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Thinking About Age Differences, Relationships, and Academics

An old column by Dan Savage got me thinking about the eroticization of power today. In this column, he wrote (as he has in many columns) about how he doesn’t think that relationships with large age differentials are necessarily bad. He endorses the “campsite rule” when it comes to younger lovers: leave younger lovers better than you found them. Make no babies, transmit no STDs, tell no lies, and break no hearts. (Not a bad set of rules for most relationships, really, although ‘make no babies’ is sometimes negotiable.)

I know a few people in relationships with partners who are more than fifteen years younger or older than they are. I know younger partners who entered these relationships when they were eighteen, when the differential wasn’t just large in terms of years, but enormous in terms of experience. I also know older partners who have chosen to date younger people and acted as mentors and guides for them, as well as lovers. The relationships I have in mind have not only been successful on their own terms, but also provided safe places for the younger partners to explore sexually and to continue maturing as adults. Some of these relationships aren’t just short term — which Savage suggests older/younger pairings always are — but long term commitments edging past years and into decades.

On feminist grounds, I think large age differentials can add a tricky extra layer of power to relationships which it can be hard for people to navigate, particularly if they aren’t used to thinking about the effects of power on intimate relationships. Younger partners, being more naive, have more at risk in these encounters. Still — it’s obvious that people can, and do, navigate the risks to create happy, safe relationships.

When it comes to accepting sexualities that are considered risky in our culture, I’m pretty radical, even for liberal feminists. But when age difference meets teacher-student relationships — well, my third-wave sex-positive wishy-washyness goes out the window, and my prudishly frowning super ego comes out to wag her finger.

It happens. I think we all hear about it. I don’t think most of us talk about it much. It’s a subject for whispers — a dirty academic secret. The TA really is making out with the student she recognized from suicide girls. The married, “monogamous” professor who hosts get-togethers at the home his wife keeps for him and his kids is slipping his own hors d’oeurves to the obnoxious boy who won’t shut up in class.

Universities round up their TAs for seminars on sexual conduct in the classroom, where they inform them about the methods for dealing with students who harrass them — and casually drop in the proper procedure for dealing with burgeoning relationships with students. “Avoid the ones in your department,” they say, “and particularly the ones in your classes.”

Or at least wait until your class is over.

But really, we all know stories about people who didn’t, don’t we?

I am aware that teacher/student romances are the subject of many an erotic fantasy, but I’m the odd one out on this kind of eroticism. On a gutteral level, I just don’t get it. Students — especially younger ones — are… bleah. They’re students. I could no more think erotic thoughts about them than I could my siblings or parents. I’ve become fairly good friends with a few of my ex-students, and even so, when they do things that I’d never blink at another young adult doing — like post pictures of themselves topless and drunk at a party — I have to suppress my gag reflex. Because ew. Students.

But my personal distaste shouldn’t be part of this conversation. Arguments from disgust are never convincing, which is why anti-choice protesters aren’t making a good logical point when they talk about how disgusting abortion looks (do they think appendectomies are gorgeous?). There have to be better reasons than “yuck” to oppose student/teacher relationships.

Don’t there?

I think it’s a good thing to discuss taboos rather than leave them hidden. I was once involved in a really interesting discussion with anthropologists about how a lot of people have relationships with their informants in the field. By making those dynamics overt, anthropologists gain the ability to discuss them, analyze them, and hopefully deal with them productively.

So, here are my questions to fellow people who are working in academia (though I know people might want to go anonymous to comment on this):

1) Policies against student/teacher relationships are a fact at most (all?) institutions. Should they be? Are the ones that exist reasonable? Are there tweaks that would make things more practical or safer for students?

2) If your students are attracted to you, how do you deal with that? If you’re attracted to your students, how do you deal with that?

3) Have you been in a relationship with a student or ex-student, a teacher or ex-teacher? From that point of view, are such relationships just like any other relationship — sometimes exploitative, sometimes fine — or are they particular minefields?

4) Are student/teacher relationships inevitable? They seem to be. Is there a way of dealing with that better than we currently do? Is there a version of the campsite rule that people involved in such relationships should follow?

5) Is it less problematic to date someone right after they get out of your class (or right after you get out of their class)? Or does that not make much difference?

6) Anyone care to attempt a good explanation for why teacher/student relationships are problematic? Obviously it’s got something to do with power, but is that sufficient? After all, heterosexual relationships involve systemic power differentials, and almost no one opposes those.
Is it just the mechanics of grading that makes these relationships untenable? Is it the nature of institutionalized authority? Is it the incest taboo, repurposed to cover a different kind of relationship? Is it just prudery? Let me know what you think.

  • Hi, I'm Rachel! I write science fiction and fantasy short stories. I've won the Nebula Award twice, and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and some other things. My seventy or so short stories are available around the internet as well as in print, and many of them are in my latest collection, How the World Became Quiet. I have a masters degree in fiction from the University of Iowa. I have five cats. I like my cats, but strongly suggest one stops at three. Or two. Excuse me, I have to go take care of cats.

