Opinion | The Real Problem with Sex Between Professors and Students
Consider mandatory arrest laws, which require the police to make an arrest whenever they suspect an act of domestic violence. As many Black and Latina feminists predicted in the 1980s, when these policies began to be implemented, such laws increased the incidence of domestic violence against women of color; numerous studies have shown that retaliatory violence after arrest is linked with poverty, unemployment and drug and alcohol use — factors that disproportionately afflict Black and Latino communities. Indeed, male joblessness is linked with domestic violence against women the world over. But poor abused women cannot, as a rule, turn to the state to employ their partners, or for the money they would need in order to be able to leave them. Instead, they can only ask that their partners be locked up, which many are understandably reluctant to do. Mandatory arrest laws were born out of a concern for women’s safety. But they have sometimes had the effect of making marginalized women worse off, and have served as a cover for the deep conditions — poverty and precarity — that make certain groups of women especially vulnerable to violence.
The law has its limits on campus, too. The Office for Civil Rights, which administers Title IX, does not publish racial statistics for allegations of Title IX violations. Title IX requires schools to appoint officers to protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, but not from discrimination on the basis of race, sexuality, immigration status or class. Thus, as a matter of Title IX law, it is of no concern that, during at least two recent academic years, the small minority of Black students at Colgate University, the elite liberal arts college in upstate New York, have been disproportionately targeted for sexual violation complaints; and, as a matter of law, no notes are kept on where else this might be happening.
Given the lack of data, we cannot know for certain that Title IX disproportionately affects marginalized groups, but there is good reason to think that it might. Janet Halley, a professor of law at Harvard, has spent years documenting the unseen costs of campus sexual harassment policies, including accusations that unfairly target men of color, undocumented immigrants and L.G.B.T.Q. students. “How can the left care about these people when the frame is mass incarceration, immigration or trans-positivity,” she has asked, “and actively reject fairness protections for them under Title IX?”
So, we must ask: Would legally recognizing consensual faculty-student relationships as sex-discriminatory make campuses fairer for all women, for queer people, for immigrants, for the precariously employed, for people of color? Or would this bring with it unintended consequences, to be suffered by some of the people already most marginalized in our universities? In a context in which more and more academic labor is performed by adjuncts on low pay and with no job security, which university teachers could we expect to be targeted by such a legal change? Could such a change be leveraged to undermine academic freedom? And would the young people, usually women, involved in consensual relationships with their professors end up better off?
In considering these questions, it is perhaps instructive to return to one of the few times that U.S. courts have been asked to rule on whether faculty-student relationships can be penalized: a 1984 case called Naragon v. Wharton. Kristine Naragon, a graduate student instructor at Louisiana State University (L.S.U.) had a romantic relationship with a 17-year-old freshman student — also a woman — whom she wasn’t teaching. At the time, L.S.U. did not have a ban on faculty-student relationships, but the school decided not to renew Ms. Naragon’s teaching duties after the freshman’s parents demanded that the administration intervene. Meanwhile, L.S.U. declined to sanction a male professor in Ms. Naragon’s department who was having a live-in affair with an undergraduate woman whose work he had the responsibility of grading. The court ruled in L.S.U.’s favor, finding that by punishing Ms. Naragon but not the male professor, the school had not been motivated by homophobia.
None of this is to say that we cannot use the law, and Title IX specifically, to make university campuses more equal. But it is to recommend caution. It is not enough for us to think about what, as a matter of principle, the law should say; we must also think about what, in practice, the law will be used to do, and against whom. The law is a powerful tool, but it can also be blunt. It is also not the only tool available.
Rather than looking to the law, professors might look to themselves. Graduate students tend not to receive much instruction in how to teach — much less in how to negotiate the strong feelings (of desire and elation, but also of anger, frustration and disappointment) that can charge the classroom. Likewise, we rarely discuss what to do about the fact that teacher and student are not just abstract intelligences, but embodied creatures. Writing about her experience as a new professor, the Black feminist bell hooks observed: “No one talked about the body in relation to teaching. What did one do with the body in the classroom?”