Sexual Relations On Campus - The Broader Context Of Sexual Harassment [*]

Vivien Colless

Department of Science & Technology Studies
University of Wollongong [**]

Paper presented to the Australasian Institute of Tertiary Education Administrators 1993 New South Wales State Conference, Wollongong, 28 May 1993

Early in 1992 the Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee at the University of Wollongong moved beyond what is usually understood as the domain of sexual harassment policy on campus and of legislation at state or national level. Committee members wanted to stimulate debate about the wider context of sexual relations on campus. We wanted to search for solutions which could stop existing and prevent future - abuses which are not covered directly by existing individual policies nor legislative controls against sexual harassment. The controversy which has emerged from that initiative reached beyond the campus to the national media. During the subsequent year more and more people from other campuses (in Australia and overseas) have echoed those concerns and want action.

The committee believes the process of debate initiated by the sexual relations draft statements has already played an important educative, as well as preventive, role on our campus. There are clear indications that the debate itself has served to empower those who otherwise would have otherwise been exploited. It also may have acted as a warning against those who might have used their advantages of power in social relationships.

This is not an "objective" account of all the "facts", nor does it try to be. It is an historical account and interpretation of key issues which I wrote in consultation with other members of the Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee. It does not finish with solutions to all the questions raised. Rather, I hope it will raise more questions and encourage a continuing search for creative long-term solutions.

1. Wollongong University Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee

Wollongong University was established in 1975; it had previously been a University College of the University of NSW. The University of Wollongong was the first university in New South Wales to appoint an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Coordinator (in 1983). An EEO Committee was established in 1986 (it replaced an Affirmative Action Working Party which had been operating in the University since 1982). It was an advisory committee with membership representative of a wide cross-section of the university community. In 1990 the committee was re-named the Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Committee, in line with changing legislation and to provide a mechanism for staff consultation on affirmative action issues. More recently, the Committee has been restructured (a familiar story in tertiary education).

The EEO Committee established several informal sub-committees to address issues concerning conditions of employment, people with disabilities, academic women, ADDS education, and sexual harassment.

Since its establishment in 1986, the Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee has had four to six active members. Current membership of this committee comprises a vertical cross-section of the academic community (academic and general staff, postgraduate and undergraduate) and includes a university counsellor, the EO Coordinator and the EO Unit's Administrative Officer. The committee has been instrumental in producing the university's sexual harassment policy and information brochure. Committee members also speak occasionally to groups of undergraduates, postgraduates and staff.

2. Sexual Relations Draft Statements

Following an article on staff-student sex by one of its members,[1] the committee agreed to follow up some of these ideas as a major project. It drafted a short statement with some suggested guidelines for appropriate behaviour. As there is a well developed campus electronic mail network, the committee decided to circulate it on e-mail across campus in February 1992. This was followed shortly afterwards with a longer statement to provide more contextual detail and to promote more informed debate. After considerable debate involving many public and private responses, the committee circulated in June 1992 an amended (second) draft statement on power and sexual relationships. The following is a summary of some of the issues the committee considers important.

a) There are two major areas of concern about sexual (or romantic) relations on campus, which can be defined in terms of power - conflict of interest and abuse of trust.

b) All members of the university community must be included - not only staff-student but also staff-staff and student-student relationships.

c) When a conflict of interest or abuse of trust is likely, the person in a more powerful position would be expected to take the responsibility of avoiding sexual relations with those in a less powerful position.

d) anyone who thinks they are affected by a conflict of interest can make a complaint; only those in the less powerful position in a relationship can make a complaint about an abuse of trust.

e) "voluntary" consent between adults in a sexual relationship is likely to be severely constrained when there is a significant power difference between them.

f) existing grievance procedures should be sufficient for handling complaints.

Both draft statements were met by controversy and heated debate on the e-mail system and in face-to-face interaction. Responses fell into the following categories:

i) Conflict of interest and abuse of trust.

Some respondents addressed these two main categories of power relations but, overall, there appeared to be widespread agreement about their exploitative nature and the need for their control.

ii) Only staff-student relations should be included.

A small number of staff argued that the draft statements should cover only staff-student relations. For problems with staff-staff relations, they called for stronger application of existing EEO legislation and practice. They also pointed out that in a small community such as in Wollongong with only one university campus, it is more likely two people employed at the same institution will want to form a sexual relationship. However, the draft statements aimed to curb only those relationships which would involve a conflict of interest or abuse of trust, and which lie outside existing EEO guidelines. The committee believes most members of the university community would agree this is a worthwhile goal.

iii) Civil liberties arguments.

