Friday, December 26, 2008

Perversity and popular culture

Kate Winslett defends her new movie, The Reader -- in which her character has an affair with a teenage boy -- against the accusation that the action depicted is statutory rape. Winslett's defense prompts questions from lawyerly Ann Althouse, which elicits additonal legal clarification from Eugene Volokh.

The controversy over all this is rounded up by Instapundit, with a link to Robert Franklin discussing a Texas case in which a 26-year-old woman gets a mere 90 days in jail for having sex with her 13-year-old foster son.

Wait a minute -- Texas? Did you say Texas? Remember that Texas child-welfare officials instigated a SWAT raid at the El Dorado FLDS cult compound and seized 436 children because of the suspicion that underage girls were being sexually exploited. This week, Texas released a report finding that just 12 girls at the compound has been "spiritually married" before age 16:
Two girls were 12 when married; three were 13; two were 14; and five girls were 15 when married. Seven of these girls have had one or more children after marriage.
As I have repeatedly said, if Texas is going to launch a paramilitary raid every time a teenager has sex or gets pregnant, they'll need to hire a lot more SWAT officers, because Texas leads the nation in teen pregnancy. This is not to minimize or excuse the bizarre polygamous practices of the FLDS cult, but rather to put into perspective the overkill instincts of child-welfare officials in the El Dorado case -- and also to point out how cultural forces shape popular perception about sexual deviance.

In the immediate aftermath of the El Dorado raid, lurid headlines about the "underage sex cult" fed the atmosphere of moral panic reminiscent of the notorious McMartin preschool case. Why? According to the Guttmacher Institute, there were 1,750 pregnancies among girls under age 15 in Texas in 2000 (and another 28,000 pregnancies for girls 15-17). Yet we hear nothing about prosecution of those men who routinely impregnate Texas teens, while the existence of a dozen underage brides within this renegade cult creates a worldwide firestorm of publicity.

Which brings us back around to Kate Winslett and her defense of the cinematic depiction of a 30-something woman's affair with a 15-year-old boy:

That boy knows exactly what he's doing. For a start, Hanna Schmitz [Winslett's character in the movie] thinks that he's seventeen, not fifteen, you know? She's not doing anything wrong. . . . They enter that relationship on absolutely equal footing. Statutory rape -- really please, don't use that phrase. I do genuinely find it offensive actually. This is a beautiful and very genuine love story and that is always how I saw it. . . . She wasn't cruel to him. She didn't force him into anything at all.
Althouse replies:
Don't all statutory rapists say this sort of thing? . . . Do you think 36-year-old women should be free to seduce 15-year-old boys?
This is really the issue. Either the act is a crime or it is not, and the law can't excuse crime because the criminal considers it "a beautiful and very genuine love story." Such acts are either legal or they are not. You cannot on the one hand excuse the Hanna Schmitzes (or Mary Kay Letourneaus) of the world and then, on the other hand, send SWAT teams to round up every child at the El Dorado compound.

To such an extent as The Reader glamourizes and justifies the actions of Hanna Schmitz, it undermines the law by establishing in the mind of the audience the self-exculpatory perspective of the criminal. Perhaps you'll understand the allegory when I spoil The Reader by telling you that Hanna Schmitz was a Nazi concentration camp guard whom her erstwhile boyfriend must eventually prosecute for war crimes.


  1. The following are lyrics from a popular teen song, Stacy's Mom written by a group called, Fountains of Wayne. The song is 3-4 years old. I'm sure the song sums up Ms Winslette's personal feeling just fine.

    Stacy's mom, has got it going on

    Stacy can I come over
    After schoo-oo-ol (after school)
    We can hang around
    by the poo-oo-ol (hang by the pool)
    Did your mom get back
    from her business trip (business trip)
    Is she there?
    Or is she tryin to give me the slip (give me the slip)

    You know I'm not the little boy
    that I used to be
    I'm all grown up now
    Baby can't you see?

    Stacy's mom, has got it going on
    She's all I want and I've waited for so long
    Stacy can't you see? you're just not the girl for me
    I know it might be wrong but,
    I'm in love with Stacy's mom

    Stacy's mom, has got it going on

    Stacy do you remember
    when I mowed your lawn (mowed your lawn)
    Your mom came out
    With just a to-oo-owel on (towel on)
    I could tell she liked me
    From the way she stared (way she stared)
    And the way she said
    "you missed a spot over there" (spot over there)

    And I know that you think its just a fantasy
    But since your dad walked out
    your mom could use a guy like me

    Stacy's mom, has got it going on
    She's all I want and I've waited for so long
    Stacy can't you see?
    You're just not the girl for me
    I know it may be wrong but,
    I'm in love with Stacy's mom

    Stacy's mom has got it going on
    She's all I want and I've waited for so long(ive waited and waited)
    Stacy can't you see, You're just not the girl for me
    I know it might be wrong, I'm in love with-

    Stacy's mom, ah-oh-ah-oh
    I'm in love with-
    Stacy's mom, ah-oh-ah-oh
    Wait a minute
    Stacy can't you see?
    You're just not the girl for me
    I know it might be wrong but
    I'm in love with Stacy's mom

  2. We have the same kind of problem here in FL. We have Mexican illegal men in their late 20's, impregnating and then running off with 13 year old illegal girls. When they catch them, invariably the men are "friends of the family", and it is all then swept under the cultural carpet.

  3. If you turn Winslet's excuse around.. it would be the guy saying 'Well, she might be underage.. but look at her, she's HOT!'