I am alarmed that we’ve heard very little outrage at the normalization of an adult woman having sex with an adolescent boy as seen in the academy award winning movie The Reader. This lack of anger speaks to the gender-constructed sexuality in our culture. For adolescent boys, it is considered titillating and complimentary to be seduced by an older woman. It is presented as every boy’s fantasy, right? The adult woman initiating such sex with the adolescent boy is often dismissed or minimized. She is construed as hyper-sexual: desiring the “sexual prowess” of a young male or the socially awkward adult man who needs some practice, or perhaps she’s even a gratuitous sexual mentor who altruistically imparts sexual wisdom to the neophyte. In the movie The Reader she is portrayed as a benevolent, lonely woman seeking connection, closeness and intimacy with this young lad. As it turns out, she is illiterate. He is literate and educated, a good reader. He is emotionally illiterate and vulnerable, horny and sexually inexperienced. She is older, more powerful, wise, and sexually experienced. Hmmm… a perfect match. It all seems so acceptable, perhaps romantic, a unique and endearing love story.
Because of our gender-constructed views on sexuality, what isn’t being discussed is the toll this sexual experience has on the young lad. We saw glimpses of this toll throughout the movie. He experienced profound hurt and sadness after he was temporarily rejected by his adult lover, while he anxiously waited for her acceptance of him again. We saw how he became estranged from his same-age peers as he became more and more preoccupied with his sexual relationship, thus relegating swimming and other fun adolescent activity for clandestine afternoon sexual escapades. He also became increasingly distant from his family while attempting to hide the sexual relationship and make sense of it all alone. After her sudden departure and resulting abandonment of him, years later he discovers her again while in law school. He painfully sits through her trial as a law student emotionally agonized and alone, never letting his classmates or professors inside his emotional armor. Finally, we view him later in life experiencing a divorce for being emotionally closed off, aloof, preoccupied, and pained. Glimpses into the seismic impact were subtle, ancillary, and not part of the national commentary on this movie.
This inappropriate sexual experience took an immense toll on this young lad. I imagine he experienced similar confusion, loneliness, and pain that other adolescences experience when sexually exploited by an adult. An additional layer of confusion and pain is the subtle societal message that he somehow is lucky to have been sexually “mentored” by an adult female. The impenetrable armor of male stoicism serves to keep his dark secret in the cavern of his soul, only to cast an ominous and harmful shadow on his life.
Imagine the outrage and discussion if the gender roles were reversed with an adult male and female adolescent. Most likely, the discussion would have focused on the inappropriateness of this sexual arrangement, the inherent power differential, statutory rape concerns, the manipulative and offensive predation of the adult male, and the insidious negative impact on the adolescent female. In fact, given the astute, judicious, and compassionate eye of pro-feminist constituents, such a movie may well have failed in its popularity, as it should. The Reader didn’t even come close to failing. In fact, the female perpetrator won an Academy Award for best female actress. The acting was incredible and poignant in telling a story, but the story of certain tragedy for this young lad was virtually ignored.
This illustrates that we have a long way to go in our society in understanding male sexuality. It will be a good day when we can understand the emotionality and vulnerability behind male sexuality and adolescent posturing. These young boys, despite their emerging sexual energy, need to be respected and protected just as we protect female adolescents. Even though male socialization has tried to remove emotional vulnerability from males, they remain vulnerable underneath the tough guise. Just because some boys want to drive cars fast, binge on alcohol, and skip school, we as a society strive to not allow or condone it. As adults, we strive to provide a safe and healthy environment for our children as they aren’t old or mature enough to do so for themselves.
In real life, we have laws and policies to protect girls and boys. Our cultural ethos on gendered sexuality may at times not support such laws equally. Although our boys may not cry out and tell us about it, their lives will speak for them.
Normalizing the female sexual perpetration of adolescent boys in the cinema isn’t working toward creating a healthy and safe social environment, anymore than going to Hooters for a “good meal” does.
I AM outraged at the particular sexual theme in The Reader, I hope you are too, because WE ARE Outraged is much louder and influential.