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Dear Sexpert,

I’m an undergrad and recently started hanging out with a graduate student. We’re really into each other and are thinking about having sex, but is it “okay?” My friends seem to think it’s taboo.

—Unsure

Dear Unsure,

It’s great that you’ve found someone you are really connecting with! However, to your friend’s point, there may be a concern that the relationship is against University policy or that a skewed power dynamic between you and the graduate student that could impact your satisfaction with the relationship.

To the first concern, there are policies that prevent relationships between individuals in a supervisory capacity and those they are supervising. According to article 1.3.4 of Princeton’s “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities,” any “sexual or romantic relationship between students and teachers, supervisors or mentors (faculty members, staff members, or other students) violates both University and professional standards”. Although relationships between graduate and undergraduate students are not strictly prohibited, the guidelines warn of possible infringement on state anti-discrimination policies. Furthermore, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty’s procedures state that “no faculty member, researcher, graduate student, visiting student, or undergraduate course assistant shall initiate or engage in a romantic or sexual behavior with any student, including a graduate student or DCE student, who is enrolled in a course taught by that individual or otherwise subject to that individual's academic supervision or evaluation.” By supervision or evaluation, they mean interactions like teaching, advising, supervising research, assigning grades, and providing letters of reference. So, if the graduate student is in one of these roles, it is in the best interest of both of you to end the relationship.

Even if the graduate student is not currently academically supervising or evaluating you, if the graduate student becomes a teaching assistant for a class you are taking, or in one where your close friends are enrolled, it is a violation of these policies. This is because there could be questions of favoritism regarding grading or treatment. Additionally, if the graduate student is in a role that directly oversees direct programming, organizations, or activities you participate in, this could be a concerning relationship.

In fact, power dynamics are not just limited to those in positions of power or leadership. It is a part of how we relate to and interact with others. A healthy relationship is built upon many components, including trust, autonomy, support, clear and open communication, security, and maintenance of individual identities and friendships. Given that you are most likely younger, the two of you may have different levels of experience and maturity. This dynamic may impact whether this relationship would be a healthy one between two consenting adults of equal positions. Try asking yourself if you feel like you would be able to resolve conflicts and make compromises on equal terms. Would you be willing to support each other’s friendships and relationships and maintain personal hobbies given your possibly different friend circles?

Another factor to consider, especially if you are considering becoming romantically involved with a graduate student, would be the expectations involved and practicality of such a relationship. For instance, it is important to discuss whether you plan to have a long-term relationship or a short-term one. Moreover, both of you should consider how your family and friends would perceive your relationship and be okay with the potential conversations if or when they share their opinions with you.

If you are unsure of how you should proceed in this situation, you can talk to a counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services or the Ombuds Office, a neutral, confidential, independent resource that assists in mediating and resolving conflicts and problems among University community members. For concerns about power dynamics within a relationship, consider reaching out to the SHARE office at 609-258-3310.

~The Sexpert

Information retrieved from Go Ask Alice, Umatter, Ombuds Office of Princeton University, and Princeton University Regulations.

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