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Q4. Connections with the Harassment Policy?

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Talking Points

  1. How can an initially consensual relationship with an underlying power differential drift into a harassment situation over time?
  2. Perhaps by using examples, describe what you think is the difference between a harassment situation and a consensual relationship?
  3. Knowing that the Title IX Office reviews all questions and concerns about sexual misconduct, how should that office be involved in the implementation of a consensual relationships policy?
  4. What should the policy say about a situation where the participants maintain that their relationship is consensual and but an objective third party disagrees?
  5. Virginia Commonwealth University: “Relationships between an employee in a position of authority and a student also have the potential for other adverse consequences, including the filing of charges of sexual harassment and/or retaliation if one party to the relationship wishes to terminate the relationship over the other party’s objection. The initially perceived consensual nature of the relationship can ultimately be seen as inherently suspect due to the fundamental asymmetry of power in the relationship, and it thus may be difficult to establish consent as a defense to such a charge. Further, even when both parties consented at the outset to a romantic involvement, this past consent does not remove grounds for or preclude a charge or subsequent finding of sexual harassment based upon subsequent unwelcome conduct. “
  6. University of Iowa: “[Suppose] one party to the relationship wishes to terminate the relationship to the other party’s objection. In those circumstances when sexual harassment is alleged as the result of a romantic and/or sexual relationship, the existence of the relationship is not a per se violation of the Policy on Sexual Harassment. However, the apparent consensual nature of the relationship is inherently suspect due to the fundamental asymmetry of power in the relationship and it thus may be difficult to establish consent as a defense to such a charge. Even when both parties consented at the outset to a romantic involvement, this past consent does not remove grounds for or preclude a charge or subsequent finding.”


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Last Updated: April 2, 2018 at 8:32 pm


  1. Any time there is a power differential, the chances of manipulation or abuse by the superior is great, both intentionally and unintentionally. The entire concept of “consensual” is warped in these situations. I do not see how manipulation and abuse can be avoided. Therefore, while I agree that this is draconian, I recommend a total prohibition on relationships where an institutional power differential exists. Let the harassment policy govern these relationships. This gives more power to the “weaker” party. I relieves the university from having to police consensual relationships. It also elevates the cost to the couple of deciding to have a relationship. If the relationship is prohibited by policy, then the power dynamic must be eliminated before the relationship is permissible. Basically, one of the people must leave the power relationship. This is a costly decision to at least one of the people, so they have to value the romantic relationship enough to end the power relationship. If the “power” person pressures the “weaker” person to “quit” so that the romantic relationship may proceed, then the harassment policy is available to deal with it.

  2. An “authority” who propositions or seeks a relationship with a “junior” person who is off-limits according to the consensual relationship policy should be determined to have violated sexual harassment policy and thereby be subject to investigation and sanctions.

  3. I find this topic fascinating, and also find the recent editorial in the Daily Sun (Rob Thorne) to be relevant. Thorne explicitly argues that many of these academic relationships are illusory, built on power differentials, and doomed to fail. He believes that anyone who meets a spouse in this manner is at high likelihood of a failed marriage (hence “(first) spouse”, in his wording), and that we have created a culture somewhat similar to that in the Gray’s Anatomy tele-novella. In his views, people are up to all sorts of inappropriate stuff, and it should be stopped using legislation backed with sanctions for violators.

    As a person who is married (first, current) to a spouse met when we were both PhD students in the same program, I am actually in one of the relationships that some apparently want to forbid. But honestly, I think that love finds a way, even if forbidden — particularly, love between consenting adults who are behaving lawfully under the prevailing societal norms. Indeed, I do not recall even a single Gray-like episode in my own past. But perhaps my eyes were closed to the veritable epidemic of misbehavior around me? After all, 40 years ago, in California, experimentation with life styles and choices was a new and popular thing. Perhaps now, at Cornell, we have somehow learned to legislate smarter choices, and to prohibit those that would be wrong, according to some sort of ethical standards that the enlightened few might then impose on the students we are charged with educating?

    On a more serious point, I actually do agree that any form of coercive situation is absolutely wrong. We need to insist that yes is yes. No is no. Maybe some other time isn’t a license to harass and pester. And coercive relationships are absolutely wrong, are a form of abuse, and anyone who abuses power in that way should be subject to the strictest of sanctions.

    At the same time, I would be wary of creating a policy that invites a type of revenge situation, in which a failed relationship leaves someone who was previously a consenting and perhaps even eager participant so angry that they lash out to harm their ex-partner. At a minimum, any sanctions Cornell might apply should only be considered after all the facts are known, and we should have a reasonable standard of proof: the coerce behavior should be part of a pattern, or witnessed at the time, directly, by others, or documented in some way. We shouldn’t blindly trust one person’s word and blindly reject some other person’s description of the same events. When we have nothing but an uncorroborated accusation, we shouldn’t act in haste — one sees some evidence that this kind of rush to judgment by the masses is causing harm, today, even though the well-documented serial abusers are simultaneously, finally, coming to justice. We want justice, but we don’t want to later discover that we were tricked into complicity in a crime of revenge.

    Accordingly, I really hope that Cornell will pursue an enlightened and modern perspective on this question. Power shouldn’t be part of a relationship… unless both parties somehow find power kinky and are deliberately drawn to such a relationship. Coercion should never be a part of a relationship. But the university shouldn’t err by becoming intrusive, coercive in its own way, and by legislating against some class of permissible private behaviors. I’m not the only Cornell faculty member married to a spouse who was first met in an academic situation! And while my particular relationship didn’t involve any power differential, I can think of a dozen others here at Cornell, and even more elsewhere, that do involve what (from the outside) could be taken as a power differential. None of us can know how that plays out in the dynamic of the couple, and this to me is the key thing. We should not legislate against something that people may actually be seeking out. If we do, instead of protecting, we simply create a new class of forbidden love.

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