Sex and the university

Romantic attractions between teacher and student may be as old as pedagogy itself, but now such relationships cause people to worry about abuses of power and litigation. Only half of institutions have any guidelines on such relationships. Are they needed? asks Hannah Fearn

May 22, 2008

When dramatist Stephen Lowe took up a post as visiting writer at Dartington College of Arts, he expected the job to boost his theatre career. What he hadn't anticipated was that he would meet his life partner. Lowe, then 31, fell for his 21-year-old undergraduate student Tanya Myers. After years, the pair still live and work together and are the parents of two children.

It may sound like the contrived plot of a campus novel, but Lowe's story is not unique. Despite widespread concern about abuse of power and conflicts of interest, sexual relationships between tutor and student often flourish within academe.

"I have altogether too much experience of teachers engaging in sexual relations with students, both their own students and (those of) their colleagues," remembers Alan Ryan, now warden of New College, Oxford. He looks back on his early career at Keele University with fond memories of the relationships that began between young academics and their students. "In my misspent youth, my ability to resist temptation was not great, and since I started teaching in the early 1960s, and new faculty were mostly only a couple of years older than the finalists, the discovery of sexual pleasure was a shared experience," he says.

"Of the affairs I remember, an awful lot turned into highly successful marriages, though a good many were simple flings," he says. "There were, of course, spectacular characters who weren't like this at all. Freddie (A.J.) Ayer (the philosopher) fell into bed with everyone who was remotely willing, and an awful lot of young women were very happy to tick him off on the list of famous professors they had laid."

Attitudes are beginning to harden, however. Like their US counterparts, which have historically been stricter on campus relationships, British universities are starting to crack down on such liaisons. Policies are being drafted to deal with relationships and the inevitable conflicts of interest that can follow - as one might put it, "an A for a lay". Questions of morality and responsibility, sexuality and pedagogy are being raised.

But however an institution chooses to tackle the problem, it's certainly not going to disappear. As Ryan points out: "The availability of partners is a geographical matter; if you are cooped up on a campus, who are you likely to fall into bed with?"

When Lowe and Myers began their relationship, they did not face any opposition from Dartington College: the pair simply declared their partnership, and Lowe was taken off any marking assessment duties for Myers. But Lowe worries that today their relationship would be frowned upon. He says tough regulations against tutor-student relationships at the college would have done little to stem the flourishing romance.

"It wouldn't have stopped us," he says. "It's two consenting adults having a relationship. All the students are over 18 years old; they are adults in the way that we recognise. No university lecturer is in loco parentis. I spent a lot of time teaching in institutions, and I have never found a lecturer or professor who would disagree with me.

"If there were relationships between staff and students, the main problem was that the staff might use that relationship for the benefit of the student. We simply declared that we were having a relationship."

Lowe admits that in their early relationship, because of the nature of their pedagogical association there was an imbalance of power. But this imbalance, he says, is not unique to the student-teacher relationship.

"Stop it with directors and actors, and there wouldn't be any theatre left in the world. It's the same for any job or workplace - there's somebody in a more powerful position. It's even less so in the university system if the power of allocating marks and grades is withdrawn," Lowe says. He fears that new policies to crack down on relationships between staff and students are "absurd invasions" in staff and students' private lives.

For Jane Gallop, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the US, tough policies on relationships are affecting tutors' ability to teach.

In her book Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, she says: "At its most intense - and, I would argue, its most productive - the pedagogical relation between teacher and student is, in fact, a 'consensual amorous relation'."

Gallop is candid about her relationships with both male and female students, and her exploits as a graduate student herself, when she slept with two men on her dissertation committee. She is more than aware of the power relationship that existed between them.

"I think I wanted to get them into bed in order to make them more human, more vulnerable. These two had enormous power over me: I don't mean their institutional position but their intellectual force. I was bowled over by their brilliance; they seemed so superior. I wanted to see them naked, to see them as like other men. Not so as to stop taking them seriously as intellectuals (I never did), but so as to feel my own power in relation to them," she says.

But today's stricter rules on tutor-student conduct have come to haunt her. Gallop found herself accused of sexual harassment by a 30-year-old female student with whom she admits she had shared a charged and flirtatious friendship. She was 38 years old at the time.

