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I am a female undergraduate student and in a bit of a situation here.

Last semester, I had a male graduate teaching assistant for one of my classes, and I got the very strong impression for months that this TA was romantically interested in me because of his behavior. He'd turn others away from office hours if it was just the two of us, often brush up against me or touch my arm when there was no need, offer unprompted help to me with things outside of class, and generally pay me more mind than other students in the class either by calling on me more or conversing with me more than others. Other people also got that idea and I was recently asked by a former classmate if we were sleeping together because of his perceived preferential treatment of me.

So I had to explain that no, we weren't, which was very awkward and humiliating (my peers think I slept with him for an A - that's a gross feeling). And I sorta flipped out on the TA and sent him an email essentially calling him out for those behaviors. I also figured it would be best to create some distance between us so as not to feed the rumor mill. I didn't want to cut ties with him because I did like him as a person and a friend; losing that has been really devastating, but I thought that was the most practical response since I didn't know how serious that kind of rumor was or if it could hurt either of us professionally.

The TA hates me now, my peers still think I slept my way to an A, and I feel in over my head. None of that really feels dealt with or better.

Do I need to be worried about a rumor like that? Might there ever be a way to salvage the relationship with the TA someday? Should I do anything else?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 7, 2022 at 21:30
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    If the way your peers are treating you amounts to more than a passing question about whether you slept with your TA, consider the possibility that this treatment is a form of bullying. It may make sense to seek out resources at your school that exist to deal with this phenomenon.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 7, 2022 at 21:59

7 Answers 7

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It sounds like this incident has run its course and there's not a whole lot left to be done. This can be hard to accept: we as humans have a real need for closure, and we like everything to be resolved fairly and on good terms. But not all things work out so well.

With respect to your relationship with your TA: it sounds like the way he treated you was so over-the-top that your entire class suspected that you were sleeping together. This suggests major boundary violations on his part, which he has not even acknowledged. Do you really want to be friends, given this? Perhaps you could have handled the situation more calmly, but he was in the position of authority, so this is really on him -- he "should have known better." Absent some recognition of wrongdoing from his part, it is difficult to imagine that a friendship could continue.

In any case, being accused of sexual misconduct is incredibly serious these days, and so he is probably terrified that you will cause major problems for his career. Regardless of guilt or innocence, accusing an instructor of sexual misconduct will almost certainly immediately and permanently end the relationship. And in this case, it sounds like that's a good thing for you, though losing a friend is never easy.

With respect to your relationship with your peers: I agree with the other answers that you should just deny it when asked. There is not much you can do to clear your name, and trying to fight the rumor mill is a losing battle. It is highly unlikely that vague rumors at such an early stage of your career will have any lasting impact. Good luck.

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    I put it as respectfully as I could to him by saying it was just a discussion and not an accusation, and it would stay between us to avoid causing more trouble. Just that I'd felt things had crossed into a territory where they needed to be addressed and a firm boundary needed to be established. I guess it's on him if he can't admit any wrongdoing, and maybe that's why it doesn't feel resolved. He put the onus on me for misinterpreting and not on the fact that those behaviors could easily BE misinterpreted. Mar 5, 2022 at 0:33
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    "This suggests major boundary violations on his part" - alternatively, it might suggest students being immature and teasing the OP with it blowing way out of proportion.
    – Lodinn
    Mar 5, 2022 at 11:28
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    I’ve gotta say I don’t think they’re blowing it out of proportion. Sitting so close we’d be touching, turning other students away when it was just us in office hours even though office hours were for the whole class, offering me help unprompted with things outside/unrelated to class, always picking on me in class, openly staring at me, etc. has a way of giving off that idea. I’d have been confused if I were seeing that from the outside too. I was confused on the inside of it!! Mar 5, 2022 at 14:10
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    @Lodinn it's a boundary violation as soon as monster established where her boundary is, regardless of where it is. Mar 5, 2022 at 21:01
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    @monsterdynamite In particular, turning other students away from office hours in your favor is not just flirting in an inappropriate setting, but actively refusing to do his job. There’s no excuse for that and if he can’t recognize that it was way over the line, I agree with cag51 that you’d do best to stay away. Mar 5, 2022 at 21:25
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Echoing @Buffy's advice: no, don't attempt to "take action", just respond to questions or accusations with "no, it didn't happen".

