Monday, April 26, 2010

Defending The Yale Faculty/Student Sex Ban

Libertarian blogger Will Wilkinson is incensed by a new Yale policy forbidding intimate relationships between faculty members and undergraduate students, not just those with an academic relationship as was previously the case, calling the ban "repugnant" and "paternalistic". Noting that most such relationships involve male faculty members and female students, he also equates it to a "denial of the autonomy of female undergrads". This is precisely the sort of situation that I find tends to elicit uninteresting, dogmatic responses from Reason magazine-type doctrinaire libertarians, and despite the fact that Wilkinson is usually a very nuanced and though-provoking writer, this rant strikes me as precisely that. The college years in middle class American life represent a somewhat uncertain middle ground between what is commonly conceived of as immaturity and what is commonly conceived of as adulthood, and the American university occupies a correspondingly uncertain place between those of a parental surrogate charged with nurturing and protecting its students and a private market entity whose only mission is to provide them with contractually designated educational services. They are, by dint of that position, somewhat paternalistic by nature, even if they are less so than high schools. In addition to the subsidized housing and living expenses, many provide free academic and personal counseling, guaranteed access to part-time employment via work study programs, health care, and a host of other support services in addition to purely educational goods. Anyone who's been to college will tell you your typical undergrad is not treated as a full adult in a wide spectrum of areas, nor expected to act as a full adult, and it seems to me that these norms are uncontroversial. Given that I don't really see a compelling reason to get upset about a limited imposition on undergraduates' already limited personal autonomy. Wilkinson's case is even weaker when you consider the ban as something that applies to faculty members rather than to students. Unless the social activity serves a clear business-related function, most companies forbid their employees from fraternizing with customers while on the job. Most people would have to concede that this is reasonable - in the case of most businesses, that's not what employees are paid to do, and with sexual liaisons in particular there is a not-insubstantial possibility that a company could be found liable for its employee's actions in a sexual harassment lawsuit. If you want to think of a university such as Yale solely as a business entity engaged in the provision of educational services to its customers, the students, as Wilkinson seems to, you have to either argue that such bans are unacceptable impositions on personal freedom in all cases (a really tough sell for me), or else clearly establish that that some portions of a student's undergraduate years do not constitute "company time", even though the economic transaction that defines the relationship between business and customer is ongoing throughout that period and legal liability is clearly an issue (perhaps an easier argument to make, but still not one I find persuasive). Do I have a "disgust response" when I see a lecherous, fifty-year old professor ogling a 19 year old sophomore? Yes. Do I acknowledge that my argument could be taken to extremes, and that a relationship between a 30 year old adjunct professor and a 27 year old graduate student is not the university's business if the two aren't working together? Yes. But neither of those answers mean that there isn't a sound logical rationale for banning some types of faculty-student relationship.

Underlying this whole issue is the fact that our laws render in absolute black and white many things which in reality shade from black through all shades of gray to white, and that maturity (sexual, social, financial, and otherwise) is one of these. Of course, a democratic society has to draw categorical lines somewhere, because we must determine at what point a person falls under the category of full adulthood, with all the rights and responsibilities thereof. Nevertheless one must admit that there's really no good reason why we ought to consider a 25 year old teacher involved with a 17 year old high school student a sexual predator who should do time and lose his or her career, and a 50 year old college professor involved with an 18 year old freshman a private matter between consenting adults. This is particularly true when one takes into account the fact that defining the threshold of adulthood as twenty years or so is comparatively speaking a very new sociological development - within the last 100 years it was fairly widespread for people in their mid- or early teens to marry in the United States and Europe, and in many countries around the world it is still commonplace. Human biology doesn't provide us particularly good evidence for our norms either - as everyone knows, by the biological definition of the term people reach sexual maturity far before they reach what our society considers adulthood.

Given all this, I'm okay with letting widely shared disgust responses - the so-called "ick factor" - keep certain markets taboo, to use Wilkinson's uncharmingly economic-reductionist term. I don't particularly want to see markets for pubescent pornography or prostitution flourish. Relationships between professors and college students aren't quite so repugnant as that, of course, and I'll concede (and even agree with) Wilkinson's point about the importance of developing personal autonomy in young adults, but if a university wants to ban such liaisons for whatever reason - practical, paternalistic, or anywhere in between - I don't really have an issue with it.

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