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Survivor: Reactions to a Massage – 10/19/13

There’s been a lot of talk over Aras’ massage from Laura Morett on this week of Survivor, not least because Laura posted a note on her Facebook page in advance, warning her friends and family that whatever was shown, the situation was completely innocent. After that disclaimer was spread through the grapevine, the actual scene came as an anticlimax. Yet, social media being what it is, that was no reason not to make a sensation of it.

On this week’s podcast, John Fincher certainly had plenty to say about it: not only did he feel the massage crossed a line, but he had a lot of blame to pin on Laura. If we learned one thing from the podcast, it was that John and Laura’s relationship is on a par with RC and Abi-Maria’s. John castigated Laura for everything from her reaction to Russell Swann’s evacuation to being less attractive than Monica Culpepper. With Laura unable to give her own context and commentary, this felt uncomfortably like a witch-hunt.

Let me make one thing clear. I am not in a position to refute anything John said. I don’t have any personal connections with the cast, I don’t watch episodes with them, and I certainly don’t have the direct experience of playing alongside Laura. However, there is one thing I can offer that John lacks: an objective point of view. And after that podcast, I certainly feel one is needed.

e5-fincher John’s main argument was that Laura’s husband at home would have been uncomfortable watching it.[/caption]

John’s main argument was that Laura’s husband at home would have been uncomfortable watching it. The obvious problem here is that everybody has different boundaries. What might seem too sexual to one person, another might see as perfectly harmless. In the first podcast of the season, Kim revealed that Tarzan had nude portraits of his wife adorning the walls of his house, which is probably not something most of us would feel comfortable with. Laura’s disclaimer, as I understand it, specified that she would have given the same massage to her sons—didn’t Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction cover this debate twenty years ago?

The sexuality of a massage isn’t something that we’re going to reach a clearly defined consensus on. For a more informed analysis, may I point you towards Philippines winner and everybody’s favorite sex therapist, Denise: The Massage Felt Around the World. What Laura’s husband thinks of it is honestly none of our business—he was not the one to sign up for Survivor and the media spotlight, and I’m not going to declare taboos for a marriage not my own.

For me, it seems a rather weird thing to get hung up on anyway, in a situation where everybody is going to be cuddling at night. I don’t know the sleeping arrangements on Galang, so I don’t know if Laura and Aras have been spooning, but I can guarantee that Laura’s been getting a lot more intimate with somebody than she did during that massage. So has Aras, who was previously caught on camera pressed against Tyson’s loins. Moreover, this is the tribe that does massages—massage orgies, in fact! That is the context for the Laura/Aras massage: it’s a touchy-feely tribe that cuddles around the campfire.

That said, I’d not be surprised if there was some ulterior motivation going on there, if Laura views giving massages and/or flirting as one of the tools in her shed. I can see Laura being more flirtatious in her social game than, say, Tina or Laura Boneham. I don’t see Laura trying to pull a Mrs. Robinson on Aras, but I do think that being an attractive woman is something she takes pride in. Her admiration of Aras’ shoulders certainly sounded like flirting. Of course, so did Vytas’ comments on the quality of Caleb’s skin. (Maybe that’s exactly what Vytas intended, considering their respective positions in the game.)

Basically, I see no reason to disbelieve Laura’s claims that the situation was entirely innocent. She could be lying, she could even be deluding herself, but assuming she went further than the footage we saw is too much of a stretch. Her pre-episode fears may have been that the editors would add in scenes of the two of them spooning at night, or take lines from her confessionals out of context—there must be any number of Survivor players who have seen their characters defined on the show by moments they’d forgotten.

For me, the most controversial moment of the whole scene came not from Laura, but from Aras. He wondered in confessional if Laura was trying to flirt with him and declared that wasn’t going to work. Then we cut back to the massage and Aras earnestly telling Laura she’s hitting the right spot.

The shock value here lies in the edit. I don’t suppose Aras was actually worrying about her flirting right at that moment, but it did come off as though he were flirting with her to see if she would reciprocate and prove his theory—or worse, that he was taking advantage of her favors to see how far she’d go. The edit got me; for an instant, I loathed Aras. Then I realized that this was not consistent with Aras’ previous outing, how he comes across in various media or other people’s opinions of him. I definitely can’t see Aras trolling Laura for kicks.

Still, the juxtaposition of those two scenes seemed such a powerful one to me that, after I got over the first shock, I assumed that the editors were deliberately making Aras out to be a villain. I don’t know what our resident edit-reader, Michel Trudeau, will make of it, but I am no longer so sure: I have not seen a single recap or piece of commentary on the issue that mentioned Aras’ role in it. (Though, to be fair, not all of them singled out Laura either.)

I’m now more bothered by that than I am by the edit. Is the double standard between sexes so great that Laura can be mocked for giving an up close and personal massage but Aras (who also has a long term partner) can spend the entire scene saying how good it feels and be treated as an innocent victim?

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Aras would have given Laura permission to give him massages.

For the record, accepting a massage is not the same thing as saying you’re open to something more sexual. Just say no to rape culture, folks. However, from the scene as aired, I think it’s safe to say that Aras repeatedly gave Laura permission to massage him.

This brings us to John’s statement that Aras was uncomfortable with Laura’s massage. Let me make a little public service announcement: you can always say ‘No.’ True, as John pointed out, this is Survivor and it’s sometimes difficult to tell somebody ‘no,’ without messing up your social game. It’s clearly an awkward position, but I would hazard that consistently telling the other party how much you’re enjoying what they’re doing is not the best solution.

I’m not trying to get a dig in at Aras here. We don’t know the context in which he said he was uncomfortable, or what emphasis he placed on it. It’s very possible John has misquoted him somehow, or maybe he was referring to a moment later in the massage. I just wanted to point out that Aras’ discomfort as asserted on the podcast doesn’t match up with what we saw in episode, and we personally don’t have enough information to draw any conclusions from it.

As somebody familiar with the participants, John is perfectly entitled to make his own judgments. However, his prejudice against Laura and bias towards Aras slanted his analysis in such a way that I felt it was sending a damaging message about what is permissible for women vs. men. (Please note, this is a single case and hardly a scientific study; let’s not go wild and accuse John of outright sexism.)

In many ways, this incident is a fascinating little study of gender roles and cultural mores, since here it’s the female who is the ‘aggressor’. As a mere armchair psychologist, I’m not going to presume to get into that, but I did feel compelled to put forward an alternative interpretation. I would love for everybody to think a little more about their own reactions to this controversy, but for heaven’s sake, let’s all think twice before passing judgment on the participants.

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