06 January 2016

Professor-Student Sex: Permissible and Erotic

Stephen Kershnar
Faculty-Student Romance: A Tempestuous Debate
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 5, 2015

Among the sharpest disagreements faculty have with one another is on whether it is wrong for professors to date or have sex with their students. The professors are invariably male, the students usually, but not always, female. The discussion sometimes gets heated because some professors, often feminists, think that such relationships are bad, wrong, or creepy. Many of their colleagues disagree, viewing the feminists’ opposition to such relationships as no better than the historical opposition to interracial and same-sex couples.  

The frequency of these relationships makes this a live issue. Over the years at SUNY-Fredonia, for example, a number of faculty married students. This includes professors in chemistry, English, geology, history, music, and philosophy. Still more have dated them.      

A different issue is whether schools should punish professors who have romantic relationships with their students. The issue is different because schools should not penalize everything that is wrong (consider, for example, anti-intellectualism and gluttony) and not everything it should penalize is wrong (consider, for example, failure to publish).

There are four arguments that feminists and others give in support of such relationships being bad or wrong. The first argument, and by far the most common, is that the faculty and student are in an unequal power relationship and such a relationship is bad or wrong. The idea here is that the professor is in a stronger position because he occupies a superior role, controls the grades, or knows more about life. His stronger position makes him have more power than the student and unequal power makes the relationship problematic or can lead to the vulnerable undergraduate being exploited.  

The problem with this argument is that it involves a misunderstanding of power in personal relationships. Power in a personal relationship is a measure of the ability to bend another to one’s will. It depends on things such as an individual’s psychological strength, willingness to leave the relationship, and her other dating and marriage options. The options depend in part on features like attractiveness, age, and intellect. Undergraduate and graduate women often have a greater ability to leave the relationship and better options in the dating and marriage market than do male professors. As a result, it is unclear whether professors usually, let alone always, have more power in the relationships. This can be seen in part in brokenhearted professors crying into their beer.

Even if there were an imbalance of power, it doesn’t make a relationship bad or wrong. Many couples have an imbalance of power because one member of the couple is more in demand than the other. Consider, for example, a woman who is younger and more attractive and who makes more money than her suitor. As a result, she can more easily leave the relationship and might even use the leverage to insist on certain ground rules (for example, future children have to be raised in her religion). It is hard to see what is wrong about this imbalance, especially when it doesn’t block love, marriage, children, and so on.

The second argument for faculty-student relationships being wrong is that they often involve premarital sex and such sex harms or degrades female students. I doubt that such sex is harmful. 95% of Americans have had premarital sex. It seems implausible that in this context,19 out of 20 Americans don’t know what’s in their interest.

There is a debate over whether having more premarital partners leads people to have, on average, worse marriages, but a number of experts think that this has not been shown, noting that such a result has not been established in a peer-reviewed academic study. Also, University of Michigan economists Betsey Stevensen and Justin Wolfers point out that in the early 2000s most marriages are preceded by cohabitation, so premarital sex appears to part of a common path to marriage.

The notion that such sex involves moral or religious harm is implausible for those who don’t accept the pinched view of religious Jews and Christians. Even if one has this view, there is no evidence I am aware of that professors having sex with students is worse for students than their having sex with male peers.

The third argument is that twenty-something students are not adults, but rather children, and are being preyed on by the seductive male professors. Anyone who has been in a bar since 2000 would likely find this laughable. In any case, the argument is just a variant on the premarital-sex-is-harmful objection since protecting children against something only makes sense if it poses a significant risk of harm.

This argument infantilizes adult women in that it suggests that they are so incompetent that they can’t be trusted to run their own sex lives. Such an attempt harkens back to days when universities protected women against themselves by subjecting them to curfews and prohibiting them from having overnight visitors.

A fourth argument is that dating market between professors and students might lead to unwelcome advances and other forms of sexual harassment. This argument falls short because it doesn’t show that relationships without these features are wrong. Even if such faculty-student dating occasionally did lead to such abuses, this hardly shows that a widespread practice wrong. Faculty-student romantic relationships can, and with surprisingly frequency do, lead to successful marriage and children. Citing the cost of a practice while ignoring its benefits is no way to evaluate it. In fact, the frequency of such successful outcomes makes it a real issue as to whether such dating should be encouraged.   

In summary, there is little reason to think that faculty-student romantic or sexual relationships are worse than other romantic or sexual relationships.

A separate issue is whether state universities may prohibit them. It is unclear whether they may do so because such prohibitions arguably violate people’s right to privacy and intimate association, rights the Supreme Court emphasized in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). In any case this is a separate issue.