Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From Erica: Roman Polanski

As usual, I'm spitting and fuming over the things I find on the Internet, and today's specimen is none other than the comments posted in response to Gary Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic for today. Here's the comic for those readers who don't follow it regularly. I've linked it back to its original location on the Doonesbury website, for those who want to see the storyline from the beginning.

Here's the thing. I've been hearing a lot of opinions about what Polanski did or didn't do, and how much of a crime it was or wasn't. And while the primary evidence appears to be the transcript of his then-13-year-old victim's testimony, which has been posted on The Smoking Gun, the basic facts of the case are as follows: in the 1970s, he had a 13-year-old girl take off her clothes while he photographed her, gave her champagne and Quaaludes, and vaginally and anally penetrated her. Two weeks later, she testified against him, he submitted a plea bargain which was rejected, and he ran away to France.

Since his return to the United States a few weeks ago, a media storm has erupted over what should or shouldn't happen to him. Some celebrities are leaping to his defense, most notably Whoopi Goldberg, who described his behaviour as "not rape-rape." And while others have been advocating for the resuming of his trial, a new trial, or simply forcing him to serve the sentence that the Superior Court judge was probably going to give him, I'm more than horrified at the way the focus has been shifted from Polanski's responsibility for his actions onto the victim and what she should or shouldn't have done (and, more frighteningly, what she did or didn't want).

Here's a relatively representative comment from the boards in response to Doonesbury's storyline:
"And anyone [sic] of you who doesn’t think that a 13-year old can be seriously into sex (not saying that this one was) must never have taken a look at 13-year-olds lately, if ever. I knew a 13-year old when I was in middle school who would sleep with just about anybody. She later became one of the high school’s snooty elite. I talked with her long after the fact, and there was no coercion, no abuse - she just liked sex, period."
Thank you, Farren, for that gross generalization. Clearly, since there are 13-year-olds who like sex, any and all 13-year-olds are out to get some from anyone they meet. Never mind the substances that are introduced to their bloodstreams, never mind the ages of the people they have sex with, and never mind their individual preferences about whether they should be sexually active or not. As another poster put it, "If Roman Polanski committed rape, then does the age of the victim matter? Is raping a thirteen-year-old worse than raping a 33-year-old or a 63-year-old?" (Thank you, DavidDow, who leapt to Polanski's defense repeatedly through the internet flame war).

I'll admit to flaws in my post. First, the internet is renowned for its disproportionate representation of poorly-expressed opinions and its ability to bring out the mean, cruel, or stupid in all of us (and I most assuredly include myself in that category). Second, 20 comments after a comic does not a movement make. However limited my sampling may be, though, this isn't the first time I've heard or read these sorts of opinions being expressed en masse in a public forum, and as such I think I can use them as a small representation of a much broader category.

This whole side of the Polanski affair perpetuates many of the worst stereotypes about sexual assault that anti-oppression activists have been working to correct for years and years, and highlights how little many of us know about our laws and the purposes that they represent.

First: when someone's been given drugs and alcohol, they aren't in a position to consent, no matter how they feel when they're sober. Even the US military- a group not exactly renowned for its victim-friendly policies or practices- holds that one drink is enough to impair a person's reasonable ability to consent to sexual activity. And when you combine alcohol with Quaaludes (also called methaqualone, which is a sedative similar to barbituates), you're talking about someone who's going to be extra-sleepy, extra-out-of-it, and extra-unable to consent.

Second: adolescents are frequently sexualized. That's normal. With all the hormones surging through their bodies, of course they're talking about sex, thinking about sex, and some of them are having sex. Some states recognize this, and have established age of consent laws that protect the rights of adolescents who are sexually active by removing statutory rape charges from situations where the partners are close in age. That doesn't even begin to cover a situation like this one, though, where one of the people involved was three times the age of the adolescent. At that point, it doesn't matter how much she thought she consented: it wasn't her legal right. According to the state, she couldn't consent. Period.

Third: adolescent sexuality may be common, and may lead to situations where the adolescent(s) in question pursue sexual relationships with people to whom they can't legally consent, like Polanski. I don't think that's the case here at all, but I think it needs to be addressed. However, part of the distinction that the law makes between sexual minors (under 18) and those of sexual majority (18 and older) is the capacity to be responsible for one's actions. And with the age of majority comes a maxim of US civil code: ignorance of the law is no excuse. Someone of Polanski's age and experience, according to our social and legal standards, should not be having sex with a 13-year-old.

The idea that Polanski would be overcome by his victim's seductive wiles, as some comments have suggested, is simply a revitalization of the idea that rape victims "asked" for the assault by dressing provocatively, walking alone at night, or going to a party. Whether she could have protected herself better by not accompanying him, or being more forceful in saying no, is beside the point. The fact remains that Polanski is an adult, with adult responsibilities, and he alone is responsible for the choice to violate someone's lack of consent.

1 comment:

  1. Today I was talking with some friends about Twilight, and one of them made the argument that Twilight is a rape fantasy that Stephanie Meyer is simply unwilling to recognize as such. I agree with her assessment of Twilight, but I'm not sure whether a book like Twilight is more a symptom or a cause of our culture's conflation of violence and sexuality.

    What disturbs me most here, though, is that there are people out there so caught up in myths about sexual violence that they will persist in saying "it's not really rape" despite a contemporaneous testimony that establishes the child's view that she had indeed been raped. I can understand (but still hate it) when people make excuses for the age difference or the presence of alcohol and drugs. But to ignore a testimony that she gave almost immediately after the incident? What reason could she possibly have had to lie about a man who was potentially going to further her career?

    None - she was telling the truth.