Sexuality & Culture, 1, 107-130 (1997)
©1998 by Transaction Publishers.
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Barry M. Dank, California State University, Long Beach, and Joseph S. Fulda, New York City
This article explores the history, sociology, and dynamics of a contemporary taboo: romances between students and faculty on college campuses. We show how the taboo has fed off unrelated notions such as sexual harassment and pedophilia, with the result that such romances have been pornographized and their participants--students and faculty alike--objectified. We conclude by suggesting that the movement to ban student-faculty romances is fueled by a resentment toward dominant societal age norms regulating dating/mating.
A prominent concern--often overshadowing academics--of American universities during the past decade has been dealing with issues surrounding sexual harassment. Generally, universities have developed policies that sanction "unwanted sexual attention" and that prohibit working and, increasingly, learning environments which are held to be "hostile" to women. During this same period, a literature has emerged which has called on universities to expand the definition of sexual harassment to include a ban on intimate relationships between students and faculty. Such a proposal came to the forefront of university attention in 1993 when the Committee on Women's Concerns at the University of Virginia proposed a university-wide ban on all sexual fraternization between undergraduates and professors. This article critiques the intellectual underpinnings of the banning movement and explores the underlying psychosocial dynamics which have propelled the movement forward.
The lens of the law
Central to the proscription of sexual harassment is the principle that women have the right to be protected from unwanted sexual attention in formal organizational settings. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson noted that "The unwelcomeness standard has the benefit of allowing claimants to determine subjectively what constitutes offensive behavior. ... Violators will be put on notice that their behavior constitutes harassment" (Hallinan, 1993, p. 452, emphasis added). Meritor in essence elevated "the reasonable woman" into the central position of deciding what constitutes harassment; it is her subjectivity that counts. That the male may not have intended to harass is irrelevant under Meritor. Along with a number of other Federal cases (Hallinan, 1993), Meritor not only put the woman in the position of defining unwanted sexual attention but also in the position of defining what is a "hostile" work environment--even when the woman was not a recipient of sexually harassing or directly hostile behavior. Thus, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found in Broderick v. Ruder (1988) that Catherine Broderick could prevail in her claim of sexual harassment since her co-workers and their supervisors engaged in sexual behavior in such a manner as to lead her to conclude that such behaviors led to unfair promotions and raises, thereby creating a hostile work environment for her (Hallinan, 1993, p. 455).
American universities come under the jurisdiction of this case law via application of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which prohibits educational institutions from engaging in sex discrimination, which Meritor held to include sexual harassment. Federal courts have ruled that the "...same standards developed to interpret Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must be used to decide Title IX cases" (Wagner, 1993, p. B1). More recently, the Supreme Court ruled in Franklin v. Gwinnet County Public Schools (1992) that students who had been sexually harassed could sue educational institutions when such institutions were a party to the harassment (Wagner, 1993).
The distorted lens of the feminist banners
Given the above decisions, and their applicability to universities, it would appear safe to conclude that the concept of sexual harassment had been well-defined, and that any remaining work to be done in the university and workplace centered around education and application. Such, however, has not been the case. Starting in the 1980's, a feminist literature emerged calling for the banning of intimate, organizationally based, asymmetrical relationships and the subsumption of such relationships under the rubric of sexual harassment. Thus, when individuals in asymmetrical relationships engage in sexual behavior such a relationship is seen as sexual harassment with the person in the superordinate position viewed as the harasser and the person in the subordinate position as the victim. Louise Fitzgerald provides a representative statement of sexual asymmetry as sexual harassment when she states: "When a formal power differential exists, ALL sexist or sexual behavior is seen as harassment, since the woman is not considered to be in a position to object, resist, or give fully free consent; when no such differential exists, it is the recipient's experience and perception of the behavior as offensive that constitutes the defining factor" (Quoted in Paludi and Barickman, 1991a, p. 7). Or, as Paludi and Barickman put it: "Sexual harassment is an issue of organizational power. Since work (and academic) organizations are defined by vertical stratification and asymmetrical relations between supervisors and subordinates ... individuals can use the power of their position to extort sexual gratification from their subordinates" (Paludi and Barickman, 1991b, p. 151).
As indicated in these statements, the woman's perception of the situation is no longer central. What is central is her organizational position relative to the man. If her organizational position is subordinate and she is involved in an intimate relationship, she is seen as simply incapable of giving fully free consent. Given that consent is precluded in an asymmetric relationship, the banning of such relationships becomes appropriate. Indeed, if such a ban does not exist, the non-prohibiting organizations may become liable for the resulting "sexual harassment."
