Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Students by Teachers

In their 2002 survey, the AAUW reported that, of students who had been harassed, 38% were harassed by teachers or other school employees. One survey, conducted with psychology students, reports that 10% had sexual interactions with their educators; in turn, 13% of educators reported sexual interaction with their students. In a survey of high school students, 14% reported that they had engaged in sexual intercourse with a teacher. (Wishnietsky, 1991) In a national survey conducted for the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in 2000 found that roughly 290,000 students experienced some sort of physical sexual abuse by a public school employee between 1991 and 2000. And a major 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly 10 percent of U.S. public school students reported having been targeted with sexual attention by school employees. Indeed, one critic has claimed that sexual harassment and abuse by teachers is 100 times more frequent than abuse by priests.

Psychology and behaviors of teachers who sexually harass students
Most complaints about teachers' behavior tend to center around what is felt to be inappropriate speech in a class or discussion, such as using sexist or sexual references to make a point. However, some teachers can take things to a more extreme degree. Relationships between students and teachers can be often quite intimate and intense as they share common passions and interests. Students are dependent on their teachers' approval for academic success, opportunities, and later career success. They will talk about personal issues, such as problems at home, or with boyfriends/girlfriends. Such closeness and intimacy can blur the professional boundaries and lead people—both school employee and student alike—to step over the line. Martin writes,

    "...teachers hold positions of trust. They are expected to design teaching programmes and carry out their teaching duties to help their students develop as mature thinkers. This may involve close working relationships in tutorials or laboratories, individual meetings to discuss projects or essays, and more casual occasions for intellectual give and take. For impressionable young students, the boundaries between intellectual development and personal life may become blurred. In this situation, some academics easily move from intellectual to personal to sexual relationships."

A teacher who harasses a student may be doing so because he or she is experiencing the stress from various personal problems or life traumas, such as marital trouble or divorce, a professional crisis, financial difficulties, medical problems, or the death of a spouse or child. Even though the behavior is unacceptable, it can be a symptom of the effects of such stresses, and may stop if the situation changes, or the pressures are removed.

Sexual relationships between students and 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 the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

While sexual relationships with pupils under the age of 18 is illegal in the U.S., this is not the case in higher education. Jane Gallop argues that students learn more effectively in a sexually charged atmosphere. 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. (Gallop, 1997). In her September 2001 essay in Harper's Magazine, The Higher Yearning, academic Cristina Nehring celebrated the educative nature of such sexual relationships: "Teacher-student chemistry is what fires much of the best work that goes in universities, even today".

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. (Gallop, 1997) 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. (Martin, 1993) 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 (Smithson, 1990). 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 at Austin 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."