Chatting with a student at the end of a long day, our conversation shifts from academic matters to the personal when I mention that I have to get home to my kids. He says I look too young to be a mother. I tell him I’m so tired all the time that I feel ancient. He asks if I have any time off coming up, and what I’d like to do to relax. It dawns on me that he’s flirting. And it occurs to me that I might be flirting back, awkwardly. I certainly didn’t mean to flirt with a student. I was just, you know, being myself. He’s 23 and I—ahem—am not. He’s cute. And clever. It’s not the worst conversation I’ve had with guy.
But it’s not the best, either. After a few minutes, I tell him I have to go, and that it’s been a great semester. We were just two people talking, enjoying a moment of unguarded informality in the empty halls of the academy. This kind of conversation has happened in the halls of the university everyday for decades, and should still happen. Is such an encounter ethically objectionable, or even harassment due to the inherent power imbalance of the professor-student relationship?
The University of Manitoba, a Canadian university at which I have taught in the past, has just approved a series of recommendations regarding sexual violence, harassment, and discrimination. The recommendations are specific to the campus, but reflect policies and trends within the academy writ large. Some of the recommendations are well founded in evidence-based research and will very likely reduce sexual violence and assault on campus, and do much to improve the lives of women. This is particularly true of the Sexual Assault Resistance program for women living in university residence that has a demonstrated record of reducing sexual assault. This program focuses on empowering women—huzzah!—and should have our full support.
Yet other recommendations, far from empowering women, take individual responsibility and adult decision making away from women—and from men. The report recommends that there be a complete ban on intimate relationships between teaching faculty (including part-time contract instructors) and the students they supervise, including graduate students. This means that even though most graduate students are in their thirties or even forties (the average age for a grad student is 33), institutional policy will now govern their intimate behaviour.
This policy has been adopted in large part to protect women from unwanted sexual harassment. “In a recent American report involving the largest survey of its kind,” the U of M’s report reads, “it was found that one in ten female graduate students at elite universities in the United States have been sexually harassed by a faculty member, and other smaller studies over several decades have reported even higher numbers. The same report found that women graduate students in the United States are harassed by faculty about three times as much as women undergraduates.”
One in ten is, I would agree, an alarmingly high number. Sexual coercion, forced touching, assault, and rape are serious violations. If one in ten female graduate students is experiencing sexual harassment, drastic measures are warranted. But there are some problems with this statistic. Why do graduate students report sexual advances from faculty members more than undergraduates, necessitating a ban on intimate relationships? It seems to me entirely likely that there is a higher rate of faculty-female grad student sexual behaviour because female graduate students are adults, and that faculty members view them as such—adults who are presumably capable of determining their own sexual behaviour (if we do not believe that female adults are capable of this, then we need to rethink the entire basis of feminism). Graduate students are also often close to the same age as many of the faculty members with whom they work. Is it really so hard to believe that some sort of ambiguous spark might be ignited with someone who is of mature age and who shares common interests with you? Is it so hard to believe that a university professor might assume that an adult is capable of saying “yes” or “no” according to her own will and conscience? And that what one person might interrupt as harassment the other meant as hopeful flirtation? That this isn’t usually, in fact, a case of assault, but rather of decent people poorly negotiating an awkward social moment?
While the introduction to the report states that “most harassment does not take the form of sexual overtures,” and that “harassment is not and cannot be primarily a means of expressing sexual desire or sexual domination,” the examples of sexual behaviour within the report itself are precisely these types of ambiguous sexual overtures. In other words, there is a worrying inconsistency within the report itself about what is and what isn’t “harassment.” “Whether a professor’s advances are welcome,” the report reads,
is determined by the perception of the student—she decides whether the advances are welcome to her. From the very outset, a professor may misinterpret a young student’s awe or casual “brown-nosing” to be an invitation to flirt. If she does not welcome romantic attention, and she makes her feelings clear, in most cases the professor will not yet have acted unlawfully if he then desists. But a student can often reasonably claim that she thought it better not to offend. Her response may therefore be ambiguous or misleading.
“An invitation to flirt.” Sure! And why not? Academics are usually pretty nerdy, after all. What a thrill, to find a kindred mind in a person of the opposite sex. I can understand an awkward (and perhaps overly optimistic) scholar making a social slip-up by misreading the grey area and giving a graduate student unwanted sexual attention. (Incidentally, without much difficulty, I can also imagine a female grad student finding a brilliant and successful professor sexy and making a sexual overture to him.) Because the term “harassment” is defined as a subjective experience, and because it appears that mature students are sexually approached more often than their younger and presumably more vulnerable counterparts, the one in ten statistic suggests that there is a fair amount of ambiguous social and sexual awkwardness in the halls of the academy because people—gasp—sometimes find each other attractive. I’m not certain why this should be cause for alarm.
The university’s policy on mutual adult attraction between an educator in a supervisory position and his graduate student is worrying. The policy is to “wait a year, wait three or four months. I know people who have dated students but they’ve waited until the [academic] relationship ended.” That’s right, adults, wait for official sanction before you become intimate with each other. I agree that this is a prudent course of action, but to legislate it contradicts what the university itself teaches about sexual values. Most people in the university believe that “waiting” for official approval is an unrealistic standard for every other faction of society, including for young teenagers, and they scoff when religious leaders recommend it as a moral course of action. The university’s policy, in its own words, states that the recommendations in the report surrounding sexual behaviour “are important tools for creating ‘community level norms to guide individual behavior.” Well then. If that’s the case, I would imagine that expecting all aspects of society to wait a year or so (the average PhD takes over eight years, but who’s counting?) before you become intimate, or even before you engage in ambiguous flirtatious behaviour with another adult, should be considered a “community norm.” Wait. Wait at least until there is no recognizable power deferential between you (so you’d better hope your earning potential is the same; that your health and weight remains balanced; that your relative social positions are equal, and so on).
