Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Of David Letterman and relationship ethics

Author and seminary prof Mike Wittmer wrote an excellent post about the David Letterman debacle. In it, he questions the genuineness of Letterman's repentance, since the comedian continues to mine the situation's comic potential.

In making this point, Wittmer posits that Letterman "used his position of power to receive sexual favors from some of his female employees. Obviously they are not pure either, but Dave is more culpable because he held by far the most power in their relationship."

One of his commenters questions this assumption of Letterman's culpability: "How do you know that Letterman used power as leverage in these relationships? How are these women who used sex exploitatively more vulnerable than men? ...I can’t connect all the dots between our facts, conjectures and judgments."

I understand the commenter's concern regarding our assumptions of power and exploitation and vulnerability. After all, haven't women spent the last forty years proving we are powerful? Who's to say the female staffers weren't, in fact, taking advantage of Dave?

Maybe another perspective will help "connect the dots."

Take Letterman's fame and gender out of the equation — he is a boss. As boss, he was in a position of power over these women even if they consented. Regardless of whether job threats are ever actually uttered, a boss is in a position of power over his employees. That's why sexual harassment laws exist: to protect the more vulnerable (the employee) from the more powerful (the boss).

Although a similar argument could be made regarding the relative social (and physical) power of the two sexes, the fact that Letterman is male and the staffers are female is not the main issue here. The main issue, I would say, is that he took advantage of his position. As their boss, he is already one step above them on the power ladder.

Now, add his fame and his gender back into the equation, and the power gap widens. Letterman is at least three steps above his staffers on that ladder, towering over them in terms of relative power. Are they really in a position to decline his advances?

In the counseling profession, ethical codes expressly prohibit counselor/client sexual relationships. Like sexual harassment laws, ethical codes protect the more vulnerable (the client) from the more powerful (the counselor). The associations responsible for these codes (ACA, APA, AAMFT) emphasize this point because they understand the power gap between the counselor and client.

Even secular governing bodies understand the potential in human nature for the powerful to exploit the vulnerable.

Jesus understood it too:
Jesus said to his disciples: "Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin." Luke 17:1-2


  1. Well said! Sin is no respecter if gender.

  2. I read of "the Letterman debacle," as you're calling it, and I'm glad you are making these observations.

    While we're on the topic, Hollywood offered an interesting reversal of gender power in employer/employee dynamics in the recent movie, "The Proposal." I don't necessarily recommend it for its own sake, but I do think, if you watch it, it is important to note Sandra Bullock's character used her role as chief editor inappropriately over a male employee to protect herself. She used his desire to climb the journalistic corporate ladder as a way to manipulate him into doing what she wanted. This situation, to me, seems similar to Letterman's.

    Regardless of whether the sex with these women was consensual (which calls for another whole blog post dissecting that line of reasoning), Letterman had to know of his own advantage in the situation, whether he was one, two, four or a million steps above the women in question.

    On the flip side, it would be no better to hear of this happening (in real life) if the boss were female and the employee male. Perhaps the favors sought and methods used would vary according to gender differences, but the sin of motive and method are the same, and consequences ought to stand. Sin is sin, no matter the color.

  3. My point exactly -- Letterman knew his advantage, and he used it... like we humans do, when we're acting under our own self-will.

    Only through Christ's power are we ever able to lay down that self-will and think of the other person. Jesus set the standard for emptying oneself of power for the sake of the weaker and more vulnerable (Phil. 2:5-8).

  4. Adam F.4:08 PM

    Rachel and Pam,
    I appreciate these thoughts.

    Re: consequences, what kind of consequences do you think would be right for Letterman?

  5. Adam, that's a good question.

    I'm guessing the network Human Resources dept. has a policy on sexual harassment, and it likely includes consequences. Those consequences should apply regardless of the employee's position.

  6. Adam F10:57 AM

    If sexual harassment is alleged, I would agree.

    I think a person's appeal is complicated, and I would need to be convinced that power is always a controlling factor in these relationships, even when they're consensual.

    I see you're a counselor Pam, is there a research consensus on this matter? That power is always an influence on these relationships, even when seemingly consensual?

    Here's an experience of mine, it's one lens through which I'm viewing this scandal: I worked in a place with one of my male friends, and this friend was being rigorously pursued by the place's (female) manager. To complicate an already sticky situation, the manager's mother was the owner, and got involved by calling my friend during work and saying "My daughter's on the other line and wants to talk to you." Sticky situation. My friend was able to ride those weeks out without capitulating to a date. So I know people can turn down their bosses, but I realize the gender difference may make a difference - but how?

  7. Adam, from my research on other things I can tell you there's hardly ever consensus on anything in this field!

    But all joking aside, you've brought up several interesting points. Rather than responding here, would it be OK with you if I took some time to do some thinking and research on this for a later blog post?

  8. Adam F2:13 PM

    Pam, you are very kind. Absolutely, I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

    I'm interested in this scandal for several reasons. I think the biggest reason is that whether Americans are conscious of what they're doing or not, they're crystallizing opinions and values about relationships, integrity, and entertainment.


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