The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

True Love Is Always an Exception

Posted on | December 28, 2014 | 11 Comments

“She was 15 and he was 28 and her teacher at the Ferrer Modern School in New York, when they met, and married, in 1913.”

That sentence, from the 1981 obituary of Ariel Durant, is an important historic note to keep in mind when considering prohibitions against professors dating their students. Kelly Anders, an administrator at the University of California-Davis, writes at Prawfs Blog:

In several law schools where I have worked, there are professors or employees who are happily married to former students, whom they began to date while they were students. Perhaps schools turn a blind eye because law students are adults — in contrast to undergraduate students — and, in theory, they are thus freer to make decisions about whom to date, much like people who date co-workers. But what about unwanted attention or a perceived inability to say no?

The reference to “unwanted attention,” of course, brings us onto the legal battleground of sexual harassment. It has always struck me as absurd that anyone could be expected to know their attention was “unwanted” prior to actually expressing that attention. It is one thing if Employee A continues to make overtures toward Employee B after the latter has made clear that the interest is not reciprocated, but it is not rarely the case — and one hears horror stories about these cases — that the very first attempt at flirtation lights the fuse on a powder keg of resentment that leads to a sexual harassment complaint.

One typical scenario is that you have a male and female who are friendly co-workers until the moment when the male says or does something to indicate that he would be interested in being more than friends. This suggestion — and it may be conveyed indirectly, by a joke or a gesture — suffices to poison the friendship, at least from the female’s perspective. She had believed her workplace friendship with this man to be a strictly platonic and professional relationship. The moment he hints at a romantic interest, however, she suspects that the whole “friendship” was just an angle, a scam, a Trojan Horse ploy to get close to her so he could make his move. She feels deceived and betrayed, and perhaps rightly so. But if you are familiar with how sexual harassment complaints are handled, you see how what is basically a personal misunderstanding can turn into a Kafkaesque nightmare, where a guy finds himself accused of a civil rights violation for what seems to him entirely innocuous behavior.

In some cases with which I am familiar, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the complainant is just an opportunist looking for an easy payday, because it has become standard practice in corporate policy — and everybody knows this — to pay “go-away money” to sexual harassment complainants. Basically, if a woman can make a remotely plausible claim of discrimination or harassment, and she has any evidence at all (e.g., a rudely worded e-mail) to support her claim, the lawyers will always advise clients to settle the case. It doesn’t matter if the woman suffered no actual harm, or if the person accused of harassment insists his innocent actions have been unfairly interpreted. The cost of defending against a discrimination suit is simply an expense no company wants to pay, and so standard practice: Pay the complainant a lump sum (usually a year’s salary) in exchange for her leaving the company and signing an agreement not to pursue further litigation.

Everybody in business knows this kind of stuff happens and, because everybody knows it, the potential threat of a sexual harassment complaint casts a large shadow over the 21st-century workplace. It is not merely that male-female interactions tend to become almost ritualistic in their androgynous formality — for no male with half a brain would dare even acknowledge a female co-worker is female — but that every managerial decision has to be second-guessed as to whether it might inadvertently suggest discrimination against females. A sort of tokenism creeps into personnel decisions. If the last two employees you hired or promoted were male, the next time you have an opening there will be a certain amount of pressure to hire or promote a female in the name of “diversity.” And there are innumerable ripple effects of that mentality.

We return, then, to what Kelly Anders says about law professors dating their students. One reason for my low opinion of academia in general is my knowledge of ulterior motives of the “permanent student.”

Well do I remember from my own college days those graduate students who had apparently realized that staying in school forever — which seemed to involve a lot of time hanging out at the off-campus pub — provided them with sexual access to a continually renewed supply of undergraduate females. The graduate teaching assistant, or the newly-minted Ph.D. striving to attain tenure, was quite often involved in furtive affairs with students. These affairs were seldom entirely secret; friends of the students involved would at least suspect what was happening, even if the student did not tell them; and rumors about such affairs fostered widespread suspicion of favoritism. Any reasonably attractive female student who seemed friendly with a male instructor was presumed to be either having an affair with him, or else dangling the bait in front of him with the hope of getting a better grade.

When “male feminist” Professor Hugo Schwyzer was revealed to be a womanizing psychopath, I was not really surprised, and I suspect similar (but not so egregious) behavior is far more common among university faculty than is generally acknowledged. As far as I know, for example, I’m the only journalist who noticed that Professor Lisa Johnson apparently married a “butch” lesbian who was formerly her student.

Anyway, Professor Glenn Reynolds says about the student-professor dating question: “The interesting discussion is in the comments,” and I will quote some of those comments here:

Professors should not date students. Schools, including law schools, should forbid this behavior, full stop. . . .

My official stance is that faculty and students should not date — period. . . . Regardless of age, students are students, and the teacher-student relationship should be held in the highest esteem, without being diluted or prejudiced by non-professional (and unprofessional) feelings. . . .

No one should think he/she has a right to use the workplace for romantic pursuits, and in a situation of older adults having authority over younger ones, there are lots of potential issues that could arise which would complicate consent issues. . . .

I agree with those comments, and view with profound suspicion anyone who is arguing to the contrary. A policy that generally forbids romantic involvement between faculty and students makes sense in so many ways that you have to wonder why anyone would be trying to carve out loopholes and exceptions in such a wise policy. However . . .

