Consenting Adults or Hierarchical Power Differential?

updated 8/12/20

Robby Soave looks at the controversy over Alex Morse, the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke, Mass., who is in hot water for sexual intimacy with men as young as 18. Legally, all involved seem to be adults, and no one was anyone’s supervisor or professor, but as long as there’s a power differential these relationships are problematic.

In a Democratic primary race, Morse is running for Congress against incumbent Rep. Richard Neal, chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

More. The Intercept reports that:

With the allegations short of details or any student claiming to be a victim, the focus has shifted to the origin of the letter. The man serving as chief strategist for the UMass Amherst College Democrats, Timothy Ennis, recently completed a class with Neal, who teaches a journalism course. Ennis, according to two members of the College Democrats chapter, was open about his hopes of working for Neal in the future.

Clare Sheedy, a rising sophomore and a Morse supporter, was active in the College Democrats chapter and knew Ennis through their joint work on behalf of the Pete Buttigieg campaign for president….“He spoke very highly of Mr. Neal,” Sheedy said. “What he said to me was he wanted Neal to be his ‘in’ to politics and work his way up from there.” …

Ennis was president of the UMass College Democrats from April 2019 until April 2020, at which point he transitioned to chief strategist. That same month, Morse said, College Democrats requested a donation from his campaign. He declined, saying that his war chest wasn’t large enough. A number of other Massachusetts politicians, including Neal, did make such donations. The president of the state chapter of the College Democrats later took to Twitter to applaud Neal for donating $1,000 to the Amherst chapter.

And this:

3 Comments for “Consenting Adults or Hierarchical Power Differential?”

  1. posted by John Herr on

    Just a friendly spelling clarification. I have lived in Holyoke, MA and it isn’t spelled Holyoak.

    [IGFCultureWatch: Typo has been fixed. Thanks.]

  2. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    But many on the progressive left — especially campus social-justice activist types — cling to an odd definition of consent in which the concept is voided if any party to a sexual encounter later feels conflicted about it, or if the power and privilege differentials of the participants have not been fully worked out ahead of time.

    The Reason article and underlying press reports (e.g. “College Democrats allege inappropriate behavior between Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and college students”, Massachusetts Daily Collegian, August 7, “Jewish congressional candidate Alex Morse faces allegations of inappropriate relationships”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, August 9) and the Reason article itself, which quotes from the Massachusetts Daily Collegian article, do not support Soave’s premise that the heart of the matter is that progressives believe that “[consent] is voided if any party to a sexual encounter later feels conflicted about it, or if the power and privilege differentials of the participants have not been worked out ahead of time.” That assessment does not fit the facts.

    The College Democrats of Massachusetts did not — repeat not — allege that Mayor Morse engaged in non-consensual sex. The Mayor says that he did not, and (absent further developments, which seem unlikely) it seems clear enough that he did not. Whatever sex he had with students was (we can assume) consensual, and the letter did not contain or allude to complaints otherwise. So the Reason complaint that “consent] is voided if any party to a sexual encounter later feels conflicted about it” in the minds of progressives is misdirection.

    The allegations which led to the CDM disinviting Mayor Morse from future involvement with the organization involve three quite different behaviors, as explained in the initial letter and a follow-up Twitter post by the CDM further explaining the letter.

    The first allegation involved what gays of my age would have called “trolling” back in the day — an older gay man seeking out young gay men for “friendship”, with an eye to eventual seduction. The letter alleges that Mayor Morse frequented CDM gatherings and then actively sought out students he met at CDM meetings privately on social media “in a manner widely understood by our generation to indicate intimacy”. That, apparently, made a number of young gay men uncomfortable. It appears that “trolling” is as unwelcome to young gay men today as it way 50-odd years ago, and that’s a good thing in my opinion.

    The second allegation is that Mayor Morse did so from as actual or perceived position of power, which (according to the follow-up) “[made] the task of refusing his advances fraught for college students who wish to enter progressive politics themselves”. Mayor Morse worked the college Democrats, a pool of young men interested in political careers of one sort or another. The CDM follow-up describes Mayor Morse as “a widely-admired and well-connected gatekeeper to progressive politics in Massachusetts and nationally”. Put that combination together, and it is understandable that young gay men in the CDM felt uncomfortable about Mayor Morse’s social media interactions with them.

    The third allegation — distinct in kind and character from the first two, but perhaps offering an insight into Mayor Morse’s behavior on social media — is that Mayor Morse had consensual sex with college students, although none were in his classes or under his direct control, apparently. UM-Amherst is looking into those relationships, and the University will decide whether or not action is indicated.

    The first and second allegations, it seems to me from the perspective of someone who is in the twilight of his years and was, at times, a target of trolls, were sufficient reason for college students affected by Mayor Morse’s behavior to feel uncomfortable with his behavior, and were also sufficient reason for the College Democrats of Massachusetts to disinvite Mayor Morse from future involvement with the organization.

    It seems that Soave disagrees with that assessment, and that’s his right. But this is not an incident that deserves to be blown up into a “progressives are unreasonable” trope in the national media, and, accordingly, I think that the Reason article is misdirected.

  3. posted by Jorge on

    “Legally, all involved seem to be adults, and no one was anyone’s supervisor or professor, but as long as there’s a power differential these relationships are problematic.”

    Sorry, but I’m reminded of the point Milo Yiannapoulos claims he was trying to make when he endorsed man-child relationships when he said that older-younger relationships are traditionally a way for gays to receive gay role models who can pass on their experiences.

    I often remark on the existence of the mentor role for very young women (often girls) in cultures that have had arranged marriages, only in this case the mentor is not the same as the sexual partner. There are major power differentials and potential for abuse here, too.

    So I’m not too impressed with the power differential argument alone. Increasing the power of a disenfranchised group is a fraught process. You don’t always know what you’re messing with when you tell people they can’t do things a certain way. It would be better to focus directly on the harm and abuse. Or directly on increasing equality of power.

    While I appreciate the points Tom raised hinting at the potential for sexual harassment, I again have to point out that, if the first two accusations are true, I hope disinviting Mr. Moore was managed carefully to avoid precisely the consequence feared–removing access of young gay politically ambitious Democrats from a powerful gatekeeper.

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