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I posted this question about Tess of the d'Urbervilles. My latest version read as follows:

The first part of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles ends on an extremely dark and sinister note: Tess, having allowed Alec d'Urberville to get her on her own in the middle of nowhere, ends up having sex with him. This event impacts her life far more than the immediate distress it causes her, or even than the short-lived child resulting from her subsequent pregnancy: it's one of the defining moments of her tragic life.

The big question is to what extent their sexual relationship was consensual. It was already established that he was attempting to seduce her and she, despite not returning his feelings, was too inexperienced to know how to deal with him. But did she allow herself to be persuaded to consent to sex with him, or did he actually force himself on her? Was she raped, or merely seduced?

This was then edited by moderator Hamlet♦ to read as follows:

The first part of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles ends on an extremely dark and sinister note. Tess is alone with Alec d'Urberville in the middle of nowhere. Tess falls asleep.

What happens afterwards is not specified. It was already established that Alec was attempting to seduce her, and that she, despite not returning his feelings, was too inexperienced to know how to deal with him. Although later in the story we learn that Tess gets pregnant as a result of that night with Alec's child, we don't get a description of the night itself.

What happened during that night?

Hamlet also asked me in chat not to make any further edits to my question, on the grounds that he "ha[s] a responsibility to make sure that we can discuss sensitive topics productively". I'd like to know how my question as quoted above fosters non-productive discussion.

Hamlet's edit makes several major changes which I feel are unnecessary. He's edited to say that Tess falls asleep (which I don't recall being stated unambiguously in the text, and would in any case be better stated in an answer than in the question), removed my statement that they have sex (which DOES definitely happen), and changed the main thrust of the question from the very clear "was it consensual?" to the vague and woolly "what happened that night?"


Is the first version quoted above acceptable?

If this issue is something that we, as a site, are unable to deal with, I'm willing to delete it. (Since entire academic papers have been written on the issue of whether Tess was raped, I'd say it's a valid literary question, but I'm not going to get into a mod fight over it.) But I'd rather not have my question edited so as to change its intent and, IMO, lower the quality of the question.

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    Possible duplicate of Should questions with sexual topics even be allowed? – Benjamin Mar 4 '17 at 1:14
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    @Benjamin That question was about general policy; this one is about a specific question, and the implementation of that policy in this particular case. I don't think it should be a duplicate. – Rand al'Thor Mar 4 '17 at 1:24
  • Oh, I thought this was also more generally. – Benjamin Mar 4 '17 at 1:28
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I think it was acceptable. I understand wanting to protect people from possibly uncomfortable or problematic content, but the original edit completely changed the question. It went from being about consent and consensual behavior (or lack thereof) to recreating what happened after the consent issue, which is a completely different thing.

I think an important thing to remember here on this site in particular that having a site about literature means we are going to run into a lot of content that could be potentially difficult for people for various reasons. While I am fine with warning people that the content might be present, I don't think we should avoid the discussion entirely.

  • I do agree with this answer, and it was never my intention to steer the conversation away from consent (whether I succeeded is a whole other question). Rand and I, working together, were able to address the problematic aspects of the question while (I hope) keeping the meaning intact. I absolutely agree that this site should be a place to discuss difficult content. In short, +1. In the future, (among other things) I'm going to try to make sure I don't change the meaning of the questions I edit whenever possible. – user111 Mar 4 '17 at 3:40
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Yes, your original version of the question was perfectly fine. This was already decided here. If I were to have seen Hamlet's edit in a review queue I would not have approved it as it significantly changes the meaning of the question, therefore I believe it is perfectly fine for you to return your question to its original state.

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    While I agree in principle, it's not as simple as that. When a moderator tells one not to edit one's question again, one doesn't then roll back the moderator's latest edit. – Rand al'Thor Mar 4 '17 at 1:17
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    @Randal'Thor I am not saying ignoring it from the beginning I mean after a discussion. – Benjamin Mar 4 '17 at 1:28
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    For the record, I think that the answer you linked to - which I wrote - is inapplicable here. The question isn't about the appropriateness of the subject matter, but rather the way in which it was posed. – HDE 226868 Mar 4 '17 at 2:00
  • @HDE226868 I believe that is a place to modify the specific sections not the whole question. – Benjamin Mar 4 '17 at 2:02
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The actions I took on that question are probably going to be unpopular. And I agree that I could have handled the situation a lot better than I did. But I think what I did was necessary. As a moderator, I have a responsibility to ensure that sensitive issues can be discussed productively on this site. The question, as it was originally written, would have prevented that from happening.

Here are the problems the question originally had:

  1. Tess, having foolishly allowed Alec d'Urberville to get her on her own in the middle of nowhere

    Tess did not allow Alec to bring her to the field. Alec is the person with power in this situation; he is Tess' employer. This sentence shifts the responsibility for the sexual assault from Alec, the actual perpetrator, to Tess, the victim.

  2. and perhaps even inadvertently encouraged his advances

    Again, this sentence shifts the responsibility for the sexual assault from Alec, the actual perpetrator, to Tess, the victim.

  3. But did she allow herself to be persuaded to consent to sex with him, or did he actually force himself on her?

    "allow herself to be persuaded to consent to sex with him" is a pretty convoluted way of saying that Alec didn't give Tess a chance to give consent.

Let's remember that sexual assault and rape are real things that real people experience. The victim blaming in this question distracts from the actual issue at hand, because it is demeaning to victims of sexual assault. I don't want to get sidetracked; I don't want the question to devolve into a rebuttal of the problematic understanding of consent in the question. I want to focus on the actual question at hand, which is about interpreting a scene in a work of literature.

In my edits, I tried to keep the question intact while removing the problematic language. It was hard. I didn't do as good a job as I should have. Rand deserves huge credit for being patient and understanding with me.

That said, asking that people use respectful and professional language to discuss sensitive topics is not something that will be up for debate, at least as long as I am a moderator.

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    Incidentally this is a good example of how a potentially valid interpretation of a text can differ from the author's intent. As the author of that question, I ABSOLUTELY did not intend to shift any responsibility to the victim. My hatred of Alec and sympathy for Tess go far beyond what's normal for book characters, and feel personal. (Yes, I have a tendency to get too emotionally involved with Thomas Hardy novels.) – Rand al'Thor Mar 4 '17 at 1:59
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    Interesting answer. I definitely think this clarifies your thought process, and it's one I can understand. Without commenting on whether the action itself was appropriate (about which I'd prefer to stay neutral), I think, as a future note, the goals in editing the question didn't come across in chat, which may have made the discussion more complicated than it needed to be. – Aza Mar 4 '17 at 2:01
  • @Emrakul I agree, I need to do a better job in the future. – user111 Mar 4 '17 at 2:02
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    Alternatively, this is a reminder that meta is awesome and chat can, at best, facilitate identifying issues that can then be addressed at length here. – Shog9 Mar 4 '17 at 4:35
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    @Shog9 you are right. I hadn't thought of that. I should have started by making a meta post, instead of going to chat first. – user111 Mar 4 '17 at 5:08

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