Hot for Teacher: Rethinking Education’s Sexual Harassment Policies

Chalboard with a heart and arrow drawn with chalk

Sexual harassment policies assume that teachers have power and students don’t, argues Michelle Miller. Such policies risk outlawing consensual relationships that are “delicious, frightening, unruly” and just might reflect the excitement, even eroticism, of learning.

In her compelling, if not totally agreeable, manifesto on school-based sexual harassment policies, Jane Gallop reminds us that it was feminists, not managers or administrators, who fought for harassment to be made a political and professional issue, rather than a personal problem. This fight was grounded in the understanding that sexual harassment in the workplace discriminates against women and other marginalized people on the basis of their sex, race, and gender and inhibits their ability to do their work, just as sexual harassment in the streets interferes with the ability to move freely and safely in the world. Gallop thus clarifies the goals of sexual harassment policy in order to challenge administrative concerns around teacher-student relationships in a number of ways. Most important is that the criminal nature of sexual harassment is not that it relates to sex or to amorous or erotic relations, but that it is discrimination—the unfair application of power used by someone against another.

Gallop’s book, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, arose out of her own experience as a university professor charged with sexually harassing two female graduate students with whom she had developed close and difficult relationships. She describes in detail the history of her student-teacher sexual encounters, which involved her sleeping both with teachers as a student, and with students as a teacher. She reports these engagements as being generally positive and reasonably friendly, arising out of mutual desire for sex and intimacy rather than an abuse of power by the teacher. Although she had ceased sleeping with students at the time she was accused of sexual harassment, her teaching and learning relationships had been, and continued to be, amorous, personal and sexual. It seems, from Gallop’s telling, that for her and her students, the close nature of these relationships was, initially, personally and academically productive. One student’s academic work, for example, involved writing love letters to a fictional older woman teacher, certainly modelled at least in part after her relationship with Gallop.

This book does not present the two students who accused Gallop of harassing them as being upset because of the erotic relationship they shared with their teacher, but rather because they felt Gallop wasn’t giving them the feedback they desired and felt they deserved. It was the withdrawal of her ability to please these students pedagogically, rather than the structure of a relationship with erotic pleasure in it, that troubled them. At least from Gallop’s perspective, this is a story about jilted lovers who manipulated school-based sexual harassment policy to seek revenge for their dissatisfaction with an unruly relationship. Gallop revels in the amorous relationships she shared with these two students: she describes a “spectacle” of a kiss she shared with one of them at a bar after a conference. Simultaneously, she assures us that she could not have sexually harassed these students, not because she never slept with them but because she didn’t discriminate against them. She argues exactly the opposite, in fact, that as a teacher who is also a person, that far from sexually harassing these women, she engaged in deeply personal relationships with them both as students and as people. Each of the women (Gallop included) was flawed, lonely, desirous, egotistical, nervous, excited, and interested in working together academically. The decision to work in intimate ways reflected Gallop’s commitment to feminist pedagogy and the possibilities raised by women’s studies education, rather than a hope for teacher-student seduction.

Apple with heart shape carved into itReading about Gallop’s experiences with her graduate students (who, she once remarked in a joke that fell very flat, were her sexual preference) makes me think about my own relationships with teachers. As a doctoral student, I’ve never been theoretically against teacher-student relationships and have watched as my friends seduced and were seduced by professors both intellectually and sexually. One of my closest undergraduate friends dated a professor for a number of years, and although their relationship was at times professionally and socially troubling (since it seemed inappropriate for her to accompany him to faculty luncheons or for him to join us at school-night keg parties), it would denigrate their very real relationship to call it “harassment.” I’ve never dated a teacher (or, now that I teach at a college, a student), although I recognize that some of the ways I want my professors to love me (and some of the ways my students want me to love them) reflect erotic desires for knowledge and for close human relationships, which often end up being rich and difficult.

In general, my teachers make me nervous. I worry about what I’m going to wear when I’m going to see them. If I see them unexpectedly, I feel flustered. I sometimes get feedback I hate, am pushed to be better, and resent being told I’m not already good enough. I often, embarrassingly, cry during meetings with them. I want my work, which is about sexuality, desire, and literature, to bring my teachers pleasure, and I feel frustrated when it doesn’t. I want approval, of course, but I also want to please the brilliant women I work with, the way their work pleases me. The point is not that I have crushes on my teachers but that these crush-like feelings become part of my academic work, part of the conditions of my thinking and learning.

