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

Over 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


Carol 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 several books, including The Broadcast 41: Women and the Anti-Communist Blacklist.