Matt Lauer, Consent, and Power Dynamics

A lot of people have and will write about Matt Lauer’s…defence?…after the Ronan Farrow book, all of them more renowned than I. Here’s another take anyway, because it still feels important that men write about this so that men hear it from other men and women can take some comfort in knowing that men who are not Matt Lauer are starting to get it.

I want to put Lauer aside though and focus instead on a analogous situation to walk through what I don’t understand about Lauer’s (clearly) not understanding this.

People around my office like me. I trust that because the information often comes not from colleagues to my face but via other colleagues who like to inform me after the other party leaves, “They really enjoy working with you.”

My wife, along with the colleagues, tells me that I am objectively charming, though she is kind enough to my obsessive mind to take the time to articulate why she thinks that is the case. People tend to find me super intelligent, funny, and kind. I’m no genius, but my wife attributes the first to having a natural curiosity, a logical way of thinking, a broad base of general knowledge in several areas, and, most importantly, a mix of social and emotional intelligence to balance the logic.

My humour is self-deprecating and vulnerable, which she said projects an air of confidence even when I am anything but confident. Before we began dating, it was a topic of conversation among my would-become wife and other colleagues – I spoke sincerely about my faults and insecurities in a matter-of-fact way. They saw that as the epitome of confidence while I was managing multiple anxiety issues.

Now what if I were to ascend the ranks at this office? We perform the centralised functions for our company at a national level, so the big names in our building are big names. The “if you want to succeed at this company, you probably don’t want to piss him/her/them off” kind of names. What if my bottom-of-the-ladder charm found its way into one of those premier positions – you know, the sort of position Matt Lauer occupied at his network?

This is where the Matt Lauer deflections, defences, indignations, and lack of apologies start to fall apart.

Let’s assume I was not even that charming and I simply occupied the position. Let’s further assume the presence of an ambitious, striking young woman at the office willing to do anything to succeed. She sees the modestly handsome target of opportunity and decides, “I’ll seduce him and either compel him to advance me in a sort of testosterone-fueled blindness or blackmail him with the information.”

As a person (not a man – any person) occupying that position of authority in the organisation, how could I not see the potential consequences of condoning that behaviour or succumbing to it?

Let’s instead assume that she is not the “gold-digging” type. In this scenario, she’s just a young woman genuinely interested in me as a person. She enjoys my personality and develops an attraction that becomes sexual, and she decides to act on it.

Still, how could I not see the potential consequences of pursuing that course? It does not matter if she is not a direct report of mine, the fact that I occupy such a prominent position within the organisation creates a power dynamic that affects any relationship I have with any employee. Remember, this is the sort of position where people who are not sexually attracted to me feel like, “Stay on his good side if you want to succeed because he’s not giving opportunities to people who piss him off.”

And these were both hypotheticals where I’m a perfect angel up to that point and the women, with various motives, cannot control themselves. That’s not even the situation presented with Lauer. It would be to say that I, while occupying that sort of position within the company, behaved inappropriately towards the women. We are no longer talking about a situation where she created the circumstances, but now one where I would be imposing these power dynamic concerns onto her.

That last bit is the piece that Lauer clearly still does not understand. This is Lauer and countless other people (mostly men) in positions of power who misinterpret the “Yes” of the other person as enthusiastic consent rather than the coerced “Yes” of someone facing an existential power imbalance.

Yes, men in particular, that is a thing. It’s especially a thing in these situations, but part of the reason we can take this as fact rather than anecdotal is that it exists in relationships that contain virtually no power dynamic. Ask around some of your friends – how many of them have said yes to sex when they did not want it?

It comes in many forms. Sure, maybe she was indifferent to the idea of sex and felt like, “I’ll do it to make him happy.” That’s not consent either, but at least it’s a more tolerable grey area in all of this. The more heinous form is when she says yes because past experience informed her that saying no can involve repercussions far more serious than 37 seconds of terrible sex. Men become violent and aggressive with women who reject them on far too regular a basis.

With my own wife we made sure to delay sex. We worked together for months and then dated for a couple more before we made that decision because, as I expressed early, it was just as important we trusted that we would respect “No” or “Stop” as much as we respected that we would wait until we were both ready.

No means no.

Yes does not always mean yes.

Men like Lauer, as he displayed in his rancid response, still are not getting that part. It belies a lack of understanding about the power dynamic, which is itself critical because the power, not the sex, underscores these situations.

I do believe Lauer when he says that she consented to their sex acts. I believe her that Lauer raped her. Why? Because Lauer is not understanding the power dynamic that would cause someone in her situation to “consent”. His indignation now in the wake of the revelations is condescending and disgusting.

The final point here is this:

Some people may conclude that this is her post hoc rationalisation. She did consent freely, now regrets it, and changed the script to avoid accountability. Her role in all of this is a completely different matter. Right or wrong, Lauer still chose to engage in sexual activity in this sort of power dynamic. The nature of their roles within that organisation necessarily implies a power dynamic that exerts undue pressure on her in this sort of situation and he chose to exploit that.

With great power comes great responsibility, right?

“How come she didn’t have a responsibility to say no?”

His power exerts pressure that complicates her ability to say no because the consequences of saying no are potentially far more severe for her. Knowing this, and Lauer has a responsibility to know this, Lauer also has the responsibility to adjust the power dynamic of the situation accordingly. He did not. Instead, he decided to pursue an extramarital affair. Zero consequence for Matt to say no, tons of potential consequence if he says yes. Matt said yes. Welcome to the consequences, Matt.

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