Professors, Sex, and the Academy by Esther Nelson

Amia Srinivasan (b. 1984) is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford.  Her recently released book, THE RIGHT TO SEX: FEMINISM IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, is a series of essays, drawing on earlier feminist tradition, dealing with topics such as pornography, power, desire and more. 

The following New York Times opinion piece authored by Srinivasan, “What’s Wrong with Sex Between Professors and Students? It’s Not What You Think,” sheds light on that thorny question, pushing us to think further and differently about the stereotypical older male professor/younger female student sexual alliances at colleges and universities.  Although Srinivasan focuses on heterosexual relationships in her article, she also gives an example of a relationship between a lesbian professor and female student in an academic institution.

What caught my attention was this:  “The problem, I think, with many teacher-student relationships is not that they don’t involve consent—or even real romantic love.  Sometimes…students agree to have sex with their professors…because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t.  But there are also many students who consent to sex with their professors out of genuine desire.”

Consent is a tricky thing.  Srinivasan explains:  “…the absence of consent isn’t the only indicator of problematic sex… a practice that is consensual can also be systemically damaging [since]the pedagogical relationship comes with certain responsibilities beyond the ones we owe one another as persons…[and] because pedagogy can be an erotically charged experience…it is harmful to sexualize it.”  This is the question Srinivasan asks:  Is real teaching possible when professors sleep with or date their students?

Srinivasan argues that the teacher-student relationship—no matter the genders— arouses a strong desire—a thrilled, immature infatuation—which is the “lifeblood of the classroom.”  The teacher’s responsibility is to nurture and direct that desire toward learning.  No matter what the sexual orientation of teachers and students, the teacher “betrays the purpose of the classroom” if they allow the student to focus on a sexual relationship with them instead of learning.

Since these relationships most often involve male professors sleeping with women students, the issue isn’t just that the professor fails to redirect the student’s focus toward learning, but the professor (either knowingly or not) takes advantage of the way women are socialized under patriarchy.  “Many professor-student relationships reproduce the gendered dynamics on which they feed, insuring that the benefits of education will not accrue equally to men and women,” thus reinforcing an entrenched hierarchy that benefits males in our patriarchal society.

The feminist writer Regina Barreca (b. 1957) is an American academic and a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut.  Barreca points out that “women students tend to interpret the feelings aroused in them by their professors as feeling of desire for the professor.  Male students, meanwhile, tend to interpret their feelings toward their male professors as they are socialized to do:  as a desire to be like them.”

Because I spent decades immersed in a community that held a literal, conservative, and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, Barreca’s assertion regarding the different ways women and men perceive themselves in relation to their male professors prompted me to think of the Genesis story commonly referred to as “The Fall.”  When God doles out punishment to Eve for her disobedience—eating from the fruit of the tree placed in the middle of the Garden of Eden—an act that opened her eyes to knowledge, God says:

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    With painful labor you will give birth to children,
Your desire will be for [italics mine] your husband,
    And he will rule over you.”  (Genesis 3:16—New International Version)

There are many ways to interpret literary text—including the Bible.  One of the things this passage accomplishes is to show that those who wrote and redacted Biblical story reflected the givens in culture/society at the time.  Women suffered giving birth (still do) and women’s feelings of desire manifested in a longing for her husband/man (still do).  (No doubt biblical writers sought answers to questions regarding why things were a certain way and then created stories to explain it.)

Patriarchy—that social system with domination at its core—was well established in the Ancient Near East when this passage was written so when “women students interpret the feelings aroused in them by their professors as feeling of desire for the professor” (as opposed to “male students’ desire as a desire to be like their professor”), could it be that our society has evolved believing that the biblical author is prescribing behavior, not describing it?  Description is not prescription.  “Your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you” reflects how things were (and still are), not how things “should” be.

Srinivasan compares mental health therapists’ work with that of professors. “Therapists are taught to anticipate and negotiate the fact that their patients will sometimes develop feelings for them—what Freud called ‘transference.’” Therapists are taught to harness those feelings and direct them toward the therapeutic aim—the well-being of the patient—rather than reciprocate those feelings.

“In contrast, discussions of classroom ethics are usually confined to mandatory sexual harassment training put in place by administrators anxious to avoid lawsuits….[S]uch top-down training rarely speaks to the specifics of teaching:  the particular dynamics, risks and responsibilities of the classroom.”

