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The Other Problem With Sex at the Office

• October 16, 2013 • 8:00 AM

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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.

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