"I was not sleeping with, dating or attempting to have sexual contact with any student. The student got angry because I did not approve of the shoddy work she was doing, and rather than try to understand how to improve her work she accused me of sexual harassment, said I was trying to sleep with her and that I was using the work to pressure or punish her," Gallop says.

"While the university found no grounds to that, I was reprimanded for engaging in playful flirtatious relations with students. Except for my close friends, my colleagues seemed to delight in gossip - lesbianism and the taking down of a distinguished professor. And I felt that the university administration and community were confusing sexual harassment - trading grades for sexual favours - with something quite different: a complicated, erotically charged teacher-student relationship."

Gallop believes that strict measures barring any relationships between staff and students will not only be unsuccessful but will destroy the pedagogical union between the two.

"I worry about the effect of the policy on teaching relationships that are not literally sexual but are warm or personal or flirtatious. I worry that they will make faculty wary of any personal or complicated relationships, and such relationships have been - for the four decades that I've been in the academy - typical of some of the best and most meaningful pedagogical relationships. I worry that they will turn these life-changing relationships into a businesslike client relationship."

In the UK, attitudes towards relationships in academe are changing rather more slowly. In 2005, figures revealed after a Freedom of Information Act request by Times Higher Education showed that 50 out of 102 institutions had no policy requiring staff to declare sexual or other relationships with students that might give rise to a conflict of interest. Of those that did, few appeared to apply them: just 17 universities had any current records on file.

In the same year, 18 per cent of respondents to a poll conducted by the Teacher Support Network said that they had had a sexual relationship with a student. Despite this, only 73 relationships were officially recorded and just five of these were defined as sexual or romantic. Many respondents, 62 per cent, said they did not know whether or not their university had a protocol on such matters.

Nevertheless, attitudes among academics have already shifted. "Many more of my colleagues now teach one to one with the room door open. I also know that there are people who avoid teaching certain topics," says Mary Beard, professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge. "That can't be a good thing."

She remembers two personal stories of close but non-sexual relationships that flourished at the university. While an undergraduate, Beard regularly spent long weekends with her tutor, who was decades her senior. Although the relationship was purely pedagogical, she admits that his motives may have been rather different from hers. Similarly, as a tutor, Beard formed a friendship with a young male student who eventually helped teach her to drive, sitting as her passenger regularly while she practised and improved.

"In the Oxbridge of the Twenties and Thirties, students went on holiday with their tutors," she says. "It wouldn't happen now. It's hard to know where the barrier lies between institutional rules and a change in the culture. I think it's very hard to know which is which," she adds.

"In some ways we have to accept that there is an erotic dimension to pedagogy. If you take a traditional Oxbridge-style tutorial system, that's one thing that students love and it's some of the most interesting teaching when you really get to know someone. That doesn't mean it's about feeling someone up, but it is passionate. The difficulty is that that's a terribly sexy experience; two people sitting together really talking through how Latin love poetry works. How do you desexualise that?"

The issue is compounded as universities become more diverse working environments. Whereas in the past a typical student-teacher relationship would have been an older male tutor beginning a sexual liaison with a young female undergraduate student, now it is just as likely to be a situation where a former City trader in his thirties returning to higher education begins a relationship with his grad tutor in her late twenties.

This has also erased some of the previously held beliefs about undergraduate students being off limits and postgraduates being fair game. In higher education today, where students of all backgrounds and all ages are studying at all levels, there are no clear boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable relationships.

"I think it's a tricky moral dilemma," Beard says. "I think it's undeniable that some students and staff have been hurt by these kinds of relationships. I think it's also undeniable that there have been people who have gained from them."

But for some, whatever the age of the two individuals, the power relationship inherent between tutor and student means that sexual contact is tantamount to abuse of that power.

A decade ago, Paul Norris, then a social sciences lecturer at Southampton Institute (now Southampton Solent University), caused controversy when he left his wife for a student. He had previously been disciplined by the institution in 1992 for having a sexual relationship with a student on a course he both taught and assessed. His wife, who vowed to set up a support group for other women in her position, claimed that lecturers "perceive sex with students as a perk of the job". "It seems common to me, and universities seem very blase," she stated.

