For about half of my undergrad, I was having an affair with the professor I worked for. This man had been one of the biggest influences on my thought and education while at university — he had my utmost respect as a scholar. But my experience with him was far from the glamorized narrative often found in people’s minds. While still a taboo, this is the kind of subject that titillates imaginations, often causing people to gloss over the inevitable ethical confusion regarding both consent and the abuse of power. My former professor has a side to this story too, but the story that you are about to read is mine and mine alone.
I got to know him the way most students get to know their professors — by taking one of his classes. The first time I went into his office, we ended up chatting more about the town I’m from, which is where he did his graduate work, than the actual course material. It felt good to have someone to talk to who knew where I came from. I remember thinking he was funny, kind, and attractive. I felt terrible about that last one. I don’t find that many people attractive to begin with, but as a student, I felt particularly guilt-ridden about attraction to a teacher.
Over the course of that semester, I would be sure to only go to his office hours when I had a questions about the class material, even though I wanted to go and chat with him more. I felt that, more than my professor, he was becoming my friend. I reminded myself that going in for any other reason would be a waste of both my time and his, not to mention any other students who had course-related questions. I also didn’t know if he was married or seeing anyone monogamously, which made the way I viewed him seem even more inappropriate. I’m not saying these things to cast judgement on anyone else who’s been in these situations or on how they’ve navigated through them. I’m just saying these were the standards I held myself to and the way I viewed my situation at the time.
Toward the end of the semester, he asked me if I wanted to work as a research assistant for him. In hindsight, I’m sure he had reasons for offering me the job beside his belief in my capabilities as a researcher; but at the time, I was just happy to be offered a job that didn’t involve making lattes. As I spent more and more time with my professor, my attraction to him grew.
Things came to a head one night in winter, when he asked me to come in to scan a book after hours. I didn’t think twice about it. We were chatting, as we normally did, and he joked about how short I am. I asked him how tall he was, and he gave me an answer in centimetres, which was next to useless to me. So he stood up and walked over to me, and we stood back to back so we could compare our heights. Then we turned around and faced each other again. We were close enough to kiss. And had he tried to kiss me, I wouldn’t have stopped him.
He didn’t, though, so I broke our glance and said that I should really scan the book.
“Well, that was awkward,” he said, giving a little chuckle.
After I scanned the book, we got to talking again, and soon we were sitting so close to each other that our knees were touching. Our talk got more personal, and he asked me to keep the first of many secrets that he would tell me. I pinky-promised him I wouldn’t tell, and as our fingers linked, his hand lingered. We talked some more, and then all of a sudden, my hand was completely in his. He looked at me.
“I really shouldn’t be doing this,” he said, but he made no move to let go.
“I mean, I’m not saying no,” I replied, shrugging.
“I can just tell I can trust you,” he said.
About a week later, he needed another book scanned. Are you starting to recognize a pattern here? If you are, you’re quicker than I was. He went out to a bar with another professor in the department, but came back to his office so he could give me the book. He was tipsy. We were talking, and he went and sat on the couch . I sat next to him, and he kissed me. He laid me down and pulled up my shirt. He put his hand in my pants but I pulled it away. He put my hand on his pants and asked if I wanted to see it.
“Not here!” I blurted out. He looked me in the eyes. “I want more,” he said.
We left his office together that night. As we walked through Jeanne-Mance park, he grabbed me and kissed me again. At the time it felt amazing. I hadn’t been kissed like that since, well, ever, because I was nineteen years old and seriously, what the fuck did I know? We established that we weren’t officially dating. I wasn’t in a place at the time where I felt I could handle anything serious, and he felt the same, because he’d just gotten out of a relationship, and given our circumstances, we couldn’t go out in public — not to mention I didn’t want anyone knowing about what I was doing. He swore to me that I was the only student he was seeing, and I swore I wouldn’t tell anyone about us — which I didn’t, not until the very end.
We fell into a habit where I would work in his office during the day, and then see him almost every other night. I came to care for him greatly, but regardless of the nature of our interactions, it was nice just to have someone to really talk to. At the end of the year, he went off to do research, and I went back home for the summer.
Things weren’t the same when we got back to Montreal in the fall. I had stopped working for him over the summer due to mental health concerns I was having, and I asked if we could take a break from seeing each other until I felt better. His response was to ask if we could have sex one last time, and then to say “hopefully [I was making] the right choice.”
That last comment spooked me. I gave us both a bit of space, and then asked if he was interested in seeing each other again. I was given an ambiguous response, but then we resumed right where we were before: sleeping together. Not too long after, I got a phone call from him where he told me “a friend” overheard two students talking about how he was sleeping with one of his RAs.
“You told someone! You told someone!” he kept repeating.
Luckily, I was at home when he called, because I was hyperventilating and on the verge of tears. If students knew, then professors knew, and in my mind that meant I could say goodbye to my career, or at least a career where people weren’t constantly whispering that I’d slept with my boss to get the opportunities I was presented with.
“I didn’t tell anyone, I swear!” I kept protesting.
He ended things and hung up the phone, and eventually my panic subsided. All I could do was hope that my name wouldn’t get connected with this gossip.
A few weeks later, I got a text from him.
“Can we talk about what happened? It’s still bothering me.”
I had no desire to talk to someone who had, in my eyes, abandoned me. So I told him that I wasn’t ready to talk at that time but I would let him know when I was ready.
Later that week, he needed a book scanned — again. I asked if he could leave it in his mailbox so that I could pick it up without having to be seen going into his office, as I was still on edge from the alleged rumours. I scanned the book and emailed him the files, but he still asked if I could come into his office quickly, saying it wouldn’t take long. I conceded.