42 thoughts on “Thinking About Age Differences, Relationships, and Academics

  1. I so wish I had time to comment in depth about this, since I met my wife when she was my student, though she is only four years younger than I am, and we’ve been married now almost 17 years. At the same time, my sister started a relationship in her 20s with, and eventually married, the man who was her boss, and he was 20 years her senior, and they were very, very happy. (He died at 60 a little over a year ago.) So let me just say now that these are provocative and important questions that I hope I have a chance to come back to to comment on later.

  2. My experience is dealing with high school students, so the age differential is greater. In my opinion, that’s never OK. (Because they’re children…perhaps not physically, but their ability to evaluate the risks of a relationship isn’t fully developed, so the teacher can almost be guaranteed to be taking advantage.)

    College may be a different issue, which I can’t address with any authority, but I taught secondary school for 10 years. I never heard of a teacher/student relationship at either of my schools….for which I’m glad.

  3. RJN — As always, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts when you have time for them. I always respect your opinions.

    JKC – I’m glad you’ve not heard of any relationships, too! My mom is a high school librarian and one of her coworkers recently married someone he’d had in his class some years previous… obviously she was no longer his student, but there was an intimation of mutual attraction when she was, and there remains a very large age and experience gap between them. I had always respected the coworker, but… well, it’s possible their relationship is awesome. But my squick goes SQUICK and I’m not sure it’s wrong to regard all those factors as potential red flags.

    One of the girls I went to high school with had a crush on one of her teachers and, after graduation, pretty much went up to him and said “ME NOW.” They got married, bought a house… got divorced when, shockingly, he started dating another ex-student. I was pretty on board at the points when she was in control of getting what she wanted, and pretty irritated by the outcome…

    …and somehow, in my brain, it’s hard to look at all that as totally separate from the English teacher who used to stare at my friend Annie’s legs during his lectures whenever she wore her cheerleader uniform to school, and was eventually fired for looking at porn on school computers…

  4. i’d like to expand the questions posed, by asking about therapist/patient relationships. i think the things that are wrong with that are applicable to the teacher/student relationship dilemma. there is a trust factor involved, as well a vulnerability that is being abused, regardless if the people involved want to admit this or not.

    in regards to age gaps in relationships, the idea of one person acting as a mentor sounds, in theory, sort of ideal, however, i wonder if it can really work on that level without one party involved taking on a ‘parental’ role. that can kind of ruin things. i was involved with a man 14 older than me. it never worked, and partially because he viewed me as someone always in need of guidance. We were never on equal footing, which I think is huge in making a relationship soar. in the beginning stages though that sexual freedom you touch on did exist. ultimately though, the age gap presented more cons than pros, and perhaps it was more a personality issue than an age issue, but i sort of see those going hand in hand.

    1. Our culture both eroticizes power and suggests that parenting shouldn’t be part of an adult sexual relationship (although I think the latter idea is fairly new)… I guess it’s not surprising that these contradictions lead to a fraught space. It seems to me, though, that I do know people who need and/or want parenting as part of their adult relationships, which may be part of what you mean when you say it may be a personality thing…

  5. My understanding at Oxford was that professor/student or TA/student relationships were perfectly acceptable as long as both parties had informed the university (to prevent deliberate or accidental cheating/bias in marking). It’s not uncommon to see TAs who are younger than the mature students, so banning relationships between them simply on age would be rather strange.

  6. Ok, so perhaps I will try to dip in and out here, because, obviously, this is a topic of great interest to me. Here are some thoughts:

    1. I would say this about teacher-student relationships: The relationship is, in essence, a professional one, which is something that teachers need always to keep in mind and that students, even graduate students, are, I think, wont to forget. So it’s not just the issue of the grade, or of classroom dynamics (how do you treat the man or woman in your class with whom you are having a relationship during class; how does he or she treat you?); it’s also that the persona on whom the student has a crush, develops a more serious attraction, etc. is a professional persona, which is very different from the personae we meet when we meet people in non-professional situations. That makes the power dynamic, I think, more complicated, because the teacher has an investment, a reasonable and necessary, professional, investment in the power and authority of her or his teacher-persona that is of a different order than the investment that each of us has in, say, how we present as men or women, cis or trans, wealthy or not, or whatever. I’m not talking here about quantity, about which persona is more essential than another one, about which is more likely to lead to exploitation, or anything like that. I just think that the professional element makes things different, though I don’t have the time fully to explore why.

