Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience

Sex in the academy dates back to Socrates, but universities today still struggle to deal with the issue. Alan Ryan considers the conundrum of student-staff relationships.

January 17, 2008

This is a well-intentioned, good-natured, generally interesting but oddly exasperating treatment of a very old subject: should universities and colleges forbid consensual sexual relationships between faculty and students? There are obviously many things they should forbid - trading grades for favours or favours for grades; flirting with students in a seminar in ways that make everyone else uncomfortable or suspicious; leaking examination questions to boyfriends or girlfriends.

Most problems can be taken care of in obvious ways, mainly by ensuring that faculty neither teach nor examine students with whom they are romantically involved. This can be difficult even for the most enlightened institution; long ago, I knew at least one young woman whose papers were fastidiously not marked by most of my colleagues under the age of 40 and at least one of them a good deal older than that. By and large, it isn't difficult; there is wide agreement on where affection becomes favouritism, what constitutes harassment, even on the subtler issues of just how consensual consensual sexual relations can be between people of different ages and different degrees of institutional power. Of course, when things turn nasty, they turn very nasty; but they don't ordinarily do so.

Although it isn't difficult to devise ways of ensuring non-favouritism and non-harassment, doing so presupposes that the institution is not going to enact a blanket or near-blanket ban on faculty-student affairs. But many US institutions have done just that, and such bans are Paul Abramson's target. By profession a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Abramson's field of expertise is human sexuality. Here, however, he wraps himself in the robes of the constitutional lawyer and argues that institutions such as the University of California are violating the rights of employees and presumably those of students, too.

The argument is not hard to construct; American courts have long extended the "free expression" protections of the First Amendment to all sorts of things that would have astonished James Madison - not only to young men with "Fuck the Draft" on their jackets, but to young women dancing naked on bar counters. What the First and Fourteenth Amendments won't cover, the Ninth can often be made to, via a sympathetic Supreme Court. The Ninth Amendment is the famous catch-all clause that reads: "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

Among those others that have been detected in the penumbra of the enunciated rights is the right to privacy that foiled attempts to prohibit contraception and that some courts used to protect abortion rights. Given the place of the Bill of Rights in US political argument and the indeterminacy of notions such as liberty and privacy, the temptation to march into battle under its banner - at least against publicly funded institutions - on behalf of a more relaxed approach to consensual liaisons is obvious enough.

It is less obvious that it is either the best terrain on which to argue or the most fruitful way to illuminate the very particular and interesting issues raised by romantic attachments in the workplace generally, and the academic workplace in particular. American free expression jurisprudence is replete with discussions of "time, place and manner", and courts have been ingenious both for better and for worse in curtailing and extending the rights of political and religious demonstrators over other people's car parks and train stations; one could have a high old time tinkering with a university's prescriptions and proscriptions about faculty-student relationships in the light of that tradition. Given how far the current judicial climate favours employers' rights over employees' privacy, I'd not be optimistic about my chances in a US court.

Abramson's instincts seem to me to be right; many institutions are much too frightened of romantic liaisons. If individuals are to have romantic liaisons at all, it is likely that many will be formed at work, since we spend a great deal of time there, in close proximity to plausible partners. Unduly restrictive regulations cause misery out of proportion to the good they do. However, the trouble with operating in terms of rights is that they induce inflexible reactions - people stand on their rights, but this is an area where nuances are all important.

So, why is Abramson rather exasperating? Only because he could plainly have written a less legalistic and more interesting book. Sex in the academy starts with Socrates and Alcibiades; the thought that serious intellectual exchanges have a strong erotic component - sublimated, hoped Socrates, into a love of truth - is a more interesting starting point than Allen Ginsberg's observation that the best teaching takes place in bed. One would have thought it was the more natural starting point for a psychologist, too.

Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience

By Paul R. Abramson.
MIT Press
176pp
£12.95
ISBN 9780262012379
Published 30 November 2007

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