Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Sex and the university in the United Kingdom

The London Times Higher Education section of May 22 has an extensive and on the whole excellent article on student professor sexual relationships with the focus being on relationships in UK universities.  It is interesting to see the differences between American and British attitudes on the subject.  Following are presented key sections of the article with the dankprofessor’s comments in the text.  This article definitely merits reading in its entirety by anyone who is seriously interested in the subject; click here for the full text.  My comments are highlighted in blue.
 

When dramatist Stephen Lowe took up a post as visiting writer at Dartington College of Arts, he expected the job to boost his theatre career. What he hadn’t anticipated was that he would meet his life partner. Lowe, then 31, fell for his 21-year-old undergraduate student Tanya Myers. After 27 years, the pair still live and work together and are the parents of two children.

It may sound like the contrived plot of a campus novel, but Lowe’s story is not unique. Despite widespread concern about abuse of power and conflicts of interest, sexual relationships between tutor and student often flourish within academe.

“I have altogether too much experience of teachers engaging in sexual relations with students, both their own students and (those of) their colleagues,” remembers Alan Ryan, now warden of New College, Oxford. He looks back on his early career at Keele University with fond memories of the relationships that began between young academics and their students. “In my misspent youth, my ability to resist temptation was not great, and since I started teaching in the early 1960s, and new faculty were mostly only a couple of years older than the finalists, the discovery of sexual pleasure was a shared experience,” he says.

“Of the affairs I remember, an awful lot turned into highly successful marriages, though a good many were simple flings,” he says. “There were, of course, spectacular characters who weren’t like this at all. Freddie (A.J.) Ayer (the philosopher) fell into bed with everyone who was remotely willing, and an awful lot of young women were very happy to tick him off on the list of famous professors they had laid.”

Attitudes are beginning to harden, however. Like their US counterparts, which have historically been stricter on campus relationships, British universities are starting to crack down on such liaisons. Policies are being drafted to deal with relationships and the inevitable conflicts of interest that can follow – as one might put it, “an A for a lay”. Questions of morality and responsibility, sexuality and pedagogy are being raised.

But however an institution chooses to tackle the problem, it’s certainly not going to disappear. As Ryan points out: “The availability of partners is a geographical matter; if you are cooped up on a campus, who are you likely to fall into bed with?”

It is hard for the dankprofessor to imagine an American university administrator speaking so openly about this issue and ones prior involvements with students as Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford.  Ryan’s final observation that it is a matter of geography is completely correct- eligible men and women “cooped up on a campus” cannot be prevented from fraternizing no matter how hard university moralists and administrators try to eliminate these relationships.  The only way to eliminate these relationships is to eliminate campus life as we know it and replace it with so-called online education.

In the UK, attitudes towards relationships in academe are changing rather more slowly. In 2005, figures revealed after a Freedom of Information Act request by Times Higher Education showed that 50 out of 102 institutions had no policy requiring staff to declare sexual or other relationships with students that might give rise to a conflict of interest. Of those that did, few appeared to apply them: just 17 universities had any current records on file.

In the same year, 18 per cent of respondents to a poll conducted by the Teacher Support Network said that they had had a sexual relationship with a student. Despite this, only 73 relationships were officially recorded and just five of these were defined as sexual or romantic. Many respondents, 62 per cent, said they did not know whether or not their university had a protocol on such matters.

Nevertheless, attitudes among academics have already shifted. “Many more of my colleagues now teach one to one with the room door open. I also know that there are people who avoid teaching certain topics,” says Mary Beard, professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge. “That can’t be a good thing.”

She remembers two personal stories of close but non-sexual relationships that flourished at the university. While an undergraduate, Beard regularly spent long weekends with her tutor, who was decades her senior. Although the relationship was purely pedagogical, she admits that his motives may have been rather different from hers. Similarly, as a tutor, Beard formed a friendship with a young male student who eventually helped teach her to drive, sitting as her passenger regularly while she practised and improved.

“In the Oxbridge of the Twenties and Thirties, students went on holiday with their tutors,” she says. “It wouldn’t happen now. It’s hard to know where the barrier lies between institutional rules and a change in the culture. I think it’s very hard to know which is which,” she adds.

“In some ways we have to accept that there is an erotic dimension to pedagogy. If you take a traditional Oxbridge-style tutorial system, that’s one thing that students love and it’s some of the most interesting teaching when you really get to know someone. That doesn’t mean it’s about feeling someone up, but it is passionate. The difficulty is that that’s a terribly sexy experience; two people sitting together really talking through how Latin love poetry works. How do you desexualise that?”

Of course, you can’t desexualize it.  But no matter the moralists on and off campus will do their damnest to repress it. The dankprofessor has often speculated that those who are so involved in sexual repression may very well find their repressive activities to be quite sexually gratifying.  

“I think it’s a tricky moral dilemma,” Beard says. “I think it’s undeniable that some students and staff have been hurt by these kinds of relationships. I think it’s also undeniable that there have been people who have gained from them.”

But for some, whatever the age of the two individuals, the power relationship inherent between tutor and student means that sexual contact is tantamount to abuse of that power.

A decade ago, Paul Norris, then a social sciences lecturer at Southampton Institute (now Southampton Solent University), caused controversy when he left his wife for a student. He had previously been disciplined by the institution in 1992 for having a sexual relationship with a student on a course he both taught and assessed. His wife, who vowed to set up a support group for other women in her position, claimed that lecturers “perceive sex with students as a perk of the job”. “It seems common to me, and universities seem very blase,” she stated.