    2. The classroom–because it involves teaching and learning, and because teaching and learning is, ultimately, about desire and the fulfillment of desire; is about engaging people’s minds on an emotional and intellectual level–is a profoundly erotic space and every teacher and every student who walks into a classroom makes decisions about how to present themselves in response to that eroticism: the teacher whose “SQUICK alert” is tuned to even the slightest hint of attraction and the teacher who engages students in ways that lead to, even if they do not explicitly invite, attraction (which is not necessarily to cross any ethical lines); the students who would never imagine coming on to a teacher and the students who do. The issue is being responsible and accountable, and honest, about the eroticism. I wrote a post dealing with some of this some years ago–that I haven’t reread and so I don’t remember it clearly and I don’t know if I would still agree with everything that I wrote: Thin­king About Teaching, the Fear of False Rape Accu­sa­tions and the Ero­tics of the Classroom.

    3. A little of the story of me and my wife: She was in an ESL class I was teaching, and I thought she was significantly younger than I was, so when I had with her the first individual meeting that I have with all my students, and I asked her questions about her life–which included, because she brought it up, talking about her marriage (she was divorced), her plans for her life in the US, whether she planned to marry again (I was curious because of how she talked about the marriage she had recently left)–it did not occur to me that my questions might be interpreted as flirtatious in any way. When I teach ESL, I make an effort to get to all of my students a little more personally than I do in, say, a composition class because the more personal relationship can help language acquisition. I do not have a standard set of questions, but allow what the student has to to say to direct our conversation. Anyway, I did not know that my wife interpreted my questions as flirtatious, nor did I know that she was only four years younger than I was and so was, except that we were teacher and student, my peer.

    I am going to skip over a lot here and say, simply, that eventually we started flirting with each other, not openly in the classroom, but in teacher-student conferences, etc. At some point, though, I began to wonder if what I was reading as flirtation might not be something else. In other words, I began to think there might be some kind of cross-cultural miscommunication going on. So I told her that I was interested in getting to know her better and asked if she’d be interested in seeing me after the semester was over. She said no. I said okay and I stopped flirting completely, became entirely professional, and that was how things went until the end of the semester, when she asked to make an appointment to see me to talk about an essay she was writing. When we sat down to talk about the paper, however, she did not have it; instead, she looked at me and said, “I want to get to know you after the semester is over too.”

    That’s how we started dating, and it took a while for us to get beyond the teacher-student relationship that shaped the way we originally met, and it was hard work to do that. But that is a topic, perhaps, for another comment when I have more time.

    1. Where red flags went off for me in my reading of your experience is when you asked whether she’d be interested in dating after the semester ended, while she was still your student. That is the kind of situation I could easily see going differently – she says no, and her grades suffer accordingly.

      Obviously that didn’t happen in this case, and obviously it wasn’t creepy to her, but the power differential inherent in your roles as student and teacher make that moment a loaded one for other people in similar situations.

    2. Ditto Katie on how, if you had been another teacher, that moment of her saying no could have been bad. But luckily of course, it wasn’t.

      Most of my ex-students are only 3-5 years younger than I am, because of how young I was when I got to grad school. So in a way that does make them my peers. It’s entirely possible that my SQUICK alert is so highly tuned *because* of that. People talk about having difficulty maintaining authority in classrooms where they are close in age to the students. I never had that problem. Creating a non-peer mental category for my students helped me maintain authority.

      Occasionally, this was explicitly strange — for instance, I’d have a 21 year old ex-student who I thought of as Not Peer, and a 22 year old friend from another graduate department who I thought of as a peer. I mean, there were some concrete differences between them despite their similar ages: one was in grad school, and one was in college, and that did lead them to have slightly different attitudes and pursuits. Still, my mental categorization of peer/not-peer was definitely shaped by the way I wanted to view my students.

      Then again, I think part of the eroticization for people is that they want to have relationships with not-peers. This is something I’ve never wanted or viscerally understood, so it was effective for me to mentally define students as not-peers. But it wouldn’t be a technique that would work for a lot of people, since the not-peer, non-equal-power dynamic is part of the allure.

      Now that I’ve read this comment of yours, I think we must have had this conversation on Alas at some point, because I remember you saying that my finely-tuned squick alert was a reaction to the eroticism of the classroom. I’m still not sure this is true — I don’t think the classroom is an erotic space for me in the sense that you mean. While it’s true that “no to eroticism” is a position on the eroticism spectrum, I could apply that to any space, and say that people who don’t find… restaurants?… erotic are simply responding negatively to the inherent eroticism of the space.

      Still, I do resonate to what you say about the connection between eroticism and opening the mind to new possibilities, just like I connect to what Hugo says about the connection between eroticism and the desire to become like someone else. (If you haven’t read the post he linked below, it’s very good, in my opinion). As a student, though, I never felt like that manifested in other people. It was something that manifested in *me* — a new way of understanding myself, a vast opening of possibility. Sex was one of those possibilities, part of the world of adulthood. Like activism and learning.

      I miss that sense of perpetually broadening horizons.

      1. Rachel:

        I don’t think the classroom is an erotic space for me in the sense that you mean. While it’s true that “no to eroticism” is a position on the eroticism spectrum, I could apply that to any space, and say that people who don’t find… restaurants?… erotic are simply responding negatively to the inherent eroticism of the space.