One senior lecturer working in London says she has seen too many young people distressed by the break-up of such relationships. When she conducted a straw poll among a group of colleagues and students, only two people felt it was wrong for a tutor to have a relationship with a student - a figure she cannot understand. She says relationships are formed because tutors prey on the naivety of students or because knowing young men and women use a member of staff for their own ends.

"It's an enormous misuse of power," she says. "It's like a doctor's relationship with their patient. The academic has the power to allow the person to pass or not. It's more subtle than that. It's about helping them get jobs, it's about speaking up for them. People who say 'yes' to whatever the relationship is often find their career benefits. Where there is an imbalance of power, I think it inevitably happens."

If the relationship is comparable to that between a doctor and a patient, or an officer and a private within the Forces, then arguably universities should be looking to put in place similarly strict regulations carefully guiding the friendships that form between individuals in the academy and ensuring that these do not escalate, even though in law they are relationships between two consenting adults.

In their book The Lecherous Professor, Billie Wright Dziech and Linder Weiner comment: "Few students are ever, in the strictest sense, consenting adults. A student can never be the genuine equal of a professor insofar as his professional position gives him power over her ... Whether the student consents to the involvement or whether the professor ever intends to use his power against her is not the point. The issue is that the power and the role disparity always exist."

Brian Martin, lecturer in the department of science and technology at Wollongong University, Australia, agrees. He has written on the issue on numerous occasions, citing his concerns at the lack of action being taken by universities on the matter.

"University teachers hold positions of trust. They are expected to design teaching programmes and carry out their teaching duties to help their students develop as mature thinkers ... for impressionable young students, the boundaries between intellectual development and personal life may easily become blurred," he says.

"Even if academic evaluations are kept completely independent of personal involvements, it is likely that there will be an appearance of bias in the eyes of other students. When a key academic, who should be a mentor, shows a keen interest in a student's body, it often sends a signal that their intellect is of secondary importance. The impact on the student's self-confidence can be devastating."

He is also dismissive of the value of formal institutional policies. "I don't think policies on their own make a lot of difference," he says. "Many policies exist, but I'm not aware of any studies examining whether they are enforced."

The potential for abuse of power is certainly an important issue, and one that is well recognised and well understood. Nevertheless, most personal relationships entered into by people in all walks of life involve some basic balancing of power and control. One should perhaps not expect relationships that grow within academe to be immune or exempt from these concerns.

"I personally don't think it's a problem," says one student representative from a major London institution. "Although I do think it is an abuse of power, it is a part of life. There will always be inter-office relationships - sleeping your way to the top. Sex and seduction is always an abuse of power. Power is, after all, one of the core natural tools of seduction. Why should the education sector be any different?"

So what should universities do about the issue? Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union, says the union believes that relationships between staff and their students raise serious questions of conflict of interest, trust and equal treatment. She encourages staff to declare any relationship with a student to a colleague or a superior.

"Any declaration must be treated in complete confidence, and there should not be a requirement to give details of the nature of the involvement. It should then be the duty of the appropriate authorities within the university to organise the staff member's professional duties to avoid contact with the student concerned. While staff are strongly advised to disclose such relationships, failure to disclose should not, in itself, constitute grounds for disciplinary action."

But for the senior lecturer working in London, this approach is not robust enough. Those students or members of staff who feel that they have been treated unfairly in a sexual relationship in their department will be unable to complain effectively through their institution. A formal policy, though essential, may not be enough to combat the problem.

"I think the problem is that if you don't have (formal policies) there is no redress at all. If you have them, people at least know legally that it's not supposed to happen. It's still quite hard to press a charge against a member of staff who holds your marks and grades. It's like rape. If you do complain, you're complaining in a very patriarchal society."

Universities UK says that it is up to individual institutions to decide what their policy is on such "sensitive" areas and to implement those. There are no broad guidelines available to UK universities to help them draft a policy, but nationally the Office of the Independent Adjudicator can pick up cases where, for example, sexual harassment is claimed and the university itself is unable to resolve the case.

"They will consider extenuating circumstances that a student claims affected their performance and the institution didn't adequately respond to - this could include a relationship with an academic," a UUK spokesperson confirmed.

This kind of careful "monitoring" of relationships leaves many academics cold, but while threats of sexual harassment cases loom there seems little alternative for universities. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that most individuals would not choose to begin a sexual or romantic relationship in their workplace or with a person for whom they have direct managerial or pedagogical responsibility. As Lowe comments of his own experience: "It's a difficult place to have a relationship. It's embarrassing whatever you do."