Although the principles which lead to the prohibition of intimate asymmetrical relationships are applicable to both the workplace and the university, concern has been predominantly within the university; and within the university, concern has overwhelmingly focused on student-faculty relationships. It is in the context of student-faculty relationships that the inapplicability of the concept of consent has been advocated with particular vigor. In 1984 the authors of The Lecherous Professor set the tone of the debate when they spoke of consent in student-faculty relationships as a myth. As they advocate: "Few students are ever, in the strictest sense, consenting adults. A student can never be a genuine equal of a professor insofar as his professional position gives him power over her" (Dziech and Weiner, 1984, p. 74). Or as Sandler succinctly puts it: "Another myth is that of the consenting adult. True consent can occur only between equals, and a relationship does not consist of equals when one party has power over the other" (1990, p. 8).
Given the belief that consent is a myth, it follows that a student in a relationship with a professor cannot meaningfully indicate to herself or others whether the professorial attention is welcome or unwelcome. As Wagner has indicated: "The usefulness of the argument that a student consented to a sexual relationship...lost significant ground when the Supreme Court set the Title VII standard of forbidden behavior at 'unwelcome'. How many coeds have endured the sexual advances of their teachers out of fear, fascination, or just plain naiveté, but found them 'unwelcome' nonetheless?" (1993, p. B1). And even when a student internally "feels" that the attention is wanted, consent still cannot be given, these writers argue. As student Lori Peters found as a result of her "consensual" relationship with a professor: "My experience with sexual harassment has led me to believe that in the context of power imbalance there is no such thing as consent. Where the power lies so lies the responsibility..." (1989, p. 21) Another way of putting it is that to the feminist banners, the subjective perceptions of the female student are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition in determining whether sexual harassment has occurred. A professor may propose and a student may accept, but according to this emerging perspective, the professor is still guilty of harassment since the student is in an asymmetrical relationship and is simply incapable of consent. As Fitzgerald has indicated: "...perceptions alone (whether those of observers or victims) are not adequate for a valid definition. Women, after all, are socialized to accept many nonconsensual or even offensive sexual interactions as being nonremarkable" (1990, p. 37). The feminist perspective thus rejects the doctrine of Meritor lock, stock, and barrel. Sexual harassment is defined, not subjectively by the woman, but objectively by what feminists like to call "the power relations."
Contextual vs. categorical bans
Given the belief that consent is an impossibility in student-faculty relationships, the banning of such relationships becomes axiomatic. The issue then is whether the ban should be contextual, i.e. only in the context of a direct supervisory relationship such as exists in the classroom or between dissertation adviser and doctoral candidate, or categorical, i.e., with absolutely no fraternization between students and faculty.
Prior to the 1993 movement for categorical banning, there were a number of universities that formally adopted the principle of asymmetry to discourage or ban intimate relationships when the professor was in a direct supervisory relationship with the student. For example, the policy at Indiana University is representative of contextual banning: "All amorous or sexual relationships between faculty members and students are unacceptable when the faculty member has a professional responsibility for the student. Voluntary consent by the student in such a relationship is suspect, given the fundamental asymmetric nature of the relationship." The Tufts University policy is similar: "It is a violation of university policy if a faculty member ... engages in an amorous dating or sexual relationship with a student whom he/she instructs, evaluates, supervises, advises. Voluntary consent by the student ... is suspect."
The principle of asymmetry as a rationale for bans on student-faculty relationships had been advocated in the early eighties as part of the Harvard University policy on sexual harassment: "Relationships between officers and students are always fundamentally asymmetric in nature." However, attempts by universities during the eighties to formally adopt categorical bans generally failed as reflected by the rejection of such policies by the university faculties at UCLA and the University of Texas, Arlington in 1986 (Keller, 1990, p. 29). It was Ann Lane, Professor of History and Director of Women's Studies and a member of the Committee on Women's Concerns at the University of Virginia, who launched the University of Virginia's campaign for a categorical ban on undergraduate-faculty fraternization and who quickly became the symbolic leader of the movement for such bans at universities across the nation.
Professors as sex objects
For Ann Lane the boundary dividing students and professors was inviolate. And, as for professors who crossed such boundaries, for Lane "...the common story is the teacher who is a sickie" (Dateline NBC, May 25, 1993). It was cast as an issue of "...teachers [who] should keep their hands off of students in or out of the classroom. Freedom of speech, which is what the academy is committed to is not the same as free sex" (Oprah Winfrey Transcripts, 1993, p. 12). Lane viewed the implementation of such bans as all but inevitable "...coming in the wake of Anita Hill, and Tailhook and priests molesting children. We are now aware of layers of sexual abuse in a variety of places that we were not willing to talk about years ago" (Dateline NBC, May 25, 1993).
