One of the things I've learned in 20 years of being a professor, is that simply by virtue of the title, I am elevated by my students. And a casual word or flip remark can fall very heavily from that height, if one forgets the altitude. As I am prone to make off-the-cuff remarks, I've had to learn to be particularly careful to avoid inadvertent hurt.
It can be lonely being a figure on a pedestal. And it's impossible to stay there, to some extent. I had one very idealistic student years ago who dealt with people in authority in one of two ways: they were either high on a pedestal and admired greatly without criticism, or viewed as fatally flawed and scorned at his own level. And it was inevitable that any person he put up on the pedestal would eventually fall back to earth because, after all, we are all human with frailties and flaws, and some comment or action would be disapproved by him. For a while he had me up there, but of course, I fell off too, having disappointed his standards in some way. I haven't heard from him in years.
Some students want to bridge this distance. They want attention. They sit up front, and make a point of coming to office hours. They try to connect personally. They want to be special. Well, we all do, don't we? When we enter into a new situation, we want to impress, to be noticed. That's our human nature. We want to stand out to this person who (by virtue of their authority) stands above us. We flatter. We may even flirt. Will the deity notice us?
The quest for attention can be completely innocent of sex, simply craving approval of a parental or authority figure. Most of the time, that's all it is.
But of course, sometimes it isn't. The general rule of thumb for professor/student relationships -- at least undergraduates -- is simply "don't". Many students find the person on the pedestal alluring -- power is a great sexual attractant after all-- and the professor is supposed to be the adult in the room and say NO. The professor isn't really allowed to be "one of us". Well, of course that's expected with the undergraduates, but it's often true of the graduate students and postdocs as well.
In an earlier generation, it was more common for (male) professors to marry their graduate students. We are conditioned to think of this today as an abuse of his power or authority, yet many of those marriages were very happy. After all, a graduate student is an adult, usually in their late 20s or early 30s, and surely can freely enter into a relationship with another adult. But these days, standard practice requires that any formal advisor or teacher relationship be severed if a romantic relationship is embarked upon. THis is also an issue for romance between faculty members, if there is a power differential.
We all go through sexual harassment training programs to avoid situations that could be considered abusive. Like most things, there are many shades of gray. The easy ones are the clear crossing of a boundary: intimidating someone into a relationship, for example. Exchanging grades for sex. Creating a sexualized atmosphere. Sleeping with the undergraduates. We know this happens, but it is always wrong.
But is it always abuse if there is a relationship between adults of unequal status? Years ago, I knew of a lab where the (male) professor was having a sexual relationship with one of his (female) postdocs. (A postdoc is not a student, but is a recent PhD in an in-between trainee/employee status.) In this case, the relationship was fully consensual. In fact, she had initiated it, quite blatantly. The relationship eventually broke off, and they went their separate ways.
Good policy says that at the very least, if the professor and the postdoc wanted a relationship, he should have found her an alternative position. That's certainly true. But many people would say that that this was an abusive relationship to begin with, that she couldn't freely initiate it. Yet the problem I have with that blanket statement is that it infantalizes the woman (it's almost always a woman) , and essentially tell her she can't make a free choice, and has no responsibility. Is this always true? I know that there are many cases where it is--but is it always? Were all those professor-grad student marriages of the past abusive? I don't think it's an absolute. And what if the professor in question had declined the postdoc's come-on, saying "I find you attractive too, but we cannot do this." Would that simple acknowledgement be harassment? What if he fired her, because she expressed her attraction to him?
You can easily imagine scenarios where he manipulated the situation to induce her. But there are also clear cases where he didn't. And, there are many situations where people meet at work, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Many of us meet our romantic partners on the job and we are seldom direct peers.
And thus we must find our way in the grey in-between of ambiguity.
I really don't like pedestals.