        I don’t really mean the physical space of the classroom per se, but rather the classroom as a space informed by what goes on there.

  7. I think it’s the eroticism of the power dynamic that makes it a dodgy proposition – even in college; in my mind the idea of a teacher having sex with a high school student borders on abuse – it’s hard to make it an honest relationship, and is very open to manipulation on both sides that is unhealthy.

    From the student’s side, the eroticism isn’t just the incest taboo, though I think that does play in it, similarly to stepmother/father fantasies that don’t cross the consanguinuity line, but the power for the student in seducing someone who is nominally off-limits. From the teacher’s side, youth and vitality are powerful attractants, and the idea that one has made such an impression on someone who has so many choices of companion, coupled with the power of controlling someone and moulding them in one’s image.

    The trouble, I think is that none of these things is based on the reality of the other person. The erotic arena is the classroom, and only the classroom – the appeal is the dominance/submission, and the uneven balance of power.

    While there are always exceptions (and I fell in love with my fencing teacher, we’ve been together for 15 years), and I think older students with more life experience shouldn’t be included in this evaluation, overall, I’d strongly recommend against it purely because it sets up an unequal dynamic and an unhealthy pattern to follow in subsequent relationships. However, this is subject to the relative maturity of both student and teacher, and anyone over 18 is really free to make their own decisions.

  8. One more dynamic to toss in the mix: The US is blessed with many excellent, small liberal arts colleges in geographically remote areas. So, what are the dating prospects for a young prof? There’s the small number of faculty members, most of whom are married. There’s the somewhat larger group of townies, most of whom are unlikely social matches for a young PhD from the elite institutions of higher learning that produce college professors. And there’s the relatively large body of single students who are extremely close social matches to the young PhD, except for a bit of age difference.

    The more conscientious the prof – that is, the more time spent on research, or interacting with students in office hours/student clubs – the larger the problem. A sex life requires both time and opportunity.

    Liberal arts colleges know this. They have a hard enough time already trying to recruit the best and brightest faculty to come teach in a the middle of a cornfield, desert, swamp or slum. A crack-down on student/faculty dating would likely exacerbate their problems.

    1. Do you work in academia? because really, no one has trouble recruiting faculty. We hang out, being dimes for dozens. We’d take jobs in lava craters.

  9. i have a big squick reaction. my profession isn’t professorial, but [a] i remember squicking as a student at teacher/student affairs, and [b] in my profession, there are strict ethical rules against such involvement with clients.

    first, crushes are not uncommon in professional relationships. but a romantic involvement is fundamentally different from the terms and purposes of the professional relationship. there is a danger that the professional will lose objectivity.

    the age and power differential concerns me. even if there is not a huge age gap, there will always be a power gap. so a second danger is exploitation. [this actually might work badly in either direction: a professor might use his position to get laid; a student might sleep her way to a good grade, with the leverage of exposing the affair to the detriment of the professor’s reputation.]

    as a student, i would have been horrified at a teacher hitting on me. it was yucky enough dealing with unwelcome advances of peers, but saying no to a professor would have raised a lot of extra anxiety — both about my academic future, and about whether this was happening to other people.

    a point that nobody has touched on so far is, how can an intimate relationship between one student and the professor possibly be fair to the other students? when one is teaching entire classrooms of students, the power dynamics of a single relationship are not the only set of problems.

    1. Yeah, the other students (particularly those of the same sex as the involved student) may feel that their only opportunities for advancement are modeled by the relationship — that they, too, are being subtly pressured to become involved with their professors.

      1. i wasn’t really thinking of l’affaire encouraging others, but of the appearance of impropriety kind of poisoning the class.

  10. Non-teacher here; former student in what feels almost like a past life (community college, over twenty years ago!). If I were to return to school, I would not knowingly take a course from an instructor who dated students. I wouldn’t trust that person to be objective in grading or teaching. The “squick” factor of the power differential is it for me—I can’t help but think that the sexual attraction (for the professor) is all wrapped up in the power he (or she) wields over the student. An inherent Pygmalion vibe….just….yuck.

    nobody.really, it doesn’t sound like you get out much to Flyover Country™. Let’s get real—most of this dating the younger student body business is coming from the direction of older heterosexual men, some of whom are still married. The dating dearth in the sticks isn’t any different for professors than it is for anyone else who isn’t already married—the population is less dense, but not necessarily much different in composition than what you’d find in a larger city (save for that “married” part). Liberal arts colleges tend to be located in areas where, surprise surprise, there’s a liberal community to go along with them. Just sayin’. Any professor who claims that he (or she) would go dateless if it wasn’t for students, is lying. Full stop.

    And frankly, I have a big problem with colleges that condone teacher/student dating. It’s a slap in the face to the other students who are making a great financial sacrifice (in most cases) to further their education to tacitly allow teachers to use classrooms as a captive dating stable. Yes, captive. Just as an employee doesn’t really have the same latitude to say “no” to his or her employer’s sexual overtures, neither does a student (and nobody.really, that is especially true in smaller college communities where the option of taking another class with a different instructor may not be an option).