This sort of thing all too easily arises... even with innocent intentions, etc. That's why the advice I give TAs (=teaching assistants) and other people is to avoid even/especially the appearance of impropriety.

When the less-powerful person is not actively soliciting a "special relationship", but/and the more-powerful person seems to be hinting at it, intentionally or not, but for public view, it is a bad thing. All the worse because the less-powerful person can't do much about it in any direct way. One of these "when did you stop beating your wife" sort of questions.

There is also the unfortunate tendency of many human beings to find interest in gossip and scandal, so often finding something where there's nothing. (Not to mention conspiracy theories... sigh).

In summary: a very unfortunate situation, but probably best dealt with by leaving it alone. I hesitate to recommend anything like "in the future be really cold and standoffish to everyone..." to pretend to avoid such situations...

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    I probably didn't help things much by getting upset with the TA, then, especially since I did still hope we could be friends. Oh well. Thanks for the input! Mar 4, 2022 at 23:07
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    @monsterdynamite, ah, yeah, in particular, try to avoid giving legitimacy to bogus things by inadvertently engaging with them as though they were real. Crazy stuff. My sympathies and best wishes. Mar 5, 2022 at 0:16
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    I did still think it was important to draw a line with him, though. If multiple people in the class thought we were hooking up because of how he was acting with me, then those were behaviors that needed addressing. Though, I probably could have handled it better. It's stuff that needed saying, but maybe it needed saying in a better way. Mar 5, 2022 at 0:35
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    The more-powerful person in such a situation has vastly more responsibility for propriety (and, in real life, a definite-positive obligation to tactfully make this clear...) than a less-powerful person. The less-powerful person can all too often drive themselves crazy trying to think how to "solve a problem" that is ... oop... beyond their power. And not created by them. Yes, good to be a responsible person, but some things are ... out-of-balance. Mar 5, 2022 at 0:58
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    @monsterdynamite Stop blaming yourself. You did what you did because in an awkward and uncomfortable situation. He should have known better as Paul Garret clearly describes in the comment above.
    – Luca Citi
    Mar 6, 2022 at 6:01
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To anyone who asks or implies an improper relationship, just deny it. "Nope, didn't happen."

It is unlikely that there would be any ill effects unless the TA starts lying. If that happens and the instructor gets involved, you may have to make a more formal appeal, but you don't suggest it is going that way.

It seems the other person behaved badly, but you can't change that. If you have a safe opportunity to ask the other person, perhaps they will do the same, but you need to analyze the situation before trying that. "Nope, didn't happen."

If your closest friends are aware of the truth, perhaps that truth will spread.

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    I think I might have done the wrong thing by confronting the TA then. I don't think I went about it as delicately as I hoped to, and as a result he now seems to hate me. Honestly, I just wanted to do the thing that would lead to the least amount of hurt/complication in the long run, I just didn't know what that was. Oof. Thank you for the advice, though. Mar 4, 2022 at 23:25
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    @monsterdynamite: It doesn't sound like you did the wrong thing here-you confronted the TA by email, and that they responded badly was more on them than anything.Had their behavior continued from that point, you would have been even more justified with escalating it the instructor or,as they mention, a formal appeal.Escalating it to the instructor or a formal appeal may have had one benefit in anonymizing the complaint to the TA,had they been doing this to a few other students as well,but it sounds like this was more clearly focused,so that may had just escalated it if they could identify you. Mar 6, 2022 at 5:25
  • And here am I, thinking that making these accusations, repeatedly, is actually harassment. So I wouldn't just deny it. I'd say, "This didn't happen, and if you bring it up ever again, we'll have a discussion about harassment of a fellow student.|
    – gnasher729
    Mar 7, 2022 at 12:08
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Last semester is very recent, and this situation is really very simple.

This is what sexual harassment looks like exactly. This may have been the first time you experienced it, but sadly, it is unlikely to be the last.

The best thing you can do is to report this person to the appropriate channels at your institution right away. This is important, because if they continue to be put in a position of authority (TA) there is substantial risk that the misconduct will continue in one form or another with other students, making further negative impact. Sexual harassment usually is related to a pattern of behavior with others.