 Yes, the Norris case was a notorious one in the UK.  It was made notorious in part by his wife who set up a support group of wives who were left by their professor husbands for a younger student. Of course, banning older married men from having sex with younger women may very well be a fantasy for women such as the wife of Paul Norris.  No question that in the competition between women for mates, younger women generally have a competitive edge. 

 One senior lecturer working in London says she has seen too many young people distressed by the break-up of such relationships. When she conducted a straw poll among a group of colleagues and students, only two people felt it was wrong for a tutor to have a relationship with a student – a figure she cannot understand. She says relationships are formed because tutors prey on the naivety of students or because knowing young men and women use a member of staff for their own ends.

Now this prior paragraph certainly represents the Americanized purity feminist approach on this subject

In their book The Lecherous Professor, Billie Wright Dziech and Linder Weiner comment: “Few students are ever, in the strictest sense, consenting adults. A student can never be the genuine equal of a professor insofar as his professional position gives him power over her … Whether the student consents to the involvement or whether the professor ever intends to use his power against her is not the point. The issue is that the power and the role disparity always exist.”

And here is the hardcore attitude.  Billie Dziech has done more than any academic to facilitate the banning of these relationships by arguing ad nauseum that few students can ever be consenting adults when it comes to relationships with professors.

Brian Martin, lecturer in the department of science and technology at Wollongong University, Australia, agrees. He has written on the issue on numerous occasions, citing his concerns at the lack of action being taken by universities on the matter.

“University teachers hold positions of trust. They are expected to design teaching programmes and carry out their teaching duties to help their students develop as mature thinkers … for impressionable young students, the boundaries between intellectual development and personal life may easily become blurred,” he says.

“Even if academic evaluations are kept completely independent of personal involvements, it is likely that there will be an appearance of bias in the eyes of other students. When a key academic, who should be a mentor, shows a keen interest in a student’s body, it often sends a signal that their intellect is of secondary importance. The impact on the student’s self-confidence can be devastating.”

He is also dismissive of the value of formal institutional policies. “I don’t think policies on their own make a lot of difference,” he says. “Many policies exist, but I’m not aware of any studies examining whether they are enforced.”

Yes, I also know of no studies relating to the enforcement of these sexual codes or the effectiveness of said enforcement. Such should not be surprising since enforcement is usually in secret and secret police aka administrators hardly ever want their practices evaluated.  Secrecy gives license to the the enforcers to do what they want to do.

The potential for abuse of power is certainly an important issue, and one that is well recognised and well understood. Nevertheless, most personal relationships entered into by people in all walks of life involve some basic balancing of power and control. One should perhaps not expect relationships that grow within academe to be immune or exempt from these concerns.

Universities UK says that it is up to individual institutions to decide what their policy is on such “sensitive” areas and to implement those. There are no broad guidelines available to UK universities to help them draft a policy, but nationally the Office of the Independent Adjudicator can pick up cases where, for example, sexual harassment is claimed and the university itself is unable to resolve the case.

“They will consider extenuating circumstances that a student claims affected their performance and the institution didn’t adequately respond to – this could include a relationship with an academic,” a UK spokesperson confirmed.

This kind of careful “monitoring” of relationships leaves many academics cold, but while threats of sexual harassment cases loom there seems little alternative for universities. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that most individuals would not choose to begin a sexual or romantic relationship in their workplace or with a person for whom they have direct managerial or pedagogical responsibility. As Lowe comments of his own experience: “It’s a difficult place to have a relationship. It’s embarrassing whatever you do.”

With that in mind, academics advocate a soft approach to the enforcement of the rules. “I think the institution has to look out for people and make sure everybody looks out for each other,” Beard states. “I think a kind of police state where everybody is sniffing out to see how close X is getting to Y is wrong.

“It’s a lot like smoking. You can’t get people to give up unless you recognise that sometimes it’s pleasurable.”

I love this bottom line by Mary Beard.  Of course, people are not going to give it up since to the dismay of the moralists it is all too often too pleasurable.  And yes, Beard appropriately uses the concept of “police state”.  Once we understand that all too many universities are heading in the direction of sexual police states, more persons will oppose these policies.  What Beard fails to mention is that these policies cannot be effective to any degree without secret informants, third party informants of the genre of Linda Tripp.

—–
If you wish, you can write to me directly at dankprofessor@msn.com
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration
to the same email address.

Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor™
© Copyright 2008

 

May 24, 2008 - Posted by | consensual relationships, ethics, feminism, higher education, passion, secrecy, sex, sexual policing, sexual politics, sexual rights, student professor dating, United Kingdom

1 Comment »

  1. An excellent article – I’m writing a piece for my MSc through Bristol Uni on this very subject, as a tutor who has engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a (mature) student. It’s interesting to note how the whole thing was initially dealt with – I was the subject of disciplinary action and deemed to be wholly to blame, yet my student consort, who is 9 years older than me, was made out to be the victim of ‘abuse of power’. The fact that I’m a tutor in Counselling and she was on a Degree in Addictions COunselling course might have something to do with the intolerance from the hierarchy, yet my view is that we were 2 mature adults who both agreed to what we were doing yet just because of my role it was forbidden.
    What’s your view on this?

    Comment by Trevor Smith | July 17, 2008 | Reply


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