Lane objectifies professors who are sexually involved with students as being intrinsically abusive. In fact, the entirety of the banning literature makes professors out as sexually obsessed predators who prey on their female students and treat them as sexual objects. Perhaps not surprisingly, while condemning professorial objectification of female students, feminist banners have no problem with sexually objectifying professors. Almost all of the banning literature since the publication of The Lecherous Professor is simply an embellishment on this theme. Illustrative of such objectification is that of Adrienne Rich: "Finally rape of the mind... Most young women experience a profound mixture of humiliation and intellectual self-doubt over sexual gestures by men who have power to award grades, open doors to grants and graduate school... Even if turned aside, such gestures constitute mental rape, destruction to a woman's ego. They are acts of domination, as despicable as the molestation of the daughter by the father" (1985, p. 26).
Given the powerful imagery of the predatory, sex-obsessed professor, it is also not surprising that such imagery also contains elements of pollution and poison, elements that often characterize the imagery of threatening outsiders (Dank, 1980; Douglas, 1970). As feminist scholar Catherine Stimpson notes: "Today the psychological and social pollution ... harassment spews forth is like air pollution. No one defends either one of them. ... [B]elow the stratosphere, in classrooms and laboratories, sexual louts refuse to disappear, imposing themselves on a significant proportion of our students..." (Stimpson, 1989, p. 1). Some may view such rhetoric as simple hyperbole. Others, however, take it quite seriously, invoking it in the attempt to implement categorical bans. Thus, Robin Wilson, President of California State University, Chico invoked the following imagery in his advocacy of categorical bans: "A love affair between a faculty member and a student is poison" (Sacramento Bee, 1993, p. FO 4). The professor intimately involved with a student has thus been effectively dehumanized--deprived of individual motivations--not to mention feelings--and is seen entirely in categorical terms. English Professor Joan Blythe has poignantly responded to this objectification and dehumanization:
Education is also a transformation of us by our students, allowing us to learn and be changed by our encounter in the classroom. This ban is a prophylactic to that kind of fertility because it presents me, the teacher, as rapacious, predatory, dangerous even before I walk into the classroom. ... [I]n setting up a law you have immediately cast me as a potential raptor. You are emphasizing my role not as educator but as assailant. You define me in negative terms, stripping me of my ability to teach. (Harper's, 1993, p. 42)
The student as innocent child
Just as the banning movement has objectified professors, it has also objectified female students. The literature has almost uniformly cast female students as gullible, innocent, helpless children or youths who must confront the all-powerful manipulative male professor. It is an imagery that reinforces the premise that female students cannot give consent. Since there is a social consensus that children cannot give sexual consent, and since the images of student and child are so often used interchangeably, the premise that female students cannot give sexual consent to their male professors since they are childlike, innocent, and powerless meets with social receptivity.
Illustrative of this construction of female students as innocents who need protection is the commentary by Rabinowitz:
They [female students] are at that developmental stage in which it is common to question values and standards of behavior and open themselves to new viewpoints and experiences... Students look up to their professors with great admiration, and attribute to them such appealing characteristics as brilliance, sophistication, wisdom and maturity. (1990, p. 105)
Or as Zalk has written:
The bottom line in the relationship between faculty member and student is POWER. The faculty member has it and the student does not... The student does not negotiate--indeed, has nothing to negotiate with. There are no exceptions to this. Knowledge and wisdom are power. While superior knowledge, and presumably greater wisdom, are often ascribed to faculty members by society at large, the students' adolescent idealism exaggerates its extent... (1990, p. 145)
And Ann Lane has directly invoked the image of the innocent young girl in her advocacy of categorical banning. In responding to a question as to whether she made any differentiation between female students in or out of the professor's classroom, she stated:
No.... An 18-year old woman, first time away from home, she's in this new environment. She changes her major ... she might think she'll never take a chemistry class, because she can go out with the chemistry teacher. But ... she suddenly decides she wants to be a vet and now she has to take chemistry, but the relationship has ended badly. We have situations where the woman can't even walk into the classroom or won't even walk into the building. (Oprah Winfrey Transcripts, 1993, p. 13)
