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Conversation: Consent and power abuse

Consent. Silent acquiescence. Unwelcome behavior. Sexual misconduct. Abuse of power and status. The current national conversation on these topics is heatedly controversial, painfully difficult, and long overdue. Out of the hundreds of voices, perspectives, and revelations being spoken and written today, we’ve selected four that focus principally on the key element of the issue: consent. First, in her response to Louis C.K.’s statement admitting his abusive acts, Slate staff writer Christina Cauterucci considers the nature of consent and how it is given. Next, James Doubek and an NPR team interview several people on the complexities of drawing a line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. We also include Mike Wright’s report in the Telegraph on questions of consent in the familiar tale of Sleeping Beauty. And finally, a reminder from the Girl Scouts that girls should not be required to hug or kiss their relatives, even during holidays. Some of the content here involves blunt details of sexual impropriety; all of the content has the potential to stimulate painful memories, doubts and fears, shame and remorse, and much more. We hope you can listen with care, think with openness, treat your transgressions with honesty and your wounds with gentleness.

We suggest you read/listen to all four pieces before responding to any of the questions.


1. As Cauterucci’s essay states, Louis C.K. admits to a long and repeated pattern of inappropriate sexual behavior with women in his professional sphere. Many people have commended C.K. on his admission, but to Cauterucci, C.K.’s statement is offensive and totally inadequate. What reasons does she give? Summarize her argument. Do you agree with her thinking? Why or why not?

2. The Girl Scouts’ message is simple, clear, and straightforward: don’t require girls to express physical affection toward older relatives on demand. The reminder is accompanied by a photo that may, at first glance, seem unrelated to the theme of holidays and conviviality. The image does not depict a festive family gathering or children gleefully opening gifts, but rather, it shows one girl sitting alone. How well does that image work to complement the Girl Scouts’ message? In responding to that question, consider the composition of the photo, the facial expression and body language of the girl, the story that the photo might be suggesting, and any other feature that you find relevant. Is the photo well chosen? Why or why not?

3. Kaitlin Prest, one of NPR’s interviewees, states that she is “so happy to be in this moment” when people are investigating their own behavior and wrestling with questions of consent and accountability. Do you share her enthusiasm and optimism? Are you happy to be living through, and perhaps participating in, these discussions and debates? Why or why not? How do you feel about the issues? Exposed? Vindicated? Threatened? Perhaps fearful? Angry? Confused? Without disclosing more than you wish to, explain your feelings and attitudes toward a public issue that deeply involves personal behavior and experience.

4. Mike Wright reports on the case of a mother who objects to a Sleeping Beauty storybook used in her six-year-old son’s classroom. In contemporary versions of Sleeping Beauty (and other fairy tales, such as Snow White, as well), a beautiful maiden lies helpless and unconscious under an evil spell. A handsome prince comes along and kisses her, and she wakes up. What do such tales teach us about consent? Are they just silly children’s stories that have no effect at all, or do they influence romantic fantasies and behavior (for both maiden and prince) later in life? Explain your reasoning and conclusions.

5. The text portion of NPR’s report mentions multiple incidents of former President George H.W. Bush groping the behinds of women standing beside him during photo ops. Bush’s action, in each case, was the same, but the women’s responses varied substantially. One, for example, considered the act as a sexual assault while another viewed the incident as “innocent.” What might Christina Cauterucci say about these Bush incidents and about the variety of responses? Why do you think so? What could account for such varied reactions from the women? Might the Girl Scouts reminder and the Sleeping Beauty article offer some insight to help explain the differing responses? How? Explain your conclusions.

6. Interviewee Cathy Young asserts confidently that most people don’t have much trouble understanding consent. Consider the three other articles in this Conversation, as well as the other two interviewees in the NPR segment. Who, if anyone, might agree with Young’s assertion? Why do you think so? Point to specific passages, where possible, to support your conclusions. Based on your own experience, do you agree with Young? Why or why not?

7. The NPR interviewer asks where we draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. How can we make that distinction be clear and unambiguous? What do you think? Write an essay in which you address that question, using some or all of these additional questions to help you focus your thinking: Where is the line for you? Are you always certain, even in the moment, that a particular behavior—either yours or somebody else’s—is acceptable? How can we take into consideration power and status differentials in determining what is appropriate? As an extended example in your essay, create a scenario with variations—one appropriate and one inappropriate. Explain the differences between the variations.

I’ve been meaning to post something about The Big Bang Theory for a while now but it’s taken me ‘till now to really understand what it is about the show that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not exactly a believer in the whole “only write about the things you like, don’t trash the things you don’t” trend which seems to be plaguing comments sections in negative articles lately, but I wanted to be able to really examine why I don’t like TBBT rather than just slagging it off. My main questions being - Why don’t I like this anymore? Why do I feel uncomfortable watching it? And why do I get so annoyed when I see people sing its praises online? The thing which really sparked this post was seeing a raft of comments on Facebook, below the last round of voting in Television Without Pity’s Tubey Awards, claiming The Big Bang Theory to be “the best comedy on TV”. This made me angry so instead of posting an impulsive comment calling out their bad taste which I’d probably regret later, I decided to really analyse why seeing comments like that made me so mad when previously, although I didn’t really love the show, I’d never considered myself as disliking The Big Bang Theory.

Hell, I even have season one on dvd, it’s sitting right between Battlestar Galactica and Bored To Death in my alphabetised collection.

And here, I think, is where my problem with The Big Bang Theory lies…

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