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This Absurd Proposal to Ban Sex Between Student and Professor : CAMPUS CORRESPONDENCE

April 18, 1993|MARIA DOYLE | Maria Doyle, a sophomore, is the executive editor of the Cavalier Daily.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — At the University of Virginia, anxieties about sexual harassment have become a fig leaf for an attempt to regulate behavior in the bedroom. The university's Faculty Senate will vote this week on a proposal that would ban all sexual relationships, even those that are consensual, between students and professors. Teaching assistants would be barred from having sexual contact with students enrolled in their classes. Graduate students and professors could date only if they were in separate departments.

Not only is this sex-ban proposal absurdly broad, it would also introduce into the student-faculty relationship a tension harmful to the university's central mission: to educate.

The proposed prohibition originated in the university's Women's Concerns Committee. But no specific incident, on or off campus, was cited as a catalyst, though awareness of sexual harassment as a potential problem on campus has heightened in the wake of Anita F. Hill's testimony two years ago. Nor has any report detailing the dangers of student-faculty relationships at UVA recently surfaced.

A member of the committee said privately that the action was taken after officials discovered there was no policy. In short, just because. Presumably, the architects of the proposal have some motive up their sleeve. Since their proposed ban would intrude into every student's and professor's private lives, it only seems fair that they reveal it.

The issue of sexual harassment has put a scare in college and university administrations across the country. Specifically, they worry about their liability if a student files a sexual-harassment suit against a professor. As a result, many colleges have adopted more or less stringent codes regulating student-faculty contact. No official connected to the sex ban at UVA, however, has even hinted that lawsuit worries are a motive.

Supporters of the ban at UVA contend that student-faculty sexual relationships can lead to conflicts of interest, sexual harassment and abuse of professorial power. That's certainly true. But outlawing sexual contact between students and teachers is not going to end sexual harassment. Forbidding students and faculty from sleeping together will not lessen the power of professors to use grades and recommendations to coerce sex from students. It is hardly sensible to take away reasonable rights to prevent their possibly negative consequences.

The ban's advocates also have questioned the propriety of relationships that could have damaging emotional effects on students or could alter their courses of study. Certainly, a sexual relationship with a faculty member might steer a student toward or away from a certain class or department, but so might other experiences in college life. Sexual relationships can--and often do--damage emotions, regardless of who the partners are. No sex ban will mend broken hearts.

Victims of sexual harassment have access to any number of remedies at UVA. The university has a rape crisis center, a women's center and a sexual-assault education coordinator. If a student feels pressured by a professor or teaching assistant to engage in a sexual relationship, he or she can also file a complaint with a dean. Of course, a dean's personal bias can inhibit his or her ability to solve a problem. But bias will not be eliminated by instituting a sex code.

The potentially adverse consequences of a ban on all student-faculty relationships far outweigh the dangers of maintaining the status quo. Students and professors are companions in the intellectual world: Those with knowledge enlighten those who seek to learn and, in turn, are enlightened by the questions of those who challenge their teachings. Students and professors must necessarily complement one another as scholars. Instituting a sex ban might scare professors, who might fear censure for becoming too close to their students. It will erect a wall between students and professors. Even the most innocent friendships will be questioned.

It is indeed ironic that a university now celebrating the 250th birthday of its founder, Thomas Jefferson, would seriously consider bans and punishment, rather than education, to deal with one of our more vexing and complex problems.

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