Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sex columns, advice columns

It's always fun when two advice columnists take on more or less the same issue simultaneously, with radically different results. For example:

-Dan Savage defends a 32-year-old high school coach's relationship with a 20-year-old college student.

-Emily Yoffe vetoes a 25-year-old grad student's crush on a 19-year-old former student.

There are some minor differences (the coach case involved sexting, but the gf's not a student at the same institution; the coach is a young man, whereas the grad student's an ancient cougar), but I suspect if the questions had been posed the other way around (Yoffe dealing with the coach, Savage with the TA), or with the genders reversed, the responses would have been the same.

For Savage, the issue is consenting-adults. Taboos should be kept to a minimum - here, no one's anyone's teacher, boss, or relative. If every relationship that could seem however mildly unsettling to anyone for any reason were ruled out, romantic options would be limited indeed. (Meet someone through work, who's not a supervisor or employee, but still, someone in the same field - scandal! Avoid work relationships and opt for bars or online dating - desperation!)

Meanwhile, for Yoffe, who's an advice columnist but not, as Savage is, a sex columnist, it's whether a 25-year-old already building her career is well-served by dating, as she puts it, a teenage boy. Even though the (potential) relationship in question wouldn't even violate Yale's expansive rules on such matters, Yoffe presents the situation as... well, it made me think of the "South Park" episode where the kindergarten teacher has an affair with one of her students, and rather than being scandalized that a five-year-old's involved, all the men of the town just say "niiice," because the teacher's young and good-looking. (So, perhaps gender does enter into it. One imagines a 25-year-old woman is thinking commitment or even marriage, and that a 19-year-old guy has another good decade before the thought crosses his mind. There are exceptions, but advice columnists deal in generalities, and nothing in the letter suggests the TA wants a hookup, or that the undergrad is interested in the TA to begin with.) It doesn't matter to Yoffe that a grad student dating an undergrad who's not her student is probably technically allowed by every university that permits dating. The issue is what happens when she brings a date to the department holiday party and someone in a position to recommend her for jobs asks, "Where did you two meet?"

I'm not sure what to think. I want to agree with Savage, and don't think either relationship crosses the line, but Yoffe makes a decent real-world point. What she's suggesting isn't a ban on relationships like the one her reader seeks, just a certain degree of attentiveness to the possibly but not necessarily unfair consequences to one's actions. I suppose the only message to take from all this is the rather banal one, that much more ought to be permitted than done.

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