Consensual Sexual Relationships

Policy on Consensual Sexual Relationships Between Senior and Junior Members of the University Community

I. Introduction

There are various approaches an institution could take to address the issue of consensual sexual relationships between a "senior" and a "junior" person. (See definitions below.) One extreme is to ban all such relationships. The other is to pretend such relationships do not exist. The University has taken a middle ground in this policy.

The policy not only points out the potential legal and ethical pitfalls of consensual sex in the University setting, but also, and more specifically in the section called "Standards and Procedures," asserts the University's right to protect the integrity of its own operations from the conflicts of interest and disruptions in the academic and employment environments that can arise from consensual sexual activity involving members of the University community.

II. The Nature of the Problem

Consensual sexual relationships between "senior" and "junior" members of the Georgetown community - that is, between two persons where one party (the "senior") possesses direct academic, administrative counseling, or extracurricular authority over the other (the "junior") - do not violate laws prohibiting sex-based discrimination. Nevertheless, such relationships are a matter of significant concern to the University because of the ethical and administrative problems they can pose. Those problems are most severe when a consensual relationship takes place between a teacher (e.g., professor, teaching assistant, clinical fellow) and a student and the student is enrolled in one of the teacher's courses for which the student will receive a grade, or when the student is likely to be enrolled in such a course in the future. These problems can also be very severe in a counseling setting between counselors and counselees. Given the potential for such problems, the University strongly recommends that members of the University community avoid any senior-junior consensual sexual relationships. This recommendation has particular force with regard to undergraduate students. At Georgetown University, virtually all undergraduate students are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, and many are living away from home for the first time. Because of the unique susceptibility of these young men and women, teaching professionals are under a special obligation to preserve the integrity of the teacher-student relationship in situations involving undergraduate students. If members of the community choose by mutual consent to enter into such relationships, however, the University requires that they take specific steps to minimize the problems that may arise from them. Sanctions shall be commensurate with the magnitude of the harm, if any, caused.

III. The Problems

There are many ways problems can arise when a senior member of the Georgetown community engages in a consensual sexual relationship with a junior member. First, when one person has the ability to grade, advance, promote, recommend, or otherwise influence the employment or academic status of the other, there is the possibility that what appears to be a consensual relationship is falsely perceived to be so. Some recipients of sexual advances may fear that refusal will result in loss of an employment or academic benefit. They may go along with the requested relationship even though it is in fact unwelcome to them (and may even cause them psychological harm). The United States Supreme Court has ruled that such a person is a victim of illegal sexual harassment, and that a school can be liable for monetary damages for a teacher's coercive intercourse with a student. Apart from a policy of avoiding legal liability for such conduct, the University wants to ensure that it provides an environment free from sexual coercion and intimidation in which to study and work.

The person in the position of authority who may desire a sexual relationship with a junior nevertheless has strong reasons to avoid it, since what seems initially to be consensual may turn out to be unwelcome or coercive from the perspective of the junior participants. The junior participant may file an internal grievance or a formal lawsuit, creating a risk that the person in authority will suffer negative career consequences and may have to pay damages to the victim. Because of the serious consequences to the senior participant, that person also subjects himself or herself to the possibility of coercion or blackmail.

Even when such a relationship is genuinely consensual (and therefore does not constitute sexual harassment or raise the other concerns noted above), the relationship can cause problems for both parties and harm the academic and work environment at the University. There is the appearance and often the reality of a conflict of interest on the part of both parties to the relationship. Others may believe that the senior favors the junior because of the sexual relationship, thus creating an atmosphere of suspicion and resentment among other juniors who think the junior in the relationship is obtaining undeserved benefits. The junior person's professional reputation or academic standing may be injured because of the perception that the benefits were due to the sexual relationship, rather than to the junior's own work or study.

There is also a serious risk that either party may exploit the other. The senior person may be interested in the junior solely for purposes of sexual gratification, but the junior may construe that attention as related to the junior's intellect, as revealed through his or her studies or work. If the junior participates in a sexual relationship and then discovers the true situation, there is a potential for a damaging loss of self-esteem by the junior (especially where the two are teacher and young student and there is a significant age disparity between them). There is also the risk of the junior exploiting the senior. For example, a junior might seek out a relationship solely because of a desire to obtain some academic or employment benefit from the relationship (such as a higher grade or a promotion.)

IV. Standards and Procedures

For the reasons expressed in the previous section of this Policy, the University strongly urges members of the University community to refrain from engaging in consensual sexual relationships with another member of the University community when one person possesses direct authority over the other, whether that authority is used by one who is a teacher, counselor or supervisor of the other or by someone who can directly influence the academic or work status of the other (e.g., a senior professor serving as a member of the tenure committee for a junior professor, a professor serving as the thesis advisor for a graduate student, a senior student on the editorial board of a newspaper or journal voting whether a junior student should attain the same status, a supervisor filling out a performance evaluation for his or her subordinate.

If the two nevertheless commence such a relationship, the University requires that they take the following measures, in order to lessen or minimize the conflict of interest and disruption of the academic and employment environment that can arise in such situations. The University emphasizes that the following measures cannot eliminate entirely the substantial likelihood of conflict and disruption, and that the course of action strongly preferred by the University would be for the two to refrain from engaging in consensual sexual relations for as long as necessary to prevent conflict and disruption.

1. Relationships between Teachers and Students

The University has determined that there is an inherent conflict of interest when a faculty member and a student simultaneously maintain both a direct student-teacher relationship and a consensual sexual relationship, and therefore prohibits simultaneous participation in both roles. Thus, if one party to a consensual sexual relationship is a student of the other person in a course for which the student will receive a grade, the student should immediately withdraw from the course and should never again take a course with that teacher. In such case it is the duty of the teacher to take all steps, including if necessary consultation with the appropriate Dean, to assure that the student's enrollment in the course is promptly terminated. If the student is not currently enrolled in any of the teacher's courses when the relationship begins, the student should refrain from taking any future course with the teacher. The policy of not taking courses with the teacher should continue even after the relationship has ceased.

2. Counselors and Counselees

Because of the potential for emotional harm, individuals should not engage in both a consensual sexual relationship and an official counselor/counselee relationship. If a consensual sexual relationship commences during an official relationship, the official relationship should immediately be terminated and never be started again. Similarly, individuals in, or who have been in a consensual sexual relationship should thereafter never enter into an official counseling relationship.

3. All Other Senior-Junior Relationships

In any other situation where a senior has direct authority over a junior, and can thus advance, promote, recommend, or in any other way directly influence the academic or work status of the junior, the senior person should recuse himself or herself from any decision involving the status of the junior. If the fact of refusal causes the senior to experience difficulty with a superior, the senior should explain the reason for the refusal to the person in authority. The senior's obligation to explain also exists where an unexplained failure to participate might create an inference of a negative evaluation of the junior by the senior.

VI. Sanctions for Violations of this Policy, Review, Other Limitations
  1. Any teaching professional who violates the procedures in Part III of this Policy, or any other individual engaged in a consensual sexual relationship who violates any of the procedures in Part III of this Policy, shall be subject to sanctions commensurate with the severity of the offense. The sanction shall be determined in the case of a teaching professional, by the appropriate Dean or Executive Vice President, after consultation with the chair, if any, of the teaching professional's department; and in the case of other individuals covered by this section, by the appropriate director or other supervisory official, including the Senior Vice President. However, in the case of a student violating these procedures sanctions shall be determined by the appropriate Dean on that student's campus.
  2. The imposition of any sanction imposed under this Policy may be subject to review under any applicable provision of an established University grievance procedure.

Revised 5/8/98