Some people argued that the draft statements attempted to interfere with individual freedom. The committee, however, believes it is simply continuing the important work already initiated by EEO legislative controls which attempt to balance individual freedoms to include freedom from sexual harassment and exploitation.

iv) Discriminatory potential of a sexual relations policy.

Arguments were made about the possible discriminatory effects (especially on women and others in less powerful positions) if people already in a sexual relationship are restricted in their choice of employment. Again, these can be answered by pointing out employment choices would only be restricted to exclude those which would be subject to conflict of interest or abuse of trust.

v) Invasion of privacy.

Arguments that it is an invasion of privacy to regulate sexual relations between members of the university community assume there is a boundary between professional and personal relations and that personal (sexual) relations are exempt from regulation. Sexual harassment legislation and its widespread support contradict this assumption.

vi) Include all social relations (not just sexual).

The second draft statement recognised the potential for a conflict of abuse or abuse of trust in romantic or "non-sexual" relationships. As a committee specifically concerned with sexual harassment issues, it was inappropriate to include other social relations.

vii) "People" have little or no control over biology or "true love".

This biologically essentialist argument is often used as a rationale for male sexual behaviour. It assumes biology rules the emotions - that sexual urges are stronger than opposing moral or social attitudes and, therefore, because this will always happen it must be accepted. In response, it can be argued that over the past ten years university communities have come to agree on a wide range of EEO policies and procedures which prohibit sexual harassing actions based on sexual desire. Similarly, initiatives for providing guidelines about sexual relations aim to eliminate those which interfere with an effective educational and working environment for all.

viii) Establish a register of sexual relationships.

Our second draft aimed to eliminate this, in response to negative reaction to the first. To our surprise, others began to support it after the second draft was circulated!

ix) Offenders will not be deterred by policy.

Those offenders not deterred by guidelines or policies are still subject to grievance procedures and disciplinary measures.

x) Derogatory/abusive comments about the Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee or the EEO Unit.

Individual members of any committee initiating social change can become the target of abuse (even sexual harassment) from those wanting to maintain existing social relations. Hostile comments accused the committee of puritanism, questioned our sexuality and hidden motives in an ironic attack about witch hunts, or made the familiar sexist attack against a largely female committee about women's reason being dominated by their emotions.

3. Some key issues

Sexual relations between members of a university community are more common than perhaps most people are aware. It is extremely difficult to estimate how often they occur, although a small number of reports from the U.S. have been published.[2] However, members of the Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee at Wollongong University continually hear of many which are exploitative on this and other campuses. The committee would most like to stop the actions of a relatively small number of offenders who repeatedly engage in exploitative sexual relations. The effects of only a small number of offending sexual relations can colour the life of a whole department, sometimes with even wider repercussions.

Clearly, existing structures and procedures are not adequate. But quantitative analyses are not of prime importance. Instead, the committee decided to initiate public debate and discussion of appropriate strategies (the committee never proposed to ban all sexual relations). The two draft statements generated heated debate, and some of the key issues are discussed below.

a) What does consent mean?

It has been fifteen years or so since sexual harassment was initially named as a problem in the workplace. Universities have extended the arena beyond employees in the workplace, to include both staff and students. Definitions of sexual harassment vary somewhat but the definition set at Wollongong University contains generally accepted criteria: "any verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which would normally be considered offensive, that is unsolicited, unwelcome and unreciprocated".[3] In other words, one party (most frequently a woman) does not give her consent. Most literature about sexual harassment contrasts this with "normal" sexual relations between "consenting" adults.

The draft statements circulated at Wollongong University in 1992 uncovered certain assumptions about consent, gender and power. As Catherine MacKinnon has said, "the unnamed should not be taken for the nonexistent".[4] For example, one assumption not named is that "normal" heterosexual relations are a linear unidirectional process in which a man plays an active initiating role to which a woman always responds by either giving or withholding consent. There is no sense of active roles by both parties in a process of negotiation of power relations, for example.

Even "normal" sexual relations, between say a member of university staff and a student, involve a power relationship which more often may favour the staff member over the student. This may involve a male academic initiating subtle seductive behaviour which the student has difficulty in interpreting as harassment. She may change her interpretation only after some considerable time (for example, after the academic terminates the relationship at the end of the academic year and then initiates a new relationship with a student in the same class the next year.). Did she consent? Is he sexually harassing his students serially?

