An exceedingly impolite post against sexual relationships with students. (Why is this still even an issue?)

Do you feel lucky today? Well, do ya, punk?

Do you feel lucky today? Well, do ya, punk?

Via (I believe) David Schoppik at NYU and Twitter, I found this petition against sexual misconduct in academia:

Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct have no place in academia. These kinds of unethical behaviors, which often involve powerful males and their female students or junior colleagues, traumatize the victims, impede equal opportunity in academia, and impoverish the intellectual landscape of our scholarly communities.

As recent highly publicized news reports have made clear, the institutional response to cases of sexual misconduct often contributes to the problem [1-3]. Fear of negative publicity feeds bureaucratic inaction, but as these reports also illustrate, the consequences of institutional indolence can be worse. For the victims of sexual harassment or abuse, it is far worse.

Tough new policies emplaced by universities and professional organizations are welcome, but they will not lead to the needed cultural change without the commensurate commitment of individuals to provide a safe, supportive environment for women and men to learn and work together productively. An individual commitment entails disseminating a message of zero tolerance of sexual misconduct; educating faculty, staff and students about norms of workplace behavior and reporting pathways for their violation; and, most critically, publicly supporting the victims who come forward to report incidences of sexual misconduct. The reporting of misconduct by victims and bystanders should be recognized as courageous actions that are key to making our communities safer and stronger.

Go read the whole thing and sign on if you like–I did.  However, I think it’s offering only weak tea (or “spout water,” really) in its diagnosis and prescription.

“Individual commitments” are fine, but what about some real, professional rules or guidelines that would help clarify appropriate versus inappropriate behavior?  As I’ve said here for years, physicians can have their licenses revoked for dating patients (or the parents of patients, in the case of pediatricians); attorneys can be disbarred for dating clients; counselors and clergy must abide by strict rules prohibiting sexual contact with the people they are counseling or offering pastoral  care.

Why do faculty imagine they’re so special?  I’m perfectly willing never to date my students.  What are you willing never to do?

Why should responsible academics and professors be afraid to forswear dating or sexual contact with any and all of our students?  Let’s put this another way:  what’s the legitimate argument for dating or being intimate with any students of ours–undergraduate, graduate, post-docs?  What are the intellectual benefits to our students, in seeing their professors possible future sexual partners or in dating us?  What are the benefits to our teaching or research or to our professions that accrue from dating our students?

I don’t see any.  I don’t know of any.  Please enlighten me in the comments below.  But first, read the rest of this post.

The American Historical Association only addresses the prospect of sexual relationships in their “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct” in the section on “Employment,” and even then, it’s only to proscribe sex discrimination or sexual harassment, both of which happen to be illegal in most states and/or already forbidden by university policy.  The implication here is that it’s only colleagues, not students, whom one must be careful about propositioning sexually, and it’s only unwanted sexual behavior that can pose an ethical and professional problem.

Why not add the following simple sentence to the beginning of the section called “Reputation and Trust?”  Historians shall not enter into any sexual or romantic relationships with their students or employees whose work they directly oversee and evaluate.  

What responsible, mature person would have a problem with that rule?  (Yes, this is a rhetorical question, but for gosh sakes:  when are you going to stop dating your students?  When will you stop seeing them as a perk of your job, rather than someone else’s children?)

Even in the most benign, consensual, “happy endings” in which professors and their students enter into a long-term, caring relationship, the students (all women, in the cases I’m familiar with) haven’t benefited unfairly from their marital association; in fact, in most cases it has caused all of these women at least temporary career setbacks if not complete career derailment.

Let’s also consider how faculty fishing in the student dating pool can poison whole classes or graduate school cohorts if fellow students know of or suspect an intimate relationship between a professor and a student.  Even if that student is the best, brightest, most meritorious student, will any of her successes or awards be understood to be the product of her hard work and brilliance, or will they always be assumed to be earned by emotional or sexual rather than intellectual labor?

If you want an illustration for how this worked and was still working into the current decade, do a little digging into the last forty years of the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania.  This is just one of the more public cases, featuring a grad school classmate of mine.  You could ask around and hear how the past forty-plus years of male professors dating and marrying women grad students has worked out for the Penn grad students, including more than one woman of my grad school generation.

cowgirlgunsign1The male professors, of course, kept their positions as well as the respect of their colleagues and students.  Many were and are highly esteemed in their fields, and have been offered honors, awards, and jobs at other prestigious institutions.  Some have even moved on to relationships with other, even younger graduate students of theirs.  Why not?  They’re busy men, the hunting is good, and there’s no price to pay.

