On Sunday evening, Alex Morse, the 31-year-old openly gay mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, issued what can loosely be termed an apology after news emerged that the College Democrats of Massachusetts had accused him of “inappropriate sexual relations with college students.” And his apology, if it can be called that, leaves a lot to be desired.
UMass’s student newspaper the Massachusetts Daily Collegian first reported last Friday that Morse, who’s running a progressive campaign for Congress backed by groups like Justice Democrats and MoveOn, has a history of what the paper described as “inappropriate sexual relations with college students before and during his congressional campaign.” The allegations come from a letter the College Democrats of Massachusetts sent to Morse last Thursday, in which they wrote that Morse used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain” and that “[n]umerous incidents over the course of several years have shown that it is no longer appropriate to encourage interaction between College Democrats and Alex Morse.”
More on Morse’s alleged behavior, from the Massachusetts Daily Collegian:
The behavior in question centered on three issues:
The first issue alleges that Morse regularly matched with students on dating apps, including Tinder and Grindr, who were as young as 18 years old. These students included members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts, UMass Amherst Democrats and other groups in the state.
The second issue, “Using College Democrats events to meet college students and add them on Instagram, adding them to his ‘Close Friends’ story and DMing them, both of which have made young college students uncomfortable,” according to the letter.
“We have heard countless stories of Morse adding students to his ‘Close Friends Story’ and Direct Messaging members of College Democrats on Instagram in a way that makes these students feel pressured to respond due to his status,” the letter read.
The third issue: “Having sexual contact with college students, including at UMass Amherst, where he teaches, and the greater Five College Consortium.”
On Sunday, the College Democrats of Massachusetts issued a public statement in which the group wrote that their initial letter “was written at the direct request of those affected by [Morse’s] behavior.” And the group made it clear why they believe Morse abused his power, putting students in an incredibly tricky position:
For an elected official who is also a lecturer at a university (a position that involves holding both academic and political power over students) to sleep with students at that university is unacceptable. In addition to being a Mayor and a lecturer, Mayor Morse is a widely-admired and well-connected gatekeeper to progressive politics in Massachusetts and nationally, which makes the task of refusing his advances fraught for college students who wish to enter progressive politics themselves. Cumulatively, the Mayor’s various positions of power create a significant and undeniable power imbalance between himself and the college students he sought out after meeting them at our events.
The group added, “[W]here such a lopsided power dynamic exists, consent becomes complicated.”
In a lengthy “apology” Morse posted on his social media accounts on Sunday night, he writes that he had “consensual sexual encounters” with college students that he met through dating apps, but denied that he had abused his power. “I have never, in my entire life, had a non-consensual sexual encounter with anyone. I have never used my position of power as Mayor and UMass lecturer for romantic or sexual gain, or to take advantage of students,” Morse wrote.
It’s a weaselly, at times contradictory apology, one that acknowledges the very salient gray issues around consent and power dynamics that the College Democrats raised before Morse proclaims that he did nothing wrong.
“I also recognize that some students felt uncomfortable with interactions they had with me. I am sorry for that. This is unacceptable behavior for anyone with institutional power,” Morse wrote, before writing that he himself had not, according to his own opinion, abused his institutional power. “[F]or the past few years, there has been an important conversation underway in this country about power dynamics in romantic or sexual relationships. This conversation is long overdue—and while I never used my power in a problematic way, I understand why the issue would be raised.”
Then Morse took his “apology” to a place that I frankly find astounding—in his lengthy statement, he frames the College Democrats criticizing his behavior as an attack on the LGBT community. “And to the many members of the queer community that have reached out to me in recent days, it’s clear that many of you feel that these recent events, and the language used in response, aren’t just an attack on me, but on all of us,” Morse wrote. “You’re genuinely outraged, as I am, by the invocation of age-old anti-gay stereotypes.” He continued: “I say this not to shirk responsibility for having made anyone uncomfortable. I am simply highlighting the fact that I am being held to a different standard, one deeply connected to a history of surveilling the sex lives of people like me.” This framing was echoed by the Victory Fund’s statement of support for Morse, in which the LGBT PAC wrote, “The media and voters should review the allegations and determine whether a straight candidate would be held to the same scrutiny and standards.”
I can guess at what stereotypes Morse is referring to, but the students themselves are pointing out that it’s the specific power dynamics at play that muddy consent, and not the age difference between Morse and students he had relationships with. (As the College Democrats wrote themselves, their criticism is not about whether those relationships can truly be consensual, but his pattern of behavior: “Even if these scenarios are mutually consensual, the pattern of Morse using his platform and taking advantage of his position of power for romantic or sexual gain, specifically toward young students, is unacceptable.”)
It’s not about sex—it’s about power, which is a mantra that all of us, and especially people running for higher office, should have internalized by now. That Morse would attend events run by the College Democrats and then subsequently slide into the DMs of students, and that Morse, who taught at UMass Amherst from 2014 to 2019, would have sexual relationships with students—are a clear violation of the boundaries of acceptable behavior. (And possibly the university’s own guidelines—as the Daily Collegian reported, UMass is launching an investigation into whether Morse violated the school’s policy around relationships with professors and students, which states that “faculty are prohibited from entering into a sexual relationship with any student or postdoc for whom the faculty member has any responsibility for supervision, evaluation, grading, advising, employment, or other instructional or supervisory activity.”) No one is criticizing him for being gay—people, myself included, are criticizing him for gross behavior that leans towards the predatory that, if he were a straight man, would be equally criticized, if not more so.
While some have called for Morse to resign as mayor of Holyoke, it doesn’t appear he has any plans to step down, and as he made clear in his statement on Sunday evening, he plans to continue to run for Congress. “For my part,” he wrote, “I intend to take our campaign’s progressive, inclusive message to the voters of the First District.”