Please be advised this article contains discussion of sexual assault, harrassment.
Western Massachusetts is receiving national attention in light of allegations that Holyoke mayor Alex Morse acted inappropriately with college students. Morse became the youngest and first openly gay mayor of the city at 22 years old. Nine years later, he is challenging our 32 year incumbent U.S. representative, Richard Neal, in the state primary.
On Aug. 7, 2020, the University of Massachusetts newspaper, The Daily Collegian reported that the UMass College Democrats banned the mayor from attending any of their future events due to a “pattern of behavior that put college students in uncomfortable situations.” They allege that Alex Morse abused his role as mayor and adjunct professor of urban government and politics by using college events, social media and dating apps to form sexual relationships with the students. The story was quickly picked up by local and national media outlets.
Morse acknowledged that he had “consensual adult relationships” with undergraduate students. He maintains that he did not use the one UMass College Democrat event he attended to pick up students, nor did he act improperly on social media. Additionally, he believes that the release of the letter, three weeks before the election, was motivated by students who support the Neal campaign. The Intercept claims that the letter and its publishing was part of a year-long plan to sabotage Morse’s campaign and was “engineered” by students and the state party. A student and “Neal Stan” believed that if he got the information about Morse out there, he would gain the favor of the Neal campaign. Public opinion shifted in the mayor’s favor as people saw this simply as a poorly orchestrated attempt to ruin Morse’s campaign. The mayor went from losing key endorsements to breaking his record for the highest amount of donations per week.
In an interview with Buzzfeed News, titled “Alex Morse Would Like You to Know That He Has Sex,” the mayor stated that he “won’t apologize for being human.” He believes that the media quickly seized the opportunity to perpetuate the narrative that gay people are predators and that he was characterized unfairly.
This entire situation is a complete mess and very little information is currently known about what truly transpired and led to the release of the open letter. What is clear is that Alex Morse had sex with college students as a 31 year-old mayor and professor.
He hasn’t hidden his preference for significantly younger men. A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine found Morse on Tinder. We were both involved in local politics and were surprised to see a prominent local figure online. I wondered why Morse included 18 in his age range. Thus, it came as no surprise when I read that there were serious allegations about the nature of Morse’s contact with students.
The mayor spins the story to seem as if people are outraged at his use of dating apps and/or by his sexual activity as a gay man. I am sure that many homophobes in Western Massachusetts hold his sexuality against him. It is essential that we look at this issue carefully to ensure that he isn’t met with unfair judgement as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. There is nothing wrong with him using dating apps or having sex or simply being gay. Regardless, it is wrong to ignore the imbalanced power dynamics in his relationships with students that make his actions inappropriate.
We are left with two significant questions:
Firstly, can both parties truly consent when there is such a disparity in power? I agree with the way that Macalester’s Consensual Relationship Policy thoughtfully answers this question.
“Anyone who engages in a sexual or romantic relationship where a degree of power or authority exists must understand that the degree to which such a relationship is truly mutually consensual can be questioned. The power differential inherent in faculty/student, staff/student, and supervisor/employee relationships compromises the subordinate’s ability to freely decide.”
Morse may not have broken the UMass behavioral guidelines that forbid relationships between professors and their students or mentees if it is true that Morse only slept with students who he did not teach. While that matters to the university and his future prospects teaching there, it isn’t important to this analysis. This is a moral issue. We need to collectively declare that his actions are wrong and ensure that we have deeper conversations about consent. We should not be okay with a prominent local politician and professor sleeping with undergrads. This shouldn’t be controversial. I’d be alarmed if Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey was picking up college students at the University of Minnesota.
Secondly, we need to decide whether or not sexual misconduct should disqualify political candidates. Actions like Morse’s show poor judgement. Moreover, if he is given more power, like that of a U.S. representative, he could continue to use his status for sexual gain. At the end of the day, Morse’s behavior is legal and consequently will not warrant a disqualification of his candidacy. The voters must decide whether or not they feel comfortable with these patterns of behavior and if not, to what extent they will tolerate deficits in character for the sake of their political ideologies.