Why Laura Kipnis is Really, Really Wrong About Teacher-Student Affairs

shutterstock_154985321Over the past nine months, I’ve been working with an academic senate task force made up of faculty members, staff and students to address concerns about sexual violence on our campus. While the group came together in the wake of a high-profile gang rape, we have spent a lot of time talking about sexual harassment and working on a policy that could help us address some of the problems we have been hearing about. So when I read Laura Kipnis’ recent article in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” which decries school policies that prohibit teacher-student dating, I was shocked by the difference in our perspectives.

To judge from Kipnis’ article, readers would think that groups like the one I’ve been working with are motived by “sexual paranoia” and made up of uptight, earnest moral crusaders, intent on creating nookie rules so constraining as to take all the fun out of being young, sexually active and eager to experiment sexually and intellectually.

Indeed, in opposition to sexual puritans like me and my sister committee members, Kipnis waxes nostalgic for the “wild old days” before the “Great Prohibition.” She is, she says, “out of step with the new realities because I came of age in a different time, under a different version of feminism,” a time when students and faculty presumably mingled freely in a boozy puppy pile of love, before “AIDS turned sex into a crime scene replete with perpetrators and victims.”

I came of age in roughly that same different time, too, and while I don’t want to yuk Kipnis’ yum, as the saying goes, I don’t recall those scenes in quite the same way. I don’t think that our varying recollections are reducible to generational conflict, as Michelle Goldberg suggests in a recent article in The Nation. I should add that I have never slept with one of my students or with a faculty member (either as a student or a professor). Lest I seem like one of the hysterical, sexually puritanical feminists Kipnis conjures, I have slept with enough people to know how complicated sexual intimacies are on their own terms, much less overlaid with the complexities of workplace power dynamics. Moreover, that boozy puppy pile of love had its casualties—undergraduate and graduate students who started drinking and never stopped, for example; students who disappeared from their dorm rooms and lecture halls without a trace. I recall many of my peers in graduate school discussing things like “the erotics of the classroom,” a conversation I admit I found puzzling even then and more so when the discussion continued among faculty members invested in psychoanalytic paradigms—faculty members who were also, perhaps not coincidentally, serially and frequently sleeping with students.

I cherish my relationships with my students, but I’ve never found the power relations between us erotic. My job is to educate my students, to provide them with information to help them think critically about the world around them and learn how to keep learning. When faculty make a practice of sleeping with students and—just as importantly, if more rarely—when students make a practice of sleeping with faculty members, their relationships undermine my ability to do my job and create an environment in which it is impossible to model the equity, evaluative rigor and trust that are so important to pedagogical relationships.

Let me give you an example. When a faculty member is sleeping with an undergraduate, giving her or him plum assignments or creating a climate in which it is perceived that the student is being given the best work, that behavior poisons the teaching environment for others. Whether the teacher is harassing the student is a different question. Kipnis’ concern, however, is not about the community in which students, faculty and staff live and work. Instead, she focuses on the desiring couple to the exclusion of all others impacted by these relationships—like the undergraduate whose roommate is sleeping with the calculus professor who will grade her; the faculty member notorious for making unwanted advances; the professor who plies a first-year student with drinks at a local bar; the faculty member who persists in making offensive jokes even after colleagues and students have repeatedly told him this is unwanted.

These behaviors (some legal, some not) create climates that are harmful to our communities. Kipnis would have us believe that the desires of faculty who wish to sleep with students, and students who wish to sleep with faculty, are more important than the rights of other students, faculty and staff. It’s worth noting that over the course of my career, I have very seldom heard students talk about their right to have sex with faculty members in the same ways that faculty members talk about “freely associating” with their students—which hints at a troubling power imbalance.

Kipnis’ inability to think outside her own perspective is part of what makes her article so distressing. As a feminist faculty member, I know that not all women come to universities armed with the peculiar psychological, racial and socio-economic characteristics I have. When I got to college, I had never been sexually abused or assaulted, so while I had to struggle with life as a first-generation college student, I never had to struggle with a history of sexual trauma, as so many of my colleagues and students have had to. My desires and my students’, moreover, are forged in crucibles made of different materials, at different historical moments, and I would never mistake my desire for theirs.

