Hitting the books

Janek Drevikovsky investigates the university bonk ban.

Content note: sexual assault

Yale University has a by-law banning sexual relationships between undergraduates and academics.  This policy isn’t the latest response to #MeToo. It’s been on the books since 1997.  

For years, Yale was the only anglosphere university with such a ban. In 2015, Harvard’s undergraduate school followed suit. And now, come 2018, we’re riding on a wave of institutional abstinence: take the US House of Representatives, or Malcolm Turnbull’s “bonk ban”, which prohibits sex between ministers and their staff.

So far, however, the University of Sydney has not followed the trend. Tutors, faculty members and professional staff are free to carry on consensual relationships with students as they see fit.

That’s a problem, according to Professor Denise Cuthbert of RMIT: last year, in comments to the ABC, Cuthbert called on universities to outright prohibit staff-student sex “in light of what we now know about the distorting effect that power structures can have on interpersonal relations.”

As the abuse patterns of men like Harvey Weinstein or Don Burke show, it’s all too easy to take advantage of power imbalance—and to pressure subordinates into agreeing to unwanted sexual encounters.  Equally, when senior lecturers can control their students’ academic progress, it’s questionable whether sex between them could ever be based on meaningful consent.

A USyd spokesperson told Honi “the University is keenly aware of the types of conflicts and issues that can arise in our environment”. Accordingly, there are policies in place to deal with student-staff relationships gone wrong. Situations involving sexual misconduct are captured by the Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination Prevention Policy. This policy prohibits sexual harassment, defined as:

Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

For staff, a breach of the policy can mean disciplinary action, including termination of employment. SRC Wom*n’s Officer Maddy Ward pointed out that the policy is “super broad” and “unclear”. It’s this kind of opacity that a blanket ban on staff-student sex would end; no longer would it be possible to hide sexual predation behind a veneer of consent, procured through undue influence.

That said, of the senior course coordinators Honi spoke to, few seemed to have come across sexual misconduct between students and staff; most treated it as something “unthinkable”. Yet last year’s Australian Human Rights Commission report into sexual assault on campus found that 6 per cent of undergraduates and 10 per cent of graduates had suffered sexual harassment from their tutors or supervisors.

Even if a relationship is free from sexual misconduct, it may fall under the University’s External Interests  Policy. Under the policy, staff must not allow

Personal interests [which include sexual relationships] to come into actual, potential or perceived conflict with their duties to the University.

If a conflict of interest arises, it must be declared so a management plan can be developed. As far as student-staff relationships go, this situation is not uncommon. As Ward pointed out,in a “small neighbourhood” like USyd, someone you begin dating outside the classroom may later turn out to be your tutor. Postgraduates in particular, Ward said, can end up in relationships with the supervisors they spend years working with.

For the University, the concern here is academic integrity rather than personal well being, which the conflict management plans Honi saw seemed to confirm. Most focused on preventing staff from making decisions about the work or degree progression of a student they are in a relationship with.  

But whether the conflict policy actually works is another question. Tutors are most likely to form relationships with their students simply because the age gap is smaller than other academic staff.. As casual employees, tutors receive limited training, let alone on the conflicts policy. According to one engineering tutor, the inductor called attention to the policy, explained what a conflict might look like, then “just sent us a link to [an online conflict module] after the session and told us to have a read”.

Nonetheless, among those Honi spoke to, support was scant for an outright ban on student-academic relations . Director of Educational Strategy Professor Peter McCallum, though stressing it was his personal view, argued that a ban would be “an infringement on the many relationships between staff and students that are completely legitimate and fulfilling for the people involved.” It would simply be impractical to implement as there are “many people who are both staff members and students and many partnerships between two staff members where one of the partners is also a student”. Ward agreed: “I don’t think a ban on everything is particularly suitable, doesn’t leave nuance for the kind of relationships that happen.”

Yet there is an appetite for change. The University itself is “working on ways to bolster the current code of conduct,” a spokesperson said.  They also said that, following the release of the Broderick Review, the University “has committed to a standalone sexual misconduct policy and will consult with staff and students as that policy is developed.”

The form of these changes is at yet unclear, and neither the process of updating the code of conduct nor of developing a sexual misconduct policy has begun. Professor McCallum, however, suggested that the reporting of relationships with students could be made mandatory, even when there is no actual, perceived or potential conflict. Especially  when “the staff member’s judgement on such matters could be faulty,” McCallum said, mandatory reporting could go some way to protect students from power imbalances.