Sexual relationships between students & teachers

There has been debate over whether or not sexual interactions and relationships between students and teachers constitutes abuse, or if there are benefits that outweigh the risks. In Britain, sexual relationships between students under the age of 18 were not outlawed until 2003 in The Sexual Offenses Act. Pat Sikes, an education lecturer, has written a paper in defense of pupil-teacher affairs, arguing that it is wrong always to cast students as victims when they are often the initiators. She met her husband in 1970 on her first day at school when she was aged 14, and his first day as a teacher, aged 22. "It wasn't until two years later, on the evening that he left the school to take up a post elsewhere that we declared our feelings for and to each other ... I returned to school, after the summer vacation as [his] girlfriend," she said. She suggests that about 1,500 pupil-teacher affairs develop in Britain every year. She argues that expressions of sexuality provide a "major currency and resource in the everyday exchanges of school life ... and nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the seductive nature and 'erotic charge' often characteristic of 'good' teaching which provokes a positive and exciting response."

While sexual relationships with pupils under the age of 18 is illegal in the U.S., this is not the case in higher education. Like Sikes, Jane Gallop argues that students learn more effectively in a sexually charged atmosphere. She writes, "In fact, it seemed to make it somewhat easier for me to write. Seducing them made me feel kind of cocky, and that allowed me to presume I had something to say worth saying." In her book, she describes the separate occasions she slept with two male professors on her dissertation committee, and when she first began sleeping with her own students as an assistant professor.

However, in recent years, there has been controversy over even consensual sexual interactions between students and teachers, especially within the last decade. Like many, Gallop asserts that the relationships between a teacher and a student is very much like that of a parent and a child. However, it is this parallel that many say is the reason teacher-pupil sexual contact and relations are immoral because they are too closely akin to incest, and similar long-term damages can result. Some draw parallels with the phenomena of therapist abuse, or priest abuse. Of his sexual relationship with Gallop at Cornell, Richard Klein admitted, "For decades I have felt guilt and shame for having performed toward her in a way that was unprofessional, exploitative, and lousy in bed."

Many experts argue that even consensual sexual interactions between students and teachers constitute sexual harassment. The most commonly expressed concern is over whether "mutual consent" can exist in a relationship where there is such a disparity in power between the people involved. Because of this, more and more schools are adopting policies that forbid amorous relationships between students and professors "in the instructional context" even when they are consenting. Dzeich et al writes, "Physical intimacy with students is not now and never has been acceptable behavior for academicians. It cannot be defended or explained away by evoking fantasies of devoted professors and sophisticated students being denied the right to 'true love.' Where power differentials exist, there can be no 'mutual consent.'" In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, a dean at the University of Texas stated he'd like to crack down on consensual relationships between professors and students. "Wait until she graduates," he says he tells male professors. "We have a kind of sacred trust to the students," he explains. "They're coming here to get us to evaluate what their abilities are and what their future could be. These relationships poison the whole academic well."

Dzeich argues that much damage occurs because of the betrayal by someone that the student trusted and respected. Moreover, seduction attempts which are masked by pretenses to academic and personal attention are particularly damaging because the student feels complicit in their own abuse. Another consequence is that, when sex is an accepted behavior between teachers and students, it can be more difficult to raise concerns about sexual harassment. For example, unwanted sexual advances by a professor may be intimidating or even frightening, however, if sexual relations between staff and students is common at the school, it will be difficult for a student to identify this behavior as harassment.

Sexual relations between teachers and students raises concerns about the abuse of trust and conflicts of interest--and these points are not usually covered in sexual harassment policies.

Conflicts of interest can arise when the professional responsibilities of a teacher are affected, or appear to be affected, by a special personal relationship with a student. These can include showing favoritism towards a student sexually involved with the teacher, or hostility towards a student due to a past relationship. If a teacher is sexually involved with a student, colleagues may feel pressured to give preferential treatment to the student, such as better marks, extensions on essays, extra help, or academic opportunities. When there are multiple relationships between several staff and students, the possibilities for conflict of interest are enormous. Even if there is no favoritism or hostility, it can be perceived by others to be exhibited.

There is also the question of the abuse of trust. This occurs when the trust associated with a professional relationship is destroyed because of non-professional actions or requests for non-professional actions. Martin writes, "Teachers are in a position of authority and trust to foster the intellectual development of their students. When they engage in sexual relations with a student, they violate that trust implicit in a professional teacher-student relationship."