There is no liberal right to sex with students

While not all student-supervisor relationships end in disaster, permitting them infringes women’s right to education, participation and a safe work environment, say five female academics 

May 4, 2017
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Source: James Fryer

There is a long and distinguished history of conceptualising liberal democracy in terms of basic rights to which, all other things being equal, everyone is entitled. Sexual freedom is rightly counted among these. But should this right apply where one person is in a position of power and authority over the other? Doctors are sanctioned if they have sex with their patients, as are lawyers who sleep with their clients. Should sexual relationships between professors and students in the same department also be off limits?

Neil McArthur thinks not. As Times Higher Education has reported, the associate professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba, in Canada, recently published a paper criticising the spread of bans on such relationships. But we believe that his argument is flawed.  

For a start, he cites a 1986 study of 464 female psychologists, claiming that it shows that “nearly all” of those who had sexual involvement with their professors during graduate training “felt no coercion or exploitation whatsoever”. But a closer look points to an altogether different conclusion. In fact, 10 per cent of these women reported feeling coerced at the time, and 30 per cent said that they later came to feel that there was coercion. More alarming still, 71 per cent of all of those who had experienced sexual advances by educators (some of whom had rejected those advances) felt that they were coercive to some degree. Lastly, only women who completed their doctorates were surveyed – a crucial limitation (acknowledged by the study’s authors) given that many impacted by sexual harassment abandon their studies.

Moreover, McArthur’s discussion makes it sound as if relationships between teachers and students occur in a vacuum. As such, it ignores the impact that such liaisons have on the learning community as a whole. It is clear that these scenarios are far more damaging to students in general than McArthur is willing to concede. In his defence of civil rights and a highly selective concern for women being harmed by not getting close to their professors, he offers a myopic view of the power dynamics invariably at play within and across these communities. 

For instance, he cites the fact that successful long-term relationships and marriages have resulted from such academic liaisons: 11 out of 20 in one study from 2001. But what about the harms to those involved in the other nine cases? The student is vulnerable to professional retaliation if the relationship ends on bad terms, and she is therefore likely to abandon her degree and even leave town.

Moreover, it is not only the partner herself who is impacted by these relationships. As highlighted by a growing body of research, “available” (usually male) faculty members advertise that fact in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in order to cast a wide net. In so doing, they hijack the learning spaces for their own purposes. In philosophy, for instance, they might let it be known in seminars and classes that they are single or party to an “open” marriage, using the example of polygamy when talking about natural rights; even arguing in favour of extramarital affairs as their illustration of utilitarian reasoning. They may be doing it unconsciously, but it in effect sexualises the learning space for everyone. 

Let us consider the impact that this has on students who do not appreciate the attention. Some will be unsuspectingly flattered by an academic who takes a keen personal interest in their work. Discovering that their bodies, not their intellect, ignited that  attention will be, at best, embarrassing, and may discourage them from continuing their studies in this field. Other students who sense that their professor’s interest is not merely professional will be hampered by deep uncertainty and insecurity. And how, in either case, can the students deflect the professor’s interest without damaging the professional opportunity that comes from their support – or potentially hurting their academic futures by offending him? So they avoid the department when he is around, stay away from talks and reading groups and abstain from social gatherings where he is likely to be present. In short, they lose their footing in the intellectual and social community.  

McArthur’s got something right: this is a matter of the infringement of civil rights – just not the rights that he has in mind. Many female philosophy faculty (including us) recall our student experiences of not being able to work with some of the mentors we initially wanted, or having to change our areas of interest, owing to unwanted advances. These silent burdens are carried by many graduate students and are never addressed. The damage is not erased even when the faculty member in question moves on to someone else.

The right to education, participation and a safe work environment are basic rights. Amorous relationships between professors and their students create a major obstacle for women to secure those rights. In an education context in which uneven power dynamics favour the professors, the onus falls on them, and their institutions, to maintain appropriate boundaries.

Maya J. Goldenberg, Karen Houle, Monique Deveaux, Karyn L. Freedman and Patricia Sheridan are professors in the department of philosophy at the University of Guelph, in Canada, and are founding members of that department’s Diversity and Climate Committee.

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Reader's comments (2)

There is an imbalance of power between the roles of teacher/mentor/supervisor and student. This is not a base for a healthy relationship. As in many other professions, the academic has a duty of care to the student. Universities need to support this through guidance on professional ethics and a code of conduct, and also by providing a therapeutic setting in which an academic attracted to a student can explore the dynamic. Universities should also support a workplace culture that allows for healthy relationships outside of the workplace.
It seems that what McArthur means by "liberal rights" is the right of academics to sleep with students or junior colleagues, rather than the rights of the latter two. I'm sure there are exceptions but I've seen more women being negatively affected or dropping out of their studies than emerging undamaged at the other end. I imagine that McArthur has never been the object of unwanted advances by professors or colleagues. He needs to think carefully about the very valid arguments presented in this article, which look at men's "freedom to pursue" female students and colleague's from a women's perspective.

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