What’s love got to do with it? Beyond desire and consent

Intimate teacher-student relationships must be off-limits even if consent is not an issue, says Agnieszka Piotrowska – who has personal experience of student vulnerability in such asymmetrical relationships

October 18, 2018
Barbed wire heart
Source: Getty

The operation of power and desire in asymmetrical relationships is one of the most fraught topics of the post #MeToo debate. A great deal of interpersonal history is being reassessed and rewritten in light of it.

I will get to my own case in due course, but one well-known example is that of Monica Lewinsky. Twenty years after her infamous affair with Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, she recently reframed what happened between them. In a March article in Vanity Fair, she conceded that it was a consensual relationship, but suggested that it might have been abusive structurally, and clearly should not have taken place because of the profound asymmetry of power between a White House intern and the president of the United States.

A statement such as Lewinsky’s is both thought-provoking and troubling. Would she have us conclude that desire between two people from different levels in the hierarchies of power – whether regarding class, age, culture, wealth or ethnicity – should always be deemed abusive? This is a very dangerous assertion, as it would seem to cast some legitimacy on the kinds of statutory prohibitions once imposed on desire in Nazi Germany, the American South and apartheid-era South Africa.

As a matter of basic personal freedom, we must be allowed to desire people who are not like us. What grown-ups do in situations of privacy is surely their business, as long as they do consent to it – and are prepared to accept the consequences.

But does the issue of intimate relationships between students and academic staff constitute a special case? It is worth reflecting on this question in connection to the recent finding by New York University that Avital Ronell, its notable professor of German and comparative literature, sexually harassed her former PhD student Nimrod Reitman.

Roses and barbed wire


That the story is a striking variation on the normal theme of a man taking interest in/abusing a young woman has cast the issue of sexual predation by powerful people in a new perspective. Ronell and Reitman – who is now a postdoctoral assistant at Ghent University and a visiting fellow at Harvard University – are both gay and both Jewish. Ronell’s emails, now in the public domain, consistently referred to a supposed love between them.

Retrospectively, and as a form of defence, Ronell apparently claimed that her correspondence was mere “rhetoric cushioning”, a game they both played. However, a thorough examination of the emails, as well as my conversations with her close friends, reveals that, for Ronell, love was indeed the driving force of her actions: love that she thought was reciprocated and consented to, despite all the obvious power asymmetries, including that of age (she is more than 30 years older than her former student).

NYU took 11 months to investigate the Title IX case against Ronell, and found her guilty of sexual harassment but cleared her of assault, stalking and retaliation. It has suspended her for a year. Accounts by her former students that have since become public indicate that her style of academic supervising has been problematic over the years and that Reitman’s case might have been extreme but not completely unique. For instance, it seems that Ronell often referred to a profound emotional “transference” between herself and her students, which she considered an asset and perhaps even a necessary tool in the pedagogic process. “Transference” is a Freudian term that refers to a redirection of a patient’s feelings for a significant other person to the therapist, often manifesting itself as sexual desire. Ronell has also been quoted as saying that she insists on making students love her, and on “breaking” them before “putting them back together intellectually” in order to influence their thinking and their work.

Reitman is now suing both Ronell and NYU for the trauma he has suffered, claiming that the events have negatively affected his life and stymied his career. Ronell denies all the allegations against her.

If intimate relationships between academic staff and students are not straightforwardly forbidden by universities, they are certainly strongly discouraged. Despite this, they are fairly common. A female academic I know points out that there are numerous examples of such relationships ending in happy marriages. And a male colleague asks: “If your whole life is in the academy, how do you even meet anybody outside it?”

That colleague recently had what he describes as a “near love affair” with an undergraduate when he was a visiting academic overseas. She wrote him emails suggesting that there was an unmistakable connection between them that they should not ignore. She was beautiful, clever and, at 25, older and more mature than most undergraduates. He was still single (he is lovely, and has a somewhat colourful personal life) and looks younger than most people do in their early forties.