Given the helpless-child imagery of female students, they are seen as needing protection from predatory male professors, protection in the form of prohibition. Such protection is necessary even if it is unwanted since female subjectivity is not of central concern. Others know what is best for them (Sipchen, 1994). Again, as Ann Lane has stated: "And the ban that we have at the University of Virginia is aimed at faculty, not at students, although the students are responding to it as if it were. But it really is aimed at faculty..." (Oprah Winfrey Transcripts, 1993, p. 16). The banners' reduction of female students to children places them into the traditional protected category of "women and children." It functions to disempower female students and empower (feminist) professors and administrators as their protectors. Ironically, it not only affirms an asymmetrical, not equalitarian, relationship between professors and students, it flies in the face of what many believe is the core of true feminism--the empowerment of all women. As Katie Roiphe has pointed out, campus feminists often do just the opposite: "Any value there may be in promoting this idea about female passivity and gullibility is eclipsed by its negative effects. Feminist educators should keep track of the images they project: women can't take care of themselves, they can't make their own decisions" (1993, p. 69). Anne Bailey, Student Council President at the University of Virginia, certainly did not play this passive and gullible role when she publicly stated her opposition to the ban proposed by Ann Lane. As Bailey characterized it: "It's an invasion of the private lives of consenting adults, and it reeks of paternalism. We're old enough to go to war and to have an abortion, so I think we're old enough to decide who to go to bed with" (Jacobs, 1993). Or as one Wellesley graduate succinctly stated to her former feminist professors: "We don't need Big Mommy to tell us what's going on" (Collison, 1993, p. A17).
The banners' emphasis on the youthfulness and childlike qualities of female students is also at odds with the demographics of female students at American universities: 59% are 22 or older, 43% are 25 or older, and 30% are 30 or older (Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2, 1996, p. 17). In fact, the student population is aging rather significantly. The proportion of students entering college at the age of 25 or older was 28% in 1972; in 1986, it was 38%. Despite the demographics, banning advocates continue to see student-faculty romances through the child-adult lens. It serves well for their purposes because of the powerful taboos surrounding adult-child sexuality. Invoking this model functions powerfully as a device for social control, pornographizing student-faculty romances and reinforcing the professor-as-child-molester caricature. No wonder so few male professors are willing to come forward as involved or formerly involved in intimate relationships with students. Even those in ongoing marriages have generally chosen to remain insulated from the public throughout the debate.
The dynamics involved in the campus banning movement are quite similar to the dynamics involved in traditional anti-homosexual campaigns. Prior to the 1970's, when homosexuals were not visible in American society, the idea of the homosexual as predatory child molester was taken for granted. Homosexuals were constructed as interlopers in society (Dank, 1980), and as internally compelled to seduce young children. The greatest fear was therefore that of the homosexual school teacher. For homosexuals to have come out in educational institutions prior to the sixties in order to destroy the societal image of homosexual-as-child-molester would have led to social suicide if not to physical harm (Dank, 1971). Likewise, any professor coming out as involved in a relationship with a student today would be immediately depersonalized and sexually objectified--seen simply as an abuser of female child-students.
During the 1970's, there was a significant increase in the visibility of homosexuals in American society; the notion of homosexuals as child molesters came under attack, and an increasing number of homosexuals came out in educational institutions. Social constructions of homosexuals diversified and came to include the construction of homosexuals as loving persons involved in long-term, committed relationships. Of course, however, such constructions did not positively impact on many of the anti-homosexual crusaders; they were simply denied or ignored. In the forefront of the anti-homosexuality crusade was Anita Bryant and her campaign to "Save Our Children". Her moral entrepreneurship in the context of the "Save Our Children" campaign ended up focusing on banning homosexual school teachers. Her last hurrah was the failed attempt to ban homosexual school teachers in California through the passage of the Briggs initiative (Dank, 1977; Dank, 1980). Just as Anita Bryant portrayed herself as dedicated to "saving our children" so Ann Lane portrays herself since female students are regarded as both innocent and powerless children. Just as Anita Bryant denied the existence of loving equalitarian relationships between men so banning advocates deny the existence of such relationships between students and professors. And, just as Anita Bryant claimed that genuine love is impossible between homosexual men, so today's banners claim the impossibility of genuine love between students and professors. But whereas the persecution of homosexuals has lapsed into a don't-ask-don't-tell attitude, the don't-ask-don't-tell attitude that was for many years the norm regarding student-faculty couples is now being replaced by outright banning.