Perhaps most importantly, I have always enjoyed good mental health. Not all of my students, co-workers and colleagues are as fortunate as I have been, and my knowledge of this prevents me from “wondering what I’d do” in their situations. I understand that people who have been traumatized or who have different resources to deal with trauma don’t always behave in ways that people like Kipnis deem rational or reasonable. To suggest, as Kipnis does, that their responses are the querulous ramblings of would-be victims turned social-media celebrities is not only wrong—it is deeply anti-feminist.

Kipnis would have us believe that “campus dating policies,” as she dismissively refers to them (as if they are antiquated relics from the days of mixers and high tea), result from “feminism hijacked by melodrama.” I suspect that Kipnis isn’t often approached by women who have experienced sexual violence (her dismissal of the word survivor would be enough to put me off and I’m not scared easily), or been harmed because they learned in college that people still expected smart, ambitious women to play by a set of outdated rules that suggested they should experience power by sleeping with the powerful.

Policies concerning faculty/student relationships aren’t tools of a small group of puritanical feminazis, aided and abetted by equally puritanical administrators. We’re working right now on a policy that I’m sure Kipnis would see as draconian in the extreme—one that would prohibit sexual or romantic relationships between students and faculty or staff. Of course we understand that there need to be exceptions to these rules. Of course, we know that people have pre-existing relationships and that sometimes people really do fall in love. Relationship policies will not prevent those things from happening, but they will provide guidelines that will help us better deal with the impact of consensual relationships on those of us who share these complicated workplaces.

These policies don’t deny agency. They simply ensure that we have guidelines that will allow us to better carry out the work those of us employed by universities are here to support and sustain: educating, not sleeping with, our students.

Photo via Shutterstock

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 2014-10-18 12.15.04Carol Stabile is a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches interdisciplinary courses on gender, race and class in media. From 2008 to 2014, she was director of the University’s Center for the Study of Women in Society. She is the author of Feminism and the Technological Fix, editor of Turning the Century: Essays in Media and Cultural Studies, co-editor of Prime Time Animation: Television Animation and American Culture, and author of White Victims, Black Villains: Gender, Race, and Crime News in U.S. Culture. She is completing a book on women writers and the broadcast blacklist in the 1950s, entitled Pink Channels: Women and the Television Blacklist. She is a founding member of Fembot, an online collaboration of scholars conducting research on gender, new media and technology; co-editor of Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology; and edits the Feminist Media Studies book series for University of Illinois Press. In 2014, she chaired the University of Oregon Senate’s Task Force to Address Sexual Violence and Survivor Support.

 

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    Comments

    1. Stabile is right, and Kipnis is wrong to miss an extremely simple ethical principle. Professors and teachers have a relationship of power over their students akin to the power-imbalance between clergy and parishioners and psychotherapists and patients. Teachers are ethically bound to protect and mentor their students without taking advantage of their trust. Professors who sleep or flirt with their students selfishly abuse and often inflict lasting damage on their victims. The student involved in a sexual relationship with a professor loses her ability to trust in her work, her intelligence, and her academic achievements as valuable in and of themselves. Plus, in most cases, she cannot count on the institution to support her should she bring the harassment to light, even in cases of rape. Kipnis’s callous and, let’s face it, uneducated and irresponsible, apology for the old guard, the rapists, the predators, and their co-conspiring colleagues who protect them, demands universal denunciation.

      • Michael Harrawood says:

        Well! That shoots my marriage all to hell! I think that we get caught up in the ethics of this question and forget that we are also talking about institutional implementation, which is where the sex panic seems to come in. Recently, all faculty and staff at FAU were required to watch a 1-hour video on campus sex, which used the words “victim” and “complainant” interchangeably, suggesting that to make a complaint is already to be identified by the institution as a victim. The fact is some people have good experiences with teacher-student relationships, and some don’t. I agree with you, though, my friend, that it lies with the teacher to protect the student. Cristina Nehring has an article in Harper’s that I think you might like. http://cristinanehring.com/pdf/Higher%20Yearning.pdf

    2. Panic Driven Victim says:

      > These policies don’t deny agency.

      According to Kipnis’ article the new policy at her university does deny agency, by making all romantic relationships between professors and students off-limits. Instead of retreating into a defensive posture, maybe try engaging with the content of the article you’re trying to say is “really really wrong”.

      • The content of the article? You want people to read and re-read Kipnis’s descriptions of her own sexual prowess? Carefully study it to see if we have all the nuance right? I have to say her essay and ones similar to it made me think that literary-types ought to stick to self-exploration. I’ll take an ethicist any day over having to get ideas from writing like that. The point of writing like that isn’t to be clear, right? And if a feminist writes something that gets her a ton of men’s rights activist fans, maybe there was a better way to present her evaluation of campus dating? (Or better thinkers to which to turn!)

