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?).
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.