My university’s sexual harassment and consensual relations policies are written in bureaucratic legalese. Here’s my attempt to create a departmental plain-language statement. Comments appreciated.
The plain language version of our policy is: Don’t date your students, and don’t try to date your students. There are no conditions under which it is acceptable for you to date a student in your class. This includes cases where the student takes the initiative: if a student asks you on a date, or makes romantic overtures to you, you must decline. Moreover, even if you imagine that your interest is entirely friendly and non-sexual, you must not initiate particularistic social relationships with students in your own classes. You should understand that when you undertake the role of instructor, you are entering a hierarchical relationship. Actions that would be acceptable among peers can be problematic and even illegal in a hierarchical relationship. Attempting to create a social relationship may impose a burden on the student of implicit coercion: they may worry that they cannot say no. Further, particularistic social relations with some students creates an environment of favoritism, in which students may justly worry that personal liking rather than academic performance is affecting their grades. You must not only treat everyone equally and fairly, you must give the appearance of treating everyone equally and fairly. If you want to create a friendly relationship with students, you must treat them all equally. If you see someone in the class you would like to get to know better on an individual basis, you must wait until the semester is over and grades have been submitted before initiating contact.
It can happen that you already have a particularistic relationship with a student who is enrolled in your class. It may be a cousin, someone you know from a political or social group, a member of your church, someone you have previously established a friendship with. If this relationship is romantic or sexual (or could be seen as such), by campus policy you MUST notify your supervisor and make arrangements for alternate supervisory relations. There is no absolute prohibition against grading someone you are related to or have a non-sexual personal relationship with, but if you do find yourself in this situation, you should consult with your supervisor to discuss the degree of relationship, your feelings about whether you can be objective (including the social consequences that could ensue from giving the person a low grade), and work to devise a plan that ensures academic integrity and avoids any appearance of favoritism.
Personal remarks can be considered demeaning or harassing, even when they are meant to be friendly. In general, you should avoid all personal remarks about your students’ physical appearance or attire. You should be aware that many women object to any remarks about their appearance from men who have authority over them, and personal remarks about body types (e.g. tall, short, fat, thin) are likely to be heard as offensive by their targets regardless of gender. Many people, especially women, also object to being told to smile or be friendly.
You should also generally avoid personal remarks that are linked to a particular person’s gender, class or race/ethnicity/nationality or to remarks that imply that you are stereotyping someone, especially in the classroom. (For example, Black male students resent the assumption that they are athletes, Asian students resent the assumption that they are good at math.) Of course, there are contexts in which acknowledging a person’s gender or race/ethnicity is part of treating them as a whole person, and in one-on-one conversations, asking people questions about their identities or discussing how they affect their experiences as a student can be both appropriate and supportive.
It is also worth noting that general discussions of gender, class, race, ethnicity, or nationality are common in sociology classes and need to take place, but can still feel threatening to the students, especially students who feel they are a minority in the classroom or who feel that they disagree with the instructor. One of the important jobs of an instructor is to learn to teach such material with honesty and sociological depth while still respecting the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of students in the classroom.
You should avoid sex talk and sexual innuendo in a classroom setting unless sex itself is the topic of instruction, in which case you have hopefully previously created an appropriate context for this discussion.