A woman's consent (or "choices") is often limited by existing power imbalance between women and men in general. One effect is the contradictory meanings of consent applied to women compared to men. For example, the meaning of a woman's consent is more strongly contingent on her past sexual behaviour, or whether she initiated an expression of her desire.

b) Whose civil liberties are under threat?

Some participants in the debate at Wollongong University argued in support of the "freedom" of individuals to engage in sexual relations without bureaucratic meddling in people's private lives. Similar "civil liberties" arguments have been used against attempts to control sexual harassment, rape and other violence against women. However, as is often the case, these arguments rest on protecting the freedom of some individuals at the expense of the rights of others who have experienced a loss of freedom.

Women and other groups traditionally excluded from tertiary education are beginning to enjoy greater access (freedom) to education and work in universities. And when a member of a university community, EEO legislation offers many of them their first hope for a new freedom in sexual relations on campus. It seems reasonable to assume that the broader context of sexual harassment policy and procedures also include steps to protect that freedom.

c) Is it useful to construct a boundary between staff and students?

General public response indicates it would not be difficult to get agreement to prohibit staff-student sexual relationships when the student is immediately under the supervision of the member of staff. Reasonably wide consensus appears to exist about this being labelled as "deviant" behaviour which should not be tolerated. That is, a clear boundary is drawn between staff and students, reflecting a shared understanding about unequal power relations between two apparently distinct groups.

However, a closer examination of these groups dissolves the boundary. Staff and students are not mutually exclusive well-defined social groups but are blurred and overlapping. For example, as I am a postgraduate I may be classed within the "student" group. Yet I (and many other postgraduates) also can be classed as "staff" because of our work in research, teaching, and administration (as casual, part-time or full-time workers). We can be sexual harassers and/or sexually harassed. As casual workers, we are in an especially difficult position industrially in terms of responsibilities to and by the university. And it should not be forgotten that many members of general staff are enrolled as undergraduates on the same campus.

It therefore seems much more useful to take steps against exploitative sexual relationships affecting all members of the university community, even if this at first may appear more difficult to implement.

d) What can campus unions do?

There are significant areas of agreement between the Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee and policy of the national academic unions. For example, FAUSA gives substantial support to a power analysis of staff-student sexual relations and the institution of procedures to overcome sexual harassment.[5] However, unions and their members are in an especially sensitive position regarding allegations of sexual harassment, as unions may well be called upon to represent both the harasser and the harassed.[6] And these tensions can be exacerbated by an apparent (if not real) conflict of interests in, for example, male-dominated unions if they do not make concerted efforts to remedy a gender imbalance in their members or executive. These criticisms also extend to union involvement in debate about sexual relations on campus generally.

Unions carry a responsibility to ensure adequate gender balance in elected and paid positions, and that they are generally seen to represent the interests of both their female and male members. Any women's caucus groups need to have full and informed debate about sexual relations on campus and be willing to accommodate women's different views. These need to be goals for union groups at campus, state and federal level. At campus level, especially, unions need to actively participate in any committees formulating policy or procedures to better deal with exploitative sexual relations in the university community.

e) How useful is a public debate about sexual relations on campus?

The debate has had far-reaching effects as a consciousness-raising exercise that has stimulated people to talk to each other about issues rarely raised publicly, and to find points of agreement or disagreement.

Nevertheless, there have been other significant but less visible responses. A clear example is the marked reduction in reports of sexual harassment. For seven months after the first sexual relations draft statement was issued on e-mail in February 1992, the student counselling service received no student complaints about sexual harassment. This can be compared with an average of one complaint every few weeks over a couple of months in 1991. It was only about 3 months after the second draft statement was circulated on e-mail that the next student complaint was made. It was resolved to the student's satisfaction, including an apology from the academic concerned. In contrast, more complaints have been taken directly to the EO Unit, indicating that student "empowerment" has been a significant result.

f) Procedures for preventing and/or dealing with exploitative sexual relations

Grievance procedures to address problems of sexual harassment have been established as due process under industrial awards.

The fear of women making false complaints is not realistic. A well designed and rigorous grievance procedure should effectively deter any false complaints being made. It should be possible to record offences so that those involved in single incidents can learn not to repeat their mistakes. It should also be possible to quickly deal with repeat offences.

