Behind a cut for me ranting about pervs in the academy.
As a college student (I graduated within the last few years), I worked with an older married man, let’s call him Dave, in multiple capacities as a student and intern throughout my four years at the school. Dave was more or less the head of our school’s theatre department. Dave and I knew each other very well; he recommended me for nearly every job I had both during and for a while after college. Until recently, he was a very prominent and respected figure in our local theatre community.
However, not long after #MeToo became a thing last year, Dave got fired for sexual misconduct. The school announced this, it was in the local media, and pretty much everyone in our local theatre community was talking about it. So, he knows that we know what he did.
But here’s the thing: no one knows exactly what he did. I know for certain that he slept with a female student who was probably in the department, who would have been at least 18, but that’s it. I have no reason to believe it was not consensual in any way other than the power imbalance, which might complicate things; but I don’t know her connection to him, I don’t know how many times this happened, I don’t know if it was premeditated (i.e. if they planned to get a hotel room or something), or what. I don’t know how she feels about this, so I don’t know how to proceed.
Within our community, reactions have run the gamut from, “Well, cheating is bad, but two (presumably) consenting adults can make mistakes and we don’t need to shun him,” all the way to, “He is a gross disgusting person and I wash my hands of him professionally and personally.”
I am somewhere in the middle. Of course, on a personal level, I do think him agreeing to cheat on his wife is not cool at all, but that’s more of an individual sin than a social evil, you know what I mean? And for better or worse, I also can’t pretend as if he wasn’t a major factor in many of my professional successes in the last few years. (And no, before anyone says anything, I never slept with him, nor has anyone else that I know of. As far as I know, this was a one-time thing.)
But, because no one knows what happened, there is one horrifying possibility that I cannot discount: what if it was a casting couch situation? Again, I don’t know if it was, but his position of authority in the department is not irrelevant.
The reason I’m asking at all is because I am certain that I will be seeing him soon at an upcoming event I cannot get out of. He and I are still Facebook friends and he occasionally comments on my posts, as if nothing had changed. (I haven’t unfriended him because of the ambiguity of the situation, and besides, it doesn’t hurt to know his whereabouts.) I’m certain that he’ll want to talk to me when we see each other.
But this is a gigantic elephant in the room, and I’m not sure what my response should be. Act friendly? Be chilly? What should I do?
People pretend that women breathing a word that someone is creepy results in instant ostracism and career death for men, but it’s very, very, very rare for people to actually lose their jobs for sexual misconduct. See: The long list of abusers and rapists who still have lucrative careers.
Which tells me: If this dude was actually fired from a tenured faculty job despite being a popular, well-liked, admired professor, I’m going to guess that it was a) way more than one instance b) something provably not consensual and pretty damn bad happened in there somewhere.
I’m talking something bad enough that it was actually less expensive for the school to let the dude go and deal with the bad press and other fallout than it was to keep him on and defend him and deal with the fallout of enabling sexual abuse (see: recent Michigan State University, Ohio State University stories about decades of sexual abuse and cover-ups in their athletic programs). Because that’s how colleges make decisions about these things: Would it be cheaper to bury the complaints or cheaper to let the person go. Did he do something provably bad enough that we’re not afraid of him hiring a lawyer. That’s our world.
Like, “Consensually slept with a single student” doesn’t even register on the scale. (If you want some depressing and true viewing about how colleges completely fail to handle sexual misconduct, the documentary The Hunting Ground is good shrieking-into-the-void viewing.) P.S. I love it when people keep mentioning the word “consensual” in these situations, like, congrats Dave, you didn’t literally rape your student, well done, you Hero of Ethics.
And if this is somehow a rare exception to all of that, I’m still like “Fare thee well, Dave, be smarter and less gross next time, these are the risks you run when you let your dick make your ethical decisions!” Like, yaaaaaay, maybe your university is just being really cautious and doing the right thing for a change. Sorry, Dave, we hardly knew ye.
It is just not that hard to not perv on your students. Spare me your “erotics of pedagogy” or whatever self-serving drivel people are using to cover this shit up this week. Crushes happen, attraction happens, but spare me your anecdotes of how some people somewhere married their graduate students and lived happily ever after. If it’s really True Love, it will be there when you’re not student & teacher anymore. It is wrong to take advantage of someone’s love of learning and love of your subject and pervert that for your own ego or sexual satisfaction. It is obscene to use a position of power to prey on young people. “Aphrodite & Cupid struck me with arrows, I couldn’t help it” is fucking ludicrous coming from supposedly learned people. You can always help it.
As for what you do now, Letter Writer, it’s really up to you. Dave will 100% have a story about why whatever he did isn’t that bad, and you can decide that because he didn’t do anything to you/his mentorship is valuable to you/you like him and want to believe him that it’s still possible to be friendly with him.
But let’s not pretend that is a neutral decision. We know that abusers groom defenders and apologists the same way they groom victims. “He’s always been cool to me” doesn’t mean “He is cool.” We also know that his victims, likely plural, will see how you interact with him online and in real life. They will make up their minds about whether to trust you based on this, and you might find people avoiding you because it means interacting with Dave. That is fair. That is self-protective on their part.
In your shoes I’d be unfriending that dude with a quickness, and when I ran into him I’d be like “Oh hi Dave, so sorry, can’t chat” and get on the other side of that cocktail party where the people who don’t fuck their students hang out. You don’t owe him an explanation or a hearing or calling him out or addressing it. He will know why. It completely sucks that now you have to re-evaluate your education and your relationship with a mentor and find not-sexual-predators from your department to write you recommendation letters and be your professional references, and that is 100% on Dave, not on you. This awkwardness and suckyness and unfairness you’re feeling right now? The part where you have to reassure us that you didn’t sleep with him? The part where you’re going to go out into your professional sphere and people are going to ask you about this dude’s sexual decisionmaking? Is one of the reasons it’s bad for teachers to sleep with their students. It has reverberations beyond a one-on-one consensual romantic or sexual relationship. It fucks up the learning community. So please, I beg you, whatever you decide to do, if things are awkward now, make sure you put the blame in the right place (on Dave) and not on his victims, ok? Your mentor made some very bad choices and (for once) some consequences are coming his way.
Since I’m basically just ranting here and I’m away from the computer for the rest of the night, no comment thread for this. DON’T FUCK YOUR STUDENTS. EVER. YES, YOU. ALL OF YOU. DON’T DO IT.