“Nothing happened, obviously,” he tells me. “I did not act because of the ridiculous circumstance we find ourselves in right now: following the #MeToo campaign, there is total confusion between sexual harassment and healthy desire. I did not want to find myself in a scandal and possibly without a job. I liked the woman, but I was not prepared to risk everything for the connection she referred to. But, yes, for sure, I wish I had. Surely you must agree that these prohibitions are but neoliberal nonsense?”

Actually, I don’t. I feel strongly about the permissibility of asymmetrical amorous relationships in many walks of life, and I advocate caution in calling them structurally abusive. But I also feel that it is right and proper to draw the line at romantic entanglements between students and academic staff. To my mind, the issue is to do with care and responsibility for the student, rather than consent. And my views are not purely theoretical reflections.

A very long time ago, I was a 20-year-old undergraduate at a provincial UK university. I was bright, young, pig-headed and very foreign, doing a difficult degree involving reading modern languages in English, which was not my first language. A lecturer in his late forties, who was also my personal tutor, recognised my deep anxieties but thought that I was talented and offered me invaluable guidance.

His attention made me feel special and increased my enthusiasm for my studies. I now realise that he was going through a midlife crisis of sorts, his academic career being somewhat stuck despite his having obtained his doctorate at one of the very best universities in the country (or “in the world”, as he would put it).

For two years, nothing inappropriate occurred during our weekly one-to-one tutorials. He was a great teacher, a great guide and an inspirational force. My dissertation was far too ambitious for an undergraduate project, but I enjoyed working on it tremendously, and my tutor encouraged me to apply to do a doctorate at the University of Oxford. To cut a very long story short, I received an offer from Oxford and a promise of a scholarship conditional on my getting a first-class bachelor’s degree.

Six weeks before my final exams, as I sat in my tutor’s office, he told me that my dissertation had been given a high first. I burst into tears. He took me in his arms. I felt so grateful, overwhelmed by what I thought was love. We had sex on the floor of his office, there and then, on the worn departmental carpet.

I was horrified almost immediately. He was my beloved tutor, perhaps a father figure – but I did not want to sleep with him.

What followed was a turbulent fling that certainly was not a good idea just before my finals. I was deeply unhappy and confused. Two weeks into the affair, perhaps trying to do the right thing, my tutor took me to look at a little house in one of the streets nearby and said: “I will divorce my wife. Why don’t we live here, you and I?”

I almost fainted. “But I don’t want to stay here!” I blurted out. “I want to go to Oxford!”

He was upset. He said that I could do a doctorate with him, right here. But I knew it was all wrong and, two weeks before my finals, I finished the relationship. My heart was broken – and so, perhaps, was his.

I did not get a first. It is very possible that I messed up myself. It is equally possible that my tutor marked me down ever so slightly. Either way, I was in despair.

I still remember looking at the results board, seeing “2:1” instead of “First” next to my name and thinking: “My life as I wanted it to be is over.” I cried all day long. But I did not complain. I did not ask for my papers to be re-marked. I had no idea that I had such rights.

My tutor came to see me in my lodgings, reiterating that I could do a doctorate with him instead. I took a train to London the following day and have not seen him since.

Confetti on the pavement


I did lots of fascinating things in my life before returning to the academy some 20 years later to do a PhD on – as it happens – transference outside the clinic: specifically, in the context of the asymmetrical power relationship between documentary film-makers and their subjects. Things worked out well in my life – but this is not the point. I still wish that the whole episode with my tutor had never happened.

We cannot control desire itself, but we can control how we act on it. In his 1915 paper on transference-love, Freud urged his trainee analysts to watch out for it. We are here to do the work, he told them, not to form intimate relationships.

Transference in education has been written about fairly extensively, and Ronell’s case was preceded by several others. One example is that of Jane Gallop, distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She argued 20 years ago that sexual encounters between graduate students and professors should not be frowned on. Her book Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment – written in reaction to having been accused of sexual harassment by two female graduate students – presents a powerful argument for sexual freedom as a tool against patriarchy.

