Teachers and petting do mix

June 2, 1995

Moves to 'protect' students from sexual relationships with their tutors are patronising and unnecessary, warns Jennie Bristow.

The idea that relationships between lecturers and students are a problem has led to many universities producing policies on "sexual harassment" and creating new disciplinary bodies to deal with it. The Women's Committee of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) has put the seal of authority on the discussion by producing a code of conduct governing staff/student relationships.

The AUT code rules that "in the event of involvement in a relationship with a student, particularly when it is a romantic or sexual one, the member of staff is encouraged to declare it to an appropriate superior or colleague, or to a third party designated by the university for the purpose after consultation with AUT".

The code has been adopted by a number of universities, and while most students are unaware that it even exists, those students and lecturers on the receiving end are more than a little sceptical.

"The only thing that worried me after I slept with my tutor," said my friend Janet, "was that he would brag about it in the senior common room. The idea of him having to report it to someone else is really incredible."

Janet may think these rules are incredible, but the code has met with little opposition. Among campus professionals it is generally accepted that relationships between students and staff are fundamentally different from relationships between students. This difference is supposed to lie in the unequal balance of power between students and lecturers: that a lecturer's superior position means that all staff/student relationships are inherently "exploitative".

The AUT sums this up with the view that "the basic premise is that a student is unlikely to consent voluntarily to a relationship with a member of staff, given the disparity of power and authority" (as quoted in Cosmopolitan, October 1994). In other words, the imbalance of power between lecturers and students is so great that any relationship between them automatically constitutes harassment; and even if you say yes, you really mean no.

The question that really needs to be asked is whether sleeping with a lecturer is different to sleeping with another student. In fact, the problems that the AUT points to in relationships between staff and students are common to all relationships between men and women.

In a society in which women are unequal to men, any relationship will contain a certain imbalance of power. The only added complication in relationships between lecturers and students is that some lecturers will use their positions to flatter and coax the naive, and wily students can work the egos of sad academics.

No doubt this goes on all the time, exam results get distorted and people get hurt. However, people have all kinds of reasons for failing exams, and relationships invariably mean that one partner ends up crying on his or her pillow. That is a risk students have to take, unless they want to see sex banned altogether; and anyway, the majority of relationships between students and lecturers, like the majority of relationships between women and men, are probably quite good.

In any case, staff/student relationships are hardly a new thing. Students and lecturers have been having sex for as long as there have been books, often at the instigation of the student. When you look at many male undergraduates, it is hardly surprising that many students find their eyes wandering to their lecturers; and as anyone who has ever had a crush on their tutor knows, if you get any further than a firm rejection you are one of the lucky ones.

Susan is a mature student who first went to university in the 1970s and admits that her friends used to vie to see how many lecturers they could get into bed. Nobody thought anything of it.

"Hearts got broken and people got seriously pissed off with each other but that's life," she says now. "They assumed we were adults and got on with life."

The reason why relationships between staff and students are seen as problematic now and were not in the 1970s is nothing to do with the relationships themselves. Just as relationships between students and their tutors succeeded and failed 20 years ago, they succeed and fail today.

The difference between now and then is that, 20 years ago, it was assumed that students were independent adults, capable of sorting out their own problems. Today, it is taken for granted that students are still children, who need looking after in case they do something they might regret.

This view that female students are all really vulnerable little girls in need of protection is simply patronising, especially to students who come to college determined to take a few risks, have a lot of fun and make it in the world.

It also has damaging consequences for university staff. Already the restructuring of higher education has undermined academic job security. Now the extension of the definition of "moral turpitude" to cover the personal lives of staff becomes another way for the college authorities indirectly to monitor lecturers' standards and behaviour. Flirting with a student in the bar in the evening is no longer considered to be outside working hours; it is as open to scrutiny as essay grades.

If the aim of all these rules is to stop relationships between lecturers and students taking place, maybe they will succeed. The sheer humiliation of having to justify to the college authorities why you want to have sex with your tutor in the first place is possibly a bigger turn-off than turning in desperation to the spotty teenage lads in your halls of residence; and if the tutor concerned is terrified of losing his job and ruining his reputation, no amount of seduction on your part is likely to work. But why on earth is this supposed to be a good thing?

To be honest, I really cannot see what is so terrible about having sex with your tutor. As with any relationship, it is surely up to each partner to negotiate where they stand, and not let themselves be walked over. I have more of a problem with rules that monitor who I sleep with.

Jennie Bristow is a student at the University of Sussex.

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