One of the many reasons that sexual harassment is taken so seriously is that when it goes unreported, it is the victims who bear the consequences of the perpetrators actions. It is you who are currently in the position of explaining away the misconduct of this person while other students have been denied resources on account of it. They aren't your friend, because a friend would never compromise you the way they have. Reporting their behavior and disengaging from them is the best thing you can do for yourself and for others. This can be done anonymously.

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    +1. I'm surprised and a bit disappointed that the other answers shy away from calling it.
    – Erwan
    Mar 8, 2022 at 0:04
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I am sorry you've had to deal with this so early in your academic career. Your predicament is a good illustration of why nowadays instructors, of any rank, are widely forbidden from pursuing relationships with their students. Your TA should have known better.

What to do? You did the right thing. If it makes you feel any better, consider that you did him and everyone else a favor by calling him out. It's better that he gets a reality check from a friendly, well intentioned victim such as yourself, before he does much worse to himself and others. If he is the nice and well-intentioned guy you believe him to be, it is understandable that he would be upset by your email but he should come around once he's had some time to reflect on it.

As for what to say to your peers? Consider venting your frustration at being put in this situation. It might remind your friends that you need them on your side, and if not, it still feels good to vent.

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    The thing is, I genuinely think he's good at heart, just not good with social cues. Hopefully, this will be a wake-up call for him to be a little less buddy-buddy with students. My current TAs drop off the face of the earth outside class and office hours, and that's exactly the way it should be. Mar 8, 2022 at 4:26
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    @monsterdynamite you're being kind to him, and that reflects well on you. I could describe myself as "good at heart, just not good with social cues" and that's why boundaries are good for both the student and the TA. Being friendly, even being friends, is possible and may even be desirable, but touching and excluding others from academic meetings (office hours) are a different matter.
    – Chris H
    Mar 11, 2022 at 11:29
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Your relation with the TA or the lack thereof is simply none of anyone's business. If someone asks you about it, you should refrain from outright denying it, simply say that it's none of their business. If people think that you cheated with the help of the TA, then they are free to file a complaint based on evidence for the misconduct. But because you didn't do anything wrong, such evidence does not exist, so no complaint can be filed.

By explicitly denying that you had a relationship with the TA, you are taking a defensive position, giving up ground to people making unfounded accusations. By instead refusing to engage with people on this topic, you stand your ground which is psychologically a much healthier way to go about things. If people accuse you of having obtained an A from the TA in an inappropriate way, then tell them to file a complaint instead of bothering you with these accusations.


As pointed out in the comments, what I'm proposing seems to be problematic. But the goal should not be to try to communicate something about the relationship to the class, rather to firmly defend the red line about your private sex life.

People are free to believe anything they want, it's just that the details of the relationships are none of their business. Making that clear may be interpreted as admitting to having a sexual relationship, but that's what anyone is free to assume anyway.

Instead of saying "It's none of your business", one can also say: "Why are you asking me about this again? Are you going to disclose the details of your sex life to everyone? If it makes you feel better to assume that I have a sexual relationship with the TA, then why not assume that I did, and stop asking me about it?"

By being firm, what is going to happen is that people will stop harassing you about this issue. People may gossip, but on the longer term you'll gain respect from people for having been firm about this issue. No one wants their sex lives to become a public issue. But people do like to gossip about such things. The urge to gossip is a short term issue, on the longer term people will be able to see that they would not like to be in a situation where their sex lives become the subject of a public debate.

At heart this is really a case of sexual harassment. But it requires the student who is harassed to make it very clear that these questions are not appreciated, and if they persist that she will file a complaint. There exists a process for students to address cases of cheating. If they have any evidence of cheating, they should follow that process. Harassing someone they accuse of cheating is not the right thing to do.

