When Yes Means No

TAU suspends senior lecturer for having an affair with his student, who now says unequal relationships can never be truly consensual.

Tel Aviv University has suspended a senior lecturer for having an affair initiated by his graduate student, even though the relationship took place before the institution banned the practice in 2009.

"The circumstances of the incident are grave," stated the disciplinary tribunal. "The respondent took advantage of his status as a senior faculty member and his academic authority as a lecturer for the purpose of having sexual relations with the complainant, who at that time was a student of his, thereby violating his obligation as an employee and damaging the university's reputation as a respected academic institution."

Tel Aviv University - Nir Kafri - March 2012
Nir Kafri

The lecturer, a member of the humanities department who has admitted to the affair, has been sentenced to several months' suspension, some of them unpaid, and a reprimand.

He is guilty of "conduct unbecoming a faculty member," primarily because he continued to teach the woman even after their relationship began, the tribunal found. It said he "took advantage of his status" and gave her a grade "while they were in an intimate relationship."

"In his deeds he acted in a conflict of interest with his role as a faculty member, who is obliged to maintain objectivity in evaluating students," the tribunal found. It had considered a harsher punishment, but ultimately determined that a reprimand and suspension would likely "suffice to achieve deterrence."

The student says she initiated the affair, which took place three years ago and lasted several weeks, but that such an unequal relationship can never be truly consensual.

"Today I realize unequivocally that there was exploitation here," said the graduate student. "Even if I thought I wanted the relationship, there is a responsible adult, a person who has power over you, and therefore the question of 'who started' is not relevant. Faculty members must not enter into these relationships."

The complaint states that the student approached the lecturer after one of his classes to tell him she was having a hard time concentrating in class because she had fallen in love with him. The lecturer said they should discuss the matter in his office, where they later had sex.

The student said she wants people to realize that superiors should not have sexual relationships with their subordinates.

"My whole goal in this process has been to change the norm, but there is no discourse - it's still legitimate to have an affair," she said. "In a situation like this there is no willing consent that is total. Even if someone ostensibly consents, the moment there are unequal power relations, it is necessary to cast doubt on this consent."

The student said she now realizes she used sex as a way of getting close to an authority figure.

"These are fundamentally sick relationships," she said. "The weak side is harmed and the faculty member usually doesn't pay a price. Today I am aware that I wanted to get close to an admired figure. This is falling in love with someone authoritative, someone you want as a mentor."

'Suddenly there was silence'

The university disciplinary tribunal has only nominally publicized the case, putting the information on a difficult-to-find Web page that doesn't have a direct URL, even though it pledged to make the sentence public.

In February the university distributed a letter encouraging students to complain about sexual harassment, but when it came to her case, the student said, "suddenly there was silence."

"Maybe they don't make it public because they really don't see this as something serious," she said.

The university said the ruling is accessible to the public through its website and that the complainant was informed of every stage of the hearing.

A law lecturer at Peres Academic Center who was involved in writing Israel's sexual harassment law, said publicizing the punishment is at least as important as the actual suspension.

"It's impossible to understands the matter of the absence of publication - after all, that's where all the value lies," she said. "The punishment itself might perhaps hurt the faculty member to some extent, but the important thing is that people know."

Kamir said speaking out takes courage.

"It has to be understood that at least until recently, not only has this been considered legitimate, but almost a given that sexual relations develop," she said. "Women who have the courage to break the conspiracy of silence are deserving of great admiration. The complainant, after all, is perceived as vengeful."

The student said she did not file the complaint as an act of vengeance against the lecturer.

"It's not a matter of revenge," she said. "It took me two years to complain."

Whatever her motives, the complainant faces an uphill battle, said Kamir.

"The public discourse won't change in a day, and I don't envy her," said Kamir. "She has lost a lot but she is increasing our chances, as women and in general, of moving beyond the silence of shame."

The lecturer told Haaretz in response that "the case points to the absurdity of the guidelines forbidding intimate consensual relations between a teacher and a student."

He added that the university disgraced him. "The initiative was that of the complainant," he said. "I quickly asked to end things and to sever our relationship after she reused my request to leave the course." According to the lecturer, the complainant "knowingly and cynically used the 'moral panic' in our parts and employed the entire mechanism of the university to personally avenge me."

He added: "Her revenge has nothing to do with her studies, my friends and I offered her many other academic alternatives. Her revenge was born out of frustration and unfulfilled love."

The lecturer also said that the complainant shared her vengeful plans with many people. "The university ignored all these things, relying on the fact that the one with authority is the one who 'victimizes,' while in this case the opposite is true," he said.

He added that he regrets not alerting the authorities, but that "at that time it seemed like an awful thing to do. It did not seem right to bring things out to the public sphere, and I also knew that a forceful separation would damage her studies and hurt her honor."

Though the lecturer admitted he was the authoritative figure in the relationship, he nevertheless claims that there was never a real significance to the affair. "It is only the disciplinary punishment which makes the situation criminal and allows the student to avenge me," he said.

"I am not attacking the guidelines against sexual harassment," the lecturer said. "They should be interpreted in the widest manner, and then the complaint is also worthy and justified." Yet he added that "it is unacceptable for students to initiate and maintain a personal relationship, and when it's done they complain. They are not minors. They too are expected to show a minimal degree of responsibility for their actions."