“What would it be instead,” Srinivasan asks, “for professors to think about what we, as teachers, owe our students, as students?  How might we create a sexual ethics of pedagogy?”

Is it possible for a professor and student to have a sexual relationship without compromising teaching? Perhaps so, however, it requires that professors understand a broader sexual landscape than just consent.  We still live in a gendered world where people called women perceive the world differently from people called men who for thousands of years, thanks to the domination inherent in a patriarchal social system, have set the terms of discourse (intercourse?). 

Bio

Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently retired from teaching.



Categories: Abuse of Power, Patriarchy, Sexual Ethics

Tags: ,

11 replies

  1. Tough subject you deal with here Esther. Thanks for tackling it. I don’t remember who wrote this but I agree with the sentiment entirely: There is no such thing as consent in an unequal power dynamic.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Janet, for reading and replying. I like that Srinivasan pushes and tugs at us to think beyond this thing we call consent. I also like her reasoning about teaching easily being compromised in a professor/student relationship. Is it reasonable to think this discrepancy in power between people (the way we understand it now) can be eradicated? Srinivasan gives us much to think about.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m wondering if online classes during the pandemic have made female students any safer from rapacious male professors. It’s probably too soon to know. Bright blessings and safety to students!

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    • Thanks for commenting, Barbara. You ask a good question.

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      • BTW, when I was in graduate school, I was “friends” with a fairly famous professor who was also a fairly famous author (one of his books was about Beowulf). He was famously sexy, and the girls in his classes longed to be “touched” by him. I learned this when I facilitated a consciousness-raising circle. I learned about several other professors in various departments who chased the girls. And the circle heard from the wives of several of those professors. That was in 1976. Has anything changed in 2020-2021??

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  3. Thanks for reporting on this interesting take on professor-student sexual relationships. I think there’s some truth to what Srivasan writes about. And I think the analogy to psychotherapists is appropriate, because the tantalizing excitement of learning and the healing process of psychotherapy both involve erotic energy.

    I don’t think that the power differential between professor and student can be or should be eradicated. It’s an organic hierarchy: the professor has knowledge that the student needs to acquire. And for that reason, it is similar to a parent/child relationship, where the parent has to educate the child so that he/she/they can thrive in the world.

    My own problematic experience with a professor was a lesbian, with whom I was in a c-r group. In that group, I heard her complain about her ex-husband, who had all the power in their relationship, and said that in her next relationship, she was going to have the power. When she subsequently hit on me, I had NO interest whatsoever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, thanks, Nancy. I would have NO interest either in anybody who wanted to hold “the power” in a relationship, either. I remember (forget who coined it) hearing while studying feminism that there’s a difference between “power-over” and “power-to.” I get the power-over idea which I equate with domination, something I would tell my students is at the core of patriarchy. Domination, no matter who does is, is behaving in a patriarchal fashion. I’m not quite sure how this “power-to” idea gets manifested in “real” life. I get the sense that Srinivasan is pushing us here. If professors (and others who are in a position of power) understood–had empathy for people who did not hold power, perhaps those people in charge of things would change their behavior. This word power is quite slippery. We tend to think of how negative things can get when power is abused. Can there not be a positive outcome to people attracted to one another if this idea of “power-over” lost its punch? I don’t know, but Srinivasan’s article is good for stimulating thought in this direction.

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  4. Thank you for this extremely thought-provoking piece! I keep coming back to what you say about female students having feelings for their professors and male students wanting to be like their professors — I would think that a romantic relationship would make any kind of true mentorship impossible for female students but not for male students, once again reinforcing the obstacles that women face being successful, whether in academia or in other areas once they leave the university. I think this would also hold true not just in academia, but in any career situation where women are in a relationship with someone who holds power over their success.

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    • Thanks, Carolyn, for your comment. I think what Srinivasan says about women having feelings “for” their professor as opposed to men wanting to emulate their professor and be “like” them holds true for heterosexual relationships within the system of patriarchy. I just wonder what with more and more acceptance of sexuality being on a wide spectrum that this pattern might be something we will look back on as being in the past. Social change is so painfully slow, though. One might even argue from a theological viewpoint that the curse given to the woman in Genesis is something that God never intended to be a way of life. According to the Genesis story, creation was perfect. Perfection is not having a woman “desire” her husband and him ruling over her. But yet, so many understand the passage as being the way things “should” be. So much to think about.

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