    After all, heterosexual relationships involve systemic power differentials, and almost no one opposes those.

    Do men have a systemic power advantage in a sexist world? Oh hell, yeah. But. As a woman who earns her own money, it is well within my power to end any relationship that turns sour (or for that matter, any other reason). That statement is problematic for me because it seems to equate my agency as a woman on equal financial and experiential footing to most men, with that of a barely-(or not)-out of her teens woman with little to no financial resources and significantly less life experience, merely by virtue of a shared heterosexuality.

  11. La Lubu wrote:

    And frankly, I have a big problem with colleges that condone teacher/student dating.

    I am just curious: Do you know of any institutions that openly condone such relationships? I just can’t imagine any accredited institution of higher learning today not have some official statement somewhere that teacher-student relationships are fundamentally unethical. And if there isn’t such a statement, I can’t imagine any accrediting agency allowing such a lapse to remain unaddressed.

    1. “nobody.really, it doesn’t sound like you get out much to Flyover Country™. Let’s get real—most of this dating the younger student body business is coming from the direction of older heterosexual men, some of whom are still married. The dating dearth in the sticks isn’t any different for professors than it is for anyone else who isn’t already married—the population is less dense, but not necessarily much different in composition than what you’d find in a larger city (save for that “married” part). Liberal arts colleges tend to be located in areas where, surprise surprise, there’s a liberal community to go along with them. Just sayin’. Any professor who claims that he (or she) would go dateless if it wasn’t for students, is lying. Full stop.”

      You know — A) I agree with this; a professor who claims they’d go dateless if not for students is not just lying, but is creepy as hell. They’re basically admitting that they use their student population as a captive pool. Very, very gross.

      But B) Some liberal arts colleges really are located out of the way. Not just in flyover country where there’s a liberal community around the college, but sometimes in locations that are largely inaccessible for large portions of the year, and which don’t have much of a community around them.

      And yet, this is a problem faced by a lot of people in remote locales, no? It doesn’t legitimize bad behavior.

      “That statement is problematic for me because it seems to equate my agency as a woman on equal financial and experiential footing to most men, with that of a barely-(or not)-out of her teens woman with little to no financial resources and significantly less life experience, merely by virtue of a shared heterosexuality.”

      I didn’t mean that the power dynamics in het relationships were identical to those in teacher/student relationships — just that power differences alone are not enough to justify disapproval.

      Of course, it’s possible and probably necessary to accept the inevitability of small power differentials, but still disapprove of large ones. It’s just ‘large’ and ‘small’ that become problematic to define. I think we agree, though, that student/teacher power differentials are definitely large.

  12. Senior year of high school, my 39 yr old english teacher hit on me. We used to go out for drinks and dinner and music. Then when he sent me this love letter, we went out for lunch and I cried and said no to him. He gave me a shitty grade after that.

    A friend of mine in high school lost her anal virginity not entirely willingly,to her algebra teacher the day after graduation. He was 24 years old.

    My brother in law married his thesis advisor at an Ivy league phd program. She’s five years older than him.

    My sister married a professor at her undergrad university program- he was 25 years older than her. They were married for seven years. My sister felt a great amount of power in being younger than all of his friends’ wives.

    In grad school, I had a few opportunities to sleep with my profs that would have helped my “career”. I chose not to. I just didn’t have it in me. I think I was flattered, though. I also was deeply resentful that it seemed the only way I could have gotten an adjunct job.

    I had sex at 12 with other 12 year olds. It was fucked up- it was not a good thing. I’m sure it was for other 12 year olds, but not for me. I was branded a whore and treated as such.

    Hm. What else? I’m sure there’s more.

    1. Thanks for contributing your anecdotes. They seem to encapsulate a lot of the problems with these dynamics (crying, shitty grades, not entirely willigness, withheld positions). At the same time, I do understand being flattered.

      “I also was deeply resentful that it seemed the only way I could have gotten an adjunct job.”

      That gets into the fairness thing, doesn’t it? It’s sort of classic sexual harassment if opportunities for advancement are dependent on sexual relationships.

      I guess I feel like the problems with this kind of thing are more than just the very concrete “if no X, then no Y” — although those problems are enormous and I don’t want to minimize them. It’s just that even outside that specific situation, I feel like there are diffuse problems…

      “I was branded a whore and treated as such.”

      Argh. I know I intended with that post (which is a couple years old) to create space for people to have positive experiences, not to deny that negative ones exist. But I am sorry if I missed that mark and came out too rah rah. Either way: retroactive argh at whore-branders.

      1. You didn’t miss any mark. As I said, “I’m sure it was for other 12 year olds”. I was just responding with my experience, but do think that it doesn’t have to be that way. Sex is great and that’s why I wanted to have it, even though it didn’t work out so well back then.