      • Carol Stabile says:

        Hmm. Hadn’t thought my posture was defensive. The policy I’ve been working on does prohibit relationships between faculty and students. But it also understands that relationships do occur and the policy has a process for how to handle those. And I’d reiterate a point I made in the blog post: I don’t hear undergraduates agitating for their right to have relationships with their professors. I do hear faculty members a lot. That’s an important imbalance.

    3. Nik Taylor says:

      Thanks for this strong, clear and sensible piece. Keep up that work on the task force. Sad that we need it but the context this article sits in proves its importance.

    4. So, ALL students and faculty regardless of whether they’re even in the same department or division, ie, whether there is or isn’t any actual power relationship?

      • For undergraduate students, yeah. According to the policy, theoretically, a middle-class 40-year-old black female professor in the anthropology department would be severely punished if found to be in a relationship with an ultra-wealthy 50-year-old white male undergrad student in the physics department. This is the case even if they have no actual sexual contact, as the policy includes a long list of adjectives for various types of relationships and “or”s them together. It gets worse: it’s not just teachers who aren’t allowed to have relationships with undergrads. NO ONE who works for the school is allowed to, down to the lowliest staff member. So if some 24-year-old receptionist somewhere gets into a relationship with that 50-year-old CEO who decided to take some physics classes for fun, she gets sacked. It’s a well-intentioned policy, but ridiculously badly written. Of course, all that said, Kipnis is a jerk and her article was so much reactionary hand-wringing, so let’s not be too eager to jump on her bandwagon either.

    5. what a load of… (mostly). control freaks still trying to fix every kink in human nature. if there is a line in there that gives her and hers game away its: “they will provide guidelines that will help us better deal with the impact of consensual relationships on those of us who share these complicated workplaces.”
      UN-F**KING-Believable. Deal with the impact of CONSENSUAL relationships she said. I dread to think what else people like her are going to come up with, to de-naturalise the human race over the coming decades! btw i didn’t hear much of her “thinking outside her own perspective” either. And is she somehow trying to say that students who engage in this kind of behavior came in to college either mentally unstable or naive? as opposed to well adjusted (brainwashed) like herself.
      Women and Men like sex a lot. it is the most natural thing in life bar eating and drinking. literally ALL human behavior touches on it, even if in some cases only due to the prime directive of procreation. And a woman who claims to have had her life ruined by having consensual adult sex followed by a hard breakup she couldn’t get over (all things being legal and universally ethical of course) must i’m afraid be mentally fragile enough that she was in for a land at some point in life anyway! also loads of colleges, if there’s a market for this kind of coddling then it will happen.

      • Carol Stabile says:

        Corporations have policies regarding workplace relationships because they know that these can create problems. And the student-teacher relationship is even more complex. We are supposed to be teaching, mentoring, and evaluating our students. When sexual relationships occur, they compromise that work. A faculty member serves on an award committee. He happens to be sleeping with one of the students who applies for that award. The student gets the award. Regardless of intentions, that poisons the process for everyone. As for the “prime directive of procreation,” I think the less I say about that, the better.

    6. Martha Sherwood says:

      Good points. We are associated with the same institution. Back in the 1990’s the University of Oregon instituted a convoluted and very unjust policy concerning dating between students and staff members, and between people at different levels faculty staff hierarchy, that effectively prevented me from forming a relationship, even one with marriage as its ultimate aim, with anyone in the workplace. It bore a suspicious resemblance to the policies that led to the University firing my mother from her faculty position in 1952 because of nepotism.

      • The policy you describe is in force not just in universities but most businesses. When at work all relations with others at work should be completely on a professional level. You go to work to do the job you were hired to do and nothing more. You should never mix business with pleasure.

        • “The policy you describe is in force not just in universities but most businesses. . . . When at work all relations with others at work should be completely on a professional level.”

          No, it’s not in force in large business. I can state for a fact that a SONY engineer in Tokyo is perfectly able to engage in a relationship with a SONY public relations person in London if they wish. In the same way, a nurse practitioner on the medical campus should be able, if he wishes, to engage in a relationship with a history professor on the other campus.

          Common sense should be able to differentiate between cases without blanket prohibitions that restrict human freedom.

    7. That essay is incredibly, disgustingly gross. It amazes me how narcissistic and naive some people can be

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