More advice on faculty-student sexual relationships: JUST. DON’T.

Just sayin’

Ugh. Disgusting! As if we need more proof that we need professional standards that prohibit sexual relationships between faculty and students at all levels.  (As in most of life, the solution is just don’t be an a$$hole, isn’t it?  We can avoid so very much trouble in life if we put up this little sampler in our offices, kitchens, and living rooms and obey.)

I’ve made the point here before about how these relationships poison other faculty-student relationships as well as the learning climate in general. But here’s something else that’s ruined when faculty-student sexual relationships are tolerated, something I have direct and sad experience with myself:  the notion that faculty interest in young women’s brains and careers isn’t tainted by sexual motives.

When I read Fernanda Lopez Aguilar’s experiences as an undergraduate student of Thomas Pogge’s at Yale University, I was reminded of something that happened to me as I was finishing college.  What happened to me was much less dramatic, but it was I think very related to the feelings of confusion and humiliation she recounts in the linked Buzzfeed article.

Sadly, although women are now the majority of college students (and have been for two decades at least), young women frequently have their intellectual ambitions questioned and have to wonder about the interest that senior faculty–especially senior male faculty–have in encouraging them.  Lopez Aguilar thought Pogge was interested in supporting her intellectual work, when it turns out his interest was mostly just sexual and prurient:

Lopez Aguilar said she felt a little uncomfortable, but chalked it up to cultural differences. So she told herself it was normal to discuss her thesis on a bike ride with him and at his home, alone. She thought it was strange that he wanted to crash at the Washington, D.C., apartment where she planned to live with her boyfriend over the summer — Pogge was “very tired” of wasting grant money, he explained — but she told him he was more than welcome.

What else can you say to someone who has generously supported your young ambitions up to that point?  After all he is a world-famous ethicist; he couldn’t possibly suggest or do anything ethically or professionally compromising.  When you’re 21 or 22 years old, you rely on the putative adults in charge to introduce you to professional norms and practices, and you trust them because you must.

A quarter-century ago or more, when I was college senior contemplating graduate school, I went to work one day at my off-campus office job and told my co-workers that I was very excited to have met the advisor I wanted to work with at Penn (who was 40 years older than me), my top choice for grad school, and that he had taken the time to meet with me and talk to me at a recent seminar we had both attended.  He had been encouraging and friendly about my application, and I was over the moon to think that I could be admitted to a top program in my field.

Well, my co-workers (in their 30s, when I was in my 20s) were completely derisive of the idea that this man was interested in me because he thought I’d be a good student for the Ph.D. program and make a decent historian one day.  Their smarmy insinuations were deeply, deeply humiliating and even a little destabilizing:  what if I was completely misreading the signals I was getting from this man, and he was in fact just interesting in a young and decorative sexual object?  Could it be true?  Maybe I was a fool instead of a bright young scholar?

My co-workers were undoubtedly being completely sexist and dismissive of me, in that I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have sexualized the interest that a young man’s potential future advisor showed him, nor would they have been so eager to deflate his excitement and ambition as they were mine.  The memory of that embarrassment still stings, like a shocking slap to the face.  But as I’ve written here before, the Penn History department–the one I eventually joined as a Ph.D. student–was full of professors who had preyed upon and/or dated and/or married their grad students.  (In fact, many of the student daters/marriers would be my professors and/or I would be their T.A.s–but my advisor was never one of these.)  So perhaps my co-workers in that off-campus job were right to be skeptical of my advisor’s interest in cultivating my ambitions.

And that’s yet another reason why faculty need to knock it off, and why the American Historical Association should adopt professional standards that prohibit sexual relationships with our students.  The fact that some faculty do this poisons the atmosphere for all of us and works to the detriment of young women students in particular.

Why, yes! Yes I do.

So what can we do?  The solution is very simple!  Don’t date your students.  Don’t stalk, harass, or overshare your feels with your students.  Don’t expect them to perform emotional or sexual labor for you.  Treat them like professionals, so that they can become the professionals they want to be without being humiliated or having their or your intellectual enthusiasm questioned or second-guessed.  (And the beauty part is that this works regardless of the sex of the students, the faculty, or of their sexual preferences!  Win-win-WIN!  Everybody wins!)