The crushes I feel for my teachers are related to the kinds of crushes I have on my classmates and friends, crushes where I want to stay up all night drinking beer and talking about things we don’t quite understand, which delight us all the more for being incomprehensible. Where we wonder what it might be like to grasp difficult knowledge together and thrill when it seems that we might. Where I wonder, in abstract ways, what it might be like to do this thinking lying down, to put the theory together with the practice. That scholarly relationships might become erotic, between students and teachers or passionate thinkers and learners of any position, seems natural—­­even unavoidable—to me. This doesn’t always, or even often, mean there are sex acts involved but that desire for knowledge is a very human type of desire. I usually fall head over heels in a class, whether my infatuation is for a teacher, a classmate, a text, or an idea. It’s these infatuations that make me a passionate student. They’re incredibly valuable, and I want to keep them going. I have more interesting ideas when I allow my desires to get a little wild, to exceed my expectations for what might be, and when I open myself to be taken aback by what ideas may do to me and to my relationships with others. And so I’m troubled by anti-harassment policies that seek to limit the ways adult thinkers and learners can relate to one another. After all, we’re adults (even as I write that, I’m confounded by the arbitrariness of the distinction. Don’t we all become teenagers in our crushes, regardless of age?). If we consent to participating in erotic or romantic relationships, if we seek them out or they sneak up on us, shouldn’t we be able to enjoy them, free of meddling from administrative bodies? And by “enjoying,” I don’t mean always having a good experience, since erotic and romantic relationships of all kinds, between all kinds of people, sometimes become bad experiences, for reasons which have nothing to do with harassment or discrimination and everything to do with the difficulty of human relationships.

An apple with a heart share carved into it, sliced in twoJane Gallop points out that anti-harassment policies that seek to limit even consensual teacher-student relationships actually discriminate against the students they seek to protect by removing from them the ability to give consent to, and enjoy, the emotional consequences, pleasurable and difficult, which accompany these decisions. Aside from how insulting it is for an intelligent and capable graduate or undergraduate student to be told that she or he has no right to consent to relationships she or he wants, I’m thrown off by the reductive assumptions around power that underlie these policies, which position all students, regardless of age, as being unable to make social and sexual decisions and as being in need of protection from the predatory advances of (not even always older and wiser) educators. These policies assume that power in relationships between teachers and students is dependably structured: teachers have it and students don’t.

Thinking about teacher-student relationships always brings me back to a scene from the movie Election (based on the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name), which revolves around a rivalry between Jim McAllisor, a popular high school history teacher, and Tracy Flick, a very bright and driven student, during her run for school president. Tracy has recently had an affair with her English teacher, Jim’s best friend, Jack. The affair, which began as intimate conversations about the school’s yearbook, led to Tracy and Jack having (for Tracy) disappointing sex. When she withdraws her affection by telling her mother about the sex and sharing a particularly smarmy love letter he wrote her, Jack loses his job, his wife, and child, and his home, but he remains utterly smitten by Tracy. It’s important to note that Tracy is young, blonde, a virgin, and a student and should therefore be extremely vulnerable to being injured in their relationship. Except she isn’t injured. She’s not bitter or worried about the supposed loss of her innocence or disenchanted by, or distrustful of, her teachers. In a stand-off with McAllistor, in which he alludes to her relationship with Jack and reprimands her for “stepping on people” to get her way, she responds, “I don’t know what you’re referring to, but I do know that if certain older and wiser people hadn’t acted like such little babies and gotten all mushy, everything would be okay.” In this exchange, and in her relationship with her teacher-turned-lover, Tracy is hardly disempowered, and she explicitly doesn’t demean her consensual relationship as discrimination. In the book version of this story, Tracy reports that “people kept using the term ‘sexual harassment’ to describe what happened, but I don’t think it applies. Jack never said anything disgusting and he never threatened me with bad grades. Most of our time together was really sweet and nice. I even cried a few times, it felt so good to have him hold me.”

This example, by switching the usual trope of established, pompous male teacher preying on vulnerable female students who become ruined by the affair when the professor’s desire turns, offers us space to wonder what else might be possible in these kinds of relationships. Might students hold power in erotic or romantic relationships with teachers? Might teachers be thought of as human in their desires? It’s tricky to think about Tracy Flick, since she’s in high school, legally underage, and, therefore, legally unable to consent to a sexual relationship with any man or woman of her teacher’s age. I believe, however, that her own description of this relationship challenges commonly held beliefs about what can and does happen in the spaces between teachers and students.

In my doctoral research, I am fascinated by the ways desire, sexual and otherwise, saturates many teacher-student relationships and find myself working with a number of texts that push against the limits of the pedagogical relationship. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, Eleanor Cattan’s The Rehearsal, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home each depict these relationships as offering more—more anxiety, more delight, more nuance, more frustration, more uncertainty—than we might initially think and certainly more than any blanket administrative policy could contain. These blanket policies, by demanding that complicated issues be treated simply (usually by banning them) potentially close down our thinking about students, teachers, power relationships, desire, and the eroticism inherent in learning. Problematically, these policies seem hostile to any kind of inquiry that tries to hold together desire and education. While all people engaging in simultaneous professional and personal relationships should have protection against discriminatory action in the event of a conflict or a breakup (and this could range from students revealing personal information about teachers to teachers giving bad grades or writing damaging letters of support), we must be careful to investigate the assumptions about teachers, students, relationships, power and desire which undergird policies seeking to control the delicious, frightening, unruly relationships that often arise in teaching and learning encounters.

Michelle Miller is a doctoral student in education at York University in Toronto and the author of Branding Miss G__ Third Wave Feminists and the Media (Women’s/ Scholar’s Press, 2008).