56 thoughts on “An exceedingly impolite post against sexual relationships with students. (Why is this still even an issue?)

  1. Damned right.

    At my institution, a few years ago, a pre-tenure male colleague had an affair with one of his female students. This was brought up in his pre-tenure continuation meeting as a problem. But, the chair of the pre-tenure continuation committee was a male who’d had an affair with one of his female students some years earlier (and married her). So that didn’t go far. (The woman who brought it up as a problem hadn’t realized that the chair had had an affair because it so far pre-dated her time.)

    In my department, there was much whining and gnashing of teeth when an interim [administrative position] was sent back to the department. His being sent back seemed to have something to do with his having had an affair with a female who reported directly to him. And yet, he still leads the men around here in whining and gnashing about how unfair it is that he isn’t in the permanent [administrative position].

    I don’t know how we change the culture, but it’s a horrible culture and needs to be changed.

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    • Good for the colleague who brought up the affair; boo to the rest of her colleagues who were so gutless as to permit someone who also had had an affair with a student to grant him a hall pass!

      Most of us are decent. Most of us are respectful of our students. Why don’t most of us speak up and resolve to stop handing out passes for bad behavior that can corrupt our relationships with our students and their relationships with one another?

      I put it down mostly to 1) male privilege, and 2) the upper-middle class mores that still seem to govern our profession. It’s impolite to talk about this stuff, and moreover, the mostly-men who are the senior faculty in most departments are reluctant to interfere in what they see as a private matter, because they’re thinking about it from the perspective of the senior male faculty member, not the perspective of the vulnerable student. Either that, or they’re reluctant to step on someone else’s d!ck just in case they might have the ability to behave poorly someday themselves.

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      • More policies like this, and more brave people like Bardiac’s colleague, will help to bring this into the open. There are too many situations where there is literally no space, either in person or on a pretenure ballot, to bring up this kind of conduct (because the university fears lawsuits if a complaint hasn’t gone through the official channels). You’re instructed to speak only to the candidate’s record: what do you do? For one thing, you can refuse to participate in the mandatory departmental vote, which ought to raise some questions. But that doesn’t stop the problem at the source. The policies can go a long way toward doing that.

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      • Also: it’s bad for the grad students who get involved, and it’s also bad for the wives and families of these entitled male faculty members, who supported them through grad school and then get thrown away like yesterday’s trash. Let’s not forget them in the midst of all this “I gotta be me” “the heart wants what it wants” weepy self-justification on the part of the more powerful male faculty members. I think we’ve all seen this happen, too; I know I have.

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  2. I agree, but why did you call your post exceedingly impolite? Is it because you are calling men out on our shit? You used nice words…

    More seriously, what does it take to revise the standards of conduct with the AHA? I think you are exactly right, your statement should be the first sentence of the section 8 on Reputation and Trust. Or it could be the first sentence in paragraph 6 of section 7 on Employment.

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    • I don’t know exactly how to revise the standards of conduct. I suppose I’d have to submit it to the appropriate division and sub-committee, and then show up to the annual meeting at which it might be discussed.

      (I suppose I’d also have to join the AHA too!)

      I tagged the AHA and people who work for the AHA or are on some of these committees on Twitter advertising this post, so I hope some of them will weigh in.

      Also, on my impoliteness: yes, I think it’s considered very impolite to point out to one’s peers the free pass they’ve had on behavior that many of the rest of us consider inappropriate or even abusive. But in the end, why are we afraid to point this out? As I like to ask on this blog, whose interests does this serve???

      Liked by 1 person

      • Is it the curse of collegiality? Personally, I blame myself for being very very conflict adverse (probably why I got into this business). But its more than personal. Academia seems to be home to so many abuses for it to only be a personal failing. If other professions have banned this behavior in their codes of conduct, then its more than just the background level of patriarchal toxicity.

