In her compelling, if not totally agreeable, manifesto on college-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 modeled 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 university-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.
Reading 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 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 that have nothing to do with harassment or discrimination and everything to do with the difficulty of human relationships.
Jane 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 McAllister, 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 with Tracy.
It's important to note that Tracy is young, a student, and a virgin 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 McAllister, 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 O.K." 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 Catton’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.
Until recently, the interests of graduate students have largely been ignored by university “family friendly” initiatives designed to meet the needs of women on the tenure track who aspire to be mothers as well as scholars. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Stanford University announced its new Childbirth Policy for women graduate students with fanfare, nor that it was positively received by the national news media. What’s puzzling is how little attention has been paid to the huge gap between Stanford’s aspiration and its accomplishment.
The rationale for the policy is exemplary: “Stanford University is committed to achieving a diverse graduate student body, and facilitating the participation of under-represented groups in all areas of research and graduate and postdoctoral training. To increase the number of women pursuing … advanced degrees … it is important to acknowledge that a woman’s prime childbearing years are the same years she is likely to be in graduate school, doing postdoctoral training, and establishing herself in a career.”
Unfortunately, the policy itself -- which provides accommodation in the form of paid leave, extension of deadlines and reduced workload to graduate students “anticipating or experiencing a birth” -- sends an entirely different message.
While the phrase “anticipating or experiencing a birth” seems expansive enough to cover “anticipating” the birth of an adoptive child, that is not Stanford’s intention. Associate Dean for Graduate Policy Gail Mahood was brutally frank on this point: “The policy does not apply to women who adopt children.… Women can always put off adopting,” she told a reporter.
Apparently Stanford prefers grad students who create families “the old fashioned way,” leaving others to sink or swim without institutional support. So much for the message of inclusiveness and diversity! In creating this restrictive policy, Stanford seems to have lost sight of its original goal, confused means and ends, and conflated biology (childbirth) with social issues (family formation).
Ordinarily, women become pregnant as a means to start a family, not to “experience childbirth.” Other ways to accomplish this goal are adoption, surrogacy and becoming a foster parent. Absent some as-yet-undisclosed study linking female fertility to academic talent, it seems odd that Stanford would decide that only fertile women able to carry a fetus to term deserve institutional support for their decision to start a family during graduate school.
The privileging of birth mothers over adoptive mothers is as illogical as it is offensive to families who have struggled with infertility prior to adopting. Under the literal terms of this policy, whose avowed purpose is “to make sure that we retain in the academic pipeline women graduate students who become pregnant and give birth,” a graduate student who gives her child up for adoption immediately after birth could request accommodation, while the adoptive mother who cares for that newborn could not.
Equally, if not more disturbing, is the policy’s failure to support graduate student couples who want to share the task of balancing work and family, thereby promoting a traditional heterosexual family structure that has proved detrimental to women’s achievement. Recognizing that “[t]aking care of an infant is time-consuming and sleep-depriving so advisors need to have realistic expectations about rates of progress on research,” the policy denies the same compassionate recognition to other graduate student caregivers who might be equally in need of help -- e.g., biological fathers, gay couples, adoptive parents or biological mothers who used a surrogate to carry the fetus to term.
Thus, the only graduate student families who will benefit from the childbirth accommodation policy are those who choose to conform to the traditional gender role model of mom stays home to bond with baby while dad goes to work. This patterning of gender stereotyped roles is unlikely to prove advantageous to the woman’s future career.
One would have expected Stanford’s policymakers to heed the counsel of the late Chief Justice Rehnquist (a Stanford alumnus) on the importance of gender-neutral family leave benefits, in a 2003 case:
“Stereotypes about women’s domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men. Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman’s domain, they often denied them similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave. These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s commitment to work and their value as employees.”
Finally, by excluding everyone but the birth mom from accommodation, the policy may even override the woman’s own preference in the matter: Stanford seems not to have envisioned the possibility that the birth parents might both be graduate students, and that a new mother-scientist at a critical research juncture might choose to return to her lab right away, if only the policy were flexible enough to accommodate her partner’s desire to stay home and tend to the newborn.
Stanford deserves some credit for being the second nationally prominent graduate school to attempt any accommodation for grad students who become parents. (MIT was the first.) But the progressive impulse that spawned this “breakthrough” has been undermined by using “childbirth accommodation” as a proxy for easing the burden on new mothers. If the goal is truly to achieve diversity by increasing the number of women pursuing advanced degrees, surely a Class I research institution can craft a policy more likely to fulfill its intended purpose -- one not limited to the “June Cleavers” in its grad student population, but generous enough to encompass 21st century parenthood in all its diversity.
Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco lawyer known for her expertise in the areas of academic discrimination and gender stereotyping. She is Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.