#MeToo Versus #ButYet

This morning I read that my beloved UMass Amherst approved a policy that forbids consensual faculty/student dating. In theory, I favor the policy; in practice, I'm ambivalent and not the only one. Such a measure failed on three previous occasions and the press release spoke mostly of UMass getting in line with other colleges. There wasn't much righteousness peeking through the seams.

Lest you are tempted to snatch the pitchfork from your garden shed and fire up your torch, let me state categorically that there is no excuse for non-consensual relations.  That's called rape and we rightly impose strict punishments for that heinous crime. I'll go further and grant that it's almost always a terrible idea for someone in a position of authority to have intimate relations with an underling. I'm also on board with policies that ban relations between instructors and current students—the threat to academic integrity is simply too great. And I certainly share the outrage of women who have been treated like sex toys by arrogant and powerful men.

My hang-up is that the response to the current surge of sexual harassment complaints is typical of how poorly Americans address problems. We generalize then we one-size. In a very palpable way we've gone from anything goes to all is forbidden. Such attempts ignore root causes—like the place of women in a society that has never passed an ERA and categorizes women as The Other. Still, one-sizing lacks nuance. As much as I admire the #MeToo Movement, I wish there was a #ButYet counterbalance. Sexual harassment should be like rape; we need clear standards that differentiate between abuse and mutual bad decisions.

Let me get personal. I was a high school teacher, then a professor for 35 years. Did I ever stray with a student? Nope. Did I have opportunity? Yes. Some friends accuse me of being an old moralist with a Puritanical streak. Not so. The Book of Sin is a thick volume from which I've sampled, but not the student/teacher page. Maybe I was lucky to have struggled to find a teaching job. I hit the market during the 1970s recession and ended up working in social work for four years—an experience that left me with a deep (over?) suspicion of human nature that made me cautious as a teacher. If I put aside purity pretenses, I didn't want to jeopardize the very thing I had wanted to do since college: teach. On the cost/benefit scale, brief delights of the flesh were not worth jeopardizing my marriage, career, or reputation.

Here's the #ButYet part of it. Teachers and students at the high school where I taught did have sex—a shocking amount, actually. Today's self-proclaimed moralists would want teacher heads and probably mine for not turning them in. We often view teachers and students as different orders of being yet often, the age difference between them was just shy of that of the average marriage and far short of the average of seven in relationships for those 40 or older. Those high school relationships were morally compromised, but my own dirty (not so) secret is that I'm nearly four years older than Emily, and she was, technically, a minor when we first dated. (Even then she was wiser and more mature!) Although she was never my student, ours shattered conventional relationship standards. My retort is that next month we celebrate 40 years of marriage and my marriage is the single best decision of my life.

Let me toss in another #ButYet. I personally know numerous professors who had mutually agreeable relations with students. Quite a few went on to marry and, by all accounts, have sustained long and loving lives together. So when any movement or moralist tries to impose blanket condemnations for such relationships, my first reaction is a big MYOB.

Monica Lewinski's in the news again, which raises still another #ButYet question. Hold your denunciations of Bonkin' Bill Clinton; I uttered them myself a few decades ago. The man had the morals of a rabbit in breeding season, but Lewinsky was neither a child, nor a victim; she was a foolish young adult. Her affair lasted until she was 24 and Clinton was close to 50. That's a huge age gap, though I know at least three couples with larger ones. Call her experiences sad, sordid, or stupid—but they weren't illegal, and neither were most of the hookups that took place at my high school. Where does personal choice factor into these matters?

For that matter, how do we define adulthood? Not very well, actually. States set the "age of consent" and, until 2001, it was as low as 14 in some places. Now most states set the bar at 16 and a couple as high as 18, but nearly all make "exceptions" for "close in age" relations.  In all other matters, 47 states define an "adult" as a person 18 or older. Legally speaking, college students over that age are adults. Colleges, in fact, make much ado about treating students as independent thinkers, not as "children."

Adulthood comes with the power to make one's own decisions, a right that extends to making bad ones. Lewinski may have a case for employer power abuse, though evidence for that is pretty slim. Her sexual relations with Clinton appear as buyer's regret from the POV of one whose starry-eyed adulation has worn off. Clinton remains an egoistic boorish oaf, but he's probably not a candidate for the Harvey Weinstein Trash Barrel. There are legions of women (and some men) who have had similar distasteful relations like Lewinski's. That's very sad, but you'll notice I used the terms "women" and "men"—those above the age of majority threshold. Is there any point in cataloging the total number of bad decisions the average adult will make in a lifetime?

My hope for everyone is that the good decisions ledger is much longer than the bad decisions list. But to get back to sex, I worry that no-exceptions rules like that of UMass lack room for common sense to prevail when it should. I know too many happy people who would be unemployed outlaws under today's overly draconian rules. Let me say it one more time: There is no excuse for coerced or abusive relationships. Zero. None. Zilch. But we sorely need #But Yet to defend the right of adults to make both stupid and mutually supportive choices. 

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