Over the past few years, there has been a
drip-drip of artists defending old men who abuse their power over young
boys and girls for sexual pleasure. It ranges from Alan Bennett's claim
that a teacher who gropes his pupils can be the real child or true
innocent, to the widespread assertion in Hollywood that when a 44-year-old man drugs and anally rapes a 13-year-old girl, it is not
"rape-rape." Indeed, Gore Vidal says the victim is "a young hooker."
there is, largely, silence in response – and I realize I too have held
off from writing this column several times. Why? Talking about this
requires me to criticize some artists whose work I love, and it forces
me to remember a period of my life I've tried hard to forget. But when
I saw Alan Bennett's new play The Habit of Art at the National Theatre here in London,
I felt somebody had to say this.
I have no
problem with artists sympathetically depicting the inner lives of
pedophiles and pederasts; indeed, it can be a good thing. Every human
being should be understood, and to understand is not to excuse. We
should, for example, know that 70 per cent of child abusers have
themselves been abused as children: it tempers the pedophile-bashing
lynch mob, and forces us to look for humane solutions. It also helps
avoid bad legislation like Megan's Law, which – by driving released
offenders away from their families and friends and sending them into
isolation – actually increases the number of children who are abused.
What I object to is not the compassionate
depiction of these men, but the claim that the victims are unharmed, or
even enjoy it. This suggestion has featured in the work of several
writers I normally admire. In Bennett's previous play The History Boys,
a 50-something teacher called Hector routinely gropes his 17-year-old
pupils' genitals – and they react either with flattered amusement, or
by longing to be the next to be groped. The headmaster who objects is
depicted as a prejudiced buffoon. The most sympathetic boy in the class
– Posner – also grows up to be a pederast himself, who finds it hard to
resist groping his pupils.
Bennett makes it clear he is on Hector's side, saying: "I've been
criticized for not taking this seriously enough. I'm afraid I don't
take that very seriously if they're 17 or 18. I think they are actually
much wiser than Hector. Hector is the child, not them." He added that
good teaching is inherently "erotic."
new play, Bennett takes this analysis further. Benjamin Britten, the
composer, is one of the main characters. He was sexually attracted to
young boys – 13 was his perfect age – and throughout his life he picked
out choirboys, gave them a special role in performing his music, and
lavished adoration on them. According to the book Britten's Children,
he appeared naked before them, snuggled with them in bed, although he
didn't actually have sex with them. As with Michael Jackson, the
parents seemed to know what was going on, and acquiesce.
Bennett, in his introduction to the play, expresses only one problem
with this. "A boy whose voice suddenly broke could find himself no
longer invited ... which would seem potentially far more damaging to a
child's psychology than too much attention." He also spares a thought
for the "fat boys and ugly boys" who were never admitted to this
This analysis also underpins Stephen
Fry's play Latin!, which was published in 1992. It is set in a prep
school where the central character, Dominic Clarke, is a teacher who
"carnally violates" a 13-year-old orphan in ways one character says are
"too vile, too diverse, for the sane mind to grasp."
distills the tragic psychology of pedophiles with his usual
brilliance. Dominic says: "When I was a boy, I thought, slept and
played like a boy. Then nature began to drop hints about a change in
status: a cracking voice, hairs about the buttocks, acne ... I never
asked to be a man. I never wanted to be man. I want to be a boy. If
when nature starts thrusting pimples and hairs through the skin, a boy
could be kept from school and the world of men and just carry on
behaving as a boy, then perhaps nature would give up and the pimples
and hairs would recede. The permanent boy could be found."
is precisely how the pedophiles I have interviewed in prison viewed
themselves. And isn't it a description of what Michael Jackson tried to
do? When seclusion didn't work, he turned to the surgeons to create the
But the play has a nasty sting.
Dominic runs away with the 13-year-old to live in Morocco. They write
back to explain that there, young boys and men can live together as
sexual partners. The school's pupils, en masse, demand to be allowed to
live in Morocco. The plain implication is that these 13-year-olds were
also longing to be abused by older men.
Bennett and Fry are wrong, because when I was a teenager, I was
subjected to the persistent sexual advances of an older man in a
position of authority over me. I managed to escape the situation
without being abused, but I know other boys did not. There can indeed
be an initial element of being flattered, or even excited – but it is
also married to feelings of fear and revulsion that somebody who is
supposed to have offered safety is offering danger. The adolescent is
not in a position to make an informed choice. It is healthy for
adolescents to explore their sexualities among themselves – but when an
adult intrudes into this process, it can damage their sexual
development with consequences for the rest of their lives.
not interested in launching a hysterical attack on Bennett and Fry. I
would like to appeal to their empathy – a quality they have
demonstrated in so much of their work – and urge them to direct it not
just towards Hector and Dominic, but also to their victims.
can be a difficult topic to raise because the vilest slur against gay
people has long been that we are closet pedophiles. The defense of
Polanski showed there are plenty of straight people prepared to make
excuses for abusing young girls, just as there are – alas – some gay
people prepared to make excuses for abusing young boys.
let's look back towards Britten. Or indeed to Oscar Wilde, who would
(rightly) still be imprisoned today for having paying to have sex with
very poor underage teenagers. Did the violent suppression of
homosexuality perhaps have a deforming effect on their sexualities?
When they were 12 or 13, they had a fleeting moment when they could
explore their sexualities with other boys without shame – but it
quickly slammed shut as they realized this behavior was deemed
immoral. Is this why they seemed to keep returning to 13-year-olds in
their fantasies as representing an idealized time of sexual freedom?
taboos protecting young people from sexual abuse took a long time to
build up. They have to be protected from erosion, because Alan Bennett
is terribly wrong – the "real children" are never old men who want to
cop a feel of adolescents.
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