When Avery* took a sociology class her freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill, she was interested in the subject matter—but she found herself way more interested in the cute TA who taught it.
“He was an interesting guy with a lot of the same beliefs and values that I had,” she says. “He was also a bit older and his maturity was really refreshing (since in high school I was in a relationship with a guy who was going nowhere and was so immature).”
Avery started wearing V-neck shirts and makeup (which she never wore normally) to attract her TA’s attention. She started going to his office hours to ask questions about his research. But soon after, the conversations got more personal. “I would then ask questions about his life and what he wanted to do after school, what the tattoo on his wrist meant, etc.,” she says. “He was nice to me even though I think he knew I was flirting. I think he liked the attention.”
Eventually, the TA asked her if she would write a recommendation letter for an award he was applying to, and if she wanted to be his assistant over the summer for his research. But when the award and his money to hire an assistant fell through, so did his and Avery’s flirtation.
Although Avery and her TA’s relationship never developed into anything physical or seriously emotional, what if it had? Student/professor affairs are nothing new; Martin Heidegger and John Nash (the subject of A Beautiful Mind) both had infamous relationships with students. Similarly, in 2010, UNC-Chapel Hill professor Monty Cook resigned after it was discovered that he had been sexting with a student. But these relationships are also banned at most schools, which makes them dangerous… or, for some collegiettes, intriguing.
Could a student/TA or student/professor relationship ever work out? We talked with two relationship experts to figure out why collegiettes and professors start relationships, the dangers involved in such relationships, and if they could ever actually be healthy.
Why do collegiettes do it?
For those of you whose professors are older than your parents and wear really unfortunate suspenders, you might be wondering why any collegiette would be interested in pursuing such a relationship. But there are a variety of reasons as to why collegiettes would want to start a flirtation or relationship with their professor or TA, and every situation is different. It could be that the student just thinks her professor is attractive, or it could be that she is seeking out personal validation. Some collegiettes take an older, wiser man finding them attractive as a huge compliment.
“Young women naturally seek affirmation from those with more experience and power from others who appear to have more,” says Julie Orlov, a psychotherapist and the author of The Pathway to Love. “It is easy for young women to look up to their professors as men with wisdom, power, and appeal.”
Orlov says the fact that such relationships are typically off-limits could also be a reason why they’re so intriguing to some collegiettes. Okay, we know that equating a chem professor with Edward Cullen could be a bit of a stretch, but just think of Twilight—part of the reason why the story is so fascinating to readers is because of the forbidden nature of their relationship.
“There can be an allure of feeling special from engaging in a forbidden relationship,” Orlov says. “Unfortunately, this is the worst place for a college student to seek out power, validation, affirmation, and attention.”
Why do professors and TAs do it?
It’s not just the collegiette making the decisions here—professors and TAs could also find benefits aside from just physical ones in dating one of their students. “Unfortunately, there are TAs and professors with poor boundaries and a need to feel powerful, admired, and attractive at the expense of students,” Orlov says. They are “taking advantage of young women with less power, life experience, and ability to set clear and healthy boundaries.”
Julie Kleinhans, a radio show host and life coach for teens and young adults, says that the feeling of being dominant to a student can be a reason why professors and TAs have relationships with students.
“Every situation is different, but for a lot of men, it might be that sense of control: having certain power over the younger female, having a sense of, ‘if I have this relationship with you, then I can determine your grades,’” she says.
What are the consequences of student/TA or student/professor relationships?
You might be thinking: “Well, my TA is only a grad student—that’s not so inappropriate, is it?” But even a TA who is just a few years older than a collegiette could feel that he has power over her because he’s her teacher, and that power dynamic is unhealthy in any relationship.
“Any time there is a significant discrepancy of power between partners, there is one person taking advantage of the other,” says Orlov.
There’s also the fact that your professor or TA controls your grades, Kleinhans points out. If the student decides she ever wants to end the relationship, the professor or TA could seek out revenge by giving her a low grade in his or her class.
But ending the relationship could also prove disastrous for the professor or TA, since most schools forbid student/teacher relationships. “If it was the student that was dumped,” Kleinhans adds, “she might decide: ‘You know what, I’m going to make this public. I’m going to sabotage his career.’”
The problems involved in a student/teacher relationship could affect a collegiette negatively for the rest of her life. Kleinhans says that young women who have bad relationship experiences with older or more powerful men tend to continue to attract men that she feels subordinate to, causing her even more emotional harm in the future.
“Whatever we perceive through our experiences, that’s going to affect what we create in our future,” she says. “It really could do a lot of damage in terms of how she perceives herself in relationships in the future.”
Could these relationships ever be healthy?
Is it possible that a relationship with a TA or a professor could end well? Some student/professor relationships even end up in marriage, such as John Nash’s. “If it happens to be a relationship that started because both the TA or professor and the student realized, ‘Wow, we just have so much in common,’ and it is a natural type of relationship that blossoms through great conversation and mutual interest, then that’s a different story,” Kleinhans says.
However, Orlov warns that healthy relationships between students and instructors are very rare, and, for the most part, the dangers of such relationships outweigh any potential benefits.
“In the end, there is more to lose. Most students end up feeling hurt, taken advantage of, and violated from the boundaries that have been crossed,” she says. “Although there may be an isolated incident where two people have consented to a relationship that has grown into a more equal and reciprocal relationship down the line, I believe this is very much the exception.
“The rule is that these relationships are unbalanced, unhealthy, and inappropriate—and every professor and TA knows better!” she says.
What should you do if you’re crushing on a TA or professor?
So your TA or professor is young, knowledgeable, and kind of (okay, really) attractive. What should you do about it? Flirt and see what happens, or avoid at all costs?
Although a TA or professor may be smart and attractive and seem more mature, in most cases, it’s probably a good idea to just accept them as Econ 101 eye candy and nothing more while you’re still taking their class. Aria and Fitz might have made it work in Pretty Little Liars, but in real life, dating a professor or TA could have serious emotional consequences—not to mention, such relationships are usually banned by college rules. And any fulfillment you may get from an older man finding you attractive likely won’t be worth it in the end.
Brittany*, a junior at College of Charleston, had a crush on one of her professors but decided that the risks of acting on her crush outweighed the possible benefits. “It's all good fun to have a fantasy about an instructor, but I'd just feel super weird acting on it,” she says. “It seems like it would ruin the grandiose concept of an illicit fling... and the fact that he had a wife didn't put my mind at ease, either!”
But what if you’re no longer in your cute TA or professor’s class? Recent University of Alabama grad Caroline* thinks that once you’re no longer in that class, dating a former TA or professor shouldn’t be off-limits. “If the professor is not married, there’s no reason not to… because we’re all just people,” she says. “They are regular people just like you and your friends—especially with the trend of going back to grad school at an earlier age, TAs are usually only a few years older than juniors and seniors.”
It’s up to you to decide if the relationship would be worth it and will be fulfilling—not harmful. If you’re crushing on one of your instructors—which Orlov says is totally normal, so don’t be embarrassed by it!—Kleinhans advises to look deep within yourself and evaluate why you’re considering pursuing a relationship.
“Am I feeling that I want a physical partner? Does it have to be this partner?” she advises you ask yourself. “What is the reason and what is the feeling that’s coming from you that makes you think this relationship would be something to pursue?”
No romantic situation is black-and-white. Ultimately, it depends on what you’re feeling, how strong your feelings are, and why you’re having those feelings. It’s up to you to decide whether a relationship with a TA or professor would end in happily ever after or heartbreak.
Have you ever found yourself crushing on a TA or professor? Tell us about it in the comments below!
*Names have been changed to protect identities.