Love and Marriage
In the objectified world of student-faculty relationships, committed loving relationships simply do not exist. Banning advocates do not deny that a female student may fall in love with her professor. Just as some regard love between men as a pathology and just as the general society regards the feelings of love a child may have towards her adult molester as pathological, so banners regard a female student's love for a professor as a pathological condition that must be treated rather than nourished.
In fact, the feeling of being in love may very well reflect the severity of the abuse. As Vita Rabinowitz has written in her article on Coping with Sexual Harassment: "Becoming sexually involved with a professor increases the likelihood that the student will report feelings of being in love, being used or betrayed, and of being responsible for her professor's behavior" (1990, p. 111). In fact, the feeling of being in love may very well function as a defense mechanism for the female student; the romance, the love and the erotic desire are seen as functioning to mask power inequities and abuse (Stimpson, 1989, p. 1).
Banning advocates have said very little about faculty-student marriages or more generally faculty-student conjugal relationships, although those advocating categorical bans on student-faculty fraternization make no exception for faculty-student marriages. Because the existence of such marriages tend to undermine their entire construction, advocates of banning have generally preferred to simply ignore them. Thus, although attorney Eileen Wagner is adamant when she states that categorical bans should be total: "Colleges and universities ... cannot tolerate a faculty-student sexual relationship regardless of the student's age, regardless of the student's willingness to enter such a relationship, regardless of the student's undergraduate or graduate status, and regardless of whether the student comes under the direct supervision of the teacher or not" (1993, p. B2), she pointedly omits mention of marital status. This may also be partly because the courts have usually granted special protection to married couples in similar situations (Hallinan, 1993, p. 443).
When banning advocates do speak directly on the subject of student-faculty marriages, however, their perspective does not change. Zalk treats the subject of such marriages in the framework of abuse:
A faculty member's desire or willingness to marry a student does not necessarily imply equality in the relationship or erase the real and/or psychological power he wields over her.... [T]he student may not be in a position to objectively evaluate what is in her own best interests or to resist the pressure he may put on her. Actually, a faculty member's determination to marry his student may also have exploitative aspects as it raises questions about his use of power and control in obtaining what he wants. (1990, p. 160)
Almost all banning advocates are clear in their position that student-faculty relationships cannot transcend power differentials, and that such relationships are intrinsically abusive because students and professors are trapped in their respective power-differentiated categories. Neither love nor romance can transcend such differentials and the leveling tendencies of love are simply given no consideration (Davidson, 1991, p. 42). Such a perspective reflects an extremely conservative orthodoxy, from which few have dissented. Of those that have, the most eloquent and powerful voice has been that of Frances Hoffman. Because of the importance and uniqueness of her dissent, we quote in detail from her article, "Sexual Harassment in Academia: Feminist Theory and Institutional Practice":
Policies designed to combat sexual harassment should have at their core a vision of human relationships built on trust, equality and mutual respect. They should help potential victims and victimizers distinguish between this kind of relationship and one characterized by sexism and exploitation. Rather than discouraging personal interaction, institutional policies should seek to establish an atmosphere in which the abuse of power and status is tabooed and relationships are encouraged in which "exploitative sex is put aside in favor of mutual concern, shared interests, and...a new sense of friendship" (Mead, 1980, p. 56). It is a far more challenging and productive endeavor to sort through the thorny issues of professional ethics, male domination, and sexuality with such a vision in mind than to promulgate policies which reinforce status hierarchies and ignore or deny the right of individuals to establish relationships when, with whom and where they choose.... (1986, p. 114)
John Stoltenberg in his Refusing to be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice departs from the dominant position also when he asserts that power differentials in general can be transcended in the context of sexual relationships. In fact, he considers such transcendence to be the key to differentiating "good" sex from "bad" sex. As he writes:
[I]s sex good to the extent that it transcends power inequities--to the extent that two individuals mitigate the power disparity that they bring with them from the social context? In theory, two people might approach a particular sexual encounter either as a ritual celebration of the social power differences between people in general or as a personal act of repudiating all such power inequities. ... [S]omeone who chose to actively resist the political status quo would consider sex good to the extent that it empowers both partners equally--and to the extent that they succeed together in keeping their intimacy untainted by the cultural context of sexualized inequality.... (1989, p. 104)
Almost all the literature, however, maintains that such transcendence does not occur in student-faculty relationships. But, curiously, instead of citing any anecdotal evidence or research surveys in actual support of their position, they cite surveys of unwanted sexual attention experienced by female students, surveys of female students seeking psychological counseling (Zalk et al., 1991) or seeking help from women's centers, and individual accounts of sexual harassment. Nowhere in the banning literature is research cited which focuses on ongoing faculty-student consensual relationships. This may be the case since there may have not been such research. If this is indeed the case, it certainly is surprising that feminist scholars in favor of banning have not initiated any of their own research in this area.
