Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


search-sex-keyboard

(ILLUSTRATION: MTKANG/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Other Problem With Sex at the Office

• October 16, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: MTKANG/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Speaking from personal experience, Northwestern University Professor Alice Dreger reminds us that sexual harassment isn’t the only issue we should be concerned about.

David Letterman’s admission of fooling around with his employees has got me thinking about sex at the academic office, and particularly about sexual relations between professors and their graduate students, or between senior and junior faculty. Especially since sex researchers appear to be famous for engaging in this behavior.

I don’t happen to be one of those feminists who thinks that sex between someone in a superior role and someone in an inferior role can never really be consensual. I think men and women can actually be grown up enough to manage sexual advances at the office in a way that is respectful and fair.

Clearly genuine harassment does sometimes happen in the Ivory Tower. When I was in graduate school, one of my classmates was aggressively sexually harassed by an emeritus professor. I mean, this guy would show up at the woman’s apartment insisting she go out with him. We encouraged her to report it to the one female faculty, only to find out that faculty member said he had done the same to her when she arrived on campus, and that the grad student should just ignore it. After that, we found out that the reason the guy had been retired was to avoid more harassment suits than he had already amassed! Naturally, the administration had the brilliance to give him an “emeritus” desk in the grad student office.

I’ve even heard of cases where professors have essentially ghosted work in the name of grad students with whom they were sleeping, sometimes in order to move the student along and out the door.

We finally resorted to describing, in his presence, how we thought zucchini is best prepared if you have a good sharp knife. We went into a lot of detail about the best ways to slice it.

So, like I was saying, obviously sexual harassment is wrong. But sex between those with unequal power is not always harassing sex. The problem I have with squishing all office-sex scenarios into the sexual harassment model is that it ignores the other problems with office sex.

To my mind, a very troubling aspect with Ivory Tower sex between unequals is how it messes with the meritocracy. Let’s just imagine a scenario in which a professor (imagine him male) and a grad student (imagine her female) start having an affair. What are the odds her education is going to be equal to the other students’ of that professor? What are the odds he isn’t going to nudge along her career—use his connections, his energies, his ideas—more to her advantage than to others’?

I’ve even heard of cases where this has gone further, where professors have essentially ghosted work in the name of grad students with whom they were sleeping, sometimes in order to move the grad student along and out the door. (Such professors always want to move on, eventually, to the newer, prettier students.) I’ve heard of editorial board positions being landed, and publications and funding being guaranteed, through sex.

Not a very fair way to build a c.v., if you ask me. Not a very fair distribution of resources. And not a very fair standard to set for the rest of us who might not care to land our achievements that way.

Which brings me to the other point: When the office becomes a location for active cruising, suddenly the office is—well, a cruising location. I know that a huge percentage of us find our mates through work nowadays. I don’t want to cut off any possibility of dating the people one meets at work.

But that said, the serial office daters have a really negative effect on academic dynamics. Suddenly, when you’re going to hire a new junior faculty member, or you’re going to bring in a new crop of “fresh meat” (as grad students are sometimes called), you find yourself thinking in terms of the likely sexual politics. Is that really what we ought to be worrying about?

Not to mention the awkwardness of finding out, as one of my junior professors did in grad school, that he was living in a house where one of the senior professors had had an affair with one of his grad student’s wives … which the senior professor realized when his own (fed-up) wife reminded him at a party at said house, where we were all in attendance….

Messy. Except for the Madonna blaring on the stereo, you could have heard a pin drop.

And oh, that time at a conference where I introduced a fellow grad student to a famous historian, only to realize a moment later they were sharing a hotel room. I presume his wife didn’t know. After that, I had a devil of a time not wondering which lines on her c.v. came from what skill.

So harassment really isn’t the only problem with sex at the office, especially the academic office. And that seems worth remembering. Yes, people inevitably develop unequal relationships among those with whom they work. But sexual relationships are different in kind, and not just in degree.

By the way, I got all my publications and editorial board positions the old-fashioned way. Which is not to say I never slept with a professor. (Which is not to say I did.)


This post originally appeared on the author’s personal site on October 4, 2009. It is republished here with permission.

Alice Dreger
Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

More From Alice Dreger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.