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.
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.