I’m well aware of the problem of sexual misconduct on campus. I got my job at John Abbott College because a pervy prof was ousted mid-semester and they were desperately in need of an immediate replacement. I’ll spare you the gory details about the pervy prof’s misdeeds. Suffice it to say that what he was doing, he was doing to (and in some cases with) minors. This kind of thing is seriously gross and obviously wrong. Faculty who mess around with minors deserve what’s coming to them. Big time. But if the student in question is over 18, and we’re talking about a consensual relationship between two voting adults, things aren’t nearly so clear.
Many companies forbid their employees from being romantically involved with their direct supervisor. Because the conflicts of interest are virtually inescapable. Thinking along similar lines, it seems reasonable for universities to insist that faculty refrain from dating students presently enrolled in their classes. But aside from that specific situation, is it right to legislate what adults can and cannot do on their own time? I think not. Legislation of this kind infantilizes the very women it seeks to save. It treats women who are old enough to drink, vote, and marry like helpless little children—devoid of agency and desperately in need of institutional protection. How is this empowering? How is it emancipatory? And in what universe is it feminist?
In “Professors, Power and Predators,” Toula Drimonis maintains that student-teacher relationships should be banned outright because they’re fraught with power imbalances. I must confess that I initially thought this was a good idea. But I’ve had a change of heart. To some extent, this is because I know so many happily married couples that started out as student-teacher relationships. As Laura Kipnis rightly observes, you can’t throw a stone on a North American campus without hitting a couple of this kind. They are very common. Outlawing a practice that seems to work out well with some regularity seems at best bizarre.
Are relationships between students and faculty fraught with power imbalances? My guess is that most of the time they are. Are these power imbalances potentially problematic? Of course. But isn’t this a regular feature of the dating landscape? People with lots of power date the less powerful all the time. A high-powered lawyer friend of mine is a case in point. She makes about 500K a year. Her boyfriend, a personal trainer who lives in a little studio apartment, makes a fraction of what she does. Should she dump him forthwith because of the power imbalance? Of course not! They’re very much in love. Could that power imbalance complicate their relationship at some point? Sure. But that’s for them to work out. It’s none of our business. The same is true of consensual relationships between students and faculty. If there are power imbalances to contend with, that’s for them to work out. It’s none of our business. Just as the state has no place in the bedrooms of its citizens, the university has no place in the bedrooms of its employees.
Plenty of things fall under the category “Really Bad Idea” (e.g., dating your ex’s sister or brother, getting high first thing in the morning on a regular basis, buying lottery tickets, driving a motorcycle, becoming a Scientologist, etc.). But just because something’s stupid, just because it’s a really fucking bad idea, doesn’t mean there should be a law forbidding it. The freedom of being an adult citizen of our society includes the freedom to make mistakes. If you’re not free to be stupid, you’re not free.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2018)