I re­alised that my re­la­tion­ship with a lec­turer was not ro­man­tic love but an abuse of power

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - The au­thor is a lec­turer at a UK uni­ver­sity.

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

my doc­tor­ate.

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.

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