Love and care are at the heart of every functioning spiritual student-teacher relationship. It is almost never equally mutual or even palpable in overt ways, and it may never be acknowledged. It can come in many different forms and includes struggles and resistance. But the intensity of every significant bond that is forged in this arena implies by its nature the presence of affection and love.
Unfortunately, the nature of this love is often not understood. Students come to love their teachers for their compassion and wisdom, but will add transferential expectations of the past that distort their image of the teacher.
Teachers frequently underestimate the depth and nature of their students’ love, contribute to an unnecessary and inappropriate eroticization, and cause more suffering. The students end up feeling betrayed and exploited, and the damage done is difficult to heal.
The most harmful reason for teacher-student relationships gone awry is probably enacted sexual misconduct. Most of the time, such affairs involve a male teacher and a female student, although it does happen in different gender constellations as well. The psychological dynamics at work are idealization, regression, and psychological merger fantasies in both student and teacher.
One prevalent desire for many students, male or female, whether they have affairs with their teachers or not, is the wish to be special to the teacher.
A close relationship with an idealized authority figure makes the student special by affiliation. It almost doesn’t matter whether the relationship is physically sexual, non-physically eroticized, chronically flirtatious, or emotionally intimate on both sides. “When a woman makes any kind of compromise with inappropriate sexual expression from a man, she yields control over her own intimate boundaries and begins a dangerous collaboration that can lead to her victimization,” writes psychiatrist Peter Rutter in his book Sex in the Forbidden Zone.
He stresses that inappropriate conduct almost always precludes victimization, because it is typically the man who is in power: He has control over her psychological and spiritual well being. “The mere presence of sexual innuendo from a man who has power over her can become a barrier to her development. But the most critical damage lies in the silencing of her own voice and the violation of her sense of self.”
Rutter concludes that any sexual behavior by a man in power within what he calls the “forbidden zone” – i.e. bosses, coaches, therapists, priests, teachers, professors and so on – is inherently exploitative of a woman’s trust.
Spiritual teachers must be keenly aware that any kind of seductive behavior towards an admirer is inherently exploitative. It is the first step to prevent spiritual abuse of the vulnerable.