In response, in a 2000 essay, “Fight the Power”, Tania Modleski, professor of English at the University of Southern California, rightly points out that the issue is about power and not gender. And it seems to me that it is important to regard the formal duty of care that academics have towards their students not as a draconian neoliberal prohibition but rather as a request to bear in mind the vulnerability of many of our charges, regardless of their age, gender, sexual preference, intelligence or level of confidence.

It is banal but equally necessary to reiterate that if desire is mutual and overwhelming, there are many remedies available. The most obvious is to report the relationship and disengage it from the formal hierarchical structure by having the department remove the academic from direct supervision of the student. But let’s be blunt here. If the desire emerges from the asymmetrical structure itself – the student’s fascination with the powerful teacher – then it may wane if that structure is removed.

We as teachers have a simple objective: to guide, to teach and to inspire. Not to break or possess or fuck or otherwise mess with our students emotionally or physically by playing out our fantasies or trying out our eccentricities on them – however astonishingly fascinating we might think we are. It is also worth remembering that in Plato’s Symposium , it is Socrates’ pupil, Alcibiades, who desires full physical contact with his mentor, in accordance with the culture of ancient Greece. But Socrates turns his beautiful student down, advocating abstinence for the sake of knowledge and love.

I shan’t be lodging a complaint against the now-retired tutor who fucked me on that worn departmental carpet so many years ago. But I have no sympathy for Avital Ronell, either.

Agnieszka Piotrowska is a film-maker and theorist. She is a reader in film practice and theory at the University of Bedfordshire and a visiting professor in film at Gdansk University, Poland. She has written extensively on psychoanalysis, cinema and culture and is chair of the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies’ Practice Research Awards.

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Print headline: What’s love got to do with it?

Reader's comments (6)

What about female professors who harass their partners/husbands female students? Please explore this aspect of the student-teacher relationship. I am pretty sure that you will find many stories where female students have been a victim of an insecure wife.
Out if bounds IMO. Lecturers mark their student scripts.
The issue is one of power, control and influence, irrespective of whether it is in a University or any other workplace relationship. Where the assymetric relationship reflects very different work status and control, their is likely to be problematic consequences. On the one hand, the high status partner may make demands on the other, which may be unwelcome but which the low status partner feels have to be complied with. There is also a high chance that the relationship will be dissolved at the whim of the higher status partner. On the other hand, the relationship may see unfair status (in the workplace setting) being gained by the lower status partner (rapid promotion, higher pay, better benefits, including better marks in a higher education setting). Where the partnership is equal, in the sense both control how it develops, and where no unfair advantages accrue in the workplace then there is not an issue. So not a blanket off-limits policy.
In the military, it's forbidden to have an intimate relationship with someone you command (or who commands you)... but anyone else - irrespective of rank - is fair game within the normal constraints of mutal constraint. That too is a 'power' issue, that it is all too easy to allow bias to creep in. It makes sense to adopt a similar principle in academia... and if true love is really there, a few scant years and the object of your desire is no longer your supervisor or your student, and a relationship can be struck up post-graduation if that is what the pair of you want.
Oops... intended to say 'mutual consent' not 'mutual constraint', sorry :)
This is a very important article. I was harassed by one of my professors in graduate school and have recently written about it (see: https://mgpiety.org/2018/10/08/reflections-on-reflections-from-a-hashtag/ ). There is one possible way of dealing with strong physical attraction between a professor and a student, however, that has yet to be mentioned: waiting. Students, even graduate students, are not students forever. If the individuals concerned have a genuine emotional, and not merely physical, attraction, and mutual respect, then they have the option of delaying the start of a romantic relationship until after the student is no longer a student. There is also the option of the professor's extricating himself, or herself, from any and all positions of authority relative to the student in question. Have the student transfer to another professor's course, resign from the student's dissertation committee, recuse oneself from discussions concerning the student's progress through the program, etc., etc. Arguably, all that should be done when a professor becomes aware of a strong attraction, even if there is no mutual acknowledgement and no actual physical relationship yet. Yes, students and professors will continue to be attracted to one another. There are more and less responsible ways of dealing with that, however.

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