Bacchi has advocated that only the student should initiate a complaint.[7] She also wants to ban all staff-student sexual relations. The Wollongong University Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee's second draft statement did not attempt to prohibit all sexual relations but, rather, tried to target those which involve a conflict of interest or an abuse of trust. It also argued for procedures to deal with complaints in ways relevant to the different power relations in those two cases.


The University of Wollongong has, to date, no official policy on sexual relations. Nevertheless, the whole university community has been engaged in an (at times) heated debate on this topic. Members of the Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee have found it important to listen to the silences as well as the more vocal responses, to pay attention to both the (often highly) public as well as private responses, and to changes in the form of response (such as an increase in complaints to the EO Unit). Changes in the ways that sexual harassment has been reported on campus can be interpreted as a search for "action" rather than relying only on individual "cure". They are also a useful indicator of the effectiveness of the debate in educating the whole university community. Another indicator is the willingness of the Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee to listen, debate and respond, both amongst ourselves and with others. There are many different ways to investigate and manage this neglected area of sexual harassment. The steps taken at Wollongong University have had clearly beneficial results in only a comparatively short time.

The second draft statement on sexual relations addressed the complexities of consent by delineating two areas of exploitation of power relationships which require stronger controls: that is, when there is a conflict of interest or when there is an abuse of trust. The committee has not propose an overall ban on sexual relations. The second draft statement specifically accommodates sexual relations when there is little (or no) potential for abuse of trust. It allows for the student's agency in that only the student can initiate a complaint about abuse of trust. This can be compared with a conflict of interest, which may involve or affect other members of the academic community and who, therefore, should also be able to initiate a complaint. The concepts of conflict of interest and abuse of trust cover the actions of both parties and should help to avoid a focus on only the "victim's" action (i.e., did she or didn't she "give consent"?).

The committee's second draft statement does not try to impose rigid codes of behaviour. This means that some terms are open to interpretation (e.g., "sexual" and "romantic" relations, and "significant" power differences). However, these meanings can be negotiated in a satisfactory way for any individual case. And no attempt has been made to impose radical change (for example, think of the enormous changes in power relations if the academic hierarchical structure was dismantled!)

These are early days yet in the "sexual relations" debate. University communities across Australia and overseas are negotiating the best ways to share information and experiences, and to devise effective strategies which will minimise exploitative sexual relations on campus. I remain confident that the controversies engendered can have positive and constructive effects on the work and study environment in tertiary education, provided that the debate is open to a diversity of opinion and that active steps are taken to support and maximise that diversity.


* At the Conference, the workshop on this topic was presented by Rebecca Albury and Brian Martin. Copies of a new leaflet - Staff-Student Sex: A Cause For Concern - were distributed for discussion.

Members of the Wollongong University Sexual Harassment Sub-Committee include: Brian Martin (Science & Technology Studies Department), Faye Franklin (EO Unit), Maureen Bell (Centre for Staff Development), Maxine Lacey (Student Counselling), Peg McLeod (EO Unit), Rebecca Albury (Sociology Department), and Vivien Colless (Science & Technology Studies Department). A number of undergraduates have also been involved.

** Since this paper was delivered, the author has changed her name to Viviane Morrigan and, since 2005, has been working in Arts Ipswich at the University of Queensland, where she can be contacted at

1 Brian Martin, "Students prey to staff harassment. Sex must be banned. Comment", The Australian Higher Education Supplement, 23 October 1991, 23

2 Louise F Fitzgerald, et al (1988), "Academic harassment. Sex and denial in scholarly garb", Psychology of Women Quarterly, 12, 334-5; Louise Fitzgerald et al (1988), "The incidence and dimensions of sexual harassment in academia and the workplace", Journal of Vocational Behavior, 32, 160

3 University of Wollongong (1990) Sexual Harassment (brochure) (University of Wollongong, July, 1990)

4 C. A. MacKinnon (1979), Sexual Harassment of Working Women (New Haven, Yale), p.28

5 FAUSA [Federation of Australian University Staff Associations], Policy, Section XIII "Equal Employment Opportunity and Discrimination", pp. 40-48; Carol Bacchi (1992), "Sex on campus - where does 'consent' end and harassment begin?", The Australian Universities' Review, 35 (1), pp. 31-36

6 FAUSA, Policy, Section 11, 5 "Conflict of Interest", p. 46; Helen Remick et al (1990), "Investigating complaints of sexual harassment" in Michele Paludi (ed), Ivory Power: Sexual Harassment on Campus (Albany, State University of New York Press), 191-212

7 Bacchi (1992), op. cit., p. 33