Dear Prudence

To Catch a Professor

A student told me she has sex with two senior faculty members for money. What should I do?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a relatively young, male, and not-yet-tenured professor at a university. My department is overwhelmingly older (55-plus), white, and male. Several of the senior professors in my department, including the chair, have attitudes toward women that are downright sexist. On a number of occasions I have heard these faculty members make comments about the physical appearance of young women that are inappropriate and creepy. However, recently a female student confessed to me something that truly disturbs me. She said that two of the senior faculty, one of whom is the chair of my department, pays her for sex. She said she does not want to tell anyone else, partly for fear of getting in trouble because prostitution is illegal, but also because the two professors are essentially paying her college tuition in exchange for her services. I feel this is an extreme ethical violation, and judging by the character of the two professors probably only the tip of the iceberg. But I am at a severe power disadvantage in this situation. My boss can easily fire me. The dean and provost at my university are also member of this misogynistic “old boys’ club” and I don’t feel I can trust them. If the student refuses to testify, then the perpetrators can simply deny it and no one would believe me. What should I do?

—Ethical Dilemma

Dear Ethical,
I’m sure you’re right that this young woman is not the first student this pair of predators has targeted. Perhaps, long ago, they were somewhat more dashing figures accustomed to inviting female students to office hours for “private meetings”—back when such things were tacitly tolerated. Then they aged and codes of conduct changed. But lucky for them, tuition rates soared, which allowed these now AARP-aged lotharios an opportunity to offer their own financial aid program. This student didn’t get a Pell Grant, so instead she’s been roped into taking a Repellent Grant. I wish you could just blow the whistle on this sickening pair and end their academic careers. But as you note the blowback to you could be severe. For suggestions on courses of action, I turned to employment law attorney Philip Gordon. First of all, Gordon said you have to find out if you are a mandatory reporter, meaning you have an obligation to report this sexual misconduct. If so, that will force your hand. If you aren’t, then I agree with Gordon when he says that before telling anyone else, the right thing is to get the consent of the student who confided in you.

She came to you because she is in distress over the mess she’s in. So you need to have further conversation with her about what she wants to do, and whether she would consider exposing what’s going on. (Gordon said it is unlikely a prosecutor would go after her for prostitution, as the professors seem a better target.) She has to be prepared that revealing what’s happened could potentially be as traumatic as living through it. If the student is undecided, encourage her to seek out a confidential counselor on campus, one who can give her support and guide her through her alternatives. She could also go to the school’s Title IX coordinator, but in that case her confidentiality may not be guaranteed. If you become part of this process, whether or not she wants to tell, you might also want to consult an employment lawyer on your own. Find one with experience in Title IX to see how best to protect yourself. I’m hoping that this pair of faculty members, who have violated every tenet of their profession, get caught. If they do, I bet a generation of female students will come forward to tell their own appalling stories,


Dear Prudence,
My girlfriend has had countless cosmetic surgeries and recently she insisted I have a facelift. She was embarrassed by my “aged appearance” (we are both 37). I reluctantly agreed and spent thousands of dollars for the procedure. I was even (relatively) pleased with the results. Now my girlfriend has determined that one of my toes is “hideously crooked.” She wants it surgically corrected. I refuse to have what I consider another unnecessary surgery (the toe barely curves and I have had no pain or issues). My girlfriend is horrified that I will be out and about wearing flip-flops with my hideous toe for all to see. She told me I had a choice—her or the toe. When I told her I choose the toe, she agreed to stay if I only wear closed-toe shoes. Forever. I should mention that for 37 she has an amazing body. What do you think?

—Crooked Toe

Dear Crooked,
Of course your facelift turned out well—there was nothing to lift. Stay with this woman and I predict a future in which you end up like Michael Jackson, having to constantly wear a bandage on your nose because of all your botched surgeries. Your girlfriend may have a great body—she’s surely paid enough for it—but I’ll play doctor and suggest she may have Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and as regards her demands about you, let’s add BDD-by-proxy to her list of ailments. You know there’s nothing wrong with either your face or your toe, but something’s gone awry with your head. No matter the glory of your girlfriend’s cosmetic enhancements, she’s a nut who’s going to ruin your life. Think of the possibilities of what’s next: an earlobe trim, a scrotum tuck. I say put on your flip-flops with pride and tell her to take a hike.


Dear Prudence,
A few years ago, my father, who was a public official, was killed in a mass shooting in our hometown. Now my wife and I have moved back home after a decade of living elsewhere. I’m happy to be back, but several times a week, I meet someone who hears my unusual last name and wonders aloud, “Now why do I know that name?” And they’ll often spend several minutes comparing high schools and relatives to try to figure it out. On my end I’m comfortable talking about my dad, and it’s great to occasionally run into people who knew him. I also don’t like the dishonest feeling of hiding the obvious answer. On the other hand, it’s quite a bomb to throw into a handshake conversation at the PTA. What’s the etiquette for an encounter like this?

—A Death in the Family

Dear Family,
You should take the lead and explain who your father was: “You’re probably thinking of my late father—he was the deputy chief of police for many years.” Then, if the other person has a rush of memory, and obviously feels mortified for bringing up something painful, continue to guide the conversation: “It’s good to be back home and run into people who knew him. It’s nice to hear how much he meant to this town.” By showing that you are all right and that you welcome talking about your father, you will be putting the other person at ease. It would only compound the terrible manner of your father’s death if the way he died made people feel talking about him was verboten. Let your fellow citizens know that you welcome their reminiscences as a way to celebrate your father’s too short life.


Dear Prudence,
My partner’s grandparents invite us to their riverside cottage several times each summer. My partner refuses to wear a life jacket while on his grandfather’s boat. No one else in his family wears one either. We have a toddler, and I insist that he wear a life jacket and I wear one too. I’m troubled by my partner’s refusal because I believe he should be a role model for our son. I have relatives who invite us to their lakeside cottage occasionally. My family has an expectation that everyone wear a life jacket and my partner has reluctantly consented to wear one when we’re with my family. I want to raise my son to be comfortable in and around water and also have a family culture of safety so he’s not wondering why he and I are the only ones wearing life jackets when he is older. My mom suggested that I refuse to get aboard with our son unless everyone has a jacket on, but that doesn’t sit easily with me. Do you have any other ideas?

—The Water Is Really Cold

Dear Water,
I agree with you about life jackets. They are like seatbelts, in that you wear one for the rare time that you need it, because if you need it and you’re not wearing one, it’s too late. There’s no question about your son’s wearing a life jacket—in most states, as far as children are concerned it’s the law. Even if your partner’s family doesn’t wear theirs, I hope they at least know they need to carry one on board for each passenger. But you’re not going to convince your husband and his family, and I don’t think you should capsize your vacations with them over this issue. If your son eventually notices this discrepancy, just tell him he has to wear one, and you think all grown-ups should—so that’s what you do—but not everyone does. Tell your partner you’re going to drop this, but as a favor you wish he’d read this excellent website:, and you hope that some of the lessons sink in.


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