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August 8th, 2010

Recently i have had occasion to think about power in relationships--relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, masters and slaves,  priests and laypersons, teachers and students, etc..  I make three assumptions: 1) interpersonal relationships tend toward equality;  2) institutionalized relationships tend toward inequality; and 3) equality and inequality refer primarily to relationship power.
Most of my interest in power has been in reference to organizational and institutional power; i have also had occasion, as a teacher, to learn about interpersonal power.  Yet most relationships lay in the interstices between the interpersonal and the institutional.  Dianne, is a person and my equal.  She is also a woman while i am a man, she is a wife while i am a husband.  Because we are 21st century Americans, there is also  a pretty good chance that i will be from two to ten years her senior.  Does the fact that i am male, husband, and older affect the way power flows in our relationship?  Of course, it does, to my shame and to both our sorrow.

A recent book on the Hemingses and the Jeffersons  has raised again the question of the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, who fathered several of her children.  The author uses the fact that Sally Hemings chose to return from Paris to the U.S. with Jefferson as evidence that their relationship was, perhaps, consensual, and, perhaps, loving.  But how can you untangle the personal from the institutional?  Tom was a master (and a founding father!).  Sally was an enslaved person.  Both of them had to know what that meant.  How could even they, let alone us, untangle the multiple threads of that relationship?

My parish priest, whom i respect and love, has had charges against him resurrected after 30 years by a man, whom i do not know, who claims to have been sexually assaulted and harassed by him.   The man says certain events occurred; the priest says they didn't.  Let me suppose, for a moment, that sexual acts did occur and that they were "consensual."  Let me also assume that the fact that the behavior was "sexual" in nature is of no concern.  What are the moral and psychological implications of a relationship between a thirty-two year old priest and a 20 year old Catholic?  I am not a Catholic and i dont believe in "God" in the same sense that most monotheists do.  Yet, as i watch the priest during mass interceding on my behalf for God's mercy and my salvation, i cannot help but experience a little bit of awe.  If this priest were to ask something of me, would i be as free to accept or refuse as i would with any other man?  Would the fact that we were friends make a difference? (Probably, yes).  Would the fact that I knew we both considered ourselves equal make a difference?  Suppose i were ten years his junior instead of fifteen years his senior, would that make a difference?

In thirty-six years of teaching, i was never accused of taking advantage of the teacher-student relationship.  This is not something to be proud of; it is a basic minimum requirement of the profession.  Still, i have observed among the exceptionally fine faculty of my former school some instances of criminal abuse, quite a few allegations of abuse of power, and many actions which i considered questionable because a faculty member was not aware of his or her power over students or chose to disregard that differential power.

When Tom and Sally had sex, who initiated the act?  Did Tom ask or approach Sally as an equal?  Could he have?  Could Sally say, "Not tonight, Tom?  Could she have?  Did she think she could have?  I'll never know.  I am not a believer in scrupulosity, but here is an area where a person with any differential degree of organizational, institutional, cultural, or personal power must be super cautious about what he or she asks of another.  Am i so moral that i can't make mistakes in this area?  I doubt it.  I had better watch out.



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