Actually, there has been at least one series of research reports on faculty-student couples by Skeen (1980, 1981) and Skeen and Nielsen (1983). These research reports stem from Skeen's 1980 dissertation. Our survey of the literature and a review of the Social Sciences Citation Index indicates that scholars have dealt with the one study of student-faculty couples by simply ignoring it. Skeen was particularly interested in finding out whether there was empirical support for the images of either the power-abusing lecherous professor or the female student willing to exchange her body for grades. Based on a series of 25 interviews Skeen found little or no support for these stereotypes. He did not have one self-report by a student or professor of initial professorial pressure for a sexual relationship (1983, p. 109). Thirteen of the participants reported that the relationship was equalitarian, nine that the professor dominated and two that the student dominated. Nor was there any evidence of a sex-for-grades exchange with all but one student (a male) having a grade-point average above 3.0. If there was any academic favoritism at all, it consisted of letters of reference, extending incompletes, and the like. As Skeen concludes:
It was anticipated that student-professor sexual involvements would often be problematic due to the inherent discrepancy between the status and power of the participants. Such power differences could have also been misused. These results indicate that the formal and socially recognized status-power advantages of professors were often balanced by students' unusual personal attributes. One example of the unusual calibre of these students is evidenced by the fact that seventy-nine percent of the faculty members felt that their student lovers were their intellectual equals. The anticipated problems and abuses from power inequities did not occur.... The findings document a pervasive discrepancy between actual behavior and collectively held beliefs about these relationships. (Skeen, 1980)
Glaser and Thorpe (1986) have also reported research that serves to undermine the popular stereotypes of student-faculty relationships. They did not study ongoing relationships but rather surveyed former female psychology graduate students as to their sexual contact with graduate psychology educators. Seventeen percent of their respondents reported such contact. Most importantly in terms of the asymmetry of the relationship, "...most respondents reported having seen no professional ethical problem at the time and having felt no coercion or exploitation whatsoever. They reported no hindrance to the working relationship but often some degree of facilitation to that relationship" (1986, p. 49, emphasis added. In concluding their study, Glaser and Thorpe remark that "... the [psychology] profession may be reluctant to acknowledge that, at times, students may engage in such intimacies without coercion, exploitation, or harm and as freely consenting adults rather than helpless victims" (1986, p. 49). Of course, it is not only the psychology profession which refuses to recognize such a reality, but the academy as a whole.
Beyond these studies, anecdotal evidence indicates that a good many student-faculty relationships are initiated by the student (Pichaske, 1995). But even when the student publicly avows that the relationship is consensual, and that she is being pressured not by the professor, but by the campus feminists who claim to be her protectors, banning advocates still insist that student consent is impossible. This was the case at the University of Pennsylvania when economics doctoral student Claudia Stachel publicly protested the decision of Provost Janice Madden to deny Professor David Cass appointment as the chair of the economics graduate program since he had been in a long-term relationship with Stachel. Stachel publicly rebuked Madden when she stated: "In my case, I am not being protected, but rather persecuted long (at least four years) after the relationship became public knowledge and known to Janice Madden" (Dank, 1996, p. 111). But Madden was not moved by Stachel's appeal or by Cass' public protests or by an economics graduate students' petition in support of Cass or by the support of the chair and faculty of the economics department. In response she simply affirmed that "I would not appoint a head of any graduate program who thought it was OK to date graduate students" (Dank, 1996, p. 111).
Another point often overlooked in all these discussions of "power" is that in the real world of academe students often have more power over faculty, especially non-tenured faculty, than faculty have over students (MacArthur, 1994).
The banning position is ostensibly that asymmetric intimate relationships are inherently abusive just as adult-child sexual relations would be inherently abusive. If the campus banners are truly concerned with asymmetrical relationships, then it must be asked why the campus focus has been almost totally on faculty-student relationships and not on other asymmetric intimate relationships on campus.