    1. I love that post.

      You know, several years ago, I took a very intense writing class that was taught by Octavia Butler. One of the male students in our class kept saying he wanted to have sex with her — he started saying this before we met her. She was an enormously shy person, and I suspect this would have been mortifying to her (since even general compliments seemed to mortify her). I think he was serious; I think he wanted to have sex with her. But it’s definitely also a spot-on example of wanting to externalize and absorb someone else’s qualities. I wonder to what extent this draws on older cultural myths about sex-as-sapping-energy, or sex-as-osmosis, or sex-as-magic.

      I was always actually very comfortable with the mentor/father dynamic, which I had a tendency to inspire; I was precocious from a young age and never particularly attractive. It was a big shift for me when my achievements stopped making me a wunderkind — when I had to start coming up with another way to get attention from people I admired other than just, “Isn’t it impressive that a person at X age has accomplished Y?”

  13. In some alternate world where teacher-student relationships were not overwhelmingly older-guy/younger-women, I might feel differently, but at present they just seem like one more instance of “older guys are teh hott, older women are teh hags”. Especially since, working in a university environment, I’ve seen plenty of older-professor-ditches-wife-for-younger-graduate-student. Now that I’m not in school any longer (and my career doesn’t require humanities research, so it’s all freedom) I pretty much no longer buy books by scholars who ditch their partners for grad students. (I even donated my Eric Hobsbawms when I read his memoir–sorry Eric, you were an interesting fellow.) It’s just unpleasant to read someone’s work knowing that he almost certainly has creepy ageist beliefs about women and feels entitled to an ever-renewing younger supply.

    1. I hear that. I have known women who were involved with younger male students, but even in my limited experience, they’re more rare than the other way around.

  14. I’m always a little hesitant to talk about this because I do generally believe that the power imbalance in a student/teacher relationship is insurmountable and makes most of these kind of relationships predatory. Which is made worse by the fact that most students (even traditional college-aged students) are just kids.

    However, my “husband” (scare quotes because we’re gays and can’t marry legally in our area) was a teacher at the high school I attended for a brief amount of time. He was not *my* teacher, but this is how we met. He was young (I think it was just his second year teaching). Due to various life experiences, I had to grow up fast; he had just gotten sober after an adolescence of alcoholism and drug abuse and had a lot of growing up to do. Our friendship was good for both of us and it didn’t go anywhere past that until I was of legal consenting age. We’ve been together for almost seven years now and the older we get, the less the nine-year age difference makes other people double-take.

    But then again, the power dynamic is different between gay and straight relationships, and it has never been particularly rare for very young gay men to have their first experience with much older men, thanks to the verrry closeted nature of high school.

    As an adult, I’ve had several college professors that I thought I could be friends with — in different circumstances. I’m not sure I could ever be fully comfortable in a friendship with someone who was evaluating me in some professional/academic manner (I couldn’t be friends with a boss, either).

  15. As an undergrad student with professorial aspirations (wow, I just realized how pretentious that sounded), I’ve thought a lot about the whole professor-student relationship thing. I attend a small, midwestern liberal arts college where professors are encouraged to (and often do) develop close (usually professional) relationships with students, even if they won’t have them in class at any point. I’ve babysat professors’ kids, had dinner at their houses, stopped during office hours to hang out and talk about stuff, whatever. And, ever since I started taking college classes at 13, I’ve had crushes on professors. A lot of times, they’re based off of academic work — oh my god, I am really interested in what this professor is doing and they happen to be attractive. (I’ve noticed this trend continuing in the professors with whom I’m interested in working in grad school) By and large, they’ve been on professors who were relatively young (under 35, in most cases) and were relatively recently out of grad school/still finishing up their doctorates. That said, the idea of a professor hitting on me, even if I won’t have class with them again, kind of creeps me out. Even the idea of professors at the university where I took classes when I was 13-17 makes me kind of uncomfortable.

    My college has a lot of married couples in the faculty and administration, and quite a few of these are men married to former (female) students. One professor in particular (whom I respect very much as an academic and whose classes I enjoy a lot) has had three wives, all of whom had been his students at some point. Given the time differentials between his marriage to them and when they had been students of his, it’s likely that little was going on while they were students; however, it’s the general consensus among students of his that that’s kind of creepy. (For what it’s worth, though, no current students or recent graduates with whom I’ve spoken have been pursued by him.)

    Although I’ve never had a class taught by a TA (with the exception of a Chemistry discussion session thing once), I can see how the boundaries can get more iffy there. If I were to enter grad school right after finishing my undergrad, I’d be turning 21 a few months into my first fall semester. Were I TA-ing in my first semester, I’d be the same age as or younger than a significant proportion of the undergrad students. (I’m taking a few years off for reasons unrelated to concerns about the age dynamics.) It probably wouldn’t be a problem for me in terms of people to whom I’d be attracted, since I tend to date people several years older than me, but I can see very easily how a student could become attracted to a TA, especially if they were very close in age… and I have friends who have been put into awkward situations by students trying to seduce them.