When I got into his office, he asked how I’d been. I told him I’d been fine, and asked how he was. He responded with, “not great.” I asked what was wrong, thinking he was discussing something unrelated to our interactions — I refuse to call what we were doing a relationship.
He sat down across from me, and told me he couldn’t stop thinking about me. How he’d been masturbating to thoughts of me. He took my hand, and unlike the first time he did so, I very much wanted him to let me go. But I was too shocked to do anything about it.
“Did you feel the same way [after seeing each other]?” he asked me.
I mumbled something about how I’d been scared because of the gossip and so I hadn’t really thought of it. Then he kissed me, and things that hadn’t seemed important before, suddenly seemed overbearing — he was my boss, I was in his office, and we had this history. How could I call things off now? So I went with it. I went with it for the rest of my time at McGill. I went with it when he signed his name on a letter of recommendation for graduate school.
I tried to avoid him, but minimizing our time together just frustrated him. He told me to just tell him if I ever lost interest, but he would also say that he’d try to seduce me even if I did. Given that the only time I had asked for a break, all I’d gotten from him in return was a bunch of ominous commentary, I did what I thought was best. I just dealt with it, continuing along because I knew there was an end-date.
I saw him off on the day he left for summer break. As I walked home, I expected to feel some kind of sadness. After all, the man I’d been involved with for most of the past year and a half was gone, and I wouldn’t be seeing him again for close to a year. All I felt was shaky and relieved.
A few days later, I was at a department event, and one of my friends told me my prof had asked her out when they’d run into each other off campus. “She must have misunderstood something,” I thought to myself.
The next night, I was out for shisha and drinks with friends. We got onto the subject of my professor.
“A student in the department told me he asked her out on the street,” one of my friends exclaimed.
“I saw him holding hands with a really young looking woman in the Mile End back in winter,” another friend remarked.
After that, I couldn’t shake the comments. I told one of the friends I was out with that I’d been having an affair with him, and she urged me to confront him. So I did.
When I told him what I’d heard, he asked to Skype me, and he denied all the allegations. He said there must have a been a misunderstanding, if not, the claims were completely fabricated on the part of the students. I bought it, and we started talking about other things.
After we finished talking, I called my friend and said there had just been a misunderstanding.
“No. No. No. Red flag. Red flag! This is me waving a biiiiiig red flag!” she said.
“…what do you know?” I asked.
She paused. “You’re not the only student he’s doing this with,” she said.
I went numb. This was a complete game-changer. Even though I couldn’t articulate it yet, in that moment, the nature of what I had been involved in became crystal clear. I had known he was seeing other women while he had been seeing me, part and parcel of not being in a relationship, but I didn’t know some of them had been students.
He was a predator. He was a manipulator. He was a liar. He was using young women as vessels for self-validation. He was abusing his power, and he had no intention of stopping.
I told him not to contact me personally again, and only professionally if absolutely necessary. Then I blocked his number and his email so that he could only contact me using my student email address.
I was devastated for a long time after I realized that I wasn’t anything but a mildly entertaining wet hole to this man. I felt betrayed, and beyond disappointed in him. I had been dedicated to his ideas and to his work, and he had taught me most of what I knew at that point about academia itself. But I guess my respect didn’t really mean shit to him, on any level.
Eventually I got in touch with another woman he’d been sleeping with, a woman who I considered a friend during our time at McGill. We talked about our experiences with him, laughed at some of his quirkier sexual tendencies, and tried to figure out what, if anything, we were going to do.
It turns out ‘anything’ is going to be more difficult than I thought — other women this professor has slept with, propositioned, sent inappropriate emails to, or generally made uncomfortable are unwilling to come forward and talk about their experiences. While I can’t speak for them, I can only guess from my own experience that they fear retribution, on professional or personal levels, or feel that nothing could be gained from coming forward, which makes sense.
McGill has no official policy or process regarding complaints against professional misconduct such as this on the part of professors. While the McGill Charter of Students’ Rights states that “every student has a right to be free from a sexual solicitation or advance made by a person in a position to offer or deny to the student an academic advantage or any opportunity pertaining to the status of student, where this person knows or ought reasonably to know that this solicitation is unwelcome,” and that “every student has a right to be free from a reprisal or threat of reprisal for the rejection of a sexual solicitation or advance,” the process going forward with such a complaint is murky at best, with no guarantee of accountability action on the part of the University. Furthermore, there is no mention of situations to which students appear to consent, but given the power differentials between students and professors, only do so within that agency we, as students, really don’t have.
There is a sexual harassment policy, but it’s debatable to what degree professor-student affairs fall under this category, and the sexual harassment policy at McGill has a reputation of being traumatizing for the plaintiffs, with little to no results. Additionally, the names of the perpetrators of sexual harassment are kept anonymous in the process, and not released to the broader university community. I don’t really see how the policy of anonymity about professors who sexually harass their students maintains “safe and suitable conditions of learning and study,” as guaranteed in the Charter of Students’ Rights, but that’s another discussion.
While this may seem like an isolated incident, as I revealed my experiences to others, I discovered that these cases are hardly rarities. Talking with other students turned up names of professors from nearly half a dozen departments who had reputations of either serially harassing or sleeping with their students. Where some professors were concerned, students spoke of the incidents like they were common knowledge. The prevalence of such an abuse of power on campus causes me great concern, as a recent alumnus, for the well-being of McGill students. The best way to curtail such behaviours that threaten the safety and integrity of students would be an explicit policy on student-professor relationships, accompanied by a supportive and clear process for action for students. Until then, McGill University’s silence implicitly condones a culture where professors treat their classrooms like real-life Tinder accounts.