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Sex and power in the case of Cardinal Keith O'Brien


Side Effects (M). Director: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Jude Law, Rooney Mara. 106 minutes

Reflecting on the case of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the former leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland who resigned amid accusations of sexual misconduct, journalist Catherine Deveney observed in The Guardian that it was power, and not homosexuality, that was at issue; commentators who accused O'Brien's detractors of a 'homophobic plot' misunderstood 'the nature of the power a spiritual director has over his seminarians'.

Deveny is right, of course. When a relationship is based in power, the party with the greater power has an ethical obligation to not act in any way that could be against the interests and wellbeing of the other. That is why sexual behaviour within relationships where power is inherent and necessary, such as between teacher and student or doctor and patient, is always ethically indefensible. And power free of ethics is a deeply unsettling thing.

It may not be immediately apparent, but just such a consideration of power is at the core of Side Effects, a new thriller from the prolific American filmmaker Soderbergh. In it, an upwardly mobile psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Law), prescribes experimental anti-depressant medication to an emotionally troubled young woman, Emily (Mara), for which he has received payment from a pharmaceutical company.

That Emily gives her consent only partly diminishes the ethical dubiousness of this commodification of her mental health. He is her doctor after all, the powerful party in the relationship. She trusts he has her best interests in mind, and his actions inherently betray this trust. This all comes to a head when a side effect apparently caused by the drug leads to tragic consequences for Emily, and professional devastation for Jonathan.

This is where things get tricky. Jonathan begins to suspect Emily has played him for a fool. He sets out to undo her, playing both detective and vigilante. As a self-appointed crusader for justice, Jonathan is the closest thing Soderbergh offers us to a hero. But, whether he is right or wrong about Emily, he is so unerringly self-interested, and so increasingly ethically compromised, that it is difficult ever to sympathise completely with him.

Truth be told, there has always been something a bit off about his interactions with Emily. His attention to her at the expense of his wife and stepson seem inappropriate, rather than workaholic in nature. At one point we learn that a former patient claimed he had an affair with her; he denies it, but his ethics are murky enough that we're prone to believe him capable of such a blatant abuse of power. Unethical behaviour begets unethical behaviour.

There is a neatness to the way the film ends that seems irksomely trite. But what irks most is not that it is too neat and formulaic, but that none of the characters really fits the formula. There is no one to root for here; what we are left with is not a sense of justice prevailing or of good triumphing over evil, but of power reasserting its place in the natural order of things. And power free of ethics is a deeply unsettling thing.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Side Effects, Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Catherine Deveny



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Existing comments

Interesting point when linked to the resigned Cardinal, "power free of ethics is a deeply unsettling thing". Given the behaviour of the Vatican and its minions around the world it is not unreasonable to say that the Catholic Church is in fact both powerful and 'free of ethics', nowithstanding the many from inside this mob, who deny that with all their might and insist that it is brim full with good ethics, but also a 'few bad apples'. A contestable statement then but pretty accurate when viewing this sham of a 'Christian' church from afar. I can see that even gay Popes and Cardinals might not want to see the Catholic Church reduced to being a bolthole for gay men only, and I doubt the Jesus-meek followers would be so meek to accept that either, being so hard to forgive and turn the other cheek on these matters, but maybe it is time to review the imagined ethics and real power within this moribund group and see if there really is a useful role for it, for the future.

Janice Wallace | 07 March 2013  

It is immensely gratifying to read Tim Kroenert's acknowledgment of the crucial and decisive role power plays in sexual relationships where power imbalance is inherent. Such power imbalance denies by default proper or valid consent on the part of the party with the lesser power, where that relationship finds its very basis and initiation in that power imbalance. Such is the situation I am still struggling to get the relevant powers that be to properly appreciate in my case. My case was forced into the public sphere due to this lack of acknowledgment carrying with it the lack of requisite proper long term accountability. As Tim notes, it is when a relationship is based in power, and here I note my instance of a younger lay female worshipper and a male cleric, where, power is inherent and necessary in their very meeting, that such a relationship is ethically indefensible. This is an absolute. Age of the party with the lesser power is not a defense for the party or parties with the greater power. In a corollary to this: an apology given to the one who had the lesser power in the relationship by a representative who also has greater power who uses terms such as boundary violation and inappropriate behaviour, minimises if not dismisses this crucial power imbalance. For congregants too, as ones with lesser power to receive an apology from a representative with greater power who speaks only of two adults and breaches of professional standards, minimises if not dismisses this crucial power imbalance. Thank you Tim for highlighting this fundamental factor of power imbalance in sexual relationships where power is necessary and inherent. May the relevant powers that be in my case read your article and this comment and truly reflect.

Jennifer Herrick | 07 March 2013  

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