Romance, not rape

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The Article

From the death-saturated month of March—Terry Schiavo and the pope 24/7—the media turned in April to the life cycle’s happier ritual of marriage. Two weeks ago it was the nuptials of Ken and Deirdre, longtime sweethearts on Coronation Street, Britain’s most popular TV soap opera, followed by those of long time sweethearts Prince Charles and Camilla, of Britain’s second-most popular soap opera.

With less fanfare, another soap opera couple—American, and not popular at all—were scheduled to tie the knot on April 16 (but apparently didn’t). After a nine-year “courtship,” some months ago 42-year-old Mary Kay Letourneau announced her engagement to 21-year-old Vili Fualaau. The couple have two children conceived in Vili’s adolescence. Few expected their romantic commitment to each other—one that nobody but Letourneau and Fualaau themselves considers normal—would survive Letourneau’s long incarceration and Vili’s maturation to adulthood.

As Anne Kingston laid it out in a Feb. 19 column, the Letourneau-Fualaau saga is bizarre and disquieting. A Seattle-area married elementary school teacher with four children, Letourneau first met Vili as a Grade 2 student. When he was 12, Letourneau, then 34, began a sexual liaison with the willing boy (he boasted of having placed bets on his conquest).

What would have been a sordid escapade for 99% of other women became a never-ending fixation for Letourneau, who humiliated her family, ruined her career, courted her seven-year jail sentence for rape with legally banned, but repeated clandestine trysts, and survived years in jail on its strength.

Vili’s ongoing romance with Letourneau validates his complicity in the original “sexual assault” and should help put to rest the foolish legal equation of girl/older man abuse with boy/older woman seduction. Mary Kay Letourneau may be delusional, and this union socially abhorrent; nonetheless, she is besotted not with young boys, but with Vili. She and her ilk are not pedophiles.

Hollywood agrees. Consider some current movies dealing with woman-boy sex. In Door in the Floor, a grieving mother initiates an affair with a teenage boy resembling her dead son. She is portrayed sympathetically, while the boy grows psychologically from the experience. In PS, a woman has an affair with a boy who reminds her of an ex-boyfriend. Then there is the very creepy-looking movie Birth, about a widow whose husband may or may not have reappeared in the body of a 10-year-old boy. She falls under his spell and drifts into a strange intimacy with him, projecting a sexual yearning that is (thankfully) not realized. But they share a kiss and, in a dream sequence, bathe together. From the trailer and the reviews I have read, the relationship is sentimentalized rather than condemned.

It is impossible to imagine a movie in which a man-girl or man-boy story is cast in this benign light. For example, a recent Kevin Bacon movie, The Woodsman, about a pedophile drawn to young girls, although sympathetic to the protagonist’s inner struggle, does not soft-pedal the repulsiveness of his perversion.

In this vein, a 1998 study of child sexual abuse (CSA), published in the prestigious Psychology Bulletin, is instructive. It finds that while women suffer lasting pain and psychological dysfunction from CSA, a high proportion of male victims are unlikely to undergo lasting trauma, and many even find the experience “positive.” To an adolescent boy, the sexual attentions of an older woman are perceived either as a flattering boost to burgeoning manhood or corroboration of already developed masculine self-esteem. A boy with a woman may have been exploited, but he is unlikely to see himself as a victim.

Conversely, the seduction of a child—male or female—by a man is always seen as the depraved action of a sick mind. Images of violence and aggressive rape revolt and anger us. We also know intuitively that pedophiles—virtually all male, you never hear about forced sex between a lesbian and a little girl—want sex, not romance, and with many children, not one. Our outrage over pederasty remains constant in spite of increasing cultural acceptance of many other sexual behaviours once considered deviant.

Set the utterly weird, but socially harmless, Letourneau beside any male pederast, and you see the huge chasm between male predation and female romantic obsession. One is all about impersonal sex. The other is usually about long-term single-object love. (The rare Karla Homolkas of the world are cases apart: Although almost invariably accomplices, not initiators, they deserve the same penalties as the Bernardos.)

Sexuality remains stubbornly gender-specific. Under Canadian criminal law, a Canadian Mary Kay Letourneau would be as guilty of sexual assault as the adult male rapist of a 12-year-old girl. Our laws should reflect the human condition, not an ideological diktat of gender parity in all things.

Barbara Kay
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