Wits recently approved a policy that bans sexual and romantic relationships between Wits students and staff, exempting only those who declare to the GEO. Wits has approved a policy that bans sexual and romantic relationships between students and staff in an attempt to prevent incidents of sexual harassment, violence and exploitation of students.
The university recently published details of the policy which has been in effect since December last year and is overseen by the Wits Gender Equity Office (GEO).
Newly appointed director of the GEO Crystal Dicks said that such policies are devised in any working environment where there are unequal power relationships.
”There is a recognition that there’s an unequal relationship between staff and students which could lead to potential harm for students, and so there’s a policy in place,” said Dicks.
According to Dicks the abuse of power is prevalent in the university environment.
“If somebody has a position of power over you, they can give you higher marks or grant you particular favours,” she said.
The policy defines staff as being either full time, part time or sessional academic staff, postgraduate teaching assistants or tutors and non-academic staff members.
A postgraduate student in International Relations, who asked to remain anonymous, said the university cannot control the sexual choices of adults.
“Both students and lecturers are consenting adults, everybody is over the age of consent and it is impossible for the university to want to police the sexual behaviour of adults. It’s unconstitutional for them to want to control the sexual lives of private citizens,” he said.
He also argued that the policy only seeks to protect students, even though there are instances of students preying on staff.
“Being a predator goes both ways,” he said.
Wits professor and head of sociology, David Dickinson, said that Wits Senate agreed the policy would be good for the university,
“There is clearly institutional power and we are people, we have situations where students can harass staff members, so we need policies that protect everybody and I think this is an excellent policy in that sense, that it’s good to put forward.”
Dickinson said it’s important that we also have open discussions about relationships alongside such policies, so that we can start living by them.
The new policy revisits an older university policy, which said that staff members cannot be romantically or sexually involved with any student they deal with directly in an academic space. The new policy states that “staff members may not have sexual or romantic relationships with undergraduate and honours students, regardless of whether the staff member is directly supervising or teaching the student.”
Therefore, persons from different faculties who are romantically or sexually involved must also apply for an exemption or declaration of interest at the GEO.
A rule of exemption applies to persons involved in pre-exisiting romantic or sexual relations “of more than 12 months”, from when the policy came into effect.