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Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience

reviewed by Sheila L. Cavanagh - May 30, 2008

coverTitle: Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience
Author(s): Paul R. Abramson
Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0262012375, Pages: 176, Year: 2007
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Romance in the Ivory Tower: The rights and liberty of conscience by Paul R. Abramson challenges policies banning sexual relationships between faculty and students on American college campuses. By making important distinctions between sexual harassment (unwanted sexual contact) and consenting sex between adults, Abramson troubles the way ‘romance’ in the Ivory Tower is subject to prohibition by appeals to academic integrity. Policies restricting sex between professor and undergraduate are, as he contends, more about curtailing civil liability in sexual harassment lawsuits, than professionalism and student welfare.  

The rules adopted by the University of California (a comparatively liberal and progressive institution) are a case in point. The policy restricting sex between faculty and student emerged after a well-publicized sexual assault case in which a male professor attacked a female undergraduate. The University of California now bans sex between faculty and students where there is, or may in the future be, a supervisory relationship. Noting that there are more extreme policies in effect --- at Ohio Northern University, for example --- they are part of a growing trend to curtail sex between consenting adults on campus.  

While one may laud such protections because they, arguably, guard against favoritism and abuses of professional power, there are, as Abramson suggests, more effective ways to combat these inequities (a release called a ‘Love Contract’ whereby students and faculty sign an acknowledgment of the risks and power disparities inherent to romantic relationships in the Ivory Tower, is one such mechanism). Abramson acknowledges the pedagogical challenges posed by sex between faculty and student, but notes that they pale in comparison to the more extreme infringements on civil liberty resulting from restrictive policies. The professional embargoes on sex in academe interfere with basic civil liberties: one’s rights to privacy and conscience in particular. Abramson concludes that sex between consenting adults is (or should be) protected under the First and Ninth Amendments and the U.S. Constitution. Sex, like religion, should be a matter of personal choice and not interdicted by administrators keen to avoid negligence in civil lawsuits.  


While I applaud Abramson’s courage in challenging administrative encroachments upon one’s civil liberties in the domain of sexuality, his analysis is limited to the extent that it lacks an engagement with the literature on the law and sexual regulation (Bernstein & Schaffner, 2005; Bainham & Gelsthorpe, 2004; Dank & Refinetti, 1997; Jakobsen & Pellegrini, 2002; Morris, 2007; and Posner, 1994). With the exception of a brief reference to Jane Gallop (author of Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment) and Catherine MacKinnon (who argues that sex at work is defacto sexual harassment), there is scant attention given to existing scholarship on sexuality in higher education. There is also little attention given to sexual minority peoples who experience direct and extreme infringements upon their civil liberties. The policing of homosexuality in college campus toilets; the media-generated sex panics surrounding female high school teachers who, allegedly, prey upon teenage boy (and girl) students (Cavanagh, 2007); the loss of employment faced by HIV and AIDs positive peoples --- to name only a few examples of civil liberty violations in educational institutions --- are virtually ignored. It is one’s right to ‘romance’ in a heteronormative courting sequence that is at issue, not a more inclusive politic of sexual rights for all.  

Abramson may not mean to preclude sexual minority peoples, but his heteronormative framework is, unfortunately, beholden to ideas about reproduction and courtly love. Take, for example, the slippage between sex and romance that is repeated and unqualified throughout the book:

…sex and romance rarely, if ever, actually occur in the classroom. Yet as it now stands, those faculty and students who truly fall in love are the ones whose rights of conscience, I believe, are being infringed and thereby unduly punished, while their leering (but nondating) colleagues are left to their own devices. (p. 50)

Those who fall in love --- courtly love (leading to marriage or to a dating relationship) --- are wrongly persecuted, whereas those designated “sleazy male college professor[s]” (p. 49) are, according to Abramson, more legitimate targets of outrage. Sleaziness is defined in the book only as “leering” and “standing too close to a student” (p. 50). Of course, these gestures may constitute sexual harassment if they are unwanted and persist over time. But sexualized gestures --- wanted and encouraged by a student of age to consent --- should not be subordinated to ‘romantic’ gestures leading to a marital or heterosexual courting ritual.  

In his zealousness to protect the rights of those within the same age-cohort to ‘romance,’ Abramson assures the reader that the “age difference is minimal” (p. 52) in most instances.  “Forty-year-old professors or their colleagues are more likely to evoke images of mom or dad, or even grandpa or grandma, among many undergraduate students…these concerns…are being raised here to address the question of whether this is truly a problem” (p. 53). The worry, as it is addressed here by Abramson, is not that of sexual harassment or assault, but of intergenerational desire. The problem with his stress on age similarities is that it renders popular anxieties about erotic attractions that cross-cut differences in age, legitimate topics of concern. Intergenerational desires are often coded as ‘pedophilic’ (despite the age of the younger party), and not coincidentally rendered ‘queer’ in homophobic discourses. By emphasizing the heterosexuality, and age compatibilities, of romantic liaisons in academe, Abramson inadvertently participates in (or, at the very least, does not interrupt) the way non-normative desires (intergenerational, homoerotic, and non-reproductive) are classified as atypical or ‘abnormal.’ The more socially legitimate sexual encounters (leading to marriage and reproduction) are the ones, in Abramson’s view, that should escape the clutches of administrative interdiction: not those that are queer, ‘sleazy’, or marked by a significant age disparity.  Romance in the Ivory Tower is okay so long as it involves the pursuit of a monogamous heterosexual relationship between those of the same age-cohort.  

