I realised that my relationship with a lecturer was not romantic love but an abuse of power
Irecently found out that the man who supervised my PhD, who I will call Elliot (not his real name), is engaged to one of his former undergraduates. This is, of course, not an exceptional occurrence in academia. But it did force me to rethink my own experience of sexual misconduct – or, as I had naively thought of it, romantic love. You see, Elliot’s fiancée is not the only former undergraduate he has had a romantic relationship with. There is at least one other: me.
Given the culture of denial, and even acceptance, around staffstudent relationships, my confusion is not exactly surprising. Sexual advances by academics are frequently ignored, or, worse, covered up, by colleagues and students alike. Should a relationship eventually become established and go public, it is often accepted by the academic’s colleagues, especially if it ends in marriage. As an anonymous contributor to Times Higher Education recently put it: “Calling the [academic] out…is, at that point, perceived as an attack on a family man’s character, his wife’s judgement and their mutual, consensual love” (“Cultures of denial”, Features, 16 November).
I was, for a long time, part of this culture – convinced that academics such as Elliot were merely unlucky to fall in love with the “wrong” people. That is, until I was confronted with the truth about my own staff-student relationship: Elliot’s pursuit of me was part of a wider pattern of predatory behaviour that, on reflection, I now consider sexual misconduct.
I met Elliot when I took his second-year undergraduate unit. He was charming, confident and well-dressed. I remember squirming in my seat as he announced: “It’s hot in here, but I won’t take off my jacket, because I am a gentleman.” My friend told me to close my mouth – it had been hanging open as he spoke.
Elliot created a teaching atmosphere that I had not encountered before. Just as the previous THE piece put it, he “sexualise[d] the learning space to ‘prime’ the egosatisfying possibility of being seen as sexual by [his] students”. He would often discuss former lovers in his seminars, and one of his lectures had to be rewritten when his sexually charged comments about women caused offence. Looking back, I now recognise that this behaviour was not unintentional, but rather part of a wider set of actions that allowed Elliot to seduce me.
His pursuit started small. I went to his office to borrow a book that he had mentioned in the lecture. Announcing that the room was too gloomy, he asked whether I’d like to go to Starbucks instead. I was taken aback at the informality, but it made me feel special to go somewhere more private. Elliot bought me coffee and we spoke at length about my life. He seemed to appreciate my intellect and ambition, which was an incredible feeling for a 19-yearold. Afterwards, I emailed to thank him for the book; in his reply, he brought up our “mutual appreciation for sushi” and suggested we go to dinner.
At the restaurant, Elliot ordered a bottle of sake. We clinked glasses, but he didn’t make eye contact. I told him that meant seven years of bad sex. I was immediately embarrassed, because this was something that I said to my friends. It struck me that it might not be appropriate to say to a lecturer, but Elliot’s reaction suggested otherwise. He looked into my eyes and said, “Is that just with the person you’re with?” Stunned and secretly pleased, I nervously laughed off the comment.
I began to regularly visit his office to “have tea”. We spent hours chatting about nothing in particular. I revelled in his attention. It felt like he understood who I really was and saw me as a kindred academic spirit. We exchanged emails every few days. He burned me CDs every week, handing them to me at the end of lectures. I still remember the lyrics from a particularly provocative song: “You turn me on and it’s hard to turn me on”.
A few weeks into term, he confessed his feelings for me at a wine tasting that he had arranged for his students. He got me alone and asked me if I was flirting with him. I felt embarrassed. I apologised profusely for being a stupid young girl with a silly crush. He interrupted me: “You are not stupid – this is not a one-way street.” I could not believe what I was hearing. He admitted to finding me attractive but added that if we were to “date”, we would have to keep it a secret.
My feelings at this point were very confusing and painful. When I thought about it objectively, it seemed preposterous that such an intelligent and mature man would be interested in a young student. And I definitely did not want to sneak around. So, after a few days of mulling things over with my friends (who found the situation funny and never questioned the problematic nature of his advances), I told him that my feelings for him were too difficult to manage and that we should stop speaking for a while. It was a tough conversation for me, but he seemed unaffected.
