Staff-student sexual relationships are potentially damaging and should be discouraged, argues Brenda Billinghurst.
Jennie Bristow, a student at Sussex University, regretted the view that sexual relationships between lecturers and students are bad, which she suggested had led to many universities producing sexual harassment policies (THES, June 2).
She also criticised the Association of University Teachers' code of conduct on personal relations between staff and students in universities.
She asked whether "sleeping with a lecturer is different to sleeping with another student?", and implied that the answer is no or, if yes, only for trivial reasons. She concluded that there is "nothing terrible about having sex with your tutor".She down played the power differential between staff and students as virtually the same as in any sexual relationship because women are unequal to men in society. But it is clear that staff-student sexual relationships entail problems far greater than Ms Bristow admits.
Well, is her argument supported by the evidence? I would say not, and that, although there may be happy outcomes, there is a wealth of evidence against in the United Kingdom and United States.
An AUT member - also originally a sceptic like Ms Bristow - reporting on research into "consensual relationships" between staff and students to the AUT Annual Women's Meeting (1993) said she had changed her mind in the light of the evidence. First, it appears that the staff in such cases are almost always men and the students women. There is evidence of premeditation and a serial element to the relationships. According to one sexual harassment officer, lecturers who have many relationships with students are often well-known as "octopuses" in their departments. She was told when she mentioned one such lecturer "oh, we thought he'd stopped all that". Another said one lecturer had told her that sex at summer school was one of the last "perks of the job".
The National Union of Students has no national policy, but one respondent closely involved with the NUS told me: "Students want to avoid in loco parentis connotations, but they are coerced and they are then not likely to have recourse to harassment procedures because they agreed once and now feel they don't have a leg to stand on."
A student welfare officer confirmed this. She told me she used to see a regular stream of students when such relationships "went wrong" and had not met any students who did not blame themselves, usually with the encouragement of the member of staff.
She said: "They feel guilty, or that they will not be taken seriously or believed because they went along with it once. They may feel flattered or embarrassed into going out with a tutor, they may feel sorry for him because he says he has an unhappy marriage, or simply, as one said, 'not realised he didn't take all his students out to tea'."
This "stream" of unhappy students had tailed off recently, perhaps due to the AUT code of conduct and more awareness.
Researchers Carter and Jeffs (1995) were told by one student that "it was only when I got a lecturer who didn't flirt that I began to learn anything". (A Very Private Affair, Nottingham).
Sexual harassment policies were introduced to protect people from behaviour that can have a devastating psychological and physical impact and lead to underperformance and dropping out. The AUT advocates the declaration by staff of all relationships with students (sexual/romantic, family or friendship) so that teaching duties can be arranged to avoid assessment contact between partners. The union wants institutions to deter relationships through policy statements.
There is undoubtedly a power issue in male-female relationships. Research indicates that some young women feel they acquire power through sexual relationships with staff. This is illusory because it is in a very narrow, sexualised context. Women are confirmed in a sexualised role and any power exists only in that limited, short-term context.Such relationships not only affect those involved but everyone around them. They invite charges of favouritism from parents and other students or the reverse if relations have soured. Lecturers trying to prove even-handedness may mark the student involved down. It is not uncommon for women to be made to feel "unwelcome" after affairs with staff and drop out of their studies. It is also not uncommon for the students involved to be mature, not "naive 18-year-olds". In general, relationships cause embarrassment in tutorial groups and create tension among staff forced to choose between condoning, ignoring or condemning their colleagues.
The AUT code of conduct regards relationships between staff and students for whom they have academic or other professional responsibility as an important professional issue, raising questions of conflict of interest, of trust, confidence and dependency in working relations and of equal treatment in teaching, learning, selection, assessment and research.
It is for the protection of staff and students that the boundaries and moral obligations of the professional role of staff must be fully recognised and respected. This is seen as the responsibility of the staff member, and students who are, or who have been, involved in relationships with staff and who do not consider their involvement to be truly consensual should have the right of complaint under a sexual harassment policy. The staff-student relationship should be comparable to that between a doctor and patient where sexual relations are expressly forbidden.
Brenda Billinghurst is the sexual harassment adviser and AUT women's officer at the University of Bristol.