Flirting with students is not harmless

Whether targets of sexualised attention or audience members, students lack power to divert harmful classroom dynamics, says Mary Peterson

May 19, 2024
A lecturer looks at a female student in class, illustrating flirtation
Source: iStock/JackF

Early in Francine Prose’s 2000 campus novel Blue Angel, the protagonist, Ted Swenson, a creative writing professor at a small liberal arts college in New England, reflects on classroom flirtations. “Teacher-student attraction is an occupational hazard,” he thinks. “It’s built into the system. Still, their interest is flattering, which in itself is attractive, and so their attention was sometimes returned in ways that couldn’t have been more harmless. So what if he read Miss A.’s paper first, or looked to see if Miss B. got his joke? More often than not, those students worked harder and learned more. And those fleeting…attachments never led any further”.

He rationalises that these flirtations do not take away from his loving marriage and professional commitments. The fact that he struggles to remember those students’ names (hence the infantilising reference to “Miss A.”) proves to him that “they meant nothing, nothing worth risking his job for…”

But Swenson’s attention does lead further in one instance. Sex with a student becomes the driver of his downfall and humiliation. From his unrepentant point of view, the student is perpetrator, not the victim. Yet she is subjected to a humiliating sexual encounter with a married authority figure, followed by an emotionally taxing investigation into his misconduct by the school.

Swenson got it wrong: flirting with a student is dubious in every case. Not only does it require the target – probably a woman or member of a gender minority – to decide whether she is interested in the professor sexually; she must also do the work of interpreting his suggestive comments and double meanings. All the while, she questions herself: “Is this coming from me or him?” And such comments are typically peppered throughout what may otherwise be information the student needs to succeed in the class and which, therefore, she can’t afford to ignore.

Far from feeling special in a positive sense, enjoying the extra motivation Swenson imagines, the student might reasonably feel demotivated by flirtatious attention from her professor. Why should she take the class seriously if he is not doing so?

In her essay “On Not Sleeping With Your Students”, included in her 2021 book, The Right To Sex, moral philosopher Amia Srinivasan argues that teachers should be teaching, not pursuing sex, and that the two activities are at odds. I might add that regardless of how far the flirtation goes, the professor takes away from the student’s encounter with the class material.

The public nature of a classroom flirtation counterintuitively gives the professor plausible deniability. If the student calls attention to what she perceives as sexualised messaging, she is easily cast as the one who introduced a sexual dimension to the relationship, and if the flirtation is sufficiently subtle, the other students in the class might endorse that perspective. So although the presence of other people should in theory protect the student from sexual harassment, in practice, it makes her vulnerable.

In a 1989 memoriam for her late husband, the famous philosopher, Wilfrid Sellars, Susanna Felder Downie recounts being picked out for sexual attention while she was his student. “I began to get the feeling that Wilfrid was seducing me, just by the use of opportunistic double entendres, sprinkled ever so casually amongst the clever tracery of the history of ideas.” She gives examples of his choice emphasis on certain words – such as “love” – while making eye contact with her in the lecture hall.

“After a few weeks of this”, she writes, “I decided I had to know if he really knew what he was doing, and if he really intended anything by it”. She discovered that he did, and they later married.

One might argue that a flirtation welcomed by the student and ending in marriage is proof that flirtatious classroom interactions can be harmless, even positive. However, it is important to bear in mind that the student is not the only one impacted by her teacher’s attention: so too are her classmates.

Martha Nussbaum saw the unfairness for all students when she wrote in her 2003 essay “‘Don’t Smile So Much’: Philosophy and Women in the 1970s” that regardless of whether any given student welcomes a professor's attention, “an in-group and an out-group are created in a seminar, and the academic endeavor is impeded thereby”. When other students resent this evident favouritism, their resentment is borne by the targeted student, not the teacher. Students, after all, cannot afford to resent their professor since a good grade depends on his approval.

Classroom power dynamics also make students prone to play into the sexist atmosphere the professor has created. Resenting women for the attention they receive from the teacher is a symptom of that atmosphere, one which isolates the chosen student.

In classroom flirtations, it is as if the professor is the director and star of a theatrical production, the student his unwitting leading lady. The other students are to some degree his audience. The professor acts out an assumption that the student wants him more than she wants to learn, pass the course or even go on to become a professor herself.

Ultimately, whether targets of sexualised attention or audience members, students do not have enough power to divert harmful classroom dynamics. Nor should they be saddled with that task. It is up to professors to stop using the classroom to stage flirtations – and up to universities to take seriously the extent to which those professors undermine their educative missions by indulging in such behaviour.

Mary Peterson is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Hamburg.

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Reader's comments (2)

It is not 1970! We have learned a great deal. Why hasn't this author?
We have indeed learned a great deal, Graff. Sadly, however, there are still academics using their power and status to obtain sexual gratification, and plenty of their peers who seem unable to understand this is a problem.