Power of the laddish predator

December 10, 2004

It is time to stop lecherous lecturers preying on their female students, argues Meg Barker

Some time ago, my head of department informed a staff meeting that the new intake of first-years contained a particularly high level of "totty". As a recent recruit to academe, I was shocked. But, having worked at several universities since then, I now know such attitudes are not uncommon.

In many departments it is permissible, perhaps laudable, to remark on the attractiveness of female students - even, in some cases, to pursue them.

It is hard for a new lecturer to protest when conversation at staff social events revolves around which student their colleagues would like to pull.

A lesbian colleague at one institution recalls looking severely at her curriculum leader as he eyed up a 17-year-old during an open day. "What?"

he asked, offended, "you'd do her, wouldn't you?"

A friend of mine was told by a colleague that she would find the students she was to lecture were mostly "white and blonde, and that's how we like them".

Another colleague told of a lecturer who had three relationships in two years with undergraduates he was teaching.

He had sex with one in a colleague's office. Another had to postpone her studies after the relationship ended badly. The third was a friend of the second - he slept with her partly to "get back" at his ex.

All three were ostracised by other students suspicious of favouritism.

Most of these men do not see their behaviour as problematic. They point out that the majority of the people they meet are students.

But there is a big difference between developing mutual feelings with an undergraduate and treating freshers like fresh meat. Furthermore, there is an inherent power imbalance.

The psychologists John French and Bertram Raven famously identified five forms of power one person can have over another.

Lecturers have all of these. They have both reward and coercive power, as they can give good or bad grades; expert power, having more information than those they teach; legitimate power over who they allow on courses; and referent power as charismatic figures that students respect.

Power imbalances are exacerbated by gender and age differences. While this is not an exclusively heterosexual male problem, most of the cases I am aware of involve men in their thirties and forties chasing female undergraduates in their late teens and early twenties.

I do not want to imply that all students passively go along with such advances and never instigate relationships themselves. But lecturers are the ones with the power and, therefore, the responsibility.

The university where I work now has a clear policy on sexual relations between staff and students: it discourages them as an abuse of power.

If a relationship persists, it must be declared to the head of school and the lecturer is barred from supervising or assessing the student.

Explicit guidance helps prevent the emergence of a permissive laddish culture. Without this, people may simply accept that their colleague is "like that" and turn his behaviour into a joke. Much is said in an "ironic" manner, reminiscent of lad-mag humour.

In a previous job, I asked a colleague which interviewee he would choose for a new lecturing post; he responded, "obviously the one with the biggest tits".

Such comments are so outrageous that we are meant to realise they could not possibly be serious.

If we act shocked, we are dismissed as humourless feminists. But if we laugh along, we are colluding in behaviour that can ultimately damage students.

I have found such situations awkward in the past. It would have been extremely helpful if male colleagues had given a clear message that such an attitude was unacceptable, rather than smirking or turning a blind eye.

Meg Barker is lecturer in sociology at London South Bank University.

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