        How and when did the MDs, Clergy, and Lawyers come to the place where they explicitly banned sexual and romantic relationships between practitioners and the people they serve? (I am not expecting an answer, but more wondering out loud. Maybe this is a research project someone has already tackled, or for an enterprising student)

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      • And please do join the AHA. I dropped my membership after getting a job. Then I rejoined four years ago and have found the whole thing more useful. My one complaint is that the AHA is totally geared towards the needs of top ten PhD programs and Research Ones. The organization needs to support regional comprehensive universities like the ones we work at. The AHA needs smart people to ask pointed questions and to formulate concise solutions to painful problems.

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      • Matt–I just got an email from the Executive Director making that very point! Basicaly, “you know, Ann, it would be helpful if you would JOIN US!” (It was a very friendly-like chiding, so especially considering that AHA is coming to Denver, I guess I’ll have to pony up. FINALLY.)

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    • You would know! (Fifty, though? More than 50?)

      I remember years ago meeting a woman who had studied in my graduate department in the late 60s/early 70s, but who dropped out. She pointedly noted that in her day, women students didn’t have it as good or as easy as they did in my generation, and she was still quite upset about it. (I didn’t argue with her–I’m sure she was right.)

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  3. I just need to say: this post is getting LOADS of hits today, but strangely, so few comments.

    Or is it strange? Why the fear about talking about this? What are we hiding and who are we afraid of offending?

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    • We are afraid of ourselves. I have been thinking about this post a lot, even after I made some comments. It made me reflect on some patterns of behavior at my own institution. I can think of one department, a Romance language, that totally faltered because the program head was a male professor who liked to “flirt” with his students. He was creep and he was a harasser. Program enrollment declined until only the most senior professor was left standing, him. The creep retired and has been replaced by a female visiting assistant professor whose academic career counts on being able to renew a program that was blighted by twenty years of sexual harassment and professional neglect. So this colleague has to build enrollments and undo all that damage with her contract being renewed one year at a time.

      Excuse my French but this is totally fucked up. Students suffered because the College of Liberal Arts Faculty and Administration failed to take this guy on. The union could have helped out here. Formally, they have to insist on due process hearings in cases like this, but we union members could have also made it clear that we could not and would not tolerate sexual harassment of students or colleagues by our members.

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  4. I’m with you on this cause. It’s not only the real hurt that accrues to students and staff who are sexually targeted by people in a position of power over them. It’s the cloud that hangs over students and staff who struggle with the presumption that they are “beneficiaries” of some faculty member’s sexual interest.

    As you say, medical associations have no difficulty clearly declaring a conflict of interest for such situations. Why can’t academics say the same thing?

    And, you know, if true love arises in a relationship that begins with a meeting in an academic environment between a faculty member and someone who is not and who is also subordinate to them in the hierarchy of things? It is clear that the person in the position of power should be the one stepping back and stepping away from continuing the inappropriate power dynamics of the teacher/student or employer/employee relationship.

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    • Right on. If the feelz are so strong, the faculty member should resign his or her position and then date the student.

      (But somehow, I don’t think that would ever occur to anyone – and once again, younger women’s lives and career ambitions are assumed to be disposable and not taken seriously.)

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      • The faculty member doesn’t have to resign. He can wait until she graduates, if it is really true luuuuuuuuuv. (That is always the excuse I’ve heard — we’re in love! I suspect the real reason is that this is the only time these old farts have a chance to date attractive young women half their ages. Not like they are going to make a good impression on the bar scene or tindr).

        And honestly. This is not a problem of “the faculty.” It’s a problem of the male faculty, in 99.9% of the cases.

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      • anon: right on.

        I made the suggestion that the faculty member resign in order to highlight how disposable the (usually women) students are compared to the ways that institutional power rushes to the aid of the (overwhelmingly male) faculty involved in these relationships. I think you’re right: these aren’t the kind of men who can probably compete on a fair field with no favor once the cute 21-year olds are no longer under their thrall as an instructor.

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  5. I think institutional rules on things like this are really important. Removing them from a sort of “frowned-upon grey area” and placing them solidly in an “actionable offense area” is important in establishing the guidelines for both faculty and administrators.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Professional associations have some influence. The AHA’s new guidelines on evaluating digital scholarship and public history, to name two recent examples, are nudging some departments towards the 21st century on these issues.