To be blunt: not all sex is romantic, and not all of us fall in love with those we bed. Should sexual practices unmotivated by marital pursuits be subsumed into the university policy interdictions Abramson so convincingly argues against? Speaking about sex on college campuses, Abramson claims that: “Matrimony is a much more likely outcome than a civil lawsuit” (p. 49). While this may or may not be true, it ignores the regulation of gay sex on college campuses --- most of which does not lead to marriage. The eradication of ‘glory-holes’ in ‘men’s’ bathrooms, at the University of California at Berkeley, is a good example. The controversy surrounding gay male sex in toilets at the University of California at Berkeley has a longer and more invasive history of legal and administrative intervention than the policies banning sex between faculty and students developed in 2003.  

Referring not to ‘sexual rights,’ but to ‘romantic rights’ in academe, Abramson writes that it is “constructive to reduce this question to whether ‘the people’ have the ‘right to reproduce’” (p. 143). He notes that, “Sex…If it is prohibited, the individual can survive, but not the species…[sex] is necessary for species survival and need[s] protection in order to perpetuate the population of the United States…” (p. 140).  While there are advantages to preserving ‘sexual rights’ through recourse to ‘choice’ in the arena of reproduction there are, also, disadvantages to equating sexual and reproductive rights discourses. By arguing that the species cannot survive without sex, Abramson is in danger of reducing sexuality to its heterosexual manifestation. It is difficult for sexual minorities to challenge anti-sodomy laws when the discourses of ‘choice’ are circumscribed by reproductive rights (as opposed to a larger and more inclusive politic of pleasure).  

Of course, Abramson cannot be held responsible for the way sexual rights are (or are not, depending upon one’s legal point of reference) built into the U.S. Constitution. In some ways, his argument is more legal than academic, pragmatic than conceptual. By this I mean to say that he uses the law to make an argument against excessive sexual regulation on college campuses rather than critiquing the manner in which the constitutional archives fail to mention sex at all. He is certainly to be credited for interpreting the writings of liberal political philosophers (J.S. Mill, Isaiah Berlin, and John Rawls, to cite a few), along with authors of the U.S. constitutional archives (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr), as having been in support of the position that “the right to make romantic choices is consistent with the manner in which the liberty and rights of conscience were conceived” (p. 122).  

But as Foucault (1978) tells us, silence is productive. The law operates by employing a normative ideal to govern the sexually dissident subject. I wonder how Abramson re-entrenches ideas about sexual normalcy by privileging ‘romantic’ rights over ‘sexual’ rights. The issue is only partially about who can, and cannot, romance in the university. It is more fundamentally about who is rendered deviant, queer, or in some other way, non-normative and, thus, most likely to be subject to the tentacles of legal and administrative governance. Had Abramson situated the administrative impulse to regulate consensual sex on college campuses within the literature on sexual regulation --- including, as it does, the criminalization of sexual minority peoples in education --- he could have offered a more inclusive analysis of how administrative and legal interventions impinge upon civil rights.  

This critique should not, however, dissuade readers from buying the book. Abramson bravely questions the use of administrative policies to regulate otherwise consensual sexual relationships between adults. For those interested in social and legal studies, human rights, along with the regulation of sexuality in academe, this is an important book to read. It is original, and it offers important insight into the regulation of sexuality on American college campuses.


Bernstein, E., & Schaffner, L. (2005). Regulating sex: The politics of intimacy and identity. New York: Routledge.

Brooks-Gordon, B., Bainham, A., & Gelsthorpe, L. (2004). Sexuality repositioned: Diversity and the law. Oxford and Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishing.

Cavanagh, S.L. (2007). Sexing the teacher: School sex scandals and queer pedagogies. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Dank, B.M. & Refinetti, R. (Eds.). (1997). Sexual Harassment and Sexual Consent.  In Sexuality and culture (Vol. 1). New Brunswick, NJ and London: Transaction Publishers.

Gallop, J. (1997). Feminist accused of sexual harassment. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Jakobsen, J.R., & Pellegrini, A. (2002). Love the sin: Sexual regulation and the limits of religious tolerance. New York: New York University Press.

MacKinnon, C. (1979). Sexual harassment of working women: A case of sex discrimination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Morris, C.E. (2007). Queering public address: Sexualities in American historical discourse. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Posner, R.A. (1994). Sex and reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 30, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15263, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:45:22 AM

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