The student (hereafter NN) and I were engaged on what we called “the Genius Project”. The purpose of the genius project was to make NN into a truly original and outstanding young philosopher (one who could expect to find an attractive job later). Part of this project involved techniques for encouraging unconventional thinking, and the concept of “taboo-busting” was deemed helpful towards this end. We had developed a very open and candid style of communication, and were in contact extremely frequently. (She came to my house several times to play tennis and go paddle boarding, as well as talk about the work we were doing.) The understanding was that we could say anything to each other, in a spirit of mutual trust (she would often use the phrase “cluster fuck” to me). Humor and playfulness were much in evidence. We also liked each other very much. The relationship was close, reciprocal, and much valued by both parties. She sent me many affectionate and exuberant emails, often of a very personal nature.
In this spirit I sent NN two short email messages, spaced over three months, which contained some (mild) sexual content, which was related to the seminar of mine NN had attended and which was relevant to work we were doing together. This content pertained to the hand in relation to human evolution and human life (including sexual life), and referred back to material discussed in the seminar I gave and which NN enthusiastically attended. These emails were received in the spirit in which they were intended (certainly no complaint was voiced about them), and they gave rise to some mild amusement between us over the months. They were quite banal. Many other personal and professional matters were discussed in our email correspondence, as well as our very frequent meetings; these two were exceptional and designed to achieve a specific pedagogical end. In no sense were they intended (or interpreted) as attempts to elicit anything from the recipient (except perhaps a chuckle).
To impose disciplinary action on the writer of these two emails would be a clear infringement of academic freedom and freedom of speech. I judged that these emails were in line with the project on which NN and I were (consensually) engaged, and I think they served their purpose (taboo-busting—though they described rather mundane matters). Most of the genius project took a more conventional form, but it is within this context that they should be interpreted. They were not just gratuitous snippets of risque prose, sent out of the blue. I believe that had the genius project continued it would have borne significant fruit; and indeed a colleague has remarked to me that NN’s philosophical abilities went from “good” to “superb” following the several months during which I was attempting to make her into a “genius”.
It is very important to view these emails in context, which includes both their pedagogical history and the verbal responses from NN that followed and preceded them. It is also important to avoid stereotypical thinking. It should also be noted that it was explicitly agreed between us that if anything in our relationship was felt to be unacceptable it could be stopped simply by saying so.
I am sorry to have to air these personal matters in a public setting, but recent events have forced me to it. What should have been entirely private has become a matter of (prurient) public speculation.