Simon Plumb is a journalist for the Herald on Sunday

Sex email student kept writing

The student said she emailed her lecturer in March asking: "Would you like to have sex in Bali?" Photo / iStock
The student said she emailed her lecturer in March asking: "Would you like to have sex in Bali?" Photo / iStock

The suspended Auckland University student who emailed an offer of sex to her lecturer continued to send provocative emails.

Last week the Herald on Sunday revealed a 30-year-old physics student had been suspended after being found guilty of sexual harassment. The student said she emailed her lecturer in March asking: "Would you like to have sex in Bali?"

The Herald on Sunday has chosen not to name the student or the lecturer. More emails detail how the lecturer responded, rejecting the mature student's advance.

"You wrote not to worry about crafting a reply, but I just want to confirm that my only interest is for you (and all the other students enrolled in [class name withheld] for that matter) to succeed academically."

Within an hour of the lecturer's first reply, the student sent the man another email: "You would deny that there was some strong chemistry?

"Not that you'd move to act on it, obviously not, but you mean you didn't actually think of me at all?" she wrote. "It's perfectly fine that you chose not to act on it as a teacher and as a married person. That's your choice, of course."

The lecturer responded again, this time with a warning.

"This communication is highly inappropriate and I wish it to stop with this email. Our interactions will be limited to the academic side of [class name withheld], and I have NO interests in any other forms. If that turns out not possible, you force me to report these matters to the appropriate channels in the university."

The student fired back, telling the man she felt his reaction was "threatening" and made her feel like "expressing a crush on someone is some great and inappropriate violation".

"I was perfectly content to end the conversation at ONE SINGLE EMAIL (without any nudity or coarse language by the way) if you were not at all interested, walking away with my dignity, but you insisted in pressing the rejection," she wrote.

You would deny that there was some strong chemistry?
Student's email

A university spokeswoman confirmed the student had been found guilty of sexual harassment. The university also revealed the student propositioned another staff member, saying her suspension came after ignoring instructions.

"The finding of sexual harassment by the proctor relates to the fact the student propositioned two staff members on separate occasions," the spokeswoman said.

The student, who has admitted sending an abusive email to the proctor, told the Herald on Sunday the email to the first staff member was not investigated and "I feel like they're dragging up my past".

She plans to appeal her suspension.

How to make a move without risk of offence

How do you approach someone about sex without putting yourself at risk of sexual harassment?

"Wow, that's a good question," says Max Whitehead. "It is a very, very difficult path to tread."

Whitehead is one of New Zealand's leading employment relations practitioners who in the past decade has advocated in more than 2500 personal grievance cases and workplace disputes.

Describing sexual harassment complaints as "fairly common", he says a claim can come down to interpretation.

"There are two pieces of legislation here, the Employment Relations Act and the Human Rights Act. The law that wraps around is the person who has received the contact has got to identify it as harassment," he said.

Barrister and 2013 employment lawyer of the year, Catherine Stewart, said some cases could land in grey areas.

"The conduct has to be sexual in nature and that's where a lot of blurring of the definition appears," Stewart said. "In terms of whether it's welcome - or offensive - the test is subjective."

Whitehead suggested it was difficult to make an advance without accepting some level of risk, but some basics could help.

"If you think the attraction is reciprocated, a frank approach may be appropriate - saying: 'I'm attracted to you. If you're not to me, no problem'."

The Auckland University student's approach was technically sound, said Whitehead.

"At that point, legally the student is probably innocent to some degree. Ethically, possibly not if she knew the person was married, but legally, she probably is," he said.

The lecturer's response was commendable, but he should have immediately notified his employer.

Without seeing all the student's communications with the university staff it was difficult to predict her chances of successfully appealing her suspension.

- Herald on Sunday

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