"Consensual" Relations in the Academy: Gender, Power, and Sexuality

By Lane, Ann J. | Academe, September/October 1998 | Go to article overview

"Consensual" Relations in the Academy: Gender, Power, and Sexuality


Lane, Ann J., Academe


THE ETHOS OF THE UNIVERsity has always discouraged sexual relations between students and professors. Yet this universally accepted ethical principle has long been violated, and the violations, except for occasional scandals, have long been tolerated. This is the acadelny's dirty little secret. Faculty members at most colleges and universities know of a colleague or, more likely, colleagues, who have or have had sexual relations with one or more students and whose relationships have been kept quiet. Some of these relationships have resulted in marriages. Indeed, for male professors, the university culture has (unofficially) viewed the female student body as a reasonable pool from which to select wives. If the marriages turn out to be lengthy and satisfactory, as many have. their origin in a faculty-student connection is often forgotten. Ask almost any woman in the academy, and she has a story, not always about herself, and not always with an unhappy ending. Raise the question and controversy erupts, controversy that is not necessarily predictable or consistent.

This is primarily a post-1960s, postsexual revoLution tale. Over the past thirty years, many male professors have come to see female students as more experienced, adventurous, and knowledgeable than themselves. Some middle-aged male professors have told me that they regard women in their classes as potentially capable of emancipating them, the teachers, from their generation,s sexual inhibitions. Other male professors look at their long-term, perhaps no longer exciting, marriages, and then face their young, sexually active female students, perhaps imagining the students to be more sexually active than they themselves are. To these professors, the students are not girlish, as women of their own generation were. They are now called "women," and that is what they look and act like.

The sexualizing of students will not end as older faculty retire. Male teaching assistants are carrying on the tradition with gusto, according to what women students throughout the country have reported. Many are less subtle in their overtures than their superiors, often relying on a straightforward quid pro quo, an exchange of a "date" for a more benevolent view of a student's paper or final exam.

This issue, ignored for so long, is now receiving national attention; it has touched a cultural nerve. Today, we discuss intimate relationships in terms of power as often as we do of love. Recent public discussion about violence against children, spouses, lovers, and parents makes us wonder about the meaning and reality of love. We now know that some members of the clergy molest child parishioners and commit adultery with their followers; that some judges exact sexual favors from those dependent on their authority; that some male naval officers behave outrageously toward female officers; and that some elected political officials commit sexual improprieties. We do not know whether such behavior is more common than it used to be, but we can no longer avoid learning about it. Thanks to changed notions of what constitutes legitimate public discourse and technology that makes all kinds of information widely available, we now face a seemingly endless barrage of details about sexual conduct and misconduct.

The concept of sexual harassment is so new (it's not yet three decades old) that its definition seems to change and expand the more we explore it. In the 1970s, when the term emerged in legal discourse, it applied to the workplace and referred to sexual pressure from an employer as a condition for continued employment. Later, its definition was expanded to encompass the idea of a "hostile workplace." After a lawsuit at Yale, sexual harassment law became applicable to universities. Sexual harassment was defined as illegal; its antithesis, a consensual relationship, was therefore assumed to be noncoercive.

University Policy and Consensual Sex

WHILE EVERYONE OPPOSES SEXUAL HARASSMENT in principle, "consensual" relations between students and teachers are more controversial. …

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