Certainly it would be expected that there would be a heavy focus on relationships between female nontenured faculty and male tenured faculty, since it may well be that the greatest campus power differential is not between students and faculty but rather between tenured and nontenured professors. The student who is a recipient of unwanted sexual attention from a professor faces a difficult situation, but still has numerous options that are more viable than the options available to the nontenured assistant professor. The student can transfer to another section or drop the class; the assistant professor can't transfer to another department or drop out of the university. The student has at risk a small part of her academic career; the assistant professor has her entire academic career at risk. The student's involvement in the university is transitory; her goal, after all, is to graduate and get out; the assistant professor's goal, in contrast, is to gain a seat on the permanent, i.e. tenured, faculty. Given the powerless position of female nontenured faculty, it would be surprising if they were not sometimes subject to sexual harassment.
And such, indeed, appears to be the case. Sandler (1990, p. 7) reports that there have been a few studies surveying female faculty and that substantial proportions of female faculty at different universities have been subject to sexual harassment. Unfortunately, the data are not clear as to whether the harassment occurred in a symmetric or asymmetric framework, and the number of studies is insignificant when compared to the number of studies on sexual harassment of students.
What should be considered surprising is the lack of concern about the situation of nontenured female faculty. No one, after all, has proposed banning fraternization between tenured and nontenured faculty. No studies were found in which junior female faculty were asked if they have been a recipient of unwanted sexual attention from senior male faculty. And there seems to be little or no concern when junior female faculty establish conjugal relationships with senior male faculty. In a recent celebrated sex discrimination case involving the Department of Mathematics at UC Berkeley, no one appeared to be at all concerned that the nontenured female plaintiff in the case was in an asymmetrical marital relationship with a senior tenured professor in the department (Rochlin, 1993). Given the banners' rationale, why do they ignore the plight of powerless nontenured female faculty? If they were not to ignore them and were to fully apply their agenda against asymmetry, they would be reducing some of their own to the status of children. That is, the banning advocates--primarily female professors, after all--would be arguing that they themselves are unable to give consent and would be infantilizing themselves rather than infantilizing female students. Regardless of the reasons for the neglect of nontenured female faculty, it does sensitize one to the fact that whatever the banners' rhetoric regarding "the principle of asymmetry" and "power differentiation," this cannot be the real reason for their singling out faculty-student relationships for attention.
Dillard (1987) and Dillard et al. (1989, 1994) have conducted a series of studies on romantic relationships in the non-campus workplace. The imagery of men exploiting female co-workers and subordinates were widely shared by non-participants in such relationships in this environment as well. Yet Dillard's findings were quite similar to those of Skeen and of Glaser and Thorpe, namely, that such perceptions were not shared by the participants, and that romantic work relationships did not affect job performance. Dillard indicates that his "...data suggests that rather than intervene in a relationship, a manager would be better off in most instances doing nothing" (1987, p. 190). But what they also found is that "...the reality of the situation may be less important than the appearance of impropriety" (Dillard, et al., 1994). What becomes of critical importance is what people feel, and in the case of workplace and campus sexual relationships, people feel offended. Skeen's work suggests a similar conclusion as he considers whether the antipathy toward student-faculty relationships is a mere byproduct of traditional values and the consequent internalization of associated stereotypical imagery (1983, p. 100).
Keller most strongly argues that issues to do with offensiveness and the perceptions of others is of key importance. She argues that the predominant Other response is the "presumption of coercion", and that non-participating students are particularly offended by these relationships and view them as acts of favoritism and unfairness. She also indicates that community standards and feelings of offensiveness have already been given legal standing in a 1983 Louisiana State University case in which a federal court ruled that LSU could demote a female teaching assistant for engaging in a lesbian relationship with a student who was not enrolled in any of her sections since such "... conduct ... could taint the current and prospective students' opinions of the teaching process and the university" (Keller, 1990, p. 30). Although this reasoning is philosophically unsound (Fulda, 1988), what these writers sensitize us to is that we have been focusing on the wrong persons. The key to psychosocial understanding of the problem lies in understanding the labelers. It is the labelers of the behavior who have socially constructed faculty-student relationships as "deviant."
Roiphe has stated that the word "uncomfortable" is rife throughout the feminist literature; that feminists advocate for the right to be comfortable (1993, p. 87), and certainly they are extremely uncomfortable in relation to faculty-student liaisons. For many, "uncomfortable" is an understatement: angry would be more accurate. However simply to state that campus banners are uncomfortable or angry is not enough; there must be some exploration of the source of this discomfort or anger.
The real issue: age and age-disloyalty
Given that the professor and student categories are age-differentiated, it is to be expected that romantic liaisons between students and faculty members are almost always older man-younger woman. Skeen and Nielsen found an average age differential of 10 years. Of course, romantic relationships generally reflect the proclivity of women to be attracted to older men and of men to be attracted to younger women (Buss, 1994). With academic couples, the age differential tends to be significantly above that of non-academic couples: at times so great as to reflect a crossing of generational boundaries--middle-aged men paired with women in their twenties.