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  6. I always feel weird on this one, as I married my Ph.D. advisor, back in the day when there were no guidelines. So we created our own, which reflected our understanding of the complexity of the situation. (In other words, we tried to be grownups, and didn’t just fall into bed.)

    That said, it’s a no brainer. And it should be a fundamental rule, not a maybe. It’s the area of the AHA Professional Division.

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    • Dear Susan, you know that I am always thinking of you when I write about this issue on the blog! And I’m always wondering what you will say.

      Thank you for your endorsement here.

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  7. This is a good formulation: professors “shall not enter into any sexual or romantic relationships with their students or employees whose work they directly oversee or evaluate.” The phrase “their students” may be vague; surely it means only “students whose work they directly oversee or evaluate.” It is crucial, I think, that prohibitions on conflicts of interest should be independent of prohibitions on sexual harassment, even though, obviously, some behavior would violate both.

    But I am perplexed, Historiann. Who would respond that you have been “impolite”? And when you ask, “when are you going to stop dating your students?” how many people really are comprehended within this “you”? You cite the Penn History department, and I could tell some stories about a certain English department in my own state where, as recently as thirteen or fourteen years ago, various professors crossed boundaries as if they were crossing t’s. But I have a good eye for ethical transgressions and a reliable memory, and I can’t say I know of much behavior in the eight English departments with which I’ve been associated that would violate your rule as you expressed it in your post.

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    • Maybe English proffies are better behaved than your average, middle-aged Ivy League historian?

      “Their students” is open to interpretation. I would define “their students” conservatively to mean anyone enrolled as a student at my university, but then, I don’t have any sexual interest in students whatsoever so maybe I’m not the person to work out these details. That’s my personal standard, but I can also see cases in which it might be OK to date an age-appropriate returning student who’s not enrolled in one’s own classes or isn’t a major or grad student in one’s own department.

      I’ve had an email from the Executive Director of the AHA, Jim Grossman, suggesting that my proposed language for addition to the AHA Professional Standards is already on the agenda for a meeting this spring, so I assume that my fellow historians will take up the issue & work out the precise language. I’m thrilled that this blog post may have lit a fire on this issue.

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      • “enter into” also covers some useful ground in terms of existing relationships and changing roles. For instance, I have a departmental colleague who was married for a while to the departmental chair — because they were married before one of them became chair — and is now married to an associate dean who could potentially one day become the dean to whom we all report (or they could move to another school but remain in the same basic positions). The key there is that the relationship long predates the unequal power relationship; in fact, they met as grad students in a program at a different school.

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  8. I think the concept of pastoral care is important here. Students are in our care intellectually, psychically, and physically. This is more obvious in a residential setting than in a commuter setting but it is true in both cases. How many proffies do you figure to think of the relationship with students this way?

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    • Thanks! I think a lot, maybe most, university faculty would agree with the proposition that their work is a kind of pastoral care. Most of us–women and men–are decent people, which is why I just don’t understand the interest in protecting the indecent among us.

      Is dating or being sexually involved with our students really intellectual liberty, or another kind of freedom (or license?)

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      • I’m not sure about the pastoral care mindset. I had a service role recently in which I had the opportunity to ask a number of faculty how they help their graduate students get ready for the job market, navigate life, etc. (and ask their students what kinds of conversations they had with their advisors). The faculty overwhelmingly said “not my job”. A friend brought this up in a graduate mentoring workshop and was surprised at the level of hostility to the idea that advisers should be involved with anything other than mentoring research activities.

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      • Ugh. That’s so stupid. (Is that a science-y thing?)

        I’m sure there are clueless A-holes in the humanities, but we’ve been talking and thinking about the “crisis” in academic employment for pushing 50 years now. No one outside of a fossil in a very privileged, private uni hasn’t heard about the importance of mentoring, professional development, and training for alt-ac careers.

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  9. I agree that this is a no-brainer.
    I thought my university prohibited sexual relationships between faculty and their students, but apparently that’s not the case unless I can’t find it in our sexual harassment policy. I believe that the university’s sexual harassment training strongly discourages such relationships, but that’s not the same thing.

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    • Hey, John–it’s great to hear from you.

      I think most universities treat sexual misconduct/harassment as an employment/HR issue, in the way the AHA policy I mentioned does. That needs to change.

