In the latest issue of Academic Matters, Michelle Miller wrote a provocative piece on the politics of student/professor sexual relationships. The article was featured on Inside Higher Ed, and has generated a lot of discussion. Luisa D’Amato wrote a response to the piece in the TheRecord.com. Luisa and The Record have kindly allowed us to reprint it here.
Here’s an easy question: Should professors have romantic or sexual relationships with their students?
I thought that was a no-brainer if ever there was one. But obviously, I’m naive. Michelle Miller, a doctoral student in education at York University in Toronto, has written an article called “Hot for Teacher: Rethinking Education’s Sexual Harassment Policies.” In it she defends the rights of students and teachers to seduce one another. Because, after all, one can get quite passionate when one is thirsting for knowledge.
“That scholarly relationships might become erotic, between students and teachers or passionate thinkers and learners of any position, seems natural — even unavoidable — to me,” she writes in the latest edition of Academic Matters, a magazine published by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
Miller says that eroticism is “inherent in learning” and confesses: “I usually fall head over heels in a class, whether my infatuation is for a teacher, a classmate, a text or an idea. It’s these infatuations that make me a passionate student.
Miller says it’s “insulting” to an intelligent student to say that he or she has no right to consent to a relationship. She is “troubled by anti-harassment policies that seek to limit the ways adult thinkers and learners can relate to one another.”
These policies, she says, are “seeking to control the delicious, frightening, unruly relationships that often arise in teaching and learning encounters.”
Because this magazine reaches 17,000 professors and other higher-education professionals in the province, many of them here in Waterloo, I feel the need to push back.
Here is one more sad example of today’s feminists — or should I say “post-feminists,” whatever that means — turning on earlier generations of women who struggled to be taken seriously at work, without being either trivialized or sexualized.
Any casual observer of campus life knows that the balance of power in classrooms is completely skewed. Professors have it, students don’t. Students are vulnerable, completely dependent on profs for everything from a good grade in a course to a letter of recommendation that could get them a prized spot in graduate school.
On top of that, the passionate, charismatic professors have an additional kind of power, because their young, idealistic students will admire and revere them, maybe even have a crush. Few students in that situation will complain about romantic attention. And, I am sorry to say, some professors have taken advantage of the easy and sometimes willing prey in front of them.
Of course, there are many responsible professors, too, who know to draw a line between the joy of learning and the joy of sex, even if Ms. Miller doesn’t. They are protective of their students’ integrity. They understand that a fling with one student corrupts the learning environment for everyone in that classroom. And that an intimate adult relationship in which one partner has a lot more power than the other will usually end in disaster.
Wilfrid Laurier University and University of Waterloo have policies on sexual harassment, but they centre on the sexual advances being unwelcome. I give Laurier credit for warning that “even genuinely consensual relationships between faculty members and students may be problematic and result in favouritism or perceptions of favouritism that may adversely affect the learning or work environment.” But still, it’s a warning, not a policy. We need something more to protect star-struck students from their powerful predators. Thanks to the Michelle Millers of the world, we need it more than we ever did.