Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Issues with the Bali sex story

With so many unanswered questions, this was the story that kept on giving. Photo / Getty
With so many unanswered questions, this was the story that kept on giving. Photo / Getty

Sometimes a news story grabs attention for a whole raft of reasons. The Herald on Sunday article about the Auckland student who was found guilty by the university proctor of sexually harassing a lecturer, after she propositioned him in writing, was a case in point.

(A subsequent report revealed a lawyer's view that one racy email does not constitute sexual harassment. In yet another article the woman confirmed she had also propositioned another university staff member.)

I'm not going to lie: the original "sex in Bali" headline was irresistible. But this was a piece that just kept on giving. The more you read the more interesting it became. There were so many issues to ponder that it was difficult to know where to start.

ONE: Gender reversal

When the story involves a female sexually harassing a male it defies expectations from the outset. Doesn't this dynamic usually work in reverse? If a male student had propositioned a female lecturer, we'd be discussing rape culture, misogynistic attitudes and safe workspaces. Instead, we're kind of intrigued. I'm not sure what this says. Nothing complimentary, that's for sure.

TWO: Reversal of the usual power dynamic

When you consider sexual harassment between student and lecturer you'd normally think the person in the position of power would be the perpetrator. In this case, the more senior person is, in fact, the victim. Again, it just makes the scenario all the more compelling.

THREE: The student's confidence

This woman possesses chutzpah, pure confidence. She shows no sign of uncertainty or inhibition. She knows what she wants and she asks for it. There's a firm self-belief in operation when you invite someone you barely know to travel overseas for a week of sex and then add that it's no problem if he's not interested. The gist was: "I really want to have no-strings sex with you in Bali but I ain't bovvered if it doesn't happen." It's a weird hybrid of attitudes: Erica Jong meets Little Britain's Vicky Pollard.

FOUR: Her worldliness

In her email the woman revealed that she'd met someone who "had several honest concurrent relationships of varying degrees of intimacy" and she is "close friends" with a couple who "invite a third person in for a short time when it feels right".

Why, in propositioning her lecturer, did she feel the need to refer to open relationships, polyamory, threesomes and the swinging scene? She must have wanted to convey that she was no ordinary physics student. She was a woman of the world, a sexual adventurer. This was just how she rolled.

FIVE: The lecturer's identity

Who was this guy? My immediate thought was to consult the University of Auckland's website and try to figure out which physics or mathematics lecturer may have been the recipient of the email. But I resisted the temptation. Firstly, to impose my own judgment about who might have been "distracting" her "pleasurably from math" from a photograph would be meaningless.

One woman's "instant sexual interesting response" is another woman's meh-not-so-much. Secondly, if I was him and had known this story was going to break I'd have had my profile taken down quick smart.

SIX: The lecturer's reaction

It's easy to see why he forwarded this email to his boss. If he wasn't going to accept the invitation - a rendezvous! in Bali! for sex! - it was the only sensible response. To have kept it hidden could have been interpreted as somehow conspiring with his admirer. It could be seen as almost indirectly endorsing (even while wholeheartedly rejecting) the proposal.

If further emails had arrived (either to himself or to others), a failure to reveal the earlier one could have made him look a bit dodgy. It must be worrying for a lecturer to receive such an email. Inappropriate teacher-pupil relationships have precipitated the end of more than one illustrious academic career.

SEVEN: The possible hidden motivation

Should we take this email at face value? Was this 30-year-old female student really propositioning her lecturer? Or was this a joke email, a form of bullying, a cruel way of highlighting how undesirable she found him? If so, then you have to wonder what could have provoked such a response. Was she trying to besmirch his character? There are mysteries within mysteries.

EIGHT: Choice of medium

Why would the student choose to convey this invitation via email? It's all too easy for written communications to come back to haunt you at a later date. Surely, if you genuinely had designs on someone (even if he has a wife and he happens to be your lecturer) you could begin less assertively.

After all, there are simpler ways of gauging whether there is any chance of a liaison. Wouldn't you flutter your eyelashes, stand in the doorway to his office and invite him for a drink? To go straight to that email is a big step. To make yourself vulnerable by putting it all in writing seems at odds with the woman's self-possessed and worldly persona.

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Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

Read more by Shelley Bridgeman

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