I have written before about the problematic nature of romantic relationships between college faculty and students. The college campus is a place of great ambiguity when it comes to these kinds of relationships. Since college students are adults who also have more freedom than secondary school students, it lacks the clear boundaries that one finds in secondary schools. Since the college classroom is not a workplace, it lacks some of the rules that have become the norm there.
Laura Kipnis discusses the reaction she received when she wrote an essay that explored this issue.
Her essay was about new codes in American universities prohibiting professor-student relationships, not sexual assault. For another, part of her argument with these new rules was that in addition to infantilising students, they would only heighten the accusatory atmosphere on campus. When the students spoke of their “visceral reaction” to her article and demanded that the authorities protect them from her “terrifying” ideas, they appeared to her only to be proving her point on both counts.
Kipnis’s original essay was provoked by an email she received about a year before, informing her that relationships – dating, romantic or sexual – between undergraduates and faculty members at Northwestern were now banned. The same email informed her that relationships between graduates and staff, though not forbidden, were also problematic, and had to be reported to department chairs. “It annoyed me,” she says. The language was neutral, but it seemed clear that it was mostly women this code was meant to protect. She thought of all those she knew who are married to former students, or who are the children of such couples, and wondered where this left them. It seemed to her this was part of a process that was transforming the “professoriate” into a sexually suspicious class: “would-be harassers all, sexual predators in waiting”. It was also of a piece with a wider mood. Another recent directive from Northwestern to its staff suggested they avoid making “unnecessary references to parts of the body”.
The problem is not that consensual adult faculty-student relationships are wrong in some general sense, it is that judging consensuality becomes problematic as soon as that premise is challenged by either party. I am not sure where the lines should be drawn. All I know is that I would recommend to any faculty member that they avoid having any romantic relationship with a student until the student has graduated and left the institution, so that there is no room for any ambiguity as to whether the relationship was consensual or not.