While a few professors likely do take advantage of their power position, others may simply assume that grad students are capable of making their own choices, though it seems clear that the university administration does not share this belief in its student body since the a priori and inherent power imbalance between graduate students and their professors and supervisors apparently makes free action so difficult that it must be legislated for them. It is true, human relationships are in large part coloured by power dynamics. But we must also recognize that this power imbalance is not stable, nor even that it tilts in favour of the professors. If entering into a relationship with a student will, as the universities guidelines on consequences of intimate relationships make clear, result in a teaching staff member being suspended without pay, then the power to damage an individual’s life and career rests firmly in the student’s hands, and not the other way around. If I were a male professor in this post-#MeToo era, I would think twice about supervising a female graduate student. (An unfortunate consequence of these policies is that they may actually prevent equal opportunities for women.)
But most importantly, the policy is unclear about what qualifies as sexual harassment. And how can it be clear, since it is an entirely subjective feeling? If I am subjected to the unwanted groping of my breasts, this would clearly be considered assault. However, if someone I work closely with puts his arm around me, is this assault? It is if I feel harassed and assaulted. The same goes for verbal comments: no one would like to be subjected to filthy sexual remarks meant to demean one’s human dignity. But where is the line? If a professor says, “Wow. That skirt looks hot!” I might feel demeaned and believe it to be sexual harassment, but perhaps it was simply meant as a friendly compliment.
If you think that I might be overstating the case here—that the line isn’t that blurry, and that surely universities and the professionals who work within them are governed by a clear idea of common sense in these matters—then a quick look at the University of Manitoba’s own report will suggest otherwise. In its rationale of the ban on faculty-student relationships, the report cites this anecdotal evidence from a female graduate student:
I would like to say that I just started feeling very unsafe dealing with my graduate supervisor as he is… insisting on us to meet every now and then, even during the evenings … and during weekends… I feel he likes to see me just for the sake of harassment. It might be sexual harassment but I don’t really know. I am very concerned and I do not even know what can I do now?
The defining characteristic of this graduate student’s experience is uncertainty based on her own feelings. “I started feeling…”; “I feel…”; “I don’t really know.” What this student seems to be working through is not so much a case of sexual harassment, but a case of an awkward social situation that she does not want to deal with.
First of all, it is not clear how the university’s policy of a total ban on faculty relationships with the students they supervise will help this particular student. It is very likely that the supervisor in question is not aware that he is sexually harassing this student at all. She doesn’t even seem to know. And besides, her complaint is about the time of day, not any specific sexual behaviour. Secondly, since the university uses this example in the report justifying its ban on faculty-student relationships, what does seem clear is that what the university is in fact attempting to do is legislate ambiguous and potentially awkward social interactions.
The problem the university is faced with is how to determine what is harassment and what are ambiguous and sometimes uncomfortable social encounters. In our present cultural moment we have moved well beyond a murky “he said, she said” disagreement about what happened and into an absolutely inscrutable “I feel” scenario. How can one objectively examine another’s feelings? How can a university policy governing adult sexual behaviour ever hope to form clear guidelines around ambiguous and often awkward social encounters? And what if two people are really in love with each other? Just… ignore it, and do your job instead? The answer from the university is to put more and more restrictions on our behaviour so that the space for our personal lives is diminished—to turn us more into (paranoid) functionaries rather than full humans. If we as a society persist in adopting these policies—and the University of Manitoba’s report makes it clear that this kind of movement is the trend—what is the cost to our understanding of each other and ourselves as humans?
I doubt very much that policies which impose rules on ambiguous social moments will enhance our understanding of each other as people who are often embarrassingly awkward. I also doubt very much that policies such as this one will result in a bumper-crop of strong, confident, and independent women who know how to stand up for themselves (though it may do much to protect the university from legal liability, such as the suits the University of British Columbia is faced with after they mishandled accusations of sexual harassment).
Of course a relationship with a supervisor is a risky one; and of course getting involved with a student is an ill-advised thing to do. But half of the happy couples I know began their relationships after a bottle of wine and series of irresponsible choices. One of the best things about being an adult is that we get to make our own choices, even ill-advised ones. And we get to live with the potentially uncomfortable social results of our choices. But being made uncomfortable by my own poor choices still makes me more comfortable than living in a culture in which some choices are prohibited.
In its effort to protect its students from potentially awkward social interactions, the university is arrogating adult decision-making to the institution. At best this is nothing more than well-intentioned helicopter parenting. At worst, policy that governs adult sexual nuance and passion destroys our essential humanity: it is the encroachment of institutional laws into one the most ambiguous, often one of the most awkward, always one of the most emotionally mysterious aspects of what makes us joyfully, heartbreakingly, ridiculously, and wonderfully human. The university, which professes to educate our society in humanist values, may at least want to consider that the core of humanism is our awkward humanity.
Marilyn Simon is a Shakespeare scholar and university instructor. She is currently working on a book on Shakespeare, Eros, and Female Agency.