This is a feature piece i wrote for City Journal. It’s about students dating their university lecturers, and the anomalies between US and Australian regulations.
Sarah is walking home from work.She finished her second year of uni two weeks ago and is looking forward to her holiday ahead. A stress free trip to Thailand awaits along with long summer days hanging out with her friends and boyfriend.
But what happened next threw her completely.
â€œShe was like â€˜Hi Sarah, I got your number off one of the assignment submission sheets. I hope thatâ€™s okay.â€™ And she was really awkward and rushed. And Iâ€™m thinking- â€˜why is she calling?Have I done something wrong?â€™ Then she goes, â€˜ I was just calling to see if you wanted to maybe grab a drink or something, you know catch up?â€™â€
Sarahâ€™s female, and much older lecturer had just called up and asked her out.
â€œI just said yes. I didnâ€™t know what I was doing. It was so awkward. I just had to get off the phone so I said yes. It was only afterward that I thought, is that even legal?â€
In Australia, so long as youâ€™re over the age of 16, having a sexual relationship with a member of staff at your university is not only completely legal, but is currently allowed by all universities.
In America, things are a little different. The 1990s saw the US Supreme Court rule that universities are financially liable for sexual harassment.
As student faculty relationships could easily be construed as sexual harassment, many schools including University of California and the University of Iowa have adopted a blanket ban.
Countries like Britain are slowly following Americaâ€™s lead, prompting some people to ask whether Australian universities should impose the bans.
But Barry M Dank, professor of Sociology at California State University Longbeach says university students are consenting adults and should be allowed to date whoever they choose.
â€œPeople can have their own opinions about who you should date, theyâ€™re entitled to their opinions but itâ€™s a whole different matter when people try to coerce you, to pass rules and regulations that ban people from marrying each other or sexually relating to each other,â€ he says.
â€œThese people need to get a life.â€
Mr Dank says students can make up sexual harassment claims even if a lecturer clearly and professionally rejects them,and that bans wonâ€™t change this.
â€œItâ€™d be like arguing well, rape is a major, major problem in the world. But whoâ€™s going to come by and say â€œOh well, you know sometimes itâ€™s hard to determine whether people are consensual or not, letâ€™s just ban sex.â€™Thatâ€™s absurd.â€
The University of Yale has gone further than most with itâ€™s policy, banning faculty from having relationships with any undergraduate students of the school, even if they are not their direct teacher.
The Yale faculty handbook states undergraduate students â€œare particularly vulnerable to the unequal institutional power inherent in the teacher-student relationship and the potential for coercion, because of their age and relative lack of maturity.â€
Lyndy and Hugh Potter, who met while Lyndy was studying and Hugh was lecturing at University of New England in NSW,say that these kinds of policies donâ€™t consider the actual people involved.
â€œLet me ask you, what is it youâ€™re actually banning? Youâ€™re banning a relationship between two statuses, not between two people,â€ says Mr Potter.
â€œI grew up in the deep south of Florida in a time where we had laws that banned relationships between people of two different statuses. Those two different statuses were being white and being black. We called that miscegenation,â€ he said.
Mr Potter also says policies like Yaleâ€™s, which refer to lack of maturity donâ€™t take into account the variety of relationships.
â€œLet me say this, most of these sorts of relationships really were taking place between the teaching assistants and the very young faculty. Who are in the same age range as a lot of the students youâ€™re talking about,â€
In Australia,most Universities do not directly ban student-academic relationships.
However, they often put in place a number of guidelines and policies which can make relationships difficult, if not impossible.
At RMIT a staff member can not assess a student if they have a close personal relationship with them.
Staff cannot approach students for intimate or sexual involvement, and having multiple intimate or sexual relationships with students can be seen as a breach of professional conduct resulting in disciplinary measures.
The Monash University guidelines state â€œstaff members must not enter into an inappropriate close personal relationship with students.â€
What constitutes an â€œinappropriateâ€ relationship is not specifically defined, but examples include
– Discussing details of their own intimate and sensitive personal matters one on one with students.
– Giving out details including phone numbers and personal email addresses.
A breach of these guidelines can result in the staff member being fired.
In comparison, high school teachers are forbidden under Victorian law from having sex with a student, even if they are over 16.
The teacherâ€™s license must be revoked, and the teacher could face criminal charges.
This means a 17 year old could have sex with their lecturer if they were at university, but could send their teacher to jail if they were in school.
While the legal age of consent is unlikely to change,critics say itâ€™s up to the universities to change their policies to better reflect the power imbalance between students and staff.
In their bookÂ The Lecherous Professor, Billie Wright Dziech and Linder Weiner say, â€œFew students are ever, in the strictest sense, consenting adults.â€
â€œA student can never be the genuine equal of a professor insofar as his professional position gives him power over her. Whether the student consents to the involvement or whether the professor ever intends to use his power against her is not the point. The issue is that the power and the role disparity always exist.â€
Brian Martin, lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology at Wollongong University agrees.
â€œEven if academic evaluations are kept completely independent of personal involvements, it is likely that there will be an appearance of bias in the eyes of other students.â€
Other students may feel that the student involved is receiving better grades, or reason that they are able to spend more time with the professor because they have that external relationship.
Or, as Sarah experienced, things can actually turn the other way if you reject the advances.
â€œI stood her up. I said yes when she called because I freaked out, but there was no way I could go through with it. I just didnâ€™t go,â€™ she said.â€™
â€œThis year she takes one of my classes and I avoid it as much as I can. Sheâ€™s never brought it up with me. Itâ€™s pretty uncomfortable.â€
For someone like Sarah, a ban across all student-faculty relationships would be welcome.
â€œIf she was going to lose her job over it, then it wouldnâ€™t be an issue, would it? She wouldnâ€™t have asked me.â€
But Mr Potter is concerned that the push for policy signifies a greater trend, one related to personal liberties.
â€œHow do you justify in a world that talks about civil rights and human rights all the time, saying that you canâ€™t date someone because you occupy a particular profession and they happen to be something?â€ said Mr Potter.
â€œWhoâ€™s business is it?â€