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    This is unrealistic. One student versus everyone else in the class ? Might work for a tenured psychopath. But won't in real student space. Think again, Count. Read your Tolstoy first.
    – Trunk
    Mar 6, 2022 at 14:51
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    As a counterpoint: saying "none of your business" could all too easily be construed as a tacit admission. Taking a defensive position could be appropriate when one is being attacked. Mar 6, 2022 at 15:45
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    In logic, not saying anything provides less information than denying, and thus provides less information from which inferences can be made. In the real world, not saying anything is much more likely to be interpreted (by others, if not legally) as guilt than denying, and I suspect for most people empirical experience strongly supports this non-logical inference. Mar 6, 2022 at 19:57
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    It is absolutely false that the onus is on the victim to "make it very clear" that sexual advances and misconduct are "unappreciated". The behavior described in the original post very clearly describes classic sexual harassment and there is plenty of legal precedent to underscore the gravity of those actions. She needs only report this and the university is obliged to investigate it pursuant to employment law. Remember, TAs are not just graduate students but institutional employees.
    – psithurism
    Mar 7, 2022 at 21:34
  • @psithurism In law, you mean. In reality, why not say "Hey-hey!" when it gets to touching if the party finds it objectionable?
    – Trunk
    Mar 8, 2022 at 0:48
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I'll offer a different viewpoint for your consideration, but it's just a theory and I don't necessarily advocate it.

I almost didn't write this after reading all of the comments, but as a Stack Exchange answer it may contain something helpful to future readers even if it doesn't apply in this specific case.

He'd turn others away from office hours if it was just the two of us, often brush up against me or touch my arm when there was no need, offer unprompted help to me with things outside of class, and generally pay me more mind than other students in the class either by calling on me more or conversing with me more than others.

You mentioned that you got an "A" in your class which means you're pretty good in this area!

It might be possible that the elevated attention was academic; intended at least to give a student with particular promise encouragement and support in a still-sexist academic world.

For this theory to work, the only thing that doesn't quite fit is the "brush(ing) up against me or touch(ing) my arm".

These days most people who are expressive physically know to "self-censor" and not touch someone else in an academic or any workplace situation.

Straight men will sometimes ignore that and touch other men because they feel it can't possibly be misinterpreted, gay men may tend to touch other men less for fear it might be misinterpreted as a sexual advance or "gratuitous groping". On the other hand gay men might feel more comfortable touching women the way two women colleagues sometimes touch because they think it's "understood" that it's not an advance.

Basically the politics of touching is complicated!

Perhaps the brushing and touching was not meant as a sexual advance, and all of the elevated attention was meant to encourage a promising student.

And perhaps he simply likes you as a friend, is lonely, and would like to be your friend outside of class in a nonsexual way. Men and women can be friends! It does happen.

That might help explain their strong reaction to your email.

And of course everything could be exactly as you suspect as well!


... - what do I do?

Much of the advice here is of the "leave it alone and move on" variety and that certainly could be seen as the prudent thing to do, and if there are personal safety issues it would be bad to advise to the contrary.

But if this misinterpretation theory feels like it might ring true then getting to the bottom of it might be something to consider. But that's really a secondary concern and depends on your judgement of the situation.

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    I could see your point (though I don't agree with its interpretation) until "That might help explain their strong reaction to your email." If the TA wanted to be friends, his response to the email would be more likely to be apologetic and embarrassed than to act like he hates the OP
    – Chris H
    Mar 6, 2022 at 14:56
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    @ChrisH as I mention I don't necessarily advocate this either. This isn't Interpersonal SE so we shouldn't dwell on this but the OP only says "The TA hates me now" and "and as a result he now seems to hate me" but doesn't seem to say anything about how the TA now actually acts. I think it's an expression that could include complete avoidance. Not everyone would jump to an apology; fear, sadness, confusion and compassion are all reasons that one might decide to simply withdraw. There's simply not enough information here to say what is more likely.
    – uhoh
    Mar 6, 2022 at 15:27
  • I interpret it slightly differently but suspect that personal experience and my own rather strict views on proper behaviour influence my reading. While I don't agree enough to vote this up, I'm not voting down either - the system doesn't handle a sort of devil's advocate answer very well
    – Chris H
    Mar 7, 2022 at 10:53
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    @ChrisH firs sentence says I do not necessarily advocate this answer and it goes without saying that I never advocate evil. I'm only saying that one might consider alternative or non-mainstream interpretations.
    – uhoh
    Mar 7, 2022 at 14:52
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    @uhoh I went from a C- and fearing I'd fail earlier on in the semester to an A overall at the end, so his attention absolutely was not because I was some prodigy with the subject matter. I struggled a lot with it, which is why I was in office hours so frequently. Ofc, maybe he turned others away because I needed as much extra help as I did, but that's still not ok. They were enrolled in the class, same as I was. Mar 8, 2022 at 4:13

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