Nick Luxmoore

Young People Up Close

Teachers Who Fall in Love with Students

Sexual attraction is inevitable and needs talking about

Posted Apr 03, 2013

The news was full of it. A schoolgirl had run off with one of her teachers. At first, there was the worry that the teacher might have killed her but then the story changed as CCTV pictures showed them arm-in-arm as they left the UK on a ferry to France. Now they were probably hiding, perhaps in a cheap hotel, perhaps sneaking out for walks together, kissing. A 15-year-old girl and her 30-year-old lover.

In the schools I visited, everyone was talking about it because everyone, I suspect, had an investment in the story. Every student had imagined the romance of falling for a teacher and every teacher had imagined what it would be like to run off with a student. While the story ran, the schoolgirl and her teacher were the objects of everyone’s vicarious interest. What would happen next? Would they be caught? Would their relationship last?

I don’t know how many teachers would admit publicly to their interest in this story, however. Sex with anyone under the age of 16, however consenting, is illegal in the UK and any sexual relationship between a student and a teacher leads to the teacher’s instant dismissal. I’m not for one moment challenging the rightness of this. Of course, teachers are in positions of trusted authority and, of course, they’ll sometimes be the objects of student fantasy. They must never abuse that authority or compromise their delicate role in the lives of young people. Of course.

What I am challenging is the implication that good, responsible teachers won’t have feelings for their students, which will sometimes be sexual. They will. It goes with the territory. Indeed, it can happen from time to time in any profession where the relationship between people is the key to getting the job done. It doesn’t mean that these feelings of attraction will necessarily be acted upon: there are important boundaries that mustn’t be crossed. But these boundaries become more blurred and teachers are more likely to get in a muddle and end up crossing them if they have no way of talking about it and beginning to make sense of the feelings they find themselves experiencing. Once the possibility of intimacy between students and teachers has become a taboo subject, the experience becomes shameful with teachers obliged to hide and hate their feelings. But if those feelings can be acknowledged and talked about as inevitabilities rather than as signs of weakness or perversity then teachers are more (rather than less) likely to remain in control of the situation and not end up crossing any boundaries.

Teachers, whether they like it or not, are parent figures. This adds to the confusion because, again, it’s illegal for parents to have sexual relationships with their children. It’s hard for parents ever to talk about the sexual feelings they may have for their children. I’m not talking about genital desires. I’m talking about feelings at the other end of the sexual continuum—benign feelings of admiration and attraction, from the mother who says she wants to bite her baby’s peachy bum to the father who fondly strokes his daughter’s hair. Parents think that their children are beautiful and want to protect them from the sexualized staring coming from strangers. But they only become aware of their child’s attractiveness to others because they themselves are aware of their child’s attractiveness.

Some parents are perfectly comfortable with this but others find the whole experience disturbing. There are fathers, for example, who respond to their daughters’ burgeoning sexuality by suddenly keeping their physical distance and deriding their daughters’ best attempts to look glamorous. Their daughters, unable to attract the benign admiration of their fathers, are obliged to look for it elsewhere, often with disastrous consequences, and all because their fathers were afraid to acknowledge the beauty (including the sexual beauty) of their daughters because it felt too unsafe, weird, shameful, paedophilic. Fathers often attack their daughters for what they can’t acknowledge in themselves.

As parent figures, teachers often end up similarly confused, scared, and thinking, “I shouldn’t be having these feelings. I must be a bad person.” Important relationships with students are sometimes curtailed because the teacher gets frightened and, crucially, is unable to ask for support from other professionals for fear of sounding perverse and unprofessional. The student is left in emotional limbo.

The schoolgirl and her teacher were eventually found and returned to the UK where I hope she wasn’t shamed by her family. The teacher went to prison and is awaiting trial. If only he’d talked to someone about what he was experiencing. If only the taboo on talking about these things hadn’t forced their relationship to remain a secret.