Each week, a developing sexuality professional that works with The CSPH reviews a sexuality or gender-related issue that appears in the media and reflects upon how it challenged them in ways they didn’t expect in an effort to show the process of growth they undergo while becoming sexuality professionals. This week, we’re responding to an article from The New York Post, “CUNY mulls ban on professor-student relationships.”
While I don’t normally respond to an article more than a few weeks old, this article from March exemplifies an ongoing problem with regards to banning consensual relationships between professors and students. Understandably, schools want to take preemptive measures to avoid any situations where they can be held financially liable, especially with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of holding universities financially responsible for sexual harassment. That said, I have a huge problem with the way universities, like the City University of New York, are rationalizing their policies with the “there’s no such thing as consensual relationships between professors and students” approach. Manipulating the meaning of consent to fit one’s policy is not only wrong, it is disrespectful to the autonomy of adult students.
The reasoning behind this approach commonly involves the power imbalance argument: if Sam has significantly more power than Alex, Alex cannot consent to having sex with Sam. Before addressing this flawed understanding of consent, I’d like to point out that this thinking suggests that power balance is required to engage in a consensual sexual relationship. Assuming that relationships require a balance of power in order to be consensual is unrealistic. Thanks to the wide spectrum of biopsychosocial factors that can contribute to power imbalances—such as an individual’s age, race, class, career, religion, gender, or even past dating history and sexual experience—perfectly balanced power ratios rarely exist within relationships. The possibilities for imbalances are endless and common.
One might say that small power imbalances are okay but “significant” power imbalances are unacceptable. Well, here is the problem: there is no definition for significantly imbalanced power. A rich individual having sex with a pauper may have less of a power imbalance than a middle class couple whose religion dictates that a woman should always obey her husband. How would schools navigate all of the possible power imbalances in the world and determine which ones are worthy of their definitions of consent?
Consenting doesn’t entail doing something that you won’t later regret, or doing something that is good for you. It means willing something to happen. Giving permission. Agreeing. Maybe one could decide that consent requires having had the ability to choose differently. While I agree, I recognize a difference between consent and coerced consent. Coerced consent means one is faced with a threat of something that is legitimately prohibited. If a person threatens someone with bodily harm to work on one’s car, that is coerced consent because the law legitimately prohibits a person from physically harming someone. If someone threatens a mechanic by saying that no money will be exchanged unless they work on the car, that is just consent because one is not legitimately required to give them money unless they work on the car.
Likewise, if a student has sex with a professor and regrets it later, this is still consensual because the professor is not legitimately required to be a good sexual partner or an agreeable person. Professors are legitimately prohibited—in this case by school policy—from giving a student a grade that isn’t based on academic performance. This means that if a student has sex with a professor because s/he is being threatened with a bad grade, the act is coerced.
Acknowledging this distinction is incredibly important because claiming that someone acting in a way that’s deleterious to their own interests entails coercion or non-consent is to suggest that we are all perfectly rational. Adults can make bad choices; we can be short-sighted, or naive, or intellectually lazy, or overly sanguine about the likely outcomes of our behavior. Sometimes we rationally trade sex for money or friendship or attention or any number of other things that we value. And sometimes we irrationally trade sex for promises of money or friendship or attention when it is unlikely that these promises will be fulfilled. These are both acts of our will and, therefore, acts of consent. Unless a professor is convincing a student to have sex with him or her through illegitimate means—such as withholding grades—s/he is no more coercive than anyone else in a relationship who pursues sex through promises of affection, company, or intellectual stimulation.
Minors are not allowed to consent to sexual relationships because they aren’t considered moral agents yet. Decision-making areas in young brains are not fully developed so, in this country, we hold that they do not have the faculty to consent to sex until they reach adulthood. If you maintain that a college student, despite their adulthood, cannot consent to a relationship with a professor then you rob them of their moral agency. Had the school’s argument been that they wanted to ban these relationships on the grounds that the financial ramifications are just too scary, then I might have been satisfied with their reasoning. That said, banning them in the name of consent while tainting and confusing it’s meaning is an infuriating offense to adult liberty and highly detrimental to the public’s understanding of possessing the ability to choose.
My partner and I are approaching our two year anniversary this July. Although he gave up teaching for law school, I did meet him as a student in his class three years ago. One should never base their opinion of an issue on another’s personal experiences, and I know there are plenty of heinous stories of unhappy student-professor relationships to counteract my own very fortunate experience. However, depriving an adult of their ability to consent not only cheats them out of potential wonderful—or terrible, mind you—experiences with sex and dating, but it is also an egregious interpretation of consent and one with dangerous ramifications if ever widely adopted. Being an adult means having the ability to make decisions; this includes bad ones too.
Jaclyn B. Boudreau
 For the purpose of this post, “relationships” refers to sexually involved relationships.