There are cases which seem genuinely exceptional, and the amazing love story between Will and Ariel Durant is one of those. Where these truly exceptional cases occur, there is no need to create a loophole in a policy that generally forbids faculty-student romance, because even if the faculty member were immediately fired under such circumstances, this would seem a small price to pay to have obtained true love. And I think that’s really the appropriate standard: If you really love somebody in that happily-ever-after way, you’d quit your job to be with them if the rules of your job stood in the way.



11 Responses to “True Love Is Always an Exception”

  1. Julie Pascal
    December 28th, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

    “If you really love somebody in that happily-ever-after way, you’d quit your job to be with them if the rules of your job stood in the way.”

    Or you’ll wait until they graduate. My high school typing teacher married one of his students. Figure only 4 years between their ages and this isn’t at all outrageous… UNLESS they were carrying on while she was a student. They’re both enough older than I am that I never heard if there were rumors of that, and this is a really small town, small school. People would know.

    “But what about unwanted attention or a perceived inability to say no?”

    This is a big deal. If it’s a fellow student or a coworker, equal to you, then you can easily say yes or no with no more worry than for a little work awkwardness. If it’s your boss? Your professor? Your officer or NCOIC?

  2. kilo6
    December 28th, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

    Until reading this, I was unaware of the age difference between Will and Ariel Durant. Now Will Durant’s introduction to The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers makes more sense …

    “To my wife: Grow strong, my comrade … that you may stand unshaken when I fall;
    That I may know the shattered fragments of my song will come at last to finer melody in you;
    That I may tell my heart that you begin where passing I leave off, and fathom more.”

    My copy is from 1999 but I’m assuming that this dedication was also in the first edition of 1924, or at least the revised 2nd edition of 1933.

  3. riverlifecallie
    December 28th, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

    It’s interesting that he (Will Durant) outlived Ariel – but only by a little over one week.

  4. Adobe_Walls
    December 28th, 2014 @ 6:49 pm

    I’m assuming that 15 years old didn’t violate the current age of consent laws. While the relationship may have violate current moral standards it didn’t violate any current laws either.

  5. Dana
    December 28th, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

    Let me be very blunt here: none very little of this would be happening if girls were not blithely giving away pussy.

    Oh, horrors! the left will say, Heaven forfend! that we put social restrictions on women’s sex lives! But that was how society was organized for thousands of years, for one very simple reason: it worked to keep society organized.

  6. Dana
    December 28th, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

    If women in the workplace were already married — as they would have been, not all that many years ago, by the time they turned 19 or 20 — they wouldn’t be seen as available, and if society still trashed the reputations of those women who copulated outside of wedlock, much, much of this would be reduced.

  7. Jim R
    December 28th, 2014 @ 7:53 pm

    This article is very apropos to an earlier one about Japanese being disinterested in sex. While I know nothing about sexual harassment laws in Japan, but the ones here in the States are enough to cause a man to avoid women in the workplace as he would women in a syphillitic ward. And don’t even get started on the “rape culture” angle…

    There is a line between a fellow pursuing the object of his affection and being a creep: I’m sure we all know men who had to work at it to get their wives to go out with them (very sensible on the women’s part, too: good way to judge if he’s in it for the long-haul). I would think that most women would be at least a little flattered to be pursued even if the pursuer isn’t her cup of tea. If they aren’t, then why not?

    I think Dana hits the nail on the head: by so many women making themselves sexually available outside of marriage (even outside a long-term relationship), they’ve sent the message that they ALL are. What woman wants to be “pursued” when she knows that the likely sole object of the pursuer is a quick roll in the hay? Is it unreasonable for them to think that this is the only goal of ANY pursuer?

    I’ve read it suggested that sexual harrassment laws are the response to the Sexual Revolution: having destroyed the “hypocritical” courtship rituals that used to provide women with some protection, the women had to come up with something. I agree.

  8. Julie Pascal
    December 28th, 2014 @ 10:24 pm

    I think that large age differences always got some social eye-brow-raising… what I think is very different is the social status gained by marriage. This does a lot to even out the power disparancies that go with large age differences when it’s just a case of lovers. There is legal status and some legal protections involved.

  9. Adobe_Walls
    December 28th, 2014 @ 10:38 pm

    That age difference was quite common in the 19th century. While probably less common in the early 20th, it probably wasn’t uncommon.

  10. Daniel Freeman
    December 29th, 2014 @ 2:30 am

    I’m reluctant to place much weight on love, because the whole point of making an age of consent statutory is that kids with gonads are vulnerable. Hormones minus brains means that they really don’t know what’s good for themselves. If all that lies in the way is the rules of the job, then sure, quit the job; but if what lies in the way is the law, then wait for the law to not apply.

  11. Daniel Freeman
    December 29th, 2014 @ 2:43 am

    Women are more likely to have other relationships. Men are more likely to devote themselves to their mate. Even something as simple as having a sibling that he’s close to can increase a man’s lifespan, since otherwise he likely won’t outlast his wife by much. Ernest Belfort Bax — the English Socialist that wrote “The Fraud of Feminism” over a century ago — literally died on the same day as his wife.