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Ivy Love: Why Students Really Shouldn't Sleep With Their Professors

5 years ago
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People are having sex at Yale?

Amorously enterprising Elis everywhere must forgive me if that was my first reaction to Salon's Broadsheet columnist Tracy Clark-Flory, who pooh-poohs the university's recent prohibition against faculty at Yale having sex with any undergraduate student, not just one of their own.
"That seems awfully paternalistic," Clark-Flory chides. "We are talking about legal adults, remember. Students will inevitably encounter power imbalances -- rooted in differences in age, financial status and so on -- in their personal lives . . . I fail to see how it's any of the university's business unless the relationship – 'damaging' or not -- has a direct impact on a student's academic life."

Though I love the idea of that New Haven campus roiling, like some Rona Jaffe novel, with inappropriate liaisons of all kind, as a former student I recall, in 1995, sex at Yale was a pretty dispiriting affair, made up mostly of drunken late-night fumblings in the common room with roommates asleep feet away and awkward next-day encounters in the dining hall. Duras's "The Lover" it was not.

After all, any class of freshmen at an Ivy League university is made up of young people who have perforce been spending most of their time mastering Brahms and cramming for their Calculus AP. Though by graduation, many of my peers had managed to secure partners with whom to practice regular coitus, beyond tormented coffee dates with philosophy grad students, I never saw a love that threatened the boundaries of propriety. Had I known a girl who'd managed to pass into the storied realms of discreet after-class ardor, I probably would have asked to take a picture of her to prove to my friends she existed.
That said, I do not agree with Clark-Flory that universities shouldn't ban the practice of student-teacher sex, though I agree with her that the justification -- student-teacher relations contain an unfair and damaging power imbalance -- is weak. But there is a very good reason universities should ban student-teacher relationships. It's to prevent their faculty from being unbearably tacky.
Students get crushes on you. Of course they get do. Who else are they going to get a crush on? You're standing in front of them for hours, a master of obscure and powerful authority, a knowledgeable potentate whose job is to tell them what and what not to think. Your own life is a mystery about which they can only speculate, its tantalizing particulars -- a battered briefcase, a shadowy boyfriend -- the sole coordinates on a map that seems global in possibility. If the cafeteria lady is a mom figure and the dean the benevolent dad, you are the embodiment of the students themselves in a few years, an actual functioning inhabitant of the adult realm they feel assured they will one day conquer. Is it such a surprise their psyches direct them to begin the process of entering the adult world now, with an entirely safe fantasy about alluring and unknowable you?
The professor who gets a crush back, of course, is a far more dubious article. It's entirely normal and healthy for a student to want to get cracking on life as an adult, but what motivates an adult to stretch back into the land of consequence-free limbo? Either they wish to bask in the general approval of someone too young to realize that their abstract theories on migrant farm work in the poetry of Gregory Corso will never rock the foundations of the academy, or they simply wish to take a long vacation in the land of youth itself, where ambition has not yet become failure. Actually, even an avowed genius should, presumably, wish to carry on conversation with someone who can actually understand it. (It's called punching your weight.) And if it's just the firm flesh that calls -- well, they should try to remember that the academy doesn't pay teachers to pick off the juiciest items from their impressive store.
I will never forget the student that somehow managed to convince me to go to dinner at his house when the semester was over. (The details were hazy, but I think it was presented as a dinner party to celebrate his graduation, not a four-course feast a deux.) He bravely probed me for the details of my life and freely shared his own thoughts and ideas, making an impressive conversational as well as culinary display. But all I could think of was what an awesome boyfriend he was going to make a girl someday -- probably in a day, given his appeal.
But there was no way I would take advantage by pretending his innocent crush was a viable offer. He was my charge, someone I had been paid to instruct and protect in my limited capacity as a teacher of writing. As a romantic prospect, he was not only an easy mark but someone not yet able to share any of my intellectual, practical or emotional concerns. I wasn't the person he needed, though I knew he felt that way, and he certainly couldn't give me anything I needed. Even eating the meal he'd labored over entirely on my behalf seemed like taking advantage, and I literally found it hard to swallow.
At the same time, my male colleagues were positively starry-eyed over the intellectual and emotional prowess some of their girl students exhibited -- pace Clark-Flory, these are boys and girls -- almost giddy at the crop of pretty females to inculcate and enjoy. I was incredulous at how easily the men fell into thinking their insta-fan club was proof of their brilliance, not a product of the girls' innocence and inexperience. See, the problem wasn't that the girls weren't old enough to have a physical and emotional relationship with these men. (I could speak from experience.) But they weren't old enough to realize how lame my colleagues were to want to.
I don't think Yale can ever publicly announce it would actually like its students to stay away from faculty romantically because such faculty are losers, but I'd like to think that's the implicit message behind such in loco parentis admonitions. And if it's not, let me remind Elis: You worked hard to get to wear that sweatshirt. Don't be afraid to set the same standards in your love life.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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