Off Limits

Should students be allowed to hook up with professors?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The burning academic question of the day: Should we professors be permitted to “hook up with” our students, as the kids put it? Or they with us? In the olden days when I was a student (back in the last century) hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum. (OK, I went to art school.) But that was a different era, back when sex—even when not so great or someone got their feelings hurt—fell under the category of experience, rather than injury and trauma. It didn’t automatically impede your education; sometimes it even facilitated it.

But such things can’t be guaranteed to turn out well—what percentage of romances do?—so colleges around the country are formulating policies to regulate such interactions, to protect against the possibility of romantic adversity. In 2003, the University of California’s nine campuses ruled to ban consensual relationships between professors and any students they may “reasonably expect” to have future academic responsibility for; this includes any student known to have an interest in any area within the faculty member’s expertise. But while engineering students may still pair-bond with professors of Restoration drama in California, many campuses are moving to prohibit all romance between any professor and any student.

Feminism has taught us to recognize the power dynamics in these kinds of relationships, and this has evolved into a dominant paradigm, the new propriety. But where once the issue was coercion or quid pro quo sex, in institutional neo-feminism the issue is any whiff of sexuality itself—or any situation that causes a student to “experience his or her vulnerability.” (Pretty much the definition of sentience, I always thought.) “The unequal institutional power inherent in this relationship heightens the vulnerability of the student and the potential for coercion,” the California code warns, as if any relationship is ever absent vulnerability and coercion. But the problem in redressing romantic inequalities with institutional blunt instruments is that it just confers more power on the institutions themselves, vastly increasing their reach into people’s lives.

Ironically, the vulnerability of students has hardly decreased under the new paradigm; it’s increased. As opportunities for venting injury have expanded, the variety of opportunities to feel injured have correspondingly multiplied. Under the “offensive environment” guidelines, students are encouraged to regard themselves as such exquisitely sensitive creatures that an errant classroom remark impedes their education, such hothouse flowers that an unfunny joke creates a lasting trauma—and will land you, the unfunny prof, on the carpet or in the national news.

My own university is thankfully less prohibitive about student-professor couplings: You may still hook up with students, you just can’t harass them into it. (How long before hiring committees at these few remaining enclaves of romantic license begin using this as a recruiting tool? “Yes the winters are bad, but the students are friendly.”) But don’t think of telling them jokes! Our harassment guidelines warn in two separate places that inappropriate humor violates university policy. (Inappropriateness—pretty much the definition of humor, I always thought.)

Seeking guidance, realizing I was clinging to gainful employment by my fingernails, I signed up for a university sexual-harassment workshop. (Also two e-mail communiqués from the dean advised that nonattendance would be noted.) And what an education I received—though probably not the intended one.

Things kicked off with a “Sexual Harassment Pretest,” administered by David, an earnest mid-50ish psychologist, and Beth, an earnest young woman with a masters in social work. It consisted of unanswerable true-false questions like: “If I make sexual comments to someone and that person doesn’t ask me to stop, then I guess that my behavior is probably welcome.” Everyone seemed grimly determined to play along—probably hoping to get out by cocktail hour—until we were handed a printed list of “guidelines.” No. 1: “Do not make unwanted sexual advances.”

Someone demanded querulously from the back, “But how do you know they’re unwanted until you try?” (OK, it was me.) David seemed oddly flummoxed by the question, and began anxiously jangling the change in his pants pocket. “Do you really want me to answer that?” he asked.

Another person said helpfully, “What about smoldering glances?” Everyone laughed. A theater professor guiltily admitted to complimenting a student on her hairstyle that very afternoon (one of the “Do Nots” on the pretest)—but wondered whether as a gay male, not to have complimented her would be grounds for offense. He started mimicking the female student, tossing her mane around in a “notice my hair” manner. People shouted suggestions for other pretest scenarios for him to perform. Rebellion was in the air. Someone who studies street gangs whispered to me, “They’ve lost control of the room.” David was jangling his change so frantically you had to strain to hear what anyone was saying.

My attention glued to David’s pocket, I recalled a long-forgotten pop psychology guide to body language that identified change-jangling as an unconscious masturbation substitute. (And isn’t Captain Queeg’s habit of toying with a set of steel marbles in his pants pocket diagnosed by the principal mutineer in Herman Wouk’s Caine Mutiny as closet masturbation?) If the very leader of our sexual harassment workshop was engaging in potentially offensive public masturbatory-like behavior, what hope for the rest of us!

Let’s face it: Other people’s sexuality is often just weird and creepy. Sex is leaky and anxiety-ridden; intelligent people can be oblivious about it. Of course the gulf between desire and knowledge has long been a tragicomic staple; these campus codes do seem awfully optimistic about rectifying the condition. For a more pessimistic account, peruse some recent treatments of the student-professor hook-up theme—Coetzee’sDisgrace; Francine Prose’s Blue Angel; Mamet’s Oleanna—in which learning has an inverse relation to self-knowledge, in which professors are emblems of sexual stupidity, and such disasters ensue that it’s hard not to read these as cautionary tales, even as they send up the new sexual correctness.

Of course, societies are always reformulating the stories they tell about intergenerational desire and the catastrophes that result, from Oedipus to faculty handbooks. The details vary, also the kinds of catastrophes prophesized—once it was plagues and crop failure, these days it’s trauma and injury. Even over the last half-century the narrative has drastically changed. Consider the Freudian account, yesterday’s contender as big explanatory story: Children desire their parents, this desire meets up with prohibitions—namely the incest taboo—and is subject to repression. But the desire persists nevertheless, occasionally burbling to the surface in the form of symptoms: that mysterious rash, that obsessional ritual.

Today, intergenerational desire remains the dilemma; what’s shifted is the direction of arrows. In the updated version, parents (and parent surrogates) do all the desiring, children are innocent victims. What’s excised from the new story is the most controversial part of the previous one: childhood sexuality. Children are returned to innocence, a far less disturbing (if less complex) account of childhood.

Excising student sexuality from campus romance codes just extends the same presumption. But students aren’t children. Whether or not it’s smart, plenty of professors I know, male and female, have hooked up with students, for shorter and longer durations. (Female professors do it less, and rarely with undergrads.) Some act well, some are assholes, and it would definitely behoove our students to learn the identifying marks of the latter breed early on, because post-collegiate life is full of them too. (Along with all the well-established marriages that started as student-teacher things, of course—another social reality excised from the story.)

Let’s imagine that knowledge rather than protectionism (or institutional power-enhancement) was the goal of higher education. Then how about workshops for the students too? Here’s an idea: “10 Signs That Your Professor Is Sleeping With You To Assuage Mid-Life Depression and Will Dump You Shortly Afterward.” Or, “Will Hooking Up With a Prof Really Make You Feel Smarter: Pros and Cons.” No doubt we’d all benefit from more self-knowledge about sex, but until the miracle drug arrives that cures the abyss between desire and intelligence, universities might try being educational instead of regulatory on the subject.