It is our observation that many women are deeply offended by older men dating and/or marrying much younger women. Why? Given the age and dating norms in American society, the eligible men for middle-aged single women are their cohorts--middle-aged men. The field of eligibles is further narrowed for middle-aged academic women because social norms dictate not dating and/or marrying "down." Thus, the female academic's field of eligible men is radically decreased by their academic accomplishments. Of course, the most eligible men for middle-aged academic women in terms of propinquity, age, and social status are academic middle-aged men. And it is these same men who are perhaps seen as deserting their female age cohorts to date much younger students. In fact, we would go so far as to suggest that many women--particularly academic women--resent the power that young women have to attract their eligibles. In fact, one can view the banning movement as reflecting a rather traditional generational conflict--an attempt by older women to control the dating/mating behavior of younger women. This attempt, of course, is disguised by the banners' construction of the lecherous-predatory-male-professor as exploiting younger women. But the banners undermine a key feminist principle, that "no" means "no," when they assert, at least in this context, that "yes" means "no," as well. Surely, if anything means "yes," "yes" means "yes"!
Farrell (1993) captures the potentially traumatic nature of the situation when he makes the following comparison: "When a man is forced into early retirement, he is often being given up for the younger man. Being forced into early retirement can be to a man what being 'given up for a younger woman' is for a woman" (p. 174). Given this framework, it is only to be expected that many academic women would feel hostility toward student-faculty couples. Unfortunately, too many campus feminists have dealt with their problem by advocating policies that effectively disempower, infantilize, and patronize younger women. Such infantilization is evidenced by their inability to imagine a female student ever taking the initiative with a male professor consenting (Pichaske, 1995).
To be sure, few feminist academics have conceded such motivations. When there are such public avowals, it is usually by men coming to the defense of women. When the Provost of Tufts University, Sol Gittleman, was interviewed in The New York Times regarding his ban of student-faculty couples, he indicated that he based his decision in part on his being tired of seeing professors "dump" their wives for younger women (Gross, 1993).
Interestingly enough, some banners do back off when same-age relationships are invoked in student-faculty relationships. Susan Webb, author of Step Forward: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, is supportive of categorical banning, but yet stated the following: "...I think it'll be difficult to place a ban on any relationship between any student whatsoever. I'm 52 years old; the professor is 53, what's the big deal?" (Oprah Winfrey Transcripts, 1993, p. 18). Perusal of the feminist literature on age and ageism also suggests this dynamic in the campus banning movement. Lois Banner's writings certainly can be used as a rationale for such banning. In her book, In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power and Sexuality, she writes:
I have argued that the privilege of aging men to form relationships with younger women lies at the heart of patriarchal inequalities between the sexes. (Banner, 1992, p. 5)
The phenomenon [older man, younger woman] had seemed to me a quintessential example of sexism, a final ironic proof of the unequal access to power between men and women. For, in addition, to all their other privileges, men as they aged were still regarded as virile and attractive, with bulging stomachs and balding heads. Young women are drawn to their power--whether monetary or personal--and deficiencies overlooked. (Banner, 1992, p. 4)
Given the prevalent caricaturing of student-faculty romances, such relationships give the impression of professorial abuse thus presenting problems for university administrators concerned with public relations and "appearances." But such superficial concerns must not be used as a rationale for repression of the associative freedoms. The concept of informed consent between adults should be the guiding principle for intimate relations--on or off campus. This principle has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roberts v. United States Jaycees. "Stating that intimate association, an intrinsic element of personal liberty, is secured generally by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court explained that 'choices to enter into and maintain certain intimate relationships must be secured against undue intrusion by the State'" (Keller, 1990, p. 30). It is the principles that are reflected in this decision, applicable in law only to public institutions, but appropriate ethically for all institutions, that best reflect the American tradition and that best protect everyone, students, professors, and others, alike. As Elisabeth Keller writes:
The freedom to decline or resist intimate associations is inextricably bound up with the freedom to form desirable intimate associations. Upholding both of these freedoms simultaneously in the university may appear to engender inherent conflict. However, the right to form adult consensual intimate relationships is a fundamental personal freedom which must be protected. A strong and effective university policy against sexual harassment together with the recognition of the right to privacy of faculty members and students will serve the interests of both the university and the individual. (Keller, 1990, p. 32)
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