Panel tackles consensual relationships

Portland State students, staff and mentors gathered in Smith Memorial Student Union for a panel discussion on consensual relationships and sexual harassment in the university last Thursday.

Portland State students, staff and mentors gathered in Smith Memorial Student Union for a panel discussion on consensual relationships and sexual harassment in the university last Thursday.

Around 15 people attended the event, which was hosted by a four-person panel. The panel discussed the implications of consensual relationships involving university faculty, staff or students of unequal status.

Normally, consensual relationships between students or members of faculty in different departments are acceptable.

However, relationships with a power differential–in which one person in the relationship has more power than the other–are discouraged, said Candyce Reynolds, director of mentor programs at the PSU Center for Academic Excellence.

“Consensual relationships that aren’t really consensual can hurt people,” Reynolds said.

Power differentials can lead to conflicts of interest, said Reynolds. Relationships between students and teachers or a staff member and a supervisor can lead to special treatment by the person with more power, she said.

Reynolds said that people in a relationship might feel like their grades or job might be at stake in such a relationship, and that consequently they don’t feel they have a choice about their role in it.

“You never hear about [the relationships] as long as they’re consensual,” said Burt Christopherson, head of affirmative action at PSU.

Christopherson said problems usually arise when the relationship sours. Where the couple feels that this type of relationship is unavoidable, precautions must be taken to ensure fairness for all involved, he said.

Portland State strongly suggests that all consensual relationships with power differentials inform their supervisors. The panelists at the event said that if a lawsuit later arises and the proper people were not informed of the relationship, PSU may not offer support for the defendant in such cases.

Informing superiors gives everyone the relief of liability, said Cathy LaTourette, head of human resources at PSU. The power differential becomes less a condition because impartial third parties are brought in to keep an eye on things, she said.

For example, in a relationship between a student and a teacher, a third party would grade the student’s paper to maintain impartiality. In a relationship between a staff member and a supervisor, a third party would ensure that any promotions would be fair.

Sexual harassment was also discussed during the panel.

“Most sexual harassment issues are messy,” said Reynolds.

Many complaints fall into gray areas, Reynolds said, and it isn’t often that someone says something as clear as “If you sleep with me, I’ll give you a promotion.”

What does and does not constitute sexual harassment was discussed through examples such as a student wearing a t-shirt with an explicit image to class.

“We can’t limit their speech because if we limit theirs, we also have to limit ours,” said Aimee Shattuck, coordinator of the PSU Women’s Resource Center. Shattuck said, however, that “free speech does hurt people.”

Panel members said that the best way to deal with offensive clothing is to turn it into a learning experience. An open discussion about the content of the clothing could be started, allowing others to address the idea of appropriateness, panelists said.

“Sometimes people want to be offensive,” said Shattuck. There is a thin line between free speech and protection of the rights of individuals. While free speech is allowed and even encouraged in PSU, there is also the right of PSU students to have a comfortable learning environment.

Reynolds said that it is rare that people set up power situations or sexually harass someone on purpose. Many times they don’t realize that what they are doing can have a negative effect on the other person or people, she said.

Reynolds said that there are formal and informal ways of dealing with sexual harassment, but either way it is a serious matter. The goal of PSU, said Reynolds, is to maintain a comfortable learning and working environment.

LaTourette said that sexual harassment and consensual relationships happen at PSU. They are sometimes more difficult to track than those in corporations because there are many more divisions of labor within the university, she said.

“The workplace is just a slice of life,” LaTourette said.

The panel was part of the Carnegie Conversation Legal Issues series, a six-part series about legal issues on campus. The series is made possible through a partnership with the PSU Center for Academic Excellence and the Dean of Students Office.