Professor Marcy has been a naughty boy. Not too bright either. He made a come-on to an undergraduate after she organized a “sexual violence” rally? Dude, think about that for a second! Maybe astronomers aren’t as smart as people believe. I’m worried what will happen if there’s a string of cases like this–it wouldn’t take many to create a moral panic and irresistible calls to reform astronomy’s “culture”. As soon as the emphasis shifts from discipline to culture, the emphasis will shift from people like him to people like me.
To me, the rules against sex with students is one of the charming things about life as a university professor. For one thing, I get tired of always being the uptight one in a university system forever boasting about how transgressive it is. So nice to know that there’s a sex act I could do that would scandalize them! I suspect sexual restrictions play a bigger part than we realize in a local culture’s charm. It gives me a slight sense of living in a fairy tale–an idyllic life offered to me just so long as I leave one particular box unopened, one forbidden fruit untried. Of course, we know how stories like that usually end, but in real life people offered such a sweet deal tend to be prudent. Plus, for me, there’s the combination of abhorrence of adultery and shyness to keep me on the straight and narrow.
The ostensible reason professors can’t sleep with students is the difference in power between us. There’s an apparent irony here, in that historically access to women was one of the main (unstated) reasons for a man to pursue power. The irony is only apparent, though. Traditionally, a man attained power over other men, and this high status won him access to and interest from desirable women. My direct “power” over a bunch of single twenty-year old girls is historically anomalous. The university is probably also right in thinking that it’s not something that one can choose to set aside. A professor can’t say “Hey, want to go out on a date? If you say ‘no’, it won’t affect your grade or letter of recommendation.” The context will always be there; it’s not something you get to choose. I suppose it’s also against the rules for a student to proposition a professor, perhaps hoping to improve her grade or get a research position, but I never hear about that, so maybe it just doesn’t happen. Given how few of my students will spend an hour on homework a week, the desperation needed to drive something like that just doesn’t seem to be there.
I enjoy sexual harassment workshops. It’s nice to be reminded that I’m surrounded by beautiful but forbidden young women. It’s also nice to hear about what an awesome figure of authority and power I am. Frankly, this is something I would never have suspected from my actual interactions with students. Sexual harassment workshops make university life feel so much more dramatic.
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