I didn't need protecting from the tutor who became my lover

It is patronising to assume that students never have designs and desires of their own, says Anna Wigley
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Some British universities are now following the lead of the American colleges where private relationships between students and tutors are not only discouraged but prohibited.

While there are good reasons why such relationships may be considered inadvisable, none constitutes an excuse for the policing of people's private lives and private choices.

I have been living with my ex-tutor for over four years. The relationship was a quite natural outgrowth of shared interests and mutual attraction. The fact that it happened to begin as a working (and unequal) connection made it unusual, and in some ways difficult, but not abnormal. Making the transition from pupil to lover can be strange and problematic, but then most relationships have their problems.

It is not uncommon for students to have crushes on their tutors. Lecturers are glamorous figures, and often find themselves the object of bashful admiration. The small seminar group and the personal tutorial are environments in which affection and familiarity flourish with ease.

Through their written work, students may reveal themselves to their teachers as they do to no one else; and shared love of a subject, in turn, compounds the likelihood that warmth and friendship may develop. Tutorials can be semi-informal and even intimate occasions, during which both parties must tread a fine line between professional detachment and personal openness.

There is, of course, an ethical issue at stake here. Teachers have a pastoral role, and adolescents coming to university ought not to feel their academic success will in any way depend on personal affinities or differences with their tutors.

Most colleges operate a system whereby incoming students are placed in the care of more than one tutor or adviser, and may request a transfer if unpleasant frictions develop. Most students manage to attach themselves at some point to a more or less sympathetic member of staff who can be relied on to give a hearing to any problems they may have, or at least point them in the direction of someone else who can.

If students are made to feel that they are completely at the mercy of one individual, they have been misinformed.

If universities begin to prohibit private relationships between students and their lecturers, the implicit assumption is that young women need to be protected from predatory older men. No one seems to consider the possibility that young women may not be passive victims, but active co- initiators of such relationships.

It is patronising and insulting to women to treat them always as if they had no designs or desires of their own.

Speaking personally, I can confirm that I was not kidnapped, blackmailed or clocked over the head with a copy of Clarissa to be dragged back unconscious to a book-lined seduction chamber. It was I, as much as my partner, who moved our relationship on to a different footing, and I would have been very indignant if anyone had suggested that I was being misused.

Three of my friends have had similar relationships, and none of them was coerced. Perhaps we should start paying women the tribute of allowing that they may be sexually enterprising in their own right.

Who knows, we might even go so far as to demand that female dons restrict their flirting to the Senior Common Room, and all male students be assigned a guardian to protect their virtue.