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Can a Student “Consent” to a Sexual Relationship with a Professor?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Davidson chapter.

I’m a Davidson Professor of English who’s beginning a new book project concerning professor-on-student sexual harassment or assault, and I’m hoping to speak with victims whose stories I’ll use to address this issue.

The crux of this question is whether one person—a student—with less power than another person—a professor—can consent to a sexual relationship.  Today, many people, many of them feminists, would say, “No.”  Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, authors of the still relevant (though 30-year-old) book The Lecherous Professor, are among them.  They write about “The Consenting Adult Myth”:

            Few students are ever, in the strictest sense, consenting adults.  A student can never be

            a genuine equal of a professor insofar as his professional position gives him power over

            her.  Access to a student occurs not because she allows it but because the professor

            ignores professional ethics and chooses to extend the student-faculty relationship. 

            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, making it virtually impossible for the student to act as freely as

            she would with a male peer.  (p. 74)

Dziech and Weiner conclude, “People who promote the consenting adult myth seldom mention that true consent demands full equality and full disclosure” (75).

Other feminists see the same issue differently, a viewpoint elaborated by Cristina Nehring in what has become a seminal essay on the matter, “The Higher Yearning,” published in Harper’s in September 2001.  Generally, Nehring argues that “academic eros” between a student and a professor enhances learning, though she adds that it “does better work when channeled and curtailed than spilled” (65, 69).  In other words, the sexual energy between teacher and student is more intellectually productive if left repressed, rather than acted upon.  In response to the claim that a student can’t consent to an amorous relationship with a professor, Nehring asserts that

            campus feminism, which began with the aim of giving women more power—more

            faith in their own resources; greater enfranchisement, sexuality, and independence—

            has ended by infantilizing them . . . .  It has [taught] them to run to their elders and

            fear the dark; to distrust male appreciation and demonize male attraction—to revert, in

            sum, into the shrinking, swooning, sex-spooked maidens we thought we’d left behind

            in a darker age.  (67)

She scoffs at the notion that women (and, presumably, men) in college can’t make such decisions on their own. 

But can they?  Even if they’re love-struck over a professor whose attention they crave, even if they attempt to seduce a professor, do they really know what they’re asking for?  Or is that very question objectionable for patronizing students who are, after all, adults and who are at college to learn, sometimes through making mistakes? 

When I ran this topic by a friend of mine, a distinguished second-wave feminist who continues to do good political work in her 80s, she responded, “I remember so well the huge crush one of my best friends had on her chemistry teacher in college.  I think she would have been willing to submit to almost anything.  Fortunately, the only thing he ever asked her to do was baby sit so he and his wife could go out to dinner.  Had he been one to prey on young women, he would have found a willing companion.”  Had he been a predator, would the student, as “willing” as she was, have been harassed?  For me, the answer is “yes.”  In that situation, no matter how enamored she was, it was up to the professor to be an adult and recognize the student’s vulnerability and the relationship’s inappropriateness.

No question, in many teacher-student relationships, the student plays a significant role and may even take the lead.  Students have a share of the responsibility; they exercise consent, in some sense of that word.  In some (a few?) instances, everybody wins: the relationship, which may fizzle, doesn’t ultimately hurt anyone and may even fuel intellectual exchange, as Nehring contends.  But in many more cases, the student who thought she was consenting will discover that, instead, she was deluded and, what’s more, taken advantage of.

At my home institution, our Faculty Handbook includes a statement that’s intended to cover that very scenario.  I know that’s the intent because, lo these many years ago, I co-authored it.  At that time, I was aware of more than one episode on my campus in which a student had thought she was in a consensual relationship, but later changed her mind and lodged a complaint against the professor in question.  The sentence in the handbook reads, “The claim of mutual consent to [an amorous or sexual relationship] will not prevent the faculty or staff member from being subject to administrative sanctions.”  What may appear consensual at one moment may, later, reappear as the unfair advantage of one person over another.

Please visit http://cynthialewis.net/ to contact me or for more information about my project. 

I'm the Charles A. Dana Professor of English at Davidson College in North Carolina. My literary fields are Shakespeare, Shakespeare's contemporaries, and Renaissance literature. I'm also a writer of creative nonfiction. My writing web site is at http://cynthialewis.net