When is it okay for faculty and students to be sexual in the same place?

Elizabeth's picture

If you ask it that way it's kind of an odd question, isn't it? I mean we're basically sexual all the time. We just aren't always acting on our sexual desires. But we are not without our sexuality. Still, any time personal sexuality makes itself visible in relationships like those between coworkers or between students and teachers things get very muddy very quickly

I ask the question because of this story. I read it about it first on the dankprofessor's blog. (The dankprofessor is Barry Dank, and he writes frequently about the politics of sex on college campuses.)

Briefly the story is this:

A creative writing professor at University of New Mexico, posed on a BDSM web site in the company of at least one of of her graduate students. The web site was for an organization called People Exchanging Power, a national network of support groups for BDSM-oriented people, and for those curious about BDSM that Lisa Chavez*, the professor, learned about from two of her grad students. (The web site for the Albequerque branch does seem to focus heavily on phone fantasy exporation, as indicated in the news article.) It seems that after that, Chavez posed for some pictures that were shown on the web site, and at least one of those pictures included one of the grad students. An investigation was prompted, somehow, at the University, and the deputy provost found no use of college resources, no undue influence, no hostile environment, and no coercion. He said that while he thought she'd exercised poor judgement, that the incident "did not rise to the level of calling into question her 'unfitness for duty'."

You might expect that to be the end of it, except that some members of the English Department are outraged, and at least 13 of them have signed a petition demanding that Chavez's case be heard by the Faculty Senate Ethics and Advisory Committee.

What do you think?

The grad students already knew about PEP and were participating at some level in the organization. Is it wrong if Chavez also participates? Is it wrong if they are participating at the same time? Is it wrong if pictures are taken and then used for promoting PEP?

The article doesn't make it clear how all this came about, nor about how it was discovered, though it does emphatically state that none of the grad students involved complained or claimed to experience any coercion or undue influence.

Imagine it happened this way: Prof. Chavez and her graduate creative writing students are sitting in a workshop discussing a story. That story contains a BDSM scene. One student, familiar with BDSM practice questions the author on some detail. Discussion about how you know what you know ensues. It turns out that several people in the room have some connection to or interest in BDSM play. There are not a lot of places to go to talk to other such folks. Two of the students volunteer info about PEP. Others are interested, including Prof. Chavez. We're talking adults, and we're not talking romantic relationships (necessarily). We're talking about sharing information and community. True that information is about an erotic practice, and true the community is of people who participate, but does that mean that students and faculty can't be in the same social spaces when sexuality is at all in play? Imagine the college town with the bar where students and faculty hang out over a few beers and there is all kinds of sexual energy in the room.

Consider further the difficulty faced by faculty and students, or any set of coworkers, who belong to a minority sexual subculture in a place where the gathering spots are few. For such people to completely avoid each other would be extremely difficult without shutting themselves off from their communities.

So here is my question: What do you think of the Chavez case? And keep in mind the dankprofessor's closing words:

It is not over. Offended faculty are likely to appeal. The offended faculty will be spurred on by some offended alumni, and I am sure a myriad of others. And if the appeals are unsuccessful and the good professor returns, she will be faced with a very hostile environment, no collegiality for her and I am sure no preferred teaching schedule, and she will be held under a microscope by faculty attempting to find that she has violated some university rule.

Do you think that treatment is likely? If it should come to pass, is that a fair penalty for "bad judgment"? If you agree that "bad judgement" was exercised, was that confined to the posting of the pictures, or does it apply Chavez's being in a BDSM community at the same time as her grad students where there? What do you think would be the most just outcome in this case?

My opinion? Posting the pictures was risky but not wrong. It was risky because it would unnecessarily raise questions about wrongdoing. Based on the information available I don't think any wrongdoing occured, and I wouldn't, myself, have risked raising the question. That said, I applaud people for being out about their sexualities, and we're talking about a situation involving adults, and where the only activity under investigation was the posing for photos. We aren't necessarily even talking about the existence of a sexual relationship. The deputy provost's decision should stand and I hope her colleagues don't make her work life miserable.

*Chavez's name is spelled "Chvez" in the news coverage. I checked the UNM web site and found her listed as Lisa Chavez and so am using that spelling here.

Technorati Tags: BDSM, faculty-student relationships, Lisa Chavez, higher education, sexuality, sex

Update, 4/6/08: To read my interview with Lisa Chavez and here the story in her own words, click here. To hear directly from Liz Derrington, the grad student in the photos, click here