“What’s it like teaching at a university?” a male writer friend asked. “All those young girls. I mean, do you—?” When I said I didn’t, he looked not only disappointed but frustrated, as though I were withholding an undeniable fact of my existence. My friend was convinced that sex between professors and students was a staple of campus life. In this he resembled the makers of popular culture, who have frozen the university’s public image in the 1960s. Many films or novels with university settings include an affair between a male professor and a female student. In the public eye, universities have never recovered from the antics of Donald Sutherland as Professor Jennings in the 1978 film Animal House. In fact, neither today’s undergraduates, who are stressed out from supporting part-time jobs on top of full-time study, student loans and career worries, nor the current generation of professors, who were educated in feminism and power dynamics, and are overstretched by funding cuts and bureaucratic interference in their jobs, have much time for campus affairs. These days, the careerist power grabs of academic administrators, who are replacing professors as the central figures in university life, produce more drama than campus sexual relationships. Which is not to say that such liaisons don’t occur.
Some people I know believe that a professor can be fired for having an affair with a student. This is a myth. On unionized Canadian campuses, firing a faculty member requires years of reports, committee deliberations and appeals. More importantly, society has stopped condemning consenting adults for private acts; it’s not feasible for universities to wage war against consensual sex, provided that both participants are of age. In Canada—different standards apply elsewhere—I’m aware of professors who have been fired for two sexual misdemeanours: harassment of younger women by older men; and the use of an office computer to download child pornography. The latter offence is uncommon, but there remains a fringe of older male professors—holdovers from the Professor Jennings era—who make women’s lives unbearable. Regarded as pariahs by their colleagues, these hounders and gropers are not very likely to have actual sexual relations with anyone; rather, they bully young women. Their victims are frequently graduate students or younger female professors. This kind of aggression could morph into an abusive relationship; but these days it is usually rebuffed, and often reported.
The 1960s, the sordid heyday of the campus affair, presented unique conditions: sexual liberation and the availability of the Pill, combined with the persistence of patriarchal assumptions from the 1950s. In Canada, the massive expansion of the university system to serve the baby boomers resulted in the importation of squads of male professors from the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Many of the young women who entered university as undergraduates came from towns or neighbourhoods where almost everyone had the same culture: foreign-born professors exercised an exotic allure. Having been hired with master’s degrees and a promise to finish a doctorate at a later date, many of these instructors were barely older than their students. Neither the mainstreaming of feminism that began in the 1970s, nor the awareness of power dynamics introduced by critical theory in the 1980s, had yet made their impact on campus consciousness. Most of the privileged minority who attended university did not need part-time jobs; professors were not yet labouring under “publish or perish” injunctions. Everyone had time on their hands. The mayhem that ensued was engraved on the minds of baby boomer students, who recapitulated these situations in movies, novels and newspaper columns over the next decades.
The university, meanwhile, changed beyond recognition.
Whenever twenty thousand people are brought together in a single place, many of them pair off into couples. Not all of these couples unite people of the same generation or institutional category. Power dynamics may be unequal, as in many workplace romances, yet often the two partners are insulated in separate departments or divisions. Contemporary university demographics are complex. In my department, nearly two-thirds of the professors are women; not all of the men identify as straight. Campuses now host a higher percentage of mature students and international students, and far more administrators. Women, once a vulnerable minority referred to as “co-eds,” now account for 60-65% of undergraduates on most Canadian campuses. Many undergraduates, taught by graduate students and part-timers on year-by-year contracts, often in enormous lecture courses, rarely meet tenured professors. Of the last two campus affairs of which I became aware, one involved a forty-year-old female professor who was dating a thirty-something male graduate student from a different department; the other united a senior administrator in his sixties, who had been married to his wife for decades, with a male graduate student in his mid-twenties. Even when the older man-younger woman pattern occurs—and though no longer common, it does happen, usually to a female graduate student—the dynamics are not those of the 1960s. Contemporary students are aware of their rights, wired and worldly; in a reversal of past dynamics, today’s students are more culturally diverse, and accustomed to managing cultural diversity, than their professors. Dating a professor may leave a young woman (or man) feeling powerless; alternately the prof may be one more check mark on her (or his) list of conquests, or even the source of a meaningful relationship. Until 2014 the student association on my campus included “Sleep with your professor” on the list of “101 Things to Do Before You Graduate” that it handed out to incoming undergraduates. Most of us were glad when this item was removed, yet its jesting inclusion indicates that the subject of sexual relationships is less awe-inspiring to contemporary undergraduates than it was for earlier generations. Last year a twenty-three-year-old seminar leader came to tell me that he and an undergraduate woman in his seminar had decided that they wanted to date. He asked to have her assignments graded by someone else. After we had arranged this, they went out together. Sex on campus is not going away. The present, though, is witness to the advance of awareness, sensitivity, irony and negotiation, and the retreat of Professor Jennings