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Sexual relationships based on power imbalances: Is it ethical for a teacher to sleep with a student?

Dharmamati visited recently and told us a story about a woman who had a relationship with her Tibetan teacher. This teacher has a reputation of being unethical, having numerous relationships with female disciples. This is a common theme that takes the form of an (often older) person in authority having sexual relationships with individuals under their influence. It can happen within any community with a hierarchy, but often occurs in situations where people look up to the higher status individual, seeking guidance and knowledge.

My immediate response to Dharmamati was “If a person is above the age of consent, and the relationship is consensual, then any sort of trauma that results is simply a part of the learning we experience in life.” But on reflection I think it is more complicated.

The consensus seems to be that this type of relationship is unethical because a person in a position of authority is using that authority to manipulate a lower status individual. My initial response was that these relationships are two way relationships, with both parties desiring gains. In addition, I believe there is a valid place in our society for sexual relationships based on power imbalances – they can be a normal part of a developmental process. However, looking closely at these scenarios requires distinguishing consent from coercion, and being clear on the relationship between the two.

Distinguishing between consent and coercion can be fraught. When we consent, we give our permission or agreement. In contrast, coercion occurs when we are under the influence of force or pressure. These concepts seem at odds with each other – to consent is to exercise one’s free will and decide something for oneself, whereas coercion negates this free will. However, it is easy to conflate these concepts because an individual may consent to something whilst being coerced. When this happens, consent is compromised. To further complicate this issue, free will itself is often murky. Many of our decisions are determined by our past and this can influence our behavior in relationships, including those based on inequalities of power.

Applying these concepts to the question of whether a teacher should sleep with a student requires acknowledging certain assumptions. The argument that these relationships are unethical rests, I believe, on an assumption that there is an age difference between the two parties (if both parties are equivalent in age, suspicion concerning coercion is less likely to be aroused). This assumption rests on the further assumption that this age difference means that the younger person is unable to make truly consensual decisions because the older person holds power in a way that compromises consent. But this is too hasty.

There seems to be a taboo that deems sexual relationships involving age differences to be inappropriate, almost incestual. However, these relationships can be valid expressions of love. For some younger people these connections act as a bridging phase where they receive support and care that allows them to grow and more fully mature. From this more mature place they can step into more equal relationships with other partners. While these relationships are based on imbalances of power (the older partner is likely to be more mature) this is not a reason to dismiss them as coercive. There are instances where people exploit power in relationships, but it does not follow that all relationships based on an inequality of power fall prey to this.

However, coercion can and does occur in relationships where power is unequal and the teacher/student relationship is a paradigm case of this inequality.

To better understand how coercion can occur we need to understand, more generally, the dynamics of relationships where a lower status individual looks up to a higher status one. These are instances where one person puts another on a pedestal. When we do this, we project a part of ourselves that we are not ready to acknowledge onto the other person. Often this is something to do with our potential. We see in the other person the potential that we ourselves have but are not ready to accept.

A few things can happen when we project this part of ourselves on to another and this largely depends upon the person in question. Most people, if they are decent and know that they can’t hold our projection, will consciously or unconsciously withdraw from us or put down boundaries. In this way, they let us know that they are not prepared accept the projection. If we are lucky they offer their friendship instead, which will turn out to be more valuable. For many people the reality of being projected onto is uncomfortable, particularly when they know they cannot live up to the projection and they recognize that it is unrealistic and inflated.

However, there are people who promote themselves as teachers and are quite happy to accept someone’s projection to gain power. In fact, they will encourage the projection. These people can be dangerous and relationships involving them can be coercive because they use the power they gain from the projection to manipulate the lower status individual. They thrive on the power imbalance – whereas these imbalances are something which we should try to overcome.

There is a third type of person. These teachers recognize and allow the projection but understand that it must be handed back to you. In the end, you need to own your own potential and see it as being something within you, not something within them. Ultimately, you must accept and acknowledge this aspect of yourself. Our negative qualities are not the only parts of our personality that we have trouble accepting. It can be unbearable to accept our own light. Berating our darkness is easy. Accepting our light is more challenging.

These categories help us understand whether it is ethical for a teacher to sleep with a student. If a teacher is of the second variety, and they gain power by promoting and exploiting the inequality between the couple, then this is a relationship to be avoided. These relationships can lead to subtle or overt coercion, where the student complies because they are fearful of things such as the withdrawal of approval, or a possible injury to their career. Or because of rewards they are offered in return for compliance. If this occurs, it is abusive and unethical. However, if this is not the case then all we need to ask is – are the people involved attracted to one another? Is there mutual respect between them? If so, and they are both adults, then nothing is amiss.

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