Alarm bells were sounded over the weekend following vaguely-worded accusations of "inappropriate" sexual behavior by Alex Morse—the openly gay and politically progressive Mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts challenging powerful Democrat incumbent Congressman Richie Neal in the state's primary next month—as critics condemned what appeared as a potentially unfounded smear campaign against the 31-year-old politician as well as a troubling example of "creepy Victorian moralizing" and shaming of consensual adult behavior for political gain.
First reported by The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper of the University of Massachusetts, the allegations came in the form of a letter from the UMass College Democrats chapter which alleged—citing numerous but unspecified "stories we have heard"—that Morse, as Mayor and a part-time instructor at UMass Amherst, had romantic contact and consensual sexual relations with college students, none younger than 18, in the local area.
The allegations, which came with a decision from the student organization that Morse—running on a platform that includes Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and challenging corporate power—would no longer be invited by them to sponsored events, sparked national headlines in major state and national outlets (such as here, here, and here) nearly all of which treated the accusations as a potentially devastating scandal for the progressive candidate who is now vying to unseat Rep. Neal—one of the most powerful corporate-friendly Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives in a primary on September 1.
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) August 9, 2020
In a statement sent to the UMass Democrats in response to their allegations, Morse said: "I want to be clear that every relationship I've had has been consensual. However, I also recognize that I have to be cognizant of my position of power."
"As I've become more comfortable with myself and my sexuality, like any young, single, openly gay man, I have had consensual adult relationships, including some with college students," Morse further explained. "Navigating life as both a young gay man and an elected official can be difficult, but that doesn't excuse poor judgment."
Meanwhile, as liberal and progressive groups that had backed Morse so far in his campaign were quickly called on to withdraw their support, political observers such as The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald, an openly gay man himself, argued that what was emerging was a grotesque example of unfounded moralizing and misplaced outrage.
In an 11-part thread on Twitter, Greenwald detailed his critique of the episode on Saturday, including why the implications of what began in the wake of the accusations—largely from the so-called "liberal/left"—should be seen as broadly troubling:
There are factions of the liberal-left as obsessed with regulating, controlling & moralizing over the private *consensual* sex lives of adults as the 1980s Moral Majority.
(Nobody claims lack of consent; he’s a 31-year-old gay man, a lecturer who slept with none of his students) https://t.co/vvihWXw9xp
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) August 8, 2020
"Gay men spend their lives afraid of the toxic stereotype that they are dirty sexual predators who want to lure children into their 'lifestyle,'" lamented Greenwald, "and now this is the bigoted trope many leftists deploy for *consensual* dates with adults if it violates their little moral codes."
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In another tweet, he added: "Constantly fixating on and trying to judge and control the private consensual sex and romantic lives of other people is, I guess, one way to escape having to confront what's happening in your own. That's just one reason of many why it's incredibly unhealthy and creepy to do."
I read all I could read about Alex Morse and I gotta agree with Glenn. https://t.co/gmqSjDA932
— Fred (@WaywardWinifred) August 9, 2020
On the political implications in Morse's case, Greenwald said it should not be lost about what's at stake when progressives like Morse who are challenging entrenched corporate power face the very good possibility of being derailed by a controversy such as this.
"This was the left's last big chance to remove a hideous reactionary incumbent from Congress and replace him with a progressive," charged Greenwald, "and they blew it all up over Victorian sexual moralizing, homophobia, and a desire to control how **adults** consent to have sex with each other. Pathetic."
What the left is about to do to Alex Morse is fucking repulsive. They’ve given up on ever holding power or holding the powerful accountable, so they content themselves with ruining lives over ever more inscrutable moral prohibitions, which now includes consensual sex with adults. https://t.co/SfYZNF1BDX
— Matt Thomas (@MattThomasNYC) August 8, 2020
After it was pointed out that the UMass College Democrats have received large donations from the Richie Neal Campaign to support their activities, the group on Sunday, along with the College Democrats of Massachusetts, issued a statement which read in part: "To suggest that our decision to send the letter to Mayor Morse was a quid pro quo with Rep. Neal, his campaign, or anyone else is untrue, disingenuous, and harmful."
Also in the letter, the groups make it clear that "those affected by Mayor Morse's behavior" were directly involved in the writing of the initial letter, but that none are willing to come forward to publicly describe their interactions with Morse or exactly how they were made to "feel uncomfortable" by him.
With no specific accusation of sexual assault or misconduct in any of the reporting or the letter from the student organization—not even a stated violation of UMass policy which forbids consensual sexual activity between faculty and adult students only when a specific power dynamic exists, such as an active professor-student relationship—the hand-wringing over what Morse was alleged to have done was confounding to people like Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief of The Intercept, who spent much of the weekend looking at the story, asking probing questions about the details, and offering observations.
If he did actually have an inappropriate relationship with one of his own students, that’s way over the line. And it’s concerning he has not commented on that. But nobody seems to want to wait for that critical information. Or hear from an actual complainant.
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) August 9, 2020
"Would be quite something if the groups backing Alex Morse took a stand here on behalf of free, consenting adults not in a subordinate role to do what they want with their lives," Grim said on Saturday. "Not counting on it but we'll see."
In his response to the UMass College Democrats, Morse said that his powerful opponent, Congressman Neal, will likely "be eager to twist this into something it's not to score political points, but I would caution him against indulging in old negative stereotypes about gay men. I will not apologize for living out of the closet, for going on dates, and having consensual conversations."