As Chris Woodhead says, pupil-teacher sex is indeed "experiential". But so are war, crime and serious illness

Chris Woodhead is undoubtedly correct in what he said about affairs between teachers and pupils: "I think human beings can get themselves into messes and I think those messes can sometimes be experiential and educative on both sides."

You could say the same of many of the things that happen to people that are generally portrayed in negative terms: being burgled, beaten up, having a serious illness, the death of a loved one, being involved in a war. These are appalling experiences, but presumably you learn from them. I can only guess at what Woodhead means by the term "experiential", but if he means that it is something that becomes a part of our experience, and thus makes us what we are, this is true of everything that happens to us in our life, short of dying.

If anything, Woodhead was erring on the side of caution. He needn't have qualified it with the word "can". Everything that happens to us, however messy, must be experiential, and will also in some sense be educative unless we are so drunk at the time that we have no memory of it afterwards.

We all have a problem in unwishing events or acts from our past because they have made us what we are and got us where we are. We may regret who and where we were and wish we had made other choices. When Peter Sellers was asked what he would do if he were to live his life over again, he said he would do everything exactly the same except that he wouldn't see The Magus. Nevertheless, there is a stoical tradition according to which most of us feel, or try and tell ourselves, that we learn from our mistakes.

This can be put even more strongly. Maybe Chris Woodhead was arguing, like Nietzsche, that what doesn't kill you makes you strong. That is one of those sayings that is brilliant until you consider it for more than two seconds and then you realise there are plenty of things that may not quite kill you but leave you a bloody sight weaker than you were.

And just because you can learn from your mistakes doesn't mean you should set out to make mistakes or, to get back to the matter in hand, that teachers should regard their pupils as fair game for their sexual attentions.

The reason teachers shouldn't have sex with their pupils is similar to the reason dentists shouldn't molest their patients after they have anaesthetised them. We know that some dentists do molest their patients in those circumstances (and maybe some argue, at least in private, that no experiential harm is done) - and they do it because it's easy.

I would have difficulty in answering the questionnaire in the Guardian's education section about "me and my favourite teacher". The problem is not that I didn't have favourite teachers. It's just that I feel strange about them. Most teachers were good, bad, boring, contemptible but the two or three important ones were different. I was just obsessed with them the way people are supposed to be with gurus or religious leaders or psychoanalysts or movie directors (all of whom have habits of seducing those in their power). I was fascinated by their personalities and their lives as much as their opinions or knowledge. I imitated them, tried to impress them and win their approval.

In retrospect, I have no great interest in what they had to say about their subject. It was to do with the passion they had for it and I think it is this charisma that the best teachers have. Had they been women, they could have had sex with me if they'd wanted. Perhaps they could have anyway. Whatever Woodhead believes, I'm rather grateful they didn't.

Equally, Woodhead is right that seduction of pupils by their teachers is likely to be "educative on both sides". The problem is that the lessons drawn by the two parties are likely to be rather different. A middle-aged man, who may not be objectively attractive and is probably encumbered with a similarly middle-aged wife, has power over successive generations of eager young girls. "Educative" is one way of putting it for the effect on the girl in question. "Sadder but wiser" is how my grandmother would have put it.

I have no view on what Chris Woodhead's fate should be. But would his comments have been treated with such forbearance by Tony Blair if, instead of saying that sixth-formers should be sexually available to their teachers, he had said something genuinely irresponsible, such as calling for the abolition of the charitable status of private schools?

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers