I’ve mentioned the television series Big Love in a previous article. I have a feeling that, after talking about it again in this article, I’ll be talking about that TV show again and again and again. It touches upon so many vitally important and even visceral ideas surrounding male and female relationships. With the brouhaha in our culture over sexually molested boys “wanting it” and sexually molested girls being the “real” victims (except when it’s “good rape”), the myriad lessons that this brilliant program has taught me shine down like moonbeams through clouds. I thought I’d share one of the subtler and most powerful lessons of all.
The basic story outline of the program concerns a secretly polygamous household run by Bill Henrickson (played well by Bill Paxton, complete with Utah-hick accent) with his three wives: Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloë Sevigny, my fave), and Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin). By the end of five seasons, it is clear that the creators of the show are intent on showing the vital differences between polygamy that is voluntarily entered into and that which is coerced. In other words: The power dynamics that are inherent in sexual relationships are laid bare and open for critical analysis through all five seasons.
In mid-run of the show, it is discovered that second wife Nicki was previously forced into a polygamous marriage that she left; she also left her baby girl. When the secret is betrayed, she is reunited with her now 15-year-old daughter, Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson), who displays a remarkable ability with mathematics. Cara Lynn is tutored privately by her math teacher, Greg (Christian Campbell), who begins a sexual relationship with her. When the “affair” is discovered by the family, it is immediately stopped, and Cara Lynn is sent to another school.
Also midway through the series, it is discovered that Margie lied about her age to Bill when they were married. He thought she was 18. Turns out she was only 16. That’s a hell of a way to ruin Christmas dinner.
Both issues come to a head ‘round about the same time, resulting in yet another family squabble about the endless f—ups (Mormonspeak) within this roly-poly family, in which Bill defends himself for marrying Margie while simultaneously condemning Greg as a “sexual predator.” How odd that the central protagonist could get away with saying so when the difference is technically one year, when both females are technically adults by virtue of their fertility and pubescent transformation, and when all participants are voluntarily engaged.
Bill does have one more reason to distance himself from the moniker of “predator” in that he thought Margie was legal age; Greg knew d— well that he was having sex with someone underage, and also was aware that it all had to be kept secret to keep himself from losing his job, his reputation, and perhaps his freedom. However, are these really enough reasons to put these two men into completely different categories?
In my opinion, they are. And now I shall explain.
In order for sexual expression to be something other than trauma, it is requisite for the participants to each be able to display a certain base level of autonomy. Due to the various disabilities, illnesses, and external circumstances with which adults can suffer, such volition can be expressed in a multitude of ways and be mutually understood. In spite of the variety of ways to communicate sexual desire, the constant that is held throughout voluntary sexual expression is our collective ability to recognize when full autonomy is present and when it is not.
“Rape culture” is the ridiculous idea that men in general seek to remove some level of autonomy from women so that they can b— more chicks. “Good rape,” a phenomenon taught to us by Eve Ensler that seems to have mysteriously disappeared from her best-selling play, is the even more ridiculous idea that if a teenaged female “enjoys” the advances of an older woman, the difference in autonomy between the two individuals is not a concern. Raping a younger female in this fashion has something “good” about it, and is therefore not truly a part of the “rape culture” which we men supposedly enjoy.
Actual rape is very close to the original definition of rape, which still means “to steal.” It can only occur when the volition of at least one party has been reduced, or is already in a reduced state by virtue of at least one of several means: physical inability to communicate refusal (such as a handicap or unconsciousness); emotional inability to express disinterest (such as the emotional immaturity of a child too afraid to say, “No”); physical or emotional inability to remove oneself from a dangerous situation (such as being pinned down, held at gunpoint, or any number of extortionary means); etc.
Such an individual has had full volition stolen, and traumatic memory has been added to the thought process that will inform all future volitional, autonomous acts. Much of the happiness that might have been abundantly present in any number of future moments has also been stolen.
Therefore, as I see it, in Big Love, Greg is guilty of statutory rape, and Bill is not, by virtue of the following criteria culled from the storyline:
- Margie was basically living as an adult at the time, gainfully employed; Cara Lynn had never paid a bill or held a job.
Margie knowingly began an affair with a married man who she knew was a polygamist; Cara Lynn was lured into a relationship with a man much older whose personal life she knew nothing about.
Margie was raised in a society that liberated women by virtue of the tireless efforts of countless men inventing and manufacturing machines, along with Post-Enlightenment ideas that liberated the human conscience; Cara Lynn was brought up in a fundamentalist religion with rigid sex roles (and probably didn’t know what The Enlightenment was).
Margie knew a world of romantic love freely chosen by both parties; Cara Lynn knew a world of arranged marriages that benefited only the men and women at the top of the religiously fundamentalist social heap.
Margie was not in a subordinate role to Bill, even though she was being paid to baby-sit and working at his store (both voluntary acts); Cara Lynn was subordinate to her tutor in numerous ways, especially in the sense that she could not choose where she went to school, or even if she attended school at all.
Margie was sexually experienced; Cara Lynn was a virgin.
True, the difference in their ages was only one year, but that’s something that unthinking people conclude. The difference of a year is superficial; the differences explained in the six points above run deep in the human psyche.
So what does this have to do with the statutory rape of boys? Everything.
There is a thought-provoking and controversial book written by a gay psychologist named Alan Downs called The Velvet Rage. It’s a tome written specifically for gay men and concerns what Downs claims is the high level of shame that gay men experience in their early lives, and where that shame can lead.
I can’t say that I agree with everything in the book, but I did find it compelling. One story in particular stood out, involving the sexual abuse of a young gay boy who had a paper route. His first sexual encounter with a grown man, who invited the boy into his home instead of just giving him the collection money, was described as “very exciting and equally terrifying.”
The reason this stood out is because when the now-grown man retold this story to other gay men, he spoke with pride and enthusiasm as they laughed with him, like Tucker Carlson. They can laugh if they want, but Downs was observant enough to state:
“I can’t help but notice that [he] has never really been able to maintain a committed, long-term relationship as an adult. His current relationship has existed for three years – the longest one to date – but, by his own admission, only because he and his lover have sex with other men…
“The effects of childhood sexual abuse can have more severe consequences for a gay man. A sizeable number of all people who are sexually abused in childhood have extreme difficulty regulating their emotions as adults… Borderline Personality Disorder… Dissociative Identity Disorder… substance abuse… suicidal behavior… deliberate self-harm… antisocial (criminal) behavior…
“A child is quite capable of strong sexual feelings [the ‘exciting’ that accompanied the ‘terrifying’] but at the same time is not capable of handling the emotional aftermath of such feelings… What may have seemed like a harmless and even highly erotic act, is often devastating psychologically [emphasis mine].”*
The world looks at the surface and sees boys getting on with being boys. Then they’re shocked when boys who got on with being boys kill themselves when they are men.
Boys are fascinated by men. Most boys, beginning at about the ages of 11 to 14, while still having a great deal of emotional, intellectual, and physical curiosity about men, will start to experience an increasing interest in the female body. A boy’s or girl’s natural curiosity about bodies and sex (“Whatever that is,” thinks the child) can be satisfied in any number of ways that are quite healthy and not traumatic. Nudist gatherings come to mind, something more prevalent in Europe than America, which lack I believe is to the detriment of healthy childhood curiosity. Yet one scholar after another after another after another keeps coming home with the same information: Engaging children and naïve teenagers in adult sexual activity – with everything we see that adults can do to screw up their lives with sex – is traumatic. Apparently, it is even traumatic when he wanted it.
Children exhibit increasing amounts of autonomy as they grow older. I am convinced that they will exhibit more at younger ages when they are left to themselves to self-regulate. However, here is a list of things they have yet to accomplish regardless of how fast they mature:
- Running a small business
- Going for a job interview
- Paying rent
- Paying the electric bill
- Paying late fees
- Groaning under a mortgage
- Going into debt with a credit card
- Getting a car towed
- Being lied to about the car you’re buying
- Being laid off
- Going on a date
- Unrequited romantic love
- Waking up with a hangover yet going to work anyway
- Being pulled over for speeding
And one of my personal favorites, something no man should do without:
- Midlife crisis
When an adult gets into bed with another adult, this is all understood. None of this is understood by a teenager who is kept from the world. None of this is understood by a “juvenile delinquent” getting a lap dance from a grown female prison guard.
I believe that boys will certainly be boys. I believe in leaving them alone to be boys. When people are engaged in sex, it can hardly be said that they are being left alone. Quite the contrary: He or she is united, however briefly, with the mind and body of another. There should be no doubt that an adult is going to take (re: steal [re: rape]) something almost entirely different away from such an encounter with a boy who “wants it.”
So we are left with the question posed in the title of this article: What can we honestly say that a boy wanted from such an encounter? How about acceptance? Love? Satiation of natural curiosity? Advice? Communication? Companionship? Emotional intimacy? Assistance? Confidences? Nurturance? Friendship? Are any of these hidden desires understood by the aroused adult? Is the boy capable of fully expressing these things? Is he good at poetry or something? Has he ever written a convincing love letter?
I remember when I watched Franco Zeffirelli’s version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. It dawned on me that Shakespeare’s true effort probably had much more to do with juxtaposing the impetuous, hormonal, unthinking duo against the childish prejudices held by both of their families. That certainly seemed to be what Zeffirelli was after. Every line was uttered with a slightly ridiculous earnestness. Their teenaged love was matched by their teenaged violence. This is much closer to the truth about the childlike (or childish) approach to newly discovered sexual emotions.
Every new emotion to a human can easily be an overwhelming experience. Adults can cry for many different reasons due to the ongoing conscious experience of living life while experiencing new combinations of emotions, both familiar and unfamiliar. How much more likely are we to see children cry for new and overwhelming reasons? Adults, having imbibed the lessons of that which was once emotionally daunting, think of sex as being something other than terrifying – unless, of course we are talking about children in adult bodies, in which case, the adult is free to cry, “RAPE!”
Actual children, on the other hand, are far less likely to know what sex and rape are, what the difference between them is, or if what they are experiencing should be considered one phenomenon but not the other. What the boy who “wanted it” actually wanted will probably not be adequately expressed for many years. If he makes it that far. In the meantime, cultural misandrists everywhere who paint half the human race with the sickly color of horndog, sex-crazed maniacs should learn to shut the h— up so that the healing for those already suffering can begin.
I can’t wait for feminists to try and take credit for the healing process of heterosexually molested boys. The men’s movement is already prepared and p—ed off Big Time.
*Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, Perseus Books Group, 2005, 2006), 144-145.