    Lastly, to contribute a bit to the sub-discussion about secondary school teachers… in the past 1-1.5 years, I’ve become relatively close friends with a former teacher at my junior high. She was never my classroom teacher, although she ran several of the extracurricular activities in which I was heavily involved. We communicated on and off since I left that school when I was 13 (after the 8th grade), but have resumed a regular correspondence since then. She was in her mid-to-late 20s when I was a student there, and I totally had one of those middle-school-crushes-on-a-teacher things on her. (To be fair, a lot of that was probably linked to the fact that she was the only gay adult I could talk to. She wasn’t out at work, but there were [true] rumors about her having a long-term partner and she had an Indigo Girls poster on her wall, so I knew.) There’s probably a difference between a middle school teacher and a high school teacher in terms of the sexual activity of the students (hell, I wasn’t even thinking about sex when I was 13… I was more focused on making it through that school year and writing the Great American Novel) and the eventual dynamics that could have arisen because of that. (After all, she’s 12+ years older than me… which is a lot different from the age differential that would have existed between her and a high school senior.) If there was a sexual component to our current relationship, I can see how that could raise red flags, although I haven’t been her student for seven years. For whatever reason, though, the idea of her coming on to me doesn’t creep me out, unlike how it would have if she had been a professor.

  16. My students do not interest me either. As for policies, I am not aware of one where I teach but I suspect there is one on the books. Having said that, my current relationship is with a student from my campus.

    I should point out a few things about my girlfriend. First, she was never my student and more to the point, she was NEVER going to be my student. She had all of the history courses years ago. Second, she is older (I won’t say how old) but in terms of age, we are contemporaries.

    The only problematic issue is that she worked in the same building that I did (different academic divisions). However, aside from the gossip (we didn’t hide the relationship for the most part) there was no action taken against me.

    There was action often taken against her. Snide comments, a difference in treatment (coldness as opposed to the good relations she had previously experienced from her peers), and outright hostility in some cases.

    No one took any significant action against me. One could chalk that up to gender bias (he’s a man) or they could chalk it up to the fact that my Boss has my back (who is also a man so we are back tot hat). One could also chalk it up to a bit of intimidation (again I suspect we are back to my gender).

    In any case, she took the brunt of the aggravation, unfairly I might add. As an adjunct, I have very little power to do much more than say, “Quit treating her like that.”

    I’ll have to think on that more.

    The questions.

    1. There probably is a policy. I suspect it is disregarded.

    2. I am known for being incredibly obtuse when it comes to others being interested in me. Thus I have no real idea if it is happening or not.

    3. Answered this above. They can be very problematic at times. That said, she has moved onto another school (we still live together) so that removes a number of aggravations from the relationship.

    4. Are they inevitable? I suspect they are. This sort of thing is frowned on in the military and yet I saw it happen frequently there (where consequences can include courts martial). Inevitable does not mean acceptable however.

    5. I do not date MY students.

    6. I’m going to have to think on this one. I think one problematic issue, in this era of litigation, is the potential sexual harassment lawsuit which might result from a relationship that went south.

    S. F. Murphy

  17. I don’t necessarily think teacher/student relationships are inherently bad, but I think that in the societal context in which they usually occur it’s a lot more likely for them to turn out negatively than positively.

    When I began my graduate studies, a very popular, married, much older professor of mine started flirting with me. It was a really difficult situation for me–on the one hand, I was flattered. I liked being the attention he gave me, I liked being “teacher’s pet”. But on the other hand, all throughout my time at that school I wondered if he was responding to my work or to me. Long story short, things culminated in a clandestine make-out session/ass grab in his office, a few days after which he told me we shouldn’t do anything more, not because it was unprofessional, not because he was worried about my well-being, but because he was afraid of being caught.

    That guy was obviously a major league douche, but even had he been less of a turd, a lot of the same problems would have manifested themselves. I was never really attracted to him–I was attracted to the feeling of power his attraction gave me. I was attracted to what he symbolized, and I was attracted to the experience–it was role playing. It was stupid. Any halfway intelligent person would be able to recognize that, but he didn’t. He thought it had something to do with him, but it never did.

  18. To be very simplistic, I’d say that putting people together in an intimate setting (and I do think the classroom is that) can easily lead to feelings developed between people. This isn’t shocking. As human beings live more and more seperately (quite differently from our beginnings) our chances at intimacy (and I use that word in a non-sexual sense) become lessened. It’s our nature to want to be with other people. Maybe we just want to be held, but sometimes that is expressed sexually. This has happened for me personally. Not being able to express tenderness without a sexual component.

    Stray thoughts: hardly any Big Other people have commented on this post and all the commenters are people who seemingly have never commented before.

    1. many of the comments are by people who participate in the feminist blogosphere and traveled here from the lure i put up on alas a blog, with a few following over from my personal livejournal.