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  10. Re “notofgeneralinterest2”’s comment that “it’s also bad for the wives and families of these entitled male faculty members, who supported them through grad school and then get through away like yesterday’s trash”: here you go precisely where we should not go. Professional standards that universities enforce should concern themselves exclusively with professional costs. (Sorry to post my reply down here; the “reply” tab did not appear above.)

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    • I think it’s a perfectly fair issue to raise. I don’t think that notofgeneralinterest was suggesting that universities intervene on behalf of faculty spouses’ and children’s interests, but we can recognize that their lives, too, can be deeply affected by the tradition of male faculty sexual interest in their students.

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    • Absolutely right, EngLitProf: the family thing should not enter into it, nor can it be part of policy discussions. I was expressing a feeling about the collateral damage rather than a reasoned opinion about policy. I should have been more clear on that.

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  11. Good for you, Historiann–both the position you have long taken and your insistence, here in comments, that it’s too important to neglect. I agree with your diagnosis about the silence … at least I’m pretty sure I agree, but I was a little confused by your update above @ 1:00. You divide the diagnosis into 1), male privilege, and 2), upper-middle class mores. But I don’t see much in your words about 2). And I agree with that too. Male privilege explains it all.

    Governing faculty instinctively side with the senior gentleman and his interests. They can’t identify with anyone else: the student/object of desire, the prof’s wife, or–an interest group I think may be most central to this issue–other students.

    To anyone who wants to argue Twoo Wuv/consenting adults/freedom, I don’t have much to say. Maybe you’re right. But affairs between professors and students send an unambiguous message to other students that what matters most about them is their genitals and their sex appeal. Minds and ideas that they bring might be pretty good, but they can never be THAT good.

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    • You’re right–I don’t engage the class issue in my post. But I’ve written here about how a kind of upper middle-class style of aversion to conflict in academic cultures can work to preserve the status quo of power and privilege (which is usually to the benefit of women, not men; whites, not non-whites; straights, not gays, etc.)

      Interesting that everyone commenting here agrees with me about the unseemliness of faculty-student relationships. Are those who are in these relationships unable or merely unwilling to argue their case here, in what they may perceive to be an unfriendly environment? Do they agree in principle while they live their lives another way? Hard to say, unless a dissenter wants to speak up.

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      • I used to be a dissenter, back when I was an undergrad and a grad student. I’m a postdoctoral researcher now (no teaching) and I’ve come to agree with you. On this narrow issue, I mean: I have nothing against age-disparate and status-disparate relationships in general, and in fact rather prefer them, and I raise an eyebrow at the idea of adults needing ‘pastoral care’. But I think ethics demands keeping dating life as far as possible entirely separate from the workplace.

        This is one reason I kind of want to get out of academia or at the very least move to a bigger city where I can actually meet people who have nothing to do with my place of employment.

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  12. In my experience over the past decade, it starts with male privilege in graduate school. That is, the male graduate students date (and marry in some cases) undergrads they’ve taught. I don’t know of any female grad students who have done this, and all of us got frustrated with the men who did, but that frustration didn’t do anything. Then the ones who don’t marry the undergrads get jobs and date their grad students/postdocs, and so it continues.

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    • Gross.

      From the time I was 22 or 23 years old, the undergrads looked like fetuses to me. Is it that some men are turned on by fetuses, or just their vulnerability?

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    • I know a couple female graduate students (now both PhDs and working as professors) who married or are in long-term relationships with men they first met in classes where they (the women) were TAs. But in both cases the women waited until after the classes were long over to begin personal relationships with these men.

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  13. Just to confirm: pastors (in churches that don’t expect celibacy of clergy) are being held to increasingly high standards on this issue as well. In the 1970s, our longtime pastor married a female parishioner (a fellow divorcee) after his first wife left him. As with Susan’s tale, their relationship was the exception that proves the rule: they managed to conduct their brief courtship discreetly, and the marriage continues to be a long and happy one (and being married to a pastor is *not* easy). It’s possible that, even then, the female/parishioner half of the couple briefly transferred her membership to another church, then transferred it back after their marriage (which is basically what a couple would need to do today: dissolve the pastoral relationship before they began dating). It also helped that they lived in the same neighborhood, and had kids of similar ages, so they had opportunities to interact without/before formally dating.

