of fear and suspicion between the sexes.

Barry M. Dank is Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach.
Klaus de Albuquerque is Professor of Sociology at the College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina.

Copyright (c) Barry M. Dank & Klaus de Albuquerque

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