With that in mind, academics advocate a soft approach to the enforcement of the rules. "I think the institution has to look out for people and make sure everybody looks out for each other," Beard states. "I think a kind of police state where everybody is sniffing out to see how close X is getting to Y is wrong.

"It's a lot like smoking. You can't get people to give up unless you recognise that sometimes it's pleasurable."


Sexual relationships between students and staff are not just a possibility, they are a frequent occurrence.

But these days, when universities are ever more aware of the risks of litigation from students, parents or others, how should they react to the possibility of sexual relationships between students and staff? Should these be banned? Or would this be an infringement of freedoms?

The strongest case for banning such liaisons (assuming both parties are above the legal age for consent) is if relevant asymmetries in the relationship are such that sexual relationships have too great a possibility of being coercive.

This is the case in countries where some students are forced to trade sex for marks.

But in the UK the likelihood of this happening is very low and could be reduced further through universal anonymised double-marking of all coursework and examinations.

Of course, people may disapprove or have moral qualms about certain sexual relationships (including those between staff and students who differ greatly in age, material wealth or power), but a universal ban requires convincing evidence that introducing one would prevent substantial harm.

My judgment is that although sexual relationships between students and staff in a university can, in some instances, be harmful, this falls short of the potential for exploitation and harm that we see in relationships between doctors and their patients or between therapists and their clients.

For this reason, it is right that sexual relationships are banned in these professions - but we don't need a universal ban in universities in all but the most specialised of settings (for instance, university counselling and medical services).

Michael Reiss is professor of science education at the Institute of Education, University of London, and editor of the journal Sex Education.


American universities are much stricter in their institutional policies on sexual or romantic relationships between students and academics than their UK counterparts.

Many institutions declare an outright ban on relations between students and tutors, in effect equating a romantic relationship with personal harassment due to the nature of the power relationship between the two parties. Most require a declaration of the relationship to the institution.

The differences between the US and UK sectors in their attitudes towards sex on campus have developed partly as a result of the traditional age gaps inherent in the American sector.

"In the US, you don't start teaching until your thirties - we were in our twenties - and the students start young, (at) 17," says Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, and a former member of academic teaching staff at Princeton University.

But the system of awarding marks to a student has also had an impact. "Some of it must be to do with the amount of power US professors have over students," Ryan says. Unlike in some American institutions, most British students are not monitored and graded by one member of staff throughout their university education.

"Aside from having rules that kept us out of a potential conflict of interest," Ryan says, "the discontinuous assessment system meant that trading grades for sexual favours wasn't possible."

According to Jane Gallop, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, "tough policies have become the norm across America". She accepts the drivers behind the policies, but fears that they have become so strict that they stifle the teaching relationship shared by students and academic staff.

"The university should be stringent in the punishment of sexual harassment but should not 'monitor' personal student-tutor relationships in other ways," she says.


- In one survey, 18 per cent of academics reported having had a sexual relationship with a student

- 21 per cent said this contravened their institution's protocol on staff-student relationships, 26 per cent said it did not, 41 per cent said they did not know and 12 per cent said there was no policy on the matter

- Of those who had had such a relationship, only 30 per cent declared it to avoid conflicts of interest; 70 per cent did not.

Source: Times Higher Education and the Teacher Support Network (2005).

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Reader's comments (1)

This can be a complicated situation from a post-graduate student's perspective because of the power imbalance and the because study and supervision at this level can involve the close discussion of the student's work, thereby involving a closer emotional dynamic or trust between professor and student. From my own experience as a post-graduate, I was propositioned for sex directly during one-to-one supervision. The professor at one point made a full blown proposition for an affair, on his terms he stated, but did so in front of another academic staff member thereby introducing a further complication because he did so in a way that was demeaning to myself by using coarse and demeaning gutter type sexual language, by name calling me using bad language and by making reference to rape. The other staff member who was present during this sorry event also used coarse sexual language against me. I can say that I have rarely felt so objectified, confused, belittled and disrespected, but have not complained officially to this day because of the power imbalance that exists within these paternal organisations and because if I did I would worry that my academic prospects would be further hindered. There should be mechanisms in universities to protect students from being bullied, and to protect their interests for career progression.