Let’s Have a Conversation: Sexual Ethics in Activist Communities
March 1, 2015 in Students
This is the first entry in a series of posts in which I answer questions posed by readers. Find out more about the series, or ask your own question, here.
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Today’s question was prompted by my tweets about faculty-student sex yesterday, in which I argued for a flat ban on sexual relations between students and professors. Here’s the question, sent to me by Twitter direct message:
I’m curious to know if you think that that kind of relationship is comparable to a relationship between a prominent student activist in a radical community and someone brand new to this community & social justice / if consent lines are similarly blurred in that kind of situation?
It’s a good question. I’ve got a half-finished piece somewhere about peer-to-peer sexual harassment in student organizing circles, and I think it’s an issue we don’t talk about enough. So, okay. Here we go.
As I said on Twitter, professors who pursue students for sex corrode the teacher-student relationship — not just the relationship with the student who is being pursued, but with all the other students who find out about it. My view is that profs shouldn’t have sex with their students because it’s incompatible with their professional obligations to them and because a teacher’s professional obligations to their students trump their personal interest in them.
Even in the presence of freely-chosen, enthusiastic, mutual consent, in other words, professor-student sex is a really bad idea. And that’s a very unusual situation. Even where institutional relationships exist between two people, it’s rare to regard consensual sexual relationships between adults as immoral. I can imagine exceptions, I suppose, but in general I’d say that if two student activists are freely consenting there’s nothing wrong with them hooking up.
So let’s look at the issue of consent.
In order for consent to exist, it must be freely chosen. If you don’t have the capacity to meaningfully consent, consent can’t exist. If you’ve been been forced or coerced, consent doesn’t exist. Consent consists of a free choice made by someone who possesses the capacity to choose.
Coming back to the organizing environment, my primary concern would not be with lines of consent being “blurred,” as you put it, but with those lines being breached by coercion or predation.
If someone has a lot of social influence in a given group, that gives them power, and that power may be used abusively. They may manipulate situations in order to create the opportunity to exploit others sexually by isolation or incapacitation. They may exert pressure on others to give in to their advances. They may use their influence to silence their victims and their victims’ supporters.
In each of these scenarios, though, we’re talking about behavior that would be abusive even without the power differential — it’s not that sex which would be consensual in another context is now rendered problematic by one party’s power, but that the person’s power gives them opportunities to engage in and get away with behavior that would be wrong in any context.
To put it another way, in this context I’m generally less interested with how encounters look from the outside than in how they look to the participants. If each party sees themselves as actively, enthusiastically, freely choosing a sexual relationship, I’m not going to second-guess their judgment. The hookup be a good idea or a bad one, it may end well or poorly, it may help or harm the movement, but in most situations adults should be presumed to be capable of making their own sexual choices.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. What do y’all think?