Marie, a pseudonymous 27-year-old in New Zealand who worked as a university lecturer at the age of 22, had an encounter on the dating app Her with a student enrolled at her university. “A girl messaged me asking if I was doing the same degree as her because I was holding one of the faculty professor’s books in a photo,” she says, adding that when she told the student she was a professor, the student became very interested in dating her. Marie initially turned her down, but she was persistent: “She said, ‘No, it’s okay — I’m in my last semester, you’ve literally never taught me or even crossed my path, and I’m older than my whole cohort because I did my degree part-time, so there’s nothing to worry about.’”
Eventually Marie relented, but with boundaries in place. “I made her wait until she’d finished her last exam for her whole degree before we went on a date, which was the right move,” she explains. “She still thinks I was being paranoid.” Marie says that even though she’s no longer teaching, she’d still swipe left on her former students. “There’s something about the power dynamic I find fucking gross, and I say this as a person who has successfully attempted to fuck her own teachers.”
It’s a generally acknowledged but frequently ignored ethical norm that teachers shouldn’t date or have sexual relationships with their students. Many institutions of higher education have rules that prohibit student-faculty relationships only when a supervisory relationship exists; some, like Princeton, ban all student-faculty romance; and others have no policies at all. Virtually no institution requires professors to wait any length of time before dating former students, which led one professor to confess a crush on his student as he returned her final graded project to her.
As such, professors and other teaching staff must inevitably make their own ethical decisions about where to draw the line when it comes to personal relationships with present and former students, and the presence of dating apps and social media in both parties’ lives can mean that these decisions are brought to the fore more often than ever before.
To investigate how professors and other teaching staff tend to navigate these waters, I spoke to around a dozen of them, including Grace Ortberg-Lavery, associate professor at the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. “I have a hard rule against following existing students on social media,” she says, adding that it’s important to give students space from professorial surveillance. “They already tend to feel the presence of an all-seeing eye.”
While all of the faculty members I asked said that they have “swipe left” policies when they see students on dating apps, some told me that certain dating apps make it difficult to prevent students from interacting with them. “My rule is absolutely no students past or present,” explains Brett, 31, who teaches classics in Santa Barbara, California. “Tinder and Bumble made that easy since I could just swipe left, but Hinge somewhat changed that, allowing some students to ‘like’ parts of my profile.” Marie adds that Her has an age-limit mechanism she uses, “but people who have you in their age-limit range can still see you and try to match with you.”
Such visibility can lead to awkwardness and invasions of privacy, even though dating apps aren’t strictly private realms. “My undergrads found about my transition by seeing me on Her, and I only found out afterwards,” Ortberg-Lavery, a trans woman, tells me. “I was mortified.”
Students, too, often find encountering their teachers uncomfortable. “Professors swiftly get that block,” says Daniel, a 23-year-old biochemistry student at Rutgers University. “Imagine sending a question about homework through Grindr!” For Daniel, the main reasons to avoid swiping right on professors are (1) they want to keep their personal and campus life separate, and (2) the potential fallout if sex did ensue. “I’d die needing to keep a straight face in the lecture hall, and catering to the male ego is exhausting,” Daniel says. “Lord knows I’m not trying to deal with lower grades because a man had his ego bruised by his own awful stroke game.”
The potential for teachers to retaliate against students who hurt their feelings after a romantic or sexual relationship sours is a key reason why these relationships are cautioned against. This is the “fucking gross” power dynamic Marie mentions, in which a student can be subject to lowered grades, professional blacklisting and harassment (among other things) by a spurned faculty member.
Writer and doctoral candidate Andrea Long Chu says this was her experience with Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University who was accused last year of sexually harassing a student, and that “sadism” in the humanities is understood as normal. “[Graduate students] have watched as their professors play favorites, as their colleagues get punished for citing an adviser’s rival, as funding, jobs and prestige are doled out to the most obedient and obsequious,” she writes. “When students in my department asked for more advising, we were told we were being needy.”
Professors may also be particularly adept at framing their transgressions as righteous, intellectually motivated and inherently different to the investment banker who shows his embarrassed secretary the porn on his desktop screen. “I’m struck by the similarity of each of these [academic] abusers,” Ortberg-Lavery writes on her blog, The Stage Mirror. “[They share a sense that] prohibitions on sexual relationships between students and faculty exist solely to stem the flow of ideas and energies (‘the aura of election’), and therefore, that it’s in everyone’s interests to oppose them.”
Similarly, claims about abuse and harassment are often dismissed as intellectually reductive. “When scholars defend Avital — or ‘complicate the narrative,’ as we like to say — in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe,” Chu continues. “We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described.”
Sometimes, too, faculty members mean no harm even when they make questionable approaches. “There are probably ‘good faith’ attempts to date students that misfire and become subject to sexual harassment complaints,” one professor, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me. “I can think of a couple of examples of people who believed that they were just cruising in their off-hours, but the institution decided they were creating a hostile work environment.” It’s possible, of course, for false accusations to occur and for harm to be overstated. Ethical complexities abound: How long should a professor wait to date a former student, if ever? What’s the appropriate way for a university to treat a professor who dates a student over whom they have no supervisory role?
Thorny questions aside, most principled professors prefer to play very far from the line, given the historical setting, uneven power dynamics and potential for harm, and this means ignoring, blocking and/or swiping left on students on dating apps as a minimal starting point. “One of the broader historical issues is senior male faculty seeing graduate students in particular as a dating pool which, given the kinds of close professional relationship that grad students often have with their advisors, was easy for predators to manipulate,” Ortberg-Lavery tells me. “That’s the really gross side.”
And that’s the real lesson here — for both teacher and student.