    They’d have to proceed with far more caution today, and that’s to the good. Unfortunately, their story is far less common than the one of the pastor who leaves his (it’s nearly always his, and if the problem has diminished, it’s probably directly in proportion to the rise in numbers of female clergy) family for a parishioner whom he’s been “counseling.” And that’s immensely destructive, not only for the individuals and families involved, but also for the whole congregation (for which you could read department).

    So professional ethics, and professional ethical questions, do carry across professions. Heck, I’m even mad at the bartender who recently accepted the advances of a friend who is going through a rough patch in her marriage, to the detriment of said marriage. I’m not sure whether there’s a professional code of ethics for bartenders, but there should be, and it should include not taking advantage of the person you just assisted, as part of your professional duties, in diminishing hir judgment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • WOW, af–thanks for this. I’ve been offline this weekend & would have missed it.

      THIS: “A great chorus of formal condemnation shall be lifted up, and my male colleagues will sputter with gall, appalled by the actions of bad apples so rare they have been encountered by every single woman I know.”

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  14. I refuse to be bound by petty rules. If I want to flirt with my more attractive students, then I shall do so with impunity. And if it leads to something more intimate, then that is no business of the university! How invasive to think otherwise!

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  15. I’m a little late to the game on this one but this post resonated with me. I’m a graduate student and in my department, a group of students are struggling with an unclear, but in many opinions, unprofessional relationship between a male advisor and a much younger, female advisee. It makes us uncomfortable and breeds favoritism. I’m concerned that it also has the potential to jeopardize the work I’ve done to make myself into a successful female scholar working with this particular advisor. We try to ignore the problem but it crops up every couple of months at academic events. It’s endlessly frustrating and a constant reminder that as graduate students, we just have to sit back and hope that this doesn’t blow up in our faces. From what I gather, this kind of thing happens A LOT in many different schools across the disciplines. But it doesn’t make it any less frustrating to watch as a graduate student, or as a feminist.

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    • Thanks for your comment here, A.D. May I just say eeeeewww, and offer my sympathies?

      I would be cautious in assuming that you know the whole story, however. The young woman advisee may be a fellow victim of this “favoritism,” not a willing participant. Unless you hear it from her, I’d be reluctant to assume–she may also be trying to juggle this faculty member’s attention and retain his professional favor while also avoiding a confrontation about his emotional state. That’s even harder to do than it is to watch it happening before you, believe me.

      You are well within your rights to ask to change advisors, whatever the reality of the situation.

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  16. Thanks for your reply, and point about assumptions. As often happens in these power dynamics, it’s very, very possible that the younger woman I know might not be so eager to participate in whatever is going on. It’s also so important to remember who’s *really* to blame in these situations and it’s unfortunate that vulnerable women become pariahs in the department.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I think that in some cases these young women are throwing themselves at the professors. I definitely had that experience as a GTF, when a young female art model I supervised began to pursue me… even though I am queer and was dating a man. It turned out that she had a pattern of this behavior: pursuing inappropriate relationships with older men.

    In the same department, a year prior, a MFA candidate developed a fixation on a young, good looking male assistant professor. She did the usual set of obsessive female things: showing up unannounced scantily clad at his apartment, waiting in her car all night to see if he came home, etc. She did this for months even though he had a girlfriend in another state. Then, after she stopped, she had a scorched-earth strategy for dealing with this professor. (He was not in a supervisory role over her work in any way). In a small department with a small cohort, this was really socially awkward for everyone, even for people who did not know she’d tried to pursue him.

    Can we legitimately say that all of these young women are victims, instead of willing participants who have daddy issues?

    I think this comes around to supporting your point that departments should have clear and actionable guidelines about these relationships.

    I can see that it would be awkward for schools to enforce, since in recruitment, often a spouse is also given consideration and an employment offer, even if there were no open positions in the spouse’s field. That seems like a double standard in a way.

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    • Students may actively pursue these relationships, but the consequences are not evenly borne. And it’s not difficult to be the adult in a potentially inappropriate situation: say no, document your actions, and discuss it with a Chair.

      If the department or institution has a policy against these relationships, as you note, it’s all very clear.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Pingback: More advice on faculty-student sexual relationships: JUST. DON’T. | Historiann

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