Apparently in America, some states will prosecute a teacher for having a relationship with a student regardless of age… and in the rest it’s okay. There seems no middle ground where it’s not a legal offence but is a breach of professional conduct that will cost you your job.
Maybe that is just the one state, but still, it shocks me. And I really don’t think it’s okay. A relationship like that carries dubious implications when it comes to consent, life experience and power – but I’m not arguing about this because I don’t think anybody disagrees with me. In our culture it is generally accepted that teacher-student relationships are not okay – blanket. What I want to argue is that the Romeo and Juliet relationship in Shakespeare’s play was also not okay.
We (well, not me) see it as a tragedy, where two lovers were thwarted because of the selfishness of their families and wound up dead. That’s one interpretation, but it can also give a different moral tale.
In the culture in which Romeo and Juliet lived, their relationship was not seen as acceptable, yet looking at it from the modern day it is apparently a true romance. Let me explain some of the things which are very twisted about this: Romeo is 17 and Juliet is 13. They meet and have sex pretty much straight away. Their eyes meet across a room and they are “in love”. In Shakespeare’s time, love, by the way, was equated to sexual attraction, and that is what he is describing here: a magnetic, instant sexual attraction – something relatively normal and human – not vindicating the myth of love at first sight as we see love today. So two teenagers are attracted to each other, marry and go to bed, despite the irresponsibility of that and the immorality of this in their culture, let alone Romeo’s past behaviours which seems to have been sharking and stalking and sulking when he didn’t get his way. But hey, Juliet doesn’t know about these red flag behaviours because she just met him. And she is 13. And when she doesn’t get her way – the boy she wants – she kills herself, as does he.
If your 13 year old daughter slept with a 17 year old boy she had just met, how would you feel? It’s not quite legal rape, but it’s illegal sex.
If your 18 year old went to uni and slept with a 22 year old final year student in fresher’s week, how would you feel? That she was an adult and could make up her own mind and the age difference wasn’t that much anyway?
Well, what about your 18 year old daughter sleeping with her 22 year old A level teacher, whilst she was a member of his class? Different?
The moral standards we establish are dependent upon the level of our understanding of how much responsibility we can give the people involved and how healthy the relationship is. A 4 year age gap is not much for two young people in a similar life situation, but it’s a lot for children and teenagers still developing cognition. It is completely irrelevant to a teacher-student scenario because the power status of the teacher is higher by virtue of being a teacher, not by virtue of being older: i.e. a 40 year old teacher sleeping with a student is not very much worse than a 22 year old teacher sleeping with a student.
So what is my argument? My argument is that Romeo and Juliet’s “romance” should be considered an unhealthy and disturbing relationship today as it was by the parent characters in the play. Because it is fiction and because of the changing meaning of words such as “love”, readers have detached themselves from the unpleasant reality of it and hold it up as a shining example of romance, perpetuating social inconsistencies in moral culture.
Assess each situation carefully, rather than taking accepted word on it, and look out for warning signs and damaging scenarios. I certainly hope that no child of mine ends up in such a relationship as Romeo and Juliet’s (even without the deaths). At least if they do, I hope they are adults, mature enough to make and learn from mistakes. I cannot endorse this as “romance”.