      1. yes, i followed the link from alas a blog. hope i’m not stepping on any conventions of the community, but i think this is a very interesting discussion.

  19. Welcome everybody! And thanks for all these incredible stories and very rich dialogue.

    For me, the power differential in the academy (which is real, entrenched, and institutionalized, and where the abuse of same is rampant) is inherently debilitating and is ultimately an obstacle to genuine learning and dialogue. As such, it is also a microcosm of contemporary mainstream American society. Is it possible that some of these so-called inappropriate relationships are examples of organic and necessary trespass to these hegemonies, these hierarchies, and prove, perhaps, that the power differential is corrupt?

    I would certainly like to hear more about the erotics of the classroom, not to mention other institutions like the workplace, places of worship, and wherever else.

  20. I married someone older than me, and someone who had been in the same company I worked at a higher, supervisory level (it was my first job) but we only worked together for a few months and we got together after I stopped working there. There was also a boyfriend in between me leaving the workplace and me starting a relationship with him, so it wasn’t an instant thing: bam, we hook up right after I quit. No.

    We talked about it later and my husband said he would have never dated me when I worked for him because a) The power dynamics in the supervisor/employee situation b) I was too young back then for him to consider it. I think those things are key: maturity and power dynamics.

    With that said, I had a teacher in high school who definitely seemed to be “grooming” some of the girls. He was young and good looking (in his twenties). He was always very friendly. A bit too friendly and informal. I know some of the girls sometimes went over to his house to talk or for study time. He lived alone and it just seemed icky to have sixteen year old students hanging out with him like that. He also shared way too much of his personal life with us, talking about his girlfriend, etc.

    Though he never tried any moves with me, I still feel like scrubbing my skin when I think about that guy. I specially recall one time after class when he made me stay behind and all I wanted was to run to the door. I was so freaked he might try something. He, knowing him, just left a very bad taste in my mouth and I am almost positive he did have some sort of sexual relationship with some of the other girls who hanged out with him. Who, by the way, had huge self-esteem issues. The two I recall most vividly were essentially dateless and desperately wanted a boyfriend. One of them used to draw little hearts with his name on it and plan her wedding to the man. No kidding.

    He left the school in less than a year, but man. Disturbing! And now that I think about it, I’m ashamed to say I never told a grown up about this. I was scared he’d retaliate and flunk me. At the time I was working hard on earning straight As so I could get a scholarship for university.

  21. I am just curious: Do you know of any institutions that openly condone such relationships?

    Sorry for the hit-and-run. Richard, as I’ve said, I’m not an academic, but from what I’ve seen and heard of from those with a lot more contact with that world than I have is that, yes, there are no-dating-the-students clauses, but that it’s more of a nudge, nudge, wink wink in practice. The real message is: dating students is ok, just be discreet. There are a lot of institutions that do nothing as long as there isn’t a formal complaint by the student involved.

    It reminds me of the discussions held on feminist boards about the Dave Letterman affairs—some folks said, hey, it’s two consenting adults, who cares?, while others said, hey hold the phone—what about the other women working in that environment? When or even can they get a fair shot at having their work evaluated independently of their level of sexual attractiveness to the boss?

    I went into construction. For almost all of my apprenticeship, I was a young, married woman (21-25). I got hit on somewhat, but that was tempered by my married status. When I got divorced, it was Katy-bar-the-door. I was “fair game” then, and no….it’s not pleasant trying to get through the workday with men who have a whole lot of power over you in the workplace hitting on you. Even when it’s “two adults” and after I was topped out (became a journeyman) and thus supposedly on the same power level. Because here’s a little secret—-I wasn’t. On the same power level. Only one percent of electricians in the U.S. are women, and in my geographic area, a lot of barriers have not been broken. It is not easy to be among “the first”.

    Still, it’s easier than politely rebuffing unwanted sexual advances from a person who can make your work life miserable or end it prematurely. Here’s another secret—even rumors—even untrue rumors—can do a lot of damage to the professional reputation of women. That pendulum doesn’t swing both ways; thanks, sexism! It’s a fine line to walk—how to say no without being retaliated against. Because the default assumption doesn’t tend to be, “I’ll ask her, and hey, I might get lucky.” No, the default assumption is, “She single, so she has no reason to say no to me.”

    And FWIW, we have anti-sexual harassment clauses and anti-racism clauses very similar to what I suppose the academic world has.

    So, that’s why my response was the way it was. That’s what comes to my mind. I filtered it through my own experiences. I don’t believe a person who says that he or she can date a subordinate, yet not have that affect the professional (whether academic or workplace) relationship. Even the act of asking and being rebuffed affects the relationship. Usually not in a good way—no matter how polite you are. Because the person doing the asking—in an environment where there has already been some tacit acknowledgement that this is problematic (hence the “don’t so it” clauses)—already feels pretty damn entitled, and entitlement goes down hard.

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