Power dynamic present in Franco’s online solicitation

Column | Nothing, if not Critical

Sexuality remains, perhaps, one of the most intimate forms of communication that humans do on a regular, and frequent, basis. In particular, sexual communication remains the foundation of a healthy sexual relationship. Without clear, explicit and enthusiastic communication, sexual partners cannot give or receive consent.

This was recently seen in the case of American author and actor James Franco. The 35-year-old actor recently came under scrutiny for using the Internet to solicit sex with a Scottish minor — a federal crime across the United States. Although the 17-year-old student rejected Franco’s offer, and Franco respected her decision, the actor’s texts came off as highly assertive and completely inappropriate. In particular, Franco pushed the 17-year old fan to decide, “Yes or no? Tomorrow or thurs [sic]?” to meet in her hotel room.

Not all Franco fans are convinced that the American actor was sincere about his proposition. Many writers have speculated that the text messages were part of a publicity campaign for Franco’s 2013 movie, “Palo Alto,” where Franco plays a schoolteacher who seduces one of his students. However, regardless of whether Franco’s actions were real or staged, his conversation reveals a much deeper problem — the role power dynamics play within sexual relations.

As a requirement for sex, understanding sexual consent is vital to deconstructing the power dynamics within sexuality. According to the University of Michigan’s “Sexual Assault Prevention & Awareness Center,” sexual consent is described as, “a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed in mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity.” The University’s website notes that consent can be withdrawn at any point, and that consent, “may not be valid if a person is being subjected to actions or behaviors that elicit emotional or psychological pressure, intimidation or fear.” Conceptualizing sexual consent also includes understanding the power differences created “when one person holds a great deal of power over another person,” which the University lists as a form of “influencing any sexual interactions between [two people].” In the case of Franco’s sexual solicitation, the fame and popularity of Franco’s celebrity status can create this very same psychological pressure and intimidation for sexual conduct.

In other words, celebrities hold a power difference over their fans, because of their celebrity status and cultural prominence.

Indeed, celebrities have often used their fame in order to sexually pressure or coerce others. In 1956, rock ‘n’ roll star Elvis Presley repeatedly groped 17-year-old Kay Wheeler, the president of the national Elvis Presley fan club. Without her consent, he proceeded to hold her against his body and kiss her in front of reporters. Wheeler later admitted that Presley, “should have been under freaking arrest” for his actions. Other musicians have also exploited their cultural power in order to repeatedly assault others. According to Stephen Davis’s biography, “Hammer of the Gods: the Led Zeppelin Saga,” Led Zeppelin singer and songwriter Robert Plant hid a “relationship” with a 14-year-old groupie, Lori Maddox. After noticing Maddox in a nightclub, Plant asked a groupie to kidnap the minor, and bring her to his house: regardless of whether she refused. The illegal “affair” continued for several years, until Plant eventually left Maddox.

Evidently, fame in its own right, creates a serious power dynamic within sexual relationships. In many situations, cultural fame becomes a coercive characteristic, which can pressure sexual partners to consent, or silence their ability to withhold consent.

Granted, this does not mean celebrities can never be sexually active with non-celebrities. However, celebrities must be aware of the power dynamic their cultural fame brings to sexual relationships. When Franco asked question after question to his 17-year-old fan, his actions were overbearing and pressured for consent. Also the fact that Franco withheld communication from his fan — stating, “If you don’t want to meet, then text me when you do [double space] Bye” — reveals how Franco used her personal availability as a bargaining chip for sexual conduct.

Although James Franco and his younger fan were both technically over the age of consent, Franco’s actions represent the inherent influence that is found within celebrity sexual relationships. As famous figures with an aura of cultural significance surrounding their actions, celebrities hold a massive amount of power over their fans. And for Franco to pressure a 17-year-old fan is completely inexcusable. Although the ability to consent might be legal, Franco’s actions hold a coercive element — one which many celebrities thrust onto others in sexual relations.

Philip Wythe is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English with a minor in political science. Their column, “Nothing, if not Critical,” normally runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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