Ilargely managed to avoid Elliot for the rest of my undergraduate degree and my subsequent master’s. When I did see him, I tried to keep our interactions professional. I blamed myself for his previous behaviour, convincing myself that I had led him on.
Towards the end of my master’s degree, I began thinking about pursuing a PhD in the area that Elliot specialised in. By this point, I was sure that my “silly crush” had subsided and told myself that Elliot’s intellectual prowess and expertise would aid my development. So, I asked him for help with my PhD application and he happily obliged. To my relief, he did not broach the subject of our past.
A few months later, he invited me to a university event, which was followed by dinner and drinks. I got very drunk. On the way from one pub to another, I was cold, and Elliot told me to put my hand in his coat pocket, where he wrapped his hand around it. He whispered: “Come to my house. Imagine the night we could have. Let’s jump in a taxi: no one will see.” I agreed immediately – yet, despite the clear implications of his
invitation, I was shocked when he kissed me in front of his fireplace.
I woke up in his bed. He confessed that he had been grateful that I had ended our “flirtations” during my undergraduate days because he “didn’t have the strength to”. He explained that I was the first student he had ever been “tempted by”. We began a relationship, undeterred when I was accepted shortly afterwards for a PhD programme, with him as my supervisor. I failed to question the power dynamics of our relationship because I believed that I was the only student he had ever pursued. This made our love seem “real” and unproblematic.
And yet, I knew something was not quite right. A therapist I went to see to discuss my relationship with Elliot was horrified that I was dating my prospective supervisor, but my main concern was that I was in a relationship with someone who couldn’t tell anyone about me – and who I couldn’t tell anyone about. Elliot had convinced me that if our relationship became public, people would lose respect for me as a scholar.
I realised that being someone’s “dirty little secret” was not good enough for me, and finally broke things off as my PhD programme began. But the effect on my selfesteem of Elliot’s warning remained. I was convinced that the only reason I was able to pursue a PhD was his rose-tinted belief in my intellectual ability, so I kept silent and persevered with him as my supervisor, convinced that no one else would take my work seriously. It is only now, three years post-PhD, that I feel ready to break my silence.
Our supervision meetings were often very difficult. Elliot made it no secret that he missed me and regularly made inappropriate comments, once telling me that he read my thesis draft in bed, because that was “the closest I get to spending the night with you these days”. I tried to brush off his advances, determined to finish
I failed to question the power dynamics of our relationship because I believed that I was the only student he had ever pursued. This made our love seem ‘real’ and unproblematic
As soon as I did, I moved across the country for a teaching position. Elliot and I stayed in touch, meeting occasionally when I was in town to see friends. With some distance from him, I started to consider the problematic nature of our decade-long ‘‘friendship” and thought about breaking ties. And yet, it was only when I heard that he was engaged to another former student that I found the strength to cut all contact.
No longer being in touch with Elliot has allowed me to reflect on his predatory behaviour and my vulnerability as a young student.
I teach undergraduates myself now. Some have wonder in their wide eyes, just like I used to have around Elliot. I can sense how easy it would be to seduce them: how incredible it might feel to be worshipped. But I can also see how profoundly young they are, both in terms of experience and intellect. Although they are smart, my capacity for reasoning is much more highly developed. I could very easily manipulate them. These power dynamics are ripe for exploitation.
Universities are starting to take notice, with some (such as Oxford and St Andrews) setting out clear policies on the problematic nature of student-teacher relationships. And yet, there is still a culture of denial and acceptance among academics. In our final conversation, Elliot explained that his engagement was not problematic. “It was all above board until she graduated,” he told me. Nor, it seems, do his colleagues have any problem with his relationship. Despite persistent rumours about his pursuit of female students, Elliot’s career has flourished.
He is now a distinguished professor.
My story is one of many. The recent NUS survey reveals that UK universities are riddled with hundreds of men and women like Elliot. It’s time to talk about why this type of misconduct continues to thrive in academia, and how we can put a stop to it.