Netflix’s new hit comedy “The Chair” revels in certain clichés of university life — mock-Gothic buildings, wood paneling, crusty old-timers who don’t know how to use a photocopier, and, of course, an ambiguous relationship between a professor and a student: Bill is a charismatic English professor who is in a tailspin after the death of his wife, and Dafna is a literature-loving undergrad who is desperate to get into Bill’s class. She gives him a ride; they quote T.S. Eliot to each other; he signs a copy of his book for her; she makes him a pie. We think we know where this is going, because we’ve seen it so many times before: in “Election” (1999), “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and “Elegy” (2008), based on Philip Roth’s novel “The Dying Animal” — to take just a few recent examples. “The Chair” ultimately upends our expectations in a way that is both comic and poignant. Don’t have sex with me, Dafna in effect says to Bill: Teach me.
The cultural fascination with professor-student affairs seems to have grown in step with policies restricting them. (“Be careful,” the dean warns Bill in “The Chair.” “This department is hanging on by a thread.”) Policies prohibiting professor-student sex — “consensual relationship policies” as they are usually known — are now common in the United States. A 2014 study found that 84 percent of the American universities surveyed had some prohibitions on professor-student relationships. In 2010, Yale strengthened its restrictions: Previously, it had prohibited relationships between professors and students whom they supervised (or were likely to supervise), but now it imposes a blanket ban on all relationships between faculty and undergraduates. Many other universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Duke, followed the move to stricter, all-out bans.
U.S. universities began regulating student-teacher sex only in the 1980s. This shift was an outgrowth of the feminist campaign against sexual harassment that began in the 1970s, which sought to establish that unwanted sexual advances in the workplace were a form of discrimination “on the basis of sex” and were therefore a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. “Unwanted” sexual advances would seem not to include consensual relationships. But in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that acts of apparently consensual sex, when involving parties marked by a significant power differential, can in fact be instances of harassment. Mechelle Vinson was a young Black woman who said she had given in to the persistent pressure to have sex with her boss because she was afraid she would be fired. Her consent to sex, the court noted, did not mean that her boss’s sexual overtures were welcome, if her consent had been secured by coercion.
Universities realized that it was now possible to argue, by the same logic, that professors were sexually harassing the students with whom they were (apparently consensually) involved. Students might be agreeing to such relationships out of fear — of a bad grade, lackluster recommendation or worse. As a result, many universities extended their sexual harassment policies to restrict apparently consensual professor-student relationships.